Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Blob (1958) - #91

How do you get people to protect themselves from something they don't believe in?

If you've never seen The Blob before, or just have dim memories of watching it as a kid and getting creeped out by its weird concept and primitive special effects, I can't fault you for wondering just what it was that led the Criterion Collection to include this title among its illustrious catalog of noteworthy films. The title itself was practically a parody of 1950s monster movies when it was originally released, an instant punchline that reveled in its own silliness. The marketing scheme (as evidenced by the poster above) strikes a fine balance between lurid appeal to the kid in all of us that relishes a cleverly rendered gross-out and a knowing nudge that promises an amusing schlock-fest, so bad it's good. But as much as we might enjoy the corny/campy diversion, it's fair to ask: does The Blob have staying power? Is it really the kind of film that commands a premium price tag and rewards multiple viewings enough to warrant a place in one's DVD collection, or any degree of serious scrutiny, for that matter?

The more I've watched this film over the years, and especially after spending a fair amount of time with it over the past week or so, my answer grows, blob-like, ever more resoundingly YES! The Blob has a lot to offer, beyond famously serving as the feature film debut of future superstar Steve McQueen who, at age 27, portrayed a misunderstood teenager who overcomes the doubts and skepticism of adult authority figures to save his town from a hideous killer on the loose. Beyond telling a delightfully far-fetched space-age horror story, it's a great example of the ingenuity and desperate determination of a small group of independent American film makers who incredulously had a vision to bring this story to the screen and did so, succeeding way beyond their wildest expectations. And that opening cha-cha beat theme song, written by Burt Bacharach, over the undulating concentric circles during the opening credits... what a smash! I love it!

The lasting significance and artistic achievement of The Blob comes through clearly after listening to the two separate commentary tracks that feature the movie's producer, director, one of the supporting actors and Criterion mainstay film scholar Bruce Eder. This movie, contrary to what first impressions may lead us to assume, was not just some exploitative cinematic junk food dreamed up by Hollywood studio bosses eager to make a fast buck off of a generation of gullible thrill-seeking kids. No, this confection was put together by a small-time studio that specialized in making religious short subjects, funded by a regional film distributor who basically put himself totally in hock, cashing in his life insurance policies and scraping together every last buck he could call in to get the film made. Despite the disciplined penny-pinching that the project required, it resulted in a vivid, colorful time capsule of considerable ambition. I don't know which quality of producer Jack Harris and director Irvin Yeaworth's I admire more: their gutsy willingness to gamble their life savings on such an apparent long-shot of a movie, or their keen insight into the collective American psyche that convinced them a story about a gelatinous alien invader that crashed into Smalltown USA and immediately, wordlessly set about devouring its inhabitants would electrify the popular imagination as wildly as it did.

The Blob, let me hasten to clarify, is in many respects every bit as goofy, stiff and achingly dated as a first-time viewer might assume. Part of that was the low-budget and amateurish acting of a mostly unknown cast of locals from Valley Forge PA, where it was shot on location. Here's a nice compilation of "Then and Now" shots created by a devoted fan. Besides the historic context it provides, in seeing how mundane local structures and streetscapes were employed, you get a sense of the home-grown and pragmatic sensibility behind  The Blob's production. 

Cross-culturally, so to speak, some of the awkwardness we feel watching it in 2011 stems from the distance between small town life as depicted on screen and the crass, jaded society we've become since then. Even though Yeaworth and Harris sought to distinguish their spine-tingling effort from run-of-the-mill scary movies by injecting a touch of post-Rebel Without a Cause serious social commentary into the mix, the "juvenile delinquents" we meet in The Blob are so mild and non-threatening that we may not pick up on the tension or understand what problem the cops and respectable grown-ups of Phoenixville would have with these clean-cut kids. Sure, they drive their impeccably maintained hot rods backwards down the street for kicks late at night, and occasionally sneak out to the bushes for a little bit of necking, but we're still a long way from Skins

As for the terrifying mass at the heart of the movie itself, The Blob remains, in my opinion, one of the most haunting and effective movie monsters of all time. The terror inspired by a tiny bulbous organism that swarms and slurps up its victims, without any feature even capable of reflecting emotion or reason, is primal and hard to shake. The basic concept of the Blob itself is so elegantly simple and elemental that looking back now, it seems utterly inevitable that it would have to emerge from the human imagination eventually. And even though we're now in an era when it's easy to surpass the crude visual effects and render the hideous mass more graphically and gruesomely, there's still something endlessly appealing to The Blob's original conception. Even learning more about how they captured the images, details of which abound on this nicely thorough DVD package, enhanced my appreciation. And here, for your enjoyment, is a fan edit of the film, boiled down you might say, to the Blob essentials: 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Haunted Strangler (1958) - #367

A man must do the work in which he believes.

