Certain Women (2016, Kelly Reichardt)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

I once was in a zombielike state, trudging aimlessly through a city and I spotted a woman in a dress. (Pink and white as I recall, but it was many years ago.) I didn’t follow her but we drifted in the same direction. I looked but didn’t stare, and it became apparent we were being drawn to the same focal point, a bar where people were gathered but weren’t boisterous and weren’t conglomerating, weren’t piled on top of one another like they sometimes are in town. I was close enough to hear her voice when she asked what was going on, and it was enthusiastically explained that there were bands upstairs and admission was cheap, and she should come up. They asked if she’d been there before. “No. I’m just wandering.” She spoke for me without ever meeting me. We wandered because we didn’t want to be alone. We didn’t know how to say that. It isn’t socially acceptable to say that. We found our way to cope, underneath some smoke and feedback. I think of that when I hear a character here, in this film, say that she entered a drab-looking classroom in a school where she wasn’t enrolled strictly because she saw people coming in. And when that same person, without ever wanting to harshly or briskly assert herself, occasionally gives a single person a clue to her personality, a sharp and winning wit she otherwise doesn’t expose because there are no obvious opportunities and she has no gift for seizing them, that stings. When she pushes herself to seize one, sensing a last chance, fully knowing it probably won’t have any effect on her day to day life which it doesn’t, that stings even more.

Anyway.

The most ethereal, weighty, even silent moments of Reichardt’s Old Joy are echoed in this much more ambitious portmanteau taken from three short stories by Maile Meloy, all set in an extremely palpable Montana, rife with beautiful and cold stasis; they’re given some concrete background connections but what really matters is their shared concern for the lost cause of communication, in multiple stages and kinds of relationships: the anonymous politeness or contempt taken on when it becomes impossible to say what has to be said. There are these situations, relationships, long-festering things in which it gets so hard to say something. But you have to say it. You have to try. You have to write the letter, no matter what the substance of it is. You have to show you mean it. (Think of The Straight Story, when the only way to build a bridge over such a breakdown is to conclusively demonstrate how important it is to you to make amends. Even if it could be taken as a gesture for your own benefit… it’s still unmistakably an act of love.) Story one is a suspense piece of sorts. Hostage negotiations; it’s riveting, thanks largely to Laura Dern and Jared Harris, but the essence is in the closure withheld from us till the film’s end. Story two is probably weakest but still vivid, about an unhappy marriage, the building of a house, and the ambivalent advantage-taking of a senile old man. It’s about deliberately ignored moral quandaries but it’s also about a failure to deeply acknowledge one’s intimates, about the despair of a retreat into the self.

But that last story. My fucking heart, dude. I almost couldn’t take it. If you’ve ever lived alone or been terribly lonely, you need to see this, and you need to be very careful when watching it. The desperation of Lily Gladstone’s stoic but achingly solitary rancher, and the clarity of her affection for a teacher she happens to meet (it’s implied to be a romantic crush, but it’s just as striking if you interpret it as just a longing for a platonic friend) without ever coming across as a creep mostly because of her refusal to be afraid of being one. And her snap-judged gesture of either disproportionate attachment or just a human need to acknowledge a fleeting connection she badly needed and still needs, and the conversation or confession she initiates that sits there and dangles in the air, no one sure of how to pick it up apart from just walking away from it — it’s beyond haunting, it’s alive, and fearlessly rendered by all involved.

The trucks, the stoplights, the desolate downtowns, the eyes, the cold breath under the sun, the morning. Human experience so vividly and compassionately expressed you feel it in the pit of your stomach; you breathe it.

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Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

His association with David O. Selznick terminated after the unhappy collaboration The Paradine Case, Alfred Hitchcock finally set out as his own producer in 1947, forming a company called Transatlantic Pictures with Sidney Bernstein, with whom he’d already made a little-seen documentary about the Nazi concentration camps, one of several contributions the director made to the war effort. Transatlantic would ultimately prove a commercial misstep, producing or initiating three consecutive box office disappointments (and two outright flops), a rarity for Hitchcock right up to the end of his career. (Only once more, with the run from Marnie through Topaz, would he remain in the wilderness for so long.) Hitchcock and Bernstein’s partnership ended very quickly and he became a studio director — while continuing to act as his own producer, luckily — but before all that, Transatlantic did manage to produce what we’d now know as a “cult film,” and a formidable one at that.

It will surprise some modern audience members, who’ve managed to transform it into one of the most popular and crowd-pleasing Hitchcock titles, that Rope, the director’s first film in color, was considered a bomb in its day; the very elements that give it such allure, and have allowed it to age so gracefully, consigned it to audience bewilderment and city council-level bans in some parts of America. Chiefly, the issue at hand was the film’s not-so-covert handling of homosexuality; secondary to that was its oddball execution, giving the illusion of a story told mostly in one shot and in “real time,” with continuous camera movement and only four ordinary cuts (plus six “masked” cuts), astounding for an eighty-minute film. The movie was conceived as a filmed play of sorts — based on a Patrick Hamilton drama that in turn was inspired by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb’s “perfect crime,” their just-for-fun murder of an innocent normal named Bobby Franks — but one in which the camera would be as active and restless as in any of Hitchcock’s more conventionally edited pictures, quite unlike his earlier, much stodgier stage adaptations such as Juno and the Paycock and The Skin Game. It also serves as another chapter in Hitchcock’s procession of “single-set” features; stories entirely or almost exclusively unfolding in one location fascinated him for a period of about ten years, and this — discarding the extremely long, arduous courtroom scenes in Paradine — was the second example he put on film after Lifeboat.

The genius of Rope is in how blatant and uncompromised it is, perhaps because Warner Bros. served simply as distributor; it does not seem like a film that a studio would have originated, probably not now and certainly not in 1948. Its extreme forcefulness and continued potency come from its nonchalant but unwavering depiction of the two clearly gay prep school graduates who commit the crime before our eyes, never campy or disrespectful but never anything but obvious, never even really “coded” (both lead actors were gay or bisexual, as was screenwriter Arthur Laurents). In broader terms, the film’s narrative is a nearly perfect, skeletal thriller scenario: a dead body is in a chest, over which the murderers are brazenly serving food at a seemingly innocuous dinner party to the unwitting friends and family of the victim — as in Notorious, free-flowing champagne portends doom — and without a lapse of time or the relief of normal film editing, we’re forced to endure the entire ugly tale with no possibility of trickery or sleight-of-hand. The camera never blinks; the hard cuts that do exist are cunningly timed to anxious moments so that we hardly notice them, and the tension as a result of the otherwise seamless photography becomes nearly unbearable at several points, such as when the maid, after dinner, comes within inches of discovering the boys’ secret, but moreover with the sickening realization that neither of them is stoic or experienced enough to pull this sick game off. It’s all riveting, simple and quick, and reaches a strikingly forceful conclusion when the pair is confronted by one of the party attendees, a former professor of theirs implied in the script (less in the finished film) to also be a former lover of one of them, who then indicts them as well as us with a hard-hitting speech about the moral horror of what they’ve done. It’s exhilarating up to the eerily calm final moments, as the distant blare of sirens grows louder and the killers indulge in wine and song in the last moments of sheltered life as they’ve known it. Little wonder that this deeply satisfying tale resonates so much with new audiences, to the point that it’s quite fair to think of it along with Rear Window and Rebecca as the best introduction to Hitchcock’s craft.

