Under Capricorn (1949)

Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna is always a trove of fascinating older films, covering a range of genres and national cinemas, but you can always count on a few good period dramas. One such was this screening of a 35mm Technicolor print of Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated and underseen 1949 film Under Capricorn, set in 19th century Australia (though not filmed there).


One of Hitchcock’s more underappreciated films, and I do wonder if for English-speaking audiences it’s because of Ingrid Bergman’s rather patchy Irish accent. Needless to say, coming right after he made Rope, it’s filled with a bravura sense of adventure with the camera, which for all its physical clunkiness, seems to glide around these sets, particularly in a pair of scenes as a character approaches a home and moves around it and into it with ease, revealing these little snippets of the life within. Well, of course, that life is melodramatic and rather cloistered, a tale of power and class and the way that old English money (represented by Michael Wilding’s character, who has an imperious hauteur which is progressively broken down through the film) looks down on the transported criminals whose past it may have been untoward to enquire into, but who are also clearly very much aware of said pasts. In this case, it’s that of Joseph Cotten’s Flasky which comes into question, and his strange drunken wife played by Ingrid Bergman. The film begins and ends with the British flag flying over Australia, and plays out in 1830s Sydney, and there’s a hothouse atmosphere which the filming only heightens. Some of the characters may allow for rather broad performances, but this a beguiling Technicolor film that should probably have a higher standing amongst Hitch’s filmography.

Under Capricorn film posterCREDITS
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writers James Bridie and Hume Cronyn (based on the play by John Colton and Margaret Linden, itself based on the novel by Helen Simpson); Cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Starring Michael Wilding, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Margaret Leighton; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

Not all films that deal with period go the route of tasteful and sombre recreations of a historical past. Many of them just use the setting as a backdrop for generic thrills, such as the melodramatic camp murder-mystery thriller of The Limehouse Golem, which uses real historical figures and events as the backdrop for a very much fictional story.


This film seems to have received rather mixed reviews, but I suppose it invites that at a certain level: it has the feel of a camp bodice-ripper, or a lusty period detective drama, or a slasher film. It most closely reminds me of Se7en in its interplay between the grizzled veteran (Bill Nighy) and younger police officer (Daniel Mays), in its thrill at the gore and violence of the serial killer they’re hunting, and in the comfort it takes in the baroque cosiness of Victorian libraries (in this case, the British Library Reading Room). Indeed, being based on psychogeographer Peter Ackroyd’s novel, it revels in its literary and (above all) theatrical artifice, whether having characters like Karl Marx and the novelist George Gissing as suspects, or making its flamboyant music hall star Dan Leno open the film with a prologue delivered from a literal stage. It never feels like it goes deep — it plays with the Jewish origins of the Golem legend, tying it in directly to Jewish immigration to London’s East End (which is where Limehouse can be found), and is largely sensitive in its depiction of gay characters — but never lets that distract from the central whodunnit mystery. What I liked too is the way most of the (straight male) characters are depicted as never being too far from dangerous and exploitative when it suits them. There’s a beautifully recreated sense of danger and intrigue in this 1880s London, and even if it’s all rather breathless, it’s good fun.

The Limehouse Golem film posterCREDITS
Director Juan Carlos Medina; Writer Jane Goldman (based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd); Cinematographer Simon Dennis; Starring Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Monday 11 September 2017.

LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)

Day six and another four film day. I’ve actually managed to stay awake for all 16 of the films I’ve seen so far, but this writing them up at the end of the evening is the worst part. Still, I must put my thoughts down or I’ll forget these films, so here are some more reviews. Today I’ve visited Japan, South Korea, Tunisia (again) and Georgia.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)”

미망인 Mimang-in (The Widow, 1955)

There aren’t many Korean films directed by women much before the 1990s, and indeed this claims to be the first and may be one of the very few at all in the 20th century. As we’ll see in my subsequent reviews, women directors become very much more prominent in Korea after the turn of the century.


The Widow tells a melodramatic story about a four-way love triangle, between Shin (the widow of the title, Lee Min-ja) and Taek (Lee Tak-kyun), a young man who’s having an affair with the wife of Shin’s late husband’s friend, who himself is chasing unsuccessfully after the widow. When Taek’s old flame returns (he presumed her dead in the recent war), everything is upended once more for Shin. This sounds like the basis for a knock-about comedy, or even a weepie, but it’s instead a slowly-unfolding, gentle drama of love and disappointment, which perhaps suggests the director’s distinctive point-of-view within her contemporary cinematic milieu. It presents a fascinating document of a changing era — not least because (as seen in the 1920s-set My Mother and Her Guest), widowhood had until recently been a heavily-proscribed and solitary state for Korean women. When Taek opines that a woman’s place is in the home, his old flame tuts at him and calls him “old-fashioned”. Sadly, the final reel is lost and the last 10 minutes without sound, so it’s difficult to know how it all resolves, though I suppose that as the audience we can imagine several different scenarios, and are free to decide whichever feels most appropriate.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Park Nam-ok 박남옥; Writer Lee Bo-ra 이보라; Cinematographer Kim Yeong-sun 김영순; Starring Lee Min-ja 이민자, Lee Tak-kyun 이택균; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Friday 19 July 2019.

