Monday, February 28, 2011
I'm a partner in an abusive relationship
By Edward Copeland
It's not easy for me to make this confession, especially to the masses around the world in cyberspace, but it's true. I have been involved in a relationship that has gone on now for more than 30 years. I've taken steps to sever my ties with it, because it's not healthy, but I keep crawling back, no matter how many times my partner abuses me. I can't even call my feelings love anymore. It's just habit, bordering on obsession, and because my partner was there for me during a few years of dark times, I can't sever ties completely, even though each year she treats me worse and worse. Her name is Oscar and after last night's debacle, I felt compelled to issue this plea for help.
I took a big step last year, when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, under constant pressure from ABC and its parent company Disney kept making idiotic changes to the award to try to boost rating and attract a more youthful demographic. When they doubled the best picture nominees to 10 and, even worse, kicked the presentation of honorary awards, usually the broadcast's highlight, to a nontelevised dinner in November, as they tried to deny that film history began any earlier than the Reagan administration. Similarly stupid moves by the other awards I follow, the Tonys for Broadway and the Emmys for television, prompted me to write the post A pox on all your award shows. I swore I would no longer promote any of these awards. No predictions, surveys, etc. I've been pretty good at keeping my word.
However, that temptress known as Twitter sucked me in and actually created a more bearable way to watch the travesty. Since I'm bedridden anyway, I could watch the show at the same time I snarked to the world about the ceremonies as they went on. Honestly, the Twittering has become more satisfying than the shows themselves, which I had a bad feeling about when they announced that the hosts would be James Franco and Anne Hathaway. Huh? I started to get sucked in though when every critics' group and even the waiter and florists selected my choice for the best film of 2010, The Social Network, as best picture. I thought for the first time in a long time Oscar might actually pick my choice as best film as their best picture. Then that evil man known as Harvey Weinstein reared his head for the first time in a long time as his company released The King's Speech, which suddenly started scoring guild wins. First, it took the Producer's Guild Award, but they are flaky (they picked Little Miss Sunshine), so I wasn't concerned. Then, Tom Hooper (who I imagine most people still can't pick out of a lineup) won the Director's Guild Award for The King's Speech. As my friend Josh R said last night, his mother could have done a better job directing The King's Speech and she doesn't know how to program the VCR. It's worth noting that before this film, Hooper's work was almost entirely on television and TV directors make up a majority of DGA voters now. Weinstein, being the grade-A asshole that he is, reportedly told Scott Rudin, one of the producers of The Social Network, that he can go ahead and win the critics' awards, he'll take the big one. When the Screen Actors Guild handed out its awards, The King's Speech won ensemble, which people keep mistakenly equating as a picture prize when it's an acting prize and when their history is that their ensemble prize has not gone on to win the Oscar more times than it has. (The count is now 9 to 8.) Since it is an acting prize, it should have lost based on Timothy Spall's awful performance as Churchill and casting Guy Pearce as Colin Firth's older brother when the actor, only seven years younger, looked as if he could be Firth's son in some scenes. Having never sold my soul to Satan, I have no idea how these deals work, but Weinstein has been getting away with it for a long time. Remember when he used his talent to push quality films such as Pulp Fiction and The Crying Game? What happened to that Harvey who now bullies and buys his way to victory with middlebrow mediocrities such as The King's Speech, a Harvey who has so little respect for the art that he is cutting one small scene of profanity where the stuttering royal repeats the "F" word so he can get a PG-13 rating and, presumably, bigger audiences and more money. Come on Satan, when are you coming for him to pay up for his deal with a suitably long sentence in Hell?
Then came Oscar night. Resolved that Harvey would get his way, I didn't even put much though into predictions like I used to. I just didn't care anymore. I started to get excited though, despite the fact that the show itself was a bore. Category after category where I predicted The King's Speech, it kept losing. Could this be? The Social Network started winning. No, this was just an elaborate trick. The only solace I could take was that The King's Speech did not win the most Oscars. It tied with Inception with four wins, though all of that film's prizes were technical ones. The King's Speech took best picture, but it will be one of those forgotten winners, and the inexplicable director winner Tom Hooper will follow in the footsteps of winners Delbert Mann, John G. Avildsen and Michael Cimino and never be nominated again. Further, I fear the man who should have won, David Fincher, will now win at some point for a film that he won't deserve to win for. That's the way this abusive wench works.
Now on to the broadcast itself. I do have to give it some kudos. FINALLY, after years of my complaining, they muted the audience microphones during the In Memoriam segment so you didn't hear the audience applauding at different levels as if it were a contest for who was the most popular dead person. The show seemed to have no structure, rhyme or reason. Anne Hathaway seemed eager to please but James Franco appeared stoned most of the time. I've suggested this before. Why do they need a host? Just have an announcer introduce presenters and hand out the awards. Has anyone interested in the Oscars ever decided to watch or not to watch based on who was hosting? Think how much time you'd save without a host. The Billy Crystal bit resurrecting Bob Hope seemed fairly pointless, as did that bit where they had characters from films appear to be singing songs (I forget the phrase already. I guess this is a common YouTube game. I believe a better name would be Timewaster). Speaking of songs, it's high time that that category go the way of title writing. There aren't that many (if any) original movie musicals being made any more and very few of the songs end up being integral to the films, instead being relegated to playing over the credits as you leave the theater. This category once had a point, just like when they had a reason to divide cinematography into color and black and white divisions. However, that day has long since passed. Kill it. Also, kill the ridiculous pre-show, which they expanded to 90 minutes this year for some reason. How about cutting that and staring the show earlier. Use the extra time to bring back the honorary awards, which have provided most of the best moments in recent years. The worst news was when they announced that ABC renewed their contract to carry the Oscars through 2020. All the changes they've forced on the Academy have been for the worse. They need to realize: NETWORK TELEVISION IS DEAD. They will never regain the ratings they had when there were limited viewing audiences. They need to stop trying to cater to youthful demographics and viewers who won't watch and to the movie geeks like me who will. They have to accept that the Oscars are niche programming. Honestly, I think the best solution is to have people such as me who actually give a damn about movies and film history produce the show and keep the clueless away. After a night like last night, I think I might have to go to a shelter for abused Oscar spouses. Think your ratings drop now? See what happens if you lose us. The Oscars are about movies, but quality? Reflecting the best No. They are a long ad for an industry, a trade show for its worst habits where sometimes, the deserving accidentally win. Film lovers can love film without taking this annual pummelling from this serially abuser.
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Thursday, February 24, 2011
The Last Troops to Withdraw
Casualties of War (1989) came out toward the end of the trend of Vietnam War movies in the 1980s after the likes of Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick and others had tried their hand at it. By the time Brian De Palma’s film came out the public had grown tired of this sub-genre and, despite glowing reviews from critics, Casualties did not perform as well as hoped at the box office.
Based on an actual incident that was reported by David Lang in The New Yorker in 1969 and which he later turned into a book, Casualties of War focuses on a group of American soldiers who rape and kill a young Vietnamese woman and how one tries to do something about it. Private Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) has only been in country for three weeks and is the quintessential inexperienced recruit. He looks up to (as do most of the men) Sergeant Meserve (Sean Penn), a battle-hardened veteran whose tour of duty is almost up.
It quickly becomes apparent that Meserve fits in perfectly with the madness of the war and that he enjoys killing because it makes him feel powerful — he gets off on it. If there were any last bits of humanity left in him, they are gone when a sniper kills his fellow long-timer comrade. We actually see the humanity dissipate in Meserve’s sad expression as he watches his friend taken away in a medical helicopter. It’s a beautifully acted moment by Sean Penn.
The man’s death puts Meserve and his men in a mean, vengeful mood. They are subsequently ordered to go on a long-range recon patrol and this provides them with an outlet for their aggression. Meserve makes it clear that they are going on an unplanned detour to a village and find a girl that they can have their way with. In private, Eriksson voices his concerns but goes along with it. Even though he doesn’t actually participate in the act, he is complicit because he doesn’t actually try to stop it.
Michael J. Fox was primarily known as a sitcom actor and for a string of lightweight comedies (Teen Wolf, The Secret of My Success, et al) but the underrated (if not flawed) Bright Lights, Big City (1988) hinted at a capacity for drama that he showcased to greater effect in Casualties of War. Fox does a nice job of conveying the moral dilemma that his character faces. He is the film’s moral center and the one we are meant to identify with. His scenes with Penn have the requisite intensity with Fox wisely underplaying to Sean Penn’s over-the-top sergeant.
Penn plays the obvious villain of the film and is a real monster. You can see it often in the psychotic gleam in his eyes. At times, his performance veers into caricature as he lays on the New York accent a little too thick and his grotesque facial expressions are a little too garish to be believable. That being said, one has to admire his fearlessness as an actor to play such a truly unlikable character. He and Fox are surrounded by an impressive cast of then-up-and-coming character actors, such as John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, De Palma regular Don Harvey, Ving Rhames and Sam Robards. Harvey, in particular, is impressive as Penn’s amoral right-hand man and it’s a shame this fascinating actor hasn’t gotten more mainstream roles.
