Criterion Sunday 431: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Criterion release of this film has a commentary by Scorsese and Coppola, and you can understand when you watch it what might appeal to them. Would that every era of cinema had such a colourful and inventive spectacle and I can see that children exposed to this in the 1940s or 50s might have had little to compare it to in terms of the effects it achieves. There’s a gloriously saturated colour scheme in the filming and the production design and costuming that heightens the magical wonder of the storytelling. It’s just that watching now makes for a more problematic experience and it’s not that I’m out here calling for any ‘cancellations’ or whatever your term du jour is when you read this for the idea that maybe art has certain responsibilities. After all, things that seem a bit racist now (or orientalist or just a bit misguided, depended on your point of view) might have been equally so back then, it’s just that there was an unexamined expectation that putting dark makeup on very white English actors and having them enact Middle Eastern-set stories was perfectly fine and nothing to be concerned about. Of course, compared to some contemporary films, there was certainly worse racism in othering depictions of such parts of the world and their people, but that doesn’t excuse what at best just seems a little painful now, however well-meaning it might have been. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and those who find it easier to tap into the childlike spirit at play will be rewarded more handsomely than those hatchet-faced killjoys like myself who’d rather not watch fully-grown and very English gentlemen (along with a German, an Indian and an African-American) play dress-up as Arabs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan [as well as Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda and William Cameron Menzies, uncredited]; Writers Lajos Biró and Miles Malleson; Cinematographer Georges Périnal [as “George Perinal”]; Starring Conrad Veidt, John Justin, Sabu, June Duprez, Miles Malleson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 27 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 372: Sanders of the River (1935) and Jericho (1937)

At this remove, of 85 years now, it’s fairly clear that Sanders of the River is condescending paternalistic colonialist propaganda about the civilising influence of the British in their conquest of Africa, specifically among the inland tribes of Nigeria. There are sequences of tribal dances and customs that feels at times close to ethnographic documentary, but it’s all allied to a plot that is just insidiously insistent that Africans can’t govern themselves without the gentle guiding help (and gunboats when necessary) of the British. It’s remarkable then that Paul Robeson agreed to be in this, though by his account it was a different film until late in the editing process. There’s also a fine role for Nina Mae McKinney as his wife, and though neither feels particularly convincing as a Nigerian, it’s clear too that the film has only the most surface of interests in Africa (including a few sequences of dancing women that presumably got by the 1930s censors for their, er, National Geographic ethnographic interest), because the prominence of Leslie Banks’s bland colonial administrator Sanders destabilises the whole thing. Still, for all that I dislike it, it certainly is interesting when viewed in the context of Robeson’s career, and that’s the way that Criterion presents it, alongside Jericho of two years later.

That, of course, is part of the interest in Criterion’s Paul Robeson boxset: his career is a fascinating one, and it wasn’t long after American silent films like Body and Soul before he found more opportunities on the big screen in European productions, with a number of British films in the 1930s. Jericho follows an unhappy experience making Sanders of the River, and gives him a stronger lead role. He plays the titular character (whose full name is Jeremiah Jackson), a sailor during World War I who disobeys his superior officer to rescue some trapped men, accidentally killing the officer in the process. He is court-martialled but escapes, and, in the tortuous way of movie plots, ends up taking up a new life as a leader amongst the Tuareg people in the deserts of North Africa. It’s an interesting portrait of camaraderie amongst Black and white men during wartime, and about the possibility of personal redemption for Jericho, who is essentially a good man and understood as such throughout the film, despite what happened. He gets a slightly annoying American sidekick on his journey to the Tuareg (Wallace Ford), and the final resolution with a fellow soldier who took the blame for his escape (Henry Wilcoxon), doesn’t quite have the emotional heft it probably needs, but it’s a solid role for Robeson and he gets the chance to exercise his vocal cords on a few occasions too.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Sanders of the River (1935)
Director Zoltán Korda; Writers Lajos Bíró and Jeffrey Dell (based on stories by Edgar Wallace); Cinematographers Osmond Borradaile, Louis Page and Georges Périnal; Starring Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks, Nina Mae McKinney; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 15 November 2020.

Jericho (aka Dark Sands, 1937)
Director Thornton Freeland; Writers George Barraud and Walter Futter; Cinematographer John W. Boyle; Starring Paul Robeson, Henry Wilcoxon, Wallace Ford; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Saturday 14 November 2020.

