March 27, 2020

Return from the Ashes

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J. Lee Thompson - 1965
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Hubert Monteilhet's source novel has been adapted three times by three very different filmmakers. The essential story is of a French woman, Elisabeth Wolf Pilgrin, a doctor, who literally returns from the ashes, that is to say a concentration camp, following World War II. She chooses not to reunite with her husband Stanislaus Pilgrin immediately, but chooses to undergo some cosmetic surgery to repair her facial scars to make her look as she did earlier. Meeting seemingly by chance, Stanislaus does not recognize Elisabeth as herself but as an unknown woman with an almost uncanny resemblance. A scheme is initiated so that Stanislaus will be able to legally get a hold on the wealth Elisabeth has inherited as a post-holocaust survivor. Elisabeth, still pretending to be someone else, is directed by Stanislaus to impersonate his wife.

It's probably no surprise that Henri-Georges Clouzot had first expressed interest in making a film version. Thematically it fits in his previous films with duplicitous characters, plus the novel discusses the concept of Jewish identity, something touched on by Clouzot in Manon. Claire Garrara has an essay of interest regarding the uncomfortable relationship of Jews in France during and after World War II. Clouzot, in his period of extreme artistic crisis sold the film rights to the Mirisch Brothers, with British filmmaker J. Lee Thompson making the first film version. A second version, for French television, was made by Josee Dayan in 1982. No version seems to be available, though what is intriguing is that as a French Jewish female filmmaker, Dayan is culturally closest to the characters of Elizabeth Wolf. Christian Petzhold's Phoenix is the loosest of adaptations, making his characters Germans in post-war Berlin. A more detailed look at the three adaptations can be found here.

Even with those three film versions, Monteilhet's novel is out of print, at least in an English language version. I did get ahold of a British paperback edition that was a tie-in to the 1965 release of Thompson's film. Julius J. Epstein has a screenplay that has simplified much of the novel, reducing the doppelgänger plot that is something of an inverse version of Vertigo, as well has the relationship between Elisabeth, called Michelle in the film, and Stanislaus being one of gamesmanship between the two. In the film, it is only Stanislaus, the professional chess player, who appears to be doing most of the manipulation.
One of the philosophical debates between Michelle and Stanislaus is from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. And it Epstein who wrote the film adaptation for Richard Brooks. One thing the film got right was casting Ingrid Thulin as Michelle. Originally cast Gina Lollabrigida may have been a bigger name, but physically inappropriate. Thulin looks more like the character as described by Monteilhet, and is especially convincing when she is first seen visibly aged from her experiences in Dachau. Thulin and Maximillian Schell were both the right age for their respective characters.

J. Lee Thompson has done good work in suspense previously, notably Tiger Bay and Cape Fear. It isn't until the last big scene here that there is any real sense of tension. I didn't mind Thompson throwing in a few Dutch angles, but the script spoils the fun by adding an unnecessary expository scene. The film eschews the ambiguity of the novel for a clear, moral ending. Even taken on its own terms, Return from Ashes comes across as an impersonal, compromised film with insights no deeper than glances at the concentration camp tattoo on Ingrid Thulin's arm.

March 17, 2020

The Passion of Darkly Noon

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Philip Ridley - 1995
Arrow Video BD Region A

From the moment Brendan Fraser is seen lying on the back of a pickup truck, is arms extended outwards, the religious symbolism in The Passion of Darkly Noon is hardly subtle. Fraser's character is named Darkly Noon, the first name picked at random out of the Bible by his extremely fundamentalist parents. His name connotes his own contradictory self, both the innocent alone and lost in a world he doesn't understand and as a vengeful spirit ready to condemn others. Having escaped from a small community of like-minded Christians that was destroyed by an unidentified, but more powerful group, Darkly finds both physical healing and an internal schism at the remote home of the mute carpenter Clay and his wife Callie.

Even though Ridley makes the film more location specific with the quick glimpse of a North Carolina license plate, this film, as Ridley's earlier Reflecting Skin takes place in an imagined America. And as in Ridley's most recent narrative film, Heartless, the stories are about lonely boys who misread and misjudge the world around them with their idiosyncratic filters. Darkly only understands the world within the confines of his former community and his parents. Callie awakens previously dormant sexual feelings that can only be addressed through self-mortification. While his hosts are generous and flexible in their personal beliefs as well as treatment of Darkly, the guest turns more rigid. To be best appreciated, Ridley's films need to be met on their own terms.