Penn (and the rest of the cast) are let down by David Rabe’s screenplay. He has essentially written a morality play but it resorts to broad strokes when shades of gray would have been much more effective (as in Mystic River which showcased Penn’s talents much more effectively). Rabe does a good job with the relationships between the soldiers and how the younger, more inexperienced ones are subservient to the veterans because that is their right — they’ve earned it due to their experience in combat. Casualties of War is a flawed film but a visually interesting one as is customary with De Palma’s body of work. He expertly uses the entire widescreen frame in many scenes showing off his command of composition. It’s a shame that the content of the film wasn’t up to the same quality as the style.
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Wednesday, February 23, 2011
The long and dying road
By Edward Copeland
Javier Bardem carries the weight of Biutiful upon his shoulders as if it's a crucifix — and with its excessive length and the multitude of burdens placed upon his character, it's a heavy cross to bear indeed.
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Biutiful is not a particularly illuminating or enjoyable ride. My first exposure to the director was the great Amores Perros, but ever since he's seemed compelled to produce sado-masochistic viewing exercises for the moviegoer, usually in a jumbled chronology which worked magnificently in Amores Perros but did nothing in the way of aiding 21 Grams or, especially, that monument to ridiculousness, Babel, whose more than four-year-old review on these virtual pages by Josh R, much like Mary Richards, still can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.
González Iñárritu's usual collaborator, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, didn't work on Biutiful. While Arriaga's touch was crucial to Amores Perros as well to Tommy Lee Jones' neglected directing debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (though Arriaga did write 21 Grams and the nonsensical Babel), perhaps his input would have clarified Biutiful.
For Biutiful, González Iñárritu handles writing duties himself along with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone. For the most part, he tells its story chronologically for a change but like Babel (not in the sense of absurdity) it's overburdened with just too much plot. Call it kitchen sink filmmaking, because he includes everything.
Bardem plays Uxbal, a small-time criminal in Barcelona using illegal Chinese immigrants for his bosses to help make counterfeit high-end goods such as fake Gucci purses, but Uxbal cares and tries to find better living arrangements and work for the Chinese in a construction project he and his brother Tito (Eduard Fernández) are involved in. On top of that, they are selling the plot meant to bury the father they never knew, choosing to cremate him so they can take the cash.
Uxbal also has an estranged bipolar wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) who can't be depended on to take care of his son and daughter, especially his son who always is being punished as a bedwetter. Besides, she tends to sleep with Tito on the side. There's also some side business where Uxbal claims to read the thoughts of the recently passed and deliver it to their grieving relatives.
When his good intentions toward the Chinese go terribly awry and turn into a national, televised scandal, he has even more guilt on his plate and oh, I almost forgot, that blood Uxbal keeps pissing happens to because he's secretly dying of cancer, undergoing chemo on the sly and not losing a bit of that glorious mane of hair. Despite all these strains, Uxbal's No. 1 priority is securing the future of his children after he's gone.
Are you exhausted just reading a brief summary of the plot (and I left out quite a bit)? Imagine trying to sit through it. Bardem truly is the film's only saving grace, conveying more through his eyes and his face as to what Uxbal is going through than any of the overwrought plot mechanics ever could. We watch him go through the motions of all the other nonsense as we just bide time to his inevitable deathbed scene and it takes nearly two-and-a-half hours to get there, yet Bardem makes all the moments ring true for his character. It's just a chore getting there as good as he is.
When Uxbal breathes his last breaths, it came as a relief because I knew that both his suffering and mine had reached its end.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Happiness is never distributed equally
By Edward Copeland
When a new Mike Leigh film opens, it's wrong to say you "watch" it. "Eavesdrop" seems to be a more appropriate verb, especially in the case of Another Year.
With Another Year, Leigh isn't telling a story as much as letting you observe a handful of characters. They aren't particularly fascinating characters, at least in usual movie terms, but seem defiantly ordinary. However, Leigh's fictional characters and the talented performers who inhabit them never fail to capture your attention and hold onto it.
Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen), a longtime, happily married couple, serve as the center of the small universe around which Another Year revolves. Tom works as a engineering geologist, Gerri as a counselor and they have a 30-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman).
Even though the film will keep its focus on Tom and Gerri and those who orbit their galaxy, they aren't even the first two characters we see on screen. Instead, Leigh opens as one of Gerri's colleagues Tanya (Michele Austin) counsels a woman, Janet (Imelda Staunton, in a great two-scene cameo) about her insomnia and dissatisfaction with life in general. When Tanya asks Janet to rate how happy she is on a scale of 1 to 10, Janet answers, "One."
After Staunton's character vanishes after her two early scenes, some viewers may wonder what the point of her scenes were, but she's there to set up Another Year's theme: Happiness, or the lack thereof, specifically in the form of Gerri's friend and co-worker Mary (the marvelous Lesley Manville).
Mary could be a tragic figure, except unfortunately there are too many Marys in the world (and even worse, not enough Toms and Gerris, though even they have their limits). Mary is single, easing past middle-age and a functional alcoholic — and she clings to Tom and Gerri as if they were a life preserver which, in a way, they are.
It's easy to see why Mary relishes the time she spends at her friends' home — the warmth it emits practically emanates from the screen and wraps itself around the viewer as well. Mary dreams of a life that includes a mate, but her fantasies exceed her dreams. She puts off the advances of another damaged friend of Tom and Gerri's, Ken (Peter Wight), and somehow has imagined herself as a possible mate for Joe.
One of the film's best scenes comes when Joe brings home his hyperactively buoyant new girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez) and Mary drops by (unexpectedly, as she usually does) and Leigh builds tension around the simple serving of a cake. Leigh films it in a series of slow closeups of all the actors in the room, escalating the strain that lies beneath the surface.
For a plotless film such as Another Year, the success or failure of the enterprise largely falls upon the strength of the casting and Leigh doesn't have a weak link in his ensemble.
Manville is a wonder, milking the humor and pathos out of Mary, hitting just the right note at the right time. She can make you feel for Mary one moment and make you want to slap her silly the next.
The always dependable Broadbent gives the best performance he's given in ages as Tom and Sheen proves just as good as the level-headed Gerri and as a pair, Sheen and Broadbent make a believable couple.
In addition to all the other performers named above, fine work also comes from David Bradley as Tom's older brother, facing life as a widower, and Martin Savage as Tom's troubled nephew Karl.
Leigh has the audacity to tell the truth that not everyone's life turns out well and that some marriages do miraculously go on blissfully for decades and to mix them in the same movie.
While I was writing this review, wanting to doublecheck one character's name and the performer who played her right, I was surprised by the negative reviews of Another Year that I found that found it "smug," full of caricatures (one admitted "hating" all the characters) and even criticized the acting — and some of these critics were ones who fell all over the torture called Blue Valentine or the disaster Nicole Kidman inflicted upon Rabbit Hole. I guess a movie marriage must be in a state of disrepair or there's something wrong with the film.
You would think as damaged as the character of Mary (or Ken or Ronnie for that matter) are would satisfy their need for suffering. Who knew Leigh was being courageous by acknowledging that not everyone in the world finds a mate, even for a bad relationship? That people like Mary do become dependent on friends like Tom and Gerri because it's as close to intimacy as they get and it can get on those friends' nerves. It's sad, but it's true.
I've usually found Leigh's films to be hit or miss, but always with solid performances. In Another Year, everything comes together and he produces one of his best efforts, striking every chord perfectly. Most films work best when they don't have any extraneous scenes, but Another Year works so well by taking the opposite approach. Many parts don't seem pertinent as you watch them, but Leigh's thinking several moves ahead of you and eventually you realize why that sequence, like all the others, were absolutely essential.
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Monday, February 21, 2011
The Most Vulnerable Point
By Jonathan Pacheco
Released 40 years ago in the U.S., Claire's Knee is Éric Rohmer's invitation to consider how much one can believe a man who may not believe himself. During a summer on Lake Annecy, the film dissects the words and thoughts of a charismatic diplomat and contrasts them with his actions and their implied motivations as they pertain to two enticing underage girls. As the fifth film of Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, Claire's Knee observes the obsessions, desires, and so-called perversions of a grown man from a woman's perspective, exposing them for their typicality and self-deluding nature.
Handwritten title cards noting the day's date precede every scene as the film chronicles a month in the life of Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy), vacationing in France before his marriage. The handsome, confident, intelligent man soon bumps into his female equivalent, an old flame and writer, Aurora (Aurora Cornu), who's lodging with a family off the nearby coast. As the two spend more time together, one topic they consistently land upon is Jérôme's impending marriage and how it relates to his freedom; he claims he loses no freedom with his decision to wed, still able to behave as he wishes sexually, only, according to him, doing so would be pointless. He's come to the logical conclusion that he and his fiancée are meant to end up together. Still, Aurora becomes intrigued by his claims, and more so with how they relate to the way her host's 16-year-old daughter, Laura (Béatrice Romand), has become infatuated with the frequently visiting Jérôme. The author urges him to nurse and pursue the girl's flirtations, considering it "research" for a novel she'd like to write.
