The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

100And just when I thought I was finished with film noir for the moment, Olive Films goes and puts Lady from Shanghai out on blu-ray. I’d never really had the opportunity to see it before, although I had seen the same three minutes as everybody else: the climax in the hall of mirrors that is justly held up as a masterpiece of cinema.

ladyfromshanghai_1948_mp_40by60But there’s a problem with finally seeing a movie when you’ve been exposed to its peak moment for years (nay, decades), which goes hand-in-hand with a very sad realization: when you are watching any of Orson Welles’ studio-backed pictures you are inevitably watching damaged goods.

Studio interference with The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil is legendary, but it wasn’t until I started digging into Shanghai that I began to be aware of that tale of woe. Welles liked to tell the story of how Lady from Shanghai came to be: The Mercury Theater was opening a musical version of Around the World in Eighty Days and when producer Mike Todd pulled out, the costumes were impounded until Welles came up with the $55,000 owed. He got on the phone to Columbia’s Harry Cohn and offered to write, produce, direct and star in a movie for Columbia, if Cohn would wire him 55 grand immediately. Welles (depending on the telling) either claimed he grabbed a paperback novel off a spinner rack near the phone booth, or a book the girl in the box office was reading: Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake. In either case,Welles had never read it. Cohn bit.

Hey, I'm sold.

Hey, I’m sold.

Cohn also later stated he would never again hire someone to produce, act and star in a movie because then he couldn’t fire any of them.

It is reported that Welles’ first cut of the movie ran 155 minutes. That means that the version I saw is short by almost an hour and ten minutes. Cohn found the movie incomprehensible. The connection between those two facts is obvious.

ladyfromshanghaiWelles plays Mike O’Hara, an itinerant Irish sailor (and such an accent! Sure, and I should have watched it on St. Patrick’s Day, when the blu-ray was released, begorrah!), who falls into the sphere of Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), when he rescues her from some toughs one night in Central Park. Elsa convinces her husband, rich, crippled criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Eliott Sloane) to hire O’Hara as bosun on his yacht for a cruise to the West Coast. Coming along for the ride is Bannister’s rather unbalanced partner, Grisby (Glenn Anders).

This being a noir movie, Elsa’s obvious attraction to O’Hara is going to blossom into a love affair. Grisby, obsessed with the certainty of nuclear war, has a harebrained scheme to fake his death at the hands of O’Hara so he can make off with the insurance money and hide out on a South Seas island while the world goes to hell. O’Hara, desperate for the money to finance a new life for himself and Elsa, agrees. This will backfire spectacularly as O’Hara is arrested for Grisby’s very real murder and finds himself on trial with Bannister as his lawyer.

lady from shanghai 06There are many, many ways is which the plot has been sabotaged to this point by the chainsaw editing. O’Hara sensibly resists Elsa for quite some time, but finally succumbs after a Cohn-mandated song. In fact, there is remarkably little chemistry between Welles and Hayworth, surprising since they were husband and wife at the time (perhaps not surprisingly, as that union didn’t last much longer. It’s possible that the movie was a last attempt to save the marriage – but that also casts a dark shadow on Welles’ insistence that Hayworth cut short her trademark long red hair and bleach it platinum blonde.). The camera has no problem making love to Hayworth in numerous close-ups, however (also mandated by Cohn).

Grisby’s plot to fake his own murder is so unconnected to reality that O’Hara’s agreeing to go along with it renders him the densest of all chumps in a genre built on chumps falling for stupid schemes. When the main problem with the plan is brought up by Bannister at the trial – how was the supposedly dead Grisby going to collect on that insurance? – the audience is muttering “I was saying that a half-hour ago.”

And that trial! Oy, such nonsense piled upon nonsense! Surprise subpoenas, the defense attorney called as a prosecution witness, who then cross-examines himself… well, Anatomy of a Murder it ain’t.

shanghai3O’Hara desperately overdoses on Bannister’s pain pills and uses the chaos to escape (after quite a fight scene in the judge’s chambers. Welles really enjoyed trashing rooms), and this where Lady from Shanghai finally starts developing its own unique character, and the extent of the damage from Cohn’s editors begins to really assert itself.

At the movie’s opening, Elsa tells O’Hara she had worked in Shanghai and Macao. Later, her maid begs O’Hara to take the job, because Elsa is a waif trapped in a nest of vipers; in fact, you can’t find worse traveling companions than Elsa, Arthur and Grisby, all constant passive-aggressive hated and sniping. There is reference to “something” that Bannister has on Elsa, that he used to blackmail her into marriage.

ladyshanghai5Now, as the movie enters its final stretch, a drug-addled O’Hara stumbles through Chinatown, finally hiding in the audience of a Peking Opera. He is effortlessly stalked by Elsa, gliding though the streets, speaking to passers-by in Mandarin. At the theater, she calls a gangster named Li, who arrives and spirits the now-unconscious O’Hara out under the nose of the Police. O’Hara has picked a perilous moment to black out, as he has just discovered, in Elsa’s purse, the gun that killed Grisby.

