June 08, 2021

Cartouche

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Philippe de Broca - 1962
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I had seen Cartouche twice previously, but also decided to revisit some other films by de Broca made around the same time. A small sequence that particularly struck me is when Cartouche, dodging the law in Paris, joins the army. The film takes place during the early 18th Century period in France known as the Regence. Cartouche and his two friends are caught in a battle, hiding from the the slaughter, and being declared heroes after staggering back to the fort. The reward for the men's supposed gallantry is to be on the front line of the next battle. The battle scene and the treatment of the soldiers portray the absurdity of war, and anticipate de Broca's best known film, King of Hearts.

Cartouche was inspired by the real life highwayman, Louis Dominique Garthausen, also known as Cartouche. As played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, Cartouche is introduced as a very talented pickpocket. The various criminals of Paris are under the control of Malichot, who takes most of the loot for himself. Returning from the army, after stealing the army cashbox, Cartouche takes on Malichot. The underworld gang is transformed into an army that shares the ill-gotten gains, but also has a code of honor of only stealing from the rich. In the course of his adventures, Cartouche rescues Venus, a young woman arrested for the theft of a silk kerchief.

One of de Broca's other themes, also in other films, is the question of spiritual loss with material gain. Cartouche has wealth and the adoration of Venus. In spite of declaring himself married to Venus, Cartouche is seen flirting with another woman. His seduction of an aristocrat's wife almost brings about his end. For some of the men in de Broca's films, it takes the loss of everything to recognize the value of what they have.

Cartouche was the first of five films de Broca made with Jean-Paul Belmondo. Each film was a comic adventure pairing the star with a top actress. This may well be the best of the five in part because of it being a period film, unlike the other four which were in contemporary settings, with certain aspects aging badly. Cartouche set the pace for Belmondo not only doing very physically demanding slapstick comedy, but also horse riding, sword fighting, shooting and assorted fisticuffs. Claudia Cardinale has the star-making role as Venus, whose biggest weapon may be her broad smile flashing both rows of teeth. While Cardinale is mainly associated with Italian films, French is her first language, so I am assuming that is her voice on the soundtrack.

The blu-ray comes with a documentary on de Broca that alternates between wife Alexandra de Broca and French journalist Thomas Morales. Mme. de Broca discusses how Cartouche came about when plans to film a new version of The Three Musketeers were cancelled, and how the film was a leap for the the still relatively new director. Morales makes the point of positioning de Broca as a link between the Nouvelle Vague and the more classic style of filmmaking. I do think his dismissal of Claudia Cardinale as a serious actress is nonsensical in light of her work with Fellini, Visconti, among others. One of the more interesting points in Simon Abrams' commentary is how the reception for Cartouche in the U.S. was muted by its belated release following The Man from Rio (1964) by one month, with critics expecting another totally comic film.

Georges Delerue's music for Cartouche quite appropriately evokes music of the era, Handel comes to mind. There is one scene when Cartouche is waiting for an expected liaison with the aristocrat's wife, the woman he flirts with at the beginning of the film. The music struck me as an initial attempt at what would be more fully developed as the romantic theme for Godard's Contempt.

June 03, 2021

The Woman One Longs For

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Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt / Three Loves
Kurt Bernhardt - 1929
Kino Classics BD Region A

The emphasis on the blu-ray release of The Woman One Longs For is that it is a German silent film starring Marlene Dietrich made prior to her "discovery" by Josef von Sternberg. Dietrich does play the titular character, though her actual billing is below that of top-billed Fritz Kortner. Dietrich is not exactly a femme fatale here, although knowing her proves to be the undoing of two men in this story. While Dietrich has yet to be molded into the glamorous icon as established in the von Sternberg films, it is the artistry of the filmmaking that caught me off guard.