Darkly Noon never received a theatrical release in the U.S., going straight to VHS in 1997. I'm not sure if I understand why as it's no more or less extreme than other films that found their way in the arthouse circuit of the time. Ridley managed to make an independent film with a low budget that featured Brendan Fraser, getting top billing in mainstream films, and Ashley Judd, a rising star following Ruby in Paradise. Viggo Mortensen, as Clay, was on the verge of getting more attention. The usual genial Frasier shows his acting chops here as Ridley takes advantage of his childlike look of wonderment, but also pulls out a more fearsome persona. There may be debate about Ashley Judd's Callie wearing the shortest of skirts and dresses, and wether the male gaze strictly is that of Darkly or shared with the filmmakers. Judd is admittedly quite attractive with her normally dark hair dyed blonde. I've always liked her even in films unworthy of her ability, a classic face that reminds me somewhat of Myrna Loy. It is quite possible that Darkly Noon was considered to unusual for mainstream distribution, while conventional wisdom would hold that the art and indie crowd would not consider a film with the star of Airheads and The Scout.

Philip Ridley's commentary track is quite helpful in explaining how there was a deliberate attempt to make the film visual unrealistic with the use of yellow and blue. The opening sequence is overly bright, with an exposure adjustment at the end culminating with a shot of Callie standing in the rain. A giant shoe floats aimlessly in a lake, used later for the striking image of a Viking style funeral as it is lit on fire. Ridley discusses his art school background regarding some of his visual choices, as well as how the film thematically follows up on Reflecting Skin.

Among the supplements are an investigation into the themes of Ridley by James Flowers, interviews with with cinematographer John de Borman, and editor Les Healey. An interview with composer Nic Bicat covers the three films done with Ridley as well as their collaboration on other projects. An older interview including Viggo Mortensen has been ported over from the British DVD of Reflecting Skin. I was only able to review the blu-ray, but those who purchase the first pressing will also have included a booklet on Ridley and his film written by the usually capable Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.

March 13, 2020

The Rare Breed

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Belgian poster

Andrew McLaglen - 1966
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The Rare Breed could almost serve as a proxy for Andrew McLaglen's life. The plot revolves around the attempt to introduce the British Hereford cattle to the United States, cross-breeding with the American long-horn. It is so easy to forget that with the many westerns he's directed, that Andrew McLaglen was born in England and raised in the United States. The Rare Breed was second of four films McLaglen made with James Stewart and certainly the lightest of their collaborations.

Much of the film depends on the screen personas of the three leads - Stewart, Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith. They each bring a certain amount history from previous roles either with each or their connection, along with that of McLaglen, with John Ford. The cast also includes Ford stock company actors Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. in supporting roles. The cast does not quite transcend the episodic nature of the script written by Ric Hardman, whose credits are primarily from 1960s television series. As such, the film is packed with a barroom brawl, a stampede, a fistfight between Stewart and Keith, and a couple of romantic entanglements, plus a running gag with the Hereford bull only responding to the whistling of "God Save the Queen".

O'Hara, and Juliet Mills as her daughter, bringing the British bull to America, are almost caricatures of 19th Century Englishwomen adrift in the wild west of 1884. Brian Keith, as a Scottish cattle baron, is even more exaggerated, introduced with a mop of flaming red hair and a lengthy beard, speaking with a noticeable burr. It's up to Stewart to provide the gravitas, again playing a man obsessed, in this case with the idea that the crossbreeding will succeed in spite of the nay-sayers, going as far as seeking out the bull in a snow storm to check on its survival, putting his own life in jeopardy. Admittedly, this is not quite like the revenge seeking Stewart of the Anthony Mann westerns, or the search for Kim Novak's doppelgänger. The film was the last credited to actor turned producer William Alland, whose credits include several inspired B pictures and modestly budgeted films as a house producer at Universal. It seems possible that The Rare Breed may have been intended as programmer at a time when the traditional western was fading away, only to have benefitted from casting of iconic stars and genre director on the rise.

