This week, for a change, I’m doing a special director focus on Mikio Naruse, who in light of contemporaries like Ozu and later filmmakers such as Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, is perhaps an underappreciated Japanese cinematic master. A couple of weeks ago I rounded up a number of his 1930s sound films, and I’ve previously mentioned his biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (1936), but I realised I still had enough reviews of his great 1950s works, not to mention his earliest silent cinema, to merit an entire week dedicated to him. These silent works are collected on a boxset from the Criterion sub-label Eclipse, dedicated to lesser-known films presented in bare bones DVD editions, albeit with good transfers and liner notes. [NB Outside of the context of this director-focused week, I intend to do future posts about other Eclipse boxsets, though watching them all can sometimes take a bit of time.]
I’ve watched this Renoir film a number of times in my life, and much though I appreciate a good Renoir film — and his best films are among the finest in the canon (Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game being just two of them which have already appeared in the Criterion Collection) — the particular charms of this one seem to pass me by. It’s about Michel Simon’s tramp, called Boudu, who (as the title may suggest) is saved from drowning, much to his great protestation, by a well-meaning local antiquarian bookshop owner, M. Lestingois (Charles Granval). The film has the feeling of a knockabout farce — Simon certainly essays plenty of physical japery in his role — though you get the feeling that Renoir’s particular ire is reserved for the tedious petit bourgeois morality that Lestingois represents (a man so obsessed by status and clothes and propriety in all its forms, despite philandering with the much younger housemaid). The problem is that his vehicle for this critique is the even more boorish Boudu, none of whose affrontery particularly affects Lestingois, and it’s left to his wife and maid to have to deal with the messes and, more particularly, his rough and impertinent sexual appetites (it’s pretty clear that he rapes the wife, much though she subsequently seems to be charmed by him). Perhaps it’s not meant to be charming, but plenty of critics and audiences seem to find it thus, so if those include you, then that’s excellent.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Renoir (based on the play by René Fauchois); Cinematographer Marcel Lucien; Starring Michel Simon, Charles Granval, Sévérine Lerczinska, Marcelle Hainia; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at the university film department, Wellington, Monday 16 March 1998 (as well as earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1997, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 4 April 2020).
The history of women making films in France, as in the United States, stretches back to the silent era. Musidora’s formative influence as a director and star (in such films as Soleil et ombre and Pour Don Carlos) extends to this Colette adaptation, an early sound film, as she was originally attached to the project. The film was restored in the mid-1990s and was presented again as part of the Musidora strand at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.
Based on a text (and with a filmed introduction) by Colette, this is a delicately-told story of a woman trying to free herself from the bad, possessive men in her life (it was originally published just as Colette was getting divorced from Willy). The film has long stretches of silent action (though one supposes this is hardly unusual in early sound films) and can be a little unforgiving to watch, and yet there are these beautifully expressive passages, both in the acting (the weary way Marcelle Chantal as music hall actor Renée Nérée pushes a man’s hand off her, or a subtle raise of her pencil-thin eyebrows while drinking wine) and the direction (Renée’s experience with two different men are united via lap dissolves between the scenes, as their actions are a further indictment of chauvinist arrogance and predatory intentions). In terms of tone, it feels like a precursor to the ‘poetic realism’ that would take hold in French filmmaking throughout the decade. As the film progresses, it builds up these short scenes, little vignettes of a sad life, before a final sequence at the docks as she longs to sail away.
Director Solange Bussi [later Solange Térac]; Writer Colette (based on her novel); Cinematographers Rudolph Maté and Louis Née; Starring Marcelle Chantal, Fernand Fabre; Length 66 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Mastroianni), Bologna, Sunday 23 June 2019.
On second viewing, this still impresses as Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece. It’s not just in the characters — whose love affairs are delightful, particularly that between gentleman thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and elegant pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins), handled with the ‘touch’ Lubitsch was known for, a sort of playful understanding of sex before that was a subject you were ‘allowed’ to address directly in cinema — nor the fabulous actors (oh, Kay Francis!) but in the subtler artistry. The camerawork for example, just little pans across to catch a detail (especially in that almost avant-garde sequence of clock faces dissolving into yet more clocks). Or the way a fade to black can suggest so much. It’s the way that every actor gets little tics that make them into real people, or that a famous city like Venice can be introduced by a garbage gondola in the night, undercutting with great economy the usual conventions. There are so many fine choices, articulated as part of a whole that moves towards a romantic comic resolution, and all of it in well under 90 minutes.
