May 2017 movie capsules

19 movies watched in May. Counts:
– 16 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,174.
– 3 revisits, including 1 (A Night at the Opera) already reviewed here, plus Dracula and Paper Moon.
– 2 completely new full reviews for the above mentioned Dracula and Paper Moon. I wrote good-sized reviews of both way back in the prehistoric (2006-07) days at a different blog but neither was usable.
– 16 new capsules below. (No revisits here, which I think is a first?)
– Next month I will be finishing up the first phase of the Oscars project, begun when this blog was in its infancy in 2012; what this means is that we will have reviewed every winner of the seven “above the line” categories. The second phase will kick off in July and will encompass an equally long process of seeing all of the Best Picture nominees; the good news is that this will cover most of the nominees in other categories as well, though I expect Screenplay will be a bit of a task. Thanks for staying on the journey with me.
– I’m writing this on June 1, 2017, one year after my last capture of the IMDB Top 250. Perhaps this will be seen as a betrayal to my own cause but on perusing today’s list, I see no new additions I have any interest in watching or reviewing — to be frank, everything new to the list looks like actual garbage to me, which sadly also describes a lot of what was already on it — and so I won’t waste time that could be better spent on watching films I care about. As I mentioned in my post-mortem of the original project, I quite regret taking it on in the first place and consider it to have been my biggest mistake since starting SOC. And if the list is offering me nothing that I consider exciting pursue or to have any potential at all, there seems to me no compelling reason to put in the work of relisting the films and pursing the missing titles. But I’ll duly check again next year just to say I did so.
My Man Godfrey, reviewed below, is a new nominee for Best Classic Hollywood (pre-Saul Bass) Title Sequence.

Project breakdowns:
1930s canon: 7 films (6 new). In addition to the aforementioned Dracula (the only revisit) we had on the docket the following: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Design for Living, Gold Diggers of 1933, My Man Godfrey, A Day in the Country and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. I’m still enjoying this part of the gig an incredible amount, so I’m slightly disappointed to say that we’ll be temporarily leaving the ’30s behind until picking back up in July, in order to finish up my other current project. Remaining: 44 features (36 new).
Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 7 films (6 new). Failed to make up for last month’s quota deficiency, but since I’ll be working exclusively on this next month it’ll be a breeze to overcome that. Main issue is going to be getting the last few discs I need from Netflix, supplemented with a few trips to the college and one to Warner Archive, amazingly the only way I’m able to see a certain film from the 1980s, which is a pretty dire sign of things to come. This month we revisited the wonderful Paper Moon but otherwise experienced mostly mediocrity, in the form of Dreamgirls, Butterflies Are Free, Murder on the Orient Express, Shampoo (boy, this was a disappointment), In Old Chicago and None But the Lonely Heart. I actually liked a couple of these, the last one especially, but the contrast between this and the canon projects is still pretty strong, yet somehow I’ve never lost my motivation to continue with the Oscar stuff like I did with the IMDB list, maybe just for the feeling of mild achievement I get from it. At any rate, this leaves 14 films (12 new), two of which I am absolutely fucking dreading, so you have that to look forward to.
2010s catchup: The movies that I wanted to see that expired from Netflix this month were all 3+ hours and I just couldn’t schedule them. So this was my most slack month on this front in a long time, with only the very average and amply annoying Arrival making its way to my screen. Again, it’s not even that bad a film, but it’s braindead popcorn goofiness and the fact that it’s considered the height of modern cinematic craft is so very troubling to me. Nothing new, I guess.
New movies: The aforementioned, plus Moana (also not bad, and also an absolute shitshow compared with its inexplicably glowing reputation), and my obligatory fannish encounter with Ron Howard’s Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week (obviously not made for the hardcores who are the only people who’ll remember it existed in a few years).
Other: Finished the BBS box finally! The King of Marvin Gardens, which I was really looking forward to, was not very good at all! I swear I’m not especially cranky this month, these movies just let me down!

Now, read some short capulse reviews from this miserable asshole!

Dreamgirls (2006, Bill Condon)
A waste of an enthusiastic cast (with Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson both genuinely dazzling), this offensively superficial musical follows the career of a girl group clearly based on the Supremes and their run-ins with a corrupt, manipulative manager clearly based on Berry Gordy, but its Broadway slickness renders it gutless; the last two thirds are just a collection of showbiz clichés built as an excuse for the increasingly desperate tunes that couldn’t be a less accurate representation of either the period or of the Motown sound.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933, Fritz Lang) [hr]
A series of stunning thriller setpieces rife with mystery and menace, pretty much exactly the same movie as Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler not to mention Spies, but a little more cunning and oppressive in its fetishizing of grisly doom and actual terror. One phenomenally nail-biting chase, trap or eye-popping special effect follows another, and Lang establishes an anything-goes environment of cutthroat organized crime so well it’s kind of disappointing when he lets so many of his innocents and semi-innocents escape unharmed. Less than the sum of its parts but still one of the most fun, flamboyant movies of the ’30s.

Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve)
More pretend insight from Villeneuve, a schlock merchant who won’t admit that’s what he is, in a genre built for just his sort of posturing. Space aliens land in America and want to communicate, so linguist Amy Adams sets aside some issues in her personal life to help the government. It’s hard to hate a film that clearly intends to strike a chord — better to copy Interstellar than The Martain even if both kind of suck — but the exposition is painful, the dialogue consistently embarrassing, the story a less compelling variant on various better films, Jeremy Renner’s in it, and oh yes, there’s A Twist.

Moana (2016, John Musker & Ron Clements)
A mishmash of market-tested impulses from the over-employed architects of Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and other toy and ride-centered properties that incidentally involved motion pictures at some point. At first there’s dignity in the story of a girl with the fate of the world resting on her shoulders as she’s swept up in a Polynesian mythology story, but with the invasion of the demigod Maui, voiced with a charmless thud by the Rock, there’s the usual refusal for humor or pathos to come organically. Impressive effects animation can’t redeem dull character designs or the dreadful songs. Your kids deserve better movies than this.

Design for Living (1933, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
Naughty and naive, this splendidly bubbly comedy substitutes Noel Coward’s sophistication with Ben Hecht’s incisive, direct earthiness. He and Lubitsch manage to sell a tangential story whose silly twists and turns depend on the believable likability of its three delightful characters — dirt-poor but somehow freewheeling artist layabouts in Paris pretending they’re not engaging in a prolonged menage a trois; you barely notice the last thirty minutes have little to do with anything else because you’ve become so involved in the surprisingly organic way that maturity has let this perverse romance blossom, two men agreeing to one another’s presence.

Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years (2016, Ron Howard) [r]
We already had ten hours of The Beatles Anthology, one and a half hours of the vastly superior The Compleat Beatles, and of course Mark Lewisohn’s prodigious in-progress biography, so what can a Ron Howard movie possibly tell us about the years when the Beatles were live performers? Not a whole hell of a lot, but if you love them you’ll still have a great time watching this, even if it’s annoying that Howard constantly cuts away from songs in progress and hardly lets a single one of them play out. He does capture the universal appeal of rock’s most deserved titans without a trace of pretension or overstatement, which is welcome.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972, Bob Rafelson)
Disappointing rehash of Five Easy Pieces with the same director and lead actor, unfortunately cluttered here by the presence of Bruce Dern as radio personality Jack Nicholson’s screwed up scam-artist brother. What should be an absorbing dynamic leads to a series of disconnected scenes that are stilted and curiously muted. It’s beautifully photographed by Laszlo Kovacs and Nicholson’s performance is admirably restrained but the film takes low-key to such a Robert Altman-like extreme that it quickly grows dull and ineffective. Not even Ellen Burstyn, going for Karen Black but hitting her broad Requiem for a Dream note, can rescue it.

Butterflies Are Free (1972, Milton Katselas)
A thin, dated dramedy about a young blind man (doe-eyed Edward Albert) hooking up with his free-spirited neighbor to his overprotective mom’s chagrin, this adaptation of a single-set play is redeemed slightly by Goldie Hawn’s easy naturalism as an actress, stuck playing one of the most blatant wish-fulfillment proto-MPDG characters in film history and spending much of the runtime in her underwear, but still perfectly credible in the part. Academy Award winner Eileen Heckart is freakishly believable as a meddling parent, but her hard work is let down by the crude, facile screenplay.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, Mervyn LeRoy & Busby Berkeley) [r]
This rather ordinary, sporadically funny story of bed-hopping, mistaken identity and philandering between rich and poor would be much more tolerable if broken up more frequently by the Busby Berkeley numbers that prompt the film’s high reputation, but there are only four of them. “We’re in the Money” and “The Shadow Waltz” are both treats that feel too short; “Pettin’ in the Park” and “Forgotten Man” are somewhat inexplicable thematically despite some strong choreography and camerawork. None are among Berkeley’s best, though perhaps that would be excusable with a more compelling plot, better jokes, something.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Sidney Lumet) [r]
Lumet’s glee at Agatha Christie’s dim view of humanity — underlined in a painstakingly detailed, violent flashback at the climax — offsets the hamminess of several members of his once-in-a-lifetime cast, Albert Finney’s Hercule Poirot the silliest of all. Numerous others appear in what are really just walk-ons; the standouts are Rachel Roberts and Anthony Perkins, not Oscar winner Ingrid Bergman. If the thought of a murder mystery set aboard a train with a bunch of your favorite stars excites you there’s no reason you won’t find this engaging, and as a bonus its amoral perspective ensures that it doesn’t result in your brain falling out.

Shampoo (1975, Hal Ashby)
Warren Beatty and Robert Towne’s ostensibly satirical comedy, of class-conscious promiscuity set hamhandedly against election night 1968, is an empty-headed scold of “celebrity hairdresser” Jay Sebring and, uh, society; Beatty stars as a workaholic philanderer trying to start his own hair salon while crassly juggling four to seven women. His performance lacks depth despite strong work from his costars, and director Ashby’s usual sense of affinity toward outsiders is out of place here regardless of whether there’s any sincerity to what the screenwriters are trying to say (if anything).

My Man Godfrey (1936, Gregory La Cava) [hr]
Supposedly a screwball comedy, this intriguing study of an odd family dynamic is never uproariously funny, with William Powell a cool-headed homeless man trying to build his life back up while resisting the pull of the band of blood-tied and fractured kooks who hire him as a butler. All the while that he’s pushed and pulled by warring factions in said family, Carole Lombard is the film’s sole stroke of real wildness, lusting after him relentlessly, and she deserves credit for how surreal a performance it is. Her presence enlivens the innocuous family scenes and the explorations of Godfrey’s character; she and Powell are mesmerizing.

A Day in the Country (1936, Jean Renoir) [r]
Sumptuous, intoxicating Renoir paean — from a Guy de Maupassant story about a spontaneous affair on a single afternoon — to the idyllic glories of the French countryside will make anyone with a pulse want to join the picnic it documents, but was left incomplete with forty minutes shot. Even apart from that it’s a bit toxic, hinging on an unlikable philanderer (Jacques Brunius) and his tagalong (Georges D’Arnoux) discussing the seduction of their female visitors as if it’s some kind of game being played with plastic toys. Worse yet, its cavalier treatment of subtle brutality at the climactic encounter traps it in its time.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
Sensitively presented, tragic tale of a Kabuki actor spurned by his family after he falls for his brother’s wet nurse, and a painfully accurate if partly accidental treatise on the way society punishes women. Mizoguchi’s use of long takes, master shots as opposed to close-ups, and complex dollys give the feel of life happening before our eyes despite the melodramatic intensity of the story being told; every scene is absorbing and richly detailed, made all the more touching by the fine, understated performances of Shôtarô Hanayagi and Kôkichi Takada in the two leading roles.

In Old Chicago (1937, Henry King) [r]
Brassy, slick Fox variation on the MGM classic San Francisco spins a whopper of a yarn about the Great Chicago Fire that has a mythologized Mrs. O’Leary (Alice Brady) mothering three sons, one of whom is a nefarious gangster (true) and another the Mayor of Chicago (lolz), plus of course a mischievous cow. You know how this works: an hour and a half of petty infighting and buildup, here revolving around both the law vs. order conflict between the brothers and on Tyrone Power’s rather creepy romantic attachment to dancer and businesswoman Alice Faye, followed by a climax filled with eye-popping, remarkable and fully convincing special effects.

None But the Lonely Heart (1944, Clifford Odets) [r]
Cary Grant and Ethel Barrymore are remarkable in this solemn, righteously angry exploration (based on a Richard Llewellyn novel) of a Cockney drifter’s entrance into a life of crime after his mother becomes too ill with cancer to run the family store. It’s long-winded and sags in the midsection after a terrific first act and after the relationship between mother and son loses some of its initial complexity, but the dialogue — well adapted by writer-director Clifford Odets — is consistently sharp and realistic, the whole experience subtle, unsentimental and impressively complete in its capturing of a decrepit slum life without romance or condescension.

***

Brief, insubstantial additional Letterboxd notes on: A Night at the Opera / Dracula / Paper Moon.

Paper Moon (1973, Peter Bogdanovich)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Peter Bogdanovich made a movie between The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon (it was What’s Up, Doc? starring Barbra Streisand), but you’d never know it. The two films are virtually twins, each elaborating helpfully and expanding upon the themes of the other, despite being set twenty years and several states apart. Both films are tough-minded, complex rejections of the concept of innocence. More superficially, both are magnificently shot (by Laszlo Kovacs, in this case) black & white period pieces with gorgeous deep-focus landscapes and cynicism breaking through their nostalgic Americana. But while The Last Picture Show was a sensitive yet often bitter translation of the complicated relationships between adults and teenagers, Paper Moon finds room for a kind of magical optimism in the most desperate corners. Unlike The Last Picture Show, it’s a story about childhood, channeled to us with not the first trace of condescension. It fails to posit that the inevitable schism between its two heroes will ever be fully healed, but in its celebration of scattered moments of reluctant warmth against an unforgiving backdrop — the Depression in (mostly) rural Kansas and Missouri — it attains an almost indescribable loveliness. Without copping at all to sentimentality or rose-tinted nods to a distant past, it temporarily redeems the cruel, lonely world imagined by the director in The Last Picture Show and Targets.

We say “two heroes” but really there’s just one: Tatum O’Neal as Addie Loggins, a chain-smoking ten year-old girl tagging along with a con man selling faux-classy Bibles to the widows of the recently deceased. At her mother’s funeral, Addie meets up for the first time with Moze (for Moses) Pray, suspected by everyone including Addie of being her illegitimate father; reluctantly Moze gets roped into setting Addie up with a train ticket to St. Joseph, Missouri, the home of her estranged aunt, but along the way he makes use of the child’s situation to con a local grain distributor (involved in the accidental death of Addie’s mom) out of $200. Overhearing this, Addie then refuses to part with Moze until she’s reimbursed, making a stubborn and attention-drawing scene in a restaurant, where the pair reach a sort of impasse — Moze has already spent most of the money — that results in them heading out on the road together, Moze using his illegal wares to pay back his debt to Addie.

