Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bob le flambeur (1956) - #150

An old young man, a legend of the recent past.

I've never really understood the allure of gambling. Even though I can easily name a number of relatives and friends I've had over the years who enjoy it as a pastime, I don't think I was or ever will be susceptible to that particular vice. Give me an all-expense paid vacation to a famous gambling hot spot, I'm still not too likely to spend much time in the casino. Maybe some early in life exposure, on family trips through Nevada when I was a kid, to forlorn shells of humanity idling away their hours plugging quarters into slot machines scarred me for life. Or maybe it's just some part of my psyche where reason prevails, where I've made the simple calculation that I have better things to do with the money that I'd inevitably  lose via wager, that shields me from ever indulging in the practice. Whatever the explanation, even though I like games, when it comes to gambling with real live cash, I stand on the outside looking in. But I do know a few things about addiction, from both personal and professional experience, and that knowledge, plus an appreciation for the pervasive charm and artistry of its production, serves as my ticket into the nocturnal, crime-tinged world of Bob le flambeur. Rarely has a desperate powerless addiction looked so cool...

Though the title is usually translated as Bob the Gambler, a more faithful interpretation would be Bob the High Roller. When they call him a mere "gambler" in the film, they use a different word. "Flambeur" is a term reserved for those occasions when Bob's extravagance at the table is given special emphasis, waging everything he's got and then some on a gasp-inducing long shot. For all his suave style and debonair flourishes as he makes his rounds, Bob is quite thoroughly and helplessly consumed by his particular addiction - if there's a little action to be found, he knows where to find it, and he doesn't seem ready to quit until either he's flat broke or he's broken the bank himself. At least that's how he operates during this brief episode of his life that we're privileged to see on screen in this 1956 precursor to the French New Wave, courtesy of Jean-Pierre Melville.

We first meet Bob in his native habitat, a smoky back room in some two-bit dive in the Pigalle district of Paris, the lowlife enclave directly adjacent to the heights of the prestigious Montmartre. He doesn't say anything, just shakes his dice, craps out and silently makes his way home at dawn's early light for a bit of shut-eye before the sun rises and gets in his way. Bob's a creature of the night, and prefers to limit his interactions as much as possible with fellow inhabitants of  that rarefied environment. But before he can find his way back to his bed, he has a few chance encounters that introduce us to the main characters who will help determine his fate: Paolo, a young protege Bob's taken under his wing, who happens to be the son of an accomplice of Bob's in a failed bank robbery some twenty years previous; Anne, a teenage streetwalker Bob happens to spot hitching a wee-hours motorbike ride with an American sailor; and Inspector Ledru, who's assigned to keep a close eye on the shady characters of Pigalle just to make sure that the day-to-day criminality remains on the petty and manageable side of the ledger.

Add one more significant character to the mix, Marc, a pimp who's been dragged into Ledru's office on suspicion of assaulting one of his whores who's wound up in the hospital and now has to turn stoolie to avoid the harsh raps thrown down on repeat offenders, and you have all the ingredients to set up Bob le flambeur's driving conflict. Anne's arrival into Montmarte has stirred up strong and incompatible emotions in Bob. On the one hand, he finds her highly attractive - and why not? she's a sly and willing cutie who seems to like Bob's sophistication and trappings of wealth - but he also recognizes that this district will swiftly eat her up and turn her into a casualty, regardless of her haughty confidence, which brings out his paternalistic instincts as he recognizes that, despite the obvious opportunity, he is simply too old for her - a crushing realization that eventually must settle in on all of us who live to a certain age.