It's Double Feature night here at Criterion Reflections, as I slap together a second post in two consecutive days in order to mimic the proximity in which The Haunted Strangler and its second-billed counterpart Fiend Without a Face (reviewed yesterday) were released. Even though Criterion took its sweet time (seven years or so) in releasing the two films on DVD, they debuted on the same marquee back in the summer of 1958, courtesy of British producers Richard and Alex Gordon and their Amalgamated Productions company. While Fiend Without a Face went on to have a longer shelf-life and influential reputation, thanks primarily to its more unusual and innovative gore-splattering indulgences, The Haunted Strangler was given the top spot due to the presence of monster-movie hall of famer Boris Karloff. 

The venerable old creepshow mainstay was well within the later stages of his career by the time he made himself available to the Gordon brothers, who were just getting into the production end of the movie business at the time. They respected (and needed) his fading star power enough to give him the kind of creative control and substantial salary he felt he deserved, and the result is a film that seems generally admired within the community of classic cinema horror buffs, though the reviews are still decidedly mixed. I am such a novice when it comes to Karloff's career and his performances that I won't venture an opinion as to where this film ranks among his lifetime achievements, but I thought even in the mere uttering of lines like "the women were only half-strangled, then slashed..." with that macabre lilt in his voice, he brought a degree of seasoning and charisma to his role that frankly was missing from Fiend Without a Face. That film succeeded in spite of the hackneyed acting on display, whereas The Haunted Strangler, being a more character-driven story, clearly benefited from having a figure of Karloff's stature to hold the tale together and raise the collective game of his fellow cast members as well.

The story involves an investigative novelist who's driven by a sense of justice to research the great unsolved killings of 19th century England. After a morbidly humorous opening depicting the execution by hanging of the "Haymarket Strangler" in 1860, we see the executed killer's tombstone age over the course of 20 years behind the opening credits. Enter Karloff as James Rankin, the aforementioned writer who operates on the hypothesis that poor people, once they're accused of a crime, have practically no recourse and are often unjustly convicted due to their lack of adequate legal representation. He's been harboring doubts about the verdict that sent the accused Haymarket Strangler to his death, and he's found a shaky trail of evidence to reinforce his suspicions that the true killer may still be on the loose.  

The evidentiary trail leads through a few colorful milieus - a musty old hospital storehouse where the frail doctor charged with doing autopsies on both the accused killer... and his victims... abandoned some crucial personal belongings two decades earlier before disappearing without a trace; the Judas Hole, a sleazy cabaret where several of the victims worked as dancing girls in a low-rent cancan line; and an eerie old prison graveyard where the Strangler's corpse was hastily doused with quicklime one night and buried under the baleful light of the moon. The sinister atmospherics continually mount over the first half of the film as the plot twist grows ever more apparent - that Rankin's suspicions are correct, and that the killer is even closer - dreadfully closer - than he would ever wish would be the case...

So the story functions on a basic level as an exploration of how the ego defense mechanism of repression can go haywire in practically driving a man to split his personality. No particular cause for Rankin's psychic malady is offered, nor is the analysis sophisticated in any sense of the word. The audience is expected to accept and grapple with the twisted psyche of both the murderer who repressed his memories in order to put his crimes out of mind and the infatuated widow who enabled the killer's ruse and helped him construct a new false identity. But it's all clear and accessible enough for The Haunted Strangler's intended audience of thrill-seekers and veiled misogynists to readily comprehend, and probably mirrors their own murky mix of anxiety, shame, frustration and hostility toward themselves and their unfulfilled desires that prompted their interest in seeing a film that advertises itself thusly:

On a positive note, The Haunted Strangler features the most frolicsome dancing I've seen in a Criterion film since the end of Renoir's French Cancan. And yes, I'm not forgetting about A Dancer's World, which was exquisite to be sure, but not at all frolicsome. However, the music is just a little bit off from the famous and definitive cancan tune. The rights to the original were undoubtedly just a bit too expensive, but what they used was suitable enough, punctuated with excited feminine shrieking throughout.

