After watching the rigorously choreographed long-take mastery of Berlanga's Placido, my encounter with Ritwik Ghatak was a jolt. His splintered account of family dissolution in Bengal following the 1947 Partition feels perpetually jostled, mirroring its characters sense of displacement and desperation to resettle themselves both physically and emotionally.
Discombobulation is apparent from the first scene: displaced villagers from the Bangladeshi side of the partition have tried to carve a colony for themselves on the outskirts of Calcutta, to the chagrin of the locals. Even among the migrants there are factions of locality and caste as a way to prioritize resettlement; as one landlord asserts: "If we can't keep the differences, then what are we left with?"
Skip ahead to 3:30 in the following clip:
WATCH SUBARNAREKHA, PART 1:
Note how the sequence begins with a sense of patriotism and resolve: Haraprasad the teacher initiates a new school for the colony children.
It cuts from this composition that conveys a ceremonial sense of a community planting itself (note the flagpole squarely in the frame) to this more intimate shot giving a variation of the same idea, a child, hand planted on the adult.
But then there's an abrupt cut to a completely different space (is it the same village?) where a low-caste woman pleads a landlord to take her and her son.
After a quick refusal the film explodes into chaos: her son suddenly runs offscreen and people begin to scatter in all directions across the frame. A man grabs the woman and the camera sweeps leftward as he drags her to a truck ready to deport all the low-caste migrants from the village.
The camera finishes its leftward sweep by craning upward to look down at the truck; the gesture is simple but combined with the onscreen activity, it conveys a sense of epic tragedy.
Then the shot cuts back to the earlier shot of the teachers sitting planted, as if they were spectators to their own village's ethnic purging. Ghatak has established two visual spaces within the village and only now is he suturing them together, one fragmented space watching the other. It undermines the rosy words of peace and harmony uttered by the teacher, and establishes a theme of narrative, spatial and tonal fragmentation that continues throughout the film.
Another example: Ishwar, one of the villaged teachers, depressed over his lowly status as a migrant, runs into a college classmate, now a wealthy businessman and who offers him a job. Note how the angle on Ishwar shifts dramatically across the reverse shot at the moment he is offered the position:
The film is rife with angular shots expressing weird geometries; you would assume that Ghatak was co-opting his French New Wave contemporaries, but really it traces back to his love of Eisenstein and Soviet Constructivism.
A less propitious, but more striking example comes later, when Ishwar tells his sister Sita that she's been betrothed against her will. Skip to 0:30 in this clip and see what Ghatak does with cutting variations of essentially the same shot of Sita to convey her sense of alarm (see Omar Ahmed's comparison with how Scorsese uses the technique, after the break):
Again, the film is filled with these irruptions: one of the film's happiest sequences, of two children frolicking through an abandoned airstrip, is abruptly ended when one of them is called away. The other child plays on her own; the music resumes the mood that the two of them had established until WHAMMO!
The film's only real moments of sustained tonal clarity come in the songs sung by the adult Sita, which amount to arias in this historical opera. But even these songs can have a disruptive effect on the narrative. One of her most beautiful and mournful songs comes right after Ishwar has been awarded a promotion; he searches for her to share the news, finding her along the desolate banks of the river (1:50 in the following clip):
If anything, the protracted mood of this scene establishes the feeling of loss and longing that underlies the entire film.
