"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 31, 2011

"The Godfather" (1972) by Coppola (Film review)

With its golden-brown hues, Coppola's The Godfather (1972) is an autumnal movie. It describes the fall season in the life of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), a "benevolent" Mafia boss, for those who believe that such a contradiction can exist. In Chinese philosophy, autumn is the season of iron and steel, the matter from which the bullets and knives with which the gangsters kill, are made. Corleone is shot down by a rival gang, ironically because he refuses to assist them in the drugs business, which he detests. That allows the real hero of the film to step to the fore: Corleone's youngest son Michael (Al Pacino), who was meant for a career in society outside the "family," but who now returns to avenge his father.

In a pivotal scene, where we see his bright and youthful eyes turn cold and cruel, he assassinates the rival gang boss and his henchman, a corrupt police officer. Then he hides for a while in Sicily, on native ground so to speak, before returning to take over the gang. He grows as a strategist, but also becomes as cold as steel. The apex of his nihilism is reached when he shows off his ruthlessness by killing the bosses of five rival families, who were ganging up on him, while himself attending a church service. "Do to others all the evil they want to do to you, but do it faster," he must think with a criminal variant on a Christian maxim. The assassination scenes are intercut with the baptism ritual in the church. Michael professes his faith, while outside he is dealing in death.

The three hour film is based on a pulp novel, but raises the material to epic heights, although soap elements are not lacking either. The problem is, that it has no complexity, no ambiguity, and as "just an entertainment" ends up glorifying the gangsters and the anti-society culture of "the family." For a realistic treatment of the mafia as a social problem, read the crime novels by Italian authors as Sciascia (see my post here) or Camillieri, who show how admiration for gangsters (or silence about their misdeeds) can pull a whole society down into gangsterism and nepotism. It is therefore unbelievable to me that The Godfather is often called the “best film ever made” - it is stupid pulp, only good to waste a few hours - the best thing of the film is the music by Italian classical film composer Nino Rota which in fact is much too beautiful for this sordid tale.

(Revised August 2014)

December 30, 2011

"Boudu Saved From Drowning" (1932) by Renoir (Film review)

In his work made in the 1930s, the legendary French cineast Jean Renoir usually expresses his concern about the large class differences in his country. Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) addresses that problem at its very start, when the tramp Boudu looses his black dog, asks help from a policeman and instead is chased away with the threat of prison. An elegant bourgeois lady who makes the same request only seconds later, gets immediate assistance from three constables. This is indeed typical “class justice.” Later, when the tramp tries to kill himself out of sadness for the loss of his dog by jumping into the Seine, he is saved by the kind bourgeois bookseller Lestingois, who invites him into his home for recuperation, and then we get the class struggle on a higher level, between Boudu and the Lestingois household that is thrown into utter chaos by this asocial guest. Indeed, one couldn't be less bourgeois than Boudu!

But the film goes much deeper than only antagonism between social classes. This is a film about total freedom in the sense of Chinese Daoist philosophy, incorporated in the tramp Boudu, played by Michel Simon, who also in real life had Boudu-like qualities. Boudu is almost animal-like, he lives completely outside society. He is untrammeled by any concerns, going his way in total freedom. Or, in the Buddhist sense, he is wholly free from attachments - except to his dog. Being free, he doesn't know love or gratitude. Not bound by any conventions, he is brutally honest: when told not to spit on the floor, but use a handkerchief, he retorts that putting a dirty handkerchief in your pocket is even more unhygienic - in the end he uses the pages of an antiquarian book to get rid of his spit. He is also a "natural man," who even in the bookseller's house prefers to sleep on the floor. He never washes, so you can smell him through the screen. Although a hairdresser later in the film changes his appearance, making even Madame fall in love with him, his character remains the same. He wins a fortune in the lottery and gets to marry the bookseller's maid, but neither money nor marriage have any meaning for him. He has by chance drifted into the bookseller's family, and finally will leave it in the same way, floating down the river from where he came, returning to his life as tramp as easily as changing his clothes. Boudu's freedom is so immense that it is almost frightening.

This simple but meaningful story plays out against the backdrop of charming footage of Paris, the Seine, the Bois the Boulogne and the Marne in the early 1930s, filmed in the long tracking shots that were Renoir's trademark. Boudu is truly Renoir's first masterpiece.

Boudu Saved from Drowning is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

December 23, 2011

"And God Created Woman" (1956) with Brigitte Bardot (Film review)

The mid and late 1950s saw a spate of films worldwide about wild, rebellious youth. There are the James Dean films in the U.S., the “sun tribe” films as Crazed Fruit with Ishihara Yujiro in Japan, and Et Dieu Crea la Femme (And God Created Woman, 1956) with a very wild Brigitte Bardot in France. The French and Japanese films are set on beaches, the hangout of young people. These youngsters are both rebellious and hedonistic, they hunt after their private pleasures in an amoral and asocial way, even cruelly so. In a certain way, Et Dieu Crea la Femme can be called a precursor of the French Nouvelle Vague.

As the fame of the director, Roger Vadim, seems to rest more on his relationships with young and beautiful actresses than his films – he was married to Bardot at the time this film was made – one could easily approach Et Dieu Crea la Femme with some trepidation. That is indeed justified as far as the story is concerned, an all too simple tale about a wild woman who drives three men crazy. On top of that, the sexual politics of the film are ultra-conservative, despite the seeming modernity. But the film also soothes the eye with colorful views of St. Tropez in CinemaScope format, and it is breezy and energetic.

But above all, we have the well-known “iconic” shot of Bardot sunbathing. Voyeuristic though it may be, this image of Bardot has become part of our cultural memory. It is also alluded to heavily - in a postmodern way - in Godard's Contempt (see my review of this film). Bardot on the beach in St. Tropez blew away the dark shadows of war and austerity in Europe and allowed people a glimpse of the oncoming sixties. That being said, there really is nothing in the film that will steam over your glasses today. Bardot goes barefoot to emphasize her wildness, but on the whole the film it is more modest than the average contemporary advertising billboard. In fact, the scene that shocks us most today for its political incorrectness is that Bardot uses her invalid stepfather in his wheelchair as a shield to ward off her angry stepmother.

Et Dieu Crea la Femme is available in the Criterion Collection.

(Revised August 2014)

December 22, 2011

"Contempt" (1963) by Godard (Film review)

Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris ("Contempt," 1963) is the story of the dissolution of a marriage because the wife starts feeling contempt for the husband. It all happens in a day's time. In the early morning there is not a cloud on the horizon: Paul Laval (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Brigitte Bardot) are a happy couple, living in Rome. Paul is a playwright, but that day he gets an offer from vulgar American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite the scenario for a film about Odysseus that is being made by director Fritz Lang (played by himself). Remember that this was the period of the "sword-and-sandal" movies, pulpy Italian films about mythological heroes played by muscular American wrestlers, with lots of ladies in skimpy dresses. Paul is promised big bucks for this task, money necessary to finance the couple's new apartment. But Paul goes too far when he – unconsciously? - uses the charms of his beautiful wife to win over the producer.

He leaves them on purpose for a lengthy time together and later, back in their apartment, while bathing and dressing to go out again in the evening, Paul and Camille have a big marital argument. This has been filmed with incisive psychology. Paul keeps trying to be rational, while Camille argues from her emotions. And indeed it is all a matter of feeling, objectively Paul has done nothing wrong, but Camille senses how he tried to use her. It is perhaps also not strengthening his argument that Paul takes a bath with his hat on and a fat cigar in his mouth.

The next day they visit the house of Prokosch on Capri and there the matter reaches a decision: Paul has dropped so much in the esteem of Camille that their marriage is over, although Camille is not at all interested in Prokosch. While its own drama is unveiling, Le Mépris draws parallels with the mythological film Prokosch is making, where Odysseus (Laval) and Poseidon (Prokosch) are rivals for the wife of Odysseus, Penelope.

Le Mépris has been filmed in beautiful colors - stark reds and yellows, a sort of European modernism. The locations are interesting, too, from the Cinecitta studios in Rome shown pastorally empty to the Casa Malaparte with its flat roof top and long staircase on Capri, built by Le Corbusier, which is used in the final part of the film (This house was built in the 1940s by Italian author Curzio Malaparte - see my review of his novel Skin in which the house also plays a part). The sea behind it is immensely blue, as the Mediterranean should be. Godard also includes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the "iconic shot" of Bardot in And God Created Woman. And it is fun to see the legendary director Fritz Lang acting himself.

Contempt has lots of style – you will find that certain colorful shots keep turning around in your head.
Contempt is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

December 21, 2011

"The Phantom Carriage" (1921) by Sjöström (Film review)

The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1921) by Swedish director Victor Sjöström is marketed as a horror film, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In reality it is a Christian morality tale of Sunday School inspiration, decked out with all the cheap and sentimental stuff imaginable (alcohol addicts; brutish violence; fatal illness; the deathbed of a good Christian; a renegade father who tries to breath TB germs on his own kids; an almost suicide of a desperate mother and her children). That is how some people a century ago liked their stories.

Salvation Army nurse Edit (Astrid Holm) lies on her deathbed. She is dying from tuberculosis given her by alcohol-addict David Holm (Sjöström), a man she has tried to reform, but without success. She wants to see him again, but Holm is drinking with a couple of guys in the local graveyard, and hit with a bottle during a drunken brawl. Suddenly, a ghostly carriage with the "grim reaper" on the coach appears to collect his spirit, but instead of carting him off, the Reaper shows him flashbacks of some disastrous scenes from his wasted life. Luckily, as Holm is not really dead, he can still reform and save his wife and two kids who were going to drink poisoned tea. Ouch.