Given the relative ham-handedness of the plot then, The Haunted Strangler held my interest primarily as an example of where the late 50s exploitation genre was heading: Gratuitous peep-show variety crotch shots of the dancing girls, pin-up babe Vera Day flaunting her champagne-soaked boobs, the flogging of prisoners accompanied by agonized howls and oozing bloody wounds, nocturnal grave-robbing, digging around in a dead man's bones searching for abandoned murder, hideous scenes at the insane asylum as patients and staff are abused in turn, with a guard slashed in face with broken glass, and several other "sickie" scenes.

The film's climax sees Karloff falling back on the role he knows so well, the hunted monster running loose in the world and wreaking havoc until he's finally stopped. In another notoriously cheap but relatively effective special effects move along the lines of Fiend Without a Face's invisible monsters, Karloff's Jekyl-to-Hyde transformation was pretty simple - just remove his false teeth, muss up his hair, trust in his ability to hold his face in a horrible over-bitten grimace for minutes at a time and turn him loose to lurch around for all he's worth. It may not look like much, but it takes a certain talent and a willingness to really let oneself go to pull it off as scary rather than ridiculous. Karloff had perfected that talent over a couple of decades, so it's only fitting that, even as his star receded a bit, that his performance here, and in a subsequent production (Corridors of Blood, also part of the Monsters and Madmen box set where The Haunted Strangler now resides), found its way into that unique expression of independent B-movie zeal that characterizes the Gordon brothers films and earned  Boris his rightful place within the Criterion Collection.

Eclipse Review: Equinox Flower

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fiend Without a Face (1958) - #92

I was able to detach my thoughts and allow them to work on their own.

By including a film like Fiend Without a Face, and several others that followed in its stylistic tradition, within its venerable library of "important classic and contemporary films," the Criterion Collection did itself and the rest of us a big favor. Expanding their eclectic offerings into the category of "low budget sci-fi horror schlock," Criterion deflated at least some of the air of snobby art house pretentiousness that accrues to their reputation by virtue of the "heavier" fare they typically offer, and at the same time gave a smidgen of respectability to movies that might otherwise have been dismissed as juvenile trash or mindless ephemera. Make no mistake - a massive, insurmountable gulf separates the classic works of a Bergman, a Fellini, a Kurosawa from this, probably the most famous and lastingly important career achievement of director Arthur Crabtree. But I for one am exceedingly happy to see films of this sort pop up in my long investigation of movies that bear the Criterion logo. It's the kind of stuff I grew up watching as a kid on the late night Creature Features, though I don't recall ever seeing this particular gore-fest, and capable of generating enough intrigue to hold my attention as any other film I've watched in this project so far.

Fiend Without a Face establishes its claim to fame primarily as a result of the final fifteen minutes of its short 74 minute runtime, when the monsters alluded it to in the title finally appear before our eyes after taunting us with their budget-stretching "invisibility" over the course of the preceding hour. The set-up, however, is not without its amusing moments as we encounter a mild brush-up between resentful inhabitants of the Canadian deep backwoods and a contingent of the American military who've helped themselves to a piece of prime real estate from which they can conduct top-secret atomic powered radar surveillance of the dreaded Commies who live just on the other side of the North Pole. Given that Fiend Without a Face was filmed in England, the geopolitical tensions on display between that nation's former colonies come with a tinge of Schadenfreude, especially when the conflict erupts in recriminations from the alarmed locals who see their fine salt-of-the-earth neighbors dying mysteriously in ways that point unmistakably to the secretive goings on in the heavily guarded military enclave.

All we see initially when the poor citizens of Winthrop, Manitoba meet their demise is the pathetic sight of them clutching at their necks and the backs of their heads as some invisible vampiric force attacks them out of the blue. The only clue we have (besides ominous soundtrack music) is the loud thumping of a heartbeat... and a disgusting slurping sputtering growl that tells us something evil is nearby. As cheap and chintzy and easy to laugh at as the effect is by today's standard, it still delivers a palpable gross-out effect, But that's just the beginning...