Since I brought up the elements of the musical genre that Ghatak incorporates, I should also mention how unabashedly Ghatak embraces melodrama as well as Greek tragedy. The film is a roiling mix of genres as well as moods. And on a subtextual level, it's more densely packed than I can manage to unravel in this post, connecting Oedipus, Hindu mythology, Marxist theory and the tragedy of Indian history in such a way that only a cosmopolitan scholar, artist and activist such as Ghatak could manage. And yet, despite boiling all these elements into a raging stew that reflects the tumult of the world around him, he can also offer images of breathtaking simplicity, conveying all of his hope and sadness:
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Subarnarekha among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Mark Puszicha, The Auteurs (2009)
Rudiger Tomczak, Steadycam (2007)
Srinivas Krishna, Sight & Sound (1992)
Stephen Souter, The Auteurs (2009)
Thomas Allenbach, Profil (2004)
Cinemaya, Best Asian Films (1998)
Jean-Loup Bourget, Positif: 10 Favourite Films 1952-2002 (2002)
Rough Guide to Film, India: 5 Lesser-Known Gems (2007)
Sight & Sound, 75 Hidden Gems (2007)
Various Critics, Book - 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 2
Ritwik Ghatak's films are deeply haunted by the specter of the Partition of Bengal in 1947, and this sense of dislocation and self-inflicted human tragedy created by artificially imposed social division casts a pervasive sentiment of despair, instability, and perpetual exile through all the rended families and uprooted ancestral communities of Subarnarekha... Similarly, the Subarnarekha River (translated as the "Golden Line" River because of its proximity to rich ore deposits) becomes an implicit reflection of the inescapable social (and economic) disparity and cultural marginalization that continues to afflict the displaced refugees of the Partition... It is this pervasive complacency (if not outright willful ignorance) that inevitably lies at the core of Ghatak's impassioned social criticism on the fateful dynamics that led to the culturally self-inflicted tragedy of the Partition - an inextricable pattern of self-interest, insensitivity, and political apathy from the Bengali middle-class that not only enabled ideological fanaticism and sectarianism to shape the landscape of a post-colonial Indian nation, but also rendered the very idea of home as a sentimental place on an elusive other side that, like the distant, opposing banks of the Subarnarekha River, symbolically represents an idealized, and intranscendible, elsewhere.
Subarnarekha, made in 1962 but released in 1965, is the last in a trilogy examining the socio-economic implications of partition, the other two being Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) and Komal Ghandhar (1961). It is also perhaps Ritwik Ghatak's most complex film.
In the film Ghatak depicts the great economic and socio-political crisis eating up the very entrails of the existence of Bengal from 1948 - 1962; How the crisis has first and foremost left one bereft of one's conscience, one's moral sense. In the film, the problem of homelessness or rootlessness no more remains confined to the refugees from the partition. Ghatak extends it further as an important concept for the modern man, uprooted from his traditional moorings. The geographical sphere is thus merged into a wider generality.
Ghatak endows virtually every sequence with a wealth of historical overtones through an iconography of violation, destruction, industrialism and the disasters of famine and partition. Most of the dialogues and the visuals are a patchwork of literary and cinematic quotations enhanced by Ghatak's characteristic redemptive use of music. A famous example is the sequence set on an abandoned airstrip with the wreck of a WW2 airplane where the children playfully reconstruct its violence until they come up against the frightening image of the goddess Kali (who turns out to be a rather pathetic traveling performer). Later, in dappled light, the older Sita sings a dawn raga on the airstrip. In a classic dissolve, the old Iswar throws a newspaper showing Yuri Gagarin's Space Exploration into the foundry where it bursts into flames, which then dissolve into the rainwater outside Sita's hovel. Haraprasad, who had earlier rescued Iswar from committing suicide by quoting from Tagore's Shishu Tirtha, later in the nightclub parodies an episode from the Upanishads using an East Bengal dialect. Other quotes from this extraordinary sequence includes Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) and, through the music, Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960). Fellini had used the 'Patricia' music in La Dolce Vita to lash out at a degenerate, decadent western civilization. Ghatak passes a similar judgement on Bengal by using the same music for the orgy in the bar. A torn and tattered Bengal enhances the grimness of Sita and her prostitution as it is a powerful metaphor of its inner degradation.
Sadly, like most of Ghatak's films, Subarnarekha was totally rejected by the public. Ironically, today the film is hailed as a classic and as an important landmark in the history of Indian Cinema.
In The Cloud-Capped Star and THE GOLDEN LINE (also known as Subarnarekha; 1962), Ghatak draws on Brecht (whose The Life of Galileo and The Caucasian Chalk Circle he translated into Bengali) and melodrama to create a new national cinema, highlighting the trauma of the Bengali diaspora and the dilemmas of an independent India. The former film concerns the decline of a family who end up being sustained by (i.e., exploiting) their oldest daughter, who gives up her chances at higher education and love in order to work. In one of the great Brechtian moments in cinema, the near-demented father, on learning that his son has been injured in a factory accident, declaims, “This was expected; this is the rule.” The Golden Line is a lacerating epic about the fortunes of three Bengali refugees: a man, his younger sister, and the lower-caste boy they adopt. If the images deal in distance and discontinuity (as when the characters visit an abandoned British airstrip), the sounds are too close (especially in the scenes of disaster that accumulate in the last third of the film), creating a uniquely Ghatakian sensory overload.
