993 (125). Dracula / Horror of Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher)

Screened December 4, 2009 on Warner Brothers DVD in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #995 IMDbWiki

For this film I felt less interested in my own thoughts than in those of  two of my earliest friends in the world of online cinephilia.  Back when I was a regular on the IMDb Classic Film board, Lee Price (Lee-109) and Christianne Benedict (Chris-435) were among the most knowledgeable and engaging peers, especially on the subject of horror films.  In fact they were contributors to the anthology Horror 101.  (Some of you may also know Christianne from our wonderful video essay on The World According to Garp; and Lee was behind the 100 Directors of Animated Shorts). So I thought to call them up and ask them what they thought of this film. What follows is 25 minutes of awesomeness. You can listen to the .mp3 here or right-click to download. Here's an index of topics for easy reference:

0:00 - Setting template of Hammer horror and post-'50s horror movies 6:24 - What do Hammer's Dracula and James Bond have in common? 8:20 - What Christopher Lee brought to Dracula 11:35 - Sex, vmpires and Victorian women 14:15 - Bram Stoker's paranoia 16:00 - Favorite Dracula films, and why no movie yet has gotten Dracula right 18:00 - What Hammer introduced to the Dracula myth and to the movies

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Dracula among They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films:

Evelyn Caron-Lowins, Positif (1991) Tomas Fernandez Valenti, Dirigido Por (1992) All-Time Movie Favourites (Book) Independents and Others: British Prestige (1975) Chicago Film Critics Association, The 100 Scariest Movies of All Time (2006) Cinescape The Top 100 Sci-Fi, Horror & Fantasy Films (2000) Danny Peary Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) Empire The 50 Greatest Horror Movies Ever (2000) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) Taschen Books Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) The Guardian 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007) Total Film 50 Greatest British Movies Ever (2004) Various Critics Book - 501 Must-See Movies (2004) Various Critics Book - 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

PRODUCTION BACKGROUND

One month prior to the commencement of filming, Producer Anthony Hinds submitted the draft script to the British Board of Film Censors for approval. The Board Reader's report contained complains about 'the uncouth, uneducated, disgusting and vulgar style of Mr Jimmy Sangster' and noted wryly: 'Why do vampires need to be messier feeders than anyone else?'.

The points of objection were summarised by John Nicholls, Board Secretary for the British Board of Film Censors. They requested that all women should be 'decently clad' and reminded Hammer that sex should not be emphasised in a horror movie. Additionally, the Board demanded that vampires' teeth should never be seen to sink into the neck, that Dracula should not fling the vampire woman across the room by her hair, and that stakes should be used 'out of frame' - shots of the vampires after staking or their screams during the act should be omitted. On viewing a black and white rough cut of the movie, the Board requested that the staking of Lucy, Dracula's seduction of Mina and the final disintegration of Dracula had to be either omitted entirely or significantly edited.

Managing Director of Hammer Studios, James Carreras wrote to the Board, asking for a compromise over certain shots, reminding them that the X certificate they were seeking would automatically prevent anyone under the age of 16 from seeing the film, that the dedicated audience would expect a certain amount of 'horror' and that the cuts the Board had requested would remove the very thrills the audience wanted to see. By the time the final colour edit was ready, the Board had been worn down to the point where they found only two shots objectionable; the gushing of blood during Lucy's staking, and a shot in the final scene of Dracula clawing his face off. These scenes were removed and Dracula was finally granted a BBFC 'X' Certificate in April 1958, but with a stern warning from John Nicholls to Anthony Hinds that he should never attempt to get similar material passed by the Board in the future.

Unsurprisingly, many critics were vitriolic in the extreme towards Dracula. CA Lejeune, writing for The Observer, was particularly damning:

I regret to hear that it is being shown in America with emphasis laid on its British origin, and feel inclined to apologise to all decent Americans for sending them a work in such sickening bad taste.

She added that although the poster advises you 'Don't Dare See It Alone!', she would 'prefer not to expose a companion to what seems to me a singularly repulsive piece of nonsense'.

Similarly, the Daily Telegraph's critic believed that Dracula was too nasty a film, even for adults:

This British film has an 'X' Certificate. This is too good for it. There should be a new certificate - 'S' for sadistic or just 'D' for disgusting. However, despite the largely negative press the movie received, there were a few critics who saw the merit in Hammer's production. Dudley Carew in The Times extolled:

Mr Christopher Lee makes a saturnine and malignant Count... and the part is played straight, as melodramatic parts should be played. Altogether this is a horrific film, and sometimes a crude film, but by no means an unimpressive piece of dramatic storytelling.

- BBC h2g2

HISTORICAL REVIEW:

Yesterday, sporting a somewhat redundant title, "Horror of Dracula," the durable old boy himself arrived from England to take up residence at the Mayfair. Perhaps the constant hunt for hemoglobin is slowing our villain down, for this time there are strong indications that the once gory plot is showing definite signs of anemia.

Say this for "Horror of Dracula," however, it does have its exotic aspects. It was filmed in vivid color, which makes its "undead" all the more lurid. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that all of its principals speak with impeccable Oxonian accents, even though they appear to be citizens of some unnamed Transylvanian community.

For the record, the ominous Count's king-sized canines put their fatal trade marks on three luckless victims: John Van Eyssen and Carol Marsh and Valerie Gaunt, a pair of damsels who look delectable enough in diaphanous shifts to turn the head of a red-blooded observer. Christopher Lee is grim but not nearly so chilling as Bela Lugosi in the title role, and Peter Cushing is proper and precise as the meticulous researcher who finally turns our monster into dust.

This can't be the end, however. We bet the price of admission to the Mayfair against a sprig of garlic flowers (vampires hate 'em) that some moonlit night Count Dracula will rise again with the aid of another intrepid producer.

- A. H. Weiler, The New York Times, May 29 1958

EXCERPTS FROM TOP CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Dracula – usually better known under its American retitling, The Horror of Dracula – is the cornerstone of the Hammer Films legend. Although The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) the year before was beginning of Hammer’s success, The Horror of Dracula was the one that set Hammer on the map and marked the beginning of Hammer’s domination over the horror scene for the next fifteen years. The Horror of Dracula’s status, certainly in Anglo-horror fandom, is sacrosanct and its importance near-mythic. The essence of what the Hammer film was all about is here – the darkly magnetic presence and aristocratic haughtiness of Christopher Lee; the commanding, straight-arrow rationalism of Peter Cushing; the florid shock hand of director Terence Fisher; the essential British repressions of sexuality and convention that Anglo-horror would pierce a stake right through; and the laughably dated shocked critical outcry.

Where then to view The Horror of Dracula today? Hammer films, particularly the early ones, have regrettably not dated well. Today their pace seems slow; the shocks that caused such a critical outcry (and then quickly transformed into the expected mainstay of this particular genre) seem absurdly mannered, even laughable. The rich and floridly colourful sets seem flat and stagebound and James Bernard’s celebrated scores loud and unsubtle. Yet The Horror of Dracula holds undeniable effect. One must understand exactly what it represented to audiences back then. To an audience that had been raised on the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931) and the cardboard, melodramatic figure that Dracula became among the Universal monsters lineup in the 1940s,The Horror of Dracula must have had an incredible shock value. For one it was in colour – which meant that one could see the blood in its rich, overripe scarlet detail – and that alone made it an immediately different film to the Bela Lugosi version. For another it was not as stagebound as the Lugosi version – within the rather static sets, Terence Fisher’s camera is kinetic and alive, always on the move.

As an attempt at adapting Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), The Horror of Dracula isn’t any better or worse than any other version. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster liberally sacrifices parts here and there for the economy of plot and budget – out go Renfield and the asylum (although these later appeared in Hammer’s Dracula – Prince of Darkness [1966]). Gone too is the magnificently ambient opening journey to Castle Dracula, the pursuit climax and set-pieces like the crashing of the Demeter. Gone too is Dracula as a supernatural being – “It is a common fallacy,” says Van Helsing, “that vampires can change into bats and wolves,” which conveniently does away with having to create costly effects sequences. (Although said fallacy seemed to have been disproven by later films). Despite the liberties he takes with Bram Stoker, Jimmy Sangster nevertheless preserves the essence of the book.

- Moria

Britain's Hammer Studios was the first to bring Count Dracula to the screen in living, blood-red color. Reteaming Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the stars of Hammer's 1957 hit Curse of Frankenstein, director Terence Fisher created what is arguably the best Dracula film out of the legion that have been made in the past 70 years. Lee, as had Bela Lugosi almost three decades before, fashioned a horror icon from Stoker's vampire for a whole new generation of international movie audiences.

While Horror of Dracula is seminal in the character's film canon, it's hardly faithful to the literary source. Only a bare outline of the original novel serves as the basis for Jimmy Sangster's economical script. Most of the characters have been jettisoned, notably Renfield, and the entire story takes place in Eastern Europe rather than shifting the main action to England. No sea voyage for Drac here, no lunatic asylum. Vampire hunter Van Helsing (Cushing) is nothing at all like the character in the book. Rather than an eccentric, thickly-accented Dutchman, Cushing plays the character as a younger man of action, quick-thinking and resolute, more scientist than mystic. Even with Lee's charismatic turn as Dracula, it is Cushing — one of the finest, most underrated actors in English language cinema — who carries the film with his intelligent, energetic portrayal of the Count's great nemesis.

Hammer detractors often chide the studio's films for their leisurely narrative. Horror of Dracula, clocking in at a compact 82 minutes, is briskly — at times even breathlessly — paced, especially when compared to the slow-as-molasses 1931 Lugosi version. The caliber of acting, handsome set design and marvelous use of color belie the movie's relatively low budget. Because of budgetary constraints, in fact, many classic elements of the Dracula story had to be dropped; the real reason the Count never turns into a mist or a bat in this version is because it was simply cheaper for him not to have these powers. (The script has Van Helsing dismissing such transmogrifications as a "common fallacy" about vampires.) Interestingly enough, it's because this Dracula cannot shapeshift that he comes across more as a terrifying, flesh-and-blood monster — to be grappled with at close quarters only at great peril to the hunters — than some ethereal, blood-drinking ghost in formal wear. The two moments that stand out in this regard are the confrontation at the castle, wherein the Count is first revealed as the undead creature he truly is, and the exciting battle between Van Helsing and Dracula at the climax. (The latter was used as a pre-titles sequence for 1966's Dracula — Prince of Darkness.) Any "monster kid" who grew up watching horror movies on TV in the '60s and '70s has these sequences emblazoned in their memory forever. It's primarily due to them that for many, (including me) the name "Dracula" immediately evokes an image of a feral, snarling Christopher Lee — not Bela Lugosi in a tux.

- Brian Lindsey, Eccentric Cinema

In a way, Lee’s Dracula is a missing link between the classic cinema vampire and his more contemporary brethren, who are often portrayed almost like human beings suffering from an uncontrollable addiction. Earlier horror films had emphasized Dracula’s allure by portraying the vampire almost like a hypnotic phantom. Bela Lugosi’s performance, in the 1931 DRACULA, emphasized the character’s foreign qualities and an uncanny otherworldliness that made the Count seem separate from humanity even while he moved unobtrusively among it. Lee’s portrayal, on the other hand, erases most of the character’s spooky nature (aided by the script, of course): in HORROR OF DRACULA, the Count does not turn into a bat or a cloud of mist; he seems more real, more physical – a flesh-and-blood being that the audience can more easily believe in. In a sense, he humanizes the vampire, not by making him sympathetic but by making him walk the Earth almost like a mortal – a super-powered, undying mortal, to be sure, but one subject to physical laws that limit his movements, just as they limit ours.

While advancing the Count’s evolution, Lee also captures some hints of Dracula as he appeared in novel Dracula. Author Bram Stoker’s physical description of the Count emphasizes not hypnotic fascination but physical strength. He is tall, his face a strong aquiline with a thin nose and a cruel-looking mouth. The literary character may be a fascinating monster, but he is definitely a horrible one. The air of cultured aristocracy (emphasized by Lugosi) is definitely there, especially in the early scenes at Castle Dracula as the Count plays charming host to his hapless guest, Jonathan Harker; however, this air is merely a deceptive cloud hiding the monstrous lining. Sophisticated he may be, but Stoker’s Dracula is better defined by the pride he exhibits when boasting of leading troops in warlike fury to fend off foreign invaders.

The more overt suggestions of savagery were absent from Lugosi’s Dracula, who never bared his fangs and seldom lost his temper (although he does snarl once or twice). Lee was afforded the luxury of allowing the character’s monstrous side to show more fully. Abetted with dripping fangs and red contact lenses, Lee portrays Dracula’s ferocity to the hilt. Also, in keeping with the novel, Dracula is never naively accepted into the society of his victims; instead, after the characterization is established in the opening scenes at Castle Dracula, he becomes almost a background character, infiltrating his victims’ homes like some sinister spy from beyond the grave.

Steve BiodrowskiCinefantastique Online

It is difficult to overemphasize how integral Technicolor is to the identity ofHorror Of Dracula. Murnau and Browning engaged the spiritual elements of the Dracula story, and black and white stressed the Victorian character of these films. This is an oversimplification, especially in the case of Nosferatu, in which the supposedly helpless woman acts in a way that is both enigmatic and heroic. Still, it is valid up to a point, and helpful in discussing Hammer's astonishing series of horror films. Preposterous and impossible to dislike, these films reveled in the sheer gaudiness of Technicolor, and it is fitting that the first shot after the opening titles features dripping red blood. And I'm not sure if blood has ever been so suggestively red.

Because, really, everything in this picture is terribly suggestive. Consider Dracula. We have moved from Schreck's compelling repulsiveness to Lugosi's eccentric whatever-it-is to the very handsome and very tall Christopher Lee. That is, Horror Of Dracula is a very sexy movie. Sex certainly existed in Browning's picture (remember Mina's attempt at seducing Jonathan), and the finale of Nosferatu can be viewed sexually (although it would be blasphemously reductive). Here, however, Dracula and his victims are eroticized so blatantly that they almost jump off the screen. The subtext (that if you have weird sex with tall handsome strange men your soul is damned) is so obvious that it doesn't really qualify as subtext, and it is subverted by the constant British camp of the film. The players are unquestionably having a hard time keeping a straight face, and there is real, clear artistic joy in their attempts to make something this absurd work. There is nothing conservative or cautionary about this film; for these filmmakers blood is clearly as arousing as the low necklines.

This extends to Peter Cushing's iconic and truly brilliant performance. As Van Helsing, Cushing both embodies the stereotypical English gentleman (he is as effeminate as the best of them) and transforms it, giving the character an assertiveness that goes beyond the merely intellectual. He has real physical presence, and no one doubts that he would thrust a stake through Lucy's or Jonathan's heart. Lee's physicality is even more impressive, and although he has few lines, he seems to rush through them, as if he's more comfortable dominating the scenes through presence alone, or outrageously smearing his face with blood.

DoniphonThe Long Voyage Home

Most shocking – and successful – of all, however, is 'Horror of Dracula'’s handling of the original novel's latent eroticism. What was once sub-textual is here foregrounded, and there is now no doubt that the film’s women enjoy Dracula's advances. Indeed, in preparation for his nocturnal visits, the “victims” even open doors, remove crosses from their necks and arrange themselves artfully on their beds! This complicity highlights the fact that film’s menfolk are mere cuckolds, and paints their frantic efforts to stop Dracula as the laughable last stand of injured male pride. This is ‘Dracula’ as projected through the prism of Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale’.

Yet these designs have much more serious undertones. Take, for example, the scene in which Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling) speaks to her husband, Arthur (Michael Gough), on the morning after her first encounter with Dracula. Gone is the dour housewife of previous scenes to be replaced by a more vivacious, sensual and – if her smiles are any indication – happier woman. This sparkling transformation indicates that the true enemy of the piece is the stifling Victorianism which has previously crushed Mina’s femininity and squandered her well-being. This interpretation is bolstered by Peter Cushing's wolfish and ambiguous turn as Van Helsing. Obsessed by his pursuit of Dracula and unmoved by the numerous stakings that he has to perform, Van Helsing is one of the screen’s most brutal and efficient reactionaries.

In contrast to all previous portrayals, then, Dracula actually catalyses life, and it is Arthur, Van Helsing and their fellows who preside over the true realm of the undead; a realm contoured by the same stuffy mannerisms and values that sadly prevailed in post-War Britain, at the time when the film was made.

In the end, the overall transaction isn’t bloodless for the viewer, and this is what may explain 'Horror of Dracula''s timeless appeal as a fright picture. Indeed, the film sets out to vandalize all preconceptions, conventions and comforts, particularly those that must have been held by contemporary audiences. Rather than portray Van Helsing's battles with Dracula as a straightforward tale of good versus evil, Fisher recasts the monster as a counter-cultural hero, and one whose values would soon make furtive progress during the upheaval and sexual revolution of the Sixties. However, that the changes of those years were to be largely undone by the forces of conservatism demonstrates that Fisher was right on yet another count: Van Helsing always wins in the end.

Pete HoskinDVD Beaver

OTHER REVIEWS

Horror of Dracula appeared at a pivotal time in British culture when it began to move away from the repressive world of the early 1950s – depicted in Mike Leigh's Vera Drake (2004) – and towards a different type of life (an era aptly evoked and encapsulated by the subsequent mantra of British Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan; “You never had it so good”). During this period, Britain experienced a more consumerist lifestyle, a youth culture influenced by Hollywood cinema and rock-and-roll, the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, and the “Angry Young Man” movement in British theatre. Horror of Dracula can be understood as horror's response to this turbulent social change. But, as an early example of Hammer horror, it contains conflicting cultural values.

Like the often critically despised films of The Archers and Gainsborough melodrama, Horror of Dracula offered contemporary viewers the taboo cinematic elements of spectacle and excess that offended establishment definitions of the proper “realist” nature of British cinema. In his pioneering study A Heritage of Horror, David Pirie recognised that Hammer horror represented the return of a repressed Romantic British literary tradition, with Christopher Lee's Count Dracula reincarnating Byron's Fatal Nobleman as a Vampire . When Lee speaks his first lines, he not only extinguishes the Universal Studios legacy of Bela Lugosi, but also returns the Count to his rightful place in British culture. But unlike Lugosi, Lee is definitely one of “us”. As in Bram Stoker's original novel, the Count speaks perfect English and does not need to struggle with his vowels. Lee's Dracula also evokes hidden desires within his victims, collapsing those British ideological barriers of repressive sexuality and “good taste”.

Tony Williams, Senses of Cinema

Having hit the jackpot with The Curse of Frankenstein, Britain's Hammer Films updated another monster classic with this 1958 Dracula remake, which distinguished itself from earlier efforts with its dripping blood, bared fangs, women's cleavage, and compulsive gong banging on the soundtrack. This Grand Guignol treatment bowled people over in the 50s, and it still yields some potent shocks—the sudden cut to a rabid Christopher Lee in tight close-up during Dracula's first attack is particularly hair-raising. Peter Cushing carries most of the ho-hum script as Dr. Van Helsing, though the well-lit color photography, central to the Hammer formula, can't compare with the shadowy magnificence of Nosferatu (1922) or Dracula (1931).

Dave KehrThe Chicago Reader

From the late ‘50s through the ‘70s, no one did horror like England’s Hammer studios, and the crown jewels in their terrifying oeuvre were the gothic Dracula pictures starring the incomparable Christopher Lee as the blood-sucking prince of darkness. Horror of Dracula (also known simply as Dracula) marks Lee’s first turn as the Count, as well as Peter Cushing’s initial performance as the indefatigable vampire hunter Van Helsing, and it’s likely the most tantalizingly creepy entry in this series of cinematic nightmares.

- Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness

Much of the film's power lies in the haunting images presented, many of which have gone on to become the best-known and most definitive cinematic images of vampirism of all time: The opening of Dracula's eyes as nighttime falls; the flowing cape as Dracula strides down the walkway from the castle; the swirling leaves that announce the Count's arrival on the veranda outside Lucy's bedroom; and of course Dracula's unforgettable demise at the film's climax. While much of the atmosphere is due to Fisher's direction, it is important not to underestimate the contribution of other key elements of the Hammer ensemble. Jack Asher's eerie lighting combines brilliantly with Bernard Robinson's sets, and James Bernard's score superbly heightens the sense of terror, sexuality and fairy-tale fantasy that is at the centre of Fisher's vision.

David RattiganDictionary of Hammer Horror

Fisher is an extremely detail-orientated director and is the master of lighting and makeup. As Chris Lee was still quite young for the role of dead-since-before-Columbus-set-sail vampire, Terence used lighting and makeup to focus on Chris Lee’s more pronounced physical features while effectively hiding his more youthful attributes. Also, he is one of the few directors who effectively uses Chris Lee’s Sasquatchian height as an advantage. The audience is treated to several “towering” camera angles of the vampiric menace throughout the film which could possibly be some of the creepiest moments captured on celluloid.

Jenn DlugosClassic-Horror.com

The Germanic eagle that fills the screen in the first moments of Fisher's remake of Todd Browning's 1931 "Dracula" resets the cultural barometer. No longer toying solely with the idea of outsiders and cultural subversion, "Horror of Dracula" is almost explicitly a post-World War II film, and it deals with Nazism.

Among Fisher's characters, the debate is not so much over belief in the supernatural, but more importantly over the need to act in the face of evil. Van Helsing spends little time trying to scientifically justify vampires – a la Browning's incarnation of the character -- Cushing's Van Helsing outright asks Holmwood what he is prepared to do in the face of the Count's onslaught. He describes the wider-reaching consequences of inertia. The equation is simpler and more imperative.

While "Horror of Dracula" absolutely represents a bloodied and visceral entry in the genre - Fisher's use of fluid and effects is pronounced for the time - it poses a more challenging addition to canon in that it is a political "Dracula." With blunt and uncomfortable words and pictures, Fisher opens the annals of recent history to his audience and asks if the vampire myth can any longer be about strangers creeping into bedchambers. He recommends, it seems, that Dracula is now the aggressor crossing national and moral borders.

James O'BrienCinescare

Hammer's Dracula made much more explicit the seduction-rape fantasy that underlies vampire mythology. Christopher Lee is not a horrid ghoul like Nosferatu. He's an aristocrat like Lugosi, but more of a contemptous brute than someone who'd attend the opera. Lugosi's ladies trembled in uncomprehending fear, and their menfolk gallantly did their best to protect them. In Horror of Dracula, the female victims openly enjoy their master's visits, throwing wide their windows and lying back on their beds in anxious anticipation. They conspire with Dracula against their own fathers and husbands for the privilege of being savaged by the haughty, feral vampire king. The result is an artistic and commercial triumph over the censor: technically, all that's happening is that necks are being bitten, but what viewers experienced were sensual, mostly consentual rape scenes. This is still Christopher Lee's greatest performance, combining his knack for elitist hauteur, with his excellent pantomime skills. After a decade of mostly inappropriate casting, he shows unmistakable star power, commanding the screen with every appearance.

For victims, Horror of Dracula provides a trio of actresses who create portraits of eroticism rarely attempted by later 'liberated' vampire films. Valerie Gaunt was a token victim in The Curse of Frankenstein, but with just a few seconds of screen time as Dracula's bride, she etches a vibrant picture of duplicitous female wiles. The obsessive lust that comes over her eyes as she gets face-to-jugular with Jonathan Harker is unforgettable. Carol Marsh made film history starring with Richard Attenborough ten years earlier in the crime drama Brighton Rock; here her teen tragedy is played out in the Victorian era. To get her way, she falls back on childish petulance, but we read her precocious sexuality loud and clear. When she throws the doors open, the midnight chill enters her bedroom with the falling leaves (beautiful, but dead), yet she doesn't care ... the all important HE is coming. She awaits Dracula as if he were a teenaged lover - only sexier.

