Monday 31 August 2015

The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) (1954)

De Syv Samuraier
Here is a movie I have been looking forward to for a long time. “Seven Samurai” is legendary and one of the few movies from this period I have seen before, though so many years ago that, as I found out, I remembered very little from that first viewing. As it happened it also turned out to be a more difficult movie to get hold of than anticipated. The boxset of Kurosawa samurai classics I had ordered never showed up and I had to reorder it. Somewhere out there in the postal limbo a totally awesome boxset is floating around…

As I already mentioned the reputation of “Seven Samurai” is immense. It is frequently mentioned as one of the best movies ever and particularly one of the best westerns ever, which is curious considering this is a samurai film. It is a movie that has been referenced countless times and remade in numerous incarnations. This can only disappoint. No movie is that good.


“Seven Samurai” is exactly as good as its reputation and probably even better. Whether or not it is the best of Kurosawa I leave unsaid till I have watched the rest of his entries in the Book, but it is better than both “Rashomon” and ”Ikiru” and they were both worthy movies.

The story in “Seven Samurai” is deceptively simple as all good stories actually are. A village of farmers is so fed up with bandit raids that they hire a band of samurai to protect them. The samurai are so successful at their job that they transform the village not only into a fortress, but also a cohesive unit so that when the bandits finally attack they are able to repel the attack. That is it.

It is everything in between that are complex and makes this such an excellent movie.

First of all there is the length of the movie. At little more than three hours “Seven Samurai” was longer than I remember and it may be that I got an uncut version. Normally that would mean a super complex story (eg. epic scale) or a lot of excess fat. In this case it allows Kurosawa to build characters and to explain the workings of Japanese life in the 16th century, especially concerning the relations between farmers and samurai.

The first third of the movie follows a band of farmers trying to hire samurai. This is an extremely daunting affair. Farmers are very low caste and the profile they present is of simple, stupid and cowardice characters. Samurai on the other hand is the warrior caste. They are strong, honorable and smart. Normally they would enter into the service of a nobleman or, at times of war, a warlord. For them to enter into service of a farming village, working for food, is unheard of. It is demeaning to this proud class who seems to value its honor so much. What kind of samurai would accept such a job? But the farmers do find a band of samurai willing to work for them. Samurai who define honor differently. What Kurosawa, who was of samurai stock himself, is saying is that it is not the farmers who exists for the samurai, but the samurai who exists for the farmers. That the army, bureaucracy and politicians are there for the people and not the other way around. A message eerily similar to that of “Ikiru”. For a post war Japan it is also a redefinition of the meaning of samurai, a reinterpretation of the Bushido code, away from senseless war heroics and toward dedicated and worthy servitude.

Each of the samurai have their own distinct character. Particularly noteworthy are Kambei (Takashi Shimura) the leader of the band, a man who is introduced as one who cares less about the symbols of honor (he shaves off his topknot) and more about behaving honorably. He is the father figure and the natural leader. Katsushirō (Isao Kimura) is a very young samurai, star struck by the more experienced samurai and eager to become an apprentice to Kambei. Because of his youth and relative innocence we observe much of the movie from his point of view. Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) is the quiet master swordsman, the archetype of skill personified while Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) is the exact opposite, jovial, high spirited, but better at cutting wood than enemies. And then there is Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune). He appears as a clown, a farmer posing as a samurai (something which would have been immensely dangerous at the time), wild, crazy, simple and unreliable. But as the movie wears on he becomes the connection point between the village and the samurai. He alone for all his craziness understands both world and despise them both.

That brings us to the second act, the preparation of the village. Beneath the planning, training and building of fortifications we get a unique view into both village and samurai life at the time. We realize how deep the gulf is between the two groups and how it is almost impossible to bridge that gulf. One example is Katsushiro’s doomed courting of a village girl and another is Kikuchiyo’s hopeless in-between character. If Katsushiro shows us the farmer/samurai schism through his innocence, Kikuchiyo shows it to us through bitterness. They are brought together, farmers and samurai, by common need, not love, and while they gain an insight into each other’s worlds the gap is too wide. In times of peace farmers just have no need of leeching samurai.