It’s never explicitly stated that Moze and Addie are actually related, though the context of their behavior in the film and the casting of Tatum’s father Ryan as Moze seems to clinch it as an unstated near-certainty that he’s her long-lost dad; this reluctance to make their relationship explicit, and the willingness to leave so much else unsaid, is one of many grace notes offered by Bogdanovich and the Alvin Sargent screenplay. Addie quickly becomes not Moze’s burden so much as his accomplice. Theirs is a subtle relationship in terms of both affinity and conflict, with its sweetness never expressed by actual affection but by mutual enthusiasm for bilking their fellow man out of cash; it’s our privilege to share in the duo’s nefarious triumphs. On first encounter the moment I fell in love with this film was when Addie talks up the price of a Bible to aid in the scamming of one of her new captor’s victims. After that, there was no looking back. Moze shows no signs of losing his frustration with Addie — her radio, her smoking, her tendency to butt in and contribute to his deals — even as we grow ever more charmed by her pluck and pathos. Our feeling of connection with her when she takes out a photograph of her deceased mother and tries to replicate her pose, or of joy when she sings to herself in the mirror, is meticulously earned by the film, and there’s a remarkable purity in the result, perhaps most apparent when we realize how disappointed we are along with her when it appears that this road movie of hotel rooms and truck-stop cons must inevitably come to an end.

Addie and Moze’s relationship develops through a procession of amusing but increasingly dangerous episodes; it starts with the phony Bible selling, dips into “dropping twenties” and scamming cashiers, with Addie forced to scornfully play up her cuteness, the only time she ever calls her probable father “Daddy,” and escalates ultimately into ripping off a bootlegger, wrestling with a good old boy and running frantically from the law. Along the way, the longest diversion comes from an exotic dancer named Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn), who gets her hooks in Moze while an exasperated Addie waits for him to have his photo taken with her; joined thereafter on the road by Trixie and her long-suffering maid Imogene (the apparently forgotten but brilliant P.J. Johnson, who has a monopoly on the best line readings in the film) we find ourselves identifying hilariously with Addie’s resentment as her importance in Moze’s life is essentially overrun by a de facto stepparent. Kahn’s genius is well-established in numerous other roles, but her almost operatic embodiment of an inherently one-joke character — “just like a gum machine,” Imogene says, “you drop some in and she’ll put some out” — is something of a miracle. One of the most telling moments in a film full of so much unexpected beauty comes when Trixie is tasked with persuading Addie, sick of being a passenger in what she perceives to be properly her ride, back into the car. After trying to treat her as a little girl (“you like the Mickey Mouse?”) and then attempting stern hostility, she finally levels with the kid and lets her know that she’s just along for the sugar-daddy roller-coaster until it runs out of steam, and begs Addie to let her sit up front “with her big tits,” at which point she gives a look of genuine embarrassment that completely enlivens the moment, and humanizes her for Addie; she’s the only adult in the film to share the frail humanity of the same stripe as Cloris Leachman’s final speech in The Last Picture Show, and even if the peace between the two of them does not last, Addie’s responsive smile lingers as one of Paper Moon‘s most iconic images.

Indeed, as terrific as both O’Neals’ performances in the film are, Tatum’s is extraordinary — indeed, transcendent in its understatement. She was destined to become the youngest winner of a competitive Academy Award (winning against Kahn, as well as another exceptional juvenile performance, Linda Blair in The Exorcist), and the accolade was well deserved. But beyond his principals, Bogdanovich fills his screen with the same kind of distinctively eccentric faces that populated The Last Picture Show, calling back indeed to the human cornucopia of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. Cashiers, family members, local weirdos, carnies, lecherous hotel clerks, all are treated with affection by the film if not Addie and Moze save perhaps for the cops, approached with wholly warranted apprehension; and it must be mentioned again that while P.J. Johnson would disappear from the screen forever apart from a bit part in a later Bogdanovich film, hers is easily as distinctive and skilled a performance as the other three people with whom she rides across Kansas in the car, her periodic smiles equally hard-earned. The point is that the unmistakable but unforced love Bogdanovich extends to these characters translates to some of the persuasive humanism visible in a film from the “director-driven” period of Hollywood, and it’s something he provides to us without whistling past the miseries and strife challenging each and every one of them in the 1930s.

Bogdanovich doesn’t just avoid the obvious sugary story progressions in Paper Moon (the film ends with another argument and doesn’t let Moze concede even a begrudging acknowledgement of Addie’s final gift to him, the photograph he never had the time to take with her); he also skirts his own failings and obsessions as a director so that, as with David Lynch via The Straight Story decades later, he proves himself capable of operating independently and distantly of his own natural persuasions (and lecherous tendencies, for that matter) to better serve the film. As ideal as his eagerness and bravura enthusiasm was for The Last Picture Show, he shows greater restraint and maturity here by presenting such a universally appealing story without falling back on the use of outdated film stock or of period-appropriate locations as a stylistic crutch. Certainly there are shades aplenty of John Ford and Orson Welles in Paper Moon, but only as natural influences and never as emulation or window dressing; the story is rich and real enough not to need such distractions, and with the considerable help of Kovacs and editor Verna Fields, the director’s hand never really falters here in his mannered, graceful, grown-up storytelling, wholly resistant to catharsis. We’re left with a feeling of ebullience, of having just seen a miraculously complete story from a child’s eyes, and at that the all too rare story that has everything: it’s funny, sad, sweet, poignant, even threatening, and teeming with a lust for life undimmed in the very worst of times.

Dracula (1931, Tod Browning)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The Hollywood films of the 1930s were the invention of modern American culture. The iconography of gangster films, musicals, fantasies, war — the stories we tell and the way we tell them — is written on these celluloid frames. King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs… this is the folklore we’ve adopted for ourselves. Even against that backdrop, the impact on popular culture of James Whale and Tod Browning when they were making genre-defining horror pictures at Universal in the early parts of the decade might eclipse all else. Where would we be without Browning’s Dracula, created and defined for eternity by Bela Lugosi? Moreover, how would we even think of the baseline of a predatory vampire tale or the related literature without its contributions to what would soon become hoary clichés to forever dominate the popular imagination? It’s sometimes tricky to look at a movie that made us who we are without feeling detached from it, and because of both its flaws and strengths Dracula is a more demanding film than any of the aforementioned. Whereas Whale entertained us with flamboyant visions of cathartic terror that are wont to induce wide-eyed enthusiasm just by their willful extremity, Browning and Lugosi’s Dracula suggests death and misery emanating from a world very much like our own — its murderous fervor strikes forth from the mundane and ordinary. But Browning’s version of the immortal tale also boasts palpable atmospherics that are at once creepy and inherently witty in their unbroken oppressiveness — “It reminds me of the broken battlements of my own castle…in Transylvania!” The narrative is unbalanced and stilted, the screenplay containing only random shreds of Bram Stoker, but the film is so completely delightful and the acting so shockingly and marvelously subdued (a true rarity in horror films), that the Browning-Lugosi collaboration manages to provide us with one of the most deliriously fun early talkies made in America.

Lugosi had already portrayed Count Dracula on the Broadway stage, and was touring with a production of Hamilton Deane’s play adaptation when he lobbied for a role in the Universal film. The dashing, handsome Hungarian actor — a far more multifaceted performer than is often remembered — is typically credited as the first filmed Dracula who is not grotesque. The most institutionally beloved interpretation up to this point (and perhaps even today) was Max Schreck’s in F.W. Murnau’s unbilled Stoker lift Nosferatu, and Schreck had been deliberately repulsive and subhuman, indeed as the character was described in the novel. In the Browning picture, however, the Count is a suave and well-mannered society figure who mingles easily with ordinary people, despite coming off as a bit of an oddball in extended conversation, and maintains a level of decorum that earns the trust of potential victims. Another major departure from Nosferatu and other earlier variants that would have a permanent impact on generations’ worth of vampire movies through the century to follow is the sensuality in the film, especially Lugosi’s erotic movements in his moments of violence. Though Murnau went quite far in treating his vampire’s attacks as a kind of coded rape (as Carl Theodor Dreyer would in 1932’s Vampyr), it’s Browning whose love of perversity, so obvious in his work both before (The Unknown) and after (Freaks) this, makes the inherently ridiculous image of a bat functioning as a peeping tom outside a woman’s window stick in the mind as unnervingly surreal rather than just kooky. Lugosi gives us a Dracula who treats even the enemies he considers his intellectual equals, like Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), with calm respect, but whose presentation of humanity is offset just enough by the sense that he is an embodiment of the dead, as exemplified by his frequently stilted dialogue and his machine-like, instantaneous responses to dangerous obstacles (mirrors, crosses, wolfsbane).

One of the great flaws of F.W. Murnau’s visualization of Stoker is its heavy concentration on both exposition, almost entirely avoided in Browning’s film (there is much speculation and explanation, but it is situational and reasonably believable, well-integrated into the action), and in the blandness of the hybrid Jonathan Harker-R.M. Renfield equivalent portrayed there by Gustav von Wangenheim. Browning’s casual moral ambivalence nixes this problem; he’s unimpressed by both Renfield’s arrogance when laughing off the Transylvanians’ apprehension about his midnight visit to Dracula’s castle and by his subsequent fear of the unfamiliar behaviors he witnesses in Dracula’s home, drinking the wine as his host all too gleefully watches. Browning then dispenses quickly with the strange real estate-related setup for the body of the story, and seems to take pleasure in watching actor Dwight Frye become the film’s first casualty; his derangement after he becomes one of the Count’s many wards is chillingly absolute, and a fearsome contrast to the cool dignity of Dracula himself, broken only by his uncontrolled lust at the sight of blood. While Browning’s film is inevitably less mysterious than Nosferatu, its atmosphere of unforgiving dread is remarkable for a Hollywood studio picture, and in this respect in trumps not only Murnau and Dreyer’s films but, quite incredibly, James Whale’s more classicist and soulful Frankenstein. So many of the Universal horror pictures remain delightful and strange, but seldom do any of them except Browning’s Dracula are really able to disturb us today.

And perhaps the average audience member will not have such a response to the film; Dracula demands undivided attention to be truly effective, but that’s really a mark of its advantages over so many films of its ilk and vintage — as mentioned before, the low-key acting is an asset all through the picture, propping up the lone over-the-top role filled by Frye. Helen Chandler’s Mina is icily distant, reading her lines almost in a monotone after she’s initially overtaken by Dracula, but it works tremendously well, allowing the performance to be built by others’ responses to it. Van Sloan’s Van Helsing could very easily be the usual embarrassing parade of expository claptrap, but his rationality and what Dracula calls his “will” make him an ideal, positive portrait of scientific knowledge and curiosity, deliberately avoiding the potential sidelining of him as a superstitious quack. (It’s a bit of a call ahead to Francois Truffaut’s part in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in that regard.) Of course, Lugosi is the glue of the picture; absent of the filth and plague of Nosferatu, his cleaned-up and sexual feeding patterns and destructive behavior position death and murder as a gentleman’s game, and he’s able also to softly imply his own character to be a victim of his own impulses. “There are far worse things awaiting man,” he announces, “than death.”

Dracula exists on a tantalizing threshold, just between the moment when the primitive nature of early talkies was a handicap and when directors like Browning learned to harness their limitations; additionally, of course, there is the absence of Hays Code regulations, which allow the film to wallow a bit in its hideousness. For both reasons, the movie’s impact would almost certainly be dulled had it been made just three or four years later. Though DVD versions exist with conventional scoring tacked on, the absence of music (apart from a somewhat incongruous Swan Lake extract underneath the credits) and the few scattered, sparse sound effects contribute to a overpowering stillness, making the experience all the more grim. Visual effects are also limited, in direct contrast to Whale’s films from the same period (especially The Invisible Man); we never actually see Dracula transforming, so the sudden entrance of the bat at various points remains inexplicable, a weakness that becomes an advantage in the narrative. Indeed, apart from the fog and the beautifully shadowy, horrifying scenery and set designs by Russell A. Gausman (lit as impeccably as ever by Ufa veteran Karl Freund), the most striking effect in Dracula is the simple light set upon Lugosi’s eyes when he casts his hypnotic spell on his victims; when a similar treatment is given to Helen Chandler’s thousand-yard stare, the feeling of doom, that feeling that we are ourselves unsafe, is inescapable.

Purportedly, Tod Browning was stressed and unhappy during the making of Dracula; he never fully warmed to sound cinema, arguably never having the positive experiences Whale did after the transition, and the casting of Lugosi as well as Universal’s budgetary requirements led the film far afield of its director’s original wishes and intentions. (It’s often said that the Spanish version of the film, shot simultaneously on the same sets, is far superior; but because it has an entirely different director, cast and even screenplay than the English language picture, it should be considered a wholly separate affair that merits its own consideration as an unrelated title.) Actors complained of the “chaotic” environment of the set, and despite the film’s major commercial success, it would sadly prove Browning’s last uncompromised triumph as a director. It’s common to complain that the difficulties in Dracula‘s creation and the marked inefficiencies of the available technology are obvious in the finished product, but in comparing it to nearly any other cinematic tackling of the legend it seems clear that the subtlety thereby forced upon the filmmakers is to its benefit (not even permitting us a happy ending that doesn’t feel hollow and eerie), and the permanent vitality of Lugosi’s performance — both as a direct experience and as a cultural phenomenon — speaks for itself. It’s still the stuff nightmares are made of, daring you to contend that you’re well past being susceptible to it. These shadows show no sign of lifting.

April 2017 movie capsules

24 movies watched in April. Counts:
– 17 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,158.
– 7 revisits, including 4 (The Last Picture Show, Boyhood, The Heiress, Murder!) already reviewed here, as well as The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Thin Man.
– 2 entirely new full reviews, for the original The Man Who Knew Too Much and for Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
– 18 new or revised capsules below.
– Still didn’t quite make up lost ground on Supporting Actress but I’m only one film behind, and I’ll compensate for that this month easily since I seem to be managing my time better lately. (Watched two dozen films despite driving to Washington and back for a show!)

Project breakdowns:
Best Director Oscar winners/Best Actress Oscar winners catchup: Finally got my hands on La La Land and updated both completed project pages accordingly.
1930s canon: 8 films (6 new), catching up on the slight deficit in March. Titles screened were Zero for Conduct and Alexander Nevsky via Filmstruck (so much love), The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vampyr, Love Me Tonight, The Thin Man, Top Hat and The Blue Angel on DVD. Remaining: 51 (41 new).
Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 8 films (7 new), which still puts me behind by one, which I will fix in May. Saw The V.I.P.s, A Passage to India, Airport, Cold Mountain, National Velvet, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, For Whom the Bell Tolls and Anthony Adverse all on DVD, the last via Warner Archive. Remaining: 21 (18 new).
2010s catchup: Pretty much giving up on keeping on top of all of the Netflix expirations that affect things I want to see. I’ll just rent the motherfuckers, though I’ll still try to watch them when I can. It’s just annoying to have to plan my life around their schedule. Yeah, I know I plan my entire film-watching habit around self-imposed projects, but that’s me, and it’s fun. Anyway, I saw Calvary, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and La La Land (see above). All three were good, the first two making the third look a bit dumb, but still.
Other: Still slogging through the BBS box, finally watched and was disappointed by Picture This, George Hickenlooper’s documentary about The Last Picture Show.