Melissa Stribling's Mina is even more interesting. She's first seen as a prim and conventional housewife, content to stand anonymously behind her bourgeois husband. But when Mina starts her affair with Dracula, the change is remarkable. She blooms to life, and her eyes and smile betray a satisfaction that doesn't come from keeping the silverware polished, or lighting Arthur's cigars. When she receives Dracula in her bedroom, breathless and dumbstruck, the scene is pure domination and submission.

Glenn EricksonDVD Savant

There was more to Hammer's version of Dracula than sexual innuendo and graphic violence. In addition to the extra shadings given the character of Dracula and the nature of his menace, Jimmy Sangster's screenplay,Terence Fisher's direction, and, especially, Peter Cushing's performance as Van Helsing, Dracula's obsessive nemesis, brought out heretofore untapped resonances in that character as well. In most screen versions of Stoker's book (indeed, in the book itself), Van Helsing is portrayed as an aging, kindly Dutch physician whose knowledge of the undead comes in very handy when the time arrives to bring the story to a close. In Horror of Dracula however, Van Helsing assumes a dominant role--and an unsettling one. Terence Fisher later said of the character: "An individual who never goes out without his hammer and stake is hardly a sensitive soul."

It is Van Helsing, much like Dr. Frankenstein, who comes of as the real villain of the piece. The Count, like Frankenstein's creature, has no free will and acts mainly out of instinct. In most versions of the story (as in the book), Dracula leaves Transylvania in search of new victims. In Horror of Dracula he leaves only after his domain has been intruded upon and his "bride" destroyed by Van Heising's surrogate, Jonathan Harker. He then seeks out Lucy to replace her and, when she too is destroyed (by Van Helsing) turns his teeth on Mina, sealing his own doom.

--from Horror of Dracula DVD supplementary material, Warner Bros., 2002. Posted by Eric B. Olsen on A History of Horror

The first scene in the library, when Dracula enters with a leering, blood-smeared face, is one of the greatest and most influential shock scenes in movie history. Audiences leaped when he hissed his challenge, but the challenge was really to moviemakers: let's see you jokers top THIS. "The Curse of Frankenstein" opened a door; "Horror of Dracula" went through the door with a confrontational confidence. There had never been a vampire movie remotely like this before, and audiences the world over were ready for it.

Horror movies changed direction after "The Curse of Frankenstein" and "Horror of Dracula" the next year. Not only were now both Cushing AND Lee established as horror stars and Hammer as a pre-eminent horror studio, but the Grand Guignol horror elements of both films were an affront and a challenge. As writer David Pirie has pointed out, sometimes more IS more; classically, not showing the horrifying elements in horror movies was the way to go, and horror movies were made in the visual style of German cinema of the 1920s. But Hammer movies were emphatically mid-twentieth century, vividly gruesome, packed with energy and sex, and altogether something different. The changes they began have never faded away; horror movies today would not be what they are without the impact of Hammer.

- Bill Warren, Audio Video Revolution

Fisher, as much as any single person, is the reason that Hammer became known for the remarkable quality of its Gothic horror. Now, we can argue whether Gothic horror is quite as exciting as the stylistic magnificence of German Expressionism, and stylistically, the Hammer Dracula simply can't compete with Nosferatu or Vampyr (or even Universal's Dracula, which is otherwise an exemplar of everything wrong with early sound filmmaking) for the title of "most visually exceptional vampire movie". We'll take that as given. Still, the Hammer Gothic style, at is best, is essentially without peer, and it was never better than in Fisher's hands. Despite a tendency towards being overlit, Dracula is a visual feast of rich production design, shot to its fullest effect in a series of unassuming but inevitably correct camera angles (which tend to be just slightly wider than you'd think, and so we're constantly aware of the space of the film), and a nearly breakneck pace that allows not a single moment of flabby excess.

As long as I've got this marvelous love-in happening, let's wrap it up with the final member of the Hammer horror dream team: Jimmy Sangster. Responsible for basically all of Hammer's best scripts, Sangster's work in Dracula isn't quite as good as his screenplay for Curse of Frankenstein; it's at least somewhat of a liability that Dracula is offscreen so much, and that when he appears at the end he's dispatched so quickly, and Holmwood and Harker are nothing but ciphers, no matter how well-acted. But the core of Dracula is pure genius; to the best of my knowledge, it's the first example anywhere of vampirism as a scientific problem, and as a result the story's Victorian setting has never been exploited quite the same way. In Sangster's hands, Van Helsing reaches his apotheosis as a character, devoted to the scientific method and as intelligent and competent as he could ever be. He's the great vampire hunter, because he represents the forces of modernity and the Enlightenment marching against superstition and fear, and if the nugget for that metaphor was already present in Stoker's novel, it never came close to being so beautifully expressed as it was in this film, as opposed to Van Helsing's traditional representation as a crackpot mystic with a proclivity towards leg-humping.

- Antagony and Ecstasy

ABOUT THE WARNER BROTHERS DVD

This Warner release's anamorphic transfer is – like the disc's Dolby Digital mono soundtrack – serviceable enough. The print is clean; colours are rewardingly vibrant; and detail is sufficient, if perhaps a little hazy. The prime disappointment is that the 1.78:1 framing crops the film's original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

Extras are limited to the film's theatrical trailer and a couple of text features (cast/crew biographies and 'Dracula Lives Again!', which chronicles the production's history).

There has been talk that Warner are to revisit their Hammer properties and release them in more lavish editions. Whilst this would certainly be welcome in the case of 'Horror of Dracula' – if only to afford the film an OAR presentation – this disc's faults are not so great as to prevent it from being a worthy stop-gap.

- Pete Hoskin, DVD Beaver

For such a crucial horror title, Horror of Dracula has not fared very well on home video. Much of its original luster has been dulled by muted and cropped video transfers, as well as a notorious laserdisc pressing which omitted part of a gruesome staking at the 55-minute mark. (For the record, all three stake hits and the blood-spewing are here on the DVD, though upon close analysis the reinstated footage appears to be lifted from a different and slightly more degraded print.) Though the film still betrays its age at times, Warner's anamorphic transfer looks comparatively polished and boasts some wonderfully striking colors; reds are appropriately saturated and balance nicely with director Terence Fisher's skillful incorporation of blue and gold into the set design. Flesh tones are also noticeably improved, and the graininess which has become part of the film's video fabric has been thankfully decreased. Resolution looks impressive on a standard monitor but when blown up to home theater size, detail can be quite soft in numerous shots, particularly the studio-bound exteriors. As with the theatrical prints, facial details sometimes appear blurred and overall the film will still look dated to those expected a crisp, megabudget Warner restoration on the order of North by Northwest. The film elements look clean and free from wear. As with their release of The Mummy, the decision to letterbox the film at 1.78:1 will no doubt ruffle a few feathers; the framing lops off as much on the top and bottom as it adds to the sides, but the compositions look more spacious and evenly composed than the claustrophobic full frame version. However, viewers with 16:9 capability may find the headroom awfully tight if their set overscans to 1.85:1, which shears off too much headroom for comfort. The mono audio is limited by the dated materials but sounds robust enough, with James Bernard's thunderous score coming through passably if lacking the stomach-rumbling bass that characterizes his theme on the CD soundtrack. Considering the past track record of Hammer titles on DVD it wouldn't be outrageous to expect a special edition treatment for a title this important, but alas the only extras are the familiar theatrical trailer (in much better shape than on previous compilations) and a few cursory text supplements hopping through the Hammer-Dracula history. Given Lee's fluctuating opinion on discussing his Dracula appearances, his absence here isn't too surprising, but a few goodies to put the film in context (or even a simple gallery) would have been a welcome gesture.

- Mondo Digital

ABOUT HAMMER HORROR

Wikipedia

Official Hammer Films Site

The Unofficial Hammer Films Site

Dictionary of Hammer Horror by David Rattigan - invaluable resource with dozens of Hammer-related entries

The Hammer Horror Crypt - Site boasting synopses and hundreds of photos for each Hammer production

AMC.tv has an interactive feature to allow people to vote up or down their favorite Hammer horror films.

Hammer Horror Posters - NSFW

More useful sites can be found on Hammer House of Horrors

Notwithstanding the works of Satyajit Ray and Sergei Eisenstein, few foreign independent influences have had as broad an effect on American cinema as England's Hammer Films Limited. Some might find that a far-reaching proclamation, but I'm confident that there's ample evidence to bear this out.

The Creature (Christopher Lee) attacks Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).

Having gone into television production in the 80s before closing its doors for good, Hammer nonetheless remains the most successful British film studio ever, producing more than 200 features over five decades. The studio is best remembered for its thrillers, particularly gothic and singularly British retellings of Universal Studios classic monster franchises - Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Werewolf. Martin Scorsese,Steven SpielbergGeorge Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola are just some of the more apparent filmmakers to have borrowed a few of their more lurid tones (and actors) from Hammer's colourbox. Hammer produced far more than horror films over their long run, but here I will focus on their more exploitive, though no less artful, genre pictures.

- Jeremy Wheat, Hammer House of Horror

Be sure to read "What I Owe to Hammer Horror" by John Potts in Senses of Cinema

990 (122). A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958, Douglas Sirk)

Screened December 7 2009 on Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD (thanks Gina) in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #994  IMDb Wiki

Douglas Sirk's penultimate feature, and one of his most personal, brings his entire Hollywood career into stark relief.  This adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel of love in WWII Germany envisions a bombed-out wasteland that couldn't be further removed from the Technicolor gloss of affluent America seen in his most famous films. There are no vibrant pastels or lush interiors decorated with fine upholstery or shiny bric a brac; here, whether inside or outside, it's a seemingly monotonous ash gray or dirt brown. Whenever color arrives (usually a tree blossom or sprig of a leaf), it's a miracle.

This seems to invert the formula established in other Sirk films, where the abundance of attractive surfaces amounts to overcompensation for dissatisfied lives lurking underneath. Here, it's luxury that makes life worth living: the young lovers Ernst (John Gavin) and Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) bluff their way into a fancy meal in an officer's club, in a scene that defies gravity. What's even more fascinating is how that famous Sirkian irony is turned on its ear. In films like All That Heaven Allows or Imitation or Life, Sirk lays ironic subtext into the dialogue or the mise-en-scene, such that it verges on mocking the characters' myopic pursuits of happiness (while priming hipster camp laughter). Here the script is flipped: cynicism and irony wrought by wartime cruelty are the fashion, a way for soldiers and civilians alike to numb themselves from the inhumanity that engulfs them. It's against this convention that the lovers fight, hanging on to a flickering sense of hope and earnestness (Gavin, a bit wooden, doesn't quite carry it off, but Pulver more than compensates - it's easy to see why Godard was smitten by her in his famous review of the film, as her doe-eyed litheness make her a prototype for Anna Karina).

What Sirk keeps consistent between this film and the American-set melodramas is his fixation with the fragility of what makes life worth living in a world of suffocating convention. Wealth and poverty prove to be equally dehumanizing.  What matters are the frail bonds between people, enabled by fleeting moments of fantasy fulfillment. This isn't tied to any overt political or social agenda. Quite the opposite, there's a startling, paradoxical acceptance of the status quo as a fundamentally inescapable condition: it's ground that gives birth to its own acts of defiance - these moments of transcendent beauty - and it's the ground that smothers them out.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of A Time to Love and a Time to Die among They Shoot Pictures Don't They's 1000 Greatest Films:

Antonio Jose Navarro, El Mundo (1995) Enrique Alberich, Dirigido Por (1992) Ian Cameron, Sight & Sound (1972) Jose Maria Prado, Nickel Odeon (1994) David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: War (1993)

HISTORICAL REVIEW

For more than two hours, this somber drama, taken from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque and put on display at the Mayfair and Little Carnegie yesterday, goes through a labored explanation of how a young Nazi soldier, home on leave, makes love to and marries a nubile maiden amid the exploding clutter of a German city in 1944. Then, after getting the new wife settled with a nice old lady and also with child, it takes the young husband back to the front in Russia. And there it gets him ironically killed.

That's all there is in this long picture—just an account of how two youngsters fall in love, despite air raids, food rationing, gauleiters and the fact that they don't know where or how their parents are. No theme is solidly stated, no philosophical comment is implied—other than the obvious one of General Sherman, and that's what nice Germans went through in World War II.

This again is a fault of this picture—it simply does not ring true. It has an air of studied contrivance and artificiality. Lilo Pulver, for instance, is winsome as the German girl, but she acts, under Douglas Sirk's direction, with the airs and manners of a well-fed ingénue. Except for a trace of German-accent, you'd never dream she's been near a bombed German city in World War II.

- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, July 10, 1958

...Next to Le Plaisir [Pleasure, Max Ophuls, 195s], this is the greatest title in all cinema, sound or silent, and also to say that I heartily congratulate Universal-International on having changed the title of Erich Maria Remarque's novel, which was called A Time to Live and a Time to Die [Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben, 1954]. In so doing, those dear old universal and international bandits have in effect set Douglas down in a circus which Boris Barnet would have been prodigiously happy to film, because it is ten times more battle-scarred and beautiful than Brooks's: in other words, by replacing the world 'live' by 'love', they implicitly posed their director the question - an admirable starting point for the script - 'Should one live to love, or love to live?'...

Before talking of form, let us speakof Liselotte Pulver's. Everyone scorns it. But I like it. You think she's skinny; but after all it is wartime, and the subject of the film is not: 'Off with your pullover, Lise.' For my part I have never found a German girl in the crumbling Third Reich so credible as I did in watching this young Swiss start nervously at each camera movement. I will go further. I have never found wartime Germany so credible as in watching this American film made in peacetime. Even more than Aldrick in Attack [1956], Sirk can make things seem so close that we can touch them, that we can smell them. The face of a corpse frozen in the rime on the Russian front, bottles of wine, a brand-new apartment in a ruined city: one believes in them as though they had been filmed by a newsreel Camelflex instead of with a huge CinemaScope apparatus controlled by what one must call the hand of a master.

It is fashionable today to say that the wide screen is all window-dressing. Personally, my answer to all those Rene's who haven't got idees claires is a polite: 'My eye!'. One need only have seen the last two Sirk films to be finally convinced that CinemaScope adds as much again to the normal format. One should add here that our old filmmaker has regained his young legs and beats the young at their own game, panning happily all round, tracking back or forwards likewise. And the astonishingly beautiful thing about these camera movements, which tear away like racing-cars and where the blurring is masked by the speed with which they are executed, is that they give the impression of having been done by hand instead of with a crane, rather as if the mercurial brushwork of a Fragonard were the work of a complex machine. Conclusion: those who have not seen or loved Liselotte Pulver running along the bank of the Rhine or Danube or something, suddenly bending to pass under a barrier, then straightening up hop! with a thrust of the haunches - those who have not seen Douglas Sirk's big Mitchell camera bend at the same moment, then hop! straighten up with the same supple movement of the thighs, well, they haven't seen anything, or else they don't know beauty when they see it.

- Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinema, 1959. Translated by Tom Milne and Craig Keller. Printed in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

[W]e slightly changed [the original title of Remarque's source novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die] for the non-German distribution into A Time to Love and a Time to Die. I was so insistent on this, for I felt it had to be a love story, mainly. The denunciation of Nazidom would have to take second place to the love story. You see, this picture was made in 1957. Hitler's empire of a thousand years was history. Furthermore, I thought 'die' balanced 'love' very well. And going back to my idea of a title being a kind of prologue, it announces the theme of the picture. The terrible incongruity of killing and young love. I was enchanted to see that in Cahiers Godard did get the point, and made the title almost the base for his excellent and unusual review [...] What was interesting to me was a landscape of ruins and the two lovers. But again, a strange kind of love story, a love conditioned. Two people are not allowed to have their love. The murderous breath of circumstances prevents them. They are hounded from ruin to ruin. The lovers have nowhere to go for their love. Do you remember the scene in the hold restaurant? The lovers are imitating the joyful life of a lost past. There is a moment of happiness. Seemingly. There is food. There are friendly lamps. There is light. Their love has restored the world. Bang! It is destroyed. I was striving for this relationship between their love and the ruins. I hope it came off: the portrayal of this young and desperate love. Not just a boy and girl story, but two lovers in extreme circumstances."

- Douglas Sirk, in Jon Halliday's Sirk on Sirk, pp. 141, 144. Printed in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet

"Life is the most melodramatic story of all," said Sirk. In 1929 in Germany he had divorced his first wife and married a Jew, a fact which the first wife used after Hitler won power to get a court order barring Sirk from contact with their son, then eight, whom she was turning into a Nazi and the top child star in German cinema: Claus Detlef Sierck. Sirk was able to see his son only in movies, sometimes as a Hitler Youth. And when he fled Germany, Sirk had to leave his son behind. Toward the end of the war Claus was drafted, sent to the Russian front, and reported missing in action. After the war Sirk came back to Germany, and searched in vain for traces of the son he had left behind. He asked interviewers not to publish these events during his lifetime. But he made a movie, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, that was autobiographical - about a boy who is sent to Russia and forced to commit atrocities, who meets a wonderful girl during a leave, then is quickly killed in Russia after a daring act of mercy. What more could such a father hope for such a dead son than that he had had the experience of a love like this before dying?

- Tag Gallagher, in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet.

Sirk's motives for returning to Berlin seem as scrambled as those for his flight 21 years earlier. The Russian Front setting of Remarque's source novel clearly had a personal significance, as Klaus Detlef Sierck (the son who had acted in several pro-Party pictures) had been killed in the Ukraine in 1944. However, it was never entirely certain whether Orin Jannings's screenplay was a plea for the victors to understand the suffering endured by the vanquished during the last days of the conflict or whether the killing of the Good German by a vengeful Communist guerilla was intended to be Cold War propaganda.

Regardless of its objectives, this touching study of the brevity of happiness was hailed as a masterpiece by Jean-Luc Godard in an effusive Cahiers du Cinéma review that launched the Sirkian cult that still attracts copious devotees. However, German audiences deeply resented a fugitive recreating their misery, while the film was banned in both Israel and the Soviet Union. It was somewhat fitting, therefore, that when Sirk quit the States in 1959, he settled in Switzerland - which had, of course, remained neutral during the war.

- David Parkinson, Film in Focus

TOP REVIEWS

A masterpiece of mise-en-scene (1958) by Douglas Sirk, transforming an Erich Maria Remarque melodrama into a haunting story of the search for beauty in a dead world. John Gavin and Lilo Pulver are lovers who meet among the ruins of a bombed-out German town during World War II. Despite their efforts to make contact, happiness hovers just beyond their reach in Sirk's metaphysically charged CinemaScope images. A stunning triumph of form, of the sort possible only in Hollywood. 132 min.

Dave KehrThe Chicago Reader

Under the opening credits of Sirk's penultimate masterpiece, set during World War II and filmed on location in Germany, the camera rests on the branches of a tree, its blossom forced early by the heat of a nearby bomb blast. It is the perfect symbol for the love between John Gavin's German soldier on leave and a barely remembered childhood friend, Lilo Pulver: a love forced by the everyday facts of war. This superb adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel rests on a painful symmetry between the scenes at the Russian front and the central section in the half-ruined home town, and on a typically tough-minded acknowledgment of the irony that the doomed romance exists not in spite of the war, but because of it.

Time Out

In a way, the lack of a well-structured plot is a minor quibble, as the attraction of A Time to Love isn't in its story, it's in the fusion of the melodramatic with the nihilistic. The film is full of grimly beautiful imagery. Early on in the film Ernst's regiment makes its way through a frozen village, and discover a withered hand reaching out from beneath the snow. An argument occurs about whether or not the dead soldier the hand belongs to is a casualty of the November or January campaign that is almost blackly humorous. As the soldiers dig him out, a young private remarks that the corpse appears to be crying, to which Ernest responds 'His eyeballs were frozen. They're thawing now.' This kind of darkness pervades the film, particularly in these early moments with the frontline troops, who are represented as wearily cynical of the ongoing campaign…

The visual layout of A Time to Love and a Time to Die is much like Sirk's previous melodramas. Shards of light slice through frames, wrenching the characters away from each other; scenes are colour-coded to the emotions of the characters and tone of the world (here, mainly dull grey, brown and white); small camera movements track and nag the characters. Its emotive, heightened, passionate – the score swells and climaxes, the cinemascope photography is brilliantly vivid; the frames are filled with material detail. Its part of what makes Sirk's films so seductive – they are beautiful to look at, almost distractingly so. What is particularly interesting – and impressive – about this film is the way this aesthetic plan is mapped onto wartime Germany. Costumes and props look authentically worn, the characters are all suitably bedraggled (with the exception of the star couple). There is a lot of location shooting, amongst bombed out buildings and piles of rubble and muddy battlefields, but Sirk still manages to maintain his highly composed, painterly look. The emotional desolation of the characters bleeds into the landscape, and vice versa: the realism of those bombsites is harnessed into the melodramatic project.

Adam WilsonDVD Outsider

Remarque was a solid but second-rate writer who tended to recycle his own material; he turns up in Sirk’s movie as a forbidding-looking Professor who does a bit of preaching about God and responsibility in one heavy-handed scene toward the end. There are lots of sand traps like that in this script, but Sirk is a past master of handling the most dubious writing and acting and still somehow making it conform to his overall vision (surely he was made to handle the heavily seasoned works of a major writer like Thomas Mann, but Remarque will do in a pinch). There are echoes of Frank Borzage’s Remarque-inspired Three Comrades (1938) in the enclosing love story between Gavin and Pulver, but Sirk replaces Borzage’s warmth with his own stern detachment. He draws a charming performance from the German-born Pulver, and he tries his best with the pretty but very remote Gavin; these lovers are always ducking into cellars during air raids and either losing or stealing bottles of liquor, leaping from ruin to ruin until time, if not love, runs out.

Sirk said he liked the irony of the ending, but it comes across as a cheap attempt to copy the famous last shot of the film version of All Quiet on the Western Front, with a love letter substituted for a butterfly. Miklós Rózsca provides a stormy score that fits the forties time period, and the film has some amusing casting: A young Klaus Kinski has a film-halting bit as a Gestapo agent, and Dorothea Wieck, who played the sensual lesbian schoolteacher in the Weimar-era classic Mädchen in Uniform (1931) turns up briefly. The scenes depicting Gavin’s despicable Nazi school-hood friend are strangely handled, mainly because Sirk seems more interested in ridiculing the vulgarity of fascist cultural taste than in any more sweeping moral denunciation. This isn’t one of Sirk’s best films, but it is most likely one of his most personal. He was separated from his son by his first wife, who had wholeheartedly joined the Nazi party, and this lost son later died on the Russian front. In the last scenes of the movie, Sirk shows us several blond-haired boys ready to go off to war, and you don’t have to know his history to be moved by their forgone fate, or the artist who could use a small part of his own personal pain as a fully justified grace note in this, his penultimate Hollywood production.

