Tuesday 31 December 2013

Happy New Year

Happy New Year
It is the end of the year. New Year ’s Eve is upon us and this is the usual time to look back at the past year and forward towards the new year. It is almost cliché, but there is something fun about taking stock on what has happened over the past year.

Last year I managed to finish 1940, so 2013 started straight with 1941. At this point I am two films short of 1945, so I almost covered 5 years of movie history. That sounds okay, but the war years were short on films, especially non-American films so those 5 years actually only amounts to 41 films and that is only because Ivan Groznyj counts as two films. That is somewhat less than my stated target of 50 films per year.

I have been very happy watching the movies from this period. It has been thin on comedies, which makes perfect sense considering the war, but I had ample compensation in film noir and noir inspired dramas. Some of the best films so far on the list have been from this bunch and below I will list my choice of 10 best pictures 1941-45 in chronological order.

Citizen Kane   

Maybe not the best movie ever, but there is no denying it: It is truly awesome.

The Maltese Falcon

Layers upon layers upon layers. I will never tire from exploring this movie.


This was voted best movie of the year by my son

To Be or Not to Be

A wartime comedy about the war. How rare is that? And it is funny too.


No need to say anymore. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


Character driven whodunit at its best.

Double Indemnity

At first I was not sold by this one, but it wins over time. It is sooo dark.

Murder, My Sweet

Convoluted, charming and dark as hell. The rebirth of Dick Powell.

Mildred Pierce

The strongest female character to ever grace the silver screen. This is the Joan Crawford movie to see.

Roma, Citta Aperta

This is powerful stuff. Iconic images galore.


However that was not all I did in 2013.

A new edition was released in the autumn of 2013 and that gave me another 9 movies to see from the period I have covered so far. At this point I have seen and reviewed 7 of them.

Some are absolute positive additions to the list.

“The Great White Silence” and “Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed” ought to have been there all along. I simply do not understand why they only appear now

On the other hand there are some additions that are rather mysterious. Either because they are utter junk (“Limite”) or because they do not add anything special (“Peter Ibbetson”) and I wonder what the criteria were for including them. A revision is a chance to fix things, not add to the problems.

Finally I have caught up on my reviews for movies seen before I started the blog. I do not have the exact figure but it is around 30 reviews. Adding a few stray films I have made over 80 reviews in 2013 and I think that is decent enough.


So, what is up for the new year?

Well, I am still following the Danish version of the 3rd edition of the Book. This will define the order in which I watch the films. It turns out that no update to the Danish version was ever made. Hugely unsatisfying, but I asked around and got only evasive answers. I will be including all the updates from the 10th edition and the occasional Danish films showing up on the list. On top of that I plan on doing my own revision of the Danish edition, which means bringing in a few highlights of Danish Cinema. There is more to it than Dreyer and von Trier and since the publisher will not do it I will have to do the dirty work.

The next period will be the second half of the 40’ies and I really cannot wait to get started. There are so many interesting films coming up. This will be fun.

Also I intend to read a lot of reviews from all you guys and write a lot of awful comments on movies you saw long ago. That is always a very enjoyable part of my day.

On a personal level I am still living in Israel and still working for my old company in Denmark, now as a consultant. I miss home, but at least the weather is better here and the food is awesome. Also cinema tickets are almost half price than in DK, so we try to go as often as we can.

Finally, you may wonder about the picture in the header. This awesome creation is the first Christmas duck I ever made. It was simply amazing and just looking at it makes me start salivating. This may be my most standout achievement in 2013.

Saturday 28 December 2013

Peter Ibbetson (1935)

Peter Ibbetson
”Peter Ibbetson” is the seventh of the new additions to the list I am reviewing and I am now through the silents again and back to talkies. This is also (again) movie number 100 on the list. That calls for some sort of celebration I suppose. It is also likely to be my last review in 2013.

This year my wife gave me the new “1001 movies…” edition for Christmas. Now I can finally read up on the new additions up front. Not that that necessarily is a good idea. I find that it is generally a good idea to keep expectations down. That makes it so much easier for a film to surprise in a positive way. In the case of “Peter Ibbetson” I read that this film is famous for its surrealist dream sequence that harkened to the famous surrealist filmmakers like Bunuel and forestalled the dream sequence in “Spellbound”. Clearly this was the item to watch out for in this film.

There is indeed a dream sequence and it is both central to the story and a significant part of the second half of the film, but clearly it was oversold by the Book. There is very little surrealist about it and instead of being a mystic highlight it threatens to overload the film with romantic pathos. It is an okay film, but hardly the spectacle I was expecting.

Anyway, I am as usual ahead of myself and already deep into a massive spoiler. If you have not seen the film, stop reading here.

Peter (Dickie Moore as 8 year old Peter and Gary Cooper as adult Peter) and Mary (Virginia Weidler as child, Ann Harding as adult) grew up together as English expats in a Parisian suburb in the mid-19th century. They were neighbors in a wealthy, dreamlike environment where they were entirely protected from outside pressure, in a sense an Eden, where they knew each other as Gogo and Mimsey (excuse me for rolling my eyes over those names). They fight and they play and they are basically inseparable until disaster strikes and Peter’s mother dies. Not surprisingly Peter takes this rather bad, he is a very sensitive boy all agrees, and the situation does not improve when his uncle, a colonel with a rod up his arse, appears to take him back to England as his ward.

Fast forward some 20-30 years and Peter, now Ibbetson, in the shape of Gary Cooper has become a clever architect (read: white collar artist/construction worker), good at his work but empty at heart. Clearly, we learn, Mimsey is missing in his life and not even Ida Lupino as Agnes can distract him. Then, ta-da, he gets that special assignment. He has to go Yorkshire, to the Duke of Towers and design and oversee the renovation of a stable. Of course it turns out that the Duchess of Towers is no other than Mary/Mimsey and without even knowing who each other are they fall into their old pattern.

Of course there is the little complication that Mary is already married to no less than a duke (John Halliday). He realizes what is going on between Peter and his wife even before they know it themselves and force them to show their cards. That sadly results in a dead duke, an imprisoned architect and a lonely duchess.