The source novel is from Max Brod, a name more familiar as the friend and biographer of Franz Kafka. The son of an industrialist, Henri, goes on a honeymoon trip by train with his wife, Angela. Henry spots Stascha looking out through the frosted window of the train he and his wife are about to board. Stascha is accompanied by an older man, heavy, with a monocle. Later on the train, Stascha implores Henri to help her as she says she is traveling with the man against her will. Henri ditches his wife to follow Stascha and the man identified as Mr. Karoff to the Grand Hotel. Bernhardt and screenwriter Ladislaus Vajda had sense enough not to pad out the film which runs at a tidy 77 minutes.

I admittedly have only seen a handful of films directed by the future Curtis Bernhardt, as he was renamed moving from Germany to Hollywood. My own initial impression of Bernhardt was that of a second-stringer, the guy Jack Warner tapped for the "women's pictures" when Michael Curtiz and Anatole Litvak were to busy, or the project was less than prestigious. There is precious little written about Bernhardt that makes it easy to dismiss him as primarily a journeyman director. It was actually an online piece on Conrad Veidt by Fiona Watson that suggested Bernhardt has another filmmaker in need of further research. Watson has written about The Man who was Murdered, and Bernhardt's use of tracking shots and dissolves. Further searching took me to a Bright Lights essay by Marc Svetov grouping Bernhardt with Robert Siodmak and Max Ophuls work in the early 1930s in Germany and France. It would appear that Curtis Bernhardt's pre-Hollywood work needs to be better known.

There is a traveling shot near the beginning, inside a cafe, that traverses the length of the cafe and back. Within the sequences that take place on the train are a couple of shots going either forward or back through the corridor of a train car. The scene taking place in the hotel on New Year's Eve begins with the close-up of a giant clock, that backing decoration for the house band, with an extended tracking shot away from the clock to reveal the celebrants in the ballroom. Bernhardt may have also been under the influence of Eisenstein with the use of quick cutting montage. A series of shots establishing a steel factory could well have been taken from Soviet propaganda, with the parts of the plant seen as a series of almost abstract images. The fist fight between Henry and Karoff is a succession of quick close- ups - a slap to the jaw, a monocle dropping to the floor, fists against chests, fists against jaws, and some tentative grappling. Dietrich is first introduced visually in the frame of the train window within the camera frame.

In her commentary track, Gaylyn Studlar points out that Marlene Dietrich was not quite a star at the time of production. She was chosen over studio objections by Bernhardt following a series of supporting roles in films made earlier in the decade. Stardom was still not quite in the grasp of the 28 year old actress, even with prominent roles here and under the direction of Maurice Tourneur. Studlar goes deepest in discussing the career of Fritz Kortner, as well as touching on the careers of Bernhardt in Hollywood, and cinematographer Curt Courant. The blu-ray also includes a score by jazz/classical musician Pascal Schumacher showing the influence of the composers of the 1920s. The blu-ray is sourced from a print restored in 2012 by the F. W. Murnau Foundation. I usually refrain from hyperbole, but The Woman One Longs For could well be one of the best classic releases of this year.

June 01, 2021

The Green Man

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Robert Day - 1956
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Often critical and commercial successes at the time of release, I sometimes take a look at British comedies from the 1950s up to the period before A Hard Day's Night and "Swinging London", and wonder what the fuss was about. What seemed funny at the time of production might evoke a small chuckle but most likely falls flat. The exception would be those comedies from the production/writing team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. As a team, they may be best known for the series of St. Trinian's films, about anarchic school girls running amuck, with Alastair Sim as both the headmistress and her twin brother in the first of those films. Sim would star in several films from Launder and Gilliat. The Green Man had directorial duties handed over to Robert Day and an uncredited Basil Dearden, but still has more in common with the other films of the production team.

Sim appears here as a paid assassin, Hawkins, known for his bomb making skills. His plot to murder the statesman, Sir Gregory, is interrupted initially by the secretary who suspects that her would-be fiance may be up to no good. This is followed by an ernest door-to-door salesman. William Blake (yes, really) who shows up at the wrong house, getting that home's owner, Ann, involved. What follow is a comedy of errors that involves Hawkins trying to hide his activities, and his inept assistant trying to hide a dead body. There is frenetic activity with several people running between the two houses and up and down staircases, followed by a clue that leads Blake and Ann to an out of the way seaside inn called The Green Man.

