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Circle of Danger (1951)
Tell, Don't Show
Clay Douglas, an American, travels to Britain to discover the truth behind his brother's death during the Second World War. (The film was made in 1951, six years after the war ended). We learn that Douglas's brother, Hank, had joined the British Army in 1940, before America entered the war, and was killed during a commando raid against German positions in occupied France. Douglas, however, soon realises that getting at the truth will be difficult. Although Hank was the only casualty on that particular raid, several other members of his unit were killed in later operations and another has recently died in peacetime. The survivors either know little about the circumstances of Hank's death or refuse to talk about it.
Douglas's quest eventually takes him to the Scottish Highlands where he meets Hank's commanding officer, Major Hamish McArran. Although McArran greets him courteously, he is obviously unwilling to tell Douglas all he knows. While in Scotland Douglas meets, and falls in love with, an attractive young woman named Elspeth Graham, in whom McArran also seems to have a romantic interest. Returning to England, he eventually tracks down another witness who is prepared to tell him more. He begins to suspect that Hank was not killed by enemy action but was deliberately murdered by one of his comrades.
The above synopsis would suggest that this is a serious drama, but in fact it can never really make up its mind whether it wants to be a thriller or a romantic comedy. Too much attention is paid to the Elspeth subplot, especially during the middle part of the film when it comes close to eclipsing the main plot. The part where Douglas, forgetting that Elspeth suffers from hay fever, brings her a bouquet of flowers and sends her into a sneezing-fit is the sort of scene which would be more appropriate in a rom-com than in a thriller. Even those scenes which form part of the main plot can sometimes seem inappropriately comic. Two of Douglas's interviewees are a hilariously camp ballet dancer (whom we are supposed to accept as an ex-commando) and a dodgy car salesman who will not give Douglas the information he wants until he has agreed to buy an expensive car; the others all fit in with various British ethnic or regional stereotypes- garrulous Welshman, cheerful Cockney market porter, dour and taciturn Scot.
Were "Circle of Danger" being made today, it would probably be made in a very different way. Following the maxim "show, don't tell" the events of the commando raid would be shown in a series of flashbacks rather than simply being related to Douglas piecemeal by various witnesses, with the final flashback revealing the shocking truth about Hank. In 1951, however, the film-makers probably did not have a big enough budget to recreate scenes of wartime combat, so were forced to "tell, don't show". The final revelation, although I think we are supposed to accept it as the truth, is weakened by the fact that it is told to Douglas by a character who would have strong reasons to lie. The film-as-it-could-have-been might have ended up as a gripping mystery-thriller. The film-as-it-is takes what I would have thought was a naturally exciting subject, a World War II commando raid, and turns it into a rather dull, talky and passionless movie, largely free of excitement. 4/10
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
Married couple Larry and Carol Lipton are invited in for coffee by their neighbours Paul and Lillian House and they spend a pleasant evening together, but the following day they learn that Lillian has died of a heart attack. Carol, surprised by how cheerful Paul seems after his wife's death. becomes first suspicious and then convinced that Lilian has been murdered. Larry remains sceptical, telling Carol that she's inventing a mystery where none exists, but Carol takes it upon herself to investigate with the assistance of Ted, a friend of Larry who shares her suspicions. Larry reluctantly gets involved, largely because he is becoming jealous of the amount of time Carol and Ted are spending together. And then Carol claims to have seen the supposedly dead Lillian on a bus.
1992/1993 was a difficult period in Woody Allen's life, the time of his break-up with Mia Farrow after becoming involved with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi. Farrow was originally slated to play Carol in this film, but after the split this became impossible, and Woody's former lover and muse Diane Keaton was cast instead. Apart from a brief cameo in "Radio Days", this was her first film with Woody since "Manhattan" in 1979, and it remains their last collaboration to date. (Unlike his break-up with Farrow, Woody's split from Keaton was relatively amicable, and they continued to work together even when they were no longer romantically involved).
Although he is not obviously Jewish, Larry is in other ways a typical Woody Allen character, a middle-class, intellectual New Yorker. He is also emotionally insecure, something shown by his jealousy of Ted and Carol, who are not romantically involved with one another. Unusually, however, Woody here plays the straight man to Keaton's frenetically neurotic motormouth. Carol might eventually be proved right about Paul's villainy- there is indeed plenty of skulduggery going on- but the fact that she initially suspected him on so little evidence suggests that she is not the most stable or rational of people.
The style of film-making here is similar to that in Woody's previous film, "Husbands and Wives which was distinguished by muted colours, oblique camera angles and two (or sometimes more) characters trying to speak at once, at times giving it a rather amateurish feel. The same features occur in "Manhattan Murder Mystery", especially when Larry and Carol are having one of their verbal duels. (She normally wins; for once, Woody finds himself up against someone who can talk more, and talk faster, than he can). Woody also seems to be avoiding using close-ups as much as possible; conversations are often filmed from a distance, with both parties in the shot at the same time and neither of them in focus.
Woody, of course, has a vast knowledge of film history, and frequently likes to make reference to older films in his own works. Sometimes this cannibalising of the past can be productive; "Play It Again, Sam", for example, with its ghostly Bogart, is one of his best. Here, however, I couldn't really see the point of turning the ending into an homage to a similar scene in Orson Welles' "The Lady from Shanghai", unless the idea was to make the audience think "Gosh, Woody really does know his film noir!" Those audience members who haven't seen Welles's film- as I hadn't when I first saw "Manhattan Murder Mystery" in 1993- will probably find the whole scene a bit baffling. In order to set up this scene Woody came up with a plotline whereby Paul is restoring an old, disused movie theatre, a detail rather at odds with the front Paul likes to present to the world of being a dull, unambitious middle-class retiree.
When Woody deals with serious crime, especially murder, the result can be something very dark and metaphysical, as in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" from 1989 or the more recent "Match Point". In "Manhattan Murder Mystery" and Carol and Ted's suspicions prove well-founded, but the film is surprisingly light in tone, a murder mystery comedy rather than an investigation into the meaning of life, the universe and everything. This tone came as a bit of a surprise to the critics, as the film came after a run of several more serious dramas, including "Crimes and Misdemeanors", "Alice" and "Husbands and Wives". Woody explained that he made the film as a form of therapy after his emotional problems- "I wanted to just indulge myself in something I could relax and enjoy"- so it is perhaps not surprising that it turned out rather lightweight by comparison with some of his other films. There are some occasional funny lines, but "Manhattan Murder Mystery" does not really rank among Woody's best. 7/10
The Shallows (2016)
Suspense in its Purest Form
While surfing from a remote Mexican beach a young woman named Nancy Adams is attacked by a shark. She manages to swim to an isolated rock about 200 yards offshore, but cannot make it back to the beach. To make matters worse, the rock is regularly submerged at high tide.
And that, in a nutshell, is the plot of "The Shallows". This is essentially suspense film making in its purest, most simplified form. No subplots. No detailed character analysis or development. Little dialogue. One sole location (apart from the final scene). An adversary who has no complicated psychological motives, only blind killer instincts. This being a suspense thriller there have to be a few false hopes of rescue first raised and then dashed, otherwise the film would have been over in about half an hour.
The nearest the plot comes to complexity is when it explains something of Nancy's back-story. We learn that she was a medical student but dropped out of medical school after being traumatised by the recent death of her mother. (Her medical training has some relevance to the plot as it explains how she is able to treat her own injuries). The reason why Nancy chose this particular beach is because her mother visited it while pregnant with her. We also learn that Nancy has a father and a younger sister, Chloe, back in Galveston, Texas.
This is, of course, a one-woman film. Blake Lively who plays Nancy is on screen virtually the whole time; no other character plays anything like a major role. Well, no other human character. The second most important character is the shark itself and the third most important a seagull whom Nancy names "Steven". Steven Seagull (geddit?) is also injured by the shark and is the nearest thing Nancy has to a companion during her ordeal. I would agree with the critic who described Lively's performance as being "as much an athletic feat as an aesthetic one", as this is a film which depends upon its action sequences for its effect. Some people have described the efforts to provide Nancy with a back-story as unnecessary, on the grounds that in a battle between girl and shark the audience are always going to root for the girl even if she is an escaped convict rather than an aspiring doctor. I think, however, that the film-makers were right to provide their heroine with an identity and a life and thus establish her as an individual with whom we can identify rather than a mere plot device.
In a sense the title of "The Shallows" is an apt one; there is little that is deep or significant about it, but then the film-makers never set out to make a deeply significant meaning-of-life movie. They set out to make a gripping thriller which would hold our attention for an hour-and-a-half, and in this we can say that they succeeded. 7/10
A goof. The film is supposedly set in Mexico, but Steven Seagull is a silver gull, a species native to Australia and not found in Mexico. The reason is that, despite its ostensible setting, the film was shot on location in Australia.
Of Necessity Experimental
No, nothing to do with the Aussie soap opera. This "Neighbors"- I keep the original American spelling- is a silent comedy short from 1920. The plot is a comic take on the "Romeo and Juliet" story. Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox play young lovers who live in flats in adjoining buildings but whose families are constantly quarrelling with one another. Both families are, of course, hostile to the young people's relationship, and the film is the story of how Buster and Virginia overcome the obstacles to their love. (I use the names of the actors because we never find out the names of their characters. The cast-list simply refers to "The Boy" and "The Girl").
Modern rom-coms also often deal with how young couples deal with the obstacles to their love, but today such "obstacles" are generally metaphorical- not only parental disapproval but also things like differences in social class or a fear of commitment. This being a silent comedy, however, the obstacles in "Neighbors" can be literal, physical barriers such as a wooden fence separating the two properties and the fact that Virginia's bedroom is on the third floor. Buster has to use his acrobatic skills to overcome these barriers with circus-style stunts involving a trapeze and much balancing on top of ladders.
Films like this were a part of my childhood in the sixties and seventies because they were often shown on British television. I suspect that this was done to provide a nostalgic treat for my grandparents' generation, who would have remembered them from their youth, but they also proved popular with my own generation. My parents were both born in the thirties and, having grown up after the sound revolution, regarded silents as very old-fashioned, so I often ended up watching them with Grandma and Grandpa. I was certainly not alone among my schoolfriends in my enthusiasm for these old films; they were not expressly made as children's films, but there was obviously something about their physical style of humour which appealed to the young.