On the other hand, Paolo suffers from no such scruples. He's young, horny and all too ready to take advantage of what Anne is offering. Eventually Bob sets them up to enjoy the privacy of his own apartment, as much an act of masochistic self-flagellation as it is a generous favor to the eager young couple. If everything were to stop there, the drama might focus simply on how things go between the dumb, impulsive Paolo and the ambitious, conniving Anne, with genial but conflicted Bob peering in from time to time. But that's just an introductory stage of the overall narrative, the tempo and atmosphere of which you can get a sample here:

Complicating things to the breaking point is a scheme Bob hatches to pull off the heist of a lifetime, a break-in to the safe of the Deauville Casino at the height of the Grand Prix, an occasion where 800 million francs will be nestled in the vault. Skip the lottery! With enough coordinated planning and a crew of henchmen equally reliable and desperate for their own big score, it's doable job. The problem, as it always seems to develop in these scenarios, arises when one of the conspirators speaks a bit too freely in an effort to impress someone not involved in the scheme - setting up the tip-off that puts the whole enterprise in jeopardy.

Anyone expecting a cunningly plotted and executed heist along the lines of Rififi and any number of the many imitators that followed in Bob le flambeur's footsteps over the decades may feel a bit deflated when the big hold-up fails to materialize. But when it gets down to it, the mechanics of robbery were never a big part of Melville's intentions to begin with. He does offer at least an enactment of how the stunt was supposed to go, but the plans break down badly in real time, largely because Bob's addiction rears up and controls him at the most crucial moment. And also because someone squealed. Which turns out to be OK after all. If Bob le flambeur were to result in some fantasy of the "perfect crime," it would be an entirely different movie, one more easily dismissed as out-and-out escapism.

As it stands, Bob le flambeur retains enough familiar hints of brokenness, corruption and the unattainability of the "quick fix" to remain highly engaging and relevant even to those of us who've never positioned ourselves squarely on the opposite side of the law or in pursuit of easy money illicitly obtained. Like a tantalizing pitch to lay our money down, Bob le flambeur succeeds in persuading us to jump in for the ride, making the game fun enough to play even if it doesn't result in the big payoff we might dream about. (Although I will say, I really enjoyed the ending - a great twist that I won't spoil here though I'm willing to talk about it more freely in the comments section.)

Melville really established himself with this film, and the behind-the-scenes story of its making adds immensely to the charm of Bob le flambeur. Determined to make his movies his way, outside the controls of the studio system, Melville lived the same kind of high-wire act he captures in his characters, scrounging up money wherever he could, enough to pay for a few days of filming, then rounding up his actors and crew again to advance the project just a bit further. The film was some three years in the making as a result, though fortunately it doesn't feel like there's much aging or discontinuity going on. Still, I admire Melville's scrappiness and the resourcefulness he brought to casting the film. It's populated by actors who carry their own shady pasts and dubious antics into each scene, including his impeccably stylish and charismatically stone-faced leading man Roger Duchesne, who plays Bob. Melville had to personally apply to the French mob to get their permission to let Duchesne, a former star who'd lapsed into alcoholism, back into the movie biz after they'd basically expelled him for past indiscretions.

Above all else though, Bob le flambeur strikes me as a glorious example of the allure cast by romantic Gallic fatalism, a thread that runs back through the history of French cinema in tragedies classiques like La Bete Humaine, Port of Shadows and Pepe le Moko, just a few of its Criterion predecessors that quickly come to my mind. Of course, the more obvious and frequent references/comparisons are made to Bob's 1950s parallel projects, the already-mentioned Rififi and Touchez pas au grisbi. Here are my award winners of those three films, placed in direct competition with each other:

Best Male Lead: Jean Gabin in Grisbi, his world-weariness and elegance are palpable!

Best Female Role: Isabel Corey in Bob, probably based on the freshest impression, but I admit I'm smitten with her smirky expressions, insouciant demeanor and precocious beauty

Best Heist Scene: Rififi, still mesmerizing after I've seen it half a dozen times

Best Career Launcher: Grisbi (Jeanne Moreau, Lino Ventura, Daniel Cauchy - who also appeared in Bob le flambeur - and the late career revival of Jean Gabin)

Grittiest Cinematic Naturalism: Bob le flambeur

Best Song: Rififi, that tune has burned a notch in my brain, I can instantly recall it on demand even though I don't understand a word of it

Best Hair: Bob le flambeur, no contest!

