Saturday 31 December 2016

Happy New Year 2017

Happy New Year 2017
It is the last day of the year and thus time for the annual status on my blog.

I wish all my readers a happy new year. May 2017 be a better year than 2016.

2016 was a year where it was difficult to be an optimist. I learned a new word: "nativism", which is about as contrary to everything I believe in as is possible. Of course the concept is not new, it has been around for at least two hundred years, but it has not coalesced like this since the forties. When you travel as much as I do and see as many people as I see it is really difficult to come to terms with the nativistic mindset and telling people they are wrong seem to have the opposite effect.

However this is not a political blog, so I can stick my head in the sand and focus on what I do here.

New Year is also anniversary time for my movie project. Seven years down the line it clocks in at 368 movies plus a few extra down the list and a handful of titles from the Danish edition. I am very close to finishing the fifties (expect a post on that topic in a few days) and a new decade beckons in the horizon.

In 2016 I watched and reviewed 54 movies from the List, which continue the downward trend. I had expected to cover a few more movies, but things did not turn out that way and a movie per week seems to be the realistic pace for me. Alas, as I keep saying this is not a race. Also I did watch and review a few movies off List.

The period covered in 2016 was 1955 to 1959, both years included and while I will return to the issue in my decade concluding post, I can say that this was a most interesting period in movies with high’s and low’s, of course, but interesting none the less. My excitement with this project is unabated.

2016 was also the second year of my book blog and after a rough start that project is now on track. My ambition of five books per year from the List holds as I am now 10 books down. It does not take a Ph.D. to figure out that it will take a medical miracle for me to complete the List, but I have no intention of doing that. It is all in the process.

Followers of the book blog will however have noticed that nothing has happened since October. That is not laziness on my side, but due to the nature of the next book on the List. Gargantua and Pantagruel is a brick ticking in at 1000 pages, which is okay, I do not mind big books, but it is also a 500 year old comedy that is not funny. Ugghh. Going is slow and it is likely to take me a few more month to get through that one.

Still, despite this late setback I enjoy the book project as well, if nothing else then for that fascinating window into times past.

I wish everybody a very happy New Year and hope that you all will have a great time tonight. I certainly intend to.

Sunday 25 December 2016

The Hole (Le Trou) (1959)

Prison break movies have a long history and seems to be recurrent phenomenon from the earliest of movies to this day. The List also has its share of them. But why is prison escape movies so popular? Have that story not been told enough times?

When you think about it, it is a bit odd, really. Prisoners will as a rule be in prison for a reason, so these are what we would categorize as bad people. They are in prison to a) punish them and b) keep them away from the rest of us. Then why do we root from them when they want to escape? In the case of prisoners of war the picture is simpler. These people’s only fault is that they were caught by the enemy and we can easily root for them. But what if the convicts were hardened criminals? Would we still be so eager to see them escape? The surprising answer is “yes”, though we may feel a bit disturbed by that answer. I think there is something fundamentally human in wanting to escape imprisonment and it appeals to us. Also the prisoner is the underdog against an overwhelming opponent and we like to see the weak win over the strong.

The fascinating thing about “Le trou” and the reason for this lengthy introduction is that it cuts the prison break theme into the bare bone. This is the condensed essence of this story fed directly into our veins. Five hardened criminals digging their way out of prison and I so want them to succeed.

“Le trou” is based on a novel written by an ex-convict who took part in such an endeavor back in 1947 from the infamous La Santé prison in France. The book is supposed to be a quite precise account of the events and Jacques Becker, who made the movie, was apparently very faithful to the novel. Several of the prisoners were hired as consultants and one of them, Jean Keraudy, is even playing himself in the movie, though by the name of Roland. So, yeah, this is a movie that tries to capture exactly how it was in that cell in La Santé.

Four prisoners, Geo (Michel Constantin), Manu (Philippe Leroy in the role of the author), Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier) and Roland are cell mates. They have for a while been planning their escape, when, at the opening of the film, a fifth prisoner is added to the cell. This is Claude (March Michel), a young, well-educated man charged with attempted murder. The four inmates are forced, though reluctantly, to include Claude in their plans. Then work begins and we see them, through the eyes of Claude, hammer their way through the concrete floor, explore the cellars of the prison and eventually dig a tunnel past a blockage in the sewer. This is filmed in a way to make this feel real. A simpler film may have simply shown some hard working men and then jumped forward to the completed job, but not “Le trou”. The filming is a stretched out affair lasting at least five minutes of hammering the floor a slab of actual, real concrete!). Sounds boring, but it is not. Instead it made me FEEL the work and tension and eagerness to get through that floor. It feels like real time, the release when they get through is physical, it is simply sublime. Same goes for the other sequences. This is not about being pedantic and technical, but to enable us to share the sentiment of these prisoners. I have never seen it done like this before and I am very impressed.

The character development of the prisoners is also interesting. Of the four original inmates we never learn that much detail of their background, but we learn plenty about them from the way they act and deal with the situation. They are all very well defined characters, very well developed, but never explicitly described. Again sublimely done. Claude is the exception. He seem to be less described from his actions and is often a passive observer. Instead he is the only one of which we are offered a backstory. In that sense his portrait is more conventional than the four cell mates, a detail that is worth noting.

The last ten minutes of the movie are very interesting, but it would be a complete spoiler to reveal the details. Suffice to say that it brings in a completely new dimension to the movie and although my first reaction was disbelief I soon after realized that this was a masterstroke. If this movie did not already standout, the ending places it far apart from conventional prison break movies.

“Le trou” is one of the best prison break movies I have ever watched and, albeit very different, is on par with Bresson’s “A Man Escaped”. If you ever wondered how it would be like to dig your way out of prison this is the movie to watch, but even more, if you are interested in the psychology of the wish and need to escape prison you will probably not find a better movie to watch. These people might not, and should not, last two days on the run, but you so much want them to succeed. So much.

Sunday 18 December 2016

Rio Bravo (1959)

Rio Bravo
I realize that I am starting to get overly negative in my reviews. My excuse is that I try to find both good and bad sides to the movies I watch and therefore end up with a balanced review, but I am frank enough to admit that sometimes I get carried away and swoon over a movie or get all negative and maybe that is beginning to tilt towards the negative. Maybe it that as I move forward in history the bar is increased and I expect more from the movies I watch. With that in mind I went into “Rio Bravo” thinking that this is a movie I will like, this is a movie I should say a lot of positive things about.

