Tuesday 31 March 2015

Madame De... (The Earrings of Madame De...) (1953)

Madame de...
Whatever you might say or think about Max Ophüls you have to admit that he was a pretty good cinematographer. His movies are always very pretty with well-considered camera angles, lighting and expressions on the actors. It is easy to see that he is of the German expressionist school and that he wants the pictures to speak. He also has an affinity for Belle Époque dramas which I suspect is partly due to his Viennese background and partly an excuse to create elaborate costume dramas.

“Madame de…” is all that and if this makes you tick then there is a lot to enjoy in this movie.

I however tend to focus on the characters and the story and in that department Ophüls has a bit of a problem. At least with me.

“Madame de…” is a triangle/costume drama, which means that we have a woman, the Madame without name (Danielle Darrieux and let us just call her character Louise), the husband, Count and General no name (Charles Boyer whom we will call André) and the lover Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica). We also have money, power, frivolity and repression and of course a chance to show off all those dresses and uniforms.

Louise is flirting with everything male, Donati have no qualms courting a woman married to a diplomatic colleague and the General is pretty pissed and wants to shoot Donati.

All the while I do not really care.

None of the characters are able to generate much sympathy from me. Louise is obviously bored and seeks to confirm herself through her flirtations. She is also an act of affected manners, frequent “faints” and idiotic self-pity. It is obvious that she will get herself in trouble and it is just as clear that she has no idea how to get herself out of the trouble except hope that some knight will safe her. Or that maybe her sulking and martyrdom will get her what she wish for. All in all not my kind of woman.

The General is most concerned with the appearance to the world, that he and his wife are presentable. To that end his idea of a marriage is to make it work and keep Louise under control. The method operandi is to keep it simple, play along and let his wife do what she wants within reason. This does not involve much intimacy, neither on the emotional nor on the physical plane. Is a trophy wife really enough? And can you just overrule her feelings, stupid as they may be? No, I do not like him much either, especially since he obviously practice what he forbids his wife.

What about lover-boy Donati? I think we are supposed to have some sympathy for him and certainly de Sica (yes, it is the famous Italian director) has the charm pedal on full throttle, but there is something wrong with him. He is a predator whose target is Louise and he seems to stop at nothing to get her. Until he realizes that she is not entirely honest with him at which point he loses interest and let her rot. As a diplomat he should know better. Even in the Belle Époque diplomacy was delicate to the extent that having a relationship with the wife of another diplomat is big no-no. The implications are just too severe to allow it. Yet Donati does not look back. Nope, he too is an ass.

What these three people do to each other really is no concern of mine.

It seems Ophüls is (again) telling a story about how the ruling class of old is caught between immense power to do whatever they fancy and a rigorous code that allow very little flexibility and in that game women usually come out short. This critique is in a sense in continuation of Renoir’s “La Regle du Jeu”, except that that one was much better. Here I just keep thinking “thank heavens for the divorce”.

If Louise divorced the general and moved in with Donati everything was solved and there would not be a movie. Alternatively when the General is stuck with a sulking and self-pitying wife he could just divorce her. Why should he ruin his (and her) life when clearly their relationship has expired? They have no children, nothing is really keeping them together. Insisting on it just feels so stupid.

You might argue that this movie takes place in a period where divorce is not an option, but it is made in 1953, at a time where divorce is becoming a reasonable thing to do. In that case this movie is a massive argument for divorce as a solution. Except that the movie never explorers that option. Instead it insists that these people are trapped and that is where I jump off. How can I be bothered to care for unsympathetic people who get themselves into trouble and insists to be stuck in it although the situation could be easily solved?

This movie may pretend to tell a story of romantic love, or of an elite trapped in its codes or of women banned from their emotions in a masculine world, but sadly it does not work. Instead I will just sit back and settle for the beautiful cinematography.  

Thursday 26 March 2015

The Band Wagon (1953)

Let På Tå
Vincente Minnelli is back with another musical and readers of this blog will know that that cocktail is not a favorite of mine. True to form “The Band Wagon” is not my cup of tea, but there are things to enjoy as well.