Dan CallahanThe House Next Door

Like the rough trilogy of films based on James Hilton's novels (Lost Horizon, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Random Harvest), A Time To Love And A Time To Die is suffused with the inter-war desire to escape time - an escape that Sirk equates with his own characteristically intoxicating cinematography, with the result that Sgt Ernest Graeber's (John Gavin) search for his parents during the two-week long furlough that relieves him from the black-and-white monotony of the Russian Front is effectively the search for Technicolour; or, alternatively, the desire to immerse himself in a fantastic distance from the ravages of war that becomes continuous with cinema itself, as evinced in one of its surrogates - a wedding night in which his new wife, Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) throws glasses against a wall because she "saw it done in a movie once", as well as the final, glassy screen, which beautifully combines his reflection with a confirmation that this intoxication is still just out of reach. As a result, all its surrogates - 'no such places', culminating with a suburban kitchen that has miraculously escaped desecration - fall short of the lurid aestheticism expected of Sirk by this stage - with the possible exception of the violent, periodic incursions of fire, whether literally or as an object of conversation, which tend to suggest that Technicolor can now only exist as an index of sheer horror - as if his irrealistic proclivities were so strong as to only admit of being indefinitely and tortuously postponed, rather than categorically excised.

Billy StevensonA Film Canon

OTHER REVIEWS

Maybe it's the use of Eastman Colour stock rather than Technicolor, but at first sight A Time to Love... seems less stylised in its look than the other two (which were studio/backlot productions shot in “flat” widescreen). That's not to say it doesn't avoid a certain glossiness in its presentation: but then stomach-churning realism was not on the agenda (for reasons of censorship amongst other things). That doesn't preclude a hard edge to this film: romantic it may be, soft-headed no. That's also not to deny that the film is very well directed: whole books have been written about Sirkian aesthetics and mise-en-scène, which is beyond the scope of this review. The final image is reminiscent of that in All Quiet on the Western Front and just as powerful.

- Gary Couzens, DVD Times

After making a series of vibrant melodramas in the United States (such as “All That Heaven Allows”), Douglas Sirk returned to his native Germany to shoot the bitter Second World War story “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” (1958), based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. A Wehrmacht private (John Gavin)—a good German, disgusted by Nazi atrocities—returns from the Russian front to his bombed-out town, falls in love with the daughter (Lilo Pulver) of a German dissident, and mixes with both committed Nazis and resisters. The romance has its longueurs, but both the battle and the home-front scenes, in which traces of beauty and friendship struggle against an overpowering sense of loss, are unusually well sustained and bitterly intelligent. Remarque himself appears as an anti-Nazi teacher who tells the hero that if he doesn’t return to the front his family will be threatened. Remarque knew what he was talking about: his sister was executed by the Nazis in 1943 as revenge against the writer, who was living in the United States.

- David Denby, The New Yorker

It was the penultimate Hollywood movie of the great German stylist Douglas Sirk and, like all his American films, the reputation of this quietly authoritative, initially undervalued picture has steadily grown since the 1960s. John Gavin plays the central character, Remarque himself has a small role as a liberal schoolteacher and the unforgettable ending echoes All Quiet. The movie has a poignant subtext. Sirk's son, a beautiful child star raised as a Nazi by his first wife, died fighting on the Russian front. The film is accompanied by a booklet and three worthwhile documentaries.

- Philip French, The Guardian

Adapted from a novel by EM Remarque (who also wrote All Quiet on the Western Front), this is perhaps the bravest and most beautiful of war films. There are many movies that remind us War Is Hell but few with the courage to humanise the losing side. Sirk was always a more restrained director than his reputation as master of melodrama suggests; here he eschews easy sentiment and emotional bombast and his film is all the more heartbreaking for it. He does more than show the horror of war; he evokes its anguish.

- Movie Mail

On one hand A Time to Love and a Time to Die is a great film, gorgeously photographed and really well written but, on the other, it fails to convince because of the cast. John Gavin is about as American as you can get so doesn’t really pass as a German soldier and there are so many Americans in the cast (including Keenan Wynn – Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove) that they look like Americans in German uniforms, not German soldiers. Swiss actress Liselotte Pulver is a different matter, sounding German and putting in a fine performance.

- David Beckett, My Reviewer.com

The film's urgent anti-war message is best captured in the premature bloom of tree blossoms in the hometown, caused not by nature but by the bombings. As for the film's belief in humanity overcoming evil, the answer it comes up with is taken from the lips of Erich Maria Remarque: "Without doubt, there would be no need for faith." There is a strange universal beauty found in the unlikely Hollywood film about a WW11 German soldier as the hero. The beauty is in the empirical images of the fearful symmetry between the horrors at the Russian front and the hometown in partial ruins, and in the doomed romantics trying to overcome the world gone crazy around them.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozus' World Movie Reviews

An ordinary love and unexceptional people for the first time in Douglas Sirk. They watch what's happening around them with wide startled eyes. Everything is incomprehensible to them, the bombs, the Gestapo, the lunacy. In a situation like that love is the least complicated thing of all, the only thing you can understand. And you cling to it. But I wouldn't like to think about what would have happened to them if John had survived the war. The war and its horrors are only the décor. No one can make a film about war, as such. About how wars come about, what they do to people, what they leave behind, could well be important. The film is not pacifist, as there is not a second which lets us think: if it were not for this lousy war everything would be so wonderful or something. Remarque's novel A Time to Love and a Time to Die is pacifist. Remarque is saying that if it weren't for the war this would be eternal love. Sirk is saying if it weren't for the war this would not be love at all.

Bruno AndradeSigno do dragao

984 (116). Bienvenido, Mister Marshall / Welcome, Mister Marshall (1953, Luis Garcia Berlanga)

Screened November 11, 2009 on Tribanda DVD in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #  IMDb Wiki

What is it about Spanish cinema that just nails how people are possessed by dreams and stories? Of course I'm making an overgeneralization, and yet the three Spanish filmmakers that I know best, Bunuel, Almodovar and (sheepishly, based on watching two films) Berlanga, all share an uncommon fascination with the rapture of storytelling. Whether through a voiceover narration or one person telling a tale to another, these films traffic in the private fantasies and urges of characters and audience alike. It's true in Bunuel's earliest sound film L'Age D'Or, with its narrative framework disintegrating into a lucid stream of on-screen impulsive acts, or as recently as Almodovar's Broken Embraces, where much of the film's pleasure is in just watching characters being transfixed by each other's stories.

Within this hypothetical national subgenre, Bienvenido, Mister Marshall stands tall. A sleepy Castillan village tries to transform itself into an Andalusian postcard paradise upon hearing that American postwar funders may pass through. The voiceover sets it up like a fable ("There once was an old spanish Town"); the film is not only an allegory for a nation's collective submission to the utopian facades of Franco's Fascist Spain, but to the countermyth of America, which pervades the characters' dreams as well as fears. Two sequences bear this out vividly. In the first, villagers are ordered to line up and tell the administrators, Santa Claus-style, one thing they would like in return for contributing to the fake village effort. Some of the impoverished villagers can't even mentally process this offer, having never been in a position to dream big, much less ask for things beyond food, clothing and shelter. The other is a brilliant sequence that relays from one character's nocturnal fantasies to another, each one informed in their own way by the movies: a priest's nightmare shot with Expressionist angles of Puritanical oppression; the mayor's fantasy of gunslinging Western heroism; a farmer's dream that brilliantly mixes social realist propaganda and Hollywood fantasy, with a plane flown by Santa Claus parachuting tractors to the peasantry.

With its withering observations on human fallacy and self-delusion on both an individual and collective level, Bienvenido, Mister Marshall would be one of the most merciless social satires ever made, if its condescending omniscience towards its subjects didn't somehow implicate itself. There's a priceless moment where the voiceover chastises a schoolmistress in bed possibly doing indecent things to herself; in doing so the narrator outs himself as being as much of a control freak as Franco. As such, the film amounts to its own fantasy construct of Spain as an eternally tragic, but laughably charming dystopia. It does as masterful a job of selling its vision as the fascist and capitalist ideologues it eviscerates.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

This is a comic Trojan horse and perhaps the first great Spanish film. When a commission for a folkloric musical to make Lolita Sevilla a star fell to the secretly pro-communist UNINCI production company, Bardem and Berlanga used the cash to show how all the Francoist world was a stage in a tall tale of a drab Castilian village that does itself up in Andalusian glad rags in order to attract dollars from the Marshall Plan. An amazing satire of what Spain and Spanishness was reduced to during the dictatorship, cooked up with equal parts anarchy and compassion and flavoured like an Ealing comedy.

- Time Out

Welcome, Mr. Marshall! was one of the rare Spanish films to treat political events of the day—foremost the exclusion of the country, as a pariah nation, from Marshall Plan funds. The movie concerns the frenzied attempts of a small Castilian town to seduce American money by organizing a ridiculous fiesta; the place becomes a kind of false-front movie set masking the dire conditions in which the inhabitants really live. This sharp, good-humored spoof of Spanishness—or the Hollywood image of Spanishness—bears a resemblance to the best Ealing comedies.

- Elliot Stein, The Village Voice

¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall! (Welcome Mister Marshall!, 1952) the first full-length film Berlanga directed alone, marks a watershed in Spanish cinema history. Although it is probably his most celebrated film, it is by no means his best. Originally conceived of as a musical vehicle to launch the career of the teenage flamenco singer Lolita Sevilla, Berlanga created both a devastating parody of Francoist mythmaking (particularly of the regime's promotion of Spain to the outside world as a picturesque paradise of bullfighting and flamenco), and a searing commentary on the Economic Recovery Program (better known as The Marshall Plan), of which Spain was never a beneficiary. Made the year before the United States established military bases on Spanish territory, ¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall!manages to lampoon Hollywood, McCarthyism, the Catholic Church and Francoism all at the same time. Remarkably, the Spanish authorities saw little to object in it and the film escaped major censorship. However, the film missed out on a prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year due to the veto of jury member Edward G. Robinson who complained of its anti-Americanism.

- Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema

The wonderful way in which it blends humour with an appreciation of humanity. It’s hilarious, true; but it also reflects a warm understanding of human nature, of the universal habit of assigning stereotypes to everybody and everything, of the ability to dream and build castles in the air; and of the resilience of those dreams. Beinvenido Mister Marshall! actually reminded me a lot of Giovanni Guareschi’s superb novels of the Italian priest, Don Camillo, and his little village in the Po Valley. If you look closely, there’s more than just humour here: there’s also a sensitivity that’s touching and sweet. And so very global: Villar del Río could have been any quiet village in any corner of the world, suddenly faced with the chance of becoming rich…

- Dusted Off

¡Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall! has long been noted as a landmark film in Spanish cinema, "el clásico más irónico del cine español" that "cracked open new possibilities for engagement with significant socio-political commentary within conventional comedic modes" (Moyano; Rolph 8). The Berlanga film can be listed as part of a series of cultural, political, and economic events that make the early 1950s a key moment in the evolution of the Franco regime and Spain in general. As such a classic film arriving at such a key moment, Berlanga´s film has been studied from a variety of viewpoints, but typically either viewed as a film of social critique or aesthetic exploration. Ramón Gubern, for example, describes its ideological project in terms of post-1898 "Regeneracionismo" while Kathleen Vernon reads the film as a critique of the seepage of Hollywood into everyday life (Gubern, in Gómez Rufo 250-51; Vernon 321). In the following pages I argue that the two readings, while not discounting the other, have not been sufficiently linked. By linking the two, I find in Berlanga´s film a social critique that extends beyond the immediate historical limits of 1953 Spain defined by a flagging regionarationist spirit, its present cultural subservience to Hollywood, or its forthcoming encounter with U.S. foreign policy. As aesthetic exploration and social critique are read together, ¡Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall! may be viewed as a film more about processes than products. It is a film that invites its spectators along on an exploration of the processes by which their nation has been imagined, is currently imagined, and especially how it may be imagined in the future. In so doing, the film hints at new social, political, and spatial orders to come in the next half-century that begin with but extend far beyond the simple remaking of a nation (Spain), of its internal components (Castilla/Andalucía), or of its basic international relations (Spain/U.S.). It may be a stretch to argue that Berlanga´s film is a story about globalization. Still, I argue that by drawing social and aesthetically-focused readings together, a view of the film surfaces that reveals the film´s registration of emergent processes through which spectators as citizens (or citizens as spectators, as I will show) would participate to thoroughly rethink and reshape their world in the coming decades...

The critical if comedic exploration surrounding the remaking of Villar is quite apparent to even the casual viewer. More critical to our reading is the way that Berlanga positions his spectator to draw connections between the imagination of Villar del Río, the Spanish nation, and the international order, and, by way of meta-cinematic devices, between the on-screen re-imagining and that which is taking place in the dark of the movie theater. This more far-reaching exploration of the re-imagining of nation begins with the opening shot of the film. A still focus on a dirt road vanishing into the rural meseta situates the on-screen story in the heart of Franco´s officially celebrated Castilian countryside. As the opening credits end, an automobile approaches along the road. As it passes, the camera pans 180 degrees to the left to reveal the village of Villar del Río in the distance as a flock of sheep graze in the foreground. While classic Hollywood film-the kind parodied by Bienvenido, but most familiar to its audiences-would dictate a reverse shot at this point to follow the opening shot and thereby suture a would-be spectator into an initial identification, here Berlanga´s editing leaves the spectator in limbo. Explicitly, the camera would seem to be a local villager on the outskirts of the town. Implicitly, by breaking the magical invisibility of classic cinema, the would-be spectator is not invited to identify with this look but left rather in the uncomfortable position of an anticipating film viewer still awaiting the moment of suture. In light of this separation, it is significant that the spectator stands just beyond the town sign, explicitly a member of the community of Villar del Río, but implicitly empowered with an outsider´s awareness of that community as yet an object of the cinematic gaze. Hence, before the spectator meets Villar´s people and places-its signified--, she sees (literally) Villar´s sign post-or signifier-and thereby recognizes Villar as such...

Berlanga´s film, then, is not simply about a disappointing non-encounter, nor a film about changing concepts of respective nations, but ultimately, a film about the changing concept of the nation itself. The nation could not continue as before because the technologies through which it had once been imagined had changed. Berlanga´s film does not suggest that Spain would disappear, nor that it would become one homogenous Andalucía, nor another US colony. Change would appear more subtly but its effects would finally be more profound. After all, at the conclusion of the film Villar del Río returns to its farming roots, just as citizens of the global era so often flock to ethnic roots for security from "Marshall-izing" motorcades.(20) Nevertheless, tapping back into those roots now costs the villagers, just as sustaining "authentic" identities against encroaching global cultural forces requires economic capital. And while, as the film´s fairytale conclusion, "colorín colorado este cuento se ha acabado," affirms the right of all to keep dreaming, the fact remains that Villar del Río still lacks a railroad—the means for the common citizens to move beyond their community and do more than imagine themselves in other possible communities. As in our own global work, while the villagers are stuck, foreign delegates at various levels blow in and out of town, raising and then dashing hope, promising prosperity but delivering only more—and now more self-consciously felt—poverty (see Friedman 112-42; Harvey 59-72 for contemporary comparisons). The debate over the film´s ending continues today. Is it hopeful? Is it terribly pessimistic? One might argue that Berlanga finally adopts a rather postmodernist or globalist position: resigned, if playfully so. As writers from David Harvey to Thomas Friedman have remarked, many of the processes of globalization simply cannot be reversed (Harvey 85; Friedman xxii). The community we inhabit can no longer be imagined as it once was. Moreover, the subject who imagines is each day less a citizen and more a consumer and spectator. Nevertheless, awareness of the nature of the spaces we inhabit and of the technologies that shape these spaces into imagined communities can facilitate discovery of possible strategies for remaking those spaces. For all its playfulness and, finally, resignation, ¡Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall!, at least produces a degree of awareness that combines with its playful critique to open the door to potential agency in the struggle to participate in the reshaping of a now postnational community. Perhaps in this empowering lays the remarkable staying power of Berlanga´s film.

- Nathan E. Richardson, Bowling Green State University

ABOUT LUIS GARCIA BERLANGA

For many years in Spain strict censorship guidelines inhibited the development of a vital and creative film industry. The first original auteur of the post-Civil War period was Luis García Berlanga. When he began to make movies in the early 1950s, Berlanga and fellow filmmaker Juan Antonio Bardem were referred to as the two palm trees in the desert of Spanish film. Since then, and in spite of the fact that he could make relatively few films under Franco, Berlanga has remained one of Spain's foremost talents.

- Katherine Singer Kovács, Film Reference.com

Although his projects were often halted and cut by censors during the dictatorship, Berlanga managed to challenge the Franco myth through comedy, ridiculing Spanish foibles with chaotic farces and outlandish sight gags. Berlanga's own personal history is emblematic of the shifting complexities of Spanish politics. He describes himself as "a Christian, but creatively an anarchist and politically a liberal." But as a young man, during World War II, he had volunteered for the "Blue Division" that went to battle in the Soviet Union to aid the Nazi cause. Berlanga maintains that he did so to save his Republican father from a death sentence.

Elliot SteinThe Village Voice

Born into a wealthy, land-owning family in Spain's eastern province of Valencia, Berlanga enjoyed a comfortable and untroubled upbringing until the onset of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. While the Francoist uprising sought to bring down the democratically-elected Second Republic, Berlanga's father was one of the Valencia regional representatives in the national parliament. In the aftermath of the war Berlanga senior was arrested and sentenced to death. Eventually the sentence was commuted but he remained in prison until 1952, only to die six months after his release. Meanwhile, shortly before the end of the war the 18-year-old Berlanga junior was mobilised by the Republican forces and conscripted into a medical unit. Following the Francoist victory, in what constitutes one of the many paradoxes of Berlanga's life, he seemingly changed sides and volunteered to serve in the Blue Division—the unit of Spanish soldiers who travelled to the Soviet Union to fight for Germany in World War II as part of an agreement between Hitler and Franco—in a desperate effort to gain favour with the regime and save his father's life. Although he never directly saw action, the future filmmaker would draw upon these experiences in later life and the dark comedy that pervades his cinema is marked by these ironies. Berlanga is not only the funniest but also the bleakest of Spanish directors.

Once back in Spain, Berlanga moved to Madrid and commenced his studies in literature at the city's Complutense University. It was during this period that he developed an interest in cinema. In 1947, when the Madrid film school—the portentously named Institute of Cinematic Investigation and Experience (IIEC)—opened, Berlanga promptly dropped his literary studies and switched. Created by Franco's cultural commissars after the Civil War, the school was modelled on Rome's Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia founded by Benito Mussolini (which spawned, amongst other lauded directors, Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni).

Together with his classmates from the first promotion of graduates from the IIEC—among whom was his friend and close collaborator, lifelong Communist Party member, Juan Antonio Bardem—Berlanga was instrumental in the creation, firstly, of Altamira and then Uninci, the production company behind some of the most significant Spanish movies of the post-war period and which, in time, would produce Luis Buñuel's Viridiana (1961).

Keen to distance themselves from what they perceived as the backward, dogmatic, censored and often religious-based cinema required of them by the regime, Berlanga, Bardem and company were enthusiastic about the work of their counterparts in Italy. The screening of a series of movies during the 1951 Italian film week in Madrid came as a revelation to them.

While the impression that Italian neorealism caused upon these budding filmmakers is undeniable, the evidence of its influence in practical terms on Spanish cinema is negligible, and this is particularly so in the work of Berlanga. Many critics have sought to pigeon hole Berlanga into the convenient category of neorealism, partly because it has proved easier to construct him in this way, but also because it is a means by which to avoid serious exploration of Berlanga's complex relation with the Spanish literary and filmic tradition. The critical disjuncture surrounding Berlanga concerns his function as a popular filmmaker. As I have written elsewhere, Berlanga is often found situated at a problematic frontier between popular culture and cultural populism. (1) Berlanga's relationship with politics, moreover, is equally complicated and very often contradictory. While Bardem explicitly linked his politics to those of neorealism and sought to create an oppositional cinema both through his own films and magazines such as Objetivo (founded in 1953), Berlanga has consistently eluded categorisation. His refusal to share Bardem's militancy is coupled with his insistence that the subversive nature of his cinema belongs within a tradition of Spanish popular theatre known as sainete (2) that, although originating in the 18th century, reached its most powerful expression during the Second Republic.

In 1955 Berlanga and Bardem were present and decisive at a celebrated conference, known as the Conversaciones de Salamanca, organised by critic and director Basilio Martín Patino as an attempt to refocus the direction Spanish cinema was taking and to co-ordinate a dialogue between liberal elements within the state machinery (most notably the erstwhile head of cinema and theatre in the Ministry of Tourism and Information, José María García Escudero, who would hold the position on two different occasions in 1951 and 1962) and the moderately left opposition. It was Bardem's searing intervention in the course of the Conversaciones that has defined (and in my view misdefined) the entire generation. Bardem declared that Spanish cinema was, “politically ineffectual, socially false, intellectually poverty-stricken, aesthetically void and industrially stunted.”

In spite of Bardem's speech at the Salamanca conference, it is simply not the case that Spanish cinema prior to his work and that of Berlanga was exclusively a vehicle for the Dictatorship and its allies in the Catholic Church, even though such a view was common currency among critics until recently. Over the last decade new scholarship has demonstrated that relatively few Spanish movies of the immediate post-war period conformed to Bardem's caricature. Of the more than 500 films made in Spain between 1939 and 1951—the so-called period of autarky or cultural and economic self-sufficiency—less than 20 conform to this particular caricature. The vast majority of the nation's film production consisted of musicals, melodramas and popular comedies. Even the populist, albeit brutally repressive, Franco (himself a fan of cinema) acknowledged the need to make concessions. In the aftermath of the war, the Nationalist victors were conscious of the necessity of incorporating the bulk of the losing masses into their project. To this end, the horrors of the post-war period were coupled with cultural initiatives designed to elicit popular consent.

- Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

983 (115). Le signe du lion / The Sign of Leo (1959, Eric Rohmer)

Screened November 7 2009 on Artificial Eye DVD TSPDT rank #939  IMDb Wiki

Eric Rohmer's debut feature suggests that there were many Eric Rohmers vying for the man's artistic identity, informed by the cinephilic breadth of influences one would expect of a Cahiers du Cinema critic having his turn behind the camera. In this film, the approaches threaten to partition the movie like a post-war European city. The first part, where American expat Pierre throws a party celebrating his inheritance, dances around the room with dolly shots, snatching pieces of conversation in the tradition of Renoir/Ophuls. When Pierre's inheritance proves bogus and he's turned on the street, the film goes Neo-Realist, tracing his demise first in shades of DeSican social pathos before confronting a Rossellinian existential void. An 11th hour force majeure feels more like Preston Sturges than Robert Bresson, in terms of feeling less emotionally invested in the forces of transcendence and more like a self-reflexive act of writerly intervention that brings attention to mechanism of the plot. This is something Rohmer tries on more than once throughout the film, peppering it with seemingly incongruous digressive moments (a reporter's trip to Africa, a car wreck in the French countryside), only to tie them back into the main storyline. It's a film that, in more than one sense, is all over the map.

Perhaps it took the film's unequivocal flop with critics and audiences for Rohmer to resolve this multivocal struggle over the years that followed, leading to his unmistakable way of looking and listening to people, so compositionally controlled, yet so light and in the moment, that's been with us for for over four decades. There are traces of that Rohmer throughout The Sign of Leo, like his documentarian's way of looking at things with an eye for lived-in detail. Or the moral preoccupations of the parable-like plot; in this case it verges on the predictable or the pathetic more than once, but is saved by the ever-shifting perspective (social realist? existentialist? metafictional farce?) Or how characters project their persona through their words; Pierre lives large so long as he talks large. When his assertion of impending wealth is proven false, he retreats into a increasingly wordless state, and the indomitable city, pulsing with life in an August swelter, looms so much over him it threatens to swallow him whole. This antagonism between people and their environments always seemed secondary to the interpersonal tensions that dominate Rohmer's films, but here it's so present that you want to rewatch all of his other films to see if it's been there throughout his career, and more than just a background to human characters.