Capsules forthwith:

The V.I.P.s (1963, Anthony Asquith) [c]
Insipid ensemble soaper with MGM going thirty years too late for Grand Hotel in an airport, with various wealthy and noble people stuck in London because of fog, complicating their tiresome intermingling. Features an all-star cast slumming it, none more or less than the inexplicably Oscar-winning Margaret Rutherford as a ditzy old woman who pops a lot of pills. It’s all a backdrop to the lush, frustratingly vapid love triangle of Liz Taylor, Richard Burton and Louis Jourdan; you’d never guess Terence Rattigan wrote any of this. Even for someone who’s a sucker for vapid ’60s jet-set stuff this is tough going.

Picture This (1991, George Hickenlooper)
Disappointing twenty years after-the-fact documentary about the production of The Last Picture Show, during which Peter Bogdanovich allowed his personal life to be subsumed and destroyed by the movie he was making in the hometown of author Larry McMurtry, who clearly based the major characters in his novel on real people he knew then, several of whom Hickenlooper interviews and most of whom are forthcoming with their resentments. The result is shoddy, rushed and disorganized, with mere quick excerpts from what appear to be fascinating interviews, especially those with Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman.

Zero for Conduct (1933, Jean Vigo) [hr]
Enchanting, surreal tale of prep school boys organizing a classroom coup has only a ghostly hint of an actual story, serving instead as a dream of just the sort we have when we fall asleep fantasizing about the past. The impossibility of its universally appealing prank only makes it seem more immediate and real. Painfully short, with delightful hints of masterpieces to come from The 400 Blows to A Hard Day’s Night.

A Passage to India (1984, David Lean)
This Forster adaptation (all about colonialism, racism and class) is one of Lean’s better films, in part because of the subtleties of the novel guiding him along, and perhaps more so because it’s the only film he made after 1960 in which he really gives actors any room to perform, limiting the attractive landscapes that usually suffocate his films mostly to establishing shots, time lapses and mildly surreal interludes. Basically, we’re left with a highly competent if wonkily edited (by Lean himself) BBC film with a few very elaborate shots and Alec Guinness’ most humiliating performance (yes, including Star Wars).

Airport (1970, George Seaton) [c]
Absolute swill following Burt Lancaster in crisis-control mode became a mass cultural phenomenon and franchise throughout the ’70s. Largely because it features so many good actors humiliating themselves but perhaps even more because Seaton has one powerhouse of a tense thriller sequence up his sleeve, it gave rise, of course, to the brain-atrophying likes of The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and the TV shows Hotel and The Love Boat, but taken on its own its broad, soapy, sub-telefilm melodrama almost begs to be mocked (which it would be, the creation of another phenomenon).

Calvary (2014, John Michael McDonagh) [hr]
A fascinating mystery whose layers of meaning will require multiple viewings to fully unravel, though it’s in essence a remake of High Noon with I Confess baked into it. Brendan Gleeson (magnificent) is an Irish priest given a seven-day warning during a confession that he is to be murdered, not for being a bad man but for being a good one. During the week to follow we meet the scattered denizens of his small town, whose opinion of him runs a broad gamut, and it serves as both a rollout of the man’s loved ones and of the suspects. The story ruminates without being dour, slow or humorless.

Cold Mountain (2003, Anthony Minghella)
Nicole Kidman is a glamorous supermodel inexplicably thrown into the middle of a Civil War variant on The Odyssey — from Charles Frazier’s novel — that uses Romania as an all too obvious stand-in for Appalachia. Its fable-like premise is intriguing during the first act but takes a sharp turn toward the overly literal with the inevitable Sirens sequence then falls completely apart at the halfway point, redeemed strictly by some attractive cinematography, but all it really amounts to is a parade of good-looking people play-acting; very much the dispiriting stereotype of early ’00s Miramax Oscar bait.

Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [r]
One of Dreyer’s weakest films, a terminally ordinary horror tale lifted up only slightly by the director and Rudolph Maté’s impressively agile camerawork. Apart from a haunting scene of dancing shadows and some of the stunning point-of-view shots, it doesn’t really contain any imagery that wasn’t already explored more enthusiastically by Murnau, Browning, Wiene, even Griffith (see A Corner in Wheat) — and let’s be honest, this precise story was already overly familiar in Nosferatu, from which we unfortunately inherit the endless scenes of characters reading a book about vampires.

Alexander Nevsky (1938, Sergei Eisenstein & Dmitriy Vasilev) [hr]
At first it’s strange to witness Eisenstein taking on such a conventional, linear story (the 13th century defeat of the Holy Roman Empire’s attempted Russian invasion) — and he was certainly reined in a bit by forces beyond his control — but he’s great at it, rendering an obvious piece of wartime propaganda compelling despite its skeletal simplicity; as usual, nearly every shot and edit is striking and almost nightmarish in its angular cleanliness. Then comes the battle scene, which occupies the majority of the film’s second half, and oh yeah, there he is; like his best silent work, it transcends ideology through sheer cinematic excitement.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014, Ana Lily Amirpour) [r]
The novelty of an Iranian vampire movie with a streak of feminist justice doesn’t quite see this all the way through to being as compelling as something like George A. Romero’s unforgettable Martin, but the scenes that capture the urban grime of a desolate city in its loneliness and emotionally strung-out beauty are like the best parts of It Follows finally finding a home, and the controversial molasses-slow love scene, set to a White Lies song, is brilliant.

Love Me Tonight (1932, Rouben Mamoulian) [hr]
What a splendid time. The persona embodied here by Maurice Chevalier isn’t particularly appealing, and the romantic story in which he participates is so threadbare it almost comes off as a bunch of empty gesturing, but the airy, blissful spirit and Mamoulian’s head-spinning number of inventive moments with offbeat gags and monumentally witty sound design and ambitious staging make its plot as irrelevant as you always hope it will be in a musical… only here it’s not even the music that rescues us, just the exuberance, sensuality and jaunty, winning humor of it all. Hidden MVP here is Charles Butterworth, who gets all the sharpest lines.

National Velvet (1944, Clarence Brown) [r]
California stars as England in this pleasant, sentimental MGM sports drama about a young butcher’s daughter improbably named Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor) and her horse The Pie (!?) who triumph with the help of wandering Mickey Rooney, who seems resentful and noncommittal except when the scene calls for him not to be. It’s exactly like a dozen other movies but you can’t really fault it, especially with strong performances from Taylor and the wonderful, Oscar-winning Anne Revere and the splendidly lean script by Helen Deutsch that reminds us why people go on and on about “screenplay structure” and such: sometimes it really is mighty rousing.

The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke) [hr]
(Revisit; upgrade.) Myrna Loy and William Powell are delightful as newlyweds who get mixed up in a Dashiell Hammett murder case; though the whodunit elements of the film build almost incidentally to a total anticlimax, the laughter and sensuality along the way carry a gripping premise through to complete satisfaction and remind you, with the help of its Pre-Code vintage that allows for a good number of naughty jokes, how irrelevant the practical stuff is when the company’s this good. Hollywood probably never depicted a good marriage more sympathetically or accurately.

Top Hat (1935, Mark Sandrich) [hr]
Fred Astaire’s character is a cad, but unusually for such an impeccably stylish Hollywood musical, this has a terrific screwball-inspired premise and an astonishing number of jokes that really land, thanks to Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ mind-boggling eclecticism (their musical and physical prowess combined with flawless timing and undeniable chemistry) as well as a clever, unstoppably witty script and the note-perfect supporting cast, especially Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick. The numbers get more bombastic as the film goes on, but they never improve on the magical “Isn’t This a Lovely Day,” imitated by probably every film musical made since.

The Blue Angel (1930, Josef von Sternberg) [r]
The oppressively bleak odyssey of a deeply insecure, lonely college professor (Emil Jannings, all but directly revising his role from The Last Laugh) who falls in love with a stripper and sees humiliation as his entire life is subsumed in the hell that results. As ever, Sternberg has an intoxicating feel for locations, and he makes the Blue Angel club feel like the seediest spot on earth just by lighting it correctly. Lurid and slow-moving, the film is superb as an introduction to Marlene Dietrich’s magnetism (she sings her signature, “Falling in Love Again”) but also dismaying in its weird moral conservatism.

La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle) [r]
Melancholy, unabashedly nostalgic and slightly overlong musical about a couple of career-oriented artists (a passable Emma Stone and an entirely charisma-free Ryan Gosling) crossing romantic paths in L.A. over the course of one year. A stylistic pastiche of Jacques Demy and MGM and a possibly ever so slightly sardonic valentine to Hollywood itself, this is fun and boasts a few solid numbers with good choreography by Mandy Moore, suffused with a feeling of just-missed true love that might have been intoxicating in that self-conscious Cinemascope frame if the story and characterizations weren’t so frustratingly thin.

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943, Sam Wood) [r]
An awful lot of movie. Hemingway’s story of teamwork, discord and derring-do during the Spanish Civil War is given an exhausting 170-minute treatment through Paramount’s Technicolor resources, William Cameron Menzies’ designs and a pair of disheveled stars, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, both good but handily upstaged by Oscar winner Katina Paxinou as unforgettable guerilla lifer Pilar. Despite the sprawl, this can’t escape the feeling — familiar from so many other literary adaptations — that it’s a summary of a much more emotionally sophisticated work, so airy and detached it seems to go away as soon as you’re finished watching it.

Anthony Adverse (1936, Mervyn LeRoy) [r]
Hervy Allen’s novel doesn’t linger much in the cultural memory, and for good reason judging by the silliness of this Warner Bros. adaptation. “Adverse” is the name given to Fredric March’s wandering orphan by his guardian because of, well, all the adversity he’s had in his life, which includes losing his mother at birth as well as her being married to Claude Rains, who abandons him and spends the rest of the film trying to kill him. This is incalculably episodic and disjointed and manages to be both schlocky and incredibly morose, like Forrest Gump crossed with Interview with the Vampire, but it’s also kind of a riot.

***

Quick extra notes on:
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Boyhood
The Heiress
Murder!
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED WITH AN EXHAUSTING NUMBER OF RESERVATIONS

On top of the other problems that come with it, being a fan of Woody Allen and keeping up with his later films involves a lot of armchair editing — from a distance, one ends up thinking a lot about how easily a given title could be tweaked to make it vastly, incomparably better than it is. Magic in the Moonlight was close to being a very good movie and could have become one with just a few extra rewrites, preferably with someone besides Allen involved in them. Irrational Man needed a lot more work than that, but it’s still not inconceivable that something interesting could have potentially emerged from the mess with a bit of adjustment rather than a complete overhaul. Allen isn’t the first artist whose work has historically relied heavily on the creative input of others, from record producers to cinematographers to co-writers to editors to choreographers, and in fact he’s always been one of the major filmmakers most willing to share his credit with others. In particular, apart from Quentin Tarantino, probably no significant director has relied so much on film editors to mold his films into shape, from Ralph Rosenblum’s role in transforming Annie Hall from its incomprehensible sprawl into a lean, tight, innovative romantic comedy to the director’s extremely fortuitous 22-year collaboration with Susan Morse, who evidently was forced out of his regular stable for financial reasons. Though it’s impossible to entirely know how much the downturn in Allen’s consistency since 1999 is a result of Morse’s absence, it’s safe to assume that some degree of the bloat seen in the overwhelming majority of his 21st century movies is a sign of the depth and importance of her role in rendering Allen’s frequently extraordinary directorial efforts of the prior two decades as tight and well-paced as they were.

The seemingly petty story of a love quadrangle that develops over a single summer in Spain involving a stormy former married couple and a pair of American tourists, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is one of Allen’s better late-period films by nearly universal consensus; after a messy first half, it reins in several of the clichés and repetitions he tends to fall back on as a writer to tell a surprisingly nuanced and intensely emotional story that delves into a much more complicated palette than the viewer initially expects. It’s also fluidly directed, as usual, and visually beautiful, shot expertly by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. One could even make an issue of this by pointing out that this is the director’s fourth unabashed “location porn” movie, functioning as a travel promo for the title city as much as earlier and subsequent films could be accused of being for London, Paris and Rome. (What a master he is at creating these, though; I am more drawn to this film’s Barcelona than I am to the Vienna of Before Sunrise or the Tuscany of Certified Copy, for example.) But for much of the film, scenes ramble longer than they should or belabor points that were already made clear; the dialogue is as awkward and stilted as had by now become the norm in Allen’s screenplays, which in turn makes some of the performances rigid (especially Rebecca Hall’s). The entire film is slathered with an unnecessary voiceover meant as an homage to François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (as is the film as a whole), but as read by the late Christopher Evan Welch, it seems drained of any sense of irony despite its dispassionate tone, which is down less to Welch’s lack of charisma than to the poor job Allen did at composing his words. Never once in the film does Welch’s narration actually contribute anything that would not be clear if we simply watched the film develop naturally, and one can easily envision a variation that wholly lacks his contribution and know that this would improve the movie almost beyond measure. And if the extraneous overexplaining isn’t enough to make you shift uncomfortably in your seat, the characters’ own words are overrun with unrealistic phrasing and odd pauses that Allen and editor Alisa Lepselter can’t justify or cover up.

Though Allen referred to himself as a “compulsive rewriter” in 1980, there are repeated accusations, now that he’s known for being almost ridiculously prolific, that he shoots first drafts — maybe, maybe not, but even his best post-2000 films, like Match Point and the genuinely delightful Midnight in Paris, bear this out by the sense that their opening acts are awkward, tentative and tend to be populated with conversations that resemble multiple Woody Allens yammering back and forth. Then, almost invariably, it feels as if Allen finds some sort of a groove — like you do when you’re working through the first draft of something — and the films are redeemed almost entirely by their middle and ending sections, or thereabouts; in the case of Vicky Cristina, the first half’s existence is justified strictly by the second. But the problems of the first are only magnified on revisit, when you know how easily the early scenes could be streamlined, fleshed out or otherwise improved.

That’s not to say there are not crafty and effective moments in the first part of the film. We meet the usual amusingly privileged brood of pseudo-intellectual Allen characters, the kind he made fun of in his ’80s and ’90s work but now seems to perversely admire: these people always have boats and/or friends with boats, are fascinated by opera or sculpture in a manner reminiscent of indie rock kids’ passion for the Faint, are unduly impressed by restaurants that put candles at the center of the table and have a wine list, cannot appreciate a work of art unless they’re staring at it with a glass of red wine in hand, and have what appears to be an infinite amount of money to travel and “figure things out.” In this case, our two heroines are architecture student Vicky (Hall) and her best friend, the brooding and impulsive Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), both staying with family members of Vicky’s in Barcelona. Vicky’s already engaged to one of the caddish boyfriends Allen seems almost magically capable of defining with hilarious expertise, Doug (Chris Messina), a reliable bore who says “babe” a lot, scoffs at Cristina’s tempestuous love life and regales his equally bland friends with questions about DVRs and tennis lessons.