Yes, Elsa becomes ten times more interesting and complex in that segment, rendering everything she’s done to this point questionable, yet any explanation of how and why seems to be on the cutting room floor.

This leads to the gang’s hideout in an off-season amusement park, and the legendary Hall of Mirrors shootout as O’Hara finally discovers the depths of his chump-dom and the extent of Elsa’s poison noir dame-ness. Apparently as much as twenty minutes was trimmed from this imaginative sequence, and that is a major fucking crime against cinema in particular and art in general.

Lady-3Welles’ intention was to film the story in a fairly documentary fashion, with lots of location shooting (including yet another rich man’s transformation of his wife’s wish for a picnic into a massive, ultimately bitter, production number), and no close-ups, which must have driven Cohn, already upset over the “ruining” of his prime star with a haircut, that much closer to apoplexy. The trial scene is meant to be Brechtian parody, but no one in the intended audience had ever even heard of Bertolt Brecht. The resulting movie is the sad, scarred record of two men fighting to tell a story, each his own way, and neither particularly getting his way.

The Lady from Shanghai opened to indifferent box office and scathing reviews (except in Europe, where Welles was always more appreciated), but has come to be revered as a masterpiece, the “greatest weird picture ever made.”

And you look at it and you think, 155 minutes. Jesus. What did I miss?What did we miss?

The Killers Times Three

Nobody will be surprised to learn that I really love the Criterion Collection. I’ve had some people try to tell me they’re not all that, but this gets the same response as telling your great-aunt Emily June that Obama isn’t a Muslim: a few seconds of blinking uncomprehension, then renewed screeching. Yes, I am aware they put out Armageddon and The Rock. I am also aware that angel investors have to be rewarded.

176_box_348x490_originalA few months back, when visiting my parents, I discovered that someone had offloaded a bunch of older Criterion DVDs at the local Half-Price Books. That day I could afford only one, even at half price. When we returned a few months later for Christmas, I had made sure to bring more money, and this time I managed six. And one was a really fun concept package containing three versions of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”.

For those of you who did not have the privilege of being English majors, “The Killers” is considered to be a classic of American literature. Here’s a link to a PDF of the story as it originally appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927. Go ahead, read it, it’s short. I’ll wait. (One of the extras on the Criterion set is Stacy Keach reading the story and doing a bang-up job. It only takes 17 minutes.)

So anyway, for the tl;dr crowd (and I pity you), it’s the story of a small town diner terrorized by the title characters, two gangster types who are in town to “kill the Swede”, who always comes in at 6:00 to eat dinner. When the Swede doesn’t show, the two killers leave – leaving the diner’s occupants alive, to their relief – and one of them – Hemingway’s guy, Nick Adams, runs to tell the Swede – and the Swede refuses to escape or call the cops, saying it would be no use.

Russkies in blackface. But what you going to do?

Russkies in blackface. But what you going to do?

One of the three versions of the story in the Criterion set was made in 1956, and it’s the exam film of several students at the Soviet Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, one of whom was Andrei Tarkovsky, later the director of movies like Solaris and Andrei Rublev. It is the most literal version of the three, basically translating the short story directly onto film. It’s also only 19 minutes long. It’s worth seeking out just for that; there are a couple of minor film school flubs, but it’s remarkably assured filmmaking, otherwise.

The-Killers-PosterOur first movie chronologically, however, is the 1946 version, directed by Robert Siodmak. It starts with the Hemingway story, practically verbatim, though this time when the killers leave and Nick goes to the Swede – whose name is Ole Anderson, just in case you didn’t read the story – in his boarding house room, it’s barely ahead of the killers. We find out that the Swede is also Burt Lancaster (in his film debut!). He still refuses to run, because he’s tired of running, and “I did something bad.” So the killers bust in and kill him.

Yep, we’re only 19 minutes into a 105 minute movie.

So we leave Hemingway behind and meet Joe Reardon (Edmond O’Brien, increasingly a go-to guy for film noir post-WWII), ace insurance investigator. It seems the Swede had a life insurance policy through the gas station where he worked, and Joe sets out to find why someone would want to employ overkill methods on a grease monkey.

William Conrad takes NO guff.

William Conrad takes NO guff.

The rest of the movie plays out like a noir version of Citizen Kane as Reardon slowly puts together various people’s testimonies to fill out Anderson’s life: a prize-fighter with a career-ending injury, he falls in with the wrong people, falling for in the case of Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner, who plays a poison dame like you wouldn’t believe). Anderson even takes a rap for her, serving three years in the pen. When he gets out, Collins’ once and present sugar daddy, Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker, six years removed from Doctor Cyclops) recruits Anderson for a big job that will net them a quarter of a million dollars.

