Criterion Sunday 321: Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring, 1960)

Every exploitation genre has its austere or vaunted arthouse predecessor, and just as slasher horror in 1960 had Psycho, so the rape-revenge film has Ingmar Bergman here. That said, I don’t mean to impugn it by association; the bleakness and moral ambiguities are very much intended by Bergman, and you can tell what’s coming by quite how innocent and jolly the opening third is, as Karin (Brgitta Pettersson), the daughter of farmer Töre (Max von Sydow), prepares for a journey to church through — of course — a big scary forest, the very sight of which seems to push their servant (Gunnel Lindblom) into overacting/breakdown. In that sense the folktale elements loom large (and is indeed adapted from a 13th century narrative, though these are themes that recur throughout fairytales and legend), and the fate of our titular virgin is pretty clear as soon as these elements are introduced. I think what sets the film apart is the moral complexity and even dubiousness that’s cast on the revenge, and though the father purifies himself and atones for his sins, there’s a clear sense that what he’s doing has some equivalency to the crimes he’s punishing, albeit given thin justification with invocations of God (and I don’t think Bergman is presenting this as a particularly Christian victory). This film also marks his first major collaboration with Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer who could go on to make most of the rest of his films, and it is immaculately lensed, with great expressive pools of light and dark as the film progresses.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman; Writer Ulla Isaksson (based on the traditional ballad “Töres döttrar i Wänge” [“Töre’s Daughters in Vänge”]); Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 319: 悪い奴ほどよく眠る Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well, 1960)

Toshiro Mifune gets a lot of recognition for his roles in Kurosawa’s samurai epics, but in some ways he’s even better in a business suit and tie — it seems to be a milieu that all the actors familiar from samurai films slip into with great ease (Masayuki Mori here plays the big boss, Takashi Shimura his creepy co-conspirator, and Ko Nishimura a craven stooge). Unlike the period samurai films, however, this contemporary tale of corporate double-dealings pointedly lacks any kind of honour. It’s a revenge story, and apparently loosely based on Hamlet, though it seems to invert just about everything in that particular tale. Mifune’s character is the one out for revenge (for the death of his father of course), and so you imagine the worst for his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) — who surely must be about to be driven mad at any moment — but Kurosawa and his co-writers visit the story’s punishments instead on its hapless salary men, hoping for a break by pleasing the boss. It’s all carefully controlled and framed, and though it runs long it never fails to be stylish in its widescreen black-and-white.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Hideo Oguni 小国英雄, Eijiro Hisaita 久板栄二郎, Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三 and Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍; Cinematographer Yuzuru Aizawa 逢沢譲; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Kyoko Kagawa 香川京子, Takashi Shimura 志村喬, Ko Nishimura 西村晃; Length 150 minutes.

Seen at home (BFI Player via Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 315: Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player aka Shoot the Pianist, 1960)

People who love this film really go to bat for it, and there’s a lot to like here. Truffaut was following up his debut The 400 Blows and made a far more self-consciously American-inspired picture, a sort of mash-up of noirish mood, crime film thriller and a bit of comedy (the most ‘French’ element, as far as I can tell). Being based on a hardboiled pulp novel, there’s a lot of plot, and it’s not always clear what’s happening to whom for what reason, but basically washed-up piano prodigy Charlie (Aznavour), who’s hiding from a former life as Edouard after the suicide of his wife (which he drove her towards), gets tangled up in his putz brothers’ problems (and they certainly have a Marx Brothers energy to them). You could say that it’s critically examining his relationships with women, indeed about a certain type of masculine performance, and it’s just a shame that women have to die to deepen his character. That said, this is 1960 and this is probably quite different from what was being made at the time in terms of protagonists (Godard’s heroes seem a lot more unexamined in some respects). I liked it and admired it, but have never yet fallen in love with this film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (based on the novel Down There by David Goodis); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger; Length 81 minutes.

Seen at home (YouTube streaming), London, Saturday 9 May 2020 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1999).

Two Civil Rights-Era Films by Madeline Anderson

The now veteran television documentary producer Madeline Anderson got her start in filmmaking in the 1950s, after studying at NYU and falling in with vérité filmmakers like Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. She made a number of compelling early short documentary subjects focusing on Civil Rights at this time, which were shown in the UK by the Cinema Rediscovered Film Festival a couple of years back.

Continue reading “Two Civil Rights-Era Films by Madeline Anderson”

Criterion Sunday 260: Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960)