This is where the dreaming begins because something as trivial as prison, a broken back and massive class difference can certainly not keep two people meant for each other apart. See, Peter and Mary share a very special ability. They can share their dreams. That means that they can will themselves to dream a shared dream where they can be together and do the things that lovers do and as an added bonus, they remember their dreams instead of forgetting them like the rest of us mortals. In this elegant way they can lead a double life where their actual physical world does no mean so much.

This is a massively romantic notion and takes themes such as being meant for each other, to be sharing a mind and to be inseparable to its furthest extend. In a sense it is related to movies like “Ghost” and its kin. I am not objecting to the fantastic element, that is kind of sweet, but the romantic overload makes it seem almost like a cheap short story from a women’s magazine. That the children are cute and adorable just add to the sugar coating. I am sorry, but for me it almost reaches gagging level.

Gary Cooper is one of those actors who always seems to play the same role. Whether he is Mr. Deeds, Sergeant York or Peter Ibbetson he is essentially the same character. He is the innocent, common sense man of the people. He is the one who says: “hey, stop, this does not feel right” and is deeply honest to the point of being naïve. Of course that fits a character like Peter Ibbetson, but I just see Gary Cooper, with or without an English moustache.

Ann Harding I suppose is all right, but her part is essentially just to play up against Gary Cooper and being his soul mate. He even tells Mary that she only really needs to smile, that is skill enough. Well, she is better that that, but the role hardly requires more than that.

It was curious to see the Hollywood take on the higher British nobility, especially their humble dwelling. It is so over the top that I kept thinking of the Princess Sophia cartoons on rotation on the Disney Junior Channel my son loves watching. There is a class difference and we have to know that it is massive.

Yet despite all this the movie is quite watchable. There is a nice flow to it, Gary Cooper is still after all Gary Cooper and the conclusion is not exactly the happy ending you may have guessed from the beginning though no less heavy on sugar.

And the dream sequence, well, is it the super happy ending that could have been with a lot pink hue that you hardly have to imagine. It is not surrealist, nor in my opinion particularly innovative. It is just a fantastic element that serves to add romantic intensity.

Wednesday 25 December 2013

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Forspildte Dage
There is something very sobering about watching ”The Lost Weekend” here during Christmas. This is a time of gorging and over-indulgence, a time where we allow ourselves to eat and drink a bit (or massively) more than we normally would. I should mention that a classic Danish Christmas lunch includes snaps and beer in massive amounts and is not complete without a few scandals and a stupendous hangover.

But what if it was like that all the time? Then going on a binge would not be a night of hilarity, but an ongoing nightmare.

That is essentially “The Lost Weekend”. It is a glimpse into the life of Don Birnam (Ray Milland), a failed writer and an alcoholic on a very steep path to his own grave. He is supposed to go on a nice quite weekend to the countryside to write and rest with his girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman), and brother, Wick (Phillip Terry), but manages to evade it and instead go on the binge of a lifetime. In the process we learn that this particular weekend is not news, but the culmination of a process that has been going on for years.

Don was a talented writer in college, full of expectations particularly from himself. The high standard set before him was too much and he started doubting himself. The doubt turned to self-loathing and the self-loathing to poor self-control. He looked for a way to escape himself and found it in the bottle. Don is very much aware of his own situation. He is even very eloquent about it, but being aware is not the same as being cured. Indeed his awareness of his affliction just makes him loath himself even more, which in turn lead him further into alcoholism.

Initially we are quite charmed by Don. His scam of deluding himself and everybody else that everything is fine (if he can just get a little drink) is actually working. Note the conflict between his self-awareness and his self-delusion.  He charms his girlfriend, Nat the bartender and Gloria, the bar hangout, but only for so long. His self-loathing and self-destructiveness takes on such proportions that except for his diehard girlfriend we all lose hope. This guy is going to kill himself and soon.

With every dip during this weekend he reaches a new level of degradation and surely is getting the wakeup call, but every time he loses strength and turn to the bottle again. Even getting hospitalized in the alcoholic ward does not seem to be enough. The natural end station is reached a few minutes before curtain call when he finally reaches the quite sensible conclusion to shoot himself. That ending however is not really good for the box office so a happy end was pasted on.

This is a very fatalistic film Billy Wilder has made here. It is supposed to be made for his friend Raymond Chandler in an attempt to explain Chandler’s alcoholism. I do not know if this worked for Chandler but it does seem quite effective. In Wilder’s view alcohol may at first seem a help against the psychological woes of a drinker, but it soon becomes the problem itself. The abuse of alcohol generates the psychological problems that engender more drinking, not to speak of the direct health effects of addiction and a ruined body and mind. Wilder describes it as a feedback loop that feeds on itself and drives the afflicted to an inevitable end. The very thing that is can help you get out of it, strength, self-control and dignity is under attack by the affliction and so the only possible rescue must come from the outside. Here is the problem however because the further Don sinks into his misery the more unlikable he gets. He lies, he cheats, steal, beg and shirks off all the people who might help him, except if they can supply him with money for drink.

At the conclusion I do not like him very much and it is a wonder anybody does. He is a lost case.

It is not a lot of fun watching a movie like “The Lost Weekend”. That was also a concern when the movie was released back in 1945. Who on Earth would want to see a film about a man bent on destroying himself? But depressing as the movie may be it is also very well made. It is compelling, primarily because Don is not a backyard bum but a rather charming and good looking fellow and the technical qualities are remarkable.

The filming and the sound, especially the novel use of the theremin, work brilliantly at letting us feel how it is to be Don. The misery is palpable. And apparently the Academy agreed. “The Lost Weekend” won four Oscars, including best picture, director and actor.

Since “The Lost Weekend” there have been countless substance abuse movies. Generally I try to avoid them. They are usually very depressive and had it not been on the List I would probably not have seen “The Lost Weekend”. But from time to time I guess one need to get reminded to take it easy with the drink and if it has to be, “The Lost Weekend” provides a very effective reminder.

Sunday 22 December 2013

Shen Nu (1934)

Shen Nu
”Shen Nu” is a touching story full of heartbreak about a prostitute who tries to raise her son as a good boy although she herself is under the thumb of a mean pimp.