What I think makes the difference is that Launder and Gilliat do not simply put their characters into funny situations, but there is a sympathy for their respective foibles. Even in an extreme case like Hawkins, Launder and Gilliat delight in characters that upend the social order. Hawkins makes a point of only assassinating the bullies on the world stage, dictators and self-serving captains of industry. Even the minor characters are affectionately presented, including a chamber trio of middle-aged women who energetically attack Brahms' "Hungarian Dance", and Sir Gregory's secretary, nervous about what's suppose to be a secret rendezvous with her boss. Although prominently billed, Terry-Thomas appears when the action shifts to the Green Man. T-T has been having an affair with the hotel desk clerk. And while it really has nothing to do with the main narrative, it is that inimitable enunciation and cheerful shamelessness, prime T-T, that adds to the humor. Even British life gets a couple poking with jokes at the expense of the BBC and what passes for British cuisine.

David Del Valle's commentary primarily stresses the career of Alastair Sims and Sims' work with Launder and Gilliat. There is also a brief overview of British cinema in the 1950s, especially the comedies of the time. Del Valle also explains the somewhat convoluted history of how Robert Day, previously a cinematographer, made his directorial debut under the supervision of Basil Dearden. While Day had a prolific career in film and television, very little has been of critical note. Basil Dearden has had the more noteworthy filmography, but his own comedies are more low-key. In a roundabout way, The Green Man is revisited in Dearden's penultimate The Assassination Bureau.

May 25, 2021

Night of the Following Day

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Hubert Cornfield - 1969
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

There is a key scene in Night of the Following Day that remarkably goes against most conventional idea of how such a scene should be filmed. Marlon Brando, one of the quartet of kidnappers, sees the plans falling apart when his girlfriend, played by Rita Moreno, fails to pick him and Moreno's brother (Jess Hahn) at a small airport. Brando is telling Hahn that he wants out of the operation. Most of the time, the camera is focused on Brando. There are some reaction shots of Hahn in close-up, but most of the time time his back is to the camera. The scene appears to have been largely improvised. Brando is wearing a tight, black t-shirt and is becoming increasingly unhinged at the likeliness of the getting caught. Brando works himself into a frenzy that it is almost a surprise that he does not break and yell, "Hey, Stellaaaah!". As it turned out, this is the one scene that Hubert Cornfield did not direct, turning the reigns temporarily over to Richard Boone at Brando's request.

The film is full of relatively long takes. The opening shot is a close-up of Pamela Franklin's face while she is sleeping on a plane. Another shot is from the back of a Rolls-Royce while it is driving through the rain. There is a thematic logic to the use of these observational shots. Parts of the narrative depend on characters misunderstanding of what they see. Even the main location, a rented house by the beach in what is clearly off season, is indication that the kidnappers have hit a physical dead end, anticipating that they will probably not escape from their crime or from each other.

The film was adapted from the crime novel, The Snatchers, by Lionel White. As related by Cornfield, Stanley Kubrick had considered making the film, but chose Clean Break, the basis for his film, The Killing, instead. The main concern, Hollywood's taboo regarding depictions of kidnappings, especially of a child, kept The Snatchers from being fimed in the Fifties. Cornfield also changed the kidnapping victim's age, making her a 17 year old young woman, There are similarities with both stories centered on a group of small timers, working with a more professional criminal in charge, in over their heads in an attempt to do the proverbial "last job" with the big payout. Leer, the hired professional who takes over the kidnapping, as played by Richard Boone, starts off as paternal towards the unnamed kidnapped girl before becoming more menacing, revealing his own agenda. Cornfield remains a relatively obscure filmmaker with most of his work not easily available. The majority of his films have been crime thrillers. Aside from Night of the Following Day, Cornfield's best known film may be the Stanley Kramer produced Pressure Point, about the confrontation between a black psychiatrist and a white Nazi, released in 1962. Like Night, the characters are never formally named in the credits. It is only through conversation that Brando's character is also known as Bud, Moreno is Vi, and Jess Hahn is Wally. The film indirectly is self-referential in that Wally was the chief organizer of the kidnapping, only to see himself lose control, just as Hubert Cornfield almost lost control of his film.

