Criterion Sunday 121: Billy Liar (1963)

Someone had clearly been watching those recent French New Wave films and taking cues from Godard and Truffaut. Specifically, director John Schlesinger, one imagines, and he does a British version very well here. Billy Fisher is a chronic dreamer (I can only imagine he was an inspiration for Wes Anderson’s own arch-fantasist Fischer) who just can’t be honest with anyone, least of all himself. It’s the 1960s and the film opens with a montage of modern housing estate developments; Billy lives in a northern city and works at a (literal?) dead-end job, not doing very well there. There’s an energy to Billy, as he bounces around the city from one failure to another, playing off his various fiancées, and enduring his parents’ scorn. There’s also a lovely role for Julie Christie, and while any character who has Julie Christie in love with him and doesn’t immediately ditch everything else to be with her is clearly a moron, Courtenay still manages to work up quite a bit of winsome charm. He’s still an idiot, though and his parents aren’t wrong.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Schlesinger | Writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (based on the novel by Waterhouse) | Cinematographer Denys Coop | Starring Tom Courtenay, Helen Fraser, Julie Christie | Length 98 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 September 2016

Criterion Sunday 57: Charade (1963)

This is, unquestionably, a bit of late-Golden Era Hollywood silliness, as Audrey Hepburn plays a wealthy widow to a man found dead under mysterious circumstances. Returning to their home in Paris, now stripped of all its furnishings, she finds herself being stalked by a trio of dangerous American felons (led by James Coburn), and helped — perhaps — by Cary Grant, whose name constantly changes throughout the film. All of these men believe she has access to some enormous wealth that her husband left behind ($250,000!). Things progress from there in a largely comedic (if not screwball) way, and if the film never seems particularly concerned with any profound depths of emotion (even the Criterion Collection likes to lighten things up occasionally), it’s also never particularly boring, thanks to the on-screen charisma of Hepburn and Grant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Donen | Writer Peter Stone (based on his short story “The Unsuspecting Wife”) | Cinematographer Charles Lang | Starring Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, James Coburn | Length 113 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 October 2015

Criterion Sunday 43: Lord of the Flies (1963)

William Golding’s famous dystopian novel about the breakdown of society along class lines, refracted through the story of kids marooned on a desert island, is a staple of high school curricula surely everywhere; it certainly was for me growing up, along with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, so I often get the two confused. Maybe that’s just because there’s a character called Piggy (here played by bespectacled Hugh Edwards, in a caricature of the intelligentsia), but in any case the film adaptation quickly focuses on the relationship between the two dominant boys, Ralph (James Aubrey) and Jack (Tom Chapin). The former is keen to ensure the rule of order in the common interest, while Jack soon stalks off to found his alternative society based on principles of self-interest and aggression. It’s all very beautifully shot by Tom Hollyman, a photographer rather than a cinematographer, and it gets to the core of Golding’s novel I think. However, as a film, it’s still very clearly just a group of public school brats run amok on a desert island, and your tolerance for that may affect how much you enjoy it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Peter Brook (based on the novel by William Golding) | Cinematographer Tom Hollyman | Starring James Aubrey, Tom Chapin, Hugh Edwards | Length 92 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 12 July 2015

Criterion Sunday 24: Tengoku to Jigoku (High and Low, 1963)