An intense film of emphatic visual rhythms, Subarnarekha is composed mainly of short shots that suspend actors in close-to-middle camera space, creating uncomfortably direct images of crisis and confrontation. The plot moves farther and farther into poetic melodrama (including a brilliant alcoholic nightclub scene), finding room along the way for a stark, lyrical interlude in which the children discover an abandoned British airstrip. Add some of the most creative uses of music and sound in any film and you have a must-see.
Unlike Ray or others, Ghatak had always practiced complexity in his presentation pattern. The juxtaposition of the Jungian archetype of ‘Kalika‘ with melodramatic realism depicts diabolic terribleness of the degenerated society. The act of confrontation between young Sita and the travelling performer (bahurupi), made-up in the terrible image of the great-mother (Kali), gives an indication of the oncoming tempest on the civilisation. Subarnarekha ruthlessly exposes the philosophical waste of the post-independent Indian society. It chronicles the emptiness of mainstream politics where the communist party, congress party and other so-called political parties are united in minting. Ghatak suggests that the socio-political degeneration due to the Mountbatten Award is responsible for creating spiritual confusions among the people. A crude yet aesthetic dissection of the social broke makes Subarnarekha an unbearable statement against the worshipers of elitist aesthetics.
Subarnarekha is the only Indian film that aesthetically executes the genre of melodrama by joining different episodes into a story of coincidences. In Ritwik Ghatak’s own words – “I agree that coincidences virtually overflow in Subarnarekha. And yet the logic of the biggest coincidence, the brother arriving at his sister’s house provoked me to orchestrate coincidence per se in the very structuring of the film. It is a tricky but fascinating form verging on the epic. This coincidence is forceful in its logic as the brother going to any woman amounts to his going to somebody else’s sister.” The entire film propels forward through historical and mythical overtones, taking melodrama as its foundation.
Subarnarekha bestows Ghatak’s tremendous technical genius, aided with Bahadur Khan Sahib’s evocative compositions. The powerful montage of sight and sound that Ghatak constructs in Sita’s suicide scene is one of cinema’s phenomenal creations. Sound of Sita’s exaggerated breathing with the image of a kitchen knife juxtaposed with a big close-up of her painful unblinking eyes establishes a new dimension in Indian cinematography and montage.
Ghatak’s exacting control over the rhythm of his films extended from Eisenstein’s theoretical and cinematic experimentation's with political montage. Elliptical editing inevitably invites an ambiguity and fracture into linear narrative, creating discernible gaps that disorient the spectator. After what is an admittedly schizophrenic opening twenty minutes, Subarnarekha settles into a familiar classical rhythm and the focus of dramatic conflict becomes the relationship between brother and sister. Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) is unable to come to terms with his sister, Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee), marrying Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya)who hails from a lower caste. Such caste prejudices come to the fore when Ishwar orders Abhiram to leave for Calcutta. When Ishwar orders Sita to meet the family which has come to see her for a possible marriage arrangement, Sita’s refusal is met with a kind of patriarchal violence.
The triple jump cut in Ghatak's 'Subarnarekha'.
However, prior to this moment of violence, Ghatak opens the sequence with what is a triple jump cut of Sita who turns to face her brother whilst sitting on the ground caressing the sitar for comfort. It is a rhythmically organic series of edits which rightly draws our attention to the reflexive nature of Ghatak’s approach. The violence inherent in the triple jump cut that begins with a close up and finishes on a mid shot signals a disruption in the narrative and also act as the trigger for Sita’s abandonment of her brother, choosing to elope with Abhiram. Ghatak’s ideologically intense use of the triple jump cut may seem a normalised practise today but it reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough feature ‘Mean Streets’ which opens with another striking and creative example of elliptical editing immortalised in the three carefully juxtaposed edits of Charlie’s head hitting the pillow to the sound of ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes.
The opening to 'Mean Streets' - Scorsese's use of the triple jump cut.