For Vicky, Doug represents the ideal of stability and sustained, predictable partnership; Cristina, who revels in her youth but has little idea what she wants out of life and is beginning to grow desperate to find an answer or at least an outlet for her frustration, understandably finds him dull. He’s a Nice Guy, which the stormy and mysterious painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) is not; after a preview engagement of leaning on a post in a red sweater, Juan Antonio enters the film somewhat amusingly by confronting Vicky and Cristina in a restaurant and proposing that they both join him on his private plane and go to bed with him, in part because life is short and bad, the usual Allen speech. (Again, how do these fucking people have planes? Especially an “artist.”) In another Truffaut callback, now to the end of Stolen Kisses, Vicky finds the suggestion bizarre and idiotic while Cristina, freewheeling in a believable enough way that it doesn’t feel strictly like Allen is casting her yet again as a fantastic object of lust, is intrigued by it and finds Juan Antonio attractive; looking out for her friend, Vicky grudgingly goes along on what turns out to be an eye-opening weekend for both women — Cristina falls ill just when she and Juan Antonio are all set to fuck, and Vicky finds herself drawn to him in the days that follow, when they eventually have sex outdoors, under the stars, which is another thing people apparently do a lot in Europe according to filmmakers like Allen and Richard Linklater. The encounter is quickly swept under the rug after the women return to Barcelona, but it lingers seemingly permanently in Vicky’s mind.

A quick word about Juan Antonio and Bardem’s portrayal — rather, his embodiment — of him. Throughout Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Hall and Johansson both stumble over Allen’s lazily written dialogue; as we’ll see, the general premise and arc of Allen’s story is solid and engaging despite its obvious debt to Jules and Jim, but he can no longer write people who don’t sound like fatalism-generating robots. It’s almost devastating to think back to Husbands and Wives and recall how believable its characters were, when compared to the obvious flatness and mouthpiece status of these much more glamorous-looking figures. Bardem, however, is completely undaunted by what he’s handed and makes his character — the least developed of the lot, on paper; think “tortured artist still in love with ex-wife” and you pretty much get the whole picture — not only believable but absolutely haunting. As an aside, when I first saw the film I had a dream about it several nights later in which I could swear that Juan Antonio was a real person I knew, surely because Bardem’s performance is so remarkable in its detail. Because critics are critics, everyone always looks for the “Woody Allen surrogate” in his films, even though Allen played a much broader pool of “types” of characters back when he acted than people seem to remember, and it was repeatedly charged that Bardem was filling in here for a fantasy role Allen would’ve played himself if he were young enough, perhaps because the part involves male wish-fulfillment love scenes with three different women and essentially being a desirable and exotic and interesting specimen of some sort of pure machismo, but I have trouble reconciling Bardem’s characterization with anything I could imagine seeing Allen convey; strong an actor as he could be, he never communicated pain especially well, whereas it’s written all over every movement, every word, every action that comes out of Bardem’s performance. Even his initial crazy proposition is effective because he is able to play the part as a fundamentally honest and open philanderer rather than just a creep, and his reading of the speech allows us to realize that its message of a random encounter being justified just because it would be fun is not wholly without merit. He is masterful in this film, and his performance would make it worthwhile if there were nothing else to recommend, but fortunately there is.

Vicky flirts with what she perceives as boundary-testing danger several times during the course of the film. After her fling with Juan Antonio is written off as a spur-of-the-moment gaffe, she nevertheless shows palpable jealousy when he calls Cristina and the two begin seeing each other regularly; but after Doug joins her in Barcelona she sets about with the routine of planning their wedding and their resolved future together in New York. Doug is already planning what sort of pets they’ll accumulate. But something in Vicky seems off; she blames it on the strange weekend with Cristina and Juan Antonio, but it seems just to have brought a nagging feeling of discomfort to the surface. She enjoys a short-lived friendship with a male classmate, Ben, with whom she goes and sees a screening of Shadow of a Doubt, and their connection seems more relaxed and healthy by far than either of her romantic entanglements in the film, but when he tries to hold her hand even this, a far less threatening gesture than Juan Antonio’s seduction, sets her off into guilt and self-doubt. Every bit of evidence we’re given in the film points to her connection to Doug being tied strictly to a feeling of security and a carefully planned life map, the tennis court and swimming pool all ready for use, and it seems as if she too is becoming troubled by this programmatic eventuality.

Unfortunately, neither Hall nor Allen is able to make Vicky a realistic character; she’s sympathetic, sure, but she feels like a pawn in an anecdote someone else is vaguely recalling, and like so many male screenwriters Allen’s idea of fleshing her out into a human being is to give her an arbitrary cultural interest (architecture) and have her state every single thing she’s supposedly thinking, while the narrator helpfully explains it once again on top of that. Allen is hardly the only writer guilty of this sort of facile characterization, and Hall simply doesn’t help with her overly earnest reading of the character. The only scene in which she seems absolutely like a fully alive person rather than a carefully manipulated piece of cardboard is one in which she doesn’t say a word: she is sitting at a dinner table with Doug and two of Doug’s friends, all engaged in idle (but in the case of Doug, hysterically overenthusiastic) lifestyle chatter about electronics and their future home. The camera slowly zeroes in on the absolute emptiness on Vicky’s face while she gradually stops listening and gets wrapped up in her own thoughts, a process signified by the fading out of the conversation on the soundtrack in favor of a Spanish guitar being played across the room. It’s a beautifully expressed, telling moment, and easily the most memorable involving Vicky, who seems consistently to be in a different film than the other characters.

Johansson is much more capable of turning the clunkiness of Cristina as written into an advantage; she’s still not a strong enough actress to sound completely at peace with Allen’s tiresome rhetoric (as we’ve seen, it takes something of a master nowadays), but she never suffers from the physical stiffness that plagues Hall, and has an air of spontaneity and effervescence that Allen can’t bury under dialogue. Cristina’s cycle is also more engrossing than Vicky’s for obvious reasons — she remains in the orbit of Juan Antonio for the duration of the film, temporarily moving in with him and assimilating in his bohemian circle. One night, his former wife Maria Elena — subject of a stormy scandal in the art world when she tried to kill him some time earlier, and for whom he openly still carries a torch — appears out of nowhere after a suicide attempt and Juan Antonio announces that she will move in until she’s back on her feet. The situation is tense and awful initially; one memorable shot tracks Johansson as she walks up a hill to get medicine out of her purse for Juan Antonio’s aching back, then pulls back down the path to reveal Maria Elena already attending to him. Maria Elena digs through Cristina’s luggage to try to find blackmail and mocks Cristina’s lack of ambition and creativity. The complexity and violence in the former couple’s history is palpable in all of their interactions, and their shouted arguments in Spanish — despite Juan Antonio’s continual needling at her to speak English in Cristina’s presence — are a constant distraction in the household until somehow an equilibrium takes hold, starting when Maria Elena discovers that Cristina, who’s long felt too inadequate to pursue any of her creative interests, is an amateur photographer and offers to help her hone her craft; a friendship and, eventually, a surprisingly natural triad is the outgrowth.

An accomplished Spanish actress usually relegated to repetitive and boring roles in American films, Penélope Cruz’s performance as Maria Elena quickly comes to dominate Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and the film is far better for her presence; she lifts it up immeasurably, lends it resonance and honesty. Her role in part is to bring Juan Antonio’s air of enigmatic sensuality (Ben Trout’s description is note-perfect: “Women want to be with him, men want to be him, he doesn’t wear shoes and lives in a hermetic maze of art studios”) down to earth by explaining that he adopted her style and attitudes in whole, and while in the film’s parlance Cristina’s presence allows Maria Elena and Juan Antonio to live together and fall back in love peacefully, it’s really the opposite — the strange presence of Juan Antonio’s ex-wife is what adds a layer of threat and intensity to the restless Cristina’s world, which in turn gives her an obvious and justified feeling of liberation and provides the sort of thrill she’s always seeking. Cruz’s performance is theatrical, galvanizing, scene-stealing, maybe even over the top, but when she’s paired with Bardem it works tremendously well, their chemistry much more obvious and effective than that Bardem shares with Johansson or Hall.

In the press leading up to the release of Vicky Cristina much was made of the brief love scene between Cruz and Johansson, with various inevitable jokes about the elderly horny male filmmaker hiring young actresses to go at it, but in actually watching the film the liaison in question is handled with admirable taste, and moreover it’s necessary to the film’s most praiseworthy element: its lack of judgment and sensationalism in its portrayal of a non-monogamous relationship, and a potentially long-term one at that. The two women do not have an extended, exploitative sex scene; they kiss once and briefly and we don’t see the rest, and thereafter they both begin to continue sleeping with Juan Antonio in tandem and together. To return to the “wish-fulfillment” phrase, it’s relatively easy to balk at this as another instance of adolescent male fantasy, but it’s perhaps the only sexual arrangement of characters in the film that makes complete sense and achieves a balance of sorts between lust and security. That it has an unorthodox structure is incidental, and treated as such (by the film and by everyone except Doug, who’s disgusted). The subtlety and restraint in the way the film examines an alternative lifestyle prevents us from gawking at it condescendingly; instead, it comes across as a touchingly natural moment of happiness for all three characters, and indirectly rebukes the idea of long-term monogamous relationships being the source of the only meaningful romantic love that exists, a welcome respite from the usual movie logic. In addition, rather than simply treating the arrangement as exotic and pornographic, it finds time for a scene of surprisingly moving dialogue in which Maria Elena expresses the warm feeling she gets when she hears Juan Antonio and Cristina having sex, an unexpectedly mature insight into the mechanics of a polyamorous household. And it seems agreeable enough that we actually feel disappointed when Cristina’s natural state of restlessness rears its head again and she feels she has to leave. This leads to a fascinating contradiction: the romantic viewer feels she should stay in this atypical, fruitful arrangement despite its unpredictability; the realistic viewer knows she is far too young and curious to tether herself even to something this sexy and offbeat. The only issue with this entire sequence is that it’s far too short, when in fact one wishes the entire story had been reframed to focus on the triad scenes and with Cruz as one of its primary fixtures.

To Allen’s credit, we’re not expected to believe that formerly cautious, pragmatic Vicky and adventurous Cristina have simply switched roles as the film has progressed; a single summer has just thrown a challenge to each of them. Cristina is leaving a situation that’s made her and two others happy and can’t rationally explain why. Meanwhile, Vicky is still troubled by her temptations and even sees Juan Antonio once after the breakup with Cristina (after which Maria Elena has also left again), perhaps a bit of an overcorrection against the dire situation she’s about to wander into with Doug, but when Maria Elena shows up in the midst of another violent tantrum this ends with Vicky being accidentally shot in the hand, and thus as the film fades out we’re rather bravely left with no sense that anyone is closer to contentment — and Vicky, for all the blandness she’s added to the narrative, is the most tragic figure of all, recognized by even other characters in the film (her relative Judy, played by the wonderful Patricia Clarkson, warns her as such, knowing the signs from her own loveless marriage) as being on the cusp of a fatal, life-altering error by marrying a sheltered egomaniac with whom she shares seemingly no real connection or happiness. In contrast to the subverted lives and cynical conclusions of Allen’s earlier Husbands and Wives, these characters don’t lend themselves to any sort of “you just never know” polemic whereby they all end up on the opposite course they expected. In fact, both Vicky and Cristina end up doing exactly what they expected they would — which is terrifying in its own way.

So much of the existential despair in Allen’s films seems phony and cartoonish, in part because the author is a millionaire who’s lived a probably excessively charmed life; but the finale of Vicky Cristina Barcelona is, like those of Blue Jasmine and the otherwise innocuous Melinda and Melinda, genuinely unsettling, and cuts to the heart of what the film is really about. Everyone is left in limbo; our last glimpse at every face in the cast is terribly sad. A cheaply cynical film wouldn’t permit the possibility that sustained happiness is even a real thing, would only emphasize the pain that opening one’s heart can bring. But a more realistically mournful one like this cuts deeper because it demonstrates that the greatest suffering and lack of fulfillment comes from fear of taking a leap outward from what one knows — one might argue that Cristina’s character doesn’t fit with this because she already hops into situations head-first and figures them out later, something for which Allen does not judge her, but it’s equally evident that a constant need for stimulation and for “the new” is her own version of the familiarity and status quo that Vicky seems to have chosen, for now. Like Juan Antonio’s initial offer to the ladies in the restaurant, the film is a challenge to everyone watching, to wonder whether we’re capable of moving past our own fundamental natures to explore a more satisfying and emotionally rich life just beyond our reach. The only caveat is that, no matter how bleakly endearing that ending is, Vicky Cristina Barcelona would be so much more probing if it were trimmed down and reconfigured just a little, instead of forcing the audience to chisel away until we find its essence.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, Alfred Hitchcock)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

After achieving considerable acclaim and popular success with his first two sound films, Blackmail and Juno and the Paycock, Alfred Hitchcock spent the majority of the early 1930s in the wilderness, with a run of frustrating experiences at British International Pictures. He was continually saddled with projects toward which either he or the studio lacked enthusiasm, with five consecutive films based on novels or stage plays, the most interesting of which (Murder! and Rich and Strange) never found the audiences their director felt they deserved, while his more conventional filmed plays got great reviews and were successes with the public. (Such was the early novelty of talking films, fused with the air of artistic superiority favoring theater over cinema felt in Britain as well as America.) Rich and Strange and Number Seventeen precipitated a falling out between Hitchcock and the studio that ended with his contract lapsing, after which he made one film independently then was taken under the aegis again of producer Michael Balcon, the man who’d originally given him a career (and had nearly ended it during post-production of The Lodger). Hitchcock offered Balcon a property he’d been toying with, a story about espionage and kidnapping featuring the well-loved British detective character Bulldog Drummond. By the time the resulting film was exhibited, Drummond was long gone; The Man Who Knew Too Much would not be a continuation of any established trend but the beginning of what can only be termed a revolution in British filmmaking, and a fruitful new chapter for all cinema that would swallow up the next four decades.

Balcon was the director of production at both Gaumont-British and Gainsborough Pictures, which shared a corporate parent; he placed Hitchcock under a two-year contract with Gaumont that would then be extended through the end of the ’30s. While Hitchcock was not yet producing his own films, he was apparently now given far more freedom to choose his material and shoot it as he pleased, and his new collaboration with Gaumont would set the tone for the rest of his career. Until 1934, Hitchcock was a diversified director of many genres, from romance to comedy to musical to detective story to sobering slice of life. It was with the beginning of the Gaumont deal — after throwing a tantrum on the set of Waltzes from Vienna out of frustration with the subject matter — that he began to be strictly identified as a thriller director; not coincidentally, the films he made at Gaumont find him suddenly operating with a new level of dedication and intensity. His work there, comprised of six stunning suspense films in an unbroken stretch from 1934 to 1938, has become informally known as the “Gaumont Six.” These films deserve to be considered as their own entity in addition to their placement within Hitchcock’s history taken as a whole. They share several characteristics that seem almost to follow a model of success, though they’re also quite disparate in their story content. Blackmail and (to a lesser extent) The Lodger and Murder! predict some aspects of the methodology that would take the director to his greatest heights, but really there is no precedent to The Man Who Knew Too Much in his filmography, and not many in anyone else’s.