To the modern adult, this style of humour can seem as unsophisticated as it did to my parents; one of the gags, for example, involves Buster's trousers falling down during the wedding ceremony after his belt breaks. We have to remember, however, that the cinema of the 1910s and early 1920s was, of necessity, experimental. Silent acting, whether in comedy or serious drama, was something new, and film-makers could not rely upon the traditional skills of the theatre, where actors could speak. Pioneers like Keaton, who acted as co-writer and co-director of this film, had to be continually experimenting to find out what worked and what didn't. And in "Neighbors" he does sometimes succeed in making us laugh.
Mrs Lowry & Son (2019)
The Harridan of Station Road
Laurence Stephen Lowry is one of my favourite painters, so when I heard that a film about him had been released I rushed to see it. Lowry, of course, is famous for his paintings of industrial scenes; he is one of those artists who can express a deeply spiritual vision of the world by concentrating on a small geographical area with a particular meaning for him. What the Stour Valley was to Constable, the countryside around Arles to Van Gogh, Argenteuil and the Parisian suburbs to the Impressionists, his wife's native Perthshire to Millais and North London to Algernon Newton, the industrial towns of his native Lancashire were to Lowry.
The film is based upon a stage play, and with its small cast and limited number of settings is obviously a piece of "filmed theatre". Most of the action takes place in a single, very precise, location, a bedroom at 117 Station Road, Pendlebury, Lancashire. The year is 1934. Lowry is starting to win recognition, but despite his success he still works in a humble job as a rent collector and lives in a small terraced house with his elderly widowed mother Elizabeth, his father having died two years earlier.
Elizabeth Lowry is an embittered, bedridden invalid, but, surprisingly, her bitterness is caused not by the state of her health but by the failure of her ambitions, both professional and social. As a young woman she had dreams of becoming a concert pianist, but these came to nothing. She was originally from a middle-class background and still resents the fact that financial circumstances forced the family to move from the wealthy Manchester suburb of Victoria Park to the nearby industrial, predominantly working-class, town of Pendlebury, even though the move took place as long ago as 1909. I sometimes wonder how Lowry's art might have developed had the family remained in Victoria Park. Would he, for example, have become a Northern equivalent of Newton or a latter-day Atkinson Grimshaw, the Victorian artist who often took inspiration from city suburbs, especially in his home town of Leeds?
She disapproves of her son's career as an artist, particularly as most of his paintings depict industrial scenes in the surrounding area, a choice of subject-matter which she regards as "low" and "vulgar". She only shows any appreciation for him when one of his more conventionally picturesque works, showing sailing-boats on a river, is praised by a neighbour, Mrs Stanhope. (Mrs Lowry takes Mrs Stanhope's opinions seriously because the two women share similar pretensions to middle-class gentility). The film is essentially a dramatisation of Lowry's struggles to cope with the demands of his selfish, overbearing mother.
Timothy Spall may have been cast as Lowry because, after his success in Mike Leigh's "Mr Turner", someone has obviously got hold of the idea that he is a specialist in biopics about English artists. Here, however, he is too old for the part he is playing; in 1934 Lowry would still have been in his forties, whereas Spall is 62, and, in this film at least, looks older. In reality he is just about young enough to be Vanessa Redgrave's son- there are twenty years between them- but here they look more like two people from the same generation, brother and sister rather than mother and son.
If one can overlook this problem with the characters' ages, Spall and Redgrave are both very good. Elizabeth is in many ways a spiteful domestic tyrant, yet Redgrave manages to make her seem pitiable rather than detestable. The pity lies in the fact that a woman who could have given much to the world should have wasted so much time in petty, snobbish resentments and that someone who clearly had artistic sensibilities herself should have been so blind to her son's genius. Spall's Lowry is very far from the common stereotype of the artistic genius as temperamental egotist- a humble self-effacing man with no airs and graces, willing to sacrifice much for his domineering mother, but not his art.
I have never seen the original play, so do not know how it works on stage, but I do not feel it was the best starting-point for a film about Lowry's life. The film left me wanting to know so much more about Lowry- about the beginning of his career, about his discovery of local Lancashire scenes as his main subject-matter, about his father, who is only seen briefly in flashback. I even wanted to know more about Elizabeth Lowry herself, about how the beautiful and talented young woman we see in the flashback scenes ended up as the bitter old harridan of 117 Station Road. "Mr Turner" is a film with a great breadth of vision; the more restricted, claustrophobic "Mrs Lowry and Son" is not. 7/10
The Commerce of the Absurd
How do you improve on perfection? The first series of David Nobbs's "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin" was as close to perfect as any British comedy series ever gets, and a great hit with both the viewing public and the critics, but there was a problem which wouldn't exist with a standard sit-com, where the TV executives could simply commission the scriptwriters to write some more episodes based around the same characters.
"The Fall and Rise...", however, wasn't a standard sit-com but the dramatization of a comic (or serio-comic) novel which, unlike a sit-com, had a beginning, a middle and an end. Nobbs therefore had to come up with an idea for a second novel, which was published as "The Return of Reginald Perrin", although the original title was kept for the television version. In the first series Nobbs's hero Reggie was a bored, stressed and frustrated middle-manager, commuting from his suburban home to his pointless job at a firm called Sunshine Desserts, where he was bullied and patronised by his dreadful boss CJ. (Did Nobbs, I wonder, hit on the name of the firm because the word "desserts" is "stressed" spelt backwards?) In desperation he fakes his suicide in an attempt to start a new life, but eventually ends up working for his old firm under an assumed identity.
In his second book and television series Nobbs inverts his original idea. As the story opens Reggie is still working at Sunshine Desserts, disguised as his alter ego Martin Wellbourne, but is sacked when CJ learns his true identity. As a despairing gesture against the System, Reggie and his wife Elizabeth open a shop called Grot, based around a concept described in the novel (but not in this series) as the Commerce of the Absurd. It has long been a commonplace criticism of the "Consumer Society", and one much heard in the seventies, that big business was, through the cunning use of advertising, seducing unwary consumers into purchasing useless items which they did not need. It is implied that Sunshine Desserts is a firm of this sort, with a business model based upon flogging the public overpriced, tasteless products with little nutritional value.
Reggie takes this idea one step further by being quite honest about what he is doing. Everything sold in Grot is absolutely useless and is advertised under the slogan "everything sold here is absolutely useless". Examples of Grot products include square hoops, cruet sets without holes and the home-made wines brewed by Reggie's son-in-law Tom. (During the seventies there was something of a vogue for making one's own wine from the most unlikely ingredients; Tom's noxious brews include such vintages as "sprout" and "nettle"). Against the odds, Reggie's venture proves a huge success, and he quickly becomes the millionaire boss of a big chain of stores. He ends up employing CJ and several other colleagues from Sunshine Desserts after that firm goes bust.
Reggie, however, finds that he does not enjoy life as a successful boss any more than he enjoyed it as an unsuccessful middle manager. He finds that he is still trapped by routine and tries to destroy Grot from within, first by hiring people whom he believes to be incompetent in key positions and then by relapsing into eccentric behaviour. He fails, partly because his new appointees all prove to have hidden talents and partly because behaviour which seemed odd and bizarre in a middle-class commuter seems refreshingly unconventional in a wealthy business tycoon. Reggie and Elizabeth decide it is time to take a drastic step.
Leonard Rossiter, Pauline Yates and all the other regulars from the earlier series return apart from David Warwick as Reggie's son Mark who was for some reason written out. Tom has shaved off his beard, and Reggie's brother-in-law Jimmy, now discharged from the Army, returns as a more sinister figure, involved with far-right politics and trying unsuccessfully to set up a secret vigilante force to intervene in some unspecified national emergency. Once again, Nobbs makes great use of the various characters' catch-phrases ("I didn't get where I am today...", "I'm a something-or-other person!", "Great!", Super!"). Other comedy series used similar phrases, "Dad's Army" being a notable example, but whereas the phrases used in that series ("Stupid boy!", "Don't panic!" and so on) were simply used for comic effect, in "Reggie Perrin" they seem to have a more satirical function, being the sort of lazy ways of speech people slip into as a substitute for thinking.
Like the first series, the second is essentially a satirical critique of British capitalism, but this time seen from the top rather than from the middle. Success and failure are shown as two sides of the same counterfeit coin, and neither automatically leads to happiness. Yes, there's a lot to laugh at in "Reggie Perrin", but behind the laughter Nobbs is holding up a mirror to contemporary British society. 10/10
Trois couleurs: Rouge (1994)
The Best of the Trilogy by a Considerable Margin
Three Colours: Red" is the third and final part of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy, the other parts being Blue and White. These are, of course, the colours of the French flag, and according to Kieslowski these three colours symbolise respectively liberty, equality, and fraternity, although this is not an interpretation that has ever officially been adopted by the French government. Red in this scheme is the colour of fraternity. This was also the last film ever made by Kieslowski; he was to die in 1996 but had announced before his death that he would be making no more films after "Red".
Fraternity is the runt of the litter, the odd one out among the three revolutionary triplets. I doubt if anyone has ever exclaimed "Give me fraternity or give me death!" or "O fraternity, what crimes are committed in thy name!" Politicians rarely orate about their wish to build a more fraternal society. Liberty and equality have entered the political vocabulary in a way which fraternity has not, and this is possibly the reason why Kieslowski here feels free to interpret the concept of fraternity more literally than he did those of liberty (which in "Blue" refers to "emotional" rather than political liberty) and equality (which in "White" means approximately "getting equal with your enemies by taking revenge").
The main character is Valentine Dussaut, a university student from Geneva and part-time model and dancer. While driving she accidentally hits a dog and tracks down its owner, an eccentric, grumpy old man named Joseph Kern, who seems unconcerned about what has happened to his pet. Despite the cool reception she initially receives, Valentine gradually becomes friendly with the old man, who turns out to be a retired judge. This is Kieslowski's conception of "fraternity" in the sense of the bonds which can develop between people who might seem to have little in common.
For a man who spent his working life enforcing the law, Kern has little respect for the law himself. Some retired men might take up a pastime like stamp collecting, gardening or playing bowls, but Kern's retirement hobby is bugging his neighbours' telephones so that he can eavesdrop on their conversations. When Valentine discovers his guilty secret she is horrified, and threatens to inform his neighbours of what is going on, but decides not to do so because she does not wish to distress them; she is particularly concerned about a woman whose husband is involved in a sexual affair with another man. Despite her distaste for Kern's activities, Valentine does not break off her friendship with him. There is also a sub-plot involving Augustin, a young law student, and his girlfriend Karin, who is cheating on him.