Now Reardon is really interested, as that job – stealing the payroll of that most necessary of noir establishments, a hat factory – was covered by his company. Anderson shows up after the robbery and hijacks all the dough and escapes, not being seen again until Big Jim spots him at that gas station (and after last week’s movie, Out of the Past, I now know not to work at a gas station if I’m hiding from a crime boss). There are too many things that don’t add up for Reardon, and he knows that if he’s going to solve this case, and find that money for his insurance company. he’s going to have to find Kitty Collins. I would say, “even if it kills him,” but that’s a pretty safe bet.maxresdefault

vlcsnap-2192371The 1946 Killers is pretty good noir, full of interesting characters and guys with suspenders carrying pistols and lit cigarettes. That opening sequence (remember, back when we were still doing Hemingway?) is a little masterpiece of noir camerawork and lighting, our two killers walking in and out of pools of darkness, finally splitting up and approaching opposite ends of the well-lit diner, like an Edward Hopper painting gone wrong, dark and violent.

the-killers-1964-movie-posterCompare this to the last version in the collection, made in 1964 by Don Siegel. Producer Mark Hellinger had wanted Siegel to direct the ’46 version but the studio nixed the then-fledgling director. Siegel now steadfastly refused to do a remake, and set out to make a movie as markedly different from the ’46 version as possible, and proceeded to filing off the serial numbers.

The movie, as shot, was to be titled Johnny North. North is the Anderson character, played by John Cassavetes. The killers are Lee Marvin and Clu Gulagher. They track North to a school for the blind, where he’s teaching auto mechanics to a group of blind men. Although warned the two men are coming, North simply stands there and lets them shoot him down, and that – along with the fact that somebody paid them more than twice their usual fee to kill a shop teacher – really bothers Marvin.

assassinsSo our two killers take the place of the insurance investigator in the earlier film, and find out North was a pretty good race driver who fell in with a sports groupie, Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson, whose career keeps intersecting my interests). She’s also the property of a shady character named Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan, in his last movie, and playing a bad guy, which he hated).

imagesNorth has a crash that breaks his leg and screws up his vision, ending his racing career. Sheila later finds him working at a drag strip, and Jack needs a good driver for a big job. There are no more hat factories, so they are going to waylay a mail truck that has the weekend’s receipts from “all those resorts on the coast.” All goes according to Reagan’s evil plans, until Johnny slugs him and takes off with the loot.

As you can guess, now the killers have to find this Sheila dame and… well, let’s just say it doesn’t have quite the happy, tidy ending of its 1946 predecessor (although there are no loose ends). And they still wound up calling it Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, leading to a lot of critical drubbing, as this is a homeopathic version of the Hemingway story: there’s a molecule or two of the story, floating around in there, somewhere.

28The title change likely came about because, while it was being shot, it was going to be the first two-hour made for TV movie. When it was judged too violent and too amoral for TV, it was released theatrically, and the name change was likely thought more marketable. The TV origins do work against it, I feel. It feels too brightly lit, and several of the dialogue scenes drag. It has an amazing cast though; I haven’t mentioned Claude Akins as Johnny’s old mechanic, or Norman Fell as Jack’s stooge.

John Cassavetes acted in other peoples’ movies to make money to make his own. That’s not an uncommon story in Hollywood, but the thing about Cassavetes was he always gave value for the dollar. He always gave more in his roles than was necessary.

"HERE'S one for the Gipper!"

“HERE’S one for the Gipper!”

He was damned good, is what I’m saying.

And in The Killers, he gets to slug Ronald Reagan. I’m good with that.

The Killers box set on Amazon

Le SamouraÏ (1967) & Out of the Past (1947)

100le_samouraiThe French again! Jean-Pierre Melville again! An influential film, again! Where will this all end?

Well, this is about as close to binge-watching as I get.

Once more I find myself paying for my ass-backwards journey into cinema; I’ve already seen most of the movies directly inspired by  Le Samourai, rendering it less fresh and impressive than it might have been had my movie-watching habits been more refined in the early part of my life.  Regrets like that are pretty inane, however, since my life has mostly been a journey from the rural to the increasingly urban. I was lucky to have landed in a small city with access to a PBS station when I was only 13 or 14, coinciding with a series of “Classics of World Cinema” or somesuch. That got me even more hooked on movies, but at that time – 1972 or 73 – other options were extremely limited.

I’ve always looked older than I actually am, so I managed to get into some movie screenings at the nearby college, which is where I saw King Kong for the first time (on the big screen, luckily). But again, very limited options. VCRs didn’t appear on the scene until I was in college, and then the software was still exceedingly commercial, even during the big VHS boom. It was all barbarians, boobs, blood and beasts, to paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs, and I ate it up with a spoon. I had to special order videotapes of Rashomon and Yojimbo - such fare was still rare, even after I moved to the Big City. It got better. I discovered mail order and laserdiscs, which catered to a more sophisticated clientele, shall we say.

samourai-1967-01-gSo it’s no small wonder I saw The Killer before I saw Le Samourai. It is also a matter of no small wonder that in these times, I can bloody well watch Le Samourai whenever I damned well please. There is a lot to despise about these Modern Times, but there is a lot to be thankful for, too.

So now the trick is to find something significant to say about a well-respected movie that is almost as old as I.