And on repeat viewings, we can take more careful note of just how much Rope manages to get away with, keeping in mind that — as Laurents remembered — various Warner Bros. executives refused to refer to the characters Phillip and Brandon’s sexuality as anything but “it.” To begin with, the film all but opens with a sex scene; for neither the first nor the last time in Hitchcock, however, it’s coded as a murder. Setting up later jokes about “strangling chickens,” we first see Farley Granger’s Phillip with his hands pulling a rope around the screaming, dying David Kentley’s neck while Brandon (John Dall) holds him up, then releases. They’re breathless. Brandon smokes, and puts on the light. “Don’t,” Phillip says softly — but not sensually, more the sound of a terrified kid who’s just done something “bad” and is experiencing refractory regret. He requests that they “stay like this for just a minute,” to stay in the moment before the outside world can intrude on them and can judge what they’ve done. The dialogue is note-perfect as a stand-in for the terrifying aftermath for lovers whose activities were then so taboo, so forbidden that to even state them outright was frowned upon. And this analogy calls into question the entire nature of Rope‘s actual story: what if the thing Phillip and Brandon can only speak openly about to each other, can only wind around endlessly — one confident and cocky, even pushy, the other mousy and tormented — until they eat one another alive, the secret so easily recognized by the one figure they make the mistake of mildly trusting, isn’t a corpse at all? And what if serving food from a boy’s coffin to his own father and girlfriend isn’t really an expression of intellectual superiority, of the irrelevance of morals? (Hot subject matter in the years just after the war; Hitler even gets a name-check.) What if it’s some Agatha Christie-like expression of a kink?

It’s not for me to say whether Hitchcock centers this story upon a pair of gay men (probably a couple, though perhaps not?) because of some intrinsic suspicion toward homosexuality, but it’s not a question the viewer of today should ignore; his killers, as ever, are human rather than demon, but it can’t really help any progressive argument for the film that within three years he’d be following another effeminate sociopath palling around with Granger in Strangers on a Train or that his most famous murderer of all, Norman Bates, is a nervous cross-dresser. (Strangers‘ Bruno was also the creation of an LGBT writer, Patricia Highsmith; and while Psycho author Robert Bloch was straight, Bates’ real creator by any logical cultural measurement is the bisexual actor Anthony Perkins.) As with Hitchcock’s contradictory, often infuriating real-life views of women, the most charitable interpretation for us as modern admirers is to call his treatment “complicated,” which isn’t helpful and tells no real story at all. Laurents’ own feeling was that it was an extension of Hitchcock’s interest in the macabre and (then-)unusual; no sane person could work in Hollywood, even then, and continue to view homosexuality as the latter, and having worked at Ufa in the 1920s, Hitchcock would have long since encountered “it” among his friends and contemporaries, including his most treasured mentor F.W. Murnau.

Laurents assumed that Hitchcock’s interest in Rope came specifically because it was about gay murderers; neither element on its own would have interested him, in the writer’s opinion, but this is debatable: did Hitchcock not make at least thirty movies and countless TV dramas involving murderers? And while coded or unmistakable queer orientations abound in a number of those killers (Esme Percy in Murder!; Alan Baxter in Saboteur; Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train; Martin Landau in North by Northwest; Anthony Perkins in Psycho), it’s worth recalling that Hitchcock adapted one of the great covert lesbian romances, Rebecca, in 1940; and prominently features a lesbian couple, a mystery author and her girlfriend, in Suspicion. This second choice is particularly telling because it has no direct relevance to the plot. It cannot therefore be stated that Hitchcock was disinterested in gay characters, regardless of their habits or attitudes toward murder. Maybe a viewer could walk away believing that he views these people as grotesque, therefore intriguing, like the “circus freaks” in Saboteur.

My own feeling, however, is that Hitchcock really was looking to the future, if not in quite the progressive way we’d hope for (those of us for whom he’s among the greatest artists of the last century naturally wish his own outlook and morals were up to the standards of his art, which simply wasn’t the case); in contrast to every other major Hollywood director outside of the B-pictures and film noir, Hitchcock tries to give his audiences a view of the world as it really is, in his own strange bourgeois fashion trying to expose his pearl-clutching mainstream fans to the “wild side” Lou Reed would later sing about, full of strange amoral behaviors, fringe beliefs, perverts and weirdos, and the dark indulgences of the wealthy, specifically those who’ve built comfortable empires on the ill-gotten. No matter how much I adore the films of Preston Sturges or Frank Capra or even (gasp) Orson Welles, they will always seem to exist in a heightened world apart, envisioned by brainy screenwriters propagating myths of a kind, however attractive they may be. Among major studio-era filmmakers of the sort that tended to get Academy Award nominations, only Billy Wilder frankly toiled around in the same degree of muck, and even he avoided the perversity of Hitchcock’s great passion, which is matching the real America of desperate leeches, above-the-law psychopaths, trapped couples and, yes, then-atypical sexuality and clashing them with the uptight George Cukor universe of high-rise apartments, graduate school, concert pianists, holidays in the country, Careers in the Arts. This fusion of high and low art not only defines Hitchcock and sustains his art to this day, it defines and sustains Hollywood cinema as an audience-participation module. We watch and enjoy films of the Hays era — the 1930s and ’40s — by filling in the blanks which Hitchcock directly taught us how to fill in, in films like Rope. My best guess is that Hitchcock knew the stuffed-shirt morals of the day were destined to date other films, and chose to act accordingly even if only out of long-term commercial motives.

Phillip and Brandon, acting as long-marrieds having a tiff, don’t have the composure to pull off the stunt Brandon is so convinced will be their masterpiece; in the fashion of so many collaborative crimes, they fall apart immediately: his partner is far too shellshocked by the act itself to refrain from giving himself away by sheer body language and temperament. Even Brandon, the suave architect, it seems, of the killing and the “ironic” party afterward, can’t stop himself from sweating excitedly or stuttering his way through simple sentences when his old professor and idol, one Rupert Cadell, comes to visit. Cadell is an intellectual and master bullshitter, played extremely well by James Stewart in a feat of typical Hitchcock stunt casting (it was their first of four films together) that doesn’t entirely work for the plot, though it’s a thrill to see Stewart delving into the lower-key, darker impulses to which he’d later give vent in Anatomy of a Murder and of course Vertigo. The only issue is that Stewart’s hardened but comparatively innocuous performance fails to sell the logic of him having any real insight into his young former students’ “secret,” ostensibly their act of murder — the film has him undergo a magical metamorphosis from an obnoxious pseudo-intellectual spouting off about Nietzsche at a party to, abruptly, master detective Columbo when it’s time for him to “solve the mystery” and explain why the boys’ interpretation of his own nonsense was so horrible and wrong — but also their queerness. Brandon obviously views Rupert as the one party who would understand what they’ve done, a wide-eyed notion that has equally compelling application in either the literal or metaphorical version of the story the movie’s telling. He gets a kick out of launching Rupert on a tirade about how murder itself should be a privilege exercised by the few, the intellectual superior, over those, like the victim David according to Brandon, who are simply wastes of space.

This is not new territory for Hitchcock, but it plays differently than it did before the war. Innocent, laughingly blasé conversations about murder figure in both Suspicion and most famously in Shadow of a Doubt, in which aloof patriarch Henry Travers makes sport of discussing idealized murder scenarios with an awkward neighbor and dime-novel addict played by Hume Cronyn (who happened to write the first treatment of Rope for Hitchcock). In the former film this is a minor emotional plot point, in the latter it’s mostly comic relief, but in both it’s largely treated as a lightweight understatement, black comedy like The Trouble with Harry in micro. But here (and later in Strangers on a Train, when it’s pretext to a near-strangulation), the act of discussing murder with such jovial disconnect is suddenly viewed as quite horrific, thanks in part to the audience-vessel remarks of the victim’s father (Cedric Hardwicke), whose duty when Rupert starts talking about freeing up traffic by selective murder is to invoke Nietzsche and Hitler. Today Hitler’s a staple of every vapid philosophical conversation about moral relativism, but in 1948 he was still current events, and Hitchcock would not have taken the comparison lightly. As already mentioned, he had seen Sidney Bernstein’s harrowing footage of the concentration camps just after liberation and advised the British Ministry of Information on how to present the footage to decrease the plausibility of the Allies having faked it, an accusation he correctly surmised would occur. The project deeply disturbed Hitchcock and in fact was eventually withdrawn from circulation for decades, and his involvement in it remains one of the lesser known chapters of his career, as does his cooperation with the Free French on a pair of short films in 1944. The point being that Hitchcock knew the potential real-world consequences of the boys’ and Rupert’s rhetoric, and their casual invocation of Superman theory is pointedly not presented as something funny or quirky; it’s clearly dangerous and fascistic, and Rope specifically displays its consequences.