For sixty odd minutes, Fiend Without a Face racks up a steady accumulation of classic 50s paranoid tropes: the bland but sturdy straight-arrow leading man, the perky-cute female who will alternate between eligible love interest and damsel in distress, the eccentric old scientist whose research leads him to dabble in crackpot-variety forbidden fruit, and the usual collection of law enforcement and medical professionals to lend an air of quasi-seriousness to the silliness that would otherwise undermine the tension. Here's a clip that doesn't quite rise tot the level of spoiler for any first-time viewers who want to get a taste of the atmosphere of Fiend Without a Face (and in widescreen 1.66:1 ratio, to boot!)

I can't agree with the guy who posted it that this was the "best bit" of the movie, but it's all a matter of taste anyway. 

I did however enjoy the bunkum that passes itself off as science in this flick, especially when Professor Walgate goes into his mad genius exposition of how his experiments in "Sibonetics" allowed him to master powers of telekinesis previously unknown to the human race. His proverbial trespass into "science gone too far" leads to the spawning of a demonic species of disembodied brains that propel themselves along the ground using their undulating tentacles and inch-worm like spinal cord tails, until the fateful moment when they somehow launch themselves into the air and pounce on their hapless victims. Though an experienced viewer can quickly surmise that their invisibility was more attributable to fiscal corner-cutting than narrative ingenuity, their lack of physicality does create some suspense, that mercifully results in a satisfying payoff when they finally do make their appearance. This clip could definitely qualify as a spoiler if you prefer to see the hideous little critters make their appearance only after you've been fully creeped out over the course of an hour. But if you want a quick peek, I think it's safe to check it out - and trust me, there's plenty more where this came from:

The DVD is one of Criterion's earlier efforts, released back in 2000 in conjunction with The Blob, another 1958 monster movie that I'll be watching soon and writing about here. It comes loaded with supplements that give clear indication of the endearment that Fiend Without a Face generated in the 40+ years between its debut and eventual release on disc. A commentary track features an extensive interview with executive producer Richard Gordon who teamed up with his brother to crank out a host of low-budget B-movies (four of which went on to make up the Monsters and Madmen box set, coming soon to this blog!) Among the interesting trivia I learned was that the movie was adapted from a 1930 pulp short story written by a teenage girl, who sold the film rights 28 years later for $400 and was thrilled with the deal. 

Also to be found in the supplements (which give this DVD a hard-to-justify in 2011 $40 price tag) are a generous sampling of vintage ads, trailers, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia from the era, including mainstream Hollywood theatrical hits that put the trashy vulgarity of Fiend Without a Face in its cultural context. This film, as minor and transitory as it may seem, actually played a significant role in loosening the limits that American and British censors imposed on just how grotesque they'd allow movies to get. It pushed up against the barriers that had been previously erected against the display of splatter and gore on-screen. It's a small achievement, I suppose, but simply as a harbinger for free speech and artistic creativity, one for which we should be thankful. 

Eclipse Review:  Equinox Flower

Next: The Haunted Strangler

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Night to Remember (1958) - #7

I don't think the Board of Trade regulations ever visualized this situation. Do you? 

Even though the significance of any particular Criterion DVD's spine number varies from appropriately symbolic (think of #1, Jean Renoir's majestic Grand Illusion or last year's ceremonial selection of the Rossellini War Trilogy box as #500) to mostly random and meaningless (just about all the other films in the collection), there's something about being in the Top Ten of any sequentially numbered group of objects that lends a measure of gravitas. Each of the films, except for the one at hand here, seems to have had a larger-than-usual degree of attention paid to it by the Criterion fan base. #2 (Seven Samurai) is a perennial favorite that was honored with one of the most lavishly expansive upgrades a film has ever received a couple years back, with its transformation to Blu-ray finalized last fall. After bouncing in and out of print a few times over the years, #5, The 400 Blows, was among Criterion's earliest Blu-ray releases, in addition to anchoring the Adventures of Antoine Doinel box set. #'s 3, 4, 6 and 10 have all received overhauls on DVD as technology advanced past the primitive non-anamorphic letterbox format and mediocre transfers of Criterion's 1998 vintage releases, with #4 (Amarcord) scheduled to soon follow in the steps of #10 (Walkabout) for its debut in the Blu-ray format. And even the out-of-print titles #8 and #9 (John Woo's Hard Boiled and The Killer) fetch high price tags on the secondary market and are regularly admired as exemplary specimens of contemporary action films. (Not to mention the gnashing and wailing triggered by their substandard non-Criterion Blu-rays last year.) 