In case you’re as cinema-deficient as myself: Alain Delon is Jef Costello, a preternaturally calm hitman living a spartan existence in Paris. Jef accepts a contract on the owner of a nightclub, and successfully carries it out, after engineering a complex two-part alibi involving his former lover (Nathalie Delon), an unsuspecting customer of said lover, and a hotel room of card-playing cronies. There are several eyewitnesses who saw Jef leave the scene of the shooting, but the one who confronted him face-to-face – the club’s star attraction (Cathy Rosier) – intriguingly does not finger him in the ensuing police line-up.

le-samourai-01There are two complications: the first is Jef’s mysterious employer, who panics when Jef is picked up in a wide police dragnet, and orders Jef killed. The other is that the Commissioner in charge of the investigation (François Périer) feels Jef’s alibi is too airtight, and starts devoting more and more manpower to bring pressure to bear on the young assassin.

The movie’s title is not mere affectation – Jef goes about his work with a competence and inner stillness reminiscent of those earlier warriors (significantly, the title of the original novel by Joan McLeod was The Ronin, a masterless samurai). The uniform has changed: a snappy raincoat, a fedora with a carefully-corrected brim, white cotton gloves for the wet work. What Jef finds, however, is that all this is useless against the massed might of practically an entire police department, and a maddeningly inconsistent employer who sends the same man who tried to kill him to apologize and offer a new contract. Jef will try to plumb exactly what is going on, to little avail. He is an impressive warrior, but a terrible detective. Upon finding that his lover is being harassed by the police to recant his alibi, Jef makes his final decision and promises her he will sort everything out. He does this by killing the feckless employer and carrying out his last assignment with an unloaded gun, insuring the pursuing police will gun him down.

Film_306w_LeSamurai_originalLe Samouraï is perhaps the height of the French New Wave’s appropriation of and stylization of popular American film noir and gangster tropes; if one looks askance at the commissioner’s increasing use of manpower and taxpayer money to pursue a man on a mere hunch (and fortunately for him, that hunch is correct), then it is also useful to realize that this story is in no way meant to be realistic. Melville ignores current fashion, making the movie timeless. JFK had put paid to men’s habitual wearing of hats earlier in the decade, yet everyone here still wears them, just as in the American movies that inspired it.

Le Samouraï at Amazon

out_of_the_past_1947Even though little of it can really be called new to my jaded cinema eyes, it is useful to examine one of those inspirational movies: the Jacques Tourneur-directed 1947 classic Out of the Past.

In this, another Jeff (Robert Mitchum), the owner of a gas station in a small California town, is confronted by Joe (Richard Webb), a man in a tellingly dark trenchcoat and hat, who knew Jeff back when and insists he come to a meeting with a former employer. Jeff’s calm life as a working joe and his budding romance with local girl Ann (Virginia Huston) is suddenly upended, and he confesses to Ann his past life as a detective, hired by a mobster, Whit (Kirk Douglas) to track down a woman who shot him and stole $40,000 before vanishing.

2447041_origIn an extended flashback, we find that Jeff tracked the woman, Kathie (Jane Greer) to Acapulco, where he finds out why Whit “Just wanted her back”. He falls in love with her “like a chump”, and runs away with her to California. Whit hires Jeff’s old partner to track him down, resulting in a fist fight at the lovebirds’ cabin, during which Kathie shoots his partner in cold blood and leaves him there to take the rap. Jeff buries the body, and finds a bank book that proves that Kathie’s denials of stealing the money from Whit were false.

Now that Whit has found Jeff – and, we discover, Kathie is once more under the mobster’s roof – the affable gangster wants Jeff to do one more job for him, by way of atonement. It involves stealing some paperwork that would cause Whit to serve time for tax evasion, but Jeff begins to perceive it is all a spiteful plot to frame him for murder, with his former love Kathie as an all-too-willing accomplice.

past1Tourneur was one of the top directors for filming this sort of story, and the gorgeous black-and-white photography of Nicholas Murusaca provides visual evidence of the contrast between the wide-open spaces of Jeff’s new life and the slow entrapment and claustrophobia of his return to the Big City and attempted manipulation by everyone he meets. A fine bunch of actors make good use of a script by Geoffrey Homes from his own novel Build My Gallows High, which supplies a pleasing amount of dimensionality to some pretty stock characters. It’s obvious that Kathie really does care for Jeff, but panic for her own survival causes her to make some poor, even murderous choices, making her a much more satisfying Femme Fatale than many.

Kirk Douglas Out Of the PastKirk Douglas, in only his second movie, makes Whit a charming, smiling fellow with a nicely understated violent undertow. My absolute favorite moment in the flick happens when Jeff is in his hotel room in Acapulco, packing to run away with Kathie. There is a knock at the door, and Jeff opens it, expecting his new gal – but it’s Whit and Joe the gunsel. Douglas flashes that 40,000 watt smile and says, “I hate surprises, myself. Wanna just shut the door and forget about it?”

