22nd 09 - 2013 | 2 comments »

Famous Firsts: Straight Shooting (1917)/Beyond the Hill (Tepenin Ardi, 2012)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut feature films of: John Ford and Emin Alper, directors

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It isn’t every day that one can watch two films in one day—one from the early days of the motion picture industry and one hot off the presses—and see such a straight line of descent from the early to the new. Add to that “coincidence” the fact that both films represent the feature debuts of one legendary filmmaker and one possible legend in the making, and the experience is all the more powerful. Lucky was I! I had the rare privilege of seeing the first in what would be a long line of iconic Westerns by John Ford, and a more genre-mixed Western by one of the rising directors of Turkey’s emerging national cinema, Emin Alper. I had not realized the strong connection between these films when I made plans to see them, but the discovery was a highly illuminating one.

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Straight Shooting was the first feature to emerge from the Cheyenne Harry short-film series Ford shot for Universal. The series’ star, Harry Carey, would continue to play kind-hearted outlaw Cheyenne Harry into the 1930s, though Ford’s working relationship with Carey would largely end by 1921. After getting a few shorts under his belt, Ford knew how to get what he wanted and delivered an action-packed Western centered on a range war, with homesteader Sweetwater Malone (George Berrell) standing fast against the threats of cattle rancher Thunder Flint (Duke Lee), who illegally stakes a claim on the creek they both share and threatens death to anyone who trespasses. Of course, Cheyenne Harry, who’d rather keep himself to himself, gets pulled into the fray.

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A seemingly amoral rogue who finds himself pulled into the righteous side of a conflict, often with the enticement of a sweet and beautiful girl as partial incentive, is a stock situation that has been changed up and modified over the years, but never completely obliterated. With such a conventional through line, Ford insisted on injecting more realism with a strategy he would pursue his entire career—shooting on location. He chose Monument Valley (and is credited in some places with its discovery as a filming location), away from the artificial frontier of backlots and California ranches, to people with his ranchers, homesteaders, and outlaws. I can attest that the “hideout” for outlaw Black-Eye Pete (Milton Brown) and his gang—a valley beyond a steep rise guarded by lookouts on either side of the pass—looks very much like what a real gang would use.

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Going from a short to a feature-length format may have set up a tendency I’ve seen in quite a few of Ford’s films to include a comic middle act that bears very little upon the main action of the film, and, in fact, could be popped out without any loss of continuity. With Straight Shooting, that middle act takes place in a saloon/rooming house where Harry goes to strike a deal with Flint to run the homesteaders off their land. After this bit of plot is slapped into place, a non sequitur involving the lily-livered sheriff surveilling Harry and Placer Fremont (Vester Pegg), one of Flint’s men, as they get drunk and pursue some burglars provides a bit of comic relief, though I was distressed to see Harry’s horse become so thoroughly spooked by the driving rain Ford engineered that it had to be removed after its opening appearance. In fact, horses and actors in danger during chases and descending the steep path to Pete’s hideout had me on the edge of my seat almost as much as the massing of the ranchers set to attack the homesteaders gathered at Malone’s cabin. One “dead” attacker had to “resurrect” to get out of the way of a horse on a path to trampling him. Although fascinating, such scenes are sobering reminders of how wild the early days of filmmaking actually were.

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There’s no question in this fictional universe that there are good people and bad people. While Straight Shooting only goes so far as to indict Flint and his men through the cowardly act of shooting Malone’s son Ted (Ted Brooks) in the back, the film does seem to show a bias for people who settle down on the farm and start families. Malone’s daughter Joan (Molly Malone) switches her affection from her misguided beau Danny (Hoot Gibson) to Harry, and the final clinch inevitably comes after Harry weighs the pros and cons of giving up his crooked, carefree ways. While I haven’t seen the Cheyenne Harry films that follow this one, I reckon Harry slipped free of the marital noose to carry on his unofficial Lone Ranger duties.

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The multi-award-winning film Beyond the Hill is a horse of a different color primarily in its insistence on withholding the blood-quickening violence from the audience and siding with the ranchers. The outlines of the conflict come slowly into view, as family patriarch Faik (Tamer Levent) welcomes his son Nusret (Reha Özcan) and grandsons Zafer (Berk Hakman) and Caner (Furkan Berk Kiran) back to the family homestead in a craggy corner of Turkey that quite resembles the Western frontier. Faik has 50 sheep grazing his pasturelands and a large stand of poplars, and Mehmet (Mehmet Ozgur), his wife Meryem (Banu Fotocan), and son Sulu (Sercan Gumus) are his hired hands. Faik declares that they will kill a goat to prepare a proper feast for his family, ignoring Mehmet’s suggestion that they wait a bit. Mehmet correctly susses that Faik means to kill the goat he took from a group of nomads that have been grazing their herd on Faik’s land.

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The nomads are instantly recognizable to Turkish audiences as the Kurds with whom Turkey has been fighting a protracted war for decades, and former soldier Zafer is a mental casualty of that conflict. It is also apparent from their dress and customs that Mehmet and his family are Kurds, living under the thumb of Faik in substandard quarters due to a financial debt Mehmet owes that is never explicitly outlined. The political parallels of the story may be lost on a foreign audience, but the relative position of master and servant that allows Faik to bark orders at Meryem, Caner to threaten Sulu and his dog, and Nusret to get drunk and try to assault Meryem is universal.

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Unlike in Straight Shooting, the nomads are never seen. Faik assumes they are massing to attack him after he kills several of their goats for trespassing on and “destroying” his pasture—never mind that he has 50 goats of his own that put stress on the land. Like the ranchers in Ford’s West, the nomads’ argument, as communicated to us through Faik, is that they have been grazing the land since the Ottoman Empire; Faik is the newcomer/homesteader who insists on the sanctity of private property and his right to defend it in any way he sees fit, as though history began when his family settled the land.

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An interesting parallel between the two films is a character that is essentially a double-agent. Danny belongs to Flint’s gang, but is courting Joan and feeding intelligence to the Malones and Harry about Flint’s impending attacks. Sulu keeps a place of his own away from the Faik compound and is frequently the messenger who speak of thefts and attacks on Faik’s livestock. The morning after Nusret accosts Meryem—whether he completed the rape or she fended him off is never known—he rouses from the spot on the floor where he passed out and goes outside. A figure with a rifle takes aim, and we soon learn from Sulu that Nursret has been shot in the ankle. A parallel scene occurs in Straight Shooting right down to the exact camera angle, similar landscape, and object of attack—the son of the patriarch. In Beyond the Hill, however, the shooter is never revealed. Nonetheless, by the end of the film, the enemy Faik locates as an outside band of intruders may, in fact, be one of his own, someone filled with resentment who may be trying to escalate the disagreement to incite violence that will drive Faik off the land for good.

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In both films, the primacy of a manly code that is enforced with guns, not laws, is front and center. The sheriff in Ford’s film is cowardly and ineffectual, and the Turkish police know very well what is going on but choose to accept Faik’s lies while refusing the goat meat, religiously and legally unclean for having been stolen, he offers them. Beyond the Hill goes further in fetishizing guns, as Caner can barely keep his hands off his grandfather’s rifles, and the sound of gunfire provides a dramatic forwarding of the plot. Zafer, plagued by hallucinations of his fallen comrades, offers a corrective to the macho entitlement of his grandfather while ridiculing his younger brother for being a sissy, showing that little that is learned about the atrocity of war is passed on to the next generation. The final image set to upbeat, heroic music, the only nondiagetic music in the film, shows Faik and company marching along a ridge to meet the enemy, the half-lame Nusret dragging behind. We want to laugh, just as we laugh when Harry is domesticated by Joan, but the certainty that history will repeat itself makes for a rueful close to this eastern Western.


4th 06 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Famous Firsts: A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Andrjez Wajda, director

By Roderick Heath

The agonies of the Second World War were, inevitably, a critical subject for Poland’s filmmakers after the war. Andrjez Wajda, who would become one of the country’s most admired and awarded filmmakers, emerged in the mid-1950s and reestablished Poland’s national cinema—at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned—with his epic “War Trilogy” about the travails of Polish partisans. His interest in the milieu was highly personal, having lost loved ones in the grand calamity, and his films are shot through with ironies, paying a certain lip-service to the triumph of the communists over the Nazis when his father had been executed along with thousands of other Polish army officers by the Russians. A Generation, featuring a teenaged Roman Polanski in the cast, certainly encapsulates the crucial mix of burgeoning energy in the postwar generation and its collectively haunted sensibility. Based on the autobiographical novel by Bohdan Czeszko, who also scripted A Generation, the film is as much noir thriller and coming-of-age tale as it is a war movie. The most affecting and original quality of A Generation, and its most influential aspect on subsequent decades of similar movies, is the way it manages without much sentimentalising to depict the regulation rites of passage of a young man in the context of an awesome, consuming struggle.