Criterion Extras: There’s a 45-minute long film from early in Lubitsch’s career included as an extra, Das fidele Gefängnis (The Merry Jail) (1917). Lubitsch likes the genteel contours of the sex comedy, though his famous ‘touch’ wasn’t perhaps so refined in 1917 as it would be a mere fifteen years later. Indeed, this is primarily a stagy (three act) farce, in which a frivolous dissolute womanising husband has one put over him by his wife, using the time-honoured (even 100 years ago) device of putting on a mask to fool him. There’s a side-plot about the wife’s maid and… I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with the jail, such is the economy/speed with which this 45 minute film just speeds by, but suffice to say there’s a lot of kissing — whether cheating men with other women, or jailed men with their drunken captors. Isn’t life a merry jail?
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernst Lubitsch; Writer Samson Raphaelson (based on the play A Becsületes Megtaláló by Aladár László); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 13 August 2017).
A late film by Yasujiro Ozu which is set amongst a small group of neighbours in a Tokyo suburb and treats childhood with a light, comic touch. The plot, such as it is, has the kids of one family refusing to speak after being scolded by their father (Chishu Ryu) for going round to a neighbour’s home to watch sumo wrestling on TV. In a fit of pique after being refused this modern convenience — their father inveighs against its stupefying effect — the kids reject the language of their parents and what they see as all the stupid meaningless banalities of conversation like “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you” and of course “good morning”. Meanwhile, gossip spreads amongst the neighbours when the local residents’ association dues haven’t been paid, as first one and the another member of this tight-knit community is suspected of having absconded with the cash. It may depict a long-vanished world in which doors are always open and people can pop round to one another’s home to chat, but at the heart is the tension brought about by the modern consumerist world and its increasing technologisation. The gossip centres largely on the purchase of a washing machine, while the TV also seems to divide the families. Things never get too dark –- everyone converses with a fixed and ready smile, even when you suspect they’re pretty angry, and indeed entire conversations proceed with a surface level of the kind of banality that the kids hate, even as other feelings are being expressed. The comedy is provided by the kids, and for all Ozu’s austere reputation, there’s a recurring farting game that consistently goes wrong for one of the kids.
- The original DVD release of this (which I watched when first reviewing this film) has a very basic edition, with only the written notes and nothing on the disc, though it’s as fine a transfer as ever of this rare Ozu colour film.
- The updated Blu-ray release, however, has plenty of extras, chief among which is Ozu’s 1932 film I Was Born, But…, a silent picture which shares some superficial similarities, in that it also focuses on young kids and their parents. Ostensibly this is a sweet comedic film about two young kids and the trouble they get up to, but like the greatest films it operates on plenty of other levels. Not least among them is its dissection of the operation of class in Japanese society — these two kids are from quite a humble family, and respect their father, but slowly get a sense of how subservient he is in his work and with his boss, whose son they are friends with. There’s a quiet bleakness to it all, of wanting your kids to have a better life and do better in life than you do, that you can see the quandary from both the parents’ and the kids’ sides and it can at times be quietly heartbreaking. Nevertheless, it sustains its jaunty and unassuming comic tone, in vignettes with the kids playing with their friends, fighting with their enemies, getting up to nonsense and just generally being kids, and for all the sadness at its core, it remains a sweet and light watch.
- There’s also an illuminating 18-minute extra “Ozuland”, in which David Bordwell highlights a few key visual touches that Ozu brings to the film — both in the filming style, the cutting, the motifs — and contrasting it with the silent film too.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at my mother’s flat (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 15 March 2015.
大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど Otona no Miru Ehon – Umarete wa Mita Keredo (I Was Born, But…, 1932)
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Cinematographer Hideo Shigehara 茂原英雄; Starring Tatsuo Saito 斎藤達雄, Tomio Aoki 青木富夫, Hideo Sugawara 菅原秀雄; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 1 June 2020.