This is, for the n’th time, a musical about setting up a show. What a novel and unique idea! So refreshing when you see something new like this. Ahem… The show is the comeback of former dancing superstar Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) and this is supposed to be a great fireworks of a show. To that end the stage wizard Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) is hired, the man who produce, direct and act blockbusters on the stage.

For an hour we get the usual fare and yes, there is a comical slant, but no, it is not really funny. The music is so-so, some dancing here and there and I am just about to slaughter this musical when something happens. This great Faustian musical with drama, devils, explosions and big elaborate sets turns out to be a huge disaster. It is so funny it is like a jolt of electricity. I sit up straight and for ten minutes I am cracking up. The empty reception at release night is the single most spectacular scene of the entire movie. The cliché is broken and the movie goes a different way, hurrah!

Well, it was not meant to last. The crew decides to change the show and take away all the Faustian elements to produce, well, a conventional show instead. This turn out to be a success and everybody is happy. Back in the rut, but for ten minutes things were great.

I fail to see the point of the conventional show. We are shown a performance from each act and they are all so different from each other that nothing ties it together. What is this show? Random song parade? Individually the acts are fine I suppose, but they leave me unimpressed. I would much rather have watched Cordova’s’ Faustian version. A musical in hell with explosions, there is something you do not see every day.

All is not bleak however. Besides the ten minutes that woke me up “The Band Wagon” offers a number of isolated interesting elements.

It is nice to finally see Fred Astaire in color. I enjoyed him both as an actor and a performer in his earlier movies and he still shines. He may not be as agile as Gene Kelly, but as an actor I much prefer Astaire.

Then there is the fact that “The Band Wagon” is contemporary. That means we get a lot of color images of life in 53. Great trains and cars, cloth and phones and all those things that are fascinating to look at. I really loved those trains. If trains were still like that I would ride them all the time. Except for the inescapable smoke.

I have mentioned the songs being so-so and by that I mean that there are quite forgettable ones and then some that are truly outstanding. There is no way around it, “That’s Entertainment!” is a monster hit and this is the musical that introduced it.

The leading lady of the musical, the one to dance with Astaire and be his romantic interest (of course) is Cyd Charisse. She had a smaller, but memorable part in “Singin’ in the Rain”, but is here upgraded to feature in almost all the dancing acts. I am not a fan of dancing, I have said that countless times. Watching dance is just a bore, but Charisse brings a dark sensuality into it that makes it worthwhile. That may be just a testosteronic interest, but it does help me though the dancing acts.

Talking of dancing acts, Minnelli just could not help it but had to end the movie with an overly long modern dancing act. Okay, it is a take on film noir and yeah, the jazz music is kinda cool, but this is just a friggin’ dance. Get on with the movie, damn it! Minnelli did this in “An American in Paris” and was rewarded with a Best picture award and that I suppose is all the encouragement he needed to repeat that travesty.

All in all this is a musical with some good songs, small segments that are actually funny, nice pictures throughout and clichés queuing up only to be broken by a few surprises near the middle. Is it enough to make it worthwhile watching? It might be. Is it enough to make it great? Nope.

Saturday 21 March 2015

The Bigamist (1953)

Jeg Er Bigamist
”The ”Bigamist” claim to fame is that is one of the earliest films to be directed by a woman who would also be starring it. That woman is Ida Lupino.

I suppose that is enough to make a spot on the List, since so many other firsts of otherwise obscure quality got their place. Fortunately “The Bigamist” has more to offer than exotic novelty. It is actually a decent film with an interesting and unusual story.

Not surprisingly “The Bigamist” is a story about bigamy, the curious and usually illegal situation where a man or a woman is married to two different people at the same time. In most stories this would be some triangle drama with a man or a woman taking a lover and there suddenly be one person too many. This is also the way “The Bigamist” runs, but it plays out differently and the drama is if not absent then taking a different form than usual.

