Laura (1944, Otto Preminger)

RECOMMENDED

Pedestals are often the enemy of artistic transcendence; 20th Century Fox’s Laura has been known for decades now as the premier example of Film Noir, and when such a reputation precedes one’s firsthand experience of a film, it can be fatal to one’s appreciation. That’s the only apology I’m going to make, however, for finding this generally decent film totally underwhelming. In fact, I first heard the term “Noir” in a television advertisement for a showing of Laura back in the mid-1990s. To my recollection, the promo got the basic idea of Noir across quite compellingly: in this tantalizing conception I was left with the impression that “Noir” meant intense sophistication, moral ambiguity, visual and conceptual darkness, and above all, textured, flawed characters. Other films ultimately fulfilled this promise for me: Notorious, Double Indemnity and The Lady from Shanghai among others. In the case of Laura itself, however, I’ve never shaken the feeling that the rapturous beauty and intrigue of Otto Preminger’s direction, Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography and particularly David Raksin’s brilliant music score paper over a story that’s finally unworthy of all three.

The premise, a conventional murder mystery with a major twist at the midway point, isn’t without merit — but as the story pans out, it makes little sense and comes across as a silly and emotionally simplistic whodunit, superior to a Philo Vance movie only insofar as it’s much slicker and more aesthetically ambitious, and inferior to one insofar as it doesn’t have William Powell. The aforementioned twist doesn’t help matters and arguably marks the moment when the film totally loses its way; and in a flourish of offbeat misjudgment, Preminger stages it so awkwardly that any shock it may have provided is deadened. At the film’s outset, a small gaggle of people — fiancé and nervous gigolo Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price, excitable as always, here probably code for something else), priggish, acid-tonged society-page columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), sinister auntie Ann (Judith Anderson, a conniving non-mysterious variant on her signature Rebecca role) and a cynical seen-it-all detective (Dana Andrews) — are all wondering who killed Laura Hunt, a young socialite recently shot in the face in her apartment. Waldo narrates, at least at first, and his arrogance is engaging in a George Sanders sort of way, but the emphasis quickly shifts to the detective on the case, between primitive games of handheld baseball, as he tries to get to the bottom of a killing whose victim he begins to find increasingly alluring. Then all of a sudden, said victim shows up right before his eyes, and while there is much to explain, the spell is broken. When Laura appears, alive and well, the film’s most interesting conceit is lost, and the remainder of the story is in many ways so ordinary it’s hard to even care what happens, though the fun, trashy interpersonal squabbling and jealousies among the characters — such tone-deaf weirdos that they throw a party when they learn Laura is alive, seemingly little caring that a murder happened in her apartment — do pull us along.

In a sense, it’s probably commendable that Laura — like Vertigo years hence — lets its big shock play out early on rather than at the conclusion, which allows more time to revel in the oddity of the situation, however illogical: an entire murder investigation has taken place revolving around someone who is not dead… and the perpetrator is fully aware of this, and fully aware the lie can’t last, but somehow continues the charade anyway, up to and including accompanying the dick on his questioning of suspects. It puts Laura, the film, in a peculiar position because it requires it to present intriguing notions in its first act then go nowhere with them: sexuality, necrophilia, the ambiguous occupation of Shelby, the ambiguous sexual orientations of both the key male suspects. There’s a moment when Clifton Webb suggests to Andrews that he is falling in love with a corpse, meaning Laura, her artifacts and her portrait, as he holds court for hours in her apartment. This potentially sets the stage for a pretty harrowing and modern portrait of obsession that would be a forerunner to any number of subsequent cinematic landmarks, but within just a few minutes the opportunity is closed off. (In some fashion, by even bringing up the topic, the film seems weaker and blander in its refusal to fully investigate.) The squandering of Laura as vague, after-death ghostly fixation might also have been forgiven if there were any perversion or resonance to the scene when Andrews and Tierney finally kiss… but no; still just a lot of Mickey Spillane comings and goings. About all that survives to make this film psychosexually intriguing is a surprisingly progressive view on the toxic age gap between Lydecker and his twentysomething charge, in a relationship which the film means us to find grotesquely paternal and manipulative, allowing heroic Detective McPherson to sweep in as the more Hollywood-appropriate love interest when the still portrait comes to life and Laura is resurrected.

The screenplay (with three credited writers, based on a Vera Caspary novel) has a certain dime-paperback thinness that extends beyond its lazy plotting and into its relatively rote characterizations and motivations. We are told, for instance, that Laura is a wonderful person, but we never learn anything remotely of interest about her, quite a crime when you consider her amount of screen time; Rebecca De Winter was never on the screen but managed to dominate a movie. That’s because Rebecca was gorgeous, domineering, mysterious, possibly evil, and probably a lesbian. Laura is, from what I can tell, none of these things or anything that would make up the difference. She’s a sickeningly harmless mouse, a generic starlet as Cleopatra. Similarly, it’s insisted to the audience that Dana Andrews, as McPherson, is — stop me if you’ve heard this one — growing obsessed with Laura’s portrait, but the movie’s way of getting this across is by having him walk around her apartment drinking a lot and occasionally staring up at it. Whether the guilty party is Laura herself (vacantly played by Gene Tierney), Lydecker (Clifton Webb, who gives an over-the-top portrayal more suited to a comedy picture, tapping away at bitchy op-eds in the bathtub while the world disintegrates) or Price’s Shelby Carpenter (all incomprehensible motivations and shady half-truths, with the strong suggestion of a sexual interest in nearly everyone except the woman he’s supposed to marry), the viewer feels no difference, because these characters, disparate though they may be, are flat cartoons with no real personalities, even though they hardly stop talking for the full duration. They’re not conflicted or intriguing, they’re just chess pieces with lines to fit their given stereotypes. As for who actually got buckshot injected in her face, she’s a character we never really meet, learn much about, or have any desire to know. Her one purpose in the story is to be killed. Therefore, why should it matter to us who killed her? Is it the possibly gay egotistical writer (who has all the best lines but never raises himself above the zillion similar characters from Twilight Zone episodes)? Is it the possibly gay layabout who is going to marry Laura? Is it Laura herself, who we are told is, like, the coolest person ever but who actually is less interesting than a lead pipe? It’s not easy to care, even after the suddenly melodramatic conclusion answers the question for us.

Perhaps the most crushing problem with the movie is that Dana Andrews, as more or less the protagonist, never does much more than bark at the other characters and stand around brooding. Constant moodiness, inexplicable behavior, and bizarre actions don’t really make for a compelling hero; and although he’s kinda-sorta rugged, he’s never brutal enough, or restrained and emotional enough, to actually function as either a full-fledged character or an object of desire. There are shades of a person there, a pathology, a victim (would that this movie followed their lives together after all this blew over and Laura let some evil at her core out to play, or maybe I just wish Anne Baxter played her so we wouldn’t have to wish for that; just something, please, to make us understand why the world revolves around her in this film) like the victim Fred MacMurray was in Double Indemnity, but the movie just skirts past all that, and so does Andrews.

In all fairness, this is a decent mystery thanks to its amusingly offbeat gallery of well-off screwups; but as a story it’s ridiculous and unsophisticated, painted in bold and straight lines, full of humor that is bright and sassy but never really witty or devilish, and it hasn’t a single character who is any different from (or less suspicious than) the person you think you see when s/he first appears. And it’s a shame such great visual and aural ingredients are wasted on nothing more than a movie about a woman whose only point of interest is that she’s dead, who then turns out to be alive. What a crock. I respect that others see the very apogee of Noir here but given how many films, made before and after it, render it obsolete and redundant, it seems to me that its slick, falsely romantic luster is all that’s really allowed it to endure; and while it has merit, you can plumb the true depths of the lost soul much more effectively elsewhere in the canon.

***

[Overhaul and rewrite of a review first posted in 2005.]

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Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

One of the least dated and most challenging propaganda films Hollywood made during World War II, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (based vaguely on a prose treatment by John Steinbeck) gets a lot of strength from its experimental quality as the first of the director’s several “single set” films, a study in confinement that manages to remain visually interesting and exciting despite never leaving the titular vessel; it gets more yet from its concentration almost exclusively on civilians, escaping from a passenger ship sunken by the Germans, rather than military personnel. Hitchcock made it while still under contract with David O. Selznick, for 20th Century Fox — who ended up growing frustrated with the surprisingly extravagant budget and bloated schedule (beset by various illnesses, camera problems, injuries and Tallulah Bankhead) and cancelling plans to make a second film with him; they also weren’t rewarded particularly handsomely for their efforts, with the film failing to make back its money and causing controversy with its multifaceted portrayal of a German officer. Perhaps that’s why, seen today, it seems more strikingly human and relevant than the great majority of American war films of its vintage, even those made by Hitchcock himself (Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur).

Like most narrative films operating with a specific political purpose — in this case the encouragement of the Allies to remain united against a common enemy rather than fostering division among themselves, a depressing topic in left-wing circles even now — Lifeboat struggles a bit with the way that its obligations as a deliverer of its message have to disrupt its more timeless elements of poetic metaphor: the idea of (initially) nine disparate people from various backgrounds trapped together under extremely stressful, harrowing circumstances would be potentially intriguing in any time or historical context, and Hitchcock and his many assisting screenwriters (only Jo Swerling is credited but at least six people worked on the script) do well to place the War itself as simply another obstacle in these characters’ mutual empathy and understanding. Seen today, it’s a movie that works impressively as a period drama that could have come into being now, rather than just as a window into outdated attitudes; it’s beholden enough to common humanity, and is reticent enough about pulling punches, that its drama still feels modern.

Steinbeck’s credit is harnessed for prestige but he had little to do with the film and complained, tiresomely as ever, that it demonstrated that Hitchcock hated “working people” and that the director had sullied his attempt to craft a black character with “dignity” instead of as a comic token character, but seeing the film it’s difficult to understand how it fosters either of these conclusions; in fact, while the black actor Canada Lee’s Joe (in a strong, compassionate performance) is arguably given less to do than the other characters aboard the lifeboat, he was permitted by Hitchcock, like Patricia Collinge in Shadow of a Doubt, to rewrite his own dialogue and make changes to his character. Possibly as a result, he never feels like a stereotype and is given as much of a “back-story” as anyone in the ensemble (he is the only lifeboat passenger whose family we see, in a photograph). Steinbeck’s complaints as well as those of the film’s initial critics, who hated the even-handed treatment of the Nazi played by Walter Slezak, just serve to hold up the very black and white view of the world that the film, in all its ambiguity and moral righteousness, actively discourages.