Then the bandits attack and for an hour we get some of the best and most iconic battle scenes ever filmed. Fighting with big knifes is a gruesome affair and watching a mob of farmers hunt down isolated bandits with picks, spears and farming tools is outright horrifying. There is something absolutely fascinating about watching fighting Japanese style. Everybody is running, there is a lot of shouting and death comes swift and without mercy. The battle unfolds much as planned by the samurai revealing their supreme skill and experience, but it is the small things that always go wrong in battle. Accidents, desperate shots, uncontrolled mobs or horses. You may wish for that epic duel, but reality is that even the best samurai is killed by a stray bullet.

As slow and observing the filming is in the two first acts as fast and energized it is in the last. Kurosawa keeps the tension going for the last hour through the undulations of the battle waves where even the troughs have that unrestful tension of waiting for death. This is just amazing.

Kurosawa created an exciting and very watchable movie that still holds up today, but he also commented on and redefined the samurai caste and the warrior culture that had led Japan into disaster in the first half of the twentieth century. What is real bushido and is there room for that in a modern country? Kurosawa the social commentator showed the way.

Saturday 22 August 2015

Silver Lode (1954)

Silver Lode
There seems to be an entire subset of movies from the fifties that refers to the McCarthy purges. “Silver Lode” is yet another one of those. I understand that this was a particularly traumatic period in Hollywood with everybody looking over their shoulder in case somebody would point a finger at them for being a dirty commie and get blacklisted and it is only natural that this should spill over into a number of the productions. Some of these got the reference quite good (Johnny Guitar, High Noon), while others seem to confuse the issue (On the Waterfront, despite being an excellent movie). Silver Lode falls into this last category. What the experience definitely gave Hollywood was an acute insight into mob mentality and how you may suddenly find yourself very much alone when the tide turns against you.

In “Silver Lode” this mob mentality image is set in the old West, which is a clever choice. Partly because there is a history of vigilance in those parts and partly because it provides a believable microcosm that the viewer would find very familiar. The best movie on mob-madness I still consider to be “The Ox-bow Incident”, but where that movie in some parts lost its pace there is no such deficiency in “Silver Lode”. This is intended to be an action drama with a dash of suspense and it works very well at that, though at the price of being rather heavy handed in hammering home the points.

“Silver Lode” is a color movie from the little studio “Republic” who specialized in Westerns. The List has already included quite a few of their movies, so they had a pretty good touch on the genre. In this case we find a wedding on a 4th of July holiday invaded by a US Marshall (Dan Duryea) when he arrests the groom (John Payne) for murder and theft. The groom, Dan Ballard, has lived in Silver Lode for two years and is very well liked and respected so when the Marshal throws these accusations at him they are throwing up a wall around him.

Slowly however Marshall Fred McCarty manages to convince the villagers that Ballard is indeed a murderer and when the suspicion takes hold it spreads like a bush fire. In no time the entire town is ready to gun down Dan Ballard.

Sometimes a director likes to keep us uncertain if the accused is indeed guilty and I like it like that. Not this movie however. The uncertainty last only for a few minutes before we are convinced of Ballard’s innocence and that McCarty is not person he claims to be so no need for a spoiler tag here. It is very clear who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. What is a lot more interesting is how the surroundings react. In a very real sense they are actually the true bad guys.

The strength of this movie is in how effectively it gives us a character who is striving to prove his innocence, but in the eyes of his surroundings just looks more and more guilty. There is a direct line from this movie to “The Fugitive” and “The Hunt” in this respect, with the addition that “The Hunt” also has the mob element (I actually consider “The Hunt” a remake of “Silver Lode”). Ballard is thwarted every step of the way by McCarty, who builds up a progressively stronger case against him with a particularly low points when the town Sheriff is killed, apparently by Ballard.

As I mentioned the pace is good and the story effective so it is one of those movies where time just flies by and that is a quality all on its own.