Most Inspiring Director: Tough call, since I admire Becker and Melville too, but I gotta go with my fellow American Jules Dassin (Rififi) after all the crap he went through as a result of the McCarthyist blacklist

Overall Best Film: Abstain! I'm glad I don't have to pick, I have all three to enjoy whenever I need a fix of French postwar gangster noir despair to brighten up my day... :o)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bigger Than Life (1956) - #507

When I came down into the hospital lobby and saw you and Richie again, I felt ten feet tall!

For a film that basically flopped when originally released and subsequently fell into obscurity during the first few decades of the home video revolution, Bigger Than Life sure caused quite a big splash when it was released earlier this year by the Criterion Collection. It's easy to understand why, since Bigger Than Life offers a vintage look from the inside of what remains a massive cultural reference point: 1950s American Suburbia. I could easily pack twenty or more decent reviews and blog links into this article, all published since last spring when the DVD and Bluray hit store shelves, each reiterating a similar set of talking points about Bigger Than Life's subversive expose of the dark side of small town middle class mores and the anguish suffered by the victims of unchecked patriarchy and so on. I have no quarrel or significant disagreement with those claims, but it does seem to me that the territory has been adequately covered. Other common characteristics in the reviews I've read give director Nicholas Ray and actors James Mason, Barbara Rush and Walter Matthau their due recognition for work well done, and again, I found plenty to admire in their individual contributions to the collective effort. Bigger Than Life is a beautifully crafted film, and more influential than its previously low-profile would suggest. It looks terrific in the Bluray/HDTV/widescreen format that we now have such convenient access to these days. I can only shake my head in sadness at the thought of those who only got to see this film (and so many others of its era) in chopped up pan & scan faded color VHS or TV edited versions over the years...

But rather than focus on Bigger Than Life's general social critique, Ray's expressionistic directing style or the performances of the on-screen talent, what really draws me in to write about Bigger Than Life is what it says about fatherhood and family life. I don't know about you, but Ed Avery and I, we could sit down and have ourselves a talk. I don't care if it involves me heading back to his era or him traveling forward in time to mine, and never mind the fact that he is after all a fictional character - I can relate to that guy, and once he got to hear a bit about my story, I know he'd relate to me.

Ed Avery, the central figure of Bigger Than Life, is a 40-something school teacher, with a beautiful wife, Lou, and a fine young son, Richie. Respected in his community but not especially outstanding in any way, life appears to have dealt him a better-than-average hand. He's fairly intelligent, reasonably handsome, friendly, self-reliant and adequately comfortable. Nothing at all to complain about, really... and yet... beneath this contended surface there's a hint of restlessness, a striving for something more that's been put off and forestalled for as far back as he can remember. You can see it reflected in the numerous travel posters on the walls of his house, probably places he's never been but read quite a bit about. It spills out in his derisive comments about the dullness of his social circle, and his wife, and himself! And the prominent placement of that football trophy, that one instance in his life where, through a fluke of chance he rose from third-string benchwarmer anonymity to be the big hero in the big game... for a day. A taste of glory that's remained elusive ever since, replace by that vague sense of dissatisfaction, so hard to pin on any specific cause or deficit in his life. It even drives his disdain for the boring choices his son makes for his TV entertainment - pointless shows about cowboys shooting at each other that Richie find perfectly satisfying, and besides, all his friends like it too.

