Tuesday, October 30, 2012

And Then There Were None

1945, US, directed by René Clair

Audiences at the tail-end of the war certainly seem to have had a taste for the blacker shadings in life, whether the overall tone was comic or tragic -- the tongue is firmly in cheek here, as English conventions are gleefully skewered by colonials, expatriates and Johnny Foreigner alike. Though I've not read Agatha Christie's original novel for years, nor seen her stage derivation, the almost frantic efforts to maintain the behavioural norms of the British class system surely was influenced by the disintegrating world that formed the real-life backdrop to the fictional material.

Clair keeps the tone bone-dry as the upper-class characters are forced to deal with an island without servants, among other inconveniences (you know, the occasional murder, and so forth), while also creating several finely atmospheric sequences, especially the early scene during which the characters find out just why their odd group has been brought together. It's hard to avoid thinking of Hitchcock throughout the film -- the opening sequence on a boat surely references the master's work in the previous year's Lifeboat, but Hitch may have returned the favour some years later, with Dial M for Murder, which makes the same precise use of set geography such that the storm-tossed house here, and the London apartment there, become characters in their own right.

While I've added this to my Watching Movies in Africa project, it's a bit of a cheat. The film is here on the basis that I know it was banned in what was then the Gold Coast in 1946, and I haven't yet found evidence that it was shown elsewhere. Film censorship on the Gold Coast was fairly relaxed for the most part, at least until the late 1950s: films were already certified in the UK, where censorship was fairly strict at the time, and very few films seem to have been subsequently banned in the Gold Coast. Based on the evidence to date, even fewer were snipped by the local censor. Still, in 1946 there was a rash of outright prohibitions, and the main film distributor at the time, West African Pictures Co., a Lebanese-run company which eventually ended up in state hands in 1956, complained loudly about the sudden strictness. The censor gave written reasons for the various bans, with And Then There Were None prohibited on the basis that it "showed a series of carefully planned murders," earning it unanimous rejection. One wonders whether the board also objected, if in unspoken ways, to the manner in which the film depicts British society -- colonial censorship boards, even when they included local representatives, tended not to like films that took the mother country down a peg or two.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


1945, US, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

One of those films I'd meant to see for years, but it wasn't until I heard Martin Scorsese mention it again in his introduction to Lawrence of Arabia that I was prodded into action. It seemed the most unlikely connection given the scale on which the two films are conceived, with Detour clocking in at just over an hour and made on the tightest of Poverty Row budgets. Scorsese's point, as I recollect it, was that both films show men apparently caught in the grip of a pre-ordained fate, which hangs over them throughout their lives. That's hardly an idea that's to Lawrence's credit when you see Detour, although I think that Lawrence's conception of his fate can be taken to a much greater degree at face value, whereas Tom Neal, playing the sad-sack protagonist here, is all about self-justification as his life spirals out of his control (surely an influence on Scorses's own Taxi Driver, with its own insistent voice-over narration). Though there's the occasional whip of terrific dialogue, particularly from the mouth of Ann Savage, this is noir in its truest distillation, a tale that focuses on the dregs rather than the finely-turned line; the dénouement is shockingly brutal, perhaps accidental but entirely in keeping with the pitilessness of a truly self-centered man.

Taken 2

2012, France, directed by Olivier Megaton

I haven't see the first of these films, so I can't judge it on continuity grounds, but Liam Neeson is surely the Carlton Palmer of action heroes -- two gangly men who look like extremely unlikely candidates for their assigned professions. Indeed, Neeson is so tall compared to most of his assailants that the fights look completely ridiculous whenever they're in long shot; Megaton's main solution to this problem is to render the combat sequences so completely incoherent that it no longer really matters. I like Neeson in many of his other roles, but what he needs here is the absolute seriousness of a Bruce Willis, capable of selling you something patently ridiculous by the sheer force of his commitment to the lines, however absurd. Even so, the whole enterprise is so perfectly machine-tooled that it's lacking almost completely in tension, with the outcome so obviously  fore-ordained; I'm not sure any actor can do a whole lot about that.