It did not take long however before I started thinking that maybe I had chosen the wrong movie for my reform. There are so many things here that rubs me the wrong way. Yet I should be more positive so let me start out in that mode.

“Rio Bravo” is a pretty movie. The set is clean and iconic and is filmed with style. Although we keep going around in the same sets they work pretty well and the colors are nice.

Secondly, Angie Dickinson as Feathers, a gambler girl who accidentally finds herself in the small town of Rio Bravo, is real pretty and adds a nice decorative element to the set.

Thirdly I love that Dean Martin’s character is called Dude. If I was a western character I would want to be called Dude.

That is about it though.

A major problem with “Rio Bravo” is that it is a backward gazing hodge-podge. It throws together elements and styles that generally hark back rather than look forward. As a western it is incredibly old school. A bunch of anonymous henchmen of the bad guy (John Russell as Nathan Burdette) is laying siege to a small town to get one of their number, an equally anonymous Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) out of prison. The defense of the prison is in the hands of a few good and sympathetic characters headed by John Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance. This is like the oldest western cliché in the world. Where “High Noon” took the basic story and turned it around to something new and exciting, “Rio Bravo” turns it back into something known and predictable.

“Rio Bravo” also does not seem to take itself serious. Comedic elements are thrown in with a very loose hand, but instead of providing release and humor it dilutes the nerve of the movie and it is just not funny enough to be a comedy as such. For me a western is either gritty as hell or an outright comedy. The halfway place is a non-place.

Then there is the element of Feathers. With or without her this would have been exactly the same story. The romance between her and Chance is odd, but I can forgive that. Love is a strange fish. The problem is that it is forced and fundamentally unnecessary. The reason it is there has nothing to do with the story, but because somebody decided the story needed a love interest, because, well, the audience wants such a thing… or do they? Dickinson does a good job at being a third wheel, but that is essentially what she is.

Howard Hawks I have always held in high esteem. His back-catalogue is truly impressive. That is why I was completely baffled by the poor direction the actors are getting here. Wayne looks like he would rather be somewhere else, the bad guys look like they were picked from the extra’s queue and what was that with Ricky Nelson as Colorado, the young gunslinger? Rarely have I witnessed a worse casting. Completely unbelievable and very poorly directed. What was Hawks thinking? Again it feels as if somebody decided that this movie needed a teenage idol for the girls to moan over and to hell with it if he did not fit into the movie.

Which brings us to the songs… come on…

A hodge-podge, that is what it is. If you asked a computer to cook up a western from elements producers would think the audience would like you could get something like Rio Bravo. Disjointed and bland and insincere.

Well, all this may be less important if I enjoyed watching it, but at 135 minutes it creeps along too slowly to ever get me out of the chair and even the final show down, the piece de resistance of the movie, fizzles and never really turns interesting.

I know, I know, I promised to be positive. I am really sorry, that will have to be next time. I promise.

Saturday 10 December 2016

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

Hiroshima, min elskede
Alain Resnais is back. He was the guy with the blow to the stomach movie, “Nuit et Brouillard” and with Hiroshima as part of the title I had a fairly good idea where this was going.

I was only partly right. The first 15 minutes is indeed continuing in the same vein with death and destruction and heart breaking footage of children crying out for their parents, radiation damaging and terrible deformities. Then the movie change and for the rest of the running time it is a fictious story of two lovers in “modern” Hiroshima, a French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese man (Eiji Okada) having an intense affair (both are married we learn) that evolve into a very intimate and trance-like recall of events at the end of the war. Not the Hiroshima bomb, although his entire family died in the blast, but of her lover, a German soldier, who was shot at the end of the war.

I have very mixed feelings about this movie, most notably with the strange juxtaposition of the nuclear bomb and the confession of a wartime love affair. I fully understand the need of a memorial to the victims of the bomb, both for the terrible suffering of these people and to prevent a modern repetition (actually the blast was repeated only three days later) and the strong pictures, and by all that is holy these are very strong pictures, are justified. I also appreciate the raw emotion and intimacy of the confession story. It is very arty, but I tend to like art movies the stylized dialogue is poetic, pretentious, yes, but it actually works. What does not work is the two things together.

After the gut-wrenching first 15 minutes I felt completely numbed and unable to appreciate the following story. It feels obscene to even compare her personal story to that of the thousands of destroyed lives in Hiroshima. Sure, it is very important to her, but frankly, even to her I should think that such tragedies would make her suffering seem trivial. Instead her recollection is overpowering her, associating her Japanese lover with her lost German boyfriend and she is falling to pieces before the camera. At first I could not believe what I was watching. Then I felt angry at the comparison and only near the end did I start to feel appreciation for that part of the story.

According to the extra material the theme is awareness of forgetting…

That is one of those pieces of information you need a few minutes to digest. In fact it still baffles me. The story of the lovers I read as one of catharsis, a cleansing process that is necessary for her in order to carry on with her life. That she tells the story to a Japanese lover in an impossible affair, just means that she is taking a break from reality to get this done. She will never see him again and that is where her pain should go as well.

What I do not understand is why it is her and not him who is going through this cleansing. As far as I can tell he needs it a lot more. Or maybe the whole idea is that he already had it? That being in Hiroshima is dealing with the past instead of hiding it away?

A lot can be said about the poetic style of the filming and the dialogue. It is highly stylized and is using symbols to convey its meaning. It is of a kind that you would either love or hate. Love for the poetry and hate for the sheer pretentiousness. Oddly enough I find myself more on the “love” side of that fence. Once I accept that a movie is an art movie I can put on the proper glasses and enjoy it as such. Either way you cannot ignore the massive intensity of both Riva and Okada. This is emotional porn and the nakedness is a lot more than absence of cloth. This should engage the viewer, but how can you when you are already numb?

I still need to reconcile myself with the two very different movies in this package before I can truly say that I like this movie. Maybe I am just missing the key and eventually it will come to me. Until then I will park my evaluation on hold.

Sunday 4 December 2016

Pickpocket (1959)

I think I have worked out how Robert Bresson’s movies work.

They force you into the brain of a character going through some sort of crisis or and makes you see the whole thing from the inside of his head. In “Diary of a Country Priest” it was a priest going through a religious crisis, in “A Man Escaped” is was a prisoner during the war and in “Pickpocket” it is a, well, a pickpocket.

The view from inside the head of the prisoner was fascinating and very interesting and one of the best French movies I have watched. The priest however was massively uninteresting and I did not care one bit for the character. As a result this was a terrible movie to get through. With “Pickpocket” I am afraid we have landed in that ditch again.

