Criterion Sunday 541: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

If I were in a less generous mood I would see this as a noble failure, a strange blend of folk horror and exaggerated camp that leans far too heavily into its fairy tale register, and to be honest it does often come across as faintly absurd while it’s playing out. But I’m not feeling grumpy today and I think the very staginess of the undertaking is exactly right for what it’s trying to do, which is not to scare in a traditional sense, but to evoke a mythic sense of dread that is as much a part of the canon of fairy tale literature as it is part of 20th century film history. Needless to say it wasn’t exactly embraced on release and probably prevented its director Charles Laughton from ever making another film, but what he does here with his collaborators (both in the writing and especially the monochrome cinematography by Stanley Cortez) is to evoke a curiously timeless — partially because in some senses it remains accurate — portrait of America, with its fascination with guns, religion and children and the way these three elements combine.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are plenty of bonuses stretched over two Blu-ray discs, so it may take me a while to watch all of them, but I did look at the 15-minute piece on the BBC show Moving Pictures which has a few short interviews with various key cast members (Mitchum, Winters), some behind the scenes people like a producer and a set designer, as well as archival footage of Gish, speaking to the enduring power of the film sometime around its fortieth anniversary as well as the excellence of its director in bringing everything together.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Charles Laughton; Writer James Agee (based on the novel by Davis Grubb); Cinematographer Stanley Cortez; Starring Robert Mitchum, Billy Chapin, Lillian Gish, Shelley Winters, Sally Jane Bruce; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 6 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1999 and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 6 June 2022).

Criterion Sunday 448: Le Deuxième souffle (1966)

The year before Le Samouraï and Melville’s last film in black-and-white. They may all be wearing trenchcoats and being laconic in both films, but it’s incredible the way this feels like another era, a holdover from the 40s. There’s something almost Bressonian in the way that the early scenes unfold (though that’s perhaps no surprise given it’s a prison break): no music, just people going through the motions, wordlessly and almost like a dream. Gu (short for Gustave, and played by Lino Ventura, a stocky stand-by of the gangster film since Touchez pas au grisbi) has just broken out of jail and is now looking to retire, but — as is the way — is sucked back into one last job. How badly could it go? Have you ever watched a movie? You know how badly it could go. For all that, Melville is clearly starting to strip back his style, such that the trenchcoats and the hats, the Gallic sangfroid, the guns and the gangsters, the deep expressionist shadows of the film noir genre, all of these things seem to hold more depth in them than the plot itself, though it’s all very well done, and by this point in his career Ventura has an iconic energy that is perfectly channelled here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel by José Giovanni); Cinematographer Marcel Combes; Starring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Raymond Pellegrin, Christine Fabréga; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 9 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 428: Blast of Silence (1961)

A pretty taut and bleak film noir which distils a lot of the generic conventions down to the kind of format in which they’d be parodied for generations to come: the hard-boiled voiceover, the heavy sense of existential angst, the bleak futility of all actions, the duplicity of men (and women), all exemplified by a heavy-set tough guy. In this film, the tough guy is played by the director and this is all firmly in the finest low-budget moulds, with plenty of location shooting in New York City, including a climactic pursuit filmed during a hurricane, which certainly helps with the sense of overcast threat. The whole film has a great sense of place, and a deft way with moving its hero through the plot in such a way as to maintain momentum even as we know, right from the start, that he is surely and certainly doomed.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Allen Baron; Cinematographer Merrill Brody; Starring Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy; Length 77 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 427: Muerte de un ciclista (Death of a Cyclist, 1955)

It’s natural to want to try and read films made under fairly repressive governments as being veiled criticism of that regime, but I’m not the person to try and do that with this film made during Franco’s Spain. It’s about collective guilt, about mistrust, and about the things that shame and the fear of being found out do to desperate people. Perhaps when you’ve killed once, even accidentally, and especially when it seems you’ve gotten away with it, it becomes easier to do it again, is at least one of the questions which is raised here. But there’s a lot going on in this tale of two lovers who, as the film begins, knock down a cyclist on a darkened street, apparently unseen, and quickly flee the site when it becomes clear to them that there’s nothing to be done, and the fact that they’re in an adulterous affair means they don’t want to be found out. Things spiral out from there, as the film has the feel of a film noir but filtered through the melodramatic framing of a film from the golden age of Mexican cinema. It has a certain European froideur to it, as these two navigate their own complicated feelings towards the accident as well as their behaviour, but it’s never less than stylish and beautifully composed in stringent monochrome.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Juan Antonio Bardem; Cinematographer Alfredo Fraile; Starring Lucia Bosè, Alberto Closas, Otello Toso, Carlos Casaravilla; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 14 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 399: House of Games (1987)

