Criterion Sunday 270: Casque d’or (1952)

After a decade or two of films noirs, films of picturesque hoodlums lurking in the chiaroscuro frame, the French were pretty excellent at black-and-white crime thrillers, and for me this must rank as one of the finest. Jacques Becker hits all the expected notes with Simone Signoret as Marie, a prostitute who hangs out with some rather unsavoury types (including the no-good Félix), who falls for a carpenter and ex-hood Georges (Serge Reggiani). There’s no shortage of doomed romance, of beautiful close-ups of Signoret and her striking golden hair (the “golden helmet” referenced by the title), and exquisitely framed and filmed sequences, as he falls back into a world of crime all for the sake of Marie. The narrative is tightly structured and moves forward implacably, save for an all-too-brief sequence of the two in love by a riverside somewhere in the middle of the film, before the tragic denouement is set up.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s eight minutes of silent 8mm footage shot on the set of the film, during the sequence where Georges and Marie first meet and dance together, presented with an optional commentary from Philip Kemp, who picks out the key figures and explains a little of what we’re seeing. It’s certainly interesting to get this brief glimpse at how studio filmmaking was done in France before the New Wave.
  • We get around 27 minutes of Cinéastes de notre temps: Jacques Becker (1967, dir. Claude de Givray), originally well over an hour in length, although another five minutes show up on the Touchez pas au grisbi disc, next up in the Criterion collection. Several of Becker’s collaborators speak about his work (he died in 1960, shortly after Le Trou), and Givray’s technique with the talking heads is to cross-cut between them, as if they’re all in dialogue with one another, and may be a tip of the hat to Becker’s own (relatively) frenetic editing style, which his editor Marguerite Renoir speaks a bit about.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker and Jacques Companéez; Cinematographer Robert Le Febvre; Starring Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Claude Dauphin; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 October 2019.

Criterion Sunday 242: Le Carrosse d’or (The Golden Coach, 1952)

I think the tendency of post-war European cinema around this time, especially in Italy, was towards neo-realism, shooting on the streets, giving that documentary sense of gritty immediacy, and so Renoir shooting a very theatrical film on the soundstages of Cinecittà in Italy, with a very stylised use of saturated colour and glorious, ornate sets and costumes, with Italian and American actors speaking in English in a story set in Latin America (Peru, apparently) feels like a very studied riposte to all that. In fact, it feels like a more deeply-felt commentary on the nature of acting and performance to make this kind of film at this time, a film that dwells on spectacle as something which almost seems corrupting: the obscenity of the golden coach at the film’s centre makes the government lose their minds, and becomes a tool of bargaining between men and, ultimately, the church — in a penultimate speech by the Bishop which is interrupted by Renoir cutting between all the assembled faces, expressing wry delight or shocked disdain. There’s a subtle comment on the nature of imperialism, too, as this Latin American colony becomes enthralled to the Italian Anna Magnani and her troupe of actors, threatening to depose the viceroy and create a new life fighting for the rights and sovereignty of the native peoples (though this at least feels a little in passing). I think Renoir’s later films are some of his finest work, operating at a different register from much of contemporary cinema, and all the better for it.

[NB Criterion lists the year as 1953, although this film appears to have been released in Italy in December 1952.]


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir, Jack Kirkland, Renzo Avanzo, Giulio Macchi and Ginette Doynel (based on the play Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement by Prosper Mérimée); Cinematographer Claude Renoir; Starring Anna Magnani, Odoardo Spadaro, Duncan Lamont; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 March 2019.