Despite the star billing afforded Tallulah Bankhead — this was her first film in twelve years, and today it is by orders of magnitude her best known performance in the medium — the characters in Lifeboat are mostly given equal stage time, and all are about equally well-defined; we don’t identify with any of them as intensely as we typically do the protagonists in a Hitchcock picture, but the short bites of truth and personality we get are in line with his later methods for developing unique characters quickly in his half-hour television dramas. Bankhead is a well-known photojournalist named Connie Porter — shades of Jimmy Stewart in another confined-location Hitchcock film — who manages to board the lifeboat before anyone else, looking distinctly un-frazzled and equipped with an amusing number of worldly possessions: camera, typewriter, mink coat, suitcase full of brandy, all to be systematically ripped from her grasp over the course of the film. Bankhead is given most of the best, hardest-boiled dialogue and her coolheadedness in a crisis scenario is engaging, taunting the story along even when things are dire. (“What now, little men?” she asks after another setback.) Because she speaks German, she’s also the sole conduit the survivors have with the enterprising German who comes aboard, Willi.

The enigmatic Willi, a surgeon in civilian life, struggles onto the ship after it’s already well populated and quickly finds ways to assert control, to make the others owe and trust him, while denying that he served as the attacking u-boat’s captain (a lie Connie cleverly exposes). Typically stuck playing stereotypical heavies, Walter Slezak is terrific in the role — his eyes incredibly expressive, traversing so well between gregarious warmth and smug menace — and believable enough that it seems as if audiences and critics held his actions against him as though Willi were a real person, so scandalized were they that the role was written as a human being. Today, the film plays as unmitigated in its anti-Nazi sentiment; one wonders what those were incensed really wanted, unless it was just that they should take the advice of hotheaded engine room crew member John Hodiak and throw the German overboard immediately. Then as now, the film is wise to take a humane approach while still regarding the fascist officer with proper skepticism, and we’re shown the potential consequences of accommodating him when he leads them off-course, even though without him at least one of the Americans, the gangrenous Gus (William Bendix) whose leg he amputates, would be killed.

Gus is the most sensitive and affable of the passengers, an all-American who loves to dance with his girl back home and is therefore despondent at the thought of losing his leg. John is simultaneously the most egotistical and overemotional (taking command when he has no idea how to navigate the boat) and the most hardened realist, in the sense that he sees through Willi’s charade before anyone else. Mary Anderson’s weary nurse Alice MacKenzie, the lifeboat’s only American military officer, feels most like an audience vessel — horrified, doing what she can, unsure of how to make herself most helpful. Canada Lee’s Joe, the former pickpocket, is an interesting portrait of the stymied African-American of those days, keeping himself separate for most of the early scenes without being asked to, expressing surprise at the fact that he gets “a vote” in what happens (a welcome injection of cynicism), and shying away from exploring what we eventually know to be a complex inner life he’s reluctant to place in the open among a group of people whose lives are so alien in their separation from him, yet his own decisive movements drive the story forward at several crucial points. The privileged, witty pragmatist-capitalist “Ritt” (Henry Hull) is a sort of Algonquin Round Table figure who serves as both a previous party mate of Connie’s and as the film’s voice of enlightened, equimonious liberalism, to a fault. Lastly, Hume Cronyn appears as a radio operator and, per usual for his acting roles, a master of peculiar understatement; describing a previous incident in which we was stuck on a similar-sized but better equipped lifeboat for nearly fifty days, he sheepishly declares “we got a bit sunburnt.”

It’s impossible to fully explore or get a handle on any of these people in 96 minutes, but the film’s purpose is for them to be a jury-like cross section of humanity, thus the real story is in how they interact, communicate and eventually work as a collective (the strongest evidence of Steinbeck’s influence over the plot). Hitchcock expresses this more cogently in the camera than the script does, solid as it is, with a haunting shot of the balance of the hapless passengers taking a matter into their hands for another’s benefit: gathering around a flame and a knife in preparation for Gus’ improvised operation. This is later mirrored by a collective killing — revenge, but also self-preservation — in which they participate: a powerful, cathartic moment, even if one character is somewhat correct to describe it as “a mob.” It’s this refusal for easy answers — even as the film clearly casts the Nazi presence as a disease that must be eradicated — that rubbed so many the wrong way about Lifeboat, and now allows it to feel as much like story as polemic.

The sole passenger unmentioned so far is the most heartbreaking. A Scottish woman named Mrs. Higley is among the first to climb aboard, and tragedy is already written on her before it plays out; she is clutching a baby the others quickly determine to have already died in the blast and subsequent sinking, and they try to attend to her in the harrowing hours that follow, but she is unable to cope with the shock and ultimately commits suicide. The raw scenes in which she realizes what has happened and acts out aggressively are among the most unfiltered and emotional in Hitchcock’s canon, indeed in classic Hollywood; they’re genuinely uncomfortable to watch, and have a haunting air of realism about them that speaks volumes to how carefully Hitchcock and his cinematographers (Arthur Miller was unable to take the swaying of the simulated ocean and was replaced by Glen MacWilliams, who managed to get an Oscar nomination along with Hitchcock and Steinbeck, but presumably the uncredited Miller played a larger role in pre-production), not to mention editor Dorothy Spencer, prepared the film’s visuals for maximum impact, despite the extreme limitation they imposed on themselves.

Hitchcock used miniatures to explore the possibilities of blocking and camera placement within such a severely confined setting, but never copped to the temptation to simply find audacious angles or movements; in fact, the most remarkable achievement of Lifeboat is that the viewer is sufficiently caught up in the interpersonal drama that the single setting is never a hindrance, while also never out of sight or mind. That’s not to say there aren’t a few bravura moments, like the stunningly beautiful funeral scene wherein the remaining castaways lay the infant to rest, their eyes only faintly visible in the dark; or the brilliantly menacing head-on view on Slezak rowing the boat, his hands incongruously strong, his face cheerful, his command and confidence impenetrable. (Did George Stevens remember this moment and pointedly reverse it with Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun? Probably not but it’s fun to think about.) Equally striking is the climactic moment when Connie and the others are preoccupied with an attempt to bait fish, when Joe notices a ship in the distance, and the camera notices him at the same instant we do, a beautifully controlled composition that feels not the least bit contrived or stilted. And as for Spencer’s contribution, it’s hard to know whether she or Hitchcock had the absurd stroke of genius to match fade-outs with moments of ominous crisis, to the point that fades themselves become a symptom of dramatic irony, but it works almost sickeningly well: watch the blackness after Gus takes a gulp of salt water, or after Willi’s first utterance of “danke schoen.”

For many viewers, World War II itself is a point of continued fascination, and understandably so; to them a film like Lifeboat is a treat because it directly confronts the matter of civilian life directly affected by the war. For others, however, the film is potentially just as engrossing and poignant. The coupling-off of four characters is unnecessary and inert, though it’s hard to know how improbable it really is in such a touch-and-go survival scenario; and despite the appearance of strong female characters and a person of color in a mostly non-stereotypical (if excessively deferential, though that could easily be the way the scenario would have had to play out in real life in 1944) role, there’s no question the film is a product of its time… but unlike Saboteur and Foreign Correspondent, it has something surprisingly direct to tell us about our current environment.

Accused of denigrating allies by allowing a Nazi to perform heroic acts even if ultimately condemning him as a hostile intruder, Lifeboat seems now to be chiding us directly for confronting the outright murderous hatred of actual neo-Nazis and white supremacists with polite dialogue and discourse, as though hugging it out or wishing it away is the correct response to fascism, the very thing that normalizes it enough to get one of its racist practitioners elected as President of the United States. The characters are not wrong to extend to an enemy the chance to survive; indeed, it’s their moral duty. But there is also the matter of the moral duty that comes from being right, from being opposed to every last thing that the Nazis and their descendants stand for, and disallowing the Willis of the world from having an opportunity to steer us in whatever direction they wish. In other words, as Josh Marshall wrote in 2016: “On a basic philosophical level, embracing violence to combat political and moral evils like racism and fascism is simply not equivalent to embracing violence to advance these evils. Any liberalism or constitutionalism that is so bloodless that it can’t make these distinctions is too ornate and theoretical to exist in the wild.” Now as often as in 1944, there are times when the only correct and valid response to a Nazi spewing rhetoric or sewing the seeds of hatred — the only one that he is likely to comprehend — is to punch him, hurt him, throw him overboard as the case may be. I just hope we make it off this lifeboat soon.

April 2018 movie capsules

10 (lol) movies seen in April. Counts:
– 8 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,316.
– 2 revisits, one (Saboteur) already reviewed here, one (Black Narcissus) with a mostly new writeup.
– 1 new full review, for Black Narcissus. This is turning into a monthly blog, it seems, but at least I did some actual writing this time…
– 8 new or revised capsules, all below.
– We did some traveling this month, hence the low view count; I’m afraid May will be no better, because we’ll be on vacation and away for the whole second half of the month. I doubt the May post (which will be late, again) will be especially hefty. June will be back to normal, though I think the end of the ’40s project is likely to be delayed till the end of summer. Apologies again, but life. I haven’t even gotten myself out to Isle of Dogs yet.

***

Project breakdowns:
1940s canon: 4 films (3 new). At age 34 I encountered two world cinema luminaries, Robert Bresson and Roberto Rossellini, for the first time in my life. I didn’t warm to Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne but loved Rome, Open City; meanwhile, I fell hard for Cocteau’s Orpheus and my long-held convictions about Black Narcissus remain in place. Remaining: 38 films (29 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 4 films (4 new). Finished the streaming stuff with Gangs of New York (which was fucking dreadful), and have now started to raid the movie library at work, with David Copperfield, Love Affair and the terrific Of Mice and Men. More library DVDs on tap for next month, expect a lot of stuffy formalism. Remaining: 150 films (121 new).
2010s catchup: Just one this time, Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky. I dunno, man.
Other: Revisited Saboteur on the course of my slow Hitchcock canon runthrough; need to catch Shadow of a Doubt

Capsules now!

***

Gangs of New York (2002, Martin Scorsese) [c]
Troubled passion project about turn-of-the-century crime boss (Daiel Day-Lewis in his most distinctly Borat-like performance) and his pretend acolyte (constantly scowling Leonard DiCaprio) feels like just another way for Scorsese to excuse the usual lurid obsession with violence. Fact-based or no, its approach to history is no more substantial that something I can imagine Zack Snyder pushing, fight scenes set to trip-hop and all.

Logan Lucky (2017, Steven Soderbergh) [r]
Diverting heist comedy boasts enthusiastically strange casting led by Channing Tatum, disarmingly believable as usual, as a single dad looking to get on top of financial straits and/or screw a former employer, whichever comes first. The plotting is labored, the car racing stuff is tiresome, but it’s warm and funny at its best, though never comes to feel like anything major-league.

Orpheus (1950, Jean Cocteau) [hr]
The continuation of Cocteau’s inspiring, beguiling exploration of the agony and ecstasy of creation. Pretty and tough Jean Marais stars, in a liberal update to the Greek myth, as a celebrity poet shunned by the hipsters, beloved by the public, and whisked via limousine into a surreal, dreamlike but organic drama of death and love and impossibly high stakes. The cast never indicates anything except full commitment to Cocteau’s eccentric vision; and his harnessing of the camera as an engine of lyricism, with brilliant optical and practical effects as well as simply graceful and intimate compositions, has an excitement and restlessness you’d expect of a much younger director. The kind of movie that makes other movies seem faintly silly.

