Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Big Sleep (1946)

Here is a film I have been looking forward to for a long time. Even before I started taking an interest in older films I heard about this one, that it should be exceptionally good and current enough to be aired from time to time on the local channels. I never saw it though and now it feels like I have been saving it for this very moment.

It is everything I hoped it would be and more. I will immediately bump it up into my top 5 of movies until 1946 and a strong contender to the title as the most entertaining film on the list so far.

The plot of “The Big Sleep” is almost impossible to explain. There is so much going on and nothing is ever entirely clear. There are people with secrets, lifting a corner to the truth, but hiding more with lies and evasions. Here we are not just talking the villains, but practically everyone. Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is the private detective, formerly of the DA’s office, but booted for insubordination (of course), who is taking on a job for General (great name!) Sternwood (Charles Waldron), retired. One of his two daughters is being blackmailed and the general want this scumbag to, you know, disappear.

Those two daughters are no ordinary girls. First of all they are unbelievably hot. Carmen (Martha Vickers) plays the little girl with a Lolita pout and sucks on her thumb while she hits on everything male. She exudes sex, but also something far more troubling. Something is not right with her. She is a junkie and deeply involved with the criminal underworld, who are milking her, hence the blackmail.

The older girl, Vivian, is even hotter. This is of course Lauren Bacall and so I do not even have to explain her charm. She is far more worldly and mature than her younger sister but not less involved with the underworld. Her air of mystique never lifts and even at the end we still do not know her secrets.

Marlowe may be able to keep Carmen at an arm’s length, but he is drawn toward Vivian. Hey, who would not be, and their mating dance is a significant part of the film and a reason for its greatness.

But Marlowe is first of all a detective, the kind who never gives up, work on a hunch and with an uncanny ability to stick his hand into the hornet’s nest where it hurts the most. He is also incredibly witty with a choice comment always ready. Dry, but spot on. Especially with the girls. I was genuinely amused by him and often laughing out loud such as in the bookstore where a simple research job turns into serious flirtation as the librarian in two strides change from dry bookseller to a randy maid in heat. The wittiness of the script is another reason for its greatness.

I still do not entirely understand the crime plot. There are so many characters involved and many of them turn up dead before we really find out who they are. Marlowe is always two steps ahead of us as he juggles through the investigation, but he is still two steps behind his opposition as they derail or obstruct him or simply try to kill him. He does not understand himself what is going on but he is struggling to understand and that is fascinating to watch.

Then there is the style of “The Big Sleep”. From the above I would not blame you if had concluded that this must be a comedy. It is hilariously funny in places, but it is not a comedy. It is dark, dark noir. The settings are gloomy. Almost all scenes take place at night with plenty of shadows. It is beautiful in all its shabbiness. Iconic even. Combine that with the fact that practically everybody are involved with something if not outright illegal then at least in the grey zone. This is the iconic underworld of gambling, pornography, drugs and violence. Contrary to most other film noir there is no flashback narration. I am kind of relieved as that particular element was starting to get a bit old on me and it proves that that is not an essential element. In fact, without the constant explanation the going-ons get even more mysterious and opaque and adds to the feeling of being lost in a sea of dark secrets. Essentially this is the main difference between the theatrical version and directors cut of Bladerunner and is why the director’s cut is superior. Talking of Bladerunner, that one is basically a futuristic remake of the Big Sleep. Stylistically they could be twins.

So, who is the better Philip Marlow: Dick Powell or Humphrey Bogart? I started out thinking that Powell must be superior or at least funnier than Bogart. Indeed in the beginning Bogart seems more wooden and dry, lacking Powell’s sparkle in the eye, but as the movie progressed I warmed up to Bogart’s version. Yes, some of the puns are a bit forced, but there is a sincerity to Bogart’s Marlowe that is very likable, almost as if the Powell version has finally grown up, become more cynical, but also more serious. Marlowe works more in parallel with the police than against them, he knows when it is time to pull out and he respects human life, not because it is the right thing to do, but because he genuinely cares. The winning card however is to see him together with Lauren Bacall. I understand why this match caused such excitement in the forties. This is chemistry defined. They bring out the best in each other and those scenes, excellent banter aside, are gems. They are also randy as hell. I can get my pulse up watching and listening to them.

