Criterion Sunday 507: Bigger Than Life (1956)

Nick Ray has no shortage of great movies in the 1950s especially but this one feels like his most distilled statement. On the surface it’s a social problem film, about a man addicted to painkillers, but in some ways that just feels like a convenient excuse for Ray to lay out all the ills of conformist 50s domesticity, as James Mason’s underpaid schoolteacher starts letting loose about all the big shibboleths: the stranglehold of the church, the stagnancy of the nuclear family, and in a scene that has scarcely aged in 65 years, the political correctness and cosseting of education. Of course, we’re hardly expected to go along with him, and his single-minded destructiveness about everything around him does lead him down the path of murderous semi-religious incoherence, but along the way the film throws out broadsides against all the institutions that bind society together and leaves everyone’s happiness hanging at the end with a resolution that doesn’t really deep-down seem to resolve anything. Because unlike in a TV sitcom of the kind this film seems to be satirising, when you’ve opened up the very foundational blocks of western culture to question, it’s very hard to pack that Pandora’s box all away and pretend that it’s all happy families once again. There’s a brutality to this film that’s difficult to take at times because it feels so very angry, but it hits the marks it’s going for, I think, in the unhinged melodrama it offers.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicholas Ray; Writers Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum (based on The New Yorker article “Ten Feet Tall” by Berton Roueché); Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald; Starring James Mason, Barbara Ray, Walter Matthau, Christopher Olsen; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at the NFT, London, Monday 8 December 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 18 February 2022).

Criterion Sunday 375: Green for Danger (1946)

A pleasant wartime thriller, released just after World War II although set during, it’s a murder mystery thriller with the usual roster of plummy-voiced actors who all seem a bit dubious. They’re doctors and nurses, and a patient has mysteriously died on the operating table despite being in relatively good health, and it’s up to our inspector — Alistair Sim, in a real stand-out role, cheerfully able to sit back while others bicker and fight — to figure out whodunit. It’s all a bit hectic at the outset, and I found it difficult keeping these people apart in my mind (they’re all well-spoken professionals, half the time hidden under masks), but the tension cranks up under the directorial guidance of Sidney Gilliat. I have a soft-spot for black-and-white movies with colours in their titles, and indeed things all revolve around the colour a certain item is painted, and this film is a keen British genre thriller.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sidney Gilliat; Writers Gilliat and Claud Gurney (based on the novel by Christianna Brand); Cinematographer Wilkie Cooper; Starring Sally Gray, Trevor Howard, Rosamund John, Alastair Sim, Leo Genn; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 17 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 368: Corridors of Blood (1958)

Appropriately, it’s Hallowe’en when I watched this horror film, the last film in Criterion’s “Monsters and Madmen” boxset, which has been a trove of mediocre late-50s genre pieces but just for that has made it somewhat interesting by comparison to their usual fare. This I think is probably one of the best, but it’s also the only one that doesn’t take the horror much beyond the actual period into aliens and monsters, because the real monster here (as in a lot of the best horror) is a very human hubris. Boris Karloff plays a doctor in 1840s London experimenting with various chemicals to create a viable anaesthetic, which inevitably drives him to darker and more morally dubious alleys as he needs access to the drugs. There’s a small role for a young rakish Christopher Lee as a resurrection man and a cabal of shady criminals who are more or less at war with the police. The film is filled with dark shadows and atmospheric sets, and if it never really takes off, it’s more than creditable as a period piece, I think.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writer Jean Scott Rogers; Cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull; Starring Boris Karloff, Betta St. John, Christopher Lee, Adrienne Corri, Francis de Wolff; Length 86 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Hastings, Saturday 31 October 2020.

Hippocrate (Hippocrates, 2014)

This is described on Wikipedia (and indeed on the French film poster pictured here) as in part a comedy, but I can only assume the person who wrote that has a different definition of comedy to me (not that the film is entirely without levity). It feels like an attempt to come to terms with the impact that austerity economics has had on key services like health, via the story of a young doctor (Benjamin, played by the perpetually stroppy-looking Vincent Lacoste) coming to intern at a busy inner-city hospital where his father works, and finding himself in a team pushed to the edge by budgetary cutbacks and pointless bureaucracy. One of the targets of that — and in many ways the heart of the film — is Algerian emigre doctor Abdel Rezzak (played by Reda Kateb), who is older and far more capable than the kids around him, but yet is forced to work on their level due to immigration requirements, not to mention a vague sense of underlying racism. This all comes out incrementally, as the film is more interested in imparting a sense of the day-to-day work that an intern doctor faces — presumably based on the director’s own experience of practising medicine (before he turned to film) — and uses a couple of different cases to draw out the underlying drama. It never fully coheres, and the character arcs of these two doctoral interns (especially the all-too-neat denouement) doesn’t quite feel convincing, but on the whole this is a good, well-made hospital drama, which along the way incidentally pokes fun at other such enterprises (most prominently House, M.D.).