The central exemplar of the title generation is Stach Mazur (Tadeusz Lomnicki), a slum brat edging into manhood in the context of the German occupation. At the outset he’s seen engaged in a competition of knife tricks with his friend, the more handsome and accomplished Kostek (Zbigniew Cybulski). But when Stach, Kostek, and Zyzio (Ryszard Ber) go about their favourite sport of stealing hunks of coal from the moving trains that pass by their shanty town, Zyzio is shot by a German guard, and Kostek runs off. Stach has to abandon Zyzio’s body on the train and jumps off, too. In a quietly mourning and confused state, he meets amongst abandoned brickworks Grzesio (Ludwik Benoit), an injured, homeless veteran who introduces him to some working men in a tavern. They offer to get him an apprenticeship at a nearby woodworking factory. He replaces Jasio Krone (Tadeusz Janczar), who’s just graduated as a journeyman, and whilst worked hard as a flunky around the factory perpetually fetching pots of glue for the craftsmen, he also finds friends, including Jasio and Mundek (Polanski), and is taken under the wing of communist coworker Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz). Everyone at the factory is involved in something on the sly: some are smuggling, and others are members of two competing groups of resistance fighters. The boss (Janusz Sciwiarski) both gladhands the Germans who buy bunks for soldiers from him and funnels money to the resistance, and he’s especially nervous because of some of his workers who belong to the noncommunist army are keeping a load of weapons in his storerooms. Stach discovers a pistol from this stash, and when he’s inspired by Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), a girl who makes an appeal to students on behalf of the resistance, starts moving toward becoming an underground warrior.

Whilst A Generation is clearly a product of a particular cultural moment and heightened artistic sensibility, it’s also a young film school brat’s ode to cinema. As such, it anticipates any number of neophyte directorial works from the likes of Breathless (1959) to Reservoir Dogs (1992), in trying to enthusiastically blend an observational tone, based on personal experience and sensibility, with a narrative mediated through generic quotes. A Generation is spotted with visual and story quotes from such canonical gangster films as Angels with Dirty Faces (1937), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and White Heat (1949), but blended with a terse, ambient approach to emotion and action reminiscent more of Roberto Rossellini and neorealism in general. There are the early petty crimes, the confederacy of the spurned, doomed outsiders, and the final “big heist.” There’s also a lot of the attitude characteristic of eastern European literary traditions of the coming-of-age tale. Stach goes through familiar rituals of becoming a man: finding a community of working men and learning a trade, being schooled in the unfairness of capitalist economics by Sekula, and meeting, romancing, and finally losing his virginity to Dorota. Dorota appears as a proverbial dream girl with a touch of the warrior that makes her all the more sexy and alluring, a valkyrie on a pushbike, as well as symbolising the call to arms of an elevated, politically radical creed.

Jerzy Lipman’s superbly clear, unaffected cinematography helps Wajda keep the world he presents lucid and contiguous yet frosted with the lightest edge of a semi-abstract menace in places, be it in the cheerily busy confines of the factory or in the eerily quiet streets. Wajda presents twinning moments when the battered remnants of defeated armies appear to the heroes, lurching out of or disappearing back into shadows like spirits to urge the commitment of the living, with an edge bordering on expressionism. The film’s first image, a long panning shot behind the opening credits depicting an industrial wasteland dotted by shacks that prove to be a resilient kind of community, possesses an anticipatory quality as well as an analytical one. One can sense the early impulses of the kind of modernism fascinated by the expressive possibilities inherent in superficially dead places and cinematic frames that filmmakers like Antonioni and Polanski himself would expand upon, even as the texture of Wajda’s subsequent film looks back as much as it looks forward. Later on, cityscapes, with their sparse, eerie, drab multiplicities of concrete and brick, begin to entrap and terrorise the characters with Kafkaesque efficiency, particularly in a climactic suspense sequence, and the horrors of the repression of the Warsaw Ghetto are conveyed only by rolling blankets of smoke glimpsed over high walls, and over a fairground operating in blithe ignorance.

Wajda’s influence on both the French and British New Waves is hard to estimate, but certain. Reportedly, A Generation was a favourite film of British director Lindsay Anderson, and aspects of it are encoded in the DNA of Anderson’s If…. (1968), inevitably recalling the images of youth in violent uprising. Indeed, Wajda’s vision seems, oddly enough, to present his “generation” as a distinct youth movement, politically aware, radicalised, and ill at ease with the status quo. A Generation possesses a contextual awareness that is rich and feels less related to the quality of many ’50s English-language war films, which viewed war as a way to restore stability and the status quo rather than as a process of dynamic reconstruction. In this regard, it’s striking and thought-provoking that Wajda, considering his history, presents here a tale in which the communist guerrillas are depicted as being in competition with a villainous nationalist underground whose representatives in the factory are the most unpleasant and insensitive—one makes a sarcastic crack about the “Yids” finally bothering to fight when the Ghetto revolts—and who finally threaten Stach in a manner indiscernible from any Gestapo thug.

The youths fight war with the trappings and disguises of the everyday, and familiar experiences of the young are all sharpened and heightened by war. The underclass heroes take delight in how the war gives their impulses to anarchic acts of violence and crime social legitimacy. This is at first basic, as Stach describes himself somewhat sarcastically as a “real patriotic thief” in stealing from the coal trains. The long opening shot presents the veritable wasteland on the edge where Stach has grown up, and his manner of dress, with a jacket spotted with dozens of patches, seems like something almost out of prehistory. Stach evolves, as do the film’s visuals, from the fringes to becoming the representative for the continuation of a culture of resistance. The initial decrepit isolation Stach suffers living alone with his mother (Hanna Skarzanka) gives way to slowly developing, almost familial relationships, as the value of community is both emphasised and even promoted by the wartime setting. The younger characters are contrasted with older ones, like the paternal, knowing Sekula, and Jasio’s talkative but pathetic father (Stanislaw Milski), who works in the factory as a night watchman but who’s being forcibly retired. He was a former soldier himself, a veteran of the Tsar’s army, who was posted in Manchuria when he was his son’s age. Stach finally decides to take action after a vividly personal humiliation: Having picked up a load of lumber, he had an altercation with a grumpy gate guard, who took revenge by falsely reporting Stach for stealing to the German reservist officer or “Werkschutz” (Kazimierz Wichniarz) supervising the lumber yard. Stach was beaten and hounded out by laughing Germans, and the enraged Stach talks his young friends into assassinating Werkschutz when he visits his favourite local prostitute. The boys pull off this mission, though it’s Jasio who does the actual killing.

Whilst Stach is the narrative’s focus, Wajda eventually seems more interested in the conflicted Jasio, who prefigures the existential angst of Zbigniew Cybulski’s character in Ashes and Diamonds (1956). Torn about the risks to his hard-won place in the proper working class and leaving his father without his income, Jasio, initially hysterically proud of himself for shooting the German, is actually the first of the young lads to test his mettle and discover the terrible ambivalence of murder for patriotism’s sake. Later, when he anxiously decides to opt out of helping Stach and the others when Sekula asks them to help in getting people out of the Jewish ghetto during the uprising, he has a haunting encounter with Abram (Zygmunt Hobot), a Jewish friend who used to live in the same building as Jasio and who escaped the battle consuming the ghetto, covered in soot and filth. When Jasio seems uneasy about the prospect of him hiding out there, Abram promptly leaves, deciding to head back to the battle. Jasio, in a sudden flurry of fellowship, chases after him, only to see him disappearing into the darkness. The next day he joins the other partisans in their mission, hauling ghetto escapees out of the sewer, but Jasio is cut off from his companions and chased down by the Germans in the film’s set-piece sequence, a stunningly staged chase through hemming laneways and inside buildings, with Jasio finally cornered at the top of a grandiose flight of circular stairs. Rather than be caught, Jasio, in a moment of Cagney-esque defiance, leaps to his death, plunging down the stairwell as the Germans gaze down over the rails in bewilderment.