The city of Paris is the most fascinating character in The Sign of Leo; the metropolitan equivalent of Fred Astaire, it takes a slobbery lout of a main character and makes him tread with divine grace down its streets and canals. The end finds Pierre financially redeemed, though with the sense that he hasn't learned a thing from his suffering. It's as if Rohmer posed him as a negative example of what path he as an artist should take, learning from his failure and coming out with a more singular sense of self.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

HISTORICAL REVIEWS

Rohmer, the former Cahiers du Cinema critic and one of the principal intelligences of the old New Wave, is now to be recognized as one of the most interesting filmmaking talents to emerge from that long-ago period. Interesting and, in the context of that time, original. For Rohmer is a comparatively classical director who makes films about people of a certain worth and moral awareness, about people who talk well and respect each other's privacy, and who have within them the vestiges of now almost forgotten, established social orders.

In much the same way, Rohmer reflects these things in the manner in which he tells stories, with a civilized wit and style that come close to seeming austere. Pierre is really a bit of a bore (a major fault of the film), but he's basically decent, as are his friends, and Rohmer respects them by avoiding tricks, narnative or visual.

The last third of "The Sign of Leo" is one of the most effective, though unhysterical, depictions of emotional breakdown ever put on film. Pierre doesn't cry, or get drunk, or have hunger visions. Instead, he loses the sole of one shoe, which he has to tie with a string, and the world around him simply becomes increasingly clear and distant, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, May 6 1970 (New York Film Festival)

Le signe du lion, with Pierre's long slide into misery and final redemption, in many ways fits the structure of a parable more than the later films of his Six Moral Tales series. The sense of fate, which often influences Rohmer's stories, is dominant and heavy-handed here. Moreover, while later Rohmer male characters spend much of their time thinking and debating, Pierre seems to have no real mind of his own. The first private screenings of Le signe du lion were very disappointing, and its distribution was further complicated by financial problems at Chabrol's AYJM. Completed in October 1959, though later recut and rescored, it was not shown commercially until 1962 at the Pagoda in Paris, selling only five thousand tickets. Le signe du lion never earned any money, though it garnered a few sympathetic reviews. Magny points out that the biggest problems for the film were that it offered a thin story line, an unappealing protagonist, repetitive music, and insignificant details that were nonetheless granted excessive screen time. Magny does acknowledge that Rohmer's first feature fits the New Wave spirit in many ways, however, especially in its documentation of a Paris that is very different from the commercial cinema's stereotypical city of romance and monuments. Here, Paris in August is presented as a hostile place, and many images preserve Pierre's heavy boredom and emptiness via the aimless duration of time and cavernous deep space in striking long takes. Jean Collet praises Rohmer's city, arguing that Rohmer's first feature proves right away that he is as much an architect as a director: "Le signe du lion is nothing if not a meditation on the city, the indifference its inhabitants show for one another and the distance established, as in Rear Window, between the characters and the spectator-tourists."

Certainly Le signe du lion should be seen today as an interesting but failed experiment; some of its traits, such as the connection between appearances, setting, and character, will be worked out more elegantly in Rohmer's later Moral Tales. Here, the obsessive documentary-like observance of the decline of Pierre and the hard, cruel space of the unforgiving Paris around him become a bit too obvious and even preachy. Frodon, however, praises Rohmer's fascination with the concrete: "The mise-en-scene belongs firmly to the material side, granting a striking physical presence to the building walls, pavement, and cobblestones that surround this character, who could not have been named anything other than Pierre [stone]." But Crisp effectively sums up the problems: "The New Wave had accustomed the public to all sorts of frenzied and unpredictable outbursts, but not to the austerity and understatement of this film... [much less to] being told that men were drab, slack and uninteresting."

- Richard John Neupert, A History of the French New Wave Cinema. Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2007. Pages 253-254.

RECENT REVIEWS

The Sign of Leo is a fascinating film that both anticipates Rohmer’s later work and in other respects is quite unlike it. Made at the height of the New Wave, it shares with the films made by Rohmer’s comrades its intense naturalism: lightweight cameras enabled filming on real streets. The film gives a palpable sense of Paris in a heatwave, crowded with tourists: it’s not hard to imagine Pierre getting filthier and sweatier and more unshaven and unkempt as the hour-long central section depicting his decline and fall progresses. Then, in a very un-Rohmerian camera flourish (a combination of a crane shot and a model shot seeming to send the camera soaring into space), fate takes a hand. The somewhat ironic workings of fate feature in later Rohmer works such as The Green Ray and A Winter’s Tale, but here Rohmer leaves it open-ended as to whether Pierre has learned from his experience – the final line of dialogue pointedly leaves us to decide that. The film is a moral tale before Rohmer embarked on the series of that name, and differs from those films by not framing its story as a love story between men and women.

The film is rather less dependent on its characters’ talk than many of Rohmer’s later films, partly explained by the presence of a co-writer, Paul Gégauff, who is specifically credited with the film’s dialogue. It also depends on a superb performance from Jess Hahn. Hahn was a genuine American (born in Terre Haute, Indiana) who never made a film in the country of his birth but had a lengthy career in Europe. Sadly, many of the ninety-odd films he made were undistinguished, because his work here shows that there was much more to him. He makes Pierre’s desperation quite tangible, and hard to shake off. In a small role is Stéphane Audran, later to be Claude Chabrol’s regular leading lady and also his wife. Jean-Luc Godard appears in a brief role, uncredited. Nicolas Hayer’s black-and-white camerawork and Louis Saguer’s score, dominated by a solo violin, are also very effective.

Gary CouzensDVD Times

Eric Rohmer’s first full length film is this tragicomic tale of one man’s spiral descent into poverty and isolation.  Whilst the film shows Rohmer’s inexperience as a filmmaker too clearly and also suffers from some quite obvious flaws – most notably the awkward references to astrology and preordained fate – it is a compelling and, on balance, poignant work which makes some valid statements about human nature.

Any film which broaches the issue of homeliness is unlikely to do justice to the subject and to capture fully the tragedy of this predicament, but this film goes some way towards achieving this aim.  Pierre’s increasingly desperate attempts to find food and to hold his shoes together are simultaneously funny and agonisingly moving – as in many of Rohmer’s later films, it is these small details which can have a big effect on the audience.

The film certainly lacks the playful spontaneity and realism of Rohmer’s more recent film - the contrived happy ending being a particular disappointment.  Despite the jarring artificiality of the narrative, the cinematography is quite impressive, almost as mesmerising as in Rohmer’s better known films.  The eloquent location filming in Paris manages to match very well the mood of the central character – vibrant and fun when Pierre is celebrating his assumed inheritance, melancholic when he realises he has inherited nothing after all, and cruel when he finds himself alone and penniless.  The photography is distinctively Nouvelle Vague, and, appropriately, one of Rohmer’s contemporaries, Jean-Luc Godard, makes a silent cameo appearance near the start of the film.

- James Travers, Films de France

With its depiction of one man's long physical and spiritual decline, Le Signe Du Lion recalls the great naturalist novels of Emile Zola as well as the works of American realists such as Theodore Dreiser. It marks Rohmer out as one of the most literary of New Wave directors - always devoting particular attention to his characters' complex emotions and inner thoughts. Later films, though usually lighter in tone, would adopt a similar approach.

- Chris Wiegand, kamera.co.uk

ABOUT THE ARTIFICIAL EYE EARLY WORKS OF ERIC ROHMER DVD

Eric Rohmer's Le Signe du Lion sees the light of DVD for the first time (English friendly). The transfer is much better than I anticipated. Shot on 35 mm film stock, this DVD is far from what it could be, but still a decent one! The most problematic thing is that overall it's a little bit soft, and the non anamorphic picture makes some low level noise visible. Some minor moire effects can be seen on the window shutter's and on the front of cars, but there is no reason why Eric Rohmer fans shouldn't pickup this title.

The DD 2.0 sound in mono is flawless and fairly clean. I appreciate the small subtitle font AE has used on these box-set.

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

The Sign of Leo has an inbuilt qualitative advantage over everything else in this set by having been originated in 35mm. It’s transferred in 1.66:1 – a ratio that Rohmer would abandon in favour of Academy Ratio (1.37:1) until the early 1980s – and is not anamorphically enhanced. It’s a generally good transfer, given the film’s age: there is a general softness and some artefacting which may well have been avoided with anamorphic enhancement.

- Gary Couzens, DVD Times

ABOUT ERIC ROHMER

IMDb Wiki

The following quotes are included in the TSPDT Director page for Eric Rohmer:

"All the literary content is peripheral to Rohmer's eye. It is in the quality of his imagery that we feel the intellectual appeal of experience. The camera style is classically simple, but Rohmer adores the effects of natural light, whether the reflections from snow in Maud, the rainy day in Claire, or the Côte d'Azur interiors in La Collectionneuse." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

"Emerging from the crucible of the French New Wave, Rohmer has forged a style that combines the best qualities of Bresson and Renoir with distinctive traits of the Hollywood masters. And though he was never as flamboyant as Godard or Truffaut, Rohmer's appeal has proved much hardier." - Dennis Nastav (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"In their own world, Rohmer's films are guaranteed to run and run. This may be because, although they are more or less conversation pieces, they are also cleverly constructed (he always writes his own screenplays) in such a way as to keep an audience's interest alive until matters dovetail at the end, by which time most of Rohmer's characters know more about themselves than when the film began." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)

"An important figure in the French new wave, Rohmer is known primarily for his "moral tales," which leisurely speak of men and women, and the things they do to each other." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

Biography on NewWaveFilm.com

By virtue of a tenure shared at Cahiers du Cinéma during the 1950s and early 1960s, Eric Rohmer is usually classified with Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, and Rivette as a member of the French New Wave. Yet, except for three early shorts made with Godard, Rohmer's films seem to share more with the traditional values of such directors as Renoir and Bresson than with the youthful flamboyance of his contemporaries. Much of this divergence is owed to an accident of birth. Born Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer in 1920, Rohmer was at least ten years older than any of the other critic/filmmakers in the Cahiers group. By the time he arrived in Paris in 1948, he was an established teacher of literature at the lycée in Nancy and had published a novel, Elizabeth (1946), under the pseudonym Gilbert Cordier. When he joined the Cahiers staff in 1951 Rohmer had already spent three years as a film critic with such prestigious journals as La Revue du Cinéma and Sartre's Les Temps modernes. Thus Rohmer's aesthetic preferences were more or less determined before he began writing for Cahiers. Still, the move proved decisive. At Cahiers he encountered an environment in which film critics and filmmaking were thought of as merely two aspects of the same activity. Consequently, the critics who wrote for Cahiers never doubted that they would become film directors. As it turned out, Rohmer was one of the first to realize this ambition. In 1951 he wrote and directed a short 16mm film called Charlotte and Her Steak in which Godard, the sole performer, plays a young man who tries to seduce a pair of offscreen women. Two of his next three films were experiments in literary adaptation. These inaugurated his long association with Barbet Schroeder, who produced or co-produced all of Rohmer's subsequent film projects.

Dennis Nastav, Film Reference.com

In 1948, two years before making his first film, in a piece for Les Temps modernes, arguing “For a Talking Cinema” Rohmer writes:

If talking film is an art, speech must play a role in conformity with its character as a sign and not appear only as a sound element, which, though privileged as compared with others, is but of secondary importance as compared with the visual element.

In this early article, Rohmer set out the manifesto he followed throughout his career. He sees speech as an integral part of both life and cinema. In his work the word is not used to impart information, but rather as a revelation of world and character—that is, it is used in exactly the same way as the image is used. The dialogue that fills Rohmer's films—its banalities, intricacies and lies, reveal the interior of his characters as much as their silent glances and physical hesitations. Words are never forced—he writes for the specific voice of each actor—they are used cinematically rather than literally.

It is through writing that Rohmer's films consistently question the nature of the cinematic. It is shocking sometimes to see these long conversations and not be bored by their simple, often static representation. How can so much talk be cinematic? But these conversations are more than just talk. This isn't radio. Neither is it an interview or televised debate. This is talk visually represented. Word and image work together to create a third thing, cinema. But cinema is a vague term (silent films are, of course, cinema) bringing up the idea of moving images rather than this sound/image combination. Defending his Contes moreaux Rohmer writes:

…neither the text of these commentaries, nor that of my dialogues, is my film: Rather, they are things that I film, just like the landscapes, faces, behavior and gesture….I do not say, I show. I show people who move and speak.

The concept of total cinema is often seen as one of pure image, the meaning so completely contained within that image that words are unnecessary. In his quiet way—within what he describes as “self imposed limitations” —Rohmer is one of the few directors who has managed to arrive at a cinema that is doubly total. His is a cinema where the word is more than a signal post in the plot or a neat catchphrase, but something integrated into the cinematic world. He writes, “a means must be found to integrate words not into the filmed world but into the film…” His work is a concerted and successful attempt to do this.

- Tamara Tracz, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

In terms of consistency of both the content and form of his films, Eric Rohmer is without a doubt one of the most distinctive auteurs in the history of cinema. As with Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu, within min utes—seconds, even—of starting to watch one of his movies, it’s clear who made it. Not that his visual style is even remotely flashy; like Howard Hawks—one of the Hollywood directors Rohmer greatly admired when he was critic and editor, in the 1950s and early ’60s, for Cahiers du cinéma—Rohmer prefers to keep technology and technique invisible. Indeed, so decep tively simple and straightforward is his work that some dismiss it as “talking heads.” Such an assessment is right (but not particularly bright) to point to his love of conversation, and accurate insofar as it alludes— accidentally—to his fascination and skill in terms of exploring feelings, opinions, and thoughts, rather than depicting the kinds of actions (catching crooks, killing enemies, saving the world, seeing the light) favored by most directors. But it fatally ignores the remarkable emotional, intellectual, and dramaturgic subtlety of his work. A Rohmer movie is not simply a drama or a comedy, a love story or an exercise in suspense, a psychological study or a philosophical disquisition; it’s all these and considerably more. Whether an original piece or an adaptation, be it set in the present or the past, the city or the country, it’s always first and foremost a Rohmer film. In essence, he invented his own genre.

- Geoff Andrew, The Criterion Collection

Even more than Truffaut or Chabrol, Rohmer has always believed in the power of stories and storytelling. In his early "Moral Tales," the carefully calibrated narratives pushed his gallery of intellectuals toward a melancholy self-realization. As the director became more interested in young people at the beginning of the '80s, his focus shifted to the spiritual. Like Rossellini, one of his role models, the devoutly Catholic Rohmer tends to leave his heroes and heroines in a state of grace, framed within the most ordinary circumstances and settings (it's hard to imagine a more subtly enacted miracle than the climax of Tale of Winter). And, of course, they talk their way right up the spiritual ladder. Many people are driven around the bend by Rohmer's "dialogue-heavy" movies, which supposedly approach cinematic danger level. But in his case, talk always equals action: a form of therapeutic inquiry for the heroes of My Night at Maud's or Claire's Knee, a restless search for clarity in Pauline at the Beach or Le Beau Mariage, a wayward path toward enlightenment in the latest films. Moreover, Rohmer's talking cures are always firmly rooted in their settings: It's the pre-Christmas snowstorm in Clermont-Ferrand that keeps the skittish Jean-Louis Trintignant holed up with Françoise Fabian's game divorcée in Maud's, and it's the golden, sunlit southern countryside that fillsMarie Rivière with the knowledge of her own mature beauty in Autumn Tale.

With his three long series spanning six decades, broken up by excursions into documentaries, literary adaptations, and omnibus films, has Rohmer realized his ambition to be the Balzac of cinema? Maybe. It has to be said that his conservatism borders on nationalism: Unlike Pialat or Téchiné or even Rivette, he's never risen to the challenge of portraying the racial diversity of modern France. But for all its neatness and moral self-containment, his is a remarkable (and often remarkably funny) body of work, rich in natural wonders, bewitching interactions, and emotional passages. Maud's is still his meatiest film: Trintignant's wary self-exposure is perfectly matched by Fabian's seductive frankness, and Nestor Almendros never got a crisper black-and-white image. Depending on your tolerance for Jean-Claude Brialy, even at his least preening, Claire's Knee remains an intricately suspenseful movie: The buildup to that nonlecherous caress is one of the neatest inventions of the '70s. The "Comedies and Proverbs" of the '80s are more diaphanous, with the soulful exceptions of The Aviator's Wifeand the largely improvised Summer. But even the insubstantial Full Moon in Paris vibrates with the delicate beauty of the late Pascale OgierAutumn and Winter (his most purely Christian film) are the most vaunted of the later movies. My personal favorite is the undervalued Tale of Springtime, which works up a lively romantic intrigue against a background of suburban greenery under overcast skies. Also not to be missed: the painterly adaptation of Kleist's Marquise of O, with a devastating lead performance by the great Edith Clever; the early short The Baker of Monceau, the first of the moral tales, filled with new wave exuberance and featuring a young, handsome Barbet Schroeder; and the largely unknown feature debut, The Sign of Leo. A favorite of Fassbinder's, this beautifully elaborated tall tale offers a wonderful portrait of Paris in the late '50s. And, during a nicely detailed bohemian party scene, it features an unforgettable cameo. The young man in dark glasses sitting at a table, endlessly lifting the needle off a record to play and replay his favorite piece of music, is none other than Rohmer's opposite number, Jean-Luc Godard.

- Kent Jones, The Village Voice, February 6 2001

975 (107). The Far Country (1955, Anthony Mann)

screeened June 28 2009 on Universal DVD in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #958 IMDb Wiki

Among the many things that distinguish Anthony Mann's collaborations with Jimmy Stewart are their thorough revisioning of the rugged individualist ideal. The Far Country suffers for being a bit transparent and moralistic in this mission, especially compared to Mann-Stewart masterpieces like The Naked Spur or Bend of the River, where the critique of Western self-reliance is done more through actions than words.  The soundtrack is a thicket of toughtalk among a roughewn ensemble of pioneers negotiating civilization out of a bloodsoaked, greed-infested frontier.

Their chatter ironically surrounds Stewart's antisocial cattleherder who's looking to get as far away from people as soon as he cashes in on his cattle driving and prospecting.  In Mann's Western's, Stewart discovered dark anti-hero dimensions to his aw-shucks persona, and in The Far Country he pushes deep into the realm of assholery, taking sadistic delight when others are trapped in an avalanche after disobeying his directions. Try as he may to break free from people, the expansive Alaskan wilderness proves to be a closed space that brings him to a full reckoning with his civic duty, defending a helpless town against a capitalist developer wielding thug power.

The film isn't terribly sophisticated in depicting the dynamic between exploiters and exploited, pitting Stewart as the inevitable superman who alone has the power to galvanize an uprising. Stewart finally comes around when he is assaulted not once but twice, which makes his path to moral redemption feel overextended. But for a good stretch, the film thrives in a wilderness of moral ambiguity reflected in both Stewart's callous actions and his unforgiving surroundings.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Far Country among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures Dont' They?:

Chris Fujiwara, Steadycam (2007) Hans-Dieter Delkus, Steadycam (2007) Lorenzo Codelli, Positif (1991) All-Time Movie Favourites (Book), Independents and Others: Later Westerns (1975) Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) John Kobal, Poll, John Kobal Presents The Top 100 Movies (1988) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Western (1993) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

COUNT on James Stewart and a passel of tough types to lend conviction to a fairly standard adventure of man against ill-natured men and raw nature. For in "The Far Country," which was unveiled at the Globe on Saturday, our hero, who has ridden the range for Universal-International before, again is tall in the saddle and quick on the draw if not as laconic as of yore. And, if the idea of our rawhide wrangler waging battle against the lawless who robbed and cowed the Yukon sourdoughs of 1896, is faintly familiar, then it must be stressed that Mr. Stewart and company gave it a rough but adult going-over not common to such muscular affairs.

As the indestructible and dedicated cowhand, James Stewart fits into the athletic-proceedings to the manner born. Astride an arch-necked, majestic stallion, which he sits and rides well, he is an impressive figure. Although he is suspicious of his fellow men, his actions, when put to the test, are logical and brave and a tribute to the sensible script turned in by Borden Chase.

Above all, however, it should be noted that this outdoor drama is unfolded in Technicolor against some truly spectacular backdrops of the Rockies, the Columbia ice fields and Jasper National Park, panchromatic and icy vistas that often make the action and talk mighty small.

- A.W., The New York Times, February 14, 1955

Not the equal of Bend of the River or The Naked Spur, but still up there with the most quirkily personal westerns ever made. Mann's psychodramas are played out against Jungian landscapes of hills and valleys; the use of the Alaskan background here is nothing less than metaphysical.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

With Stewart, Mann was able to explore a new type of psychological Western initiated with Winchester '73 and the explosive Oedipal conflict between rancher Walter Huston and rebellious daughter Barbara Stanwyck in The Furies(1950). In The Far Country, antisocial Jeff Webster (Stewart) sets his sights on getting enough money to buy a ranch, and damn anyone who gets in his way. He encounters corrupt Sheriff Gannon (John McIntire), a man so charming and easygoing it's hard to spot him as the "bad guy," especially in contrast to Stewart's sullen, cynical "hero" (a reversal of type characteristic of Mann's stories). Although all he wants to do is take the money and run, Webster is constantly forced to confront the harsh realities of every-man-for-himself lawlessness, whether it's the need to avenge the death of his only friend (perennial sidekick Walter Brennan) or to choose between a shady tough gal of the frontier (Ruth Roman) or the homespun charms of a decent French Canadian woman (Corinne Calvet).

- Rob Nixon, Turner Classic Movies

What makes The Far Country entertaining are the folksy relationships among the characters. Walter Brennan's ditzy sidekick Ben provides Webster's only source of sentimentality, lighting his pipe, etc.. But he has weaknesses that Jeff doesn't count on. The rest of the 'good' citizenry are a lumpen bunch of hicks easy to discount, and their social solidarity is a bit on the flat side. Jay C. Flippen's character, who goes on and off the bottle, is alogether too obvious and mechanical in conception. But there are other fun bits, like the New York-accented Connie Gilchrist, and the wonderful Kathleen Freeman with her broad smile.

Among the baddies is the toothily sinister Robert J. Wilke, of Night Passage. He also plays James Mason's loyal first officer in the upcoming 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Jack Elam is Gannon's number one deputy/enforcer. Stuntman turned actor Chuck Roberson wears a nasty makeup scar as Latigo. Like all the rest, he also gets shot down in feature after feature, most notably by Robert Mitchum in the superlative The Wonderful Country. This time around, John Doucette is a friendly miner, and Royal Dano is again under-utilized in a bit as a meek prospector.

- Glenn Erickson, DVD Talk

Anthony Mann's full-color Westerns with Jimmy Stewart lacked the formalistic rigor of their first collaborationWinchester '73 but drilled deeper into the psychology of action. The Far Country teams Stewart with the great Walter Brennan. They play a pair of ramblers who try their hands at cattle driving and gold mining before corrupt forces take everything away from them, raising Stewart's anger enough to take a stand. The final shootout probably inspired Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, taking place in the dark, on the ground and crawling in the mud -- purposely clumsy and unheroic.

- Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid

The Far Country is largely shot on studio sets and pulls out familiar Western tropes not usually seen in his films, but Mann brings an edge to the drama with explosions of cold-blooded violence and a brilliant final shootout that plays out on a split-level plain.