The head we crawl into is that of Michel (Martin LaSalle), a man who develops a severe case of kleptomania. He steals some money at the race course and gets so excited about it that he cannot stop again. Michel is a terrible amateur, but soon he meets a true pro who trains him into an expert pickpocket.

Michel is lost to the world. His mother dies, friends walks out on him and he hardly recognize a girl, Jeanne (Marika Green) with an obvious (and inexplicable) crush on him. The only thing Michel cares about is his stealing. Eventually he develops a paranoia, believing that everybody is on to him. When his friends are caught he goes away for a while, returns a few years’ later, steals some more and are caught.

At this point Jeanne has a baby with a man who does not care about her and she looks to Michel to help her. Great help he is.

The problems here are many.

First off, I do not care about Michel. He is obsessive and selfish and completely impossible to root for. It is not just that he has chosen a despicable profession, no, this guy is a complete asshole with room in his life for just himself. Sometimes the mind of a criminal is fascinating and interesting, but not Michel’s. Only in the sense that stealing is like a drug for him and that his behavior and mental state closely resembles that of an addict. That is perceptive of Bresson, but not enough for me to take a real interest in Michel.

Bresson apparently demanded a certain kind of natural acting. I cannot say that has benefitted this movie. Michel walks around with dead eyes, like a zombie, deepening my lack of interest. All dialogue is clipped, surreal and at times outright stupid. It is not so much that it is confusing (and it is), as it feel artificial and serves as a repellant against interest. At least the “Diary…” had some interesting characters and a few good dialogues, but I cannot even remember one such in “Pickpocket”.

There is a point to the movie, besides showing us the inside of the head of a victim of kleptomania, which is something about that in prison he finally finds Jeanne and that this is somehow his cure, but it is thin, really thin. It is sad and somewhat unbelievable that a pretty and smart girl like Jeanne only have Michel to help her. I mean, Paris is a big place and Michel has done everything in his power to turn her away from him. It is more believable that Jeanne is the only one left for Michel, but that she should now suddenly be able to cure him… nah…

Sorry for being the pessimist.

I really did not care for Michel and his affliction and combined with the filming technique this movie felt twice as long as its modest running time. Bresson is truly a hit or miss director whose certain style is so dependent on his subject. In this case it was a miss for me. Sorry.


Wednesday 30 November 2016

Ben-Hur (1959)

There are big movies, there are really big movies and then there is Ben-Hur.

It is colossal.

As such it is one of those movies everybody will at least know off, simply due to its massive size. I watched it first time back in the nineties when the university film club screened it in a converted auditorium and I am grateful I got the chance to watch it on a big screen. This is the kind of film that deserves it, maybe even needs it.

Ben-Hur may well have been the most expensive movie ever made at the time. It is three and a half hours long, employs 350 talking characters and an insane number of extras. It is filmed on numerous locations around the world including purpose built sets of a magnificence to eclipse those used by Griffith for “Intolerance”. The only thing I can compare the hippodrome to is when Cameron built a copy of Titanic just to sink it. And every single character in every single scene had to be dressed and equipped in an era-fitting costume! It goes without saying that the filming is in crisp Technicolor cinemascope.


The one thing you have to worry about when presented with such a technical marvel as “Ben-Hur” is if there behind all this dazzle is a decent movie. It is okay, at least most of it is okay. Direction here is way better than DeMille’s silent movie tableau style in “The Ten Commandments”. Scenes here are dynamic and fluid, these are not just characters delivering lines to the camera, but actually to each other. But we are not entirely home either. The pathos is still heavy and at times more than the movie can carry. Especially Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur is prone to melodramatic acting to the extent that I got sincerely fed up with him. Whether it is the fault of Heston or Wyler I am not sure but man, that guy is totally over the top.

Things gets a lot better when action takes over. The chariot race is well known and for good reason. It has been referenced and copied, but never exceeded. It is simply exhilarating. But my favorite is the naval battle. In fact the entire sequence at sea is the part that works best for me. The filming, the cutting and the set, wauw! This is eye candy. And maybe best of all Heston keeps quiet and is reduced to stare in hatred. His best acting of the movie.

The story itself has an ambivalence. It is an adventure story about the exploits of Judah Ben-Hur and as such not so different from a typical swashbuckler movie. Great popcorn stuff and fitting for a big budget movie and it works. However the movie also wants to be about personal transformation. The hardship and injustice Judah suffers from Rome in general and Messala (Stephen Boyd) in particular makes him a bitter man that takes up the fight, but then learn mercy and is released from his anger. That story works less well, mainly because the movie spends three hours to make Judah an angry man and then he meets Jesus and everything is settled. That leads to the third theme, which is the movies intention of telling an alternate story about Christ. I am sure that religious people get a kick out of that theme, but it seems forced upon the adventure story and it does not entirely work. Sure, those are powerful scenes with Jesus on the cross or walking down Via Dolorosa, but I cannot help that this part is a Deux ex Machina that is there because of a religious intent.

I have always been fascinated by the Roman era, like so many people before me, and one of the things that strikes me is the very bad publicity the Empire always gets in Christian texts. It is quite understandable actually, the early Christians were persecuted by the Romans, but those texts also form our collective image of the Roman Empire. The more I look however, the more I see a level of benevolence in the empire completely at odds with the Christian texts. The Romans brought civilization to all corners of the Mediterranean world and beyond. It brought prosperity and peace and the first two centuries of the millennium was known as Pax Romana. Roman law protected its inhabitants against lawlessness and exploitation and the main thing the Romans demanded in the districts was for its residents to abide by the law and contribute to the defenses. Not so different from the EU today. Incidentally when Jesus was executed by the Romans it was at the request of the ruling class in Jerusalem, not because the Romans had anything particular against Jesus. In that light I find it a bit difficult to buy Judah’s hatred of the empire (though his personal hatred of Messala is completely reasonable) and I have some sympathy for Pilates speech to Judah.

Alas, all this does not change that “Ben-Hur” is a great movie to watch and enjoy, especially for the popcorn. The bigger the screen the better. It is one of the greatest spectacles ever made.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) (1959)

I guess I am a bit stupid. Or dense. Or just conservative. Watching “A bout de soufflé” I kept asking myself, what is it I am supposed to love about this movie, what is so special that really ought to be super excited? I am through the movie and the extra material and I still have not come up with an answer. I do not hate this movie, but it does very little for me. Critics swoon over it so I must be, well, a bit stupid.