And if there is anything to take delight in, it’s in these movies’ snappy banter, and Out of the Past has a ton of it. Le Samouraï, on the other hand, is proud of its brevity – the first ten minutes of the movie are utterly devoid of dialogue.

ootp1The other trademark of these movies is an inexorable sense of doom following the protagonist about. You keep hoping for both Jeffs to pull it off, to deliver that final Maltese Falcon coup de grace that delivers justice to the bad guys and lets him live to fight another day, at the very least, if not get the girl (who was usually trying to kill him, anyway). Le Samouraï‘s Jef we already know about, but by the end of Out of the Past, Kathie has effectively murdered every patsy, and despite Jeff’s best efforts, he realizes he is trapped, and can think of no better recourse than to call the cops while Kathie is packing for yet another escape, so that they will encounter a heavily-armed police roadblock on their way out. Both protagonists decide enough is enough, and make sure their true loves, at least, have a chance at a better life, uncomplicated by them and their bad life choices. And sometimes that is the only choice left to you.

out-of-the-past-e1403181284954My last takeaway from this Doomed-Guy-In-A-Hat-and-trenchcoat double feature concerns Alain Delon’s and Robert Mitchum’s (once he returns to his former life) uniform, the coat and the snap-brim hat: I have that raincoat, and it is never going to look as good on me as it does on those two. And though I have a fine fedora, the Legion of Douchebags have seen to it that I can never wear it again. That this saddens me more than the fate of two likeable protagonists is a personal failing, but sometimes, as the Jeffs would tell you, personal is all you got.

Out of the Past at Amazon

Belle de Jour (1967)

100belledejourThere is frequently a problem while dealing with films that are known as “Groundbreaking” and “Iconic” years after their release. This is a barrier I face once again with Belle de Jour, viewing it for the first time nearly half a century after its release: what was at first shocking and liberating is now commonplace.

Just like our last entry, Army of Shadows, Belle de Jour is based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, which was itself published in the 1920s. It seems to have changed little in the transition to screen, except for the fantasy sequences created by director Luis Buñuel. One such sequence opens the movie, with our central character, Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) enjoying a carriage ride in the country with her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel). Pierre criticizes her for being so cold toward him, and when she tells him not to speak of that, he stops the carriage, has her tied to a tree, whipped, and ravished by his footmen.

hero_EB19990725REVIEWS08907250301ARSéverine does have an intimacy problem, possibly dating back to an incident of molestation in her girlhood. And Pierre is indeed a long-suffering saint, constantly rebuffed and spending the night alone in his half of their Rob-and-Laura-Petrie separate beds. Chance conversations with her friend Renee (Macha Meril) and her shady husband Hussen (Michel Piccoli) leads her to the establishment of Madame Anais (Geneviève Page), a somewhat upscale brothel with only two prostitutes. Séverine becomes “Belle de Jour” (a rather clever play on words, both on “day lillies” and the French expression “Belle de nuit”), who works only between the hours of two and five, coming home before her husband the surgeon.

MV5BMTk1NTg3NjAwNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwOTczNTU2._V1_SX640_SY720_As Séverine waffles on whether or not she will actually commit to her new trade, Anais commands her to get into her room, and when Séverine complies meekly, says, “So. You need a firm hand.” Her first client realizes this, too, and plays to her desire for the rough stuff. So begins her sexual liberation; she even takes on an Asian client with a box whose contents mysteriously buzz, causing the other ladies in the brothel to turn him down – and in fact, in the aftermath of this encounter, we see a genuine smile on Séverine’s face for the first time in the movie. And she begins to warm to her husband, too, much to his amazement and delight.

Two serpents enter this garden of earthly delights: the first is Hussen, whom we were expecting – after all, he’s the one who gave Séverine the address – and the other is Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), a young gangster who represents a sort of bad boy avatar – leather trenchcoat and boots, sword cane, metal teeth – everything Séverine’s dark side desires. They become obsessed with each other, and Séverine quits her job at Madame Anais’ – the Madame thinks it is because of Marcel, and agrees it is a good decision, but it is truly because of Hussen’s discovery of her second life.

Belle-de-Jour-1Everything goes about as one would suspect – Marcel still manages to track Séverine to her home, demands are made, there is tragedy – but it is all so bound up in Séverine’s fantasy life, that we are not sure that the dis-assembly of her otherwise lovely bourgeois life is not another fantasy designed to punish herself, just like the opening sequence. The ending is deliberately ambiguous, and even Luis Buñuel himself has stated that he doesn’t know what the ending truly means.

Buñuel does manage to surprise me every time I approach another of his movies. He is known as one of the greatest of the surrealist filmmakers, and that is a reputation that is roundly reserved. I suppose it is pretty much bourgeois on my part that when I hear surrealism I expect Monty Python wackiness, when in reality (heh), the movement is more about giving the unconscious part of the mind equal representation with the conscious; I read a comment that the carriage bells on the soundtrack are an indicator of Séverine’s fantasies, and while the ambient sound track in the movie is quite sharp and often draws attention to itself, I’m not certain about that assertion.

I’ve also seen it held up as a feminist film, and I look at that claim sidewise as well. It can argued that it is about a woman taking charge of her sexuality, but for that interpretation to work, it has to gloss over practically every relationship in the movie. The only people that actually seem real are the pragmatic Madame Anais and her two girls (Françoise Fabian and Maria Latour), who are friendly and chatty, but have no illusions as to the absurdity and general pathos of their clientele. Humanity is messy, and these women get to see perhaps the best and worst of it.

f6a8cc81d988b2ebf9c3bebf0b8077aba8145830-700Perhaps Belle de Jour‘s reputation as a masterpiece relies on the fact that, of Buñuel’s many surrealist films, it is the most approachable; That Obscure Object of Desire demands constant interpretation, The Exterminating Angel is a puzzle, and my favorite, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, is more like a fabulous funhouse than anything else. Belle de Jour, like its source novel, is more of a standard potboiler with some surrealist spice. In fact, I think of all the movies mentioned above, I would be most likely to recommend Belle de Jour as the entryway to the films of Luis Buñuel, for exactly those reasons.

