Monday, August 27, 2012

The Match King

1932, US, directed by William Keighley and Howard Bretherton

While Warren William had plenty of practice playing the cad, his role on this occasion is the concentrated essence of the type -- absolutely no-one is safe here, and the Ponzi schemes of the titular king are as much personal as financial, with everyone hoping for a return that can never possibly materialize. William plays a version of the real-life "match king" Ivar Krueger, and his business schemes are outlined with the characteristic Warner Brothers energy that infused everything from gangster bloodletting to social climbing with breakneck speed. Indeed, at times the film almost trips over itself in the early going, so much so that William repeats the same catchphrase four times in a few minutes, as though the filmmakers have forgotten he's just use the line. Things slow down a bit, not especially to the film's benefit, when William stumbles on the charms of the lovely Lili Damita -- as much as his rise to prominence convinces, blaming his downfall at least partly on the distractions of a beautiful woman fails to ring true given his utter ruthlessness on all other occasions.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

1978, Hong Kong, directed by Chia-Liang Liu

This was a bit of a shock after so many films from the 1930s -- it's been ages since I dipped a toe into Hong Kong action, particularly of the kung fu variety, and I'd forgotten just how busy the folio artists are kept, with every absurd swish and kick amped up to eleven. On this set, at least, the camera operator must have earned overtime for all the zoom work -- in the early sequences, the zoom seems to function as a kind of visual exclamation point to direct our attention to the key participants in a big fight scene.

The opening sequences are pretty standard quasi-historical-injustice stuff -- I'd forgotten just how generic these films can be in structural terms -- but the film really comes alive in the training sequences: indeed, where many kung fu films are essentially structured as a series of escalating battles, Liu throws the viewer off by adhering to the standard template only to set his story up, and then we're off to an imaginative and often very funny succession of training chambers, where our hero, Gordon Liu, hardens his abs and hones his skills in order to throw off the yoke of political subjugation. It's a template then re-worked many times over by subsequent filmmakers -- down to The Karate Kid, though where the Hong Kong film links kung fu training to a series of apparently abstract tasks, The Karate Kid turns that same exercise into a series of Tom-Sawyer-esque chores.

It was an absolute pleasure to see this on the big screen -- not the best print ever, with the colours a little off, but the vocal enthusiasm of the audience gave a little hint of what it must have been like to watch these films in crowded, bantering theatres on a Saturday night in the 1970s.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

La Maison du maltais

1938, France, directed by Pierre Chenal (aka Sirocco)

Made the year after L'Alibi, this feels at times like the work of a completely different director: the opening section, set in an unnamed North African town, recalls Jacques Feyder's Le Grand jeu, not just because of the exotic location but for the wonderfully mobile camerawork, exploring the crowded streets of the casbah and the teeming life of brothels and nightclubs with equal zest. That vigorous movement is reflective of the state of mind of Marcel Dalio's lead character, a man bewitched by the sight of a beautiful woman and determined to do anything for her.

Later, when the plot transfers to Paris -- like so many of the colonial adventures of the 1930s -- the camera is a quieter presence, and Dalio, too, is tamped down by his bitter experiences, though Chenal can't fully hide his delight in exploring the new spaces offered to him by the change in setting -- a park, a thieves' lair, a lavish entryway. It's unusual to see Dalio squarely in the lead role, and his character is more unusual still: an exoticized but fundamentally sympathetic, hard-working Muslim character, hardly a regular occurrence at the time.

His support is top-notch, too: Raymond Aimos, one of the truly great character actors of the 1930s, is wonderful as Dalio's protective pal, while Viviane Romance, like Aimos a veteran of Duvivier's La Belle équipe, is entirely convincing as both prostitute and society dame, and the sequence where she revisits her past, in an attempt to purge it once and for all, is a terrific bit of acting, the actress perfectly moving between her different personae. Oh, and then there's a fellow by the name of Jouvet -- who excels in these smaller roles as oily lawyer/detective/factotum -- he's delicious here, turning on his clients as he spots the potential for much bigger paydays, though for once his part doesn't dazzle so much that it overshadows the remainder of the film.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Guard

2011, Ireland, directed by John Michael McDonagh

The obvious point of reference for The Guard is In Bruges -- the same lead actor, the directors are brothers, the not-dissimilar mix of comedy and occasional action, and the occasionally absurdist bent to the dialogue in both films. Where In Bruges aimed for greater visual assurance, The Guard eschews some of the stylistic flourishes -- most of the film is shot pretty squarely, with characters bang in the middle of the frame -- in favour of a bit more character development. Indeed, while the film is marketed as a culture clash between Brendan Gleeson's cute hoor Galway guard and Don Cheadle's slick FBI agent, it's almost entirely Gleeson's film, and at times the film seems closer to the kind of personal study of Lenny Abrahamson's Garage (the latter film's star, Pat Shortt, has a lovely bit here as a peeved IRA man). He's a fascinating character -- a genuinely decent cop with a sense of community, a man absolutely comfortable in his own skin, with a hard-won dose of wisdom. Along the way, McDonagh also shows he's got a pretty decent handle on his ancestral homeland -- the opening sequence, featuring a bunch of youthful jackasses on a date with tragedy is all too reflective of the realities of Ireland's roads and deaths, and McDonagh handles it with brutal humour.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mister Flow