“A bout de soufflé” is supposed to be the movie that started the French new wave in cinema. It was a collaboration of all the filmmakers that made a name for themselves in France throughout the sixties and honestly that may be its claim to fame, as the starting point for all these people: Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol etc.

It is a rambling sort of movie, cheaply done using almost exclusively location shots and hand held equipment. The dialogue is not improvised, but seem often random, stylized at times, but also natural. That is all very nice but hardly new. The Italians started this 15 years earlier and Cassavete’s “Shadows” is far more out there than “A bout de soufflé” ever goes.

Then there is the story of a charming crook, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who wants to be Humphrey Bogart and spends his time looking cool, picking up girls and steal and swindles friends and foes. He even kills a policeman. Michel hangs out with an American student journalist, Patricia (Jean Seberg) and much of the movie is dialogue between the two of them. I am not sure what to make of that. Is this a theme of ultimate freedom and rebellion, sort of a “Thelma and Louise” story? Or maybe “Natural Born Killers”? Could be. Or maybe a theme on sexual freedom, that you are free to choose who you want, and with that free love you get into the confusion of sex and love. Clearly Michel and Patricia have very different positions on that and those positions the movie makes a lot out of. Patricia would say something to the effect of her position and Michel would answer by not answering at all but saying something entirely irrelevant to what Patricia was saying. Yet the two of them are inexplicably drawn to each other.

Inexplicably I say because although the movie makes a lot out of Michel’s charms you really do not have to look very far to realize he is a despicable character, not so much through his talk, stupid as it is, but simply through his actions. The man is an asshole and Patricia is way too smart not to realize that. So what does she want with him? It is my guess that she does not even know herself. Certainly when she turns him in she explains it as a test on if she really cares for him.

So, yeah, an examination of love and attraction is as close to a theme as I think we get here. Unfortunately as I cannot see what she wants with him in the first place, expect for his Belmondo lips, the theme is lost on me. She is playing with fire and he loves himself too much to really care about her. Not a good basis for a love story.

All is not lost however. Even I can find something of value here, though it is mostly in the detail. I love that the move was filmed in the real Paris and not in some studio version. The streets very not poor and grimy nor romantically bohemian. They were simply streets in Paris and that felt like a window into reality. At some point they were listening to Radio Luxembourg and that was what everybody in Europe did at the time. When the big radio stations were slow to adopt the new music you could always find it on Radio Luxembourg.

Of course Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg became big, romantic stars and as the movie where their careers began “A bout de soufflé” deserves some credit I suppose. It is just not enough for me. Having a narcissistic criminal and a girl too smart to be there discussing love and sex for an hour and a half just does not cut it. In 1959 that was probably pretty awesome, but in 2016 this is just lame.

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Shadows (1959)

There are several criteria for making the List. Some movies were award winners, some were successes at the box office and some have simply passed the test of time and become classics. Then there are those that are none of the above, but critically acclaimed. They are a mixed bunch and make up a not insignificant portion of the List. For me there is a special group that transcends all these categories, namely those movies that does something new, breeth fresh life into the media and help shape movies as we know them today. “Shadows” is exactly such a movie.

By the usual criteria I should not even like this movie, but I am strangely fascinated by it and watched it with this feeling that I was witnessing something special, a harbinger of things to come. Calling it a rebirth is probably stretching it, but it felt incredibly modern.

“Shadows” is the first movie made by the famous John Cassavetes. It is proclaimed as an improvisation exercise, but that has since been refuted as a gimmick. Nevertheless it is a far looser than normal movie in filming, structure, script, and even plot. It is a meandering sequence of scenes witnessing what appears to be random event in the life of three siblings in New York.

Hugh (Hugh Hurd) is a jazz singer getting crap jobs in third rate joints and not doing too well on those. He is constantly shadowed by his manager, a very overbearing type. Through a combination of Hugh’s ever present anger and his lack of success Hugh drives a wedge between them.

Ben (Ben Carruthers), Hugh brother, is an unemployed trumpeter who is idling his time away with his just as useless friends. They frequent bars to pick up girls and spend an awful amount of time being bored. Attempts at moving them out of the rut are halfhearted and doomed, such as a visit at a museum, and it takes a brutal thrashing for Ben to wake up.

Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), the sister, is a pretty, flirtatious girl, who is hell bent on defining her own rules. She allows herself to be impulsive, whether it be to walk up and kiss a stranger or invite a new flirt on a date with the current boyfriend. She has artistic aspirations and also in these insists on defying conventions. However beneath the independent front she is vulnerable and surprisingly innocent and whenever her attitude gets her into trouble she curl up or lash out as if she is ashamed of that vulnerability.

The life these siblings lead are very much in line with the beat-generation writers such as Jack Kerouac. It is a search for meaning, but a rebellious search outside conventions. In that sense it reminded me of Fellini’s “I Vitelloni”, but here the style of filming and acting points forward to Jim Jarmusch or Robert Altman. It is like a Dogme movie four decades before the term was coined. It lends the movie a realism and a refreshing air that makes it exciting to watch.

Completely in line with the style of the movie the conclusion is vague. It is a coming to terms conclusion, accepting things, that brings a calmness, but is sufficiently open-ended to not really be a conclusion at all and I am left with the feeling, for better or worse, that I simply watched a few days in the life of these siblings.

“Shadows” has a curious detail that has been made a lot of in reviews and comment, which is that of race. The movie is absolutely colorblind and the characters are all shades at random. Only for a single character does it seem to be an issue, otherwise people are simply people as if Cassavetes is simply stating that it is a non-issue. I prefer to look at it like that and just be bemused of the attention that particular detail has received.

You want to see something else tonight? Go watch “Shadows”. Lean back, let it play out. It is quite rewarding.

Saturday 12 November 2016

Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro) (1959)

Sort karneval
Following the List is a travel experience both in time and space and I love that I get to visit a lot of places around the world on this tour, especially when the movies are up to standard. That is certainly the case with “Orfeu Negro” or “Black Orpheus” from Brazil. I like Brazil very much. I have been there twice and got the impression that it is a happy and friendly place despite the problems and poverty they do have to struggle with, so to watch a movie centered on the most quintessential Brazilian event of the Carnaval is something to enjoy.

“Orfeu Negro” is one of those movies where I am happy with much of the movie yet contain elements, even key elements, that annoy me, so this will be a “great, but…” review.

