Wednesday 30 October 2013

Double Indemnity (1944)

Kvinden Uden Samvittighed
I always find it difficult to watch movies that I know will end tragically. On an intellectual level they can and often are very pleasing, if for nothing else then because they are in clear minority to the happy ending films. But on a deeper level they trouble me. I suppose it is because I want to root for the characters even when they do not deserve it. Not to root for the characters is to be left floating, uninvolved in the film. But rooting for somebody and see them end in misery is just hard.

“Double Indemnity” is such a film. Do not get me wrong, it is a good film and I like it on many levels, but it is also a classic case of seeing your hero sink. It is not even a surprise. The final deroute is the very opening of the film. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) staggers into an office badly wounded and confess to a recording device that he is the bad guy and that this is the end. So, settled right there.

In a sense it helps. If I had not known of the crime he is about to commit I would probably have liked him even better. He is in fact the epitome of a good, upright can-do guy with both his legs solid on the ground and his wits with him. What brings him down is of course a dame. How could it be otherwise in a noir film? And not just any dame but Barbara Stanwyck in the shape of Phyllis Dietrichson. Stanwyck  made a good impression on me in her earlier films on the list, primarily because her acting is spot on. In “Double Indemnity” it took a while for me to warm up to her. She is supposed to be a seductress who sways Walter from his initial and scornful rejection to actually commit a murder and insurance fraud for her. That would take a lot of power to do that to a guy like Walter and I do not really see it from her. It might be the dowdy 1940’ies style or simply Stanwyck’s age, I do not know. She bags him a little too easy.

Later however, after the deed is done, Stanwyck steps into character. She is the cold and dangerous viper disguised as a fidgety nerve wreck of a woman and that role becomes her. She might not be a top seductress but she is an excellent viper.

In any case Phyllis manages to lure Walter, the insurance agent, into helping her rid herself of her husband and cash in on an accident insurance. Double up by making it a train accident, hence the title. Walter knows all the tricks from his vast professional experience and soon they have committed what they think is the perfect murder on her boisterous, but otherwise innocent husband.

Up to this point I actually managed to root for the guy. Not the dame, she reeks of danger and greed, but Walter, the happy insurance guy. Now I had to extricate myself from him and tell myself that I do not want to involve myself in a murderer.

Fortunately for me and the film in general we now get a third lead: The claims investigator and Walter’s friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Keyes is loud and funny and totally engaged in his job, which he seems to find to be the best job in the world. He is good at it with an instinct that almost makes him smell the foul claims. Edward G. Robinson shines in this role and he is easily the best character in the film. Not because he is the only clean guy, but because he is so engaging. His excitement is contagious as he sniffs out the bad claims and for Walter it must be really painful to see his friend get excited about the Dietriechson claim.

Besides being a story about solving a murder mystery with the murderer right in front of him it is also a love story between the two men. This is really extraordinary for a 1944 film under the Hays Code and while there are no sexual references it is clear from their act and talk that these two men care very much for each other. They are friends a bit beyond friends in a very subtle manner.

“Double Indemnity” is called a quintessential film noir because it can claim all the noir element. Fatal attraction, moral deroute and tons of darkness. That is all fine, but this film is a lot more than just style. It has three great actors and a knife sharp script. The lines come so fast that I sometimes had difficulty keeping up with them and with an edge to cut ice.

In a way that is also a problem with the film. The first third where Walter is getting seduced by Phyllis seems almost too scripted. The jabs and comebacks are the kind you wish you would have said later on but never something that would just spring to mind in an ordinary conversation. That and the out of the blue seduction is definitely the weakest part of the film.

The last part however with Walter and Phyllis feeling the soil burning under their feet is very strong. There is so much tension, sexual and psychological between the three of them that it just has to explode.

It is not my favorite noir, but it is good stuff and certainly worth watching.

Friday 25 October 2013

The Great White Silence (1924)

The Great White Silence
”The Great White Silence” is a film I have been looking forward to see ever since it was announced  it had been included as one of the 1001 movies I had to see before I die.  The subject of the film, the Terra Nova expedition of 1910-13, is one of the most famous expeditions of all time and I had a period some 10 years ago where I was very much into everything Antarctic.  I did not know (or had forgotten) that Scott brought with him a photographer who recorded the expedition for posterity. This was a very pleasant surprise.

