Criterion Sunday 600: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama stands up even today as a pretty intense piece of work, not least because it was breaking several taboos for its time — in detailing a fairly horrific crime in scientific detail, they were making a film that wasn’t for all ages, and indeed there’s plenty of incidental details to suggest a rather troubling existence. It’s Lt Fred Manion (Ben Gazzara) who’s on trial, for the murder of his wife’s rapist, but it might as well also be Laura Manion (Lee Remick) who is too, given the extent to which she is subjected to scrutiny also (I can’t think of any movie, old or new, which has so relished repeating the word “panties” quite so many times). Of course, the focus is on James Stewart’s defence counsel, who is seen putting on a performance to try and get his client off the charge, and when put together with the rather dubious nature of the reality being deconstructed in this small Michigan courtroom (and this is one of the few films I’ve seen set on the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula of that state), it’s a compelling black-and-white drama that leaves us with no clear conclusions about who’s in the right and who is in the wrong, but it’s an essential film for fans of the courtroom drama.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Otto Preminger; Writer Wendell Mayes (based on the novel by Robert Traver); Cinematographer Sam Leavitt; Starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Arthur O’Connell; Length 161 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 24 December 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2000).

Criterion Sunday 593: Belle de Jour (1967)

This is likely a film that grows over repeated viewings, but on first viewing for me, it has a (presumably quite deliberate) quality of being very carefully controlled at a rather lugubrious pace. Nobody really emotes strongly, nobody moves quickly, there’s an unrushed quality that’s at odds with the lewdness of the setup, as if Buñuel, having drawn people into a sex film about bondage and control, wants to keep that as far away from the screen as possible. Instead, what we have are hints at the interior life of Sévérine (Catherine Deneuve), little flashes from growing up that hint at some trauma (without, crucially, making anything so plain as to give words to it), her fantasies of sexual domination, and then her move into working for a brothel during the days her husband is away at work (hence the name the brothel’s madam, played by Geneviève Page, gives her, also the film’s title). But the pacing allows the film’s hints to seep into her character, played by Deneuve as a sort of unemotional tabula rasa, and suggest, perhaps slyly, some idea possibly of liberation (or equally a chauvinist desire to see women subjugated; it’s never really clear whose point of view we’re truly seeing). However, it shares all the visual hallmarks of late Buñuel, an almost matter of fact depiction of surreal and subversive ideas by characters who seem rather dull and conformist.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (based on the novel by Joseph Kessel); Cinematographer Sacha Vierny; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Geneviève Page, Pierre Clémenti; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 26 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 591: 12 Angry Men (1957)

This is one of those perennial classic films that always shows up on lists that I’ve contrived never to have seen until now, but I have to say it certainly does hold up — albeit perhaps not legally. However, I do love a chamber drama, and this one, as the title suggests, features twelve men, fairly indistinguishable on the surface though as the film goes on we get to know each one for obviously — this is a basic screenwriting requirements, one imagines — they have quite different personalities. This could be just a writer’s exercise, but it comes alive in the telling thanks to the taut dialogue, the fine, expressive acting (far more the latter for Lee J. Cobb), and sinuous long take camera movements that really serve to open up this claustrophobic and (both literally and figuratively) overheated space. There’s not much reason this should work, but it does so and with excellent economy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sidney Lumet; Writer Reginald Rose (based on his play Twelve Angry Men); Cinematographer Boris Kaufman Бори́с Ка́уфман; Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 19 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 590: Trois coleurs : Rouge (Three Colours: Red aka Three Colors: Red, 1994)

I think even at the time of its release, this was widely thought to be the best of the trilogy and it holds up. There’s still something about Kieślowski’s style that seems overly fussy, overly attentive to the right image, the right idea, expressed in the perfectly written way that nevertheless feels a bit over-rehearsed somehow? But it all comes together in this third part, focused on the idea of “fraternité” and suffused, truly suffused, with the colour red (not in the way of say Cries and Whispers, mind, but the colour is consistently a presence throughout the narrative). It’s about the way people come together — or almost do so, with missed connections throughout the film, only emphasised by the focus on telecommunication (those opening shots tracking telephone cables, and phonecalls — including the eavesdropping thereon — being a running motif throughout). Irène Jacob, of course, is every bit the model in the central role of Valentine, but she also ties things together with her slightly lost look — that look that’s on her poster, and repeated in that final image — like the lost dog she comes across that kickstarts the narrative, or the puppies it gives birth to, a lost look also imitated by Jean-Louis Trintignant’s ex-judge Joseph, or Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) — the man you sense may be Jacob’s life partner, whose path never quite meets hers until, eventually, surprisingly, it does. And for all this seems engineered to be satisfying, it is also quite satisfying, a fitting conclusion both to this trilogy and to Kieślowski’s career.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Piotr Sobociński; Starring Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Pierre Lorit; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 18 November 2022 (and first on VHS at home, Wellington, in the mid-1990s).