The ghostly carriage finds its origin in Scandinavian legend. It collects only souls that are refused entry into Heaven, and the driver is himself also such a black soul – the last one to die in the old year before the clock strikes twelve. In fact, the present driver is an old buddy of David who died a year ago. He would like to shift his heavy job onto David's shoulders for the new  year. The ghostly carriage has been made properly ghostly by using double exposure, and the director seems to have liked this technique so much that he rather overdoes it. More impressive is the scythe carrying figure of the driver, the “grim reaper,” – this image formed the inspiration for the figure of Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal (see my review of this film).

Amid all the tears of this multiple handkerchief film, there is one scene that stands out: at a certain moment, David Holm when chasing his wife, goes berserk and smashes in a door with an axe. Where have you seen this before? It was borrowed lock, stock and barrel by Kubrick in The Shining: "Heeeere's Johnny!"
The Phantom Carriage is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

December 13, 2011

"Something Wild" (1986) by Jonathan Demme (Film review)

There is one itch we all may have now and then: the wish to get away from it all, if even for a few hours. After lunch, standing in the sunshine outside, you suddenly don't want to go back to your office, but instead lie on the grass in a park, or depart town for the nearest hills and hiking course. On the spur of the moment, you really would like to step out of your humdrum life and do something unexpected. Well, most of us never act on this, perhaps because some additional incentive is necessary. For example, a beautiful, unknown woman who suddenly offers you a ride...

That is what happens to strait-laced yuppie banker Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) in Something Wild (helmed in 1986 by Jonathan Demme, who five years later would become famous for Silence of the Lambs) when he meets sexy, wild woman Lulu Hankel (Melanie Griffith). She looks like Louise Brooks from Pandora's Box plus African jewelry for hippie effect, so he should have been warned. Instead of driving him back to his Manhattan office, she in fact kidnaps him and takes him on a wild road trip, indulging in petty crime. Although he keeps protesting, he seems to enjoy the little adventures she exposes him to - including a scene with manacles in a motel.

The Friday afternoon turns into weekend, and she not only keeps him away from his job but also from his wife and children (as he weakly protests). On Saturday, Lulu has him pose as her husband and visit her sweet, knowing mother ("See, Mamma? Just the kind of man you said I should marry"), as well as join a rather silly high school reunion.

There the genre changes from road movie to noir when they run into Lulu's violent husband Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta), who is just fresh out of prison - of course she never mentioned to Charles that she already had a husband. Her buddy wants his wife back and does his own kidnap act - one fraught with real danger. Ray is a guy who oozes violence and sadism from all his pores. The silly game Lulu was playing with Charles turns serious.

In the final part of the movie, another, more rebellious side of Charlie surfaces – he also has a marital secret: his wife is in fact divorcing him and has run away with the kids - and he fights Ray with all he has on behalf of Lulu. It is literally a fight to the death, but as this film was made in Hollywood, we all know how it will end. Yes, and he gets her, too.

Despite the kink in the middle, this is a film that will keep your eyes glued to the screen. It has excellent acting by all three protagonists. Ray is violence incarnate, with a menacing shrewdness; Daniels is exactly the right comic type for the conventional, square guy; and Melanie Griffith is the star of the film, both alluring and dangerous, and totally reckless - she really looks as if she might do anything. Director Demme has infused the film with the right amount of weirdness and black humor.

A pity that this kind of off-beat movie can't be made anymore in today's degenerate Hollywood, which is dominated by safe, "template" stories and cardboard characters and therefore only turns out forgettable junk. Not to speak of bringing a “three-dimensional” woman like Melanie Griffith to the screen...
Something Wild is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

December 12, 2011

"Nights of Cabiria" (1957) by Fellini (Film review)

Thanks to the beautiful story and wonderful performance by actress Giulietta Masina, Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria) is Frederico Fellini's most moving film, about a prostitute who shows great resilience in the face of life's tragedies and disappointments. She is both a victim and a survivor. It reminded me of a film made in more or less the same period by Japanese director Mikio Naruse, When A Woman Ascends the Stairs, in which a bar hostess who tries to realize a better life each time is pushed back by fate (see here for my review).

Cabiria is a prostitute living on the outskirts of Rome. She owns a stone shack and has a reasonable income, but is also the envy of unscrupulous boyfriends. At the start of the film, she is thrown into the river by her man who then makes off with her purse. This will be echoed at the end of the film, when her money is stolen again by another guy she trusted.

In between, we have several episodes from Cabiria's life: she is taken home by a famous film star, only to have to spend the night in the bathroom when his fiancee appears unexpectedly (Fellini doesn't fall into the Hollywood trap of Pretty Girl); she joins a pilgrimage to a holy shrine sincerely believing that a miracle will happen, only to realize the lies of religion; and she meets Oscar, a mild-mannered accountant, who professes to be in love with her and doesn't ask questions about her life. Will she finally become happy?

Of course not. This is Italia and not California, our realistic world and not dreamland. What this great film teaches us is that it is futile and even dangerous to have blind faith in people, in chance and in religion. But it also reminds us that, whatever happens, life is precious. It vividly demonstrates the strength of the human spirit to overcome terrible personal crises.

For the wonderful thing is that Cabiria, this small, sprightly and energetic woman, each time picks herself up and carries on with her life. Each time, she has the strength to move on.

During the film, Cabiria learns about life, she is a better person at the end than she was at the beginning. When she sees a solitary man distributing food to the poor in the fields outside Rome, she realizes that it is our own actions that count.

Her experiences teach her to live her life free from illusions. That is the only way to take control and work towards a better future. At the end of the film, Cabiria has lost money and love, but she has won hope. As viewers we trust she will be able to realize a better future.

The part of Cabiria is wonderfully played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina. The early Cabiria is thick-skinned and her mouth is her largest organ (Italian-style) - even when she has been saved from the river she gives a tremendous verbal broadside to her rescuers when they ask unwelcome questions. Here, Masina plays for laughs alone, but gradually the veil of comedy is lifted and we get a glimpse of the real Cabiria, who has never experienced love but who is capable of deep feelings. She is even a bit sentimental. As viewers, we gradually start to love her and follow her with interest on her journey of self-discovery. Thanks in large part to Giuletta Masina, Cabiria is the most touching and realistic creation in all Fellini's films.

Watching this magic film is like a spiritual experience.

  • The food distribution scene was cut out by the Catholic censors who regarded it as criticism of the Church whose task it is to feed the destitute.
  • Cabiria is also the title of a silent historical drama from 1914, wholly unrelated as it is about the trek of Hannibal over the Alps. 
  • Le Notti di Cabiria won the best foreign film Oscar in 1957 and Giulietta Masina won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • Hollywood couldn't keep its hands off the film and remade it as an empty musical called “Sweet Charity” (with Shirley MacLaine playing the lead role).
Nights of Cabiria is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

December 5, 2011

"The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928) by Carl Dreyer (Film review)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer is a film about faces. Dreyer uses a special cinematic language that consists of incessant, sometimes brutal close-ups (coupled with daring camera angles). It is as if the director wanted to study the grammar of faces. With great psychological authenticity, the characters are revealed in all their nakedness.

The actress Renee Maria Falconetti who plays the role of Joan (Jeanne d'Arc) is simply mesmerizing. Her beatific face - without any make-up for the film - is usually lifted upwards (towards an imaginary Heaven?). She strongly brings out Joan's innate beauty and strength, and faces her clerical captors with dignity and humility.

The judges and wardens, in contrast, are false, unthinking, grotesque, bored, decadent, evil, in short, the type of faces you can meet daily on the street. They are us. In the film, they are also the face of the organized church. It is a wonder that Joan, while being tortured by these men, can still believe that goodness exists in the world.

This impressive film is not a historical account of Joan's life, showing her military exploits. It is also not a nationalistic vehicle, the way the image of Joan of Arc (1412-1431) is used in France in times of distress, such as WWI. And, happily, it is also not a torture movie like The Passion of Christ. Dreyer only shows us Joan's trial and subsequent execution. The trial is held by churchmen in a room in the castle where Joan is prisoner. We, too, are confined in these spaces for almost the whole film's length - anything obviously cinematic from Joan's life has been left out.

The film is based on an authentic document: the original deposition of Joan's trial in 1431 (here condensed from four months to one day). Tried for heresy and blasphemy, she faces her main enemy, Bishop Cauchon, who places various wily, semantic traps in her way. She evades them all. It is only under heavy pressure - the threat of torture - that she finally signs a confession, only to retract it almost immediately because she feels she would betray herself. She then gets the maximum punishment and is burned at the stake.

This is a most moving film, perhaps thanks to its conscious limitations. It is also the coming together of an actress who gives a breathtaking performance and a director at his innovative best.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is available in the Criterion Collection. 
(Revised August 2014)

November 14, 2011

"Last Year at Marienbad" (1961) by Alain Resnais (Film review)

Last Year at Marienbad  (L’année dernière à Marienbad) is a 1961 French film helmed by New Wave director Alain Resnais from a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet, the radical master of the "new novel." Not surprisingly, this film is like a surreal dream, if not a nightmare where past and present are mixed in an ambiguous cloud - some even say it is a ghost story.