That said, one of Rope‘s most impressive achievements is how completely it sells fear on behalf of a pair of killers as a vehicle for intense, almost involuntary audience identification. The favorite citation of this occurring in Hitchcock’s filmography is the car’s excruciating pause in being submerged in mud by Norman in Psycho, but if anything the slowly boiling sensation of watching the plan unravel in Rope is even more intense because it’s sustained for much longer without a break, and because the absence of cuts forces us through the entirety of the nightmare without the usual rhythm or relief. This is why Stewart’s speechifying at the end of the film, however melodramatic, is so effective. When he’s chastising Phillip and Brandon for taking pleasure in “squeezing the life out of” David, there’s no doubt that the moment earns its power because he’s doing the same to us, because we can’t deny that in the fevered moment, we haven’t wanted the two perpetrators to get caught, even as every cerebral, calm interpretation of the events playing out before us would insist on the opposite, and in fact our moral grounding retakes its effect in the final moments, as we do indeed take pleasure in now seeing Brandon and Phillip trapped and punished, but isn’t there still just that tiny shred of disappointment? Maybe it’s disappointment in ourselves for being duped, after all; the despair runs in multiple directions, as Rupert — the hollow nature of his own playful convictions, ever-distant from reality, now revealed — equally displays disgust at himself, at his own arguments from earlier in the evening and in years prior about murder as a privilege and public service. There’s even a suggestion that a part of him is giving thanks to Brandon — far more Brandon than Phillip; he can't know that it was the latter who squeezed — for reconfiguring his own moral compass through the dramatic evil of his actions.

Rope‘s innovations are numerous, but as is typical of Hitchcock, technique takes an obvious backseat to storytelling. The tasteful, muted use of color makes the film feel more present and alive, and therefore threatening; despite the clearly stagebound, artificial nature of the New York skyline behind the characters, the trick of gradually setting the sun and lighting up the city is genuinely nifty and impressive. The massive Technicolor camera had to weave around moving furniture and walls, leaving mazes of wire in its path that actors then had to navigate sightlessly. It was almost as if the act of making the film itself was as much a stunt and experience as the finished product. But none of this outweighs the script or the performances, or the suspense, it only maximizes the effect of all three. Dahl and Granger never gave better performances, especially the latter as he grows progressively more drunk and unhinged through the evening; they are heightened, but also terribly believable as sequestered rich kids inflicting their nihilism on the world; Phillip doesn’t seem so much a psychopath as an easily seduced and manipulated sort, which makes him a perfect mark for Brandon’s whims, but then again, something more than just persuasion has wrapped Phillip up in this scheme. Laurents establishes the characters with completeness, wisdom and economy, including three women we’ve yet to properly mention: Edith Evanson as a smart, flirtatious maid lightly scolding the boys for mild infractions, little realizing the drama quietly playing out before her; the actress and writer Constance Collier, playwright of the source material for Hitchcock’s early silent film Downhill, as a loud palm-reading tourist and Cary Grant fan, aunt of the victim; and Joan Chandler as Janet, the murdered’s bride-to-be, an awkward society woman and newspaper columnist who’s stewing after realizing that Brandon, mysteriously cited at one point as an ex (wonder why that relationship ended!), is attempting to fuss with her love life and set her up with a third party, a clueless fellow student named Kenneth (Douglas Dick), best friend of the deceased. It’s a bit Parker Brothers, but that’s the beauty of it, that its geometric obviousness matches so well with the clumsiness of the smug narrative Brandon’s trying to construct, which would be amusing if it weren’t so horrific and tragic, something Hitchcock forces us to contend with in real time since we know, from the beginning, where the dead man David is and why.

Meanwhile, the screenplay itself furthers Hitchcock’s theoreticals about thriller design and “pure cinema”; in the absence of cutting and montage, which he would argue is the most vital component of cinematic storytelling, Laurents cuts the film in the script itself. There is no break in chronology, and yet this requires a heightened reality: it is frankly impossible for the events of the film — a murder, the last-minute preparation for the party, the party itself including the serving of a full meal, the wondering and worrying of David’s whereabouts, the fumbling departure of the guests, the deduction of the existence of a mystery and the solving of the mystery itself, the discovery of clues (a hat, a rope), the increasing intoxication of a suspect, the proclamation of success, the return of a single guest on false pretense, the accusation, the fight, the (essentially) confession — to occur in a matter of eighty minutes, yet they do, before our eyes, thanks to extremely skilled, careful dialogue writing. Moreover, the cold, puzzle-like design of the film is overridden beautifully by the emotional context provided by the characters: fear, worry, superiority, dejection, dread, paranoia, horror all find their way into all three principal characters and various others at some point. Through it all, Hitchcock’s camera never seems to stop bounding, recomposing, reinterpreting its surroundings, editing — along with the script — as it goes, moving in and out of closeups and presenting as much story material in what it doesn’t show — an offscreen voice or reaction, say — as what it does. No film, or at least no thriller, toys with time and space in quite the same way Rope does.

And while the film was not a great success at the time of release, there’s reason to believe Hitchcock was pleased with the results — showing off the set proudly to any Hollywood friends who’d pay a visit — and it certainly informed the even more ambitious, if slightly more conventional costume drama Under Capricorn the following year. It would be the final Hitchcock picture with no major thriller elements; this time, while there was no pretense to a lack of cuts, he would follow characters up and down staircases and attempt even more to wander into the psyche through roving, unpredictable movements of the massive Technicolor camera and its unforgiving eye, its one-on-one conversation with the audience still as nuanced and sophisticated as the one in Rope, if perhaps a bit less claustrophobic. Under Capricorn still has yet to find its audience outside of some French auteurists, which is a pity; but one supposes that Hitchcock would feel validated by the way the world has caught up with Rope, which is now routinely acknowledged as one of his classic thrillers, and one that certainly has not lost its capacity to torment and haunt those who see it — has, if anything, gained a great deal of power with the passage of time.

Stray Dog (1949, Akira Kurosawa)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

If you come to this already familiar with Akira Kurosawa’s best-known works — Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Ran, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, etc. — then what’s first likely to throw you about Stray Dog is its contemporary setting. Contemporary to Japan in the years just after the war, but so much subtler in its specifics (in comparison to the films of Ozu and Mizoguchi, among others, from the same period) that in many ways it feels like it could be right this minute, just about anywhere. As with the director’s later crime drama masterwork High and Low and his chronicle of infrastructural frustrations Ikiru, you could make a claim that the film’s decidedly middle-class perspective and universally applicable events, problems and emotions mark it as more anonymous and sanitized than his more distinctly Japanese period films, and this was something he took critical flack for in his home country for decades. To my mind, though, Kurosawa’s films about modern life mark him simply as a master storyteller, whose sensibility not only had no cultural or ethnic boundaries but whose elastic, varied interests could encompass American crime films and novels as easily as Shakespeare, ancient Japanese lore or the short fiction of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.

