Criterion Sunday 341: A Canterbury Tale (1944)

I can see from reading others’ reviews that there are a lot of big fans of this Powell and Pressburger film, made in black-and-white and telling a wartime story of three people (pilgrims if you will) in Kent, a Women’s Land Army volunteer (Sheila Sim), and two sergeants (the British one played by Dennis Sim, the American by a real Sgt John Sweet). And to be fair by the end there were plenty of positive things to be said about it, but perhaps my own impressions were negatively affected by my first impressions, which are of the kind of British officers you get in contemporary films (and certainly in P&P productions) of clipped RP accents delivered peremptorily and with a fair dollop of condescension, competing for annoyance only with the (non-actor) American sergeant’s incomprehension at all the very British people around him treating him like dirt, until of course they finally relent and show some compassion. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a mysterious local putting glue in women’s hair, though this doesn’t remain a mystery for too long and is all resolved in a jolly and very English sort of understanding way (despite the unexamined underlying weird sexism of the whole thing). But this is a wartime film about people of different backgrounds coming together to learn something about what they are really united for, and if you’re willing to go along with that broadly patriotic premise (albeit executed without too much grandstanding insistence), then it’s a good film. It’s also — and this is perhaps key to my ultimate feeling of positivity towards the film in the end — absolutely gorgeously lit and photographed, with a deep focus and deep shadows, alongside shards of beautiful light punctuating each frame.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • When it was a box office failure in the UK, Powell re-edited the film heavily for the American market, dropping a lot of it, but also adding a prologue and epilogue with its American protagonist (Sgt Sweet) and his wife in NYC as he talks about Canterbury, then at the end, with her there, impressing upon her the closure he achieved in visiting. It’s a little heavy-handed, of course, rather eagerly over-explaining using stats why there was an American GI in England in the first place, which is probably why the distributor wanted it added.
  • It’s a packed double-disc edition, with a number of featurettes about the film, but one of the key extras that contextualises the feature film within its era is Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister’s short film Listen to Britain (1942), a poetic propaganda film, bold in its use of sound to evoke a sense of a country united in wartime. Of course, it’s a very particular sense of nationality (and watching this on Mubi, I get the sense in their programming that putting this the day after a more recent British short film in which British Pakistani identities are examined is a pointed move), but that doesn’t detract from the artistry. The sound comes from fragments of speech in social settings, from news broadcasts, songs, the sounds of nature and of course the background drone of the warplanes and of industry. It’s all very compelling and beautiful, in its way.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Erwin Hillier; Starring Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, John Sweet, Eric Portman; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 28 July 2020.

Criterion Sunday 323: I bambini ci guardano (The Children Are Watching Us, 1943)

Vittorio De Sica and writer Cesare Zavattini collaborated on a number of the best-known Italian post-war films, still regularly getting onto those best ever lists, ones like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. This film, made in 1942 and intended for release in 1943 though scuppered somewhat by an escalating war, marks their first collaboration (or the first one that Zavattini put his name to anyway), and it has a lot of the hallmarks that would come to define De Sica’s particular brand of humanism. It has a great empathy for the character of Pricò (Luciano De Ambrosis), a small child of six-years-old, caught in the middle of a wrenching breakup between his parents (Isa Pola and Emilio Cigoli), as the mother is tempted away from the marriage and her son by her lover Roberto. The film’s big events though — the departure of the mother, and the climactic departure (as it were) of the father — are telegraphed very subtly, as the camera remains focused on the child, often indeed being at quite a low angle to the events. The lighting too can be equal to the drama, as in a confrontation between father and son where even at his tender age the son realises he mustn’t reveal what he knows or it will break his dad. It has a melodramatic way, then, but underplayed in the style that would come to define Italian Neorealism, and — for a film made at this time — entirely without any wartime propaganda.

[NB The Wikipedia page lists this as a 1943 film, but it may never have received a proper release that year, which is why Criterion has it down as 1944.]

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are only two extras on the disc, being 8-minute interviews with its surviving star Luciano De Ambrosis (who played the kid), as he reflects on working with De Sica and how much he really remembered about the shoot, and De Sica scholar Callisto Casulich, who gives a bit of background to the filming and release.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Vittorio De Sica; Writers De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Cesare Giulio Viola, Margherita Maglione, Adolfo Franci and Gherardo Gherardi (based on the novel Pricò by Viola); Cinematographers Giuseppe Caracciolo and Romolo Garroni; Starring Luciano De Ambrosis, Isa Pola, Emilio Cigoli; Length 84 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 6 June 2020.

None Shall Escape (1944)

Looking back at war films I’ve seen in the last few years (a genre I’m not a huge acolyte of), I find most of the ones I’ve seen cover World War II, during which conflict cinema became a powerful propaganda tool (perhaps not for the first time, but certainly more widely than ever before). This 1944 film takes the war film genre and spins it as a speculative fiction, addressing in real time the war crimes of the Nazis and how they will come to pay for them (as, indeed, they did).