Belle de Jour on Amazon

Army of Shadows (1969)

ARMY_OF_SHADOWS_1SHIt’s hard to know how to start on this, so there’s no better place than where the movie begins: the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, as a parade of Nazis file first past it, then down the Champs Elysee, right into the camera. A long, unbroken scene, devoid of reaction shots, or any context save an historical one; and this is how Army of Shadows will present its tale of the French Resistance under Nazi occupation. Unromanticized, matter-of-fact, almost documentarian.

By and large, we’re going to follow Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), an electric engineer who begins the movie on his way to a Vichy concentration camp for political prisoners. Gerbier will eventually escape when he is taken to the city for interrogation by the Gestapo, in a burst of violence surprising for the quiet intellectual we’ve spent the last fifteen minutes or so with. And so it is, layers of quiet deception always a heartbeat away from disaster or violence.

army-of-shadowsIn the first segment after Gerbier’s escape, he and two of his comrades capture a young man who had sold out his cell to the Nazis, and take him to a safe house for execution. To their dismay, they find a family has moved in next door the night before and they cannot safely shoot the traitor, and so spend several minutes dispassionately discussing various forms of murder in front of their terrified victim.

Army of Shadows did not do well on its opening in France in 1969. One of the reasons is scenes like this, wherein critics felt that the heroes of the Resistance were being cast in the same light as the gangsters in other movies by director Jean-Pierre Melville, like Le Samouraï and the forthcoming Le Cercle Rouge. (There is a political angle, too, as De Gaulle was extremely unpopular at the time of the movie’s premiere, and there is a moment when the head of the Resistance is decorated by the General-in-exile, and he receives the award with a beatific smile, as if he had just been visited by God.)

Melville himself and the author of the novel on which this is based, Joseph Kessel, were both in the Resistance, and both escaped to England to join the Free France organization there, so as depressing and bleak as the events before us are, they still carry a ring of truth.

There is heroism on display in Army of Shadows, but it’s never rewarded. A chancy attempt to rescue a comrade fails, and one daring member, who arranges to get himself captured and tortured just to find the man they are trying to rescue, dies alone and in obscurity, his legendary luck failing him when he needs it most. All our characters are doomed and they know it – and death will not always come at the hand of the Nazis, but sometimes at the hands of their comrades – and they are still determined to play their hand out until the last.

Army of Shadows 8It’s not an edifying movie, but it is a very, very good one. Thanks to a critical lambasting by Cahiers du Cinema in the 60s, it never even played in America until 2006, when it started getting its due acclaim as possibly Melville’s defining movie, if not an actual masterpiece.  Definitely recommended, though not if you’re in need of cheering up.

Army of Shadows on Amazon

Punching: The Forty Year Difference

Coming off two weeks where real life and two of my three jobs were determined to kill me (had number three pitched in, I’d be writing this from a hospital bed at least), I suddenly realized I had turned a corner and had the next 48 hours free. What to do? I should probably watch a movie. I haven’t watched a movie in two weeks. I have that stupid thing where I am going to, for sure, watch a certain 100 movies I’ve been putting off within the next year.

force_four_poster_012So what do I watch? Force Four. Or as the IMDb knows it, Black Force.

It is damned hard to find information about Force Four. It’s a scrappy little mongrel of a movie, and I wager the script was written on a cocktail napkin. The Black Force of the title is four martial artists (Owen Wat-son, Warhawk Tanzania, Malichi Lee, and Judie Soriano), who are all real-life black belts, They apparently have some sort of mercenary/troubleshooter thing going on, because they receive a phone call on the special phone in their panelled Black Force pad, hiring them to find and recover a African artifact that was stolen before the opening credits.

By way of introduction, each of the members of Force Four do their individual katas, which eats up some time. Then they Hit The Streets to dig up some information on the theft. This takes the form of an endless montage with the same ten shots of New York City repeated over and over played under improvised dialogue from our four stars, leavened with the occasional quick fight scene or the sight of Warhawk playing basketball in platform heels. The dialogue occasionally tries to sync up with what’s going on onscreen, and the one sudden instance of sync sound is jarring. But man, does it eat up time.

Meanwhile, in the Black Force Cave...

Meanwhile, in the Black Force Cave…

That one prostitute who rates sync sound, it turns out, works for Z (Sam Schwartz) the doughy mobster who runs things, see? Z sends out his thugs to get Force Four while they’re separated and Hitting The Streets. There are four quick fight scenes. Our plucky Black Force re-convenes at The Pad, and Owen has gotten one thug to talk (off-camera), so they go to the thug’s place and beat them up. No artifact or Z, though, so they drive upstate to Z’s house. This drive is pretty much accomplished in real-time.