It’s to Wajda’s credit that he’s capable of perceiving the tragic, the heroic, the absurd and grubby, and the deterministic pathos in his heroes all at once, achieving transcendence and humiliation in singular fleeting glimpses. Jasio, whose death is the result of accidents, fumbling, and ill-fortune, finally dies as the very image of resistance. Whilst the story doesn’t give any easy out clauses for its heroes who, once they commit to action, bear the consequences stoically—they are killed off with a chilling casualness that anticipates Jean-Pierre Melville’s equally grim, unsparing take on resistance warfare, Army of Shadows (1969)—nonetheless it retains a tone of humanistic good cheer that borders on the Capra-esque when the residents of Stach’s slum instantly rally when Stach and his mother are threatened by the rival resistance men looking for their stolen pistol, and see off the intruders with blunt implements. In spite of the seriousness of the subject, an effervescent humour bubbles throughout the film, as when Grzesio shows off his combat scar on his belly only to be told off by a barmaid for lewd behaviour, and Krone rambling on with old war stories distinguished by the fact that nothing actually happened to him. After the managers of the factory give Stach a lecture about the value of hard work, Krone assures him, “Work and pray, and you’ll grow a hump!”

Stach’s attempts to work up something more than awed, dutiful fellowship with Dorota edge gently into familiar teen romance fare, as he’s initially awed not only by Dorota’s looks and self-containment, but also by the fact that she knows what she’s doing in the war far more than he initially does, telling Stach and his buddies off for killing a man in their own area, and lecturing partisans of all stripes in their vital military and ideological matters. Nonetheless, he finally charms her enough so that she becomes his lover, at which point Wajda deliver his most devilish twist: bouncing out in the early morning from her apartment to buy what pathetic trifles he can at a wartime store to give her a surprise breakfast treat, he returns in time to see Dorota being led away by the Gestapo. A telling difference between the mood Wajda tries to conjure and most of the war films being made in the West at the time is the terse, stoic attitude of the heroes, the lack of tears and fireworks when tragedies and transcendences come, particularly apparent in this moment: Stach’s silent horror and despair as he watches her from behind a closed door, only his eyes visible through a grate, and Dorota’s unfussy cooperation with her captors highlight the awareness in the characters of the innate danger and transience of what they’re doing. The film’s final scene is a brilliant culmination, as Stach sits, alone in his grief, with a teenaged boy ambling towards him in curiosity in the background. He proves to be one of a new band of youths, looking distressingly young and cheery, looking to join the partisans, and Wajda fades out on the sight of Stach, now the wise leader for the next generation, facing up to his task and putting aside his sorrow.

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20th 04 - 2011 | 3 comments »

Famous Firsts: The Grim Reaper (La commare secca, 1961)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Screen debut of: Bernardo Bertolucci, director and screenwriter

By Marilyn Ferdinand

At the unripe age of 21, Bernardo Bertolucci made his directorial debut with a film Pier Paolo Pasolini lost interest in making after he had started work on Mamma Roma (1962), only his second directorial effort. Of course, Pasolini had been writing for the cinema for some time, so his acquaintance with the mechanics of movie-making weren’t entirely casual—not like Bertolucci, who first stepped onto a movie set when Pasolini took the young man on as a production assistant when shooting Accattone (1961). Until that time, Bertolucci had been following in the footsteps of his father, the renowned poet Attilio Bertolucci. Pasolini talked to the producer of La commare secca, Antonio Cervi, and suggested that Bertolucci work with Sergio Citti, Pasolini’s frequent collaborator, to come up with a script. Cervi eventually handed Bertolucci the directing reins with the instruction to make it “Pasoliniano”—in the manner of Pasolini. Despite Bertolucci’s attempts to put his own stamp on the film, “Pasoliniano” is how the Italian press categorized it. Nonetheless, La commare secca is a formidable debut from a real film greenhorn that reveals a lush visual eye Bertolucci attributed to his poetic sensibilities.

La commare secca is a murder mystery that resembles Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), relying on the recollections of witnesses—in this case, various young men who may have been involved in the death of a prostitute—to tell the story. This style is a reversal of the usual narrative style of focusing on the detective as he or she moves around town interviewing people, looking for clues, and so forth. This strategy affords the viewer several advantages—we can tell when the actual memory does not match up with what the interviewee is telling the police and we get to see the actual murder through the mind’s eye of the killer, which a cop never can.

Bertolucci adds a poetic touch by imagining the movements of the victim as she wakes up from an afternoon nap, makes coffee, and gets dressed for her evening stroll. Even the discovery of her body at the opening of the film is treated with delicacy—the same classical guitar music that attends her movements during the film plays as the camera follows some pieces of torn newspaper off a bridge and into the open field near the Tiber River where she lies face down. A close-up reveals a pretty ring on her finger and chipped nail polish, marking her as shabby genteel. We can’t be sure that she’s a prostitute until a cop in an interrogation room says so to a cocky young man he is questioning. The young man’s recounting of his movements that day will form the first of several vignettes that offer a look at the daily goings-on in Rome’s underbelly that will form the real text of this film.

Our first suspect, Canticchia (Francesco Ruiu), is unemployed. He tells the cop that he went to meet two priests for a letter of recommendation for work; in fact, he’s a thief who met two friends with whom he roams the woods looking for lovers who aren’t watching their belongings. Bertolucci follows their restless prowling through a wooded area that has become Rome’s lovers lane, watching them take turns creeping up on the distracted couples, succeeding and failing at their thievery. Eventually, Bertolucci brings Canti to the point where all the suspects converge—a park where the prostitute was last seen alive. In what resembles a night constellation, a soldier is bent forward sleeping on a bench, three men stand conversing, and in the distance, like the North Star, the prostitute (Wanda Rocci) stands under a light, her large, patent-leather purse glimmering softly.

Bertolucci spends a good deal of time on the stories of each of these men, and of several, like Canti, who pass through the park and particularly, their relationship to women. The two teenagers, Francolicchio (Alvaro D’Ercole) and Pipito (Romano Abate), who are talking to the third man (Silvio Laurenzi)—a crucial player in the resolution of the murder—are romantic and foolish, thinking they will rob the man of his solid-gold cigarette lighter so they can raise the 2,000 lira they need to buy groceries for a meal their two girls and their friend will cook the next night. Pipito is timid, terrified by the interrogation and anxious about the fate of his friend, who jumped into the fast-moving Tiber to avoid capture.

Francolicchio and Pipito are the least loathsome of the men whose stories Bertolucci tells. Teodoro, the soldier (Allen Midgette), harasses women as they pass down a street, trying to get them to talk to him. He stops at an art gallery and caresses the center of a metal statue that looks like a woman’s spread legs. When he escapes from the sudden thunderstorm that plagues all of the characters, he hides under a bridge and is soon joined by a bevy of women trying to stay dry. His smile, more like a leer, shows his delight at this turn of events.

The longest and most annoying story is of 30ish Natalino (Renato Trioni), a two-timing leech who lives with a very unpleasant and violent madam name Esperia (Gabriella Giorgelli) and her equally unpleasant mother (Santina Lisio). He takes her money and buys himself a sportscar, cheats on her, makes the rounds with her as she collects her cut from her whores, and confiscates a puppy from one who can’t pay Esperia what she owes. Natalino is pretty much a complete waste of space, and the shouting and threats and stereotypical Italian “love” match made me wish Bertolucci had cut it from the too-long film.

Despite Bertolucci’s lengthy digressions into real life, he doesn’t forget the event that brings all these characters together. The murder is a very affecting scene, injected with a strangely hard-edged pathos as the prostitute lays down on the concrete retaining wall next to the river, turning her head to one side, looking like an unattractive side of meat not wishing to see what will happen next. Her stunned pleading at the feet of her killer quite reminded me of Nancy’s murder in Oliver Twist, and yet the entire scene is short and perfunctory, not bathetic.