On the basis that I watched it at a cinema in Accra, I'll count as an entry in my Watching Movies in Africa project. I ended up seeing this particular film because I waited to see which of the late-afternoon screenings at the 5-screen Silverbird theatre at Accra Mall was most popular before plunking down my 16 cedis (US$8). The price alone, never mind the location of the Mall, well outside the centre of the city, makes this the kind of place that's off-limits for most residents of Accra. All of the films on offer had been playing for weeks -- there hadn't been a new film for nearly a month -- and so there were few people around that Sunday. The very small audience at Taken 2 was mostly made up of the (surprisingly attentive) teenage children of well-off Accra families; in the end, it felt like there wasn't anything much different about seeing this in Accra as opposed to Akron.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Where No Vultures Fly

1951, UK, directed by Harry Watt

Damn you, British audiences of 1951 and 1952 for plunking down your coppers to see this film! It's your fault that the world was given West of Zanzibar a few years later! Admittedly, those audiences showed at least some discrimination: this first Ealing-in-Africa foray is considerably better than the sequel, which was virtually ignored at the box office (other people showed good sense, too: Dinah Sheridan didn't show up for the sequel, necessitating the casting of Sheila Sim in the same role). Where No Vultures Fly was shot was almost exclusively filmed in East Africa, so there's none of the absurd stitching together of location and studio footage that's so distracting in the sequel, though on occasion the obvious realism of, say, Anthony Steel clambering up a dead elephant is rather discomfiting in comparison to the fakery of the studio hippo of West of Zanzibar.

Of course, better filmmaking doesn't mean more enlightened views on the colonies, with the white man very firmly in charge despite his propensity for continually getting himself in trouble. Indeed, the entire film is structured as a series of problems and solutions rather than as a conventional story arc. Each new challenge--poachers, leopards, snakes, marital strife, labour unrest-- comes hard on the heels of the last, and the characters mull over each situation before, inevitably, someone (white) exclaims, "I've got it!" The world of the film is comically small at times, too, perhaps in the spirit of a studio that made Passport to Pimlico : while we're constantly told that Anthony Steel is overseeing 1,000 square miles, people keep showing up on his doorstep as though they've wandered down the street for a chat and a cup of tea, while the transportation challenges of rural Africa are invoked exclusively when the plot requires an unanticipated delay.

This film is part of my Watching Movies in Africa project. While archival evidence suggests the film was screened in East Africa, I've yet to find newspaper or other information with actual screening dates.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dialogue avec mon jardinier

2007, France, directed by Jean Becker

Jean Becker's films are considerably less tough-minded than those of his father. Of late, in particular, they yearn for a France that no longer exists, if indeed it ever was, while this film pays ultimately dismissive lip-service to France's social problems, as though a few gentle words can solve the most intractable tensions. At times, the film beguiles -- Becker captures the gorgeous light of late summer and the peaceable rhythms of the garden -- but his ending seems to betray his attempts to mine some deeper rural wisdom by turning the countryside into just another commodity.

If the film were from the US, you'd half expect the gardener to be black -- he's the kind of magical wise man from the other side of the tracks (literally in this case) that's such an irritating trope in American cinema. That said, it's nice to see Jean-Pierre Darroussin play gentle rather than irascible; he walks a fine line with a character who, as written, is a touch on the simple side, but the actor invests him with considerable dignity, and a touch of prickly self-consciousness. Daniel Auteuil, for his part, feels like he picked up right where he left off in Mon Meilleur ami -- he can do this kind of thing in his sleep, and at times it shows, the actor's natural charm notwithstanding.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


2010, UK, directed by Morag McKinnon

Though its mordant humour is in a category of its own, Donkeys recalled to mind a couple of Irish films, Adam and Paul and Kings: the central pair here, a hopeless twosome played by James Cosmo and Brian Pettifer (one of the great faces of the modern British cinema), reminded me of a slightly more functional version of the co-dependents at the heart of those films. In all cases, these are men whose lives have gone off the tracks, filled with disappointments, ruined relationships, and self-loathing, but McKinnon grants her characters a certain self-aware dignity, and treats their stories with an often wicked humour, as well as a sharp visual style (the shot above, which she holds until after Cosmo's departure, is one of my favourites).

She manages remarkable transitions so adeptly that a laugh and a gasp of horror can co-exist almost in the same breath -- indeed, they're often appropriately paired reactions, so inept are the efforts of Cosmo, in particular, to restore order to a messy life. Although there's a ray of redemption in the air over the Barra markets as the film comes to a close, there's never a hint of sentimentality in McKinnon's portraits, and that lends these characters striking verisimilitude, with Cosmo's utterly unself-conscious performance -- fat stomach and unshaven jowls -- only enhancing the sense of people plucked from the Glasgow streets, filled with piss, vinegar and a way with a finely-wrought line.