Criterion Sunday 357: The Fallen Idol (1948)

I mean, yes, the child in this film is annoying, but he’s a child, and it’s his point-of-view, however flawed and naive, that the film is built around. He is Philippe (Bobby Henrey), the son of an ambassador in London’s posh but boring Belgravia (there’s even a scene in the Star Tavern, making me already miss the place) whose parents are off away, so he’s in the care of the butler Baines (Ralph Richardson) and Mrs Baines (Sonia Dresdel), the latter of whom is best understood as a woman wronged, though she is a little bit one note. Which is to say that in his childish enthusiasm for the people around him, he happens onto some secrets and lies, and the rest of the film is about the way in which he tries to keep everything together, or at least the way that he thinks he does, while focusing on creating untruths that help precisely nobody in particular. It’s a film, then, about the corrupting influence of the adult world, with its tawdry affairs and its banal gossip alongside its grandiloquent storytelling (cue a bit of racist imperialism as Baines recounts his imagined stories of Africa). It all looks great, a bit noirish with the black-and-white and the shadows, with Richardson playing a fundamentally good man but whose face suggests a hint of threat at times, and if it feels in service of a moral lesson, it’s at least not hammered home too much.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carol Reed; Writers William Templeton, Lesley Storm and Graham Greene (based on Greene’s short story “The Basement Room”); Cinematographer George Périnal; Starring Ralph Richardson, Bobby Henrey, Michèle Morgan, Sonia Dresdel, Jack Hawkins; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 September 2020.

Criterion Sunday 173: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Powell and Pressburger were certainly at the height of their powers in the 1940s, judging from the glorious beauty of their finest works in this period. Blimp surely ranks as one of them, even if it were just for some of the eye-catching dresses modelled by Deborah Kerr, playing basically all the women in the two heroes’ lives. For a film made mid-war, it’s surprisingly lacking in jingoistic patriotism (which may account for some of the rather frosty contemporary reviews). Indeed, it has a ‘good German’ as a lead (Anton Walbrook), inveighing against the Nazis, and even hints that crippling post-World War I reparations may have driven Germany towards Nazism, as chummy Oxbridge types bray and laugh while making vague sympathetic noises towards the defeated Germans back home in Blighty. And whatever blustery old fuddy-duddy Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) may think constitutes English fair play when it comes to war, the film’s core tenet is that we need to get over that and learn to punch Nazis. Surely a timely message that we should all still get behind.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Georges Perinal; Starring Deborah Kerr, Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook; Length 163 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 31 March 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 September 2017).

Criterion Sunday 161: Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930)

A fascinating early sound film from René Clair, which could properly be described as a musical-comedy, I suspect, although a bittersweet one at best. There’s a love triangle featuring a beautiful Romanian woman (because the actor, Pola Illéry, was born there), within a story of working-class people whose lives are often a shade away from criminality, enticed here by the dubious moustachioed crim named Fred (Gaston Modot). The sound is used only sparingly, presumably because of the limitations of the nascent technology, but there’s a freshness to the enterprise that belies its generic themes. It’s something Clair would develop further in the following year’s Le Million and À nous la liberté but it still impresses here on this early sound outing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer René Clair; Cinematographer Georges Périnal and Georges Raulet; Starring Albert Préjean, Pola Illéry, Gaston Modot, Edmond T. Gréville; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 June 2017.

Criterion Sunday 160: À nous la liberté (1931)

A fine early sound film which deploys its synched sound only sparingly and has a sort of musical structure to it. The plot is convoluted, but revolves around two friends who attempt a prison escape together, are separated and thereafter take a different path through life. Its key conceit seems to be that prison and factory work are pretty much interchangeable, and for something billed as a comedy, it’s comic in only the most cosmic sense as there’s little that’s really uplifting in the plot and paves the way to Tati’s own later satires on modernisation.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer René Clair; Cinematographer Georges Périnal; Starring Henri Marchand, Raymond Cordy; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 June 2017.

Criterion Sunday 72: Le Million (1931)

A delightful French farce with musical numbers, this has a comic brio to it that belies its creation in the early sound era (when the limitations of camera technology meant these were largely immobile). The plot itself is almost paper thin (thin as a lottery ticket, that is) as our hero Michel (René Lefèvre) realises he’s won the lottery but — for elaborate reasons — the jacket with the ticket has been taken by the shady Grandpa Tulip (Paul Ollivier). Cue a film-length long series of comic setpieces wherein our hero and his friend/rival for the money, Prosper (Jean-Louis Allibert), must track down the jacket and then the ticket, with the help of Michel’s ballerina sweetheart Beatrice (Annabella). It’s the kind of plot that successive decades of rehashing would wear down, but this early form is still light-hearted and nimble, and doesn’t outstay its welcome with an almost-too-sudden resolution to the quest, which the framing story essentially spoilers as otherwise the series of comic mishaps would probably be just too frustrating to bear.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer René Clair (based on a play by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemand); Cinematographers Georges Périnal and Georges Raulet; Starring René Lefèvre, Annabella, Paul Ollivier, Jean-Louis Allibert; Length 81 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 January 2016.