This new entry on the “1001…” list is an early Chinese film. It is three year earlier than “Ye Ban Ge Sheng” from 1937 and is hence the oldest Chinese film on the list. Although sound film technology was out and about at the time “Shen Nu” was made it is a silent film with intertitles and all. Considering how poor the sound quality was on “Ye Ban Ge Sheng” I think that was a wise choice. In fact technically “Sheng Nu” is far superior to “Ye Ban Ge Sheng” and not just through the restoration process. The acting and direction is also much sharper and the story is clear cut. No need to be Chinese to get this one. Partly this may be ascribed to the fact that it is a Shanghai made film. In the thirties Shanghai was an international city practically cut off from the rest of China and governed as a European colony, almost like Hong Kong. It was the entertainment and economic center of the east and it is no wonder that this would be reflected in the movies as well.

I lived in Shanghai for half a year and although the Chinese authorities tried to stamp out all this western decadence after 1949 there are still glimpses of it today. In the film we see the neon lights of the city and although the volume has been turned up since I can still recognize Nanjing Dong Lu.

Prostitution is a big no-no in China today. In fact anything hinting at sex is sanitized from the public space. Not so in 1930’ies Shanghai. Prostitution was a byword for Shanghai and Western films has clearly associated Shanghai with prostitutes. Shanghai Lily in “Footlight Parade” or Marlene Dietrich in “Shanghai Express” just to mention two.

In “Shen Nu” there is no glamour to the profession. In fact “Sheng Nu” takes a very modern view on the subject, which may be part of the reason why it works so well today. Ruan Lingyu plays an unnamed prostitute (henceforth called “the woman”), who works as a prostitute to survive. She has no love for her job, but seems to have no other means to earn a living by. Of course it helps her that she is a beautiful woman, but there is something very asexual to her demeanor as she is working the streets. She looks withdrawn.

This changes completely when she is home. At her tiny apartment she has a little boy, hardly half a year old in the beginning of the film. When she is with him her face lightens up and she is transformed to a completely different woman. Clearly he is the solace in her life and the effect on the viewer is immediate. Who cannot love this woman? I cannot recall any other silent movie that manages to convey motherly love as beautiful and sincere as “Sheng Nu”. Ruan Lingyu is also by far the best actor of the film.

Then an early disaster strikes. During a police raid the woman hides out in what turns out to be the den of an unnamed gambler (Zhang Zhizhi). As payment for hiding her from the police he sets himself up as her pimp. Not that we really see him helping her in any way, but he is always there to take her money and invade her home with his goons. When she tries to escape he kidnaps her son to drive home his power over her and she gets the message. From then on she lives in bondage, effectually as his possession. The parallel to modern trafficking in women is striking. A modern take on the issue can be found in Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilja 4-ever”.

The story jumps 5 or 6 years and her son has become the cutest little boy. The woman, intent on raising him to become a good boy has been hiding money from her pimp and sends him to school. But it is soon common knowledge among children and parents that the boy’s mother’s occupation is not what you would call conventional. Parents and children alike act as the morally superior usually do and wants her and her son kicked out of the school. My personal guess is that they consider her the lowest creature and by allowing her and her son into the school they are staining the rest of them. It is always good to have a common enemy to shit on. Again this is not an outdated idea at all. Plenty of modern equivalents to that.

What is apparent to us, the viewers, is how unfair that is. The woman has no other choice, the boy is really the sweetest thing and the woman is sacrificing everything for him and on top of it all she has to live with that dirty pig. The principal of the school learns the truth. Not the simple truth that the school board and the parents are looking for; the fact that she is a prostitute, but the truth that we know. When he opens the door to her apartment and look around we get this really long scene where we feel that he gets to see all that we see. He sees the unfairness in her situation, he sees her love for her son and he sees an unspoiled boy worth fighting for. Who can be mean against innocence? The boy has hurt no-one and it is his mother who made him an adorable boy despite her disadvantageous position.

The principal is swayed by her, but not the school board so the boy has to leave school. Coincidentally this is also the point where the pimp finds her hidden stash of money and spends it on gambling. The woman is naturally desperate over her misfortune and when she learns that the money is truly gone she strikes the pimp dead. You might think that that would solve her problems, but no. The law is unmoved by a prostitute kept in bondage by an evil pimp and sentence her to 12 years of prison for murder. Again, typical to punish the victim rather that the bandit in prostitution cases.

All is not lost however. Instead of going to an orphanage the boy will be raised and educated personally by the principal while his mother rots in jail. Happy end.

This is a real tearjerker. It is effective because Ruan Lingyu is as good an actor as she is and because the problem is a very modern one as well. No happy prostitutes here. It is a cruel and dangerous trade and she is scorned by everybody and yet this is also heartwarming. The long takes with her and the boy are perfectly natural and perfect bliss. It is the outside world who crushes them in the end and mother and son are the innocent victims.

This is global humanism in a Chinese disguise. I can only recommend it, although I have probably totally spoiled it by now.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Roma, Citta Aperta (1945)

Rom, Åben By
For a self-styled movie-archaeologist like myself there is nothing better than to find in an old movie a document of its time. Sometimes I am just looking at cars or phones or hairstyles, but even better when the film tells of the age in which it was made. For that reason alone “Roma, Città Aperta” is a treasure throve.

This film is widely heralded as the first film of Italian neorealism. I must admit that before watching this film I was not entirely sure what that label covered and I feared for something boring. No need to fear though. Italian neorealism in the incarnation of “Roma, Città Aperta” has a nerve that comes from an unprecedented, almost documentary nakedness. The people portrayed are very real, many actors are hardly actors, often just random passersby, the sets are actual streets, buildings and apartments and the story itself is contemporary and highly relevant for the period in which it was made. All this could be both good and bad, but in this case the coin is flipped the right way because it is so well done and because the story is compelling.

“Roma, Città Aperta” or “Rome, Open City” as it is called in English, was filmed shortly after the liberation of Rome and before the war proper had even ended. As such the filmmaking suffered all the hardships of war time, but as it turned out this was an advantage to the film. Lack of film stock meant that the end-product used a mélange of bits and pieces that the crew was able to hustle and gives the film a gritty look. All scenes show exactly how war-torn Rome looked. This is no reconstruction, but perfectly authentic, and the people are exactly the same. An atmosphere pervades this film that is no act, but the zeitgeist of Rome 1944-45. They may have been liberated, but they remember yesterday when the Germans were in charge. I am not sure this is what they wished for when they set out to make the movie, but circumstances and general deprivation made it the way it this.

