Criterion Sunday 452: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

I’ve seen a number of films that occupy this terrain, whether direct adaptations of Le Carré (such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) or other works that sit in the same talky glum espionage vein (something like Bridge of Spies, I suppose). It’s not a genre I necessarily warm to, and usually like my spying to be a little bit more silly and fun (like Bourne, if not quite Bond), but there’s something rather elegant to this mid-60s adaptation of a story set deep into the Cold War era. It’s a tale of spies crossing and double-crossing one another in ways that don’t even always make sense to the spies themselves as they’re happening (like Richard Burton’s titular character, Alec Leamas) and part of the drama is just trying to keep up with who knows what and who’s working for whom at any given point. I didn’t expect this to particularly appeal to me, but it held my attention, and along the way there is some fine monochrome cinematography and gliding camera shots — never perhaps quite as bold as the introductory nod towards Touch of Evil, but always with a strong sense of the frosty sangfroid of these suited, spectacled men vying for the upper hand.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Martin Ritt; Writers Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper (based on the novel by John Le Carré); Cinematographer Oswald Morris; Starring Richard Burton, Oskar Werner, Claire Bloom, Cyril Cusack, Rupert Davies; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 4 August 2021.

Criterion Sunday 449: Missing (1982)

In a way this film by Costa-Gavras is exemplary of a certain strand of political filmmaking that flourished in the 1980s, finding a way into an epochal event through a human rights case involving (white) Americans, to make it more relatable. Interestingly, of course, the Chilean coup in 1973 that led to the death of the young American journalist Charles Horman (played here by John Shea) is so far in the background that Allende and Pinochet are barely even named, and the Chileans we see are just shady military characters with little to distinguish them. Costa-Gavras is very much more interested in focusing on the Americans involved, which makes sense given the help they gave to what was an explicitly anti-leftist and militaristic coup, aligning so well with their destabilising influence across Central and South America in this Cold War era. So we are led to see all these events, the disappearance and death of American journalists, as part of an essentially American story of silencing their own citizens as part of enacting geopolitical change that would favour their own national interests. That said, what I find frustrating about the film is just having to watch Jack Lemmon (playing Charles’s dad Ed) trying to throw his weight around and not understanding his own son’s situation, though it’s all presented as part of a learning curve for him — as someone of a certain age who implicitly trusted his own government finally understanding that he could never trust them again. His character is difficult and has trouble understanding the context, and that can just make him a little bit difficult to watch at times when it’s just variations of him going into rooms and being dismissive of his son’s wife (Sissy Spacek) and friends whenever they speak. Still, it’s a well-intentioned film that did attempt to grapple with some of this geopolitical reality at a time when Reagan had recently been elected.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κώστας Γαβράς; Writers Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart (based on the non-fiction book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser); Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 2000).

Criterion Sunday 448: Le Deuxième souffle (1966)

The year before Le Samouraï and Melville’s last film in black-and-white. They may all be wearing trenchcoats and being laconic in both films, but it’s incredible the way this feels like another era, a holdover from the 40s. There’s something almost Bressonian in the way that the early scenes unfold (though that’s perhaps no surprise given it’s a prison break): no music, just people going through the motions, wordlessly and almost like a dream. Gu (short for Gustave, and played by Lino Ventura, a stocky stand-by of the gangster film since Touchez pas au grisbi) has just broken out of jail and is now looking to retire, but — as is the way — is sucked back into one last job. How badly could it go? Have you ever watched a movie? You know how badly it could go. For all that, Melville is clearly starting to strip back his style, such that the trenchcoats and the hats, the Gallic sangfroid, the guns and the gangsters, the deep expressionist shadows of the film noir genre, all of these things seem to hold more depth in them than the plot itself, though it’s all very well done, and by this point in his career Ventura has an iconic energy that is perfectly channelled here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel by José Giovanni); Cinematographer Marcel Combes; Starring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Raymond Pellegrin, Christine Fabréga; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 9 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 421: Pierrot le Fou (1965)