With Subarnarekha, Ritwik Ghatak completed the trilogy he had begun with Meghe Dhaka Tara (see above) and Komal Ghandhar (1961) about the human upheavals, strife and all-out war, famine and dire poverty created as a result of the 1947 Partition of India, the arbitrary line that the British drew on a map as its farewell colonialist act, dividing India into a secular state and Islamic Pakistan. Ghatak’s saga over many years focuses on a family of Bengali refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) trying to establish new roots.
As with Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ghatak has fashioned a piece of powerful yearning—the desire of people to lead settled lives. An upwardly tilted shot suggests that sparsely adorned branches of a tree are reaching hopefully with all their fragile might into the heavens: a piercing image. “All year I’ve been yearning to come home,” Abhiram, who has been away at school, tells Seeta at the edge of a forest. Without realizing it, the boy is giving voice to the hearts of a shattered people.
In Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, Ghatak uses songs by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Bengal’s creative genius, who was a poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter, song composer (0f both lyrics and music), philosopher, teacher, and Nobel Prize winner. Tagore wrote over 2,000 songs, known as Rabindra sangeet or Rabindra song, compositions that incorporated elements of Indian classical music and Bengali folk songs.[open notes in new window] In his biography of Tagore, Krishna Kripalani describes the impact of Tagore’s songs in Bengali culture:
“For each change of the season, each aspect of his country’s rich landscape, every undulation of the human heart, in sorrow or joy, has found its voice in some song of his.”
His songs often celebrate Nature and the Divine, specifically in the physical and spiritual context of Bengal.
As previously mentioned, in his films Ghatak utilizes a variety of musical forms, both Indian and non-Indian, and commonly uses Tagore’s music. As Ghatak stated in an interview just before his death:
“I cannot speak without Tagore. That man has culled all of my feelings from long before my birth. He has understood what I am and he has put in all the words. I read him and I find that all has been said and I have nothing new to say.”
Ghatak, like most Bengalis, considers Tagore as the embodiment of all that is great in Bengali culture, as the pinnacle of artistic expression in Bengal. When Ghatak uses a Tagore song in a film, it often evokes among Bengalis nostalgia and longing for an undivided, pre-Partition Bengal. Ghatak situates Tagore songs within the painful context of the struggle for survival of post-Independence Bengali families, and the songs serve to shape and give dimension to the characters of Nita and Sita. In both Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, Ghatak uses Tagore songs at climatic moments to express the joy and sorrow of the post-Independence Bengali woman, who must bear the burden of rebuilding the family in the aftermath of Partition.
I’m taken by O’Donnell’s analysis of Ghatak’s use of melodrama. She suggests that it comes from drawing on a wide range of other melodrama forms including from European and Russian Cinemas as well as theatre. At the same time Ghatak makes use of traditional Indian stories from Hindu mythology. The result is this very cinematic camera, but an unusual mix of other influences placing the resultant films in this no-man’s land between the ’social’ films of Hindi Cinema (including the films of Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor) and the art films of Ray and Sen.
The films work by using the family as metaphor for the impossibility of creating ‘home’ out of the despair created by partition and exile. Subarnarekha is contextualised by a series of historical events which mark the earlier part of the narrative – the terrible famine in Bengal in 1942, the successful halt of the Japanese advance into Northern Burma and then Bengal in the latter stages of the war, the partition and the exodus to Calcutta and finally the death of Ghandi. After this and the beginnings of a new life by the Subarnarekha River, the time period becomes less distinct and title cards merely refer to a few months or a few years later marking the period when Sita and Abhiram are growing up. I was struck, however, by the abandoned RAF base (i.e. from where the bombers left for Burma). This is where the children play and where Sita has various adventures. The hulks of abandoned aircraft and the few surviving parts of buildings (from only a few years ago) seem to act as a ‘doubling’ of the signifiers of a life that is no longer possible, of times that have irrevocably changed.
Screened January 30 2010 on .avi downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn, NY
TSPDT rank #763 IMDbWiki
As with my previous entry on Douce, the only print of this film that I could access has no subtitles. My original plan was to enlist a Spanish-speaking friend to watch it with me and offer live translation. But having watched the film, I wouldn't wish to force anyone to help me through the muy rapido Spanish dialogue. Just listening to it recalls the breathless banter of 30s screwball.