Complacent in his routines, and unconsciously enjoying all the privileges accorded to a white family man in the Eisenhower Era, Ed finds it easy to skirt around some of the minor obstacles life's thrown his way. Money's kind of tight, so he's taken an afternoon job dispatching cabs, but he doesn't tell his wife about, fibbing instead that he's got to stay late for an impromptu school board meeting. Is he stashing money on the side? Is he genuinely reluctant to admit to his wife that his teacher's salary isn't enough to make ends meet? We don't really know, but he maintains his ruse, knowing that it's a man's world and he can get away with it for as long as it suits him. But lurking within his own body is a problem bigger than any he's had to deal with so far - a rare disease that inflames his arteries, causing crippling spasms of pain that overwhelm him to the point of passing out. He tries his best to deny and manage them, but it's clear: medical intervention is necessary. A major crack in the facade of the self-made man erupts.

Hospitalization exposes his deceit about the job at the cab company, but rather than suffering confrontation from his wife, he sees her teary relief as her suspicions of an extra-marital affair dissipate into self-recrimination that she allowed herself to think so poorly of her husband. Ed turns the situation effortlessly to his own advantage, managing to make his blatant dishonesty look like an act of heroic self-sacrifice on behalf of his family. What a smoothie!

But the doctors enter the scene, trumping Ed's momentary triumph with heavy news: his illness is serious, most likely fatal within the year, unless an experimental treatment using the then-new drug cortisone yields positive results. Suddenly, Ed's whole world is subject to upheaval - the long-term plans, the suppressed ambitions, the dreams to be realized "someday"... all instantly put on the clock, which now ticks more rapidly and brutally than ever before.

Of course he signs on for the cortisone treatments - it's his only hope, and he's not going to exit this life without fighting back with everything he's got. And fortunately for him, the cortisone works just like the miracle drug it was touted as - the painful attacks subside and after a few days of recuperation, he's back at home, then back on the job.

But of course you know there's a catch - that poster above kind of gives it away: "the handful of hope that became a fistful of hell!" Bigger Than Life makes it clear that cortisone itself doesn't make people go crazy - this isn't Reefer Madness - but abuse of the drug has the capacity to rouse up the monster within. And this is where things get really interesting on the psychological end. Given this new lease on life, Ed experiences a kind of rebirth, a sense of new possibilities and urgent potency that leads him to follow those impulses that conformity and timidity have forced him to ignore throughout his adulthood. So he dresses his pretty wife in expensive French dresses that she's always denied herself, barking out orders to the shopgirls as a payback for the slights he's endured from uppercrust snobs who think they're better than him, spending money that ought to be socked away for savings, or medical bills - but what of that? Ed is flush with the enjoyment of immediate gratification! And there are hints of a renewed interest in sex, though it can only be hinted at in a Hollywood movie of this era, as he preens himself before a mirror and pulls Lou closer in passionate embraces on a few occasions after commenting earlier in the film about the "distance" between them.

But running in the background of all this renewed vitality is the chemical stream of cortisone, Ed's ally in his effort to stave off mortality, but also a potential menace that begins to prevail as Ed concedes more and more of his autonomy over to the pain-blocking powers of the drug. The increased physical functionality is accompanied by a loss of social perspective on Ed's part, as the persuasive power of his own ideas and values leads him to a grandiosity that, while rude and offensive to many, also tends to impress others around him. This is shown most vividly at the parent-teacher conference, where Ed goes off on a doped-up rant, laying out his theories on education that reek of right-wing reactionary conservatism as he insults his students, their parents and the prevailing attitude of affirming children's emotional needs in the classroom context. Some of those present gasp in disapproval, but another middle-aged white guy, the kind whose opinions matter the most in that society, openly expresses that Ed ought to be the principal of this school.

