Thursday, 28 July 2016

Gigi (1958)

You know how it is when the description of a movie makes you groan and you just know watching it is going to be utter misery. That utter lack of enthusiasm that makes you wonder why you do this to yourself.

“Gigi” was such a movie for me. Up front everything screamed misery and I could not wait to get this one behind me. With such dismal anticipation I could only be positively surprised. And I was. Almost.

“Gigi” is not that intolerable, though it does manage to hit a lot of horror buttons for me, but there are redeeming elements enough that I managed to get through this without too much pain.

Button number one is the setting itself. A musical set in a fin de siècle Paris that only exists in the head on a 1950’ies Hollywood set designers imagination (and presumably in the heads of any number of teenage girls) with big, useless gowns, idle rich and gallantry in droves. Nobody works except for servants and all anybody thinks of is how to pass the time and how they look to the public. That is just such a strange world, like a permanent vacation, which I suppose is why Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) is bored sick.

Such a setting is also the ideal environment for some very old school gender politics, which is the second button for me. I am not on some crusade for women’s rights, but one thing is watching women endure the infamy of being a commodity, it is something else to celebrate it as the most desirable state of affairs. The good old days where the best prospect of a woman was to find a rich man, serve him well and maybe even make a career out of it.

This is exactly such a story we are fed here. Gigi (Leslie Caron) is an adolescent girl in Paris being raised by her grandmother Mamita Alvarez (Hermoine Gingold) and great aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans). Both Mamita and Alicia were courtesans in their days and they are grooming Gigi to be a courtesan as well. Gigi is a wonderful girl full of energy and spark, but the two old women are busy stamping that out to replace it with mannerism, gossip, useless skills and servitude to men. Man, I could kick their butts!

Meanwhile Gaston Lachaille is super rich and super bored. His uncle Honoré (Maurice Chevalier) is having a great time picking up young girls and taking them to Maxim’s and for a time he is trying to entertain Gaston with such pastimes. What Gaston actually prefers is to visit Mamita and play cards with Gigi. His relationship with Gigi is something like a child with a rich uncle and it is kind of sweet. Until the point where Gigi turns into a woman.

Here is another set of issues for me. Gigi is as a young woman being setup as a courtesan for Gaston, but a courtesan is simply a glorified prostitute and instinctively Gigi realizes that. That means we are supposed to realize that as well, but still think it is kind of sweet, which it is definitely not. Okay, Gigi and Gaston resolves this little problem by getting married and everything is happy happy. Ehhrr… is it just me who thinks it is ultra creepy that Gaston is marrying a girl he only weeks before considered a child? Or that Gigi is marrying her “uncle”?

Despite these inherent problems the producers of “Gigi” actually managed to pull it off pretty well. First off there are plenty of real shots from Paris which beats the crap out of a sound stage. Secondly all the principal actors are actually French, which means we do not have to be tortured by fake French accents. These actors are also pretty good at what they are doing. Particularly Maurice Chevalier is perfectly cast as the charming pedophile. The same can be said of Leslie Caron who manages to be both a juvenile and a young lady, but particularly for bring a breath of fresh air into a stale and revolting environment.

The music is good too, not intrusive and serves well to give the movie an air of frivolity. Often the music element of a musical can feel like a stone in the shoe, but here it was mostly painless which may be because of the lack of dancing. Choreography here is really at a minimum.

“Gigi” is not the worst musical around. It is a big and glorious production and at times even funny. But listen to this: “Gigi” won nine, saying and writing nine, Academy awards including Best Picture!

I will just let that stand a moment.


This does not bode well for 1958.

Finally, close your eyes, imagine an old man with a lusty smile going around in a park singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”.

Creepy, no?


Friday, 22 July 2016

Touch of Evil (1958)

Politiets blinde øje
Question: What happens when you combine the style and darkness of a film noir with the brutality and intensity of a modern thriller?

Answer: You get something like “Touch of Evil”.

 “Touch of Evil” is one of those movies I race through because it is engaging on a very elementary level. Danger is looming everywhere and the ambience tells us that it is not a given thing that the good guys will survive in the end. Come to think of it, who exactly is the good guys?

In fact this was such an exciting watch that it was easy to miss the many elements and layers that makes this an even more interesting watch. I am sure it is one of those movies that will benefit greatly from a re-watch.

Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and is wife Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh) are on their honeymoon at the border of Mexico and the US when a car is blown up and two people die. This means that the honeymoon is put pause since Vargas is a something like a police detective and a prosecutor for the Mexican government and this border town has lately been his hunting ground. At least on the Mexican side. Now he finds himself involved in this bombing incident that took place on the US side of the border, but originated on the Mexican side and that means that he gets to meet his opposite number on the US side.

The American law enforcement is headed by the impressive Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). He is big. Physically, in the eyes of his subordinates and not least in his own mind. He is the law. If he says people are guilty then goddammit they are guilty and he will get them. When Vargas challenges this authority Quinlan turns real nasty and soon Vargas and his wife are in a pincher between Quinlan and the local gangster with his henchmen.

I always (at least since I started this project) thought that Orson Welles was a better director than actor, a sort of opposite von Stroheim, but here his acting is magnificent. Not that there is anything wrong with his direction here, but Welles has this pig face that always look as if there is something unsavory about him. As Hank Quinlan that unsavoriness is enhanced into something truly monstrous. A hateful, all-powerful bigot, sweating and fat and menacing. In other words, your perfect villain. And then, just as you would think it could not get worse, Welles adds a humanity to him as well, something that gives us a glimpse of understanding for this man and certainly adds complexity.

Charlton Heston’s Vargas on the other hand is a much more straight forward type. Yes, he is Mexican with an American wife, but we know his type very well. He is the honorable, heroic type who stands up for those who are being wronged, a crusader for justice. We as viewers can relate to him and it is very obvious that we are supposed to. It is only when his wife is being threatened that the knight’s façade cracks up. That unlocks a beast inside him who is not out for justice, but vengeance.

In this way it becomes a real contest of personalities. Not only good versus bad, but one badass guy against the next.

The cinematography is huge asset for this movie. It has all the Welles trademarks of viewing angles and clipping, but it also has an apocalyptic darkness to it. Dirty, sweaty, industrial and indulgent. This is the 1958 version of the “Bladerunner” environment and it completely works. We know Susan Vargas is not safe from the moment the movie starts and when she is dumped off at the motel it is not a question of if but how she will be assaulted. It pretty much freaked me up, so much that I was actually a bit relieved when they only doped her and used her to set up her husband.

Another small but noteworthy detail is how many famous actors had small cameos. There are Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Cotton and Mercedes McCambridge just to mention a few. I think it great when people show up like that, especially when they do not steal the picture, but blend in almost unnoticed. 

I will watch “Touch of Evil” soon again so I can dwell on all the small details, enjoy the music and just soak in the ambience of this movie. It may be Welles best picture since “Citizen Kane”.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Man of the West (1958)

Manden fra vesten
There are a lot of westerns on the List. So many in fact that I have started to get a bit bored by them. Or at least the idea of them. By now a western needs to bring something new to the table or it will get a negative rating from me.

This was what I was thinking watching “Man of the West”. Why is this movie on the List? What does this movie do that I have not seen a million times before? It is okay, well-acted and beautifully shot, but it was only when I watched the bonus material on the DVD, a commentary by scholar Douglas Pye, that I discovered what made this movie special. With that in mind I am okay having this movie on the List, but please, please give me a break with the westerns.

Gary Cooper, the old western legend, is this time a country bumpkin going on what appears to be his voyage of a lifetime, from his homesteader hamlet to Fort Worth to hire a school teacher for the village. His ride is cut short when the train is held up by bandits. The raid fails, but Cooper’s Link Jones, a gambler named Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) and Saloon singer (whatever that implies) Billie Ellis (Julie London) are cut off from the train and have to continue on foot.

Link finds an old shack they can stay in, but when he opens the door it turns out the place is occupied by the very bandits who raided the train. The movie now takes a turn when we find out that this is Link’s old gang, one he left years ago to start a new life with wife and children. The gang is led by Link’s old father figure, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), a man who practically raised Link, and he is mighty pleased that Link is back. The rest of the gang is a brutal and not too smart a bunch and they are less pleased at having Link back. He is challenged at every turn and in an early climax he has to protect Billie from being raped without being killed himself.

Dock wants to bring Link along for the raid of his life, a rich bank in the township of Lassoo, while the rest the gang is poised to kill Link. This balancing is made even odder when it turns out that Lassoo is a ghost town and Dock is raving mad.

While the apparent story here is that Link has to extricate himself from this pinch and hopefully save the girl in the process, a story involving gun smoke, horses and a lot of shouting (and a pair of breast almost falling out of a corsage), there is a far more interesting story beneath.