Since this is a movie in the film noir tradition we start near the end and get most of the story in flashback. Harry (Edmond O’Brien) and Eve Graham (Joan Fontaine) is meeting an agent from an adoption agency, Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn). They want to adopt a child and he needs to find out if they are suitable people to receive a child. Harry is a travelling salesman while his wife Eve runs the back office, so Mr. Jordan follows Harry to Los Angeles (from San Francisco) only to find out that he has practically disappeared. Everybody likes him, but nobody know anything about him outside work. Mr. Jordan discovers that Harry sometimes uses the name Harrison and that he under this name has an address in town. He pays him a visit and we get one of the great reveals of the film. Not only is Harry in, he also has a little child and a wife in this home in Los Angeles. That scene is just awesome. The shock reads so clearly in Jordan’s face that it is almost funny. Harry on the other hand seems fatalistic about it and almost relieved that his double life has been exposed. For the better part of the movie he now tells Jordan how it came to pass that he got married to both Eve and Phyllis (Ida Lupino).

Without going into too many details here, Harry was feeling lonely. His relationship with Eve had lost its intimacy and become more of a business relationship, literally, and so during one of his trips to LA he chatted up a girl he met on a bus. It seems quite deliberate on his side, not like an accident, but something he really wanted to do. Only when he had already befriended Phyllis did he seem to realize that this may be a mistake, but at that point he was trapped. Both Eve and Phyllis need him, not economically, but for his care and affection and Harry just cannot get himself to refuse them. He is aware on a larger scale that he needs to break clean with one of them, but every time he is preparing to do so it just seems a wrong and hurtful thing to do. As his urgency become greater so do the women’s need for him. Eve’s father turns ill and dies and Phyllis is getting their baby. He is trapped and cannot get himself to break with any of them and so he spends time in San Francisco and Los Angeles in his two homes with his two wives, none of them knowing anything about the other.

It is of course an explosion waiting to happen, but when it does happen it is different from what you would expect. Mr. Jordan did not turn him in, Harry did it himself. Instead of coming clean with either of his wives he simply resigned from the game and put the cards on the table for the world to judge him. Of course the women were shocked, but no screaming or shouting or throwing accusations or curses ensued. Just sadness. Everybody lost out.

Such an ending may seem anticlimactic, but it is very much in thread with the movie. Ida Lupino never portrays her three characters as evil or deliberately mean. In fact they are all being so nice and decent to each other to a fault. If Harry had not been such a nice guy he might have been able to ditch one of his women, but he just does not have the heart to be cruel although this inaction actually ends up being cruel. He is sucked into this mess until it just implodes.

I find it difficult to dislike Harry. It is so much easier to judge people from the outside. When you are in the situation it is so tempting to avoid the conflict and just try to make everybody happy. Several time I wished he had a little more backbone, but he is not a bad guy. His big mistake was to involve himself with Phyllis in the first place, but even that weakness is kind of understandable. In his situation I think most people would need some sort of company.   

There are essentially only four roles in this movie, but with Joan Fontaine and Ida Lupino the female cast is very strong. Both are well known on the List and both fill their characters very well. Theirs are tragic characters, but they are not played for melodrama, which requires some restraint. Lupino of course, being the director as well, must take extra credit for that. The movie however belongs to Edmond O’Brien. He manages to give his character all the complexity it needs.

The question remains if I liked the movie. I think I respect it more than I liked it. I found it rather painful to watch these three people get more and more mired in this disaster and there were parts I almost could not watch. That however is a credit to the movie, that it manages to hold me engaged with these people, but it is a tough ride. Maybe the ending was a bit flat, though the more I think about it the more it feels right.


Monday 16 March 2015

The Golden Coach (Le Carrosse D'Or) (1953)

After a long absence on the List Jean Renoir is finally back and this time in Technicolor.

I am sure Renoir was not idle in Hollywood, but apparently his golden age was the thirties while he was still in France. Maybe he just had to get back to Europe to find himself again. With “Le Carosse d’or” (or “The Goden Coach”) he is truly back in Europe. It is a French-Italian coproduction filmed in Cinecitta in Rome where the actors are supposed to speak Spanish, but actually speak English. Essentially how movies work in Europe today…

“Le Carosse d’or” is a bit of an oddity. At least I have some difficulty categorizing it. I finally decided it is a comedy, mostly based on a number of farcical scenes and a light mood in many of the scenes. But there is also something else, a gravity that is strangely at odds with the farce elements. So far I have not yet decided if that is good or bad but it does leave me with an uneasy feeling.

The story takes place in some South American town, most likely Peru, in the eighteenth century. An Italian acting troupe has made the journey to the new world, obviously on some false pretense that this would be a super-rich place only to find themselves stranded in a backwater with a pigsty for a theater.