Mostly however this movie is a joy to behold. The quality of the filming is exquisite with bright colors, beautiful vistas and very strong and well placed cutting. Even by Hollywood standard this one gets top marks and that is not exactly what I would expect from the second Brazilian movie on the List, no offense.

Secondly, and that is the winning point, this is very much a story about Carnaval, the all-consuming event of the year in Rio de Janeiro, where the town explodes in music and dance and joie de vivre. There is so much samba music and dancing here that I cannot help being caught by it, even when it gets more ominous and trance-like. This is not the feeling I get watching a musical. Gene Kelly never makes me feel like getting out of my chair to join the party, but the samba in “Orfeu Negro” makes my blood pump and my feet tap. Then, talking breaks from the dancing, when the movie changes gear, we are treated with wonderful bossa nova. Oh, that beautiful sleek language caressing the song in bossa nova. In my personal version of paradise the soundtrack is bossa nova, oh yes. Here is the cool thing: all this music and dancing is not just a pretty backdrop, but so very central to the movie that in my opinion it is the movie.

For some strange reason though Camus, or whoever was in charge of the project, decided that the movie should be a modern, but very literal retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I do not mind that story, it is a beautiful one indeed, but it is so unnecessary here. Naming the characters Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes and even the dog Cerberus is ham fisted and the mystical stalker dressed up as Death seems entirely artificial. He is only there and in that form because in the myth Death takes Eurydice. I would not have minded if this had been the man that threatened Eurydice in the village she escaped from (though it may be what was intended) in a more naturalistic form, but here is seem to be a magical creature, yet he is obviously just some dude with a mask on. There is no real need for this character. Orfeu’s (Brenno Mello) spurned girlfriend Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira) has vitriol and anger enough to fill that role and something similar goes for the spirit summoning late in the movie. In my opinion the movie would have worked better by cutting the connection to the myth and stick to the triangle drama and the Carnaval.

That irritation however does not ruin the overall joy of watching “Orfeu Negro”. It is brimful of colorful characters such as Serafina (Léa Garcia) and her demure cousin Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), Mira of course, Orfeu himself and the children that follow him as a Greek choir and when these people gather as a crowd in the samba magic happens. It is obvious that these are people of little means and that they live in awful favelas, this is not a white washing of Brazil, but that makes the energy released through that annual event so much more powerful. This is not spillover from a life of plenty, but the energetic outlet of a life in poverty, the thing that makes life possible for these people.

Brazil is a very interesting place also outside of Carnaval. It is big and complex and varied and I think that is captured very well in “Orfeu Negro”. Even if this is only Rio we see the contrast of the boulevards and the favelas, the blacks and the whites and everything in between and most of all we see people with lust for life. Thank you for that.   

Final detail: “Orfeu Negro” was made both in English and Portuguese. I understand the motivation, but honestly, why anybody would want this in anything but sensuous, Brazilian Portuguese is beyond me.

Monday 7 November 2016

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Off-List: The Hidden Fortress
Two years ago or so I bought a box-set of Kurosawa movies thinking that with all the Kurosawa films on the List that would be a convenient solution. As a bonus the box-set includes titles not on the List and given the Kurosawa track record those are must-sees as well. One of these is “The Hidden Castle” from 1958. I know, I am already past 58, but so what?

“The Hidden Fortress” is famous for being the inspiration for “Star Wars”. George Lucas has openly and repeatedly mentioned that and in my silly head that made me expect an early version of “A New Hope”, which is not at all what Lucas meant. Inspiration is not the same as a remake. As a result I was somewhat disappointed by “The Hidden Fortress” and only near the end did I come to terms with the fact that this was not even intended to be “A New Hope”. Instead “The Hidden Fortress” is more akin to “The Stagecoach” both in plot and feel.

The one element Lucas did pick up from this movie was that the story is told from the viewpoint of the lowest characters. In Star Wars it was the droids, in “The Hidden Castle” it is the two peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara). They are cowards and clowns like the droids, but a lot more than that. They are greedy, opportunistic, stupid and vicious. In fact they have no redeeming features at all, not even loyalty to each other. They are funny like the droids, but not sympathetic at all. We never love them but take pleasure in mocking them for their small minds and petty squabbles. To place two so comical, yet unsympathetic characters in the foreground was something new Kurosawa brought to the table and while interesting it only works half way. Lucas fixed that by making the droids sympathetic.

The peasants find themselves on the wrong side of the border in a bloody civil war. I am not sure of the period, but these are samurai with guns so seventeenth century is probably not entirely off. While on the run from yet another prison camp they stumble upon a gold treasure hidden inside firewood. The gold belong to the defeated Akizuki clan, whose remaining members are hiding out in a hidden fortress in the mountains. The two most important members are Princess Yuki Akizuki (Misa Uehara) and General Makabe Rokurota (Toshiro Mifune). Rokurota is a tough samurai who unflinchingly sacrifices his own sister for the cause so when he takes in the peasants it is not a friendly partnership, but simply a new master for the peasant although it does take a while to seep through their dense skulls. The princess is a true aristocrat and together as the venture out to find a route through the enemy lines they are a motley group.

This voyage is like in “The Stagecoach” the core of the movie. As they travel the land and encounter all sorts of hazards they learn a lot about each other and we learn about them. The Princess see a world she has never known and take pity and the general for all his valor learns humility. Only the peasants never seem to learn anything until the very last scene of the movie.

I really did not like Misa Uehara as the princess. Her pose as a tom-boy with a whip in her hand certainly conveys strength and superiority and is effective almost as a caricature, but as soon as she opens her mouth it falls apart. She sounds utterly hysterical and while I feel certain it is a cultural thing and that I just do not get it, it does make her sound annoying and half out of her mind.

The parallel to the western genre is the selling point of the movie. It is such an interesting idea to place a western in ancient Japan and although Kurosawa was already here in “The Seven Samurai” “The Hidden Fortress” is much more true to the western genre. If you had any doubts they would finally evaporate in the final escape scene on horseback with a western theme on the soundtrack.

This is not my favorite Kurosawa, not by a long shot, also after recovering from my disappointment of not seeing more of “Star Wars” in it, and I understand why it is not on the List. Yet, it has enough quality and plenty of interesting components to warrant a viewing and I know that I will probably end up liking it a lot better over the next few days as the dust settles.   

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Ride Lonesome (1959)

Ride Lonesome
With ”Ride Lonesome” we are back in western land, a favorite genre of the fifties it seems. I can almost feel the groan coming (oh no, another western, oh no, another western bashing), but this is neither. “Ride Lonesome” is actually quite interesting.