Film noir didn’t have a name yet when Kurosawa made Stray Dog, which was one of his first films to receive widespread renown, predating his international breakthrough Rashomon; but the gritty thrillers of Hollywood directors like Jules Dassin, Robert Siodmak and Edward Dmytryk were cited as a key inspiration to this rain-soaked nightmare of guilt and innocence set in the miserable streets of a nation ravaged by the often invisible but still inescapable effects of a soul-destroying war. There might be little real-world analogue in the apathy expressed by American noir, which always seemed more a prediction of the mood of the decades afterward than of the country in the throes of war and rejuvenation, but there was considerably more in the earlier film whose sensibility is reflected most of all in Stray Dog, Fritz Lang’s M, which in the horrid environment of falling-apart Weimar Germany defines the graphic and minute explication of police work as well as the dour, unforgiving mood of a criminal underworld that feels palpable and suffocating in all the ways that Josef von Sternberg’s in the 1920s felt downright grotesque, fanciful. Kurosawa would later say that Dog didn’t reflect much passionate thought on his part, and maybe that’s a credible line of reasoning if you view and experience it on a purely superficial level — in which guise it would be perfectly enjoyable, and in fact probably more accessible to a modern audience than even Rashomon — but a close reading reveals so much intricacy and craft, so much to parse out with one detail always hiding another fascinating one underneath, that the conclusion one must draw is that Kurosawa, like Alfred Hitchcock, simply wasn’t capable of making a thoughtless film… and this particular popcorn fable is as probing and insightful as any more ambitious or sweeping narrative in his filmography. There’s no denying how much pure style plays a role in its appeal, but style is also scarcely the point.

A nervous young police detective named Murakami (the frantic Toshiro Mifune) is going about his life in the cocky mode of a boisterous kid who’s proud of his job before he knows how to do it, when his world is disrupted by an incident on cramped public transport: the gun he was issued by the department, clumsily thrown in his coat pocket, is nipped by someone in the crowd, and his quest for it as well as his extreme guilt and feeling of inadequacy when the gun is then used in a series of violent crimes, are the catalyst for our story, as well as the source of his actual growing merit as a cop. What follows is a prototype for virtually every famous, successful, infamous or downright terrible cop (and buddy-cop) picture to hit multiplexes and arthouses in the last seventy years. As much as it calls back to M and The Naked City, it’s in turn a direct antecedent to celebrated genre totems like The Secret in Their Eyes (yes, there is a massive caper scene at a sporting event) and particularly David Fincher’s Se7en, which swipes numerous scenes directly from this film: the discovery of sinister notes written by a suspect, the increasing rapport between a hotheaded young cop who can’t quite shake the feeling that he’s not so different from the criminal he’s after and the seasoned veteran (Takashi Shimura here, Morgan Freeman there; as a bonus, the two have undeniably similar facial expressions) who’s seen it all and knows where it’s leading, the filthy urban chases and grisly crime scenes, and the climactic moment when a man seems to look himself in the face as he serves his definition of justice. But Stray Dog earns a lot more depth from its modesty, specifically from the fact that its course of events is completely set off by a dunderheaded mistake.

And despite Kurosawa’s own criticisms of the story, its characterizations are impressively adept and believably ambiguous; when Murakami becomes obsessed with hunting down the depressive psychopath Yusa, he keeps fixating on the fact that the rage set upon him was triggered superficially by a stolen backpack in the chaotic, impoverished aftermath of the war, something that also happened in identical circumstances to Murakami himself. The elder partner Satō — who’s cool as a cucumber when interviewing suspects, meets the challenges of his job readily and compartmentalizes enough to enjoy a seemingly healthy home life — dismisses these feelings and characterizes the likes of Yusa as “bad guys,” his victims as the absolute good to be protected. Murakami’s not so sure and neither are we, but as in the best filmed arguments of this nature, you see where both of them are coming from. Alas, Murakami’s feeling of odd fusion with the subject of his search is magnified when they finally meet, after Murakami has nearly murdered Satō, and in a scene darkly suggestive of All Quiet on the Western Front (both the Remarque novel and Lewis Milestone’s shattering film adaptation), he sees an untold trauma common to both of them in the perpetrator’s screams of agony and responses to the beautiful natural world to which he’s now experiencing his final glimpses.

This was one of the first detective pictures made in Japan, which is as surprising as the fact that it’s one of Kurosawa’s earliest films — it’s so visually beautiful and seamlessly delivered, a deftly edited and intelligent work of mastery that seems genuinely ageless now, its performances as riveting and its story as strangely gripping as if it were just written and created yesterday. That said, the war is nowhere and yet everywhere, and without it the film would be an entirely different and less emotionally taxing beast.

Whereas Kenji Mizoguchi, in his haunting Women of the Night, and Roberto Rossellini in his War Trilogy (Rome, Open City, Paisan, Germany, Year Zero) had foregrounded and emphasized the effects and aftereffects of war on day-to-day life to great, harrowing effect, Kurosawa’s approach is to allow it to hover just on the edge of the frame, something Alfred Hitchcock had toyed with in Shadow of a Doubt, his busing of noir to the suburbs, as did Carol Reed this same year in The Third Man, a film whose indelible, menacing photography of a city in the grips of crime and ruin functions as a conversation of sorts with this one. We always feel the violence of the recent past, we know what it’s done to these men, and that knowledge tempers everything we see, all of the perverse and beautiful images Kurosawa captures, and everything we hear, the words of broken lives like that of the showgirl Namiki and the embittered arms dealer and the grizzled denizens of run-down motels and street corners. This extends to the final exchange between the two worn-down heroes; Satō is dispensing platitudes about how Murakami’s big arrest of Yusa is just the first of many such triumphs, that they will all run together one day and he’ll become numb to them. Murakami doesn’t respond, and the film abruptly ends, and we’re left to wonder — if you’ll pardon the cliché — who’s been captured by whom.

Capsule digest #1

I came to the conclusion recently that my regular monthly counts and project breakdowns weren’t serving much real prolonged purpose here, since you can check the full rundown of what I’m working on above on the PROJECTS tab if you’re interested, and the posts I make upon completing each initiative are enough information to release to the public. It isn’t really relevant anyway to the larger purpose of the blog since the point is just to see and write up movies, and the “projects” themselves are nothing more than enjoyable ways of organizing that for me. The practical purpose these regular updates do have is to let anyone who likes and uses the Movie Guide to see the new capsules that have been added in the latest update without rooting through to track them down. For the moment, I’ve decided I will wait until I have thirty new caps to add and will present them here as before, with Letterboxd links where applicable. This also removes the time-stamped pressure for me and keeps me from boring you with a slim post if I have a slow month.

Other films seen: I will continue to track these just to monitor inconsistencies between here and Letterboxd. This will mostly consist of films I’ve already reviewed here, usually in full. Ex Machina (capsuled last year) was seen again but I had nothing new to say about it (yet). Inspired by our vacation to California, which included a stop in Bodega Bay, I rewatched but chose not to review The Birds, which will receive a full review here in the future — I didn’t want to disturb the loose Hitchcock narrative we have going by throwing in such a late title. Speaking of said narrative, I also revisited Shadow of a Doubt –already reviewed in full here — and added a few thoughts on Letterboxd. I did the same upon fulfilling a lifelong dream of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in large format, on the local IMAX screen; I reflected a little more on that experience at my other blog. Lastly, I screened an alternate version of Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (described here) but chose not to count it as a separate film.

Full reviews this cycle: I’m not reproducing capsules for these in this post since as I see it there’s not much point, but those for Lifeboat (short Letterboxd entry here), Laura (Letterboxd entry) and Spellbound (Letterboxd entry) will be updated when I add the new ones later tonight; and Paisan (Letterboxd entry) will be newly added to the Guide.

Thirty-one new capsules follow; their text is usually but not always compressed from the linked Letterboxd review. The only differences between the versions in these posts and those I add to the guide are that the LB links are removed and I also delete any opening note about grade changes for films I’ve seen before.