DuskZ is having a house party, so the movie will also stop dead for an entire song by an outfit I dubbed Tony Borlando and Dusk, but was likely Live USA, who provided the soundtrack. And you know what? That soundtrack is pretty good. I’m gonna let Dusk/Live USA skate, even if Tony is wearing a tuxedo that left me blind for a few minutes.

Force Four beat up some more thugs on the grounds, then confront Z (who is soaking his buyer for another 100 grand, the rat). Z barely gets away, and many are the screaming extras and kung fu fights around the pool.  Owen plants a tracer on Z’s car (but drops it and then has to hide behind a tree for fifteen minutes while Z’s head thug tries very hard not to see him). This enables Force Four to follow Z the next day – and his buyer lives out even further than him – beat up everybody, and find out that the case has a false bottom with tons of uncut heroin.

Malachi Lee gone SMACK YOU!

Malachi Lee gone SMACK YOU!

The movie is still not much over an hour long. So we have the extended dance re-mix of all the fight scenes in the movie, followed by a five minute end credit sequence, with individual shots of each and every black belt in the movie (the poster promises 28, and I believe the poster). We finally hit 82 minutes, and it’s over.

Force Four starts with some title cards stating that the martial arts contained therein are presented as realistically as possible, with no camera tricks or gimmicks. This is pretty much true, and the fights are as realistic as you can get in a world where opponents attack you one at a time and there are no guns. Each fight is over with very quickly, and our heroes don’t have a lick of trouble until the very last battle, and even then, they are never outmatched. Kind of boring. Which is a fair assessment of Force Four. Frustrating amount of padding, no real tension.

It’s also odd to consider that the breakout star from this was Warhawk Tanzania, who would make The Devil’s Express (aka Gang Wars) the next year. (Owen Wat-son had made Velvet Smooth the year before, so I guess he was the opposite of a breakout. He actually has the best acting chops of any of the Force, though Malachi Lee has a nice, quiet charisma.)

FIN02_JWick_BusShltr_SWPNow let’s compare this with the movie I saw the next day, John Wick.

In case you didn’t watch any movie trailers last year, Keanu Reeves is the title character, a very recent widow, whose wife’s parting gesture is the gift of a beagle puppy, delivered on the evening of her funeral, to ensure that John continues to have “something to love”. John also has a beautiful 1969 Mustang that catches the eye of Iosef (Alfie Allen), the lowlife son of a Russian mobster. When John refuses to sell, Iosef and his buddies stage a nighttime home invasion, beat up John, steal his car, and kill the puppy.

Puppykillers. We all hate them.

Iosef then proceeds to have a very bad couple of days as he finds out he tugged on Superman’s cape, he spat into the wind, he pulled the mask off that ol’ Lone Ranger and he just reactivated one of the most feared assassins in the history of the world. Wick met his wife, retired from The World, and the only thing that was keeping him a nice, quiet, normal nobody was the dog. And it is quite probable that not even Iosef’s daddy, kingpin Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), and his army of hoodlums, will be able to save him.

john-wick-is-keanu-reeves-best-movie-since-the-matrixJohn Wick is, needless to say, a very violent movie; when all is said and done, Keanu has killed 76 people, but hey – dog owners understand. What keeps this from becoming Commando is the odd alternate world we find ourselves in this time: The world of the assassins, where everything – everything – is paid for in gold coins, there is a five-star safe house hotel in the Flatiron Building, and a phone call for “dinner reservations” gets you quick, discreet and complete body disposal and cleanup – one gold coin per corpse.

The movie really owes a lot to Donald Westlake’s Parker novels and Point Blank in particular, with its driven protagonist and fascinating glimpses into a hidden world with its own rules and codes. It’s also a hell of a rumination on revenge and the fact that dominos keep on falling once they’re nudged.

downloadJohn Wick was hyped to me as being the equal of The Raid 2, and for once I bought into the hype, and as usual, regretted it. I liked the movie, and unlike a lot of people, I really like Keanu, who shows some impressive acting chops in the beginning, and whatever else you may say about the man, he is not afraid to train and train hard. But living up to Raid 2 is a tough road to follow. Now, like Raid 2, we are presented with a series of fight scenes in which I can follow every motion and action. Movies that do this automatically get another star, letter grade, or whatever bogus scoring system you’re using.

I really liked it. But I wasn’t blown away.

But it’s this methodology that shows how far the action film has come in 40 years:  The black belts of Force Four did their own choreography, and Michael Fink filmed that choreography. Wick’s directors, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, were stunt coordinators, choreographers and then second unit directors before lobbying hard for their post here: pre-viz and plotting out how fights look to the camera are second nature to them. It has become an industry, and the sooner this aesthetic takes hold of action filmmaking, that it becomes the standard again, the better. I’m thinking that it’s this clarity of motion and intent in the action scenes that had people putting it on even footing with Raid 2, it’s really that much of a breath of fresh air in an American-made film.

And then I watch the Making-of supplements and see all these scenes before the teal and orange color ramping and I start being tempted to take away that extra star. That, at least is definitely one thing The Raid 2 has over John Wick.

