Thursday, December 04, 2014

He Walked By Night


1948, US, directed by Alfred L. Werker (and Anthony Mann, uncredited)

A fine procedural, in that 1940s docu-fiction mode that came complete with narrator, although the staging by Werker, Mann and cinematographer John Alton is more than strong enough to stand on its own, especially the atmospheric sequences in unusual, semi-desolate Los Angeles locations. The minutiae of the police investigation is fascinating and conveyed very crisply: Jack Webb has an especially nice part as the key tech man, but the scenes of interrogation also have a brisk rhythm that still allows time for the minor performers to sparkle. There's no mystery to the identity of the criminal: we spend a great deal of time in his company, with the tension coming instead from the gradually closing net. The template was, of course, carefully followed by television in the 1950s, including Webb's Dragnet, but it's also the skeleton for big-budget fare like The Day of the Jackal a quarter-century later.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Un Singe en hiver


1962, France, directed by Henri Verneuil

A meeting-of-the-generations picture, the only time that Gabin appeared with Belmondo, the most iconic actor of the New Wave, and their distinctly different styles work very well here: Gabin's mostly disciplined technique -- there's a good deal to Farran Smith Nehme's comment that Gabin lets the action come to him, both in the film she's discussing and in his broader career -- contrasts with Belmondo's bundle of nervous energy, although one of the film's great pleasures is the way that the two quite different actors move toward the centre as their characters develop an unlikely friendship. The pair seem to have an entirely unforced camaraderie onscreen, though Belmondo suggested in an interview that Gabin barely spoke to him when he wasn't delivering a line; the magic of the movies, indeed. Verneuil is not an especially innovative director, but he did have a fine sense of how long to allow a scene to play out, and the set pieces are especially well-calibrated -- drunken antics can easily become tiresome, whether onscreen or off, and Verneuil knows just when to cut away to the next scene while still indulging our desire to see the actors play broad strokes. After the fun, the ending is surprisingly poignant -- something of a rueful hangover and yet invested with a great deal of affection.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Cars


2006, US, directed by John Lasseter

I've seen the beginning of this a half dozen times with my older son -- and heard the beginning another half dozen times while driving -- so it was mostly just a relief to find out where the story went. As with most Pixar films, I find the artistry extraordinary but the overall effect so calculated that it leaves me a little cold.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Le Chat


1971, France, directed by Pierre Granier-Deferre

A brutal film that has virtually no violence -- though animal lovers should beware -- as Gabin and Signoret embody the daily realities of a marriage that has long-since collapsed into a horrible kind of co-dependent enmity. At one point, Gabin flicks a folded-up piece of paper at Signoret in lieu of more civilized communication, but it feels as though he has delivered a slap. Both actors are in fine form, navigating a horrible kind of waltz around each other, both within the home that seems increasingly small and on the streets of the compact neighborhood where they can't help but cross paths. The neighborhood, on the western fringes of Paris, functions as an effective metaphor for the collapsing relationship: the film was made right at the time when entire quartiers were being razed to make room for the edifices of La Défense, and the background construction creates a maddening modernist soundtrack.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

L'Année sainte


1976, US, directed by Jean Girault

This is a contribution to the fifth annual Late Show blogathon, hosted, as ever, by David Cairns at Shadowplay.

The final card in many careers is a dispiriting one: there really aren't that many people who go out on a genuine high, and Jean Girault's lightweight comic fable about two escaped prisoners disguised as members of the clergy was never likely to restore Gabin to the glories of old. In truth, the actor seemed to have been playing out the string for more than a decade by the time the end came. The 1970 Simenon adaptation Le Chat, starring opposite Simone Signoret, was one of his best postwar films, as Gabin himself recognized, but it's a rare highlight for the period after 1963, which marked the close of the second great phase of his career (perhaps not quite as glorious as the pre-war phase, but fine nonetheless, with even the lesser films brisk and well-constructed and with Gabin still magnetic despite the advance of middle age).


The saddest thing about L'Année sainte is how diminished everything seems. Gabin had been convincing in roles far beyond his years since at least the early 1960s where the role called for it -- he's quite brilliant as the apparently retired politician of Le Président, for instance -- but here he is very visibly decrepit himself. The sequence where the camera lingers on him as he struggles with a a set of stairs would seem almost cruel if had been shot by a more skilled director, whereas in Girault's case I suspect that it just didn't occur to him to do anything more creative.

