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Tragica notte (1942)
Powerful Italian drama of love, hatred, and revenge
This remarkable, and entirely forgotten, film TRAGICA NOTTE (TRAGIC NIGHT) was released in 1942 during the War. It is set in the years 1922-4 and is based upon a novel by Delfino Cinelli. It was filmed on location in a wild part of the Tuscan hills and in Florence. It is truly astonishing for anyone familiar with Florence to see what it looked like in 1941. Many of the scenes are along the streets which run beside the River Arno. Apart from the car of Count Paolo, a character in the story, there are no other cars to be seen, and there are no people in the streets either. Florence is seen as a large 'country market town' for the locals only and not a tourist to be seen. Of course, it was wartime, but Florence without a sea of tourists, a state of affairs which seems like an unimaginable dream today, is here to be seen with our very own eyes. Even more extraordinary are the scenes in the Tuscan hills and the hill town situated there, which is not named. The roads outside that town are all dirt roads, people go around on horseback and the men all carry shotguns slung over their shoulders nonchalantly as they stroll through the town, go in and out of shops, and play cards and drink in the local bar. There are also lengthy and fascinating shots of the threshing process on the farms. So this film portrays a very ethnic and primitive Tuscany where blood feuds are entirely normal, and passions run high. Central to the story is a young woman named Arminida, called for short Armida, who is played by Doris Duranti (credited here as Dori Duranti). She is a typical 'Italian good girl' who falls crazily in love, and then alas falls crazily in love a second time. (I did say passions run high, didn't I?) Duranti plays this role with great restraint, using her eyes to convey what she is feeling, and is thoroughly convincing in the role. The whole film is really very restrained and the only over-acting is the intentionally comedic part of Duranti's mother, played hilariously by Amelia Chellini as a caricature of a bossy 'Italian mama' who cannot stop blathering, criticising, and hurling insults around like confetti. This bit of light relief in a very intense tale must have delighted the Italian audiences, the men recognising their own mothers-in-law and guffawing, and the women giggling into their handkerchiefs somewhat nervously. The film begins with a group of four men with shotguns and bandanas luring the gamekeeper Stefano into an ambush, jumping him and beating him unconscious. Stefano had come riding furiously along a high ridge, silhouetted against the sky, his shotgun around his shoulder, and this dramatic opener certainly shows us an expert horseman navigating dangerous terrain at tremendous speed, which pretty well sets the atmosphere for the whole story, which is one of unremitting intensity. The man who organised the beating of Stefano and nearly thrashed him to death is the character Nanni. He had a grievance against Stefano and in the normal way of hill people let his fury be known with his fists. (Why speak when you can smash?) Stefano therefore harbours a deep grudge after this, which he cannily conceals for two years until he can get his revenge. He concocts a highly complex web of deceit to lure Nanni into a trap where he can safely kill him. (The Tuscan hills in the old days was clearly no place for half measures.) The scheme centres round the coincidence that Nanni's wife Armida had encountered the local magnate Count Paolo (whose gamekeeper Stefano is) while in Florence, fallen for him while her husband was in prison, and although there had been no intimacy between them, Stefano convinces Nanni that there was. Nanni and Paolo had been best friends as children, thus heightening the drama. The genie of Othello having been let out of the bottle, events hurtle towards an uncertain climax. Who will kill whom first? This is high drama for sure, as we are dealing with uncompromising characters who do not know what it means to 'draw a line', much less to 'move on'. As the pressure builds, we leave them, since I must not under any circumstances reveal how this ends. The film with English subtitles may be obtained from Movie Detective, and apparently from nowhere else.
The aftermath in Berlin, no details spared
This film, STEET ACQUAINTANCES, is powerful and deeply harrowing. Its German title is STRASSENBEKANNTSCHAFT, which literally means something like 'the friendship of the streets'. (IMDb does not list the German title of this film in its index, only its English title.) The film was shot, largely on location in Berlin, during 1947. Many of the leading actors and actresses such as Gisela Trowe, Alice Treff. Siegmar Schneider and Harry Hindemith who give such brilliant performances in this film went on to have lengthy and successful careers in German postwar cinema, and have now died. The film is a highly realistic and upsetting portrayal of what life was like in Berlin in the aftermath of the War. It is so disturbing that it is understandable that IMDb has no review or even plot information about this film, as contemporary Germans would prefer not to know about such things, or to be forced to think of what their parents and grandparents were up to during those hard times. The writer Arthur Pohl and director Peter Pewas spare no details of the grim tale, and the direction and dialogue are so good that we feel that we are really observing people struggling to survive and facing all the daily hardships. They speak of how they are all living in 'holes' because their homes were all bombed, they have no possessions left, they have cardboard in their windows because they can find no glass, the walls have huge gaping cracks, there is very little light, and they live their lives mostly on the streets. Berlin is full of women driven to prostitution just for a loaf of bread. Everyone is starving except for the usual criminal profiteers, who sneer and take whatever woman they want, in return for one good meal or a single cigarette. Shots of the characters walking along the streets show rows and rows of women offering themselves for a pittance, women who had once been wives with homes and husbands. Part of the drama concerns a soldier who has finally returned home after three years in a prisoner of war camp. There is a dramatic scene where his wife, who is working as a tram conductor, spots him walking home in the street with his suitcase and stops the tram, jumps off and they have a passionate and joyous reunion in the street in front of everyone. All the people in the stopped tram watch this rare sight, of one who really came back, with all their mixed feelings. But things do not go well for this couple because it turns out that the wife had turned to prostitution as well during those years. She had not received her husband's many letters from the POW camp because they had been sent to their old address of a house bombed out of existence. Later we discover that she has syphilis, and she infects her husband before he knows of her infidelities, and then he passes it on to a young girl. In the latter part of the film, the full horror of the prostitution situation is revealed, as hospital doctors and nurses reveal that ten percent of the women of Berlin now have venereal diseases, and many of those are cases of syphilis. The character played by Alice Treff has had much of her back eaten away by the disease. The police are raiding restaurants and bars and rounding up all the women they can find, to try to contain this plague of syphilis. There are no jobs, there is no money, and despite this the characters try desperately to get some fun out of life, and even show flickers of humour. In one instance, a man says dryly and in an offhand manner to a lady friend visiting his flat, as he takes her to look out of the window: 'This is where the balcony was. It's on the ground now.' Many of the supporting cast deliver excellent performances and make something of characters seen only fleetingly, such as Agnes Windeck as the 'Krankenschwester' (senior hospital nurse). The total collapse of moral values, the bankruptcy of all decency, and the grinding hopelessness of a defeated nation are shown here in relentless detail, entirely convincingly. Kindness has largely disappeared, and Berlin has become a jungle where only the cunning and unscrupulous can survive. This is the aftermath of German Nazism. It is here for all to see. But does anyone have the courage to look? This rare film is available with English subtitles from Movie Detective.
A simple and beautiful film
This is a Marcel Pagnol project. Naïs Micoulin is the name of the young girl whose story this is. Pagnol wrote the script as an adaptation of a short story by Émile Zola, entitled 'Naïs Micoulin'. As usual with Zola, uncontrolled passions and violent acts occur in this tale, as it explores the perverse sides of human nature. Pagnol did the initial narration for the tale and apparently acted as an uncredited Executive Producer. The film is set in Provence, Pagnol's territory, and has beautiful shots of the countryside and seaside. The role of Naïs is played by Jacqueline Bouvier, who became Jacqueline Pagnol (and only died in 2016 at the age of 95). Jacqueline later made several films with Pagnol and was the original Manon in the first film of Manon des Sources (1952), which Pagnol directed. But the shining star of this film is the incomparable Fernandel. Here he plays a hunchback named Toine who works in a ceramics factory. He is the childhood friend of Naïs and has always been desperately in love with her. But she is very beautiful and he is physically deformed so that she has no romantic thoughts about him. Aged 18 and radiant with her youthful beauty, but not very bright, Naïs cannot avoid arousing the interest of various males, but her father is insanely jealous and says he will never permit her to marry or leave him. In fact, as the story progresses, we discover that he is really not merely deranged but homicidal. When country girl Naïs falls in love with a dashing young fellow 'from the town' (Aix en Provence) her father sets about planning the young man's murder. The heartbreak of Fernandel and the insanity of Naïs's father are the bizarre backdrop to the love affair between Naïs and the boy. This film is simple, direct, and honest. There is plenty of sentimentality, but none of it is false sentimentality such as one gets from the saccharine fantasies of Hollywood, where subtlety has always been unknown. This film is 'made straight from the heart'. It may lack the contemporary cynicism which is so fashionable today, and could be accused of innocence (the greatest crime of the present time's knowing sneers). But this is a magnificent work of honest cinema, where morality is taken seriously and held up to the light, where the differences between rural and urban people are examined with a mixture of humour and despair, and where the issue of physical disability is shoved in our faces so that we are forced to think about it. And above it all, the childlike charm of Fernandel glows like a sunrise.