What we see on screen is, essentially, Aurora's writing notes detailing the events she witnesses and those relayed to her by Jérôme, explaining the film's distant feel and why scenes exist solely to inform, sometimes cutting off abruptly once we've seen all we need to see. Aurora is calculating and deliberate, and so is this resulting film. More than a slight storytelling gimmick, this more objective perspective subtly works to reveal Jérôme's delusions, specifically his conviction that his desires for Laura and her visiting stepsister, Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), are empty, pointless, and mostly out of obligation to Aurora's requests.
Though convincing for most of the time, Jérôme's repeated claims of feeling nothing for other women, constantly pointing to his impending marriage as evidence, serve as slightly idiosyncratic indications of the man's inner struggle. He insecurely qualifies many actions with the reminder that does these things only to benefit Aurora's novel, yet it's without Aurora's prodding that he becomes disturbed and infatuated by Claire, specifically by a desire to caress what he deems her most vulnerably body part, her knee. If before, Jérôme had to be nudged or urged to pursue the younger Laura (symbolized when Jérôme rattles the cherry tree to see if the fruit is ripe), his desires for Claire feel like they would have shaken loose inevitably (like the ripe cherries being picked in the scene where he first notices the blonde's wondrous knee).
Aurora sees through her friend. Like the painting of the blindfolded Don Quixote, the hero must be blinded, otherwise he'd never go through with the adventure. Aurora allows Jérôme to be blind to his true motives and insecurities so that she can selfishly benefit from his escapades. She does, however, occasionally call him out regarding the true banality of his stories. Because he never sleeps with any of the teenagers, Jérôme's tale is decidedly ordinary except for the emphasis and perversion that he himself places on it. To Aurora, that's not enough (which may be why the film feels like her notes instead of her novel). But it is for Jérôme, who, by the film's end, basks in his triumph, congratulating himself on fulfilling his fantasy while simultaneously doing Claire a favor by turning her against her bratty boyfriend Gilles (Gérard Falconetti). I'm convinced that Jérôme needs to play these games to find comfort and convince himself that his experience is special, not banal, that his marriage is liberating, not confining, and that he possesses discipline, not weakness.
What challenges me the most about Claire's Knee is how persuading Jérôme can be. Like the smooth diplomat that he is, he's compelling, confident, and convincing in almost every word he says, and for most of the film I'm in denial about his true nature. I want to believe him when he says his affectionate actions toward Laura don't feel sinful but rather meaningless and out of obligation. I want to believe that his self-assessments are honest. But by the time the screen reads "Fin" as Claire reconciles so easily with the boyfriend Jérôme thought he successfully turned her against, his previous gloating turns pitiable, and there's little left he can say about himself that I can believe.
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Sunday, February 20, 2011
Words Get in the Way
Alfred Hitchcock directed a screwball comedy. Yes, it takes a moment to sink in. Although Hitch infused all of his films with touches of humor, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, released this day 75 years ago, was his only full-on comedic effort. Some sources indicate that he only did it as a favor to his good friend Carole Lombard, who starred with Robert Montgomery. Another angle has it that he pursued the project at RKO on his own. Whatever the reason, the film stands out not for its laughs but for its singularity.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith have a unique way of solving their marital problems. After a tiff, they remain sequestered in their bedroom for days until they kiss and make up. During one of their post-argument breakfasts, Ann asks her husband if he would marry her all over again. Contrary to centuries of battle-of-the-sexes wisdom, David decides to be honest, and says no. It’s not that he does not love Ann, it’s more that being single is just more fun than being married. Not long thereafter, a representative from the county in which they were married comes to tell them that due to a redistricting snafu, it wasn’t legal. Ann takes the opportunity to trim the deadwood, and David spends the rest of the film trying to win her back.
Hitchcock’s Rebecca had won the best picture Oscar in 1940, and he followed up Mr. and Mrs. Smith with Suspicion. The parts of the comedy that work best are the ones least script dependent — those that show the director in full control of the film through the images. When Ann and David decide to go to one of their favorite restaurants from early in their relationship, they find it greatly changed into a dive. They convince the proprietor to set a table outside, like it used to be, but they find themselves surrounded by staring street urchins. Ann suggests they stare back, to teach the children a lesson. One cut later, Ann and David are back inside. Another scene has the separated Ann and David each with other people at a club. David’s date is not as attractive as the woman sitting on his other side, so he pretends to chat up the beautiful woman by moving his mouth without making a sound. Unfortunately for David, Ann notices the ruse, and so does the beautiful woman’s date. Not only does David come off as rude, he looks like a total lunatic.
Norman Krasna, the screenwriter, manages to get in a few zingers, like when David goes to find Ann at her new job and tells the floor manager, “I’m looking for something in ladies’ lingerie.” Unfortunately though, audiences had already been introduced to His Girl Friday the previous year (What a year in film, 1940!) and Mr. and Mrs. Smith suffers by comparison. It takes a full half hour to even get to the inciting incident and longer than that to unleash the mayhem.
Although Lombard had already been dubbed “The Queen of Screwball Comedy,” she cannot rise above the script she was given because the role gives her little to do other than be angry at David. To make an unfair comparison, Barbara Stanwyck would blow audiences’ hair back with a good script in The Lady Eve one month later. Montgomery fares slightly better. For example, worried about the food in the now shady restaurant, he states, “I’d give five dollars to see that cat take a sip of that soup.” The nebbish county worker, played by Charles Halton, who travels to New York to give the Smiths their bad news (and return their $2 marriage license fee) fares best of all, but he only has one scene.
If some films are “too much of a muchness,” Mr. and Mrs Smith is “not enough of an enoughness.” Not the exemplar of a genre, not a showcase for any standout performance, not the director’s best work, it’s only interesting because it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s one screwball comedy. Even so, Hitch has a way of getting the individual moment right. David is locked out by Ann and forced to retreat to his men’s club for the night. Later we see how bad the situation has become when a room key at the club’s front desk has “David Smith” typed above it. In the hands of a master, sometimes the words get in the way.
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Saturday, February 19, 2011
By Jonathan Pacheco
François Truffaut's personal feelings and memories drove his 1959 semi-autobiographical character study,The 400 Blows, but it's in The Last Metro that he finds the opportunity to share more details of his childhood, particularly during the German occupation of France in the '40s. While the film portrays a time of hiding, penny-pinching and compromise, it does so with a sort of affection. As one of Truffaut's final pictures before his death, the 30-year-old film looks at the Occupation as the director probably remembers it: it was a time of struggle, but life continued. Kids still found ways to occupy themselves. Women who couldn't afford new stockings simply drew fake seams down the backs of their legs. And plays were still performed by the theaters that could afford to do so, such as the Théâtre Montmartre, where a group of performers and stage crew band together to put on a production that may make or break their little theatre. The joys of The Last Metro come from Truffaut's fond portrayal of this theatrical family forging on despite the recent disappearance of their Jewish director, and they do it through the matriarchal leadership of Marion (Catherine Deneuve), a reluctant ringleader in her husband's absence.
She's thrust into the role when he, Lucas (Heinz Bennent), flees the Nazis — hiding not in the Americas, as rumors suggest, but instead in the theatre's cellar where the auteur attempts to direct his play from a distance, his nightly visiting wife the conduit for his creative notes and discernment. For this particular production, the Théâtre Montmartre snagged Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu), a local budding star of the stage as well as a bit of a womanizer and (secretly) a member of the French Resistance. He's passionate about all three interests, but his political and moral ideals take precedent. However, the greatest danger in Truffaut's surprisingly non-threatening film isn't the Nazis, but rather Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard), a critic and journalist with power, influence, and an anti-Semitic agenda.
From the film's first moments of archival footage running under a narrator's rapid stage-setting, it's clear that Truffaut wants you to know that you're being told this story. As Roger Ebert pointed out, "The use of a narrator became one of Truffaut's favorite techniques; it's a way of signaling to us that the story is over and its ending known before it even begins." Once Truffaut's own footage begins — a scene in the streets of France — the film declares itself a "studio picture," and contrasting it with The 400 Blows is a bit shocking. Instead of the naturalistic mindset of the New Wave, The Last Metro aims for the "soundstage feel" — and it works in an appropriately theatrical way. With the acting, sets, and confining camera angles, it sometimes feels as if we're watching a stage production.
Most of that disappears once the story inside the Théâtre Montmartre gets rolling; the characters are just too engrossing. Truffaut does, however, sparingly call attention to the storytelling nature of the film, but he does it so sparingly and so brazenly that it knocks you out of the story each time. That may have been Truffaut's intention, but it mars the experience of watching The Last Metro, with most offenses coming from the film's loud noir musical pieces that blast in anytime Bernard meets up with a fellow resistant, Christian (Jean-Pierre Klein). In a film with nearly no score (and perhaps in no need of one), the abrupt cues are almost cartoonish.
