The fact of Alec Guinness playing eight roles is of course always the headline fact about this Ealing comedy of 1949, but that alone would certainly not make it a great film. He’s not even the only actor to take on a dual role as its lead, Dennis Price, plays social climber Louis Mazzini as well as (briefly) his own father, but his character is the core of the film, a sleek and urbane charmer who, as an opening framing scene makes clear, has managed to get himself sentenced to death, and who as we discover from his prison-penned autobiography, the narration of which provides most of the film’s incident, has made a habit of knocking off the obstacles to his becoming the Duke of Chalfont. We may be thankful that his half-Italian heritage was changed from the Jewish one of the original source text, though there’s some disturbing (for us, now) use of the N word near the end which clearly was not considered bothersome at the time for its British makers (indeed, its use in the ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ children’s rhyme was still around the schoolyard when I was a kid in the 1980s I’m fairly sure, though even the contemporary American release version changes it, so it can hardly be said to have been unproblematic at the time). That aside, this is an astute satire on the presumed superiority of the nobility, that a fine education and a quick wit somehow makes you a better person — whether it’s the callous behaviour of the d’Ascoyne family (Alex Guinness) which leads to Louis’ crimes, or the similarly high-handed way that Louis treats those he presumes to be below him from the very outset. Very few characters are indeed likeable throughout, though Louis does at least have the wrong done to his family, a sympathy increasingly worn thinner by his every subsequent action. Still, and perhaps for that reason, it remains a great black comedy about social climbing.
- This two-disc DVD release has on the first disc a trailer and some photo galleries, both stills taken of the actors as well as behind-the-scenes production photos, including some rather striking costume designs and handsome portraits and group shots.
- There’s also the American ending to the film, which differs just in the final shot, which (sorry, obviously spoilers follow for those who are concerned) makes Price’s inevitable come-uppance all the more clear by instead of showing his tell-all memoirs sitting on his prison table unread, has a guard run up to the warden and thrust them under his nose. This clarification was due to the Production Code requiring all crimes to be clearly punished.
- The main extra on the second disc is a feature-length episode of the BBC documentary series Omnibus called Made in Ealing (1986). This is a straightforward run down of the history of Ealing Studios, particularly focusing on when it was acquired by Michael Balcon (whom everyone calls “Mick” or “Mickey”) and taking it through its heyday in the 40s and 50s, backed up by clips from the films and interviews with some of the key figures (archival footage of Balcon from 1969, along with contemporary interviews with his daughter and those directors and crew who still survived, like Sandy Mackendrick and Douglas Slocombe, amongst many others). It’s all narrated with a calm BBC gravitas, and is a decent introduction to the studio’s output until it was sold off in the mid-1950s.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Hamer; Writers Hamer and John Dighton (based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman); Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe; Starring Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 24 May 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 13 June 2020).
This film certainly trades in all of Bresson’s hallmarks — the austere settings, frontal framing of his protagonists, their solid, even slightly wooden, acting style, casting their eyes to the ground as they deliver their laconic lines — and so anyone who gets on with his work will find plenty to like here, in what Bresson is very clear to point out is not a policier/thriller in the opening titles. That said, it has a grim determination to the way it unfolds, as our antihero Michel (Martin LaSalle) takes up a life of pickpocketing in lieu of honest work. If Bresson casts judgement on Michel, it’s not necessarily about his choice of lifestyle, as about the lack of attention he shows his relatives (like his dying mother, from whom he steals) of friends, and about how this seems to be rooted in a deep-seated rejection of Christian values. He’s a young man, clearly well-read, who fancies himself as smarter than those around him, and can thus be seen in a lineage with plenty of other filmic anti-heroes. Still, like all his protagonists, Bresson sees in him a path of redemption, and that’s what the plot of the film is, really, as he moves through criminality towards his redemption, embodied in the figure of Jeanne (Marika Green). This isn’t my favourite of Bresson’s works but it’s certainly interesting when looked at in the context of the other (more youthful) filmmaking taking place in Paris in 1959.