The troupe is an odd mix of actors, singers, musicians and acrobats and comes with a horde of children. The most prominent character in the troupe is Camilla (Anna Magnani) who is a bit of everything and a magnet for the attention of their audience, the men in town and for us, the viewers. It is not because Magnani is classic eye-candy, she is no Ava Gardner or Grace Kelly, but she has a presence like few others. Anna Magnani owns the screen. She is funny, loud, direct, tender and we are soon as much in love with her as all her suitors. Anna Magnani is the primary reason to watch this movie. Last time I saw her was in “Roma, Citta Aperta” and that was a very different kind of movie. Now instead we see her as comedian and that fits her so well.

The troupe soon becomes a big success in town and among the fans are three men who all court Camilla. The first one is Felipe (Paul Campbell), who was arriving in town together with the troupe as some kind of companion. He obviously consider Camilla his girlfriend, but she clearly is not on the same page as he is. Oh, she likes him, but she does not really consider them a thing.

Secondly there is Ramon, the bull fighter (Riccardo Rioli). He is the macho-man who expects everybody to tremble before him and is quite the local celebrity. He wants Camilla as if she was one of the bulls he fights. Since this is mostly a comedy Ramon comes off as a self-indulgent bozo, who is always there at the wrong time being insanely jealous. But in the deeper moments he represents masculinity where Felipe represents love.

The last and most interesting of Camilla’s suitors is the Viceroy himself, played by Duncan Lamont. He goes by the name Ferdinand, but nobody seems to call him anything but the Viceroy. He is a bit of a dandy with his foppish court, which seems to do its utmost to keep up with the standards of the European higher nobility. The Viceroy seems to be all over the place. Sneaking out among commoners in disguise, spending a fortune on an imported golden coach, offhand with his girlfriends and nonchalant toward the courtiers. For him falling in love with Camilla seems to be just another one of those things that happen. For an impulsive type his huge advantage is that he has the power and wealth to act on it and soon he has outmaneuvered the other suitors through simple bribery. Some expensive jewelry, a nice apartment and access to the court and Camilla is all in. To top it off the Viceroy even gives her the golden coach. The Viceroy represents wealth.

Camilla, who is used to scramble for every bit of coin is not one who says no to all these gifts. All those things are actual wealth, not to be dismissed. She also has no sympathy to the troubles of the rich. How can the rich have any problems?

But soon things gets serious for Camilla. The Viceroy may be losing his seat because the nobility is fed up with his squandering their money and bringing in lowborns to the court. He is willing to give it all up for Camilla, but now she knows the ugly games of the wealthy. Ramon is back with none of the softness of the nobility, but offering her a real man. The love of this man however is a prison where she is reserved only for him. Finally Felipe is back from some soldiering in the wilderness. He offers a love none of the others can match, but the price is giving up everything she has. Nothing can she bring with her to the jungle.

What is a girl to do? She refuses them all and in one of the stranger scenes steps out of the film and on to a stage. I am not sure what it all means, but my guess is that she decides that she is first of all an actress and her family is the troupe. She cannot leave that.

I may be wrong in the interpretation. The end was rather confusing to me and although this is supposed to be the deeper part of the movie it also feels like the weakest.

The strongest on the other hand is the bizarre council meeting where the viceroy is storming through the room like a pendulum trying to placate two fuming girlfriends and every time he thinks things are back under control Camilla will play some guitar and throw him into a new fit. This is truly funny to watch and even better with flying wigs and dandy costumes.

“Le carosse d’or” is funny when it wants to be and it is very much borne by a strong performance from Anna Magnani. But it is also a movie that wants to be more than just a comedy and that part feels messy. I enjoyed the movie more than I thought I would, but as for mixing comedy and social critique, a Renoir specialty, he was way better in the thirties with “La Règle du jeu”, “Grand Illusion” and “La Marseillaise”.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Umberto D (1952)

Umberto D.
These are stressful days with work and it has taken a long time to get to this, the next movie on the List.

This movie is “Umberto D”, another Italian neo-realist movie, this time by Vittorio De Sica. De Sica scored a massive hit with “Ladri di biciclette” which was a movie I picked for my top 10 of the forties, so I was hopeful going into this one hoping that he would hit the same nerve.