Kieslowski's use of colour symbolism seems to increase as the trilogy progresses. In "Blue" a few scenes are shot under blue light and there is one prominent blue object, but otherwise the colour (and, indeed, bright colours in general) is little used in that film. In "White" there are rather more white objects, and some scenes take place among the snows and frost of winter. In "Red", however, there seems to be at least one prominent bright red object in every scene. Another way in which Kieslowski ties the three films together is by using recurring characters. Karol and Dominique, the main characters of "White", appear briefly towards the end of "Blue" and are referred to at the end of "Red", as are Julie and Olivier from "Blue".
Irene Jacob, who also appeared in Kieslowski's earlier film "The Double Life of Veronique", is the best female actress in the trilogy. Juliette Binoche in "Blue" is too emotionally restrained for a woman who has recently endured the death of her husband and daughter in a car crash. Julie Delpy in "White" has the thankless task of playing a woman who is written not so much as a rounded human being than as a sacred monster, an Aunt Sally set up for her ex-husband to knock down. Jacob, however, gives a well-judged performance as a caring, compassionate young woman who because of her chance encounter with Kern finds herself suddenly confronted with a situation which is beyond her experience and almost beyond her power to deal with. (It is perhaps significant that she is named after the patron saint of lovers). Another great performance comes from Jean-Louis Trintignant as the enigmatic Kern, a man who has spent his life sitting in judgement on others and who would seem to as a result to have developed a pronounced God-complex. He is not, however, altogether unsympathetic; he is capable of recognising his errors and admitting to them, including one case where his error turned out to have an unexpectedly happy outcome.
As I said when I reviewed "Blue", Kieslowski has never been my favourite director, and I have never regarded the Three Colours Trilogy with the reverence accorded to it by some of his admirers. "Red" is, however, in my opinion the best of the three films by a considerable margin. Although the sequence of events is not always easy to follow, a criticism I would also make of "White", there are two excellent acting performances. The film also seems to have a greater philosophical depth than either of its predecessors. It might ostensibly be about fraternity, but it also deals with some complex issues surrounding such matters as law and morality (not always the same thing), age and youth, loneliness and companionship, love and hatred, forgiveness and revenge and even that unfashionable subject, right and wrong. Not a bad end to its director's career. 7/10
Trois couleurs: Blanc (1994)
A Modern Count of Monte Cristo
"Three Colours: White" is the second part of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy, the other parts being Blue and Red. These are, of course, the colours of the French flag, and according to Kieslowski these three colours symbolise respectively liberty, equality, and fraternity, although this is not an interpretation that has ever officially been adopted by the French government. White in this scheme is the colour of equality, although just as "Blue" dealt with "emotional liberty" rather than political liberty, so "White" gives a very different meaning to the concept of "equality" than the one which would be given to it by most political thinkers. (The interpretation of "fraternity" in "Red", however, is closer to the normal meaning of the word).
In "Blue", set entirely in France, and "Red", set in French-speaking Switzerland, all the dialogue is in French. "White", however, like Kieslowski's earlier film "The Double Life of Veronique", is set partly in France and partly in Poland, with dialogue in both languages. The main character is Karol Karol, a Polish immigrant in France. The story opens in a Paris court where Karol is being sued for divorce by his beautiful French wife Dominique on the grounds of non-consummation. The divorce is granted, and Karol also loses his job (he worked in a beauty salon jointly owned with Dominique), his right to residence in France and most of his money. Even though he no longer has the right to live in France, he does not have the money for the air fare to Poland and can only return to his homeland hidden in a suitcase, a scheme which goes wrong when the suitcase is stolen by dishonest employees at the airport.
Back in Poland Karol discovers a way in which he can make money and use it to get revenge upon those whom he believes have wronged him, especially Dominique. There is also a subplot in which Karol accepts money to kill a man who wants to die but lacks the courage to commit suicide. The "equality" with which the film deals is Karol's belief that revenge will make him "equal" to his enemies in the sense that he will have got his own back on them.
Zbigniew Zamachowski's Karol is the archetypal, put-upon "little man", a direct descendant of Charlie Chaplin's "little tramp", who much to the audience's surprise, and probably to his own, finds himself in a position to become a "big man". This plotline may owe something to one of the classic works of French literature, Dumas's "The Count of Monte Cristo", which also involves a man who is badly treated but after becoming rich discovers how to revenge himself upon his enemies. Karol's adventures in the suitcase may be based upon Edmond Dantes's escape from prison.
Kieslowski's use of colour symbolism seems to increase as the trilogy progresses. In "Blue" a few scenes are shot under blue light and there is one prominent blue object, but otherwise the colour (and, indeed, bright colours in general) is little used in that film. In "White" there are rather more white objects, including Karol's overalls and Dominique's car, and some scenes, especially in Poland, take place among the snows and frost of winter. In "Red", however, bright red objects abound throughout the film. Another way in which Kieslowski ties the three films together is by using recurring characters. Karol and Dominique appear briefly towards the end of "Blue" and are referred to at the end of "Red".
My main problem with the film is that it does not flow easily; the action can be hard to follow, and it is often difficult to work out exactly what is going on. There are some plot-holes; Karol's return to Poland in the suitcase is brought about through the assistance of a fellow-Pole, Mikolaj who has befriended him. Yet Mikolaj is clearly well-off and successful, so we are forced to ask why he did not simply give, or lend, Karol the money for the air fare. I thought that Kieslowski was too hard on Dominique, whose only crime was to fall out of love with the man she married; the ending seemed particularly misogynistic. Although there is a good performance from Zamachowski, "Three Colours: White" has never been my favourite film. The same could be said of "Blue"; "Red" is in my view the best of the trilogy. 5/10
Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Putting the Show in Chauvinism
In May 1973 Margaret Court, at the time the world's No. 1 women's tennis player, lost a challenge match against former men's Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs in what was dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes", with Riggs winning surprisingly easily. I say "surprisingly" because at 55 he was old enough to be Court's father; his Wimbledon victory had come as long ago as 1939, before Court was even born.
Who would now defend the honour of women's tennis? Step forward Billie Jean King, the world No. 2, even though she had previously dismissed Riggs's challenge to Court as an undignified gimmick. The early seventies were a period when the leading professional female players, King foremost amongst them, were agitating for the right to receive the same prize money as the men, and King was clearly irritated by Riggs' frequent sexist comments about female tennis players. The film tells the story of the second "Battle of the Sexes" between Riggs and King.
The film also deals with the private lives of the two protagonists. Their "Battle" came at a time when both were having problems in their marriages, although for different reasons. King had begun a lesbian affair with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, although the film suggests that her husband Larry treated this with philosophical detachment. Riggs had become alienated from his wife Priscilla because of his compulsive gambling, although he took the view that he did not have a gambling problem because he never bet more than he could afford to lose and, in any case, generally won more than he lost.
Emma Stone in the leading role suffers what, in many other biographical films, would be a significant disadvantage, that of not looking anything like the character she is portraying. Here, however, that does not matter so much because King's public profile was based on a distinctive hairstyle and an equally distinctive pair of oversized spectacles, something few other professional sportswomen wore. All Stone needs, therefore, is a brunette wig and specs and... hey presto, Billie Jean!
The film-makers sometimes try to pretend that they are making a serious film about an event which played an important part in winning equality for sportswomen, although they never really have an answer to the argument that King's initial feelings about Riggs were actually correct and that the two "Battles of the Sexes" were indeed an undignified gimmick. Riggs probably had no strong views one way or the other about how much prize-money women players should receive, but he was as addicted to publicity-seeking as he was to gambling, and saw the two matches as a lucrative way of keeping his name in the headlines. His provocative comments ("putting the show in chauvinism", as he put it) may well have been made with the express purpose of goading King into accepting his challenge.
In many ways the film is as much a light-hearted comedy as a serious celebration of sporting feminism. This is achieved in two ways. The first is by treating Riggs as essentially a figure of fun. I have only seen Steve Carell in one other film, the serious drama "Foxcatcher" (in which he was excellent), but I understand that in America he is best known as a comedian, and here he gives a superbly comic performance, making Riggs a manic, wisecracking joker. (There is one very funny scene when, forced by Priscilla to attend a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, he enrages the other participants by telling them that their problem is not that they are gamblers. Their problem is that, unlike him, they are unsuccessful gamblers).
The second way in which the film-makers lighten the tone is by not telling the whole truth about King's romance with Marilyn Barnett. That affair could, in fact, have served as the subject-matter for a film in its own right, although it would of necessity have had to be much more serious than "Battle of the Sexes". King might today be regarded as a lesbian and feminist icon, but during her playing career she was never open about her sexuality, largely because she feared that the sponsors might pull out of the women's game at any hint of scandal. After the events depicted here, she broke off her relationship with Barnett, who in 1981 tried unsuccessfully to sue her under the "palimony" laws. Barnett eventually attempted suicide, an attempt which left her paralysed. Although King admitted sexual intimacy with Barnett she tried to pass it off as an isolated fling and did not "come out" about her lesbianism until after her divorce from Larry and her retirement from professional tennis. There is, needless to say, no reference to these matters in the film.
"Battle of the Sexes" is in many ways an enjoyable period romp, enlivened by Carell's lively contribution, although the way in which it glossed over Marilyn Barnett's tragic story leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth. Yet I can understand why the film-makers were so reluctant to explore that story, quite apart from the possibility of their being hit by a libel suit. The film received largely positive reviews from the critics, yet was not a success at the box office. It would appear that even during these supposedly liberal times there is little public appetite for a light-hearted movie with a lesbian theme. There might be even less appetite for a serious movie with a lesbian theme. 7/10
The Mountain Men (1980)
The Money Men Should Have Got More Bang for their Bucks
Charlton Heston and Westerns should have been a match made in heaven. They were a popular genre during the first half of his acting career, even if they went into something of a decline during the second half. He excelled in playing men of action and rugged outdoors types, combining toughness with the decency and integrity which were the hallmarks of the Western hero. He was a good horseman and knew how to handle a gun. (He was in later life to attract controversy because of his membership of the National Rifle Association and his strident advocacy of their pro-gun policies).
And yet, when I look at my list of favourite Westerns, I find that Heston only features in one of them, "The Big Country", and even there he only plays a supporting role, the star part going to Gregory Peck. "Will Penny" is a decent enough film, but fell some way short of being a great one, and "The Far Horizons" fell even further short. "Major Dundee" contained the seeds of greatness, but ended up shapeless and disorganised, largely due to the erratic behaviour of its director Sam Peckinpah.