***

Les Misérables (1935, Richard Boleslawski) [r]
The two reasons to see this narratively breezy, heavily simplified version of the Hugo novel are the casting — with Charles Laughton a brilliantly understated Jalvert, Fredric March uneven but engaging as Valjean — and the often lovely cinematography from none other than Gregg Toland. As in so many adaptations of this text, the coherence and excitement fades with the move into the chaotic third act, and Boleslawski doesn’t do anything especially interesting with the source.

Isle of Dogs (2018, Wes Anderson) [hr]
Anderson’s affectionate valentine to both the domesticated dog and to Japanese cinema is exuberant and fun, silly without being frivolous, and as visually sumptuous as any animated film ever made — even if the character work shows the usual limitations of stop motion. By some distance, a stronger post-apocalyptic kiddie fable than WALL-E.

The Florida Project (2017, Sean Baker) [r]
The title alludes to the original code name for Walt Disney World, and crudely, to the makeshift co-opting of motels along the Kissimmee highway as a cruel haven for impoverished families. Baker’s film tries to illuminate one such single mother and child and their haphazard circle, and often succeeds at rendering their world in three dimensions, but he’s more comfortable with the perspective and inner life of children than adults, save a long-suffering motel super modeled beautifully by a low-key Willem Dafoe. And as the tension amps up following an accidental act of arson, the film becomes more a source of stress and panic than of any deep insight.

Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carné) [r]
Handsomely photographed, sprawling treatise on the love lives of a few members and acquaintances of a thrifty pantomime troupe in early nineteenth century Paris is much more frivolous and soapy than implied by its reputation. The intricate story pans outward from a sad-eyed courtesan (Arletty) and her ragtag collection of suitors, highlighted by Jean-Louis Barrault’s electrifying performance as the mime Baptiste. Carné’s treatment of haphazard matters of the heart as important enough to warrant three hours of detailed absorption and yet simultaneously as pointless nonsense worthy of derisive laughter is oddly cynical.

The Robe (1953, Henry Koster) [c]
Atrociously acted dress rehearsal for Ben-Hur is slick enough and serves mostly as a showcase as the first narrative film in the new Cinemascope process; its main claim to fame therefore is initiating the move toward widescreen formats in Hollywood, though the splashes of Renaissance-like Technicolor manage at times to distract from the insipid, dull story, performances and direction (which really does nothing inspired with the extra horizontal space).

A Matter of Life and Death (1946, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [hr]
This may be Powell & Pressburger’s loftiest, most romantic film of all, yet its colorful, lyrical enormity is fully justified by the genuine emotional content of the story about an RAF pilot (David Niven) who seemingly survives a great fall without a parachute, during which he falls in love with a radio operator (Kim Hunter) and begins to have visions of the afterlife attempting to recruit him. Made ostensibly to assist the relationship between allies in the war effort, but really a purely invigorating film about love’s elemental power over the universe; you needn’t interpret the story as a religious one to find it inexpressibly moving.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954, Stanley Donen)
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Oh for a simpler time when we could just tie up, blindfold, and kidnap the women we wanted, all with the dandiest of choreography.

Germany Year Zero (1948, Roberto Rossellini) [hr]
Shot on location in bombed-out Berlin without a completed script, this brief nightmare tells the harrowing story of a put-upon young boy attempting to help his ailing family muddle through the aftermath of the war. There’s no purity to encounter in this world, not even the hollow and sentimental kind seen in a number of other Neorealist classics, with all familiar totems of day to day life turned into variations of threat, death and loneliness. It’s extremely heavy, but its toughness as a portrait of the long-term violence of war feels like a necessary angle seldom explored in WWII films, particularly not from within any of the involved nations.

The Ten Commandments (1956, Cecil B. DeMille)
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Campy, sexualized Biblical epic is overblown in the usual DeMille fashion, and chances are that you’ve already seen its signature moment (the parting of the Red Sea), so unless you have a great fetish for fine actors lowering themselves to big dumb spectacle and you’ve run out of Marvel movies to watch…

A Ghost Story (2017, David Lowery) [c]
Vapid nonsense from the director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in which Casey Affleck dies then wanders enigmatically around his house covered by a sheet, watching his former wife Rooney Mara eat pie at great length, making mischief for future families, and eventually suffering the indignity of listening to Will Oldham rant about humanity. I can’t imagine what it must be like to get something out of this but I’m happy for you if you do.

Christine (2016, Antonio Campas) [hr]
Dramatization of the final months of Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota local news reporter who shot herself on the air in 1974, doesn’t reduce a real-life tragedy to mere gawking entertainment — instead it humanizes it, expands upon it, allows us to reclassify it as an aspect of the world as we all experience it. In the hands of director Campos and actress Rebecca Hall, Chubbuck becomes a three-dimensional embodiment of stymied hopes and flawed social impulses that will be familiar, second-hand if nothing else, to nearly everyone watching. A fascinating look at both a woman and a time on the precipice of agonizing defeat.

The Alamo (1960, John Wayne) [c]
(Revisit; no change.) An overbearing behemoth, but watchable.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935, William Dieterle & Max Reinhardt) [r]
Often sumptuous visualization of Shakespeare, as staged originally by Max Reinhardt at the Hollywood Bowl in 1934; at its best — during the forest ballet scenes — it’s a truly dreamlike, enchanting experience, even if it isn’t wholly successful at telling the actual story. Unfortunately the portions that do rely on dialogue are cut at the knees by casting; the only thing more embarrassing than Dick Powell stumbling through Lysander is the completely inexplicable performance of Mickey Rooney as Puck, one of the most annoying bouts of “acting” ever put on film. The noises he makes to “enhance” the performance are sheer screeching torture.

Women of the Night (1948, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
Mizoguchi’s bleak nod to Italian neorealism is miraculously fluid and riveting. Kinuyo Tanaka and Sanae Takasugi are excellent as sisters coping with post-WWII poverty in the seedy areas of Osaka; after death and disease plague them, they are forced to turn to illicit means, and later the streets, for survival. With the usual breathtaking long takes as well as painstakingly realistic but engrossing uses of focus, space and sparingly agile camera movements, it’s a feast for the senses despite its intense despair and squalor… and Mizoguchi’s empathy seems more genuine than De Sica’s or even Rossellini’s.

The Guns of Navarone (1961, J. Lee Thompson) [r]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Allied commandos attempt to infiltrate a rock-solid German fortress during the height of the war. Despite some stiffness and overlength, a solid action movie with a pretty well-defined cast of characters (their uneasy camaraderie is put across well by the actors, especially David Niven), some exceptionally well-mounted setpieces, and a somewhat shockingly blasé attitude toward the bloodshed of war. This last element is a welcome change from the status quo in WWII movies even now: we see Germans being executed in quite lurid and unpleasant ways, robbing us of the usual visceral thrill of bloodless patriotic movie-killing.

Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
Simple, funny, touching chronicle of a neighborhood of surly adults’ response to a war orphan’s appearance in their neighborhood, focusing mostly on Chōko Iida as a widow and tinkerer whose open disdain after being stuck taking care of the boy is the uneasy prelude to a reluctant respect and affection. The material could easily become goopy and sentimental; but Ozu’s calm, slow approach allows it to come across as real life, subtly encouraging an embrace of the children whose lives were left broken by the war without judging any of its characters for the one-day-at-a-time routines in which they mire themselves.

The Music Man (1962, Morton DaCosta) [NO]
(Revisit; no change.) Intolerably trite, fake “Americana” about a con artist who invades a small town, or rather, the Hollywood/Broadway vision of what small towns are like. At least Leave It to Beaver didn’t have a bunch of shitty songs.