Those deviations can be taken in stride, but it's a little more difficult to accept the narrator's re-emergence after hibernating through most of the film. A jarring and curiously goofy sequence near the film's conclusion has the narrator giving us a quick, "Where are they now?" sort of wrap-up before quite literally introducing the film's epilogue. Naturally, if a narrator opens a film, you can expect him to close it, and the distancing narrator was very much part of Truffaut's style, but used so scarcely, it seems to do more harm than good in a film typically so wise in how it involves you with its story and characters.
Each member of the Théâtre Montmartre has distinct stories, secrets, and issues, and Truffaut gives us a glimpse into each one to create characters worth remembering. Most pleasing is how he gives us just enough information. You don't come away wishing he'd delved more into any specific character — not because they aren't interesting, but because there's more pleasure in the small facts and implied details, like when the film touches upon the homosexuality of the play's stand-in director, Jean-Loup (Jean Poiret), or how it gives us that great moment when the theatre technician, Raymond (Maurice Risch), admits that he never corrected the false assumption that he was sleeping with his black market connection because, well, she's pretty and he's not.
When Marion walks in on Arlette (Andréa Ferréol) kissing Nadine (Sabine Haudepin) in a dressing room, we do get a scene or two centering on Arlette's sexuality and discomfort with her preferences coming to light (also explaining why she constantly spurred Bernard's advances), yet nothing is really mentioned about Nadine's sexuality. But we didn't need to get into that. We know Nadine as an unapologetic (and ambitious) young actress, and we can accept that she might be bisexual, or, perhaps more likely, experimental. Giving too much of an explanation would undermine the way Truffaut goes about providing these delicious rations of insight.
The Last Metro pleased critics and crowds upon its release, but it's obviously not as important, challenging, or masterfully put together as Truffaut's greater successes. For years, the director longed to portray his memories of the World War II era on film, and his nostalgia definitely shines through, but the film's true merits stem from his affection for the men and women of the Théâtre Montmartre.
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Friday, February 18, 2011
Walk Away. Drop It.
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. To donate to the fundraiser for The Film Noir Foundation, click here.
First time director Rian Johnson walked away with the 2005 Sundance Special Jury Prize for originality of vision for his film Brick. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lukas Haas, it was an attempt to film a noir but with a completely different set of visual cues. Rather than creating a 1940s detective in a rainy New York or Chicago, Johnson set his plot in motion in a modern Southern California high school. In the DVD commentary, Johnson admits that his script was on a knife edge-the slightest misstep in tone would have made it “dreadful.” However, apart from a couple of minor quibbles, I agree with the Sundance jury that he pulled it off.
Before the title, Brendan (Gordon-Levitt) is crouched at the mouth of a tunnel, staring at the body of a woman. After the title, she is seen placing a note into someone’s locker, and the next title is “Two Days Previous.” The flashback, of course, is a classic noir technique. The note sets up an increasingly desperate phone call, in which the woman, Brendan’s ex-girlfriend Emily, pleads for his help. They’re cut off before Emily can agree to meet him and Brendan begins a convoluted search. He gets information from Brain, a kid who sits in a hallway and seems to know everything about who’s eating lunch with whom and why. He also finds a scrap of an invitation to a popular rich girl’s party and he shows up. Everyone he talks to seems to know something and is incredibly reluctant to tell him anything.
He does eventually meet up with Emily, but she’s too scared to let him in on what is going on. She begs him to let her go, but he finds he can’t. In fact, he pickpockets a notebook from her in which he finds a clue that leads him to her body in the tunnel. He hears someone in the tunnel and pursues only to get knocked out. He’s now set on his path. In fact, he asks Brain to tell him to drop it, but then he enlists his help in getting to the bottom of what happened.
He also flashes back two months to when he and Emily broke up. Little half-clues lead him through the small-time drug dealing scene at the school, until he finds out about The Pin, as in Kingpin (Lukas Haas). He also finds out about the brick — a brick of heroin cut badly that killed an underling who took a little off the top. Emily was blamed for the debacle, although Brendan can’t believe that she was in that deep. He insinuates himself with The Pin so that he can stay close, and ends up attempting to mediate a rising gang war between The Pin and Tug. Tug is The Pin’s hired muscle, also involved with Emily, who had been administering harsh words without the words to Brendan throughout. In the end, it was the rich girl Laura who set Emily up to take the fall for the deadly heroin. Brendan, who earlier rebuffed Laura, saying he couldn’t trust her, plants the remainder of the brick in her locker and notifies the authorities, but Laura has her own knife to twist. In their final confrontation, she reveals that Emily was pregnant with his child. Brendan brings Laura down, but at a terrible cost.
The film is a little more than two hours long, so this recap naturally elides over many plot points and character developments. What’s interesting is that what seems like a gimmick actually works really well. On one level, the archetypes overlay onto high school characters: the femme fatale, the dupe, the muscle, the ringleader. But Brick works on other levels also. Johnson has his actors using language straight out of Hammett. “Keep your specs on,” “I’ll just stand here and bleed at you,” and one of my all-time favorite movie lines, “I got all five senses and I slept last night so that puts me six ahead of the lot of you,” are examples of the heightened speech used in the film. Would teenagers really speak that way? Not really, but they are expert at developing their own speech patterns and slang in direct rebellion to “regular” speech. If anybody would be speaking strangely and using words that don’t make sense to anybody else, it would be a teenager.
Second, the production and filming mirror the noir style perfectly. In other words, they were broke. Johnson shopped his script around for years until he finally gave up and financed it himself with friends and family. For that reason, they used zooms instead of tracking shots. They used low-tech effects. They used the locations they could get access to, whether or not there was actually room for a camera. This created the conditions for a film that looks very much like the traditional noirs — with crazy angles and less than “perfect” lighting.
Third, Johnson said in the DVD commentary that the film was not meant to be realistic. The language is part of the signaling that the world of Brick is not supposed to reflect anyone's actual experience. It was not meant to be high school as much as it was meant to feel like high school. “When you are a teenager and you are in that world, you don’t have any perspective and it’s the most serious time in your life. Your head is completely encased in that fishbowl, and it IS life or death, these small things, because it’s your entire field of vision.” Even though we know from the beginning that Emily is dead, Brendan’s quest is not so far off from the real teenage experience. Why didn’t it work out? Why is she hanging out with those people? What does she see in that guy? Why can’t I figure ANYTHING out? In addition, where else would an unintended pregnancy resonate in the same way as it would in 1947? In high school, perhaps.
Now for the quibbles. There are two scenes in which Brendan’s world crosses the “real” world. In the first, he has an encounter with the vice principal, and in the other, he meets The Pin’s mom. The scene with Vice Principal Trueman (Richard Roundtree) is terrific. The vice principal’s noir analogue is the police chief on the hero’s trail. He indicates that Brendan has been in trouble before, has helped them out before, and that he can give Brendan only so much leeway. This scene was filmed in a real office, with the camera on the floor (or close to it) so the uniform upward angles make it look like a battle of wills between equals.
The other scene, with The Pin’s mom, doesn’t make much sense. She serves them orange juice, no wait, she’s so sorry, they don’t have orange juice…perhaps she’s meant to be the dippy dame. Upon several viewings, it still doesn’t seem to serve the plot, and is as jarring as the first time I saw it.
The other quibble is the final confrontation between Brendan and Laura. I loved that it was filmed in a tight clinch as they murmur to each other. “You want the whole tale? You want me to tell it to you?” Brendan says to Laura, and when he recounts what we’ve already seen or deduced, all the pacing and tension that came before dissipates. Thankfully, it does build up to some information we didn’t know, and then there is a cross and double-cross. It’s a tough scene, verging on too much tell and not much show.
Roger Ebert wrote in his review that the characters were hard to care about because they had lifestyles, not lives, although he makes the caveat that this could be said of many noir films. On the other hand, even when everything is mythic in its significance, if the director and the actors play everything totally straight, you can see the very real repercussions. They’re just kids and Emily is dead.
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Thursday, February 17, 2011
Just the Facts Remain in This Thriller
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. To donate to the fundraiser for The Film Noir Foundation, click here.
Coming early on in his career, The Lineup (1958) is the kind of no-nonsense crime film that director Don Siegel excelled at and, in some ways, anticipates the same approach he took in his remake of The Killers (1964) years later. He wastes no time as The Lineup (1958) starts off with an exciting chase as a taxi cab driver tries to drive away from a pier full of disembarking passengers with a stolen suitcase, runs over a cop and is shot and killed. Inside the case is a statuette containing $100,000 worth of heroin. The two detectives investigating the case — Lt. Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson) and Inspector Al Quine (Emile Meyer) — return the case to its owner in the hopes that he’ll lead them to a narcotics ring.
For the first 22 minutes of the film, Siegel does a good job showing us the nuts and bolts of a police investigation: inspecting the crime scene, questioning witnesses, the forensics lab and organizing line-ups of potential suspects. Guthrie and Quine soon discover a rather elaborate heroin smuggling ring.