"The Mountain Men" is another Heston Western which will never rank among my favourites. The action takes place during the 1830s, a period when few white people had yet colonised the West. The few Europeans in the area were not the settlers and farmers who were to come later but traders, hunters and trappers. Heston's character Bill Tyler is a trapper who is on an expedition with his friend and partner Henry Frapp in search of beaver. At one time beaver pelts (or "plews") were much sought after because the fur was used for men's hats, but at the time when the film is set the fur trapping business is in decline. Changes in fashion mean that silk is now the desirable material for hats and plews no longer fetch the high prices they once did. The story involves Tyler and Frapp searching for a legendary valley "so full of beaver that they just jump in the traps". While doing so they get involved in a feud between two Native American tribes, the Crow and the Blackfoot, and Tyler becomes the lover of a Crow maiden named Running Moon who is escaping from her abusive Blackfoot husband. (Heston also played the lover of a Native American girl in "The Far Horizons").
The film was made in 1980 at a time when the decline of the Western had already begun. That year was also to see Michael Cimino's notorious "Heaven's Gate", the commercial failure of which was to accelerate that decline. It would, however, be unfair to put all the blame onto Cimino's shoulders. Another reason for the decline lay in the fact that so many Westerns had been made that it was becoming increasingly difficult to use the genre to say anything new, and this was one of the problems with "The Mountain Men". It found little favour with the critics; Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert described it as one of their "dogs of the year" for 1980, and although the dog may be man's best friend that expression did not imply friendly feelings towards the film or those involved in making it.
Moreover, the film did not find much favour with its star either. The original story was written by Heston's son Fraser, although according to Heston senior the studio monkeyed with the plot to such an extent that the finished film bears little resemblance to what Heston junior had actually written. Both father and son were allegedly "heartbroken" by the final cut, Heston senior acidly commenting that "the people who put up the money control the film". We cannot, of course, know what the film would have been like had it been more faithful to Fraser Heston's vision, but the film we have is a mess, a Western of the dull, derivative seen-it-all-before school of filmmaking. The photography of the mountain scenery is attractive, but the acting is mediocre with Heston far from his best, the plot predictable and the pacing far too slow. About its only distinguishing feature is a greater amount of profanity than is common in run-of-the-mill Westerns. The people who put up the money should really have expected a bit more for their dollars. 4/10
Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993)
"Three Colours: Blue" is the first part of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy, the other parts being White and Red. These are, of course, the colours of the French flag, and according to Kieslowski these three colours symbolise respectively liberty, equality, and fraternity, although this is not an interpretation that has ever officially been adopted by the French government.
The central character is Julie, a young woman whose husband Patrice, a famous composer, and young daughter Anna are killed in a car accident. Julie herself is also involved in the accident, but survives without serious injury. Her way of attempting to rebuild her life is to cut herself off from everything she has known before. She sells the family's elegant country house and moves to a small flat in Paris. She distances herself from old friends, staying in touch only with her elderly mother, but this does not really count as a tie to the past because her mother, suffering from senile dementia, no longer recognises her. She destroys the unfinished score of the work her husband was working on at the time of his death.
Cutting herself off from her past, however, proves to be more difficult than Julie had anticipated, especially after it emerges that a second copy of Patrice's score has survived and that his friend and fellow-composer Olivier Benoît intends to complete it. (The piece is always referred to as a "concerto", but the piece we actually hear, a setting for soprano, choir and orchestra of words from Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, is not a concerto in the sense in which classical musicians would normally understand the term. Perhaps Olivier has radically altered Patrice's conception of the work). Julie also discovers that her husband had a mistress, Sandrine, who is pregnant with his child.
So what has this story to do with liberty? Kieslowski was clearly asked this question himself, and his answer was that the film is not about political liberty (which is how the French revolutionaries would have understood the word) but about "emotional liberty", a rather more nebulous concept. Julie wants to free herself from all emotional bonds but finds that she is unable to do so. No man, and no woman, is an island.
Besides being the supposed colour of liberty, the word "Blue" has some more literal meanings in this film. In keeping with the sombre theme Kieslowski uses a restrained palette with few bright colours; whites, greys, browns and dull blues and greens are the predominant hues. One of the few brightly coloured objects, however, is a mobile of bright blue beads, which is one of the few possessions which Julie keeps from her previous life and which presumably has some significant meaning for her. (It may have belonged to her dead daughter). Some scenes are also shot under blue light.
For a film which deals with what must be among the most traumatic situations imaginable- a young woman suddenly and tragically losing her husband and her only child- the emotional temperature is always far too cool. Julie's attempt to cut herself off from her former life only makes sense if one interprets it not as callousness but as the only strategy she can think of to deal with her extreme grief, yet I never got much sense of this from Juliette Binoche's rather restrained performance. "Three Colours: Blue" is, technically and aesthetically, a well-made film, yet watching it again recently for the first time in many years reminded me why Kieslowski has never been among my favourite directors. 5/10
It is not only gay people who live in closets
The first mainstream American film with an explicitly lesbian theme was "The Children's Hour" from as long ago as 1961, which, remarkably, starred Audrey Hepburn, normally one of Hollywood's squeaky-clean sweethearts, in a leading rile. Lesbianism, however, has never really become a common subject in the cinematic mainstream over the intervening 58 years. Boy-loves-girl is still a lot more popular than girl-loves-girl or, for that matter, boy-loves-boy. "Bound" from 1996 is one of the few exceptions. It tells the story of Violet, a gangster's girlfriend, and Corky, a female ex-convict who becomes her lover, and of how they plot to steal $2 million of mafia money from Violet's boyfriend Caesar and his associates. I don't really need to set out any more of the plot; as with many crime thrillers from the nineties it is highly complex with several twists.
The film can be regarded as an example of neo-noir, a cinematic movement which takes its inspiration from the film noir tradition but tries to adapt it to modern film-making techniques. Most scenes take place in claustrophobic, often darkened, interiors, and while this feature may have been dictated by the film's tight budget it also takes on a metaphorical character, symbolising one of the film's major themes. Its writer-directors the Wachowskis (directing their first film) described it as being about "the boxes people make of their lives", adding that "it is not only gay people who live in closets". All the characters are trapped in some way or another. Violet is trapped in her relationship with the abusive Caesar, Corky by her criminal past, Caesar and his fellow-gangsters by their criminal present. The title "Bound" refers on a literal level to a scene where one character is bound and gagged by another, and on a figurative level by these traps which people make for themselves.
Possibly because of the film's controversial subject-matter, the Wachowskis had difficulty casting the two main female roles, but were lucky to obtain the services of Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon who both give great performances. Their characters are sharply differentiated. Tilly's lipstick-bisexual Violet (significantly named after a flower) is the "femme" half of the partnership, feminine in appearance and speaking in a high-pitched "girly" voice. Although Gershon is strikingly attractive in real life, her androgynous Corky (significantly referred to by a male-sounding nickname which was presumably not bestowed upon her by her godfathers and godmothers in her baptism) is, with her short hair and unisex clothing, much more "butch". The film was seen as something of a comeback Gershon after her role in the much-criticised "Showgirls" from the previous year. (In that film it is hinted that Gershon's character might be sexually attracted to Elizabeth Berkeley's Nomi, although any lesbian content is implied rather than explicit).
There are, of course, significant differences between neo-noir and the old-time films noirs of the forties and fifties. No mainstream film from that era could possibly have had a gay or lesbian theme, and none would have been as violent as "Bound" is. Although the old noirs often dealt with violent crime neither the Production Code not the moral climate of the mid twentieth century would have allowed it to be shown in all the full gory detail which the Wachowskis show here. "Bound" is not for those who are allergic to either the sight of blood or to explicit lesbian sex scenes. To anyone with a strong stomach for sex and violence, however, it can be an interesting experience, a well-acted crime thriller with some intriguing twists and some dark, sardonic humour. 8/10
Early Hitchcock Masterpiece
"The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog" is a thriller about a serial killer based on Jack the Ripper but updated from the 1880s to the 1920s. A man known as "The Avenger" has murdered several young women. All his victims were blonde, and all the killings took place on Tuesday evenings. A young man takes a room as a lodger in the home of a Mr and Mrs Bunting. (The man is referred to in some cast lists as "Jonathan Drew", but this name is not used in the film itself). The man is secretive and mysterious, and is obviously a well-to-do gentleman, so it is not clear why he has taken a room in a working-class area.
The Buntings have a daughter named Daisy who works as a model and showgirl. A friendship grows up between Daisy and the lodger, much to the dismay of Daisy's policeman boyfriend Joe. Mrs. Bunting, however, suspicious of the lodger's secretive ways, comes to believe that he is the Avenger, and tells her husband. Joe, who has been assigned to the Avenger case, also has his suspicions. The audience are left pondering whether the lodger really is the Avenger or if Joe, jealous of his attentions to Daisy, is trying to frame him for crimes he did not commit.
"The Lodger" was Alfred Hitchcock's third feature film after "The Pleasure Garden" and the now-lost "The Mountain Eagle". Unlike some of the director's other works from the twenties it is a suspense thriller, the genre for which he was later to become famous. Like virtually all films from the twenties it was shot in monochrome, but in this case that word does not necessarily equate to "black-and-white" because different scenes were tinted in different colours. (Hitchcock also used this device in "Downhill", also dating from 1927). Orange is generally used for daytime scenes, and for indoor night-time scenes to indicate artificial lighting. Blue is used for outdoor night-time scenes, and one scene set in a darkened, unlit room at night is indeed in untinted black-and-white.
The film introduced some of what were to become Hitchcock trademarks, such as a cameo appearance by the director and a blonde heroine. (Daisy is of course blonde). It also introduced a theme which was to become a common one in Hitchcock thrillers, that of a man on the run because he is wrongly suspected of a crime he did not commit. This theme was to reappear in (among others) "The 39 Steps", "Young and Innocent", "Saboteur", "Spellbound", "Strangers on a Train", "I Confess", "The Wrong Man", "North by North-West" and "Frenzy".
Strangely enough, however, Hitchcock's original intention was to leave the question of the lodger's guilt open. The producers, however, insisted that the script be changed to make it clear that he is innocent and to provide a happy ending in which his innocence is vindicated. The reason, apparently, is that Ivor Novello was a highly popular star of the British cinema during this period and the studio felt that audiences would not accept him as a villain.
I think that in this case the producers were right. In the film that we have, as soon as the question "Is the lodger guilty or innocent?" is answered in favour of his innocence, suspense is maintained because a new question arises, namely "Can the police rescue the lodger from the angry mob which is threatening to lynch him?" Hitchcock could, if he had wanted, have made a film in which the lodger really is the killer. Such a film would have had a different ending, centred upon the question "Can the police arrest the lodger before he can kill again, with Daisy as his intended victim?" What Hitchcock could not have done, at least while working within the framework of the suspense-thriller genre, was to have made a film in which question of the lodger's guilt remains ambiguous. Suspense depends upon there being a character with whom we can sympathise or identify and in whose fate we can therefore take an interest, whether that character be a young man wrongly accused or a girl in danger from a killer. Make the main character a man who may, or may not, be a murderer, and that element of sympathy or identification is lost.
