Criterion Sunday 435: The Furies (1950)

One of the things I love about this era of filmmaking is that the great stars were just these unassailable icons, and questions about how old the character they were portraying should have been (a lot younger) or how believable their relationship was with the inevitably dull and rather wooden guy cast opposite as the romantic lead (not particularly compelling) fade away almost to irrelevance. The fact — the only salient fact — is that Barbara Stanwyck is in charge here, and she’ll let you know it, like Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar a few years later: an icon. As it is here, another moral might be: don’t name your New Mexico landholding after vengeful characters of Greek mythology, because surely someone will be punished and it’s likely to be the one hubristic enough to have chosen the name, though in fact there’s just a lot of punishment to go round here and the look of the film emphasises that, all glowering monochrome skies weighing heavy on the actors. This is, looking back, a great film, more interested in the character dynamics between father and daughter than in the weedy guy (Wendell Corey) who for all his relatively young years when this film was made still somehow seems too old, too conservative, too boring for someone as flashy a character as Stanwyck’s Vance (though she is older). Luckily the father is played by veteran Walter Huston, in his last screen role, and the sparring between them is the core of the film, driving the narrative and providing plenty of fodder for the avenging deities to work with.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Anthony Mann; Writer Charles Schnee (based on the novel by Niven Busch); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 30 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 434: Classe tous risques (aka The Big Risk, 1960)

If there’s one thing I can credit the Criterion Collection with introducing me to, it’s the whole gamut of French policiers and gangster films of the 1950s and 60s especially. Sure, I’d seen maybe a Melville, but now I feel like I’m starting to get through a lot of them, and this early feature by Claude Sautet, which has become somewhat overshadowed in film history by the contemporary work by the Nouvelle Vague, very much fits into the Melvillean tradition, if not being itself a source of influence for Melville as he went more abstractly noirish throughout the decade. It has the laconic soul of a western in the way this big guy gangster Abel (Lino Ventura) communicates through body language and scowls. He’s on the run for a heist that’s netted far less than expected, and the trail of cops leads to death, which is particularly difficult for Abel as he has two small kids to protect. There’s a whole world between these characters that we already have a sense of, even before they speak, and when a young kid helps Abel out (Belmondo, fresh from Breathless), there’s an extra frisson of concern because Abel doesn’t know him and worries he’s being set up. Of course there’s paranoia and fear, but mostly there’s just an easy sense of being amongst shifty guys all of whose futures are looking pretty bleak.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Sautet; Writers Sautet, Pascal Jardin and José Giovanni (based on Giovanni’s novel); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sandra Milo, Marcel Dalio, Claude Cerval, Michel Ardan; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 28 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 433: 憂國 Yukoku (Patriotism aka Patriotism or The Rite of Love and Death, 1966)

I am genuinely clueless as to why this short film co-directed by Yukio Mishima wasn’t just an extra to the Paul Schrader film. I can somewhat understand it having its own release, given it’s his only film as a director and he is a totemic and divisive cultural figure, even just as an author. However, his interest in nationalist ideology, including the formation of his own militia group, made him something of what would presumably today be called a cultural influencer (and I can’t be the only one who can imagine him complaining about being silenced if he were still around), but this all becomes very clear in Patriotism. It’s a silent work with an elegant filming style that self-consciously draws on Noh theatre, but my god is Mishima not fixated on the ritual honour of seppuku, which takes up the bulk of the running time (after a long text-based introduction). Perhaps in other hands this might have functioned as some kind of critique of Japanese militarism, and certainly it’s not unreasonable for there to be critiques about Japan and its treatment after World War II, but in Patriotism the militarism and death just feels fetishised, an extreme of gore that doesn’t feel like it adds much beyond illustrating Mishima’s own pathology.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Yukio Mishima 三島由紀夫 and Domoto Masaki 堂本正樹; Writer Mishima (based on his own short story); Cinematographer Kimio Watanabe 渡辺公夫; Starring Yukio Mishima 三島由紀夫, Yoshiko Tsuruoka 鶴岡淑子; Length 27 minutes.

