Criterion Sunday 137: Notorious (1946)

Top Hitchcockery here from the master of morally-dubious controlling men — and all the men really are very bad people (Cary Grant as government agent Devlin included, handsome a figure though he may be). Ingrid Bergman is lovely even as the daughter of a Nazi enlisted to spy on her father’s friends, and proves you don’t have to have done much to have a reputation. Then again, perhaps it is more than just she who befits the film’s title. She also brushes past all the insinuations with aplomb, at least until she cannot. Plenty of great but unostentatious camerawork and thrills aplenty, especially in an excellent wine cellar scene.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writer Ben Hecht | Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff | Starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains | Length 101 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 December 2016

Criterion Sunday 106: Coup de torchon (aka Clean Slate, 1981)

There’s quite a deep vein of black comedy to be found in this film noir-ish story of an affable police chief Lucien (Philippe Noiret) in pre-World War II colonial-era Africa using his power to rid himself of his tormentors. It’s all filmed with evident facility, and the veteran cinematographer gets a chance to show off with some excellent use of sinuous tracking shots. The script (based on a similarly black novel by Jim Thompson, albeit one set in the American South) evinces a fair amount of wit in unspooling events, as Lucien takes advantage of what others perceive to be a shambolic simple nature as the perfect cover to take his revenge. His likeability also seems to attract a range of female admirers (including Isabelle Huppert as Rose, the battered wife of one of those Lucien seeks to do away with). Lucien’s retribution is initially on Rose’s wife-beating husband, his cruel colonialist bosses and shady French businessmen exploiting the local conditions, but when it eventually moves on to the local black servants, the humour ultimately curdles, rendering a portrait of socially-mandated lawlessness, quite a potent critique of colonial power after a fashion.

Criterion Extras: The film’s director, Bertrand Tavernier, introduces and explains an alternative ending involving, rather fantastically but amusingly, a pair of dancing apes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bertrand Tavernier | Writers Bertrand Tavernier and Jean Aurenche (based on the novel Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson) | Cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn | Starring Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert | Length 128 minutes || Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 1999 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 10 July 2016)

Criterion Sunday 80: The Element of Crime (aka Forbrydelsens element, 1984)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Danish cinematic bad boy Lars von Trier, but this, his first feature film, is certainly made with a fair amount of energy and a bold (if dark) cinematic vision, taking its apparent cue from film noir thrillers, not to mention recycling some of Tarkovksy’s imagery. Stylistically, though, my overall feeling is that it’s more akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil of the following year, with all those fussy, busy details in all corners of the frame. The plot is in a sense fairly straightforward, as Detective Fisher (gruff-voiced Michael Elphick) is tracking down a serial killer using the methods of his mentor Osborne (Esmond Knight), in which he is aided by prostitute Kim (Meme Lai). Yet this plot is nested within layers of memory and obfuscation, attaining something of a dream-like trance state, emphasised by the line delivery of the actors, who move around almost as if underwater. The chief cue to this altered consciousness is the visual style, which is almost monochrome in its (usually red-tinged) intensity, like something Guy Maddin might make, tipping its hat at one level to silent film, but creating its own world of grainy distanciation — the characters may not actually be underwater, but they are certainly submerged in this grimy dark monochrome world. I can’t say it ever really coheres for me (and Meme Lai’s role requires little more than that she hang around and take off her clothes occasionally, though it’s a small part in any case), but there’s plenty here of interest to those who like an arty thriller with pretensions.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the trailer, the main extra of interest is the medium-length documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), directed by Stig Björkman (with help from Fredrik von Krusenstjerna), filmed around the time of von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994) and Breaking the Waves (1996). It’s rather an amusing jaunt through (von) Trier’s life from his upbringing by lefty liberal parents to his early schoolboy filmmaking attempts, through film school and his early film work, along the way self-aggrandisingly awarding himself the aristocratic ‘von’. The film features behind the scenes footage of his directing the two films (which has its own fascination), as well as talking head interviews with his colleagues and actors (and it’s particularly nice to see Katrin Cartlidge, who sadly died far too young), giving an impression of him as a man with plenty of phobias and quirks such that it’s surprising he can get any films made at all. Von Trier pops up periodically to talk us through his life and foibles, and there’s a warmth to the film’s portrait of him, so he never comes off too badly, beyond what he says about himself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier | Writers Lars von Trier and Niels Vørsel | Cinematographer Tom Elling | Starring Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Meme Lai, Jerold Wells | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 February 2016