This time the poor fellow suffering the injustices of the world is an old man, Carlo Battisti as Umberto D. Ferrari, who is alone in the world but for his dog and the maid (Maria-Pia Casilio) of his landlady. The landlady (Lina Gennari) needs his room for personal use and want him to move out with the excuse that he has not paid the exorbitant rent.

Umberto D. tries to raise money but fails and decides to kill himself. It turns out to be hard to find a good place for his dog and in the end the dog saves him from being run over by a train and now both are happy.

That is really all.

To say that I was disappointed by this movie is to put it mildly. I understand that this is about a fellow who has nothing left but his dignity and clings to it desperately and when that is gone there is nothing left. Fine, but I am sorry, it does not work. Umberto comes about as an unpleasant, deluded and quarrelsome old man, permanently at war with the world. I know this type of person, they always need somebody they can fight and Umberto has plenty. Because of this his precious dignity becomes a hollow pride and he acts downright stupid. Frankly I do not like him and in order to root for him and feel the pain of his plight you need at least some sympathy.

A good example is Umberto’s desperate fight to stay in his room. It is so obvious that he cannot stay. The landlady wants him out, the rent is raised beyond his pension and they even trash his room. Take a hint, dude, and find another place. I am pretty sure there are other places with lower rent and nicer rooms where he could stay. Move to a village! Nothing is keeping him in town and it would be good for his dog. But nope, the idiot has decided this is the battle his must fight and win. Nobody is kicking him out!

His expedition to the hospital is also a bit of a mystery. Is he just feeling sorry for himself? Or is it an attempt at avoiding the landlady? He does not seem very sick though. Certainly not when he can run around after his dog.

The relationship between Umberto and his dog Flike is played for full emotional effect. It is a nice dog all right, but the way Umberto deals with it you would think it was his child. Well, there are many people like that and I can respect that, it is okay. Here however it is played to the effect that we must feel sorry for him that he has no human relations so instead his emotional outlet is his dog. When the dog gets lost Umberto goes looking for it as if it was the bicycle in “Ladri di biciclette”. At the city pound he is shocked to see the dogs and there is a clear reference to Nazi gas chambers when he witness a group of docile dogs being send in to be killed. Finding Flike is literally saving its life. It is upsetting but it is also obvious manipulation and because of that it loses its edge.

The neorealist films wants us to pay attention to social and socio-economic problems, whether it be poverty or unemployment or what not. Here I guess it is lonely senior citizens. The trouble is that this guy has decided to be lonely and is just not nice enough to anybody but his dog to really deserve company. The closest thing he has to a friend is the maid. She treats him nicely, but in return he plays the strict father or simply ignores her. Certainly he does not seem particularly concerned with her plight (she is pregnant and the father does not want to recognize her).

I frankly do not understand why this movie has and maintains a place on the List. I recently saw De Sica’s “Miracolo a Milano”, which is a much better and far more interesting film, but alas, not to be found on the List. Switch those two movies. That would be the only logical thing to do.

“Umberto D” is an uninteresting story about an unlikeable old man who wants to kill himself. I did not need to see that.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

High Noon (1952)

There are a number of film that, deserved or not, have won some sort of immortality by entering pop culture and today’s movie “High Noon” is one of those. It is high noon in Hadleyville and the sheriff is standing alone in the street faving four bandits in a showdown that not all will leave alive. See that is a scene that everybody knows and high noon is, I believe, now more a label of a showdown than a time of the day. Well, at least in my world. I never saw this movie before, but this is where it comes from.

This is a great movie, but this iconic scene is not the reason. In fact that is just the climax of a lead up that is some of the most interesting film making I have seen in a long time.

Let me start by the beginning.

Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is the marshal of small town Hadleyville, a nowhere place in the old west. He is getting married to Amy fowler (Grace Kelly) and about to resign his job as marshal when news arrive that Frank Miller will be arriving on the noon train. Frank Miller it turns out used to terrorize the town and Kane made an enemy of him by arresting him. Everybody thought that he would hang, but for some reason he was pardoned and now he is coming back, obviously to settle a score.