Andrew McLaglen has positioned himself as the last of the traditionalists, rising from working as an uncredited 2nd Assistant Director on John Ford's The Quiet Man, to Assistant Director on several films with William Wellman. It was John Wayne who had McLaglen direct a couple low budget films for the star's Batjac Productions. Following several years primarily directing the television series Gunsmoke and Have Gun will Travel, McLaglen's career got a boost when he served as director on McLintock!, essentially a western remake of The Quiet Man with Wayne reunited with O'Hara, with an overload of broad humor primarily at the expense of Ms. O'Hara. McLaglen's cinematographer, both on The Rare Breed and his other early features was William Clothier, who had also worked on several of John Ford's last films. Clothier also was cinematographer on Sam Peckinpah's debut feature, The Deadly Companions, starring O'Hara and Brian Keith. The Rare Breed appeared at about the same time as McLaglen's Batjac peer, Burt Kennedy, was making westerns that tweaked the genre.

As if there wasn't enough previous history among the actors, Maureen O'Hara had previously acted with Juliet Mills in a TV version of Mrs. Miniver. Not only did O'Hara play the part of Mills' mother in The Rare Breed, but she was the onscreen mother of Juliet's sister, Hayley Mills (as twins) in The Parent Trap, with the onscreen father played by Brian Keith.

Simon Abrams discusses some, though not all, of these various relationships in his commentary track. Maureen O'Hara's autobiography and Gary Fishgall's biography of Stewart are primary sources, along with some reviews and news articles from the time of production. Abrams is particularly helpful in pointing out a sequence that was primarily the work of stunt coordinator, and future director, Hal Needham. The information that the budget was two and half million dollars would place the film at the low end of what was considered a mid-budget film at the time of production, Universal still being the most tight-fisted major studio. There is also information on the real history of introducing Hereford cattle to America, as well as the ways The Rare Breed ignores geography both in the narrative and filming locations. The Rare Breed may be of greatest interest to genre historians as an unintended representative of a genre that seemed to be coming to end, only to be revitalized by crossbreeding done by unknown filmmakers with unpronounceable names in a west created in film studios in Italy and Spain.

February 25, 2020

Manon

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Henri-Georges Clouzot - 1949
Arrow Academy BD Region A

Like the characters in his films, as well as in the life of Henri-Georges Clouzot, it would seem impossible not to make a deal with a devil. Working as a script writer in Germany in the 1930s, Clouzot was fired for being friendly with a couple of Jewish producers. He had seen enough in Germany to be concerned about Hitler and the institutionalized anti-Semitism taking place. Finally making his directorial debut in France during World War II, his first two films were produced by a German company. Even though the films were not propaganda, it was enough to mark Clouzot as a Nazi collaborator. I do not think that Manon can be entirely understood or appreciated without knowledge of Clouzot's own history.

The story is loosely adapted from the 18th Century novel by Prevost. The bulk of the narrative takes place during the final months of World War II through the first year or so after the liberation of Paris. Robert is a resistance fighter in a provincial French village charged with holding Manon prisoner. Manon is accused of being a collaborator due to her working in her mother's bar that had been popular with German soldiers. Manon convinces Robert of her innocence, and the two run off in the confusion of an air raid. Making their way to a now free Paris, their idealized love is challenged by Manon's desire for material comfort, Robert's disinheritance, and a volatile relationship best described as l'amour fou. The pair attempt to escape Paris by stowing away on a boat carrying Jewish refugees to Palestine. As might be expected from a film by Clouzot, nothing ends well.

While Clouzot has put something of himself in the predicament of Manon, someone who may have unfairly been tagged a guilty by association, there seems to be little critical analysis regarding the Clouzot's choice of having Manon and Robert specifically make their escape on a freighter with stateless Jews. While not clearly stated, the scenes on the ship taking place in Marseilles and the Palestinian coast indicated this is a human smuggling operation. The ship's captain is sympathetic stating that the refugees are not to blame for their situation. It is also worth pointing out that composer Paul Misraki incorporates the song "Hatikvah" (The Hope) into his score, the song that became the Israeli national anthem. Also noteworthy is that Clouzot cast the refugees with a Yiddish theater group who primarily speak Yiddish throughout the film. The final sequence with Robert and Manon with the refugees in Palestine is in need of deeper exploration both regarding Clouzot's life, as well as its political context, past and present.