There are three protagonists, all unnamed: a handsome man, X, who speaks with a slight Italian accent (Giorgio Albertazzi); a beautiful woman, a brunette, A (Delphine Seyrig); and M, a man with a gaunt face (Sacha Pitoeff), who could be A's husband.

The location is a palace or luxurious European baroque hotel (or perhaps a hotel in such a palace), with glittering mirrored salons and geometric gardens featuring shrubs and statues, everything elegantly shot in black-and-white widescreen by Sacha Vierny.

The film starts with a justly famous, long tracking shot in which X wanders through the hotel's corridors cataloging in a voice-over items he sees, accompanied by discordant organ music: "Empty salons. Corridors. Salons. Doors. Doors. Salons. Empty chairs, deep armchairs, thick carpets. Heavy hangings. Stairs, steps. Steps, one after the other."

Both voice and organ music have an intoxicating quality, like a many times repeated incantation, and they will be with us for the whole duration of the film. Increasingly, the voice tells us shards of a story that took place the year before, and these story fragments, too, are repeated with slight variations.

The narrator X approaches A, claiming to have met her the year before at Marienbad. He asserts she must be waiting for him now, as she has agreed to leave with him if only X would be willing to wait one year, but she insists that they have never met.

The narrator stalks the reticent woman through the corridors and salons of the palace and tells her more and more details about their (supposed) previous meeting. Their conversations are repeated with slight variations in several places in the palace and gardens, as if we are caught in an endless loop.

But the more he tells her, the more his story shows internal discrepancies - made clear by the director by having different images accompany identical parts of the man's narration. Gradually, we feel that the atmosphere of uncertainty contains a threat, as if some danger lurks in the background.

The man with the gaunt face who may be the woman's husband, repeatedly plays a mathematical game called Nim with the narrator, and by beating him each time at the game, he as it were asserts some sort of dominance.

The nightmarish quality is enhanced by the fact that the other glamorously looking characters, presumably guests to the hotel, mostly sit or stand frozen, in mannerist poses and with a glazed look on their faces.

At the end of the film, the stranger leaves with the woman, but we do not know if that is happening now, or last year, or whether it is just wishful thinking.

With is ambiguous flashbacks and shifts of time and locations, the film is a conscious enigma. Is this an investigation into the nature of memory, does everything take place in the head of the narrator, even as a dream or the memory of a dream? As Resnais said, "For me this film is an attempt, still very crude and very primitive, to approach the complexity of thought, of its processes." Or in the words of Robe-Grillet: "The whole film, as a matter of fact, is the story of a "persuading": it deals with a reality which the hero creates out of his own vision, out of his own words."

I agree with the interpretation that everything takes place in the head of the narrator, but there are other explanations possible: for example, a version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth; everything takes place in the woman's mind; everything takes place in the man's mind, and depicts his refusal to acknowledge that he has killed the woman he loved; or the characters could be dead souls in limbo.

Take your pick! This great film deserves repeated viewings.

P.S. The film was shot in various palaces around Munich, and not in the actual Czech spa town of Marienbad.
P.S.2 Inland Empire (2006) by David Lynch was influenced by Last Year at Marienbad.

Note: I have learned recently (2014) that the film was in fact inspired by the novella The Invention of Morel, written in 1940 by the Argentinian author Adolfo Bioy Casares - a lifelong friend of Jorge Louis Borges. See my post on The Invention of Morel. What Last Year at Marienbad and The Invention of Morel have in common is that characters in both repeat their actions and conversations. In my review of the novella I suggest that they are not real persons but a sort of "holograms," three-dimensional recordings which are indistinguishable from reality. This would indeed mean that the characters are dead (although no "dead souls in limbo"), for in Bioy's tale the recording of part of their lives also transfers their souls to the "hologram." I now believe this is the best solution to the enigma of the film.
Last Year at Marienbad is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

"12 Angry Men" (1957) with Henry Fonda (Film review)

"12 Angry Men" (1957) by director Sidney Lumet has been called a "courtroom drama," but it really is a "jury room" drama, because the viewer is locked up together with a deliberating jury for almost the whole duration of the 90 minute film. That is quite a suffocating experience. In 1957, the jury was all white, and all male. And these men are angry: for having to act as jury members, for being locked up while there are nicer things to do such as attending a baseball game, because they have to discuss the case seemingly endlessly, although there is only one dissenting member, and everything is clear, isn't it? "That colored guy, that immigrant, murdered his father with a knife, there are two witnesses, more or less, so lets quickly decide on a 'guilty' verdict, they are all scum after all, and we want to get out of this room as quickly as possible..."

The dissenter is Henry Fonda, and gradually he convinces the other eleven, not that the accused is innocent (they don't know that), but that he - like everyone - should get a fair trial and that the evidence is full of holes. In other words, there is plenty of room for a "reasonable doubt." In the process, every jury member is shown as an individual character, whose background may be pushing him to take a certain stance. The story comes neatly full circle, but it is a bit too neat, "Hollywood-style," and the prosecutor's work is shown as just too sloppy (not to talk about the defense) to be realistic.

Anyway, I am glad I am not living in a country with a jury system. Seeing the flimsy grounds on which most of the jurors decide (personal prejudices) does not inspire confidence in such a system. It is only a more civilized form of lynching. If Fonda would not have held out against eleven others - most people would have gone along with such an overwhelming majority - and patiently argued the case with the "angry men," the accused would have been wrongly executed.

It is interesting to watch the cultural traits in this film: the body language, the fact that these American (Western) men simply can't sit still, and also have trouble concentrating - but in the end, they do get the job done. They all have clear opinions and state these loudly and confidently. The discussions are rather confrontational. One of the men acts as chairman (of course, as is usual in A,merica, his authority is challenged at a certain time - leaders have to prove themselves all the time), but the whole process is quite disorderly. I realized how used I am to more quiet and orderly processes because of my life in Japan. When in a meeting, Japanese don't get up to pace the room all the time, the discussions would be more polite and general procedure would be more structured. But whether that means the job would be done faster, I don't know... (although it would be done in a more pleasant atmosphere).

12 Angry Men is worth watching for these cultural traits - there is also excellent acting all-around the table, and the story satisfies as the "good guy" (Fonda, who uses both his mind and his heart) wins. But this film is not the great plea for democracy some people have made out of it, on the contrary, it only shows how dangerously fallible the jury system is.
Twelve Angry Men is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

November 10, 2011

"The Gold Rush" (1925) by Chaplin (Film review)

The Gold Rush (1925) is Chaplin at his most characteristic. It was also the film Chaplin himself liked best. But there are two "buts" standing in the way of my enjoyment: when I was a kid, The Gold Rush was played so often on TV (with other Chaplin and slapstick stuff) that even today I can remember all the gags - there is no freshness left (others call it the "collective memory of our culture"); and the "Little Tramp" is a rather mawkish figure, a sort of sentimentality that simply is not of our time. I am more a fan of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd - see for example my review of Girl Shy.

The tramp has become a lone prospector, venturing into the snows of Alaska to make his fortune. The first half hour of the film is set in a cabin around which the snow storm blows. The scenes I could remember are from this part and include the prospector's cabin teetering on the brink of the abyss, the consumption of a leather shoe when food has run out, and - for the same reason - Chaplin envisioned as a juicy chicken by another hungry inmate. After that, the story moves back to civilization in the form of a rough and ready gold-digger's boomtown, where Chaplin visits the saloon and meets the unavoidable girl (Georgia Hale). Of course, he falls in love with her and by a nifty trick (a more sophisticated element in the film) is led to believe this feeling is mutual.

One of the weak and sentimental scenes is the one in which Chaplin has been made to believe that Georgia is coming to Christmas dinner in his cottage - he has prepared a real feast, shoveling snow to get the money for all the delicacies, spending lots of time setting the table - but of course she doesn't show up...

Chaplin filmed only the opening scene of the film on location, in the mountains between California and Nevada. You see a long line of black "ants" crawling up a mountain pass through the snow. But the rest was made in the studio, which better fitted Chaplin's slow way of working (real snow would melt before he had taken his second shot).
The Gold Rush is available in the Criterion Collection.
 (Revised August 2014)

November 9, 2011

"The Lady-killers" (1955) with Alec Guinness (Film review)

The Lady Killers (1955) is one of the last comedies made by the Ealing Studio in London before it was wrapped up for having fallen behind the times. And indeed, although there are flashes of interesting black humor, as a whole the film is rather too soft and cosy, like the frayed finery in the Victorian mansion where most of the action takes place. The criminals are bungling bumpkins you can spot from a mile distance, the policemen are your favorite son-in-law who helps old ladies cross the road, and although several persons get killed, the process is totally bloodless. The story is funny in a cartoonish way, but there is not a shred of real suspense.

That is not to say there is nothing to enjoy here. 77-year-old Katie Johnson steals the show as the indomitable Mrs Wilberforce, renting out rooms in her Victorian house, and Alec Guinness plays criminal mastermind Professor Marcus, a fine comic performance of a man becoming gradually more unhinged. He is also over-polite in a sinister way and wears monstrous false teeth. His oddball gang of thieves includes a thuggish Peter Sellers and murderous Herbert Lom.