For all the film's apparently low-key vibe, McKinnon also achieves something of the pace of farce in certain sequences -- I'd initially popped the disc in intending just to verify it was working, and before I knew it the film was over. It hooks you with story, and keeps you with characters, their stories carefully rhythmed to align in a sequence of squirming inglory before the film splinters in an entirely new direction that gives new meaning to the term gallows humour.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Louis Jouvet Filmography

My 2012 viewing project was to see every available film featuring the great French actor Louis Jouvet (1887-1951).

Jouvet made 32 films, a figure dwarfed by many of his acting contemporaries: his first love was always the theatre and he ploughed much of what he earned back into his own theatre company. Quite a few of his roles in the 1930s were of a supporting nature -- there's not much to his performance in something like La Maison du maltais though he's one of the highlights in Un Carnet de bal despite his brief time onscreen. It's largely in the postwar period that we really see him flex his onscreen acting muscles, and Un Revenant and Quai des orfèvres are, for me, the highlights of that period.

Many of his films are quite hard to come by these days, and it took me several years to track down some of the less-celebrated entries in the filmography. Even those who have written biographies of Jouvet don't appear to have been able to see either Ramuntcho or Sérénade (the former seems to be completely lost today while I could only find a very poor copy of the latter film), and I've only come across brief scenes from the 1933 version of Knock.

Topaze (1933)
Knock, ou la triomphe de la médecine (1933)
La Kermesse héroïque (1935)
Les Bas-fonds (1936)
Mister Flow (1936)
Un Carnet de bal (1937)
Drôle de drame (1937)
Forfaiture (1937)
L'Alibi (1937)
Mademoiselle Docteur (1937) [aka Salonique, nid d'espions]
La Marseillaise (1938)
Ramuntcho (1938)
La Maison du maltais (1938) [aka Sirocco]
Entrée des artistes (1938)
Éducation de prince (1938)
Le Drame de Shanghaï (1938)
Hôtel du Nord (1938)
La Fin du jour (1939)
La Charrette fantôme (1939)
Sérénade (1940)
Volpone (1941)
Untel père et fils (1943) [shot in 1940]
Un Revenant (1946)
Copie conforme (1947)
Quai des orfèvres (1947)
Les Amoureux sont seuls au monde (1948)
Entre onze heures et minuit (1949)
Retour à la vie (1949)
Miquette et sa mère (1950)
Lady Paname (1950)
Knock (1951)
Une Histoire d'amour (1951)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wake in Fright

1971, Australia, directed by Ted Kotcheff

Restored after many years on the missing list, I could understand if many an Australian would be happy to have Wake in Fright remain under wraps more permanently: although there's a fascinating ambiguity at the heart of the film, which casts a skeptical eye on both the rugged mateship rituals of the outback and the city slicker who gets his comeuppance, there's nary a positive role model to be seen, with even the local police chief far more unsettling than reassuring. Said police chief is played by Chips Rafferty, in his final role. It's a fitting epitaph for the man who was Australia's one real home-grown movie star of the postwar years, for Ted Kotcheff's film was clearly one of the harbingers of the very different film industry that would emerge in the 1970s.

There can't be too many films that begin with a 360-degree pan, used in this instance to underline the utter emptiness of the landscape around the tiny, fictional settlement of Tiboonda, located deep in the New South Wales outback. Scale is the outback's main downside in the film's account, and that marks it out as rather different from much of what followed: while vast, the land isn't especially terrifying, and in a later sequence a city boy is able to feed himself easily enough during a lengthy foot trek. It's a far cry from a film like Picnic at Hanging Rock, or, much later, Japanese Story, where the land itself, rather than the people within it, is the primary threat. There's no doubting who we need to be cautious of here -- wild boy Jack Thompson, making his film debut, and alcoholic Donald Pleasance, seen most alarmingly in a shot where he stands on his head. The sight of a bearded, upside-down Pleasance is not a vision easily shaken.