David Copperfield (1935, George Cukor) [r]
The impressive machinations of MGM breathe fiery life into a tepid script that attempts to compress a discursive eighteenth century masterwork into 130 action-packed minutes. The first half is engaging and works well enough as a very thin Cliff’s Notes, with Freddie Bartholomew wonderful as the young David and Jessie Ralph a joy to watch as the kind housekeeper and caregiver Peggotty, but its scenes are so rushed that the attempts at long-term resonance in the second half, plagued by Frank Lawton’s boring central performance, come off as completely empty; and as ever, paring something like a Dickens novel down to a series of events just feels totally pointless.

Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945, Robert Bresson)
Cocteau’s tortured whimsy and florid romance are hard to detect in his script for this melodramatic but joyless story of revenge, inspired by an 18th century French novel. The story is absurd and antiquated almost from the outset, with Maria Casarès play-acting a kind of Marlene Dietrich burlesque as a spurned lover who decides to enact a wildly convoluted comeuppance for her ex. There are telling moments and details and excellent performances, but the product on the whole vacillates between silly and disturbing, and it seems likely that the misguided nature of the adaptation itself in the first place is to blame for its limited appeal.

Love Affair (1939, Leo McCarey) [c]
Pure claptrap; watch One Way Passage instead if you’re into maudlin shipboard romances. Irene Dunne is very good, except when this unbelievably padded (at 87 minutes!) movie forces her to sing. And sing. And sing.

Rome, Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini) [hr]
Grim, painfully realistic narrative of life in Nazi-occupied Italy now has the feel of a harrowingly detailed period piece but of course at the time was practically breaking news, with overwhelming grief hanging over it. The great success in the performances and screenplay is how familiar and intimate we’re allowed to become with the characters, who in contrast to so many movies about civilian life during wartime feel like they approximate the actual behaviors and attitudes of real people living day to day in such conditions, as opposed to one-dimensional victims.

Of Mice and Men (1939, Lewis Milestone) [hr]
Poetic and effective visualization of Steinbeck’s novella is a dramatic portrait of the poor in America that neither condescends nor hedges in its brutality. It benefits from Milestone’s remarkably agile camera and his stunning compositions that demonstrate an awareness of both the ugliness that permanently taunts these migrant workers’ lives and of how the relationships among the characters, especially the leading smartass George (Burgess Meredith, flawless) and his disabled hanger-on Lennie (Lon Chaney Jr.), manifests in the spatial distance between them. The effect is of feeling as if we know and live among these people.

***

[Additional Letterboxd notes on Saboteur (somewhat substantial!) and Black Narcissus (really not much there)]

Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Far away from the self-congratulating nationalism of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and 49th Parallel, and equally far from the romantic gestures of I Know Where I’m Going! and A Matter of Life and Death, the masterpiece of the Archers — the collaborative label under which the great Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked — stands apart from even their most ambitious prior (and subsequent) work, and moreover from most narrative cinema in general. Its depth and wisdom are monumental, but still have nothing on its pure, aching beauty. Black Narcissus is a haunting, dreamlike treasure upon one’s introduction to it — and it becomes ever more startling and affecting as you come to know its intricacies better, and as its subtle, bizarre, winding story lures you back in repeatedly. It is a cornucopia of secrets, locked in time and suspended, untouched in all but the most superficial ways by its increasing age. It feels, as few other films, like so much more than a mere motion picture.

The work is based on a very popular book by Rumer Godden, an English girl who was struck and strongly influenced by the frank (especially sexual) attitudes of the people she grew up around upon relocating to India. (Jean Renoir’s magnificent The River is taken fron another, much more autobiographical novel of hers.) The story concerns a group of nuns who set up a mission in the Himalayas and are confronted with numerous obstacles of both physical and psychological nature. The reputation that precedes the film (and Renoir’s, actually) is its universally agreed-upon status as one of the most aesthetically gorgeous of all color films; one’s impression in the abstract, from the descriptions of scholars and critics, might be of endless shots of nuns in full dress crossing windswept mountains holding up a cross with breathtaking landscapes all around. Unlike their fellow countryman David Lean, though, Powell and Pressburger balk at the notion of cutting narrative corners in favor of providing their audience with an exotic slide show; in their hands as well as Godden’s, this is a story of the elemental tug of war between secularism and spirituality, between colonialism and its victims, and how emotion and memory are colored by obsessive self-denial — it encompasses so much, and refuses to accept any state of its many occupants as some immovable, final thing. Despite its audacious, dramatic appearance, it comes across as truer to the ebbs and flows of real life than most cinema; it’s as complicated and rich as the night sky.

The picture is gorgeously photographed by Jack Cardiff, a magician who later shot some of the best-looking early U.S. color movies, such as The African Queen and the achingly beautiful Under Capricorn. It’s simple enough to compliment the film’s color, but it’s difficult to verbally convey how integral that color is to telling the film’s story: from the grays and whites of the original convent to the explosive Technicolor splendor and terror of the nuns’ open-ended, windswept and remote new location, without any forcible trickery the color alters the characters, the mood, the nature of the events we witness — and there are few modern analogues, at least with this degree of seriousness, to this brilliant use of the camera as canvas, which is reinforced by the astonishing, surreal use of soundstage sets, matte paintings and process shots to replicate a totally uncontrolled environment. Powell used to say that the only true genius of cinema was Walt Disney; today, since we associate Disney’s name so strongly with the sanitized family entertainment that has carried on since his death, it’s hard to immediately grasp such a statement, but those familiar with his actual life’s work are bound to find the influence considerably more palpable. Like Disney, Powell and Pressburger are here concerned with total immersion in the film’s world through any means necessary. They set out for complete purity of visual and aural expression, a feast for the senses — Brian Easdale’s music, with dramatic swells of oppressive tension, is haunting and horrifying; and the film’s use of dialogue is wonderfully sparse, especially as it nears its unforgettable silent ten-minute climax — and indeed, this single film contains more full use of its form than an entire year’s worth of Hollywood movies today.

If the basic story of Black Narcissus is of an entire group of people — the women attempting to foist their morals and perceived sophistication on the populace surrounding a former brothel — questioning their faith and ideals simultaneously, it nevertheless manages to successfully convey their individual personalities and struggles in surprisingly little time. The compassion and openness represented by Sister Honey, the micro-insubordination and uncontrollable yearning expressed by the aging gardener Sister Philippa, and the stern impatience and cracking veneer of Sister Briony are all elaborations of an unstated brokenness that feels organic and free of contrivance, though as troubled as they all are and come to be, none falls into the abyss like Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth, whose rebellion and obvious discomfort from our earliest encounters with her mount until absolute terror and madness overtakes her at the finale. Among the external factors pushing all of them toward a psychological version of the cliff’s edge over which their great bell hangs on the mountain is the entrance of a youthful heir of local royalty (Sabu) as a student despite the school not being intended for post-adolescent males (when initially denied, he points to the statue of Jesus on the cross behind him and says “Wasn’t he a man?” to which Clodagh flippantly replies “He… took the shape of a man” with grave displeasure in her eyes), whose freewheeling attitude, open communication, elegance, perfume and just straightforward beauty and charm appear to rattle all of the women present, if not out of a buried attraction to him than at least because of the long-foregone worldly pleasures his presence and unfiltered words call back to mind.

The Sister Superior, Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is perceived as too young for the responsibilities she’s been handed, and her contempt for the tradition of her new territory comes to feel increasingly performative and immature as she comes to doubt her place in the convent and in the world. Her initial attitude is exemplified by her sourness toward the presence of an old “Holy Man” who sits on a hill at the outskirts of the property. She wants him gone, and fast. “What would Jesus Christ have done?” the dashing male British ambassador Mr. Dean (David Farrar) asks her. Dean is the source of some, but by no means the greatest share, of the frustration and awakening desire among the nuns. He’s sometimes practical and reasonable, and certainly seems to be correct in his assumptions that the entire idea of turning the Palace of Mopu into a monastery is foolish and in his theory that they will depart before “the rains come”; but just as often he is crass and profane, dismissing the Indian people as “simple” and “primitive” and showing up drunk and loud for Christmas mass. Nonetheless, he serves even more than the frankness and audaciousness of Sabu’s Young General — who quickly cottons to a mute, poor dancer (Jean Simmons) dumped on the school by Mr. Dean — as a catalyst for Ruth’s complete retreat from faith and celibacy. Her hunger for his attentions and fascination with his boorish manner weaken what was already an uncertain resolve, and exacerbate the looseness of her grip on sanity… not in the sense that she is a fragile woman who can only be rescued by a man (he denies her advances out of hand anyway) or in the sense that the film posits sexuality itself as merely an expression or substitute for spiritual deliverance but because, as with the other nuns, she has brought herself to a place in which the uneasy boundary between the larger world and her own moral duties is unsustainable, and the arbitrary denial of her own desire in conjunction with the very same instability that likely brought her to the Sisters in the first place sets her on an inevitable path toward jealousy, murder, death.

There’s no sex onscreen in Black Narcissus and sex can in fact barely be mentioned in the dialogue as a consequence of heavy postwar censorship. Somehow, though, the film is among the most erotic ever made by virtue of its accumulation of almost subliminal suggestions; these are not in the vein of Irene Dunne slipping under the covers in The Awful Truth, no such winking steaminess permitted here, for instead the film is focused on the internal tearing-apart caused by unfulfilled desire, and what we’re given to understand by the symbols and vague implications and unstated Fordian longings and the hot, extreme atmosphere in which all this transpires is that the degree of forbidden arousal brewing here is an incalculable rush of blood that built up for years, in some cases decades — the sensuality in the film is more maddeningly restrained than in most Hays-era Hollywood comedies, true, but the sex being mulled over is more intensely private, more forbidden, and far more wildly scandalous than would be within the scope of a screwball comedy of remarriage.

It’s a film in which a character’s latent needs might be expressed by her insistence on planting various kinds of flowers instead of potatoes. It’s in everyone’s eyes and hands, and in the halting, careful space between the characters. There can be few sequences in classic cinema more frankly pornographic than the pulsating lipstick scene at the finale, which leaps off the screen, in which Ruth applies makeup and glares menacingly at Clodagh while the latter, terrified, attempts to feign reading the Bible. Her fear becomes ours when we endure the cold chills from the later final appearance of Ruth (a gloriously orgasmic scene that calls ahead directly to Vertigo), an injection of genuine Gothic horror that’s claustrophobic and intoxicating — and brilliantly edited, by Reginald Mills — and offers us one of the rawest and most involuntary emotional sensations achieved by a film, essentially an unmitigated explosion after more than an hour of everyone talking and acting around the deep changes happening in these people (“There’s nothing really wrong,” Mr. Deans says at one point while consoling Clodagh, who’s finally warmed up to him). The image of Ruth in her final state as she walks out onto the cliff is difficult to begin to convey verbally in its expression of complete given-up insanity amid the magnificence. Earlier, revolutionary visual techniques captured Clodagh’s attempts to dismiss her own emotions: one extraordinary flashback closes with her in her pre-nunnery days running to meet her onetime fiance; she opens the door and paces out, arms outstretched, into the complete blackness, and aptly we follow. Later, an injury to Ruth, and thus Ruth’s own deteriorating mental state, is extended to the viewer with a series of sharp, stabbing pure color shots — another strike between her emotional intensity and the repression surrounding her, more direct and less romantic than Clodagh’s because she’s so much less capable of a pretense of politeness and modesty, which you can read on Byron’s face from the beginning of the film. If all this is a wielding of power by the writer-directors, it’s just as directly an illustration of the film’s scary, humbling, possibly comforting message that even with every machination of civilized society and organization, one’s raw humanity can never be escaped.