A Quiet Place (2018, John Krasinski) [r]
Well-directed and economical horror silliness from the beloved sitcom star about a family terrorized by monsters who attack if they hear a single solitary sound. This is an opportunity for something that at least shoots for classic Pure Cinema ideals, since it depends on something besides dialogue; and as goofy as the story itself is, it does lead into some fun setpieces closer to thriller than horror that offset some of the dramatic clichés about the Importance of Family.

Baby Driver (2017, Edgar Wright) [r]
Ahem, plot hole: driving with earbuds is against the law.

Cleopatra (1963, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) One of the all-time Weird Hollywood monuments, this entirely ridiculous four-hour “epic” flop was big trouble for 20th Century Fox and the industry in general, fast becoming a great American joke. Elizabeth Taylor is… Elizabeth Taylor in the title role, most everyone else is there just to read goofy lines and pretend this is all very serious, and director Mankiewicz has no clue what he wants to say, nor does he care. It’s amazing that this wasn’t the result of somebody’s cocaine binge. Decadent, expensive, half-assed and insanely long.

Jour de Fête (1949, Jacques Tati) [hr]
Simultaneously fanciful and totally natural, Tati’s first film is a wonderfully earthy comedy about a small-town celebration in a French village intertwining with the mishaps of a barely-competent, eccentric bicycle-riding mailman and his many inept, drunken stunts, which intensify after he’s exposed to a hilariously overblown industrial film promoting the agility and physical prowess of American postal workers. It’s silly fun, but also quietly lyrical, subtly betraying a sensitivity to which it won’t fully confess.

The Sundowners (1960, Fred Zinnemann) [c]
Tiresome, one-dimensional, well-photographed “epic” drama of a nomadic sheep-shearing family in Australia and their inept attempts at settling down, dramatized through a whole procession of wildly bad decisions. The various animals depicted along the way provide more entertainment and charm than the bloated human narrative; a steely Deborah Kerr tries to rein in Robert Mitchum’s wheezing excess but fails. Though it’s not a comedy, it’s the kind of film in which a mass fistfight is viewed as both automatically funny and as an ideal form of communication. The climax dealing with a horse and some bad financial planning is really kind of infuriating.

The Little Foxes (1941, William Wyler) [hr]
Sparks fly in Lillian Hellman’s adaptation of her own play, a not-so-covert attack on capitalist cronies and their dependence of cheap labor in the form of a heated-up family drama wherein three money-grubbing siblings take their spouses and children for a ride that leaves moral destruction in its wake. The script doesn’t shy away from still-incisive class commentary even if it’s unable to give its more underprivileged characters much of a voice; for all the ample wit and insight here, most of the fun comes out of the squabbling, which gets at a real sense of how toxic families operate.

Five Star Final (1931, Mervyn LeRoy) [hr]
An incendiary screed against yellow journalism, though it does stack the decks a bit ridiculously, this seems set to be a fun His Girl Friday-style look at the bed-hopping and corporate intrigue across several floors of a tabloid paper whose bigwigs want higher circulation numbers, but the humor cuts out after half an hour. Edward G. Robinson snarls thrillingly as a morally conflicted editor getting pushed in multiple directions as he uses dirty tricks to wreck the lives of a family whose matriarch long ago murdered her rapist and has lived in relative anonymity up to now. If you admire the deep-rooted cynicism of Ace in the Hole, see this next.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929, Charles Reisner)
Stilted, creaky early MGM talkie is a story-free collection of vignettes; most of their stable of stars come out to perform in little skits that are mostly stiff, with boring flat set design not helped by the pair of two-strip Technicolor scenes.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017, Yorgos Lanthimos) [r]
Lanthimos’ skewed look at modern dating in The Lobster is now joined by his take on parenthood, with Colin Farrell leading a deliberately frozen, awkward cast as a doctor whose attempts to make amends for a botched surgery have put a curse upon his family. Funny and uncomfortable, though a lot of its story threads feel like dead ends. Barry Keoghan is perfect as the world’s most unsettlingly mundane supervillain.

Paradise: Love (2012, Ulrich Seidl) [c]
The exploitation travels freely in both directions when a middle-aged white woman from Austria makes her way to Kenya for a sex-tourism vacation and gets incessantly hoodwinked while staying at a hideously gaudy Euro resort, where the shenanigans eventually harden her. Well-directed and acted but repetitive, smug and pointless.

Utamaro and His Five Women (1946, Kenji Mizoguchi) [r]
Made early in the American occupation of Japan, this is a reverent but largely fictional exploration of 18th century Japanese artist and woodblock printmaker Kitagawa Utamaro, whose titular “five women” aren’t actually “his” but are just various models and acquaintances swirling around him, and the story is so dominated by the community of hangers-on in Utamaro’s orbit that there are only a few scenes dedicated to his work and methodology, yet plenty of time for bickering over tangentially related sex lives. It’s a more lustful narrative than usual for Mizoguchi, which isn’t a problem, but the overwhelming number of characters and subplots is.

The Sand Pebbles (1966, Robert Wise)
Psychologically heavy war film set on a Navy ship anchored in China in the 1920s begins and ends well; its initial premise of an outsider (Steve McQueen) rubbing uneasily with an established, informal order is gripping, and the bleak, chaotic conclusion is a welcome note against the usual cheerleading hysteria. But the whole enterprise pointlessly runs three hours and does little of value with its time, meandering through several dull subplots. It’s never particularly terrible, but it does demonstrate what a dead end the ’60s Hollywood obsession with gargantuan epic-sized running times was, even when paired with a small “human” story like this.

Odd Man Out (1947, Carol Reed) [hr]
Remarkably mature and gripping British thriller follows an IRA leader (James Mason) who becomes a silently suffering Christlike figure after a robbery attempt ends in outright disaster. The tone is uneven but all of the characters are vividly eccentric (and mostly believable) hard-boiled noir creations, and the emotions are palpable well past the allegorical content. Everyone is firing on all cylinders: Mason is a low-key wonder, R.C. Sherriff’s script is deeply intelligent, the score by William Alwyn expands the scope to the level of an epic drama, and Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker’s staging and photography are chillingly beautiful and enveloping.

Doctor Dolittle (1967, Richard Fleischer) [NO]
(Revisit; no change.) Bad book becomes worse musical.

***

Spellbound (1945, Alfred Hitchcock)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

There’s no use denying that Spellbound, despite its considerable popular success in the mid-1940s, is one of the Alfred Hitchcock films that has — unusually — aged rather poorly, though there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that modern criticisms of the film were already anticipated by the director, who was in fact always rather dismissive of it in later interviews. Though it was a project he partially originated, it was not one that he produced and had real control over; in fact it was his second proper film for David O. Selznick, his employer throughout the first eight years of his American career who’d produced Rebecca — winning himself a second consecutive Best Picture Oscar — then proceeded to loan Hitchcock out to other studios for several years and to considerable financial gain (for himself, not so much Hitchcock). The films that the director made between Rebecca and Spellbound at UA (for Walter Wanger), Universal, RKO and Fox were formative, vital experiences and experiments, but with the exception of the masterful Shadow of a Doubt none were the massive leaps forward that Rebecca had been, and nearly without exception they can be seen as high-level “B” pictures.