There are images in this film that point to Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist: two girls dancing together, the murder, the concrete retainers on the Tiber looking as monumentally ugly as the fascist constructions of Mussolini’s Rome. Bertolucci said that he wanted a peripatetic camera to contrast with Pasolini’s static, full-frontal shots in imitation of Tuscan religious art, and indeed, the camera’s motion gives a feeling of teeming life in this crowded capital city to contrast with the bombed-out locations where a lot of the action takes place. The desperate landscape and lives attest to the continued hardships recorded in the neorealist works of Rossellini and Fellini, and Bertolucci certainly owes much to their visions in this first film. The story, however, is so “Pasoliniano,” including explicit and veiled references to homosexuality, that the director delivered what his producer wanted, in spite of his best efforts to make this story his own. Nonetheless, hybrid of styles though it is, La commare secca signals the promise of Bertolucci’s eventual mastery as a film director.

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15th 07 - 2009 | 3 comments »

Famous Firsts: Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient, 1960)


Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Celebrating Bastille Day: French Films All Week

Debut Film of: Jacques Rivette, director

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By Roderick Heath

“Just because you’re paranoid,” goes the saying, “doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” The debut film of Jacques Rivette, the most wilfully eccentric of the early Nouvelle Vague directors, could well be described as an exegesis on that theme. Rivette, a filmmaker never in a hurry to get anywhere (his 1971 film Out 1 runs 13 hours), only occasionally indulges the look-at-me editing and referencing that spiced up the other eruptive early films of the movement in Paris Belongs to Us, begun in 1957, but released in 1960. Rivette is deceptively becalmed, even gentle, whilst being coolly, almost cruelly implacable.

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Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) is an unshaped ingénue studying English literature whose cramming is interrupted one day by the sound of sobbing from a neighbouring flat in her student boarding house. Investigating, Anne finds a distraught woman who knows Anne’s brother Pierre (François Maistre), and, in her grief, talks about the murder of a man named Juan. She seems to think the murder has been committed by some cabal and predicts that all of them, including Anne and Pierre, will fall victim. Anne tries to calm the woman and dashes to get her a glass of water, but returns to find her composed, smiling, and pushing Anne politely out of her room. Invited by the shifty, alienated Pierre to a party of his lefty bohemian friends, Anne soon finds that a man named Juan really is dead. A guitarist of a level of talent that no one can agree on, Juan’s thought to have committed suicide. Present at the party is a boozy, angry, American writer, Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), who had to flee the States because of the blacklist, his ex-wife Terry Yordan (Françoise Prévost), and her current boyfriend, aspiring theatre director Gérard Lenz (Giani Esposito). Later, when Anne encounters Philip, a mysterious hit-and-run death disturbs him sufficiently to make him drag Anne along in fleeing through the streets. He speaks of a plot that will inevitably cause Gérard’s death, an event that perhaps only Anne can forestall.

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Anne, inclined to take this stuff seriously after two such similar and yet obscure encounters, tries to alert Gérard to his apparently grim situation. The young, ardent director laughs it off. When his lack of finance means difficulties in keeping the cast of his dream production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre together, he drafts Anne to play the role of Marina. As Anne digs deeper, she uncovers sure evidence that something is going on, but what? Is the rootless, knowing Terry a kind of spiritual succubus, bringing death or ruin to every man she comes near? Or are they all pawns in some monumental game? What has the economist De Georges (Jean-Marie Robain), for whom Pierre does “some odd jobs,” to do with it? Why is Juan’s sister, a former radical, now living in De Georges’ apartment as his infantile mistress? Is Gérard’s sudden success in getting Pericles staged by a major theatre really a big break, or a cunning ploy to destroy him? And why is Juan’s legendary last recording, an improvisation that Gérard was desperate to have for the play, so hard to find and so seemingly close to the heart of the mystery?

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Rivette’s dark thesis perceives the alt-culture of its era as assailed, self-deluding, and terminally self-destructive, trapped between blocks of power and making the situation worse with its own hysteria. Philip, the film’s prophet of hellish entrapment, lounges in his one-room apartment surrounded by his own artwork, dozens of modernist squiggles that resemble evil, gnawing, gnomic heads; he gives one to Anne, who soon enough sits peering at it in her own room, his demons infesting in her mind, too. Easy to see then why this film never stirred the same orgasmic odes to coolness as Breathless (1960). And yet it’s both the most awkward and possibly the most artistically and intellectually advanced of all the early Nouvelle Vague films. Paris Belongs to Us is as deeply, even apocalyptically, political a film as Godard’s The Little Soldier (1963) or Week-End (1967), perhaps even more so, but in a dissembling, allusive fashion, exploring the dire state of things through parable and paranoia. It takes no refuge in the hip and the righteous. The film’s references—McCarthyism, Franco, Hitler, the Resistance—invoke an age of insidious ills and underground struggle, with the borders between creeds and causes becoming porous and disturbingly homogenised.

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In another sense, it’s not political at all, but a statement about art and the lot of artists in the modern world. The artists, from the passive and impotent, like Philip, to the most seemingly energetic and idealistic, like Gérard, are tortured, pushed by forces beyond their control, torn by conflicting desires both to commit (that great godhead that Sartre urged in his On Literature) and to create, consuming them in the process. Even the most superficial glance at Rivette’s oeuvre reveals that the motif of the band of players putting on a play, usually a work of the classical canon, that will never be performed is one of his recurring gambits; artistic endeavour being both eternally new and ancient, evergreen, and ever endangered. Here, Pericles, is critiqued early on by Anne and an actor friend as a rambling collage of great words, which is precisely what Gérard loves in it. Pericles’ connection on a spiritual level is an observation that shines a light on the ideals of Paris Belongs to Us, too, as its peripatetic characters roam the world and yet can’t escape each other. Juan’s elusive recording becomes both something of a holy grail and another wild goose, an emblem of the beauty of creation that becomes lost in the tangles of design. And yet, in a provisional fashion, the film also makes the case for creativity and the power of the intellect, of perspective, to define the world over all other influences—for good and ill.

The title’s allusion is opaque: who the “us” is could be the theoretical conspiracy, or the energetic young artists and students, or the people in general. Either way it’s contradicted, and yet also solidified, by the quote from Charles Peguy at the start, “Paris belongs to nobody.” It’s not just the city, either, but the marketplace of ideas and aesthetics that it’s always represented, as well as the crucial crossroads of political and philosophical movements. Everyone and no one owns life. And yet the narrative’s labyrinthine descent revolves around Philip’s conviction—a conviction that Terry shares—that a grand conspiracy is in place by a hidden society to turn the world into “one big, jolly, concentration camp.” The idea eventually proves to be something of an intellectual luxury that Philip has conjured and temporarily infects others with that offers the strange reassurance well familiar to us—the conspiracy theory, the notion that the truth is explicable but in a great, hidden whole.

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That things really are going on—De Georges really is trying to wipe out people more talented than him, and Juan really was killed by Falangist agents—at first seems to substantiate, but finally corrodes such a notion, revealing a world teeming with threat and intrigue and, often, hopeless and irreducible confusion and shapelessness. “It’s easy to justify everything with a single idea, including his (Philip’s) inaction and cowardice. The nightmares were just alibis,” Terry offers in a final summary. That the alibi is powerful enough to stir Terry to commit murder reveals the danger in such solipsism. It’s a vital and powerful indictment of the retreat of the modern mind into the fringes of conspiracy theory and fragmented blocks rather than deal with problems at hand; people become implicated in destroying themselves and others. Gérard is both victim of plots and also of character—he’s tried to kill himself once before—and a situation, as Anne, who sets out to save him, finally rejects that role and precipitates crisis. All actions feed into every other action.

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Although Rivette’s camera roams all over Paris, the city becomes more defined by the breathless little boxes most of the characters live in and streets at dawn that are deserted, zombie-movie-ready. The few expansive moments come thanks to Gérard, as when he and Anne converse within sight of Notre Dame, and later, when he triumphantly walks the theatre roof as he regards the city. Late in the film, when Anne receives a note from Gérard threatening suicide by midnight if she doesn’t call him and it’s already nearly 1 a.m., Anne settles in weary confusion by a window as the sound of the clashing TVs and radios in the apartment building congeals into a strange electronic menagerie. Along the way, there’s a scene incorporating the Tower of Babel sequence from Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis (many of Lang’s silent films, with their quivering air of sinister influence, are a definite touchstone for this movie), with all its allusive evocations of both grotesque capitalist-industrial presumption (and that film’s dictatorial elite) and its fear of apocalypse and disintegration as the punishment for its hubris. “The Wormwood star approaches,” warns one of Juan’s associates in one of the recurring moments of terrible pronouncement. But it’s not to be taken so seriously. “I love a femme fatale!” Gerard jests when Anne suggests Terry could get him killed, a moment that feels like a poke in the ribs to the whole enterprise.