Apart from the use of Jean Simmons in brownface — and her performance is nonetheless brilliant, including her brief dance sequence — the casting is among the most impeccable in any great film. Kerr’s intimate understanding of every nuance in her script is unmistakable in each of her scenes, with her face consistently revealing far more than her dialogue; a wonderful moment early on has her initially engaging with a sardonic remark about coffee from Mr. Dean before she catches herself and returns immediately to professional distance. As the three “minor” nuns, Jenny Laird, Judith Furse and especially Flora Robson are engaging and vivid, conveying nuances to their stories that aren’t accounted proper time in the screenplay. Byron is of course unforgettable as the troubled Sister Ruth, a multifaceted performance for the ages and one that must come quickly to mind when one thinks of the most indelible characterizations in film — as you revisit Black Narcissus over the years, you find more and more in her work, as in Kerr’s. Sabu plays the Young General’s naivete irresistibly, and manages to capture rugged dignity as well as universal sensuality. Speaking of dignity, Farrar obviously has a less complex character to play than the women in the main cast, but he’s an appealing actor and does the part proud, slightly resembling Humphrey Bogart in his affect but far handsomer, and he does well to present the character’s friendliness and darkness while taking into account the script’s implication that he’s quite condescending toward the native people with whom he appears to enjoy a great rapport, though his easy friendship with Mary Hallatt’s eccentric housekeeper Angu suggests another series of untold stories in the picture, which marks another of its many virtues: there is the sense that despite the limited time being depicted in Black Narcissus, we are learning everything we could need to about all of the characters’ pasts, and futures, couched in its commentary upon the rightful death of colonialism. The rains do come, just as the nuns are leaving, as Dean predicted; and in one of the most stunning shots — the final one, though briefly broken by a quick and probably unnecessary reaction shot of Farrar — we watch the drops fall for the first time on an unerring, dependable ecosystem that warmly greets them as the caravan of nuns trudges away in the distance.

The following is perhaps unnecessarily broad for a review of a single specific movie, but it’s on my mind this week. Certain films are more than entertainment, they move something in you, they show you something you didn’t expect to see and enrich you. Presumably the people who’ve had the patience to read this far don’t need to be told this, so I know that I’m preaching to the choir. But viewing this film again for the fifth or sixth time to rewrite this review, and living in its world again, was the sort of experience that makes me feel very fortunate to be alive to explore this world and the art embodied in it — I’ve no connection to nuns or to India and no outward reason to expect this story would affect me so deeply, or that its remote collection of events and impulses would manage to encompass such an incredibly broad scope of the human experience, mine and yours and everyone’s. When I see perfectly intelligent people who are willing to deny themselves experiences like this, because this is an “old film” (in what context?) or because it is a certain type of movie with a certain type of perceived elitist audience and intent, I feel so badly for them. I want everyone to have the opportunity to feel the way I do as Black Narcissus swells into its climactic moments and the final unresolved, sad but somehow heart-filling conclusion. Of course i know that’s impossible — art remains subjective no matter how much we love it, and maybe other people get these same feelings out of The Force Awakens or Guardians of the Galaxy, though I admit that instinctively (and no doubt unfairly) I have a hard time believing that. And all the same, my feeling is that the sense of everlasting beauty of this and its impact on me is more than a question of “liking” a “movie,” it’s a question of something genuinely affecting my way of thinking, my sense of what is right and beautiful, and wrong and evil, and in essence, my sense of what art can mean. The rest of my words about it above seem inadequate, and I could spend the day typing and not do any better… but these are true, that’s what this is: a work of art. I don’t know how selective I’ve ever been with that term, but Black Narcissus is one of the pieces that makes me want to be.

***

[Includes heavily cut, pasted and rephrased elements from the review — enchanted but somewhat less laudatory; I needed time — that I wrote of the film when I first saw it in 2006.]

March 2018 movie capsules

16 movies watched in March. Counts:
– 11 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,308.
– 5 revisits, including one (Suspicion) previously reviewed here (though it’s moved up a good deal in my estimation since then, to my surprise), plus a few for the 1940s project: two Preston Sturges classics (The Lady Eve and Unfaithfully Yours) and a Cocteau film school staple (Beauty and the Beast), then a long-ago Best Picture nominee (Apollo 13).
– Only 1 new full review again, and again not an actual new piece of writing I’m afraid, for The Lady Eve. I promise I still care.
– 14 new or revised capsules, all below.
– I was sidelined a few times this month by my music blog, with beginning-of-year overload kind of taking a lot of energy and my not wanting to get stuck in another lag over there. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by how close I came to keeping quota on movies, though again I’ve been writing a lot less here for some reason; a lot of the Letterboxd reviews, especially those for this year’s Oscar nominees, are quite extensive, just not as formal as the stuff I’d be willing to present here. Also later putting up the monthly post than ever before, sorry about that.

***

Project breakdowns:
Oscar catchup: Restored balance in the world by seeing the winners in the categories I’ve worked through already, so no one can remove my pointless boast of having seen every major Oscar recipient. In that spirit: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (actress and supporting actor), I, Tonya (supporting actress), The Shape of Water (picture and director), Call Me by Your Name (screenplay) and Darkest Hour (actor).
1940s canon: 6 films (3 new). The new titles to me were To Be or Not to Be, Cat People and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp; I was disappointed in the last one but loved the others. The reruns were Unfaithfully Yours (still not a big fan), Beauty and the Beast (still enchanted, if at a slight distance) and The Lady Eve (still one of the all-time greats). Remaining: 42 films (32 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 6 films (5 new). By and large these were overlaps with Oscar catchup, but I also saw the outstanding silent ethnograph Chang and the unexpectedly brilliant In the Bedroom (that any other film nominated netted the big prize that year baffles me), and rewatched Apollo 13 finally. Remaining: 153 films (124 new).
2010s catchup: Overlaps with other things above with the exception of the Safdies’ Good Time.
New movies: ibid.

Capsules ahoy:

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, Martin McDonagh) [NO]
McDonagh’s smug, condescending portrait of middle America inspires unpleasant memories of Crash, daring you to endure some of the most abysmal dialogue ever heard in a motion picture. Using a past assault and murder as a prop to justify an endless parade of aimlessly bad behavior, the film tracks a lot of fuss about the titular artifacts, three roadside adverts by the victim’s mother (Frances McDormand) shaming the town sheriff (Woody Harrelson) for his failure to make any arrests. A glorified school play so incomprehensible in its plotting, characterization and tone that it doesn’t even seem to know what it’s trying to accomplish.

To Be or Not to Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
The political, the personal and the farcical mingling with unforced grace, with Carole Lombard luminous and Jack Benny an amusingly lopsided ham as a Polish theatrical couple, half of whom likes to step around, which gets them tangled up with the Gestapo after Hitler invades. The plotting is masterful, withholding just enough information to continually delight in its unexpected turnarounds and one-ups, never permitting an easy shortcut out of its uncomfortable, hilarious situations; at the same time the film is to be commended for making the Nazis look extremely foolish and advocating a violent, fiery resistance against fascism.

Apollo 13 (1995, Ron Howard)
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Because of its mostly accurate technical rundown of the titular near-disaster, Howard’s adaptation of Jim Lovell’s dry but superior book Lost Moon has its merit for space buffs. It’s all rather generic, despite competent direction and reasonably good performances by everyone in the cast, shooting for excitement but mostly telling you things are intense, with heavy use of media clips to sell the urgency, rather than finding any inventive way to make you feel it. And once it’s over, despite its lofty statements about longing for the U.S. to return to the Moon, you don’t really feel affected by any of it.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948, Preston Sturges) [r]
(Revisit; no change.) Sturges’ lyrical, extremely dark comedy about a well-to-do musical conductor (Rex Harrison) who discovers that his wife may be cheating and, during a concert, indulges in fantasies about humiliating and killing her is surprisingly sadistic; given how out of character it is for Sturges, it seems like a case of actor mismatched to material. Harrison has little feel for comedy, lumbering through a tone-deaf performance as a complete asshole, so the primary effect of the violent scenarios he concocts — ingeniously scored to classical music, implying that deep down Sturges really wanted to make a thriller — is just shifty discomfort.

Chang (1927, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack) [hr]
Disregarding its legitimacy as a documentary, the fact that this footage of Thailand farmers fighting for their home even exists is miraculous, and that its directors are able to fashion these endlessly galvanizing shots of treachery, wildlife, action, destruction into a coherent, compelling story is the kind of audacity that you can’t help admiring for all their questionable ethics. The aesthetic pleasures and wildlife “performances” found here are unmatched even now, because for anyone else to be as bold as this duo is not merely unlikely but deeply inadvisable. One of the most exciting of all silent films.

Good Time (2017, Ben & Josh Safdie) [hr]
What makes this frantic, unstoppably propulsive account of two brothers botching a bank robbery and the domino effect that results such an effective classicist thriller is that it adheres to the idea of traditional structure while constantly upending it. There’s no indication in its first ten minutes of what sort of movie it’s going to turn into, and you’re never relaxed enough to predict the next crazed move it makes — it’s a curving road with an endless series of detours. Even as its bastard of a hero (Robert Pattinson) grows ever more frustrated and stymied, your own satisfaction mounts because the tension is so exhilarating.

Beauty and the Beast (1946, Jean Cocteau) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) A movie that grows more enrapturing in the mind than it could ever be on screen — looking back on it, you wonder how many of its scenes (the introductions of the castle, the flying, the particularly drunken wanderings of the characters) could really exist as tangible pieces of film; at times it’s among the most intoxicating of all narrative films, but it plays its fanciful cards sparingly. The indelible final shot is the most elegant possible rebuke to every advancement in visual effects technology made in the last seventy-odd years.

In the Bedroom (2001, Todd Field) [hr]
A story as unstructured and unpredictable as life itself, starting with a teenager whose affair with an older woman is met with mild consternation by his parents and much worse by the girlfriend’s former husband. What we’re treated with is a powerhouse showcase for actors (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, both so inspired it makes many more amply rewarded screen marriages look extremely goofy) not because it affords them any opportunity to chew scenery or to assert themselves loudly but because the script’s constantly flowing stream of real, yet unfathomably tragic, life is so rich, well-judged, built to be imparted beautifully by their subtle understatement.

