Criterion Sunday 331: 晩春 Banshun (Late Spring, 1949)

I somehow contrived to put off watching this film for years, despite my deep love for the other films in the so-called “Noriko trilogy” which comprises this, Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953). The radiant Setsuko Hara, of course, plays the Noriko in each of these films (a different character in each, though), and remains best known for her work with Ozu. She retired from film acting the year he died, and herself lived until the age of 95 (she would have been 100 in June this year).

However, I needn’t have worried, because both this film and Hara’s performance are both exceptional, though made in what would become Ozu’s signature style, which is to say contemplative, almost meditative, with a still camera and sequences broken up little still lifes from nature or detail from the environment the characters are in (like the empty railway station that begins the film). That’s not to say the film is without humour — there are these moments of comedy between characters, as when Noriko denies her professor father (Chishu Ryu) a game with his friends, so he huffily grumps about having no tea, or when the professor’s sister Masa (Haruko Sugimura) finds a purse and he keeps urging her to hand it in. These moments would probably not make much impact in most films, but each finds a distinctive place in Ozu’s world, making up a complex movement of emotions. For while I used the adjective “contemplative” above, I’d probably avoid one like “gentle”, given that, for all its deliberate pacing and quietly observant nature, much of the film is essentially roiling with bitterness between the characters (for all her winning smiles, Hara even glares a few times at her father). This all leads in the end to a sort of heartbreak, albeit one prompted by the father doing what he feels is best for his daughter’s long-term happiness. And at the same time, there’s a critique of occupied Japan in a sub rosa way, with these glimpses of English-language signs alongside an affirmation of traditional Japanese culture. It’s a complex film in many ways, and an emotional one, but it’s very easy to watch.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Yumeji Tsukioka 月丘夢路; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 4 July 2020.

Criterion Sunday 325: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The fact of Alec Guinness playing eight roles is of course always the headline fact about this Ealing comedy of 1949, but that alone would certainly not make it a great film. He’s not even the only actor to take on a dual role as its lead, Dennis Price, plays social climber Louis Mazzini as well as (briefly) his own father, but his character is the core of the film, a sleek and urbane charmer who, as an opening framing scene makes clear, has managed to get himself sentenced to death, and who as we discover from his prison-penned autobiography, the narration of which provides most of the film’s incident, has made a habit of knocking off the obstacles to his becoming the Duke of Chalfont. We may be thankful that his half-Italian heritage was changed from the Jewish one of the original source text, though there’s some disturbing (for us, now) use of the N word near the end which clearly was not considered bothersome at the time for its British makers (indeed, its use in the ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ children’s rhyme was still around the schoolyard when I was a kid in the 1980s I’m fairly sure, though even the contemporary American release version changes it, so it can hardly be said to have been unproblematic at the time). That aside, this is an astute satire on the presumed superiority of the nobility, that a fine education and a quick wit somehow makes you a better person — whether it’s the callous behaviour of the d’Ascoyne family (Alex Guinness) which leads to Louis’ crimes, or the similarly high-handed way that Louis treats those he presumes to be below him from the very outset. Very few characters are indeed likeable throughout, though Louis does at least have the wrong done to his family, a sympathy increasingly worn thinner by his every subsequent action. Still, and perhaps for that reason, it remains a great black comedy about social climbing.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This two-disc DVD release has on the first disc a trailer and some photo galleries, both stills taken of the actors as well as behind-the-scenes production photos, including some rather striking costume designs and handsome portraits and group shots.
  • There’s also the American ending to the film, which differs just in the final shot, which (sorry, obviously spoilers follow for those who are concerned) makes Price’s inevitable come-uppance all the more clear by instead of showing his tell-all memoirs sitting on his prison table unread, has a guard run up to the warden and thrust them under his nose. This clarification was due to the Production Code requiring all crimes to be clearly punished.
  • The main extra on the second disc is a feature-length episode of the BBC documentary series Omnibus called Made in Ealing (1986). This is a straightforward run down of the history of Ealing Studios, particularly focusing on when it was acquired by Michael Balcon (whom everyone calls “Mick” or “Mickey”) and taking it through its heyday in the 40s and 50s, backed up by clips from the films and interviews with some of the key figures (archival footage of Balcon from 1969, along with contemporary interviews with his daughter and those directors and crew who still survived, like Sandy Mackendrick and Douglas Slocombe, amongst many others). It’s all narrated with a calm BBC gravitas, and is a decent introduction to the studio’s output until it was sold off in the mid-1950s.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Hamer; Writers Hamer and John Dighton (based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman); Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe; Starring Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 24 May 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 13 June 2020).