Having released his 1940 film The Bank Dick, Criterion followed it up with six of W.C. Fields’ short films, largely spanning the beginning of the sound era (1930-1933) though with one from 1915. He may be younger in 1915’s Pool Sharks, but he still has his comic persona largely intact, albeit with the inclusion of a particularly ridiculous moustache halfway up his nose. The film is also enlivened by stop-motion animated pool table sequences which present some of the most incredulous pool playing one could hope for, making it at least passably amusing. Less successful for me are The Golf Specialist (1930) and The Barber Shop (1933), which largely coast by on very slight comic premises — the former involving a con artist who tries at length to show a lady how to play golf but is constantly interrupted, and the latter involving an inept barber in a small town with a shrewish wife — though the former does at least feature a comedically delightful list of charges upon which the character is arrested. Appearing to have largely the same set as The Barber Shop is the same year’s The Pharmacist, with Fields this time playing a small town pharmacist, who again has a difficult wife and family, but is trying his best to keep his shop going. The Dentist (1932) also features a straightforwardly descriptive title for Field’s character, but here he exhibits even more rancour than usual in dealing with his various customers’ complaints, leading to a prolonged tooth-pulling scene which at least is as funny as it is difficult to watch. The pick of the bunch for me, though, is The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933, directed by Clyde Bruckman, a veteran of a number of Buster Keaton films). It’s a very odd little film with a period wilderness setting, in which all the actors’ performances seem pushed to the edge of deadpan blankness that seems strange initially but which sticks in my mind afterwards, giving the whole enterprise an oddly oneiric quality. For fans of W.C. Fields’s comic persona, there’s plenty in all the films to like, with annoying kids and some slightly off-colour jokes, but also lots of knockabout physical comedy. There’s also a consistent line in abrupt endings, one presumes for comic effect, though some are more satisfying than others.
Criterion Extras: Like the earlier Fields release, this is an absolutely bare-bones package, with nary even a trailer.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 February 2016.
Pool Sharks (1915)
Director Edwin Middleton; Writer W. C. Fields; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 15 minutes.
The Golf Specialist (1930)
Director Monte Brice; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographer Frank Zucker; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 20 minutes.
The Dentist (1932)
Director Leslie Pearce; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographer John W. Boyle; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 22 minutes.
The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
Director Clyde Bruckman; Writer W. C. Fields; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 21 minutes.
The Pharmacist (1933)
Director Arthur Ripley; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographers Frank B. Good and George Unholz; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 20 minutes.
The Barber Shop (1933)
Director Arthur Ripley; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographer John W. Boyle; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 21 minutes.
Looking back, it feels like there was a real moment in the late-1920s and early-1930s when cinema was the new and exciting form which artists in France wanted to explore, and so we see a number of films by people like Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and of course Salvador Dalí (whose 1928 film Un chien andalou was directed by Luis Buñuel), all better known for their non-film work. Into this fray entered Jean Cocteau, himself at this point better known as a poet, novelist, playwright and librettist, to which he later added designer and artist. As one of his earliest film works (completed in 1930 but not screened to the public until 1932), The Blood of a Poet has a lot of similarities with the other avant-garde work being done around this time, trading largely in the symbolic in its four part structure. There’s the poet (one of many self-portraits throughout Cocteau’s career) and the statue in the first half of the film, boys having a lethal snowball fight, and finally a card player and the dead boy, in which death seems to be returned to the world of art, as the statue makes its reappearance. It’s a film filled with inventive use of sets and staging (favourites include plunging into the mirror/pool, looping images backwards, and having characters move through corridors as if resisted by some unseen force, a trick apparently done by attaching the scenery to the floor and shooting from above). If it never quite coheres in a straightforward narrative way, that’s hardly any discredit to the film, which works far more effectively at an oneiric level, looking towards Cocteau’s later films in this ‘Orphic trilogy’ as well as his fairytale masterpiece Beauty and the Beast (1946).