When Link opens that door to the shack we get a true David Lynch moment. The door is the door to Link’s past and the gang members are all ghosts from back then. What Link is fighting is his past guilt that he has to come to terms with. There is no bank in Lassoo and Dock Tobin is ultimately an impotent ghost, but Link has to fight off all those temptations to fall back into his old pattern if he is to deserve his new life. That somehow includes Billie, who must resemble some woman of his past.

So this is actually a movie about redemption, that at some point you have to face your skeletons in the closet. This is a plotline I have seen before, but dressed as a western this comes about new and refreshing and as all good movies it gives you something to think about. It took that commentary on the DVD to make me realize that this is the true story of the movie and that might explain why “Man of the West” originally panned at the box office. This is not a plotline that would be appreciated or even recognized by the average western fan who is probably almost as dense as I am.

Gary Cooper is surprisingly good as Link Jones. He may appear a bit old and stiff, but as the movie carries on he actually fit his role. He is never supposed to match Billie Ellis, but he probably would in his youth and that is the point. She is a flame of his youth and he is an old man remembering her. Elegant and delicate.

I did not recognize Lee J.Cobb at first. Man, they got him to look old! He usually played some sort of a bastard, but here he is a particularly old and dirty one. That was a man with some talent!

The conclusion is that I liked the movie much better on after thought than while I watched it. It is okay as a straight western, but exquisite as a dive into the subconscious. Oh, and Julie London is quite a dish.


Sunday, 10 July 2016

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Magtens sødme
There is a sub-genre of film where the protagonist(s) are actually the bad guys and we, the audience, follow them to their ultimate fall. It is small sub-genre. You will inevitably come to root or at least care for the protagonist and it is never pleasant to care for a person doing villainous things and certainly not nice to watch a person we root for meet their doom. Somehow this is not a blockbuster recipe and the mighty dollar often ends up deciding that this sort of movies are not worth making.

However there is definitely a fascination to watch crooks do their thing and meet their end and by making them the protagonists we get front seat to their escapades. That is a delicious perversion, but only if you are able to avoid rooting for them too much.

That sound awfully complicated and for me it is a balancing act. I never know exactly if I enjoy or despise this kind of movie and “Sweet Smell of Success” is exactly such a film.

Let me say right away that both Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster are awesome as crooks. Who would have known they had it in them. Curtis I know mostly from comedies such as “Some Like it Hot” and Burt Lancaster is usually cast as the boy-scout knight in white armor like in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”. The transformation into insidious bastards is so complete that I believe these two actors just got reinvented.

Curtis’ Sidney Falco is a man of few moral inhibitions if it can further his success as a press agent. Lying, conniving and conning clients, opponents or friends is the order of the day for him, but his licking ass to the despicable J.J. Hunsecker, who writes the gossip column in the newspaper, leaves such a bad taste that even Falco can taste it. You can say he is a small time crook who has consciousness enough to eventually getting it challenged.

Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker on the other hand is way beyond that. He is downright scary. Hunsecker is a cold fish who has the power to make or break people through his writing and he enjoys wielding this power. He is a manipulator who plays people against each other because he knows he can do it and because he considers himself far superior to mortal men as kings and emperors of old. I am totally in awe that Lancaster could pull this one off. Hunsecker is cold, ruthless power.

J.J. Hunsecker’s only weakness is his sister, Susie (Susan Harrison), a girl of 19 years, whom Hunsecker feels almost incestuously protective about. He does not like her boyfriend, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), and uses Falco as his agent to break them up.  

The essence of the film is that J.J. Hunsecker can get all he wants, he can manipulate everybody, but it will make nobody love him. That is okay, Hunsecker cares for no-one, but “nobody” includes his sister and that is hitting him where it hurts.

Falco is not much better off. His access to power and wealth costs him his last vestiges of self-respect and he learns how fickle and unreliable that power is. And without that power or self-respect there is not much left.

“Sweet Smell of Success” has a lot of noir vibe and a jazz score that combines to paint a perfectly dirty and lurid underbelly of the entertainment industry. It is corrupt through and through with everybody prostituting themselves for power and wealth or simply to get by in a tough world. The sunrise of the ending that lifts this pervasive darkness is very symbolic and I love this cinematography. However the reason to watch this movie remains the outstanding transformation of two of Hollywood’s boy-scouts. It is just mind-blowing.