청춘의 십자로 Cheongchun-eui Sipjaro (Crossroads of Youth aka Turning Point of the Youngsters, 1934)

In February 2019, the BFI Southbank programmed a season of early Korean cinema in partnership with the Korean Cultural Centre, and in the introductions at the opening night screening of Crossroads of Youth, we learned that while the first Korean film was made in 1919, the earliest surviving film (and the only surviving silent film) was this one, from 1934. Being a silent film, and one made with the intention of being accompanied by an on-stage narrator (a practice shared with Japanese cinema, perhaps unsurprising given that the territory was under Japanese occupation at the time), this was more than any ordinary screening. Indeed, for this special occasion we got not just a narrator, but a quartet of musicians and even a couple of singers coming in for periodic numbers, which meant this was a complete performance, not just a film.


For all its historical interest, it must be said that the filmmaking itself is a little patchy, which isn’t helped that the first reel has been too badly damaged to salvage, but it’s a testament to the fact that old films can still be unearthed in peoples’ attics, and the fact it survives at all is wonderful. However, given the expectation of the narrator’s accompaniment, not much is explained in the film itself (there is very little text, and no intertitles). Therefore, seeing it with the narrator acting out the parts, filling in plot details, keeping us alert to who’s who (and making occasional joky asides and metatextual references about some of the onscreen action) helped immensely in enjoying this film.

With our narrator sitting at a desk by the side of the screen, it is very much clearer what’s going on in the melodramatic narrative — a young man spurned in love (Lee Wan-yong) sets out to the city, where he succumbs to drinking, while his enamorata is cruelly used by rich men, who then set their sights on his sister (who is herself in town to find her brother). That said, there’s also a hint that this narrative itself undergoes little changes over the course of time depending on the inspiration of its interpreter. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when he’s gently mocking the filmmaker for going out of focus or for the patchy acting of a bit player, and it makes the film just a part of a stage show that greatly impressed me. Without that accompaniment, I can’t imagine I’d be quite as generous.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ahn Jong-hwa 안종화; Cinematographer Lee Myeong-u 이명우; Starring Lee Wan-yong 이원용, Shin Il-seon 신일선; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Thursday 7 February 2019.

Víctimas del pecado (Victims of Sin, 1951)

Mexican cinema was responsible for a glorious run of full-blooded melodramas in the 1940s, and I’ve already covered a few in recent posts, including Another Dawn (1943) with Andrea Palma and Twilight (1945) with Gloria Marín, both directed by Julio Bracho, and the wonderful Dolores del Río in La otra (1945). I mention the female leads because it’s the women who really define this period in cinema, and before we move on to Ninón Sevilla, it’s worth mentioning my favourite restoration at the 2018 London Film Festival, Emilio Fernández’s Enamorada (1946), which stars the glorious María Félix, who not only dominates the film but steals every single frame she’s in, a definite highlight of the era.


Ninón Sevilla as Violeta comes across a bit like Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls (1995), and like that film this is a melodramatic ride through the sleazy underworld of a (Mexican) city. Still, director Emilio Fernández shows a great deal of sympathy and generosity towards his nightclub dancers forced into street work thanks to the dangerous and violent vicissitudes of low-class gangsters like Rodolfo (Rodolfo Acosta). He is introduced in the opening scenes and, without any dialogue required, his character is perfectly set up: big suit, concerned about appearances, cheap with his barber but flashy with his money, he struts out into this underworld with the brio of a man who is clearly not only going to fall but ensure that he pulls down with him as many others as he can. Throughout, the grimy sweaty reality of inner city life is stressed, the vast plumes of smoke from the steam trains that pass by crowd the frame like a bleak Turner painting (and like a lot of red-light districts, this one is tucked up alongside railway lines). The women of this film aren’t victims of their own sin, but very much that of the men around them, who are violent and, with a few exceptions, thuggish brutes. If anyone here survives, it’s only by the slenderest margins, but those margins are what the film is all about.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Emilio Fernández; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Ninón Sevilla, Tito Junco, Rodolfo Acosta; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 2 July 2019.

Two Films by Julio Bracho: Another Dawn (1943) and Twilight (1945)

We’re now deep into the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, though I can’t tell you much about the director himself. He was from a large family, was sister to Andrea Palma (seen in 1934’s The Woman of the Port and in Another Dawn below) and a cousin to Dolores del Río (whom we saw in La otra). He was involved with modern theatre in Mexico City in the 1930s and then moved into writing and directing between the 1940s-1970s, though he had trouble with the censors later in his career. He passed away in 1978.