And Lauren Bacall, she is my favorite leading actress of the forties. So many others I have watched and thought, yeah, worked in the forties, but too shallow, or stuck in their time. But not Bacall. She works. Not just because she is stunning to look at, but she can express the entire range, joy, lust, darkness, grief, mystique, anger and you believe it. I cannot imagine a better actress for a film noir. The closest thing would be Joan Crawford, but Bacall does it better for me.

There can be no doubt I will watch this one again. The question is how long I can wait. There is much to enjoy here and so much left to find out.      

Sunday, 23 February 2014

La Belle et la Bete (1946)

Skønheden og Udyret
The fairytale/fantasy genre is not that well represented on the List. Probably because it is not considered highbrow enough and frankly much of it does rate as pulp. On the other hand almost all cinema has a level fiction to it, even documentaries cannot entirely escape this. It is merely a matter of volume. Fairytales and fantasy stories set the fiction volume very high, usually by introducing a number of fantastic elements and up to this point (1946) I can only think of a handful of films on the list that fit this category, “The Thief of Bagdad” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” spring to mind plus the animated films included on the list.

As a viewer we know that different rules apply for this type of films. The fantastic element will usually defy science and common sense to an extent that most people will shrug and shake their head if these elements were suggested in reality, but a modern audience is quite used to people who can fly, read minds or make things disappear as long as it happens in film. Even aliens, vampires or monsters in general are fully acceptable in a film context. Modern stories and movies in the fantasy genre are acceptable to the viewer because except for the fantastical element they will as a rule comply with all other rules. They are standard stories with a twist.

Fairy tales however are not standard stories. Well, in a sense being part of an oral tradition they are usually older than most stories, but what I mean is that they do not have to comply with any rules and can therefore be more difficult to watch. Most notably they do not need to adhere to any inner logic. Cause and effect is often suspended and we do not have to accept the story as any kind of reality, even in some weird parallel world. Instead the fairytale is a fable that is supposed to tell us a moral lesson. For a modern viewer used to fantasy fairytales can be quite a mouthful.

The reason for this lengthy introduction is that this is exactly what “La Belle et la Bête” is.

“La Belle et la Bête” is a story probably more known in its Disney incarnation as “The Beauty and the Beast”. Shockingly as it may seem I actually never saw that version in its entirety, but the story itself is a classic, authentic fairy tale. A man (Marcel André) is captured by a princely beast (Jean Marais) in the forest for picking a rose. He is released on the condition that he submits a daughter to this beast. The girl, Belle or Beauty (Josette Day), then becomes a prisoner of the Beast. The Beast is however a magical creature. He needs a girl to love him to transform from beast to prince and so he does all in his power to charm the girl.

Beneath this fantastic framework it is a story about seeing through appearance to what lies beneath, about greed, whether for fame, love or earthly wealth and about integrity and probably a few motives that I did not catch. It is like any fairytale essentially a moral lesson.

Having established the framework of this film it may come as no surprise that there is a surreal quality to this production. Jean Cocteau had a background in the surrealist milieu of France in the thirties and the parts I have seen of earlier works have that same quality. Here in “La Belle et la Bête” he has a perfect excuse to perfect this style. Most notably in the castle of the beast. Here he combines normal, recognizable images of walls, rooms, woods with surreal, magical images of torches held by living human arms protruding from the wall and statues with living facing whose eyes disturbingly follow the character passing by. The castle is clearly haunted, there is a sadness to it, mildly frightening, but most of all there is a dreamy quality that makes you feel that you have stepped into the subconscious. When Belle maneuvers in this castle she does so as if sleepwalking, not so much frightened as fascinated. There is of course a deeper motive for that, though at the moment it eludes me. Is Belle on some sort of inner journey? There is a direct line from “La Belle et la Bête” to Guillermo del Toro’s “Pans Labyrinth” (“El laberinto del fauno”).

At the center of the dream castle is the beast itself. He is in his own right a triumph for the costume and make-up department. Forget about the Wolfman and Frankenstein. The Beast is convincing and menacing. You can almost hear him growl.  He looks like a science experiment gone wrong, mixing human, wolf and bear. This achievement is however dented when he speaks. It may just me, but I cannot help smiling when he exclaims “Alors…” en emphatic French.