As an aesthetic and conceptual statement, Paris Belongs to Us is strong, even triumphant. Its prognosticative wits are remarkable, all the more so for predicting and possibly influencing the subsequent concerns of directors like Antonioni (mysteries that go nowhere, a la L’Avventura, 1960, and the tortures of discerning truth from impression in a politicised context in Blow-Up, 1966), De Palma (the same hothouse paranoia infests Greetings, 1968, and much of his subsequent work), David Lynch (for whose career of rabbit-hole descents this could almost be draft thesis), and indeed a vast sector of the modern canon. As a dramatic work, it doesn’t quite work as a well. Rivette’s style is both more intimate and classical than the other New Wavers, with a carefully gliding camera that moves like an attentive listener; yet Rivette’s also less assured in eliciting performances and maintaining pace, and he slaps on a dissonantly corny score. His private mood seems detached from the efforts to conjure urgent, Lang-and-Hitchcock dread, finding more immediacy in watching birds skate across a dawn pond in the affecting final image, as if, like Gérard, he seeks something more humane, a way out of this cold scenario. Schneider is no Anna Karina, with little facility for illustrating her movement from blasé innocent to crumpled adult, and so her engagement with the other characters, especially Gérard, isn’t as crucial as it needs to be. For buffs, there’s a funny cameo by Godard as a café lecher.

Troubling, unsteady, and strange, Paris Belongs to Us is nonetheless a vital movie.

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23rd 07 - 2008 | no comment »

Famous Firsts: The Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Monte Hellman, director

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By Roderick Heath

It’s harder to judge the quality of a directorial debut when that debut is not sponsored by a fully functional, well-financed, major studio or, indeed a more modern film with access to cheap, yet sophisticated technology that can make even a shoestring production look good. The Beast from Haunted Cave is a fine example of a genre that is long gone—the ultra-low-budget drive-in movie—a category that runs the gamut from startling works of invention like Night of the Living Dead (1968) to the oeuvre of Edward D. Wood. Beast was made under the aegis of Roger and Gene Corman and AIP, the only people to turn such fodder into a minor cultural phenomenon.

beastmonte.jpgMonte Hellman is a shadowy legend of American New Wave cinema, joining such rare figures as his mentor Roger Corman, John Cassavetes, and John Waters as true mavericks of Hollywood. Unlike Corman, he didn’t stick to specializing in B-movies when his efforts to break out of the ghetto proved disillusioning; unlike Waters, he never made himself agreeable enough for a mainstream breakthrough. With his near-legendary pair of cheap, but poetic, westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967), and his barely-screened interior dramas, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Cockfighter (1974), one might have expected Hellman to burgeon into a Malick or Coppola. His vision, however, ultimately was too esoteric, and his only real achievement of note in the 30 years since has been producing a very famous first—Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). It’s worth noting that Hellman might have been drawn to that project because it, like his distant debut, centered on the robbery getaway by a group of hardened, but human criminals.

The Beast from Haunted Cave is easy to laugh at. It’s cheap, tacky, badly shot, with lousy sound, and features what looks like a cobweb-strewn pile of cabbages as a monster. It was recycled out of Corman’s own Naked Paradise (1956) and itself spun into Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961). It’s also an oddly gripping and inventive little film that doesn’t so much show how far you can go with a small budget— perhaps Val Lewton’s films and Night of the Living Dead are better examples of that—but of how a solid script and a neat idea promise a film that, with a little more cash and love, could have been pretty good, and offers strong hints of a directing intelligence.

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Beast begins in a ski resort in the Black Hills outside of Deadwood, South Dakota. Alex (Frank Wolff), Marty (Richard Sinatra, Frank’s cousin), Byron (Wally Campo)—the thieves posing as Chicago businessmen—and Alex’s gangster moll Gypsy Boulet (Sheila Carol) are planning a robbery of gold extracted from a local mine. Their plan is to set explosive charges in the mine, causing a cave-in that will draw off attention whilst they raid the gold storage. They then plan to take off cross-country, posing as recreational skiers, to hole up in a mountain cabin. To this end, they’ve hired local ski instructor Gil (Michael Forest) and rented his own cabin.

Marty, a would-be hipster (“Is knitting your scene?”) and ladies’ man, sweet-talks Gil’s sister (Kay Jennings) and barmaid Natalie (Linné Ahlstrand, Playboy’s Miss July 1958). He and Natalie sneak off together and, under the guise of sating his curiosity over the mine, Marty plants the explosives. But they are attacked by a mysterious spidery beast (played by Chris Robinson, who also built the monster suit and plays a barman), newly hatched from an egg and apparently disturbed from millennia of gestation by the miners. It snatches Natalie away, and Marty returns breathless and panicked to his confederates. His half-coherent explanations are dismissed by the relentlessly pragmatic Alex. The next day, a mine worker discovers a strange cobwebby material in the shaft just before he’s blown up by the charge. The thieves do their job whilst Gypsy keeps Gil distracted, and then depart on their trek; occasional glimpses of the beast’s hairy tentacles show that it is following them.

Beast was penned by Charles B. Griffith, who was also responsible for the clever screenplays of Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors (1960), films that gained credible attention for Corman. Griffith’s script is surprisingly strong, especially in the characterizations and dialogue. It combines elements of The Thing from Another World (1951) and Key Largo (1948), and predicts Alien (1979), which may even have been influenced by it. The main dramatic conflict in Beast centers around two self-contained males—Gil and Alex—competing over Gypsy, which, curiously, anticipates the central pas-de-trois of Two-Lane Blacktop, in which James Taylor’s Driver and Warren Oates’ GTO compete for the admiration of The Girl (Laurie Bird). Wolff’s Alex even somewhat resembles Oates’ character; gruff, antisocial, mustachioed, prone to hiding behind dark glasses and affecting a vaguely existential hipster cynicism slightly at odds with his air of the middle-aged lay-about. The difference is that Alex is definitely a villain, a self-congratulatory winner in a Darwinian world, who plans to knock off Gil at his first opportunity and take off with the loot to Canada.

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Meanwhile, the drunken, forlorn Gypsy is desperately attracted to the rugged mountain dweller, and Marty, believing the monster remembers him and is stalking them to ensure their destruction, keeps an eye out for the beast. One night, he is horrified to stumble upon the monster guarding the cocooned, still semiconscious body of Natalie. Later, he discovers the entrance to a cave where the beast’s tracks lead. The monster attacks Marty, and then drags off Gil’s housekeeper Little Dove (unidentified actress), who has crush on Byron. Byron follows to snatch back Little Dove, but he is soon caught and cocooned alongside her, and the two have to watch Natalie’s blood being sucked out. When the beast tries to do the same to Byron, Little Dove tries to stab it, which provokes it to kill her. Gil, warned of his charges’ deadly intentions by Gypsy, has already made a break for the countryside. An oncoming storm forces Gil and Gypsy to shelter in the cave. Marty insists on heading there with Alex to get the beast, packing rifles and flare pistols. Interrupting the beast’s attempts to eat Gil and Gypsy, Alex is chomped and Marty mortally wounded, but he fires the flares into the creature, setting it ablaze, before expiring, leaving Gil and Gypsy as the solitary survivors.

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Despite the ratty production, Hellman’s sense of film grammar and his touch with actors, especially Wolff, Sinatra, and Carol, are well in advance of the average director on Poverty Row. He successfully draws out intelligence from Griffith’s script—in Alex’s übermensch rants, Gil’s meditations on the superiority of his mountain life over city life, and Gypsy’s teary confession of how she got involved with Alex and why she can’t get away. It’s a pity then he can’t really generate any dramatic intensity for the situation, and the film feels awfully padded at a scant 75 minutes. The effect of tacking on a monster yarn to a dully plotted gangster melodrama doesn’t exactly make for high tension, despite Hellman’s and Griffith’s attempts to solidify the drama. The film only achieves eeriness in a couple of places—when Marty finds Natalie’s cocooned body and the death throes of Byron and Little Dove—and builds to a climax during the battle with the perambulating spinach monster, where Hellman compensates a little with some nifty editing and lighting. His gift for drawing a sense of healthy atmosphere out of location shooting, which was to serve him well in better films, makes the best of the snowy terrain and stony caves where the action takes place.