Criterion Sunday 575: The Killing (1956)

I imagine that Stanley Kubrick probably would have dismissed this film as juvenilia by the time he got to his imperial phase (he certainly did of his feature debut, Killer’s Kiss, at least). It’s a film noir that in some of its elements feels a little derivative of earlier noir crime films, along with similar elaborately-plotted French heist films of the same era. But to leave it at that would be to overlook just how tautly structured it is, and how much fun to watch. Not that it’s Ocean’s 11 or anything — this is still noir, nobody gets away with anything at a deeper existential level, but while the ending feels somehow fated, it’s also exactly perfectly judged. A voiceover tells us what’s going on, as we see each of the characters who together make up the individual components of a heist orchestrated by Sterling Hayden, and it’s that calmly dispassionate voice that leads us towards a certain inevitability. But along the way, the crisp monochrome photography and the memorable character roles make for a rich tapestry of lowlifes and grifters who each believes they’re set to make a killing on the races. (What they didn’t know is that… etc etc.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick; Writers Kubrick and Jim Thompson (based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White); Cinematographer Lucien Ballard; Starring Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Elisha Cook Jr., Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen; Length 84 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 6 October 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the unversity library, Wellington, September 1998).

Criterion Sunday 570: Zazie dans le Métro (1960)

I do know that I’ve read Raymond Queneau’s 1959 novel — the man who the following year would go on to found Oulipo, a collective known for their playful experimentation with narrative form — and surely what Malle has done with this film adaptation is to translate Queneau’s inventiveness and wit, and his particular glee in coining new words (certainly something that the subtitles are keen to capture). Whether it will be to your taste is another matter, and I found the non-stop “zaniness” of the whole enterprise was a little grating to me. That’s less to do with the young girl at the heart of the film (Catherine Demongeon, who’s not nearly as abrasive as the poster image would have you believe) and more the way that Malle has put it all together, with frequent recourse to sped-up sequences playing at a manic knockabout pace, quick cuts that violate time and space and create a certain level of magic (albeit not the same kind of magic that Rivette would dabble with the following decade in Céline and Julie Go Boating), and an exhaustingly inexhaustible energy from all its leads. There’s also a underlying weirdness about the way men respond to Zazie which seems somehow inappropriate but also difficult to pin down (I suppose one could write it off as ‘of its time’, except that Malle was often of another time when it comes to young women in his films). Still, I can’t fault the energy on display, and while it may not be for me, it has its definite charms.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers Malle and Jean-Paul Rappeneau (based on the novel by Raymond Queneau); Cinematographer Henri Raichi; Starring Catherine Demongeot, Philippe Noiret, Hubert Deschamps; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 18 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 568: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

One of the great 1950s noir films, this fits neatly into the wave of post-atomic paranoia films that were popular at the time (many being in the science-fiction and monster movie genre), though for much of the running time you wouldn’t really suspect it was anything outside the usual kind of setup. Hard-nosed detective Mike Hammer gets caught up with a mysterious lady (Cloris Leachman in her film debut), who happens across his sporty little car late one night on the California roads. The next thing he knows, they’ve been captured, she’s tortured to death, and he’s pushed off a cliff in his beloved car and comes to in a hospital. The rest of the film is him piecing together the mystery, visiting the kinds of people and places that are largely lost now (it’s set in the Bunker Hill neighbourhood), a shady underbelly of ordinary Los Angeles and its assorted characters — like the Greek car mechanic whose catchphrase is “va va voom”, or various denizens of the city’s nightlife. Hammer’s quest is all filmed in a typical noir style, and much of the film’s denouement has been cribbed for many other famous movies over the years (it will all seem very familiar), but this is a hard-boiled detective story that still very much holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Aldrich; Writer A.I. Bezzerides (based on the novel by Mickey Spillane); Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo; Starring Ralph Meeker, Wesley Addy, Maxine Cooper, Gaby Rodgers, Cloris Leachman; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wed 6 June 2001, and at a cinema, London, Wed 10 February 2010 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 8 September 2022).