I, Tonya (2017, Craig Gillespie) [hr]
Hyperkinetic approach to the 1994 spat between figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding that took the nation and the sexist media by storm captures the frenetic nature of media in those and these times. Gillespie walks a tightrope in fashioning the lives of real people, victims and abusers alike, into something genuinely gripping even as you wonder if it should be. Allison Janney’s depiction of an embittered parent is frightening in its vividness; and the camera’s agility during the skating scenes, performed by Margot Robbie herself in the title role, underscores how Harding’s chosen sport is the only opportunity she has to escape into herself.

Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur) [hr]
An outrageously silly story somehow molded into compelling, unnerving cinema, as though someone handed Tourneur the wackiest concept they could think of (newlyweds suffer emotional distance and a freeze in physical contact because the bride thinks she’s a cat) and dared him to turn it into a serious picture. The unexplained tension and foreboding mount breathlessly all through the story, prodded along by fine performances and cinematography; the rationale behind it all hits you afterward and you’re alarmed and thrilled at the wool pulled over your eyes, and for the opportunity given to explore a doomed young marriage in unusually blunt terms.

The Shape of Water (2017, Guillermo del Toro) [c]
Fish sex is the least of the problems with this handsome but insipid Oscar winner, a Cold War story with the fine Sally Hawkins as a lonely mute woman whose attachment to a large amphibian being kept top-secret on a military base becomes a big exercise in phony, cornball compassion, overly reliant on lousy, one-dimensional writing and the hokey use of a lazily evil villain played by Michael Shannon. It’s meant to be a “fairy tale” but fails to probe at such conventions in any meaningful way, and its stroke of sentimentalism is deadly. (There’s even a shot of the monster in a the movie theater, in case you wanted it to be Cinema Paradiso!)

Call Me by Your Name (2017, Luca Guadagnino) [r]
Coming-of-age story about a passionate, lustful summer between a teenage boy and an older male student boasts strong performances by Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, compensating for somewhat underwritten roles. It’s all rather bougie, and leans too much on dialogue to explain its characters’ emotions rather than really delving into the evolution of their mutual attraction. But it does get something right about the dreamlike enormity and heaviness of a short-lived whirlwind romance, particularly in terms of the way such a sweeping event leaves a person reeling, and how the rest of the world gets cast for however long (maybe forever) in its shadow.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [r]
Decades-spanning chronicle of a gregarious but egotistical British officer (Roger Livesey), his professional experiences and romances and gradual decline, its epic sweep harnessed apparently to boost morale at home. The colors pop, and Deborah Kerr is good in all three of her roles and great in the one that casts her as a brassy army driver, but after nearly three hours, the episodic story feels insubstantial, and our “hero” may be the least interesting and most farcical character in the film, especially in comparison to Anton Walbrook as his lifelong friend, a German he injures in a duel early on whose allegiances are intriguingly mixed.

Darkest Hour (2017, Joe Wright)
Another of Wright’s bland prestige pictures for the PBS set, this Gary Oldman vehicle, caking him with makeup to play Winston Churchill in his first month as Prime Minister, isn’t terribly boring but does pretty much exactly what you expect with the material, and it feels like we’ve watched this movie hundreds of times by now, even if it looks slightly nicer than usual in Wright’s hands. And I suppose the film fancies itself a nuanced view of Churchill as icon and folk hero and “troubled” leader but his actual flaws went a hell of a long way beyond yelling at typists.

***

[Additional bonus Letterboxd writeups for Suspicion / The Lady Eve]

The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

When Preston Sturges’ movies are mediocre, it is invariably because they seem so steeped in the world and time period in which they were made. The Lady Eve stands as a stark contrast to this problem; it is one of the liveliest, most modern films of the classic Hollywood period that isn’t directed by Ernst Lubitsch. It is smashing, smart, dazzling, wonderful, an absolutely undeniable treat. And what makes this especially miraculous is that Sturges is essentially at sea as a visual stylist; unlike the work of, for instance, Billy Wilder, Mel Brooks, and many others who’ve withstood this criticism, Sturges honestly is almost purely verbal. But he is also a staunch and gracious humanist, and it is this that lends his best work its timeless, inscrutable beauty.

As a result of his weaknesses as a director, it’s inevitable that one concentrates on the script here, and indeed, it is a stunning piece of work, a subtle, witty, poetic masterpiece of economy, irony, and completely adult wisdom. If I began quoting the best lines, we’d be here all week; let it simply be said that the dialogue, interplay, and characterization are balletic in their perfection.

Moreover, the story is quite unusual and can even make a claim to being thoroughly original, in part as a result of its bizarre structure, divided very distinctly into two halves, much like Sturges’ even more celebrated followup, Sullivan’s Travels. The tale of naive rich biologist Henry Fonda, nailing the role of a perpetual child (he is so young in this film, infinitely younger than in The Grapes of Wrath, made the preceding year, or in Young Mr. Lincoln a year before that), seduced by card shark Barbara Stanwyck, seems to be leading to a romantic crescendo when it crashes and burns and makes a completely unexpected 180-degree turnaround into scandal and deception. Anyone whose eyes aren’t glued on the screen unfailingly from that point to the end is too cynical to even bother with movies.

The film was a blockbuster in its day, but it feels shockingly ahead of its time. It does not have a feminist message (as was common for similarly ferocious comedies of the day, like His Girl Friday), but it is equally radical in the sense that it is nonchalantly feminist; the heroine is the strongest character in the picture, and when the ending comes around, she does not have to be “put in her place,” even in a satirical fashion the way Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder would do it. Stanwyck, an actress with just about the highest level of intelligence and verve seen in Tinseltown at the time, doesn’t seem to have to reach even half an inch to become Jean Harrington, delightfully narrating the other occupants in the ship’s dining room MST3K-style while observing them through her compact, or for that matter, the role Jean takes later on. Her performance is staggering, exhausting, flawless, by the standards of any era, but unprecedented for a film of 1941, a time when gender roles were even more precisely defined in films than they are now. Meanwhile, Henry Fonda, one of the best Hollywood actors of all, is nearly unrecognizable as the desexualized “gee golly” son of a wealthy ale brewer. Neither performance is ever obvious or silly, neither character is ever stereotypical. Sturges’ scenarios, people, and words don’t feel like real life, they feel like the way real life plays out in our heads after we’re finished with it for the day; but unlike the wisecracking fast-talkers populating the screwball comedies, these feel like people with inner lives, sexualities, histories, desires, and the actors sense this element in Sturges (even more visible, if anything, in his earlier Christmas in July), and fully embody it.

A movie that’s a model to follow in so many ways, particularly in its unerring eye toward the universal nature of the problems of all of its characters, even the minor ones, would almost have to make a misstep or two. Surprisingly, the problems (aside from the aforementioned aesthetic value, or lack thereof) are mostly technical fallacies in the script. Sturges misses one extra punchline: he doesn’t bring back the snake or its food for the third act. And his ending, honestly, is too abrupt. I can live with the quick fade at the conclusion, but I have trouble swallowing Fonda’s sudden acceptance of crooked Stanwyck after cursing her for months. All the same, Stanwyck’s last line and the way she delivers it almost overcompensate for any last-minute gaffes.

So much else is in the film that bears mentioning: the usual army of superb Sturges character players shines. The slapstick, confined mostly to the last half-hour, is sublime, a convenient reminder of how heavenly this style of comedy is in the hand of a master. (And where the fuck else are you ever going to see Henry Fonda, of all people, tripping over a couch!?) Sequences plundered by directors from Roberto Benigni to Woody Allen to Blake Edwards are still fresher here than they ever would be again, thanks to Sturges’ peerless writing and delivery. The Lady Eve is an innovator in other respects as well; it features a fully animated title sequence, one of the earliest examples of such a stunt being employed. And on top of the comedy, the pathos, the dialogue, the love of mankind (suffused with sly class commentary on rich folk banging their tables when they don’t get what they want, a very different but harmonious take on one of the central conflicts of Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, it is one of the few Hollywood features of the ’40s that is genuinely erotic. Stanwyck’s oral fondling of a rose, her leaning and unabashedly sexual moaning on Fonda’s shoulder (with exposed midriff, no less) — it’s all enough to make you forget about mise en scene and screenplay structure for a little while. Stanwyck is actually depicted as a more sexual being in this film than in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, probably her second-best performance, a perfect contrast with the impotence of Fonda’s character.

I don’t like to make grand statements like “you don’t like cinema if you don’t like this film,” but I would be willing to wager that every review I will ever write here will be useless to you if you are not warmed and/or exhilarated by The Lady Eve. All you can do as the credits roll is take a deep breath and prepare for the return to reality.

***

[Originally posted in 2007, with some minor edits and additions.]

February 2018 movie capsules

15 movies watched in February. Counts:
– 13 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,297.
– 2 revisits, one (Foreign Correspondent, slight downgrade!) previously reviewed here, another (Le Corbeau) subject of the month’s only full-length post.
– 1 new full review, a straightforward reformat of an old one: Le Corbeau.
– 13 all-new capsules below.
– Slow month for movies, stressful month in general, hoping spring will spring fully equipped with ample free time.

***

Project breakdowns:
1940s canon: 5 films (4 new). The revisit, again, was Le Corbeau. The rest: I Know Where I’m Going!; Monsieur Verdoux (finally — one of the biggest gaps for me); Christmas in July; and Quai des Orfevres. Loved them all. Remaining: 50 (35 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 4 films (4 new), I still suck but it was a short month. Saw Smilin’ Through, Our Town, In Which We Serve and Brooklyn. Unusually for this category, I at least somewhat enjoyed all of these too. Remaining: 152 films (122 new).
2010s catchup: Pretty big month here. After the Oscar nominees were announced I decided I wanted to try to go and see two more of the current BP contenders but have thus far made it to just one of them, The Post, as well as catching Dunkirk via a library DVD. Also saw Personal Shopper (yecch), mother! (hooray!) and Brooklyn (overlap with Oscar nominees).
New movies: The Post and Dunkirk also qualify here. And thirdly, I’m not as dogged in my devotion to any given director or writer anymore, but news of a new Miguel Arteta-Mike White collaboration last year had me shook, and I eventually caught up with Beatriz at Dinner… it hasn’t nearly the slow-burn impact of Chuck & Buck or The Good Girl, but it certainly has its merits, especially if you enjoy the more recent Mike White stylings of Enlightened and such.

Sorry for such a dry rundown this month. Now capsules! Capsules are fun…

***

Personal Shopper (2016, Olivier Assayas) [c]
A trashy horror-thriller disguised as arthouse fare with badly performed nonsense dialogue spewing from Kristen Stewart. There’s an endless sequence devoted to her texting someone, which might evoke title cards in silent films if the dialogue were less mundane or if anything of interest was happening onscreen during the entire half-hour. The cheapness of the ghost-hunting scenes is unworthy of everyone involved, but it seems as if Assayas, like so many others, had to get some basic-cable stupidity out of his system.