Seen at home (YouTube), Wellington, Thursday 27 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 432: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

I think there are a lot of opinions one could hold about the films of Paul Schrader as about the art of Yukio Mishima, and though I’ve read a novel of his and enjoyed it at the level of writing, you don’t have to dig very deep into his life to get profoundly concerned. He’s the kind of man who would probably in our modern age have connected far more readily with the army he was looking for, and perhaps we can be glad of the times he lived in that this didn’t happen. He wanted to roll back post-war changes in Japanese society that he detested and restore Japan to its rightful place of honour, or something along those lines. And Schrader’s own work has been so boldly sadomasochistic and masculinist at times that it feels that matching the two might make for discomfort, and yes it’s certainly not easy to watch this story, either as a character study of a man fixated on honour and death, but also at a formal level it can be challenging to follow. After all, as the title suggests, it’s split into four chapters but is further fractured by various re-enactments of his works (shot in luridly saturated colours) as well as flashbacks in black-and-white to foundational moments in Mishima’s development, as played by Ken Ogata. Still, it remains a beautiful work, with gorgeous lighting and framing and a transcendent Philip Glass score which for a change doesn’t overwhelm the film (mainly because the filmmaking has a strong enough visual look and narrative structure to withstand Glass’s hammering and repetitive musical cadences). I will surely never feel any kinship with Mishima’s ideas but the film does give a visceral sense of his strange relationship to his society, and the fact that this is made by an American creates a strange thematic connection to some other contemporary titles in the Criterion Collection, like The Ice Storm (a quintessential suburban white American story as told by a Taiwanese filmmaker) or The Last Emperor (in which Chinese political history is interpreted by an Italian).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Paul Schrader; Writers Leonard Schrader and Paul Schrader; Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Ken Ogata 緒形明伸; Length 120 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 25 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 431: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Criterion release of this film has a commentary by Scorsese and Coppola, and you can understand when you watch it what might appeal to them. Would that every era of cinema had such a colourful and inventive spectacle and I can see that children exposed to this in the 1940s or 50s might have had little to compare it to in terms of the effects it achieves. There’s a gloriously saturated colour scheme in the filming and the production design and costuming that heightens the magical wonder of the storytelling. It’s just that watching now makes for a more problematic experience and it’s not that I’m out here calling for any ‘cancellations’ or whatever your term du jour is when you read this for the idea that maybe art has certain responsibilities. After all, things that seem a bit racist now (or orientalist or just a bit misguided, depended on your point of view) might have been equally so back then, it’s just that there was an unexamined expectation that putting dark makeup on very white English actors and having them enact Middle Eastern-set stories was perfectly fine and nothing to be concerned about. Of course, compared to some contemporary films, there was certainly worse racism in othering depictions of such parts of the world and their people, but that doesn’t excuse what at best just seems a little painful now, however well-meaning it might have been. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and those who find it easier to tap into the childlike spirit at play will be rewarded more handsomely than those hatchet-faced killjoys like myself who’d rather not watch fully-grown and very English gentlemen (along with a German, an Indian and an African-American) play dress-up as Arabs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan [as well as Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda and William Cameron Menzies, uncredited]; Writers Lajos Biró and Miles Malleson; Cinematographer Georges Périnal [as “George Perinal”]; Starring Conrad Veidt, John Justin, Sabu, June Duprez, Miles Malleson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 27 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 430: Le Feu follet (The Fire Within, 1963)

I think you could probably construct a small cinematic canon of works that deal with characters who are profoundly depressed and suicidal, but I don’t think there are a huge number which confront it head on. And by ‘head on’ I do mean that this is a film entirely about a man adrift. The protagonist moves around Paris, from a clinic in Versailles where he’s trying to clean up his alcoholism, into town where he tries — disconsolately, lackadaisically — to meet up with former friends and acquaintances. He seems to be seeking something, some connection that will convince him not to kill himself, but he’s also pretty set on not finding it, and that makes for uncomfortable watching. Don’t get me wrong, as played by Maurice Ronet, Alain Leroy is charismatic and can be good company, but it becomes increasingly clear that he is adrift and that things aren’t going to work out for him. The filmmaking matches his mental disarray at times, and underpins his emotions with the similarly desolate piano work of Erik Satie (which is too often misused in films in my opinion, but works rather well here).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle (based on the novel [also translated as “Will O’ the Wisp”] by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Maurice Ronet; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 24 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 429: Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958)