Herbert Ponting filmed anything he could get his hands on on this expedition and that was quite a lot. Consider this is 1910, stock is expensive, equipment is primitive and conditions are often dismal. Yet Ponting had plenty to show for the expedition and in 1924 he released a silent edition almost two hours long. It is oddly disjointed as it tries to cover a lot of ground, yet it still works as a narrative for the expedition.

The film covers four subjects. The infrastructure of the expedition, life in camp, naturalism and the ill-fated expedition to the pole. What many people have misunderstood about the Terra Nova expedition is that it was a broad spectrum expedition. The pole mission was only a part of a much larger exploration effort. Ponting spends quite a while filming seals, penguins, whales and skuas to the extent that it almost overwhelms the film. This is partly because the public at home was screaming for footage of penguins but also because this was very much part of the mission.

The infrastructure part (the boat ride, setting camp, demonstrating equipment etc.) is told in an industrious can-do tone that leaves no-one in doubt that this is a competent and well equipped expedition. When focus shifts to life on the ship or in camp the tone is very relaxed and almost resembles home video from a vacation trip. People are dancing, playing football or petting the animals and this happy carefree mood almost spills over into the naturalist part. The wonders of the icebergs and floes, beautiful pancake ice sheets and the antics of the wildlife. There is an apparent enthusiasm and joy that make me want to go and see the same things. This is a photographer who clearly enjoyed what he was doing.

So much more brutal is the shift when we get to the pole expedition. Now the tone is serious and foreboding. Gone is the playfulness and instead we see hard men, long treks and intertitles full of gloom. Ponting has a lot of respect for them and worships his subjects as heroes. There can be no doubt that this film (also) stand as a memorial to the lost expedition members.

Four teams went out and one by one the supporting teams turned home after depositing their supplies as depots. Ponting takes a picture of the last of the supporting teams to return and though standing proud they look frostbitten and exhausted. The last team, Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans got to the pole only to find out that Amundsen had already been there. On the hellish return journey they succumb one by one; Evans on the Beardmore Glacier, Oates leaving the tent with his famous last words “I am just going outside and may be some time” and finally, 11 miles from the one-ton depot and salvation Scott, Bowers and Wilson die in their tent, stuck in a blizzard.

Ponting of course was not part of the expedition to the pole. Instead he arranged a demonstration of the trek as part of a rehearsal near base camp and filmed it. Although the teams had not been assigned yet the team he filmed happened to be almost exactly the polar team. Only Oates was missing. This is as authentic footage as is possible to get without going to the pole yourself!

Besides telling an interesting and compelling story this film also manages to portrait the great white silence which is Antarctica. With his long takes of ice and sea and sky Ponting nails it perfectly. The British Film Institute (BFI) has carefully restored this film, complete with original tinting and through some genius added an excellent soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner. I always thought that “Victorialand” by Cocteau Twins was the perfect soundtrack for Antarctica, but now I have to reconsider. Turner’s track fits Pontings pictures so well that the ambience is near perfect. It is a sublime experience to dive into this film with a headset on and just enjoy. Wow.

On the DVD from BFI is also included Pontings “final” edition from 1933 with his own narration. It is cut down to 72 minutes and tells a much tighter and more conventional narrative, which for the sake of the story is probably preferable, however it is entirely without the magic of “The Great White Silence”. I get fed up with Ponting droning on and it entirely misses the point of presenting this quiet land.

Definitely go for the silent version (with the music).

With its 104 minutes “The Great White Silence” really is full to the brim. However there is one story from the expedition that I really wished there had been space for. In 1911, in the middle of winter, three men, Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard, went on an expedition to Cape Crozier at the eastern tip of Ross Island. The hardship was insane and it was a miracle they survived, all for the purpose of bringing back some Emperor penguin eggs. Cherry-Garrard called it “The Worst Journey in the World” and that was also the title of his book about the Terra Nova expedition. I can highly recommend that book.

Hardships or not, Antarctica is a beautiful place and Ponting’s film is a captivating window to that magical and forbidding place. I would so much like to visit it someday. Yes, that is my dream.