Silent films made on a serious subject are, unlike the slapstick comedies which were so popular during the silent era, are difficult for the modern viewer to evaluate because they relied upon acting techniques which had to be developed over a relatively short period of time, approximately the first three decades of the last century, and which then became obsolete with the coming of sound. "The Lodger", however, is an early Hitchcock masterpiece and a very powerful piece of work, its visual style clearly influenced by the German Expressionist movement of the twenties. Its look, with many dark, brooding night-time scenes and expressionist chiaroscuro photography, not only looks forward to the later Hitchcock but also to film noir in general. It played an important role in the development both of British and of international cinema. 9/10
The Tree of Life (2011)
When the morning stars sang together
Terrence Malick, it is fair to say, is not the most prolific of directors. After producing two films in the 1970s, "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven", he then took a twenty-year sabbatical from Hollywood, even though the second at least of these films is a masterpiece. He returned to film-making with "The Thin Red Line" in 1997, following this up with "The Tree of Life" is the second. Principal photography began in 2008 and the film was originally scheduled for release the following year, but in the event did not appear in cinemas until 2011.
The film has two subjects. The first is the life of a middle-class suburban family living in the Texas of the 1950s. The second is the origins of the Universe and of life on Earth. It is also fair to say of Malick that he does not shy away from Big Themes.
The family in question are the O'Briens from Waco, mother, father and three young sons. The film opens some time in the 1960s with Mrs O'Brien receiving a telegram informing her of the death of "R.L.", one of her sons, aged nineteen. The "family" part of the film then flashes back to the 1950s, concentrating on the relationship between the eldest son, Jack, and his parents, who are very different in personality. His loving, gentle mother wants to open her sons' eyes to the wonders of the world around them. His father loves the boys in his own way, but finds it difficult to express his emotions and consequently adopts a strict and authoritarian style of parenting. The action also flashes forward to the present day, showing a middle-aged Jack in his adult life as an architect.
The film's second subject is conveyed in several ways. The film opens with a quotation from the Book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?... When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" The story of the O'Briens is intercut with sequences of images illustrating the Creation and prehistoric life on Earth, and the film ends with the older Jack's vision of the afterlife in which he is reunited with his family and friends.
The official name for this sort of thing is "experimental", or "arthouse", although some viewers would doubtless prefer "pretentious". It was greeted with both boos and applause at its premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and the critics were equally divided, with some, such as Roger Ebert and Peter Bradshaw, praising Malick's scope and ambition, and others finding it either tedious or incomprehensible. My own view is that Malick's very ambition is actually part of the problem. The origin of life, and still less the meaning of life, is not a naturally cinematic subject. The origins-of-the-universe sequences put me in mind of the Creation scenes in John Huston's mammoth epic "The Bible", and as that is one of the most boring films I have ever watched my comparison is not in any way meant as praise.
The history of the O'Brien family, however, is very well done, although even here Malick's approach is far from conventional. The story is told as much through visual images and gestures as it is through dialogue. Malick takes great care with the composition and framing of his shots, with the result that this is one of those films where every image looks like a picture. (In this case, I think, a picture produced by an "artistic" photographer rather than a painter). Although this is an experimental arthouse project, Malick was able to attract some well-known stars, principally Sean Penn as the adult Jack and Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as his parents. All three give good performances, despite having to adapt themselves to a style of acting very different to the one demanded of them by more conventional Hollywood directors.
I am tempted to say that "The Tree of Life" would have been a better film had Malick concentrated upon the O'Briens and left his metaphysical pretensions on the cutting-room floor. Yet I recognise that had he done this he would have changed the film's meaning entirely and we would have been left with something very different to what we actually have. The result could have been, in a strange paradox, both better (from my own subjective viewpoint) and simultaneously less courageous and ambitious. Despite my reservations, therefore, I will still award the film a relatively high mark, one given not just for Malick's actual achievement but also for his ambition and for having the courage to fail. 8/10
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Attractive and Well-Crafted Western
"She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" is the second part of John Ford's Cavalry Trilogy, coming between "Fort Apache" (1948) and "Rio Grande" (1950). All three films star John Wayne as a cavalry officer during the Indian wars of the late 19th century. In the other two episodes of the trilogy Wayne plays the same man, Kirby York, but here he plays a different character, Captain Nathan Brittles.
Wayne was 42 at the time the film was made, but Brittles is supposed to be considerably older, probably in his late fifties, an aging officer on the verge of retirement. The year is 1876, the year of Custer's defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and news of this event has spread throughout the West. Encouraged by the news, the Cheyenne and Arapaho have left the reservation and gone on the warpath. Brittles is given one last mission to try and avert a conflict. His task is made more complicated by the fact that he has also been ordered to escort his commanding officer's wife and her niece Olivia to an eastbound stagecoach.
A subplot deals with the rivalry between two young officers for the affections of the lovely Olivia. The film's title refers to an American tradition of women wearing yellow ribbons to show that they have a husband or lover serving with the Armed Forces. Olivia has started to wear a yellow ribbon, but refuses to say for which of the officers she is wearing it. This tradition is also made explicit in the theme song, which we hear sung several times by the men under Brittles' command. As in the other two parts of the trilogy, the cavalrymen seem to spend as much time singing as they do fighting.
This is the most visually attractive instalment in the trilogy, and the only one of the three to be made in colour. It was shot on location in Ford's beloved Monument Valley, which also features in several of his other films, and its visual look is said to be based on the paintings of the great Western artist Frederic Remington. It won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Color, even though the cinematographer Winton Hoch frequently clashed with Ford.
I would rate the film more highly than "Rio Grande", but not as highly as "Fort Apache", which remains my favourite of the trilogy. Wayne is excellent here, but there are no other performances to rank alongside that of Henry Fonda in "Fort Apache", where his character, Owen Thursday, loosely based upon Custer, is a genuine tragic hero, a man destroyed by a flaw in his character. The characterisation can be based upon stereotypes; Ford may have been an Irish-American, but the character of Sergeant Quincannon, intended as comic relief, panders to the Anglo-Saxon prejudice that Irishmen are all hard-drinking, garrulous and quarrelsome.
For all its visual attractiveness "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" does not really contain any great set-piece scenes, except possibly the one near the end where Brittles and his men stampede the Indians' horses out of their camp, thus avoiding war without bloodshed, and this scene has always struck me as unconvincing. Would not the Indians, who are experienced warriors and heavily reliant upon their horses, have posted sentries to guard against the possibility of such a manoeuvre?
The trilogy as a whole tends to suffer from another drawback, that of looking at history from a too one-sided viewpoint. The films are set during the Indian Wars, but there are no major Indian characters. The only Indian referred to here by name is Chief Pony That Walks, and he is portrayed largely as an irrelevance, a peace-loving but beaten old man, unable to control the younger hotheads within his tribe. Ford never attempts to challenge the Manifest Destiny view of American history, the doctrine which held that white Americans had both the right and the duty to subdue and settle in the whole continent without regard to the wishes of its indigenous peoples. There is no attempt to understand why many Native Americans had come to believe that the white man could not be trusted and had rejected the pacifism of Pony That Walks. "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" is an attractive and well-crafted Western which in its day did well at the box office, but it does not qualify as a great one. 7/10
Hungry Hill (1947)
Required a longer running time
The family saga is a popular literary genre, but one which can be difficult to transfer to the cinema. It tends to work better on the small screen; "The Forsyte Saga" and "Poldark" are two of the landmark series of British television history, but I cannot think of any feature films based upon their source novels. George Stevens's "Giant", based upon a novel by Edna Ferber, has its admirers, but to me it stands as an object lesson in the perils of trying to adapt family sagas for the screen, especially if they involve characters who age several decades in the course of the story. Try as I might, I just could not accept Liz Taylor (at the time a stunningly beautiful twenty-something) as a grey-haired grandmother or James Dean, that enduring symbol of youthful rebellion, as a middle-aged businessman.
"Hungry Hill", based upon one of Daphne du Maurier's lesser-known novels, is a British attempt at a cinematic family saga. It is set in 19th century Ireland and follows the fortunes of three generations of the Brodrick family. In each generation the head of the family is named John Brodrick, but the three Johns are very different in character. The first, "Copper John", is an autocratic patriarch and industrialist who makes a fortune by sinking a copper mine in the hill of the title. His son, "Greyhound John", is a gentle young man whose main interests are his dogs and horses and who has little interest in the family business, preferring to train as a lawyer in London. He is, however, reluctantly forced to take over when his elder brother Henry is killed in a riot. His own son, "Wild Johnnie", is, as his nickname would suggest, a wild young man, a spendthrift, drinker and womaniser.
A theme which appears throughout the film is the long-running feud between the Brodricks and the rival Donovan clan. The Donovans were once wealthy and influential, but have long since sunk into poverty, and resent the fact that the Brodricks have supplanted them as the leading family of the district. The Brodricks have to face two riots at the mine, in both of which members of the Donovan family are involved. The first is in protest against Copper John's opening of the mine, the second against Wild Johnnie's threat to close it when it is no longer making money. Another rivalry is that between Henry and his brother John for the love of the same woman, Fanny Rosa.
I have never read du Maurier's novel, but it seems clear that it must contain a lot of material which was omitted from the script for the film, because the storyline seems contrived and jerky, moving forward by fits and starts with a lot of unexplained gaps. This is true even though du Maurier herself worked upon the screenplay. Even she must have found it impossible to tell in ninety minutes a story which really required a lot longer to explain everything.
The film stars some of the leading lights of the British acting profession of the period, including Margaret Lockwood, Dennis Price, Michael Denison, Jean Simmons and Cecil Parker. There are, however, no outstanding acting performances, with the best probably coming from Parker as Copper John. The make-up department do, however, deserve some credit for making Lockwood (in her late twenties at the time) as Fanny Rosa look convincing as an elderly woman, something their counterparts working on "Giant" never succeeding in doing with Taylor.