The blu-ray comes with two commentary tracks. Hubert Cornfield required a voice box for his track recorded in 2005 for the DVD release, just a year before he died. He tells of being charmed by Brando when they meet, only to have a volatile relationship during the actual filming. Cornfield discusses how he had to work around Brando in order to get what the director wanted as well as specifically pointing out the scene where he acquiesced to the demands of his star. Praise is given to the rest of the cast, especially Moreno. Night was Moreno's first film since the low budget Cry of Battle, a 1963 World War II film. Cornfield also reveals problems with cinematographer Willy Kurant that occurred on locations both in Paris and at the Normandy beach. Tim Lucas provides a new commentary track that covers the careers of the cast and crew, touching on the autobiographies by Brando and Moreno. Add to that are reviews of the film from the time of release as well as news items from the time of production. Lucas also points out the differences between the film and White's novel. Even though her role as the kidnapped victim is virtually a MacGuffin in the way that Night plays out, Lucas pays tribute to Pamela Franklin and her brief career.

May 19, 2021

Two Lottery Tickets

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Doua lozuri
Paul Negoescu - 2016
Dekanalog Releasing

Two Lottery Tickets is the story of three friends in search of a misplaced winning lottery ticket. Most of the story takes place in a small town just far enough away from Bucharest. It appears to have been primarily an industrial town now with unused, rusted out factories. The three friends are just as forlorn, a car mechanic, a carpenter and a government functionary, men in their forties who get together in a small roadside bar to share complaints about life. Between the three of them, they guess the winning numbers for the six million Euro prize.

Thinking that the ticket was left in a fanny pack taken by a couple of punks outside the apartment of the mechanic, there is an apartment to apartment search for the culprits. Among the neighbors are some young stoners who share the unsuspecting trio some hash brownies, a family of fake clairvoyants, and a couple of sweet natured prostitutes. Ultimately a road trip is required taking the three to Bucharest and back in search of the fanny pack and the ticket.

This is a low-keyed comedy of observation, watching mature men who often display the critical thinking skills of young teenagers. As might be anticipated, the three are the type of guys who just can not keep themselves from screwing up. Their collective naivety is both a curse and salvation. There is also some gentle skewering of Romanian cinema as represented by by Cristi Paiu and Cristian Mungiu. Two Lottery Tickets was a popular success in Romania, attributed to it being a relatable, audience friendly comedy.

Some English speaking viewers may be put off slightly by the fanny pack referred to by the British slang "bum bag". The film would also have benefitted from offering subtitles to the guitar driven songs by Flora Pop that would presumably have provided some extra commentary on the characters.

Two Lottery Tickets will have a limited theatrical release simultaneous with a virtual cinema release, beginning Friday.

May 10, 2021

Lights of Old Broadway

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Monta Bell - 1925
Kino Classics BD Region A

Even with the acclaim brought to Amanda Seyfried for her performance in Mark, I am not aware of any rise in interest in the real life or films of Marion Davies. My own initial attitude was colored by assumptions formed from Citizen Kane. This changed when I had the opportunity to see Show People and Going Hollywood at the Museum of Modern Art in the mid 1970s. At this time, only a handful of films are available to stream, with a few available on disc.

Lights of Old Broadway is more representative of the kind of films preferred by William Randolph Hearst, rather than those films that showcased Ms. Davies' talent for comedy. During her silent period, Davies showed herself adept at take pratfalls with the best of the silent clowns, something "Fatty" Arbuckle understood when directing Davies in The Red Mill. One of the funnier bits in Show People is Davies mimicking the facial expressions of Gloria Swanson. Davies benefitted from the addition of sound as a boisterous girl who was one of the guys. A top star for over a decade, in Blondie of the Follies, Davies both paid tribute to her own beginnings as a chorus girl and impersonates Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel under the direction of Edmund Goulding, whose previous film was . . . Grand Hotel. Based on what I have been able to see, the more typical vehicles for Davies emphasized sentimentality and triumph over adversity. Lights of Old Broadway does allow for Davies to show off her talent for knockabout comedy in a couple of early scenes including getting butted by a goat.