Yet strangely, all of them also share the virtue of being more intelligent and admirable than Hitchcock’s theoretically triumphant return to the Selznick studio itself. No doubt it’s a slick, attractive affair, with gorgeous location shooting and set design, beautiful movie stars and extravagant music and special effects, if disappointingly little atmosphere. (The excuse that it takes place at a medical facility seems empty; no filmmaker in history had less fun with the idea of a crooked old asylum than Hitchcock.) During the interim, Selznick had taken a considerable amount of time off to recover from the immense stress he was under during the Gone with the Wind period, during which time he underwent psychotherapy. And like a hipster teen who’s just discovered jazz, he apparently couldn’t shut up about it and wanted his next project with Hitchcock to be not just focused on Freudian psychology but to be essentially an unabashed valentine to it. Hitchcock seems to have been skeptical of the cause but nevertheless volunteered a source property he owned, Francis Beeding’s 1928 Gothic novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, which is about — in essence — a madman taking over an asylum. From this skeleton Ben Hecht generated a surprisingly goofy script that relies deeply on convenience, implausibility, and excessively expository and overly literal interpretations of what could potentially be haunting ideas and images. There’s nothing Gothic about it; the world it occupies is remarkably ordinary, at least for Hitchcock (and Hecht).

The finished film is inevitably the result of the same back-and-forth memos and arguments and power struggles (between a conflict-averse but calm director and an impetuous producer) that created Rebecca; but the pair fails to duplicate their success here, and sadly never would (unless you count Notorious, from which Selznick eventually extracted himself, surely to the project’s lasting benefit). As it stands it follows a variation on the novel’s heroine Constance, played with startling charm and naturalism by Ingrid Bergman in the first installment in her happy three-film collaboration with Hitchcock; she’s a controlled, independent therapist who’s unfazed by the mockery of her male coworkers and is abruptly thrown by the welcoming of a new boss — Gregory Peck’s “Dr. Edwards” — to whom she’s intensely attracted, even after it turns out she isn’t her new boss at all but is a military doctor who went off the deep end before apparently becoming the prime suspect in the murder of the actual new boss. But that’s not all! What is the secret of this man’s past? Well, it’s something in his childhood, an accident he partly caused, but also — simultaneously, somehow — it’s that he witnessed the real Edwards dying in an accident, and yet it wasn’t an accident, and yet he still wasn’t responsible. It’s soapier than any other of Hitchcock’s celebrated works, and its intensely complicated, illogical plot and characterizations serve as a nice rejoinder to anyone who thinks Vertigo is confusing.

It’s a movie that works best, ironically, when it’s most conventional; given the bloated budget of Selznick International without the logical constraints of Rebecca, Hitchcock goes to town on his usual cat-and-mouse wrong-man story of a couple on the run with a scale and excitement that occasionally calls ahead to North by Northwest, sans fireworks. There aren’t any good jokes — except one in which Bergman is randomly harrassed in a hotel lobby by a stranger from Pittsburgh and a nosy house detective in rapid succession — and you could freeze to death from the lack of genuine sexual tension between Bergman and Peck, though credit where it’s due: he does sometimes open his mouth slightly when they kiss. Hitchcock tries to compensate for the awkwardness between them with bells and whistles, like the striking but out-of-place shot of a series of doorways opening after their first kiss, or the oddly disturbing sequence in which she is tormented by the light emanating from his bedroom as she ascends a staircase, an allusion of sorts to the milk scene in Suspicion.

At any rate, it’s a breezy good time to follow the two of them as they try to stay a few steps ahead of the law; of course it’s identical in this respect to a litany of prior Hitchcock features made in both England and (already) America, but he returned to this well repeatedly because it really is riveting and thrilling. It’s also sort of fun to see Hitchcock tackle, simulate, allude to New York in the 1940s. But then Constance buys a ticket to Rochester and the film stops dead for almost the entire remainder of its running time. She leads the man she now knows as “J.B.” there because it’s the residence of her old mentor Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov), a cuddly plot device who’s written and performed in so sentimental a fashion it’s hard to believe either Hecht or Hitchcock had anything to do with it. He’s exactly the kind of movie character Hitchcock would ordinarily either avoid altogether or mock by quickly turning audience expectations on their head and making him a villain — and even that, by this point, was a trick he’d used too frequently. He had also, in Saboteur, already used the trope of the kindhearted elderly man who understands the whole scope of the plot as if by magic. Instead, the character is used as a thoroughly straightforward grandfatherly Santa Claus with his former pupil’s best interests at heart as needed: he’s protective when the couple arrives at the same time as a pair of cops, but of course knows exactly what’s going on as soon as he glimpses them, but also doesn’t trust Peck one bit, but also agrees to analyze his dreams. Chekhov’s by no means a chore to watch, but in his infallible infinite wisdom and folksy, accented dialogue he feels like a character who dropped in to the wrong movie after being cast in The Three Faces of Eve.

However, we do come at this point to the film’s most famous scene, as well it deserves to be because it’s by far the most interesting thing about it: the elaborate, expensive, impressively outlandish dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. It’s also the reason so many modern viewers come away disappointed by this film; everyone’s seen those sketches and photos of that wild set anchored by the “eye curtains,” and the haunting image of the masked man holding the oblong wheel. These photos and clips make Spellbound appear far more adventurous and intriguing than it really is, and lead some to expect a de facto Vertigo prediction in terms of its wanderings around the Dream State. The first problem is that the dream barely covers two minutes of screen time, interrupted by imbecilic “cute” banter between Peck and Bergman; and secondarily, every last one of the evocative images brought forth by Dali has its meaning explained in precise detail by the scripted voiceover. This is largely a plot necessity, at least as envisioned by Selznick — remember, an endorsement of psychotherapy and Freud’s theories about the subconscious were his specific reasons for making this movie — but it’s still disappointing to see something potentially remarkable cut at the knees, immediately, by such unimaginative literalism, not that the “explanations” provided really make a lot of sense anyway.

Because Dali’s name was seen as a way to attract further prestige to Spellbound, Selznick later took credit for inviting him to work on the film, but this is rather implausible, especially because Hitchcock remembered his aesthetic reasons for seeking Dali out in believable detail during his lengthy interview with Francois Truffaut (and other Hitchcock works can make equal claim to having owed something to Dali’s work); but also because Selznick seemed to want the scene to take as little time, and cost as little, as possible. There are sketches indicating that the sequence was meant to be much longer and more engrossing, which would have been nice, but it most likely wouldn’t have helped this back section of the film drag any less. Still, it looks great, and — as would please Selznick — you do see all the money that was expended up on the screen; and it does add to the sense that Spellbound is “a cut above” as entertainment, which was probably just as important to Selznick as the psychology. One interesting thing about Hollywood’s most notoriously finicky producer is that, like Irving Thalberg, his obsession with class occasionally met up with a simple, bravura populism and showmanship that seemed almost Corman-like; he went where the money was, after all, and don’t forget that he produced King Kong. So while Un Chien Andalou might not have been particularly to his taste, the ability to say that Salvador Dali had worked on one of his movies surely was — and kooky touches like a brief burst of color during the climactic gunshot couldn’t hurt. And indeed, the film made good money and was nominated for major Oscars.

It sounds as if there’s little here to recommend, but there is; it’s Hitchcock, it was one of his most popular pictures at the time, and it’s well-directed and gripping as always. (There isn’t a single surviving Hitchcock film that’s not somewhat enjoyable, at least in parts.) If anyone else had made this film it could be seen as a sort of minor camp classic with its silly dialogue, intriguing ideas and technical prowess, something on the order of Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X except a lot, well, classier (there’s even entrance and exit music!)… and frankly, less eventful. It’s a good deal of fun to watch, just far less sophisticated than usual for the director, and it’s easy to see that — while the Master was far from infallible — much of this can be pinned to Selznick’s determination to turn it into an infomercial.

Best of all is the opportunity to watch Bergman in such an unguarded performance; accomplished and brilliant in so many other films, Bergman shone uniquely in her work with Hitchcock. You can sense her relaxing, thrilling in the role; wonderful as she is in Casablanca and Gaslight, it’s a relief to see her being allowed to do something besides endure various kinds of anguish and stare enigmatically into the distance. The upshot is that she and Hitchcock would find the perfect collaborative opportunity in their next film together, Notorious, and she would be permitted to display a larger, more believable gamut of emotions than in possibly any other movie she made. In the meantime, she’s so engaging in Spellbound that you can almost overlook how terribly miscast Gregory Peck is: never emotional enough to be sold as a full-on maniac, but also too dead-eyed and strangely intense to be sexy or human.