Where the movie is less successful is in the ham fisted way the points are presented. McCarty is so repulsive a character that it ought to make somebody think twice about his identity and his charges. When the townsfolk learn that he has hunted Ballard for two years and that the murder victim was McCarty’s brother they must have realized that there was a personal element to this “arrest” that was decidedly unhealthy. In short, the townsfolk react just a trifle too stupidly to be completely believable. At the same time Ballard acts all the way through as the perfect gentleman, so innocent and clean that he makes a boy scout look like a ghetto gangster. You would think a guy in his shoes would lose it, but Ballard keeps cool. Even cornered up in the church tower you hardly sense any desperation. Dr. Kimble in “The Fugitive” was a master in keeping cool, but he always had a plan and thought two steps ahead. Ballard’s “plan” hinges on getting a message through on the wire to confirm that McCarty is no Marshall and meanwhile stay alive. Considering that the telegraph operator has no intention of wasting his time with such a message this is not really much of a plan and I think he ought to be quite desperate.

The references to the purge are also so in your face that you have to be an idiot to miss it. McCarty is of course Senator McCarthy, duh, and the personal vendetta disguised as official business is pretty clear as well. This is decidedly un-elegant.  

Despite all these clear references I think the movie confuses the point a bit. “Silver Lode” makes it a question between good and bad with the trick being to recognize which is which. The problem with the McCarthy purges was the process rather than the issue. Whether you were protecting your country or believing in reform was not a case of black and white, but the public defamation was and the policing of opinions. In “Silver Lode” one side is ultimately right and the other is ultimately wrong, but, yeah, the control of mob sentiment is right so it gets points for that.

As pure entertainment this movie is really alright and something I would not mind seeing again. I am just afraid that the ham-fistedness would get to annoy me so much that it would spoil the fun. Still Duryea makes a great villain and that is good enough for me.

Saturday 15 August 2015

The Wanton Countess (Senso) (1954)

Sansernes Rus
After ”La Strada” I continue with an Italian film ”Senso”, but that is also almost the only thing these two film have in common. I know the director Luchino Visconti only from the surprisingly good and convincing “Ossessione” from 1943 and I suppose I expected something in the vein of Italian neorealism, a style “Ossessione” was a precursor for. “Senso” however is in many ways a very different experience. And then again maybe not.

Let me start with the positives.

This is a divinely beautiful film. Italy in Technicolor is a gorgeous place and this movie uses locations to great effect. I have become so used to the bleak scenery of neorealism that I had almost forgotten how beautiful a place Italy is. Instead poor people in the slums we are watching the elite in the most romantic surroundings imaginable and the crazy thing is that it is not even a fake über-romantic studio set, but actual real life Venice, an Italian opera, a real manor in the countryside and the old town of Verona we see. This is what reality also looks like and it takes your breath away. Honestly everybody owe themselves one time their life to take their loved one to Venice. Touristed as it may be there is no more romantic place in the world. Trust me on that, I have been to a Leonard Cohen concert on Piazza San Marco with my wife and strolled arm in arm on deserted paths along the canals at night. You just cannot beat that.

Add to that period settings in gorgeous colors, uniforms, dresses, paintings, flowers, you name it, and this is truly a feast for the eyes. Ah, and the glazing on the cake, the gorgeous Alida Valli as leading lady Countess Livia Serpieri. I know her from “The Third Man”, but that movie did not do her justice. Technicolor loves her and as was mentioned in the extra material, she was the sweetheart of every Italian man in that era. I can believe that. Oh, my…

Second thing I notice right from the beginning is that this is a movie where the characters speak the language they are supposed to speak. Italians speak Italian and Austrians speak German and I even sense a hint of Austrian inflection. This pleases me greatly and it immediately gives the movie 100 points in its favor right off the bat. Okay, Farley Granger is an American and it may feel odd to give him an Italian and German voice, but he is playing an Austrian officer in Italy and that is what matters. I wish a lot more producers would have the courage to be that consequent in such matters.

As you can already tell this movie has a lot going for it, but then we get to the plot.

Frankly, half way through the movie I was ready to denounce the movie for its plot and acting style. This was melodrama of the worst kind and no fancy wrapping could save it. But the movie takes a most spectacular turn with the last act and whether intended or not goes in a direction that seems to criticize the very elements I was having problems with.