Professor Marcus pretends to be a musicologist who now and then will be receiving colleagues to rehearse music (they play a Boccherini record to mislead others) and uses Mrs Wilberforce's lodging rooms as hideaway. Her house is conveniently located at the end of a cul-de-sac, above the railroad tracks near St. Pancras Station, and the sweet old lady looks as if she is just as conveniently daft. But as usual when a crime has been carefully planned, something unforeseen happens during the robbery of 60,000 pounds from an armored bank van, and then the criminals also make the mistake of accidentally revealing their stack of banknotes (hidden in a cello case, which falls open) to the old lady.

So instead of fleeing, they decide they have to kill their landlady first - initially so harmless they even used her to carry the stolen cash from the station depot to her house, she now has become a liability. Well, easier said than done. The old fox, who looks so naive, easily outwits the five men. The thieves start quarreling among themselves, and instead of doing the old lady in, they end up finishing off each other, as each one looks for a chance to escape alone with all the loot. The last one, the "professor," is killed by a railroad sign while hanging from the bridge over the railroad tracks near the cul-de-sac (from which he has thrown several colleagues to their death). The old lady is very law obedient, so she goes to the police to inform the authorities and return the money left in her house by the dead robbers, but the police regard her as dotty and laughingly send her away. All the better for the old lady's finances...

Director of this film was Alexander Mackendrick, who would move to the U.S. and there make the cynical The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The Lady Killers is pleasantly silly and entertaining enough to help you pass a rainy afternoon, but not much more than that.

(Revised August 2014)

November 8, 2011

"It" (1927) with Clara Bow (Film review)

One of the funniest silent films is undoubtedly It from 1927, helmed by Clarence Badger and an uncredited Josef von Sternberg, and starring Clara Bow as the resourceful  shop-girl who is the veritable personification of the "roaring twenties." I quite like "silent films," but a fact is that many of them are a sort of museum pieces, outdated stuff that we watch with a mix of polite academic interest and boredom. Not so with It: this is an amazingly entertaining film, a romantic comedy that sizzles in all its reels, and is still as fresh as when it was made - and that all thanks to the electrifying screen presence of Clara Bow.

But what is "IT?" Well, there once was a novelist called Elinor Glyn (1864 - 1943), who pioneered mass-market women's erotic fiction (you can find samples of her writing on Gutenberg, including Red Hair that was also filmed with Clara Bow). Today she is forgotten - and there is nothing scandalous about her books anymore - but in the 1920s Glyn was a popular author who also wrote scripts for Hollywood. That her novels were considered quite risky was expressed in the following doggerel: "Would you like to sin / With Elinor Glyn / On a tiger skin? / Or would you prefer / To err with her / On some other fur?" (from Wikipedia).

In her writings, Madame Glyn had famously coined the term "IT" for an elusive quality found in certain people, a sort of animalistic magnetism that attracts the opposite sex. Of course, "IT" simply was a round-about and inoffensive way to describe "sex appeal." By using the term, the film also shrewdly evaded the scissors of the censor.

Author Elinor Glyn plays a cameo in the film, in the scene set in the dining room of the Ritz, where she has the chance to explain "IT" herself: "a self-confidence and indifference to whether you are pleasing or not, and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold." The studio paid her $50,000 for the "IT" idea, but for the story they used a totally different script. They did enlist Glyn's help in promoting Clara Bow as "The IT Girl." And the vivacious, saucy and free-spirited Clara Bow truly has "IT" ("she is top heavy with "IT","as someone in the movie remarks) - the movie was made as a vehicle for Bow and it indeed boosted her Hollywood career.

At the beginning of the film, the concept of "IT" is enthusiastically explained to Cyrus Waltham Jr. (Antonio Moreno), heir to a department store emporium who has just succeeded in his father's footsteps, by his friend Monty Montgomery (an obviously homosexual William Austin, who does some rather weird things with his eyes). Monty proposes to look around in the store if any of the shop girls possesses this quality, but Cyrus has more important matters on his mind. When both men leave the store, the new, young boss Cyrus - a handsome millionaire - attracts the eyes of all shop girls, including Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow). Monty spots Betty and decides she is the only one among hundreds of female employees who has "IT." He arranges to meet her, and Betty talks him into taking her out for dinner at The Ritz - a ruse to see her boss Cyrus again, for she has overheard that he will be there with his fiancee. Dirt-poor Betty has no suitable evening dress, so in a very funny scene she just cuts up her everyday dress into a gown - giving her the chance to show some skin on the go - and it looks great!

At the dinner, Betty keeps casting meaningful glances at Cyrus. His high-society fiancee Adela (Jacqueline Gadsden) indeed is beautiful, but also boring - clearly not an "IT-girl." When the dinner has ended, Clara manages to have Monty introduce her to Cyrus, who admires her beauty. She makes a bet with him: next time they meet, he will not recognize her. This is of course exactly what happens the next day in the department store. Cyrus has to "pay" Betty by taking her out - and this time it is not The Ritz, but Coney Island, where they eat hot dogs and enjoy the rides (again a chance to show some leg), all quite a new experience for the rich boy. But when Cyrus tries to kiss her, he gets a slap in the face - she doesn't like "Minute Men" ("men who the minute they see a girl, think they may kiss her").

Betty is also kind-hearted and that almost upsets her scheme. Her sick friend Molly (Priscilla Bonner) is an unmarried mother and Betty allows her to stay with the infant in her apartment. When a meddlesome civic group threatens to take the child away as they deem Molly too ill to take proper care of it, Betty claims the child as her own. Because of the fracas, reporters have stormed in and also Monty happens to be there. So Betty's claim is reported in the papers and Monty informs Cyrus that his flame already has a baby...

Cyrus is shocked, and his ardor suddenly cools, even though Betty drapes herself over his desk, batting her eyelashes and sticking our her legs. She won't let him jilt her! With the help of Monty, who has something to make good, she plans a strategy that will play out on the yacht of Cyrus. I won't disclose the details, but in the final scene they embrace on the anchor of the boat (called the ITola), wet after an accident and full of "IT," while Monty and fiancee Adele conclude that they simple haven't got "IT."

Clara Bow (1905-1965) was a very dynamic actress who played sparkling and energetic heroines. She was the personification of the uninhibited and flirtatious flapper. In addition to being a great star, Bow was also America's first sex symbol and received 45,000 fan letters a month. But her light only shone briefly, chiefly because she had trouble making the shift to sound - indeed, she can do great things with her face and eyes, typical for silent pantomime. It is also rumored that she had a terrible Brooklyn accent (she had been born and raised in dire poverty, and had come to film thanks to winning a photo beauty contest), but that doesn't seem to have been the chief reason: she just didn't like "talkies." So Clara Bow retired in 1933 with her husband, cowboy star Rex Bell, to a ranch in Nevada and never came out of retirement again. Her best film is arguably It, but she also played an interesting role in the mediocre Wings (1927), where she eclipses all the other actors, only to be herself eclipsed by the aerial dogfights in the WWI film. For the rest, she seems to have been mainly cast in fluffy stuff. That makes It all the more precious.

(Revised August 2014)

November 6, 2011

"A Woman of Paris" (1923) by Chaplin (Film review)

A Woman of Paris (1923) is an a-typical Chaplin film, produced and directed by him, but without the figure of the tramp - Chaplin only plays a small cameo. It is an old-fashioned melodrama: country boy Jean (Carl Miller) and country girl Marie St. Clair (Edna Purviance) are in love with each other and as both parents are not very cooperative, they decide to run away to Paris. When Jean fails to meet Marie at the station she goes off alone to the City of Light, of which she has been dreaming all her life.

There she soon manages to become the mistress of a wealthy playboy, Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou), who keeps her in affluent circumstances (and presumably will continue to do that), but who is also set to marry another heiress. By chance Marie meets Jean again, who also has come to Paris and is trying to become a painter. She lets him do her portrait, but they are almost like strangers now. Jean explains he couldn't meet Marie at the station because his father has suddenly died. Now he lives with his mother (Lydia Knott), who strongly disapproves of Marie and her flashy call-girl life.

So they don't come much closer to each other, but Jean starts hating Marie's rich friend. He follows Marie and Pierre into a restaurant, and gets in a shuffle with Pierre before he can use the pistol he brought to kill him. Strong waiters remove him from the scene and he then kills himself outside.

Chaplin apparently made different endings of the film for the U.S. and European markets. For the U.S. he made a heavy-handed moralistic ending: Marie joins the mother of Jean in running a catholic orphanage in the countryside - Pierre passes her once by car, but they don't recognize each other. In the European version, she stays with Pierre. I saw the American version, but would prefer the lighter, European one. In America the film was a flop (viewers wanted Chaplin himself), but in Europe it was quite successful at the box-office.

I had read some reviews before seeing the film and was actually prepared for the worst. To my surprise, although rather unsubstantial, the film was entertaining and even now and then funny. It starts off a bit gloomy in the countryside, but the settings in Paris are lavish (Marie's dresses are great). It is fun to see the soap-bubble life Marie leads, and hear the banter she exchanges with two girlfriends who are of the same profession.

Once, when she quarrels with Pierre, Marie throws her pearl necklace out of the window, but when Pierre lets her know a tramp has picked it up, she runs into the street and snatches back her jewels. And when she says she dreams of children and a husband who respects her, Pierre points to a scene outside where two young parents are struggling with their fighting brats.

In fact, it is the character of Pierre, played by Adolphe Menjou,  that brings so much light to the film. He is a suave, somewhat older playboy, always with a small laugh on his face as if he is constantly experiencing something funny. And he is by far the best actor in the film - Edna Purviance is unfortunately no Greta Garbo and even no Clara Bow.