But hardly anybody talks about poor neglected Spine #7, or so it seems to me. And it's not too hard to understand why. Even though A Night to Remember is a lovingly crafted tribute to the doomed luxury liner HMS Titanic, it doesn't feature any noteworthy stars, and its subject matter has been more definitively captured (according to the tastes of today's mass audience anyway) by the 1997 release that I must believe prompted Criterion to include this particular film among their very first DVD offerings back in '98: James Cameron's Titanic, which was at the time the most commercially lucrative film ever made. Who can blame a small indie fledgling enterprise like Criterion for wanting to get in on that action by releasing their own "important and classic" rendition of the same story?

But lest we forget, A Night to Remember was a pretty big deal back in 1958 - the most expensive film produced in England up until that time, based on a popular bestselling book of the same title, and an impressive display of state-of-the-art special effects for its era. Meticulously researched by advertising copywriter Walter Lord, the book on which the movie was based still stands as an authoritative text on the incredible sequence of events that sealed the sad fate of a great technological marvel and over 1500 people who perished in the middle of the night on April 15, 1912 after the ship hit an iceberg two and half hours earlier. Its success as a fact-based exposition of what really happened caught the attention of William MacQuitty, a British producer who had actually seen the Titanic launch as a boy growing up in Belfast and shared Walter Lord's lifelong fascination with the subject. He saw the book as a perfect basis for filming an as-accurate-as-possible recreation of events to stand as an account for the ages. It was A Night to Remember indeed, that captured a fascinating scope of human drama, in all its courage and ineptitude, nobility and pettiness, grandeur and futility, for us to reflect on - and not forget! - for a good long time.

Of course, what ultimately did wind up happening is that the real story of the Titanic was mythologized and employed in the pursuit of generating massive showbiz profits and diversionary entertainment that, on its own terms, proved wildly effective and successful. And not only in Cameron's version, which to this day casts such a huge shadow that it's practically impossible to watch or even write about A Night to Remember without drawing comparisons and contrasts with the Oscar-winning romance/disaster/epic/blockbuster megahit that came out nearly forty years later. Other films, both before and after this Rank Studios project, exploited the undeniable power of the Titanic's story, fictionalizing and melodramatizing events however they saw fit. Be that as it may, I found A Night to Remember to land pretty close to what I was wishing the 1997 version of Titanic would have been when I saw it in theaters, the one and only time I ever sat through the whole thing. Just show me what happened, without the gun fights, chase scenes and steamed-up car windows, along with dozens of fictional characters who had no role in the historic events. I always figured that the real stories of actual people and their uniquely messy situations and peculiarities offered more than enough substance to draw from for making a good movie.

But James Cameron isn't just looking to make a "good movie," hence the need to overlay it with numerous elements that made Titanic the massive sensation and phenomenon it eventually turned into. I don't begrudge him that, it's just that his approach didn't hold my interest enough to draw me back for multiple viewings. So I'll leave it at that.

A Night to Remember, on the other hand, kept me riveted as the disaster unfolded with stately clockwork elegance. The precisely accurate reconstructions of the ship's interiors and exteriors looked familiar, based on my previous exposure to Cameron's equally rigorous sets (I'm sure this movie was studied minutely in his pre-production) and I really enjoyed the black & white cinematography and skillfully handled miniature work as well. While the older styles lack the visual wow factor that modern CGI carries (or at least used to, before it became ubiquitous and cheesy-looking from overuse in recent years), the deep blacks and general aura of dignity conveyed by the monochrome served this story well.

Likewise, the performances are uniformly realistic, plausible and tastefully restrained, even as the situation grows more desperate in the ship's final minutes.  There aren't any outsized personalities capable of competing with Kate and Leo/Rose and Jack, but again, that's to this film's benefit. Instead, we're given brief vignettes ranging from the heroic valor shown by crewmen who usher "women and children first" to safety even as they grapple with the fact of their soon approaching death, to the comic resignation of a baker who's preparing to meet his maker with the assistance of his contraband traveling mate Johnnie Walker. We even get a stirring rendition of "Nearer My God To Thee" by the Titanic string orchestra as the tipping bow points lower and lower.

