Monday, September 28, 2015


1942, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

One of the few films available from the time period (1940-1943), during which new Hollywood arrival Siodmak was pegged as something of a comedy hand before he was unleashed on the more familiar noir material. It's a rather enjoyable genre mishmash that seems to me quite characteristic of its time -- and which Siodmak proved to be good with (see: Son of Dracula but also, in terms of wild mishmash, Among the Living). While I don't love the screwball elements there are some effective darker scenes and the whole thing moves along with quite astonishing brio despite the stranger aspects of the plot. I often think there's a good deal of overlap between these 40s programmers and serial films -- all kinds of plot strangeness of a kind that might not seem quite so odd spaced out over several weeks.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Cry of the City

1948, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

This would make a great double bill with Anthony Mann's Side Street as another example of the use of urban locations as characters in their own right, although it can be quite hard to discern which are genuine New York locations and which are artful studio backdrops (in part a testament to the technical skill on display). Richard Conte is a hoodlum battling it out with cop, and fellow Italian-American, Victor Mature (the usual two sides of the same coin, grew up in the same neighborhood stuff though thankfully with no sentimental priests in sight). The focus on immigrant life is distinctive for this period -- quite a bit of Italian spoken in certain scenes, and a sense of the tension between different moralities and ways of dealing with the police is nicely drawn. The gathering storm is, as you might expect with Siodmak, expertly orchestrated and there's the usual smattering of fine compositions (though some of the camera movements caught my eye more than the light/shadow effects on this occasion). Intriguing support, too, as so often with the rich array of talent on the studio payroll: the imposing Hope Emerson as an unusual female hood (she has one especially terrific scene with Conte) and Shelley Winters in a very small role just around the time of her big break. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Behind Locked Doors

1948, US, directed by Oscar (Budd) Boetticher

A Budd Boetticher from the pre-Budd period. An efficient 60-minute programmer, with an absurd plot (not in the Strange Impersonation sense but rather with respect to the rapidity with which the lead character is able to assemble information: he's a private dick in league with a journalist and goes undercover as a mental patient to uncover a hitherto unassailable secret) and some extremely effective and atmospheric staging. In other words, a pretty perfect example of the genre. It wouldn't take the most skilled of clairvoyants to predict the finale, but several of the shots and the use of light/shadow are striking. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

L'Ibis rouge

1975, France, directed by Jean-Pierre Mocky

A film I'd seen once before twenty years ago, before I appreciated the position Mocky occupied in the French comic firmament. While he was well-known for his acid take on French society (and, especially, French political life) early on, that tendency really accelerated in the 1970s and L'Ibis rouge is a fine example of his style from that period. The strain of almost aggressively absurdist humour was very prevalent in the immediate post-1968 era -- Mocky, Blier, the various performers associated with the café-théâtre and/or the comic-book world. As humorous world-views go, Mocky's is pretty bleak stuff -- as much as there were moments of high comedy here and there the ending is pretty downbeat, to say the least. Also characteristic are the moments of visual humour, particularly the splashes of colour in the form of the yellow-clad cyclists or the red-tracksuited men. There's a bit of a kitchen-sink feel to his humour on occasion, a scattershot approach that's both deliberate and perfectly willing to miss the target for some viewers some of the time (that, too, is very much a hallmark of the French comic tradition of the 1970s, including in the print sphere). 

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Provincial Actors

1979, Poland, directed by Agnieszka Holland (original title: Aktorzy prowincjonaln)

It has been a very long time since I've watched anything from Poland, but not for the first time I was struck by the way in which a number of Polish directors were able to make interesting, even pointed films in apparently unpromising circumstances in the 1970s and 1980s. There's a strong, and welcome, female perspective at work here -- a male director might have pushed the theatrical satire further but left to one side the exploration of how the lead actor's problems on stage and at home were part of a continuum, and I found the character of the lead actor's wife to be quite fascinating in her own attempts to navigate a world of power (in multiple senses). Her journey is also very affecting on the emotional level. The debates between actors and other theatre personnel were deeply compelling for the sense in which they must surely have mirrored the processes of daily life in Poland for the people employed on the film. 

Monday, September 07, 2015

Pather Panchali

1955, India, directed by Satyajit Ray

A big-screen outing for the brand-new restoration of a film I'd only ever seen on TV, this was hugely compelling. It's quite extraordinary how skillful and resourceful Ray already was as a filmmaker, whether in individual shots -- a dolly into a face to emphasize a point, for instance -- or entire sequences, such as that opened and closed by the auntie rocking the infant Apu, or the multiple scenes intercutting parallel action (the children off in search of a train while the mother and auntie interacted, among other examples). Given the shared importance of Italian neo-realism in their development, it was hard not to think of early Sembène, although they are of course very different filmmakers: as much as both were quite consciously creating an alternative to commercial cinema, Sembène was a good deal more uncompromising in that regard, and while he was a very sophisticated filmmaker in terms of his editing and symbolic techniques, from the earliest days, I'm more reserved as to his skill with the camera -- indeed, even quite late in his career I thought he made rather poor use of things like the zoom. Of course, since silky camera movement, for instance, tended to imply commercial filmmaking perhaps this was a more conscious rejection than I give Sembène credit for -- and that's where personal taste also comes in.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Mr. Holmes

2015, UK/US, directed by Bill Condon

I quite liked Bill Condon's Of Gods and Monsters when it came out, given the Old Hollywood subject material, although it's not a challenging film -- and this is really more of the same, except less fresh and even less complicated despite some narrative intercutting in the early going. It's been a while since I saw a film with less visual interest, even accounting for the attractive shots of summery southern England. 

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Side Street

1950, US, directed by Anthony Mann

I'm not sure how I hadn't "discovered" (relatively) early Anthony Mann previously, especially given my interest in both the cinematic time period and in other directors with a similar interest in visual texture, like Robert Siodmak. The film itself is something of a mixed bag but when it's good it's very, very good, most obviously on the visual and location-shooting levels. With respect to the latter, you can certainly see the skill-set put to such good use in the Westerns later in the 1950s, while I was also much amused by David Bordwell's comment that Mann never saw a ceiling he didn't like. The director uses the same angles outdoors too, so you get the Empire State building looming up behind the characters just as you see a tin ceiling do the same thing in a bar. The final chase scene is quite eye-popping -- interesting, given later films like The French Connection, that the elevated train lines are used at times as a prop/hazard, although that particular line is long gone. My favourite shot, with many to choose from, was from a high overhead perspective with a tiny car disappearing into the concrete canyons (very covered-wagon-in-Utah). 


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States