[Revised February 2015]

November 4, 2011

"Marnie" (1964) by Hitchcock (Film review)

Marnie Edgar (Tippie Hedren) is one of Hitchcock's typical heroines: a lovely, cool blonde, looking very proper, but hiding a psychological scar that entices her to criminal conduct. She is afraid of the color red, thunderstorms, and above all, she harbors an unnatural fear and mistrust of men. She is also a thief and habitual liar. She works secretarial jobs and after a few months robs the company and disappears. Then she tries the same thing in another city, with a false social security card for a new identity.

Publisher Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) knows what Marnie is up to, for by chance he has seen her in action at her previous employer. But he hires her when she comes to him for a job. Not only that, he is so smitten with her that he tries to help her confront her psychological problems and overcome them. Instead of calling the police when she tries to steal money, he forces her to marry him.

Unexpectedly, this is also a form of punishment for Marnie for she can't stand to have a man touch her. The honeymoon is a disaster and Marnie is shocked enough to attempt suicide.

Mark then investigates her past with the help of a private detective, thinks he has found the cause of her problems and together with Marnie visits her mother. There he helps her bring out her repressed memories: her mother was a prostitute, who once - during a thunderstorm - was attacked by a customer; small Marnie tried to save her mother by hitting the man with a poker, accidentally killing him. And, apparently, in this way he sets her on the path to healing.

Marnie is clearly not one of Hitchcock's strongest efforts. It came after the glorious sequence of Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) and in contrast to those films, which are all fresh and new, seems a rehash of old themes, such as those from Spellbound and Vertigo. Suddenly, in Marnie Hitchcock's heavy psychologizing looks very old-fashioned. What works in a film from 1945, is a piece of antiquated junk twenty years later.

Today, nobody believes in these easy psychological explanations of repressed human beings. We known humans are more complex than that. Freud, still riding strong in Hitchcock's time, is today completely out. Therefore the mechanism of the film has lost its spring. The story has become rather unconvincing.

There are other things that grate today, so as the easily recognizable back projection whenever the characters ride in a car, or when Marnie rides her horse. This looks like a cheap B-movie, as do the obvious matte paintings - although the image of a huge ship's hull almost entering the narrow street where Marnie's mother lives, is "aptly Freudian" (quoting the film's ideology).

Connery gives a solid performance, although any moment you expect him to ask for a dry martini - these were the years of Dr. No and Goldfinger. Hedren has been called too weak as an actress to carry the weight of this psychological drama on her slim shoulders, but I felt she has the right tone, indeed prim and frigid, but also frightened. Hitchcock was such a strong director that he could make his actors and actresses do anything he needed on screen. If necessary he would grab their face and mold it with his hands into the expression he wanted!

P.S. Hitchcock's cameo: 5 minutes into the film, in the hotel corridor when Marnie walks by.

"The Great Dictator" (1940) by Chaplin (Film review)

The Great Dictator (1940), a satire on Nazi Germany, was Chaplin's greatest commercial success, but it has aged badly. There are only a few really funny scenes, the whole hangs badly together, and - most of all - the Nazi's perpetrated such terrible crimes that it now seems irresponsible to turn them into buffoons. That is of course hindsight, but history is history.

That Chaplin had the same piece of dirt (some call it a mustache) below his nose as Hitler, had of course been noted and Chaplin uses the "resemblance" in this film. He plays both dictator "Adenoid Hynkel" and his double, a poor Jewish barber, who suffers from amnesia because of WWI and when he finally returns home finds the ghetto were he used to live the hunting ground of Nazi bullies. The film intercuts between the persecuted barber and the ego-maniacal Hynkel and only brings these two strands together in the last 15 minutes when the film finally  becomes the expected "mistaken identity" tale.

Some funny scenes are the ballet between Hynkel and a balloon globe, or the competition between Hynkel and "Benzino Napaloni" aka Mussolini, played by Jack Oakie in a very strong performance (such as cranking up their barber's chairs when they have a shave together, to sit higher than the other). The scenes where Chaplin plays the Jewish barber are much less interesting due to their mawkishness, although we have Paulette  Goddard as Chaplin's girlfriend. The best sequence is a syncopated shave Chaplin gives a customer to the tune of one of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms, all in one take.

But other scenes in my view go wrong. For example, while  Chaplin enacts a good copy of Hitler's speech mannerisms, by using only silly German words like "Schnitzel" and "Sauerkraut" he turns the threatening figure of the dictator too much into a lightweight fun character.

As has often been noted, the weakest spot of the film is its ending. Chaplin, speaking as the Jewish barber who is impersonating Hynkel, suddenly becomes Chaplin himself and holds an impassioned plea to end tyranny, obviously forgetting that satire is a sharper weapon than mere sermonizing. If direct address would be sufficient, film (art) would not be necessary anymore.

Concluding: on the positive side, Chaplin in this film had the courage and the foresight to attack the Nazi's, but on the negative side they turned out to be real evil and evil is not something to lampoon. In the end, The Great Dictator is too soft to fit the crime.

November 3, 2011

"The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1933) by Frank Capra (Film review)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a rarity in the work of director Frank Capra due to its war violence and exotic location. It is also a rather "artsy" film for the populist director. Due to the theme of love between a white woman and a Chinese man, which 1933 audiences in the U.S. could not stomach - women's clubs actually campaigned against the film (something so weird seen from today's perspective it is almost unbelievable - civilization and human feeling do indeed advance) - it flopped at the box office. Reviving it proved a hard task as prejudices took long to dwindle and today it has another problem: it is a film about China without any of the major actors being Chinese.

But it is quite an interesting story. American Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) arrives in Shanghai where civil war is raging to marry her missionary friend Robert Strife. Robert takes her immediately on a rescue mission of an orphanage in a war engulfed section of the city. In the tumult they are separated and Megan is captured by General Yen (Swedish actor Nils Asther) and brought by train to his palace.

The general develops a weak spot for the white lady, but he is a real gentleman and never bothers her. Fired by missionary zeal, from her side she tries to convert the "infidel," but gradually also begins to dress in Chinese gowns and harbor tender return feelings for the courtly and wise man. In one of the most striking sequences of the film, she even dreams about him.

The gentlemanly General is indeed a great contrast to his Western adviser, a Mr Jones (Walter Connolly), who is the typical capitalist, colonial money grabber without a shred of morality. This Westerner is the exact opposite of a gentleman.

Megan uses her influence on the General to have him pardon his mistress Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), who is accused of betraying military secrets to the enemy. Yen grants the request of the naive Megan and spares Mah-Li's life. That will be his undoing, for Mah-Li continues her double doings with as result that an enemy attack on general Yen's troops succeeds. The war tide turns against the General who now has only one option: to drink poisoned tea. His love has become his nemesis.

The most interesting point of this film is that it shows not only how ineffective the Christian mission in China was, but also how it backfired (said with all respect for those who dedicated their lives to it, among whom were also the first serious scholars of Chinese culture). That comes out in two ways. In the first place, at the beginning of the film one missionary tells about his experiences in the Chinese countryside. The Chinese there were extremely interested in the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, so the "Man of God" was happy and full of hope to win countless converts. The locals kept asking for details of the story! But when he later returned to the same village he saw that he had been crying victory too soon. Crucifixion had become the major punishment for crimes! Apparently the always so practical Chinese had only been interested in the Bible to get some useful information about a new form of punishment...

The second and more important example is the film itself, where Megan Davis is led astray by her Christian compassion and has the General spare a dangerous enemy. Her good-willing interference is not based on any knowledge of Chinese culture and therefore has the opposite effect. This, one could say, is what went wrong in general with Western influence in China - and still goes wrong today when the West meddles in other cultures without taking the trouble to first understand them.

Stanwyck is more prim than usual, but the Chinese gowns look great on her. The sets are lavish, although not without mistakes, as I suppose Chinese in the 1930s would not put Buddha statues in their homes (for Chinese, these belonged in temples, not in homes - Western art collectors were the ones to treat Buddhas on the same level as other antiquities). Nils Asther does a great job as General Yen, he even manages to hold his own against Barbara Stanwyck, which is no mean feat. But it is true, he is not Chinese and today that grates on our sensibility.

November 2, 2011

"All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) (Film review)

It would be good if anti-war films really could prevent wars. But no, when All Quiet on the Western Front was made about WWI, which had just ended 12 years before, Europe's nations were already gearing up for a second round which would break out in less than 10 year's time (those wars together killed 60 million people; in the first half of the 20th century "cultured" Europe was in fact the most murderous place the world has ever known). In many countries this film was forbidden until far in the sixties, as if authorities were afraid of its message.

That problem didn't exist in 1914. War was greeted with enthusiasm everywhere in Europe, people danced in the streets for joy: it meant being free from school or factory labor. War was seen as a holiday of a couple of weeks, at most months. Fun to hold a gun! But Europe's youth was in for a nasty surprise: four long years they would be suffering hell in muddy trenches, exposed to constant fire of cannon and grenades. The military tactics were still from the 19th century (storming the position of the opponent), but the weapons were so terrible that these antiquated strategies only meant total carnage (as already experienced in the American Civil War, and the war of 1905 between Japan and Russia in North-eastern China). Between 1914 and 1918, in Europe, a whole generation of young men was wiped out, starting the glide towards lesser relevance of the continent in the world.