According to the Book and Wikipedia director Budd Boetticher made a series of westerns with Randolph Scott. I have no idea how that worked out as a series, “Ride Lonesome” is the only one I have seen, so I do not know if there is a progression or if “Ride Lonesome” is typical. What I do know is that the western genre has developed quite a bit through the fifties, eventually leading up to the Leone westerns of the sixties. What I find very interesting is that the boundary between good and bad, right and wrong is getting blurred. There is no such thing as a white knight out of medieval chivalrous novels (you might want to consult my book blog on those). Instead the heroes are flawed and may even approach the status of antiheroes. At the same time the bandits are not condensed evil, but may be more complex or as in “Ride Lonesome” reformed to the extent that we do not know where to place them. In the same vein good or bad actions are not what they seem and in that grey zone people get a lot more real and interesting.

In “Ride Lonesome” the one we hang on to is Randolph Scott’s bounty hunter Ben Brigade. He is Gary Cooper light with the same posture, same clipped speech and same ramrod integrity. He has caught a wanted murderer, Billy John (James Best) and is taking him to town. We are not in doubt that he is the one we vouch for, he keeps doing the right thing. Or does he? Increasingly he says things and acts as if something is not right and he is being way too callous.

At a shift station Brigade encounters Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn), two wanted men, as well as the station manager’s wife Carrie Lane (Karen Steele). First appearance is that Sam and Whit are keeping Carrie prisoner. Is Brigade going to rescue a damsel in distress from two bandits? Nope, it gets a lot stranger than that. The local Indians are on the warpath and forces the group together and soon they are riding out towards Santa Cruz to bring in Billy John for his hanging. Sam and Whit wants Billy John for themselves. Not for the money though, but because there is amnesty to those who bring him in. As Brigade does not want to give up his prisoner Sam and Whit seem likely to simply kill Brigade.

Here is the question: Is Brigade as clean as he seems and are Sam and Whit as bad as they appear? The witness is Carrie who is thus our eyes and ears and she is confused.

I like it when movies play with the stereotypes and makes us reconsider our prejudices. I admit that it can be done even better as Leone would show us a few years later, but even to ask this question in the chivalrous genre of the western is interesting.

If “Ride Lonesome” has a flaw it is that it is too short, only 70 minutes. It spends effort describing characters who are more than two dimensional types, but leaves me hungry for more. It is obvious there is a lot more to these characters that could be explored and the Carrie Lane character deserves a larger role than just being the observer with the questions and the eye candy. Dumping a girl like that into a group of lonely men should spark all sorts of drama, but it does not and besides being unrealistic it does seem like a missed opportunity.

“Ride Lonesome” is not the greatest western ever, but it is still worth watching and with its short running time it is certainly an easy watch.

Friday 28 October 2016

Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage) (1959)

Øjne uden ansigt
When it comes to horror I am pretty easy. You do not need to roll out the big guns of ghosts and zombies and chainsaws. Show me a medical procedure and I am pretty much done for. Yeah, I am rather squeamish when it comes to that. In my childhood I got so nauseous from reading a medical lexicon that I fainted and broke my nose. Try imagine what an explicit presentation of a face transplantation from one living human being to another would do to me.

This is exactly what “Les yeux sans visage” or “Eyes Without a Face” offer. If there was nothing else to the movie it would be enough for it to qualify as horror in my book. Yes, I did have to look away, it was just too awful.

But “Les yeux sans visage” is a lot more than that. It is a chilling story about a doctor (Pierre Brasseur as Doctor Génessier) who caused his daughter’s (Edith Scob) ruined face in a car accident and now tries to undo the damage by transferring the skin of another woman to his daughters face. It is not so easy though. Doctor Génessier needs a lot of attempts to get it right and the donors are ordinary living women who would sadly miss their face when they wake up. That little detail is handled by killing them off as they move along. So in the process of absolving his crime to his daughter doctor Génessier becomes a mass murderer of a monster.

Doctor Génessier is assisted by Louise (Alida Valli) whose job it is to find the girls and lure them out to the doctor’s mansion. She seems to accept the procedure, but Christiane, the daughter, is increasingly having misgivings, partly because of the destruction of the donors and partly because the transplantations only lasts a few days.

As a synopsis this is bad (as in “scary”) enough with a Dr. Death on the prowl, but the execution has a dreamlike quality that makes the story unfold as a nightmare. The photography is the big hero here. It is artistic and ethereal in a way that reminded me of Jean Cocteau. It is difficult to describe, but is like the antithesis of the ultra-realism of Goddard in the  “Les Quatre Cent Coups”. There are no raving lunatics or sudden outbursts here. If anything there is a great sadness as if we almost understand the obsession of the doctor.

Christiane has to wear a mask to protect her face and that works very well to promote the ethereal feel of the movie. It is absolutely crazy what a mask does to a human being. Something very humane is taken away and yet this creature is enormously fragile. And behind the mask lurks the monster…

In the periphery of the story is a police investigation of the missing women. The detectives may have gotten a potential breakthrough when suspicion falls on Doctor Génessier and they send in a girl as bait. The conclusion of the police however is that Doctor Génessier is innocent and the girl would have died if the story had not taken a dramatic turn. I think that is interesting. Normally in this sort of movie the cavalry will come charging in at the end to save the day, but here the cavalry is impotent, almost irrelevant. Instead this is all about father and daughter. I have this feeling that there are references here that I am not even aware of.

I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would. It is an effective horror movie, but it is a lot more than that and filmed in a poetic fashion atypical of horror. Georges Franju, the director, made a very unique movie, one that absolutely deserves a watch.

Also there is a warning about keeping dogs. Terrifying animals.  

Monday 24 October 2016

The World of Apu (Apur Sansar) (1959)

Apu's verden 
Apur Sansar is the third installment of the Apu trilogy by Satyajit Ray and in many ways the best of the three. It is very obvious how Ray has improved over the years in his filmmaking and getting more adequate resources to do so. Where his earlier movies were a tad uneven this one has a very high production value. That Criterion has had it under their wing did no harm to it either.

Despite this excellent quality Apur Sansar is no walk in the park. Ray is continuing the bleak story along much the same lines, which essentially means that whenever things seem to righten themselves for Apu someone close to him will die and throw his life up in the air again. In the first movie it was his sister, in the second his parents and in the third one it is his wife. Yes, the movie does end on a happy note, but had there been a fourth movie I know exactly what would have happened and that boy is just too sweet.