I’ve always had this film pinned in my head — having seen it a couple of times 20 years ago — as one that’s fun, and rewatching it again, it is, mostly. I feel like I should mention right up-front that there’s a rather hideously racist interlude with Anna Karina in a painted yellow face making some mock-Vietnamese noises, and even if it’s intended to be part of an anti-American satirical rehashing of the conflict in Vietnam, it can’t help but disrupt the film’s tone. Which is otherwise, as mentioned above, pretty playful. It builds on the saturated sun-drenched coastal resort colours of Le Mépris, and sets up some of the apocalyptic imagery that was to come in Godard’s career (in Week End, most notably), as his two criminal-lovers on the run rehearse a sort of Bonnie & Clyde script with a metatextual commentary and little asides to camera, but Godard never repeats the same trick twice, making it feel even a little exhausting at times, as things head towards their colourfully bleak ending. The deeper socio-political dimensions are more evident in some of his other films, but Godard was always most playful about genre and film itself, creating his own playbook of self-referentiality, than about empathy for people’s lives in the world (which may explain the yellowface). Certainly these characters never quite feel like much more than an author’s conceits, but Anna Karina (and Belmondo too, in his way) has an ever-likeable charm that suggests more than the film sometimes does.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Friday 10 September 1999 (before that on VHS at the university, Wellington, February 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Wednesday 28 April 2021).

Criterion Sunday 415: The Naked Prey (1965)

The idea of a man on the run for his life reminds me a bit of an early Criterion Collection film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), although this is much less camply genre-inflected. After all, it seems to be rehearsing some form of colonial politics, albeit as seen by the white guy at its centre (writer/director/actor Cornel Wilde). For an international co-production set in Africa in the 1960s, I could say it’s not as racist as I had feared, but that’s not to say it’s not deeply problematic, just that I’ve seen much worse (sadly; another Criterion film, Sanders of the River, comes to mind). Visually it has a sort of National Geographic view of tribal rituals, and while it allows its tribespeople the dignity of some agency, and credits them prominently, there’s still a slightly leering view of half-naked people, and the lack of subtitles for their speech puts it at some remove from their point of view. Still, it integrates the local musical traditions quite nicely, and there’s a certain degree of thrill in the chase, even if it all stays fairly firmly on the side of the colonialists.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Cornel Wilde; Writers Clint Johnston and Don Peters; Cinematographer H.A.R. Thomson; Starring Cornel Wilde, Ken Gampu; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 11 April 2021.

Mr. Wrong (aka Dark of the Night, 1984)

Stepping back in time, NZ hasn’t been making feature films for all that long. There were certainly earlier examples, but much of the modern industry didn’t begin until the late-70s, so this 1984 horror thriller (of sorts, though it also has comedic elements) directed by a woman is therefore a rather early example of their cinematic endeavours.


I can’t deny there’s sometimes a certain cringe factor when looking back at old New Zealand films; the industry, like the homes and the fashions we see on screen, was a lot less polished back then, and sometimes indeed the acting and direction on some of those titles feel like the work of people still learning the ropes in an industry still in its relative infancy (though enthusiastic amateurishness has its charms too). Thankfully such is not the case with Mr. Wrong (that full stop is in the on-screen title), though as the filmmakers pointed out in a Q&A after the film, it didn’t have a very marketable title (the film got a different, rather unmemorable, title for its US release: Dark of the Night).

It’s a haunted thriller in a Hitchcockian mode (apparently he was originally going to adapt the same story before he died), though being made by a group of women filmmakers mean there’s definitely a feminist slant on it that you suspect would never have made it through if Hitch had been making the film. Partly that comes down to the ending (not the story’s original ending, though I shan’t say any more), and partly it’s just that all the men in the piece are indeed very wrong, whether overtly aggressive, hectoring or just condescending in a gently sexist way. Even the love interest, a certain Mr Wright (Danny Mulheron) — yes that is his name — has a habit of turning up at all the wrong moments and scaring our heroine Meg (Heather Bolton). As all these classic horror scenarios of lurking strangers in dark creaking homes and on rainy mountain roads play out, Meg continually tries to persuade herself she’s overreacting, always apologising to these creepy guys, and in part that’s because she doesn’t initially realise or accept that she’s in a ghost story, but also it’s a little bit because she’s been conditioned to be deferent and submissive, a quality she only slowly starts to shed as the film progresses. That’s probably where the feminism primarily lies, but it works as a subtly chilling ghostly thriller, and even has a few laughs in it. Well worth checking out.