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [hr]
A charming, stupendously shot, partly comic romance completely unlike the films for which Powell & Pressburger are best known, but with the same oversized emotions and sheer awe at the possibilities of life and cinema. Wendy Hiller stars as a self-possessed, headstrong twentysomething determined to get a position for herself in the commercial world through a convenient marriage. While she’s stranded in the Scottish Hebrides due to bad weather, she finds cracks forming in her long-decided destiny. A valentine to Scotland sent by a film camera, idealized but deeply felt.

Smilin’ Through (1932, Sidney Franklin) [hr]
Surprisingly touching, intense and ironically titled pre-Code melodrama about a well-off widower who raises his niece, their relationship sunny and ideal until as an adult she falls in love with the son of his mortal enemy. It may be a little goofy and over-the-top, lacking the sleaze of Josef von Sternberg’s similarly wild tales, but the romance herein is potent thanks to the performances (in dual roles) of Norma Shearer and Fredric March, both brilliant and stunning. Shearer’s acting is so naturalistic it’s almost eerie; she elevates this potentially workmanlike studio concoction to some kind of art.

Monsieur Verdoux (1947, Charles Chaplin) [hr]
Chaplin’s infamous “black comedy” (really more of a grim, tragic horror movie) generates discomfort because his character, a former bank teller and master of disguise turned murderer, is both palpably human and a nearly complete, violent deconstruction of the Chaplin persona that had already charmed audiences for a generation. His thorough rebuking of the optimism and sweetness of his older films can be upsetting, but it also feels necessary; you only wish the dark message here was less relevant, but somehow it seems more like a movie of our time than of Chaplin’s.

The Post (2017, Steven Spielberg) [hr]
You can shoot cynical holes through this slick, middlebrow exploration of the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times and the Washington Post; it’s weird that the film is about the Post and not the Times, the casting of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks potentially puts it squarely in prestige picture hell, and it has the usual excessive hand-holding and syrup so common to Spielberg’s films. But what can you say? He’s the best there is when it comes to telling a cracking good story, and for someone who finds the subject interesting, this is as exciting as Marvel movies are to their audience.

Dunkirk (2017, Christopher Nolan) [r]
A sensory experiment of sorts, the Alfonso Cuarón version of a war film, with the less gifted Christopher Nolan tracking the titular battle from three angles but with the constant exposition of his other films nixed in favor of storytelling that’s both more visceral than you’d expect and less pure and elegant than he seems to think. Your mileage will vary on this depending on how much you feel like living through a futile moment of tragedy and destruction with this level of immediacy and neatness is a worthy cause, but there’s no doubt it’s an impressive piece of film.

Our Town (1940, Sam Wood) [r]
One of the strangest classic-era Hollywood films, which would be true by default of any faithful adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s extraordinary play. It’s eerie to watch studio stars and standards applied to the ghostly dread that overtakes in the third act, the surreal visualization of William Cameron Menzies and the awkward crescendos of Aaron Copland’s indescribable score permitting it to feel like radical art screaming out from a netherworld of commercialism. Sadly the finale negates much of the honesty and dismay of the play, underlining how much the work depends on the original sense of unresolved longing.

Christmas in July (1940, Preston Sturges) [hr]
Sturges’ second film is a hilarious, emotionally eclectic delight. A prank is played on a hard-working office joe trying to win the $25,000 slogan contest being sponsored by a rival corporation. It’s a breeze, but deep down it shows Sturges as a sort of verbose Frank Borzage — the dialogue crackles, the jokes are solid, the situations engagingly absurd, but the characters are far more believable and the sincerity far more obvious than in the average classic Hollywood comedy. As in all of his best scripts, Sturges is unable to hide the sheer joy he feels at jumping around in a world of his own making.

mother! (2017, Darren Aronofsky) [hr]
In a sort of uncredited Repulsion remake, Jennifer Lawrence is remodeling a house and laying herself bare for her Important Artist husband who fails to consider her feelings when he opens their home up to increasingly intrusive and hostile guests. Aronofsky’s films have historically been visceral and silly, but here he finds a miraculous balance here between studio slickness and the stomach-churning discomfort of Lars von Trier or Todd Solondz; some will be perturbed enough to give up this on long before it turns the corner into hysteria; others will love being toyed with by someone who can’t be trusted.

Beatriz at Dinner (2017, Miguel Arteta) [r]
Salma Hayek completely embodies (down to the awkward haircut) the title character, an alt-medicine practitioner and masseuse whose general compassion and love of animals leads to uncomfortable conversations with a Trump-like tycoon and big game hunter played by John Lithgow, a consequence of her car breaking down outside a client’s house. Misleadingly billed as a comedy itself, this in fact is vastly more serious and melancholy than the earlier Miguel Arteta-Mike White collaborations. It’s not exactly profound, and it won’t brighten your evening, but it’s got soul.

In Which We Serve (1942, Noel Coward & David Lean) [r]
Noel Coward trying to capture the camaraderie of common British soldiers feels about as awkward and stilted as you’d expect, but then again he really was a Black Book target and there’s an agreeable nonchalance to the political righteousness of this propaganda piece about a warship attacked during the 1941 Battle of Crete. There’s believable material about the war at home and at sea, delivered mostly through flashbacks; the cast is good, with Celia Johnson just as striking here as she is in Brief Encounter.

Brooklyn (2015, John Crowley) [hr]
Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel by Nick Hornby, of all people, this is a disarmingly sweet, touching dramedy in which Irish homebody Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), feeling malaise with her job and life, finds acceptance and love during a working holiday as a boarder in NYC in the early 1950s. Apart from its slightly probing exploration of what it means to form your own life away from family, this is light as a feather and might be totally innocuous if not for the sustained brilliance of Ronan’s performance, which is magnetic and takes this from polite literary prestige into the realm of tough, moving human reality.

Quai des Orfèvres (1947, Henri-Georges Clouzot) [hr]
The tense, lovingly shot, sometimes morbid but strangely symmetrical tale of a murder investigation in which the prime suspects are a singer, her jealous husband and a Midge-like compassionate onlooker, this resembles Hollywood noir more than the rest of Clouzot’s classic thrillers. The script, cowritten with Jean Ferry, is notable less for its adaptation of an overly neat story than for its impressively taut, evocative dialogue, a lot of it delivered by their splendidly cranky investigator Antoine (Louis Jouvet), who cries out for a franchise revival.

***

[Additional Letterboxd writeups: Foreign Correspondent / Le Corbeau]

Le Corbeau (1943, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

[Note: The following was originally posted at my old blog in 2008 as a review of the Criterion Collection’s now long-deleted DVD of this film. Customarily I would not use a DVD review, or such a casual writeup, for this venue; however, I liked this material so much and found that it articulated so much that my latest revisit to this wonderful film evoked (especially my discovery of it through a French teacher who proved extremely influential over my movie tastes) that I decided to revive the piece here, with just a few additions and the removal of two closing paragraphs about the supplements and price point. Please do keep its original context faintly in mind as you peruse it.]

***

I heard Criterion’s disc of Le Corbeau was going out of print so I made a point to grab one as soon as I possibly could. I don’t know why I hadn’t already bought it; when it came out I was really excited, because the announcement solved a long-running mystery for me. In high school, my French teacher used to show us a lot of movies toward the end of the semester, and although I wasn’t the best student and didn’t have an especially great relationship with her because I was a surly teenager, I quickly realized she had excellent taste. Through her I was introduced to Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, and the chief thrill of that was not even that I now understood the Simpsons episode that parodied them. She showed us Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast with its gloriously undiluted romantic imagery, my freshman year. She showed us the TV miniseries of Les Miserables with Cyril Cusack and Anthony Perkins, which hypnotized me from beginning to end and caused me to pick the book up and actually start reading it. (I’ve since seen a few other versions across various mediums and that one is still the very best.)

Then there was Le Corbeau. It is the story of creepy anonymous “poison pen” letters (never having heard the term before, I was disheartened at the time that they weren’t literally notes written with poisonous ink) sent out into a French village that torment and agonize the occupants to the point of insanity, self-destruction, and death. It is suffocatingly atmospheric, amping up the paranoia and dread of Rod Serling’s (much later) “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” until it’s nearly intolerable. It contains one of the most hauntingly photographed sequences I can ever remember seeing, when prime suspect Rolande runs away from the mob that is accusing her of slander during a funeral procession; and later, the haunting images of a letter falling from the upper galleries of a church onto the congregation below, and of a killer slipping away mysteriously into unforgiving daylight. The ending lurched forward at a breakneck pace, as did the whole film (91 minutes; take that, rambling Hollywood assholes!), but what stayed with me was the oppressive world in which the film took place, the feeling of constant threat and fear, the inability to be at peace, which spoke very loudly to me at the time. Today I’m still enchanted by how it feels like some beach-read turned on its head, with its many characters made distinctive despite their limited impact, our suspicions of each of them ebbing and flowing throughout the narrative, and its extended dialogue sequences made gripping and breathless at times by nothing more than a device like a light bulb swinging to and fro. It would be some years before I would learn the extent of director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s mastery, but this was enough to convince me of his importance.

My teacher’s copy was on a shoddy old VHS and the transfer looked distant, damaged, ancient, which made it all the more terrifying. After I learned that it was made during the Occupation my fascination increased and I was absorbed in the story like never before. Later, the whole film felt like a dream, so much so that — unsurprisingly, with my age at the time — I forgot all about it for months and even years, until some time later I found myself looking everywhere to try and determine what this masterfully scary movie about poison pen letters tearing people apart had been, and it proved impossible simply because I could not locate the title of the film in any of my notes from school. I don’t know if this story is interesting to anyone but me at all, but it’s amazing how difficult it is to find a film when you know so little about it — even your description of a specific scene might not match the exact nature of what was happening, at least if you’re me and your memory about specific incidents and characters in movies is quite bad. I knew it was black & white, French, subtitled, and made during the war. That was all I had, and somehow or another I must have passed over Le Corbeau, literally “The Raven,” in numerous lists assuming it had something to do with Poe.

Then, in 2003, Criterion announced a release of the DVD. I check their announcements every month, both because they often release films I love or have long wanted to see, and because their schedule and website frequently introduce me to something I’m not familiar with that I want to learn more about. (If they had not released Ace in the Hole this summer I still would not have seen it, and that would suck.) I was immediately attracted to the beautiful cover, which subverts the Criterion design at the time with sloppy and sinister but elegant pen lines. And when I read the summary, it jumped out at me: this is something I had long forgotten, long wondered about, and here it was. It was a moment similar to when I heard “Mr. Spaceman” by the Byrds for the first time in over a decade; I had forgotten it existed and yet I still knew every word and could not contain my excitement.

Even though I did not know its title, Le Corbeau was a very special film for me, one of the first French films I ever saw. I eventually did find my notes and discovered we were shown the film just before Thanksgiving break in 1999 — the same month as The 400 Blows, quite an introduction to world cinema; I remembered the Truffaut film more clearly down through the years, and it undoubtedly meant a greater amount to me then and continues to do so. Nevertheless, Le Corbeau too seemed to awaken something, I think more in terms of the period of its production than its country of origin, a kind of preoccupation with its time. I felt this again on rediscovering The 39 Steps — something about the films of the ’30s and ’40s, especially but not merely in Europe, is infinitely evocative to me, and the more steeped they are in that time, the better.