Will has quit his job and married a pacifist Quaker, so he leaves town in a hurry, but he has not gone far before he realizes that there is no hiding. Sooner or later he has to face Frank Miller, so better be done with it than live in fear. He returns, picks up his tin badge and figures he will gather a posse and turn him in again, this time for good.

Here is where the movie turns interesting, because Kane is apparently the only one who think that way. We learn that Kane is the reason Hadleyville is safe from bandits yet nobody seem inclined to stand by him.

The first one to abandon him is his newly wedded wife. They are not even married for two hours and she is giving him the choice of her or facing Frank Miller. Will sees this as something that must be done. Frank is a menace and he is coming for him. Frank needs to be stopped and the Marshal is the logical one to do it. Instead of shying away from it Will feels duty bound to face the thread. Amy does not understand that. For her it is much simpler: you do not fight and you do not kill, end. We later learn that both her brother and father were killed in gunfights, so she has some reason to think as she does, but she is singularly unable to see beyond that and is willing to force the issue by walking out on him.

From then on they all flee like rats do a sinking ship. Deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) is convinced that Will not leaving town is a personal attack and criticism on him and is for that reason sore and unwilling to help. Rarely did I see a person less fit to hold an office. The Judge leave town in a hurry. This piss-pot town is not worth risking your neck for. The former sheriff and a man Kane considered his friend considers it a lost cause and refuses to help. Fuller, another “friend”, pretends he is not home when Kane comes calling at the door. In the saloon they miss the good old times when the town was all party and celebrate Frank Millers return rather than fearing it and the minister is sore that Kane chose not to be married in the church.

But the biggest backstab comes from what I believe is the mayor of the town. At first it seems he is supporting Kane, getting people to remember all the good he has done for the town, but then he turns around and essentially says that a gunfight is bad for business and that if Kane leaves so will Frank Miller.

It is interesting how each of all these people have their own excuse for not facing the menace. Principles, cowardice, jealousy, vengeance or ignorance. This may be a western, but the allegory is unmistakable. When a menace arise what do you do? Do you deal with it and do what needs to be done or do you find excuses to avoid dealing with it? This could be Hitler in 1938, Stalin in 1949 or Korea/China in the early fifties. It could be difficult issues in domestic policies or personal problems. This I think is what this movie does exceptionally well. Even if Kane cannot formulate why he is doing it we know he is right. He could have run a way and it might even have been the smart thing to do, but it would not have been right and it would have solved nothing. We also understand all the excuses for not joining the fight, but even the best of them are flawed. Frank Miller will not just go away and closing your eyes does not protect you, tempting as it is.

But the movie does not stop there. As the clock approaches 12 the tension rises and noon itself is like doom. It is effective and dramatic and it is totally Sergio Leone. No, sir, Leone did not invent the high intensity western, he just perfected it. Zinnemann was there a decade before.

With this gorgeous build up the actual gun fight is almost anticlimactic. It is not bad, but it is also not as intense as it could have been and the reason is likely that this scene has been copied and copied well so many times since that we just know what is coming.

Only one person redeems herself and that is Amy. Principle, schmintciples, she cannot just leave Kane and when in the end he needs her that is more important than a principle. For the rest of the lot Will Kane has only disgust expressed perfectly by throwing his tin badge in the dust. A gesture saying more than a thousand words.

Whether or not you agree with the sentiment expressed by the movie it difficult not to be touched by it. Rarely has this very defining American position been told so eloquently and that I think is the real legend of this movie.

That does not change that the movie has so many other things going for it. Gary Cooper was never better as the stoic but fragile marshal. Grace Kelly in her first role on The List presents her role beautifully, but is almost overshadowed by a very dramatic Katy Jurado as Helen Ramirez who is the only other person in town with backbone and a demeanor to match. We have Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney Jr and Lee van Cleef in supporting roles, so yes, I feel spoiled.

And just as icing on the cake “High Noon” boasts one of the best soundtracks of its era. Dimitri Tiomkins theme was recently voted as the 45th best soundtrack ever on Danish National Radio which is very impressive as very few soundtracks on that list were more than forty years old. Personally I cannot get that song out of my head and I hate country and western music…

Another movie that confirms that this is a great and worthwhile project. Definitely top marks from me.