A film like Beast is a borderline case, rudely built as a cinematic seat warmer for other films, some better, some worse. Yet it displays glimmerings of a quality that money can’t always buy and the lack of it can’t always obscure, standing in contrast to the utterly mercenary banalities of, say, Friday the 13th. Despite having nothing to work with, Hellman produces something.

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14th 07 - 2008 | no comment »

Famous Firsts: The Verdict (1946)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

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Debut film of: Don Siegel, director

By Roderick Heath

A tale of a vigilante policeman that begins with the peal of a church bell—this could describe Dirty Harry (1971), the biggest hit of Don Siegel’s career. And yet it also describes The Verdict, Siegel’s directorial gambit of 25 years earlier.

Siegel had been for many years the top editor at Warner Bros, contributing his superb montages to films like The Roaring Twenties (1939) and Across the Pacific (1942). As Siegel put it: “I actually shot more footage for Warner Brothers than any of their highly touted directors, but when I went to Jack Warner and said I wanted to be a director…He said ‘Look, I can get directors a dime a dozen. But who am I going to get to do the action sequences, the inserts, and the montages?’ So I said, ‘Fine, pay me what you pay the directors, and I’ll carry on doing that stuff for you.’”

After a couple of shorts and a lot of patience, he finally got to helm a vehicle for one of Hollywood’s strangest, and yet most entertaining, double acts: Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, who had proven their star worth without Humphrey Bogart in two terrific films, The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) and Three Strangers (1946). The Verdict is Victorian era, and right from the brilliant opening shot where Siegel’s camera swoops in on the tower where the bell tolls in Newgate Prison’s chapel tower for a condemned man on a fog-wreathed night, it’s easy to spot his talent. As well as establishing Siegel’s visual fondness for vertiginous heights and angles, the shot also anticipates one in Dirty Harry in which Siegel’s camera swoops upwards dizzyingly from Harry Callahan’s (Clint Eastwood) torture of Scorpio (Andy Robinson) in the centre of a football field; both shots entwine the sometimes cruel and salutary nature of a thirst for justice with godlike perspective.

The condemned man here is Harris, convicted for the murder of social scion Hannah Kendall. The man who convicted him, Supt. George Grodman (Greenstreet), meditates on the ironies of a profession where success means taking a man’s life: “I have no personal feelings. We are only instruments of justice, like the court that condemns.” But Grodman is in for a nasty shock. Called in by his superior (Holmes Herbert) at Scotland Yard, Grodman learns from his chief rival—the ambitious, supercilious Supt. Buckley (George Coulouris)—that he has proven Harris’ innocence. Scandal erupts and tars the Yard’s competence, and Grodman is forced to retire. The case haunts him, not just because of Harris’ fate, but also because the murder victim’s nephew, Arthur Kendall (Morton Lowry), is his next-door neighbor and friend. Grodman sets out to write an account of his career.

Grodman’s best friend, artist and bon vivant Victor Emmric (Lorre), attempts to cheer him up by throwing him a birthday party, inviting Kendall and another next-door neighbor, liberal MP Clive Russell (Paul Cavanaugh). The pairing of Kendall and Russell is disastrous. Russell detests Kendall who, as a mine owner, exploits and degrades the men who are Russell’s constituents. Russell threatens to silence him once and for all when Kendall promises to pressure him with the identity of his secret mistress. Kendall, not a popular man this night, also argues with his girlfriend, singer Lottie Rawson (Joan Lorring), before settling down to bed. The next day, Kendall doesn’t answer the knock at his door by his batty, smitten landlady, Mrs. Benson (Rosalind Ivan), and she runs next door to fetch Grodman. He busts through Kendall’s door, and warns Mrs. Benson not to look…

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It is assumed that whoever killed the aunt returned for the nephew. Buckley leads the investigation, and casts his unctuous suspicion on everyone. The case is baffling, as there’s no explanation for how the killer got out of the locked room—even a burglar (Clyde Cook) can’t work out a method. Grodman is hugely amused by Buckley’s floundering, and he and Victor begin a little sleuthing, chiefly an excuse for Victor to romance Lottie.

Lottie is suspect when she attempts to retrieve a valuable watch fob she gave to Kendall, and is caught by Buckley. Attempts to locate the fob prove fruitless until it’s suggested it was buried with Kendall, prompting his exhumation. Lottie is released when the fob is found, but is now stalked by a shadowy presence assailing her with warnings not to talk about Russell and his mistress. But Lottie has already blabbed about that to Buckley.

Russell becomes the chief suspect, and his refusal to divulge the name of his lady friend entraps him. Meanwhile, Victor’s suspicions are closer to home, and he searches Grodman’s apartment. When the stalking presence tries to enter Victor’s bedroom, he takes a shot at it. Russell is tried, and sentenced to death. Grodman convinces Russell to let him track down his mistress, the estranged wife of a Lord, and convince her to confirm his alibi. Grodman pursues her all over France, only to catch up with her at her funeral.

With all avenues of saving Russell from the gallows exhausted, Grodman triumphantly confesses to the murder. Having realized that Kendall killed his own aunt for her money, and then used Grodman in setting up Harris for the fall, and with no way of proving it, Grodman took justice into his own hands. He used many contrivances designed to muddy the waters and fool Buckley as much as possible, but won’t let Russell pay the price for his acts.

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Siegel handles the stringent production expertly, slathering the action in fog and shadow. With some terrific actors, Siegel conjures the kind of ripping yarn that’s a pure pleasure to watch. Even the awful Cockney accents of the bit players add cheesy fun. Siegel replies to the evidently low budget with an economic, but technically accomplished style, with expressionistic camera angles, careful lighting (witness the ghoulish delight that is the exhumation scene), and inventive model work (as in the opening shot) to conjure an elegantly bogus Victorian London that looks like the one you imagine when reading a Sherlock Holmes story. Indeed, The Verdict was based on a novel, The Big Bow Mystery, by Victorian writer Israel Zangwill. Zangwill’s novel was a social satire and riff on the detective genre that was already cliché-ridden. Siegel and screenwriter Peter Milne toy with the novel’s elements to give it a more individual moral imperative. The murder victim is changed from an orator of leftist values into a filthy example of capitalist evil, and the progressive, Russell, is the pillar of conflicted conscience whose life must be saved. Grodman’s actions and motivations have been altered to make his crime utterly sympathetic.

But it’s the detail of Grodman’s ironic status as both avenger and murderer that proves Siegel was fascinated by the idea of breaking the law in a heinous fashion to achieve justice, which casts Dirty Harry, still often regarded merely as a sop to reactionaries, in a different light. Harsh reversals of moral expectation and identification are a Siegel trademark—witness the people who have to fear and kill their own neighbors in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the schoolgirls who are far more dangerous to the soldier than he is to them in The Beguiled (1969), or the criminals who gain our empathy in Escape From Alcatraz (1979). Many Siegel heroes are criminals, bastards, or not what they appear to be. He took that last device to an extreme in Body Snatchers, but also including heroic figures like Robert Mitchum’s army officer pretending to be a gangster in The Big Steal (1949) and Shirley MacLaine’s whore-dressed-as-a-nun in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1971).

The Verdict is a transitional film. It straddles genres that were running out of puff in post-war Hollywood—the crisp, quaint mystery yarn with an Anglophile bent, Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Moto, Philo Vance, The Falcon, The Saint, and all the other detective franchises and one-offs and the Universal-style gothic chiller. The Verdict pays homage to these, whilst, simultaneously, the harder, dark-drenched, morally ambivalent noir genre was taking grip. Siegel toys with the structure, sympathies, and style of The Verdict to make it count as a noir work; though the first two-thirds of the film are fun in the Holmesian tradition, the last third in which Grodman’s efforts to save Russell gain in grim urgency, take it to another level.