The Bigamist (1953)

Taking up some of the stylistic traits of the film noir, this early-50s film is from London-born actor/director Ida Lupino, and — I admit this is of quite incidental interest to most people I imagine — casts a number of actors who are originally English, not that you’d spot it. In any case, Lupino plays the femme fatale role, although the insight of the film is that it’s not quite so simple to categorise the women as simply free-spirited sexual adventuress Phyllis (Lupino) and frigid careerist businesswoman Eve (Joan Fontaine), though this is how the film sets them up initially. The title character is Harry, played by the solidly-built but slightly shambolic Edmond O’Brien, and if there’s obviously no surprise about his predicament, perhaps that’s because it’s not really about him. Finding himself sidelined in his own business by his more talented wife Eve, he embarks on a new life with Phyllis in Los Angeles while on the job as a travelling salesman. Class is enfolded into the mix, as Phyl (for short) leads a precarious existence of short-term work and unstable living conditions and relationship status. And if Eve is the one who’s hard done by, there’s a strange bond between her and Phyl by the film’s close. It may finish with a moral pronouncement from on high (a literal judge in a courtroom), but the messy tangle of relationships promises to carry on beyond the film’s snappy running time.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Ida Lupino | Writers Collier Young, Larry Marcus and Lou Schor | Cinematographer George E. Diskant | Starring Edmond O’Brien, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, Edmund Gwenn | Length 80 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Thursday 5 November 2015

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Samuel Fuller is known for his punchy dialogue and scenarios in films like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss (not to mention a clutch of films based on his World War II experiences), a holdover from his early days as a hard-nosed journalist on the city beat. So any concerns one might have about the social-problem trappings of The Crimson Kimono, with its ready-made racy poster headlines (interracial romance!), are avoided by Fuller’s deft script. Fuller proves himself to be quite far ahead of the times in allowing his Japanese-American cop hero Joe (James Shigeta) to be the lead, to love the girl (Victoria Shaw), and to avoid any narrative punishment for either. That’s not to say it doesn’t deal with issues of racism and discrimination, just that they’re handled in a much less muckraking way than you might expect. There’s also plenty of the exploitative thrills from the kind of seedy underworld setting so beloved of Fuller, but with Shigeta’s sensitive characterisation and some fine cinematography, this is a particularly vivid effort.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller | Cinematographer Sam Leavitt | Starring James Shigeta, Glenn Corbett, Victoria Shaw | Length 82 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Tuesday 23 June 2015

Criterion Sunday 25: Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

© The Criterion Collection

The title may reference a then-popular detective series starring American expatriate Eddie Constantine, but as per usual this is hardly a straightforward film from Jean-Luc Godard. It’s set in a retro-futurist Paris, though of course Godard didn’t have the budget to build any sets, but rather films amongst the modern 1960s architecture of the city, all glass lifts and big shiny lobbies, not to mention anonymous office corridors at the heart of the computer-controlled corporation that runs the city. It’s a film of alternately banal surfaces and fascinating faces (whether the pitted one of Constantine, or Godard’s muse of the time, the ravishing Anna Karina), matched to the raspy electronically-modulated voice of computer overlord Alpha 60. I can’t for a moment pretend to tell you what actually happens — there are elements of generic detective plot though Caution is fighting on behalf of individualism and free thought rather than anything more base, and Godard punctuates scenes with images of flashing lights and neon equations, presumably to symbolise Alpha 60’s reliance on logic. There’s a troubling relationship to women in Alphaville’s society — a theme that runs through a lot of Godard’s filmmaking — and it’s difficult to be sure whether that’s a function of the oppressive state or something more insidious. Needless to say, it’s a strange and fascinating movie whose images of a modern nighttime Paris have a dark romanticism to them, especially seen at a remove of what is now 50 years.