All Quiet on the Western Front is based on German author Erich Remarque’s novel of the same name and was made in 1930 in Hollywood by director Lewis Milestone. The muddy fields of northern France were recreated in the outskirts of Los Angeles and thanks to the help of war veterans the film manages to be very realistic in the war scenes. The story follows a group of young men, Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) and his friends Kropp, Leer, and Kemmerick, as they allow themselves to be urged by their jingoistic teacher to quit school and go as volunteers to the front. They get their first negative experience at boot camp where the previously so modest janitor of their school now acts as sadistic sergeant.

When they arrive at the front, the real horror show starts:
  • there is a severe shortage of supplies, especially food;
  • on their first mission, to string barbed wire, one of the boys is blinded by shell fire and then killed as he mistakenly runs towards the enemy lines;
  • the soldiers have to cope with an invasion by rats;
  • many suffer from sleeplessness and homesickness and have nervous breakdowns;
  • there are endlessly long days of continued bombing and machine gun fire from the enemy side;
  • when they get out of the trenches and storm each other's lines, Milestone shows with crane shots how the soldiers fall like dominoes and how thousands of dead bodies lie in the mud - but as the battle lines go back and forth, at the end of the day both sides are still stuck in the same trenches - proving how pointless this war is;
  • we see how a soldier is blown to smithereens by a grenade, only his hands are left gripping barbed wire;
  • when Paul has killed a French soldier he watches the painful agony of the dying man and feels deeply sorry, the more so when he also finds photos of the man's wife and children in his pocket;
  • the soldiers experience a growing sense of futility; when Paul returns home on leave and is asked to give a speech at his old school, he tells the truth about life in the trenches, and therefore is called a coward by the people in his hometown.
I almost desperately wanted to love this film, for it has an important message. But despite the realism of the battle scenes, I felt the film as a whole was too stiff and old-fashioned. The actors are remarkably inept, almost on the level of an amateur theater society. As a viewer, I could not feel involved in the story nor in the characters.

But the end was impressive: in the last days of the war, Paul is killed by an enemy sniper when he reaches out of the trenches to look at a butterfly. Then we see a field with crosses and a ghostly march of the dead, looking full of reproach at us, the viewers...

October 30, 2011

"The Earrings of Madame de ..." (1953) by Max Ophuls (Film review)

We only get to hear the first name of the heroine of The Earrings of Madame De - her last name is withheld with a wink. Louise has been indiscreet and as is the case with offenders whose names are withheld in the papers, Ophuls replaces her last name as it were with a few dots or a dash. For he is going to tell a story of infidelity and appearances.

Comtesse Louise, Madame de ... (Danielle Darrieux, who also appeared in La Ronde), is a rather spoiled child-woman (just look at her clothes and jewels, when she opens her treasure-filled cupboards at the start of the film), married to a much older general (Charles Boyer). Recently, Louise has been shopping so heavily that she has to sell some valuables in order to pay off her debts and avoid a scandal. She picks the earrings her husband gave her as a wedding present - something which is indicative of the cold relations of the pair - they sleep in different bedrooms so far away from each other that they have to shout to say goodnight. 

The General is a typical bourgeois, to whom appearance is everything. The irony is that when Louise pretends to have lost her earrings to explain their absence, this creates such a lot of commotion - the general himself looking for them all over the opera house they are visiting - that it becomes a small scandal after all, even noted by the papers. This alerts the jeweler (Louise has sold the earrings back to the original jeweler from which her husband bought them). The jeweler visits the General and he, again to avoid further scandals, buys back the earrings to keep the whole affair quiet. 

To be rid of the jewels, the General gives them as a farewell present to his mistress who is just then leaving for Constantinople (against her will, probably packed off by the General to avoid a scandal?). The General hopes he will never see the earrings anymore, but he is wrong... 

Via-via the jewels fall into the hands of an Italian baron, Fabrizio Donati (played by Neorealist director Vittorio De Sica), who comes as Ambassador to Vienna. As they move in the same circles, he meets the General and his wife (he has by chance already seen Louise on two occasions and become interested in the beautiful woman). He falls in love with Louise as they dance endless waltzes in glittering ballrooms, where the swirling camera of Ophuls waltzes around them. A whole courtship told in a dance. "They're seen everywhere, because they can't meet anywhere." By showing various balls in rapid succession, Ophuls gives a beautiful visualization of the passage of time. Finally, the Baron presents the earrings which he found in a shop in Constantinopel to Louise, who recognizes them, of course, but does not inform the Baron about their background. Instead, she now treasures them as a memento from her admirer and token of their clandestine romance.

The feelings Louise and the Baron have for each other are giving rise to a small scandal and so the General is alerted. Louise has a weak heart and therefore is prone to fainting spells, but one such spell (when the Baron on a hunt has fallen from his horse) just lasts longer than usual and therefore attracts attention from gossipy society. The General in fact doesn't mind if his wife flirts a bit (he is quite a philanderer himself), but scandals should be avoided at all cost. The code permits sex, but not love.

The General tells the truth of the earrings to the Baron ("It is incompatible with your dignity, and mine, for my wife to accept a gift of such value from you"). The Baron experiences this as a cold shower and is cured of his love for Louise - he is deeply hurt as Louise has never taken him into her confidence about the story behind the jewels.

Louise is inconsolable and although the General is very attentive to her and tries to nurse her back to health, she is blind to the love her husband now discovers he in fact feels for her. As the General tells her, their marriage is "only superficially superficial," - although they have fallen into formal roles towards each other, he loves her and has been patient with her, enduring misery. But she is too selfish to realize this...

In the finale, the General challenges the Baron to a duel. Louise follows them into the woods to stop the fight. One shot rings out - that of the General, but the second shot, which would be coming from the Baron, never sounds and she collapses in agony, victim to her heart condition. The evening before, she has donated her earrings to the local church. 

More than this resume can show, this is one of the greatest films of all time. Ophuls is just as inventive a director as Welles and he loves large sweeping camera movements and long takes like Renoir and Mizoguchi. See only the sweeping take when Louise enters the jeweler's shop, or even more so, her first visit to church - not to speak about the incredible dancing scenes. Or, on a different note, the scene where Louise is on a forced trip to the Italian lakes and sits day after day writing letters to her lover, only to confess later to him that she lacked the courage to mail her letters - we see those letters, torn into shreds, dancing in the air, and then turning into the snow falling in the next scene. A tragedy Ophuls would make only one more film after this (Lola Montes) and die at the young age of 55.

That The Earrings of Madame de... has never been accorded the rank it deserves (why is a film about a gangster family - of all subjects - so often put as No.1?), perhaps because he was regarded as a director of "women's films." But that should be irrelevant in our more enlightened times. After all, Japanese directors as Ozu and Mizoguchi are also awarded first rank status, so it is time to give Ophuls the dues he deserves. The Earrings of Madame De... sets out as a simple comedy of errors but goes on to plumb surprising depths. More than that, like all great directors, in the visual compass of film, Ophuls manages to make life's inexorable flow almost tangible which leaves us as viewers a bit sadder, a bit wiser.
Available from Criterion

"Body Double" (1984) by Brian De Palma (Film review)

A rip-off or a riff? A copy or a homage? Of course, this delightful  thriller-cum-satirical comedy belongs squarely in the second group: it is a conscious play with Hitchcockian conventions and an ode to the famous films of the great master (such as Vertigo, Rear Window, and Dial M for Murder). It is also a satire on genre film, such as cheap horror movies.

Body Double is about claustrophobic Jake Scully (B-actor Craig Wasson), a vampire film actor who has just been exposed to the double disaster of being fired and finding his girlfriend in bed with another guy. Scully needs a place to stay (the flat belonged to his girlfriend) and gratefully accepts the chance to house-sit a spectacular place in the Hollywood Hills (in reality Chemosphere on Torreyson Drive, just off Mullholland Drive, in Los Angeles). The owner is away in Europe and the current house-sitter, fellow actor Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry), has to leave town for a couple of weeks. Sam shows Scully the bonus of this place: via a telescope on the balcony, one can see into the open window of a bedroom where gorgeous neighbor Gloria Revelle (1970 Miss America Deborah Shelton) performs nightly stripteases.

Scully is so enthusiastic about what he has seen through the telescope, that the next day he follows the woman in his car to a shopping mall and then to the beach. But Scully soon realizes that he is not the only stalker... she is also being followed by a mysterious Indian with a disfigured face.

Indeed, the next night through his telescope he sees the Indian murder her with a power drill and is too late on the scene to rescue her. Scully is plunged into the chaos of a bizarre murder mystery and seeks help from porn queen Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), who seems to hold the key to finding the killer (Scully has noticed that she uses the same dance routine as the victim).

Here are some examples of how De Palma pays homage to Hitchcock:
- At the start of the film, Jake Scully is overcome by claustrophobia when filming a scene in a coffin (and later at crucial moments this claustrophobia will return), just like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo suffered from dizziness.
- The spying scenes with the telescope call Rear Window to mind.
- Instead of Stewart stalking Kim Novak, here Scully stalks Deborah Shelton in a mall.
- Instead of Hitchcock's camera circling Novak and Stewart, here De Palma's camera waltzes around Scully and Shelton when they embrace on the beach.
- Melanie Griffith (who gives one of her best performances in this film) is the daughter of Tippi Hedren, who played in Hitchcock's Birds and Marnie. Her hairstyle is the "platinum blonde" favored by Hitchcock.