One of the great classic films
This is a film of Leo Tolstoy's famous novel RESURRECTION. It is an epic made on the grand scale with brilliant direction, acting, and cinematography. It was made in black and white, which considering the nature of the story gives it more appropriate atmosphere and intensity. It appears that this magnificent achievement is essentially unknown outside Russia, and it has never been reviewed on IMDb until now. The film is so impressive it really ought to be given a fresh launch with a band and drums and cannons fired in salute. Mikhail Shvejtser (1920-2000) was the director, and he proves without question that he was a truly great master. He directed only 16 films in his career, which lasted from 1949 to 1993. The next to last was another Tolstoy tale, THE KREUTZER SONATA (KREYTSEROVA SONATA), in 1992. He made films of some Chekhov stories and a TV series of Nikolai Gogol's DEAD SOULS (1984). The other spectacular feature of this film is the lead female performance as Katyusha Maslova by the young actress Tamara Syomina. If this film had not been made in the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War, the film and Syomina would probably both have won Oscars; but instead, no one in the West even knew it existed. Syomina is so outstanding that it is difficult to take one's eyes off her for long enough to see anyone else on the screen. Evgeniy Matveev is perfect as Prince Nekhlyudov, whose character transformation from selfish spoilt rich man to compassion and a social conscience during the course of the film is akin to a resurrection. All the cast are excellent. The cinematography is heavily influenced by German Expressionism, and there are inspired closeups such as one of a door latch which goes up and down as Katyusha hesitates whether to open it or not. The entire story depends upon whether she opens that door. The infrastructure and mechanics of a courtroom, the preparations by the judges, the shuffling of papers, the behaviour of the jurors, are all examined under a microscope. The satire of the Tsarist regime is expressed so subtly that it was clearly just enough to satisfy the Soviet censors but mild enough for us to say that this is not really a political film at all. 'The System' is relentlessly exposed. But the story is essentially one about human character and conscience. There are no war scenes. The time is the end of the 19th century (Tolstoy died in 1910), a time when everything seemed normal on the surface but when everything was bubbling up to the unsuccessful Revolution of 1905 (an event commemorated by Boris Pasternak's long epic poem THE YEAR 1905). The film does not preach; we can see the social injustices without anyone trying to tell us what to think about them. The scene when Prince Nekhlyudov is surrounded by staring and silent village urchins, and instead of ignoring them begins to talk to them and ask them about their lives, is heart-breaking. The film deals with some of the deepest issues of human morality. It is an overwhelming experience and deserves to be seen widely. It is, frankly, a masterpiece. I obtained a copy with English subtitles from Movie Detective.
The Good Soldier Schwejk (2018)
Christine Edzard Rides Again
Here she comes, Britain's leading independent and 100% original filmmaker, stirring things up again. Christine Edzard has this time adapted the famous anti-war satire novel by Jaroslav Hasek and directed a thoroughly different kind of film than anyone has ever seen before. She first came to prominence in 1971 by writing, jointly with her husband Richard Goodwin, the film TALES OF BEATRIX POTTER, which was wildly popular in Britain (which is Beatrix Potter country) and starred the famous ballet choreographer Fred Ashton as Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (one of those delightful eccentric touches in which the British specialize). Then in 1987 she directed a superb TV series of LITTLE DORRIT by Dickens, starring Alec Guinness and Derek Jacobi, which people talked about for years afterwards. (The BBC made another excellent series of this tale in 2008, notable in particular for the knock-out performances by Matthew Mafadyen and Claire Foy.) In 1990, she directed and co-wrote the film THE FOOL which greatly impressed critics and the chatterati but did not make a lot of money, which as we know is a bit of a downer when one wants to continue getting funding for daring projects. With some Shakespeare film projects and various other activities in between, this brings us to today. Schwejk (pronounced 'Schvike', to rhyme with 'Ike', the pet name of President Eisenhower) is the name of the anti-hero of this Czech classic. The novel, which is more of a hodge podge than a novel, has been filmed several times: as a silent film in Czech (1926), as a comedy film in Romanian (1953), as a feature-length puppet film in Czech (1955), as a two-part Czech series (1957), as a comedy film in German (1960), as a British TV film with Joss Ackland (1965), and as a feature length cartoon film in Russian (2010). But in all these instances, Schwejk was portrayed as a comical and podgy older man. Edzard discovered that this was inaccurate, and that the real-life model for the character was a 25 year-old soldier whom Hasek had known, and of whom a photo survives. She therefore took the decision to portray Schweyk correctly for the first time as a young man, and by brilliant casting she and her producer Olivier Stockman chose 25 year-old Alfie Stewart to play the lead role. He is absolutely perfect. He is innocently mischievous, unintentionally both wise and irreverent, and a young fool who is cleverer than his idiot officers. So at last we have something close to the novelist's true intentions. The rest of the cast are also excellent, and they double up on many roles, giving the production a refreshing feel of teamwork and improvisation, as if it had all just occurred to them. And this exactly fits the bizarre and risky production concept of the entire film, an approach so daring that it could easily have failed miserably. For the film is of a stage version of the story in which there is genuine audience participation, including some of the actors from time to time rising up amongst the audience and speaking. There are also many cutaways of audience reaction, to give the feel of a live event. Inside the remarkable Noah's Ark of a building at London's dock area Rotherhithe beside the Thames where Edzard, Stockman, Woodward, & Co. carry on their period costume business, photo archive, film club (which takes place in a room full of spacious armchairs), and film studio and production activities, there is also a reproduction period proscenium stage and theatre with plush seats. The entire building, and the theatre as well, are a bit of a fantasy, and one might say that the building has one of the most remarkable interiors in the whole of England. Words do not suffice to describe the interior of the Sands Films Ark. One has to see it to believe it. They even have a curio cabinet displaying items found by them acting as mudlarks in the river bed at low tide, ranging from Anglo-Saxon times to the present. In the theatre, they staged SCHWEYK numerous times with live audiences, to get the shots from all the angles, the closeups, etc. and then edited it all together so that it becomes an amalgam of live and real, an alloy of stage and film. There is no attempt at verisimilitude for the film as a whole, but in the more intense sections where the camera concentrates on the action itself, one periodically forgets that this is a filmed play, and it seems like a movie. Well, it is a movie, of course. But it is a new kind of hybrid. I heard that this film had been completed and was being shown privately in the same theatre where it was filmed, so went along to see this remarkable event, introduced in person by the producer. So there we were applauding the audience who were applauding the performance which had taken place in the same space at a different time. Einstein would have remarked: 'But I always said that space-time was curved.' Does the film work? I think they pulled it off and that it does. It certainly has joie de vivre and plenty of raw energy. People who don't like stepping back from an illusion may be annoyed that the production is treated as a shared performance event rather than as an immersive drama. But then, the book was crazy, and the production is only being true to the author's wacky vision. Yes, it works, but an appropriate trigger warning would be: contains moments of extreme irreverence to convention and wild satire. Humourless people need not apply.
North by Northwest (1959)
The greatest Hitchcock film, stunning and perfect
This film is probably where Hitchcock's genius rose to its greatest height. I have seen it several times over the years, and it keeps getting better and better. Now we have a Blu-ray remastered version, so I have seen it again, all crisp and new. A large part of the success of this film is due to Ernest Lehman, who wrote the screenplay. He was one of Hollywood's top screenwriters and his skills were crucial in making this story work. The film is gripping from the first scene to the last, and never loses its tension for a moment. Cary Grant's somewhat weird personality was perfect for the lead role in this tale of mysterious intrigue. The combination of his droll insouciance and dry humour with his expressions of continually surprised astonishment is just the right mix. I can't think of any other actor who could so perfectly have compounded the variegated tinctures of ambiguity into this sublime decoction of suspense. (What do you mean, that last sentence was affected?) As for Eva Marie Saint, never was she so glorious as in this picture. She has just the right mix as well. And those two mixes went well together, and are the very opposite of oil and water. Or to put it another way, everything gells. And then there is James Mason as the unctuous smoothie bad guy. He really knew how to be convincing at that, and the way he puts his hand on Eva Marie Saint's shoulder in the auction room, to say 'you are mine', is done so delicately but so emphatically. He was always the master of understatement, Every gesture, every grimace is perfectly planned and plotted. Hitchcock was passionate about story-boarding all his films, and this one is a living story-board. Not one thing is out of place, the film was perfectly executed according to plan. It ticks better than any Swiss watch in history. Tick, tick, tick, and the wheels go round and things happen relentlessly, all precisely timed. The most famous episode in this film is probably when Cary Grant gets off a bus in the middle of a corn field in absolutely nowhere and a crop-spraying plane comes after him, trying to kill him. Who says such things never happen? I saw it with my own eyes, in a Hitchcock film, so it must be true.