Mr. Wrong film posterCREDITS
Director Gaylene Preston; Writers Geoff Murphy, Preston and Graeme Tetley (based on a short story by Elizabeth Jane Howard); Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn; Starring Heather Bolton, David Letch, Perry Piercy, Danny Mulheron; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 399: House of Games (1987)

For better or for worse, there are films that I’ve only watched because they’re in the Criterion Collection and I’m engaged in this project to watch them all in spine order. There’s nothing specifically I have against David Mamet or his films — I’ve seen quite a few of them already as it is — but I’m not really seeking out any more of his particularly aggressive masculine energy in cinema, and so there was little likelihood of me checking out his debut as a director for any other reason. It’s certainly accomplished, and I don’t regret watching it, but the quality that puts me off seeking out his films is also what makes me wary of this one. At the heart of the film is Lindsay Crouse, introduced in none-more-80s power fashions as a famous psychotherapist (she’s written a book), famous enough it seems to make her a mark for a bunch of shady guys (chief among them Joe Mantegna) playing their confidence tricks in the belief that they’re smarter than her. Things take various turns that I’m not interested in spoiling here, but needless to say there are all kinds of games being played here, not least perhaps on the audience. Maybe Mamet himself is a kind of conman, but there’s enough that’s pleasurable about the construction and payoff in this film to make me want to think the best of some of the behaviour, which I assume is largely because these characters live with a sort of in-built misogyny as part of their film noir-like hardboiled worldview, in which some people are just born marks to their shady skills.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Mamet; Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía; Starring Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Lilia Skala, Mike Nussbaum; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 14 February 2021.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

After many months of not really doing cinema for obvious reasons, it’s interesting to see the films trickle back in here in New Zealand. This one is slated for proper release next year but was getting some preview screenings, and it certainly is a striking film, though I can imagine it being quite divisive. I’m never really sure if I’m supposed to be rooting for or aghast at its anti-heroine, and I suppose that discomfort is part of what the filmmaker is going for.


I probably need to let this sit with me for a while, but my immediate impression — after just returning from seeing it at the cinema — is that the film is very impressive in the way it ratchets up tension and dripfeeds information about our title character. Carey Mulligan’s Cassie is introduced right from the start, a drunken single woman in a club, as being a little over the hill, therefore suggesting the title is somewhat, perhaps darkly, ironic (although like everything in the film, this observation is as much about the predatory sleaze making the comment to his douchey friends). However, by the time Cassie is having what seems to be a healthy loving relationship with Bo Burnham’s Ryan, there’s no way as a viewer to just feel it in a pure way (in so far as anyone could listen to a scene soundtracked by Paris Hilton in such a way — although, while I’m on this tangent, I am a big fan of her self-titled album, the Rod Stewart cover at the end excepted). No, it’s very much a rollercoaster that seems to be taking from the Fatal Attraction playbook, but twisting it just slightly. I feel very little sympathy for any of the men (many of whom seem to have been cast from their appearances as very likeable, goofy and unthreatening characters in other things), but Cassie evokes the gamut of emotions from compassion to revulsion, and that seems to be part of the film’s text. It’s certainly very careful, I think (as far as I can judge these things), with the way it deploys but doesn’t exploit (at least not visually) sexual trauma. And while everything wraps up neatly, the emotional jaggedness remains, and I can’t be sure whether to embrace this character or to feel manipulated, but it’s probably a little of both.

Promising Young Woman film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Emerald Fennell; Cinematographer Benjamin Kračun; Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Chris Lowell; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 13 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 380: The Naked City (1948)

There may be 8 million stories in the naked city (as famously narrated by its producer Mark Hellinger, who died just before its release), but this film is interested in one kind and does it in such a way as to pretty much define the rules for an entire genre (the police procedural detective drama), or so it sometimes feels. It also feels properly brutal in the way it presents its murders, even though we don’t actually see very much that’s particularly graphic, but that’s the noir edge to this gritty urban thriller about a young woman found murdered and the subsequent search for her murderer. Naturally it takes us down various alleys, and presents a few different suspects, but the Irish police lieutenant in charge of the case (a memorable Barry Fitzgerald) and a rookie kid (Don Taylor), who’s clearly new to the job, start to figure things out as they run down leads. It has a documentary feel to its photography, inspired by Weegee and filmed on New York’s streets rather than the customary backlots, which affords plenty of extra atmosphere and may be the defining aspect of the film, above even the writing and direction. It’s certainly a classic.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writers Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald; Cinematographer William H. Daniels; Starring Barry Fitzgerald, Don Taylor, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 13 December 2020.

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.