Sunday, June 29, 2014


1952, USA/Italy/Morocco/France, directed by Orson Welles

Othello is a tough play to love, even by the standards of Shakespeare's tragedies: there's a fascination in seeing unsympathetic characters collide, but it's hard to become entirely caught up in their self-absorption since it is, self-evidently, their own. That, for me, makes Othello himself a particular challenge: he sets himself apart from other men, and when things begin to go wrong for him, even through betrayal by an intimate, it's difficult to make the emotional journey toward sympathy. In some ways, Iago is easier to identify with since his feet are so manifestly of clay. Micheal MacLiammoir does wonders with what is a very difficult part, where he must convince the other characters that he possesses virtues that the audience knows quite well to be entirely lacking in his makeup. Even more dazzling is Welles's ability to maintain a unity of tone across the film's multi-year, peripatetic shoot: while the actors' appearances vary through weight loss/gain or changes in makeup, they appear able to seamlessly draw on the same performances, and Welles makes remarkable use of the various locations in support of his actors. One extended conversation between Othello and Iago gains immeasurably, for instance, for being shot in a single take as the two men walk slowly down an apparently endless set of battlements, while elsewhere the castle interiors taking on the brooding tone of a noir city, where one senses that loyalties can swiftly be exchanged for personal gain.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

L'Inconnu du lac

2013, France, directed by Alain Guiraudie

Formally fascinating, with Guiraidie filming at just a single location -- a lakeside cruising spot -- and using only natural sound. The action is pared down to a series of repeated interactions as each day blends into the next over the course of a week or so of summer, the passage of time marked mostly by the arrival and departure of cars and the greetings that punctuate each morning. The film is also a very personal meditation on gay sexuality on the part of the director, with Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) something of an avatar for Guiraudie, torn by his desire for another man despite his knowledge of that man's actions.

I'm not familiar with Guiraudie's past films -- the clips I've seen suggest a broad, even comic sensibility very much removed from the spare, controlled approach here -- but the evidence of L'Inconnu du lac suggests a director fully in control of his means, carefully orchestrating suspense by revealing just enough of his characters' motivations to create alarm in the viewer, while cleverly exploiting the semi-privacy of the apparently idyllic location so that we're uncertain of what might be hidden at any given moment. The finale departs from the apparent realism of the rest of the film, suggesting instead something of the force of a parable; I found it less satisfying as an outcome, although entirely in keeping with the actions of a character whose essential function is to represent danger, unlike the other more rounded and, in most ways, more interesting participants.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


1978, Australia, directed by Phillip Noyce

Newsfront feels like two films uneasily stitched together: a compelling portrait of the Australian newsreel teams of the postwar, pre-television era that is interspersed with a schematic set of domestic interactions that introduce moments of melodrama on a predictable schedule. The domestic dramas are sometimes used to provide some commentary on the broader social changes at work in Australian society (such as the challenges of reconciling Catholic values with new social mores, or the uneasy relationship with the United States), but on other occasions they feel trite and distracting from the real meat of the film. The most engaging moments are all related to the actual business of making the newsreels: Noyce intercuts actual footage with some remarkably well-staged recreations, particularly of the 1955 Maitland floods, but also, in a more light-hearted vein, the long-distance Redex motor trials or the coming of television, which surely must have been seen as a greater threat than the film suggests given that the Australian newsreel industry would have been well aware of the medium's impact in the US.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Goodbye Paradise

1983, Australia, directed by Carl Schultz

A terrific showcase for the wonderful Ray Barrett in a relatively rare lead role, Goodbye Paradise is also engaging as a tweaking of noir tropes. The film opens with Barrett in voiceover, sounding suitably world-weary as he casts his eye over Surfer's Paradise, on Australia'a Gold Coast. The genre elements are front and center in the early going: Barrett plays an alcoholic former cop trying to complete a book while fending off his landlady's financial demands, and spending his evenings in some of the town's more down at heel haunts (apart from its other virtues, the film must surely have some considerable value as a snapshot of its particular time and place). The almost genial initial tone gradually shifts as Barrett begins to sense something increasingly sinister at work behind the political scenes, with the film suggesting that the Gold Coast's seediness is grounded in something more profoundly rotten (rather characteristically for this period of Australian-New Zealand film, the nefarious threat emanates at least partly from the US).