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Siegel observed of Greenstreet and Lorre, who work together so well on screen they seemed to have been doing it for decades, that they actually had very different work habits: “If you changed so much as a comma, Sydney was upset…He wanted to get his cues down to the word, and studied his part very carefully. On the other hand, not only didn’t Peter study, but he would come on the set as if he didn’t even know what studio he was in.” The Verdict riffs on their screen personas. It’s fun seeing Lorre play a party animal and ladies’ man, but Victor is also incurably morbid, crowing, when Kendall’s body is exhumed that “I’ve always had an unconscious desire to see a grave opened, especially at night!”and complaining, in illustrating Grodman’s book, “I’ve done three stabbings in a row! How about a nice juicy strangling?” The film uses Lorre’s real-life hobby of sketch art creatively. And there’s a recurring gag where Grodman remarks on Buckley’s attempts to fill Grodman’s britches, emphasizing the capacious girth of Greenstreet’s posterior. Backing them up is Coulouris, always a joy at playing slimy arrogance. One weak link is Lorring’s lousy accent.

It’s far from being a great or perfect film. It’s weighed down by standard touches, like clumsy comic relief and the ever-tiresome staple of the shoehorned song-and-dance number, here a “racy” song performed by Lottie, in a “Royal Music Hall,” which looks more like a bad theater restaurant. Although it portends many of the themes and interests of Siegel’s career, in other ways, its retro, studio-bound class is at odds with the style the director would develop. With The Big Steal, Siegel dragged the noir film out on location and kept it there, leading to the stark, utterly modern stylishness Siegel had mastered by the time of Coogan’s Bluff (1969) and Dirty Harry. But The Verdict is a delightful melodrama and the sort of film that stands for what Old Hollywood at its best was all about.

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5th 07 - 2008 | 9 comments »

Famous Firsts: Friday the 13th (1980)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Producer/Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Debut film of: The unpleasant Voorhees clan

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By Roderick Heath

There’s a large dose of irony underlying the attention Friday the 13th and its endless sequels receive these days, not dissimilar to the sarcastic ebullience that greets my friends when they perform Vanilla Ice at karaoke. It’s so lame, it’s classic. Yet it demands attention as a foundation of ’80s film culture and the modern horror genre. Make no mistake—Friday the 13th is a shitty film. Perfunctorily written, boringly directed, dimly plotted, and awkwardly acted, it’s hard to see what made it so damn special, which is, perhaps, the point. Friday the 13th has no ambitions to being special. Its aim is to be efficient. Friday represents the apotheosis of cinema as mass production. Taking elements provided by better films, Friday puts them together cheaply with infinite capacity for repetition.

The story is almost Euripidean in its simplicity and compression. A period prologue—a common feature of ’70s horror films, plus pinching the first-person camerawork of Halloween’s opening—introduces the rural Camp Crystal Lake, which, though the setting is kept obscure, is revealed by both the shooting locations and stray details as being in rural New Jersey. Two camp counselors sneak off for a bit of crumpet, and are promptly slaughtered by an intruder. The present-day bulk of the film takes place in a period of about 12 hours. Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), who seems to be a bit of a counterculture wash-up, is reopening the camp as a refuge for “inner city kids,” and has hired a crew of flaky break-year teens as counselors. One, Annie (Robbi Morgan), hired as a cook, has difficulty making it to the camp. Dropped off in the nearest town, she encounters a local drunk, Ralph (Walt Gorney, playing a part that ought to be Dwight Frye’s), who warns of the evil that haunts the camp, beginning with a boy who drowned in the ’50s and followed by the still-unsolved murders seen near the film’s opening. Then she gets a lift with a truck driver (Rex Everhart), who cagily repeats the warning and leaves her at a crossroads. She then gets a ride in a jeep, whose unseen driver slices her throat.

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Meanwhile, the general idiocy of the counselors is revealed by their attempts to kill a snake in the room of Alice Hardy (Adrienne King), who, it’s hinted in the film’s barren dashes of character development, is an art student with some unexplained baggage preoccupying her who is romantically interesting to Steve. Jack Burrell (Kevin Bacon, defining the power mullet as we know it) and Marcie Cunningham (Jeannine Taylor) are the appointed pair of pretty lovers, Ned (Mark Nelson) is a manic nerd jealous of Jack, and Brenda (Laurie Bertram) and Bill (Harry Crosby) make up the numbers. Steve departs for the evening, night falls, and a buffeting rainstorm descends. The night is—well, Snoopy would know how to describe it.

Godard famously remarked that all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun; Friday adapted these slightly as a girl in underwear and a big knife. The anxieties that Friday exploits are so basic that the film nearly works as a pure Jungian experience: night, shadows, isolation, the vulnerability of being unclothed whether having sex or taking a shower. Films that can be easily identified as influencing Friday include Bava’s Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1964) and Ecologia del Delitto (1971), Argento’s L’Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo (1970), Richard Fleischer’s See No Evil (1971), and Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). But the elegant games of cinematic space, construction, and identification that Bava, Argento, Fleischer, and Carpenter learnt from Hitchcock and employed are totally absent from this film’s mercenary, witless proficiency. From Carpenter especially, it steals mercilessly, hamfistedly reproducing his style down to the title; in this first episode, at least, it is supposed to be Friday the 13th, but I don’t think this ever came up again.

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In quick succession, Ned, Jack, Marcie, Brenda, Steve, and Bill are either dispatched or disappear to turn up riddled with holes later. Tom Savini has long been rightfully acclaimed for his gore effects, and his work here is cunning, but not exactly chilling. Effects like the arrow that sprouts from Bacon’s neck and the axe that lodges in Taylor’s face are lividly entertaining, but never actually look like real violence happening to real people, and the weak editing doesn’t help. Back when I first saw these films, late night on TV, they’d been cut senseless, but I’m not really sure why, because the gore, whilst striking, never seems to invoke any reality of corporeal pain and suffering.

About half an hour from the end, Friday remembers to throw in a perpetrator and motivation—Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), who makes an unexpected visit, claiming to be a friend of Jack’s, but who soon starts rambling about her disfigured son Jason, the boy who drowned back when and whose birthday this is. To nobody’s surprise but Alice’s, she is pursuing a psychotic revenge for her son’s death that she blames on horny incompetent counselors and is given to taking on Jason’s voice (which pleads for her to “Kill, mommy!”). Her appearance was only a ruse to draw King out of her besieged readiness. This incredibly somnolent piece of oh-yeah plotting reminds us why screenwriter Victor Miller is still neglected by the Nobel committee. Rather than hide in the vast dark forest or take a boat out onto the lake—you know, places where you’d be hard to find and attack—Alice locks herself in a cupboard with a frying pan.

Director Cunningham had produced Craven’s seminal Last House on the Left, and he brought with him from that film assistant producer Steve Miner. Friday shares with Last House a visual emphasis on the contrast between leafy, pacific surrounds and grim violence, plus a dash of barely coherent social-conservative critique. What it lacks that Last House has is a level of actual thought to what it’s portraying, as well as dramatic structure and depth. It could be argued that the intense moral and intellectual indolence of the series’ hapless teens leads them to become easy knife fodder, and so they’re a general condemnation of the audience that laps them up. But that is, frankly, crap. The element of slasher-film-as-reactionary- statement has in being so oft-reiterated perhaps been over-emphasised. The sexual element of the slasher film feels less intellectual, in the sense of being about a moral caution, than the sheer visceral exploitation of young people’s sexual anxieties. The vulnerability of coitus is especially loaded for people under 20, who worry about being caught by their parents, spied on by friends, catching diseases, getting knocked up, etc. Ironically, the Friday series probably did more for the cause of back row nookie than any other films.

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Technically, the film hangs together. It’s well-shot by Barry Abrams, and aided especially by Harry Manfredi’s score, with its pseudo-Psycho strings and those indelibly creepy sounds that accompany the stalking (ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma, which is actually Palmer’s mantra of “kill, mommy!” edited and remixed, to suggest the underlying motivation). Cunningham builds a modicum of atmosphere as the camp is swallowed by the storm. But it would be Miner, a fairly talented director who made the series an iconic one, through Friday the 13th Part II (1981) and Friday the 13th Part III (1982), by introducing the lethal, supernaturally spurred Jason Voorhees, who, in his hockey mask, was an anonymous embodiment of thuggish violence, a genuine monster whose utter malevolence can only be temporarily contained.