All characters in “La Belle et la Bête” are one-dimensional caricatures. The mean sisters are ultra vain, ultra shallow and ultra petty. The brother is conniving and his friend Avenant is very impressed with himself and his heroism. He proclaims his love for Belle, but he cares not for Belle, only himself. He wants the wealth of the Beast the easy way, since he does not care to actually earn it and he wants glory for himself. Curiously both the Beast and Avenant are played by Jean Marais.

And Belle herself, she is the good girl, the Cinderella, forced to be under foot by her sisters and the one who sacrifices herself for her father. You might then think that this epitome of goodness will immediately take a liking to the Beast and thus break the spell, but not so. No way she will love him. Instead she loves the bozo Avenant. But she can feel pity for the Beast and that is almost worse. Then again isolating a girl with nothing to do but dressing up in finery may also woe the wrong type of girl for the Beast. I am not sure he really wants a girl he can buy with diamonds.

I do not really mind that characters are flat and that there is a certain lack of logic to the story. That goes with the territory when it comes to fairy tales. Yet the ending baffles me (WARNING OF SPOILER). Belle’s sisters, brother and lover are all united in a mission to slay the prince and gain his wealth. I understand their selfish motives and their mission takes up a significant part of the ending. There is suspense here; what will they do to the Beast and will he and Belle be able to stop them and perhaps punish them to their transgressions? Avenant finds the sacred treasure house, force his way in and is shoot by a guardian statue. Immediately the Beast turns into a prince with the face of Avenant while Avenant turns into a beast.

Okay, Avenant is the real beast and is revealed as such, I get that, but still it is a bit of a fizzle. What of the brother and the sisters? What of the Beast’s own transformation, is that because of Belle’s love/tears? Or is it triggered by Avenant’s transformation? In the case of the latter maybe the role as a beast is simply something that takes turns as the coachman in “Körkarlen” and it puts a question mark on the Beast himself. What did he do to become a beast if it serves as punishment for bad transgressions?

These are some of the causalities that the film breaks with the excuse of being a fairy tale. I am not so used to this sort of violations so I am looking for an explanation and hope there is one.

And Belle, does she love the new prince? Well, it seems so, but is it because he now has the face of Avenant and if so what does it say about her?  According to the Book Greta Garbo famously exclaimed that she wanted back the beast. I tend to agree. He was my favorite part too and I preferred him to the prince.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Stranger (1946)

Den Fremmede
I have come to expect great things from Orson Welles. “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons” set a high standard and measured by them most films fall short. That is a bit unfair towards “The Stranger”. It is an okay film, but nowhere close to “Citizen Kane” and so I cannot help being a tiny bit disappointed.

“The Stranger” employs a theme, which has become very frequent in American film over the years; the enemy within theme. Whether it is aliens from outer space, vampires, commies or psychopathic killers they are lurking, hiding in plain daylight, disguised as they are as you and me. I do not know why particularly American films favor this theme. As far as I know America has not been particularly infested by these miscreants. They tend to prefer South America, as far as I know, but there is no doubt that there is a dramatic edge to that theme.

“The Stranger” then combines this theme with the theme du jour of the postwar years; the hunt for Nazi criminals. I think everybody was quite shocked by the horrors that were uncovered at the close of the war, not least in America where civilians had lived their life at a safe distance from the fighting. People in occupied Europe certainly had an inkling of what was going on, enough that it was a priority not to be caught by the Germans, but even the Germans themselves claimed surprise when the concentration and extermination camps were opened. Just a few years earlier nobody spoke of Jews, gays and Gypsies, but suddenly people found out why they had been fighting the war. The rage against the Germans and the Nazis in particular mounted and “The Stranger” was such an outlet. A Nazi became the monster du jour, the worst imaginable creature and one for which there was no excuses. A few years later Commies would take that place, but in 46 the Nazi was bad guy number one.

So, there is a Nazi going around among us. He looks and acts like us, but he is very very dangerous.