Part of the fun for Hitchcockians here is spotting suggestions of other movies in his oeuvre, and one of the most surprising instances comes early on, when Miklós Rózsa’s score seems to be ringing out with an extract of music from Vertigo, made fourteen years later. Rózsa’s score, more broadly, is remembered for its early use of the theremin — a factor it shares with another score he wrote the same year, for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend — but while the music won an Oscar, it has worn the years rather badly; maybe that’s through no fault of its own, with the overuse of the theremin as a sci-fi cliché and Beach Boys staple in the decades since, but it may not be a coincidence that Hitchcock and Rózsa found their collaboration unpleasant and difficult, and Rózsa — despite having three more Academy Awards in his cabinet than Hitchcock — long remained bitter over their disagreements.

Hitchcock and Selznick were not exactly peaceful collaborators either, and with the release of Spellbound the actually successful portion of the director’s period under contract to Selznick had ended. Selznick’s fate, in fact, was sealed by a series of poor decisions in his personal life, and by his crazed intention to duplicate or out-perform Gone with the Wind. This would be his last film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Hitchcock, meanwhile, was becoming too massive a name, and too much a master of harnessing talent, to be under contract to anyone. He was destined to spend a brief period in the wilderness, then would prove unstoppable. Meanwhile, Spellbound is a low-tier stopgap for him, and a symbol of the problems inherent to his lack of independence — the opposite of Rebecca, which had illustrated how he once could thrive under the same circumstances — but it’s nevertheless a good, entertaining film whose best moments are undoubtedly as memorable and even iconic as anything in this phase of the director’s canon.

Paisan (1946, Roberto Rossellini)

RECOMMENDED

Paisan is comprised of war stories, but not the kind peepaw Matt Damon told his grandkids. Like Rossellini’s other films of this period, this anthology of brief, semi-true and semi-fictionalized tragedies from the Allies’ campaign in Italy during the penultimate year of WWII brilliantly communicates the life-loathing destruction and dehumanization of war (any war), while serving as a welcome antidote to the empty rah-rah heroics of the usual cinematic narrative about this specific war. Where it falls short of the other two films in the director’s War Trilogy (the painfully realistic, unfathomable horror Germany, Year Zero and the almost Gothic, Dreyer-like Rome, Open City) is in its somewhat oversized ambitions. Its six “episodes” are not evenly compelling, nor are they evenly written and performed; you could imagine watching entire feature-length versions of the second or final vignettes, though you wouldn’t want to violate their elegance. Those are the almost note-perfect Naples story in which a black MP (Dots Johnson) is befriended and robbed by a wily orphan, which manages some covert commentary on the treatment of people of color in America (pretty brazen for a 1940s film that ended up being distributed here by MGM); and the harrowing chronicle of OSS members and American soldiers attempting in vain to hold court against brutal, desperate Nazis around the Po River. That last sequence makes the most lasting, nightmarish impression — achieving the same final sense of anger and futility as the other two War Trilogy titles — and is full of well-defined characterizations and performances despite its brevity. If one’s soul doesn’t feel emptied out by the scene in which we discover that the kind family that provided food and shelter to the soldiers has been entirely murdered apart from a young child (which feels like a prediction of the same scene in The Searchers that George Lucas later cribbed), it’s doubtful they can ever be impacted at all by cinema. And among a uniformly excellent cast, the nonprofessional actor John Whaling Allen* as the leader of the brigade of troops is unforgettably stoic and real.

These two installments stand out because of the actors, and because of believability; a peculiar kind of anticlimactic romance creeps into the opening episode (about a bereaved young woman guiding some soldiers through Sicily) as well as the fourth (about an American nurse trying to find her former lover, a partisan in Florence). These aren’t bad but they also feel far more conventional than is usual for this series if you set aside their downbeat endings. I can’t say anything so kind for the extremely disappointing third segment (Federico Fellini’s name is in the writing credits and this certainly seems like something he’d come up with) that feels like a bad O. Henry story, again with an odd finale serving the miscommunication theme: a prostitute who makes her living, along with many others, by showing a good time to the boozy American soldiers occupying Rome stumbles upon a man she realizes she had a very pure and loving liaison with in the first days of the Allied invasion. It’s all good and well to point up the heartbreak of tempered expectations and glory faded out by reality, but this relies on the extremely improbable premise that the same two people find one another some months later, and moreover that they fail to recognize one another (even after he tells their story). Like some of the other segments, this one also ends rather awkwardly, failing to put across anything beyond a minor bummer: she’s disappointed when he doesn’t show up at the address she gave him later, and he finds the address and thinks it’s something else and tosses it aside, driving away. It sucks that further cuddling and fucking won’t be had, yeah, but against the immeasurable miseries and agonies captured elsewhere in the film, this expression of the travails of wartime seems a bit trite.

The least successful segment of all, however, is the fifth; unlike the others, it has little direct relation to the war itself, but that isn’t the problem. A monastery has been liberated and a trio of American chaplains elect to sleep there temporarily. There is a great deal of idyllic slice-of-life stuff about the Americans praying and exchanging pleasantries with their benefactors, until suddenly someone lets slip that two of them aren’t Catholic and one is even a Jew, and all hell breaks loose… sort of. Actually — and bear in mind this is coming from a non-religious person — it seems that the revelation turns the monks into extraordinarily petty bitches, whispering gossip about the Jew in their midst, confronting the Italian-speaking Captain Martin (William Tubbs, in probably the film’s worst performance), who is Catholic, about why he hasn’t tried to convert the heathens; and then — in what sounds like the prompt for a post from r/JustNoMIL — fasting in protest of the fact that they are housing two non-Catholics. This inexplicably prompts Martin to give a speech sincerely honoring the monks and their way of life — the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s aimless wedding ramble in About Schmidt? — at which point the segment abruptly ends. If the purpose of all this is to illuminate that antisemitism continued even among those united against the Germans (the Catholics are distressed by the presence of the “Lutheran” but note that it’s the Jew they keep mumbling about in alarmist tones), it’s far too lengthy and elaborate to serve such a simplistic purpose; and its relatively minor, fruitless ironies have little in common with the rest of Paisan. Moreover, in a film in which almost every scene features multiple spoken languages, this episode is by far the most stilted and awkward in its depiction of talking and interpreting, and in a manner that does not seem intentional.

All that said, the third of Paisan that works truly does soar; and the final sequence is possibly the most accomplished moment in the entirety of Rosselini’s War Trilogy. It’s perhaps also necessary to provide the caveat that this is all based on a first impression of not just this film but (going back a few months) the other two films as well; it’s possible there are thematic connections, heavier connotations to the moments I semi-dismissed above that are as yet invisible to me and will become clearer on future viewings. What isn’t in dispute is Rossellini’s general mastery of gorgeously capturing the essence of real life without making it artificially pretty or ugly; and his uncanny ability to communicate — in blunt, horrifying fashion — the real human costs of war, whether a celebrated and necessary or a futile one. Despite their reliance upon fictionalized scenarios, all three movies in the War Trilogy should be required viewing for everyone who ever cheered on the “good guys” without really confronting the complexity of who they were and the cold humanity in the evil that they faced.

* Note: this is actually a guess as to the actor’s identity; much of the cast in this film and nearly all of the cast in the final sequence is uncredited.

Laura (1944, Otto Preminger)

RECOMMENDED

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 2018 movie capsules

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

***

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

Capsules now!

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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