The Gaumont Six are all rapidly paced, breathlessly exciting thrillers that tend to seduce an audience in their expository first scenes and then pick up with a frantic sense of journey that carries them through their typically sudden, tantalizing finales. The films’ concentration is on a forceful, purposeful race through its situations, characters, settings, and their energy is emotional rather than logical — they introduce the common Hitchcock device of the MacGuffin, a bland catalyst for whatever action Hitchcock is more interested in exploring. With the exception of The Lady Vanishes, the last in the series, each of the films runs less than ninety minutes; all but two are shot by cinematographer Bernard Knowles and share an urgent, spontaneous “look” rare in this era, miles away from the staid formal studio settings of so many American films, and if anything closer to the intoxication visualized by the likes of Jean Vigo in France in the early ’30s. Hitchcock’s films had already been rife with surprising and inventive visual moments, but it’s with the Gaumont contract that his work attains a fluid quality, with each of the films consistent in their intimate, electrifying style. (Truth be told, on leaving for Hollywood he would adopt a different approach, and with few exceptions his later films didn’t share this frenetic or impulsive sensibility.)

Another collaborator shared by all of the Six (again excluding The Lady Vanishes) is screenwriter Charles Bennett. He had been the playwright of Blackmail, source of what was then still Hitchcock’s most famous film, and the two were partnered on the conception and adaptation of scenarios at Gaumont. Apart from that he shared with his wife Alma Reville, this was perhaps the most important creative collaboration of Hitchcock’s career. The pair worked eyeball to eyeball at times, and Bennett displayed a remarkable understanding of construction and tone that allowed these films to stand starkly apart from other mysteries and thrillers of the day; in fact, it’s not unfair to credit the two of them with establishing the thriller as we know it. More than anyone else, Bennett established the Hitchcock modus operandi of a simultaneous commitment to character and story, of fierce identification with a protagonist and tense buildup filled with strange side attractions and bravura setpieces, always suffused with a healthy degree of humor and levity but never surrendering to it or making the scripts lightweight. Indeed, all of the Bennett scripts are rather dark, in part because of the frighteningly fragile Europe they incidentally document; as the pregnancy of the pending war becomes more evident through the latter part of the decade, Bennett’s scripts attain an obvious menace even when their subject matter seems outwardly innocuous, and Hitchcock’s direction of them becomes ever more foreboding. The England of Hitchcock is devious, unpredictable, sometimes bleak, a dreary and deathly backdrop to the exhilaration in the foreground.

For The Man Who Knew Too Much, produced in the year of Adolf Hitler’s election as German chancellor, Bennett and Hitchcock establish the morbid, nefarious forces lurking behind every precious taste of idyllic everyday life in their world. (The events that snowballed into the First World War are directly mentioned at one point by way of comparison to the plot being uncovered.) Ever since it was Bulldog Drummond’s Baby, the story had concerned a child being kidnapped to silence someone who knew of a pending assassination. Hitchcock and Bennett would always favor concentrating on characters to whom an audience could strongly relate, and the deletion after their move to Gaumont of Drummond in favor of a regular couple trying to recover their older daughter gives the resulting movie an incredible injection of vitality. It grabs and doesn’t let go.

The man of the title is Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks), but the title (taken from an otherwise unrelated G.K. Chesterson story collection) is also reductive. The marriage at the center of this film is one of true equals. We meet the Lawrences — Bob, Jill (Edna Best) and their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) — during a vacation in Switzerland, where in one of those magical Hitchcock coincidences they are already acquainted with both the victim and perpetrator of a murder they are about to witness. Jill’s in a sharpshooting competition which Betty distracts her from winning (“Never have children,” she cautions jokingly); the winner, a smooth-talking faker called Ramon (Frank Vosper), displays no indication that he is a contract killer presently on assignment, and cheerfully offers his opponent a rematch someday. Jill and Bob’s confidence and comfort in their marriage is shown by how freely they joke with one another; Jill flirts and dances with another man, a skiing Frenchman named Louis (Pierre Fresnay), and Bob’s nonchalant good humor in response shows their strength and unity, which is necessary for — and in fact the essence of — the story that follows. When Louis is shot while dancing and whispers a secret to Jill indicating that his death is part of a much larger scheme, Jill and Bob spend the rest of the film engaged in a sort of relay race to deliver the relevant information (found in a hairbrush in Louis’s room) to the British consul, and then to rescue Betty, who’s been kidnapped in the interim by the syndicate that shot Louis, while trying to avoid police involvement and thus get her killed. Bob is the one who proceeds to the hotel room and uncovers the disputed papers and Bob is the one who, along with the couple’s friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield), travels to Wapping in East London to scope out the conspirators’ front. But he is then taken hostage just like his daughter, and it falls on Jill to do her part in foiling the larger assassination scheme and finally to use her skills as a sharpshooter to save Betty, by killing Ramon — a rematch indeed. The equal, unspoken exchange and distribution of duty in this pensive, terrifying matter comprises one of the most persuasive cinematic portraits of a good marriage. All three Lawrences’ devotion to one another is never in question, nor even directly examined; it’s taken as a given, even in the light moments when Jill is testing Bob for the fun of it, and that might be a more touching (and personal, for Hitchcock) gesture than the career-marriage conflicts in the films John Michael Hayes wrote with him in Hollywood, including their remake of this.

Banks and Best would never perform in a more visible film — Banks made another feature with Hitchcock, the haphazard Jamaica Inn, and Best later went to Hollywood but played dull matronly roles in the likes of Swiss Family Robinson and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a bizarre turn given her elegance and magnetic but earthy, believable charm here — and this is a pity, because as individual performers they are both impeccable here, both embodying their characters as real people and fully selling the audience on their rapport as well as their grief. And together, their chemistry is something to behold: they don’t melt the screen with sensuality but they feel sincerely like a relatively young couple who have a considerable amount of history and still enjoy one another, the most universally appealing kind of romantic relationship and by far the hardest type to capture on film. The precocious Pilbeam adds to this illusion brilliantly; we don’t get to see her shine as much here as we later would in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, in which she would play the lead and become a favorite of Hitchcock’s (he tried to persuade her to sign with David O. Selznick when he went to Hollywood), but in her scenes with Banks and Best it’s remarkable how much she genuinely seems like their real daughter, a sign of maturity on her part as an actress as well as simply how phenomenally well cast the film is.

Some aspects of the structure in The Man Who Knew Too Much would be repeated in the rest of the Gaumont Six, and in the remainder of Hitchcock’s output: the introduction of an everyday set of characters thrown unexpectedly into bizarre circumstances would be quickly reprised in The 39 Steps and then Young and Innocent, while the use of exotic or famous locations (here, the Royal Albert Hall, largely reproduced with paintings, and St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps, entirely reproduced in Lime Grove Studios) and the bustling streets of London would both show up continually through the end of the decade. With just a 75-minute running time, however, the picture takes little time to sweep the audience up in its scenario, and Hitchcock’s method of getting us there is beautifully chilling — the hastily whispered last words of the dying British spy Louis “Don’t breathe a word… don’t breathe a word to anyone” seem to lift the curtain on not just the destiny of the characters in this film but on Hitchcock’s mission and commitment to his audience for the remainder of his life. There is so much promise in that moment, for a story that will pile us down with thrills and entertainment, and for the first of many times Hitchcock is capable of fulfilling every expectation he thus places on himself. He proceeds to amp up further intrigue with the image of Betty, her mouth clamped shut by Ramon’s gloved hand, her eyes wide, as the newly frightening sound of sleigh bells provides the only soundtrack to her nighttime journey into parts unknown. Hitchcock would always subsume disturbing and sophisticated themes within the aesthetically pleasing framework of the crackerjack thriller, and anyone doubting his way with an audience could do worse than to screen the first act of this film as a demonstration of how easily he took the world under his wing.

The lowest-key but most beautifully performed scene in the film comes just after the Lawrences have discovered that Betty has been abducted and they’ve returned to their home in London, joined there by cops and government officials sniffing for trouble and asking invasive questions, and by their friend Clive, who comforts Jill — fragile but stoic, Best again a sight to behold here — while tinkering endlessly with the child’s electric train set. When a bit of evidence falls into their laps, Jill agrees to let Bob proceed to one of the city’s seedier districts alone, at which point he falls into an elaborate series of false front operations maintained by the conspirators; these individually translate to the first delightful entry in Hitchcock’s long series of truly weird momentary setpieces that introduce a larger world and life to his films, extrapolating into sometimes surreal directions, without distracting from the main story. It’s reasonable to believe that, in addition to the Lawrences’ marriage, these inventive and strikingly odd scenes are the true impetus behind the making of the film, and Hitchcock had never done anything quite like them before. First is the dentist’s office, where a snarling Dr. Barbor (the uncredited Henry Oscar) yanks bicuspids out for a few quid, his services advertised outside by a humongous and eerie model of a full set of teeth — evidently a tradition nixed a decade earlier, but one Hitchcock wisely appropriated — a perversely ugly mirror of the solid gold tooth in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, and just as much a harbinger of doom. Bob hilariously reverses the gas on the dentist after he lets Clive go under the blade, so to speak, as a decoy, then overhears a conversation that lets him track the activity to an even creepier establishment, the Tabernacle of the Sun.

This is a cultish sun-worship gathering situated in a hole in the wall down a dark alley, the congregation and its lengthy chorus headed by one Nurse Agnes, one of the anarchists’ associates, who directs a whole procession of double-speaking accusation at Bob and Clive from the pulpit, then occasions a touch of the avant garde (specifically the Watson and Webber version of The Fall of the House of Usher) when she hypnotizes Clive and he watches as her visage grows ever blurrier to him. One ingenious touch has Bob sharing information with his friend to the tune of the religious song being sung, one of the film’s most resourceful uses of sound. The situation quickly devolves, when Bob finds himself threatened with a gun by the incongruously elderly Mrs. Brockett (Clare Greet), into probably the director’s best-ever and certainly funniest fight sequence, wherein all involved destroy the Tabernacle and one another with wooden chairs, all while Mrs. Brockett plays the organ and Clive continues sleeping.

The ringleader of the diverse gang that has kidnapped Betty and is attempting to conceal the nature of their planned assassination of a diplomat is Peter Lorre in his English language debut as one Abbott, the quintessential well-controlled Hitchcock villain who’s more charming than menacing. When he first meet him, still in Switzerland, he’s joking around with the Lawrences about their disruption of a ski competition, later seen laughing at Bob’s antics with a piece of knitting in the dining hall. Lorre was best known then as one of the screen’s most terrifying (but also most sympathetic) villains, the child molester and killer Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s M. His fame as a catch-all character actor in Hollywood films, as Mr. Moto, and eventually as a frequent caricature in various animated cartoons still lay far ahead, and here Hitchcock casts him against type as a suave, resourceful man showing little outward signs of his temper, bloodlust and cunning. He has a way with people, retaining such calm in his interactions with Bob late in the film that we only are sure he plans to kill both him and his daughter because he keeps directly mentioning his intention to do so. To a person, his assistants and henchmen are scarier than he is, especially Cicely Oates as the terrifyingly unfeeling Nurse Agnes. Only once does his anger let him slip out of the comfortable exterior he’s set for himself, and at that moment — a close-up of his face, the basis for the film’s poster — all hint of life and empathy drains from his face as he prepares to strike Bob, and he suddenly becomes the most threatening sort of villain because he is capable of transforming so quickly and deliberately. It’s to the film’s credit that his actual motives in this plot are not made clear, nor are any of the deeper motivations behind the assassination; the mystery in both his inner life and his relationships with the other villains is vague enough to be both richly evocative and truly disturbing.

It’s while Betty and Bob are in custody of Abbott’s gang that we learn when and how the assassination is to take place (Bob discovered the location — the Royal Albert Hall — earlier during the fight, and was able to notify Jill). Abbott plays a record of a supposed classical piece, to be performed at the Hall that night, which reaches a cymbal-crashing crescendo; at this apex the gunshot won’t be heard or immediately noticed. This piece, the “Storm Clouds Cantana,” was actually commissioned and written for the film by its composer Arthur Benjamin; it’s so impressive that Bernard Herrmann — that’s Bernard Herrmann — used and expanded it in the film’s remake instead of writing his own piece. The Cantana has attained some level of notoriety outside of the movies, meaning that both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much managed a surprising shared legacy outside of cinema, the remake having been surely outlived in the cultural consciousness by the song Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote for it, “Que Sera, Sera.”

The Albert Hall sequence that follows, in which Jill is directly threatened but manages to foil the plot by screaming just before the shot is fired, only features a few token moments of actual location filming; otherwise it uses process shots, like the British Museum portions of Blackmail, and painted extras, probably less because Hitchcock didn’t wish to spend time on location than because of budgetary concerns. That isn’t really the film’s climax despite its perceived size; it’s followed with a replica of sorts of the Sidney Street Siege of 1911, a gunfight between British authorities and a severely outnumbered pair of anarchists (with young Home Secretary Winston Churchill observing on the sidelines), as the street on which nearly the entire latter two thirds of the film have taken place descends into mayhem that’s broken only by the gradual deaths of Abbott and his associates, and by Jill’s climactic shot that brings down Ramon, who’s chased Betty to the roof of the house in which the gang has been holed up. This finale also has precedent in Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld and — even more directly — Howard Hawks’ Scarface, both of which Hitchcock undoubtedly knew well, but it’s very much a British variant of those moments of smoky extremity, with the casual conversation and behavior of the cops contrasted with the blood-drenched chaos inside the hideout above the Tabernacle. Afterward, the Lawrences are at last reunited in the final seconds before the film fades out, and it should be noted that it’s wife Jill who saves husband Bob and daughter Betty from capture and distress, a continuation of the film’s deliberate clouding of popular gender roles and of “traditional” marital relationships.

Waltzes from Vienna wasn’t destined to stand as Hitchcock’s last failure, nor did the move to Gaumont and its attendant freedom mark the end of his struggles with producers. Indeed, even this film suffered a distribution setback thanks to Hitchcock’s old nemesis C.M. Woolf, the British distributor who’d kept The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle out of circulation in the mid-’20s. Sharing and influenced by the director Graham Cutts’ low opinion of Hitchcock’s abilities and still unconverted by 1934 (unlike Michael Balcon, who’d considered The Lodger an awful mess but was now fully supportive of the director), he was blindsided when the film received stellar reviews and proved massively popular, Hitchcock’s strategy of placing melodramatic concerns against a gritty real-world setting having struck a genuine chord with audiences (and with critics; a trade ad records a telling comment from the Morning Post, calling it “a true to life picture”), the full fruition of his strategy in The Lodger and Blackmail at last. All the same, Woolf stubbornly threw the film on a low-price double bill which circumvented its profitability, though it couldn’t be denied that it was an incredibly popular film, breaking attendance records throughout the country. The long-term effect was that whatever issues Hitchcock may have encountered in the future, his struggle to be noticed was over; he was now the leading British director — a household-name status he’d flirted with tentatively in the past would be his permanently from this point — and would within ten years be one of the most famous filmmakers in the world. His commercial abilities assured, he’d never again spend time on the fringes of the business, either at home or — eventually — abroad, and with his own confidence in using popular entertainment to explore his own thematic and artistic interests also validated, he’d never again suffer from a lack of enthusiasm or, as he would put it to François Truffaut, from carelessness.