The bulk of the film takes place in 1880, prior to the first use of electric street lights in New York City. Lights of Old Broadway begins with an interesting premise of twin baby girls separated and adopted by two different parents, the wealthy De Rhondes and the Irish immigrant O'Tandys. For some reason or maybe no reason, nobody bothers to tell Anne De Rhonde or Fely O'Tandy that they were orphaned twins. Banker Lambert De Rhonde is trying to evict Shamus O'Tandy from his shack on 5th Avenue and 69th Street, a stretch of Manhattan that resembles part of California. Meanwhile, Lambert's son, Dirk, goes to the theater where performer Fely catches his eye. The story proceeds not only with the expected class conflicts, but also ethnic prejudice towards Irish immigrants. At one point, Anne and Fely finally meet, and while they express a sense of unexplained connection with each other, everyone else is oblivious to their physical resemblance, save for different colored hair. Added to this story are a couple of brief appearances by actors playing a very young Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Edison for no discernible reason.

The blu-ray benefits greatly from the commentary track by film historian Anthony Slide. The blu-ray is sourced from the Library of Congress print with a new score composed by Robert Israel. Slide is objective enough to acknowledge the weaknesses of the narrative aspects of Lights of New York, placing the film's importance more as part of Marion Davies' overall career. Very useful for contemporary viewers is pointing the historical context of several of the characters, as well as some history of Irish immigrants in the 19th Century. There are also the brief overviews of several of the cast members and crew. Monta Bell is known, if at all, mostly in being briefly mentioned by Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema as potentially being misgendered. Bell's career as a director is notable for directing Torrent, Greta Garbo's first Hollywood film. Slide suggests that Bell's greatest contribution would he his time as an executive for Paramount during the early sound era with films produced from the Astoria studio in New York.

Lights of New York has scenes that are tinted monochrome, but also use two other coloring processes. A scene at stage show used two-strip Technicolor, that is red and green. When 14th Street is illuminated by electric lights, the Handschiegl process, a more elaborate hand coloring, is used. Slide identifies and explains the use of color.

What Slide does not confirm is what I thought I saw right at the one hour mark of the blu-ray. Davies has offered a hat pin as the needed piece of wire needed for an electronic generator. Alone in the room, curiosity takes over and she touches the generator, resulting in an electric shock. This may be one of those moments when silence is golden, or maybe I should question my skills at lip reading, but I am positive that this is the one moment preserved on film where Marion Davies drops the F-bomb.

May 04, 2021

The Hot Spot

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Dennis Hopper - 1990
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

There was a time in the early to mid 1960s that Dennis Hopper developed himself as a serious photographer. His eye for composition is strongly evident in The Hot Spot throughout that film. Added to that is the use of colored gels and filters, the work of cinematographer Ueli Steiger. The opening shots of of the Texas landscape, brush and desert, filmed with a red filter, could well be Mars until we see a black 1957 Studebaker rolling down the highway. When not using colored filters, the daytime shots have the richness of color found in a vintage Kodachrome. The nighttime shots often use red or blue filtered lighting. Significantly at the end, when the three main characters no longer have secrets from each other that the light appears natural.

Many of the shots involve people seen behind windows or bars, as well as reflections of windows. The car lot where much of the film takes place has two small offices that have floor to ceiling glass. Hopper places his characters so that they are unified within the space of the camera frame, but separated by glass or metal barriers. Hopper could well have been influenced by Nicholas Ray's Rebel without a Cause, in particular the shot in which the characters of Jim, Judy and Plato are seen through windows of three different offices, all within the CinemaScope frame. The restriction of space is echoed by having several key scenes taking place within walking distance of the car lot. (While Hopper is not in the scene described in Rebel, his relationship with Ray extended long after the 19 year old actor's film debut.)