The story itself I am more so-so about. I never really caught on to it and it is difficult to get really into a movie when you just wish the protagonists into the deepest hell. Disentangle yourself from that though and there is a lot to enjoy here.

The picture that remains in my head is that of Lancaster turning his head towards me and with his stare makes me feel like a very small person.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Paths of Glory (1957)

Ærens vej
These days it is 100 years since the battle at the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of World War I, a war sadly renowned for its bloody battles and waste of human lives. It seems therefore fitting that my next movie is “Paths of Glory”, one of the best WWI movies ever made.

WWI was in many ways an idiotic war. Idiotic in its premise, idiotic in its execution and, not least, idiotic in its military arrogance. For this reason, I believe, all movies about this war must be about one or more of these items of stupidity. “Paths of “Glory” is about the third kind and in all its absurdity probably not far from the truth. It is in fact based on a true story.

In 1916 the Western Front has mired down into trench warfare, where heavily fortified positions remains largely immobile and the current mode of attack, foot soldiers storming across a death zone of barbed wire and machinegun fire, is completely ineffective and costly. In this impasse the French general staff has decided that they need to take a particularly difficult hill called Ant Hill and that General Mireau (George Macready) is the man to do it with his division. Mireau at first protests arguing that his division is decimated and that the chance of success is slim. However when sweet tongued General Broulard (Adolphe Mejou) waves a promotion in front of his nose he turns around and declares it fait accompli.

Mireau does not really have a plan for the attack. He, like most of the upper echelon at the time, is convinced that if the soldiers show the right fighting spirit that will do the job. In fact he is so disconnected from reality that his visit to the front to instruct his troops is almost comical. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), in charge of the regiment to make the assault, is bullied into compliance and Mireau is completely impervious to common sense. When this ill-conceived attack goes belly up Mireau goes apoplectic and, convinced that failure must be due to cowardice, orders the artillery to fire on his own units. The artillery commander refuses the order unless he gets it in writing and as it is not forth coming this is where the attack ends.

Mireau, whose pride is badly hurt, swears revenge on his unworthy soldiers and wants to execute them for disobedience. Broulard manages to talk him down to killing just three soldiers as an example and that clears the case for the generals. The cause of the failure is settled and taken care of so they can go back to their luxurious life far behind the front.

However Dax, who was a criminal defense lawyer before the war, is infuriated at the randomness and unfairness of having three innocent men blamed and killed for something they had no hand in. The better part of the movie follows these three soldiers, Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker), Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) and Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel), as they face the death penalty and Colonel Dax as he tries, ultimately in vain, to defend three innocent men against what his superiors is finding expedient.

The purpose of the story is to make us angry and it does. Well, me at least. The arrogance of these generals is infuriating. The way lives can be spent as a matter of expedience is outrageous and they learn nothing of the whole affair. But there is also a larger absurdity here because the real crime is not to condemn these three people to death, but to condemn the hundreds of thousands of people along the front to their deaths in useless attacks and counterattack. So why do we care for these three men? Kirk Douglass said it himself in one of his other movies, “Ace in the Whole”. If you kill millions in a war it is statistics, but one guy stuck in a hole, that gets people’s attention. In this way Stanley Kubrick uses this handle to tell us a story we otherwise could not comprehend because the numbers are just too big.

I generally like Stanley Kubrick and this is the first movie on the List. “Paths of Glory” I only knew from reputation and I was looking very much forward to watching it. Years ago I went to an excellent Stanley Kubrick exhibition in Berlin and I remember that this was the only movie on display I had never heard of, but that it was highly recommended. Fortunately my expectations were met, this movie has all the touches of Kubrick, precision, satirical bite, dark fatalism and amazing cinematography. Mireau is not a Dr. Strangelove, but he is cut with just enough absurdity to underline his arrogance. WWI is not “Clockwork Orange”, but the wanton and random violence is remarkably similar. I also like that Kirk Douglass, a mega star in 1957, is not Kirk Douglass, but Colonel Dax, that Kubrick managed to curb the star and let him be the role.

I am still wondering about the meaning of the ending. So far I get that it demonstrate the absurdity of the fighting, but I am convinced there is something more we need to get out of it, something maybe relating to the execution, but I need to think about this a little more.

“Paths of Glory” gets my warmest recommendations. It is a strong contender to the best picture of 1957 and in another year it might have been the best. Do not make my mistake and wait ten years to watch it, but go see it. It is 100 years since this madness took place and right now Europe is doing its best to forget it.