In that same conversation with Truffaut, from 1962, Hitchcock reflects on this watershed moment and claims a preference for his 1956 Hollywood remake of this title starring James Stewart and Doris Day. Truffaut agrees with him, and Hitchcock goes so far as to dismiss the 1934 film as “the work of a talented amateur.” Like many of Hitchcock’s unsparing opinions in the Truffaut interview, this assertion is disappointing. Though it’s probably natural for any director to remain more strongly attached to and sentimental toward his or her more recent work, Hitchcock also tended to go along with the drift of the conversation instigated by his interviewers, with numerous anecdotes, asides and opinions always at the ready, and Truffaut’s preference for the later film is frankly inexplicable. There is merit to the remake, but there’s comparatively little life in it, and John Michael Hayes’ screenplay isn’t nearly as probing or unconventional as its inspiration; despite strong performances by the leads, the casting is mostly lackluster and the only point on which the remake genuinely improves on its predecessor is in its impressive production values, with Hitchcock’s status as Hollywood A-list director, as his own producer, and as a huge moneymaker for Paramount Pictures clearly blowing wind at his back. The original film is exponentially more fun, more exciting, more interesting, and more absorbing thanks to the ramshackle real-world quality that so enamored critics at the time.

Hitchcock had not lost the ability to tell a compelling story by the ’40s and ’50s, when his films became more seduced than perhaps anyone else’s by the glamour and beauty of Hollywood as an artificial world unto itself, and by its stars as the constellation of weirdos populating all modern mythological dreams, and the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much can serve as a strong if rote demonstration of his infallible storytelling impulses if taken on its own. But having known Jill and Bob and Betty, and having been so upset by Abbott and his fellow killers, and having felt so immediately drawn to and involved in the Swiss and London settings despite so much more artificiality and trickery than in the more financially comfortable remake, everything about the 1956 film save Stewart’s admirably cold, enigmatic performance can seem flat and ordinary. Even the reunion of the couple with their child hasn’t the intensity of the brief moment Pilbeam shares here with Best and Banks, largely because we are so conscious of the fact in the newer version that these are actors, stars at that in the cases of Day and Stewart.

Perhaps most damaging is Hayes’ more conservative view of marriage, which forces a stoic, emotionally barren woodenness from Stewart, which he again sinks into quite impressively, that was probably then perceived as macho strength. The couple’s subplot in the film works from Hayes’ favorite subject, of a career-marriage conflict, which served him so well in Rear Window but now feels contrived: Day is a former professional singer who wants to go back to work and she saves her son’s (it’s now a son, natch) life by singing, not by shooting. The Lawrences in 1934 felt like a couple you might know, or one you might even be; you wanted to spend more time with them than you were allowed. The McKennas in 1956 feel like Frankenstein approximations of prosperous “normal” suburbanites as guessed at by the Hollywood archetype machine. Interestingly, it’s one of only two Hitchcock films made after WWII that revolves around a traditional family dynamic, of a couple with a child or children. (The other is The Wrong Man, which is much more successful but has the leg-up of being based directly on real people.) Whereas Jill laughs and jokes effervescently around her husband, Day’s Jo seems almost afraid of hers — and while this may speak to where the status of women stood in the respective eras and countries, one also wonders whether the operative influence is of Bennett’s worldview versus Hayes’. It’s the difference between a wonderful and a terrible way to model a relationship for your kids, or even your friends, and more importantly a wonderful and a terrible relationship to be in. (On the other hand, Jo remains in the front seat of the action for the entire film, whereas the Lawrences split up during the body of this one, a correction Hitchcock may have specifically sought to make.)

For my part, I think it’s much more likely that Hitchcock and Truffaut’s relatively low opinion of the 1934 film may well have been driven by print quality, with Hitchcock’s own memories probably otherwise vague thirty years later. The movie was difficult to see for decades, with Paramount apparently having bought the copyright to make the 1956 film and rendering the original a rarity, and the negative was lost eons ago, so for many years even new viewers in the video era could well walk away bewildered by the original Man Who Knew Too Much; having first seen it on a public domain VHS tape I can verify that with its muffled dialogue, scratchy film stock and inadvertent jump cuts it looked like a highly intriguing but incomprehensible series of random images revolving around people skiing, other people speaking and pacing frantically, and Peter Lorre laughing. Seeing a film like this presented correctly makes all the difference, and thanks to the Janus Films restoration mounted in 2011, everyone can now hopefully bear witness to what an extraordinary film this is; a monument to a career that was hitting its stride, yes, but also a magnificent moment all its own in which love with equanimity and compassion can conquer everything even set against the unforgivingly dim larger world. I don’t think it’s strange to say that I find great comfort and identification in the portrait it paints of long-term romantic love, chair fight or no chair fight.

March 2017 movie capsules

20 movies watched in March. Counts:
– 15 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,141.
– 5 revisits, including 2 (All About Eve and Modern Times) previously reviewed here, plus Girl, Interrupted, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Rules of the Game.
– 3 new full reviews, the most in a while, not to brag: Wiener Dog and Trouble in Paradise were rare long takes on first-time watches, while The Rules of the Game was a revised review from my old blog.
– 15 new or revised capsules below.
– Under quota on both projects this month because I had to double down on music, but I managed to get more ancillary titles in than usual so I’m counting it as a victory, and I’ll try to compensate with extra films from the canon and Oscars projects in April. There will also be at least two more long reviews in the next few weeks!
– Probably won’t get to La La Land until May. Sorry to all the Ryan Gosling hangers-on reading this.

Project breakdowns:
1930s canon: 6 films (4 new). Under quota by one film, just because I ran out of time, though I did also rewatch the delightful Modern Times which counts in some alternate universe. Revisited The Adventures of Robin Hood (still don’t like it at all) and The Rules of the Game (like it more than I used to). Saw and loved L’Atalante, Scarface; saw Earth and was… intrigued; saw Trouble in Paradise and fell head over heels. Remaining: 59 features (37 new).
Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 5 films (4 new), and one of those isn’t a net gain because it (Fences) wasn’t on the master list yet when I started. Fell pretty far short of my goals here, at least in part because I’m having trouble getting two titles from Netflix and I never found enough time to carve out for the 164-minute A Passage to India, which I must try to take on this weekend. I revisited Girl, Interrupted and saw for the first time East of Eden, Pollock, Fences and Written on the Wind, none of which are bad and none of which really did anything for me. Remaining: 29 films (26 new).
2010s catchup: Four, due to expirations and other stuff. Life of Riley (ugggh), Magic Mike XXL (hello), The Day He Arrives and the truly and completely wonderful Wiener-Dog; every time Todd Solondz makes a new movie I suspect it’s the one that will finally sour me on him but every single time he delivers.
New movies: The Fits and About Elly are both films that topped Metacritic in the last nine months, though Elly was actually released in Iran in 2009 so it’s not really “new.”
Other: Every month I think I’m going to finally finish my BBS box but A Safe Place was not a good reward for leaping to the finish line. Yikes.

Now for the capsules…

L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo) [hr]
Lyrical romance set aboard a dodgy shipping vessel about the strikes made by circumstance, jealousy and lust against a new love, illustrated in the language of nearly uncontrollable physical need. It is pure, drunken cinema, with more stunningly beautiful shots and eerily believable moments of undiluted life than can be reasonably counted out — the death of director Jean Vigo in the months past its completion only underlines its mysterious, inscrutable sensuality, because it’s a final statement never to be elucidated.

The Fits (2015, Anna Rose Holmer) [r]
Splendidly lean and vague, visually sumptuous exploration of a young girl’s initiation into a dance troupe does get slightly bogged down in heavy-handed metaphor, but it’s difficult to moan about that too loudly when it’s formally so remarkable and absorbing, with a welcome injection of the enigmatic (and even a nod to horror) with the introduction of a plague of spasms afflicting the team. Royalty Hightower anchors it all brilliantly, a beguiling lead performance for an equally beguiling film.

East of Eden (1955, Elia Kazan) [r]
Soapy, bludgeon-force Steinbeck adaptation underlines its central conceit of Cain and Abel allusion so many times in the third act it becomes like a drinking game. In pre-WWI California, James Dean portrays an angsty twin trying to win the love of his father, a perpetually ruined and devout farmer, with more than one secret up his sleeve. Kazan’s CinemaScope presentation of all this turmoil is a stirringly beautiful sight, and while Dean sometimes falls down melodramatic Method actorly rabbit holes, he does figure in a few magnificently riveting scenes, especially those with Jo Ann Fleet as his mother.

Life of Riley (2014, Alain Resnais) [c]
I’m not trying to be mean to One of the Greats but between the braindead goofball music, the plastic sets and weird surreal drawings and flat backgrounds, and the ponderous procession of characters wandering into the center of the frame, waving their arms around and having extremely inane interactions, this is pretty much Teletubbies for adults.

About Elly (2009, Asghar Farhadi) [r]
The relationships among several people spending a weekend at a ramshackle seaside cottage fracture when an idyllic beach day abruptly turns frantic. Farhadi’s way with a camera is spellbinding, and he’s one of the most absorbing cinematic storytellers currently alive, addressing social problems in Iran within the subtle framework of a story that ends up resembling a mystery or thriller more than the domestic romantic comedy-drama we’re set up to expect in the first act. The characterizations are incredibly complex and intricate, overrun with telling and well-observed details, even if the film finally lacks the emotional kick of A Separation.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, Michael Curtiz & William Keighley) [c]
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) Signature Warner Bros. adventure film just doesn’t work if you’re not already inclined to appreciate its indulgences. Flynn is a completely unappealing leader of a fine cast stuck in insipid parts behind layers of bad wardrobe, hair and makeup, and the entire thing just looks so garish and ugly, which makes it seem like it’s geared toward toddlers.

Scarface (1932, Howard Hawks) [hr]
Ferocious, mind-bogglingly wild entertainment, with Hawks (despite censorship problems) semi-celebrating a violent underworld without reducing us to bystanders of empty machimso. The shooting and killing is so endless it becomes almost comical, which in a film that takes pains to make its protagonist (Paul Muni) inordinately oafish is certainly intentional. None of the filmmakers who’d later try their hand at this sort of lurid escapism ever had the love of extremes that Hawks shows off in his many bloody confrontations and tense setpieces, which seem to emanate from an almost cartoonishly dangerous world.

Magic Mike XXL (2015, Gregory Jacobs) [r]
A big improvement on the great-looking but surprisingly conservative Magic Mike that works well as a hyperactive and nearly structure-less hybrid of road movie and musical, its thin story essentially an excuse for dance sequences and male eye candy.

A Safe Place (1971, Henry Jaglom) [NO]
Bland, empty abstraction is a struggle to watch; ostensibly it’s just dated avant garde but in fact it’s talk talk talk to the exclusion of almost everything else. The actors, including Tuesday Weld, Jack Nicholson and Orson Welles (kind enough to distract us periodically with magic tricks), give it a lot more gusto than it deserves but this feels like the sort of thing we wrote in creative writing class when we were 17 thinking it was deep and insightful.

Earth (1930, Aleksandr Dovzhenko) [r]
Another silent abstraction from Dovzhenko; Arsenal was confusing to me, and this seems rather facile, but it certainly is more complicated in its storyline — about resistance and violence in response to farm collectivization — than pure propaganda would be. But everything dazzling and impressive about the film is in its visuals and editing, particularly in the last twenty minutes when it for all intents and purposes becomes a stunningly poetic avant garde film. Those closing montages are extraordinary and will live in the mind for far longer than the relatively thin story itself.

Girl, Interrupted (1999, James Mangold)
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) Hackneyed dramatization of Susanna Kaysen’s unconventional memoir of her time in a mental ward shoves it into very ordinary Hollywood screenplay format and stuffs it with celebrity cameos by the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Vanessa Redgrave. Winona Ryder portrays Kaysen, Angelia Jolie her sociopathic friend Lisa, with Clea Duvall and Brittany Murphy among others elsewhere in the institution, and the actors do well enough but Ryder in particular is stuck delivering idiotic voiceover (“maybe it was the sixties; maybe I was just a girl… interrupted”).

The Day He Arrives (2011, Hong Sang-soo)
I always wanted Groundhog Day to be black & white, Korean, sluggishly paced and dour. Alternately: I always wanted 8½ to have a Certified Copy-style gimmick. Either way: you already know from reading those two sentences whether you will appreciate this or not.

Pollock (2000, Ed Harris)
Decidedly ordinary if technically proficient biopic of major abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, with good performances by Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner (Pollock’s wife and longtime supporter) and by director Ed Harris as Pollock himself. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this but like most biopics it shows little real depth and doesn’t do much to justify its existence except as a showpiece.

Fences (2016, Denzel Washington) [r]
Washington directs himself in this adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson, playing a mildly tyrannical father and husband whose embittered attitude is sometimes well justified by the race and class-motivated injustice he can’t bring himself to take in stride, sometimes just results in him being a scumbag, especially when his midlife crisis starts to break down his marriage. It’s admirably complex and nuanced despite an unfathomably hokey finale, with a number of showpiece moments for both Washington and Viola Davis (playing his long-suffering spouse) as well as a fine supporting cast.

Written on the Wind (1955, Douglas Sirk) [r]
Entertainingly schlocky melodrama in which three big stars plus Oscar winner Dorothy Malone act out a clichéd plot (subversively tinged with the mild suggestion of incest) about an oil magnate’s children and their all-out war over the objects of their sexual desires. You can probably read a world of things into this, especially given the loving way Sirk and Russell Metty shoot and compose it, but it’s really too campy to enjoy in earnest, a primetime soap before its time.

***

Additional Letterboxd notes on: All About Eve; Wiener-Dog; Rules of the Game; Trouble in Paradise.

Trouble in Paradise (1932, Ernst Lubitsch)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Lubitsch has been a “hall of shame” director — a blind spot — for me for so many years now. There’s nothing I like better than the idea I always had in my head of his movies, all the lush and sly bed-hopping comedies of our most glamorous dreams, but I encountered few of his films in the first real decade of my cinematic exploration, and those I did see underwhelmed me (though I did like them): Ninotchka, Heaven Can Wait, and more recently, his vaguely sociopathic silent film The Marriage Circle. The first Lubitsch I saw that I genuinely loved was his extremely uncharacteristic melodrama Eternal Love, a sumptuous, progressive and overwhelmingly sad jewel of a movie, but even upon finding it I had little reason to think it indicated that the larger share of Lubitsch’s filmography — comprised almost entirely of comedies — would move me as much.

Happily I’ve once again been proven wrong; the canon projects I’m undergoing to fill in the holes in my knowledge of great movies are sure to provide many such moments, and with the possible exception of Murnau’s Faust, the bawdy but refined Lubitsch classic Trouble in Paradise is my favorite discovery from them to date. This is an unusually informal review for this space because I don’t know a way to tell you less directly and immediately that this film’s peculiarly warm amorality sent me reeling like nothing since I first encountered Kind Hearts and Coronets and Bringing Up Baby. Fizzy but cutting, cushioned by illusions of conspicuous wealth but sharply critical of same, its world is one in which I want to bask. It speaks to and delights me so very much.