A main point of this particular telling of Titanic's tale was to illustrate the distinctions between social classes that was maintained right up until the end, showing the compelling power that such mental constructs and cultural habits had on the passengers and crew, particularly those men in the upper classes who accepted their imminent demise with the proverbial stiff upper lip. They're not necessarily celebrated or held up as role models in doing so - to me, the purpose was to demonstrate how irrational and dehumanizing that whole social system turned out to be in its calm and quietly sophisticated way. Of course, none of that prevented the marketing people from sexing up the publicity materials a bit...

The fertility of Titanic-as-metaphor has by now been worn down to a threadbare cliche, so I won't expound much on it here myself, though I can say the account of its sinking still retains its ability to intrigue and haunt our imagination, and this film is a great way to ponder it all. What impresses me the most about A Night to Remember though is just the sheer nerdiness of the project. Walter Lord's process of writing the book began decades before the idea of publishing and selling it had ever occurred to him. He was just a guy who got drawn in by a compelling story, so he began researching, gathering data, collecting and compiling bits of information wherever he could find it, ultimately resorting to writing letters to newspaper editors seeking as many survivors of the tragedy as he could find some forty years later. Likewise, producer MacQuitty's path was illuminated by the same obsessive fire, and it led them to collaborate with a large crew of craftsmen and technicians to create what amounts to a visual shrine in honor of one of the most mind-boggling calamities of the 20th century. A Night to Remember is an altogether admirable achievement, one deserving of much more than a merely passing glance.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) - #113

Stealing is a serious profession. You need serious people, not people like you. All you can do at your best is work.

Even though Big Deal on Madonna Street is among the less celebrated releases in the Criterion Collection, relatively neglected, buried in the low 100s among spine numbers, seldom found on retail shelves these days, it's received a bit more attention in recent weeks than it probably had over the past couple of years. That's largely due to the death late last year of its director, Mario Monicelli, in what's technically labeled a suicide even though the man was gravely ill with terminal prostate cancer and had enjoyed a good long life reaching age 95. He jumped out of his fifth-floor hospital room window rather than face the ordeal of suffering that awaited him, and that he'd probably been enduring already.

That's a bummer of a way to start off a movie review, but I figured I had to get that sad fact on the table sooner or later and I chose to deal with it right away. The movie blogging scene took due note of Monicelli's passing, and this film served as the primary reference point in the summaries of his career, for English audiences anyway. He's a major figure in Italian cinema, though not as famous as peers like Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Pasolini or the older masters like Rossellini, de Sica or Visconti. Maybe that's because Big Deal on Madonna Street is his only film (so far) in the Criterion Collection. It's certainly the only  movie of his that I've seen myself, and it's probably the most significant in terms of "importance" based on what I've read about Monicelli's filmography, since it enjoyed major commercial success and delivered a significant innovation in the evolution of the heist or caper film subgenre.

For most of the previous decade, the conventions of film noir began to wear through its original creative golden age in Hollywood, only to be picked up and given distinctive twists by French and eventually Japanese directors. An important development in that tradition was the expatriation due to McCarthyist persecution of the director Jules Dassin, who fled the USA, eventually finding a receptive audience and producers in France, where he scored an impressive comeback with the classic Rififi. Building on and perfecting the formula established by Touchez pas au grisbi of craggy-faced, world-weary hustlers desperately drawn together to pull off an illicit break-in that promises the payoff of a lifetime, Dassin established a template that spawned a host of imitators and further variants, many of which turned out to be very fine films themselves. Criterion features one of them, Bob le flambeur, which found its own creative way to pay homage, while also injecting its own tragic elements in its story of nobly tarnished souls who recklessly put all their chips on the table to support fatally flawed bets. Though these films are not altogether lacking in humor, a big part of their grandeur is the ability to convey beat-down resignation with such suave, grim severity. The emotional scars and exhaustion of a tough life were unmistakably etched into the faces of Jean Servais, Jean Gabin and Roger Duchesne. Just one look from those tough mugs is enough to wipe the smirk from the face of anyone who's smart enough to pay attention when they're in the room.