For better or for worse, there are films that I’ve only watched because they’re in the Criterion Collection and I’m engaged in this project to watch them all in spine order. There’s nothing specifically I have against David Mamet or his films — I’ve seen quite a few of them already as it is — but I’m not really seeking out any more of his particularly aggressive masculine energy in cinema, and so there was little likelihood of me checking out his debut as a director for any other reason. It’s certainly accomplished, and I don’t regret watching it, but the quality that puts me off seeking out his films is also what makes me wary of this one. At the heart of the film is Lindsay Crouse, introduced in none-more-80s power fashions as a famous psychotherapist (she’s written a book), famous enough it seems to make her a mark for a bunch of shady guys (chief among them Joe Mantegna) playing their confidence tricks in the belief that they’re smarter than her. Things take various turns that I’m not interested in spoiling here, but needless to say there are all kinds of games being played here, not least perhaps on the audience. Maybe Mamet himself is a kind of conman, but there’s enough that’s pleasurable about the construction and payoff in this film to make me want to think the best of some of the behaviour, which I assume is largely because these characters live with a sort of in-built misogyny as part of their film noir-like hardboiled worldview, in which some people are just born marks to their shady skills.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Mamet; Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía; Starring Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Lilia Skala, Mike Nussbaum; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 14 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 396: Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951)

I’m sitting here, late at night, trying to figure out what to write because I have a bit of a blind spot for classic era Hollywood films of the past (even the slight failures, as this one was, at least commercially, though I gather contemporary critics didn’t much like it either). Billy Wilder is very much a great Hollywood director, particularly known for his comedies, and while this does function somewhat as satire, it can also be nasty and manipulative when it needs to be, because it’s about cynical people gaming a system that is, sadly, very much still in place. In fact the idea of reporters twisting the truth to make newspapers (or the media in general) more saleable to the public is pretty much the dominant paradigm now, and though this film would have us believe there were honourable men (they’re always men) in positions of power, I’m not quite sure that’s ever been the case, which probably makes me even more cynical than the film. Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, who is very clearly a Bad Guy, but he’s charismatic and, though not likeable particularly, gets results because he’s pushy and persistent. Generally I think the film hits a lot of targets, and does so very capably, but it can be hard going perhaps precisely because of how well it captures a media circus, even a hard-boiled film noir 1950s one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Billy Wilder; Writers Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels and Wilder; Cinematographer Charles Lang; Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 7 February 2021).

I’m Your Woman (2020)

Continuing my posts catching up with my favourite films of last year, this is the last film I saw in 2020, and a rather good one too.


I think this crime film works more in thinking back on it than it does while it plays out, in some respects, given the way that it reframes a familiar story from the viewpoint of the gangster’s wife. And not just in presenting a clueless moll character, for Rachel Brosnahan’s Jean is hardly an idiot, but more the way it really throws us as the audience into her perspective as someone who is perpetually in the dark, flailing around trying to understand why the bad things are happening to her with just this nagging sense at the back of her brain of why things might have gone wrong. Her inability to function without her gangster husband’s help becomes what drives the story and provides the arc for her character, as she is helped along by some of her husband’s associates. I suppose part of the worry is that this might become a story in which her self-actualisation is facilitated by the Black characters (Teri, Cal and his father), but the film gives them their own believable arcs, avoiding certain magical cliches, and becoming a film about a lot of people struggling with the pain caused by these (largely unseen) violent white men in their lives. The perspective can make it a little hard to get into, but it’s effective and the denouement is I think fairly won by the screenplay.