- The main extra is probably filmmaker and famous cinematographer Babette Mangolte’s 52-minute documentary Les Modèles de ‘Pickpocket’ (2004). From doing a cursory search on the internet (specifically, on Babette Mangolte’s own website) it appears there is an 89-minute version of this film, although the 52-minute one attached as an extra to this Criterion edition doesn’t appear to be in need of any extra footage. Unlike most of these kinds of documentaries, it takes the form of a personal essay film, in which Mangolte encounters by chance at a party Pierre Leymarie, now a scientist on the verge of retiring, but known to her as one of the supporting actors in Bresson’s 1959 film, made 45 years earlier. She speaks to him, then tracks down Marika Green (who was only 16 when she made the film) in Austria, and the film’s star Martin LaSalle who’s living in Uruguay and barely ever even speaks French anymore (we hear him chatting in Spanish to Mangolte’s assistant). Each of them offer their own ideas about Bresson’s art, and of course all are quite different from how they were in the film — just their smiles and warmth make it clear to what extent they were in fact acting in Bresson’s film. It becomes clear that everyone glance and affect seen on screen was down to Bresson’s fastidious manipulation, and they put across various ideas as to what he was trying to achieve. Green reflects on how none of Bresson’s “models” really know one another, each monastically clinging to their own version of the master, and perhaps the love of Bresson is a deeply individual one after all.
- There’s a six-minute clip of a French TV interview with Bresson from 1960, in which he discusses the film and his vision for it, how the idea came to him and some of what he was trying to put across in film, stuttered out under the glare of the two interviewers.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson; Cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel; Starring Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Pierre Leymarie; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Monday 18 June 2001 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 8 May 2020).
Another Naruse melodrama about a single woman living her life and finding others — perhaps society itself — can’t quite live up to her standards. Exquisite as ever, and available on DVD.
Mikio Naruse often makes melodramas, and when he does them they’re as big and bold in many ways as contemporary Hollywood ones — with almost as much exploitation (if that’s the right word, perhaps not) of the suffering of women — but yet there’s so much elegance and subtlety as it unfolds. In a way the central character here, Yukiko (played by the wonderful Hideko Takamine), is a metaphor for post-war Japan, but her travails in love — finding a man while working in Indochina, then discovering he’s married when they return to Japan after the war, and proceeding to doubt his motives throughout, as he courts other women — also pretty starkly illustrate her place as a woman in this society. I find it really difficult to write about what’s good in the film, as I lack a lot of context for writing about 1950s melodrama, a rich and complex topic, except that Naruse’s film is compelling and beautiful.
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Mariko Okada 岡田茉莉子; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 February 2019.
It’s odd to watch this film expecting a supernatural horror film because those elements don’t appear until the latter half of the film, although there’s a slightly uncanny sense created all the way through. It sets its 16th century scene amongst some poor villagers, one of whom, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), is a potter who is desperate to make money in the local town from selling his wares, having discerned that people seem to be paying more in a time of impending war, while the other (Eitaro Ozawa) wants to be a samurai but is rejected by the local clans for being a poor peasant. When the civil war comes to their very doorstep, they flee, but — much to the consternation of their wives (Kinuyo Tanaka and Mitsuko Mito) — making sure to take the pottery, intending to make money across the water. However, as the action moves across this mist-covered body of water, the film itself seems to move from the real world into a sort of supernatural state, where the dead and living interact, as previously strong family bonds fall apart under the influence of money, mingled with the desperation of a wartime economy. As such it seems to be a reflection not just on the corrosive power of capital, but on wartime avarice leading to self-destruction, the break-up of the family and ultimately death — which makes sense given when it was made. The wives thus come to play a much stronger part, as a sort of moral chorus to the foolishness of the two men, whose actions doom both families in different ways.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kenji Mizoguchi 溝口健二; Writers Matsutaro Kawaguchi 川口松太郎 and Yoshikata Yoda 依田義賢 (based on the collection of stories by Akinari Ueda 上田秋成); Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Starring Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代, Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Mitsuko Mito 水戸光子, Eitaro Ozawa 小沢栄太郎; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 12 April 2020 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 1998).