The year is 1866. Countess Serpieri (Valli) is involved with the independence and unification movement in Venice that eventually led to the unified Italy under Garibaldi. Her cousin Roberto Ussoni is arrested during a happening at the opera in Venice and Serpieri is trying to prevent a duel between Ussoni and the Austrian officer (Granger as Lieutenant Mahler) he insulted. Serpieri is married to an old count, who disagrees with her political involvement, and I guess for the hot blooded Countess he is a bit of a bore. Certainly it takes no time for the Countess to fall in love with Lieutenant Mahler. Soon they have a fully-fledged affair going with a secret apartment at their disposal in Venice.

As war comes closer Serpieri leaves town and is entrusted with a gold treasure intended to finance the campaign against the Austrians, but when Mahler shows up at their manor she is so anxious to keep him out of harm’s way that she lets him talk her into giving him the gold treasure so he can bribe a doctor to declare him unfit for military service.

Up to this point the Countess is behaving and acting as belonging in a Max Ophuls period piece. She is so much in love, the officer is soooo handsome in his white uniform and she totally loses her head. One thing is that she is cheating on her husband and boring and old as he may be that is just the price of money and security. She does have an obligation there that she is letting down. Then again I suppose some flirting on the side made life bearable in those stuffy marriages. What is a lot worse is that she is throwing away her moral integrity, not by loving an enemy soldier, when it has to be I actually admire that, but by spending the money so many people depend on, on her love interest. It shows how much she is a victim of her emotions, but it also reveals her as a failure as a person and at this point I could not care less for her.

Then we get the twist and I better cry SPOILER ALERT! The whole thing backfires on Livia Serpieri when it turns out that Mahler is a spineless womanizer who sucked her dry of money and in terms of moral and human integrity is absolutely worthless. This is what Serpieri has thrown away everything for. We get the best scenes of the entire movie when she seeks him out in Verona and find him in decadent luxury with a young (much younger than the Countess) girl and only mockery for Serpieri. This is total humiliation and degradation. I cannot help but seeing this as the price she pays for her betrayal. Not of some religious penalty for debauchery, but for losing her senses and throwing her head and all integrity away. It is cheap, I know, but somehow I feel vindicated. Too many movies celebrate this “follow your dream and to hell with consequences” ideal, but here is a movie that lets the world come crashing down on a person who does exactly that. A handsome officer in a dashing uniform may generate romantic dreams, but is this reality?

This actually points directly back to “Ossesione”, which, when you think about it, tells exactly the same story.

The melodrama gets very thick, the acting is heavy handed in the silent tradition, but though it annoyed me at the time I see it now merely as tools to tell the story, a story of people who loses everything as victims of their emotions.

I liked this movie better than I expected and even if you do not care for the story see it for the pictures. It is a beautiful beautiful movie to look at. Or even better, visit Italy. I will be going there in less than a month.

Sunday 9 August 2015

The Road (La Strada) (1954)

La Strada

I am sorry to say it, but ”La Strada” is not my favorite movie ever. Not even close.

This movie was recommended to me and everything I have heard and read about it had prepared me for a movie that should knock the socks off me. Not to mention the ton of prizes and general recognition it has won. Sadly it did not click with me. In fact I find it hard to see what makes this movie exceptional and that makes me question what I got out of it. Somehow I feel that I missed something.

“La Strada” is about a street performer, Zampano (Anthony Quinn) and his sidekick, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina). Zampano bought Gelsomina from her mother for 10.000 lire and feels that he owns her. He is a brutal giant of a man and it is telling that his one act is to break a chain with his chest. Gelsomina is an odd character, dreamy and sensitive, but also supposed to be simple, naïve and submissive. In that sense I suppose they fit each other.

Zampano trains Gelsomina to assist him with simple chores and she makes people laugh dressed up as a clown. Together they travel around performing in the streets and at festivals large and small, living in Zampano’s cramped and smelly motorbike van.

Soon Gelsomina gets fed up with Zampano’s brutality and she wants to leave him. She is not successful and soon she is back under the boot. In fact this is repeated a number of times. She could have left with a circus, stayed with a convent or left with the Fool (Richard Basehart), but she always stay with Zampano. The Fool in particular offers a way out and though infatuated by him he also offers her the explanation why she is staying with Zampano. According to The Fool Gelsomina and Zampano need each other and that that is the purpose of their lives and so Gelsomina stays. 