-Sean Axmaker, Amazon.com

An odd psychological revenge Western from the story and script by Borden Chase. It's directed with all the clichés intact but freshened up with a vigorous intensity by Anthony Mann ("Winchester '73"/"Bend of the River"/"The Naked Spur"); it stars Mann's favorite Western leading man James Stewart in an anti-hero role. The misanthropic sullen loner role Stewart plays has him saying such things as "I don't need other people. I don't need help. I can take care of me." Its photography is visually spectacular, especially those stunning backdrops of the Rockies, the Columbia ice fields and the Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. Though not as powerful as the "Bend of the River," a film it's closest to in theme, it nevertheless is gripping and filled with rugged action sequences.

Mann transfers his dark sided film noir characters from such films as "Desperate," "Raw Deal" and "The Border Incident" to the Western genre, and tackles through these more shadowy visions such themes as the mythic conflict between the individual and society, between free will and anarchy, and the coming to terms of the man with a painful past with his renewed life spirit. The good versus evil theme of most Westerns at that time is thankfully given a more realistic and nuanced look. This was Mann's last collaboration with Chase, which has a reluctant Stewart be heroic at the last second to save the town from the tyrannical doings of McIntire.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's World Movie Reviews
I'm interested in the often uncanny ways in which one film's diegesis trespasses onto another's.

Here's an example: There's a scene early in Anthony Mann's The Far Country in which James Stewart, running from the law for having allegedly killed two men, is invited to hide in the steamboat stateroom of Ruth Roman. The crew comes in looking for him. "There's a killer on board, miss." "And you think he'd be in here?!" That sort of thing. When I watched the film with my senior seminar last term, I thought of how closely this scene resembles the one in North by Northwest in which Eva Marie Saint hides Cary Grant (another killer on the loose) in her train compartment. There, too, the authorities come in and question her and she plays dumb. In both scenes, the man hides in the woman's bed. This similarity can of course be explained by the simple fact that Hollywood routinely recycled scenes and situations, and not just in B grade features.

But watching it a second time I noticed two more similarities -- the first a coincidence, the second wildly uncanny. After the steamboat crew leaves, Ruth Roman pulls back the blanket and Stewart sits up. She remarks, "I imagine you look better with a shave." He replies, "My razor is in my saddlebag ... unless you've got one I can borrow." Of course, that's exactly what happens in N by NW -- Cary Grant borrows Eva Marie Saint's tiny razor, which leads to a comic scene in the Chicago train station men's room.

Here's the uncanny part. In The Far Country, just before the authorities begin to chase James Stewart, the steamboat captain calls out to the pilot, "Full ahead. Pull her north by northwest." Most curious here is the fact that there is no "north by northwest" on the compass: it's a cartographic impossibility (see Donald Spoto's book on Hitchcock, but others have commented on this as well).

So, are there other such moments? More importantly, what can we do with moments in which two films' diegeses suddenly and unexpectedly overlap like this?

- Girish Shambu

DEEPER READINGS

Stewart plays the weary but buoyant sharp-shooting cowpoke Jeff Webster, who arrives in Seattle on the verge of a dream - being a rich 'free man'. He and his 'partner' of sorts Ben Tatem (Walter Brennan), plan to forge on ahead to the goldfields of the American-Canadian frontier where the lack of grazing land has made beef a scarce commodity. Upon his arrival in Skagway, the last American town before the Canadian border, he is caught up in the quagmire of frontier law. Driving his cattle through the township he unwittingly "busts up a hangin'" and finds himself at the mercy of the tyrannical sheriff Mr. Gannon (John McIntyre). Webster's spell in Skagway serves to render the amoral side of his character. Secretly longing to be free of the kind of the emotional baggage that human relationships bring, Webster catapults himself into a series of Herculean tests against which his masculinity is measured.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the playing out of the Brennan-Stewart relationship, which from its outset problematises Webster's sexuality. Despite Ben's protestations to Webster about "gettin' to be the chief cook, the biscuit baker and everything", he often publicises the 'familiar' nature of their relationship, telling the residents of Seattle, Skagway and Dawson about their plans to buy a ranch in Utah and "settle down". Webster's promise to Ben is symbolised by the silver bell on his saddle - a gift bought by Ben for the door of their future house, and whose incessant jangling constantly serves to remind Webster and others (including us) of this promise. Indeed, the bell is a constant source of irritation, inciting action from characters of both sexes throughout the film. It also comes to symbolise Webster's boldness and his aloofness. The sound of the bell acts as an aural invitation to some to capture this unattainable side, often driving Mr. Gannon and his cronies to fever pitch. As one of them mutters under his breath at Gannon, utterly frustrated, "I'm gunna get me that bell!" Even in the closing scene of the film, despite having chalked up a few macho points by avenging Ben and the townsfolk, Webster's sexual bent continues to be problematised. Injured and alone (due to the death of possible sexual partners Ben and Ronda (Ruth Roman)), Webster finds himself in an ambiguously intimate embrace with the tom-boy Renee (Corinne Clavert) while the whole township of Dawson looks on expectantly. Until this point Renee is always dismissed as merely well-meaning, but just as the film fades to black and Webster appears to be preparing for a kiss (thereby cementing their union), he reaches for Ben's bell and begins to fondle it longingly.

For a few seconds, that image allows Stewart to simultaneously collapse the divide between past, present and future. For all at once he represents a hero unmarked by history and the mind's eye. He is a "a microcosm of community, where ideals, reason and humanity are always prominent but below which lie self-interest, passion and violence."

- Karli Lukas, Senses of Cinema

PP: Manny taught The Far Country recently, with Ulzana's Raid. He kept talking about it having a richer sense of space than Ulzana's Raid. I kept seeing these odd scenes with Jimmy Stewart throwing guns to two guys, then the steamboat being right behind him, space being extremely artificial. So there's no real, natural sense of space, just odd juxtapositions.

Remarkable how often in that film Anthony Mann goes for a formal two-dimensionality, whereas in most of his films he's interested in opening the frame successively into the center of the screen. Also the way he uses so many enclosures.

PP: There's funny dialogue in The Far Country, pointed writing from which you pick outlines. Stewart is always saying, "Why should I? Why should I go back and help them?" And the little French girl will say, "If you don't know, I can't tell you." And the lines her father is always saying out of nowhere: "Did you know a cow had four stomachs?" We were trying to think of five lines from the films during the course that would be knockout lines for the final exam. The one we thought f from this films is the little French girl's: "Don't call me freckle-face, I'm a woman!" A lot of lines like that. Walter Brennan talking about getting a little house in the country and settling down with Stewart. And the "Bear Stew" sign. Gannon's lines: "I'm gonna like you. I'm gonna hang you, but I'm gonna like you."

MF: The move seems so cunning and likable; it's interesting because it looks so phony. And it reminds me of Yojimbo and One-Eyed Jacks - the destroyed hero having to hole up and regain his physical skills over the months. And the fighting underneath the floor; do you think Kurosawa got it off The Far Country?

Why did you choose to teach The Far Country?

MF: I always saw it in pieces on TV. I wanted to see it in continuum. Once I got it, it interested me how Mann was making his points or effects. I never could figure it out. There are so many matte shots and so much off-location stuff, and yet it's a very lyrical film.

He even gets poetic effects from bad back projection and bad day-for-night by darkening and thickening them.

MF: What motivated him to do it that way? It seems almost psychotic to do that. Except it also seems enchanting to do an Alaska movie inside a studio, and then to have critics write about it as if it's a masterpiece of location work.

Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson, interviewed by . Negative Space. Published by Da Capo Press, 1998.

Where Winchester '73 explored and defined the traditional western, The Far Country explores and defines the Anthony Mann western. Although it follows the pattern of the three other core films, it has s self-conscious, artificial quality. It is as if Mann, understanding his own game, decided to abstract it, treat it almost as a joke - while still preserving its broad outlines. His respect for the basic narrative makes The Far Country function at the entertainment level, yet the film has an odd quality that leaves a viewer slightly bemused. It is best understood in relations to the other Mann westerns.

It is in the use of space that The Far Country differs from Bend in the River, The Naked Spur, and The Man from Laramie. The frame is treated as a two-dimensional area, whereas Mann's tendency in his other westerns (and in most of his other films) was to provide an enormous depth of field, so much so that the frame seemed to be opening and receding in the center of the screen. There is no such sense of space in The Far Country.

Instead of natural settings, The Far Country presents a viewer with a great deal of artificial space mixed with outdoor locations. In its elimination of some of the location work associated with westerns, The Far Country ranks with Lang's Rancho Notorious and Ray's Johnny Guitar as a directorial exercise in abstraction of his own familiar territory. Just as Hitchcock elected to use painted backdrops and rear projection in Marnie, Mann elected to use similar devices here. The mining town of Skagway looks like a representational "western town" set. The shack in which Stewart and Brennan live, the porch of Ruth Roman's saloon (which seems too big for the rest of the building), the bar which is turned into a courtroom, are all designed with a look that says, "I am a western set - do you know which one I am?" The interior spaces of these settings are false and often not matched to their exteriors. A steamboat tied up to a dock presents such an alienating sense of space and dimension that it would be laughable were it not so skillfully, deliberately used by Mann. As the steamboat pulls away from the dock, Stewart is seen to be escaping. The area that is supposed to be the boat deck is arbitrarily shortened and narrowed to accommodate the narrative needs as Stewart flees in the restricted space from the steamboat officers. The deliberate use of a falsified reality in films that present themselves s real is a justifiable artistic decision, but one that Mann seldom opted for in westerns. In The Far Country, he not only proves that he could do it, but by doing it, offers proof that he thoroughly understood his own work, that it was not intuitive.

Seen alone without an understanding of the rest of Mann's work, The Far Country functions well as a piece of western entertainment. However, viewers often remark on how odd it is, pointing out its backdrops and weird dialogue. Although it tells a clear story, its meaning is best understood by thinking of it as an abstraction of the basic Mann pattern. The audience is never given the whole story, just pieces of it. Similarly, they are never given the entire realistic picture of the settings, just strangely shaped, artificial pieces of them. The film refers. Its sets refer directly to other western film sets and thus indirectly to reality. Its characters and their dilemmas refer to other western characters (particularly other Mann western characters). Walter Brennan plays Walter Brennan, and James Stewart plays James Stewart in the iconographic sense, and Stewart's secret remains his secret. The Far Country appears to be a step forward for Mann in which, having established once and for all his themes and methods, he experimented with them. If his hero must be allied with the landscape, could the film still work if he presented only part of the total landscape - or a false, two-dimensional landscape?

- Jeanine Basinger. Anthony Mann. Wesleyan University Press, 2007. Pages 95-97, 100-101

ABOUT THE UNIVERSAL DVD

I don't like to think of myself as a widescreen fetishist. Meaning that many 'open matte' films for me are not totally discounted especially when they contain significantly more information, as this NTSC issue does here. This is dissimilar to bastardization through 'pan and scan'. Now my optimum choice would be the widescreen version that was shown in the theater - every time. The composition is lost in the vast open spaces on the top of the frame. Anthony Mann would not compose this way. There is a small amount of information also lost on the sides of the NTSC in comparison to the widescreen. The trouble with the PAL edition is it is very hazy and slightly inferior to the Region 1 in image sharpness. I'd love to see this marvelous film widescreen, but I would also like to as sharp (or sharper) than the current unremarkable Region 1 DVD. Universal NTSC also did this with another Stewart/Mann western (name eludes me - was it 'Bend of the River'?- no the box claims it was cropped - but was shot in 1.33) and it is very discouraging. Regardless, I enjoyed my Region 1 viewing being oblivious at the time there was a widescreen edition floating around. I wouldn't buy the PAL edition though. I would sooner put tape on top and bottom of my TV screen - but that is just me. The beauty of the comparison gives you your own choice. I enjoyed my Region 1 viewing immensely. Colors are good on both and as an extra they both include the theatrical trailer (4:3 - by the way).

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

Universal's DVD of The Far Country looks all right, but unexceptional. The nice color is supported by an adequate bit rate most of the time. The clear sound does justice to the Universal music department's patchwork job of cues (see the list of composers whose work was sampled, above).

Oddly, the 1952 Bend of the River, a flat academy film, carries a disclaimer saying it is altered from its original version to fit our televisions. It isn't, butThe Far Country is, and it doesn't have a disclaimer. By 1955, practically all Hollywood features were formatted to be cropped to a wider screen of 1:85, and were projected anywhere between 1:66 and 2:1, depending on the theater. I always look at the blocks of text in the titles and credits to see if a film is meant to be cropped; The Far Country has a narrow, wide rectangle of credits that matte perfectly on a 16:9 television. Crop off the earlier Westerns, and the titles get chopped off too. The Far Country looks fine shown full frame at 1:37, although it's compositionally more focused at 1:78, and would have looked better with 16:9 enhancement.

ABOUT ANTHONY MANN

IMDb Wiki

Anthony Mann (not to be confused with dreary Daniel and Delbert) directed action movies with a kind of tough-guy authority that never found favor among the more cultivated critics of the medium...His Westerns are distinguished by some of the most brilliant photography of exteriors in the history of the American cinema, and yet it is impossible to detect a consistent thematic pattern in his work... Curiously, Mann's visual style is the American style which most closely resembles that of Antonioni in th eliteral progression through landscapes from the vegetable to the mineral world as in Man of the West and Il Grido down to the ultimate decadence of El Cid and L'Eclisse.

The eight films Mann made with James Stewart are especially interesting today for their insights into the uneasy relationships between men and women in a world of violence and action. Stewart, the most complete actor-personality in the American cinema, is particularly gifted in expressing the emotional ambivalence of the action hero. Unfortunately, Universal pictures were seldom taken seriously during this period by anyone except Manny Farber and the French critics, and Mann, like Sirk, was overlooked by the American critical establishment until it was too late for his career to find a firmer footing than obscure cult interest.

- Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)

In Mann, the function of landscape is primarily dramatic, and nature is felt as inhospitable, indifferent, or hostile. If there is a mountain, it will have to be climbed, arduously and painfully; barren rocks provide a favourite location for a shoot-out, offering partial cover but also the continued danger of the ricochet. The preferred narrative structure of the films is the journey, and its stages are often marked by a symbolic progression in landscape, from fertile valley to bare rock or snow-covered peak, corresponding to a stripping-away of the trappings of civilization and civilized behavior.

Robin Wood, Film Reference.com

"After making a number of tense, claustrophobic noir thrillers in the 40s, Mann embarked on a series of Westerns notable for their symbolic, expressive use of the rugged American landscape and their psychological complexity...Built around honour, betrayal and vengeance, Mann's films (notably The Man from Laramie and Man of the West) often featured oppressive father-figures; scenes of violence might resonate with Freudian overtones of patricide, castration and humiliation. " - Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)

"Primarily known for his Westerns, Mann portrayed a world of violence against some of the most striking natural vistas in cinema history. His crime films are gritty and real, and all his work reflects an exploration of the complex psychology of the human soul." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

In essence, Mann personified Hollywood's own history from the 1940s to the 1970s, as it uneasily transitioned from the steady supply of product, before 1948 and the end of monopoly control over distribution, made on studio soundstages, to bigger-budget location shoots, to grandiose post-studio multinational epics that frequently got mired in their own excess. But Mann's critical reputation since his death has blossomed with the rediscovery (or “invention”) of film noir and its ripple effects on other genres in the 1940s and '50s, most significantly, the Western. The French New Wave critics, especially Jean-Luc Godard, greeted Mann's work rapturously at a time when Mann had little critical reputation beyond one as a routine “tough guy” director. Mann's consistently dark vision has only grown in stature as his most characteristic works strike a chord in an era when optimism seems less sustainable than pessimism. Mann's camera eye conjured some of the most astonishingly original imagery in American film. And the best Mann films contain an abundance of thematic material appealing to critics interested in race, class, and gender politics. Moreover, Mann's films probe the human psyche's obsessions and latent desires in startlingly adventurous, and even disturbing, ways. It is not for nothing that Martin Scorsese has singled out Mann as a primary influence on his own cinematic worldview and stylistics.

- David Boxwell, Senses of Cinema

Mann is, in fact, one of those Hollywood directors who, when he's really humming, is so good that he tempts critics and scholars to endow him with more thematic consistency than his movies can bear. You look at one of the terrific westerns he made with James Stewart -- ''Bend of the River'' (1952), say, or ''The Naked Spur'' (1953) -- or the blistering noirs ''T-Men'' (1947) and ''Raw Deal'' (1948), or the tense, sweaty ''Men in War'' (1957), or the haunted, near-Gothic Gary Cooper vehicle ''Man of the West'' (1958), and you think, who is this guy? And if you're inclined (as critics and film buffs manifestly are) to ennoble your enthusiasms with sweeping assertions of the artist's profundity, you take your guns to town to try to bring in that Big Idea, dead or alive.

That's not so easy with Anthony Mann, who, because he was not a brand-name director like Ford or Hitchcock, didn't have the luxury of staying in one place for too long, of putting down roots in a genre or a style (much less a theme). He'd work a piece of land until it was used up, then move on -- from noir to western, from western to epic, with side trips in between. He died in the saddle, in yet another unfamiliar landscape; at the time of his sudden death in 1967 at the age of 60, he was trying his hand at a cold war spy thriller, which was, like the film noir, the western and the epic before it, the boomtown genre of its moment.

The rolling-stone quality of Mann's temperament was a very useful thing for a studio filmmaker to have in the late 40's, the 50's and the 60's, when Hollywood, facing the challenge of television, was more than a little uncertain about the kinds of pictures audiences wanted to see. Noir, the great style of the late 40's, was already starting to fade by the beginning of the next decade, and dark-streets specialists like Mann had to find new territory for themselves, quickly. Mann was smarter, or luckier, than most. He turned to the western -- a genre ideally suited to his restless nature -- right away, and he didn't make the mistake of trying to follow John Ford into the high country of western myth; he stuck to the low road, where ordinary human beings scratched and clawed to survive, and often acted in ways they would come to regret.

You could say that Mann extended the film noir sensibility into the western, as if the mean streets had led directly into those wide-open spaces. The westerners played by Stewart in ''Winchester '73'' (1950), ''Bend of the River,'' ''The Naked Spur,'' ''The Far Country'' (1955) and ''The Man From Laramie'' (1955), and by Cooper in ''Man of the West,'' are, like noir heroes, mighty ambiguous characters, motivated either by ignoble emotions like the desire for revenge or by the urge to distance themselves from an unsavory, violent past. And like the protagonists of ''T-Men'' and ''Raw Deal,'' the men of Mann's West always have to endure longish stretches of pure powerlessness, periods in which fate seems to be toying with them just because it can.

- Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times

His background is sketchy but he is believed to have been born in San Diego on June 30, 1906 to Emil and Bertha Bundsmann. He developed a love of theater after the family moved to New York City when he was ten, so his decision to drop out of high school to earn a living in the theater when his father died should not come as a surprise. After trying every possible position, including stage manager, production designer and production manager, he quickly realized that he preferred directing. A number of successful productions during the early thirties won Mann a job as a talent scout with David O. Selznick, a leading Hollywood producer, in 1938. Apparently tiring of the position, he joined Paramount as an assistant director in 1939, and he directed his first film in 1942.

It seems likely that he was given the opportunity to direct because so many established directors had enlisted after Pearl Harbor. In fact, almost all able-bodied males under fifty disappeared within a few months. Even those who were too old to fight, like William Wyler and John Ford, served by producing propaganda films. Since Hollywood needed to continue churning out films to keep people on the home front entertained, many people were given opportunities they might not have had otherwise. Those with talent were able to keep working after the war ended, while the rest ended up in B movies if they were lucky. Mann was obviously one of the talented ones.

Little is known about his private life. His first marriage produced two children but ended in divorce in 1956 after twenty-five years and a second marriage to a Mexican actress lasted from 1957 to 1963. He was married to a former ballerina when he died in 1967.

- Andrew Allen, History on Film

ABOUT JAMES STEWART

IMDb Wiki

The Jimmy Stewart Museum

Centennial Tribute to Jimmy Stewart at Classic Movies

Jimmy Stewart page at Reel Classics

James Stewart has come a long way since his boyhood days in Pennsylvania. Starting out as an amateur magician and accordionist, he made his acting debut in a Boy Scout play and later performed in shows for the Princeton Triangle Club. He was graduated from Princeton in 1932 with a degree in architecture, but eventually joined the University Players at Falmouth, Massachusetts. It was here he befriended future stars Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan. Years later Sullavan would prove to be instrumental to Stewart's career by insisting that he be given parts in her films. In the years since his motion picture debut, James Stewart has earned a place in the hearts of moviegoing audiences as one of Hollywood's best-loved actors. His laconic style and boyish manner seem the embodiment of an uncomplicated honesty that also marked the career of his longtime friend, Henry Fonda (Stewart and Fonda were roommates in New York while working in the theater and also when they first arrived in Hollywood in 1935). Both men came to exemplify a uniquely American style of acting that takes simplicity and directness as its foundation.

Stewart's work in a number of Westerns, including several with director Anthony Mann, drew on his image as a man of honor and with an unswerving sense of duty. Again, Stewart's deliberate manner and tall, lean form made him an effective presence in this uniquely American film genre. John Ford used Stewart's image to examine the truth behind the Western myth in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which Stewart's character wins fame for an act that his friend, John Wayne, has performed.

Stewart's long career was certainly one of Hollywood's most rewarding, and the actor's occasional interviews and television appearances only strengthed the warm regard in which he was held. With the continuing popularity of many of his best films, he remains a much-loved and much-admired figure in American cinema.

963 (105). Ensayo de un crimen / The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955, Luis Buñuel)

Screened April 8 2009 on Films Sans Frontiers DVD (courtesy of Ed Gonzalez) in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #909 IMDb Wiki

Made in the middle of his underrated Mexican period, Luis Buñuel's perverse comedy about the world's most inept (or most psychically potent?) serial killer finds Buñuel settling into the style that would dominate the remainder of his career: a deceptively banal mise-en-scene of deadpan performances and surfaces occasionally yielding to eruptions of psychologically charged surreality. The pattern is set from the stunning first scene: as a boy, the title character is captivated by his nanny's harmless fantasy that their music box has murderous powers. But his imagination is catapulted into a lifelong obsession with sex and murder when, after the boy plays the music box, the nanny is randomly killed, her body sprawled before him, her legs exposed to the garters.

Now a respectable middle class adult, Archibaldo tries to kill the women in his life, but is thwarted by circumstances, ranging from the mundane to the melodramatic, in which the women die before he can act on his impulses. Panged with guilt over the possible potency of his hidden moties, Archibaldo tries to confess his would-be killings, but the police chief, who acts as a father confessor to his flashbacks, dismisses him by suggesting that his impulse is no greater than those who satisfy their blood lust by reading mystery novels. As the opening scene establishes, the film constantly depicts stories, as well as fetishized objects, as the chief mediators between a world of respectable appearances and the violent desires of sex and death raging underneath.  The film's centerpiece is a bizarre seduction/attempted murder scene involving a menage a trois with a mannequin that the two lovers take turns dressing and undressing.