De Palma's camera movements are beautiful, such as a twenty  minutes long, dialog-free pursuit sequence and he uses iconic Los Angeles locations. This is a great film, but also a rather sleazy one, so critical opinion was against De Palma when the film came out. But Roger Ebert praised the movie, giving it three and a half out of four stars. In fact, the film developed a dedicated cult following, and is still going strong today - which is right, because it is really full of tongue-in-cheek humor.

October 29, 2011

"Smiles of a Summer Night" (1955) by Ingmar Bergman (Film review)

Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommernattens leende) is a comedy made in 1955 by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. It was his first international success. The film is a costume drama set around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This romantic comedy of errors brings on the following characters:
- Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand), a middle-aged lawyer, married for the second time after the death of his first wife;
- Anne, his young wife (Ulla Jacobsson), in fact a mismatch with the much older man (Fontane's Effi Briest comes to mind - see my post about this novel), who refuses to consummate the marriage and is rather unhappy;
- Henrik (Björn Bjelvenstam), Egerman's son from his first marriage, who is studying theology, but more interested in the immediate charms of the maid Petra than in the rewards of Heaven - and to further complicate things, Petra is meant as a substitute for his impossible love for his "mother" Anne;
- Desiree Armfeldt, a middle-aged actress (Eva Dahlbeck) and a smart and strong woman, who once had an affair with Egerman - and they still harbor tender feelings for each other;
- Desiree's mother, a retired courtesan living in a huge country house where all characters are invited in the second half of the film to celebrate the long summer night;
- Count Malcolm, a rather aggressive and cocky military man, the present lover of Desiree, but one who is about to get the boot;
- His wife Charlotte, a friend of Anne, who wants her husband to desist from his amorous expeditions and come back to her;
- Petra (Harriet Andersson), the bosomy maid of the Egermans;
- Frid, the groom of the elderly Mrs Armfeldt.

This list of characters already suggests what the story is like, I don't think I have to add anything to that!

Although this is a comedy, it is no light screwball affair and all characters are fully rounded out as realistic human beings. It is also a film rather heavy with dialogue - after all, Bergman originally was a script writer and director for the theater - and there is also a certain Protestant "squareness." But in the end, after various trysts and follies on the long night of the summer solstice, all find their proper mates - setting right the obvious imbalance in the life of Fredrik Egerman.
Smiles of a Summer Night is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

October 26, 2011

"Flesh and the Devil" (1926) with Greta Garbo (Film review)

Flesh and the Devil (1926) is a strange film. It is an early Hollywood product, silent, with a story that reeks musty of the nineteenth century, but the film is worth watching thanks to the presence of a young Greta Garbo and a few spots of inspiration of director Clarence Brown.

It is the story of two life long friends, Leo (John Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hanson), who start the film off on a giggly note when they play a prank in their military garrison. Leo is a commoner, but Ulrich is a rich aristocrat. There is a never directly stated, but for modern viewers unmistakable homo-erotic subtext to their friendship. But home, on leave from their military training, Leo sees the gorgeous Felicitas (Greta Garbo) at the railroad station. Smitten with her beauty, he seeks her out at a ball and retires with her into the garden for some private quality time.

Next we find him in her room, languid after a long embrace, and who comes in but her husband Count von Rhaden - she had conveniently neglected to inform Leo about the existence of a husband. This leads to a duel: the count is killed. The military authorities are not pleased and pack Leo off to Africa. Leo asks his friend Ulrich to take care of Felicitas, now a widow, without telling him about his relation with her (to the outside world, the duel was about cards).

After three years, Leo is allowed to return home and what does he find? Felicitas is married to his friend Ulrich! This of course creates a distance between the two bosom friends - Leo never informs Ulrich about his feelings for Felicitas. But the scheming woman now starts playing with Leo like a cat with a mouse... he becomes her lover again... which leads to a big quarrel between the two friends.

But all is well in the end, for the evil woman is swallowed by the icy lake she is traversing to stop a duel between them, while Leo and Ulrich reconcile and reaffirm their friendship. They are so busy looking in each other's eyes, that they miss seeing Felicitas, crying for help, dying lonely... the sinister woman who disturbed their pure friendship is no more...

Or at least, that seems to be what the film wants to tell us. This is all ultimate camp, but still interesting is how Greta Garbo plays the temptress who catches Leo in a web of sex and lies. Garbo has never looked more sexy than when she sits trying on her widow's weeds and dark veil. Or take the garden scene, where she lights a match for Leo's cigarette (he is too nervous to do it himself) and the flame reveals her beguiling features.

Interesting instances of cinematic art are the focus on the clenched fist of the husband when he throws open the door to the boudoir where Felicitas is having her tryst with Leo, and the duel sequence done entirely in silhouettes, like a shadow play. It is a pity that so much else in the film (including the story) is either dated or plain silly.

October 25, 2011

"Amélie" (Film review)

Amélie (original French title: Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain aka The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain) took France by storm when it came out in 2001 and I was eager to see this film about which I had heard such a lot of good things. Well, it was a big let-down, as the director Jean-Pierre Jeunet just drenches his audience in false cliches and stereotypes. Amélie is as fake as the unrealistic colors and cheap TV-commercial-type effects with which it has been filmed, as if by the lavish use of color filters the director could force it to become a real fairy tale.

Amélie tells the story of a shy, young woman (Audrey Tautou), working as waitress in a Montmartre cafe, who unloved as a child, gradually opens herself to the world around her, spreading good influence to others. This is shown in various episodes: kindling a romance between the hypochondriac, chronically sick middle-aged tobacco lady of the cafe where Amélie works and a customer; faking a letter to convince the unhappy concierge of her building that the husband who abandoned her and later died in South America in fact did love her; and supporting Lucien, the mentally-challenged assistant of the locally greengrocer, who is being bullied by his boss.

The problem is that these people are just grotesque - as are others in the film, like the painter with the brittle bones who never leaves his room and continually sits copying Renoir, or the boyfriend Amélie finally finds, who has the weird hobby of collecting torn-up photos from the booths in the station where automatic pass-photo's can be taken.

The film is full of oddities, for example when people are introduced we get a voice-over telling us about their likes and dislikes and invariably these are weird things like unpacking a toolkit and packing it again, hating shriveled skin on the fingers when taking a hot bath etc. It is all so irrelevant...

The Paris of the film is even worse than grotesque, it is a never-never-land. We get cosy Montmartre street scenes from the fifties (even then non-existent), as if we were back in An American in Paris. Multicultural Paris has been sanitized and is presented as a city (or rather, village) where only native French live together in good harmony. Of course, this film is a fairy tale, but your dreams tell on you.

As the film rolled on, I got not only fed up with the silly cutesy story and the reactionary image of Paris, but also with the snug reds and greens, the tiring TV-commercial effects (like showing a beating heart under Amelie's sweater when she was excited), and the unnecessary zooms and tracking shots probably intended to keep the PlayStation generation awake.

October 24, 2011

"Peeping Tom" (1960) by Michael Powell (Film review)

Peeping Tom (1960), a film about a voyeuristic serial killer, was so savagely criticized after it came out, that it meant the end of the career of British director Michael Powell. Since then, opinion has made a complete turn around and today Peeping Tom is considered a masterpiece, one of the top 100 British films.

As Peeping Tom is rather tame compared to what we are exposed to nowadays, it is difficult to understand what caused such vitriolic comments in 1960. This was also the year that Hitchcock's Psycho came out, a film with much more shocking scenes. Perhaps it was just the fact that Peeping Tom was made by Powell, the director of The Red Shoesa sort of family film, while people were expecting shocking reels from Hitchcock who had already addressed voyeurism in The Rear Window.

Mark Lewis (an amazing portrayal by the German actor Carl Boehm) is a lonely and introverted young man. He works as assistant cameraman in a film studio and as a side job provides naughty pictures to the local newsagent, who doubles as under the counter porno provider. His hobby is film making, he constantly carries a hand camera around with him. Soon we learn the sinister use he makes of this camera: he accompanies a hooker to her room and kills her, while filming the fear registered on her face. Lewis' weapon is a sharpened metal stake made from a tripod leg and he has a mirror attached to the camera so that the victim can see her own contorted features. His ongoing project is a "documentary on fear."

We later learn why: as a child Mark was abused by his father, a psychologist who studied fear and used his own son as a guinea pig. Mark has been scarred for life, although it would be too easy to explain all his actions from this background. Mark is befriended by Helen (Anna Massey), a sweet-natured young woman living downstairs in the same lodging house, who feels pity for this loner. Mark commits two more murders, a stand-in actress (a great sequence played by Moira Shearer) and a photo model, but he tries hard not to hurt Helen. It is Helen's blind mother, by the way, who sees through his real nature. In the end, when the police storm the lodging house, Mark commits suicide with the tripod leg that served him as murder weapon.

There are three aspects that may have angered 1960's audiences. In the first place that the film shows pornography for what it is: sordid, but common - there is a rather mean scene of an elderly gentlemen stealthily buying Mark's photo's at the news agent and carrying them home in an envelope marked "educational materials."

The second is that the film turns us all into voyeurs. Not only because we watch the murders through the view finder of Mark's camera, putting us in the position of the killer. The larger implication is that watching films in itself is a sort of voyeuristic act. Doesn't the white screen allow us to see other people in their most intimate moments, often in close-ups suggesting we are skin-to-skin with them? And doesn't it let us calmly watch things one shouldn't watch - murder for example?