There are several good visual moments. A brief montage of three statues of saints in a bomb out church bear witness to Manon and Robert's declaration of love. Manon regards her reflection in a small pool of water. There are overhead traveling shots following Manon in the overcrowded train going to Marseilles, Manon facing the camera as she pushes her way forward. In one train car she is briefly shoved against a large man who complains that she is taking up too much room. There's also something to be said about the audacity with which Clouzot has his Robert (Michel Auclair) drag Manon (Cecile Aubry) through the desert like an oversized sack of potatoes.

The blu-ray comes with two supplements. A 1970 documentary, "Bibliotheque de poche: H. G. Clouzot" is primarily about Clouzot and literature. There is also an overview on the making of Manon by British film critic Geoff Andrews. While Andrews' discussion is primarily about Clouzot's early films as a director, he stresses the point that Clouzot has been somewhat inaccurately described by some as genre filmmaker, primarily based on his two international and critical successes, The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques.

February 11, 2020

The Trouble with You

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En Liberte
Pierre Salvadori - 2018
Kino Lorber R1 DVD

The trouble with The Trouble with You is that it tries too hard to be funny. The film begins with a police bust. The apartment door bursts open with a big explosion, and the lead cop finds a few seconds between shooting the felons to take a selfie with his phone. Beaten, bruised and knifed, this unstoppable cop is able to leap from the window of the tall apartment building straight into a convertible directly below him. It's then revealed that what we've seen is a version of the cop's adventures as told by his wife to their wide-eyed young son.

The cop, Santi, has been dead for two years, and his wife Yvonne, a police lieutenant, discovers by chance that the man whom everyone thinks of as heroic has actually been on the take. A jewelry store hold-up from 2009 was not only an inside job, but the person convicted was an innocent employee, Antoine. Yvonne decides to make it her mission to rehabilitate Antoine who has just been released from prison. The problem is that Antoine has decided to embark on a life of petty crimes and anti-social behavior.

Filmed around Marseilles, the story takes place in provincial town that's quirky enough to include a well-furnished S & M brothel, and a mild-mannered murderer who totes around the remains of his mother. Santi's police force partner, Louis, is so infatuated with Yvonne that he's oblivious in the presence of the felon he's suppose to be hunting. There are several moments of violence that are brutal enough to undercut writer-director Salvadori's overall comic tone.

Best known as the muse in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Adele Haenel starred in this earlier film. While mostly known for dramatic roles, Haenel previously showed off her comic chops in Love at First Fight as a young woman showing off her survivalists skills against a would-be boyfriend. Haenel is especially sweet in the scenes with her onscreen son, as well as expressing her dismay at discovering the truth about her husband. Audrey Tautou, a previous collaborator with Salvadori, appears in a supporting role as Antoine's very patient girl friend.

Much like the those moments of tonally ill-fitting violence, The Trouble with You is a bit heavy-handed with some of the gags when whether in scenes of action or comedy a lighter touch would do.

February 07, 2020

The Lodge

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Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala - 2020
Neon

Five years after their feature debut, Goodnight Mommy, the Austrian team of Franz and Fiala have made returned with an English language film. The Lodge has been described as slow burn, but slow freeze might be more accurate. The most basic of elements are shared in both films - two siblings, a female adult, an isolated house.

Teenage Aiden and his pre-teen sister Mia are both still in mourning for the death of their mother, who committed suicide. Their father has long planned to marry Grace, the daughter of a man who lead a religious cult. The small cult became notorious for the death of all the members except for Grace. Aiden and Mia are uncomfortable with the idea of Grace becoming their step-mother having read about her in an internet search. Their father, who has no qualms about Grace's past, leaves the three together in a remote house during Christmas vacation, where they are promptly snowed in.

One of the things I like about the two films by Franz and Fiala is that they show and understand how siblings interact and support each other independently of their parents. Mia is almost always seen with a doll, the kind that looks like a miniature adult such as "Barbie". Aiden pulls out the arm of a doll Mia is holding, which Mia reattaches. It's the kind of action that if done by someone else might be malicious, but is intuitively understood as part of the playfulness and private humor between siblings. That the loss of the mother has still not been fully processed is indicated in the scene of the Thanksgiving dinner where the father and two children are sitting at a table with a setting for four.