Now that we are so used to "heritage cinema" films being made in sumptuous colour it comes as something of a shock to realise that up until the sixties black-and-white was the default position in Britain for this particular genre, and, indeed, for most others, although there were occasional exceptions such as the Gainsborough melodrama "Jassy" and the Oscar Wilde adaptation "An Ideal Husband". The reason for this was financial, but given that the makers of "Hungry Hill" were prepared to spend money on other matters, such as travelling to Ireland for location shooting in County Wicklow, it seems a pity that the money could not have been found for colour film. More importantly, however, it is a pity that the decision was not taken to make the film a longer one. A two-hour running length rather than an hour and a half might have enabled the film-makers to fill in some of the many gaps in the storyline and we could have had a more satisfying film. 4/10
Mary Magdalene (2018)
Rugged Simplicity and Sincerity
Mary Magdalene, according to the Gospels, was a follower of Jesus as one of his followers and was a witness to His crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. In Christian tradition she has frequently been described as a repentant prostitute, although there is no Biblical authority to support this theory or her identification with either the anonymous "sinful woman" who anoints Jesus's feet or with the equally anonymous "woman taken in adultery". There is also no evidence to support the theory occasionally put forward (e.g. in "The Da Vinci Code") that she and Jesus were married. Another assumption which has been made is that she was wealthy, and there is some Biblical support for this in that Luke refers to her supporting Jesus's ministry "out of her resources".
In this film, however, Mary Magdalene is a poor girl from Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. The real Magdala appears to have been a sizeable and prosperous town, but here it is depicted as a small and impoverished fishing village. She becomes a follower of Jesus, but her presence in His circle is not always welcomed by His male disciples. This is not simply a question of male chauvinism; there are also theological and ideological differences between Mary and the other disciples.
In the Gospels Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus for money, but it has become almost a cliché in New Testament biblical dramas to depict Judas as a Zealot, a freedom fighter hoping to liberate Judea from the control of the Roman Empire, an interpretation adopted in both "King of Kings" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told", even though there is no Biblical support for it. According to this interpretation Judas betrayed Jesus either in a bid to force Him to launch a Holy War against the Romans or out of disappointment that Jesus would not do so. This interpretation is followed in this film, except that here it is not just Judas who is a Zealot. All the other male disciples, especially Peter, hold similar views.
Mary Magdalene, however, is different. In a development again not found in the canonical Gospels (although it may derive some support from the non-canonical Gnostic Gospels) she is the only one who fully understands Jesus, that his is a message of peace and forgiveness, not of Holy War against the godless, and who helps to bring the male disciples (except Judas) round to this way of thinking.
There is nothing really wrong with Rooney Mara's performance in the main role, but she does not really stand out. The one outstanding performance comes from Joaquin Phoenix. Some might argue that Phoenix, aged 44 but looking considerably older behind that heavy beard, was too old to play Jesus, who died when He was only 33. Yet I think that there was probably a conscious decision on the part of the film-makers to get away from a young, handsome Jesus as portrayed by Robert Powell in "Jesus of Nazareth" or Jeffrey Hunter in "King of Kings" (aka "I Was a Teenage Jesus") and that the reasoning behind this decision was to downplay the idea that Mary's attraction to Jesus was sexual or romantic rather than spiritual. Phoenix gives us a deeply human Jesus, very different from traditional Christian ideas about the Second Person of the Trinity, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. This is no charismatic orator or commanding religious leader but a humble carpenter's son turned itinerant preacher, a man whose appeal is grounded not in blazing rhetoric or miraculous powers but in his humility and his faith in God, a faith which remains unshaken despite moments of doubt. The film is very different to the traditional large-scale Biblical epic. It appears to have been made on a relatively small budget, lacking the elaborate sets and costumes and the large-scale set-piece scenes of something like "The Greatest Story...". It is austere in its visual style and the characters mostly wear plain homespun garments appropriate to their humble origins. It can at times be ponderous and slow-moving, yet there is a rugged simplicity and sincerity about it which means that it is able to bring Christianity to life in a way which more grandiose productions (and here I am thinking particularly of "The Greatest Story...") are not. 7/10
Hell Is for Heroes (1962)
That otherwise excellent actor Steve McQueen
Films about the Second World War made during the conflict itself were, almost without exception, flag-waving propaganda efforts, as were the great majority made in the years immediately after 1945, but by the late fifties and early sixties directors on both sides of the Atlantic were starting to make war films which were as much about psychological realism as they were about patriotism, the British "The Long and the Short and the Tall" (about a platoon of soldiers in Burma) being an example. This tendency was not necessarily confined to Britain and America; "Ballad of a Soldier" from 1958 can be seen as an example from the Soviet Union.
"Hell Is for Heroes" is another war film in this vein. Although it deals with fighting between the American and German soldiers in France during the autumn of 1944, it is not a straightforward "Yanks good, Nazis bad" propaganda piece. It tells the story of a squad of American soldiers who, although greatly outnumbered, must hold off German attacks for two days until reinforcements can reach them. There is an attempt to explore the personalities of all the squad members.
I watched the film when it was shown on television largely because it was directed by Don Siegel, some of whose other films, especially "Dirty Harry" and "The Shootist", I have greatly admired, and because it stars that excellent actor Steve McQueen. I have to say it was a great disappointment. Perhaps I should refer to "that otherwise excellent actor Steve McQueen", because I have never seen him as poor as he is here. There are numerous stories about how he quarrelled on set not only with Siegel but with other members of the cast. He was allegedly angry with his agent for failing to secure him the fee which he had been led to expect; if this story is true it might explain his obvious lack of commitment. It was perhaps fortunate that the character he is playing, Private John Reese, is supposed to be a surly, disruptive trouble-maker with a perpetual chip on his shoulder, otherwise McQueen might have looked even worse. We learn that Reese is a former master sergeant and winner of the Distinguished Service Cross but that he was demoted to private after being court-martialled for some unspecified offence.
None of the other cast members distinguish themselves. (The cast includes two actors better known for other things; Bobby Darin was better known as a singer and Bob Newhart as a stand-up comedian). To be fair to them, they get little help from a script which tries to establish too many of the squad as fully-developed characters but ends up confused and shapeless; it might have been better had the scriptwriters focussed on a smaller number of personalities. The film was made on a small budget, with dodgy special effects, cheap-looking props and sets and malfunctioning weapons. A number of scenes were shot at night, not because the storyline demanded it but in order to provide some respite for cast and crew from the heat of a particularly hot Californian summer. (The budget precluded actually filming in France). The ending seems very abrupt; according to one story this was not deliberate but happened because the studio, Paramount, got fed up with the film and suddenly cut off the funding.
The result of all these mess-ups was what must rate as the worst McQueen film, and the worst Siegel film, I have ever seen. At least McQueen redeemed himself the following year when he gave an especially fine performance in "The Great Escape", one of the all-time great war films. 4/10
The Song of Bernadette (1943)
Sincerity and Power
"The Song of Bernadette" is a biopic of Bernadette Soubirous, the teenage girl from Lourdes, France, who claimed to have had eighteen visions between February and July 1858 of what she described only as a "beautiful lady" but which were interpreted by others as visions of the Virgin Mary. These visions were eventually accepted as genuine by the Catholic Church and Soubirous, who became a nun in later life, was after her death canonised as Saint Bernadette. Lourdes, once a small village of no importance, has now become a major destination for pilgrims and the waters discovered by Bernadette are believed by the faithful to have miraculous healing properties.
The Catholic Church, however, was not always so supportive of Bernadette. The church authorities have traditionally been sceptical of supposed supernatural visions. (They have, for example, yet to accept as genuine the alleged appearances of the Virgin at Medjugorje). Their rationale is that supposed visionaries are frequently exposed as being either deluded or fraudulent and that the cause of Christianity will only be damaged if the Church makes itself appear to be superstitious or credulous. Bernadette's visions were subjected to lengthy scrutiny; she was subjected to lengthy examinations by clergymen and by psychiatrists, and the Church even commissioned a chemical analysis of the waters of the Lourdes grotto to determine if their supposed healing powers could be attributed to a naturally-occurring substance.
The theme of the film seems to be that God moves in a mysterious way. From a worldly point of view, Bernadette seemed an unlikely saint. She was a simple girl from a poor working-class family who suffered from poor health and was academically undistinguished. She spoke a local Gascon dialect and her Standard French was poor. Yet it was she whom God chose as his vehicle and, although she was eventually vindicated, although many people refused to believe in her sincerity. It is noteworthy that it is initially the poor and humble of Lourdes who believe in her, and the wealthy and powerful who scorn her.
The film was a great success both critically and financially. The luminously beautiful Jennifer Jones won a well-deserved "Best Actress" Oscar in her first major role. She had previously appeared in a B-movie Western and a movie serial; in both she had been billed under her real name, Phyllis Isley. She receives good support from several other cast members, especially Charles Bickford and Vincent Price. Bickford plays the Abbé Dominique Peyramale, the local parish priest who initially doubts Bernadette but later becomes her most ardent defender. Price plays the Imperial Prosecutor Vital Dutour, played here as an anti-clerical rationalist who is determined to prove Bernadette a fraud, possibly because his own atheistic beliefs would be undermined if she were to be proven anything else. The real Dutour, in fact, was a devout Catholic who opposed Bernadette because he believed that her visions were hallucinations; the change may have been made to distinguish his character more sharply from that of Peyramale.
"The Song of Bernadette" was made in 1943, at the height of the Second World War. Its timing was probably fortuitous in that the studio wanted to capitalise on the success of the best-selling novel by Franz Werfel which had been published two years earlier, before America entered the war. It is, however, also appropriate that a film on such a theme should have appeared at such a time, a vindication of America's Christian values at a time when those values were being challenged as never before by the aggressive godlessness of Nazi Germany. Werfel himself had arrived in America as a refugee from Nazism. Three quarters of a century on its unequivocally pro-Catholic and pro-Christian stance will probably divide opinion; those with no religious faith may well find themselves more in sympathy with Dutour than the film-makers intended. Yet, unlike some examples of cheesy Hollywood religiosity, it has an undeniable sincerity and power which stand out even today. 8/10
Confessions of a Go-Go Girl (2008)
A very twenty-first century morality tale against the sin of vanity
Any film title starting with the words "Confessions of a..." conjures up memories of that (generally pretty feeble) series of British softcore sex comedies from the 1970s, but "Confessions of a Go-Go Girl", a more recent (2008) American-Canadian film, is not a horse from that particular stable. It is ostensibly set in Chicago but was mostly filmed in Canada, although a few genuine Chicago locations appear for the sake of authenticity.
The main character is Jane McCoy, a girl from a well-heeled upper middle-class family, who decides to become an actress, much to the disgust of her parents who do not consider acting a proper career and would much rather she became a lawyer. They refuse to fund her studies at drama school, leaving her in financial difficulties, so when her friend Angela suggests an "easy way" to make extra money Jane is all too ready to listen.