Mine Own Executioner (1947)
A profoundly thoughtful psychological thriller
This is a highly superior film in every way, based on a novel and screenplay by the novelist and screenwriter Nigel Balchin. (He wrote the screenplays for Sandy Mackendrick's magnificent film MANDY, 1952; for THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS, 1956, see my review; and for 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET, 1956, see my review.) It was certainly a high point in the directorial career of Anthony Kimmins, who is largely forgotten today but here shows a positive genius and a Hitchcockian touch with the film's most exciting scene. The story concerns a conscientious and talented British psychiatrist who lacks a medical degree, but whose success with patients exceeds that of most of his colleagues. The professional tensions to which this gives rise are excellently portrayed. The psychiatrist is sensitively played by Burgess Meredith, who is perfect for such a part. His own demons haunt him, and his difficult relationship with his wife forms the backdrop to the main story, constituting a fine counterpoint which does not appear artificial, as could easily have been the case in less skillful hands. One day a charming young woman with a shining smile and expectant eyes comes to see him and begs him to treat her husband, overcoming his hesitancy to take on such a case. She says he recently tried to strangle her to death. Barbara White plays this young wife. She has an excellent screen presence, and it is a pity that she only appeared in six feature films and three TV roles. She only really worked in the film business fox six years. Her husband in real life was the actor who plays her husband in this film, the Irish actor Kieron Moore (born Kieron O'Hanrahan). They married in 1947, the year this film came out, having met and worked together the previous year in the film THE VOICE WITHIN (1946), a forgotten and apparently lost film of which no reviews are recorded. Moore is truly sensational in this part, playing a former airman who was shot down in Burma, imprisoned by the Japanese, and has become a split personality case. His performance is mesmerically convincing. The flash back scene of him being shot down is very realistic and unnerving, with the antiaircraft shells exploding all around him. The most amazing scene in the film involves someone climbing up a multi-storey fire ladder, and even Hitchcock could not have squeezed more nervous tension out of it than we see here. The drama of this film is multi-layered, intense, and highly-textured. We really do not know what is going to happen, as the tale becomes increasingly complex and worrying. Burgess Meredith's devoted, slightly hopeless, and long-suffering wife is played with great dignity and sensitivity by Dulcie Gray. Christine Norden plays an alluring vamp, wife of a friend, with whom Burgess Meredith has developed a guilty obsession. This was only her second film, as she only entered the film business in this year, 1947 and left it in 1951. In 1949 she appeared with Kieron Moore again in SAINT AND SINNERS, a film set in an Irish village and only recently resurrected on DVD, which I have not seen yet. (Slowly but surely the old British films are re-emerging after decades in the vaults.) The treatment of the profession of psychiatry in this film is remarkably profound, and avoids falling into the sensational superficiality found in most attempts to portray it in the cinema. At the time this film was made, an extreme case of shell shock resulting in a psychopathic condition was a highly topical subject, as there were many such difficult cases then in all the countries which had just recently emerged from the War. One could even say that in its own way, this film semi-qualifies for being a film noir, as it is steeped in the gloom of guilt and doubt of that time. And as with all films made in London back then, the streets are almost empty of traffic. Alas, alack, if only! This story by Nigel Balchin was subsequently filmed for British television in 1959, and as a Dutch TV movie in 1960.
Eine Liebe in Deutschland (1983)
Brilliant and desperately shocking love tragedy
This may perhaps be the greatest cinematic triumph of the celebrated career of director Andrzej Wajda. It was shot in German, with a few sections in Polish, and its original title is EINE LIEBE IN DEUTSCHLAND, from a novel of the same title by Rolf Hochhuth. But the film appears never to have been released on DVD and is only to be found on rare video tapes dating from 1984, of which I have one. Although IMDb records the film as being 2 hours 12 minutes long, the video I have is only 107 minutes, so that 25 minutes has been cut from it. The film's story alternates back and forth between 1943 and 1983, not always smoothly, suggesting that scenes are missing which would have made the transitions of time smoother and less abrupt. I wonder if we shall ever see the director's cut of this unnerving masterpiece. I see from German Amazon that the old German video is for sale at a substantial price, but the duration of that version is 102 minutes, hence 5 minutes less than the one with English subtitles. The film's most astonishing aspect is the staggeringly brilliant performance by Hanna Schygulla as the female lead. Suitably for this Polish-German amalgam, Schygulla herself is a Polish-German amalgam, as she was born in 1943 (the same year in which this film's earlier story is set) in what was then Germany but is now Poland. To say that the performance by Schygulla takes one's breath away and leaves one in a state of shock is an understatement. This is one of the greatest feats of screen acting of the 1980s anywhere in the world. All of the performances are excellent, and Wajda's invisible hand guides all before it without any 'style' or mannerisms or intrusions of the director's presence. We really do truly believe that we are watching real events take place before us, so riveting is it all, but also so intimate and upsetting. A co-writer of the screenplay was Agnieszka Holland, later herself so famous as a director (her greatest film was WASHINGTON SQUARE, 1997, see my review). The film begins with a man in his forties travelling by train with his son to revisit a small town where he says he has formerly lived much earlier in his life. Throughout the story we do not know who he really is, though he goes around questioning people and trying to find individuals (one of whom is on the verge of death in a hospital). He goes, for instance, into a shop and asks what has happened to the woman who used to run it. We get continual flashbacks to 1943 and see a powerful and tragic love story unfolding between a married German woman, whose husband is away in the army, and a young Polish prisoner of war who has been sent to work in the town as 'slave labour'. I don't think I have ever seen a woman convey passion so intensely on screen as Schygulla does in portraying her mad love for the boy, played by Piotr Lysak (who left the film industry in 1988 and never appeared in anything after that). Their love scenes are just about as emotionally convincing as it is possible to get in a film. He is excellent. And the scariest portrayal in the film is not of one of the many Nazis, but of Maria Wyler by the French actress Marie-Christine Barrault (niece of Jean-Louis Barrault and widow of Roger Vadim). Rarely has a jealous, grasping, ruthless woman been interpreted with such total horror and viciousness as we see here. All of these performances are of the most extreme subtlety, bordering on the miraculous. But the true horror of the film is the raw depiction of what the German population was like in 1943, with Nazi fanaticism in torrential flow throughout the whole of daily life. Ordinary people say Heil Hitler! to each other in shops and on the street as routinely as Catholics say the Rosary. If you don't reply in kind you are denounced. The vicious contempt and hatred for the Poles shown by all the Germans except Schygulla is mind-boggling. And the things even the nicest people say about how important it is to be members of the Master Race makes clear that the entire German people at that time seem to have been infected with the most virulent mental virus imaginable, and have been effectively reduced to the status of mad dogs. It is against the law for a German woman to have intimate relations with a Pole, and the sentence for that is death. The reason for this is that the Poles are vermin and 'Untermenschen' and contact with them is an insult to the Master Race and a form of deadly contagion. Sweet, thoughtful and kind people say these things readily, without even thinking, and clearly without the slightest comprehension that they are all mad. There may never have been so devastating a depiction of German intolerance and insanity during the Nazi period as in this film. No wonder it is not available on DVD; the European Union must have issued a fatwah against it and said anyone possessing a copy must be terminated with extreme prejudice. There is perhaps no single film more calculated to show the reasons for the deep hatred of the Germans by the Poles, which we see played out in today's politics, by the way. The devastating emotional impact of this incredible film means that it is one of the most shocking films ever made. And by that I do not mean that it shows blood and gore, battles, ghosts, spaceships, sci fi monsters, or any of the usual things which are meant to shock. What this shows is what takes place between people and what is done to people by other people. And what can be more horrifying and ultimately unsettling than that?