There is also the visual repetition of people barely seen through frosted windows, or as reflections on glass or mirrors. As in Goodnight Mommy, nothing is necessarily as it appears to be. Where The Lodge perhaps requires a more subjective understanding is with its religious themes of guilt, sin and redemption. What does work is the general atmosphere of creepiness, the sense of loss of control.

Adding to the sense of unease is the atonal string score by composing team of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. As Grace, Riley Keough continues to impress taking a role that may not be entirely sympathetic, and hey, Alicia Silverstone, nice to see you again, if briefly. Lia McHugh as Mia gives the older actresses competition with the most emotionally visceral performance.

January 14, 2020

The Good Fairy

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William Wyler - 1935
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Call me a sap, but I love that Universal Pictures opening logo with the airplane flying around the world. Some eighty-four years later, that image will probably strike contemporary viewers as quaint. That buzzing propellor plane might also provide some preparation for the imagined past world of The Good Fairy.

The story takes place in what was suppose to be contemporary Budapest, Hungary, yet connections to the real city are arbitrary. Signs may be in Hungarian or English, and the name of our heroine, Luisa Ginglebusher is more East Los Angles than Eastern European. Of an unstated age, and totally naive to the ways of the world, Luisa is plucked from an orphanage to work as an usherette at Budapest's largest movie theater. A digression here - there was a time when movie theaters, the single screen palaces of the past, employed people to guide them to their seats, carrying a flashlight so that patrons wouldn't stumble on each other in the dark. At this particular theater, the usherettes dress like brass band majorettes with shiny uniforms including tall military caps, capes and an wand shaped like an arrow that illuminates the direction. This is a world where would-be Lotharios hang out near the theater's back exit hoping to score a date with one of the available girls after work.

Luisa's promise upon exiting the orphanage is to do one good deed a day on behalf of someone, to act as their "good fairy". What Luisa's not prepared for is men who may possibly have less than honorable intentions, and her fib of telling these men that she's married has unintended consequences.

The film is very loosely based on a play by the Hungarian Ferenc Molnar. Preston Sturges' hand in the screenplay is more easily evident with the premise of a naive person putting themselves in a situation over their head, the nonsensical sounding names, and bits of slapstick tossed in. William Wyler's stylistic touches, which would be developed for fully in later films can be spotted in the used of several traveling shots and some limited use of deep focus. Between Sturges writing and re-writing the script in part due to constant battles with the Hays Office, and Wyler's almost constant battles with star Margaret Sullavan, The Good Fairy went five weeks past its allotted seven week shooting schedule, as well as over budget. Wyler and Sturges got kicked out of Universal, falling upwards with Wyler primarily making the first of his canonized films for Samuel Goldwyn, while Sturges wound up at Paramount, fulfilling his wish to direct his own screenplays five years later.

I have no idea if Wyler mentioned the idea of filming Dodsworth to Sturges, but that film in the theater where Luisa works is almost a parody. A woman, begging to return to her husband, is constantly refused with the single word, "no". Comically melodramatic, the scene almost anticipates Walter Huston telling Ruth Chatterton that he has had enough with her infidelities. I could well be missing some kind of vernacular expression, but the Hungarian title translates as "The Moon - Fools and Prologues".

Not as well remembered as several of her peers, the film was primarily made as a showcase for Margaret Sullavan. In a film career that last for ten years, Sullavan was a major star who may be remembered best for the trio of films she made with director Frank Borzage. One of the extras on the blu-ray is a trailer for The Good Fairy which indicates Sullavan's star status in the mid 1930s.

Full disclosure - I have had intermittent correspondence with film critic Simon Abrams, who provided the commentary track here. This is an exceedingly well researched commentary that has a couple of slight rough patches, but otherwise is very informative. Sources quoted include biographies of Wyler, Sturges, Sullavan and co-star Herbert Marshall, Molnar's play, and reviews of the film from the time of release. Abrams also finds time to discuss the film and staged remakes, as well as the complex relationships of Sullavan and her various lovers and husbands, including her volatile marriage to Wyler while The Good Fairy was in production.

While not as good as watching a mint 35mm nitrate print on the big screen, the film is beautifully rendered here. There is some hint of how visually magical The Good Fairy was in the final shot, an extreme close-up of the face of the the bride, a crowned and radiant Margaret Sullavan.