After so many period samurai-related collaborations between Kurosawa and his lead actor Toshiro Mifune, it’s somewhat jarring to see a story from these two which is set in the modern world, although the police thriller was another genre with which Kurosawa had plenty of familiarity, and this is far from shabby as a film. Shoe company executive Kingo Gondo (Mifune) starts out the film in his apartment, high above Yokohama, apparently battling with his board to take over his company, before the film adeptly and speedily veers away from what promises to be a business drama into something a bit darker, as a kidnapper calls him demanding a ransom for his child — except that it turns out the kidnapper has taken Gondo’s chauffeur’s child. The high and low, then (or “heaven and hell” in the literal translation), turns out to be a story of the class differences in a rapidly developing capitalist society — the high being Gondo’s splendid isolation in full view of the rest of the city, contrasted with the low of the kidnapper’s squalid dwellings amongst the sailors and the drug addicts in a close-packed streets and alleys of the city. But it’s also the difference between Gondo’s executive and his chauffeur, and between where Gondo starts off and where he ends up; it’s a productive dichotomy, certainly. The film is all crisply shot in monochrome widescreen, and structured in distinct acts — the first is a long sequence of elaborately long-take shots in Gondo’s apartment, before moving first to the cramped confines of a bullet train, and then to the police investigation around Yokohoma (led by Tatsuya Nakadai’s detective), in search of the kidnapper. The depiction of some of the city’s squalor doesn’t always convince (its drug den seems torn from the pages of a particularly sensationalist tabloid), but it does capture a good sense of the cosmopolitan spirit of this seaport town, and the story never lets up on the tension of the hunt.

Criterion Extras: There are some great bonus features here, including a 30-minute TV interview from the 80s with Toshiro Mifune as he looks back on his career, which touches only briefly on his years with Kurosawa but which remains fascinating, as he chain smokes his way through a series of exchanges with a cheerful Japanese lady host. The documentary It Is Wonderful to Create, from just before Kurosawa’s death, is more informative, featuring a number of interviews with key personnel, and which gets into details about how a lot of the film was shot and how certain scenes were put together, both technically and creatively. There’s also a commentary by an academic which is pretty informative, too.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni (based on the novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain) | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai | Length 143 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Sunday 15 February 2015

Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963)

Following closely on from the formal experiments in Vivre sa vie (1962), Godard mounted his largest production to date, a French-Italian co-production filmed in Rome (some of it on the sets of the famous Cinecittà studio) with international stars and glorious widescreen colour cinematography. But this is still Godard, and in some ways the result is Godard’s most accomplished film. It’s certainly the film that seems to define a lot of what is most distinctive about his style during this early phase of his career, while wearing rather easily some of Godard’s formal, philosophical and political concerns. If it seems to move rather slowly at times, it nevertheless comes across as a measured classicism, the inexorable unravelling of fate, appropriate given its setting.

It’s a film about making films — a self-reflexive sub-genre that remains unsurprisingly popular amongst filmmakers. However, with Le Mépris, we should perhaps rather say it’s about not-quite-making films, just as Godard’s later Rolling Stones collaboration One Plus One (1968) was about not-quite-making a song. There’s a wealth of dissipated talent — Fritz Lang as the director and Michel Piccoli as Paul, the screenwriter — all arrayed around Jack Palance’s Jeremy Prokosch, a vulgar and satyr-like American producer. Naturally for Godard, he carries around a tiny book of aphorisms which he quotes alongside his own wisdom. “When someone says art, I reach for my chequebook” is just one of the philistinisms he comes up with to justify his behaviour. From his frank ogling of the swimming nymphs one gets the sense he thinks he’s making an exploitation film, but if so then Lang (and Godard) have other ideas. Godard’s own American producer for this film famously insisted on more nudity from female star Brigitte Bardot (playing Paul’s wife Camille) — hence an interpolation at the start of the film showing Bardot naked on a bed, shot through filters (first red, then white, then blue). Thus, one can only assume that Prokosch is the fictional alter ego of this real life figure.

Such a strategy is no surprise in this particular sub-genre, which naturally gravitates to the roman à clef, yet if the director figure is played by Fritz Lang — himself canonised as an auteur by such magazines as the one Godard wrote for — it’s clear that the Godard stand-in is in fact Paul, the screenwriter. His look and particularly his ever-present fedora hat are most strikingly like Godard (who cameos briefly at the end as an assistant director, dressed likewise), and if so it’s another characteristically excoriating self-portrait. After all, the film is called “Contempt”, and if at one level it’s a contempt felt by Godard/Paul towards his producer, then most of all it’s the contempt that Camille comes to feel towards Paul. Bardot’s lacerating gaze — far more than her bared bottom, however much the producer may have wished otherwise — is at the heart of the film.