Saturday 19 October 2013

Ivan the Terrible Part I + II (Ivan Groznyj) (1944)

Ivan den Grusomme
So, yet another airport review, this time from Beijing. That means plenty of time to watch movies and contemplate them, but no internet to verify the facts and spelling of exotic names. Well, so be it.

The mammoth assignment this time is Eisensteins 2/3 epic on Ivan the Terrible. Mammoth because the total length is 3 hours and because it feels very long. 2/3 because Stalin did not like the second part so Eisenstein got barred from making the third and final act.

The story of Ivan the Terrible is one of brutal struggle for power. The high and mighty of 16th century Russia were playing a game of thrones at the expense of everything else. It is an interesting if brutal story for anybody with an inkling of interest in history. At that time an echelon of nobles called the “Boyar” was effectively running the country. They did so with less interest in the common good than in their personal gain. With a divided Russia they were free to do much as they pleased. Into this oligarchic free-for-all steps the prince Ivan. He is the royal heir, but he want to be more than a figurehead. He wants to concentrate power in a strong leader (himself) for the benefit of the country in general and against the vile neighbors who threaten the borders and sovereignty of Russia specifically. He wants to be Czar, the Russian equivalent of an Emperor. This of course happens at the expense of the greedy Boyar who are less than pleased with the prospect of a strong central power. The story of Ivan the Terrible is basically the story of this struggle and how Ivan crushed and abolished the Boyar class.

In those days (the 20’ies to the 40’ies and beyond, not the 16th century) the Russians did not make movies without ulterior motives. In this case Russia was fighting a deadly war against Germany and had a need to be strong and united against the foreign foe. The modern equivalent of Ivan the Terrible is of course Stalin and the Boyar are partly the feudal lords the communists dispensed with in the revolution, partly seditious elements in the Soviet state that Stalin was constantly fighting, real or imagined. This message comes through quite clearly in this film. Unfortunately for Eisenstein he got a little too close to the truth. The Boyar may be the bad guys, but Ivan does not hold back and use secret police, executions without a court and nasty little games of his own. Stalin was not so pleased. He pulled the plug when the second film was ready and banned it. It was only presented for the public in 1958 after both Stalin and Eisenstein was gone. As far as I can tell Eisenstein did not make any more films.

Eisenstein, the king of the montage, was big in the twenties. His films were admired all over the world and even today they are at least technically impressive. Unfortunately in my opinion he never made the step to the talking picture. “Ivan Grozny” is by and large a silent film with audio. This may sound like a contradiction and that is also at the core of the problem. You cannot really combine the two. Well, not unless your name is Charlie Chaplin. “Ivan Grozny” is filmed like a silent movie with exaggerated expressions whether facial or physical. The acting is totally over the top as if all their communication must come through visually. You would almost think that Eisenstein had forgotten that he actually had sound available and could let the actors communicate verbally as well. Not that they do not, but it is not conversation as such, nobody actually “talks”, they all declare. Together with the exaggerated gestures it all come through very theatrical and melodramatic and is borderline comical. Personally I refuse to believe that a strong, powerful and ruthless leader like Ivan would throw himself dramatically on the floor or sidelong in a chair because he was lacking friends. He may have had his issues, but here he is seriously manic-depressive. In parts I am reminded of my previous film, Henry V, in that it almost appear as if Eisenstein was presenting the story of Ivan the Terrible as a Shakespeare act and like with “Henry V” this does not really go down well with me.

The problems are worst in the first part, which dragged forever. In the second part there is more drama and action and (slightly) less speeches and that helps. After the first film I was ready to declare the film a failure but it did redeem itself some in the second part.

If the film can be believed Russia was quite a dump in the 16th century. Even the members of the ruling class were unshaven, wild-haired tramps and Ivan was no better. With his long greasy hair and stiff beard he looks outright disgusting. Add to that his tantrums and he could be mistaken for an asylum inmate on the run. Maybe a Jesus figure? Unlikely in staunchly atheist Soviet. The castles are bleak affairs with cold stone, low doors and hardly any decoration. It is cold on the top and not much better below. Or outside. In fact all foreigners look far more pleasing than any Russian and they come through as a barbaric bunch. I doubt that was the intension.