I'm Your Woman film posterCREDITS
Director Julia Hart; Writers Hart and Jordan Horowitz; Cinematographer Bryce Fortner; Starring Rachel Brosnahan, Arinzé Kene, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Frankie Faison; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Thursday 31 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 385: L’Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969)

Melville was always a stylist and that much has been clear in the films so far featured in the Criterion Collection, titles with Alain Delon such as the remarkable Le Samouraï from a few years earlier, or Le Cercle rouge from the following year. These films, along with his 1956 classic Bob le flambeur, are crime dramas in which laconic men don hats and heavy coats, look cool and carry out their crimes like elegant statesmen. Here our protagonists are also criminals, but only in the eyes of the Nazi-controlled Vichy government they are resisting; it’s set during World War II, with solid, stocky Lino Ventura playing Philippe Gerbier, head of the Marseille resistance. From the very start there’s a sense of the danger, as he’s picked up by the police and sent for questioning (involving certain torture and death), from which predicament he escapes this time, but throughout the film that heavy sense of impending death hangs over everyone. The film is thus a series of setpieces of characters just buying a little more time from their fate as they try to organise resistance to Nazi occupation. When one of their group is picked up, Simone Signoret’s Mathilde steps in, while meanwhile Gerbier has taken a submarine to London to meet the head of the resistance, a philosopher called Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), and coordinate strategies. At no point is there any particular glory (aside from the unseen hand of de Gaulle awarding Jardie a medal in London), just constant attempts to outwit the bad guys and put death off for one more day, all in Melville’s usual steely blue set design, noirish shadows hanging as heavy as the coats and impeccable suits his leads always wear. The cumulative effect is deeply emotional, just for knowing how impossible the situation is that they are all in, and how little they could know about what might happen after their inevitable deaths, but that we can watch knowing they didn’t ultimately die in vain.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a series of extras dealing with the work of the Resistance, among them Le Journal de la Résistance (1945), an anonymously directed and shot wartime documentary. At just over half an hour, this is narrated by Noël Coward (at least, the English version) and shows footage shot by Parisian cameramen of the battles that led up to the liberation of Paris in August 1944. We see fragments snatched from windows and hiding places of tanks rolling up the Champs Elysées, of dead French bodies piled in a courtyard as evidence that the Germans have fled, as shots ring out and barricades are lifted by Parisians quickly becoming aware that things have taken a turn. The Allied tanks aren’t far away as the citizens take up arms to drive back the Germans ahead of the final victory. It’s all very spiriting and narrated with a sense of pomp and idealism, but you’d expect that as a document made to strengthen morale in the dying days of the war.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the book by Joseph Kessel); Cinematographers Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz; Starring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Simone Signoret, Jean-Pierre Cassel; Length 145 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 383: Brute Force (1947)

A classic prison break movie that aside from some largely perfunctory flashbacks is all set on an island prison as Burt Lancaster tries to sway people round to the idea of escaping. It helps that nobody likes the brutal Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), and though his power is nominally held in check by the warden, that’s a fragile balance at best. The film is most convincing dealing with the powerplay between inmates and guards, especially Munsey, and Cronyn commands the screen less with physical size as with small gestures and quiet commands which carry the weight of punishment behind them (and enforced by his burly goons). It’s a war film by any other name, in which the guards are the Nazis and the prisoners the captured PoWs, but repositioning it this way means there’s less patriotic heroism at stake and so things are free to go wrong for everyone. Looks great with the stark black-and-white and clearly influenced a number of other films in the same genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writers Richard Brooks and Robert Patterson; Cinematographer William H. Daniels; Starring Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Art Smith; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 27 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 380: The Naked City (1948)

There may be 8 million stories in the naked city (as famously narrated by its producer Mark Hellinger, who died just before its release), but this film is interested in one kind and does it in such a way as to pretty much define the rules for an entire genre (the police procedural detective drama), or so it sometimes feels. It also feels properly brutal in the way it presents its murders, even though we don’t actually see very much that’s particularly graphic, but that’s the noir edge to this gritty urban thriller about a young woman found murdered and the subsequent search for her murderer. Naturally it takes us down various alleys, and presents a few different suspects, but the Irish police lieutenant in charge of the case (a memorable Barry Fitzgerald) and a rookie kid (Don Taylor), who’s clearly new to the job, start to figure things out as they run down leads. It has a documentary feel to its photography, inspired by Weegee and filmed on New York’s streets rather than the customary backlots, which affords plenty of extra atmosphere and may be the defining aspect of the film, above even the writing and direction. It’s certainly a classic.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writers Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald; Cinematographer William H. Daniels; Starring Barry Fitzgerald, Don Taylor, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 13 December 2020.