The story itself takes place only months before the liberation of Rome. It is on the face of it a tribute to the martyrs of the resistance against the German occupation, determined men set against the evil Nazi´s. But in the best parts of it it is a portrait of quite real people in difficult circumstances. The humanity of this portrait is the strong side of this film. We follow Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) and Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet) who are both active in the Resistance and the women around them, primarily Francesco’s fiancé Pina (Anna Magnani) and Marina (Maria Michi), the girlfriend of Giorgio. Both Giorgio and Francesco are eventually caught by the Germans, but with very different results. Tying the group together we have the priest don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), who is active in the Resistance from a charity point of view. He helps those that need it the most. He is also the priest who is supposed to marry Pina and Francesco.

Everything goes haywire on the day of the wedding. Acting on a tip from Marina the Germans search the building where Pina and Francesco live. As Francesco is taken away we get the most heartbreaking scene of the film. Pina, frustrated, angry and desperate wrench herself free of the Germans and rushes after the car carrying Francesco. She succumbs in a shower of machinegun fire in front of her little son Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico), who cries out: “Mama!” before he is caught by don Pietro. That scene is so poignant it is hard to describe. Of course it is piled sky high: It is their wedding day, he is arrested and she is shot down in front of her son. We are provoked, but it works. I have seen that scene several times now and I cry every time.

While Francesco is freed by the Resistance, Giorgio and don Pietro comes to a sad end as well, again at the hand of Marina. Giorgio is tortured to death and don Pietro is brought before a firing squad. Those deaths are poignant as well, but are also more stylized. Both are representing the brave resistance fighter who dies for the cause without betraying their secrets to the Germans. They are not innocents like Pina, but soldiers, for God (don Pietro) and the people (Giorgio Manfredi, the socialist)

Marina is an interesting case. She is the image of a person who to protect and care for herself does what she finds necessary, in this case betraying her friends. The shell she wears to protect herself against the implications of her betrayal however wears thinner and thinner until it seriously hits her what she has done as she faces the corpse of the tortured Giorgio. This was the price of her lifestyle and her good looks.

The only part of the film that does not hold up so well is that involving the Germans. They seem unreal and more of a symbol than actual characters. Their talk is full of clichés and the character of Bergman (Harry Feist), the Gestapo chief, is altogether too metrosexual to be really frightening. The same with the cold and cynical Ingrid and the disillusioned Hauptman Hartmann. They are icons rather than people. I suppose an Italian film crew had an easier time relating to ordinary Italians turned guerilla than their oppressors.

“Roma, Città Aperta” is a film with powerful impact. It is not subtle in its message and the instruments can seem heavy-handed, but the style, the story-telling technique and the humanistic insight into these people is magnificent. I love this film and I cannot wait to see some more Italian neorealism.

I should mention that the DVD comes with an interesting documentary where we follow Vito Annicchiarico, the boy Marcello in the film, as he visits the locations 60 years later and happen to meet some of the people where extras on the set. An interesting and refreshing way to make a behind-the-camera feature.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Limite (1931)

While I watched this film I thought of at least twenty different ways to open this review. My poor and worse ideas are not so interesting, but the fact that this was what I was thinking of while watching this is telling. I thought of many other things as well, but rarely about what was going on in this film and the explanation is quite simple: Nothing much did.

This is a film about three people in a boat. We see them a lot in that boat. Sometimes we see them on land. There is something about sewing and something on a cemetery and they are all very depressed.

That is more or less it.

As the film was closing I decided to look for help on Wikipedia. Someone would have to explain this to me, but there was not much help to get there. I learned that this is an experimental film, that the film is about experiences, impressions of what is going on and that a lot of famous people liked this film. This was about as far as I had come before consulting Wikipedia.

It then struck me that this is not a movie where anything is supposed to be going on. Looking for a narrative here would be wrong. So when I spend 10 minutes watching some waves that is really all it was. Or maybe not. I may be supposed to be looking for some symbolic meaning. That seems likely since many of the scenes make very little sense in any literal way.

So, this is an art film. That is nice. I like art films. I actually liked “Un Chien Andalou”, “L’Age D’Or” and “Meshes of the afternoon”. Then why is it that I got absolutely zip out of “Limite”?

One explanation is that those other films are merely morsels to be enjoyed in a small dose. Even L’Age D’Or has so many things going on that it is like a number of delicate morsels. Limite on the other hand is 2 hours long! That is not a morsel, that is an overdose. Everything is stretched out so long that my attention had long gone before the scene changed. It lacked the continuity because it time and again felt as if I had fallen asleep and missed some essential part. There are entire segments that swear I saw, but I cannot tell what happened there. It was almost as if the film was repelling my attention.

Another reason is that there is no craziness, no chock effects, no wacky details that keep my attention fixed, make me wonder and at least make me laugh until I figure out what it is supposed to mean. There was nothing. Just scenery and some people. And they are all depressed. Not fun at all.

Not all is bad however. The music added to the film is beautiful and the film works very well against insomnia. You can probably get it prescribed and find it in your local pharmacy.

On an entirely different note:

The other night my wife and I went to the cinema to see “Gravity”. Now there is an impressionistic, full-submersion film with a quite depressing theme and a thin story that REALLY was able to keep my attention. Now I do not have to go to space. I feel I have already been there.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)

Paradisets Børn
When a movie gets high praise the expectations gets similarly high and so also the bar for success. Frankly it ruins the experience because you cannot get that “nice surprise” you might get from a movie you expected nothing from. In some cases it actually does not matter because the movie is as good as it is. “Citizen Kane” and “Gone with the Wind” are such examples, but more often than not I end up disappointed with films that got good critics simply because I expected too much.

In the case of “Les Enfant du Paradis” the critics have called it the best French movie ever and the Book itself is not short of hyperbole. Well, if this was the first French movie I ever saw this would probably have been my last. If this is the best French cinema has to offer then that would be truly sad and I would not be looking forward to any of the “lesser” film. As it is I can honestly say that this is not even close to top marks and I can rattle off dozens of French films that do more for me than “Les Enfant du Paradis”. Frankly I think the praise tells more about the critics than about the movie.