Hippocrates film poster CREDITS
Director Thomas Lilti; Writers Pierre Chosson, Baya Kasmi, Julien Lilti and Thomas Lilti; Cinematographer Nicolas Gaurin; Starring Vincent Lacoste, Reda Kateb رضا كاتب; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Monday 6 July 2015.

Criterion Sunday 21: Dead Ringers (1988)

David Cronenberg’s films can be difficult to classify, and this certainly applies to Dead Ringers, involving as it does elements of horror and psychological thriller, as well as being a character study of a pair of twin gynaecologists, the Mantle brothers. In this role, Jeremy Irons is superb, managing to convey a distinct personality for each, meaning it’s (almost) never unclear which one is which, despite their largely similar look. The set design maintains a sort of creepy anonymity, as the film takes place in a series of almost indistinguishable blue and beige rooms, with the only really bold colour being the crimson red capes that the brothers wear in the operating theatre, recalling the garb of a 15th century cardinal (or perhaps even a plague doctor). The film manages a masterfully controlled slow build of tension and creepiness, as a famous actor (played by Geneviève Bujold) is pulled into their increasingly fraught orbit. There’s some dense ideas about individuality in there, but they never get in the way of the story. A film worth revisiting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Cronenberg; Writers Cronenberg and Norman Snider (based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Greasland); Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; Starring Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 January 2015.

Side Effects (2013)

I find this latest (and apparently last) film of Steven Soderbergh to be troubling, but it’s difficult to locate quite how without invoking that ever-present spectre of “spoilers” (I may do it later; I shall warn appropriately). It’s set up as a medical thriller, dealing with the effect that prescription drugs can have on people. The opening shot shows blood on the floor of a swanky apartment, before the film backtracks by three months to introduce our heroine Emily (Rooney Mara) and, after a bit of backstory and a series of personal setbacks, her psychiatrist (Jude Law). This is all firmly set in upper-middle class territory, with cocktail parties on ships, expense accounts, nice clothes, comfortable living situations, the whole deal. Our heroine’s partner (Channing Tatum) is a disgraced former investment broker, recently released from prison. Our heroine has some kind of job in a design firm, while the psychiatrist is having to take extra jobs (including $50k from a pharmaceutical company to help with their drug trials) to make ends meet, what with the Manhattan apartment and a kid and a wife out of work.

My issue with the film isn’t at all with the way it’s all put together, for as you’d expect with a director of Soderbergh’s calibre and experience, it’s an expertly-made thriller, with some lovely shots. Something about all those very shallow focus compositions which pick out the protagonist, isolating her even in crowded scenes — an objective correlative to her emotional state — just seems right for the material. The performances too are all excellent, though perhaps I always resist a little when we’re expected to root for Jude Law as a grounded, likeable central character, and yet he does very well at it.

No, I think my problem is with the way the film spins off once or twice into a slightly different generic trope, and where those twists take the story. And here, predictably, is where there may be spoilers. First off is the way the film halfway through turns away from Emily into a story of a just man (a just man played by Jude Law) having to defend himself against unfair accusations designed to undermine his life and career: this is a kind of twist that’s already familiar from generations of films. But it’s not just that it takes this turn, it’s that it also swiftly moves from implications of shadowy big business machinations (the drugs turn out to be a Hitchcockian ‘MacGuffin’) to just a simple if intricate story of a small handful of characters involved in betrayal and double-crossing, with a dollop of the kind of melodramatic relationship liminality that Lynch played with in Mulholland Dr. (2001) so many years ago, but which is played fairly straight (ahem) here.

This seems to leave the original issues of mental illness and the pharmaceuticals trade that feeds on these, as something of a convenient plot device for a hoary old tale of double-crossing (not unlike how mental illness was used in the recent Silver Linings Playbook as a hook for a romance), rather than something that’s particularly delved into. It’s all very neat window dressing for a very neat and well-made film, undoubtedly entertaining and gripping for most of its length, and if there are disappointments in the denouement, it is at least to the film’s credit that these final twists are wrapped up (all too) neatly with such speedy economy.


CREDITS
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writer Scott Z. Burns; Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Wednesday 13 March 2013.