Pitted against this devil in disguise we have our hero, the Nazi hunter, our own van Helsing, going by the civil name Wilson and played by the always good Edward G. Robinson. Here is a guy whom I am getting more and more respect for. His character may not be as interesting as in “Double Indemnity”, but he does the sly but subdued investigator very well. There is a Colombo element to his character that fit this normally gruff and boisterous character.

Unfortunately he is dealt a difficult hand. There is not much of a mystery here. From the moment we see Charles Rankin we know he is our bad guy and it takes Wilson only a single, but very obvious clue to see the obvious. From then on he is just looking for proof and in the process gambling with the life of Rankin’s young and newly wedded wife Mary Longstreet Rankin, played by the beautiful Loretta Young.

Rankin is such a giveaway. Of course we see him found and identified by the confirmed Nazi Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), but even without that information this guy has “bad guy” written all over his piggy face. I found myself wondering why Welles had chosen so obvious an actor for the role until I realized that Rankin IS Orson Welles. This master of disguise had deliberately made himself into a pigfaced brooding asshole.

With the mystery element out of the picture the remaining question is how much damage he will do until he is caught, especially to his lovely wife. To keep the birds of prey at a distance Rankin invents stories for her to explain what is going on and she is largely buying it. It is a bit of a stretch though. I feel that killing the dog should in her eyes have been quite unacceptable, but somehow he gets away with it.

On the up-side this film has some excellent atmosphere. The filming is interesting with Welles famous skill for lights and shadow and curious angles. Also the setting in the little town where everything is all so happy-happy is an interesting contrast to the hideous crimes this man represents. The shopkeeper/man-of-all-trades is a laugh, especially when he put on that silly hat to play checkers and of course we get Edward G. Robinson.

On the downside I have recently seen two films where it was done better. Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a doubt” takes that enemy-within theme to a pinnacle, which is difficult to match. The parallel is obvious, but uncle Charlie is so much better at keeping the illusion going and as a sinister character he beats the hell out of Rankin’s nervous wreck.

The other film is Gaslight, where Paula is being driven insane by her wicked husband to neutralize his crimes. I am not sure if Rankin manipulates Mary in order to keep her or to use her as a shield against the charges against him, but he certainly manages to drive her frantic. For all her skill however Loretta Young cannot match Ingrid Bergman and that I think is mainly a script problem. She has to believe his crazy stories and ignore her family even when it seems a stretch.

I really wanted to like this one, it sounded so promising, but it was just okay. Okay is fine for entertainment, but it does not make it memorable.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

My Darling Clementine (1946)

My Darling Clementine
Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the Clantons and the showdown at the OK corral. I hardly need to say anymore. This is one of the most famous legends of the old West and it has been used as source material so often that I have to stifle an involuntarily yawn.

To take on this story is almost a rite of passage for directors dabbling in the western genre. There were at least two attempts before this 1946 rendition and there has been countless since.  Yet, without being an expert on the subject, I get the feeling that John Ford’s version is one of the better ones. I do not think anyone would claim this is the true story of what happened back then in Tombstone, but it is certainly an entertaining story and one told with a skill so I actually do not care if these characters actually existed.

I have come to associate John Ford films with Henry Fonda. He certainly seems to be a recurrent feature ever since “The Grapes of Wrath”. In “My Darling Clementine” he is Wyatt Earp himself. He and his brothers are driving cattle to the west (making him a cowboy, I suppose) when they decide to make a prolonged stay in the hamlet of Tombstone. See, somebody rustled their cattle and killed one of the brothers so Wyatt jumps at the open position to become marshal in the village as a platform for finding the culprits. Wyatt has some previous experience in marshalling so he is pretty good at it.

Tombstone is not your average village. I flatly refuse to call it a town as the images only seem to reveal about a handful of buildings.  Yet it has saloon, hotel, jail and a barbershop plus a surprising amount of people. When Wyatt arrives the place is practically lawless and the “underworld” seems to be headed by the famous Doc Holliday (Victor Mature). He is what you might call a gentleman bandit and has been keeping his own justice in town, mainly through respect of his shooting skills. Clearly I was wrong; Tombstone IS your stereotypical western village of sound, sight and smell.