This very long film (3 hours!) is the story of four people vying for the love of a courtesan called Garance (Léonie Marie Julie Bathiat, also known as Arletty). All of them have a relationship to a particular entertainment district in Paris known as "Boulevard du Crime". Batiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) is a talented mime and is supposed to be the shy one. Frédérick (Pierre Brasseur) is an actor with a serious prima donna issue. Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) is a wannabe criminal kingpin and aspiring playwright (???), a self-confessed cynic and madly in love with himself. And finally Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou), a rich count and admirer of the arts and especially Garance.

These four people are all madly in love with Garance and that is basically the story of the film. This is not the story of a woman who ruins people, not at all. Garance is the most sensible of the lot. This is a story of a bunch of lovesick adolescents (of any age) who are fully capable of ruining things on their own. That is also at the core of my problem with this film. Not only are these people generally acting like idiots, they are also being incredibly literal and declamatory.  It is as if that all their thoughts must be spelled out to the audience in a dialogue which among normal people would never take place. There is nothing implied or hinted. Everything is thrown into the open and that by people who wear their feeling on the outside and care nothing if they hurt or trample other people as long as they follow their heart or probably more correctly, their basic instincts. It is indeed like watching a soap opera with lovesick teenagers.

On top of that the dialogue is spiced up with what I assume is philosophical references so that often as not these characters sound like they are reading from some highbrow work of 18th and 19th century philosophers. That makes it incredibly pretentious as if wearing a shroud of something very deep and humanistic and maybe this is what sold it to the critics. For me however it works less than bad. I end up having no sympathy for any of the men, nor for the producers, writers or directors who gave me this film.

The Comte is an almost comically imbecilic character who is so obsessed with the thought of being cucolded by his girlfriend Garance that he is busy challenging everybody to dueling with him. He has taken her in under the pretense of offering her his protection, but since he cannot buy what he really long for, her love, he denies it to anybody else. With a vengeance.

Lacenaire is incredibly self-absorbed. He constantly goes to great length explaining himself as some sort of Nietzsche/Sartre creation for whom love is for the weak, that he instead aims for a higher more professional goal by exploiting the lesser creatures around him. Except by doing all this explanation it just sounds like a lie he is telling himself and certainly his actions reveal him as a bitter and jealous man. From the start he reduces Garance to a friend or colleague, but clearly he is as possessive about her as anybody else. He just uses more highbrow words to explain it. A jackass, pure and simple.

Even jackass fails to describe Frédérick. He is the human incarnation of a satyr. Lustful, hedonistic, careless and with all his being aimed at getting into the panties of everything female that passes his way. I mean literally anything. Random women on the street or the old landlady at the inn. In the second half we see him with two women simultaneous and they do not seem to mind. Only Garance is difficult for him. Not that he does not try or even succeed at getting underneath her plentiful skirts, but he never wins her love, and I suppose the film is trying to tell us that because of this his life is ultimately empty.

Finally we have Batiste. I suppose he is our lead male and the one we should be rooting for. He is the talented mime who can do anything on stage but is shy and reluctant off stage. It is then because of this shyness that he blows it when he gets a very clear invitation from Garance. Except that this crucial scene is played with so many words and is still so weird that I would not call it shyness, but a very staged and scripted form of madness. Let us just say that he come through as very artificial. Later in the second half when he gets Garance within reach again he is willing to throw away everything for her. Again I suppose the authors are trying to tell us something about all consuming love, but to me he is merely being the ultimate fool.

Garance as I mentioned is both the object of the love and madness of all these men and the only sympathetic and responsible being of these people. I suppose she is meant to be a symbol of the female being and certainly she has very few skills or attributes but being a beautiful woman. That only makes the mad love of all these men even more insane because what is it really they are so infatuated by? An image? An empty shell? Yet she does have a notable and quite admirable quality, though not one that is recognized by her lovers, that of sanity and common sense. She actually sees through the infatuation of these men and has a realistic outlook both when it comes to her own love life and that of her would-be lovers. She also has the only really good and true line in the entire film when she tells Batiste near the end that: “You have a nice little boy, you love your little boy”. That ought to have been foremost in Batiste head, but Garance had to tell him.

I am sure this film is intended (and probably seen by many) as an essay on the depth of love and lust and maybe that is the source of the praise it has gotten. I see it as a rather annoying film about men who losses their heads over what they think is love and ruin everything in the process. Tragic, really, and almost unbearable to watch.

Saturday 30 November 2013

A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash) (1929)

A Throw of Dice
”A Throw of Dice” is another newcomer to the list courtesy of the 10th edition currently in circulation. Its claim to fame as I understand it is as an early film taking place in India and, I should add, a decent entry both on content and technique.

Please note that I did not call it an Indian film. This film is as Indian as “Slumdog Millionaire” and there are more than a few comparisons between those two films. Both are essentially western (European) films taking place in India. That means that sensibilities and the flow of the films are familiar to a western viewer, who will in both cases recognize the fairy tale elements and tourist like flavor of India coupled with a stark realism with western cause-effect plot line. This is in stark contrast to the Indian film tradition (Bollywood), which more often than not is confusing to the western viewer with singing and dancing, divine intervention and a formulaic recipe not entirely logical. Needless to say that I am not entirely at home with Bollywood films.

“A Throw of Dice” was made by German director, Franz Osten in collaboration with the Indian actor and filmmaker Himansu Rai as part of a cycle of Indo-German films. The cast is entirely Indian and features Himansu Rai himself as the evil king Sohan. He is also by far the most interesting of the characters and Rai is perfectly diabolical as the envious king who must possess the woman of royal colleague Ranjit (Charu Roy).

The story is classic fairy tale fair and the Indian setting only emphasize this. King A (Ranjit) and B (Sohan) are fast friends with a common interest in gambling who on a hunting expedition meet the fair maid C (Sunita, played by Seeta Devi). King A seduces Maid C to the chagrin of King B who plots to kill King A. The plot fails and instead King B tries to frame King A on the murder on Maid C’s father. When that fails as well King B sets out bring down King A and take Maid C through foul play (literally).