This is one of those precursors to any number of schlocky, gory horror movies of the coming decades (and indeed was first released with a similarly B-movie title in the States), but manages to be somehow elegant enough that Édith Scob in the more recent interview on the Criterion disc contends it is not a horror movie. (It is very much a horror movie.) But that assessment makes sense because it sits somewhere between older films about mad scientists performing experiments and the French policiers and thrillers of the 1950s (themselves staples of the Criterion catalogue). Of course, key to director Georges Franju’s vision of horror is that the scientist at the heart of this film, Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), isn’t mad at all — he’s just driven by a love for his daughter Christiane (Scob), whom he has caused to be disfigured, in conjunction with a very loose sense of ethical responsibility. The horror then is really not in anything we see — though there are some brief gory and troubling images — but in the way it all seems so complacently self-evident to the doctor and his nurse accomplice (Alida Valli). It remains an elegant film about very inelegant people.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is one of Franju’s short films (and which appears on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s favourite 1000 films list), Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949), which is undoubtedly a difficult film to watch, and one can only be thankful it’s in black-and-white. After all, it presents the work of a French abattoir contrasted with a small town idyll and the benign indifference of the people tasked with chopping up these living creatures. It’s a horror film of sorts but largely avoids editorialising.
  • There’s an 8 minute interview with Scob from 2013, in which she discusses the film and it making, and her place in it.
  • An odd little 5 minute French TV piece has Franju being interviewed about the ‘cinema of the fantastic’ by a man in a silly wig and a prominent chemistry set in the foreground — presumably as part of some kind of TV themed bit about mad scientists.
  • A 7 minute excerpt from a 1985 French TV documentary presents interviews with Boileau and Narcejac about their crime writing partnership, though they don’t specifically touch on this film.
  • Finally there are French and US trailers, the latter particularly interesting because it’s for the original release under the title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus as a double-bill along with a creature feature called The Manster (he’s half man! half monster!).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Georges Franju; Writers Franju, Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac and Claude Sautet (based on the novel by Redon); Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan; Starring Pierre Brasseur, Édith Scob, Alida Valli; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 11 July 2019 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, July 1999).

Criterion Sunday 225: Tunes of Glory (1960)

I don’t think the liner notes are wrong to suggest this 1960 film is an underrated classic: like a lot of British movies of the period — ones which rely on solid acting and their carefully scripted themes — it sort of gets lost amongst the various European New Wave films which were making a splash with formal innovations and a looser street-bound sense of place. Instead this is largely based in the single setting, a barracks in Edinburgh, where two military officers with contrasting management styles face off against one another: the rowdy and boisterous (and flame-haired Scot) played by Alec Guinness, and his replacement, the controlled authoritarian Englishman played by John Mills. It becomes a film about the reverberations of class throughout the power hierarchies of British life, not to mention — at a more quotidian level — what it’s like to work under a bad manager. Both leads do excellent acting work, and there’s a coolness to the colour cinematography that’s also striking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame; Writer James Kennaway (based on his own novel); Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson; Starring Alec Guinness, John Mills, Susannah York, John Fraser; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 August 2018.

Criterion Sunday 129: Le Trou (1960)

I was thinking I’d already seen a film like this one in the Criterion Collection before I came to write it up here and realised I’d seen this film before, years ago. That said, the prison escape thriller is hardly an exotic genre, and some of the procedural matter-of-factness and the way it dwells on little repeated details is very reminiscent of thrillers of the era like Rififi, which likewise focus on elaborate carefully-orchestrated plans made in luminous black-and-white. It all passes very swiftly, as there are plenty of long sequences that are gripping because of all the things you imagine could go wrong. The fact it’s cast with mostly non-professional actors (including one of the chaps involved in the escape upon which the original novel was based) is all the more surprising given they all give the feeling of being seasoned pros — the guy in the poster is a ringer for Sterling Hayden, which is probably why I thought I must have seen him before in something. (The only real professional actor was in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lola, so he is easy to spot, being quite photogenic.) No, this is fine filmmaking at a very granular level, building up character through the tiny accretion of details.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker, José Giovanni and Jean Aurel (based on the novel by Giovanni); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Michel Constantin, Jean Keraudy, Philippe Leroy, Raymond Meunier, Marc Michel; Length 132 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 11 October 2000 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 October 2016).

Criterion Sunday 105: Spartacus (1960)

There’s a certain quality to the classic Hollywood historical epic that by the mid-1950s had become pretty much fixed in the popular imagination, and is the kind of thing that is satirised in Hail, Caesar! (2016). In many ways, Spartacus feels like the culmination of these trends and a bookend of sorts, the sine qua non of the sword-and-sandals epic of the ancient world (aka the “peplum film” from those omnipresent flowing togas). The acting is largely excellent, with fine subtle work — when subtlety is required, but bombastic when not — from Kirk Douglas as the titular slave leader and Laurence Olivier as Crassus, a scheming Roman senator, not to mention Charles Laughton as his rival Gracchus. There are also more wooden efforts, but when they come, as with John Dall’s Glabrus, it’s a solid wood, a really finely-grained aged wood, the wooden hamminess of, say, Charlton Heston, which is after all very much within the generic convention. The direction is solid too, but this isn’t one of Stanley Kubrick’s usual films — he was brought on after production had started — and so it feels wrong to assess it as one of his steely auteurist pieces. Perhaps the strongest credit on the technical side is Russell Metty’s beautiful cinematography, particularly the shadowy interiors where deals are made and Spartacus’s will is most tested. In covering all these vicissitudes of fate (being set in pre-Christian Rome, religion is largely avoided), the film runs long, to be sure, but that’s hardly a criticism: it’s what the historical epic demands. There are the grandly-staged battle scenes, interspersed with smaller one-on-ones between Gracchus and Crassus, or Spartacus and his love interest Varinia (Jean Simmons). There’s also expert comedy relief from Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, introduced running a gladiator school but never one to stick around when things get tough. In short, it’s a fine film, a totem of Hollywood craft and large-scale organisation, and it’s never less than entertaining.