But as is the case with every venerable genre, there comes the time when the air of deadly seriousness and self-importance has to be punctured by a twist of wry humor and well-deserved parody. And that's where Big Deal on Madonna Street establishes its claim as a landmark film, for it was among the first movies to incorporate those elements in a thoroughly comedic set-up. (Alexander Mackendrick's The Ladykillers, from 1955, is another Criterion-worthy forerunner that was released by Lionsgate on Blu-ray last year and which I highly recommend if you like this sort of thing.) Now we had a similar assemblage of petty lowlife crooks, plotting and scheming and leading the voyeuristic audience through all their fascinating preparations into the botched burglary and its consequences, but with the overtones of danger and menace replaced by bungling ineptitude and pathetically small stakes. 

As influential and widely imitated as this new formula turned out to be, Big Deal on Madonna Street wouldn't have been all that big a deal as a film if it had just made funny at the expense of more serious efforts. It turns out to have substance and merit on its own terms as it blends touches of neorealism and an undercurrent of social conscience while provoking lots of hearty laughter. There's genuine wit, numerous great visual gags, humor both broad and subtle, things that you might only pick up on after the second go-round, and a thoroughly winsome fondness for its hard-pressed protagonists, regardless of how morally bankrupt and ridiculous their planned burglary is on face value. 

The story involves, as the format practically dictates, a hastily cobbled together gang of small-timers whose criminal careers fall comically short of the majestic though faded glories attained by central characters in the films cited above. These are the outcasts and scramblers born into anonymous poverty, each striving to find, if possible, a way out of their dismal circumstances as they dream of escaping to that proverbial life of ease and plenty, but willing to settle for a bankroll that'll last more than a few days in the meantime. Based on a rumor of easy pickings picked up while serving a stint in jail for a bungled car theft, the group that winds up executing the scheme consists of working-class Everyman characters, each with their own charms and ingratiating back stories. Since I went into this film blind to most of the plot details and greatly enjoyed the element of surprise, I prefer not to recap much of the story here. Summaries of how the tale unfolds are easy enough to find if you want that rundown. What stands out to me (besides the pleasure of watching stars like Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale fairly early in their acting careers) is the nice balance achieved between humor and pathos - even as we laugh at the ineptitude and reversals of fortune, we still care about what happens to the men, who are rendered with touching humanity even though they resemble the kind of overgrown adolescents we met in I Vitteloni, with a more decidedly delinquent bent.

In reading up on Big Deal on Madonna Street, I also discovered that beyond its influence in popularizing the wacky crime caper subgenre, it's actually been remade a couple of times by illustrious auteurs who recognized the sturdiness and adaptability of its narrative. One of them, Louis Malle's Crackers from 1984, is regarded as a failed project, and I haven't seen it. But a more recent project, Welcome to Collinwood, was produced by Stephen Soderbergh and George Clooney in 2003. I so happened to have a copy of that film on DVD, something I picked up in a $2 grocery store clearance rack sometime last year but had never watched previously. I assume it had to be the Soderbergh connection that persuaded me to plunk down a couple bucks on the chance that it was something worthwhile. It turns out to be a rather funny, nearly shot for shot, line by line retelling of the story, this time set in a run-down, fictional rust belt American city (shot in Cleveland) - the main difference being less of that splendid deep focus neorealisr/noir-ish cinematography, and a lot more swearing. I gotta give the nod to the original jazzy score by Piero Umiliani, though Mark Mothersbaugh did a fine enough job in Welcome to Collinwood.

Here are the trailers for both films. They make an interesting comparison in how movie marketing methods have evolved over the past 50 years:

Big Deal on Madonna Street

Welcome to Collinwood

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Mon Oncle (1958) - #111

Today's subject: "Work it out yourself!"

I'm to the point now in my familiarity with the feature films of Jacques Tati that when I come back to revisit them,whether for the purpose of writing in this blog or just because I enjoy the mirthful mood they put me in, it feels like meeting up with a seldom seen but fondly remembered old friend. As in real-life friendships, you think you have a pretty good handle on who your friend is, what he or she is about, and even how they're likely to react to a given situation - but they still retain the ability to surprise and show you something you didn't really suspect was there, at least until you stopped and thought about it a little.

Such is my current take of Mon Oncle, the first color film of Tati's, and one that earned him an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of 1959 and a bit of a breakthrough to audiences outside of France. I say only a "bit" because he really didn't do much to capitalize on the opportunity for subsequent success that an Oscar typically presents to filmmakers. It was a full nine years before his next feature, Play Time, would be released, and the story behind the making of that movie is a debacle that I'll describe when I get to it, probably a few years from now! 