I actually do not mind. It is fun to see a movie that takes the western myth serious and elevates the cliché to actual characters and places. The cacti are very decorative and I can almost smell the horse dung in the street. Sergio Leone definitely saw this movie, but then you get the feeling he saw them all.

Wyatt and Doc are crossing swords a bit, make a truce, and actually become sort of friends. The good cop and the good bandit. That is, until Doc’s old girlfriend from back east Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs ) shows up. Then things get a bit complicated. Doc was clearly running from something back east and Clementine is part of that. We never find out exactly what it is, but it is still haunting him. Wyatt however takes a liking to the girl and his efforts to woe her is part of the comic relief in this film. That is meant in the best sense. In this otherwise grim story Ford has generously dribbled subtle humoristic gems. Understated, but funnier for it.

This takes us to Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), the sassy tavern girl who considers herself Doc’s girl, although she is more of a free item, really. She represents the Wild West as opposed to Clementine of the East. Both wants Doc, but he wants neither and Chihuahua fights Clementine all the way. I am not sure Ford intended it that way, but it is difficult not to see this as the symbolic taming of the frontier. The free, rebellious West resisting the influx of the conformity of the East. In the end it must die and so does Chihuahua. Though not by the hand of Clementine, but by the West itself, the real bad guys: The Clantons.

After all these themes have been established it is time for the final show down. We knew it all along; the Clantons took the cattle and killed James Earp. It is no secret. Every time any of the Clantons appear their guilt and evil intent are painted all over them. We are just waiting for Wyatt to find out too. And once he does it is time for the shoot-out at the OK corral.

This is really not a film to see for the story. It is rather predictable even if we did not know the story by heart. But there are plenty other reasons to see it. Henry Fonda is one good reason. The sheer entertainment value, which is considerable, is another. But the main reason is the loving portrait Ford is painting of the taming of the West.

Ford is using stereotypes so they hardly seem stereotypical. There is dust and horses, real men and beautiful women (who never get dirty), good and bad and awfully little in between and honesty between men (unless we are talking card games). It is a love poem from somebody who probably would have loved to be there and because his love is so unabashed we get to love it too. That is no small achievement.

I had an odd thought: are there not more than a few parallels between “My Darling Clementine” and “Back to the Future III”?      

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Postbudet Ringer Altid To Gange
“The Postman Always Rings Twice” from 1946 is probably the most famous movie based on James M. Cain’s novel of the same name. It is a decent film, but will in my book necessarily be compared to the other movie based on this book from the 40’ies: The Italian “Ossessione”.

Where most people probably knew “The Postman…” long before they saw (if at all) “Ossessione” it is opposite with me. “The Postman…” will therefore necessarily be measured against that standard.

The first and maybe most notable difference is the style. “The Postman Always Rings Twice” is made in classic film noir style. It has that dark foreboding feeling, the inevitable tragedy as well as the alluring femme fatale and the narration in flashback. It reminds me in many ways about “Double Indemnity”, which incidentally is another James M. Cain novel. The major difference is that the two leads in “The Postman…” are not cold, cynical experts at the top of their game, but emotional amateurs who manage to botch it up pretty well. I am a big fan of film noir and while this one is not bad it just not half as impressive as the pre-neorealism of “Ossessione”.

Where the cast of “Ossesione” feels like real people “The Postman…” look staged. There is a certain theater element, which is typical of Hollywood of that age and usually fine with me, but which “Ossessione” has thrown altogether. It is unfair, I know, but when every scene for the first hour of “The Postman” has an Italian parallel it is difficult not to compare.

In “The Postman Always Rings Twice” the drifter arriving at the gas station is Frank Chambers (John Garfield). A dude with some rough edges, but overall more likeable than Gino. This is mainly because of his apologetic innocence. We are led to know that he is essentially a good guy. What he does, he does for love. In a pinch he will do the right thing, whatever “right” means. Unfortunately that also means that he is almost entirely lacking the feral masculinity and magnetism of Gino. Where we believe Giovanna is swept off her feet by Gino, I get the impression that Cora is exploiting Frank the boy.