One of the categories on the BFI Player is dedicated to films appearing in the Sight & Sound poll of critics, and includes several classics, not least the one I’m covering today. Although it’s a grand spectacle, especially with an orchestra backing it up, it probably wouldn’t make my greatest ever list, I’m afraid, but it’s worth watching. Alternatively there are plenty of other films, many of which I’ve reviewed for my Criterion Sundays, like L’avventura, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Faces, Rashomon, The Seventh Seal, et al.
This is maximalist filmmaking. It has an impressionistic feel at times with its lap dissolves and rapid cutting, emphasising mood over clarity (I’ll never quite be sure what tactics were being deployed in the snowball fight scene), but it never shows a great deal of subtlety in its symbolism — the eagle, the waves crashing, the frenzy of the crowd, the guillotine. It’s also never anything less than triumphantly behind its eponymous hero, played as a lank-haired wunderkind by an actor named ‘God’s Gift’ in French (Albert Dieudonné). It has a long third act of romantic entanglements (including an entirely extraneous one with a minor character’s daughter) that drags a bit and yet when the film finishes it feels almost curtailed too early. It reaches — constantly, grandly, excessively — and I can’t really fault it for that, but whether that makes it great art I’m not so sure about. It’s still quite the experience, especially with a full orchestra and the triptych projection at the end.
Director/Writer Abel Gance; Cinematographer Jules Kruger; Starring Albert Dieudonné, Gina Manès, Antonin Artaud, Edmond Van Daële; Length c330 minutes.
Seen at Royal Festival Hall, London, Monday 7 November 2016 (and originally on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, December 1997).
I’m pretty sure you can throw around the word “masterpiece” about any of Bresson’s films, if you are someone who likes and appreciates his style (and it’s not for everyone). Important scenes are sometimes broken down synecdochally such that we only see an extreme close-up of someone’s hand or legs as a stand-in for them, and these brief snippets of action are used to convey some dramatic or uncomfortable event (a rape, say). It’s certainly effective if you are attuned to what Bresson is doing, and lends an almost spiritually ascetic quality to the proceedings. This isn’t my favourite of his films, and in some ways it’s a rather melodramatic story of a young woman and her donkey, as well as the many men who mistreat both of them. Their suffering is reminiscent of The Passion of Joan of Arc, silent and with a sense of grace, part of which comes from the very specific acting method he encourages, which minimises any kind of externalisation of suffering in expressive movement or facial responses. Still, this film no less than Bresson’s others, is beautifully controlled and enunciated in a very specifically visual film language.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson; Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge, Walter Green, Jean-Claude Guilbert; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Tuesday 19 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray home, London, Saturday 15 February 2020).
This feels like Truffaut trying the same loose feeling that Godard brought to Breathless, as Jeanne Moreau unites two men in mutual love, playing with their feelings as freely as Raoul Coutard’s camera pivots around a landscape. As Catherine, Moreau is of course the centre of attention here, and the film attracted a lot of attention at the time it was made for its affront towards bourgeois morality when it comes to love. I’m not exactly sure it holds up in every respect, but it feels remarkably unfussed by its protagonists shacking up with one another. What elevates it are the performances and the sense of freedom and fun enjoyed by the director and his camera, not to mention the finely judged score that keeps the action constantly moving forward even as the characters seem to be dwelling in their own little worlds. I never really feel as if Catherine is much more than a muse to the men who are, after all, the titular characters, and quite aside from hiding behind a fake moustache in the scene that gives the film its cover art (at least for the Criterion release), her love feels deeply inconsistent at times, as if imagined by each of the men in turn, and by the director. Still, I feel like her performance, in its irrepressibility, reaches beyond this framework directly to the viewer, and as such it earns its place in cinematic history.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Jean Gruault (based on the novel by Henri-Pierre Roché); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre, Sabine Haudepin; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 15 December 2019 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999).