All this is not exceptional, we can pretty much predict every step of the way and that was likely the case as well in 1929. What is exceptional is the production value. This is a beautiful film in every sense. The costumes are sparkling, the palaces are the stuff of fairy tales and the picture is knife sharp with a lot of credit to the restoration process. I have come to really respect the people at the BFI. They know their craft and give the films adequate attention. But of course Franz Osten is the real architect. He was a true son of the German impressionistic school and although the film is more melodramatic than most German productions of the age he orchestrates the story perfectly well and gets max out of his actors. Charu Roy as Sunita could walk right into a European or American production of the age and not look out of place. She does spend a significant part of the film looking depressed, but when she smiles she is radiant and the skimpy top she wears is hot! She is a worthy price of the two kings.

Another stroke of genius on behalf of the BFI was to get Nitin Sawhney to compose a score for the 2006 restoration. That soundtrack is just ridiculously good and fitting. It is not a Bollywood soundtrack, though there are plenty of Indian elements, nor is it a classic silent film score though the continuous soundscape supports the melodrama perfectly. Neither is it a new age flip, but rather a composition most pleasing to a modern listener which combines all these elements. The DVD from BFI includes an excellent interview with Sawhney where he explains his methods and choices and you cannot but admire the man. A lot of thinking went into this and the result is extraordinary. I would go so far as to say that the movie is a nice dreamscape to accompany the music rather than the other way round.

Not all however is well and good. I did have an issue with the entire gambling theme. No, I really do not mind that people are playing games nor does it bother me that some money is involved. However these two kings are obsessed with gambling. Ludomania is the right word (it even looks like Ludo). When Ranjit stakes his entire kingdom on a game of dice that tells me that this king is unfit to rule. As a subject I would be most displeased to find that I was the prize of a game to be thrown away. That is not proper management, but tells me that this king does not really care for his job and responsibility. When it is revealed that the game was rigged and Ranjit was cheated the entire city rally to save him as if they have entirely forgotten the he just staked them on a game of dice. That is a cause for revolt, not support. “Yeah, let us get our irresponsible leader back!”

Ah, but this is just a fairy tale so I guess I can live with that. At least I can root for Sunita and the sweet boy in Ranjit’s household and I suppose Ranjit learned his lesson. I might buy the soundtrack.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce
What makes the ultimate film noir? Let us see… you need to start with a murder, preferably a gruesome one. From there the story should be told in flashback, preferably by a narrator with a dry, touch and fatalistic slant. The plot must include several characters with their own ulterior and preferably seedy motives, including at least one stunning femme fatale. Of course outstanding performances in all the main leads are a boon. The cinematography must make delicate use of light and especially shadow and finally there is no such thing as a happy end. In the best case it is bitter sweet.

And there you are, I have just described “Mildred Pierce”.

I am not shy to state that “Mildred Pierce” is just about the most perfect film noir I have yet seen. It is almost dogmatic in its adherence to the principles of a noir to an extend that I would not be surprised if someone told me that this is the template film noir from which the genre was defined. The only twist to the genre here is an inversal of the genders. The focal point is a woman and her adversaries are mostly men with one crucial exception.

This is an awesome film. I am flat out sold by this one. It is a tough one to see if you like me tend to invest yourself in the characters, but that is also a quality of the film. You understand the characters, why they do what they do and for all her flaws you are never ready to disconnect from Mildred. Instead I got drawn into her universe of ambition and deceit, of material success and emotional deroute. It is really rather overwhelming and I had to take a break or two in the process but it was very rewarding. A 10 out of 10 film in my book.

The opening sets the tone for the film perfectly. A man dies mumbling “Mildred”. We do not know who he is. We see Mildred (Joan Crawford), a stunning mature woman wealthy dressed but obviously distraught. First she is this close to killing herself by drowning. Then she finds what is obviously an old friend, Wally (Jack Carson), and take him to the beach house with the dead body. It is clear that Wally has been trying to get into her pants for years and now cannot believe his luck, but also that he is a sleezebag who has essentially stolen her business. Mildred leaves him in the building and runs away.

Next thing everybody is at the police station. Mildred is told not to worry, they got the murderer. It is Bert (Bruce Bennett), her former husband, and he has already confessed. His makes a distraught Mildred even more in a bad shape. She denies that he could have done it and start telling her story.

Now, that is a nice setup. Textbook noir. Not just a whodunit, but an almost existential drama involving many pieces. We know it is going to end badly. Disastrous even. But we do not know half of it yet and the story begins as trivial as a standard suburbian family; housewife Mildred, failing breadbringer Bert and two children, adolescent Veda (Ann Blyth) and the younger Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe).  

I will spare the reader for a detailed summary. It would be too much of a spoiler anyway. Suffice to say that Mildred decides to stand up for herself, to make herself a success primarily to take care of her children. She becomes a success. More successful than she could have dreamed of. In fact she does everything right and work hard to get there. By the standard that most people are measured in American movies she is a heroine.

Unfortunately her success is hollow. Her objective itself is futile. Kay, the sweet and very likable child, dies from pneumonia and no wealth in the world could save her. Veda however is a snake that Mildred is nurturing at her breast. Mildred is ambitious on Veda’s behalf, but that is nothing compared to Veda’s own ambitions. Somehow she has got it into her head that she is an aristocrat, stuck in a middle class family. No matter how much money Mildred makes it is not enough for Veda and Veda scorns her mother for actually working. Veda is just about the most unlikable, spoiled and ungrateful character imaginable. Yet she is also Mildred’s daughter and Mildred refuses to recognize the problem before it is too late. Just when we think Veda cannot get worse she ups it and surprises us by her egocentric and delusioned behavior.

Mildred also has to negotiate a sea of sharks. Wally for one, but he is nothing compared to Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Mildred may be cunning, but she has her soft spots and the sharks around her, Veda, Wally and Beragon are not shy of exploiting them. She is up against some really tough odds.

While all the actors involved are convincing the three leading women are outstanding. Mildred’s assistant Ida (Eve Arden) is tough as nails and by far the most sympathetic character, simply for cutting through the crap and saying what we are thinking. Veda is played by the only 17 year old Ann Blyth. I had no idea a 17 year old girl so completely could be evil incarnate. I will have to look up that actress. I cannot believe she would not have done well in her later films.

But the grand prize goes to Joan Crawford. She may have been a horrible person privately, but she was divine on the silver screen and this is the best I ever saw her. At 43 years she can be both the worldly and experienced business woman and the coy and sensuous girl. I dare say no other actress at the time could have lifted this role as well. Stanwyck or Davis would have done it differently and not been able to give the role the darkness Crawford gives it. Just listen to her voice. There is power there.