Criterion Extras: The most substantial extra here is a 66 minute documentary Jean Cocteau: Autoportrait d’un inconnu (Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown, 1985, dir. Edgardo Cozarinsky), which largely uses clips from Cocteau’s films in conjunction with a filmed interview to give an overview of his life, although it sticks largely to his artistic career, which was long and varied after all. The film retains an element of Cocteau’s customary opacity, but is engaging all the same. In addition, there are some behind the scenes images of Cocteau at work with his actors, as well as a transcript of a lecture he gave at a screening of the film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau; Cinematographer Georges Périnal; Length 55 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 25 April 2001, and NFT, London, Thursday 4 March 2004 (and more recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 13 December 2015).
Hollywood films of the early-1930s, before the instigation of the Production Code, quite often have a loose and freewheeling quality that still delights so many decades on. Plenty of that is in evidence here, with the sparky Sylvia Sidney playing heiress Joan, who begins dating alcoholic reporter Jerry (Fredric March) after meeting him at a high society party. Indeed, the title of the film comes from his signature toast. In terms of the pre-Code elements, the frank portrayal of alcoholism and adultery — as Joan and Jerry start to feud and break apart — is forthright and unapologetic, and there’s a lot to enjoy in the spirited performances. It’s a pity, then, that the denouement glosses over the preceding events with a moralistic hue, but for the most part director Dorothy Arzner keeps things moving along nicely, and it even briefly features a young Cary Grant as one of Joan’s paramours.
Director Dorothy Arzner; Writer Edwin Justus Mayer (based on the novel by Cleo Lucas); Cinematographer David Abel; Starring Sylvia Sidney, Fredric March; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Sunday 31 January 2016.
It’s an underwhelming cover this one, but though the film is short, it’s not without its pleasures. It’s from the directors and some of the stars of King Kong (1933), and even uses some of its jungle sets, to create a sort of proto-Hunger Games story in which the game of the title has a double meaning of both a sport and a hunted animal. Our heroes are the clean-cut Bob (Joel McCrea) and Eve (Fay Wray), the former a famous big game hunter on a luxury cruise who in the opening scenes gets into a (very clearly foreshadowing) conversation about what it must be like to be the animal being hunted, leading him to make a statement about how he’d never have to worry about being in this position. Hmm. However, the most interesting character is the creepy Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who owns a tropical island and lures people to it by causing ships to run aground on his shoals. Eve has already done so and is living in Zaroff’s mansion when Bob arrives, the only survivor from his ship. As you can tell from the hour-long running time, there’s not a lot of slack in the storytelling, but there’s still plenty of stylishness to the black-and-white lensing, and though the setting doesn’t have the verisimilitude of Lord of the Flies (1963), also in the Criterion Collection and reviewed a few weeks back, it’s still got plenty of good setpieces. But it’s Banks who steals the show, which is probably why it was retitled the Hounds of Zaroff on its initial UK release.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack; Writer James Ashmore Creelman (based on the short story by Richard Connell); Cinematographer Henry W. Gerrard; Starring Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks; Length 63 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 August 2015.
1932 saw two witty, urbane films featuring jewel thieves and the acting talents of Kay Francis, and this concise Warner Bros. film is not the one that has gone down in history, not least because Trouble in Paradise is one of cinema’s great achievements, directed by Ernst Lubitsch whose style Jewel Robbery is brazenly trying to command. That said, it’s certainly not without its own pleasures. For a start, there’s Kay Francis, of whose work I had hitherto been unaware, but who strikes me as a great talent (not to mention a great beauty). As Baroness Teri, her snappy repartee with William Powell’s unnamed jewel thief anchors the film. She also has a forthrightness to her manner that would make for a fine animated GIF set if I were inclined to that sort of thing and this were Tumblr. There are other actors, sure, but in truth it’s hard to remember any but the pair of them, the robber and his prey, first in the shop, then at her home, their relationship developing just as his seemingly effortless heist appears to be unravelling. It’s like an elaborate dance that the two of them undertake, such that the jewel heist plot seems an unwanted detail imposed for merely metaphorical purposes, and this is precisely how the two characters seem to treat it. It’s a film about falling in love, whether Baroness Teri with her robber, or — for me at least — the audience with Kay Francis.
Director William Dieterle; Writer Erwin S. Gelsey (based on the play Ekszerrablás a Váci-uccában by Ladislas Fodor); Cinematographer Robert Kurrle; Starring Kay Francis, William Powell; Length 68 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014.