Criterion Sunday 245: Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938)

People talk about this being a proto-noir, and I’ll defer to those more knowledgeable about their genres than I am, but it somehow feels less doomed, though it’s bleakly fatalistic in its way. It does, however, have an amazing sense of setting, as fog constantly closes in around all the characters in the port setting of Le Havre, shot by the great Eugen Schüfftan, who did Metropolis amongst others and so has a hand in defining how noir might (and would come to) look. It’s been described as “poetic realism”, and this feels like Carné’s thing in this film, harking back to earlier examples of the style through the casting of L’Atalante‘s Michel Simon. Jean Gabin’s army deserter Jean finds himself trying his best to stay out of trouble, but as they say trouble constantly seems to stick to him, like the fog, the oppressive sets, and the petulant baby-faced pretend-gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) who’s on his case the whole time. It’s all rather glorious.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marcel Carné | Writer Jacques Prévert (based on the novel by Pierre Mac Orlan) | Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan | Starring Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan, Pierre Brasseur | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 March 2019

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Criterion Sunday 87: Alexander Nevsky (1938)

By 1938, Sergei Eisenstein was already a celebrated filmmaker (not least for his masterful 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin), but one increasingly held at arm’s length by the Soviet authorities. His previous film, Bezhin Meadow (1937, see extras below), was suppressed, so on the grand patriotic canvas of Alexander Nevsky, he was assigned a co-director (Dmitri Vasilyev) and a co-screenwriter to keep him in check. They needn’t have worried because he turns in a very watchable epic about the resistance mounted against the invading Teutons by the reassuringly ordinary Prince Alexander of the title (Nikolai Cherkasov). Of course, given the historical context, one can’t help but draw the parallels between the noble suffering Soviet people and the threat posed by Hitler’s Nazis (and Roman Catholics, besides) invading from the West. Nevsky is introduced as an ordinary man, fishing in a lake among the people, though as soon as the Mongols ride up to address him, he’s all arms akimbo against the sky, the heroic everyman who shines as a beacon of hope and strength. Indeed, the presentation of Nevsky is consistently as heroic as one can imagine, almost to the point of self-mocking campness, and perhaps this is Eisenstein’s point. In any case, the film moves ahead with a fairly straightforward narrative, and culminates with a frenzied battle scored to Prokofiev’s music, with a little romantic subplot along the way involving Nevsky’s compatriots Vasili (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo (Andrei Abrikosov).

Criterion Extras: There’s a significant section on Eisenstein’s lost previous film, with a reconstruction of it from what materials remain (the first and last frames of each shot), which can’t help but be a shadowy approximation of the original but does at least prove it had some gloriously beautiful images.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev | Writers Sergei Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko | Cinematographer Eduard Tisse | Starring Nikolai Cherkasov, Nikolai Okhlopkov, Vera Ivashova | Length 111 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 3 April 2016)

Criterion Sunday 85: Pygmalion (1938)

George Bernard Shaw’s satirical play about the fragility of the English class system gets a fine adaptation here, with Leslie Howard (also the film’s co-director) portraying the mercurial and largely detestable Henry Higgins, and Wendy Hiller as his flower-girl muse, her Cockney accent rather patchy in the early portions of the film. There’s a prickly intensity to the relationship between the two, and it’s not exactly clear who ends up with whom at the film’s close (without giving anything away, there’s a hint that’s what’s seen may be imagined, or so it seems to me), but in the meantime there’s a feisty comedy of manners, as Higgins seeks to teach Eliza the King’s English, well enough to pass as aristocracy in the right kind of setting. And so, without quite meaning to, he essentially destroys her — or effectively tries to — by replacing her self-respect with the indignities of middle-class morality. It moves along at a fair clip with some jaunty editing (by David Lean, in an early film role for him) and the two leads trade barbs in a watchable and comedic manner.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard | Writers George Bernard Shaw, W. P. Lipscomb, Cecil Lewis and Ian Dalrymple (based on the play by Shaw) | Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. | Starring Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller | Length 96 minutes || Seen on a train to London (DVD), Sunday 22 May 2016.

Criterion Sunday 3: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Something I love about this film is that a pair of rather camp cricket-obsessed minor characters were so popular that they became big stars and went on to further film and televisual exploits. But this pair (Charters and Caldicott, anxious to return to England to catch the end of the five-day test match) are just one of the delights of this last film by director Alfred Hitchcock before himself travelling on to Hollywood. The premise is that adverse weather has stranded tourists in charmingly fictional Bandrika (a mittel-European land with German architecture, French manners and Italian accents), who must wait for the next day’s train. While aboard, our protagonist Iris (Margaret Lockwood), on a last holiday before returning to get married, loses her elderly travelling companion Miss Froy, to general disbelief. This kicks off a mystery thriller premise — filled with all kinds of colourful minor characters — while always remaining lightly comical in tone, as Iris enlists the aid of another traveller, the musician and amateur ethnomusicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave). There’s espionage, nuns, intrigue and a rather silly climactic shoot-out, but it never submits to some of the nastiness of Hitchcock’s later films, though whether Charters and Caldicott eventually get to watch some cricket is something you’ll need to watch the movie to find out.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (based on the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White) | Cinematographer Jack E. Cox | Starring Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 October 2014