The job Angela has in mind is, of course, go-go dancing at a local club. This development might suggest that the film will go down one of two routes, becoming either (Route 1) a sex comedy along the lines of the late and unlamented British "Confessions" series ("Jane and Angela get up to all sorts of randy antics with their male customers") or (Route 2) a lurid exposé of the dark side of the adult entertainment industry ("Jane and Angela slide further and further down the slippery slope of moral depravity and come to a bad end").
Well, this film is certainly not a comedy. As far as Angela is concerned it follows Route 2 without deviating from the roadmap. The club where she and Jane start out is quite tame by the standards of the adult industry; the girls dance in their underwear, but nudity and toplessness are forbidden, as is touching the punters or allowing them to touch you. Angela realises that more money can be made by dancing in those clubs which offer raunchier forms of entertainment and, predictably, goes tumbling down the aforesaid slippery slope into drug addiction and prostitution before coming to the inevitable bad end. She dies on the operating table during a breast-enhancement operation following an adverse reaction between the anaesthetic and all those drugs in her system, making the film a very twenty-first century morality tale against the sin of vanity. Or at least the vanity of wanting big breasts.
And Jane? Well Jane may be a go-go dancer but she is still at heart a sweet young thing; indeed, part of her appeal for a certain type of punter is her ability to combine sexiness with cuteness. (It helps that Chelsea Hobbs, the actress who plays her, is more girl-next-door than Hollywood glamour queen). Of course, all does not go well even with Jane. She believes that her work is beneficial to her acting career because it enables her to explore facets of her personality which would otherwise remain hidden, but this sort of logic cuts no ice with her drama teacher, a devotee of High Culture who cannot tolerate her students having any involvement with Low Culture. (And in her eyes go-go dancing is right down at the bargain basement end of the market).
Jane also further alienates her parents when her brother, quite ignorant of his sister's way of earning her pin money, happens to choose her club for his stag do and walks through the door with his friends while she is on stage. To make matters worse, her father is with them. Ignoring Jane's argument that her working in such an establishment is morally no worse than his patronising it, the stern paterfamilias goes into "Never darken my doors again!" mode. Nevertheless, Jane has enough strength of character not to follow Angela down the primrose path to destruction and, for her, all ends happily.
"Confessions of a Go-Go Girl", actually, is not a bad film, certainly not as bad as I feared it might be. It might be full of clichés, especially in its treatment of Angela's story, but Hobbs makes Jane a likeable heroine and there is enough material here to provide an entertaining hour-and-a-half. 6/10
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Behind the Van of Time
The title, "The Last Picture Show", refers to the final screening to take place at the only cinema in the small town of Anarene, Texas, before it closes. The significance of this event is that Anarene is a slowly declining settlement where there is little to do and little to keep the townspeople from drifting away; once the cinema is gone there will be even less. In Larry McMurtry's novel on which the film is based the town was called "Thalia", but director Peter Bogdanovich borrowed the name of a genuine Texan ghost town.
The action takes place over about a year in 1951 and 1952 and tells a coming-of-age story about Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson, two teenage boys in their final year at high school. Other important characters are Duane's girlfriend Jacy Farrow, Ruth Popper, the middle-aged wife of the school's football coach, with whom Sonny begins an affair, and "Sam the Lion", the proprietor not only of the cinema but also of Anarene's pool hall and café which constitute the town's only other facilities for entertainment or social interaction.
Bogdanovich described the film as homage to Howard Hawks' "Red River", which is the film shown in Anarene's "last picture show". It also struck me as an homage to Martin Ritt's "Hud", also set in a small Texas town and also based upon a McMurtry novel. The two films have a similar look, both dominated by shots of the wide-open Texas plains. Both films were shot in black-and-white, something still quite common when "Hud" was made in 1963 but which had become very unusual by 1971, only eight years later.
The film might look like a movie from the fifties or early sixties, but it doesn't sound like one. Something else had changed in those eight years in that American society had become a lot more permissive, and with the end of the Production Code film-makers could be franker and more open about sex. As one might imagine from a film about teenagers, sex is the major preoccupation of Sonny, Duane, Jacy and their contemporaries and something much discussed. There are some scenes, including one in which a mentally handicapped boy loses his virginity to a prostitute and one in which a preacher's son reveals an unhealthy interest in young children, which could never have been included in films made only a few years earlier.
It is sometimes said of Bogdanovich that his early career as a director was harmed by his insistence on casting his then girlfriend, Cybill Shepherd, in roles which were beyond her acting ability. I have not seen all his collaborations with Shepherd, but I must say that this theory is not borne out by "The Last Picture Show". Shepherd, in her film debut, gives a fine performance here. Jacy, who comes from a well-to-do family, is popular and described as "the prettiest girl in Anarene", but this makes her no more than the biggest fish in a particularly small pond. She knows that she is expected to marry a boy from an equally well-off family and settle down as a housewife and mother, but is looking for more than that, in terms of both love and of life in general. She knows that her mother Lois did just what was expected of her and yet has ended up unfulfilled and miserable, failing to find happiness in either her marriage to Jacy's father or in her frequent affairs with other men.
Shepherd's is not the only fine performance here. The whole film is well acted, with too many good performances to single them all out, but mention must be made of Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges as Sonny and Duane, Ben Johnson as Sam, who becomes a sort of father-figure to the town's youth, and Cloris Leachman as Ruth and Ellen Burstyn as Lois, both in their ways lonely, frustrated women.
Films, especially coming-of-age films, made in the seventies and eighties about the fifties and early sixties- "American Graffiti", "Diner", "Grease"- tended to take an affectionately nostalgic look back at the earlier period, seen as the time of a kinder, gentler America before the trauma of Vietnam and its accompanying loss of innocence. There is little affectionate or nostalgic about "The Last Picture Show". We are reminded that if the young men of the early fifties did not have Vietnam they had their own Asian war in the shape of Korea; in the course of the film Duane joins the army before going away to fight. Yet in a way the Army allows him his only chance of escape from Anarene; most of his contemporaries can see few appealing prospects for themselves in the town, which is in a state of both economic and social decline, yet lack the educational qualifications or the financial means to find work elsewhere.
I would not rate the film as highly as "Hud", one of the great films of the sixties; the action can sometimes be difficult to follow because of Bogdanovich's fondness of a non-linear style of storytelling with scenes presented to us out of chronological order. Yet when we bear in mind that this was the work of an inexperienced director in his early thirties, "The Last Picture Show" can be seen as a considerable achievement. The teenage coming-of-age story can at its worst descend into sentimental cliché, but here the format is used to examine the American Dream, a dream which can all too often prove illusory for those living in little towns behind the van of time. 8/10
Bronenosets Potemkin (1925)
Made in a Bad Cause
Besides the difference in their outcomes, there were important differences between the unsuccessful Russian revolution of 1905 and the successful Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. The revolution of 1905 was a popular uprising, and the participants were by no means all Bolsheviks, but were drawn from various leftist and liberal groups. In 1905 the revolutionaries were fighting against Tsarist autocracy, whereas in October 1917 the Tsar's regime had crumbled several months earlier and Lenin was fighting to overthrow Kerensky's nascent democracy, which was supported by many of those who had risen in 1905. Despite these differences, the Russian Communists often tried to claim 1905 as a dress-rehearsal for their own revolution, and it was frequently celebrated in Soviet art, such as Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony.
In 1925 the Soviet government decided to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 revolution with make a grand epic film telling the full story, and Sergei Eisenstein was appointed director. In the event time constraints meant that this film never materialised, and Eisenstein decided to concentrate on one single episode, the mutiny aboard the Potemkin, a battleship in the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
The film is divided into five sections. The first deals with the events leading up to the mutiny, when the ship's crew protested against the rotten, maggot-infested meat they were expected to eat. The second depicts the mutiny itself, when the crew seized the ship from their officers, and the third the funeral of Vakulinchuk, a revolutionary sailor killed during the mutiny. The fourth is the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence, when the Tsar's soldiers massacre the people of the city, who have risen in support of the mutineers. In the fifth the Potemkin puts out to sea to confront a squadron sent against it.
This is, of course, a propaganda film, so some of the criticisms made of it on this board seem rather wide of the mark. Yes, the Odessa steps massacre (if it had actually happened) would have been over much more quickly than the several minutes which Eisenstein allocated to it here, but this was done deliberately in order to heighten its emotional impact. (I say "if it had actually happened" because this event was an invention of the scriptwriters, whereas the rest of the film is based upon historical fact). Yes, the portrayals of the Tsarist officers and the Orthodox priest are exaggerated caricatures, but a film which effectively said "Of course, we need to remember that there were some good things about Tsarism..." would not only have failed in its propagandist purpose but would also probably have earned Eisenstein a one-way ticket to the gulag.
The propaganda message of the film, however, is not simply "Communism good, Tsarism bad!" Marxist historians tended to play down the "Great Man" theory of history, arguing that historical events are brought about by impersonal economic forces rather than by great men, but this did not prevent Soviet propagandists, Eisenstein included, from idolising the Great Men of Communism, not only Marx and Engels but also Lenin and Stalin. "Battleship Potemkin", made a year after Lenin's death, subtly reinforces the idea of the Great Man; Vakulinchuk is portrayed as a heroic, charismatic revolutionary leader, rousing his crewmates to action by his stirring rhetoric. His funeral takes on a quasi-religious character; the Communists might have rejected other aspects of religion but the cult of the martyr was alive and well in Soviet Russia. When the battleship puts to sea in the final scene it is clear that the mutinous sailors are not a disorganised rabble but are able to work together like parts of a machine, something emphasised by shots of the ship's machinery. Someone- we never learn who- is clearly giving them orders. Message to the comrades: "Communism is not about anarchy! We might no longer have a Tsar but we still need leaders!" It is perhaps significant that the actor playing Vakulinchuk combines Lenin's bald head with Stalin's moustache.
"Battleship Potemkin" is often to be found on critics' lists of the "greatest films of all time", and, indeed, has sometimes been ranked at number one on that list, although I suspect that what those critics really mean is that it contains one of the greatest scenes of all time. The Odessa Steps sequence, exemplifying Eisenstein's theories about "montage", is indeed a masterly piece of film-making, heart-stopping and emotionally riveting even if one is aware that these events never happened. The final scene is also well-handled, but there is nothing of similar quality in the first three segments; Vakulinchuk's funeral, in particular, is dull and overlong.