Finally a word about the Boyar. They are really vile, especially Ivan’s aunt. She is fiercely scheming to place her half-wit son on the throne. He is a lapdog and would effectively put her on the throne. He appears the fool, yet he speaks the most intelligent lines of all in the film when he asks his mother why she is so eager to place him on the throne and push him to his death, to which she has no good answer or when he asks Ivan why anybody would want the throne when it is a cold and dangerous place. See, from fools, drunkards and children you will hear the truth.

Thursday 10 October 2013

Henry V (1944)

Henrik den Femte
”We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, be he ne’r so base and gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhood cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day!”

Thus goes the most famous of quotes from Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, one of its main contributions to world cultural heritage.

See, I do not diminish or scorn Shakespeare. He was a giant and still is. Yet he is not my cup of tea.

At the risk of universal scorn and outrage I admit to generally avoiding Shakespeare. Oh, his stories are absolutely great and often founds the basis of almost any storytelling since, no doubt of that. It is the form I am objecting to. Shakespeare’s plays were written for the stage 400 years ago. They are to be declared rather than acted and by some common consensus must be using the exact phrasing as it was written by Shakespeare. That makes me very very tired. I find it difficult to keep my focus and I am constantly lost to what is actually going on. Call me a plebeian, there you have it.

Still Shakespeare is kept in such high regard that until fairly recently it was considered sacrilege to change much or adapt even the wording of his plays and if you acted or produced a play of Shakespeare you could be almost certain of praise and acclaim and likely a little golden statue of some denomination would find your way. Thus both on the stage and in the cinema the Shakespearian theater has flourished in almost unchanged form, usually without me as audience.

Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V” is all that. Since I never read “Henry V” I cannot say this with any certainty, but if someone told me that this version is word for word the original play, I would believe him. This is what it feels like. Encumbered by this dialogue it moves forward at a snail pace. Dialogue is maybe not the right term. Sequential monologues would be more fitting.

Yet, Olivier does make an interesting deviation from the form. To begin with the movie is an act of theater itself. It takes place around 1600 in the Globe Theater in London complete with costumes spectators. A movie of a play acted on a stage. This is almost meta. My first thought was that what he really wanted was to play this exactly as it was written, on a stage, declared to the audience and without even moving the performance to present times. A truly purist rendition. But then, after the initial acts, the stage is gradually transformed to the likeness of reality. It is now less a play and more a movie and the transition is so smooth we hardly notice it before the king boards a ship in Southampton. If only the dialogue had made the same transition…

The problem of course is that change of scenery does not alone make “Henry V” less theatrical. The artificial permeates every scene and not only from the script. The painted backgrounds, the spotless costumes and even the garish colors all contribute. The climax, the battle of Agincourt itself is almost comic in its stylized battle scenes and pompous knights, colorful as peacocks riding into battle. We even got a Homerian one-on-one battle between the commanders of the two armies with an audience of soldiers forming a ring around them to watch as if this was the battle of Troy. The battle is a mess and I got totally confused. Who won? Well, the English we are told. How? No idea. They just did.

As you, my dear reader, will have noticed by now the faults I find with this film all harken back from its source, the fact that this is literally a play by Shakespeare. If you are a Shakespeare nut you are going to love this film. If not, well, then you are in my shoes. However if you have to make a movie version of a Shakespeare play and are confined to do it as literally as possible then you could hardly do it better than Olivier did. It is beautiful. It is dramatic. It has all the Shakespearian flavor you might want. In that sense this is a very successful film, no complaints.      

Then of course there is the context of this film. 1944, England, WWII and the upcoming invasion of Normandy. This is a call to arms. Your country needs you to fight a war, fair and just, to valiantly follow your commander across the Channel into France where a fearsome enemy waits who will likely outnumber you. But you, English soldier, you will hold the moral upper ground so victory is yours if you stand by your cause.

”We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, be he ne’r so base and gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhood cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day!”

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Gaslight (1944)

I am on a roll of good films at the moment. “Gaslight” is another one in this sweep of good and entertaining movies. In fact it has been awhile since I have been this much caught up in a story as I was last night watching “Gaslight”.