Ed takes his growing arrogance and egocentricity home with him as well - Lou will now become his secretary as he expounds his new concepts on how to fix what's wrong with America's school system, and Richie will get the kind of hard-driving coaching program that will help him become an All-American football star. Unfortunately for Ed, the contentment with mediocrity demonstrated by his wife and son inform him that he will even have to cast them off to some degree in order to achieve the greatness that he feels is his destiny. This pivotal scene, in which Ed is trying to improve Richie's academic potential (after concluding that athletics is beyond his son's capability to master) captures Bigger Than Life at the height of its tension as all the elements of script, performance and cinematography come together so dynamically, capturing the anguish of a family in conflict with no clear resolution at hand, given the unyielding nature of the authoritarian in charge:

From here, a tipping point is quickly reached, where Ed's sense of building up, of growing in stature, of becoming Bigger Than Life, reaches its peak and then rapidly begins to spiral down into paranoid delusion and megalomania. As Ed sees it, his best friend is trying to move in on his wife, convincing her that the one thing keeping him alive is the source of all the trouble, when it's really Lou's inability to get with the new program that's stalling their progress. Even the moral and ethical instruction that the family receives at church turns out to be untrustworthy in Ed's new view, as their application of the story of the Prodigal Son encourages kindness, softness, forgiveness - sheer effeminate indulgence! Ed will have none of it, his is an appetite for the sterner stuff. Give him the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac - now that's a biblical passage one can really sink teeth into!

Well, as I said earlier, if given the opportunity, I think Ed and I could really connect on some of the issues raised in Bigger Than Life. Not that I've ever been tempted to chase after any of my sons with the business end of broken off scissors, with or without divine injunction to do so... Nor have I ever been forced to confront my own mortality with the same immediacy brought about by a terminal medical diagnosis. But in so many other ways, and despite his obvious flaws and eventual pathologies, I found the guy a very sympathetic character, probably more so than viewers who are neither fathers, middle-class professionals, financially-struggling homeowners nor aspire to such stations of life would ever feel about a man like Ed Avery. I saw a fair amount of myself in the character, just like I did when I wrote about ten of my favorite Criterion dads this past Fathers Day. Ed would have made a worthy addition to the list. I'll definitely keep him in mind when next June rolls around, and probably for many years afterward!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Crazed Fruit (1956) - #295

Fancy words and old ways don't cut it now. We need something with a fresh nip to it.

After spending the past few weeks watching, thinking and writing about films directed by Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, in between my last post here on Ichikawa's Burmese Harp, I now have the privilege and pleasure of considering the emergence of new voices and stylistic developments in Japanese cinema of the 1950s. Picking up on trends just hinted at in "troubled youth" films like Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles and Varda's La Pointe Courte, Crazed Fruit marks the entry of truly youth-oriented films into the Criterion Collection - a blast of late-adolescent rebellion and nonchalant resentment that exemplified the budding rock & roll mentality of its era even before that musical style had jumped across the Pacific. Since it was shot in 1956, the characters Crazed Fruit focuses on are too old to be postwar baby boomers but young enough to not have been shaped by the war years except as passive spectators throughout the course of their childhood. Coming of age just at the time when Japan's economic prosperity was sufficient to allow small but growing pockets of affluence, Crazed Fruit's young, gorgeous and insolent cast served as a realized ideal to a generation of Japanese youth, serving the same kind of function that James Dean and Elvis Presley did in their own Hollywood films made around the same time, and that reality-shows like The Hills and an excessive number of other teen-focused entertainments try to do nowadays.

Crazed Fruit's story is relatively simple. It's a love triangle involving two brothers - the older, sexually experienced and dominant Natsuhisa and the younger, naive and sullen Haruji - and a lovely young woman, Eri, who abruptly enters their clique and stirs up havoc as the brothers become rivals for her affection. Haruji is the one who first discovers her, at the beginning of the film when the brothers rush through a train station, rudely shoving other passengers out of the way so they can catch the train that will take them to their favorite seaside resort. Later on, the three of them coincidentally reconnect when the brothers see Eri swimming quite a ways off-shore while tooling about in their speedboat. They give her a ride back into the harbor, each of them sizing up their new acquaintance and liking what they see. Afterward, Natsuhisa mocks his kid brother for chasing after a woman who's out of his league, but that just fuels Haruji's determination to win himself a girl that will earn him a new level of respect among his peers. Haruji ends up inviting Eri to a party where she pretty much stuns the group with her good looks and air of sophistication. Recognizing that he risks being shown up by the older and more seasoned guys as an inexperienced runt among his peers, Haruji takes the bold step of pulling Eri out of the party and swiping his brother's car. They drive to the beach and sweetly, tenderly make out under the stars. Haruji is clearly smitten by this beautiful woman, and for her part, Eri genuinely enjoys the near-reverent awe and admiration her young lover demonstrates as he pursues her.