This was something of a cause célèbre of its time — ridiculously, it went as far as the Supreme Court to rule on whether it was, in fact, “obscene”, not something that anyone watching today (or surely, to those responding in good faith, then) would label it. In any case, it has Jeanne Moreau as a bored upper-middle-class bourgeois wife who finds herself tempted by the charms of a number of men who pass through her charmed life of villas and polo matches. Even a man who gives her a lift when her car breaks down (Jean-Marc Bory) turns out to be related to the bored rich people, and part of what makes him interesting to her is the way he turns his back on those people. Ultimately, though, it feels a bit mean, being about a woman with little internal life who finds herself unfulfilled by affairs, and by the end isn’t even committed to her affair because you get the sense that nothing in her life would make her happy. And wonderful as Jeanne Moreau is to watch, and as well shot as the film is generally, it’s difficult to really care about her or about any of these characters in a film that lacks the lightness of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers who were getting started around the same time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writer Louise de Vilmorin (based on the novel Point de lendemain by Dominique Vivant); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Marc Bory, Alain Cuny, José Luis de Villalonga; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 17 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 428: Blast of Silence (1961)

A pretty taut and bleak film noir which distils a lot of the generic conventions down to the kind of format in which they’d be parodied for generations to come: the hard-boiled voiceover, the heavy sense of existential angst, the bleak futility of all actions, the duplicity of men (and women), all exemplified by a heavy-set tough guy. In this film, the tough guy is played by the director and this is all firmly in the finest low-budget moulds, with plenty of location shooting in New York City, including a climactic pursuit filmed during a hurricane, which certainly helps with the sense of overcast threat. The whole film has a great sense of place, and a deft way with moving its hero through the plot in such a way as to maintain momentum even as we know, right from the start, that he is surely and certainly doomed.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Allen Baron; Cinematographer Merrill Brody; Starring Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy; Length 77 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 427: Muerte de un ciclista (Death of a Cyclist, 1955)

It’s natural to want to try and read films made under fairly repressive governments as being veiled criticism of that regime, but I’m not the person to try and do that with this film made during Franco’s Spain. It’s about collective guilt, about mistrust, and about the things that shame and the fear of being found out do to desperate people. Perhaps when you’ve killed once, even accidentally, and especially when it seems you’ve gotten away with it, it becomes easier to do it again, is at least one of the questions which is raised here. But there’s a lot going on in this tale of two lovers who, as the film begins, knock down a cyclist on a darkened street, apparently unseen, and quickly flee the site when it becomes clear to them that there’s nothing to be done, and the fact that they’re in an adulterous affair means they don’t want to be found out. Things spiral out from there, as the film has the feel of a film noir but filtered through the melodramatic framing of a film from the golden age of Mexican cinema. It has a certain European froideur to it, as these two navigate their own complicated feelings towards the accident as well as their behaviour, but it’s never less than stylish and beautifully composed in stringent monochrome.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Juan Antonio Bardem; Cinematographer Alfredo Fraile; Starring Lucia Bosè, Alberto Closas, Otello Toso, Carlos Casaravilla; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 14 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 426: The Ice Storm (1997)

I remember loving this as a 20-year-old back in 1998 when it was on its first release. After all, I’ve always responded positively to elegantly filmed adaptations of contemporary literature, with all those underlying themes of suburban ennui and disaffection, couched in a stylised and ironic register, and in truth I still like it a lot. However, I find it more difficult to watch it without groaning at the immediacy of the “ice storm” metaphor, given these peoples’ lives in 1973 Connecticut, the suburbs of New York, the playground of the middle-classes as they struggle to adjust to… well, to the same things to which people in books and movies (and life) have always failed to adjust: them losing the spontaneity in their relationships; their tedious friends they’re stuck with; their kids growing up and becoming more sexual; the mindless tedium of the working life; you know, the usual. And with Kevin Kline in there you wonder if this isn’t just an updated The Big Chill (I haven’t seen it yet, mind, but the titles do seem superficially similar). Anyway, in short I think what happened to Elijah Wood’s character was a bit overdetermined, and things just seem so oppressively miserable for everyone (even though materially they’re all pretty well-off), but even so the look of the film is gorgeous, and the acting is all excellent, not least of all Joan Allen, who is I think the emotional core of the film, increasingly so as I get older.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel by Rick Moody); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 11 April 1998 (and again on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021).