Characters are always in the act of narrating as a way of exerting control on others: in suicide notes, bedtime stories, confessions, pardons; even a tour guide seems to play to her group's fantasies of discovering a Mexican culture that they had essentially brought with them, if only to keep them occupied. Whether it's Archibaldo's superstitious suspicion that his desires magically caused the women's murders, the police inspectors' eagerness to seek an easy explanation for death to facilitate an early coffee break, or even the American tourists impositions on their host country, the behavior of these characters share an underlying impulse to colonize the world around them with their limited and selfish capacity to comprehend it. It's to Buñuel's credit that he depicts this absurdist human comedy within the stylistic conventions of classical narrative filmmaking; it only serves to weave the craziness of humankind more inseparably with the appearance of normalcy.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz on The Shoot Pictures' list of 1000 Greatest Films:

Alex Grant, Miscellaneous (2002) Cesar Santos Fontenla ,Nickel Odeon (1994) David Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994) Gertrud Koch, Sight & Sound (1992) Charles Tesson, Nouvel Observateur: Best Films 1953-2002 (2002) Francois Truffaut, Favourite Films (1979) Jean-Louis Leutrat, Positif: 10 Favourite Films 1952-2002 Slant Magazine, 100 Essential Films (2003-2007) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

Only intermittently amusing black comedy, made in Mexico by Luis Buñuel. Directed rather indifferently, though the story has a Bunuelian perversity - perhaps a little more giddy than usual. It has a wonderful start: Archibaldo finds a music box which reawakens his memories of a childhood experience. His governess had found him dressed up in his mother's clothes, and while she was bawling him out for it, a stray bullet from the revolution going on outside had killed her. Later, Archibaldo keeps trying to recapture that sexual pleasure, but his attempts to commit murder are continually frustrated by the deaths of his intended victims.

- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies

Buñuel made some-not-so-good films after "Archibaldo" and before the classic "Viridiana" (1961), but "Archibaldo" is the film that really begins his extraordinarily productive late period in which he has given us such masterpieces as "Tristana" and "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie," with the possibility of another coming up, "That Obscure Object of Desire," his newest work, which will be seen at the forthcoming New York Film Festival.

One might be tempted to call "Archibaldo vintage Buñuel except that that would imply the film recalls a talent since lost, worn thin, run out. "Archibaldo" is Buñuel in the peak form with which he has continued to dazzle us in recent years. It doesn't have the superb European actors who have given "Tristana," "Discreet Charm" and "Phantom of Liberty" their box-office chic, but it has the wit, the simplicity of style, the directness and, above all, the total command that make his later films seem virtually perfect realizations of the director's particular visions.

Archibaldo is innocent of the crimes he tries to confess to the chief of police but though this film is high comedy, his innocence is not much different from that of the delinquents of Buñuel's "Los Olvidados"—the slum kids who commit unspeakable atrocities but feel no guilt whatsoever. Archibaldo and the slum children inhabit very different kinds of films though the social orders are equally bankrupt in both.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, September 16 1977

Not unlike Él, Ensayo de un Crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz) is a twisted tragicomedy on male obsession. It's also the closest Spanish auteur Luis Buñuel ever came to directing a bona fide suspense thriller.

Buñuel sees a certain existential crisis in a murderer's incompetence to murder. By repeatedly foiling Archibaldo's murderous schemes, Buñuel forces his anti-hero to renegotiate the meaning of desire and his confused notions of pre-determined will.

Though Archibaldo is set to marry the innocent Carlota (Ariadna Welter), he nonetheless pursues mannequin-model Lavinia (Miroslava Stern) after spotting her through the fire of a waiter's flaming drink at a local bar. Just as Buñuel uses mirrors and reflections as windows into Archibaldo's soul, fire comes to fascinatingly represent his voyeuristic gaze.

Past the shockingly flippant admission by the film's police officers that Archibaldo cannot be held responsible for wishing death on others lies an evocative, "uncomplicated" finale that sadly suggests Archibaldo can free himself of his murderous fetishes should he willingly toss aside his memories of childhood. But that may be too painful, because Buñuel once said: "You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing."

- Ed Gonzalez, Slant

Luis Buñuel creates a macabre and insightful comedy on obsession, machismo, and bourgeois hypocrisy in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. Using the repeated imagery of mirrors and reflections, Buñuel provides a figurative window into his own sardonic humor and personal idiosyncrasies: a foot fetish suggested through the death of the governess (that is subsequently manifested in Diary of a Chambermaid and Tristana); a sense of voyeurism that arises from vigilant observation, revealed through Archibaldo's discovery of a lovers' quarrel (shown through an angled mirror) and Carlota's (Ariadna Welter) rendezvous with her lover; an obsession to capture the essence of the perfect woman through Lavinia (Miroslava Stern) and her mannequin likeness (the doppelganger imagery is also examined in his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire). In a playful homage to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, Buñuel further illustrates his droll and incisive wit by creating a surreal twist to pivotal Hitchcockian images involving a glass of milk (Notorious) and a straight razor (Spellbound). Through Archibaldo's bizarre and unorthodox dual life as a serial killer, Buñuel subverts the conventional devices of a suspense film and creates an irreverent and audacious personal statement on the conundrum of sexual politics.

- Acquarello, Strictly Film School

A black comedy about an upper-class gentleman would-be murderer, who is always thwarted before the crime. It's the last film of Luis Buñuel's ("Nazarin"/"The Exterminating Angel"/"Él") Mexican period and though minor it still has a few witty bizarre touches and some great imagery to hang its hat on (a toy music box that supposedly can kill, a wax mannequin of our hero's girlfriend Lavinia (Miroslava Stern) that goes up in smoke after our hero fails to murder his spiteful loved one he puts on a pedestal, and the mirror in a room, acting as a look into our hero's soul, reflecting his unfaithful bride Carlota's rendezvous with her suave married lover Alejandro).

Buñuel has some laughs at the expense of the decadent hypocritical bourgeoisie, dumb Yankee tourists, the complacent priests, the capricious artist and at the Latin male lover image, while including his obsession with foot fetishism. It never amounts to more than a cheaply made one macabre joke movie that was only slightly amusing and only somewhat more effective as satire, but it paved the way for his later more productive period of creating many masterpieces.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's Movie World

Both a comedic and chilling film by famed director Luis Buñuel. The last of his “Mexican” period dubbed by some as a time that his films were more commercial… certainly true in comparison to his later works in which he was granted much more artistic freedom. “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz”, “El” and “Los Olvidados”, all made in Mexico, brought Buñuel international acclaim and it was in these films that he developed his style with trademark surreal, unpredictable imagery with biting and often grim social observations.

Gripping you with his depth of characterization and lack of fear as a director, Buñuel creates sublime artistic cinema merely touching on dark perversions, eroticism and criminal intent. Archibaldo feeling that the re-found music box is compelling him to indulge the practices of a serial killer, finds his careful plotting and scheming continually falls short of its intended target. The plot walks the fine line between true horror, bizarre sexual lust and cynicism over Buñuel’s usual foibles of the rich, macho men and sexual and religious perceptions. Unaware of the direction the film will take us next we sit quietly pondering while being treated to some excellent well-choreographed cinematography.

- Gary W. Tooze, DVD Beaver

IT is a screen moment so delicious that Pedro Almodovar could not resist snipping it out and inserting it into his magisterial film, Live Flesh (1997).

A spoiled little boy hears from his governess the disquieting tale of a king who, with the aid of a toy, a wind-up musical ballerina doll, can magically vanquish his enemies. The governess is interrupted by sounds of violent fighting in the street and goes to the window to investigate.

Instantly the boy concentrates on the doll, starting up the tinkly music and wishing malign fate upon his innocent governess. A bullet penetrates the window; immediately the woman lies dead, blood running from her neck. The seemingly omnipotent boy stares in awe at the exposed black stockings on the corpse's legs, he confesses (in adult voice-over) that he felt a "morbid sense of pleasure".

It is all over in a few seconds. But this introduction to Luis Buñuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) is indelible in its provocative mixture of elements: sweet music, sudden death, cold eroticism. The scene announces that anything, no matter how strange or crazy, can happen in a narrative, and it also indicates that the logic of events belongs to the realm of wish or dream, a fantasy made real.

And the Spanish filmmaker, ever the showman, has a final touch up his sleeve - a way to "top the topper", as comedians call following a punchline with another, crowning joke. From this tableau of death and sinister imagination, Bunuel cuts to a nun, who is obviously none too pleased to be hearing this confession from the adult Archibaldo propped up merrily in his hospital bed. The nun declares that she finds the story distasteful, and Archibaldo is pleased - as pleased, no doubt, as Bunuel himself, who never wasted any opportunity to scandalise the clergy.

- Adrian Martin, The Australian

Even for a film from Luis Buñuel’s Mexican period, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz—the on-screen title for which translates as Rehearsal for a Crime—is surprisingly obscure. Though this 1955 film came out on the artsy VHS label of Waterbearer Films in the late ‘90s, I only encountered it thanks to the tantalizing clips from it in Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (1997). Those sent me in search of the film, which turned out to be available on a French DVD. It was worth the effort, if only because it is perhaps the lightest and most purely playful film of Buñuel’s career. It’s an oddly charming black comedy dressed up as a kind of thriller.

Aspects of it may remind you of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948), but in reality it more closely resembles a dark-humored variant on Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943). Indeed, the structural device of having Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ernesto Alonso from Buñuel’s Wuthering Heights) confess his “crimes” to a police commissioner (Carlos Riquelme) is almost identical to Don Ameche presenting himself to Laird Cregar’s Satan in the Lubitsch picture—as are the results. In essence, de la Cruz is a delusional man, who dreams of committing the perfect murder—an idea born of a childhood incident. And, as presented, he has some fairish—if somewhat misogynistic—reasons for these ideas. He plans and schemes and rehearses, but things never go right—or at least they never go right in the way he intends. Saying more would be unfair to the film, since much of its charm comes from the surprise of how what goes wrong manifests itself. Yes, it’s Buñuel lite, but it’s nicely tasty in the bargain.

- Ken Hanke, Mountain Xpress

The creation of stoic objects involves both first movements and emotions: objects generate first movements by implying or suggesting an idea to us; emotions substitute and efface first movements when, as Stoics, we consider that objects not only suggest ideas, but also manifest them. For the Stoic, the object corresponds to the idea. The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) exemplifies how first movements devolve into emotional attachments to objects. Archibaldo, a rich and spoiled boy, is fascinated by his mother's music box. When his governess' death seems to confirm that the music box will execute any killing he wishes, Archibaldo assigns his feelings of omnipotence and narcissism to the music box. Years later, as an adult, Archibaldo (Ernesto Alonso) finds the music box at an antique shop. By rekindling Archibaldo's narcissism, feelings of omnipotence, and murderous desires, the music box thwarts his relationships with women. Archibaldo can overcome his narcissism and initiate a healthy romantic relationship only by renouncing to the music box.

- Agustin Zarzosa, Scope

ABOUT LUIS BUNUEL

The following quotes are found on the TSPDT profile page for Bunuel:

"Perhaps the easiest way to deal with Buñuel's career is to suggest that certain avatars of Luis Buñuel may be identified at different historical periods. The first Luis Buñuel is the Surrealist. The second Luis Buñuel is the all-but-anonymous journeyman film professional. The third is the Mexican director. The fourth is the Luis Buñuel who gradually made his way back to Europe by way of a few French films made in alternation with films in Mexico. The last Luis Buñuel, following his emergence in the mid-1960s, was the past master, at once awesome and beloved." - E. Rubinstein (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"Though the Church and bourgeoisie were his prime targets, beggars might be thieves and rapists, blind men paedophiles, virginal cripples harridans, and housewives afternoon whores; all were calmly and coolly examined as if insects under the microscope, with the fascinated, bemused Buñuel never hammering home a moral sermon, but merely revealing, in a strange spirit of sympathy, the fundamental comedy of the human condition. He was, in short, one of cinema's greatest, most unassertive masters." - Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)

"Although Buñuel made some haunting films in the early 1950s - most notably El Bruto and El, the richest period of his work runs from 1958 to 1970, years in which Buñuel produced a series of shattering works that could almost claim to be considered masterpieces of the cinema." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)

"Surreal comedies laced with complex psychology are representative of Bunuel's talents." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"Fortunately, somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether." - Luis Buñuel

Luis Buñuel was a singular figure in world cinema, and a consecrated auteur from the start. Born almost with cinema itself, his work moves from surrealist experimentation in the 1920s, through commercial comedies and melodrama in the 1950s, to postmodernist cine d'art in the 1960s and '70s. Claimed for France, where he made his celebrated early and late films, for Spain, where he was born and had his deepest cultural roots, and for Mexico, where he became a citizen and made 20 films, he has more recently been seen as a figure in permanent exile who problematises the very idea of the national in his films.

A surrealist, an iconoclast, a contrarian and provocateur, Buñuel claimed that his project was to pierce the self-assurance of the powerful. His work takes shape beneath the “double arches of beauty and rebellion”, as Octavio Paz put it. Recently, his sons have reasserted Buñuel's view of Un Chien andalou, as “a call to murder” against the “museum-ifying” of the celebrations of his centenary. While this exaggerates somewhat his radicalism and outsider status, there is considerable consistency in his attacks on the bourgeoisie, whose hypocrisy and dissembling both amused and enraged him. “In a world as badly made as ours,” he said, “there is only one road – rebellion.”

Buñuel is in fact satirising his own class, to which he comfortably and unabashedly belonged. He understood the neuroses and pettiness of his middle class Catholic upbringing well. “I am still an atheist, thank God”, he famously said. It is one of his many paradoxes: he was both inside and outside. While a ferocious critic of the ideologies of the powerful in his films (the unholy trinity of bourgeois complacency, religious hypocrisy, and patriarchal authority), he enjoyed the fruits of this social order in his personal life. His wife's memoirs Mujer sin piano (Woman without a Piano), written to fill out Buñuel's own, in which she and her children are mentioned hardly at all, reads like the remembrances of a Stockholm-syndrome afflicted captive. Jeanne Rucar, who met Buñuel in 1926 and married him in 1934, tries to tell a love story but the pain and losses he inflicted on her, including that of her beloved piano, to a bet made by Luis without her consent, constantly shine through.

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More than other directors, Buñuel has etched indelible images into film culture. The “Buñuelian” can refer to shots of insects, a sheep or other farm animal appearing in posh settings, cutaways to animals eating one another, bizarre hands, odd physical types and, especially, fetishistic shots of feet and legs (said Hitchcock of Tristana: “That leg! That leg!”). The term also implies the confusions of dream and reality, form and anti-form, an irreverent sense of humour, black, morbid jokes that hint at the constant presence of the irrational, the absurdity of human actions. Buñuel shares this sensibility with the Spanish esperpento, the distancing black comedy that has been considered an authentic Spanish film tradition.

He also shares with the esperpento an acid view of the powerful and their excesses, as well as a sense of sexuality as debasing and enslaving. Desires, sexual and political, are continually intertwined in his films. More than a call to murder, his best films are a call to an attempt at anarchist freedom, however futile, both in love and society.

- Dominique Russell, Senses of Cinema

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Slyness in concert with classicism: Luis Buñuel

Buñuel was a director whose career ended several times, only to re-emerge from the ashes in unusual or spectacular fashion. He was among the youthful rebels of European surrealism in the 1920s and '30s, making three classics in quick succession: Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) and L'Age d'or (The Golden Age, 1930), both in collaboration with painter Salvador Dali, and the original mockumentary, Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread, 1932). These films, far from being museum pieces, have lost none of their hallucinatory force. Then things stalled. Bunuel spent more than 15 years tinkering on various projects in Spain and the US, but brought none of his most cherished, darkest dreams to the screen.

Mexico, to where he moved in 1946, offered a new start. Buñuel entered the commercial industry there as a consummate B-film professional, churning out in record time musicals, westerns, thrillers, melodramas and romances. He was also able to slip in, now and again, a more personal production, such as Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned, 1950) and Nazarin (1959).

It was during this chapter of Buñuel's working life that, as French critic Jean-Andre Fieschi put it, he "dedicated himself to indirections characterised by a persistent deployment of cunning". In other words, Buñuel became a sly fox. He began to expertly insinuate his personal viewpoint into even the least promising material.

Indeed, Buñuel was perfectly correct when he said that, although he might have made "three or four frankly bad films" in his Mexican sojourn, "I never infringed my moral code". The anger against social oppression, the subversive humour, the idea of revolt through love: all these hallmarks of his surrealist youth still burned bright, as they were to do until his death in 1983.

Why does Buñuel's work endure? In the 21st century, when MTV has exhaustively recycled the originally shocking opening of Un chien andalou - a razor slicing an eyeball - and the art-house scandals generated by Catherine Breillat (Romance) or Gaspar Noe (Irreversible) go far beyond any sexual scenario that Bunuel ever hinted at, shouldn't his films seem quaint, fussy, tame? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Buñuel was right to claim that his films eschewed symbolism, metaphor and allegory, which belonged, in his view, in the whole sorry baggage of overly meaningful and self-aggrandising art cinema, which he associated with the "phony surrealist" Jean Cocteau. Buñuel's slyness went hand-in-hand with his classicism, his love of patterns and connections subtly woven, then left for the viewer to notice and interpret.

That is why Buñuel's legacy is still carried by the Cronenberg of A History of Violence rather than the Lynch of Mulholland Drive; by the quizzical, low-key surrealism of Chile's Raul Ruiz (That Day) rather than the strenuous sex-and-violence visions of Mexico's Carlos Reygadas (Battle in Heaven). Buñuel understood that, in the quest to revolutionise the minds of viewers, indirection and understatement were more powerful weapons than shock or awe.

- Adrian Martin, The Australian

Over the past few years several Latin-American friends and acquaintances have expressed their dawning perception that the greatest of Buñuel’s three periods is the one he spent in Mexico, the one that yielded by far the most films. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, overturning the more common position that Bunuel’s extended stint in the Mexican film industry was basically a holding action, a way of “keeping his hand in” while awaiting the opportunity to make his own pictures with relative freedom again. But since this “commercial” period yielded films as personal and as accomplished as The Young and the Damned, Mexican Bus Ride, El bruto, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, El (this Strange Passion), The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, Nazarin, The Young One, and The Exterminating Angel–to come up with only a short list–it surely has to be seen as something more than a period of retrenchment. And there are undoubtedly still other jewels from this period waiting to be rediscovered.

Another way to categorize Buñuel’s work–more thematic than geographical or chronological–would be in terms of its surrealist and Marxist elements. One might describe the three initial avant-garde films as Surrealist (as in the official Surrealist group) and pre-Marxist, and the late art-house films as surrealist and post-Marxist; the Mexican films that were made in between include various combinations of Marxism, Surrealism, and surrealism. Part of the power of El bruto, a melodrama about a slow-witted thug who works for a slum landlord, is the manner in which an acute understanding of power gradually creates a feeling of sympathy for this bully, whose mother was a maid and who turns out to be the landlord’s unacknowledged bastard son. (Though he came from a well-to-do family, Buñuel is one of the few major filmmakers who never shows the slightest trace of condescension toward the poor; it’s one of the central facts about his work that makes it endure.) It’s equally impressive to see how Bunuel injects surrealist dream sequences into The Young and the Damned (my favorite of the Mexican films) and Robinson Crusoe in a way that enhances and even clarifies these films’ social agendas.

Buñuel’s other virtues include an absence of sentimentality, a poetic sense of irony, and a skeptical preoccupation with purity in various forms that can be traced all the way back to his early writing. A 1927 review begins, “Here is Buster Keaton with his latest film, the wonderful College. Asepsis. Disinfection. Freed from tradition, our gaze revels in the juvenile, tempered world of Buster, the great specialist in fighting sentimental infections of all kinds. The film is as beautiful as a bathroom, as vital as a Hispano-Suiza.” There’s also, a Latino friend points out, a preoccupation with ecology long before that word came into common use, often signaled by the recurring significant roles played by insects in his films.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, originally published in The Chicago Reader

A 'system'... underlies the series of Bunuel films which vary the motif of what Buñuel himself calls the 'inscrutable impossibility of the fulfilment of a simple desire.' In The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, the hero wants to accomplish a simple murder, but all his attempts fail; in The Exterminating Angel, after a dinner party, a group of rich people cannot cross the threshold and leave the house; in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, we have the opposite case of three upper-class couples planning to dine together, but unexpected complications always prevent the fulfilment of this simple wish; in Nazarin, where the narrative follows a pattern of endless on-the-road humilations and entrapments, the idealist priest Nazarin, to whom life is a sort of journey in the footsteps of Christ, witnesses how his hopes of liberation are dashed on the very road to freedom that he has chosen. His final insight, of course, is that what he has hitherto dismissed as mere distractions on his road to freedom - the contingent, unexpected humiliations and entrapments - provide the very framework of his actual experience of freedom. In other words, the structural role of these humiliations and entrapments which seem to pop out of nowhere is the same as that of the unexpected complications which again and again prevent the group in The Discreet Charm from dining together... The ultimate example which, perhaps, provides the key to this entire series is, of course, That Obscure Object of Desire, in which a woman, through a succession of absurd tricks, postpones again and again the final moment of sexual reunion with her aged lover... The charm of the film lies in this very nonsensical short circuit between the fundamental, metaphysical Limit and some trivial empirical impediment. Here we find the logic of courtly love and of sublimation at its purest: some common, everyday object or act becomes inaccessible or impossible to accomplish once it finds itself in the position of the Thing - although the thing should be easily within our grasp, the entire universe has somehow been adjusted to produce, again and again, an unfathomable contingency blocking access to it.

- Slavoj Zizek, from The Plague of Fantasies. Published by Verso, 1997. Pages 128-129

Watch complete French documentary: 'Luis Buñuel: Cinéastes de notre temps' (April 4, 1964). Focuses on the director's exile and his early career. On Google Video.

960 (102). The Lusty Men (1952, Nicholas Ray)

Screened March 18 2009 on divx .avi in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #740 IMDb Wiki

Consciously or not, the characters in Nicholas Ray's cinema live as if heaven is just one step ahead, and hell just one step behind. What these tragic heroes learn - often too late - is that both heaven and hell are moving faster than they are. But that tragic pursuit amongst dreams and demons, filled with aspiration and anxiety, is what gives his films their kinetic charge. It's not even that his films are cinematically action-packed, though The Lusty Men, with its generous helpings of real rodeo footage, certainly packs a thrill. It's that even in the quietest, most meditative scenes, there's a restless waiting for what's next that keeps the viewer on edge, anticipating the revelations of the next moment. In other words, Nicholas Ray is the first existential action filmmaker.

Robert Mitchum's performance as an ex-rodeo champ, a stoic lump of washed-up man meat, attests to this aesthetic brilliantly. Seeming only to live for nothing more than whatever situation comes his way, his hulking, limping frame either ambles along or hangs upright in postures of cowboy confidence; his voice is even more rock steady. That leaves his eyes to play a virtuoso range of movements: glaring anger or downcast shame, lightning alarm or low-lidded arousal. His eyes are windows to the storm of unresolved feelings locked inside.

He’s complemented by a ranch couple, young but no less hard-nosed: Arthur Kennedy, an aspiring rodeo star whose teeth gleam with carnivorous ambition, and Susan Hayward, who turns a thankless wife-watching-from-the-sidelines role into a gravitational coil of skeptical worry. The three of them collectively map out a vast terrain of equivocal emotions, dubious dreams and miles of regrets. It’s a world of hurt from which even the young are unsheltered – for me the knockout blow comes in a flash cutaway that lasts just long enough for a teenage rodeo girl to silently mouth “I love you” to her dying idol. We hardly know anything about this girl, but her gesture both confirms and expands the universal heartbreak that drives Ray’s vision.