Cora (Lana Turner) may have been a hottie back in 46, but to me she looks all plastic. She has the allure of a Barbie doll, which compared to Giovanna’s sensuality is rather shallow. She is the petulant child who got stuck on a gas station with her old fart of a husband and is now looking for a new plaything. Both women want to get away, to be more than they are stuck as they are in their lives and both use the drifter as leverage. Here again I am being terribly unfair. Visconti did not have to struggle with the production codes and could do things on film that an American director in the forties could only dream of. Visconti could show sexual tension, where Tay Garnett, the director of “The Postman…” would have to rely on a colder and more subtle passion. That is done with some vamp looks from Cora and lopsided smiles from Frank and by declaring their love again and again. Unfortunately I do not really believe them. They are having so many doubts and throw so many accusations at each other, especially in the second hour that the entire film could have been resolved by one person walking out on the other. There are no children between them (until the end) and the bonds that bind them are tenuous at best. I am simply missing a good reason for these people to stay together.

The third violin, Cora’s older husband, the proprietor of the gas station is almost a clone in the two movies. A friendly older man without a clue what is going on between his wife and the hired hand. Both men even have an affinity for music. A difference however is how our impression of him changes through the film. Giuseppe starts out loud and boisterous, but reveals a sympathetic side as the movie progresses. Nick (Cecil Kellaway) on the other hand starts out as the friendly and innocent old man, but reveals a total disregard for the feelings of people around him, which makes him appear cruel. The result is that while in “Ossessione” we realize what a horrible thing it was to kill Giuseppe, “The Postman…” almost makes us feel that Nick had it coming. As a consequence Giovanna and Gino’s fate feels like God’s wrath, while Cora’s and Frank’s merely feels like the punishment for botching up the whole thing.

Where the two films are entirely parallel for the first hour they then depart in a big way. “The Postman…” develops into a courtroom drama that can only be described as a farce. Now, I am not a fan of courtroom dramas. In fact I tend to avoid them. But this one actually appealed to me in its absurdity. What looks like a clear case of conviction, punishment and end turns out to be a sporting event between two lawyers too smart for their own good and the entire court cased flies by while we along with Cora and Frank are looking from the sideline with a gaping mouth and incomprehension in the eyes. What on Earth just happened?

From this point we get to see how unstable Cora is and how innocently naïve Frank, despite his tough demeanor, is. Cora responds to every event with wild flamboyant excesses of emotion and is busy digging their own grave. Frank is just standing there trying to make sense of it. Yes, there is also an insurance claim, but here the two films differ again. The insurance money was the real objective for Giovanna. She coldly manipulated everybody, particularly Gino, to get those money. Cora was not even aware of the claim. People around her think the money was her motive, while really she was just trying to avoid ending up nursing a paralyzed old woman in Northern Canada (which incidentally is very funny. That was a laugh when Nick declared his plan for her).

Finally in the end the storylines are meeting again. Giovanna and Cora are pregnant and both couples have finally made up when the postman rings the second time. I do not know how many times I have wondered at drivers in movies who are able to look at their fellow passenger for extended periods without any consequence to their driving. I have kept telling myself that this will end badly but it never does. Hollywood drivers do not really have to look at the road to drive a car and they can certainly kiss and drive. So it seems almost an intertextuality when it is exactly in such a situation that fates hit Cora and Frank. To me it just underlines the impression that Giovanna and Gino may have been hit by the wrath of God, but Cora and Frank managed to botch it up pretty well themselves.

This is not a bad film. Ultimately I just liked “Ossessione” better.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Paisan (Paisa) (1946)

It was with some difficulty I watched Rossellini’s “Paisa”. The DVD I had found was Italian and so were the only subtitles on the DVD. I did find an English subtitle file, but it worked horrendously poorly. If it at all showed any English titles it was for a different part of the film. Now, the film features Americans speaking English, Germans speaking German and a whole bunch of Italians speaking Italian. I understand English and German but not Italian so I basically had a very parallel experience to the Americans (and Germans) in the film who also have no clue what the Italians are up to. Later I read up on the film to find out what actually happened and of course I had misunderstood a whole bunch of plot elements, but the core of it, its fundamental message got through to me no problem.