Gabin was never an especially vain actor onscreen -- he makes no attempt to conceal his jowled face or his ample belly in something like Un Singe en hiver, playing opposite Belmondo in his absolute prime -- but the passage of time never seemed like a distraction in such roles, and in many films he projected a continued energy that belied his chronological age, with the decisive, overbearing farmer of La Horse perhaps the exemplar in terms of his later career, although he shows quite the turn of speed in Un Singe en hiver when running from exploding fireworks.

But Gabin is only a symptom of the larger malaise, in which the overall cheapness of the enterprise is revealed by the frequent shots of an airplane with obviously different logos depending on whether it is shown in flight (in the livery of the fictional Air Italia) or taking off (when it's interchangeably a Pan Am 'plane and a KLM airliner). Such technicalities wouldn't seem so significant except that they are so glaring, as if to signal that the filmmakers have virtually nothing invested in their product.

The same is true of the appearance of the glorious Danielle Darrieux. There's no real reason for her character to exist since she barely contributes to the plotline, but once the filmmakers invent her they barely trouble themselves actually do anything meaningful with the actress, one brief, nostalgic scene between Gabin and Darrieux perhaps excepted.

As with half a dozen of his later films, Gabin shares the lead with a much younger actor, on this case Jean-Claude Brialy, although unlike Gabin's film with Belmondo or the several pictures he made with Alain Delon, Brialy is mostly called on to react to Gabin rather than to do much of interest himself. It was hardly the most glorious of decades for Brialy, either: he made very few films during the 1970s, after a great run from the late 1950s through the end of the subsequent decade, and this is at best a forgettable entry in his filmography, though the line where Gabin summarily rejects a third cellmate on the basis that he's gay acquires a certain frisson from the knowledge that Brialy was comfortably out far earlier than many actors.


It's tempting to read a greater degree of meaning into some of the other lines, too, particularly Darrieux's comments about having known Gabin's character in his pre-war glory, while there are perhaps allusions to Gabin's mortality -- nothing too surprising, given that he had suffered from health issues for several years, and indeed hadn't made a film for a couple of years by the time this opportunity came along. If the film doesn't mark a glorious ending to Gabin's career, it does at least have an amusing finale, and Gabin gets to deliver the payoff line with a flash of the old energy that made him so compelling across four decades.

Incidentally, Jean Girault has his own Late Films story, as something of a career-ending specialist: he died during the filming of Le Gendarme et les gendarmettes, the fifth and final entry in that series of astonishingly popular films that starred Louis de Funès, which also became de Funès's last picture since the actor died a few months later. De Funès marks roughly the edge of the boundary of my enthusiasm for French popular culture: he's an actor whose appeal often eludes me, especially when he is not paired with another, less rubber-faced performer (he was excellent with Gabin and Bourvil in La Traversée de Paris, though). His final film was hugely popular in its year of release, but I could barely make it past the half hour mark, blogathon or not.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Razzia sur la chnouf


1955, France, directed by Henri Decoin

A tough, and tough-minded, film -- laconic in its brutality, and once you've seen the ending, deeply unsettling in its view of right and wrong. Gabin is at the height of his postwar powers, entirely convincing as the gangster taking over a drug operation after a previous operator proved disloyal to the boss, and dealing with the unpredictable men charged with dispensing violent internal justice (most notably Lino Ventura, who is mostly called on to be a distilled version of the carved-from-stone type he played so frequently in those years). This is the strongest work I've seen from Henri Decoin, both in terms of content and shadowy staging: the tone is more consistent than in any of the other Decoin films I've seen, and when the director slows the rhythm down it's with purpose, adding nuances of shade to Gabin's character in particular.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

La Horse


1970, France, directed by Pierre Granier-Deferre

The first of two films Gabin made in quick succession with Granier-Deferre, the second being  Le Chat: both pictures feature Gabin characters absolutely unwilling to deviate from their self-appointed paths, and neither of them especially sympathetic. Here, the actor plays a prosperous Normandy farmer dealing with an unwelcome intrusion from the criminal underworld -- and while he's an unpleasant martinet in his dealings with his family, the same qualities seem to act in his favour when dealing with uncompromising thugs. I suspect that Granier-Deferre is attempting to make some kind of point about the social climate of the time, in which defenders of a certain kind of France dealt with the threat represented by the 1968 generation, although the director's thinking is muddled enough that no-one, and especially not Gabin, comes off looking good from the encounter. The actor manages to get through the entire film on the strength of essentially one expression, which is entirely consistent with his character, and in the face of the almost complete lack of reaction or willingness to deal everyone else has little choice but to compromise.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States