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A masterpiece by Nicholas Ray--perhaps the most melancholy and reflective of his films (1952). This modern-dress western centers on Ray's perennial themes of disaffection and self-destruction: Arthur Kennedy is a young rodeo rider, eager for quick fame and easy money; Robert Mitchum is his older friend, a veteran who's been there and knows better. Working with the great cinematographer Lee Garmes, Ray creates an unstable atmosphere of dust and despair--trailer camps and broken-down ranches--that expresses the contradictory impulses of his characters: a lust for freedom balanced by a quest for security. With Susan Hayward, superb as Kennedy's wife.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

Nick Ray understood character and psychological pressures better than almost any of his contemporaries, and The Lusty Men was one of his happiest breaks: sympathetic producers, a great cameraman (Lee Garmes, who shot Sternberg's Dietrich movies), and one of Robert Mitchum's finest performances. The story isn't much (the security of family life versus the rootlessness and danger of working as a rodeo rider), but the situation is rich in emotional resonances which Ray conjures into life convincingly.

- Time Out

I love “The Lusty Men,” Ray’s saddest work, and, like every viewer before me, I am felled by the beauty of the shot that finds Mitchum—a rodeo rider—limping amid gusts of trash through a vacant arena, with the sharp, heartbreaking light of late afternoon slicing in from the side. At the same time, I cannot rid myself of an anecdote reported by Mitchum’s biographer, Lee Server. A leading lady was required, and Susan Hayward was brought in, on loan from Twentieth Century Fox, while the script was still being written. She sat and knitted for a while, as Ray spoke of his characters and their various plights. Finally, she put down her knitting and said, “Listen, I’m from Brooklyn. What’s the story?” ?

- Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

The first few brief sequences in Nicholas Ray’s rip-roaring rodeo flick The Lusty Men tell us visually almost everything that we need to know about the director’s interest in this story. We see legendary rider Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) straddling a bucking bronco in a display of his masculine prowess. We see him as he’s thrown from that horse in a demonstration of how that masculinity becomes self-destructive. We see him limp across the deserted ring after the show as the debris from the bygone celebration swirls around him. Afterwards, McCloud returns to his childhood home to find it dilapidated and owned by another person. With no home to return to, he makes a literal attempt to recapture his childhood as he climbs under his raised house to find a stash of childhood treasures. This affecting, wordless scene shows how in Ray’s films, the protagonists speak most loudly with their actions. Though Jeff McCloud might not be a man of many words, we see that he’s a man with secrets who is capable of sentimentality. When he does finally start to open up verbally, to the man who has purchased the farm he grew up on, the two of them communicate in the language of the everyman, with simple but sincere platitudes and philosophies. Perhaps the most telling moment of all occurs when McCloud compares his calling to a career in horse riding to a preacher’s calling to the Lord. In Ray’s eyes, McCloud’s choice of profession might define him, but in no way does that choice limit his personal investment in the work he does. Even in the most seemingly mindless types of grunt work, the director sees the possibility of grace (a fitting stance for a man who frequently worked as a hired gun in the Hollywood studio system).

After McCloud’s personality is established, The Lusty Men becomes more plot-driven, focusing less on his loneliness and more on his relationship with a young married couple who are attempting to earn enough money to purchase McCloud’s old home. The breadwinner Wes (Arthur Kennedy) convinces McCloud to teach him the ropes of riding. Louise (Susan Hayward), Wes’ headstrong wife is initially reticent to allow her husband to risk his life in the rodeo ring, but she acquiesces when Wes tells her she lacks guts. Before long, the trio set off on the rodeo circuit, lodging at a series of trailer parks and spending their evenings in rowdy bars as they hustle from town to town chasing after prize money. The film presents a portrait of America's capitalist system as a never-ending series of competitions, and as a result, the characters are rarely able to relate to each other without the buzz of commerce drowning out what they say. The integrated stock footage of rodeo performances genuinely adds to the excitement because it is suggested that each ride could be the last for these cowboys. The pursuit of fame has rarely looked so gritty in a classic Hollywood film, but the journey still has its share of humor and affection toward its characters.

There’s a certain amount of comedy in watching the two leading macho men tussle over who gets to bed down with the macho, gravelly voiced Louise, a woman who seems tough enough to tangle with either of them. Still, Ray isn’t out to make fun of his characters. Shots such as the one where he raises a US flag between a composition featuring his two leading men in the foreground suggest an intangible feeling that they represent some larger, unsaid thing about the working men of America. There’s sadness in the observation that the men in this profession inevitably start drinking and gambling to hide from others how scared they feel every time they get on the saddle. Since they seemingly can only fully express their emotions though riding and fear is not an option during the ride, the internalization of that fear takes its toll, leading to a slow downward spiral toward regret in which the men don’t realize that their days of fame and wealth are passing them by. Ray does an excellent job of establishing these internal demons, so there’s genuine tension in McCloud’s struggles to save Wes from the fate that’s already ruined him. Because of The Lusty Men’s admirable emotional restraint, the quiet moment before the climactic ride where the men exchange a wink, a half-smile, and an affirmative “Good luck” has as much impact as any more emotive conversation could.

- Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr

Written by Horace McCoy and David Dortort from a Life magazine story by Claude Stanush, The Lusty Men is one of director Nicholas Ray’s three outstanding films; the others are In a Lonely Place(1950) and Johnny Guitar (1954). (His vapid, sentimental Rebel Without a Cause, 1955, indulges the whining self-pity of its adolescent characters.). It is also the most substantial thing starring “the Brooklyn Bernhardt,” plainspoken Susan Hayward, who gives what may be her most electric and captivating performance.

- Dennis Grunes

"I have two acting styles -- with or without a horse," once claimed the self-deprecating Robert Mitchum. One of the actor's best Westerns was The Lusty Men (1952), a look at contemporary rodeo riders co-starring Arthur Kennedy as a fellow broncobuster and Susan Hayward as the latter's wife and third member of an explosive romantic triangle. At that point in his career, Mitchum considered the film one of three favorites among his own work.

To give the film its gritty, semi-documentary feeling, Ray spent months shooting on the rodeo circuit. He reportedly had only the bare outline of a script when filming began, so that scenes were written one night and shot the following day. Despite the hectic pace, Ray took so much time with individual scenes that Mitchum nicknamed him "The Mystic" because of his habit of staring silently at the actors as he led them to probe the complexities of their characters.

Susan Hayward, who was borrowed from 20th-Century-Fox at great expense to RKO, was leery of the project from the start since her part was practically non-existent and had to be completely rewritten and expanded once she signed on. According to Lee Server in his biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care, Nicholas Ray tried to stimulate her interest in the role: "He zeroed in on a mutual enjoyment of Thomas Wolfe - and certainly drew from her an excellent performance, but she remained typically tempestuous and cranky - Mitchum called her "the Old Gray Mare" - and on one occasion held up production when she refused to play a scene as written." She took issue with the dialogue proclaiming her character had the foulest mouth she'd ever heard in her life. Eventually, they managed to come up with new lines that met with Hayward's approval.

Unlike Hayward, Mitchum and Arthur Kennedy relished the macho rodeo atmosphere surrounding the shoot and even violated the terms of their studio's insurance coverage by performing some reckless stunts on horses and bulls. Mitchum recalled, (in Server's biography) "I get on...and they all say, 'It's OK, he's just a retired old bronc,' and this thing is turned loose...and I can't get off him. They'd go in and try and pick me off and my horse would turn around and kick the pickup horse...I'm bleeding from my hair by this time.." Even Ray felt compelled to show he had what it took, hopping aboard a bucking bronco at the San Francisco Cow Palace. "I guess," he said, "we all have a little of that wildness in us."

- Roger Fristoe, Turner Classic Movies

Ray worked very slowly, to the point where Robert Mitchum nicknamed him ‘the mystic’ because of the way he would stare at the actors, trying to probe them for psychological insight into a scene. Robert Mitchum was well-known for his ‘indifference’ about acting and filmmaking. ‘What page are we on and what’s my mark?’ and of course, my favourite Mitchum quote: ‘People say I have an interesting walk, but I’m just trying to hold in my gut.’

Although Ray was a serious artist, he was also a womanizer and a boozer and he and Mitchum connected on this film, both as loose cannons and as artists. Ray was the first to suspect that Mitchum’s supposed ‘indifference’ was just a masking of his real artistic and even poetic self.

THE LUSTY MEN is a great film. Interestingly, the parties involved knew it even before it was released. Mitchum, who normally couldn’t give a rip about his finished films (‘They don’t pay me to see ‘em’) actually asked to see some of the film before it was completed. Ray obliged and showed him two-thirds of the movie. Mitchum apparently left walking ten feet high, he was so proud. In typical macho man fashion, they went to a bar to celebrate. Ray later recalled, as he crawled home hours later, that his last memory of Mitchum that evening was of him regaling a couple of drunk FBI agents. Mitchum then proceeded to borrow one of the agent’s gun and started firing at the dirty dishes while the kitchen staff ‘got the heck out of Dodge’.

- Jon Ted Wynne, EInsiders.com

"This film is really a film about people who want a home of their own," Nicholas Ray said of The Lusty Men (1952).1 In this way the film's central characters (two men and a woman) recall the teenage trio in Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, who find their one interlude of pure happiness playing house in a deserted mansion. In both cases, only two can find a home. Here the odd man out is the hero, played by Robert Mitchum, who also reportedly co-wrote the film with Ray and an assortment of helpers, coming up with the scenes as they were shot.2

Arthur Kennedy's specialty was ambivalence, and he's brilliant as usual, balancing the weakness and decency in this callow, petulant man. Even Kennedy's looks were ambivalent; he's blonde and fine-featured, yet there's some subtle flaw that keeps his face from being handsome. His smile is too aggressive, his voice too close to a whine. He never has the calm self-assurance that Mitchum displays, so he's a perfect foil. Susan Hayward's pedal-to-the-metal style can get monotonous, but here it's well suited to her feisty, hard-headed character. It seems to be Louise's utter, grounded certainty of what she wants that attracts Jeff, who never seems sure of what he wants. That, and her cooking. From his start in Westerns Mitchum retained something of the cowboy's stance towards women in his movies. He is forever the lonesome drifter out in the cold, for whom a woman represents a warm hearth, a good meal, clean sheets, a home. He longs for these things but pursues them in a self-defeating way, often attaching himself to other men's families and falling in love with married women who won't leave their husbands. The closest thing he has to a family of his own in The Lusty Men is a little tomboy girl who travels with her father, a grizzled rodeo veteran, and who — in the film's only cloying touch — mouths "I love you" to Jeff as he lies dying.

Mitchum and director Nicholas RayIn a movie review in The New Yorker,4 David Denby stated, "an actor won't last as a leading man unless he plays characters who want something passionately." That sounds plausible, but then what about Robert Mitchum? What does Mitchum want? I've come to the conclusion that Mitchum's enduring power lies in the way he leaves that question open. The motivations of his characters may be clear, but his performances blur them. The script may say he wants a woman, or a home, or money, or revenge, but he doesn't really convey lust or greed or any kind of burning desire, any need. And yet you can't just say he wants nothing — baby, he doesn't care — because that would make him invulnerable, and you always believe that he can be hurt, that he has been hurt. This core of mystery is Mitchum's gift to his movies. He's always holding something back. Trying to figure him out is like dropping a stone into a well and listening for the splash. It falls and falls, and you never do find out how deep the well is.

- Imogen Sara Smith, Bright Lights Film Journal

ABOUT NICHOLAS RAY

Nicholas Ray gets his own stand-alone webliography

ABOUT ROBERT MITCHUM

IMDb Wiki

Tribute Page on Classic Movies.org with links to many other tribute sites

Meredy's Robert Mitchum Trivia Mania: 25 questions to test your knowledge of the actor

Robert Peters' complete volume of poetry, Love Poems for Robert Mitchum

Before Mitchum was two years old, his father, a blue-collar railroad worker, was crushed to death between two goods vans and through much of the Thirties he rode the rods around Depression America as an itinerant labourer, doing some boxing and serving a stretch on a Deep South chain gang for vagrancy. He wound up in California and, in 1940, married the woman he'd stay with for the rest of his life, despite his endless philandering and the drinking that would eventually lead to the Betty Ford Clinic.

He drifted into acting, appearing in 19 of his 120 films in 1943, his first year in Hollywood, and getting an Oscar nomination for his first starring role in an A-movie as an infantry officer under stress in Italy in The Story of GI Joe (1945). On the brink of major stardom, he was the victim of a rigged drugs bust for marijuana possession in 1948 and served a second jail stretch. Miraculously, he survived, his reputation as a hellraiser enhanced.

Tall, thin, broad shouldered and languid, he moved gracefully, had heavily lidded eyes that could express contempt, menace and a deep sadness, a broken nose and a curiously eloquent dimpled chin that he could tilt, pull in and thrust out to dramatic effect. Though he affected indifference to his craft and claimed to be averse to work, he was greatly respected by the directors he worked for. Fred Zinnemann considered him 'one of the finest instinctive actors in the business, almost in the same class as Spencer Tracy', and John Huston called him 'a rarity among actors, hard-working, non-complaining, amazingly perceptive'.

He first made his name in Forties film noir thrillers, the finest being the doomed private eye falling for femme fatale Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), creating along with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas a new kind of doomed loser hero. But he was also at home in the saddle, especially in such brooding psychological westerns as Pursued (1947), The Lusty Men (1952) and Track of the Cat (1954).

Arguably, his two greatest performances were playing psychotic villains, the first as the homicidal preacher in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955), the second as the sadistic criminal terrorising Gregory Peck, the man who sent him to jail in Cape Fear (1962).

Most of his later films are indifferent, significant exceptions being his sad, small-time Boston crook in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and his outstanding Philip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely (1975).

David Lean (who directed him in Ryan's Daughter): 'Other actors act. Mitchum is. He has true delicacy and expressiveness but his forte is his indelible identity. Mitchum, simply by being there, makes almost any other actor look like a hole in the screen.'

Mitchum on his career: 'I gave up being serious about making pictures years ago, around the time I made a film with Greer Garson [Desire Me, 1947] and she took 125 takes to say no.'

The 1948 drug bust Mitchum gave his occupation to the police as 'ex-actor'.

Charles Laughton: 'All the tough talk is a blind. He is a literate, gracious, kind man with wonderful manners and he speaks beautifully - when he wants to. He would make the best Macbeth of any actor living.'

- Philip French, The Guardian

952 (54). Shin heike monogatari / New Tales of the Taira Clan (1955, Kenji Mizoguchi)

Screened Saturday January 17 2008 on .avi format on Continental Flight from Tokyo to Newark TSPDT rank #905IMDb

One of Kenji Mizoguchi's most lavish productions, this chronicle of the rise of the samurai amidst the oppression of 12th century Japan is heavy on plot and crowd scenes, but strangely inert at the center.  The Mizoguchi themes of class and authoritarian injustice, the burden of family legacies, and female bondage are all present to varying degrees, but seem at odds with an implicit samurai movie imperative to move the proceedings along briskly and noisily. The film isn't stuffed to the gills with swordfights; the sparring takes place mostly in terms of political maneuverings between the samurai, the ruling court and a powerful order of monks, with screen-cluttering armies being mustered less to wage combat than to intimidate (the viewer as well as their opponents).

Perhaps in this light Mizoguchi is subverting the genre, shifting his emphasis away from bloodshed to the hero's pseudo-Oedipal angst-ridden search for his true patrilineage involving the three factions.  Most of the thematic richness that emerges from this scenario can be traced to the script, adapted from a serialized novel by Eiji Yoshikawa. For his part Mizoguchi seems to be preoccupied with making tentative forays in color (this being one of two color films he directed in his career; the other, The Empress Yang Kwei Fei [TSPDT #617], also from 1955, achieves a more expressive palette), and with keeping the proceedings lively through a brisk editing scheme and a variety of compositions and camera movements that animate rather than contemplate. An effective, meaningful effort by most standards, it registers as a  kowtow to prestige picture impulses when considering the singular achievements of Mizoguchi's earlier works.

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TRAILER:

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Shin Heike Monogatari among the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They? list of the 1000 Greatest Films:

Bernard Cohn, Positif (1991) George Robinson, Miscellaneous (2003) Ian Cameron, Sight & Sound (1972) John Davies, Senses of Cinema (2004) Mike Wallington, Sight & Sound (1972) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Adventure (1993) Sight & Sound, 360 Film Classics (1998)

One of Mizoguchi's two late films in colour, this describes a conflict between three power groups in feudal Japan: the priests, the court, and a clan of samurai. The samurai embody ideals of individual integrity, just service, and male prowess; the court, ideals of rightful authority, but equally, the faults of ministerial corruption; the clerics, the degeneration of institutionalised religion into factional Fascism (gang-like violence in support of political ends). Characteristically, the tale of the conflict is hinged round a courtesan figure's relations with the three groups ('mother' for the samurai, 'mistress' for the court, 'whore' for the priests). Needless to say, the 'personal' virtues of the samurai win out, the hero becomes superman. Shot with all the sensitivity and stylish trappings to be expected from Mizoguchi; also, some sharp observation of social relations, and some acute insights into the vagaries of the power boys' shit-games.

- Time Out

The same year he crafted the intimate period romance of Princess Yang Kwei-fei, Kenji Mizoguchi tackled the sprawling spectacle genre with this color epic -- virtually a ying/yang of cinematic storytelling, although with the two halves harmonized musically by the same artistic delicacy. Set in 1137 A.D., the narrative is a tapestry of feudalistic intrigue and decadent official cabals against which the director stages the spiritual growth of his impetuous young hero (Raizo Ichikawa), the son of dignified samurai leader Ichijiro Oya and heir to the Taira clan. Returning triumphantly from quelling the unrest of a divided nation, Oya and his warriors are humiliatingly denied any rewards by the cloistered government (for, as one palatial wag asserts, "only poor samurai are useful"), one in a series of episodes landing the Tairas in the middle of a power struggle between the aristocracy and the rebellious monks tearing up the land. The screen is scarcely less than bustling with conflict, all scrupulously captured by the majestically sweeping camera, but the genre's inherent muscularity is subtly (even subversively) femininized by Mizoguchi's emphasis on the moral and emotional quandaries of the characters -- even the most physical of confrontations (an ambush to foil an assassination plot, a melee erupting out of the spring festival) are painted not in Kurosawa's crossed-katana close-up of brawniness but in the long-shot of spiritual contemplation. To Mizoguchi, the expressive epiphanies of the hero's relationships with his warrior father and courtesan mother (pieced together via contrasting flashbacks; maybe a dig at Rashomon, one of the director's famous bêtes noires?) are no less epic than the historical shifts bringing a country together.

- Fernando Croce, Cinepassion

Unlike his contemporaries Kurosawa and Kinugasa (whose Gate of Hell was the sensation of the 1954 Cannes festival), Mizoguchi never mastered the use of colour. New Tales, the most famous of his two end-of-career colour films, is shot on what looks like soiled stock, a muddy yellowed Eastmancolor; faces, grass, buildings, skies all processed in the same pastel shade - pure laziness on the part of the cinematographer. It is a busy film in which nothing very much happens, and in which all but all the action takes place off screen. Stock actors in stock roles strike wide-eyed poses and they huff and they puff; the exception being Kogure as the classy and vulgar mistress of the Emperor, the mother of the stand-taking samurai, the whore of the declining aristocracy (silk dress swishing in gesiha-role cliche). The music score is grand and effective throughout and particularly striking during an atmospheric flashback processed in green.

- Paul Sutton, Cambridge University Camera Journal

Shin Heike Monogatari, a reasonably rare film among Mizoguchi’s late period works in not being centrally concerned with the social situation of victimised women figures (though this is peripherally present), dramatises an incident in the life of future Taira clan head, Kiyomori. He discovers that instead of being the son of a samurai as he had always thought to be the case, he may in fact be the son of either the current emperor or a monk. The three factions to which the young protagonist could be linked are those that are in conflict throughout the film, and each can be seen to represent a specific position: the monasteries and warrior monks emblematise the degeneration of institutionalised religion into politically-motivated violence and the oppression of the people; the Imperial court crystallise notions of (perceived) rightful rule and the self-preservation of authority; the samurai embody honour and individual integrity.

The relevance of such a scenario to mid-1950s Japan is manifold. Firstly, the forces of antagonism in the film are markedly anti-democratic (the monasteries and Imperial Court both wish to impose themselves politically and control the masses), a theme common to many films of the 1950s. Following the occupation period, democracy came to be widely regarded by the Japanese as the true way forward for the nation, and the government had swiftly banned anything transgressing this, even songs.

Kiyomori’s victory is, then, one of family, democratic idealism and altruistic action over elitism and the corruption of those in power. This chimes with Japan’s attempt in the post-war period to reinvent itself as a nation, to put its recent indiscretions behind it, move forward and open itself to the international community (something that would climax in the highly symbolic 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo). In other words, the trajectory of Kiyomori in overcoming a crisis in his identity and finding his true self amid social chaos, is a microcosm for Japan as a whole in the 1950s, caught between itself and its traditions on the one hand and the Western values fostered by the occupying SCAP forces on the other.

This is the situation explored in the film. Indeed, it is made clear from the very beginning: the opening shot – a virtuoso mobile long take of the kind for which Mizoguchi has long been celebrated (and criticised – see Noël Burch) – details peasants bemoaning the state of the nation. The most prominent complaint is that Japan has two rulers, two courts: the official Imperial court and the cloistered court exerting influence from behind the scenes through the puppet emperor.

- Adam Bingham, Senses of Cinema

ABOUT KENJI MIZOGUCHI

IMDb Wiki

“The comparisons are as inevitable as they are unfashionable,” wrote James Quandt, introducing the centenary retrospective of the films of Kenji Mizoguchi. “Mizoguchi is cinema's Shakespeare, its Bach or Beethoven, its Rembrant, Titian or Picasso.” (1) If this remains a minority opinion, it's not because others have tried him and found him wanting. Mizoguchi is either admired or ignored. If he is, as I believe, the greatest of Japanese directors, then he has eluded general recognition as such only through unpropitious circumstances.

The first circumstance was historical. The bulk of Mizoguchi's work was produced years before Japanese films were widely shown in the West. When a handful of Japanese movies did play in France and Germany in the late '20s, Mizoguchi's Passion of a Woman Teacher(1926) received considerable praise. But whereas its contemporary, Crossways (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1928) became (and remains) a staple repertory item in Europe, all trace of Mizoguchi's film has long since disappeared. Only in the '50s, as Japanese films again began to make their way into European festivals, did Mizoguchi win a belated international recognition for his late, bleak, yet beautiful and serenely moving period films. When he died, relatively young, in 1956, attention passed to such younger filmmakers as Kurosawa and Ichikawa, very much less distinguished artists who both profited from a fashionable brand of sentimental humanism and an obtrusive emphatic visual style consisting predominantly of rhetorical close ups and generally at the service of simplistic emotions.

Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain
Ugetsu Monogatari

The other circumstance, then, was artistic. Although a much more profound humanist than Kurosawa, Mizoguchi rarely, if ever, advertised his social concerns with the sort of condescending didacticsm which appealed to the message-hungry middlebrows of Sight and Sound and its ilk. As for his style, with its extraordinary elaboration, delicacy, beauty and grace, it must have struck the puritans who then dictated taste as decadent aestheticism. Naturally this sort of thing went down rather better in France, where Godard and Rohmer, then the Young Turk critics of Cahiers of Cinéma, hailed Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) as one of the cinema's supreme achievements and evoked comparisons with Homeric and Arthurian legend. But Mizoguchi's art eludes easy auteurist categorisation in a way that, say, Ozu's films do not. He vacilated politically between feudalism and feminism, militarism and Marxism. The essential features of his style – long takes, the rejection of close ups – remained constant for the last 20 years of his career, but the gulf between the stasis and austerity of Sisters of Gion (1936) and the roving camera and elaborate choreography of actors inSansho Dayu (1954) is wide indeed. In consequence, critical opinion has often been divided: the traditional liberal humanist line, as exemplified by the criticism of Donald Richie, exalts the postwar period films, while the Marxist formalist school of Noel Burch prefers the prewar work for its supposedly more radical formal qualities.