Criterion Extras: Certainly not all Criterion releases have extensive extras (though more recently they’ve tended to put the bare-bones stuff out on their Eclipse sub-label), but even by the thin standards of some others of this period, Alphaville is particularly negligible. There’s not even a trailer, so it comes down to the two slim pages written by Andrew Sarris on the inside of the booklet, and of course the quality of the transfer. A bit of context to this odd attempt at sci-fi futurism would have been nice, but at the very least the transfer is of excellent quality.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Tuesday 23 July 2002 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 1998 and October 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 March 2015)

Criterion Sunday 18: The Naked Kiss (1964)

Samuel Fuller has a bold range of punchy features and this particular entry from 1964 seems to fall at the tail end of the film noir movement. Stylistically, it feels of a piece with those spare stories of embattled dames and grizzled guys, in highly contrasted black-and-white (excellent camerwork from Stanley Cortez here). The dame is Kelly, played by the imposing Constance Towers, who’s trying to chuck in a life of prostitution to go straight as a nurse at a hospital for disabled children. Her antagonist is local police chief Captain Griff (Anthony Eisley), who was her last client and as a result thinks he has some special understanding of her motivations, and that he can see through what he thinks of as her act. However, the wonder of the film is that it’s on side with Kelly, who may have had a tough life but is genuinely trying to change and has to continually deal with judgemental crap from the men in town, which she largely takes in stride with a unswerving commitment to her own lack of shame in her past. The treatment of the disabled kids is warmly empathetic and inclusive, even if some of the hospital conditions seem rather of their era. It’s the details of the police investigations in the film’s last third which are rather more difficult to believe (whereby the jailed person gets to question their own accusers in the course of an investigation, leading to a memorable scene of Kelly shaking a young girl to elicit some information she wants). There’s also a plot involving a local magnate and a young girl which could have been ripped from recent headlines over here in the UK (even if the depiction of it is understandably oblique). The Naked Kiss is a film with a lot to recommend it, but it’s the performance from Towers which makes the film so compulsively watchable.

Criterion Extras: There’s a recent interview with Towers, who talks with fondness about her role in the film, but far more compelling is the footage of the director from 1967 and 1987 French documentaries and a 1983 episode of British TV series The South Bank Show, permanently munching on a cigar, and sounding off about his approach to filmmaking. He actually has plenty of interest to say about his process and his interests, and a bit where he mocks the gentility of most filmmaking and contrasts it with what he prefers to see on screen, is particularly memorable. Also, there’s the striking cover art by Daniel Clowes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller | Cinematographer Stanley Cortez | Starring Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, September 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 8 February 2015)

Les Salauds (Bastards, 2013)

Films About FilmmakingIt may be that I’m rather shoehorning this new Claire Denis film into my themed month. It’s certainly not about filmmakers in a traditional sense, but there’s an element of it that recalls, say, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in dealing with a nasty fringe of exploitational filmmaking, not intended for public consumption.


ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director Claire Denis | Writers Jean-Pol Fargeau and Claire Denis | Cinematographer Agnès Godard | Starring Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Lola Créton, Michel Subor | Length 100 minutes | Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Wednesday 5 February 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Wild Bunch

At some level this new film by French director Claire Denis is an hommage to film noir, that famous Hollywood style of filming crime dramas in the 1940s and 1950s which emphasised the characters’ sexuality just as it muddied its contrasty black-and-white filming with shades of moral grey. Bastards is not filmed in monochrome, but there’s plenty of darkness through which the characters drag themselves, as if hinting at barely-suppressed pools of torment. There’s a crime at its heart, too, but that takes some time to come to light. It also touches on themes familiar from Denis’ other films, a compact yet wonderful body of work of which this is a further facet.

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