This, then, is a headlong plunge into the excesses of white male outback Australia, and it has an anthropological feel at times, no doubt enhanced by the use of numerous non-professional extras, notably in the lengthy game of "two-up" where the schoolteacher's plans begin to go awry (Kotcheff integrates that material, shot back in Sydney, seamlessly with the exteriors filmed around Broken Hill; I had assumed, until I read an interview with the director, that they were sweaty real-life locales). There's a fascinating accumulation of detail as we encounter this alien culture -- the aggressive hospitality, the signage that reminds us the days of the "six o'clock swill" were barely in the rear-view mirror, the recognition of war dead (neatly bringing in another fine figure of Australian mythology, the digger). A genuine re-discovered treasure that is now very clearly a keystone in the development of the new Australian cinema.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Une Histoire d'amour

1951, France, directed by Guy Lefranc

Louis Jouvet's final film is, sadly, a relatively pedestrian affair for the actor, who died suddenly some months before the film was released; I wonder what other projects he had on the burner? Although the filmmakers attempt to extract some suspense from the flashback structure, this is a pretty straightforward police procedural, the kind of thing handled these days in a 45-minute television episode, and the sequences that recall Clouzot's great Quai des Orfèvres (the shots of the grimy corridors of the police station, Jouvet's interactions with a disapproving boss, indeed the very fact that Jouvet plays a rebellious police inspector) only serve to underline the weaknesses here.

Although the credits bill him top, Jouvet isn't even onscreen for much of the film, which focuses on the relationship between the wealthy Dany Robin and working stiff Daniel Gélin, who is employed by Robin's father (Dany Robin was herself the object of temptation for Louis Jouvet a few years earlier in Les Amoureux sont seuls au monde, a title that might easily have been re-used on this occasion). There's a Romeo-and-Juliet aspect to the youthful lovers, although across class lines rather than those of familial loyalty, and Jouvet's contempt for the haute bourgeoisie is rather enjoyable, particularly when the objects of his contempt seem oblivious to his ironic commentary (he doesn't have much more time for Gélin's ne'er-do-well father, a man allergic to work though not to its potential financial rewards).

I read online that Jean Grémillon, for whom director Guy Lefranc once worked, was originally supposed to take the helm. While Lefranc isn't lacking in competence, it's hard not to wonder what a less prosaic director might have done with the material: there are arresting flashes here and there, whether in the humour of the shot atop this entry, or in the intensity of the close-ups between the two lovers, late in the film, but they're a little lost in the routine of the procedural. One point of note, to my mind at least: in both this and Lefranc's previous collaboration with Jouvet, Knock, there is some striking location work, particularly the opening of this film in a junkyard, that gives both films an extra layer of richness, situating them in recognizably real places that anchor the melodrama and comedy. While obviously location shooting didn't begin with the nouvelle vague later in the 1950s, such well-judged intrusions of the "real world" aren't common in the earlier French films I've seen.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


1951, France, directed by Guy Lefranc

Louis Jouvet's penultimate film is a return to the source as Dr. Knock, a new doctor arriving to take over a practice in an apparently misbegotten corner of France -- a part that Jouvet originated on the stage in 1923, and which he played in a prior film incarnation in 1933. Sadly, that earlier screen version seems to have all but disappeared, with the exception of a couple of scratchy clips online featuring both Jouvet and Robert Le Vigan, although those extracts give some brief insight into the ways in which the actor re-worked the character and his own screen technique over the decades.

Louis de Funès delivers his solitary line, and exits.
After so many years of mostly minor parts, Jouvet was front and centre most of the time in his postwar work, and rarely more so than here. That's not to say that he blows everyone off the screen, nor that he's even present in every scene, but rather that his character is so distinctive in his manias that he's very much on the viewer's mind even when he's offscreen; whether he is present or not, all of the other characters are reacting to him. By contrast, Jouvet the performer is very generous with his fellow actors, including familiar faces like Pierre Renoir and a young Jean Carmet, who was already well on the way to honing what would become his familiar comic persona. The strength of the support is central to the tic-tac of both dialogue and physical interaction -- for instance in the delightful bit between Jouvet and Renoir, playing the local pharmacist, where the two men hurriedly agree that they are entirely above base monetary motivations. Equally amusing, in a slapstick register, are the reactions of André Dalibert as Jouvet manipulates him in ways that would befit a fairly vigorous veterinarian. Much briefer, and of more historical note than anything else, is the one-line appearance of Louis de Funès, some years before stardom hit.