The ending of the film ties up the threads in a most satisfying twist and I will not spoil the fun by revealing it. Just say that the end scene is probably the most spectacular of the entire film. As Mildred and Bert leave the police station dawn has broken and they walk through an arched portal into the sun. Literally and symbolically.

Thursday 21 November 2013

Spellbound (1945)

I am rather torn in my opinion on “Spellbound”. It is a cleverly orchestrated mystery thriller with excellent scenography and first class actors, but it is also based on a premise that is so incredibly far out that I just keep shaking my head. A lot more on that later.

The short of it is that I find myself liking a movie I do not like. No, that is not really the way to describe it. I was entertained and having a good time watching it despite that I could not buy its premise.

The film starts out on the psychiatric ward Green Manor. It is an isolated location in Vermont (the only region in The States I can honestly say that I know having spent an entire summer there) inhabited by doctors and patients. The mantra of this place is psycho-analysis.  I am not really sure if this practice is still in vogue but in the 40’ies this was the rage and Freud was the second coming. All mental problems originate in a childhood trauma (preferably a sexual one, though that is toned down in the film) and if you face that trauma you are basically cured. That is quite important for the story.

One of the doctors is Dr. Constance Petersen. She has her own issues. Apparently she is afraid of feelings and abhors the concept of love. Instead she dedicates herself to her science believing solely in logic. She is in other words the perfect positivist borne out a refusal to invest herself emotionally. That is also important. Oh, and she is the tall, blond and impeccable Ingrid Bergman.

Another of the doctors is Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll). He is the head of the asylum but is about to be replaced by the younger Dr. Edwardes, a stranger to the asylum. Murchison is nice and grandfatherly and everybody is sad to see him go, but alas it is time for a new head of the Green Manor.

This new head is no other than Gregory Peck. This being very early in Peck’s career he is a strapping young man. From the moment we see him we just know that Dr. Edwardes and Dr. Petersen will be an item. This is my complaint number 1. The demure doctor and the new administrator are divinely beautiful people. Hmmm…

We have hardly been introduced to Dr. Edwardes before we see something is awfully wrong with him. In fact something is really weird. I know this is an asylum full of basket cases, but Dr. Edwardes is really scary. However, equipped with Gregory Peck’s masculine beauty and irresistible charm, he also manages to knock Dr. Petersen off her feet. It soon becomes clear, first to Dr. Petersen, but soon to the rest of the lot, that this guy is an imposter and the real Dr. Edwardes  is likely dead. Why would a man pretend to be a dead man if he had not killed him? The more we learn of the fake Dr. Edwardes the more dangerous he gets and any sane person would get away from him. But not Dr. Petersen. The queen of logic and science herself has thrown all her sense out the window and believe him innocent because… well, because she loves him. Oh, yes, that makes so perfect sense. Then he MUST be innocent. This is my complaint number 2. I just hate it when professionals in movies become very unprofessional and start carrying their head under their arm (not sure if you can even say that in English). Usually it is a policeman who gets emotionally involved and starts acting stupid, but this is a friggin doctor! And it is not for lack of warning. Everybody else can see that this is a potentially dangerous fellow and going around alone with him is not the best idea. Again and again we get confirmation that this is true. What else would you say about a man walking around in a trance with a razor in his hand and murder in his eyes?

Well, it so happens that he is innocent (and sane once he faced his trauma) and that extraordinary coincidences conspired to make him look guilty, hell, he himself thought he was guilty (I doubt I am spoiling anything by revealing this), but that is actually beside the point. The premise here is that he must be innocent because he is beautiful and charming and because Constance falls in love with him. Call me a stone-hearted heathen but I do not buy that premise. To me that makes him more dangerous than ever. Secondly, of all people is the queen of science and logic who reaches that incredible conclusion that the fake doctor killed nobody and is as harmless as a little lamb, he is just confused and need some help remembering. Is she friggin out of her mind?

Fine, let her analyze him and solve the mystery puzzle, but at least recognize that she may be wrong, that this man may be a psychotic murderer. There is an off-chance that the rest of the world is right.

Of course this is just as much a romantic love story as it is a thriller and in the name of romance people usually do get stupid, but that is also why I tend to dislike romantic films. From the view point of the romance I suppose all this makes perfect sense.

Years later Robert Ludlum would write “The Bourne Identity” with a strikingly similar plot. A man without memory believes he is a dangerous murderer and a woman helps him find out that he is in fact not because she believes in him. In that story I had no trouble buying the premise and I think it has something to do with the order of events, but also because Marie St. Jacques gets convinced by facts whereas Dr. Petersen remains convinced despite the facts.

If we for a moment forget the premise of the film and look at all the other things this film has to offer we are really getting spoiled. My favorite is the dream sequence. Instead of the usual blurry camera we get a sequence designed by Salvador Dali. I am a big fan of his stuff and this was totally Lynch 40 years before Lynch. Secondly we get an excellent score. It is haunting and romantic and fits the film perfectly. Miklós Rózsa got the films only Oscar for his music.

Finally, despite the phyco-analysis mumbo jumbo this is after all a Hitchcock film from his golden age. It is full of suspense and the timing is excellent. The sense of danger is very intense. That also means that the entertainment value is high.

No, I was not bored, I did enjoy the movie, but man, I did not buy the premise.

Friday 15 November 2013

The Battle of San Pietro (1945)

The Battle of San Pietro
In 1943 the director John Huston was visiting the American troops fighting in Italy with the purpose of making a film about them. Today we would say he and his team were embedded with an army unit and his role was not unlike reporters today who follow the troops around and report back to the public at home.

I am certain Huston was not the only film or media person who documented the armed forces, but the result, his 37 minute film is quite unique. Certainly in the avalanche of war reports available I have not seen anything quite like this before.

On the surface of it it looks fairly standard. In typical newsreel style an excited narrator (Huston himself?) tells about the taking of an Italian village and all the machinations of war. The first impression is that the soldiers are good boys, heroes with excellent equipment who is out to wipe the German ass. The enthusiasm with which the tanks, planes and military tactics is described is textbook propaganda, almost designed to sell war bonds.