Because while Clouzot’s film has its universal elements, specifically the familiar human-nature-at-its-worst parable, it is very distinctly awash in the paranoid setting into which it was born. As Bertrand Tavernier says in an interview included with the DVD, the fear and dread of the French village in the midst of German occupation is constantly palpable; you can taste it. It’s one of the most atmospheric films ever made, and while the story is gripping, that I believe is why the film stayed in my mind all these years, with a constant air of mystery about it. The feeling is of being unforgivingly thrust into a cold and inhumane world, something that Clouzot would become ever more adept at in Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, but in this case there is an obvious purpose — the communication of the horror of being so isolated as the town clearly is. Clouzot took heat for working with the German propaganda machine to continue making films during the war (although the Nazis weren’t any happier with Le Corbeau than the Resistance press was), but I feel you learn far more about France during WWII from this film than you could from any book or even eyewitness account. You can feel the heaviness of the air, the bleak ambivalence everywhere. It’s a memorably sensory but deadening experience. (You never feel all that great after a Clouzot film, except about movies.)

Of course, the storytelling is also just about perfect, mostly due to Clouzot’s visual sense, which is impeccable even this early in his career. Every sequence is evocatively lit and photographed; it’s really quite a work of art, and it’s no mystery why the Nouvelle Vague took up Clouzot as a cause some years later. However, of all his films I’ve seen, this is the one that least resembles the work of the man to whom H.G. is most often compared, Alfred Hitchcock — although the movie is extremely suspenseful, it is a whodunit, it is driven by plot twists, it is only psychological in the broadest sense (it’s more of a parable and/or a “think piece” than any Hitchcock film, save perhaps The Birds, which relies equally on isolation), and it is permeated with an ominous feeling of futility throughout. Although Diabolique and Wages both end with a crushing sense of maddening misanthropy, they had a sense of cackling absurdity. Le Corbeau does not; it may end with the promise of new life, but it also ends with a couple destroyed by one another and by obsession, and totally failing to find revenge in a world swirling around them that immediately and necessarily enacts its revenge. As vivid as the characterization is — and it’s brilliant — there is no escape from the darkness to be found. The sense that everyone is guilty is probably what made both Germans and French so upset, leading Clouzot after the war to be (briefly) banned for life from directing. But this lack of hopefulness makes the film that much more fascinating, and allows one to look upon it as entirely unique: the saddest whodunit ever filmed. And the creepiest. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that as presented by Criterion, the movie no longer looks ancient or faded, as it did when I first saw it, but to its credit, it’s still just as unnerving.

January 2018 movie capsules

19 movies seen in January. Counts:
– 14 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,284.
– 5 revisits, including one (Rebecca, highly appropriate since we saw Phantom Thread later in the month) already reviewed here, plus another (L’Atalante) upgraded from a capsule to a full essay. The others were ether newly capsuled (To Have and Have Not and The Magnificent Ambersons) or given a full review (The Red Shoes).
– 2 new full reviews, for a couple of magic titles: L’Atalante and The Red Shoes.
– 16 new capsules at the bottom of this post.
– Didn’t finish everything I wanted to, but still, a great month of cinema.
– Oscar season is upon us but I won’t be adding the nominees to the page for the current project just yet, though I do intend to see a few more before the awards are handed out. Speaking of the projects page, I forgot to add the 1940s canon a couple of weeks ago; it should be up by the time you read this.

***

Project breakdowns:
Sight & Sound Top Tens: 5 films (4 new). All done; you can read about it here. Finished up with both parts of Ivan the Terrible, La Terra Trema, Pather Panchali (all of the aforementioned via Filmstruck) and a long-needed revisit to The Magnificent Ambersons, which — as expected — I badly underrated back in 2005.
1940s canon: 5 films (3 new). Got a late start unfortunately. We begin this project with 58 films to watch, 42 of them new to the database, Already tearing through the Filmstruck offerings for this one. Came back to To Have and Have Not and found that I felt almost exactly the same way about it as I did originally, which is a nice change. Showed The Red Shoes to Amber, tried and failed to capture its magic and flaws in a revision of my original review, but I don’t think I’m even capable. Got a few classics from world auteurs under the belt: Day of Wrath, The Southerner and Late Spring, all nuanced and surprising. Remaining: 53 films (39 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 5 films (3 new). Finally back to work, and cheating already. The Magnificent Ambersons overlaps with both Sight & Sound and the 1940s list (though not included in the initial count for the latter), while The Red Shoes is an overlap with the latter. But aside from that: caught up with some ’30s stragglers — The Front Page, A Farewell to Arms, Lady for a Day, all interesting and in the last case, very good. Remaining: 156 films (126 new).
2010s catchup: Bolted out to see Phantom Thread, my current favorite film of 2017 (I haven’t seen many); Paul Thomas Anderson is now one of my favorite directors of all time, which is hilarious given how much I hated him through most of my young adulthood. Netflix sent me Neighboring Sounds, a big disappointment. And a streaming expiration forced me to endure We Need to Talk About Kevin, an experience I did not enjoy, but I have to admit I ended up admiring the film. (This is unusual for me; I tend to correlate enjoyment almost directly with admiration. Even with something like The Pianist, “enjoy” may not be the word, but I’m fully swept in and appreciative of its narrative, and I would watch it most anytime. I constantly wanted Kevin to end.)
New movies: Just Phantom Thread. Of the Best Picture nominees, I’ve already seen that, Get Out and Lady Bird (all exquisite!) and plan on attending an actual movie theater to actually watch Call Me by Your Name and The Post (old habits die hard, and knowing me I’ll eat it up). Dunkirk is sitting waiting for me to watch. The others I’m not in any rush to see, though the nominees project will dictate that I do so before too long, just not theatrically. (And if, heaven forbid, one of them wins Best Picture, I will almost definitely go, so don’t worry.)
Other: Of the extras in the Monterey Pop boxed set (see last month’s capsules), one counts as an actual feature: Jimi Plays Monterey. Reviewing that is an awkward line to toe for me; I am blown away by Hendrix’s talent but have never cared much for his music, at least that which he recorded in the studio. Shake! Otis at Monterey is more my speed but, alas, doesn’t count for this blog.

Here be capsules.

***

Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944, Sergei Eisenstein) [r]
Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958, Sergei Eisenstein) [hr]
The bombast and nationalistic glory of Eisenstein’s silent films are fused here with some covert rebelliousness and a bit of dry humor, with the director rapidly running through the Tsar’s coronation, marriage, illness, resurrection, abdication and popular triumph in the first half, then into decadence, scandal, camp and live-action Bosch paintings in the second. Almost every shot is inherently exciting; few black & white films capture actors’ eyes with such perverse intensity. Nikolay Cherkasov gives essentially the same performance as in Alexander Nevsky, but that’s not really a criticism since it’s clearly what both roles require.

La Terra Trema (1948, Luchino Visconti) [r]
Two and a half hours of unaugmented, nearly artless despair, revolving around poor fishermen in Sicily and what happens when one man tries to buck the capitalist system oppressing him and his family. Respect for the non-professional actors, solidarity with the plight of the working people, but there’s something patronizing, even exploitative, in how maudlin and one-dimensional this is, like a sincere version of Buñuel’s Land Without Bread. Aldo Graziati’s cinematography is a miracle; all of the gravity and sense of life here comes from his camera, and it’s incredible to imagine what a shock to the senses this must have been at the time.

Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray) [hr]
Like the Italian neorealists and some of the more humane Hollywood directors (Wyler, Borzage, Capra), Ray takes the everyday lives of people seriously, and treats them as inherently dramatic and interesting, in this genuinely beautiful, sensitive, poetic story of a poor Indian family not getting by, the young son Apu (Subir Banerjee) quietly bearing witness to tragedy and poetry, which is everywhere, but with no sense of beautification of poverty. The characters are universally deep and well-drawn; Apu is less an Antoine Doinel than an audience vessel through which the curiosities, sadnesses, fears, weird unexpected miracles of life come careening toward us.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles) [hr]
(Revisit; upgrade.) Despite the inevitable handicaps — that this is only two thirds of what Welles filmed, and that it cannot shoulder the burden of being the follow-up to Citizen Kane — this is almost unique among Hollywood studio pictures, its bizarre union of three-dimensional believability and cartoonish unreality well matched by the clash of romantic nostalgia and extremely subtle Gothic terror recast as social comment in Welles’ adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel. The sprawling and sordid narrative essentially tries to form the bitter, love-starved yearning of the childhood memories in Kane into an entire feature. It nearly succeeds.

Neighboring Sounds (2012, Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Lively, character-filled drama about how the occupants of a neighborhood of condominiums in Brazil react when a security team is hired for their street. It’s quite engaging, but doesn’t justify its own attention to detail and constant straying and meandering; there’s simply no excuse for a film with its ultimately simple structure to be as long as it is. It’s caught halfway between having a plot and ignoring the idea of having one, so all roads lead to nowhere — it’s like an Antonioni film, only ugly.

Jimi Plays Monterey (1986, D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus) [r]
Jimi Hendrix is limited to one song in Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, but the rest of his performance at the festival could easily have squeezed into that feature and would likely have enhanced it. It was finally edited together and released as its own film nineteen years after the legendary weekend itself. The set includes songs from the Experience’s first album but is dominated by covers, most movingly of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Pennebaker and Hegedus bring us fuller picture here of Hendrix as a musician and human: relaxed but committed, feeding off the audience and their energy.

Day of Wrath (1943, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [hr]
A 16th century study of the eggshells-walking that endures when living under oppression, or a subtle horror scenario about witchcraft — Dreyer gives us just enough of a compelling, haunting narrative here that it can become either story, each with the same strange sense of dread, erotic charge and often terrifying extremity. It is so gripping that you have to remind yourself to take a breath; the prologue about the execution of a “witch” portrayed by Anna Svierkier is the stuff of harrowing nightmares, yet you can also comprehend an interpretation in which this is among the most romantic films of all. It’s the cinema of empathy, of incompatible empathies.

Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson) [hr]
A chamber piece about the House of Woodcock, where a dress designer (Daniel Day-Lewis) maintains a carefully cultivated, oppressive kind of order over the two women (a sister and a lover) living there with him. Like the Hitchcock films it looks upon as inspiration, this is more complex than a morally righteous Gaslight; it’s about a duel of control between an impassioned artist with troubled-genius syndrome and a woman whose potential power over him is greater, and more enticing, than he could ever have imagined. The film looks and sounds beautifully, sumptuously old and “classic”… but it’s also kinky pornography and uproarious comedy.