The online synopses I could find (most of them posted after the break) offer only cursory summaries of the plot, leaving much of what transpired onscreen lost to me. So much the better to appreciate the film's cinematic qualities. As I mentioned, the film's spitfire dialogue recalls the comedies of Capra and Hawks; some associate the film's Christmas setting and main plot (a guy desperately trying to save his livelihood after the bank calls in his loan) to Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Others connect the film's subplot about the rich townspeople's bogus, self-serving acts of charity towards poor people during Christmas with that other great Spanish film of 1961, Bunuel's Viridiana. But the film's satirical depiction of people engaged in a manic farce while hosting out-of-town visitors had me thinking of another great comedy of the same year, Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three.
Watching the film, despite feeling that the film moved at a brisk clip thanks to the speedy dialogue, I began to notice how long the takes were, with many shots lasting over a minute or more. I went back from the beginning and counted no less than 25 shots, each lasting one-to-three minutes long, which altogether account for over a third of the film's 80 minute running time (title credit sequence not counted). There are roughly an additional 17 shots lasting 30-59 seconds. Overall, there are a total of 158 shots in 80 minutes, averaging 30 seconds a shot.
Why does Berlanga rely so much on long takes? On the practical side, it's simpler, faster and more economical to set up a single master take than to do multiple camera set-ups for a given scene. But Berlanga is no slouch. Just watch this one-take scene. Clocking in at almost 3 minutes, it's one of the longest shots in the film. Try to figure out how many actors are in the scene, and how many camera positions he's able to achieve in one take:
By my count I have a dozen characters, and about half a dozen unique looks at this one room. Berlanga is very resourceful, relying on what I think is a single dolly track to roll the camera up and down the room , rotating the camera horizontally so that it captures a total of about 120 degrees of the room over the course of the scene. But perhaps what's most impressive is his staging of actors in several different configurations so that there's an exceptionally dynamic sense of dramatic movement as well as shifting social dynamics from start to finish. Masterful use of foreground and background, not to mention lateral movement, to emphasize contrasts between divisions of people within a single room.
Believe it or not, this scene is preceded by a one-shot scene lasting 80 seconds, and followed by another one-shot scene lasting three and a half minutes. This dynamically staged long-take technique pretty much dominates the middle stretch of the film, where in one scene after another, people are thrown into different, contentious combinations, their fortunes and emotional states apparently in constant flux.
But Berlanga is no one-trick/ long-take pony. In other scenes, he'll incorporate flash cutaways lasting just a second or two. There are a couple of sequences that use this technique liberally: the arrival of the charity benefactors at the town's train station; and a charity auction where a man appears to be pressured to bid for something he doesn't want to save face. Interestingly, both of these scenes amount to public ceremonies, as if to suggest that they elicit heightened states of excitement and anxiety.
Berlanga's filmmaking was already quite deft 10 years earlier when he made Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!, employing freeze frames, fast motion and other comic editing tricks at a level on par with Preston Sturges. But his handling of dialogue scenes catered more to conventional Hollywood decoupage techniques. Compare what goes on in the above clip from Placido with how the following stills, captured from one scene in Bienvenido Mister Marshall!, cuts from master shot to individual close ups before returning to the master:
As another point of comparison to Berlanga's shooting and in-camera editing technique, I pulled up Wilder's aforementioned One, Two Three and played through the first half of the film, as well as the famous extended climactic sequence whose energy and incredible use of interior spaces to move action along is worthy of comparison to those in Placido. Scanning through about 80 minutes of footage, only once did I find a shot that lasted more than one minute. Here's a representative capture from that sequence:
Even though the pacing is manic, the space isn't nearly as compressed as the interiors in Placido. This film is set in large modern office spaces whose expanse suits a wide Scope frame. Some of the energy is conveyed from a host of characters rushing in and out of Cagney's office with their crises of the moment, with Cagney riding the eye of the storm. For the most part the The film employs an arsenal of shots at different lengths (wide/ medium / close-up), tracking shots, shot/ reverse-shot dialogues, woven seamlessly and coherently even as it conveys the chaos at hand.
Interestingly, despite an ensemble of over a dozen characters interacting with Cagney over the course of this sustained climactic act, there are hardly ever more than two or three characters engaged with him at a given moment, which allows for Wilder to parse the manic activity he's concocted into a coherent stream. Compare this to the above shot in Placido, where a dozen characters appear in one shot and alternate in their interactions, no one of them dominating the proceedings.