That basilisk gaze is joined by many others, primarily mythological, for the film being made within Le Mépris is an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Interspersed throughout are shots showing the disembodied busts of Greek gods, colourfully painted as they would have been when they were made. These heads turn in front of the camera, as if in judgement, perhaps of the characters in the film, perhaps of the audience. But there are other looks, which are also directed inwards in scrutiny. After the sequence of Bardot on a bed, the film proper starts with Raoul Coutard’s camera filming a scene at Cinecittà, tracking towards our point of view and reframing to look directly at us/itself, as Godard reads out the credits. It’s not until the very final shot that this gaze is directed away and out at something else.

In turning the film’s attention inwards to Godard’s own artistic process (via his alter ego Paul), the key sequence is the central one set in the Rome apartment of Paul and Camille. It is in an unfinished state — Paul comedically opens and closes a door, only to step back through it for it has no panelling — and this sparseness allows the camera to frame shots of the two in different spaces within the apartment, failing to connect with one another. There’s a long single take back-and-forth shot of them talking, never together in the same frame, as they switch the lamp between them on and off. Even when they are together, as when Paul takes a bath, he still wears his hat and enfolds himself in literary and pop cultural references (such as to Dean Martin in Some Came Running).

The decline in the relationship between Paul and Camille may well be autobiographical to Godard at some level (Godard cast his own wife Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie and it’s she who is recalled when Bardot puts on a black wig during the apartment scene), but in the film it has far more lasting consequences — for Paul as a screenwriter, for the film he’s working on, and most of all for Camille and Prokosch. All the time these events are tracked by Coutard’s widescreen camera, which delights in the richly-saturated colours of the Mediterranean, in the clean lines of the Rome apartment, and in the symmetrical construction of the rather stunning modernist home on the island of Capri where the final scenes take place. In many ways it’s a detached gaze, like that of the Olympian statues which show up throughout, and it attains a stateliness that can make the film slow-moving at times. Yet the resulting film is among Godard’s best works, which continues to open up further subtleties of interpretation each time it’s viewed, and which I can only hint at here.


© Interfilm

DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel Il disprezzo by Alberto Moravia) | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Michel Piccoli, Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang | Length 103 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 (and since then several times, most recently on DVD, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013)

My Rating 4.5 stars a must-see


Next Up: After the widescreen of this film and Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961), Godard returned to something like his debut film with Bande à part (The Outsiders, 1964), another scruffy black-and-white B-movie about sort-of-gangsters, featuring Anna Karina again.

Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963)


RETROSPECTIVE SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Satyajit Ray (based on the short story “Abataranika” by Narendranath Mitra) | Cinematographer Subrata Mitra | Starring Madhabi Mukherjee, Anil Chatterjee | Length 135 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 20 August 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Edward Harrison

If I had a personal credo when it comes to filmgoing — and I’m not sure I do, but I’ll have a bash at one now — it would be to keep yourself open to new things. Not new as in the most recent, but new as in stuff that challenges you, that presents visions of the world from perspectives you’d not seen before. I was recently followed by a blog called Adventures in the 8th Dimension, whose writer is dedicated to watching all the films in the 1,001 Movies to Watch Before You Die book, which is exactly the kind of online project I love. Now, of the book itself (and those of its ilk), there are plenty of things you could criticise (I personally hate the … Before You Die name of this series), though I have nothing at all against canons, best-ofs or curated lists of this kind, provided the source is very clear about the factors and biases that go towards creating that list. But more than that, I really appreciate the desire to use such a list as a means of engaging with a history and variety of filmmaking that extends far beyond the usual comfortable classics (your typical IMDb highest-rated) to take in examples from all the world’s nations and genres.

Continue reading “Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963)”