The only earlier Lubitsch comedy I personally have the ability to compare Trouble in Paradise to is The Marriage Circle, a film about a series of infidelities and accusations of infidelities disrupting what could have been happy lives — entertaining as it is, it seemed to me a cold and somewhat alarming affair in the delight it took in ramming discontent into people. The first crucial difference here is in the screenplay: adapted by Grover Jones and Samson Raphaelson from a Hungarian play by one László Aladár, Trouble demonstrates compassion for all three central characters, and both seeks and finds nuance in lifestyles that some audiences are bound to find despicable. We’re introduced to Herbert Marshall’s Gaston Monescu and Miriam Hopkins’ Lily Vautier as a caviar-swilling Bonnie and Clyde, only they don’t quite know it yet. They’re scammers playing a long game while posing as members of nobility, and they fall in love in Venice on the night of an enormous heist against wealthy Edward Everett Horton. The real action gets underway when the pair sets about gaining the trust of a Paris-based perfume magnate known as Madame Colet (Kay Francis), at which point the seeds of a second love affair as well as the grand thieves’ undoing are planted.

I don’t typically worry much about spoilers here but there’s frankly no point in recounting much of what grows out of this, except to say that you as the audience member are bound to be as flummoxed as Gaston is by the choice he must make between two potential loves of his life, both of them elegant, witty, strong and brazenly sensuous characters. Lubitsch’s trademark sophistication is well served by a story that blends a sense of classiness with a careful examination of class itself — of the question of whether common ground can exist between haves and have-nots in a capitalist society. At the same time, however, Trouble in Paradise is mostly just a joyous affair, one that comes to feel almost weightless in its winking hedonism. It’s also very identifiably a pre-code film, maybe one of the raciest to be produced by one of the larger studios (Paramount), with its thrillingly risque jokes about spankings, double beds, prostitution and freewheeling promiscuity, and suggestive love scenes that make the finale of The Awful Truth seem comparatively mild. Lubitsch’s mindset is perhaps best defined by a moment in which Gaston and Madame Colet both approach a bed in her maid’s quarters and, for an oddly frozen few seconds, simply stand and gape at it.

This isn’t a screwball comedy; it’s more grown up somehow than its later brethren, partially but not entirely because of the reduced censorship. Lubitsch’s kinetic direction — strongly in evidence in Eternal Love, less so in his other films that I have seen — makes a large contribution to the feeling that Trouble in Paradise is a genuine piece of art-deco adult entertainment built to last. (Thanks to its liberal attitudes and the complexity of its two female leads, it’s scarcely aged at all.) It’s filled with sharp, clever montages — at one point Lubitsch uses a spoken radio ad to make a vital scene transition and put forward exposition, an almost Wellesian move — and impressively cinematic storytelling techniques, and doesn’t rely on quick-paced dialogue, speaking with more of a turned-on drawl. To boot, although its characters are constantly funny people, they also seem to a large degree like real people (more so than the heightened figures populating the oeuvres of, say, Billy Wilder’s or Preston Sturges’) — horny but poor, rich but lonely, quick-witted in a soft kind of way. At bottom their two most intense desires, for love (and sex) and hard cash, are the same as everyone’s, and for these needs to be so unfussily laid out in dialogue and action circa 1932 seems like the equivalent of watching a Hollywood heartthrob go to the washroom.

Though the comic scenario set up by the first scene, wherein we see the aftermath of Gaston robbing a man by posing as a doctor, plays out both predictably and delightfully when he turns out to be one of Colet’s suitors, the film’s pleasures come not from a neatly tied story but from characters that manage to contain multitudes while remaining relatable and engaging. Gaston’s air of pretension is made tolerable and even sympathetic by his lack of humiliation about begging for money, and by what we can logically read as his genuine attraction and affection for two very different women. Madame Colet is a distant figure because of her improbable, undeserved wealth (pointed out directly by a vagrant communist in one scene, a rebuke to any accusation that Lubitsch’s flighty theatrics are ignoring the larger world) but embodied by the stunning Francis she also is an undeniably alluring and seemingly kind person, made human by the desire she so openly exhibits, the disdain she delights in extending to her army of dull male hangers-on. Most appealing of all is Lily — the sole flaw of the film is that she disappears for a big chunk of the second act — with Hopkins handing in a deliciously irreverent, multifaceted performance as a person in love with both a human being and with the constant escapism he symbolizes; her pain at the possibility of losing this mutually beneficial, mutually loving and intense partnership is never made into a joke, even when her responses to it are hilarious indeed.

All three actors’ comic timing is impeccable (as is that of the supporting players, especially Horton and Charlie Ruggles), which is all the more impressive when you consider Marshall’s stiffness in more serious films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (made just a year earlier). But of course these actors are being given so much to work with here, and the script in and of itself would be enough to justify the film’s sterling reputation. A movie like His Girl Friday or The Awful Truth is dependent so much on the volume of dialogue, but here what we get are small, elegant morsels that are rarer but seem to linger even more, and like the most legendary of Billy Wilder’s lines they’re not necessarily funny (or sexy) out of context: “You’re hired.” “Tonsils!” “You see… mother is deaad.” And, of course, the immortal “shut up, kiss me.”

There’s also a line that really stuck to me in one of the final scenes, in which Colet is watching as Gaston prepares to leave her behind and seems to be looking at him over the great gulf formed by their incompatible lives. (Grace Kelly would tempt Cary Grant with the opposite proposition in To Catch a Thief, of love and openness: “Ever had a better offer in your whole life? One with everything?”) Both know theirs could have been a grand romance, but this isn’t positioned to reduce the standing or beauty of Gaston and Lily’s love, it’s simply that one will be and one will not. Still, it startled me for perversely the same reason I’m startled by the moments of disturbing violence and the vocal rejection of war in All Quiet on the Western Front: after you’ve been spun around for eighty minutes by the bubbly exuberance of the Lubitsch universe, unbound by obligations to Hays and so much resembling the thrilling, edgy subversion of real love at its most sinful, it’s hard not to hear this exchange of dialogue as an advance adieu to the decades of stunning popular entertainment that would have been offered by the continued freedom in Hollywood filmmaking without the interference of the religious tastemakers and moral zealots.

“It could have been marvelous,” Gaston says.

“Divine,” Colet replies wistfully.

The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

As with Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game is a film whose final, cumulative impact is perhaps more meaningful than the immediate experience of watching it. Intellectually and technically, it’s all but faultless as a social satire and phony “comedy of manners.” What we see on the screen is not what is really happening; however much the audience feels they are being drawn into a character piece, it becomes clear afterward that what we have here is a dark and unforgiving portrait of the barely-existent line between order and chaos. The aristocrats whose world the film occupies have inflated their busy lifestyle to protect themselves from realities, hence all of their social mores and manners, hence the “rules” in the title.

In an even more immediate way, Rules of the Game is about the impossibly wretched ways that people allow themselves to become slaves to futile matters of the heart. A later movie which this resembles and undoubtedly influenced, Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, was about the glory, comfort, and overriding truth of love. Riles is about the dark side of love, the people who allow it to overcome and destroy them by putting desire, whim and jealousy above all reason and compassion. Thus, in many ways, it makes two opposite points — of small internal bureaucracies becoming a dehumanizing force, and of dreamy anarchy destroying vision and life. That’s an utter lack of convenient simplicity that rings true, and I can’t see how people claim this movie could only speak to French people who remember the years before the Occupation.

We have parallel stories of cheating hearts, faith, friendship, and jealousy, one existing in the quarters of a rich woman and the bourgeois cult surrounding her, the other taking place among their servants in the kitchen, watching the grounds, etc. The kind of class commentary that exists in so many of the totems of European cinema is here in spades, taking a tone of quiet but incisive satire that mocks both sides. The story seems bright and innocuous but is so pessimistic about what-will-come-of-it-all that it can’t really escape the impending doom of the setting in which it was made, 1938 France. You couldn’t create Bergman’s film in that environment because it’s a dream that wouldn’t ring true. Love is not life, here; love, and nearly everything else, is death. People will always compromise themselves to fit some logic they build for their friendships and sexual relations to one extent or another, but the possibility of some kind of freedom is continually eroded in this movie (and, frequently, even today) by ideas of what is or is not “correct.” Age, ideology, profession, class, even just being at the wrong place at the wrong time is reason enough to suppress true feeling and the possibility of happiness.

The movie sets up its ultimate conflict brilliantly, though in a somewhat roundabout fashion, by introducing in its opening scene a person who is determined to break against “the rules.” André (Roland Toutain) has just flown across the Atlantic and he is a national hero, but all he has to offer when asked to say a few words is a tearful confession that he pulled the stunt to impress a woman (Christine, played by Nora Gregor) who broke his heart, who did not show up to the big homecoming. He ends up being integrated into that woman’s inner circle for a weeklong hunting party, and he also ends up dead. What makes the character’s plight so interesting is that he, despite being the “romantic hero” and the “rebel” who goes against the grain of the unfeeling drones surrounding him, he doesn’t know what’s really going on any more than they do, and he is just as lost and victimized by a childish belief — shared at some point by, I would argue, everyone who has ever breathed — that somehow it is the world and not himself that must conform. No one in this movie wants to accept the inevitability of their own fate. That had its own meaning for Renoir — the shadow of the war is everywhere — but it survives beyond its time.

So there is gravely immoral behavior, betrayal, intrusion, destruction, murder, and death, all in the name of love, just as people are shoved aside and compromised in the name of What Is Correct. Both goals are played here as a barrier to living, however inevitable they may often be, neither as earth-shatteringly important as these characters who’ve wrapped themselves up in them are prepared to admit. And to be fair, “love” may be the wrong word, though any two people will seldom agree on what it even is, but I know this: Smiles captured it, and the vague lusting and pining here is nothing akin, and probably not worth dying for.

Visual perfection — with astounding editing and photography anticipating the New Wave, A Hard Day’s Night, and of course, Citizen Kane, many sections of excellent dialogue, and other great ornamentation serves, unusually enough, at least in part to hide the movie’s true essence, but there’s no doubting it by the end. After a death is announced, the reaction of a few guests is to debate the “style” of the occasion, a spooky finale somewhat uncomfortably mirrored by our world today. Basically, The Rules of the Game is, in truth, a disturbing movie, all the more so when its times of mounting real-world dread and idle, frivolous distraction are so uncomfortably similar to ours. It’s just pretending not to be one. All we are as it closes is bitter, sad, and resentful.

Two key scenes illustrate the stylistic contrast here. The first is an excruciating five minutes capturing in maddening detail a hunt of rabbits and birds by the bourgeois gathered at the estate. Over fifty quick cuts and a dozen or so graphic animal deaths captured, one shot in particular lingering hideously on a rabbit’s final twitch before death. The scene cuts through the rest of the movie brutally, and it is really the one stark point prior to the ending in which Renoir’s concept of “dancing on the volcano” is revealed without window dressing. It’s powerful and horrifying, and holds a mirror up (through the editing more than the action it captures) to the occupants of the house as they fade into their distractions, on the very outer edge of utter devastation. They are neither dead nor alive but dangerously, unknowingly close to the edge.

The second scene immediately precedes the string of misunderstandings that leads to the final tragedy of the story. It is a ceaselessly violent and funny chase through the house; the man in charge of security on the grounds, Schumacher (Gaston Motdot) is chasing the man (Julien Carette as poacher-cum-servant Marceau) who is wooing his wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost), and he has a gun, and he shoots it, a lot, and the movie is first-rate screwball for ten minutes or so. It comes from nowhere as much as the hunt scene, and its effect also displays how subtle the rest of the film is; the occupants of the house are so disturbed by a show of real emotional rawness that they have no idea how to respond to it, leading to the deeply troubling closing scene that has a killing treated like a mild quirk in an otherwise dull evening. All these gray areas, complexities, tragedy buried in humor, horror buried in romance, sex as power, the makings of an exciting and vital movie. And in terms of the visual prowess and the matching of ideas with images, Rules of the Game almost feels like a French Citizen Kane. Almost.

But if this is the definitive knowing comedy of bed-hopping and jilted romance, it must be stated that the sardonic social commentary gets in the way a bit. And if it is the definitive pessimistic satire, it must be stated that Renoir’s humanism, his correct insistence that “everyone has their reasons,” gets in the way a bit. Somehow the fusion, while powerful, just isn’t seamless. While it is certainly a key point of the movie that the characters, rich and poor, operate with emotions buried in the name of decorum, it makes it difficult to connect with the movie on a visceral basis. When they move from A to B, it’s hard to find a way to really understand them. Of course, this being social commentary, it may have been felt unnecessary, but you can have great satire and great storytelling with fully developed characters simultaneously. (Hal Ashby’s Being There would be a popular example that springs to mind.) Here, the point-scoring in retrospect seems to have overwhelmed the film’s potential warmth and humanity, which I think actually works slightly against the film’s sentiment — if I may briefly reveal my roots, it’s as if the masterful 1980-vintage comic examinations of modern life Melvin and Howard (a warm embrace of people in all their foibles) and Used Cars (an unforgiving attack on the entire culture’s shallowness) tried to be in the same movie.

Though it’s probably not a fair criticism, the movie frankly does not live up to the grand excitement and innovation of its first scene — André Jureieux dismounting his plane, and immediately weeping over the air about his broken heart, cross-cut with the woman he’s pining for listening on her radio, rolling her eyes and nonchalantly smoking — which recalls such fireball openings of fully-convicted naturalistic surrealism as Kane and especially Bringing Up Baby, immediately bringing the otherworldly tone of the story to the forefront. In part, this is due to the fact that the scene surrounds the activities of a man who, though he sets the story in motion and ultimately is the one who does not make it out alive, we never get to know enough. He’s the movie’s central device, and yet we see, hear, and feel so little of him that by the end of the story we care about his death only in a protracted sense, only just enough to feel the chill of the closing scenes.

Looking over online comments, I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that André in his naivete and entitlement is supposed to represent the noble break away from society; this would suggest that the film is as idealistic and naive as that character, and that’s a notion that disturbs me a bit too much to consider. It would have been dandy for the movie to explore this avenue more, and the opening sets it up beautifully by concentrating on one form of irrational behavior as a replacement for real communication and feeling. So oh no, the beloved and distant Christine didn’t show up. But ultimately, did she ask him to fly across the ocean for her? While the movie examines this point (the silly notion of winning or losing the “game,” basically) at some length, it never approaches it as well or as dead-on as it does in the first five cartoonish minutes, with the performances perfectly complementing the over-the-top nature of the whole idea in wicked Wellesian fashion. The whole film is smart, but sadly not as smart as the beginning sets it up to be.

Renoir said “During the shooting of the film I was torn between my desire to make a comedy of it and the wish to tell a tragic story. The result of this ambivalence was the film as it is.” For the most part, the hybrid is misshappen but functional and fascinating, but when we see it, we sit back and react and watch all from a distance, and I swear it would be possible to make all these points with characters instead of archetypes, with actions (and death) that mean something because they claim people and not because of what those people represent, and then this would be a story and not an essay. It’s a fabulous essay, but you know, sometimes, restraint isn’t the best tactic, as biting and effective as The Rules of the Game nevertheless remains.

[Edited and reformatted version of a review written and posted in 2005.]

Wiener-Dog (2016, Todd Solondz)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Todd Solondz operates within his own otherwise unheard-of genre; call it humanistic cynicism. He’s extremely faithful to a strict, artificial-looking aesthetic and unceasing, taboo-ignorant discomfort established in the script and direction of his second feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and carried through to everything since. It’s no accident, of course, that characters from that painful document of misfit adolescence have popped up in fully half of his subsequent movies. Dawn Wiener, subject of so much mockery as a child, was killed off at the beginning of Solondz’s relentlessly bleak fable Palindromes, but in Wiener-Dog she lives again, in the person of Greta Gerwig rather than Heather Matarazzo. In a rare display of (welcome) sentimentality as a writer, Solondz not only allows her to be resurrected but in some small, awkward way lets her thrive. Just after making a kind-hearted sacrifice, she’s for the first time permitted to ride happily into an uncertain, tentative future.