Then eventually Zampano in one of his usual fits of fury kills the Fool and Gelsomina loses it completely. From then on she is completely stuck in an internal world of grief. Zampano gets sick of this and leaves Gelsomina on a cold day wrapped up in blankets. 

Years later Zampano finds out that Gelsomina eventually died of her grief and then also Zampano breaks down.

Ah well.

I understand that this is something about fatalism, about believing that somebody is meant for each other and about realizing that this is so. In this case Gelsomina comes to terms with her fate after talking with the Fool and the boneheaded Zampano only realizes this years later when he finds out she is dead.

I find this kind of fatalism both tragic and more than a little silly, though I know it is a core religious thought to find and settle on a meaning with the life you have. What I see in this movie is a woman kept in a slave like relationship by a brutal man who finds an outlet for his own frustrations in violence. He does not need Gelsomina, he needs a dog. Someone he can kick and yell at, but will remain faithful and lick him in the face no matter how it is treated. This is role he gives Gelsomina. 

Gelsomina on the other hand does not need Zampano. She needs something like the convent or the social network of the circus. People who will accept her as she is and treat her with respect. Yet she misses every opportunity to leave Zampano. The belief that she belongs to Zampano and that they need each other is false and simply an excuse for failure. Nothing ties them together. No children, no marriage, no law, nothing. She should have left him long ago and there were plenty of opportunities.

One can argue that Gelsomina is a simple person and it is hinted at that she should be to some extent retarded and that this is why she chooses the simple but stupid solution to stay with Zampano, but I do not buy that. At critical points she is very lucid indeed and fully aware who she is and what she is doing. She may be a dreamer, but stupid she is not. Instilling the fantasy in such a person that she should belong to Zampano seems to me the greater violation here and the Fool is the guilty one as well as Gelsomina herself. The scene where she leaves the convent and cries is heartbreaking because I know she knows that this is where she belongs.

So what is the message here? That fate is written and we better face up to it? Or that some people are abused in the name of fate? Or that we are supposed to feel sorry for people who believe in fate or, in extension of that, in bullies that are just too stupid to treat people properly?

Probably because of my lack of empathy for the people involved I did not feel engaged in this movie. Not like” The Bicycle Thieves” or “Roma, Open City”. This may be a Fellini thing. I recently saw “I Vitelloni” and that also left me cold. The Book writes that this is the directors most loved and accessible movie and that does not bode well for the many Fellini movies down the road for me. I can only hope the book is wrong.

There are positives though. Both Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina are doing an excellent job with their roles. Both are making quite unique personalities believable. Masina does things to her face and body language that makes her look like a natural clown and that is downright eerie.
I also think the production value is high considering the tight budget this movie was made on. They did well with their limited resources.

Ultimately however I think that somewhere between the dismal settings, depressing story and a point that eludes me (unless I am right that this is an unsympathetic story about fatalism) I just did not like this movie. I am all for social message films, but this one just made me angry with the characters and ultimately the director and that I doubt is the point.

Sunday 2 August 2015

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

Den Barfodede Grevinde

This has been a crazy week. I have been in Istanbul to teach our software and in the evenings I have had two major projects to deal with. That means little sleep and almost no movie time. Fortunately there is waiting time in the airport and so I managed to squeeze in “the Barefoot Contessa” after all. Home again I have to connect the pieces into a whole movie and that actually happens to be what this movie is all about.

“Citizen Kane” was not made in vain. Certainly the team behind “The Barefoot Contessa” saw and studied that movie forwards and backward because structurally and thematically this is a total rip-off. Not saying this is a bad movie, not at all, but you cannot help thinking that they wanted to do a new version of “Citizen Kane”, but this time in color and about an enigmatic movie actress instead of a media mogul.  As far as I can see people have busied themselves guessing who the real actress may be, but my guess is that this is a collage of the fates of several different actresses. The lives of these actresses were rarely easy.

The story starts at the funeral of Maria Vargas, alias Maria D’Amata, now Contessa Torlato-Favrini (Ava Gardner), totally in parallel with Citizen Kane. We now get the story of her rise and fall told by and from the viewpoint of three people close to her and heavily involved in said rise and fall. With such a start we know that we are in for a tragedy and that sort of put a lid on the mood. It is a fatalistic movie because we know where it ends. What we do not know, at least not immediately, is that this is a beautiful tragedy and a very romantic one.