The first third of The Lineup has the look and feel of an episode of Dragnet as we follow around these two just-the-facts cops, but this changes once we are introduced to Dancer (Eli Wallach) and his partner Julian (Robert Keith) — two hitmen. They soon meet up with Sandy McLain (Richard Jaeckel), their wheelman who replaces the dead cab driver.
Eli Wallach plays Dancer, a sociopathic hitman who figures into the drug deal. He’s a consummate professional judging from the way he questions McLain about the job at hand. The beauty of Wallach’s performance is how Dancer gradually becomes unraveled over the course of the film and embodies Julian’s observation, “He’s a wonderful pure pathological study. A psychopath with no inhibitions.”
Veteran character actor Robert Keith (The Wild One) plays well off Wallach. He’s got a fantastic froggy, weathered voice that you imagine got that way from years of smoking and drinking. He’s the elder, cultured counterpart to Dancer’s younger vulgarian. Richard Jaeckel is excellent as the alcoholic driver who talks big and always tries to scam a swig of booze, much to Julian’s chagrin. In a nice touch, Emile Meyer plays one of the investigating detectives, the straight arrow counterpoint to the corrupt cop he played a year earlier in Sweet Smell of Success (1957).
The Lineup was based on the popular television series of the same name. The show’s producers had hired Siegel to direct the pilot episode and then Columbia Studios asked him to direct the film version. Siegel convinced the producers to hire Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) to write the screenplay. The screenwriter started writing a story about two hitmen. He and Siegel felt that the film should not be named after the show because audiences would be confused and suggested The Chase instead, which, not surprisingly, the studio did not accept.
Siegel makes great use of all kinds of San Francisco locations, which really gives a sense of place, from the scenes at a pier to the Steinhart Aquarium where Julian and Dancer trail a mother and daughter who unwittingly carry a packet of heroin to the Sutro Museum with its ice rink and observation deck, the start of the film’s exciting climax.
The Lineup’s most memorable sequence is an intense car chase that takes place on the then-unfinished Embarcadero Freeway, anticipating another insane West Coast car chase, To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). Siegel’s film is a stripped-down film noir devoid of any narrative fat with a fairly simple, crime does not pay message, but within that structure is a pretty fascinating relationship between Dancer and Julian who carry on, at times, like a bickering old married couple — again a dynamic that Siegel would revisit in The Killers.
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Wednesday, February 16, 2011
It has no moral whatsoever and proves nothing at all
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. To donate to the fundraiser for The Film Noir Foundation, click here.
By Edward Copeland
As we conclude my trilogy of posts for the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon, I turn to Jean Renoir's 1931 La Chienne, which translates roughly to The Bitch. Its source material, a novel and play of the same name, also provided the basis of Fritz Lang's 1945 masterpiece Scarlet Street, an exemplary depiction of the noir genre. Even though the characters and plots of Renoir and Lang's films contain much in common, I'm not certain whether you can get away with calling La Chienne an example of noir given not only the year of its release but also the way Renoir approaches the material. Supposedly, Renoir hated the direction Lang took with Scarlet Street which, though a remake of Renoir's second sound film, was a remake of a movie that didn't get released in the United States until 1976, 45 years after its initial release. Renoir opens La Chienne with a shot of a tiny stage where a curtain rises and we see a puppet who informs us that we are about to see "a social drama where vice is always punished." A second puppet appears and contradicts the first, declaring that we are about to watch a "comedy of manners with a moral." The two puppets start arguing over which of them was supposed to be the announcer when a third puppet appears and knocks the first two out of the frame. The final puppet says to the audience, "Ladies and gentleman, pay no attention to them. The play you are about to see is neither a comedy nor a drama. It has no moral whatsoever and proves nothing at all. There are no heroes or villains. Just plain people like you and me." He then introduces the three main characters, who he tels us are, "HE, SHE and THE OTHER GUY, OF COURSE" and they appear like apparitions behind him. "He" is described as nice, timid and not too young, but much too naive." "She" has "a special brand of charm, always sincere, but she lies." As for the other guy, he is "just plain Dédé." The stage dissolves and the movie begins.
The basic mechanics of La Chienne follow Scarlet Street rather closely (or I guess I should say it the other way around since La Chienne preceded Scarlet Street by 14 years). Just for simplicity sake, before I begin delving into La Chienne in detail, I thought I'd include a chart so you'd know which characters in Renoir's film are the equivalent of the ones in Lang's American remake. It almost goes without saying that lots of SPOILERS are coming, but that's the case if you've already seen Scarlet Street.
The biggest differences in the characters in Renoir's version is that France didn't have to conform to the Hays Code and could be more frank about the nature and activities of its characters. It's blunt about the relationship between Lulu (Janie Marèze) and Dédé (Georges Flamant): She's a prostitute and he's a pimp. Maurice (the great Michel Simon, the year before he'd team with Renoir on the classic Boudu Saved From Drowning) still works as a cashier, only it's for a wholesaler, not a bank. La Chienne opens at a party for the employees of that wholesaler, just as Scarlet Street did, only it's not a celebration to honor Legrand's many years of faithful service. In fact, most of the partygoers spend their time mocking the cashier behind his back and talking about trying to trick him into a tryst with a woman, but abandoning the idea because they know he'd never go for it because he's too fearful of his wife. The initial meeting of the three main characters plays a bit differently as well. Legrand does stumble upon Dédé beating Lulu on the street and intervenes, but he doesn't run for the police. Instead, he offers to take Lulu home, but she expresses concern for Dédé's well-being, so he hails a cab and rides with both of them to their place. Once there, Dédé whispers to Lulu that given the way Legrand is dressed, she should try to score with him. Lulu stays and flirts with Legrand, who asks why she stays with Dédé, but she insists he can behave when he wants to. Legrand already has become smitten with the girl and she asks if she can write him, but he tells her she better write to him in care of his post office because he's married and he wouldn't want his wife to see.
The Adele portion of the story is what matches up most closely between the two films. She's a shrew in both versions, always pestering her husband and comparing him unfavorably to her presumed dead first husband. As in the American remake, Adele hates Maurice's painting and it's when he comes home late that she lays in to him about them and threatens to give them to the junk man. Her "late" husband wasn't a cop who died in the line of duty in La Chienne, but a soldier killed in World War I.
One month after their first meeting, Legrand has set Lulu up in her own place and moved in his paintings. La Chienne's frankness also extends to openness about the sexual nature of the relationship that develops between Lulu and Legrand. Lulu even admits at one point that she "can't say she minded doing it with him much, unlike others." It's a big switch from Kitty Burke, who cringed when Chris Cross even tried to kiss her. While it's clear that Dédé is her lover as well as her pimp, her relationship with Legrand pleases him as well. He tells an associate that he used to have rough Lulu up for cash, but living's a lot easier with Legrand on the hook. Dédé's greed gets him to show Legrand's art around and as in the other film, it earns raves. He decides to pass it off as Lulu's work, only instead of using her name, he invents the name of an American woman and places them in a gallery. It's not Adele who spots the art in the gallery in La Chienne though, it's Legrand himself. His reaction follows Chris' closely as he forgives his beloved Lulu as she gives a crying explanation (shown in a very nice zoom by Renoir).
It's about time for that not-so-dead husband of Adele's to show up and he does. Turns out that he had been a German prisoner of war and he switched names with a dead pal and went to work for a Manhattan advertising agency...(not really, just seeing if you are paying attention). He needs money to stay gone, but Legrand eagerly offers to hand Adele over to him right there. However, it seems her first hubby hasn't been a good boy while he was gone and if he tried to reclaim his life, he might face criminal charges. He suggests the same exact plan that Chris did in Scarlet Street. Legrand goes home to pack and Adele is ready for another round, but feeling as if the burden has been lifted off his shoulder, Maurice wants no part. He tells Adele that their marriage, "Tis a habit born of a long misunderstanding which brought us to exist in the same bed for several years." This part of La Chienne is one section I think it gives us that I felt Lang cheated the viewer out of in Scarlet Street. Whereas in the later film, all we hear is Adele's scream as her first husband enters her bedroom, Renoir shows us the whole reunion, including a great speech for Simon witnessed by neighbors that lets him leave the apartment with some sense of dignity instead of sneaking out with a giggle.
When Legrand arrives at Lulu giddily announcing his freedom and asking Lulu to marry him, her character undergoes an abrupt switch that we've really seen no hints of before. If the words came from Kitty, they'd be expected, but Lulu's turn is too sudden. At first, she just denies Legrand by admitting that Dédé isn't just her pimp, he's her boyfriend, and a dejected Legrand leaves angry. He comes back and tries to talk sense to her, saying that Dédé is no good for her, but then Lulu starts getting nasty and laughing at him. "What a fool I was. You make me sick," Legrand tells her. "You think it didn't make me sick? If it wasn't for your money, I'd have dropped you like a hot potato," she spits. "You wanted to be loved for your sweet self, What a laugh." The anger keeps rising in Legrand. "You aren't a woman. You a are a bitch," Maurice tells Lulu. "You lick the hand that feeds you and the hand that beats you too." Lulu just keeps laughing and it's too much for him and he stabs her to death.