My own feeling is that masterpieces were produced throughout Mizoguchi's career, that a commitment to feminism and progressive politics is, despite his occasional flirtations with the right, the single most consistent trait of his oeuvre; and that the visible transformations in his style obscure a more profound integrity of method and meaning.

- Alexander Jacoby, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Bio

The roots of artistry are often sought in autobiography, and for filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi, this seems an especially appropriate place to start. Mizoguchi, with Ozu and Kurosawa one of the three undisputed masters from the golden age of Japanese cinema, was born in 1898 in the middle class district of Hongo, in Tokyo. Two events occurred when the future director was seven that may have played a pivotal role in the kinds of films he would make. In the first, his family's fortunes were reversed when his overly ambitious father lost their money in a failed business scheme, forcing their move to the poorer district of Asakusa. In the second, which resulted from the first, his 14-year-old sister Suzu was put up for adoption and eventually sold to a geisha house. Mizoguchi's adoration of Suzu and of his mother, who died when he was 17, was balanced by an intense hatred of his father. The senior Mizoguchi's inability to support his family forced his son, who had already developed an arthritic condition that would plague him throughout his life, to be farmed out to relatives. It was only through the sacrifices of Suzu that he was able to study art, become a painter, and eventually direct films, starting with The Resurrection of Love (1923).

Sansho the Bailiff Sansho the Bailiff

These characters and events from his youth — a sudden rise or fall in class; the oppressive or self-deluded male authority figure; the selfless, self-sacrificing woman who's ultimately destroyed — became the basis for his greatest works: Osaka Elegy, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff, and Ugetsu. In these films Mizoguchi brilliantly uses long takes, moving camera, and shimmering tableaux to show the futility of the social and philosophical status quo, particularly as it related to women.

- Gary Morris, Bright Lights Film Journal

ABOUT CINEMATOGRAPHER KAZUO MIYAGAWA

Kazuo Miyagawa was, quite simply, Japan's preeminent cinematographer. Commencing in the 1930s, he worked with some of his country's foremost directors, including Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa, Daisuke Ito, Hiroshi Inagaki, and Masahiro Shinoda, and his credits include some of the all time greatest Japanese films, includingRashomon, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, Street of Shame, Yojimbo, Floating Weeds, Odd Obsession, and Kagemusha.

Beginning his study of cinematography in 1926, after several years as an art student, Miyagawa was particularly impressed by the high-contrast lighting used in the German expressionist films of the era. Starting as a focus puller and assistant cameraman at the Nikkatsu Kyoto Studio laboratory, Miyagawa utilized his knowledge of film chemistry to experiment with the composition of film stock and the degree of exposure before shooting. Thus, he was able to determine the optimum exposure despite the varied physical conditions of location shooting; in fact, he did not even work with a light meter until Rashomon, in 1950.

Between 1935 and 1943, Miyagawa was in charge of second-unit photography and special effects at the Nikkatsu Studio. His first great success as chief cinematographer came in 1943, with his work on Hiroshi Inagaki's The Rickshaw Man, in which his ambitious camerawork captures the vivid images of the life of a rough but straightforward rickshaw man in a small city, using montage to recreate the flow of time. While he has attributed his success to the traditionally high standards of the studio's cinematographers and camera mechanics—"Working in the film lab taught me the basics, the fundamental part of making pictures," he once explained—he also noted, "It was my training in [Japanese] ink painting that really taught me how to see."

Indeed, it was Miyagawa's early study of this art form that gave him the understanding of subtle shadings which was evident in his black-and-white films. His fluid camera movements, particularly the long takes in Mizoguchi's films, demonstrate his knowledge of the Japanese traditional emakinomo scroll painting style. In order to satisfy Mizoguchi's demand to draw out the tense moments of highly dramatic performances, Miyagawa conceived the technique of suspenseful long takes, which capture highly dramatic performances without interruptions. He used many crane shots to create the mysterious atmosphere of Ugetsu and the romantic escape scenes of A Story from Chikamatsu. Long and complicated pannings such as those of the garden scene and the last scene of Ugetsu and the ending of Sansho the Bailiff are breathtakingly inventive. Further, in the latter film, he experimented with shooting the entire film in counter-light, to create the cold image suggested by the subject of slavery.

Miyagawa also contributed his dynamic camera style to Kurosawa's work. Utilizing the light reflecting directly on a mirror, he captured in bright summer daylight the surging emotions of the characters of Rashomon. The image of sunlight flickering behind the trees became legendary. In Yojimbo Miyagawa used telephoto lenses to successfully convey the powerful images of swordplay in the swirling dust. He also used telephoto lenses effectively in Ichikawa'sTokyo Olympiad to capture the poetic moments of physical movement, often in combination with slow motion. Miyagawa's bold use of the CinemaScope screen is evident in other successful films of Ichikawa. Particularly important was Miyagawa's technique of inventing the "silver tone" in the chemical process to create a greenish-gray tone, appropriate for the turn-of-the-century atmosphere of Her Brother.

Miyagawa's sensitive and ingenious approach to the specific tones of each of his color films is evident in his work for Ozu, Ito, Shinoda, Kouzaburo Yoshimura, Masuzo Yasumura, and others. He studied each type of film stock for specific color effects according to the subject. For Floating Weeds, the only Ozu film on which Miyagawa worked, he used a light color scheme to recreate the atmosphere of a town in southern Japan. The tension of the scene of a hard rainstorm under which a couple quarrels from opposite sides of a street was accentuated by Miyagawa's usage of a large light source with the dripping water captured in counter-light. The combination of bold colors and lyrical night scenes of Kyoto in Yoshimura's Night River, the recreation of the world of Kabuki and the bright-colored woodprints in Ito's Benten Boy and Masumura's Tattoo, the magnificent landscape colors in Shinoda's Silence and Banished Orin, and the dazzling color spectacle of Kurosawa's Kagemusha are other highly acclaimed examples of Miyagawa's skill.

The cinematographer was employed by the same studio between 1926 and 1971, working elsewhere only twice: on Yojimbo, shot at the Toho Studio; and Tokyo Olympiad, produced independently. Before his death, his more notable credits were Kagemusha, and Shinoda's Gonza the Spearman and MacArthur's Children. He remained professionally active into his eighties. "A director and cameraman are like husband and wife," Miyagawa once declared. "Even though they may fight, all their films are their offspring." He added, proudly, "I am a cinematographer. I've never had any ambition to become a director. A film is not one individual's method of personal expression but a matter of teamwork, a cooperative venture."

Kyoko Hirano, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

ABOUT COMPOSER FUMIO HAYASAKA

Fumio Hayasaka is among the most respected of Japanese composers. Beginning in the late 1930s he has worked for noted directors including Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Shimazu, Tadashi Imai, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and Kon Ichikawa. However, he is most famous for his work for Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa.

Combining Japanese traditional instruments with Western instruments, Hayasaka wrote mysterious, stylized scores for Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, and A Story from Chikamatsu. Interested in a wide variety of styles, he nonetheless sought to create a uniquely Japanese style of film music.

His collaboration with Kurosawa began in the late 1940s with Drunken Angel, and the two artists soon found each other indispensable. Their association continued in a spirit of mutual appreciation and respect until Hayasaka's death during the production of Record of a Living Being in 1955.

Kurosawa and Hayasaka both believed that film music should not always work to enhance the mood or the dramatic highlights of a scene, and that unexpected combinations of music and visual images would create more interesting effects. For instance, the lively spirit of the "Cuckoo Waltz" heard from a loudspeaker on a street in the black-market area starkly contrasts with the depressed psychological state of the hero of Drunken Angel. In Stray Dog the sound of a housewife practising piano is heard during the suspenseful confrontation of the criminal and the detective, and a children's song is heard in the scene of the criminal's arrest.

Hayasaka's bolero music for Rashomon is also uniquely effective. This theme music is used as a leitmotif, associated with the appearance of certain characters, and contrasts with the styles used in other scenes. Similarly, in Seven Samurai Hayasaka created powerful and emotional theme music for the samurai themselves, with more lyrical music used for the scenes of lovers and ominously rhythmical music for the battle scenes. The composer planned each of his scores by meticulously analyzing the structure and the mood of each scene. His constant experimentation, and his search to create a unique effect in each scene, won him wide acclaim.

Kyoko Hirano, Film Reference.com

943 (85). Murder by Contract (1958, Irving Lerner)

Screened Wednesday December 16 2008 on VHS in New York NY TSPDT rank #726 IMDb

Irving Lerner hard-sells an implausible premise of Claude, a novice contract killer (Vince Edwards, an outwardly tougher but equally brittle Montgomery Clift type. ) working his way at record speed to a major league hit, much in the way Claude sells himself to his client: memorable tough-talking one-liners offset by gestural terseness. Claude's preparation and execution of his new trade is a series of lizard-cool rituals shot and edited with the exactitude of a metronome, actions alternating with shots of clocks and scribbled notes adding dollar figures for each mission accomplished, as mesmerizing as a video game in its lockstep rhythm of rounds and rewards.

For his big hit, Lerner introduces two Abbot and Costello sidekicks who ostensibly support and monitor Claude, but practically serve as on-screen audience surrogates analyzing the film noir hero standing in their midst. Flabbergasted by Claude's super-cool reluctance to execute the hit, the sidekicks engage in an extended comic give-and-take, a brilliant device that co-opts the audience's fragile suspension of disbelief by giving voice to it, while building up near-impossible expectations of Claude's hitman abilities. It's when Claude discovers late in the game that his target is a woman that his game plan starts to crumble, leading to a succumbing of linear rationalism to crazed impulse worthy of Kubrick. In terms of scale, Murder by Contract is a modest chamber piece compared to The Killing's multi-character symphony, but it cuts deeper into the same heart of male self-destructiveness underlying its most outrageous aspirations.

Want to go deeper?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Murder by Contract on the TSPDT 1000:

Andrew Rector, Senses of Cinema (2002) Bettina Thienhaus, Steadycam (2007) Hans Schifferle, Steadycam (2007) Harun Farocki, Facets (2003) Jorge Didaco, Senses of Cinema (2003) ? Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) ? Martin Scorsese, Guilty Pleasures (1998) ? Martin Scorsese, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977) ? National Society of Film Critics, The B List: Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love (2008)

Memorable quotes:

"Now why would a stranger kill a stranger? Because somebody's willing to pay. It's business. Same as any other business. You murder the competition. Instead of price cutting, it's throat-cutting. Same thing."

"If I'd have known it was a woman I would have asked double. I don't like women. They don't stand still. When they move it's hard to figure why or wherefore. They're not dependable. It's tough to kill somebody not dependable."

"The human female is descended from the monkey. A

Listen to a podcast on Murder by Contract at The Lost Picture Show with Julian and John

This is the film that has influenced me most. I had a clip out of it in Mean Streets but had to take it out: it was too long, and a little too esoteric. And there's a getting-in-shape sequence that's very much like the one in Taxi Driver. The spirit of Murder By Contract has a lot to do with Taxi Driver. Lerner was an artist who knew how to do things in shorthand, like Bresson and Godard. The film puts us all to shame with its economy of style, especially in the barbershop murder at the beginning. Vince Edwards gives a marvelous performance as the killer who couldn't murder a woman. Murder By Contract was a favorite of neighborhood guys who didn't know anything about movies. They just liked the film because they recognized something unique about it.

- Martin Scorsese, "Martin Scorsese's Guilty Pleasures," Film Comment, May-June 1998

This rarely screened 1958 gem about the mind of a contract killer is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite thrillers, and it’s easy to see why. The film follows an existential hipster (Vince Edwards) who coolly regards his work as a business until he gets thrown by a big-time assignment to rub out a woman about to testify in court. Neither the screenwriter (Ben Simcoe) nor the director (Irving Lerner) ever made it big, but here they achieved something nearly perfect–with a memorable guitar score, a witty feeling for character, dialogue, and narrative ellipsis, and a lean, purposeful style. Lucien Ballard did the black-and-white cinematography.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

A terrific, no-nonsense B movie which comes on like something by Jean-Pierre Melville: cool, calm and dispassionate. Edwards is Claude, a technician who goes into crime as a career move, to 'improve himself'. A series of hits later, he looks every inch the professional assassin, confident enough to take his time, competent enough not to fear detection. It isn't entirely his fault if something goes wrong on the big contract... Lerner and his superb cameraman, Lucien Ballard, make the most of a shoestring budget to produce a taut, spare, amoral film; it doesn't look restricted, it looks restrained. Well ahead of its time, too.

- Time Out Movie Guide

The originality of this B-picture, shot in only a few days, lies in its depiction of a hired killer as a technician, a man who is in a steady job but wants to 'better' himself and make big money, and who outwardly and officially is the essence of white-collar respectability. The film's distinctiveness stems from its coolness of tone, which is suitably complemented by Perry Botkin's guitar accompaniment.

- Phil Hardy, British Film Institute, The BFI Companion to Crime. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997. Page 234

When Martin Scorsese dedicated New York, New York to the memory of Irving Lerner (1909-1976), it wasn’t because Scorsese’s somber, fatalistic musical had anything in common with Lerner’s handful of noirs, apart from spiritual darkness. Of Lerner’s small output, the film that Scorsese was most influenced by, and cited frequently, was Murder by Contract (1958). A quickie shot in eight days on a microscopic budget, it’s a potent reminder of how less can be more, centered on Vince Edwards’ loner killer for hire. Cool on the outside, tightly coiled on the inside, Edwards’ Claude, priding himself on having put his emotions on ice, exemplifies a sort of cusp noir, a harbinger of postwar American change...

What anthropologically-trained Lerner tapped into was American postwar change. Where historians saw an age of conformity, Lerner saw a release of pent-up energies, a metaphysical sprawl that was soon to have its analogue in suburban sprawl. In his brilliant study, Film Noir: The Spaces of Modernity, Edward Dimendberg usefully makes a distinction between the centripetal force of the classic noir of the cities, with everything, including women trapped in male sexualizing of women’s roles, pulled toward the city’s dark center, and the centrifugal forces of the postwar world, with everything spiraling outward, into the suburbs and away from older role models...

Clean, lean and mean, tight, tense and satisfyingly reverberant, Murder by Contract vaults over its Poverty Row origins. We can understand why the young Scorsese was much more taken by it than by the A-movie on the double bill he saw. We see in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) Travis Bickle’s genuflections to Edwards’ ascetic preparations. Scorsese says he recalled Perry Botkin’s potent music for Murder by Contract – a single guitar, which Botkin played, redolent with hints of ‘50s Italo-pop and Anton Karas’s zither music for The Third Man (1949). Howard Shore devised a similarly guitar-flavored score that underlined the web-of-fate element in Scorsese’s Oscar®-winning The Departed (2006). In its pared-down imperative, and its distant early warning signals of postwar societal upheaval, Murder by Contract, with its fade to white, is a big little film noir turned film blanc.

- Jay Carr, Turner Classic Movies

This neglected low-budget B/W noir film from the 1950s is a beaut, an absolutely superb thriller. It reminds me so much of Jean-Pierre Melville's great existentialist character study film noir called Le Samurai (67), where the point of the film remains less on the story and more on how the protagonist is suave and calculatingly dispassionate...

This is a perfectly nuanced film with the atmospheric noir cinematography by Lucien Ballard, plus a brilliantly appropriate one-man guitar musical arrangement heard in the background. The film also had a beautiful feel for who the character is and the situation he was in. There were no phony contrivances, as everything felt natural. They don't make noir films better than this. Interestingly enough, the director and screenwriter never went on to do something even close to the quality this B- film achieved, while this role deservedly catapulted Vince Edwards career into stardom. Martin Scorsese said this was the film that influenced him most when he made "Mean Streets."

- Dennis Schwartz

There’s an original approach to the framing of shots (a floor level view of bound and gagged barbershop employees as Edwards prepares to cut the throat of an unsuspecting victim in the front of the shop). Ballard also moves smoothly from the outdoors (Edwards and two gangster clients tooling around Los Angeles in a convertible) to long static takes indoors in which Edward’s alienated psychological state is subtly revealed through his body language and actions. The montage sequence where we observe him over a two week period never leaving his room while he waits for a client’s phone call is masterful and will obviously remind you of Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER and maybe even Jef Costello in LE SAMOURAI. He does pull-ups from a closet rod, push-ups off two chairs, he prepares for bed repeatedly, and he calls in food orders and lays out the measy dime tips on the cardtable in front of him, parsing one out to each delivery boy like a machine.

- morlockjeff, Movie Morlocks, the TCM blog

There is an effortless lightness of touch to this film, a lightness which begins with the crisp editing and directorial efficiencies praised by Scorsese and continues via transference to Vince (Ben Casey) Edwards’ portrayal of Claude, the hitman whose deadpan existentialism infuriates his mob handlers as much as it creases up audiences who feel they are in on the gag. His zen philosophising on ‘the assassin worldview’ links Murder By Contract to the This Gun For Hire archetype of the lone killer with a higher purpose even as it satirises it.

With this sure touch goes perfect balance. The opening scenes have a noir darkness (courtesy veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard) while the establishing ‘hits’ are very deftly sketched in (check the Coen Bros’ comparable barbershop scene in their 2001 genre homage The Man Who Wasn’t There), but we know little of Claude’s persona here. It’s only in the main body of the film, when the plot shifts from New York to California and the associated brightness of sunny location shooting, that the strains of Claude’s idiosyncrasies emerge and supply enough gravity to balance the light. Music continues this dualism, with nothing more than a spare, Third Man-like Mediterranean guitar picking that alternates with an insistent, near-techno, pulse in the scenes of tension.

Without Claude’s inscrutable delaying tactics, lateral-thinking work ethic and impossibly conflicted gender politics (which tie him up in knots on discovering his West Coast target is – gasp! – a woman) Murder By Contract wouldn’t rise above the level of forgotten 50s TV crime shows. Its clean lines and simplicity schematize gangland behaviour (unrealistically of course) into neat roles which are comic book reassuring.

Even so the film falters noticeably after Claude’s gangland minders outlive their usefulness and he turns his talents in their direction. But even this is handled with felicitous irony, the Hollywood backlot where Claude dispatches his erstwhile handlers underscoring the play-acting dimension to the superficiality of it all.

Like every version of the Gun For Hire archetype (through variants like 1974’s The Conversation right up to 1999’s Ghost Dog), it’s the humanising entry of feelings into his detached makeup that proves the protagonist’s undoing. Claude’s delayed ‘gratification’ of the hit, conflated with his female aversion, is a psycho-sexual conundrum that makes Murder By Contract enduringly intriguing. No wonder Scorsese likes it!

-    Roger Westcombe, Big House Film

Another Missing Link film, this one informing the steely-eyed, pretensions-to-philosophy hitman subgenre (echoing especially now with current online rumbles over the Coens’ No Country for Old Men). This film has the isolated astringency of European art-house films of the time (the score, titles, and opening scene are distinctly European for this time period, probably Italian-influenced), and completes the picture by saddling our cold-blooded hitman “hero” with a pair of comical, worrying overseers from the Syndicate (or Organization, or whatever these 1950s movies lovingly called the Nation Wide Mob). Minimal editing within a scene, Lerner sticking to single shot, high-ish angle setups give the film a stern, singular, and terse cinematic vernacular. While the staging and acting sometimes slides into the silly, the L.A. of 1958 is too fascinating, Lerner’s compositions to often good (Lucien Ballard inexplicably shooting this no-name B-film), and, like so many existentialism-influenced films that began appearing around this time, it’s got a sublimely poetic-fatalist ending that keeps the whole thing well above an unseen curiosity.

- Daniel Kasman

About Irving Lerner

Wiki

Murder by Contract is a minor classic of murderous understatement, and is all that need be said about Irving Lerner's career. Perhaps it is a mistake to treat films like Murder by Contract as means to an end or as overtures to grand operas. A director, like any artist, may have but one good work in his system. Often the promising work turns out to be the ultimate work, and Murder by Contract seems to fall into that category.

- Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. Published by Da Capo Press, 1996. Page 215

After seeing MURDER BY CONTRACT for the first time I wanted to find out more about Lerner and was amazed to see how many different types of films he had worked on and in different capacities. Here was a former research editor for Columbia University’s Encyclopedia of Social Sciences who ended up becoming the head of New York University’s Educational Film Institute after World War II. He then hooked up with director Joseph Strick (THE SAVAGE EYE) on a short documentary, MUSCLE BEACH (1948), and then on his own made SUICIDE ATTACK, a 1951 documentary that utilized captured Japanese footage to show WWII (especially the live combat) from the Japanese point of view. After that, Lerner entered the B movie industry but more on that in part two. He also produced several documentaries including TO HEAR YOUR BANJO PLAY (1947) which he co-directed with the great Willard Van Dyke (THE CITY, 1938) and featured Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, & Sonny Terry & Brownee McGhee among others and the big budget Western CUSTER OF THE WEST (1967) starring Robert Shaw. He even dabbled in producing some spaghetti Westerns with Lee Van Cleef – CAPTAIN APACHE (1971) and BAD MAN’S RIVER (1971).

But it gets weirder. He served as a technical advisor on both ROBOT MONSTER (1953) and Anthony Mann’s GOD’S LITTLE ACRE (1953). He worked as an associate editor on EXECUTIVE ACTION (1973), the Dalton Trumbo scripted dramatization of the plot to assassinate President Kennedy. He worked as an actor in Jose Luis Borau’s HAY QUE MATAR A B. (1975, aka “B Must Die) opposite Darren McGavin, Stephane Audran, and Patricia Neal. I swear I am not hallucinating! To top it off he served as an uncredited editor on Kubrick’s SPARTACUS as well as Fred Haines’s 1974 film adaptation of Hermann Hesse’s STEPPENWOLF and the documentary MUSTANG: THE HOUSE THAT JOE BUILT (1978), Robert Guralnick’s documentary on America’s first legal brothel – in Nevada. WHAT? Who the heck is this guy? Next week I’ll cover some of his other films as a director including the follow-up to MURDER BY CONTRACT – CITY OF FEAR (1959).

- morlockjeff, Movie Morlocks, the TCM blog

About Vince Edwards

Poor Vince has never gotten much respect as an actor but that’s because most people only remember his reserved but compassionate one-note performance as “Ben Casey,” the popular TV medical series that ran from 1961-1966. MURDER BY CONTRACT was the role he was born to play and to state the obvious Vince was never the best choice to play goody-two-shoes leading men. Almost every line of dialogue the misogynistic Claude delivers in this film is quotable – if you’re drunk at a stag party circa 1958: “The human female is descended from a monkey!” Vince was also quite memorable as the scariest of the three thugs terrorizing Jack Kelly’s family in THE NIGHT HOLDS TERROR (1955) – scarier even than his hoodlum co-star John Cassavetes whose film TOO LATE BLUES he would appear in in 1961. He’s also cool and devious in Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956) as the young hot shot who’s double-crossing Elisha Cook, Jr. in a heist ripoff with Cook’s wife, Marie Windsor. And he popped up in some prestige projects too such as I AM A CAMERA (1955, based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories”, the basis for CABARET), the Oscar winning THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1957) and Carl Foreman’s war epic THE VICTORS (1963).

- morlockjeff, Movie Morlocks, the TCM blog