It is incidentally also my main complaint with the movie that the romantic element is played too far. This story gets a bit sticky at times and we have to buy that this otherwise hardboiled realist is at heart a naïve romantic the way we learn that Charles Kane at heart just longed for that lost childhood represented by the sled. I am struggling a bit with that. Well, fortunately this story is not entirely sappy and that is in part due to the borrowed storytelling technique and the quality of the actors.

The key people here are of course the narrators with the addition of a few others. Humphrey Bogart’s character, the director Harry Dawes start out narrating the first part and that is just genius. This is pure “Casablanca”, noir and romantic at the same time and his voice was made for narration. Dawes is in Madrid together with billionaire Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens) and his PR guy Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien, second narrator) to scout a “new face” for the movies. The woman they find is Maria Vargas, a local flamengo dancer. Edward wants to go into movies and is setting up a team. He is weird to the extent of being a psycho and I guess this is a nod toward Howard Hughes. Somehow he is dealing with his issues by making movies. His character is interesting and I actually thought that he would play a larger role in the movie, but actually he is here mainly to show that his possessive nature has no effect on Maria Vargas. She cannot be owned. 

Maria is an odd mix of dreamer and realist. She is extremely independent and refuses all intimate contact with a barrier she raises to the world. She is like that with Edwards and his replacement, the South American playboy Alberto Bravano (an almost unrecognizable Marius Goring), her mother as well as the media and public in general. She is the ice queen. Yet she longs for and needs something else. One part of it is her prince, the one person who can unlock her and to whom she needs to raise no barrier. Another is a more physical thing. It is never really explained but it appears when she dances, when she goes to the gypsy camp, the mysterious lover (her cousin?) in the changing room or her flings in her marriage. I am not sure exactly what this is, but it could be a physical aspect of the prince or maybe just a physical outlet past her ice barrier.

The men around her takes different roles. Edwards want to possess her as one of his assets. Bravano wants her glamour. To Oscar Muldoon she is a tool, valuable but difficult to handle. Dawes actually seems to be the only one who actually attempts to understand her or at least have some success at that. This is partly ascribed to his director’s sixth sense and partly because he takes the role of the father figure. I actually like this role for Bogart. At this stage of his life (sadly so near the end) it fits him so much better than as first lover. Because of his insight he is quite protective of Maria. He alone know how fragile she really is.

When Maria finally finds in life what she is looking for it turns out to be fake and that leads to her fall. It is the great irony of the movie and also a lot of the romantic allure. Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi) captures her because he has that gift that most if not all woman wish for, the gift to see her soul and speak directly to it, almost as a mind reader (the rest of us men just raise our arms in frustration when for the n’th time we fail to read the minds of our women, something we are obviously supposed to be able to). Maria buys this totally and believe she has finally found her prince. Trouble is that the count is just smarter than the rest, his intensions are no different. Oh, he may love her, but only because she would look good at his side as contessa. Physically he is unable to love. For a woman where the physical part is so important this is no love at all. She also entirely fails to read him and disaster ensues. 

I think this is a very pretty movie and I would expect nothing less from the legendary Jack Cardiff and I would have been impressed by the storytelling technique had I not seen “Citizen Kane”, but even with that in mind it is very elegantly pulled off. Ava Gardner is very convincing and I actually had to look up if perhaps she had Hispanic roots (none that I could find) and I can only regret that the mid-fifties hairstyles and fashion made women look so auntie.

The selling point on the acting side however is Bogart. I never tire of him and he is put to good use here in a role different from how we are used to see him. 

The only stone in the shoe I can think of is that the romantic elements sometimes get too thick. Almost as if some of the characters, Maria in particular, could use a reality check. I know that is the purpose of the Dawes character, but he is not succeeding very well. Of course if he had there would be no story, alas, I find the romantic elements a little too forced.

I am sure this worked very well at the time and I did find it surprisingly watchable. Would I see it again? Not sure, but I know I was happy to see it this first time.