Criterion Extras: A full-to-bursting double-disc edition includes the usual commentaries, which I’ve yet to watch. There’s a clutch of deleted scenes, mostly just extra shots which were ditched, and a heavily cut version of the ending demanded by the Catholic Legion of Decency which entirely excises much of the pathos. There’s also a brief audio snippet of Gracchus’ death scene. There are a few minutes of vintage newsreels of the film’s production (it was one of the most expensive of its time hence the interest), including Kirk Douglas getting his chin print outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Promotional interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons from the time of the film’s release (edited absurdly to allow local news programmes to interpolate their own ‘interviewer’) are joined by an interview with Ustinov from 1992 as he reflects on his time on the production, fairly informative about the change of director, and the script credit issues, including a number of amusing anecdotes about his fellow actors. There are some Saul Bass storyboards for the fight sequences, and a huge number of production stills (as well as advertising material and even a comic book) with brief contextualising intertitles. Finally, but still very interesting, is some silent footage taken during the making of the film as the actors are trained up as gladiators.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick; Writer Dalton Trumbo (based on the novel by Howard Fast); Cinematographer Russell Metty; Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons; Length 196 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 4 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1998, and at the film department in April 2000).

Criterion Sunday 98: L’avventura (1960)

Like a lot of filmmakers favoured by the Criterion Collection, Italian modernist auteur Michelangelo Antonioni has been through his critical ups and downs, but I think his minimalist dramatic style makes him more apt for modern reassessment than the carnivalesque spirit of his compatriot Fellini. For a long time, L’avventura was his quintessential work, and looking back on it around 55 years on, its shimmering monochrome has held up well. It still resists easy enjoyment though, primarily due to its still-radical narrative aporia (though perhaps less controversial than it was upon its release): not unlike the same year’s Psycho, it builds up a central character for the first half hour (in this case, Lea Massari’s Anna), only to have her disappear suddenly from the narrative. Antonioni doesn’t appear interested in why she disappears — it’s more of a narrative device than anything else — but in the way the remaining characters, Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), react to her disappearance and find solace in one another. I readily admit, though, that this is a simplistic assessment of the way things progress; this is no grand romance, so much as part of a game played by the bored bourgeois upper classes, reminiscent of the dissipated world of Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley (another almost contemporary story in its original form). In this sense, a character disappearing seems more like a statement of feelings (lost, disconnected from her friends), than a tragedy to be solved. Much of the emotional turmoil is rehearsed not through words but via formal means, using the carefully-controlled mise en scène, framing characters against landscapes and buildings, while others leave or re-enter the frame in a sort of choreography of passion. It’s wonderfully strange stuff, and is undoubtedly one of the finer and more classically-balanced achievements of a cinema starting to become obsessed instead (via various New Waves) with the energy and brashness of youth.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the commentary, there’s a 25 minute piece with Olivier Assayas gushing over the film, excitedly throwing out ideas in a quintessentially French way, illustrated with clips from the film. It’s quite informative and does suggest ways into what is a notoriously opaque and difficult film. There are also a couple of essays by Antonioni, one about the film and one about acting, which are read by Jack Nicholson, who also contributes his thoughts about working with him.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni; Writers Antonioni, Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra; Cinematographer Aldo Scavarda; Starring Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti, Lea Massari; Length 143 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 8 May 2016 (and previously on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, April 1998).

Criterion Sunday 69: Le Testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus, 1960)

Jean Cocteau’s final film is often apt to be dismissed when compared with his earlier mythologically-hued triumphs like Orpheus (1950) or Beauty and the Beast (1946), but that would be a mistake, because for me it feels like one of his most essential, if not personal, works — and not just because he takes the central role. Once again he reconfigures the Orpheus mythology, with Cocteau as a time-travelling poet, and the stars of his previous film (not to mention celebrity friends and admirers like Pablo Picasso and Jean-Pierre Léaud) showing up in cameos. He utilises all his favourite filmic tricks and tropes, with mirrors-as-portals and living statues and struggles against gravity and painted eyes, but most notably the ripped petals on a flowing leaping back into place thanks to reverse photography. Criticisms of it being self-indulgent may not be inaccurate, but they’re beside the point, for what else should this be if not self-indulgent. It’s a freewheeling, loosely-structured paean to poetic indulgence, and should be celebrated as such. It’s certainly a fitting end to Cocteau’s long and varied career.

Criterion Extras: There’s are some texts by Cocteau about the film, as well as a medium-length film La Villa Santo Sospir (1952), made at a prominent location in Testament, the home of one of Cocteau’s patrons, filled with his artworks. Cocteau tries out some of the techniques he would use in the later feature, particularly the reverse loops of flowers regaining their petals, as well as talking at length about his pieces of artwork for the home. It’s fascinating mainly as notes towards the later work, a film in miniature about Cocteau and his artwork.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau; Cinematographer Roland Pontoizeau; Starring Jean Cocteau; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 13 December 2015.