Sleeping with Strangers (1994)
Very funny satirical comedy about the delusions of fame
This is a wickedly funny portrayal of two self-obsessed celebrities coming into confrontation with 'the little people', as one of them calls them, meaning ordinary people of everyday life. The film was well directed by a mysterious person called William T. Bolson, who never made any other film, and of whom nothing seems to be known, so that I suspect this may have been a pseudonym for someone else, perhaps Adrienne Shelly herself (she did not surface by name as a feature film director until 1996 with SUDDEN MANHATTAN, see my review). Adrienne plays the female lead, a famous movie star named Jenny Dole, and she is thoroughly and mischievously convincing as this psychologically disturbed narcissistic celebrity who likes to sleep only with strangers while dead drunk. She thus genuinely cannot remember with whom she had sex the night before, and that is the way she likes things. The sensation of the film is the hilarious portrayal of a male rock star named Todd Warren by the Australian actor, singer, and comedian Scott McNeil. His screen credit says 'and introducing', although he had appeared in a great deal of television Down Under for years before this. His performance is beyond outrageous, but despite this it was impossible for him really to go 'over the top', since his character could not be portrayed in any other way. McNeil did his own singing and was not dubbed, so his talents are truly remarkable. He succeeded in pulling off a mammoth task of caricature convincingly, and must have had much fun in doing so. I don't know how the cast and crew managed to control themselves from collapsing into helpless laughter the whole time while making this extreme satire. Perhaps they did. I wish I had been there. And by 'there' I mean a tiny coastal town on the southwest of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, named Sooke (population 13,000). The film was made entirely on location there, although it is never identified in the story. Sooke is just over the border and separated by a body of water from Seattle, just west of Victoria. Only one of the lead actors in the film was Canadian, the actress Kymberley Huffman (now just called Kim). She is very lively and attractive, with her sparkly blue eyes and open manner, but she plays a devious, selfish, treacherous girl who is engaged to one man whose business she is simultaneously trying to destroy while sleeping with his enemy next door whom she really intends to marry. She hops back and forth between beds through the back stairway of her fiancee's small hotel into her lover's small competitor hotel, which is deemed superior because it has 'a cappuccino machine and jacuzzis'. One day, a stretch limousine drives up and from it emerge Scott McNeill and Adrienne Shelly, exhausted from a mammoth sex session in the back of the car. They are both drunk, and McNeil is evidently permanently stoned on drugs as well, so that he is rarely more than half conscious except when he is singing. Various events ensue which result in their staying first in one of the hotels and then the other. Huffmann's fiancé Daniel is the only honest and honourable main character in the story, so of course he is being systematically betrayed as he struggles with debt and a failing hotel business. The hotel's lights keep getting cut off because he cannot pay the electricity bill, but while he is worrying about survival his fiancée is always slipping next door to have romps in bed with the nasty rival. It becomes important for both hotel owners to try to hang onto their celebrity guests in order to boost their business, with all the associated publicity. So the scheming and to-ing and fro-ing of the guests between hotels is highly comical. Despite the temptation to do so, Adrienne Shelly never over-acts, since one of her great talents was to look at people with just the right expressions at the right times to render superfluous dialogue or any histrionics unnecessary. Daniel is played by the Scottish actor then called Neil Duncan, but who now calls himself Alastair Duncan. He does very well as an honest man caught up in a variety of hopeless dilemmas, and who tries to be decent while all those around him are behaving abominably. This film has a deeper purpose, in that we see the effect that real people begin to have on the celebrity phonies, by slowly humanising them. The haunting sense of despair and self-loathing of the film star Jenny, and the hedonistic oblivion continually sought by the rock star Todd are exposed in all their sleaze and emptiness. Some of the 'real' people are seduced by their glamour, while others are disgusted by it. Where will all of this lead, as the interactions between them intensify? This is a serious film masquerading as a wild and very hilarious satire.
Unsatisfactory, over-acted and unconvincing
There are some films, and I do not mean horror films, which can only be described as 'weird', and this is one of them. The title is Polish for 'jump'. It is cognate with the Latin 'salto', which is the first person singular of the verb meaning 'to jump, to dance, or portray by dance'. But the word is older, not being from the Romance languages, as 'salta' occurs in Indo-European languages which are not derived from Latin, such as Latvian and of course Polish. I have a charming old Victorian board game called 'Salta', where the counters are meant to 'leap' from square to square. Our word 'somersault' is derived from this word. This film begins dramatically with the lead actor, Zbigniew Cybulski, jumping out of a moving train in the middle of the Polish countryside. He makes his way to an obscure village, where he meets the inhabitants and tells them that he originally came from there. He is overwrought, bordering on hysterical, and remains so for the whole film. There is only so much hysteria one can portray for 100 minutes without becoming tiresome. The intensity of Cybulski's unexplained anguish never lessens during the film. Several of the inhabitants mention that although the buildings were left standing, the entire population of the village had been executed by German soldiers during the War. In fact, we glimpse this in flashback very briefly, and more than once we see the same scene repeated, as if the director is trying to tell us something. Reference is made to the fact that 'they are all buried over there'. Many of the inhabitants are constantly to be seen digging in the fields looking for something, but it is never clear what precisely. Cybulski himself does so and unearths a live German grenade, which he tosses aside and it explodes. The Anniversary of the extermination of the population is celebrated every year on the same day, and the solemn inhabitants do this in a run-down village hall with weird music and ritualistic dancing (another meaning in Latin of 'salto'). What this all seems to mean is that they are all dead, including Cybulski, unless of course he is the only one who escaped, since he keeps saying he needs to atone. The film thus is apparently meant to be one long 'dance of death' as the ghosts of the dead villagers wander round gloomily, lost and bewildered. The film is extremely depressing and lacking both in clarity and any light touch. Some of the acting is restrained and appropriate, but much is over the top. The whole film seems to be essentially a surrealistic fantasy expressing anguish about the German occupation of Poland and the fates of all the Polish civilian dead at the hands of the Nazis. But the director, Tadeusz Konwicki, has overdone it, not made himself clear enough, and permitted the over-acting often to become ludicrous. The film is also too long, too intense, and too gloomy to work. Konwicki has not succeeded in whatever it was he intended. It is a strange effort. It is, as I said, 'weird', and extremely depressing.
Sudden Manhattan (1996)
A quirky and whimsical Manhattan ode to eccentricity
This was the first feature film directed by the multi-talented Adrienne Shelly. She also wrote it and played the lead role of Donna, the kind of girl who in New York slang of yesteryear used to be called 'ditsy' (a word presumably forgotten by now). In other words, she is charmingly living in a world of her own, sees things, imagines things, and may or may not be a bit crazy. Adrienne Shelly was a combination of a waif and a spunky comedienne. I cannot think of any other actress with her particular mixture of qualities. So one must classify her as unique. This low-budget independent film was shot in Greenwich Village and it has that distinctive insouciance and subtle humour which used to be peculiar to creative Manhattan residents. These days, people are rapidly forgetting how to laugh, as they are too busy snarling and ranting about political and sociological issues to remember that there is any such thing as humour. How can anybody laugh who spends all his or her time shouting? But these were gentler days, the days of the mid-nineties, when Manhattan still chuckled. And one of the shining talents then was Adrienne Shelly. Who could have imagined then that she only had ten years left to live, as she was only 30 and had everything ahead of her? It is very uncomfortable watching this lovely little film now because of its astonishing premonitory quality, knowing what later happened to Ms. Shelly. As part of the comedy of the film, Donna goes repeatedly to a fortune teller, brilliantly portrayed by Louise Lasser, who specialises in gloomy predictions. She repeatedly tells Donna that there is nothing ahead of her but a violent death. This may have been amusing in 1996, but it was not funny at all in 2006, which was the year that Ms. Shelly was violently murdered in Manhattan, at the age of only 40. It is too much like fiction becoming fact. I don't imagine Ms. Shelly's surviving family can bear to sit through this film, which seems like a gruesome prediction of what actually happened. For those less susceptible to the trauma of subsequent real events, the film is a quiet delight, and very original and imaginative.
The Lucky Number (1932)
A light-hearted effort to cheer up the Depression-hit public
This was the seventh film directed by Anthony Asquith, though I would say seven in this case was not his lucky number. It is a frivolous bit of British comedy and musical entertainment intended to cheer up the masses. One would never know from the mediocre quality of the film that had Asquith directed it, having proved his early brilliance with the spectacular UNDERGROUND (1928, see my review). The stars of the film are Clifford Mollison, Joan Wyndham, and Gordon Harker. Joan Wyndham (aged 21) is a real charmer here, and it is a pity that she only appeared in twelve films, eleven of them between 1930 and 1936, when she effectively retired; she came back in 1949 for a TV film of a Somerset Maugham play (a film which is apparently lost), and that was that. Although she lived to be 88, she disappeared from the cinema early on and we know no more about her. Her birth name by the way was Joan Eileen Weil, and she was a Londoner. We could have done with more of her on screen. She was a 'good 'un'. The story of this film concerns the struggle over possession and ownership of a lottery ticket which has unexpectedly won a huge prize. This makes for many comedic and also many fraught episodes. But as was the manner of the times, the characters keep bursting into song at the most unexpected moments, which may have been considered entertaining to audiences then, but to us is a considerable distraction. Oh well, it is amusing, and apart from that, what can one say: it was the early thirties in England, and a trip to 'the pictures' for some light relief was one of the few things to keep people sane. Oh yes, I should mention that the film features a considerable amount of a real 1932 football game by the Arsenal team, and Arsenal fans, who tend to be wildly enthusiastic folk, will certainly love this film for that reason.