On the Town (1949)

Moving back through time is perhaps the best way to get a film that features some rather more successful romancing. After all, in my week nominally dedicated to love and marriage, most of my examples have been fairly undemonstrative of either of those. This 1949 musical features three sailors on furlough in the big city, so obviously there have to be some dames — though of course the structure means that they’ll all part by the end of the film.


There is, undeniably, a delight to so much of this musical. It sees Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and one other guy who’s not really very well known (Jules Munshin) alight for 24 hours in New York City. We’re supposed to believe that none of them have ever visited before, and truly they do play up to their naivete which may strain credulity given they’re in the Navy, but sort of fits with the jovial tone of the whole film. The three of them happen across three far more worldly women, who following the comic reversals of the film are the ones whose minds are only on one thing, and it’s not sightseeing — indeed, Sinatra being the nerdy stats-obsessed one becomes one of the better running jokes. Not all the tunes are particularly memorable — although Hildy (Betty Garrett) is probably the most distinctive character, the woman cab driver who’s desperate to bed Sinatra’s character, their duet together is fairly dull — but there are plenty that do make a splash, and Ann Miller’s anthropology student Claire winking broadly at the camera for the double entendres is a real highlight (as is her dress). The costume game, in general, is on top form, with colour coordinated outfits to offset the blandness of the sailor uniforms.

This screening was introduced by Kelly’s widow, who trailed that they had difficulty getting it made into a musical because the studio head apparently feared the threat of a diverse cast given its metropolitan setting and the sequences which are filmed on location, which as an introduction was a bit of a misdirect because this film hardly celebrates diversity. Aside from the fact that the only women of colour are seen in nightclub choruses who swiftly depart stage left each time they’re seen, there’s also (to modern eyes perhaps) a woefully tone-deaf appropriation of cultural difference in the anthropology museum number. Whereas the sequence introducing Vera-Ellen’s Ivy suggests the impossibility of cultural expectations of femininity, the anthropology museum sequence is just using native dress to make cheap jokes that you feel the ensemble should really be above. And the macho bullying of the unfortunate Lucy is only passingly redeemed by Gabe’s civility to her by the end of the evening.

Still, on the whole this is a lively and entertaining musical with all the style you’d expect of a big Technicolor Hollywood production.

On the Town film posterCREDITS
Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; Writers Adolph Green and Betty Comden (based on the stage musical by Green, Comden and Leonard Bernstein, itself based on the ballet Fancy Free by Jerome Robbins); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 26 October 2019.

Criterion Sunday 273: Thieves’ Highway (1949)

I like a noir, and I like a good American B-picture, because there’s an underlying desire to just get on with the story that’s almost refreshing. Here we get Nick (Richard Conte), back from the war to find his old man in a wheelchair thanks to some nefarious dealings with a San Francisco produce dealer, Mike Figlia (Lee Cobb). And so Nick gets on the road with his dad’s friend to haul apples to Frisco and settle some scores, which leads him to prostitute-with-a-heart Rica (Valentina Cortese, who died only earlier this year, as it happens). The pugnacious setup all feels fairly familiar, but the details about the fruit market and the bitter competition for prices is a nice twist that keeps things fresh, as we get a sense of the corruption and backstabbing that goes on to get to the top of the business world (I never knew such profits could be made on a Golden Delicious). There’s a straightforward charm to it, with the requisite pools of noirish darkness in the black-and-white lensing, some striking camera setups, and hard-nosed performances.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Director Jules Dassin speaks about the film over 50 years later (like Cortese, he lived into his 90s), fondly recalling details like the actor who zips up his jacket when he sees a man burned alive, or looking misty-eyed about Valentina Cortese.
  • There’s a four-minute snippet of the (at the time) under-production documentary about the life of screenwriter “Buzz” Bezzerides, of which further snippets are on the Criterion release of another Bezzerides script, Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
  • The original trailer is included, and of course a classic American pulpy trailer can be a wonderful thing. It obviously makes everything sound so much more lascivious than it really is, but it has its charms.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writer A.I. Bezzerides (based on his novel Thieves’ Market); Cinematographer Norbert Brodine; Starring Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 October 2019.