The key word is suspense. “Gaslight” is a psychological thriller that really manages to get in under my skin. In a sense it is very much a Hitchcock film although this is not his film but George Cukor’s. A woman is in the power of a diabolical man, who pretends to be normal, only we know better. Her ally is a policeman who helps defeat the man and with whom there is some degree of romantic interest. This is not a new story. Hitchcock did this in “Sabotage” and “Shadow of a Doubt” and doubtless there are countless more films with variations over this plot line.

What makes “Gaslight” special and worthy of seeing is the drama unfolding between newly wedded Paula and Gregory Anton (Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer). I knew upfront that Gregory was a rotten apple so there is hardly much spoiler in revealing that. Though in the beginning I was a bit cross with the Book for giving me that piece of information. Cause Gregory starts out being the nicest guy in the world. He is courting Paula Alquist in Italy where she is recovering after her aunt and foster parent Alice Alquist got murdered in their home in London. She is in love with him and he is so smooth. He manages to get married to her and convinces her to move back to the house in London. From this point on he starts turning Paula’s life into hell. Not in any outright manner but by convincing her that she is losing her mind. He is very effective and Paula doubts herself more and more. This is glorious. We know he is playing tricks with her and yet she does not see it. Indeed she continues to love and trust him right up till the end. Yet a part of her clings on to sanity and refuses to believe the reality he is imposing on her. Effectively he is keeping her isolated from the outside world, a prisoner in her own home and if not by the trick then by sheer isolation, she is going nuts.

Gregory’s objective? I will not reveal that here.

Boyer is elegant and creepy at the same time, diabolical and suave, and he is totally on top of Paula, even to the degree of flirting with the maid in Paula’s presence. Bergman, well, to begin with I felt she was overacting, being too transparent and melodramatic, but as she starts doubting herself in her imposed craziness she becomes more and more convincing and as the act is drawn out and she sinks deeper into the mud it becomes almost unbearable. She does not seem to be in physical danger, but something worse, tormented without knowing she is tormented she cannot fight back.

To the rescue comes Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), a police detective who were fascinated (in love?) with the murdered Alice Alquist and therefore cannot let go of this otherwise long buried cold case. I like Joseph Cotten (Words insists his name is Cotton) very much. In “Shadow of a Doubt” he really won me over and he has come to represent quality. No less here where he underplays the detective. His problem is just that his part of the story is weaker. From the moment we find out he is a police detective we know he will come to Paula’s rescue. We just do not know how. Unfortunately his investigations are limited to a “I’ve got a hunch about this, there is something fishy about Gregory Anton”. That is a bit unsatisfying. To its defense it leaves more space for the drama between Boyer and Bergman and that is the greatest asset of the film anyway. In a way one could say that Cameron is simply the wakeup call Paula needs to snap out of her stupor and into action. Gregory may be caught by Cameron but he is stripped down by Paula and this is the satisfying comeback. He has a lot to pay for. Also it is only hinted at that Cameron may have a romantic interest in Paula. Frankly I think he is more in love with the image of her aunt than Paula in her own right and that makes him a lot more interesting. I am frankly a bit sick of romantic policemen who cannot separate their love life from their job.

“Gaslight” also features two noteworthy supporting characters. One is the matronly Bessie Thwaites (Dame May Whitty) who is terribly busy with other people’s lives. She is frankly a bit annoying but in a wonderful way. She has absolutely no restraints and is almost the funny sidekick. As it is, her role in the story is to accentuate Paula’s isolation. Even Bessie cannot get access to her and find out what is going on and she knows EVERYTHING about everybody.

The second character is the maid Nancy. She is instructed by Gregory to support the isolation of Paula, but she also the source of information for Cameron as he has placed an “irresistibly handsome” policeman to patrol in front of the house. What is special about Nancy is that this is in fact Angela Lansbury in her film debut, only 17 years old. She may not be the prettiest Hollywood actress ever, but there is always a lot of quality to her acting and I much enjoy her films. Great to see her so young at the opening of her career.

“Gaslight” is top class psychological suspense with first rate actors and a cinematography that exactly nailed the oppressive atmosphere. I enjoyed myself and today I love my little pet project very much..