Une si jolie petite plage (1949)
A magnificent French classic but not a cheerful one
This title of this film, SUCH A PRETTY LITTLE BEACH (in the original, UNE SI JOLIE PETITE PLAGE) is ironic. The story is a very sad one. The film is an intensely moody and profoundly atmospheric French film noir. It is set in 1949 (the year of its release), and a young man returns to a tiny seaside French town on the Atlantic coast, near the town of Berck (which is mentioned in the dialogue as being nearby, and the location may thus be Cayeux sur Mer). In summer time it has 'a pretty beach', though not such a little one, as it stretches a long way. But it is winter, it is pouring with heavy rain day after day, and the weather is non-stop gloom. There are still defence fortifications along the beach, and a decaying blockhouse for machine guns, called a cabin, which is a hideaway of another young man who works in the small hotel in the town. The star of the film is the 27 year-old Gérard Philipe. He is silent, thoughtful, and preoccupied. He takes a room in the hotel. An old man is sitting in the hotel's bar and restaurant paralyzed by a stroke and unable to speak. He is the now disabled owner of the hotel. It is plain that he is startled and recognises Philipe, but he can say nothing, and Philipe tries to ignore him. A prolonged air of mystery pervades this film, as we wonder who Philipe is, why he has come to this strange out of the way place in such horrid weather, and why he wishes to say so little. It becomes obvious that he has been there before and knows the place well, but only the man with the stroke knows who he is. Philipe strolls along the beach, remembering his earlier time there. He visits the little cabin, and it is clear that it was once his own hideaway. We begin to realize that he, like the new boy, is one of the many war orphans who were fostered to people like the hotelier and effectively became slave labourers in their own country. The film is a savage attack on the system which permitted the nationwide exploitation and abuse of the state orphans. The new boy is in a state of constant misery, and the same had been true of Phiiipe, who we discover left five years before. Philipe tries to befriend the new boy and show sympathy for him, but the boy cannot accept it, and shies away. In the small hotel they keep playing a 78 rpm record of a French chanteuse singing a song in the style of Edith Piaf. This obviously upsets Philipe, who knows it well and does not want to hear it. Later in the story, he ends up smashing it in a rage. We eventually learn that he had been the 'slave boy' orphan in this very same hotel five years earlier. But the singer whom we have heard on the record stopped by, picked him up, and took him to Paris with her as her young lover. Philipe hated every minute of it, and after five years of miserable subservience to the woman, he has killed her. He has gone on the run, but having nowhere to run to, he has gone back to the only place he formerly knew, the little hotel which he had also hated, but at least it had once been the only thing he could call a home. The murder is widely reported in the newspapers and the police are looking for him. A young woman who works in the hotel helps him, as does a local garage mechanic. Will he accept their help and flee across the border into Belgium and be safe, as they urge him to do? Or will the power of the woman who 'owned' him overwhelm his ability to save himself, and thus destroy him in the end? This film is brilliantly directed by Yves Allegret, and it conveys such a powerful force of anguish and suffering in so few words that it is a work of directorial genius. The script, written by Allegret's frequent collaborator Jacques Sigurd, is a masterpiece of cinematic writing. The cinematography by Henri Alekan is pure visual and compositional genius, and it is just as well that the film is in black and white, because that intensifies the mood enormously. The performances are excellent, and every aspect of the production is successful. Gérard Philipe died tragically young at the age of only 36 of liver cancer. His loss was a tremendous blow to the French cinema, for he was one of the finest male presences ever to appear on the French screen. This film has been restored by Pathé, is now in Blu-Ray with English subtitles, and should be seen by all those interested in film noir, with the caution that it is highly sophisticated, deeply sombre, and exudes more melancholy than all the leopards in cages in all the zoos of the world. No one will be cheered up by this sad and brooding film, but for those who appreciate the art of the cinema, it is a wonder.
A rare Duvivier failure
This film is that very rare thing, a French classic which is no good. French classics are usually terrific, and Julien Duvivier was one of France's most brilliant film directors. Here he tries every trick he knows to try to prevent the film from being tedious and boring, but he fails. But not for lack of effort, for if there is a camera angle which can help, a bit of movement which can inject some pretense of life into the inaction, he tries it. And the film is certainly not helped by the wooden performance of the lead actress, Danielle Darrieux. She seems to think that in order to be mysterious she needs to be a block of wood. But in this she mistakes corpse-like non-response for inscrutability. It is a terrible miscalculation, and clearly Duvivier was unable to control her, assuming, that is, that he was not so mesmerised by her beauty that he became unable to see clearly. Sometimes Darrieux adopts the expression of a vain woman looking into a mirror and passively admiring her looks, even when she is meant to be listening to one of the other actors. (Was she seeing her reflection in the other person's eyes?) But let's tackle what is really wrong with this film. It is a group of men and one woman alone in a room for 99 minutes. There is only the one set. And they talk, and they talk and they talk. Yawn, yawn, yawn. The film is set in 1959 (the year of the film's release). The group of people have all gathered together for the first time in 15 years, to honour the 15th anniversary of the death of the leader of their wartime Resistance organisation. After a luxurious dinner, the real business begins. Marie, called by her nom de guerre 'Marie-Octobre', wants to find out who murdered the leader, who, it transpires, had been her secret lover (and we are meant to believe that the others never knew this, so pull the other one). It happened when the Gestapo unexpectedly raided this very same room in August, 1944. She has learned in the interim that they came because of a traitor in their midst. She says one of them is a traitor. From that point on, the film becomes a kind of inferior Agatha Christie whodunit story with all the suspects grilled one by one, each revealing a secret and each in turn being found to be suspicious in some way or other. But this is not only very talky, it is way overdone. The cast is one of famous French actors of the period. Like the director, they try and try to make this sodden drama interesting, but they fail. They flap about like fish out of water. Flap flap, flap flap. But we don't get high drama, we just get fish out of water. This film was restored in 2016 in the admirable series of Pathe/Leydoux restorations of classic French cinema. It is now on Blu-ray with English subtitles. This is the first of that series of films which I have seen so far which has been a disappointment. It was worth doing, but that is a different thing from its being worth seeing.
Closed Circuit (2013)
I have just seen this film for the first time, having missed it earlier. The film begins with a dramatic terrorist attack on Borough Market in London, involving a large van. As we all know, a dramatic terrorist attack on Borough market involving a large van subsequently took place. Copy cat? Inspired by an idea of? Coincidence? Psychic prophecy? We will never know. The film is very well directed, with excellent performances, and the pace never fails, as the tension is wound tighter and tighter. The terrorist attack really only sets the scene for the story which follows, which is entirely concerned with corruption within the British security services and what currently passes for 'the British justice system', a system which degenerates by the day. The story features a revoltingly corrupted Attorney General, which comes as no surprise, since I can think of a past one. John Broadbent is suitably menacing in that role, his eyes bulging with a terminally compromised personal morality. But the main target of the film is the establishment of the secret courts which have been instituted in Britain today, and which include not only the security courts such as the one shown in this film, but even the Court of Protection, in which invalids and children have their fates decided in secret, with their relatives being excluded from the process. My view is plain: there is no place for secrecy in the justice system, since as soon as the system ceases to be transparent, corruption and abuse are inevitable. This film is about such abuse. A young Turkish man with the unfortunate name of Erdogan (this film seems to have foreseen perhaps too much!) is accused of being the mastermind of the London terrorist attack. However, it transpires that he was all along an agent for the British security services, but he has been framed by them to cover up their mammoth cock-up which resulted in the deaths of more than 200 people. The terrifyingly icy security head is played by Anne-Marie Duff, who will just as soon kill you as look at you, and frequently does so. The horrifying 'secret justice' (or should I say secret injustice?) laid on by the officials is shown in minute detail, and everyone is under surveillance all the time. Welcome to modern Britain! Erdogan's previous defence attorney has 'committed suicide by jumping from a roof', but we later learn that he was murdered because he discovered too much. An American journalist is also murdered because she discovers too much. And that leaves the two remaining lawyers, played by Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall. They naively commence their duties, only to discover that the whole process is a sham, that Erdogan is a patsy, and people who interfere in the plan keep getting killed. Attempts are made to murder both of them. They keep trying to fight the corruption, but they are out-manouevred at every turn because of informers and intensive surveillance. Can those fearless fighters for justice get anywhere in their David and Goliath struggle? Or will the System crush them, and indeed succeed in killing one or both of them? But one thing is for sure, the British 'justice system' will continue to become increasingly corrupted, since once the rot sets it, it is terminal unless someone courageous and true steps forward to put a stop to it. But I see no signs of such a person at the moment. Waiting for someone to save the British justice system seems about as hopeless a cause as waiting for Elvis to return from the dead and sing 'Blue Suede Shoes' live at Wembley Stadium. John Crowley has done a superb job of directing this gripping thriller, and all his cast have done just as well as he, to produce a cautionary film for our time, which deserves as wide an audience as possible.