Criterion Sunday 221: 生きる Ikiru (1952)

Clearly one of Kurosawa’s greatest films, it’s also perhaps a little forgotten — possibly not amongst hardened cineastes, but that at least is the feeling I get when talking about Kurosawa with other casual film lovers. Part of this is undoubtedly that it’s not set in the shogun era of samurai and peasants (like, say, Seven Samurai), but rather contemporary Japan. It’s about a humble bureaucrat (played by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura) who mournfully realises the failure of his life as he gets a cancer diagnosis, and has to deal with that. There’s a hint of Rashomon to the latter half of the film, as people argue at his wake about his lasting achievement — the construction of a children’s playground — but the framing of it, as flashbacks from his funeral, clearly indicate that it is altogether too late in his life. It is, however, poignant and heartbreaking, and feels like a movie that’s not so much depressing in its accounting of a person’s life, as perhaps a little hopeful that some may at least achieve something despite all the obstacles placed in their way.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • A fairly easygoing documentary (an episode of a TV series, It Is Wonderful to Create, which pops up on most of Criterion’s Kurosawa releases), which uses interviews with surviving members of Kurosawa’s cast and crew to shed light on how he made his films. This one features Miki Odagiri (the young woman who befriends Kanji after his illness is diagnosed, and then finds him a little creepily intense) talking about Kurosawa’s methods of inspiring her performance, as well as screenwriters and technicians. There’s not a huge deal of insight, but it’s pleasant enough.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 and Hideo Oguni 小国英雄; Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Takashi Shimura 志村喬, Miki Odagiri 小田切みき; Length 143 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 July 2018 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1997).

Criterion Sunday 201: Umberto D. (1952)

My sense of this neorealist classic is that as I get older so the film will get better, but it’s one of those portraits of old age as a sad time of abandonment, especially in the context of a country coming out of a divisive wartime experience. However, the skill of De Sica is in making what seems like a pretty depressing watch into something a little more observational, capturing a sort of poetry of the everyday, as Umberto trudges around Rome in search of a little money to pay his rent, or looking out for his dog Flike. His own suicidal ideation is handled with sensitivity, and those occasions when he’s pulled back from something tragic by the slender bonds of love that remain make it the more powerful as a film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Vittorio De Sica; Writer Cesare Zavattini; Cinematographer G. R. Aldo; Starring Carlo Battisti; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 March 2018.

Criterion Sunday 189: Lo sceicco bianco (The White Sheik, 1952)

Early Fellini is probably the best Fellini, in my opinion, free of the baroque stylisation he would later fall victim to. That said, I find it difficult to imagine this as an Antonioni film (he was one of the writers of the original story, if not the screenplay), because it’s so filled with the extra touches Fellini would throw in, all light and music and movement and mugging for the camera. The lead actor is particularly good (Leopoldo Trieste), the one who plays the hapless husband making excuses for his star-struck wife, and it wasn’t until watching a making-of featurette that I realised this wasn’t a satire on film, but rather a satire on a very specific type of literature in which narratives were photographed for magazines, hence why I was confused about the nature of the shoot. Anyway, it’s all very pleasing and silly really.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini; Writers Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano; Cinematographer Arturo Gallea; Starring Alberto Sordi, Leopoldo Trieste, Brunella Bovo, Giulietta Masina; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 December 2017.

Criterion Sunday 158: The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

There’s a certain strain in English filmmaking — and I think it’s the best kind — that is very much upfront about the theatricality of their sources. This one starts with a proscenium framing, and never lets up reminding us about quite how staged it all is, in the manner of the best farces. Wilde’s lines are given weight — enunciated with an archness that seems to be playing to the back of a very large room — even if not always fully respected (or so I gather from the gasps of my wife at bits having been needlessly cut and rephrased), but it’s not really until the entrance of Edith Evans’ Lady Bracknell that the film starts to really work. The male leads (Redgrave and Denison), after all, seem far too old, even for the staid era the film is trying to portray. Still, those line readings are for the most part marvellous, and the director has small flourishes (a match-cut to a gardenia near the beginning) that betray some thought about staging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Anthony Asquith (based on the play by Oscar Wilde); Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson; Starring Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 7 September 2017.