Criterion Sunday 67: Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1932)

Looking back, it feels like there was a real moment in the late-1920s and early-1930s when cinema was the new and exciting form which artists in France wanted to explore, and so we see a number of films by people like Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and of course Salvador Dalí (whose 1928 film Un chien andalou was directed by Luis Buñuel), all better known for their non-film work. Into this fray entered Jean Cocteau, himself at this point better known as a poet, novelist, playwright and librettist, to which he later added designer and artist. As one of his earliest film works (completed in 1930 but not screened to the public until 1932), The Blood of a Poet has a lot of similarities with the other avant-garde work being done around this time, trading largely in the symbolic in its four part structure. There’s the poet (one of many self-portraits throughout Cocteau’s career) and the statue in the first half of the film, boys having a lethal snowball fight, and finally a card player and the dead boy, in which death seems to be returned to the world of art, as the statue makes its reappearance. It’s a film filled with inventive use of sets and staging (favourites include plunging into the mirror/pool, looping images backwards, and having characters move through corridors as if resisted by some unseen force, a trick apparently done by attaching the scenery to the floor and shooting from above). If it never quite coheres in a straightforward narrative way, that’s hardly any discredit to the film, which works far more effectively at an oneiric level, looking towards Cocteau’s later films in this ‘Orphic trilogy’ as well as his fairytale masterpiece Beauty and the Beast (1946).

Criterion Extras: The most substantial extra here is a 66 minute documentary Jean Cocteau: Autoportrait d’un inconnu (Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown, 1985, dir. Edgardo Cozarinsky), which largely uses clips from Cocteau’s films in conjunction with a filmed interview to give an overview of his life, although it sticks largely to his artistic career, which was long and varied after all. The film retains an element of Cocteau’s customary opacity, but is engaging all the same. In addition, there are some behind the scenes images of Cocteau at work with his actors, as well as a transcript of a lecture he gave at a screening of the film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau; Cinematographer Georges Périnal; Length 55 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 25 April 2001, and NFT, London, Thursday 4 March 2004 (and more recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 13 December 2015).

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Jean Seberg, whose career was much too short, gained her greatest fame when she appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s debut À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960). Godard, like many directors in the French New Wave, adored American B-movies, but it’s fair to say he also had a lot of respect for the mainstream films of such idiosyncratic studio directors as Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger. Therefore it’s no surprise that Godard claimed that Seberg’s character in his film was a continuation of her role of Cécile in Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse of only two years earlier. In both films, it would be possible to argue that Seberg’s young woman is in thrall to an overpowering older man, but where in Godard’s film that man is her occasional boyfriend and gangster Michel, here it’s her father Robert (played by an immaculate David Niven).

There’s an oddly blurred line in the relationship between the two in Preminger’s film — they are very touchy-feely around one another, and share a close confidence — but it is never pushed overtly into incest. Cécile is her father’s daughter, and they have a grand time in the social whirl of Paris, filmed in beautiful monochrome. Robert has a new (young) girlfriend, and the roteness in his daughter’s voice suggests this is a common occurrence. It all looks like high society fun until, during a dance with her father, Cécile’s face clouds over and in a girlish voiceover she speaks of her frustrations, as gradually the screen gives way to the Technicolor remembrances of the Riviera the summer before.

I love the luridly-coloured and set-designed CinemaScope melodramas of the 1950s, and this is an excellent example of the form. The elongated rectangle of the screen seems to allow the space for several different emotional arcs to take place within the same frame, something Preminger is particularly good at choreographing. If Jean Seberg’s character is at the heart of the film, then it’s David Niven’s Robert who motivates the drama. Through its framing and camera movement, the film manages to hold in tension the lightness of Niven’s character, never anything less than charming and skittish, with his effect on those around him. Somehow there seems to be no need for any big conflicts or melodramatic rages — if anything, it’s his capricious charm and sexual voracity that leads those around him to tragedy.

Joining Robert and Cécile at the Riviera is fashion designer Anne, played by Deborah Kerr — closer in age to Niven, and playing the mature older foil to his succession of naive girlfriends. She explicitly wants to reform Robert and to be a mother figure to Cécile, but as their relationship seems to get serious, the latter quickly takes against Anne’s influence and warns her that she shouldn’t expect to change Robert. It’s a complicated game the two women play, and there’s an element of betrayal just as in Godard’s film, but Anne’s involvement in the lives of these two acts as a catalyst to a lot of repressed emotions. There’s a striking scene, for example — striking as much for how brief it is, as for the emotions expressed within it — in which Cécile turns to herself in a mirror and angrily tells her reflection (in voiceover) how much she hates her. Meanwhile, Robert doesn’t take long to reveal his promises to be worthless, as he turns back to his younger girlfriend.

Ultimately there’s a lot of pain and betrayal hidden beneath the glamorous and colour-saturated surfaces that Preminger so masterfully delineates. There’s no clear way out for either of the central characters, except perhaps for that taken by Deborah Kerr’s Anne, and by the end the shimmering black-and-white sequences in Paris seem literally drained of colour, not to mention joy. Yet if a film with this title was never hiding the bleakness at its core, it’s still a wonderfully staged production with plenty of pleasures along the way.

CREDITS
Director Otto Preminger; Writer Arthur Laurents (based on the novel by Françoise Sagan); Cinematographer Georges Périnal; Starring Jean Seberg, David Niven, Deborah Kerr; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 30 August 2013.