But Eri is not as prim and innocent as Haruji thinks, or as the audience is originally led to believe. In the course of his social rounds, Natsuhisa learns some things about Eri that create erotic tensions between the two of them, and plant seeds of bitter sibling rivalry with his brother. The complications involve Eri's relationship with an older American man - and her willingness to share intimacies with both of the brothers, though not with Haruji's knowledge, since his youthful naivete and sense of moral disdain for the indulgences of his older brother and their crowd render him unable to handle the truth. Natsuhisa finds himself paralyzed by the conflict, unwilling to burst Haruji's bubble about the girl he thinks he loves and growing increasingly resentful and jealous of the other  men with whom he has to share this most desirable partner.

More intriguing though than the advancement of the plot and its eventual explosive resolution is the style and technique employed by Crazed Fruit's young director Ko Nakahira. Though it seems doubtful from Donald Richie's commentary that any of Nakahira's other films will be featured in future Criterion releases (since he went on to become a more conventional studio director after this debut film), he shows an impressive freedom here, using extreme close-ups, tilted camera angles, rapid and creative edits and techniques that put Crazed Fruit among the forerunners of the New Wave in Japanese that would produce auteurs like Oshima, Suzuki, Teshigahara and other successors to the establishment grandeur of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. We'll be seeing a lot from those guys in future reviews here!

This clip, from early in the film, serves as a kind of manifesto, or as the chapter headings on the DVD put it, a "credo of boredom," voiced by the aimless, cynical and over-indulged rich kids who came to be known as the Sun Tribe (named after their habit of laying in the sun to get tanned, a form of idleness new and bewildering to their Japanese elders.) Listen to the sneering contempt, voiced so openly and without hesitation, for what that older generation seeks to instill in the young! And imagine how such sentiments would be handled by the earlier "big three" filmmakers referenced above. My hunch is that they would have inserted some kind of corrective counter-balance to soften the blow, or at least give some character the opportunity to voice a more effective denunciation of the kids' amorality than the two gossipy housewives that Nakahira later includes more as a mockery of uptight, hand-wringing adults.

Crazed Fruit also has the distinction of being probably the most explicitly sensual film I've reviewed so far in this series, in terms of depicting amorous physical interactions on screen. It's still rather tame in comparison to how this material would be handled nowadays or even a few years later on my time line - but watching it in sequence alongside its contemporaries helps me get a sense of the shock value that Crazed Fruit must have delivered to an audience quite inexperienced at seeing such things at the movies, especially in light of the actors' youth (which of course makes the visual spectacle all the more titillating.)

But beyond the role that Crazed Fruit played in broadening the range of what could be shown in the theater and other aspects of its historic significance, watching it a few times over the past week or so gets me thinking about its relevance for today. Beneath its insolence and narcissism, there's a note of protest being registered by Crazed Fruit: the perennial challenge of a younger generation towards the adults who run the world they're growing up into, to show some kind of recognition of the messes they've made and to acknowledge the hollow cliches and worn out moralisms they use to keep the energies of their children in check. It's an arrogant statement that provides no answers, only a reflection of the ambivalence, confusion and inner turmoil, seemingly only relieved by giving in to the lusty desires of young hearts and bodies, regardless of the consequences. Alternately sweet and bitter, but always juicy and perfectly ripe, Crazed Fruit makes for a tasty and fascinating snack - just be sure to make it part of a well-balanced, nutritionally sound cinematic diet!