This is by no means the overarching mood of Wiener-Dog — the Dawn story only comprises one fourth of the film’s episodes — but it’s telling specifically because of its demonstration of how complicated Solondz’s feelings toward his stories and characters have become as he’s matured. As remarkably thorny and difficult to pin down as his run from Dollhouse to Palindromes was, it’s in Life During Wartime that we begin to see a shift toward a more heartfelt consideration of his world’s oddball, normal occupants. We see far less of the skewed perspectives that make, say, John Goodman’s aggressive father figure in Storytelling or Cynthia Stevenson’s aloof homemaker in Happiness look like expressionistic monsters, even as Solondz’s terrified response to American homogenization — which he routinely renders as horribly desolate — becomes ever more apparent. Wiener-Dog, his highest-profile release since probably Storytelling by virtue of its connection to Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, breaks harshly with this trend in the abstract, but the truth is that its episodic structure and the unifying theme of a hapless dachshund have given him an excuse to compartmentalize, to render his universe in multiple ways, so that it can give vent to a hopeful, Modern Times-like vision of a reluctantly optimistic sea of possibility, but can also show us a dog being hit by a car four times by vehicles of comically varying sizes.

The resulting film is conceptually brilliant, and artistically masterful as an act of filmmaking and storytelling, but that’s assuming you are not destined to run screaming away from its creator’s bizarre sensibility in the first place. There’s no use actually explaining what’s so consistently unnerving about Solondz’s work — if you’ve seen any of his films you know better than to trust him, so first viewings are as tense and edgy as your first time with a classic Hitchcock — because laying it out at face value, it won’t sound like anything to strike fear into your heart. He alarms us because the perspective he provides us on human beings is so unflinching and so unforgivably honest; he makes comedy-dramas but from moment to moment, the comedy and pathos are completely inseparable — one cannot always concisely explain why an off-kilter, well-observed line or interaction or performance quirk in his films is funny, or why it’s achingly moving. This extends to a feeling of, at various points in all of his movies, being unsure of whether you ought to laugh; that discomfort is too excruciating to some, while for others it’s a mark of real ingenuity. Needless to say, I fall in the latter camp — as with all of Solondz’s films, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Wiener-Dog since I saw it, and my strongest impulse is to watch it again as soon as possible.

Wiener-Dog is Solondz’s blackest, most acerbic film since Palindromes, and likely his most directly funny since Storytelling, and it returns at times to a kind of nastiness absent from Wartime and Dark Horse. The films themselves are never cruel, but they do betray an unusually casual relationship to cruelty, going back to the incessant bullying in Dollhouse and the many instances of sexual harassment and violence in Happiness, both of which — as Solondz himself has pointed out — put an all too human face on lurid nightmares. The common denominator in the four shorts Solondz presents here is the little dog, used consistently as a subtle commentary on death within these stories: she dies twice herself and nearly once more, and is constantly surrounded by the lingering fear of mortality in her human companions. Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar is a directly acknowledged inspiration, but one’s thoughts also inevitably drift toward the popular Inarritu portmanteau Amores Perros, which shares Wiener-Dog‘s devastatingly dim outlook but hasn’t anything like its levity or directness.

After a mournful title sequence of the dog initially being dropped off at a shelter, we open with a visual quote from Richard Linklater’s Boyhood that most viewers are bound to see as slightly sardonic (especially taking the sarcastic attacks on American Beauty in Storytelling into account): a boy is lying on some grass, and we observe him from above for just long enough that we can question whether he’s breathing. It turns out that this is symbolic: Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) is a cancer survivor, and his affluent, distant, yoga-loving parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts) don’t seem entirely over the ordeal, but they’re incapable of contending with it by showing any sort of love for the boy. His dad instead gets him a dog, which then spends almost all of its time in a cage. Their house is as cold, mechanical and spotless as a hospital; it scarcely even seems like anyone lives there. Remi’s another in the long line of “Solondz kids” with that same inquisitive face, always asking adults questions that they don’t know how to answer. In Life During Wartime, challenging questions about American warmongering are met with exasperation; here, Remi earnestly asks his mom to explain spaying and death to him, and she responds with unconscious (?) racism and wildly problematic stories about rape, always deflecting the real essence of his queries. The aggressive Letts does no better when Remi demands to know what “housebreaking” is, slipping into strangely violent analogies.

Delpy and Letts — artificially overprotective parents who aren’t any more capable of raising a dog than they are a sick child — are both made to look extremely stiff and uncomfortable in the setting Solondz creates for them, using static, unfeeling compositions that suggest Aki Kaurismaki and late-period Alain Resnais which are then to be broken beautifully by one moment of absolute joy. As soon as his mom and dad pull out of the driveway, Remi yelps “they’re gone!” and he and Wiener-Dog (the name he’s given her) race through the house ruining pillows, jumping around and — fatefully — eating granola bars. Solondz approaches the dog’s subsequent violent illness almost balletically, and the frustrating end is for Wiener-Dog to be taken without the boy’s knowledge and put to sleep.

But the veterinary technician in charge happens to be Dawn Wiener, so the dog’s destiny as well as hers is for the story not to end here. Unable to bring herself to finish the job, she covertly rescues the pup and brings her home. While at a convenience store to buy dog food she runs into her old childhood semi-boyfriend Brandon (Kieran Culkin), who calls her by her old derogatory name “Wiener-Dog” from Welcome to the Dollhouse, a film in which their relationship was the only slight glimmer of hope. Obviously alone and longing for companionship, she tries and fails to engage him in “catching up,” then — after Brandon takes to the dog on the sidewalk outside — ends up suddenly on a road trip to Ohio with him, with Wiener-Dog in tow and for an indeterminate amount of time; on her last night at home we hear her whisper “There’s nothing here.” Brandon’s evasive about the purpose of the journey but in time we learn he’s attempting to get the word out about his father’s death. Driving through a barren Midwestern landscape of parking lots and strip malls, they pick up a traveling Mexican band and are witness to their dim opinions of the United States, but the true heartbreak comes when we’re introduced to Brandon’s brother Tommy (Connor Long) and his wife April (Bridget Brown), both of whom have Downs.

Solondz handles the couple’s disabled state (both played by actors with Down syndrome) very delicately without skirting the issue; they are both looked upon as complex characters and their problems are neither minimized nor exaggerated, and do not become the essence of their story. April and Dawn try to take a walk together but April’s much too uncomfortable outside of her home, while meanwhile — after forcefully interrupting a session with a sadistic video game — Brandon and Tommy share a haunting conversation about their father’s death, observed from inside the house by Dawn. This is one of the trademark scenes in Solondz’s work: a moment of perfectly acted and observed dialogue that’s eerily, almost time-stoppingly real, and as in the gumdrops scene of Life During Wartime, the post-murder meltdown in Palindromes, the final father-son talk in Happiness and the deeply upsetting, unhinged monologues in Dark Horse, as much credit is owed to the two extraordinary actors, Culkin and Long, as to the impeccable writing itself. All of the performances in this portion of the film are magnificent, with Gerwig and Culkin playing off one another with beautiful tentativeness.

Throughout the visit, Wiener-Dog (renamed Doody) is almost magically drawn to April and Tommy, and this is the basis of Dawn’s great sacrifice — she leaves the dog with Brandon’s brother and sister-in-law, the latter movingly noting that she’s “always wanted a leash.” In the car heading away from all this the conversation is again stilted and protracted, with much talk of the complete uncertainty of their next destination, but it ends with Dawn and Brandon gently holding hands. It’s unusual for Solondz to give himself or us permission for such an optimistic finale to one of his stories, and it’s probably deliberate that it only occurs at the halfway point of the film and that the idle chatter suggests this happiness may be fleeting or may even just last for a moment, but there are worlds contained in Gerwig’s smile in that moment.

We’re next treated to an intermission (in a film running less than 90 minutes!) that doubles as cute crowd-pleasing and as a reprise of Dark Horse‘s satire of the movie theater experience; the dog is shown gigantic, walking through America as represented by a variety of locations from seedy strip clubs to crime scenes to mountainous landscapes, all while a ridiculous Lorne Green-like country ballad about the dog’s varied travels blares on in the background. As usual, Solondz’s capacity for the less investigated corners of human emotion is matched only by his love of pure weirdness.

The third sequence is the film’s most expansive, and its darkest and most horrible, calling back in style and content to the second half of Storytelling. In the “Non-Fiction” segment of that film, Paul Giamatti portrayed a frustrated documentary filmmaker who seized upon the subject of a slacker teenager whose family life was increasingly in disarray through the course of the project’s creation; as soon as the film was completed, the boy’s life was upended in the most devastating manner possible for unrelated reasons, but when Giamatti rushed up to him to apologize, all he could answer with was “Your movie’s a hit.” In the corresponding portion of Wiener-Dog, Danny DeVito is Dave Schmerz, a non-tenured screenwriting professor whose bullshit “rules” (“What if?… Then what?”) are increasingly rubbing up against the sensibilities of students with equally bullshit nebulous ideas about the thematic structures and social comments of the films they want to make. Solondz teaches film at NYU and it would be easy to read this as autobiographical but, apart from various comedic injections of clearly lived experience, there’s no reason to suggest his own program requires or warrants such cynicism. For outsiders, the awkward student interviews we suffer through are hideously funny — one applicant to the program is unable to name a single movie that’s influenced him (“there’s just so many!”), while one of Schmerz’s own students goes on an interminable monologue about the finer points of various superhero comics; perhaps low-hanging fruit but still funny, and still (in my experience with film students) unfortunately accurate — but they are a mere backdrop to the undeniable sadness at the core of Schmerz’s life.

DeVito is extraordinary, the strongest grace note in what’s otherwise marginally the film’s weak point (by virtue mostly of its similarity to Storytelling and the “write what you know” attacks to which it leaves itself open, though anyone who doesn’t find the group of students angrily discussing Schmerz’s “rules” — they accuse him of owning the boxed sets of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld and every Woody Allen movie — to be hilarious is watching the wrong film). He’s increasingly desperate and lonely, his health is grave — his only physical activity is walking the wiener-dog through the city every day — and his attempt to revive a dead career is always finding new dead ends to run into. This instability and loneliness is shown, as in Dark Horse, to breed a level of alienation that can result in something darker and more morbid yet, in this case actual violence. Worse yet, the formerly therapeutic practice of walking the dog finds its end when the dog becomes a catalyst for his “way out” of all this… at which point the wiener-dog is actually killed for the first time. We never learn how the dog passed from the hands of Tommy and April into Dave’s, and we probably don’t particularly need to — another reason to doubt the sunniness of the conclusion we’ve been given for Dawn’s chapter — but we break into Solondz’s magical realism again, long enough for him to physically revive the dog one last time.

Despite everything else that happens in Wiener-Dog, its last and simplest chapter, which takes place on just one real set, is the one that’s ultimately hardest to shake. Each owner of the wiener-dog has been older than the last, and her last human is Ellen Burstyn playing a grouchy, nearly nonverbal elderly woman visited by her overly enthusiastic, obviously needy granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet). The dog — now named Cancer — seems happy here, following and lounging with her contentedly and rarely the target of her succinct, sporadic verbal barbs. Zoe’s purpose after a lot of small-talk is to borrow money — she’s done it before, back then for drugs, but swears she’s done tweaking — for her flamboyant boyfriend Fantasy (Michael Shaw), an artist who’s working on an installation dedicated to dead animals. The exchanges between the three of them are of the most uncomfortable and awkward breed of comedy… but for all the anger embedded in the scene, we can sense a yearning to connect and to be good and compassionate within Burstyn, the clear opposite of the empty atheist parents who convinced their child that death is a good thing at the beginning of the film, their illusions of kindness so dreadfully chilled and empty.

We’re then given another Solondz dream sequence, a motif that always appears at least once in his work, and a glimpse into the old woman’s secret soul: outside on her bench, she’s visited by manifestations of her past self (Melo Ludwig). They announce that each of them represents a version of the person she could have been if her choices had been different. Burstyn greets each of them warmly, but her defense is unforgettable and may be the best and most sobering line in all of Solondz’s work: “But… I didn’t choose.”

The physical portrayal of her regrets is followed yet again by an opportunity for her to provide some benefit for someone else’s life. The dog runs from her, into the street, and is hit by a massive truck. This is tragic and a horrid thing to watch. Then she gets hit by another truck, at which point it becomes shocking. By the time two more vehicles — including a Smart car — run over the dog, splattering it all over the road, the tragic has directly become comic before our eyes. And the dog will then live on in some strange way, much as it has through the vessel of this film. We are shown an art gallery — another freezing, barren interior design — and Fantasy shaking hands with visitors. We zoom into a glass enclosure in which the corpse of the wiener dog is mounted… mechanically assisted, it turns its head and barks. It’s a truly grotesque vision, maybe of how sentimentality turns around into perversion or of the dog as the same sort of symbol she becomes in the movie: the world goes on all around her. Either way, it’s as blunt-force a challenge as the closing throes of every Solondz movie have been. For me, the feeling after the surprise faded is simply joy that this nasty thing was made and is now available to the world, with all four shorts elegant, economical and knife-sharp, calling back the giddiest moments of transcendent black humor and confused sympathy in Happiness and Storytelling. The whole thing is a thrill to watch, and a thrill to ponder afterward.

Wiener-Dog was shot by cinematographer Ed Lachman (Carol, The Virgin Suicides), reteaming him with the director after Life During Wartime, and it continues the trend of Solondz’s films becoming increasingly clear and beautiful — the color balance and contrast are stunning, allowing the diversity in setting between the four sequences to become all the more pronounced. Though we step back from the explicitness of observing a Toys R Us as a metaphor for purgatory as in Dark Horse, we continue to see through this director’s eyes a dystopian, bland America as consumerist landscape, rife with futility and pain and everything seeming to lead nowhere, but with no judgment cast upon the common citizen for being an unwitting cog in this system. When compared to nearly everything else in the marketplace, it’s clear that Solondz’s are just about the only honest films about America currently being made, with none of the manufactured inscrutability of so much arthouse fare, even as his characters behave just as mysteriously and naturally as anyone’s. The constant battle of being mordantly, humorously cynical and trying to have faith in people is his eternal battle, never to be fully resolved, and Wiener-Dog dramatizes this back-and-forth with a particular incisive cleanness and even warmth.

The wiener-dog herself begins and ends the movie in solitary confinement, alive and then dead. But each of the four universes that become hers — a cage in a museum-like house, a car and a trailer, a drab university office, and finally an embittered person’s lonely resting home — isn’t much less of a trap. The only sense of true, potentially sustained freedom any character ever gets is that shared between Dawn and Brandon on the open road — and in that moment the dog is no longer with them. Perhaps the point is that actual human connection is the only real way out of an insular desperation that can’t be alleviated by the emotions we wrap up in our pets, and — depending on where you stand in life — that might be either the most or least hopeful message imaginable.