Pretty much the rest plays out the same as well. Dédé goes down for the crime. Legrand gets caught for stealing from the wholesaler and only gets fired, though the investigator also figures out he did it for a woman and tells him, "It's a dangerous thing to have affairs at our age. They usually mean trouble — better to be quiet at home." However, as the puppets indicated at the beginning, the story proves nothing and though Legrand ends up a bum on the streets, he's not haunted the way Chris is in Scarlet Street. In fact, the ending almost has a comical air to it. We see Legrand years later, wandering the streets as a bum when another bum gets his attention. It turns out to be Adele's first husband. Legrand asks how she is and the man laughs and says she kicked off years ago. He asks Legrand what he's been up to and he tells him the truth about killing a woman, another man paying for the crime and losing his job for stealing, but he shares it with a sort of delighted air and the two men, who really only had the shrewish Adele in common, walk off together laughing as the curtain of the puppet stage falls again.
As enjoyable as La Chienne is and as many great touches as Renoir brings to the material, it really can't be called a noir. Renoir's approach, as with most of the master's films (and remember, this was only his second sound feature) took a humanistic approach. So many of Renoir's movies were remade by other directors, that it's truly fascinating to watch the different takes. Lang also remade Renoir's La Bête Humaine as Human Desire, Kurosawa remade The Lower Depths and Paul Mazursky turned Boudu into Down and Out in Beverly Hills. While most remakes are pointless wastes of time, when a Renoir work gets redone by a strong director, it's guaranteed to at least be interesting because it's damn near impossible to imitate Renoir's style so it forces a thorough rethinking of the material instead of just a carbon copy. That's why the same story works well whether it's approached lyrically as by Renoir or bleakly and suspensefully as by Lang.
The most tragic, dramatic and noirish part of La Chienne actually happened offscreen. Georges Flamant, who played Dédé, wasn't a professional actor but really was a criminal that Renoir thought would be perfect for the part. Meanwhile, as often happens on a movie set, Michel Simon and Janie Marèze not only played lovers onscreen, they assumed the role in real life as well. Unfortunately, while Flamant was driving Marèze to the premiere, he wrecked his car and she was killed. A despondent Simon actually fainted at her graveside funeral. Later, he pulled a gun on Renoir (how Herzog-Kinski!), threatening to kill him because he blamed him for hiring someone such as Flamant in the first place. Renoir reportedly told him to go ahead and kill him for he already had his film. Needless to say, Simon didn't kill Renoir and worked with him again on his next film and Renoir went on to make even greater films.
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No one escapes punishment
By Edward Copeland
When we last left this writer, disappointed by the ending of the previous noir collaboration of director Fritz Lang and co-stars Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, The Woman in the Window, I had rushed to re-watch that trio's second teaming, Scarlet Street, which I'd seen years before and remembered quite fondly. (Actually, it's a quartet, since Dan Duryea returns as well in a role even more pivotal than the one he played in The Woman in the Window.) I was pleased to find that Scarlet Street was not only as good as I recalled but, in fact, was even better upon repeat viewing. Certainly Lang had directed one of the greatest examples of the noir genre, stock full of a multitude of twists, great characters and what may be Edward G. Robinson's finest screen performance. I also learned (or was reminded: I may have known this and forgotten) that Scarlet Street was an American remake of Jean Renoir's fine 1931 film La Chienne. Both were based on the same novel by Georges de La Fouchardière, which shared the name of Renoir's film, and had been adapted as a play by André Mouézy-Éon. Since Renoir's film happened to be in my DVD collection, after I finished my return trip to Scarlet Street, I felt it only appropriate to also revisit La Chienne. As with yesterday's post, there will be SPOILERS GALORE.
As any good noir should, Lang opens Scarlet Street with a nighttime shot of Manhattan pavement, glistening and rain-soaked in the darkness. The street bustles with activity: People walking dogs, strolling about, ducking in and out of stores and other establishments and a very nice looking automobile pulling up to the curb where an organ grinder entertains the woman inside with his monkey. We rise above that scene and through the window of the building next to where the car has parked and a celebration is going on. Men, all dressed in tuxedos, stand as their boss J.J. Hogarth (Russell Hicks) salutes one of his bank's employees, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson). Hogarth praises Cross as a 14-karat, 17 jeweled cashier and in recognition of his 25 years of faithful service gives him a memento to equal the compliment: an engraved gold pocketwatch marking those dates from 1909-1934. Cross, a meek and quiet man, doesn't quite know what to say, but he tells J.J. that he's touched. They open champagne and begin to mingle. As Chris chats with Charlie Pringle (Samuel S. Hinds), J.J. joins them and offers some of his high-priced cigars, which they willingly accept. J.J. lights his own, then Pringle's and asks Chris if he's superstitious, but Cross says no, though behind his back he has his fingers crossed, and J.J. lights Chris' stogie on the same match. Three on a match. Perhaps Chris has good reason to be superstitious given what is about to happen to his life. J.J. excuses himself from the party for another engagement and soon after his departure, some of the other guys call everybody to the window where they see J.J. getting into the car with the young woman who was being entertained by the monkey. The boss is stepping out, they all agree, and with a young one, too.
Chris Cross (besides having a bit too cute of a name for this type of a picture) really has nothing in common with Professor Richard Wanley from The Woman in the Window beyond their similar age and the same actor bringing each to life on the screen. Wanley displayed a keen intellect and an instinct for thinking calmly and rationally under pressure (even if it did turn out to be a dream). He'd earned a doctorate and respect as a teacher of higher education and settled down with wife and two kids, though there were hints of a playboy past in Wanley's youthful years. Cross may belong to the same age group as Wanley, but he acts as if he's decades older. He's the walking definition of a sad sack, convinced he's a loser because he never realized his dream or found true love. Chris has a wife, but it's a marriage borne of convenience and boredom that came late in life and a loveless one at that. He's henpecked by his wife Adele, who constantly reminds him how he doesn't live up to her late first husband. This night of limited revelry, with the gift of the nice watch, means a lot to the lonely man, even though as his co-workers all rush to project their envy of J.J. for having such a dish on the side while he has a wife at home, Chris doesn't even want to look at it and asks Charlie to leave the party with him.
Whereas Professor Wanley of The Woman in the Window would have enjoyed staying with friends, drinking and reminiscing about youthful indiscretions, Cross has no stories to share, so he's relieved when he and Charlie get outside, even though they find a downpour has started. The rain doesn't dampen Cross' optimism as he clumsily opens his umbrella, admitting he's a little drunk but smiling and telling Pringle that there's "nothing like the smell of spring." He realizes that Charlie didn't bring an umbrella, so Chris offers to walk with him to his bus stop. Besides, Cross feels a bit lonely tonight and isn't eager for the journey back to Brooklyn and the shrewish Adele. The two co-workers barely miss a bus, so they have some time to talk, standing beneath Cross' umbrella in front of a closed jewelry store. Chris asks Charlie if he really thinks J.J. is running around with that girl and Pringle responds that it would appear that way. "I wonder what it's like," Chris asks his friend, "to be loved by a young girl like that." He admits that they were never interested in him even when he was their age. He confesses to Pringle that when he was young, he always planned to be a painter, a great artist, but look at him now. What is he? A cashier. "When we are young, we have dreams that never pan out, but we go on dreaming," Charlie tells him. He asks Chris if he still paints and Cross replies that he does, every Sunday. It's the only joy he has in his life. He invites Pringle to drop by the next day to look at his work and Charlie says he will. Then his bus arrives and he bids Chris goodnight as the melancholy cashier continues his lonely walk in the driving rain.
As Chris gets himself turned around in the streets of Greenwich Village, he notices the rain has stopped, so he folds his umbrella and asks a police officer which way it is to the subway line he's seeking to get back to Brooklyn. The cop gives him directions and Chris thanks him and moves along. In the distance, he witnesses a troubling sight — a man in a straw hat (what the hell is it with Lang and those straw hats?) knocking a woman around, even kicking her once she's on the pavement. Something overtakes Chris and he rushes in and strikes the man with his umbrella, knocking the attacker to the ground. Cross isn't completely courageous though, because he raises his umbrella immediately to shield his own face, anticipating another blow. The woman (Joan Bennett) sits up and moves her chin from side to side and checks her neck. Her first words aren't one of gratitude to Chris for coming to her rescue, but ones of concern for the assailant, asking Chris if he thinks he's hurt. Chris says he doesn't know, but he'll get the police and books it back for the officer he just had contact with a few moments before. The woman nudges the man (Dan Duryea) awake. When Chris returns with the officer, the woman stands alone, saying the man got mad when he mugged her and she only had a few bucks on her and that when he came to, he took off running and she couldn't detain him. She points the officer in the direction he ran and the policeman heads that way in hopes of apprehending the fugitive mugger.