I watched John Wick with Rick and Dave, and Dave made the comment – likely true – “This script was only 15 pages long. I guarantee it.” I held that he was likely right, but at least it wasn’t half a page, spread out to 82 minutes. I don’t think the point was quite made because I haven’t made them watch Force Four.


John Wick on Amazon


Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook_of_the_northSometimes you just have to pay homage to the classics, even if they may not deserve it. We’re likely going to be arguing about Birth of a Nation for quite some time, for instance, and here’s another one that I’ve been curious about for some time – Nanook of the North, the first docudrama.

Robert J. Flaherty didn’t start out as a filmmaker; he was a paid explorer, who when working for the Canadian Railroads, spent several years among the indigenous people of the Hudson Bay area, in northern Quebec. This was about 1910; in 1913 he bought a motion picture camera and started filming these people in their everyday lives. In 1916, though, he dropped a lit cigarette on this film, and being nitrate stock, it went up in a fireball (it’s estimated that there was about 30,000 feet involved). He went back with more equipment, and using what he had learned in that previous venture, narrowed the focus to one family, and their struggles to survive a typical year in the hostile climate of Northern Quebec, and the result was a worldwide sensation.

But this is one of those movies where the behind-the-scenes is arguably more intriguing than what we see on the screen, and what we see on the screen is actually pretty damned good. There are many controversies surrounding Nanook, and all of them, unfortunately, bring the final product into question.

Robert_Flaherty_Nyla_1920We’ll start with the obvious: the title character, the Great Hunter Nanook (which we are told means “Bear”), is actually named (I hope I get this right) Allakariallak. We are introduced to his two wives, Nyla (“The Smiling One”) and Cunayou. They were apparently not actually Allakariallak’s wives, but – and this is only an allegation, mind – that they were actually Flaherty’s lovers. The parentage of the baby constantly riding in Nyla’s furs, like a papoose, is unknown.

The movie begins with some striking imagery, as Spring begins and Nanook paddles his kayak to the white man’s trading post to barter the furs of his winter’s kills. One of his children is riding ont he top of the kayak. Nanook gets out, helps the boy to land, and then the kayak starts disgorging the rest of the family, like a clown car. This such a surprise, but so logical, I was placing it in my “Things Learned” column, until finding out about the rest of the picture’s veracity. Now I’m not so sure.

"Eh, this blows. You got any Beck?"

“Eh, this blows. You got any Beck?”

There’s a scene at the trading post where the proprietor shows a Gramophone to the baffled Nanook. Allakariallak, it turns out, was no bumpkin, and knew perfectly well what a gramophone was; but he also apparently knew the value of comic relief. There’s also the fact that Nanook is portrayed in his constant hunting for food armed only with his trusty harpoon and a knife carved from a walrus tusk (which truly turns out to have a thousand and one uses), when the Inuit had been using guns for years.

So Flaherty convinced his plucky villagers to emulate their ancestors in their walrus hunt, and they seem to do a pretty good, if arduous job of it. The hunt itself may not be truly documentary, it may be scripted, but as Roger Ebert pointed out, nobody showed the walrus the script.

nanook windowIf you’re willing to grant that Allakariallak may be using old-timey methods to trap his other prey, a snow fox and a huge seal, it becomes a fairly nice re-telling and record of those ways. Then, with the onset of winter, the family builds an igloo (the film claims “within an hour”, but I ain’t so sure about that). This is one of the most famous segments of Nanook, and it is a wonder to behold: Nanook carving the blocks of snow with his trusty walrus-tusk knife, the women and children spackling the gaps with more snow. And most amazing to my eye, Nanook carving a block of ice from the frozen bay to serve as a window, and then placing a block of snow to reflect sunlight into the igloo. That is neatly done.

Then the family settles down for the night under their skins and furs. And something is chewing at the back of my brain: I’ve seen the movie cameras of that era, and they are big. Too big to easily fit through the tiny open Nanook and his clan crawled through. And they required more light than could be brought in through that ice window.

Yep, Flaherty built a half-igloo, open to the outdoors and its bounteous light.

flaherty_port_harrison_1920This is a question we have to face again and again as fans of cinema: does a good story trump the needs of historic accuracy? The answer from Hollywood is always a resounding, “Yes!” and who is to say they are wrong? Perhaps Nanook serves best not as a strict documentary, but as a record of a way of life that had vanished before the invention of the motion picture. Hence, not “documentary”, but “docudrama”. Robert Flaherty made a career out of movies like these, and they are all well-regarded: Elephant Boy (with Zoltan Korda, introducing Sabu), Louisiana Story, The Land.

critique-nanouk-l-esquimau-flaherty12The final thing to consider is that the movie opens by telling us that Nanook died two years after the film was finished; he journeyed inland to find food and starved to death. It is much more likely that Allakariallak died of tuberculosis, in his home. But whatever the cause, the news of his death triggered mourning worldwide, so successful had Nanook been, so far had it traveled. That is the power of a good story, well told, and perhaps the whole question is best answered by another movie, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Nanook of the North on Amazon


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