Continue reading “Two Films by Julio Bracho: Another Dawn (1943) and Twilight (1945)”

La otra (aka The Other One, 1945)

This opens as a grand melodrama of two sisters — one a mousy manicurist trying to eke out a meagre living (expected by her boss to work extra on the side in a rather more personal manner than she wants), the other living the high life as the newly-widowed wife to a millionaire — but quickly starts to loop in grander themes of crime and punishment. Both sisters are played by Dolores del Río (mostly in shot-countershot or using stand-ins, but there’s a split-screen for at least one brief scene), and though they start out with distinct identities, things start to converge for what I shall obliquely refer to as ‘plot reasons’ (and shan’t divulge). The director and cinematographer have a keen eye for interesting framings — not least in a scene shot through a convex mirror, or another climactic scene which lays vast shadows of prison bars over chiaroscuro depths — and the costume designer is no slouch either, especially for a hairpiece which is an entire black bird, its wings outstretched across del Río’s hair, or the prominent jutting shoulder pads worn by Victor Junco’s smarmy Fernando (even in his dressing gown). It all builds towards a grand emotional climax in which the sins of one sister come back to haunt the other.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Roberto Gavaldón; Writers Rian James, Gavaldón, José Revueltas and Jack Wagner; Cinematographer Alex Phillips; Starring Dolores del Río, Victor Junco; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 2 July 2019.

La mujer del puerto (The Woman of the Port, 1934)

I’m doing a week of Mexican films on my blog, starting with the Golden Age of Mexican cinema and building to some more modern films in advance of the UK cinematic release of The Chambermaid (somewhat less melodramatic than these early films, but still very attentive to the social structure).


Despite the taut running time, this feels like a slightly underwritten film. That may partly be due to it being an early sound film, and so still an art form trying to figure out its conventions, but there are long sequences that feel repetitious, even if the intention is to build the melodramatic potential of a plot that isn’t short on soap operatic detail. Andrea Palma is the titular character, Rosario, a woman with a dusky Dietrich-like allure (you can’t avoid that image of her that adorns the poster; it’s almost iconic in the golden age of Mexican cinema), but she is spurned by an unfaithful boyfriend and her father dies trying to protect her honour. Without him she is clearly unwelcome; during these early scenes set in the city, there’s a particularly memorable trio of judgmental older women in her apartment block, who gather around the camera and conspire against Rosario and her father. Needless to say she soon leaves town and, with few options open to her, finds work at the port of Veracruz in a convivial establishment. For a film of this period it’s all fairly clear what’s going on, though a very late twist takes the tale in unexpectedly dark directions. What really makes the film, though, apart from Palma’s excellent performance, is the direction. Russian emigré Boytler may experiment with any number of scene transitions (wipes in every direction, up and down, irises, and lots of lap dissolves), but he has an effective way with overlapping images suggesting memories and premonitions, and coordinates some excellent cinematography replete with expressionist lighting (largely the work of another emigré, the Canadian DoP Alex Phillips, whose credit will show up on several other films of the era). For a film that tells a story of setback piling on setback ultimately leading to tragedy, there’s a feeling not of oppressive gloom but rather a kind of poetic realism (familiar with some contemporary French cinema). This may not be entirely successful, but it’s a fascinating gem from early Mexican cinema.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors Arcady Boytler Аркадий Бойтлер and Raphael J. Sevilla; Writer Raphael J. Sevilla (based on the novel Le Port by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographer Alex Phillips; Starring Andrea Palma, Domingo Soler; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 16 July 2019.

Criterion Sunday 198: Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eats the Soul, aka Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974)

It’s such a simple setup really: an older woman falls for a younger man, an immigrant to her country (although she herself is the daughter of a foreigner, as her neighbours are quick to note to one another), and is thus swiftly ostracised by everyone around her. However, it’s remarkable how many ways Fassbinder finds to approach this. As a starting point, it’s a story set in post-War Germany about how easy it is to fall into a judgement of outsiders, but it’s also a story of the ambiguous relationship between class and race (Emmi herself is a cleaner, but society already values her whiteness more). This latter concept then gets bundled up into a critique of capitalism, as tolerance fights against and is then co-opted by market needs. It’s a story of family tensions, which is where All That Heaven Allows enters the (TV) picture. It’s even a story of food as a locus of intercultural engagement and tension (couscous gets a pretty prominent role, and the local grocer is a key part of Emmi’s ostracism). And then when things seem to be lightening for the two, we realise that Emmi is unthinkingly being pushed into the behaviour she had so despised in others earlier on, thus so easily becoming once again part of multiple systems of oppression that, so briefly, she had shockingly been made to confront herself. But, at its heart, it still remains such a simple story and that’s where its power lies.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Cinematographer Jürgen Jürges; Starring Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem الهادي بن سالم, Irm Hermann, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Barbara Valentin; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 9 May 2001 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998 and at university, Wellington, March 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 11 February 2018).