A rather extraordinary speculative fiction, made in 1943 (or at least that’s the production date on the film; it was released the following year) but set in a future where the allies have won the war and put Nazi war criminals on trial. It focuses on one character, Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), and charts his descent from schoolteacher in Poland to, well, Nazi war criminal. The trial is the framing device introducing figures from his life like the priest who tells of how in 1919 he was going to marry Marja (Marsha Hunt), a Polish woman who taught alongside him, except that World War I had changed him, and now he felt as if the Germans could yet conquer the world. Then his brother Karl takes the stand and narrates how Wilhelm returned to stay with him in Munich in 1923, but was attracted by the rising star of one A. Hitler, whose ideology continued to warp his mind in successive flashbacks to 1929 and 1933, at which point Wilhelm has his brother sent to a concentration camp (which he has somehow survived to be giving testimony), at which point we move to some pretty full-on wartime scenes of Nazi atrocities (not least the burning of books, the murder of all the Jews along with the town’s rabbi, who recites the kaddish as he dies, and then the forced prostitution of the women). The final speech of the judge is directly into camera and explicitly addressed to the UN, so this is essentially a propaganda film, but it’s one that’s fairly prescient about the way that things would be for a long time to come — and which sadly makes it still fairly contemporary now. Nazis are bad.

None Shall Escape film posterCREDITS
Director Andre DeToth; Writers Lester Cole, Alfred Neumann and Joseph Than; Cinematographer Lee Garmes; Starring Marsha Hunt, Alexander Knox, Henry Travers; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Wednesday 27 June 2018.

Criterion Sunday 88: Иван Грозный Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible, 1944/1958)

Eisenstein’s final film (he’d planned a third part but died after starting to film it) follows the now very much de rigueur pattern of splitting its story into two separate films, though one would assume given its Soviet origins this wasn’t done for commercial reasons. Indeed, the second part was shelved for 12 years following its completion because apparently Stalin was disconcerted with the portrayal of his great hero Ivan. Knowing this obviously lends some compelling subtext to Nikolai Cherkasov’s portrayal of the increasingly paranoid and despotic ruler, though the first film has him posing far more innocently, adopting all those heroic poses he’d already mastered in Alexander Nevsky (1938). There’s a huge amount of beauty to Eisenstein’s framing, all glowering black-and-white close-ups of the principal characters — a huge amount of the drama is conveyed not through dialogue but by the movement of the actors’ eyes, and the frenetic mien of their expressionistic faces. In many ways, it’s like a modern soap opera, as bitter rivals grimace at one another, or go for hugs while revealing their true feelings to the camera over the other character’s shoulder. Much of the film takes place indoors, in cavernous chambers and long hallways, which means the lighting design and use of shadows is at times spectacular. The second part gets progressively darker, until, in a moment of surprise, there’s almost a dance sequence in (slightly reddishly-degraded) colour, before things lapse back to the previous stark monochrome. With a lot of the thematic development done via acting and staging, it’s the kind of film which would surely repay repeat viewings, but the central thrust of its thesis is nevertheless as evident to us as it must have been to Stalin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Sergei Eisenstein Сергей Эйзенштейн; Cinematographer Andrei Moskvin Андрей Москвин and Eduard Tisse Эдуа́рд Тиссэ́; Starring Nikolai Cherkasov Никола́й Черка́сов; Length 187 minutes (split into two parts of 99 and 88 minutes respectively).

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 2 May 2016.

Esther Williams at MGM

A couple of box sets document swimming star Esther Williams’ career at its late-40s and early-50s heights, via a series of boldly Technicolor films shot for MGM studio. It can’t be claimed that all are masterpieces, but they seem to give a sense of this lost era of filmmaking, with its charms as well as its evident weaknesses. The latter largely involves Williams’ male co-leads, not least a stiff Howard Keel in Pagan Love Song (1950) and the perpetually unfunny Red Skelton in both Bathing Beauty (1944) — which, despite the title, largely focuses on Skelton’s annoying songwriter twit Steve — and Neptune’s Daughter (1949), and while the latter at least is a far more supporting role, it’s still hard to see what the laughs are supposed to be, and these end up being the weakest films in the set. Still, it’s not all bad for the men, as Esther’s pairing with Ricardo Montalbán in this latter film, as well as On an Island with You (1948) and the Mexico-set Fiesta (1947), is the strongest through-line to her films of this era. She doesn’t always end up with him, mind, but aside from some of Fiesta (in which both play Mexicans, somewhat less convincingly in Williams’ case, though her skills as a female toreador are rather more in question), the films are largely free of any ethnic stereotyping.