Once Chris finds himself alone with the woman, he offers to walk her home, which she accepts. Her apartment building turns out not to be too far from where they were and when they arrive, Chris asks her if she'd join him for a cup of coffee at the joint downstairs from her place and she obliges. When they get inside, she asks the bartender if he's seen Johnny, but the barkeep says not since earlier. The woman changes her mind on the coffee and orders something harder, a scotch and soda. Chris follows suit and the pair take a table where she introduces herself as Katharine March, though her friends call her Kitty. She laughs when he tells her his name is Chris Cross and he admits to taking a lot of ribbing for it as a child. Cross starts to feel strange being out with someone so young and beautiful. "I'm old enough to be your father," he tells her. Kitty, already seeing a possible mark tries to reassure him, telling him he's "just mature." He asks why she was out so late and she blames it on her job. Chris guesses that Kitty is an actress and she says it's true but when he asks if she's in anything he might have seen, she tells him the show closed that night. She takes her turn at guessing Chris' occupation (Remember: He's wearing a tux) and at first guesses banker but before Cross can correct her, even though she was close, Kitty decides that can't be it. He was wandering in the village so he's probably a successful artist and Chris lies and lets the charade go on, pretending that his dream of being a painter actually exists. "Painting is the most fun I know," he confesses." Before they leave, Kitty takes the flower from the vase on the table and gives it to Chris, telling him to paint it for her. After their drinks, he walks her back to her step. She says she'd invite him up, but she wouldn't want to disturb her roommate Millie. He asks if he can call her sometime, but Kitty hesitates and suggests that she write him instead. As she turns around to go inside, Chris asks before leaving, "Who is Johnny?" Kitty turns suddenly and sharply at the question. "What?" He reminds her he asked the bartender about someone named Johnny. Kitty claims Johnny is Millie's boyfriend and she was just checking because she didn't want to burst in on them.
Once Chris arrives home, he does his best not to disturb Adele (Rosalind Ivan), but he wakes her anyway. He apologizes, but it doesn't stop the complaining. Usually, it prompts her to bring up how wonderful her first husband, the late Detective Sgt. Higgins, the decorated policeman whose portrait hovers above them over the couch in the living room. Higgins died trying to save a woman from drowning, though neither body was ever found. Chris gets a respite the next morning when there's a knock on the door. It's Charlie Pringle. Chris speaks loudly, so Pringle won't blow his story from the night before, talking about what a party that was last night and saying what time it lasted until, extending it until he had left Kitty. Pringle plays along. Charlie asks if he's done any painting yet that day and Chris takes him into the bathroom to show him what he's done so far with the flower Kitty gave him. The painting surprises Charlie since the flower in the painting doesn't resemble the real one he's looking at sitting on the sink. Chris explains that in art, it's not so much what you see as what you feel. At the moment, the bathroom door open and Adele shrieks because she's in her slip. She gripes that there's no privacy, even in her own apartment. Chris apologizes and says they were just getting out of the way. Chris removes the easel and his paints and exits with Pringle. When Adele enters, she looks at the flower with disdain and tosses it in the trash. Outside, Charlie asks how long Chris has been married. Chris tells him just three years. It turns out that when Adele's husband died, she wanted to hang on to his life insurance, so she took Chris in as a boarder. They got to be friendly and eventually married.
Kitty fills Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), the man who supposedly mugged her but who's actually her boyfriend, in on the details of her talk with Chris, telling him that he's a successful artist and that he mentioned that some of the greatest artists can sell their works for as much as $50,000. Johnny's eyes fill with dollar signs and he tells Lazy Legs (his pet name for Kitty) that she should string him along so they can milk him for some cash. Johnny wants to get enough cash together so he can buy a stake in a garage and then eventually force out his partners so he and Kitty can be on "easy street." Kitty isn't sure how easy it will be to pull off, but Johnny suggests giving it a try as he heads for the door just as her roommate Millie (Margaret Lindsay) comes home. Millie doesn't hide her disdain for Johnny and tells Kitty she should really go back to work. Dumping Johnny wouldn't be a bad idea either. Kitty asks Millie if she's trying to be her guardian angel, but Millie says, "Not me, honey. I lost those wings a long time ago." Kitty swears that her feelings for Johnny are genuine, adding that, "You wouldn't know love if it hit you in the face." If that's where it hits ya, you oughta know," Millie replies. Kitty goes to her bedroom to write to Chris about getting her money for a new apartment.
Though she hasn't shown her true colors yet, even in private, Kitty March belongs in the film noir femme fatale hall of fame. She's part of a team, with Johnny Prince being the real schemer, but Kitty for all her professions of love for Johnny can't really have the capacity for true affection because she lacks either a heart or a soul. She's beastly. As I mentioned, the source material for Scarlet Street is the same novel and play that Jean Renoir adapted for his 1931 film of the same name La Chienne, which translates to "The Bitch." Calling Kitty a bitch gives bitches a bad name. Kitty's equivalent in Renoir's film, Lulu, doesn't quite equal Kitty in terms of reprehensible characters. I haven't read the novel or the play La Chienne, so I don't know how Lulu originated, but I can't imagine the authors envisioned a character like the Kitty March that Joan Bennett, aided by Lang's direction and Dudley Nichols' script, brought to the screen. When Josh R wrote about "Lazy Legs" in his Centennial Tribute to Joan Bennett, Josh described Kitty as "a particularly slovenly specimen of femme fatale, of a strain that would make Double Indemnity's Phyllis Dietrichson seem downright genteel by comparison. Indeed, Bennett’s Kitty March...had the dubious distinction of being the most graceless, classless and altogether vulgar piece of cheap fluff ever to make an appearance in high-grade film noir." What makes Scarlet Street all the more fascinating is that while Johnny and Kitty are working a scam on poor Chris Cross, neither of them are bright enough to figure out he's been lying to them the entire time about being a successful artist when he's really just the downtrodden husband of a shrewish wife who works as a cashier at a bank — and that's just the basics of Scarlet Street. More twists will be added to the story and somehow Nichols' screenplay and Lang's direction keeps all these plates spinning in the air.
Back in the movie, Chris receives a letter from Kitty, asking for help. She says she needs money for her own apartment because Millie wants a place of her own. Chris isn't sure what to do, since he's not really a rich artist. When he's at the bank, he starts to pocket some cash, but then he thinks better of it. He goes to one of his co-workers and asks if he'd able to get a loan for $500 and even suggests a payment plan, but the loan officer says he'd need a co-signer and some property as collateral, so he abandons that idea. He makes contacts with Kitty and asks her to meet him for a lunch. Lang films a wonderful crane shot that starts above the trees of a little park as it slowly moves down to an outdoor cafe where Chris and Kitty have met for lunch. Physically, you can see the change in Chris (or Robinson). Cross began looking as a beaten, older man, but the attention Kitty shows him seems to have lightened him and make him younger. Kitty stays focused on his art and what prices he gets. Chris dances carefully around the subject, never specifically saying what he gets for his paintings, but talking about what people pay for the masters. He also expounds on his thoughts about art in general. "Every painting if it's any good," Chris tells her, "is like a love affair." He also tells her to look for a place and he'll get her the deposit.
No sooner has Chris returned home than Adele resumes nagging. This time the subject concerns the smell of his paints and how the smell interrupts her sleep. On top of that, he spends so much of what little he makes on art supplies, she can't even afford a radio so she's forced to go downstairs and listen with the neighbors. Chris suggests that Adele could always use part of her late husband's life insurance bonds to buy herself one, but she refuses. Those bonds are for her old age. Chris, more than tired of this routine, especially after spending quality time with Kitty, has sat down at the kitchen table for dinner. Adele tells him, "I'd been better off as a widow. Now I'm stuck." "So am I," he concurs. Adele, surprised at signs of a spine, asks if Chris has been drinking, even asking to check his breath for any indication of alcohol. She then finally heads downstairs to listen to her show. Once she's left, Chris unlocks a drawer in a bedroom bureau and takes out a box. In it, he finds the stack of Adele's life insurance bonds and he pockets one. He suddenly hears a noise and quickly puts everything back. He returns to the living room and finds that Adele has come back. She asks what he was doing, but he doesn't really give an answer and she doesn't seem to care. The neighbors' radio went out. She sure wishes she had one and if she did, it would be better than the type they have. Chris tells her that she doesn't have to worry about his paints. A friend has just taken a new apartment in Greenwich Village and agreed to let him keep his supplies and paintings there. Adele says that if they want to deal with the smell, they're welcome to them.