Under Capricorn (1949)

Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna is always a trove of fascinating older films, covering a range of genres and national cinemas, but you can always count on a few good period dramas. One such was this screening of a 35mm Technicolor print of Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated and underseen 1949 film Under Capricorn, set in 19th century Australia (though not filmed there).


One of Hitchcock’s more underappreciated films, and I do wonder if for English-speaking audiences it’s because of Ingrid Bergman’s rather patchy Irish accent. Needless to say, coming right after he made Rope, it’s filled with a bravura sense of adventure with the camera, which for all its physical clunkiness, seems to glide around these sets, particularly in a pair of scenes as a character approaches a home and moves around it and into it with ease, revealing these little snippets of the life within. Well, of course, that life is melodramatic and rather cloistered, a tale of power and class and the way that old English money (represented by Michael Wilding’s character, who has an imperious hauteur which is progressively broken down through the film) looks down on the transported criminals whose past it may have been untoward to enquire into, but who are also clearly very much aware of said pasts. In this case, it’s that of Joseph Cotten’s Flasky which comes into question, and his strange drunken wife played by Ingrid Bergman. The film begins and ends with the British flag flying over Australia, and plays out in 1830s Sydney, and there’s a hothouse atmosphere which the filming only heightens. Some of the characters may allow for rather broad performances, but this a beguiling Technicolor film that should probably have a higher standing amongst Hitch’s filmography.

Under Capricorn film posterCREDITS
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writers James Bridie and Hume Cronyn (based on the play by John Colton and Margaret Linden, itself based on the novel by Helen Simpson); Cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Starring Michael Wilding, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Margaret Leighton; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 233: 野良犬 Nora Inu (Stray Dog, 1949)

A fine crime procedural, which follows a young detective (Toshiro Mifune) who has his gun stolen from him in a moment of weariness on a tram, and spends the rest of the film tracking it down, learning along the way the serious consequences of such a breach of attention. It has a noirish hue, as Mifune goes deeper into the sleazy underworld, and throughout there’s a tangible sense of suffocating heat, characters constantly wiping the sweat from their faces, their clothes suffused with damp. It set up Kurosawa’s interest in refining pulpy generic storylines that he’d further pursue in subsequent films with Mifune and over his career.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with many of the Kurosawa discs, it includes a short documentary about its making, part of a Japanese TV series called It Is Wonderful to Create. The format remains consistent: text-heavy and reliant on interviews, with original archival materials interspersed with the words of surviving collaborators. The art director who worked on the film is interviewed wearing a Guns N Roses t-shirt, so there’s that. The image of Mifune doing a little jig, as relayed by the (then) young co-star, is also amusing.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三; Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Takashi Shimura 志村喬; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 October 2018 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1998).

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 64: The Third Man (1949)

There’s a certain kind of ‘cinema of quality’ prestige big budget production, especially from the UK, that I am somewhat allergic towards, and for many years I’d lumped The Third Man in with that. However, rewatching it again recently I realise the problem is with me when it comes to this film, because it’s not only glorious — and it truly is spectacular, even if just for the depth of its shadows and the luminosity of the light in those sewer sequences, though it’s sustained throughout by canted framings and canny compositions — but it’s also rather less triumphalist and morally clear-cut than you might expect from its American-in-Europe plotline. The film’s world is one of moral grey areas, a position staked out by the Harry Lime character (Orson Welles, in what amounts to a brief but memorable cameo), and constantly questioned by its pulp novelist protagonist Holly (Joseph Cotten). He has come from the US to Vienna just after the end of World War II looking for a job with his friend Harry, only to find himself at Harry’s funeral wondering what happened. No one has a clear story, and the details seem to be being hidden by the various forces — the city is split between four occupying armies, with their own respective languages — as well as various shadowy characters who interact with them at an official or semi-official level. It’s a film about profiteering, which makes clear the moral equivalency between wartime acts and those same acts outside wartime. It also features some excellent performances by Cotten as well as Alida Valli as Lime’s girlfriend Anna, but primarily it’s a triumph of writing and direction, whatever snobby canards towards Carol Reed’s “non-auteur” status the critics might throw.

Criterion Extras: A packed reissue includes an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, retailing the Reed-as-non-auteur line pretty hard.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carol Reed; Writer Graham Greene; Cinematographer Robert Krasker; Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli [as “Valli”], Trevor Howard, Orson Welles; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Saturday 2 May 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 November 2015).