And the third one is that Mark is such a nice guy (in contrast to the nervous Norman Bates from Psycho, who clearly had some loose screws). He is rather shy, but also quiet and polite. This despicable criminal in fact looks like the ideal son-in-law. Today we know from the news that many of the cruelest murderers are exactly such seemingly nice quiet young men, but in 1960 people preferred to keep their illusions.

Is Peeping Tom still an interesting film? Yes and no. For those used to stronger fare, there is not really much suspense - we know from the start who the killer is, the only questions are who will become his victims and how he will be caught. The psychologizing is much too heavy and would be mercifully skipped in a contemporary film. On the positive side, the film is well acted and has some nice sequences, without being devoid of humor. And it is good to see the late fifties in such beautiful colors.
Peeping Tom has been brought out by Criterion

October 23, 2011

"Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949) by Robert Hamer (Film review)

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a delicious 1949 British black comedy from the Ealing Studios directed by Robert Hamer. It is different from other Ealing products in being ironic and witty rather than complacent and cozy. The film can even be called amoral as it roots for a calculating serial killer who seems to be getting away scot-free. The title is a reference to a poem by Tennyson:
"Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood."
Dennis Price plays a penniless young man, Louis Mazzini, ninth in line to inherit the D'Ascoyne dukedom, who systematically sets about murdering the eight who stand between him and his title. By "chopping down the family tree" he wants to revenge his mother who was rejected by the aristocratic family for marrying an opera singer. "The eight" - among whom are a banker, a clergyman, an amateur photographer, a suffragette, a general and the duke himself - are all played brilliantly by Alec Guinness.

Price is impeccable as aristocratic murderer: genteel and well-spoken. He systematically moves up the ladder from draper's assistant to partner in a bank, while eliminating all the heirs that stand between him and the title of Duke. The killings are done in a most enjoyable way. Instead of the eternal selfsame gunshot, we have murder by poison, by explosives, by cutting loose the victim's boat so that it is swept over a waterfall, and by shooting an arrow in a hot air balloon, to name a few. The victim in the boat was secretly spending a weekend with his mistress, and Louis observes: "I was sorry about the girl, but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death." Price, the murderer, is so sympathetic that we find ourselves wholly on his side.

Well, Price/Louis indeed succeeds in becoming Duke, but at the start of the film we find him in prison... his youth friend Sybilla (played languorously and petulantly by Joan Greenwood) has tripped him up: because Louis was too poor, she married a common friend, Lionel, but soon became Louis' mistress. But she gets jealous when Louis tries to marry his way upward into the family tree with Edith D'Ascoyne. She therefore frames Louis for the death of Lionel (in reality a suicide) and that is how the so successful murderer ends up in prison after all... ironically for the only murder he didn't commit!

Louis has received the death sentence and expects to be hanged the next morning, so he now sits in his prison cell writing his memoirs. That is how we see the film, as a large flashback with extensive voice-overs by Louis (who said voice-overs are no good? They work to perfection in this film!). Happily, at the last moment Sybilla relents so that the verdict is reversed. Louis is released and finds both Sybilla and Edith waiting for him outside the prison gates. Just as he stands hesitating in whose carriage to ride, he remembers something terrible: he has left his memoirs, a virtual confession, on the table of his cell... will he get away again? We can only guess, because this is where the film ends.

This is a wonderful film, with great English humor, understated, dry and detached. The dialogues are sparkling, the English used in this film is lively and varied.

The film was also clearly made when Britain still was a strict class society. It is a sustained attack on that type of society, on conventional morals and on the institute of the family. There are no deeper layers besides that, but its humorous atttitude will definitely put you in a good mood!
This film is available from Criterion.

October 22, 2011

"The Good Soldier" by Ford Madox Ford (Book Review)

The Good Soldier (1915) is not a war tale, as I first thought on the basis of the title, but the story of the tragic lives of two outwardly "perfect couples." It is a story about adultery and deceit and finally about how people can destroy each other. It is also the ultimate novel with an unreliable narrator.

There are two kinds of unreliable narrators, those who cheat on purpose, and those who do not see the truth themselves. John Dowell, who tells the story of "the good soldier", belongs in the last group. He first gives us the story in flashbacks from the outside, seen through his rather naive eyes. Gradually, as his knowledge grows, we penetrate into the heart of this sad story and see events in their true colors.

The novel is set in the decade just before WWI. John Dowell is a rich American from an old Philidelphia family, idle but well-meaning, who has married the beautiful but empty-headed Florence on a strange condition: that he never enters her bedroom! She claims she has a heart problem and any excitement could be fatal so the marriage should remain sexless. An added condition is that he take her to Europe. So they rent an apartment in Paris and spend the summers in a German spa, Nauheim, where she cures for her heart. John is his wife's nurse (and financier) rather than her husband.

In Germany they meet a British couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham and they soon become fast friends. Here the husband, Edward, has the heart problem prompting them to leave their English country house every summer for the German spa's. Although the Ashburnhams are perfectly polite to each other in public, in private they never exchange a word. The husband, the owner of a large estate, has been a military man, although now retired, and as he is the main focus of the story, the novel has been named after him "the good soldier."

Edward has another "heart problem" as well : he is a great philanderer. He can't keep his hands off other women and that is the reason his relations with Leonora are so cold. His women also have cost him a lot of money, so now Leonora - the daughter of impoverished Irish gentry - handles all financial affairs.

It is only after the death of Florence that John learns Edward and Florence have been lovers, for a full nine years, right under his unseeing eyes. He has been squarely cuckolded and learns that in reality Florence had no heart problems at all, she just wanted to keep him away so that she could carry on with various lovers. Her death was in fact a suicide, brought on because these events came out. Interestingly, John never blames Edward.

Later he visits Edward and Leonora in England, where he witnesses another tragedy. After Florence, Edward has fallen in love with Nancy, his young ward. He fights against this affection, but Leonora coldly plays them out against each other. When Nancy leaves him, Edward commits suicide, thereby ending the story. The bad heart of Edward was of course also a lie - but despite his failings, Edward is seen by the narrator as an unselfish and warm personality, with as only short-coming his sentimentality, which made him fall in love all the time.

The perspective of the story keeps changing in an ingenious way. We start with the focus on John and Florence, after that Leonora for a while takes center stage, but the final focus is on the real protagonist, Edward, the good soldier. The shift in focus is accompanied by a shift in knowledge, as John gradually realizes the truth.
Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) was the grandson of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. His real name was Ford Hermann Hueffer. Born in the U.K.. he also lived in various European countries and in the U.S. The Good Soldier is generally considered as his best novel. Another important novel is the his tetralogy Parade's End (1924–1928), set in England and on the Western Front before, during and after World War I. Ford Madox Ford was also an important critic and helped many other writers in their first steps towards fame.
The Good Soldier is available as a Penguin Modern Classic, and can also be found at Gutenberg

October 21, 2011

"Brief Encounter" (1946) by David Lean (Film review)

A married woman (Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson) goes each Thursday by train into town for shopping and seeing friends. In the waiting room of the station in town she meets a man, an unmarried doctor (Trevor Howard as Dr Alec Harvey) as she will learn later. They strike up a conversation. They start meeting on Thursdays, for lunch, to see a film together, then for a drive in the countryside. They fall in love and start searching for a place where they can be in private. But she is being torn apart between the attachment to her family (her children rather then her boring husband) and the rules of society on the one hand (this is 1946!) and her feelings of newly found love on the other hand. She feels as if being engulfed in chaos, although so far they have only exchanged a furtive kiss. They decide not to meet anymore and the doctor takes up a position in South Africa. Their last goodbye in the waiting room is disturbed when a loquacious friend of the woman joins them.

What could be a more sugary chick-flick than such a story? I started watching with some trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised: the film is not sentimental at all. Brief Encounter was in fact rather "Japanese" (Ozu-like) with its understated feelings (although there are verbal declarations of love, which in the Japan of the 40s or 50s would not have happened) and the dignified decision of the protagonists not to meet again. It is all about restraint - of course, England is like Japan another island country known for its stiff upper lip. Falling deeply in love, and then to agree not to meet again in order not to destroy one's family... who in our hungry ego-tripping time where people throw away marriages like old socks, would be able to show such self-control?

There is another reason why I liked this film: it is full of trains. David lean has expertly composed the film around the waiting room at Milford Junction, where the couple has their first meeting and where they see each other every week; the platform where both have to run for their train; the express hurtling past, giving the woman after the separation a brief thought of suicide; and the great steam locomotives and beautiful train compartments carrying them home. But the waiting room is the center of the film and most important scenes take place here. There is a counter selling tea with cakes and chocolate, in real life refreshments the British at the end of the war could only dream of. On the other hand, 1946 was a time that waiting rooms in stations were still clean and decent places...

Milford Junction was really Carnforth Station, in the Lake District, selected by director David Lean because he wanted to be safe  from the German V2s - the film was made in the first months of 1945 when the war was still raging. Filming could only take place when local trains were not running and actors and crew spent a lot of time waiting in the bitterly cold weather - which may have helped to create some of the film's atmosphere.

The music used in the film is Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 - Laura also listens to this romantic concerto when, still full of emotions, she returns home after her trysts. Celia Johnson only appeared in a small number of films - she mainly worked for the stage and enjoyed a happy marriage to Peter Fleming, brother of James Bond creator Ian. With her expressive, vulnerable face she is perfect for the role of Laura in Brief Encounter.
Available in the Criterion Collection