Additionally it is not a glamour side of India we get in Ray’s movies, but instead the pervasive poverty and social injustice that is so glaring when you go there even today. I suppose that makes his movies important and all, but I find it rather depressing. Recently I found out that I am scheduled to go to New Delhi in April next year and frankly this is not my favorite destination.

Apur Sansar starts where the second installment ended. Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) is a promising academic who leaves college rather than continuing at university to live a free an untroubled life pursuing a career as a writer. We get hints that his writing is very good and there is real hope that although he is only scraping a living he might get successful as a novelist.

His friend Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee) shows up and want him to join him for a family wedding. Pulu is clearly from a wealthy family and the wedding is taking place at the family palace in the countryside. Unfortunately the groom turns out to be a madman and Apu with his pretty face and likable demeanor is coaxed into marrying the girl instead cause married she must be.  Apu is at first upset about this but the girl, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) is a very sweet girl and it is soon clear that they fit each other very well. 

Then disaster strike again. Aparna return to the family home to give birth and dies in the process. The child survives, but Apu is devastated and throws his life out the window. He begins a wandering, aimless life and avoids taking charge of his son. It takes his friend Pulu to make him go back to face his now five year old child in a heartbreaking encounter.

I find Indian culture quite incomprehensible, it is so alien to anything I am familiar with, and so I get the feeling that there are elements and aspects in Ray’s movies that I am entirely missing or only scratches the surface of. An example is the obvious difference in status between Apu and Aparna. In any society a rich girl marrying a poor boy is a matter of concern, but in India these people would belong to very different castes. That has to imply some added difficulties and it bothers me a great deal that I am clearly missing something. The same goes for moral codes and cultural subtexts. The idea that Aparna must be married at this celebration is from a western perspective slightly comical and that Apu obliges is almost incomprehensible. They do not know each other at all.

What I do understand is the complete devastation Apu feels when he loses his wife and his torn feelings toward his son. And that meeting of father and son touches me very deeply. My own son is not much older than Kajal and I can see him in this boy.

Of the three movies this final chapter is my preferred one. Not just because of the technical improvements, but it simply works better for me. I never found it dull and it does contain enough elements that I understand that I can follow it. It also help that Ray did excellent casting for both Apu and Aparna.

Monday 17 October 2016

Some Like it Hot (1959)

Ingen er fuldkommen
Comedies do not age well. Sadly, really, because I love good comedies. It is something about the cultural references that change over time, I suppose. It is one reason the List is so thin on comedies. Most comedies that do survive are those that rely on physical comedy, such as the silent masters or Tati.

This is why I am super delighted that “Some Like It Hot” comes a long and proves the exception to the rule. It is not a physical comedy (not at heart at least), but more of a situational comedy, thick with wonderful dialogue. It is a comedy that is funnier than most comedies made today and immensely more charming. “Nobody is perfect” but “Some Like It Hot” is damn close.

Okay, I think I made it clear that I love this movie. It is an absolute bliss to watch and it totally makes me crack. Not just the happy, fuzzy smile, but the Oh-God-I-Cannot-Watch-He Did-Not-Do-That roaring laughter. Man, I needed that. Those last few weeks have been terribly busy and this movie is the second best medicine (getting less busy is after all the best). In fact I would prescribe this movie to anybody with any sort of trouble.

If you do not know this movie I will personally spank you. Even I knew it and not just of it. “Some Like It Hot” defines a classic movie on par with “Gone with the Wind” and the Indiana Jones movies and a synopsis would be a waste of time.

Here is instead all the wonderful things this movie provides.

Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe is career defining roles. As a trio they are just perfect. Tony as Joe/Josephine is the guy with all the harebrained scams and Jack Lemmon as Jerry/Daphne has that perfectly timed wackiness that makes him wonderfully funny without going over the (Jerry Lewis) top. In fact, they accomplish successfully what Martin and Lewis tried and failed to be. And Marilyn Monroe is of course the star. If you ever wondered about her reputation and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” did not convince you then “Some Like It Hot” will. She is perfect as the silly, but sweet blonde bombshell. If anything she is almost too good for the band she is supposed to sing in. I would have liked to say that her comedic timing was perfect, but I read that she was so high on pills that she could not remember her lines and her scenes had to be taken dozens of times to get them right. Sad, really. Wikipedia writes that when Billy Wilder was asked about another movie with Monroe he answered:  "I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and they tell me I'm too old and too rich to go through this again."

Billy Wilder of course has a large share in this movie. He is one of my favorite directors and certainly one of the most versatile. He excels at every genre and his trademark is that his movies always have bite. Even “Some Like It Hot”. It went far beyond the production code in what you could show, say and do. Cross dressing, hints at homosexuality and a Monroe so hot that she could wake a dead, which is incidentally what she is supposed to do (Tony Curtis in his third incarnation as the emotionally crippled Shell heir). Wilder always challenged his viewers and never followed the standard recipes. That makes him a star in my eyes.

Then there is the music, oh boy. As the music is supposed to take place in the late twenties we get a jazzy score that is warm and fuzzy throughout, but when Monroe gives her songs we go a notch up and hit the roof. All her songs in this movie are classics, none more than “I Wanna Be Loved by You” but it is “I’m Thru with Love” that swipes my feet away. It is no wonder Joe/Josephine gives up her pretense and goes up to kiss her right there and then. I would want to do that.

I was trying to think of the funniest part in the movie, but gave up. There are just too many candidates. There are chase scenes, pretense scene, witty comments scenes, outrageous scam scenes, awkwardness galore… just too many to mention, and the crazy thing is they all work, even today. “Tootsie” owes a lot to this movie and any comedian on the run from the mob plot derive from “Some Like It Hot”. This may well be one of the most influential comedies ever made, if not the funniest.

1959 is a great year so far, I love it already.

Sunday 9 October 2016

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Et mords analyse
I am not a big fan of courtroom movies.

It is not for lack of drama or poor performances, but the dirty feeling I get when I see right and wrong, truth or falsehood being settled by a fencing match between smart-talking lawyers. To my mind the idea of a court is as a place where the truth is revealed and judgement is sentenced. Okay, maybe I am naïve, but when I see how relative truth and justice is I always get depressed.

“Anatomy of a Murder” is both a well-made and engaging drama and an exposé of that very relativism. On the one hand we have what a appears to be the good guys fighting an uphill battle against a fancy lawyer and a very serious charge of murder and on the other a nagging feeling that we are rooting for the wrong people and that Preminger, in his usual subverting style, want us to see the weakness of the system.