Criterion Sunday 565: The Great Dictator (1940)

This is the film in which Chaplin finally takes on that other notable world figure with the same moustache. And, suitably, he comes to him with comedy, and it is certainly always worthwhile ridiculing fascism. There are indeed some fine laughs in this film, well-constructed little asides that resonate with some darker undertow while also keeping the film fairly light on its feet — whether it’s Chaplin as a Jewish barber, dazed from being struck with a frying pan, doing a little dance up and down a street with boarded shops daubed with the stark words ‘JEW’, or Chaplin as the dictator Hynkel presiding over underlings demonstrating new technological advances that end up (somehow, comedically) killing them. As I’ve seen other critics note, the horror comes across effectively in these fleeting moments. Elsewhere it’s absurdity that he uses to undercut Adenoid Hynkel with his speeches (in some kind of mock-German) and his posturing, though the broadest pure comedy performance is reserved for Jack Oakie as the Mussolini stand-in, Benzino Napaloni, a true buffoon. It’s all approached with a deep earnestness, and I can appreciate that — the end has a touching quality to it that’s hokily undeniable — but the existential threat of fascism doesn’t ever really feel as if it’s captured, and the comedy never achieves more than just isolated moments of greatness. But that’s only my opinion; those who love it have purer hearts.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charlie Chaplin; Cinematographers Karl Struss and Roland Totheroh; Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 27 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 556: Senso (1954)

This film is, undoubtedly, full-blooded. If you have any kind of aversion to melodrama, you would be well-advised to be aware of that going in, because Visconti and his lead actor Alida Valli do not, in any way, hold back. She plays the Countess Serpieri, an Italian noblewoman in 1866 just as Italy is seeking its independence, whose cousin (Massimo Girotti) is deeply embedded in the resistance fight, but yet she dramatically, deeply, impossibly falls in love with a young Austrian officer Franz (played rather less memorably by Farley Granger, and truly the lip-synching is, as you’d expect from Italian films, very far off). The further she is sucked into passionate love for this pathetic preening jerk, the further she betrays her country and her ideals, until both are thrown explosively against one another in a final showdown that really undoes them both. The title is apt: this is a film of the senses, taking its cue (as VIsconti often does) from opera, which is where it literally begins, until the entire film is suffused with an operatic sensibility and the denouement can’t help but be bold. So if you like your films melodramatic and operatic, then this is exactly the kind of cinema you will love.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Visconti, Giorgio Bassani, Carlo Alianello, Giorgio Prosperi, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles; Cinematographers G.R. Aldo and Robert Krasker; Starring Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Massimo Girotti; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 24 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 555: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Watching this is very much an exercise in looking for the glimmers of hope and possibility in a story about people whose lives (all of them, really) have been derailed or sidelined, and who have turned to anger and sarcasm to get them through their lives (well those as well as drinking, lashing out, the usual kinds of things). It’s a film set in East London, not the trendy cool bit, but the Essex bit, out in Dagenham and Barking and beyond, stuck in a place where there doesn’t seem to be much of a way out. There’s an emaciated horse, the hope of five pounds stashed away to buy a few cans of super strength cider, dancing in parking lots with your friends, a sunny day away to a reservoir. Still, Andrea Arnold keeps it all moving along, just on the right side of hopelessness as our teenage protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis) struggles to find some way to connect; Michael Fassbender as her mum’s boyfriend Conor seems to offer some hope for their family to come together, but then it turns out he’s just another rotten one, perhaps the worst, but yet somehow catalyses some feeling of change for Mia. You don’t want to watch it at times, but it hurtles forward with the brash energy of youth.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alexander Mackendrick; Writers Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (based on Lehman’s novelette Tell Me About It Tomorrow! in Cosmopolitan); Cinematographer James Wong Howe 黃宗霑; Starring Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Susan Harrison; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 23 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).