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.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Films About FilmmakingAmong the more lauded Hollywood films that takes filmmaking as its subject is this classic musical, which casts a wry look back at the transition from silent to sound film. It’s not exactly the most accurate about how a film is made, but it includes some nice period detail nonetheless.


I’m sitting here in front of a blank computer screen wondering what there is, usefully, that I can write about this film, which as far as musicals from (and indeed, about) the Golden Age of Hollywood go is surely as classic as they come. If you haven’t already seen it then you’re missing out, and moreover you probably know perfectly well that you’re missing out and intend to rectify that at some point. Which is just as well, because even after all this time it remains a delightful motion picture, thanks in no small part to Gene Kelly’s athletic hoofing (a quaint term for dancing which appropriately puts the focus on footwork), the spry Comden & Green songs, and its self-referential story set in Hollywood’s own (at this point, relatively recent) history.

As a film about Hollywood’s mythmaking practices, one of the things the film does best is to dance on the line between make-believe and genuine feeling. Debbie Reynolds as Kathy enters the film as a high-minded young woman apparently resistant to the play-acting of (silent) film, rehearsing the actor’s dumb-show masks by contorting her face into clownish expressions of ecstasy, terror and surprise, as she drives Gene Kelly’s big star Don away from his overly adoring fans. Of course it’s clear even at this point that she’s baiting Don’s overinflated ego, but for much of the early part of the film, Kelly is seen almost permanently wearing one such mask — the widest of rictus grins, baring his startlingly white teeth — in a gratingly disingenuous way. Then again, as a big star he is always on show, and in this movie every new location is a film set on which he can perform, so it’s no wonder that it takes Kathy so long to figure out how he really feels.

As a film about performance, it’s suitable that it’s filled with excellent ones, particularly a number of duos between Kelly and Donald O’Connor as Don’s piano-playing accompanist friend Cosmo. Even though “Make Em Laugh” is conspicuous by the lack of laughter it engenders with its outrageous slapstick pranking (maybe I’m just hard-hearted), it nevertheless beautifully showcases O’Connor’s acrobatic agility, while “Moses Supposes” quickly returns a voice coach’s office into the dance studio set it clearly originally was. We also get to see some actual filmmaking taking place, for this is above all a story about Hollywood’s transition to sound films in the late-1920s (hence the voice coach). Being a musical, it’s naturally somewhat biased against the silent era, though its comedic points about the melodramatically affected acting style has some basis in truth. We also get an archetypally domineering yet ineffectual director and some hilariously inept early sound technology.

If the film has a misstep for me, it’s the treatment of Don’s acting partner Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who is constantly ridiculed and humiliated for the temerity she shows in presuming to speak, for she is the very definition of the dumb blonde stereotype. She is a manipulative figure of negligible talent and a shrilly grating Brooklyn accent, and she seems created to emphasise the homely charms of Kathy. And yet Jean Hagen sort of steals the film with her, and in many ways (perhaps in spite of the filmmakers’ mean-spirited intentions) she is a rather transgressive character, outspoken and perfectly aware of the patriarchal way things work in Hollywood. It’s at the hands of this chummy band of old boys pulling on almost-literal strings that she gets her comeuppance at the end. I’m still not sure if we were meant to cheer, but it manages to feel quite nasty.

On the whole though, the film has much to recommend it, not least the extended “Broadway Melody” ballet sequence with the delightful Cyd Charisse, its own little silent film-within-a-film (at least, as far as I can recall, the only words are “Gotta dance!”) which seems to be more of a showreel for the transformative power of glorious, saturated Technicolor than sound, while Charisse’s vamping would not have been out of place on the silent screen. It all takes place on the same soundstage where earlier we’d seen Kathy and Don, not to mention the wind machine, and in its baroque wonder it’s an advert for the craft of the set designers and costume department, not to mention being the best showcase for the talents of both dancers. A Hollywood classic that continues to deserve that status.

Singin' in the Rain film posterCREDITS
Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagen; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 8 February 2014 (and years before in Wellington).