On first impression, Mon Oncle is an easy film for most people to assess, whether or not one appreciates Tati's meandering, nearly plotless style. He creates a smoothly unfolding stream of clever sight gags and mild pratfalls that may not immediately provoke laughter, especially if seen in isolation from the rest of the film (or if one just isn't in the mood for this kind of comedy), but which build momentum as they draw in and sharpen our attention as we go.

It's a droll, subtle spoof of  modern life and society's increasing  fascination with gadgets and so-called conveniences that really do more to distract and alienate than actually improve our standard of living. The slim narrative involves a young boy, Gerard Arpel, a single child who lives with his parents in a severely geometric architectural showcase of a house in some fashionable upscale suburb. His father is an upper management business executive who tries to run his life according to meticulous rules of organization, and is doted on by his equally fastidious wife. 

The sterility of Gerard's lonely home life is alleviated a bit each afternoon when his mother's brother, the oncle of the title, picks him up from school and they enjoy a bit of wandering around town, meeting up with Gerard's friends and pulling little mischievous pranks, before returning to la maison Arpel.

The Arpels, along with their status-conscious neighbors and business colleagues, are cartoonish caricatures of bourgeois propriety and befuddled inhibition, doing everything for the sake of appearances and fitting in, with no discernible interior life or deeper motivations. I can easily imagine a theatrical audience full of people who resemble the Arpels more than they might have cared to admit, chuckling heartily at their awkward striving and vulgar materialism. In watching it again, I was reminded of WALL-E, another sly comedy with mass appeal that pokes gentle mockery directly at the very audience that made it so popular to begin with. Both movies spend a fair amount of time ribbing middle-class mores before concluding matters in a pleasing gesture of reconciliation that softens their satirical sting. 

The uncle, one Monsieur Hulot, is a decidedly non-meticulous, non-fastidious member of society who we first met in M. Hulot's Holiday, released five years earlier. In both films, and in his future appearances, Hulot is known more by his appearance and socially inept mannerisms than by any biographical details attached to the character. Hulot is fully a man without a past or even much of a present, perpetually passing through, observing but not saying much, not in pursuit of any particular goals, always with emotions in check even as absurdity and miscommunication happen all around him. His typical emotional response is some degree of puzzlement over what he sees and hears, and through his head-tilted gaze at circumstances, we the audience are brought to a fresh level of awareness for just how odd life really is, even (or maybe especially) when reduced to its most basic components. Having a meal, entertaining guests, ambling down neighborhood streets, resolving petty disagreements, shopping for groceries, going to work or simply making the utterly familiar walk back to one's home - all these mundane interactions get held up for our examination so that we too can detect the peculiarity that Tati noticed when he put Mon Oncle together. 

As for the sheer craftsmanship of Mon Oncle, and Tati films in general, that's one of those details that I grow more and more impressed with in each viewing. A careful eye and ear that have already come to recognize the most obvious gags can now divert attention to other aspects of the work, such as what's going on in the back of the frame, the construction of various props and set pieces or the ambient sound design. This clip features just a typical example of the creativity that Tati infused into his sound effects, giving them just enough pronouncement to amuse without calling obvious attention to their "zaniness."

And then there's the music... a pleasant, recurring theme that drifts sublimely in and out over the course of the picture, generally in counterpoint to the grating sounds of industrial equipment, alarm buzzers and rumbling engines that epitomize "progress." You can hear it for yourself in this clip, the opening sequence of Mon Oncle, which I just noticed drops a nice little cameo of a horse-drawn wagon that appears later in the movie, another example of the comprehensive and inspired vision that Tati brought to his films. 

Obviously, there's a reason after all that he took so many years between projects – it takes awhile to think up and refine so many small moments, then arrange them in such a careful manner that the whole thing takes on the appearance and textures of life, not as its actually lived, perhaps, but according to an ideal of Tati's that I'll label “conservative anarchy” - a trusting sense that our existence would be more humane and fulfilling if we stopped chasing so hard after the new, the sleek and the shiny and rested, without coercion, in the assured pleasures offered by the tried and true. That value is epitomized by the pack of wandering dogs, an eclectic mix of mutts and well-bred domestics, who roam the streets freely and know naturally how to stay out of trouble. Just reach back, take Mon Oncle's hand and head out around the block wherever you live. You never really know just what it is you'll discover on your next stroll through the neighborhood.