But the plot of all the films is the same, and the tensions that made them mildly, repetitively entertaining in Miner’s more talented hands, are laboriously set up here. The swift, casual brutality of the murders committed on the unsuspecting and exposed, most of whom are too involved in their sex lives or lack of one to notice the danger, makes the final pursuit of the last survivor, always a girl, especially fraught. The mechanical stunt where Alice keeps knocking Pamela down and leaving her for dead, only to be attacked again, is repeated no less than four times. This contrast of the lack of killer instinct in ordinary people compared with the remorseless nature of the villains is, of course, vital to the genre, and also a great device for a lazy director. Alice finally gets bloodthirsty enough to cleave off Pamela’s head with a machete, in a palpable climax insufficient to make up for the lousiness of the preceding 90 minutes.

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Cunningham here throws in another stunt that would become a tiresome hallmark—the exasperatingly fuzzy conclusion that leaves us wondering whether what we saw is a traumatic dream or real event. Specifically, King, who gets the idea to take a canoe out into the lake after killing Mrs. Voorhees, awakens in the morning when the local deputy arrives, but then seems to be attacked by the drowned, part-rotted remains of young Jason, only to awaken in hospital, raving about the boy in the lake. The very last shot is of Crystal Lake, its surface pocked by small ripples, and the audience sensing its placidity is charged with menace. Well, mild nausea, at any rate. By pure coincidence, when I watched this, it was followed on cable TV by House of Wax—the one with Vincent Price, not Paris Hilton—which, with its perfervid colours, energetic acting, strong script, classical references, and overall sense of gothic fun, was like stumbling into the daylight after slogging around in the dark.

Grade
Famous%20Firsts%20Unpromising.GIFUnpromising


19th 06 - 2008 | 7 comments »

Famous Firsts

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

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By Roderick Heath

I’ve always enjoyed tracking down embryonic work by future notables. Even more, I like seeing a work that suggests a future great, and watching their growth – the electric sensation of history being made that came when watching, say, Reservoir Dogs or Hard Eight, or even seeing the birth of greatness from a far earlier era.

So I’m going to make as broad a survey as I can of the unofficial genre known as the debut film. I’m not talking here about those stupid clip shows where they dig up footage of a now-famous actor when they were a teenager with a bad hairdo getting being iced by a serial killer in an obscure slasher film. I’ve employed a highly scientific method that involves DVDs, coffee, and a bagful of mixed nuts.

There’s a cliché constantly employed when describing the debut of note, whether it’s of the future great director, star actor, or accomplished writer. It’s the word “promising,” indicating that, amongst the dross of amateurism contained in a debut, there are flashes of real skill and art that might some day flourish into worthiness.

It’s not such a helpful phrase. Quite apart from the fact that it is as belittling as it is congratulatory, it can be misleading. Often, especially in the perverse geometry of modern cinema, the promising debut is, in fact, the best work. How many times have you said to yourself or your friends something like, “I liked the early stuff, but since then he/she’s gone off the rails.” All sorts of reasons for that. Have too much money thrown at you, too much adulation, and that energy, discipline, and circumstance-enforced invention all go out the window. Then there’s another endemic problem, which is the overrated debut for which some tyro wins Oscars and legions of fans with a promising film that just isn’t that great.

Most typically, the eye-catching debut is uneven, perhaps even generally lousy, but contains flashes of imagination, invention, vividness. Key themes and stylistic tendencies are present, but in embryonic, naïf form, that will develop in the more considered later work.

Then there’s the highly unpromising debut, the piece of crap that teaches you more by how you screw up than by what you get right, that lousy slasher film that taught the future star never to take a part that means dying from a power tool to the head in the third reel. Sometimes an ill-fated debut creates survivors. Witness Jessica Lange’s recovery from her worldwide humiliation in King Kong (1976), or good directors recover from work like Piranha 2: The Spawning (James Cameron, 1981).

Then there’s the exact opposite—the earth-shaking arrival, the awe-inspiring declaration of ability that seems to have nowhere to go but down. Welles with Citizen Kane. Huston with The Maltese Falcon. Brando in The Men. Godard with Breathless. Lynch’s Eraserhead. Reservoir Dogs. Nightmare on Mills Street (What, you’ve never seen that? The absolute greatest horror film ever made with a camcorder and featuring my mother as a homicidal maniac).

For these films, then, I’ll be applying a broad and not-at-all rigorously planned grading system:

Unpromising, Promising, and Tectonic.

*Lead image is Strongman Sandow, the first film ever made (1896).


13th 05 - 2007 | 3 comments »

Famous Firsts: The Men (1950)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Debut of: Marlon Brando, actor

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was a landmark Hollywood film. It marked the first time a widely popular film explored the realities of World War II combat veterans returning to life at home. Following three men from different backgrounds, the most touching was the story of young sweethearts Homer and Wilma. Homer, played by real armless veteran Harold Russell, must help Wilma (the always sweetly effective Cathy O’Donnell) understand how deformed his body is and how helpless he can be without his artificial arms. Wilma takes each revelation like a trouper, and we foresee a happy future for them because of their steadfast love and devotion. The film deservedly won seven Oscars, including the Best Picture Oscar.

The Men takes up a story similar to Homer and Wilma’s at an earlier point. Marlon Brando plays Ken “Bud” Wilcheck, an officer who becomes a paraplegic when he is shot in the spine. We see him prostrate on the ground, bullets whizzing around him but missing, and an interior monologue in which he relates that he can’t feel his legs. When next we see Bud, he is in a private room in a military hospital, feeling depressed and refusing to see his fiancée Ellen (Teresa Wright). He is in the care of Dr. Brock (Everett Sloane) who decides that he needs to get motivated to work toward discharge. Brock gives orders to move Bud into the general ward.

We’ve already been introduced to some of the denizens of the spinal injury ward. Wisecracking gambler Leo (Richard Erdman) spends much of his time on the phone with his bookie, placing bets on the horses and smoking cigars. Angel (Arthur Hurado) works out constantly so that he can return home and help support his mother and siblings. He’s got a build like a boxer and a heart like a champion. Rounding out the trio is Norm (Jack Webb), a college graduate with a mordant sense of humor and a bleak outlook on all of their prospects for attracting a wife and living normally in society at large.

When Bud arrives on the ward, he’s mainly interested in being left alone. Leo instantly starts in on him, turning his radio up to an ear-splitting level. Angel tries to call Leo off and encourage Bud. Norm simply cracks wise and wicked. This initiation seems to cut through Bud’s isolation, and he starts to consider his options.

At the same time, Ellen persists and finally succeeds in getting in to see Bud. He tries to send her away, but she insists that she still wants to marry him. With a goal of marriage and home in front of him, Bud starts to train alongside Angel with consistency and determination.

The%20Men%202%20edit.JPGThe Men was filmed at the Birmingham Paraplegic Hospital in Van Nuys, California, and includes real patients and caregivers. The film doesn’t shy away from some of the physical realities of paraplegia, such as incontinence, impotence, pain, and death. So, too, does it deal with the outside world in a fairly believable way—staring patrons at a restaurant to which Bud and Ellen go, the lack of ramps for Bud’s wheelchair, Ellen’s terror when she realizes that marriage to Bud will mean a lifetime of compromise and accommodation. The Men performs a public service by openly depicting the world of the injured veteran. Unfortunately, the subjects are discussed in a fairly antiseptic way by the mainly B-list cast, and the entire film has the air of noble blandness that you might expect from a Department of Defense educational film.

Only Marlon Brando, in his first screen appearance, makes this film a felt experience that’s worth your time. Everything Bud goes through is written on Brando’s face, from the first realization in the opening sequence that he can’t feel his legs, to the contained happiness that he might be regaining some feeling in his legs, to the conflicted anguish as he tries to go against his feelings and send Ellen away.

His legendary ability to build emotion internally to a well-timed crescendo is visible in virtually every frame. Compare Brando’s anger in the TV room where he rebuffs his fellow patients who ask him why he isn’t with Ellen on their wedding night and finally smashes the windows with a crutch, with Dr. Brock’s explosion at his patients who feel he has let them down. Sloane’s looks like a drama school exercise of his “big moment,” whereas Brando’s tears your heart out. It is no wonder his first screen outing was a starring role, and his next film, A Streetcar Named Desire, a reprisal of his Broadway triumph, made him into an international star.

In a recently premiered documentary, Brando, produced by Turner Classic Movies, many of today’s stars, including Al Pacino and Jon Voight, commented on how Brando completely changed their lives and determined the trajectory of their careers. It’s exciting to be able to see this force of nature emerge, fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, to change movies forever.

Grade
Famous%20Firsts%20Tectonic.GIFTectonic


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