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Glass Key

1942, US, directed by Stuart Heisler

A convoluted noir that frequently gets bogged down by excessive talkiness -- the rhythm is off, with neither the zip of the gangster movies of the 1930s nor the zing of the best noir dialogue (a zip that could often prompt the viewer to overlook the plot holes). One extended sequence, in which Alan Ladd tries to manipulate a thug played by William Bendix, is symptomatic: aside from the set-up being frankly incredible, there's no good reason for the scene to unspool at such length, and neither Ladd or Bendix does much of interest with their lines. Admittedly, Ladd isn't really my cup of tea to start with; his boss, played by Brian Donlevy, is much more fun to watch.

The Glass Key was another of the films banned by the Gold Coast censor in 1947, this time primarily because of the possible implication that "crime on a large scale pays handsomely and is in itself to be admired." There's certainly an element of truth to that, even if the film takes care to ensure that those responsible for the worst onscreen crimes are indeed brought to book; the attempts to ally political and backstreet muscle do escape prosecution, though since there was no democratic process in Gold Coast at the time, it's not clear whether this would have been a major source of concern for the censors. The sultry presence of Veronica Lake may have worried them rather more.

Pillow of Death

1945, US, directed by Wallace Fox

The final in a series of low-budget chillers, this isn't a bad illustration of what you could do when you had even the limited resources of a big studio behind you. Despite the film's B status, it has some excellent old dark house sets, and a few lovely mobile shots, particularly using the crane, which makes an appearance in just the second shot. A couple of shots later, there's a nice composition from below, immediately casting suspicion on one character -- the kind of atmosphere that the film milks quite capably for an hour before revealing its shock, though I couldn't help but think that the film gave its creepiest character a free pass.

Another of the films banned by the Gold Coast censor in 1946, Pillow of Death was condemned on the basis that "During the first five minutes of this film no less than six murders are committed. Elsewhere the film contains numerous scenes of horror and violence and also a good deal of matter very unsuitable for illiterate audiences." The description of the opening minutes is wholly inaccurate, since the entire film doesn't have six murders, and they are generally shown quite discreetly. It is possible that the censor was describing another film -- the censorship board commonly reviewed several films in a single evening, usually by watching only selected reels from each picture -- but also possible that the writer mis-remembered the film or chose to exaggerate the violence in the early going. The film contains scenes of spirit communication and the moving of a body, the kind of fare that the censor often assumed would be problematic for African audiences, and that may have counted more against the film than the body count.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Dark Waters

1944, US, directed by André de Toth

A Southern Gothic that's a good deal stronger on atmosphere than it is on plotting, with a Gaslight-esque storyline that is abandoned for a climax that is both compelling and somehow more conventional than the psychological confusion that has preceded it. de Toth extracts considerable spooky value from the shadows and heat of the bayou, as did Robert Siodmak the previous year in Son of Dracula, but Merle Oberon is a touch too helpless for my taste, while Franchot Tone's role is too blandly one-sided; much better is Thomas Mitchell, cast somewhat against type in a role that Sydney Greenstreet might also have enjoyed, while Elisha Cook Jr provides reliable nastiness entirely in keeping with his standard onscreen persona.

I'm including this in my Watching Movies in Africa project but it's yet another cheat -- like both And Then There Were None and Son of Dracula, the film was banned by the Gold Coast Board of Control in 1946 during a period when the censor was especially strict. It was condemned on the grounds that it was a horror film, though despite some superficial similarities of setting with Son of Dracula the description is inaccurate. The censor also took exception to "a series of close-ups showing the agonies of persons trapped in quicksands" (sic); accurate enough, though also a series of shots that could quite easily have been excised without the need to condemn the film as a whole.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


2004, US, directed by Ray McKinnon

A very affecting slice of Southern Gothic that manages to invoke many common images of the American south without ever belittling the setting; indeed, as much as several of the characters are spectacularly unpleasant there's a frankly celebratory aspect to the film, too, particularly with regard to landscape and some of the region's small pleasures (music on a porch, a catfish fry). There's a little too much going on at times -- one subsidiary plotline seems awkwardly shoehorned in and adds little to the main narrative, as though it was pared back late in the day -- but for the most part, Chrystal works as a fine and sometimes blackly funny bit of authentically regional cinema, the kind of thing that is inevitably produced outside the Hollywood circuit these days.


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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