“Paisa” is not a typical film. It is episodic with six separate stories. There are no recurrent characters and the six stories have very little in common except that they take place during the Italian campaign in WWII. As such the closest comparison I can think of is Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth”. Or maybe “Decalogue”.  

Each of the stories has a theme or a drama that touches upon central themes of war. Not war as a tactical war, but war as experienced by people. Rossellini continued his style from “Roma Citta Aperta”, the neorealist style, which translates to make the film look and feel authentic. You get the probably correct feeling that many of the actors are just the locals that happen to be there and the sets are actual locations. The acting of course suffers for the extensive use of amateurs, but the reward in authenticity is considerable. You have no doubt that all these stories are plausible and for that they work so much stronger.

The first story takes place in Sicily during the landing of American troops. The theme is misunderstanding. The locals in the church vs. the American soldiers. The soldier Joe and the Italian girl Carmela. The German soldiers and Carmela. Then to top it off the American soldiers mistake the dead body of Joe for an Italian. While not the strongest episode, it did feel very real as I was so much party to the incomprehension.

The second episode is in Naples. A discontent soldier is on a bender and befriends a little Italian boy who seems to take care of him, only to mug him when he falls asleep. The soldier turns out to be an MP who is mighty pissed at being mugged. He eventually finds the boy, but also learns of the poverty that is reality for many of the civilians. He is shaken by the experience and flees without his boots. This one made an impact on me because of the heartbreak at seeing children grow up under such conditions. As much as the soldier might not hark from a fancy background this is far beyond his previous experience and he therefore represents us there among the poor of Naples. Poor boys.

Third episode is in Rome. Again there is misunderstanding, but here the theme is harsh realities. A soldier on a bender (again) is picked up by a prostitute. He is not interested in her but relates the story of his true love, an Italian girl he met when he first came to Rome. He never found her again and is clearly in a bad state because of it. When he sobers up he leaves town not knowing that the prostitute actually was the girl he loved. The girl he loved was a happy innocent beauty, not the hardened and hardly innocent prostitute and he never recognized her.

For the fourth episode in Florence I actually had subtitles. Half a minute offset, but I got the essence of what was going on. An American-Italian nurse and a local man cross from the Allied south side of the Arno river to the German occupied north side to find a rebel leader and the man’s family. Their expedition is quite an adventure, but ultimately in vain. The interesting part here for me is not so much their story but the scenery. I have been to Florence a few times and I recognize several of the places even before they mention them. The park of Palazzo Pitti, the Uffizi and the cathedral. Only they never looked like this. There is something very unsettling about seeing familiar places ravaged by war.

Then for the fifth episode I lost subtitles again and I was back at guessing. Three chaplains arrive at a Tuscan monastery and, it would seem, want to set up camp. The monks are very accommodating and certainly appreciate all the food and chocolate the American churchmen are bringing. But then the shocking truth is revealed: Only one of the three is catholic. The other two are protestant and jewish. Oh, dear me. This sends the monks into turmoil. What exactly happened then was unclear to me, but it left the Americans dumbstruck. According to the source I read the monks had decided to fast until the two infidels had been converted. This story struck me as somewhat bizarre. In this tough period, full of horrors as evident in the other episodes, these monks receive their rescuers with ingratitude because they belong to different religions. Oh dear, how narrow can you be.

The last episode is straight forward and tough. A bunch of partisans are hiding out in the Po delta together with some OSS operatives. They are behind enemy lines and it is dangerous. Suddenly the Germans are upon them, they are captured and summarily killed. That is simple enough. If you play war you risk dying. The one scene though that touched me and made me cry was when the partisans returned to the lone house where they had found shelter and now found the family dead, shot by the Germans, except for a toddler who was frantically crying for its parents. That was the single strongest scene in the film and I was crying. Horrible. I want to help that child. The partisan may be playing at war, but this child and its family had no part in that, yet had to suffer its consequences.

I do not know if I liked “Paisa”. It was hard to follow for me and strangely disjointed. As a film it hardly followed any conventions, but I will remember the individual scenes, although I may want to forget them. This is more heavy handed than “Roma, Citta Aperta”, the message is driven in hard, but the authenticity also makes it seen necessary. I can imagine this film would have a special status in Italy.