My main reason, however, why I cannot agree that this film is one of the "greatest of all time" is the same reason why I cannot award that accolade to "Birth of a Nation" or "Triumph of the Will". Like Griffith and Riefenstahl, Eisenstein was a highly talented film-maker, but like them he used his talents to make technically accomplished films in a bad cause. In public the Nazis might have denounced him as a "degenerate Jewish Bolshevik", but in private their own propaganda chief, Goebbels, regarded "Battleship Potemkin" as a masterpiece of the propagandist's art. Bad as the Tsarist regime was, it is hard to argue that the Communist one marked a change for the better. The Tsar may have slain his thousands, but Lenin and Stalin slew by the tens of millions. Within a few years of this film being made, the people of Odessa and the rest of the Ukraine would be suffering a famine so severe that they would gladly have accepted the maggot-infested meat which provoked the Potemkin mutiny. 5/10
Il gattopardo (1963)
No Longer the Biggest Cat in the Jungle
"The Leopard" is based upon the celebrated novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which was a massive success in Italy and also brought its author to international attention. A film adaptation was inevitable, but its scale and detailed recreation of 19th century Italy required a bigger budget than the Italian cinema could easily afford. The decision was therefore taken to attract international audiences by casting a big-name Hollywood star, Burt Lancaster, in the leading role, with the well-known French actor Alain Delon in a secondary one. I was interested to learn that not only were Lancaster and Delon's lines dubbed into Italian, but the same was also done with the film's leading lady, Claudia Cardinale. Although Cardinale is normally thought of as an Italian actress, she was actually born to ethnic Italian parents in Tunisia, at the time a French colony, and grew up speaking French and her parents' Sicilian dialect. Her heavily accented Italian was felt to be inappropriate to her character, Angelica, who although of peasant stock has been brought up as a cultured young lady by her social-climbing father.
The action takes place in the Sicily of the early 1860s. The "leopard" of the title is Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, the head of an ancient and illustrious aristocratic family. This is, however, a time of change, because the "Risorgimento", the struggle to unite the network of petty states which made up Italy into a single kingdom, has begun. Early in the story the armies of Francis II of the Two Sicilies are defeated by the pro-unification "redshirts" of Giuseppe Garibaldi, leading the way to the incorporation of the island into the new state.
Lampedusa, himself a Sicilian aristocrat, took a somewhat cynical view of the Risorgimento, even though these events are one of the defining episodes of Italian patriotism. Fabrizio sees the events of 1860/61 as marking the decline of traditional aristocratic values and the rise of a corrupt, materialistic bourgeoisie. The new Italy claims to be a democracy, but this claim is shown to be a hollow one when the new rulers organise a rigged plebiscite to approve the incorporation of Sicily into the new unified Italy. (In Fabrizio's home town 512 citizens out of 515 supposedly vote in favour, with three abstentions and no votes against, a landslide of North Korean proportions). Fabrizio is offered the position of a Senator in the new state, but contemptuously rejects it.
The main representative of the rising bourgeoisie is Don Calogero Sedara, a wealthy, self-made businessman. Like many "new money" men throughout the ages, Sedara longs for social acceptance by the "old money" nobility, and is desperate to engineer the marriage of his beautiful daughter Angelica to Fabrizio's nephew Tancredi. Although Fabrizio was hoping that Tancredi would marry his own daughter, Concetta, he reluctantly gives his consent, knowing that Tancredi (whose own family are aristocratic but not particularly wealthy is not only smitten with Angelica's good looks but also in need of her father's money.
The novel has always been known in English as "The Leopard" (and in French as "Le Guépard"), even though its Italian title "Il Gattopardo" refers not to the leopard (that would be "Il Leopardo") but to two smaller members of the cat family, either the serval (gattopardo africano) or the ocelot (gattopardo americano). Although I can see why the change was made- "The Serval" would mean little to English-speaking audiences unless they were expert in zoology- Lampedusa's title strikes me as somehow more appropriate. By the end of the film Fabrizio seems a diminished figure, no longer the biggest cat in the jungle.
When first released in 1963, the film was a success in Italy and France but not in America, where it was released in an English-dubbed version, cut down to 161 minutes, considerably shorter than Luchino Visconti's 185-minute "director's cut". I have never seen the English-language version, so my comments below are of necessity based upon Visconti's cut. Even if Lancaster did not speak the words we hear in the Italian version, he nevertheless dominates the picture by his very presence. At first he seems a towering figure, a pillar of tradition and aristocratic values, but it eventually becomes clear that the forces of historic change are too strong for him, and if he still remains standing at the end he does so like a pillar which remains upright when the structure it once supported has fallen into ruins around it.
"The Leopard" is an early example of what has become known as "heritage cinema" and, although that genre is mostly associated with Britain it predates what I normally think of as the first modern British example, Schlesinger's "Far from the Madding Crowd", by several years. It is not only a grand epic, very visually striking and making good use of the landscapes and architecture of Sicily and of the costumes of its period, but also a moving meditation upon the forces of history and the process of change. A fine drama. 8/10
The Only Game in Town (1970)
Trying to make a film out of a Broadway flop
"The Only Game in Town" was the last film to be directed by George Stevens. The theme is a love-triangle with two men in love with the same woman. The woman is Fran Walker, a thirty-something Las Vegas chorus girl. The men are Thomas Lockwood, a wealthy San Francisco businessman and Joe Grady, a lounge pianist. Fran has been the mistress of the married Lockwood for five years, and tired of waiting for him to make good on his endless promises to get a divorce, she drifts into an affair with Joe. Joe's great ambition is to save up enough money to relocate to New York- what he intends to do when he gets there is never made clear- but this seems an impossible dream because he is a compulsive gambler who squanders most of his earnings on the craps tables. When Lockwood abruptly turns up to announce that his divorce has at long last come through, Fran finds herself torn between two lovers.
I have heard it suggested that Stevens did not intend this to be his last film and that he was only persuaded to retire from directing when turned out to be a failure, both critically and at the box office. Watching the film, it was obvious that the film, with its small cast and limited range of settings, was based on a play. What I didn't realise was that the film was based on an unsuccessful play which had flopped when it had had a brief run on Broadway two years earlier. Despite this 20th Century Fox, who had purchased the movie rights before the play opened on Broadway, decided to go ahead with their option and even commissioned the author, Frank Gilroy, to write the screenplay.
They must have rued their decision. Those critics who savaged it were quite right, as were those audiences who stayed away in their droves. Elizabeth Taylor, appearing in her third collaboration with Stevens after "A Place in the Sun" and "Giant", seems badly miscast as Fran. This is only partly because, by 1970, she no longer had a chorus girl's figure. (We never actually see her in her costume). In other respects she remained a beauty, and like other famously beautiful actresses she found it difficult to portray a loser in love. This was a problem which had affected her contemporaries Audrey Hepburn in "Two for the Road" and Grace Kelly in "Dial M for Murder"; both had played women whose husbands had grown tired of them, in Kelly's case to such a point that he was prepared to countenance cold-blooded murder as a cheaper alternative to divorce.
Taylor here is still the woman who, for the past two decades, had been one of the world's great sex symbols; virtually every character she had played had been an irresistible siren. Off-screen she seemed to have the same fatal allure; by 1970 she was on her fifth marriage, and two of her husbands, Richard Burton and Eddie Fisher, had left their previous wives for her, even though the first Mrs Fisher had been someone as attractive and personable as Debbie Reynolds. So why would someone like Tom Lockwood dither for five years about marrying her instead of snapping her up at the first opportunity?
Warren Beatty as Joe is not too bad, even though he was not the first choice for the part; that was Frank Sinatra, who was forced to pull out because of a clash of commitments when filming was postponed after Taylor was taken ill. We cannot, of course, know what the film would have been like had Sinatra played the role, but I suspect that it would have been very different, if only because of the difference of age between him and Beatty. The script tells us that Joe is three years younger than Fran; Beatty was actually five years younger than Taylor. Had the much older Sinatra been cast that line would have had to have been rewritten. In the film that we have Fran is confronted with a simple choice between Joe's youth, charm and good looks and the financial security which Lockwood can provide. Make Joe a man of the same generation as Lockwood, and the whole balance of the story is changed.
Besides the casting of Taylor, there is another reason why the film was not a success, a reason which is rooted in its origins as a stage play. It is talky, stagey and claustrophobic, with little attempt being made to open up the action. Most of the action takes place in Fran's small apartment; there are a few scenes set in the casino, but they never generate much excitement because you can't really turn a game of chance like craps into an enthralling spectator sport. The dialogue shows just why Broadway audiences showed so little enthusiasm for the original play. Trying to make a good film out of even a successful stage play is a challenge for any director. Trying to make a good film out of a Broadway flop was, alas, too much for Stevens. 4/10
Lady Bird (2017)
Neither the First Lady Nor the Insect
The "Lady Bird" of the title is neither the insect nor the former First Lady who was married to President Lyndon Johnson. It is rather a reference to the main character, Christine McPherson, who for reasons best known to herself prefers to be known as "Lady Bird". Christine is a teenage schoolgirl at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. I have never been to that particular city, but in the film it is portrayed as one of America's main redoubts of dull, conformist, middle-class respectability.
The supposed dullness of her home town is the main reason why Christine's great ambition is to attend a prestigious university in "a city with culture", preferably on the East Coast. This ambition brings her into conflict with her parents, who are in financial difficulties and would prefer her to study somewhere cheaper and more local. The film also deals with Christine's relationship with her best friend Julie, that with her boyfriend Danny (who turns out to be gay), her attempts to ingratiate herself with the school's "in set", epitomised by "most popular girl" Jenna and upper-class boy Kyle, with whom she has a brief affair. The film ends with an account of her early days at university.
Films about suffering, dysfunctional American families have never really been my favourite genre. There have been some decent ones, such as Robert Redford's Oscar-winning "Ordinary People", but plenty of others which fall well short of this standard, "Lymelife" and "The Lifeguard" being two examples which stay in the mind for all the wrong reasons. Even that master of comedy, Woody Allen, fell flat on his face when he attempted a film of this type, "September" (aka "I Wannabe Ingmar Bergman").
I have to admit, however, that "Lady Bird" is one of the better entries in the "suffering families" stakes. This is partly because the McPhersons are not completely dysfunctional; beneath all their squabbling and bickering there is a genuine reserve of affection and family feeling. There is, moreover, an excellent acting performance from Saoirse Ronan in the title role. For a twenty-something who has lived in Ireland from the age of three, Saoirse makes a very convincing Californian teenager. There are also good contributions from the supporting cast, especially Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts (did his parents want a girl?) as Christine's long-suffering parents. Writer-director Greta Gerwig's script is both humane and literate, creating some well-written, sympathetic characters, making this a very watchable film despite my scepticism about the genre to which it belongs. 7/10