Fiesta, in particular, points up Williams’ proclivity to ‘brown up’ for a role (undoubtedly forced on her by the studio, as it’s more a sad reflection of the era), which is at its worst in Hawaii-set Pagan Love Song. It seems initially that something similar is taking place in On an Island with You, but her Hawaiian temptress in that film’s opening scene turns out to be a swimming-based acting star in a film within the film, though hardly one that makes any particular argument about the dubious practice, and when the film takes a turn into ‘romantic kidnapping’ on the part of the boring (white) US Navy love interest played by Peter Lawford, it gets a little bit hard to accept, even under the veil of historical difference. Among these 1940s films, 1945’s Thrill of a Romance almost passes without notice, feeling more like an excuse to bundle a bunch of disparate acts (a Danish opera singer, the Tommy Dorsey Band, a teenage pianist) together in a wartime variety revue, though Williams does at least shimmer in the Technicolor.

If anything, it’s the saturated colours of the celluloid process which is the most impressive star of all these films — no one looks quite so good in Technicolor as Esther Williams — though the early-50s features The Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and Dangerous When Wet (1953) are the best of the lot for more traditional reasons. In the former, Williams is playing a version of herself in the real-life story of silent film star Annette Kellerman, an Australian, not that you’d guess it from Williams’ accent (she thankfully doesn’t try for an accent either her or in her Mexican role in Fiesta). It also features probably the most spectacular swimming sequence of any of the films, in a grand Busby Berkeley-choreographed setpiece. And then there’s Dangerous When Wet, which may even be her best film, and is certainly most charming in a celebrated Tom and Jerry sequence. Williams plays a young woman who takes up a challenge to the swim the English Channel, with romantic entaglements very much in the background. The plot means there’s some genuine tension in the way things unfold, and it ends up finishing rather neatly.


CREDITS

Bathing Beauty (1944)Bathing Beauty (1944)
Director George Sidney; Writers Dorothy Kingsley, Allen Boretz and Frank Waldman; Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr.; Starring Red Skelton, Esther Williams; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 31 January 2016.

Thrill of a Romance film posterThrill of a Romance (1945)
Director Richard Thorpe; Writers Richard Connell and Gladys Lehman; Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr.; Starring Esther Williams, Van Johnson, Carleton G. Young; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 February 2016.

Fiesta film posterFiesta (1947)
Director Richard Thorpe; Writers George Bruce and Lester Cole; Cinematographer Wilfred M. Cline; Starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalbán, Mary Astor, Fortunio Bonanova; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 17 February 2016.

On an Island with You film posterOn an Island with You (1948)
Director Richard Thorpe; Writers Charles Martin, Hans Wilhelm, Dorothy Kingsley and Dorothy Cooper; Cinematographer Charles Rosher; Starring Esther Williams, Peter Lawford, Ricardo Montalbán, Cyd Charisse; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 February 2016.

Neptune's Daughter (1949)Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
Director Edward Buzzell; Writer Dorothy Kingsley; Cinematographer Charles Rosher; Starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalbán, Red Skelton, Betty Garrett; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 27 February 2016.

Pagan Love Song film posterPagan Love Song (1950)
Director Robert Alton; Writers Robert Nathan and Jerry Davis (based on the novel Tahiti Landfall by William S. Stone); Cinematographer Charles Rosher; Starring Esther Williams, Howard Keel; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 31 January 2016.

Million Dollar Mermaid film posterMillion Dollar Mermaid (1952)
Director Mervyn LeRoy; Writer Everett Freeman; Cinematographer George J. Folsey; Starring Esther Williams, Victor Mature, Walter Pidgeon; Length 115 minutes.
Seen on a train (DVD), Friday 4 March 2016.

Dangerous When Wet (1953)Dangerous When Wet (1953)
Director Charles Walters; Writer Dorothy Kingsley; Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Esther Williams, Fernando Lamas, Jack Carson; Length 95 minutes.
Seen on a train (DVD), Sunday 6 March 2016.

Criterion Sunday 41: Henry V (1944)

When Kenneth Branagh filmed his own dark and politically cynical vision of this play in 1989 it kick-started his career and marked a resurgence of Shakespeare on film, but Laurence Olivier was the original actor/director and puts the play and its hero in quite a different light. Of course, being made at the height of the Second World War, you might expect a more triumphant hue to proceedings. There’s also an admirable commitment to theatrical non-naturalism in the sets and setting — again, this may have been motivated by avoiding anything reminiscent of the actual conditions of war — but brings to my mind Rohmer’s later experiments in staging the Mediaeval story of King Arthur in Perceval le Gallois (1978). Indeed Olivier’s film itself starts through a recreation of a performance at London’s Globe theatre in the early-17th century (strikingly similar to the reconstruction now on the South Bank), before at length moving away from the theatre, without ever quite relinquishing the stagy feel, though that’s as much to do with the beautifully saturated Technicolor cinematography as with anything in the performances. Whatever its limitations, and however carefully it works to work around the more melancholy notes in the play (most obviously its coda of how Henry promptly lost France shortly afterwards), it’s still a fine staging of a classic English play.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Laurence Olivier; Writers Alan Dent and Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Robert Krasker; Starring Laurence Olivier; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 June 2015.