But something is terribly wrong. People are dying, soldiers as well as civilians and the dead do not at all look like heroes. They look like boys, dirty and bloody and terribly young. The battle is not a walkover, nor a heroic storm. It is slow and dangerous. Grenades are exploding right in front of the camera, machineguns are pounding at everything that moves and the camera is flung around and covered in ruble. Attack after attack are repulsed. Gains are lost in counterattacks and when finally victory is at hand the enemy are… just boys as well and the front has moved 5 km down the valley.

The narrator tells about the civilian population who has been liberated from the evil foe, but the camera shows the ruins that remains after the war machine has pommeled the town and scorched the land. In these pitiful ruins emerge women, children and old men, poor and shocked, alive, but their livelihood destroyed. Dead civilians are dug out from the ruins and we see the corpses. Most heartbreaking is watching the children. The narrator tells us that only days after the battle they are laughing, but the camera tells a different story. They look lost. Two toddlers the age of my own son are holding each other’s hand as they walk through the ruins and in their dirty, ill-fitting cloth the children look more like orphans than anything else.

This may be a war document telling about the brave soldiers, but underneath it is also a subversive story about the terror, chaos and general destruction which is war. You cannot help wondering if this is a film to cheer the troops or a protest against the evil and general pointlessness of war. I suppose it can be seen both ways and it has. The army both hated and loved it. The release was delayed until the end of the war in Europe for fear that it would sap morale, yet it is also a pad on the shoulder of those men who had to fight the war. They were indeed brave and neither narrator, nor the camera denies that, but the prize was very high.

Modern war movies ride the same wave. Saving Private Ryan, Platoon or Band of Brothers all praise the boys and abhor the war, but that is the present. In wartime forties there was no room for criticism. War was a heroic pissing contest as far as the public was concerned. For the troops the reality was different. That was what Huston wanted to change.

In a way I am reminded of Bunel’s Land Without Bread in the sense that narration tells one story and the camera a different one, but in “The Battle of San Pietro” the narrator never entirely disconnects from the images. It is the tone that diverges. There is very little enthusiasm in those pictures.

The backdrop of the film is the Italian campaign. While Germany and the Soviet were fighting a battle of the titans in Russia the western allies were fighting a miniature (by comparison) campaign in North Africa and Italy. The idea was that an invasion in Italy might take out all of Italy from the war. Italy quit soon enough, but the Germans simply took control and set up a scheme for controlled withdrawal. With only token units (compared to the Russian campaign and the allied forces invading Italy) they were able to stretch that invasion for 2 years. The Italian peninsula is mountainous and very easy to defend and while the Allies paid a high prize for their advances it is difficult to say what exactly was the purpose once the Germans had taken control of Italy. It is possible its purpose simply was to be a token front to placate the Russians while they were fighting the real war until a second front could be opened in France in 44. If that is really the case then the battle of San Pietro was really futile.

No doubt the general cause was noble and just, and I personally appreciate what the western allies accompliced, otherwise I would have grown up on the other side of the iron curtain, but war is an ugly business no matter the cause and damage all across is terrible. That is the message of “The Battle of San Pietro”. Huston himself is quoted to have said that if he ever made a pro-war movie, he should be shot. Well, he would not be shut after this film.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed
”The Adventures of Prince Achmed”, or ”Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed” as is the original title, is a stunning animated feature created more than a decade before Disney’s “Snowwhite and the Seven Dwarfs”. “Prince Achmed” is a silhouette puppet show as they are known particularly in the Far East but also in Europe in the 19th century before the cinema made this kind of projected shows old-fashioned. Except the characters here are not puppets controlled by a puppeteer with strings and sticks, but frame by frame animated silhouettes on a backlit and tinted surface. The effect is beautiful and quite stunning as these literal outlines take on a life of their own.

In simpler silhouette animation each character would just be a single cut-out being moved around on the background, but in “Prince Achmed” there are so many moving parts, even the individual fingers, that the artificial element, which of course is quite obvious given that we are taking black silhouettes, fades away and we have a true animated world.

The woman behind “Prince Achmed” was called Lotte Reiniger. She was a pioneer in this style of animation and with her team she worked 3 years to make this film. I am still wondering how she did it. The details are so many, the outlines on each silhouette so full of fine and delicate element that it must have been an insane job to cut them. The skirt of the princess and the cape of the prince both consist of latticework of minute detail. I can understand how you would do this on a computer but in the mid-twenties it was just you and a knife and a camera on a glowbox. The achievement is also highlighted by comparison with the later works of Lotte Reiniger also included on the DVD I got. None of them measures up to “Prince Achmed” in technical excellence.

The story of the film will inevitably take backseat to the technical achievement. Without knowing the background in full detail it seems to me that it is a medley of stories from “1001 night” combined into an adventurous journey. Our hero, the prince, inadvertently flies away from Bagdad on a magic flying horse belonging to a wicked sorcerer. Achmed gets the horse under control and finds a nice girl who unfortunately is guarded by some jealous demons in the wonderfully named country of Wak-Wak. They manage to get away only to be caught by the Emperor of China. Everything turns sour for Achmed who finds himself up against an emperor, a sorcerer and a bunch of demons. Fortunately he finds some allies namely a badass witch and a fellow called Aladdin who used to have a lamp of the more useful kind. The witch and Achmed help Aladdin get the lamp back and together they take on the sorcerer and free the girl and as a nice bonus Aladdin gets a magic castle and the princess, Achmed’s sister.

The adventure surely has all the elements of an exciting fairytale, but somewhere between the very two-dimensional world and the over the top fantastic elements the story itself loses its grip on me. I was not overly interested in this story. I was much more interested in the technical aspects and just kept wondering how on Earth she did it.

The original was lost in Berlin in 1945 as another casualty of a conflict that had nothing to do with the film, but fractions survived abroad and were pieced together in the reconstruction. The film came with an original score by composer Wolfgang Zeller, years before sound film, and that was added to the restored version. There is also a narrated version in English which I did not see. I felt that the version with the score would be closer to the original experience and it certainly fits very well.

“The Adventures of Prince Achmed” should first of all be seen for the technical and artistic achievement it is and that is really reason enough. I believe it deserves its newly acquired spot on The List.