Antonioni, I feel, made a lot of films about boredom, or about people being bored, and it’s easy to slip into imagining they are boring films (to some, they are of course), but I love the moods he creates. Monica Vitti and Alain Delon slip into and around the frame in an almost endlessly reconfigurable number of ways, stopping only to look disconsolately off screen (and that’s how Vitti ends her screen performance in this film, last of a loosely-themed trilogy by Antonioni). She doesn’t seem to want love, or finds it boring perhaps, and then falls into the orbit of Delon’s stockbroker, whom she is equally unpassionate towards until near the end. Like the character halfway through L’avventura (1960), here all the film’s characters seem to disappear just before the end, as the world they’ve created continues, silent and without passion, in the places they have lived their lives and plan to keep living them, the water ebbing away from a rusted barrel, while the architecture blankly comments on the streets below. It’s a rondo of sorts between these two characters, and a movement through dead space, beautiful but always ultimately suffused with a boredom that emanates not just from the characters but from those around them, as if it’s the state of the universe.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni; Writers Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Monica Vitti, Alain Delon, Francisco Rabal; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 October 2002 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 23 November 2019).
There’s a hint in this Jean Renoir film, made in India in the English language, of contemporary Powell and Pressburger films. Not just from the lush and almost anti-realist colour, but also in a certain colonialist attitude: it’s set amongst British settlers, presumably in the past when it was a colony of the Empire, and concerns three young women and their affections towards a one-legged American ex-serviceman called Capt John (he limps a bit). It’s narrated by the youngest of the three, Harriet (Patricia Walters), who is a writer of sorts, and creates her own narrative for the oldest, who is half-Indian. It all has a languorous air, perhaps because it’s about the last vestiges of colonialism in a newly independent country, or perhaps because of its Western gaze, although it feels like a benign vision of the country compared to some other more orientalist portraits (or a film like Black Narcissus), but I would imagine that’s largely down to Jean Renoir’s sensitivity as a director and writer. Certainly a film that will reward another viewing, I suspect.
- There’s an interview with Martin Scorsese, whose Foundation helped in the restoration of the film, and who is unabashedly a big fan of the film. He speaks about his childhood experiences seeing it, about the colour and the staging, about Renoir’s collaboration with Rumer Godden and the humanity that Renoir has for his characters, as well as touching on the colonialist aspects.
- Renoir introduces the film in a 7-minute filmed introduction made in 1962 (there are similar ones included on other Renoir films in the Criterion Collection). He relates some stories about the production in an avuncular manner, and hints at his (perhaps troubled) collaboration with the producer Ken McEldowney.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Renoir (based on the novel by Rumer Godden); Cinematographer Claude Renoir; Starring Patricia Walters, Radha Burnier, Adrienne Corri, Thomas E. Breen, Esmond Knight; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 17 November 2019.
Aside from Lav Diaz‘s work, there are few long films in recent years more mythical than Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Hungarian black-and-white Sátántangó, a film loved by those who’ve seen it and which represents something of a badge of honour among most cinephiles. I’ve not (yet) seen it in a cinema, but every few years seems to bring an opportunity to do so. It’s now 25 years old.
I realise this is accepted by many as a pinnacle of a certain kind of filmmaking, the ne plus ultra of slow cinema, and it is very good. Great, even. I’d been meaning to watch it every since seeing Werckmeister Harmonies a couple of times back in 2000, but it was still pretty mythical back then. It takes a small Hungarian village community as its setting, as charismatic charlatan Irimiás (Mihály Vig) comes to town, but those who know the film probably know this. I’d just finished reading the novel and I’m impressed by how closely it cleaves to that, but when you have seven hours of running time to play with, fidelity to the source is easier to achieve. The cinematography is luminously monochrome, or rather just as often drenched in bleak melancholic half-light, but that’s appropriate. It’s about people who are led, ceding their power to an authority figure, like an allegory of the citizens to a kleptocratic state, or sheep — cows, perhaps, given the open shot — led by wild promises of secession into their own doom but profiting the political classes (no, nothing on my mind right now). It’s all there, all as slow as you want it, long tracking shots down endless roads, characters walking off to the horizon, scenes that pause so the characters can grab a snack or go to the loo (a provocation to any cinema audience). This is a great film for those who like its thing (I do), but I’ll want to catch it at the cinema some day before I make any grandiose pronouncements beyond that.
Director Béla Tarr; Writers Tarr and László Krasznahorkai (based on the novel by Krasznahorkai); Cinematographer Gábor Medvigy; Starring Mihály Vig, Putyi Horváth, László Lugossy; Length 432 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 January 2017.