The Front Page (1931, Lewis Milestone) [r]
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s wildly fast-paced newspaper comedy-drama about the 24 hours straddling an expected execution served as the source material for His Girl Friday, but first it was this unusual hybrid of proto-screwball and display of gritty pre-Code machismo. Some of the dialogue is stilted and the character relationships seem less believable than those in the larger-than-life Hawks variation, the script more tied to its time with talk about red-baiting and “the colored vote.” The most fascinating thing here is Milestone’s direction, which repeatedly employs an agility in the camera that feels like a vestige from the silent years.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay) [r]
This decades-late Problem Child sequel is almost oppressively uncomfortable and tense, following Tilda Swinton as the beleaguered mother of a boy (Ezra Miller, a terrifying blank slate) who seems to be a psychopath. It’s a miserable thing to watch, with few redemptive moments even implied — Swinton’s Eva is absolutely and fully alone, with her husband (John C. Reilly) somehow oblivious to their son’s alarming behavior — but it’s a far more persuasive portrait of violent adolescence than Gus van Sant’s Elephant.

To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks) [r]
(Revisit; no change.) Not exactly the poor man’s Casablanca — too well-written, and with an even better director — but a conscious variant on the formula whose atmosphere could sustain you for days if the hackneyed story didn’t have to take over.. Humphrey Bogart is even more apathetic here, driven by often obscure personal motives, and his relationship with Lauren Bacall is much more blatantly sexual and hedonistic. Their chemistry is astounding, as you’d expect, and completely overtakes the film, and Bacall provides most of the moments that ignite, especially her saunter toward the camera and the smile that follows in the final moments.

A Farewell to Arms (1932, Frank Borzage) [r]
Robbed of Hemingway’s mulling of the nature of war, this is purely a tearjerker about a military couple (Gary Cooper, never better, and Helen Hayes) separated determinedly by malicious outsiders then by illness during WWI; but if you’re making that movie and you want people to genuinely believe in it, the person you bring onboard is Borzage. There are some serious lapses in emotional credibility here, but when Borzage turns his camera on what he perceives as the behavior of couples, magic happens. Most literary adaptations are creaky and dull; in this one, the cracks that form and widen are where all the intriguing stuff hides.

The Southerner (1945, Jean Renoir) [r]
Renoir’s third American film is a much more successful variant on Louisiana Story, boasting that film’s undiluted glimpses of beauty and humanity with none of its aggressive corporate lobbying. It focuses on an impoverished family attempting to get a foothold in farming on an aged-out piece of property in Texas. Renoir and the cast resist melodrama, crafting a story in which small changes accumulate and attain emotional heft; the film’s realistic portrait of family life calls ahead to The River; yet the chief attraction here is Lucien Androit’s photography, helping Renoir capture this expansive world irresistibly.

Lady for a Day (1933, Frank Capra) [hr]
Capra’s at his most enchanting as he guides us through Robert Riskin’s script about an elderly apple vendor’s act of compassionate deception, keeping up a charade that she’s well-off for her daughter’s sake, with the help of some gangsters from NYC’s seamy underbelly. Despite several moving scenes, this is a robust comedy that defies the logic that everyone in a story like this must come clean, fall in love, learn a lesson. Instead it’s just a beautiful moment with constant amusing convolutions, lovingly shot by Joseph Walker. The only drawback is that the splendidly unorthodox star May Robson as Apple Annie has less screen time in the second half.

Late Spring (1949, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
Ozu tells stories about small gestures that represent huge emotions; what actually happens in Late Spring could be laid out in a short sentence, but the depth and detail and complexity in every character, every scene, continue unraveling through the time between viewings. Cultural distance from the father and daughter (Chishū Ryū and Setsuko Hara) in postwar Japan attempting to negotiate an overdue separation neither of them truly wants is irrelevant when confronted with the nuanced realities of inner lives and familial and platonic relationships explored and felt out here. Let it take you away and let its unforced feelings chase your own.

***

[Additional Letterboxd notes on: L’Atalante / Rebecca / The Red Shoes]

The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, made just a year after their elegant and impeccable masterpiece Black Narcissus, reaches heights that are untouched elsewhere in cinema; as a film about art and artists, it fully justifies itself as a paean to the pure commitment and passion of artists themselves, the rest of the world be damned. Its air of the fantastic, the identification it all but forces with a well-crafted character, and the sensation we get that it’s a bodily experience of movement place us, indeed, into the shoes that send us dancing off into the unknown. In summary, it is explosive, sumptuous, magnificently absorbing entertainment. As in their other Technicolor classics, Powell & Pressburger fire passionately into their story with incredible precision, utilizing every tool at their disposal, infusing their work with an obviously virtuosic command of the form. With its intimate sets that feel somehow enormous and the eye-gouging lights and colors of Jack Cardiff’s camera, the whole production — in any context — has an identical effect to what it’s ostensibly supposed to feel like to see a movie in IMAX, except The Red Shoes needs no technical boost to achieve this. Whatever the negative aspects of their productions are, Powell & Pressburger’s greatest works are unmistakably complete and vast nights out at the movies, and nothing can be faulted about the directorial and visual choices made here.

Having said that, it should be mentioned — particularly in light of the relative seamlessness of Black Narcissus — that The Red Shoes is essentially three movies stacked together, two long character-driven sequences bisected by a stunning interlude. In the first third of the film, the elegance of a politely restrained but increasingly volatile three-way relationship between composer (Marius Goring), dancer (Moira Shearer) and impresario (Anton Walbrook) is explored with implicit tension, emphasizing how their craft and professionalism erodes (or enhances?) their individual identities. The ballet we see in progress is deceptively staged as if spontaneous or without design, and always with a sense of the camaraderie inherent to performing in a group. Early scenes gracefully provide each character’s differing interpretation of a single moment, but without any overbearing tricks of cutting or camera movement. The trickery in these early, human moments all comes from the human bodies inhabiting the film, the way everything falls together into its casual beauty, the camerawork merely contributing its small (but impressive) share to the rhythm. Certainly there is visual glory to nearly every shot, but it’s restrained and perfect, much like the characters, three disparate people brought together in the mission of bringing a ballet to fruition. The beauty of the music, the power of the dancing, all tantalizingly massive, but everything tangible and striking a balance that shuts out all layers of obvious fantasy.

And then comes the ballet sequence.

A few years later, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen interrupted the story of Singin’ in the Rain to delve into an introspective character portrait created through dance, abstractly presented, the illusion of a dream. For the duration of the scene, the directors removed all cinematic barriers between the audience and a kind of surreal but unbridled erotic joy. In The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger do something similar in execution to that stunning feat but actually rather closer to the powerful transportation Walt Disney was driving at in Fantasia. For twenty minutes, The Red Shoes is so cinematic that it essentially ceases to be cinema. Prior to this screen-tearing, absolutely jaw-dropping sequence, The Red Shoes instills in its audience a respect for dance and for its characters that aids immensely in selling the artful but perfectly rational (in a storytelling fashion) ballet as both a performance and as a fiery, gut-splitting examination of the mind of the central performer, played brilliantly by Shearer.

It’s ironic in a way how much the directors are able to wow the crowd with dancing in the first half, because dancing is nearly beside the point in this midsection. The triumph this time is the way the audience and the film dance along with the character into something altogether more startling than a simple exotic ballet sequence. The scene is set apart from most of its ilk easily not just because of its dreamlike seduction but because it is so subjective. The ballet as imagined here is an elucidation of what’s in the head of the character of Victoria Page, her sense of life, her dreams and perceptions of motion all coalescing magnificently; she’s told that the music is the only thing that matters, and the envisioning of her head as she delivers a star-making performance somehow approximates the abstract experiences and associations of anyone’s relationship to music. There is also, of course, concrete expression of the subtle paranoia that lingers from Vicky’s integration into the company: the puppeteering of her by two men of dueling natures; yet simultaneously, the entire sequence — in its indescribable parade of indelible images — marks the rare instance of a movie briefly touching a sensation of pure freedom. It doesn’t linger or cut to impress, it cuts specifically, to every tiny detail, to the emotion of Shearer’s character. It is that character. The effect is astounding. No matter how many times one may see it, one remains transported and awed by it; no musical or dance sequence I have ever seen has been so visceral and so awash in storytelling as served by the performers rather than a detour simply to present their virtuosity, like an extended guitar solo. Hyperbolic as it sounds, it’s difficult not to classify it as one of the most brilliant and fully realized moments of any feature film.

That’s what makes it so crushing that the movie collapses on itself — with disheartening speed — in the second half. The Red Shoes unfortunately is fatally overlong; the ballet should be something like the climax of the film, not the wedge that divides it into two distinct parts, one of them great thanks to its exciting buildup to a sublime cinematic moment, the other an incredibly harsh comedown from the prior scene. The dance scene slid in and out of fantasy, forcing the viewer to participate in a dream that blurred reality; it was dangerous, rocky, ragged, impassioned. Perversely, the character-driven heartache of the film’s last half feels hollow and fake compared to the raw emotion of that fantasy full of trickery (with almost painfully overwhelming set design and effects work). This is at least partially because the first act of The Red Shoes is so emphatically about lives driven completely by art, times three, so that when we’re expected to believe that a cordial, professional relationship between Shearer’s Vicky and Goring’s Julian has blossomed into romance offscreen, it seems at best like forced parable and at worst like lazy dramatics. (The heartbreak Anton Walbrook displays at “losing” Vicky is no less incongruous to the character we’ve come to know up to this point.) The narrative purpose in forcing Vicky to choose between her love and her inner life has obvious merit, but it doesn’t grow naturally from the prior body of the work.

After this fatal error, not only does the movie spend too much time wandering down uninteresting detours, seemingly lingering and never giving much reason for its extrapolations, it fails to effectively reestablish the characters after their abstract presentation in the ballet. The ending is swell, revealing that the movie that pretended to be about people making an adaptation of the H.C. Anderson story is actually itself an adaptation of the H.C. Anderson story, but getting to it is too much of a sacrifice, the story having laboriously deconstructed in a surprisingly boring and uncinematic fashion without telling us much of anything that the ballet already hadn’t: about commitment to artistry, about the manipulation of a woman by two men, about the whiff of unreality that comes from fully losing oneself in creative work. Moreover, the first act is admirable in its shunning of any shoehorning of romance between the characters; it’s as though Powell and Pressburger are so embarrassed by (what they perceive as) the narrative or commercial necessity of doing this with the people they’ve invented that they minimize the onscreen manifestations of it until the very fact of it lacks any sort of credibility to us. The marriage of Vicky and Julian feels fictitious — maybe because their biggest love scene together takes place inside the impresario Lermontov’s head, twin beds and late-night composing. everything.

The flaws in The Red Shoes — which is still an overwhelming, haunting experience — can be pinned down to the very scene that makes the movie so memorable. The reason the second half is so difficult to get through is that its slowed-down, low-key characterization is such a harsh contrast with the delirious pacing and articulate passion of the dance. After you’ve witnessed something like that, something that makes Tales of Hoffmann look like From Justin to Kelly, how can you learn to care about a conventional telling of the story of these lives, after seeing how powerful another angle could be? Powell and Pressburger had to choose between telling a story and creating one of the best scenes in film history. For the movie’s sake, they made the wrong decision; for ours, except for the discomfort in that last hour, which is merely a minor inconvenience, thank heavens for this mistake.

***

[Expanded and altered version of a review first posted in 2007.]