Guy Lefranc handles things nicely for his first turn at the helm (he had worked as an assistant on films by a rather distinguished array of directors -- Jean Grémillon, Raymond Bernard, Robert Bresson). There's a clever scene centering on one of the doctor's early diagnoses, for instance, where we get a point of view shot that circles the patient as the latter looks upward in search of reassurance from Knock. Elsewhere, the framing of the actors ensures that the focus remains on their performances, already well served by some very fine dialogue. That's key in the scenes when we see Jouvet's eyes wander away to the middle distance during a consultation, a clue to his state of mind that we're aware of even if his patients can't see the problem; cuts from one face to another would have made this rather less obvious. It's also a film of considerable zip -- not only do several months pass by in the blink of an eye, but the rhythm of the key scenes is imbued with a sense of momentum that underlines Knock's rapid takeover of local life.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia

1962, US/UK, directed by David Lean

It's been a long time coming, though I had to be a good more patient than I would have liked: I was saving David Lean's film for the big screen, but it's increasingly rare for pictures like this to get the outings they deserve. In the end, I had to compromise on format, a point likely of interest only to people like my good self: I could have waited another age in the hopes of a local 70mm screening or settled for the new digital restoration on a somewhat smaller scale. While I'm sure that the 70mm experience would have been tremendously impressive, this was still quite the experience -- the sheer intrepidness of the filmmaking is quite astonishing, particularly when the actors, and presumably the numerous support personnel, are out in the desert for long stretches of the film.

The justly famous scene in which Omar Sharif first appears, almost as a trick of the light in the heat haze, gives a sense of the scale and the stakes, and that thrill is repeated, and perhaps even amplified by the momentum of the camera, in the subsequent sequence where we see Peter O'Toole materialise in the far distance after embarking on what seems a suicidal rescue mission. While I anticipated to some degree the scale of the picture, what was unexpected was the degree to which Lean's goals were those of intimacy and psychological insight: the thrills of the gorgeous landscapes, the swelling score, and the many points of physical and emotional drama are there not simply as moments of big-screen spectacle, but rather in the service of understanding just what drove this unusual, perhaps troubled man (in his screen incarnation, at least, given that the relationship to the actual Lawrence and his experiences seems frequently to be rather tenuous).

As articulated by Lean, it's a portrait of colossal egotism, where the fates of Arabian peoples are subsumed to Lawrence's own ambitions and efforts at self-understanding, though it's by no means the schematic psychology so familiar in latter-day Hollywood, which would probably set up Lawrence's anxieties over his parentage (his father held a minor title, and was not married to his mother, matters which are mentioned onscreen) as the precursor to a simplistic resolution. It's striking to see how Lean's concerns with psychological portraiture track from the much smaller scale of many of his 1940s films to his later epic phase.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Lady Paname

1950, France, directed by Henri Jeanson

A pleasant surprise, for somehow I was dreading this entry on the path to Louis Jouvet completeness; the idea of a comedy set in the world of the 1920s music halls had no particular appeal, despite the presence of the wonderful dialogist Henri Jeanson behind the camera for the one and only time in his career. My misgivings seemed to be confirmed when Louis Jouvet first appeared, for he seemed to be in high theatrical mode, with a silly beard to underline the point (the kind of thing he could do in his sleep, I thought).

How wrong I was. The film is absolutely charming, and Jeanson's dialogue often sparkles -- Jouvet and Suzy Delair, reunited for a third and final film after Copie conforme and Quai des Orfèvres, both make hay with their lines, and while Delair is sometimes an uneven actress she manages her character's transitions rather well here, pivoting from concerned sister to music hall star in convincing fashion, and clearly enjoying the spotlight (as befits her character). The scenes with Delair on stage aren't really to my taste, but the sequences are probably representative enough of the music hall setting -- although the film is set decades in the past, the filmmakers seem to have had no trouble rounding up the various acrobats and trick cyclists required for background colour.

The action, which is occasionally rather serpentine, zips right along -- Jeanson crams a terrific amount of background detail in to the film, evoking names and incidents of the music halls of yore, with a healthy dose of affection (it's a bit like the filmed equivalent of Charles Trenet's song Moi, j'aime le music hall in that regard). He's also generous in granting fine lines to the gallery of supporting players -- Monique Mélinand, Jouvet's companion, has a delicious sequence wherein she declaims that she only sleeps with men to either get rid of them or to become friends with them, since she can't stand them as bosses. Jouvet, of course, enters the room the moment she utters her line; as he begins his own speech, it's hard to avoid the impression that a grinning Mélinand is laughing at Jouvet (rather than at his character).


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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