The film is based on the 1960 pulp novel by Charles Williams, Hell Hath No Fury. Williams wrote the screenplay with Nona Tyson in 1961 with the intention of having Robert Mitchum in the starring role. The film was made fifteen years after Williams' death. The novel is out of print in English, but a good vintage copy of the original paperback costs about $1000. That original title gives some vague idea of the story. Harry Madox shows up in a small Texas town, the kind where the main business area is a single street that spans a few blocks. Catching a failed sale at a used car lot, Madox steps in and makes the sale before the customer walks away. Hired on the spot, Madox has his eye on Gloria, the car lot's bookkeeper. Not too long after, Dolly, the wife of the car lot owner, George Harshaw, has her eye on Madox. What follows includes robbery, adultery, blackmail and murder.

Even though the film takes place at the then present time of 1990, the character of Dolly is a throwback to vintage film noir. Virginia Madsen's Dolly is a combination of curly blonde hair, form fitting outfits, and stretched out legs. In the supplementary interview, Madsen mentions that she wore an ankle bracelet as homage to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. While the only information about Dolly's past is that she was from another small town, that her bedroom resembles a well-appointed bordello might be all we need to know. Madsen as Dolly is first seen driving into the frame, not quite a close-up, red lips and red dress, and a classic pink Cadillac with fins - sex on wheels.

Madsen, with Don Johnson as Madox and a toothy young Jennifer Connelly as Gloria, make for a very photogenic trio. Even more so now, The Hot Spot seems like an outlier as a mainstream Hollywood film in its depiction of sex. There are a few moments when body doubles are used, but otherwise there is the kind of nudity that was more common during the first decade when the old production code went down. Hopper employees at least a couple of visual signifiers as in the use of a gun in Dolly's hand, a a shot of a knife in an open watermelon. One could almost call this film, "Last Tango in Texas".

The Harshaw home is filled with stuffed animals, hunted by George. In the film, the roles of hunter and prey shift, almost everyone is a predator. There is also a marlin on display in George's office. Along with the fin tailed cars of Dolly and Madox, the fishing symbolism is hard to miss.

Not as pretty as the stars, but still fun to watch are the assorted character actors in the supporting cast. Charles Martin Smith is the other used car salesman, not quite big enough for his ever present cowboy hat. Jack Nance is the guileless bank manager who inadvertently helps set up a future robbery. William Sadler's good old boy persona is his disguise as a blackmailer, living in a remote shack. In the blu-ray's other supplement, Sadler tells of how the shack was an existing abandoned home that was changed slightly for the film.

Bryan Reesman's commentary is generally informative, but could benefit from not being so rushed. What is best was the comparison between the novel and the film, as well as how Hopper got hold of the script by Williams and Tyson, rather than shooting an updated script as originally planned. Hopper did some uncredited tinkering that mark some updating, such as scenes in a strip club, as well as the aforementioned scenes that could not have been filmed in 1961. While Don Johnson does not have the same kind of screen presence as Robert Mitchum, as a film noir character he might be more aptly comparable to Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley, whose handsome exterior hides his amorality.

The tag line for The Hot Spot claims, "Film noir like you've never seen." Back in 1962, you could see Robert Mitchum beat up Polly Bergen, but not go down on her, even implied. It is an interesting reference in that the term film noir had traveled from something known primarily to cinephiles and scholars to being part of the more general lexicon. But The Hot Spot as noir or neo-noir strikes me as an updated version of the kind of films historian Sara Imogen Smith analyzes in her book, Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City. And the town where The Hot Spot takes place is strangely depopulated throughout most of the film. And while Ms. Smith was not specifically referring to Hopper's film, what she has written could well apply to how it ends -
Noir consistently undermines the American love affair with the road and the belief that travel equals freedom - that you can always get a new start in a different place. In noir, no place is pure, and there's no refuge to be found in unspoiled wilderness or small-town innocence. The notion that you can never get away from yourself runs through many of these films, so the final location I discuss is the mind.