The First Seven Years (1930)
A truly superb Little Rascals film
This is the eighth Little Rascals sound film, and it is superb. This time we are back in the closed world of the children themselves, which is where all the humour comes from. The theme of this film is that all the kids think they should be 'married'. So we have the boys asking the girls to marry them, especially Mary Ann, but she frowns and pushes them away and even whacks them. Jackie Cooper makes his first appearance as a Rascal in this film, playing the boy named Jack. He 'falls in love with' Mary Ann. Today's world is a decadent one, obsessed by sexuality, but naturally sexuality is nowhere on the horizon in these Little Rascal films, as such things in connection with children were unthinkable in the far more innocent world of 1930. Therefore all the talk of 'marriage' and 'love' with the little kiddies is intended entirely humorously, and is very funny indeed. For instance, Farina says: 'I've been married seven times now, but I'm finished with women.' The entire basis of the humour of the Little Rascals films was concerned with tiny children pretending to be adults, but getting it hopelessly wrong. Officer Kennedy, the local cop who is the kids' friend (played as usual by Edgar Kennedy) tries to give helpful advice to the children about 'marriage', saying that to win the love of a gal, a fellow needs to 'be a caveman', but this is of course misdirected and misunderstood. However, all the male attention from the boys eventually goes to Mary Ann's head, and she indulges her fantasy of two knights in the Middle Ages fighting with swords for the hand of a maiden. She decides she wants two of the boys to fight a duel for her 'hand'. So she produces two very sharp and dangerous swords, and a duel takes place which descends into chaos, with everyone getting stabbed slightly in the bottom and saying 'ouch!' Much of this takes place in a yard where sheets are hung up to dry, so there are many sight gags of people stabbing each other through the sheets because they see a shadowy figure through the sheet, but it is the wrong person, and so on. The edges of the swords are so sharp that as the swords slash around, they easily slice the sheets in half. It is total pandemonium, and a miracle that no one got hurt (as far as we know). This is a pretty wild Little Rascals film, where 'letting it rip' is taken literally. But this is certainly the best one in the series so far.
The Promise (2016)
A powerful and excellent film of the Armenian genocide in Turkey
This film, though containing fictionalised love stories, is otherwise based on true events, and takes much of its inspiration from the famous best-selling novel by Franz Werfel, published in 1933 as DIE VIERZIG TAGE DES MUSA DAGH, and in 1934 as THE FORTY DAYS OF MUSA DAGH. I have a copy signed by the author to his friend Hans Koerner (along with a copy of THE SONG OF BERNADETTE also signed by him). Koerner gave these to me just before his death because of my love of Werfel's writings. In reality, the defiance of the Turkish troops by five thousand Armenians on Musa Dagh mountain lasted for 52 days, though in this film it lasts for only a few days. The rescue of 4000 Armenians, many of them orphans, by a French naval ship shown in the film is based on the real rescue by several French naval ships in 1915. Werfel's novel was filmed in 1982. An attempt to film it in 1934 was prevented by pressure applied by the Turkish Government to the US State Department. Two subsequent attempts to film the novel were also prevented by Turkish pressure. The Turkish Government has always denied that the genocide of the Armenians took place, although everyone outside of Turkey who takes an interest in such things knows very well that one and a half million Armenians were brutally massacred by the Turks, men, women, and children, in cold blood. Werfel says in the introduction to his lengthy and complex novel (823 pages): 'This book was conceived in March of 1929, in the course of a stay in Damascus. The miserable sight of some maimed and famished-looking refugee children, working in a carpet factory, gave me the final impulse to snatch from the Hades of all that was, this incomprehensible destiny of the Armenian nation. The writing of the book followed between July 1932 and March 1933.' The American religious mission in the book is at Marash, and its head was the Rev. E. C. Woodley. What the novel really requires is a television series. Of course, Turkey will not permit its locations to be used, and THE PROMISE was filmed in Portugal, Spain, Malta, with a few scenes in America. The executive producer of this film was the famous billionaire film moghul and former Chairman of MGM, Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian (1917-2015), who alas died before the film was released, aged 98. When Werfel's novel came out, Kerkorian was working as a manual labourer at MGM, a studio which he later bought and owned. Moving words by the author William Saroyan (Armenian-American) are quoted in the end titles of this film. I am glad to say that his daughter Lucy and I were close friends for a few brief months when we were young. She died much too young in 2003. Her first film role was uncredited in Karel Reisz's film ISADORA (1968), because Karel's step-daughter Kerry Kelly was her best friend and she was then (at the time I knew her) at their house nearly every day. Lucy's god-father was Marlon Brando, which became a good joke when he later actually became THE godfather. It should be remembered that not only the Armenians but also the Greeks were massacred by the Turks at this time. One of the most emotional films you could ever see deals with a Greek refugee boy from Turkey, modelled on the grandfather of Elia Kazan, who made the film: America America (1963, see my review; I slightly knew the actor who played the boy in that film). THE PROMISE briefly shows the visiting German military men who negotiated Turkey's entry into World War One on their side. It was the Kaiser's policy, based on an idea going back to the 1890s, that German interests could be served by whipping up Muslim hatred for infidels (all except for Germans, of course), and their massacre. Hitler did not originate this policy but inherited it. It was entirely under German influence that anti-Semitism took root in the Middle East, and the genocide of the Armenians inspired Hitler to commit genocide on the Jews, saying: 'Who remembers the massacre of the Armenians?' I am proud to say that my grandmother was a relentless campaigner for years for the Armenians and raised a great deal of money for the refugees during and after World War One. This film is excellently made, the direction by Terry George is superb. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Robin Swicord, and the script really is excellent. She has written many distinguished screenplays. As for Terry George, he was previously best known for writing and directing HOTEL RWANDA (2004), another powerful expose of massacre and injustice. He clearly has a social conscience worthy of an Oscar. The performances in this heart-rending story are very good indeed, with the lead young man, Mikael, played by Oscar Isaac with strength and conviction. Christian Bale once again masters the American accent to contribute a top rank performance as the American journalist who is trying to expose the genocide in the world press. The French-Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon does not look particularly Armenian, as she should have done, but she delivers a sensitive and moving performance as Ana. Angela Sarafyan, on the other hand, who plays Maral, was born in Armenia and certainly looks it. When we see closeups of her face, we are looking at the real thing. She is now a successful American actress who has appeared in 60 films. Jean Reno appears briefly as the French admiral who saves the refugees on the beach. Tom Hollander appears as a former clown who has been imprisoned on a work gang by the Turks. This film deserves to be shown in every school all over the world, so that the truth can be known. Why should the Turks be allowed to get away any longer with hiding their dirty big secret?
Shivering Shakespeare (1930)
All the world's a stage in which the Little Rascals play their part
This is the seventh Little Rascals sound film, 20 minutes long. Shakespeare does not actually feature in the film, which is entirely devoted to a school play of QUO VADIS staged at the school attended by the Little Rascals. (The fact that Wheezer is only four years old and could not yet be at school is conveniently set aside, and there he is declaiming the lines of an ancient Roman.) Pete the Dog is of course in attendance, and howls at an appropriate moment. The chief Rascals in the action of this film are Chubby, who plays the Emperor Nero, Farina who plays a sorcerer 'from darkest Africa', and Mary Ann, who plays a Christian girl who is going to be thrown to the lions. For those who do not know, QUO VADIS was at this time an extremely famous book. It is a novel written by the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz (pronounced 'Syen-kyay-vitch'), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for writing it. It is set in Rome at the time of Nero, and is a very powerful and dramatic work. Sienkiewicz was a brilliant author, and is still a literary hero to Poles today, who all have to read him in school (though not this novel, instead they read his many Polish historical novels). QUO VADIS was what we call 'a runaway international best-seller' which sold millions of copies. One reason for its success was its description of the early Christians, who were being persecuted by Nero, since until the 1970s, Christianity was still very important to everyone in the 'mass market'. If it were published today, few people would buy it, I expect, despite its being very good. No one cares about early Christians anymore, at least not in films. QUO VADIS was made into a famous Hollywood epic film in 1951 with Peter Ustinov playing Nero. I remember asking Peter, whom my wife and I knew very well, what it was like playing Nero. He said he had to remember to keep squinting up his eyes, because Nero was notoriously near-sighted. He felt ambivalent about giving the thumbs-down to the gladiators in the Colisseum, since although it made him feel powerful, it also made him feel guilty at the same time. The costumes worn by the kids in the school play are extremely lavish, well above the budget of any actual school play. Everything imaginable that could go wrong with the production does go wrong. Comic situations abound, and not only the Rascals but all the parents and adults attending the performance throw custard pieces in each other's face, so that a very congenial total chaos results.