1936, France, directed by Robert Siodmak

A bit of a genre mishmash, Siodmak's film, made during the French portion of his career, throws together crime, courtroom drama, romance, high society shenanigans, and a dash of humour. The shifts of direction occur with some crashing of gears, partly, I think, because Siodmak holds back from embracing the material's full potential for silliness -- unlike in, say, Cobra Woman a few years later and a very large ocean away, where he goes full throttle.

We're still in the early stages of Louis Jouvet's screen career here, and while Jouvet never abandoned his theatrical mannerisms -- something that was to our long-term benefit -- he gradually found ways to better integrate them with cinema style. At this point, though, his performances sometimes seem rather exaggerated -- certainly true when his character becomes a blubbering, hand-tic-infested mess. I'm sure the actor rather enjoyed concocting a character with two distinct personae, but it's not an especially subtle transformation, and it's instructive to compare this with his wonderful work a decade later in Copie conforme, where he plays, in essence, five roles, each crisply delineated without fuss, and each entirely convincing.

Jouvet's not the main attraction here, in any case: the leads are Edwige Feuillère, who sparkles throughout, and Fernand Gravey, who starts out as a down-on-his-luck lawyer who's rather easily convinced to begin a less straight-and-narrow existence, hardly helping the reputation of the legal profession in the process. Gravey sports a beard initially, an accoutrement that manages, paradoxically, to make him look even younger than he does when clean shaven, although the Harry Potter glasses don't help his cause either. The two actors seem to have great fun in each other's company -- a kind of Nick-and-Nora from the other side of the law, with roughly the same amount of alcohol consumed.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Impasse des Deux Anges

1948, France, directed by Maurice Tourneur

While Chabrol may, as I wrote recently, have grouped Impasse des Deux Anges with Panique and Macadam as examples of the cynicism and despair of post-war French film, the film reminded me more of Christian-Jaque's great 1946 movie Un Revenant -- both films have a gnawing sense of despair about the unrecoverable past, an idea with both general and very specific historical resonances in the France of 1948, while both also feature plotlines in which characters return to locations critical to their former lives. 

While Paul Meurisse plays, not for the first time, a fellow from the wrong side of the tracks -- and one who knows just what to do when a gun comes his way -- this is a different kind of criminal, with a sense of honour that goes well beyond the criminal code as he resolves the complications of his past affair with Simone Signoret, who has hit the marital big time in Meurisse's absence. Where Signoret is stunningly luminous -- she really was a great beauty, though she seems to have cared little for such accolades -- Meurisse hides his light under a bushel, underplaying to the point where it's almost aggressive. The sequence where he listens to Signoret exuberantly remembering their past together, barely nodding his head but clearly rapt, is a marvel.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Happy Accidents

2000, US, directed by Brad Anderson

The packaging is rather deceptive here, emphasizing the romantic qualities of the film when it's really a fairly self-aware bit of science-fiction, with tongue pretty firmly in cheek (there just happen to be characters who can easily debate the potential paradoxes of time travel, and there's a very amusing sequence in which Anthony Michael Hall pokes fun at himself -- the best thing of its kind until Domino came along). There's no real romantic heat between the main characters, though both Vincent D'Onofrio and Marisa Tomei are individually charming, and they come off as quirky roommates rather than romantic soulmates; that's not a paradox the film is interested in exploring, though.

Mademoiselle Docteur

1937, France, directed by G.W. Pabst (aka Salonique, nid d'espions)

Pabst's first slice of exotic wartime intrigue is rather more successful than the follow-up, Le Drame de Shanghai, not least, I suspect, because the setting is a couple of decades in the past and rather less bound to contemporary events; there are no asides on the geopolitical realities here. It's also a more carefully conceived bit of work -- it has some of the vivid set pieces that characterize the later film, particularly during an exuberant nightclub scene, but there's also a precision and care in the quieter sequences, the camera subtly moving from one character to another, or lingering on an apparently insignificant object while the action happens outside the frame.

Louis Jouvet appears here, too, as a spy whose cover story involves a vegetable shop; Jouvet's features and voice seem perfectly attuned to the kind of moral compromises that are inevitably part of the spy game, with a world-weariness apparent on his face before ever he opens his mouth. As so often during this phase of his screen career, Jouvet's part is brief but vividly drawn, though on this occasion the rest of the cast is also very strong: Pierre Blanchar's work as the oiliest of intermediaries is especially good, while Jean-Louis Barrault makes an indelible cameo appearance, while I'd never have guessed that Dita Parlo starred in L'Atalante -- she's entirely convincing as the self-possessed spy of the title, nothing like the barge-girl of the earlier film.


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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