James Stewart as Paul Biegler is a small town lawyer in his usual calm, common sense style. He is the one we have to root for. Paul lost his position as district attorney to a smart-ass lawyer and is scraping along with an underpaid secretary and an alcoholic friend. Then comes the case that might bring Biegler back in business. He is approached by Laura Manion (Lee Remick) whose husband Lt. Frederick Manion is charged with murder and although this seems like an almost impossible case Paul Biegler manages to get it turned around.

Here is the problem: Lt. Manion is guilty as hell. He did kill the barkeeper Barney Quill. Several witnesses saw it and he even turned himself in. However the defense manages to emphasize the reason for the murder, that Laura was raped by Barney and that that made Manion so upset that he went to kill him. Somehow by proving that Laura was raped by Barney the murder is okay and Lt. Manion is cleared… uh, what???

I do not seem to recall any legal system where it is permissible to grab a gun and shoot somebody because you are royally pissed. That is what police is for and that kind of vigilance is usually looked upon as more serious than the crime itself.

Also as we learn more and more about Laura and Frederick Manion the more unlikable and suspect they become. Laura had something very unpleasant coming, calling her a slut is not far off and I actually like adventurous and daring women, but Laura is cheap and stupid and run for easy and fast gratification. Lt. Manion is an aggressive brute and extremely jealous. The way he looks at people is friggin’ scary. I feel almost sorry for Barney Quill. Had it not been him it would have been somebody else, he just happen to be the one getting clinched.

If anybody ever deserved their punishment it would be these two, yet because they got such a likable and shrewd lawyer as Paul Biegler they end up walking away from outright murder. And we as audience is on their side, especially since the prosecutor is an arrogant asshole by the name Claude Dancer (George C. Scott).

This may be the story of David vs. Goliath and hoorah for the underdog, but I see it as a story about manipulation of the legal system leading the court to make the wrong decision and we are supposed to condone it.

If I just take a minute to calm down from this frenzy I have worked myself into I will easily admit that it is a very nicely composed movie with excellent acting all round. The rather long running time actually fly by, a typical Preminger trait. Yet the winner here and the reason I cannot dislike this movie is an absolutely brilliant soundtrack by Duke Ellington. Man, this may be my favorite soundtrack from the birth of sound movies until 1959. The music fits and carry the movie, lending it a groove and the mood. It is exactly the kind of music I like and at times I would just dip into the music and not care so much about what was going on in the movie.

“Anatomy of a Murder” is a good movie, maybe even an excellent movie, but it is also a movie that makes me angry and reinforce my antagonism for courtrooms and smart lawyers, even likable ones played by James Stewart.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

North by Northwest (1959)

Now here is a movie I have been looking forward to see for a long time. I did see it once many many years ago and my memory of it was so faint that I felt I could enjoy it as a first viewing this time round. But this is not a movie you can be ignorant about. “North by Northwest” is one of the most referenced movies around and you cannot blog about movies for long before encountering the “yeah, it is good, but compared to North by Northwest…”. So, there is that little anxiety that this movie is over-sold.

Well, I need not have worried. “North by Northwest” is exactly as good as its fame and probably better. It is one of those movies I enjoy from start to finish and all the little bits in between. It is one of those movies where all the components work to make it thoroughly enjoyable, even if it is, when you start thinking about it, a bit silly.

If you are reading this blog I would bet a fiver you already know this movie and so there is hardly any need for a summary. You will also know that this is Alfred Hitchcock, and knowing that the frequent reader will know that I am predisposed to the movie.

Alas, this is the classic Hitchcock theme of the wrong man in the wrong place, the mistaken identity theme where the protagonist is way out of his depth. Hitchcock really loved this theme. However where “The Wrong Man” was a dark and serious rendition of that theme and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” placed Mr. Ordinary in the world of spies, “North by Northwest” is a much more fun story. Yeah, there is death and destruction but the tone is much lighter and you can see how much fun Hitch had with this story. It is not a comedy, far too much tension and suspense for that, but Cary Grant as the unfortunate Roger Thornhill cannot help being charming and funny and he is helped by a script that allows him to be witty and amusing. I learned in the extra material that James Stewart were considered for the role, but that would have been an entirely different movie and he would not have hit the notes that makes this movie special. Yet, Grant also needs to be restrained. He is constantly balancing on that edge where he becomes a reprisal of those comedies that made his fame back in the thirties and forties. But a slick and charming yet superficial advertising agent is exactly the role Grant can do.

As in “39 Steps” and “Notorious” the actual crime is not really that interesting. Something about smuggling microfilm out of the country. We do not even know who the villains are working for, but it does not matter. This is all about the chase and the mixed up identities. Vandamm (James Mason) is hunting Thornhill because he thinks he is a government agent onto him, though that agent only exists is a decoy to protect the real agent. Thornhill hunts Vandamm because he is getting deeper and deeper into a mess of drunk driving, car theft and murder and Vandamm is the only one who can provide the answer. Trouble is Vandamm is a professional, Thornhill is an advertising agent. That sounds terribly uneven, especially when Thornhill is also chased by the police. Add to that a knock-out blonde who may not be what she seems to be (Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall) and you have the ingredient for a very exciting, witty and inventive double chase.

This is 1959 and the action may seem a bit lame and slow by today’s standard, but for me it works beautifully. I love when a movie takes its time at the right places, then accelerate when it matters and that is exactly what Hitchcock does. We have eight minutes in a cornfield with absolutely nothing happening and then suddenly a plane explodes out of the sky and knocks Thornhill over, tries to shoot him and finally flies straight into a gasoline truck. Woohaa. That is a master at work.

I revel in the intricacies of the story, of the plots within plots as in the old noirs and the beautiful shots, but the winning stroke is the sheer charm. You cannot watch this and not get happy. It is everywhere, even in the heavies and has a lot to do with brilliant casting. James Mason was always villain numero uno, Eva Marie Saint is cool and not dowdy at all, Martin Landau of course got a great career ahead of him and then of course Cary Grant.

Finally the inevitable question: Is this the best Hitchcock ever? I could say that I do need to watch them all first, but that is just stalling. The truth is that I could not make that decision. There are at least a handful contenders to that title already and it would depend on my mood of the day. Suffice to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with North by Northwest. It could be accused of being a remake of “39 Steps”, but it is so much better so that does not even count as a detraction.