Johnny and Kitty are checking out her new Greenwich Village apartment (with rent of $150 a month — drool New Yorkers — drool) when they hear someone coming. Johnny worries that it's Chris, but Kitty assures him that he has a key and it's just Millie, checking out the new place. However, soon it is Chris who arrives. Thinking fast (and recalling her story from the first night she met him), Kitty introduces Johnny as Millie's boyfriend (which takes Millie by surprise — and horror at such a thought). Chris asks Johnny if they might have met somewhere, because he looks familiar, but Johnny says he doesn't think so. Millie tells everyone that she needs to get going and Johnny tells his "girlfriend" that he'll come with her. Chris tells Kitty that something rubs him wrong about Johnny, but fortunately for her he doesn't recall him as the man who was beating up Kitty the night he met. I guess Chris was too drunk and the lighting too dark for him to pay close enough attention to Johnny's face (He did immediately cover his face with his umbrella and sprint for the cop after all). He brings in many of paintings and his supplies. Once he's alone with Kitty, Chris' demeanor brightens again. He tells Kitty that he feels happy for the first time in his life, but he doesn't seem to notice how Kitty winces when Chris kisses her. When he leaves, we see that Johnny has been hiding at the restaurant downstairs from the apartment. In a very nice touch, the film fades from the image of the hiding Johnny to a painting of Chris' that shows a snake wrapped around one of the steel girders propping up an elevated train.
When Johnny returns to the apartment, the snake painting catches his eye. "Poor sap must be a hophead seeing snakes on the El," he tells Kitty. She has other issues on her mind. "He tried to kiss me today — and don't think I enjoyed it." Johnny tells her to relax. They need to milk this cash cow some more before she cuts him loose. Prince starts looking seriously at the paintings and wondering if they really are worth anything. He also thinks it's strange that he doesn't sign any of them. Johnny decides to look further, so he takes the snake painting to a street artist (Vladimir Sokoloff) to ask what he thinks it might be worth. The vendor says that his best guess would be $20 to $30 at most. He says it "has no perspective." He asks if Johnny is looking to sell it on consignment, because he would, but he wouldn't get too hopeful because few people seem interested in buying art anymore. Johnny leaves the painting and goes back to Kitty with a smug look on his face, telling her that Chris is a fraud. While he's there, Chris happens to arrive and Johnny says he was looking over his art and mentions that Chris has a problem with perspective, doesn't he? Chris admits that it's always been his weakness. Johnny heads off and Kitty tells him she's having money trouble again since she bought everything for the apartment on credit. Later after Chris leaves, Kitty gets back with Johnny and tells him he better get that painting back before Chris notices it's missing. When Johnny heads back toward the street artist, the man gets very excited, saying he didn't know how to contact him. The art critic from the newspaper loved the painting and bought it and wanted to get in touch with the artist and he didn't know how to get a hold of him. Something about this makes Johnny jumpy and he runs off.
For the first time, Chris actually steals from his bank — and he's almost caught. He waits until after everyone has left, only J.J. stops by his station to have him cash a check. Luckily, he doesn't see Chris' theft. The developments start happening in Scarlet Street at such a dizzying pace at this point, it's easy to get lost as to what happens when. You have no trouble keeping up while you're watching, but trying to recall it, puts you in a bit of a haze, but Lang directs the film as if he's driving a car that doesn't have any brakes. Around this same time, the street artist finally tracks down Johnny at Kitty's and brings with him the art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker) and the owner of the Dellarowe Gallery (Arthur Loft). They heap praise upon the artwork and want to know who painted them. As no one speaks up, Johnny finally speaks up and names Kitty as the artist, saying she's shy about her work, that's why she doesn't even sign them. Kitty storms out onto the balcony. Johnny encourages Janeway to go try to talk to her. Janeway tells her that he's usually pretty good at guessing the gender of an artist and he would have never thought that a woman painted that. "It has a masculine force," the critic says. Kitty stops pouting and flirts with the critic a bit. Dellarowe says he'd be interested in taking everything she's done, but she needs to sign them first. After the visitors leave, Kitty tells Johnny, "If I had any sense, I'd walk out on you." "You haven't got any sense," Johnny replies as he hands her a pen so she can start signing the paintings.
Even though I gave a spoiler warning at the outset, Scarlet Street puts you in such an infectious mood that you just want to talk about all its details, I'm going to try to wrap this up with quick highlights of what happens from this point on. Adele happens to wander by Dellarowe Gallery and sees the paintings complete with Kitty's signatures. She returns home where Chris tells her he got the liver she wanted and he's preparing in the kitchen. Adele isn't interested in the liver. She's too busy accusing Chris of copying some famous artist's work. She says she always knew he couldn't have any real artistic talent, but then she's frightened by the large knife he's holding that he was using to slice the liver. You'd expect Chris to get mad at what Kitty has done, but he buys Kitty's tearful excuse that she needed money and she didn't want to ask him for more, so she sold his paintings under his name. Chris says that's fine. If he'd tried to sell them under his own name, they would have been rejected because he's "a failure." He agrees to keep painting and letting her put her name on his works, starting with a self-portrait. At the same time, Johnny and Kitty begin to set Janeway up as another potential mark. The art critic describes Kitty's self-portrait as "Mona Lisa without the smile" and in an article he writes about her says that at times, it seems to him that she's like two people.
A general rule applies to pretty much every type of fictional story, no matter the genre. Be it horror or mystery, soap opera or noir. When you hear the words, "no body was found," you can safely bet that said missing corpse will turn up with a pulse and so it is the case with Adele's not-so-late first husband Detective Sgt. Higgins (Charles Kemper), who turns up looking disheveled with a patch on his eye and not particularly interested in reuniting with his wife. Instead, he pops in to see Chris demanding money to stay missing. Chris tells him he doesn't have the amount of money Higgins says he needs, but Adele has a whole bunch of bonds she collected on his life insurance when they declared him dead. It would be wrong for Chris to try to take them and just give them to him, but tonight is the night Adele goes to the theater. Chris suggests that Higgins just come in to the apartment — Chris will give him the key and signal when it's safe — and he can take the bonds himself. Higgins goes for the plan. That night, Chris waits in the dark with a packed suitcase. He gives the signal and Higgins comes in, only Adele is in the bedroom and you hear her scream. Chris can't contain his giggles as he takes his suitcase and leaves the apartment for good.
Unfortunately for Chris, he doesn't find what he expects to when he gets to Kitty's apartment. Kitty and Johnny have grown careless and he catches them in an embrace and he leaves heartbroken. Johnny blows up at Kitty for talking him into staying the night. Now she's probably blown the whole scam. She better learn to paint, he tells her before storming out. Kitty calls Millie to share her sob story. Millie warns her to be wary of Johnny, but Kitty says that Johnny couldn't kill a fly. When Millie suggests that she shouldn't be so fast to write off Chris since he obviously loves her. "If he were mean or vicious or if he'd bawl me out or something, I'd like him better," Kitty tells her friend. It's a sign of how warped Kitty March truly is. It doesn't excuse her actions, but it does show that something happened in her past that makes her equate abuse with affection. Meanwhile, both of the men in her life are out doing some heavy drinking.
Despite the kick in the teeth that Chris took, he returns to Kitty the next morning professing his love and asking her to marry him. Kitty unbears her claws this time. She buries her face in her pillow and Chris thinks she's crying. "I'm not crying, you fool. I'm laughing," Kitty tells him. "You're an idiot. How can one man be so dumb?" She doesn't stop there. She tells Chris that he's old and ugly and that he disgusts her. Chris can't believe what he's hearing. Kitty points to the door and tells him to get out, but Chris grabs the ice pick from the tray next to him and proceeds to stab her to death. He's shocked by what he's done and flees the apartment, but he doesn't want to rush out until he knows it's safe, so he hides behind the stairs. At the same time, a drunk Johnny returns. When Kitty doesn't answer the buzzer, he breaks the glass on the door to open it and goes upstairs. Eventually, Johnny gets put on the hook for the crime since no one believes his story that Chris really painted the pictures and Chris denies doing it, but Chris won't get off easily either.
Following the trial and conviction of Johnny Prince for Kitty Burke's murder, Chris gets called into J.J.'s office at work where two policemen happen to be waiting. It seems that an audit uncovered missing funds — $1,200 to be exact — and traced it back to Chris. The officers prepare to arrest Chris, but J.J. says that won't be necessary, he's not pressing charges. He thanks them and they leave. Chris apologizes and tells J.J. he'll pay him back. J.J. tells him that won't be necessary, but he will have to fire him. J.J. then asks Chris if he did it for a woman and Chris nods yes. J.J. says he thought that was the case. On the train ride back to his new residence, Chris happens to be recognized by some reporters going to cover Johnny's execution. They are discussing whether anyone can get away with a crime and one of the reporters argues that no one goes unpunished. He points to his heart and, referring to guilt, says it moves in there. "In solitary forever. They keep punishing themselves."
The reporter's words prove prophetic. Once Chris returns to the hovel he now calls home, the flashing lights and strange shadows mix with voices in his head to start slowly driving him mad. He even tries to hang himself, but neighbors save him. Unemployed, he's eventually on the streets, being kicked off park benches by cops. They get to know him, saying he'll tell anyone who will listen that he's responsible for two murders and he deserves to be tried and executed, but everyone just thinks he's a nut. The movie ends with the shell of what once was Christopher Cross just aimlessly wandering the streets, waiting to die. Scarlet Street turns out brilliant on every level, perfectly juggling its complicated mix of characters and plot turns. For what it's worth, that reporter, only in the movie for a single scene, turns out to be right: Every character who deserves punishment gets punished, just not necessarily for the misdeeds they committed.
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