Moan & Groan, Inc. (1929)
A silly one, not so good
This is the sixth of the Little Rascals sound films. It is a very silly and ineffective one. That is because the producers decided to take their eyes off the children and try and involve too many adults. They also used a hopelessly corny story, which is really ridiculous. In this film, the local policeman Officer Kennedy is introduced as a kind-hearted man who loves children and likes to look after them. That is OK, and Edgar Kennedy who plays the cop is very good. He tells the gang that when he was young he dug with a shovel to try to find treasure, so all of them rush off to do the same. They choose for their site an old abandoned 'haunted house'. They go inside and start digging the earth foundations. Pete the Dog joins in, spraying Wheezer with the dirt he kicks up in his burrowing. Where the film goes wrong is in having a 'lunatic' vagabond secretly living in the house, who howls like a ghost to scare people away. He lives in a space between the walls, accessed by a secret button. The children eventually come face to face with, and interact with, the madman, and he insists to Farina that he will give him a turkey dinner. He serves an invisible turkey to Farina, who is scared and pretends to eat it. One good bit of the film is that he also throws imaginary pieces of the turkey to Pete the Dog, who is sitting on the chair beside him, and Pete 'catches' them and pretends to eat them too. For some unknown reason, the madman is portrayed as a wild-haired German who speaks with a strong accent, and who counts in German. None of this makes any sense at all, of course. The madman is played by a genuine German actor, born in Berlin, named Max 'Davidson' (his real surname is not recorded on IMDb). Davidson went on to appear in 197 films in his career, retiring in 1945. The moaning and groaning of the title of this film are those of the 'ghost', i.e. the madman. This film was an unfortunate lapse in the series, since its 'geniuneness', which comes from the interactions of the children with one another, is sacrificed for a silly haunted house story which ruins the mood and the point of the Little Rascals films altogether.
Bouncing Babies (1929)
Trying to exchange the baby for a goat
This is the fifth Little Rascals sound film, and it is particularly hilarious. The star of this 20 minute film is four year-old Wheezer, who successfully dominates the film. This is also the first film in which Pete the Dog has a prominent acting part, does tricks, and takes a key part in the action. (In previous films he had merely hung around in the background.) Pete pulls Wheezer's nightie off for him, and holds Wheezer's short trousers up when he is trying to get dressed. The dog also accompanies Wheezer on all his adventures and is his indispensable companion. There are so many sight gags and incidents in this short film that it is impossible to list them all. Wheezer's older sister is six year-old Mary Ann, who is just as charming and talented as always. Wheezer is feeling put out because his mother has had a baby, who now gets all the parental attention. Wheezer keeps trying to attract his parents' attention but all they can do is keep cooing over the baby. Wheezer's parents, who have a lot of speaking lines, are played by Dora Dean and Eddie Dunn, though they are uncredited, since grown-ups don't count in this series. Wheezer becomes so fed up he and Pete run away from home (again, as he does this often). He encounters Farina sitting on a bench and tells him his troubles. Then Chubby and some other kids in Halloween costumes (though it is daylight) scare them and chase them around, and Wheezer goes home. He then decides to take the baby back to the hospital and exchange it for a goat. He pushes the cot, which is on wheels, along the streets and across a busy intersection, not realizing that the real baby is still at home and the lump under the blanket is a doll left there by his sister. The nurses at the hospital agree to take the baby (doll) back and phone his mother, but say they have no goat available. So he goes home, where Mary Ann and her mother pretend to be weeping pitifully at the loss of the baby. Wheezer is upset, and says he will go and get the baby back, so he goes to the hospital again with Pete to retrieve the baby, only to be told that he is too late, because the baby has already been sent back to heaven. He returns and tells this sad news to his mother and sister. They say that if he will pray, 'like you did before the baby was born', maybe the angels will bring him back. So he and Pete the Dog both kneel down beside one another and earnestly pray for the return of the baby. It is remarkable how Pete really does look like he is praying. Meanwhile the baby crawls into the room, picks up a stick, and whacks Wheezer. I have omitted the sequence where Wheezer is 'fixing his own breakfast' and makes pancakes out of plaster of Paris. This is a really successful episode in the series.
Entry Level (2007)
This is a very amusing but also worrying portrayal of 'unemployables' trying to get a job in America. I ordered the DVD out of curiosity because I have always liked D. B. Sweeney, whom I find most congenial. He does very well, low key, but solid, and he knows how to hold a lead role without affectations. The film is written and directed by Douglas Horn, who has successfully walked the tightrope of entertaining us and being humorous while at the same time honestly portraying the desperation of the chronically unemployed. That was not an easy thing to pull off. The main character, Sweeney, is a talented chef but refuses to work as one any longer, and finds himself unemployable because he has no other skills. The film shows the same gang of people going from job interview to job interview, always being told they are unsuitable. They all become great friends because they sit in the same succession of waiting rooms and joke about their shared dilemma. It's a good idea for a film, and it works very well.
Ace in the Hole (1951)
Rattlesnake in a cardboard box
This is an incredibly cynical film. Subtlety was largely unknown to Billy Wilder, who co-wrote and directed this. The lead role is played by Kirk Douglas, but he overacts to an outrageous extent and appears never to have been reined in by Wilder, who always liked everything done with broad strokes of the brush, and all harsh lines to be shouted. Just the tiniest bit of restraint would have done wonders to make this film more effective. The female lead is played by Jan Sterling, and she too is encouraged to overact. That tends to be the case however only in the scenes where she is scared, in which she opens her eyes wide and I can imagine Wilder yelling off camera: ''Wider! Wider!' Sometimes you can see her opening them wider, as if remembering to do so, or as if she has been shouted at. This is just about as 'in your face' as such a film can get. There are some very amusing lines given to Jan Sterling, and she delivers them with an excellent sense of cool. Exasperated with Douglas, she says to him: 'I've seen hard-boiled eggs before, but you, you're 20 minutes.' On another occasion when he tells her he wants her to go to church, look holy, and kneel down, she replies: 'I don't kneel. It puckers my nylons.' Unfortunately, there aren't enough of such wisecracks to lighten the load. The story is meant to be a savage expose of the corruption and exploitative nature of the news media. Douglas plays a ruthless journalist who will do anything for a story, and then will squeeze that story dry, and then some. He wants to get ahead, and he uses anyone and anything to further his ambitions. He shouts, he bullies, he throws things, he insults people, and is so horrible that the scenes in the office of the Albuquerque, New Mexico Sun Journal where he works are totally unbelievable, since his despicable behaviour there would never have been tamely tolerated by his colleagues, as portrayed in the film. He finally gets hold of a 'big story' of a man trapped deep in a cave behind a Pueblo India ruin, on a mountain sacred to the Native Americans and called The Mountain of the Seven Vultures. He crawls in and tells the man he will see to it that he is rescued. He then delays the rescue for several days in order to squeeze more juice out if the story, thus risking the man's life. The man's wife is played by Jan Sterling. She has been longing for an opportunity to leave her boring husband but only has eleven dollars, so can't run away. Douglas organises a huge publicity circus, where thousands of people gather outside the cave to wait to see whether the man will be rescued. Meanwhile Jan cleans up by selling hamburgers to them all, thus getting enough cash to dash. The film is meant to have a moral message. It is meant to tell us how awful we all are, how horribly humans behave, and how monstrous the media are. There is only one good person in the whole film, the long-suffering owner and editor of the Albuquerque newspaper. Everybody else is a nightmarish parody of a person. The film is so extreme it its depiction of everybody as greedy, corrupt, dishonest, and ruthless, that there seems little point in watching it, since we know enough about all that sort of thing already without having to see it in a very out-of-control film rant. I should point out that eight years later, Robert Penn Warren published his novel The Cave, about a man stuck in a cave near Tracy City, Tennessee, which is a tiny place near Monteagle on Sewanee Mountain. That novel may well have been inspired by this film, since it largely concerns all the things which go on outside the cave, and also deals with 'the nature of humanity' as everyone flutters around the man who is stuck, all with their own agendas. I read it way back in those days. It is very easy to get stuck in a cave in Tennessee. I was stuck in one myself once, but only for about nine hours, with a boy named Neil Trichell, who came from Louisiana. Nobody rescued us, but we made our escape eventually with the greatest possible struggle and difficulty. That was in Salt Peter Cave in Tennessee, which had been used as a salt peter mine by the Confederate troops during the American Civil War, as gunpowder could not be made without that ingredient. If you have never been stuck in a cave shaft, you should try it sometime. It did not give me claustrophobia, but it made me more careful in the future. When I saw that man in the film lying there unable to get out, I could not but remember my own brief flirting with such a dilemma. Robert Penn Warren, by the way, wrote the famous novel ALL THE KING'S MEN (1946), which won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into the famous film of that title in 1949. His other major contribution to the cinema was the novel BAND OF ANGELS, made into a well known film in 1957. THE CAVE was never filmed, but got a lot of attention at the time because of the author's reputation. And the fact that many people remembered this film may have helped as well. People who are trapped have always been popular for film stories, perhaps because so many people feel trapped in their own lives. The hope of escape lives on, and is one of things that keeps everyone going. Let us remember that it is not only the man in the cave who is trapped in this film, but his wife as well, in her marriage, and in fact, that is really by far the more interesting part of the film.
Full Signal (2010)
Very important documentary about the health dangers of cell phones
Although this film is now seven years old, and since then things have become much worse, this documentary is 'must' viewing for anyone not wanting to die of a brain tumour. The hazards of electro-pollution to human health are almost never mentioned, due to commercial pressures and the bought silence of those who should be warning us. But what the tobacco industry did to us is nothing compared to what the telecoms industry is doing. Studies show that anyone who has used a cell phone regularly prior to the age of 20 has a five times higher chance of developing a brain tumour than any other age group. The greatest danger is to children. The idiot parents who hand their little darlings cute cell phones with which to chat mindlessly to their friends are in fact handing them death certificates with the dates left blank. There is often a 20 year delay before you die. So that's all right then. The situation is even worse now with the spread of wi fi, which studies now suggest is contributing to the 60% drop in male fertility (this is more recent than this film and is not covered in it). When will the stupid population wake up and realize that being drenched in electromagnetic radiation is killing people? Or is it more important to chat than to live?
The Deadly Affair (1967)
It gets better and better
I can't recall how many times I have seen this film, commencing with its initial release, but it gets better every time. Can films mature with age like Volnay and Pommard? I see more in it now than I did before. Does this mean that I no longer have presbyopia? In this latest viewing, I realized for the first time the true enormity of the genius shown by Simone Signoret in her part which has very little dialogue. All she has to do is move her eyes, and we stir with emotion. This film is based on the John le Carre novel CALL FOR THE DEAD, and was the second of his novels to be filmed, the first being THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965), which came out a year earlier. This is very much a film about people, and is only incidentally a spy tale. It is of course brilliantly made, with Sidney Lumet excelling himself, and all the actors at their very best. I spent one day on the set of this film in the spring of 1966, at Twickenham Studios. The only one of the actors who was there that day was James Mason. It was the only time I ever met him. We chatted for a while. For those who are interested, I can say that in person James Mason was exactly like James Mason on screen. What you saw was what you got. He really was James Mason, it's as simple as that. With many actors and actresses you meet somebody else entirely, but with him there was that same soft voice and gentle polite manner, in which he appears to be confiding in you as a dear friend. What a delightful fellow he was. So I never got to meet Simone Signoret, a great loss. I talked for a while with Lumet, who shocked me by saying that he would be happy to abandon celluloid and start making movies on video tape. He was a highly intelligent and very pleasant man. I spent much more time chatting with the cinematographer Freddie Young and his operator Brian West, both of whom I already knew. Freddie talked to me more on that day that at any other time. He waxed lyrical on his theories of lighting, put his hands in the air to show the rays of light coming down at different angles, and even showed signs of excitement. Freddie, who was the most sedate and calmest of men, never usually gave any indication of being excited about anything. He could calm any hysterical actor or actress simply by looking at them and smiling in a friendly fashion. Brian was the same. They were truly The Silent Ones on both set and location. Nervous directors instantly felt at ease in their presence. But what Freddie was most excited to tell me was that he had perfected a new technique on this film. He said that Sidney had wanted to have a visual effect of gloom in the film, and asked Freddie if he knew how to do that. So Freddie came up with what was then a brilliant new idea, though used continually ever since by everyone while celluloid was still in use. I asked him what was this new technique. And he answered with barely restrained enthusiasm: 'The film is 30% flashed.' I said what do you mean 'flashed'? He said that he had taken the celluloid out of the cans and pre-exposed it to light under carefully controlled conditions. He did many experiments and found that 30% exposure was just right. That made the finished film look subtly washed-out in the gloomy way that Sidney wanted, but while retaining its colour sufficiently. He was so proud of this achievement, which was the result of very prolonged experiments over a period of weeks prior to shooting. What fine fellows Freddie and Brian were. 'They don't make 'em like that anymore.' The other person I met that day was the young feminist campaigner, Gloria Steinem, who was visiting Sidney in her role as journalist to write an article about him and the film. She was super-glamorous in those days, really something! Most of the men on set hardly dared look at her, lest their desires overwhelm them. I steeled myself against this onslaught of pulchritude, overlookng the fact that she was irresistible and pretending I had not noticed, so that she and I chatted away for ages, and she was so effusively friendly that she insisted on giving me an introduction to her great friend Bob Brown at ESQUIRE, whom I thus later befriended. But her main enthusiasm was because I had been on friendly terms with her chum from COSMOPOLITAN, Helen Gurley Brown, or should I say Helen Girlie Brown. But then that is another story. You never know what is going to happen on a film set, though the answer to that (if you ask any bored actor waiting between shots): usually nothing. Now as to this film, it is simply superb, and everyone should see it immediately. Sidney also had the exquisite taste to cast the Swedish actress Harriet Andersson as James Mason's young nymphomaniac wife. Those of us who haunted the art houses in those days knew her from the Ingmar Bergman films, and then suddenly there she was in an English language film, and of course she does very well. The recipe for a good film is often: 'throw in one Swede or two Danes, and stir'. Just look at Bergman's protégé Max von Sydow to see how far they can go in the world of international cinema. And it is always good to see the wonderful British character actor Harry Andrews in films, here playing a sleepy retired police inspector who keeps nodding off. It is all just terrific, and every bit a superior John le Carre film. In fact it is even better, being a genuine classic.
Sous le soleil de Satan (1987)
Dreary Catholic angst
This film is based upon the novel SOUS LE SOLEIL DE Satan (UNDER THE SUN OF Satan) by Georges Bernanos (1888-1948). It was filmed previously for French television in 1971, but that film does not appear to have survived. Bernanos was one of France's leading Catholic authors of the 20th century, the other two main ones being his contemporaries Jacques Maritain and Paul Claudel. Bernanos was obsessed with his faith, and especially with the role of Catholic priests in relation to their parishioners. His most famous novel is DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, which was filmed by Robert Bresson in 1951. I had to read that novel when I was young, and dragged my way through to the very end, though it took months to recover from the trauma of so much boredom and tedium. Really, all that Catholic angst is enough to turn one's stomach. In this very bad film, Gerard Depardieu plays a young priest of overwhelmingly masochistic tendencies. We see him savagely whipping himself with a flail made of steel chain, we see him peeling off part of a hair shirt with his blood seeping from his chest. He is clearly a very, very sick man who belongs in an asylum. But in his case, that asylum is alas his church. To Bernanos all this matters, but to those of us who are not in the clutches of Rome, it could not be of less interest. The film is badly directed by Maurice Pialat, who also adapted the novel into a screenplay with his wife and in addition acted in the film. The screenplay is static and wholly uncinematic. The film largely consists of set pieces which go on far too long, where large amounts of Bernanos's anguished prose pours from the mouths of the artificially posed actors. Depardieu is doomed to collide with the appalling character played by Sandrine Bonnaire, a 16 year-old narcissistic and amoral psychopath who has killed her lover with a shotgun. Bonnaire aged 20 was a touch too old for the part, but she portrays the girl very well despite the long and languid speeches she is required to declaim in tedious talky scenes which never end. Sandrine Bonnaire is an inspired actress, and she will always be remembered for what may be her finest role, as the lead actress in Agnes Varda's brilliant film VAGABOND (1985), a harrowing and searing portrayal of loneliness and hopelessness. She is also spectacular in Jacques Rivette's masterpiece SECRET DEFENCE (1998, see my review). But all of her efforts in this film are ultimately of no avail, because the film stinks.