Wilder's approach creates a more adversarial feeling between characters, setting up clear oppositional dynamics, mostly between James Cagney's blow-hard Coke executive and everyone around him, with whom he dispatches one at a time. Berlanga's technique of shooting dialogue scenes emphasizes more of a holistic social environment. Even as people contend with each other inside the frame, the camera acts as a needle to weave them together into a tapestry of comic dysfunction.
Interestingly, Berlanga's film El Verdugo, made two years after Placido, employs a widescreen camera approaching the Scope compositions of One, Two, Three. While Berlanga largely retains the use of long takes often exceeding a minute, instead of compressed compositions of people, he more frequently exploits the wide screen to emphasize distances between people, especially with the main characters, who are undertakers, and thus relatively ostracized within society:
Thinking further on my account of Berlanga's work in Placido, I'm now curious to compare his approach to ensemble scene-making to that of perhaps the most famous American ensemblist, Robert Altman. I don't seem to have a DVD of Nashville or Short Cuts on me (!), but I would wager that even Altman doesn't let his shots go as long or involve as sophisticated blocking as you see with Berlanga. Altman, a TV director, relied on multi-camera setups that he could use to cut from shot to shot, always looking for a shot to materialize (as in a sports event) rather than constructing it through blocking and framing.
Speaking of sports, I was playing with this sports analogy: that Wilder shoots dialogue like a lightweight boxer, dancing quickly across the canvas of his wide shots before settling into a series of shot/reverse shot flurries; while Berlanga is more akin to a heavyweight, lumbering steadily across the canvas, pushing you around the ring. Not sure how well this holds up, but it gives me an excuse to put up this clip:
Finally, I would like to say that I think enough of this film after one impaired viewing that I'd like to see it again with subtitles. I'm hoping someone might come through and offer timed fansubs. In fact, I'm willing to offer $140 US (which translates to about 100 Euros) to the first person who can provide timed fansubs for this film.
To take part in the Shooting Down Pictures Fansub Challenge, all you need is a copy of the movie Placido, which you can find via torrent, and a PayPal account for me to send the money if you're the first one done. If you're interested but don't know how to access the movie via torrent, send me an email or DM me on Twitter (at alsolikelife) to let me know you're interested, and I'll hook you up. Offer good only until February 28, so better get cracking!
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Placido among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Antonio Gimenez-Rico, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Fernando Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Jose Luis Garci, Nickel Odeon (1998)
Montxo Armendariz, Fotogramas (2006)
Pedro Crespo, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Dirigido Por, Best Spanish Films (1992)
Fotogramas, The 100 Best Films in the History of Cinema (1995)
Nickel Odeon, The Films of Our Life (1994)
Nickel Odeon, Spanish Canon (1995)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Film
Nominated for the Best Foreign Language film award at that year's Oscars, Plácido—a Christmas movie—has a direct relationship with the work of Frank Capra and in particular It's a Wonderful Life (1946), albeit with none of Capra's sentimentality. Meanwhile, if Plácido unmasked the dominant discourses surrounding the traditional family and Christian charity, El verdugo, arguably his finest film, struck at the very heart of the repressive Francoist state. El verdugo tells the story of a man who, on marrying the daughter of the state executioner, is condemned to inherit his father-in-law's job. This is a story that interrogates and unveils the anatomy of Spanish society at an historical turning point. The film, for example, unpicks the reality of the country's 1960s tourist boom that would, on the one hand, help consolidate the revived fortunes of the Spanish economy, while on the other, would bring with it the unwanted 'foreign' values of liberalism and sexual freedom.
Mr. Berlanga's 1961 film, "Placido," (...) is a chattery comedy about an impoverished man who spends the day before Christmas trying to avoid foreclosure on his motorbike. The character's frantic dealings with bankers and lawyers are set against the film's satirical canvas of a provincial town putting on a showy Christmas campaign called "Seat a Poor Man at Your Table." With its harshly funny portrait of the penny-pinching gentry, of greedy nuns and aggressive salespeople pushing pressure cookers as miraculous kitchen tools, the film offers a scabrously mocking portrait of officialdom putting on a display that is as grotesque as it is hypocritical.
As is almost always the case with the films of Berlanga, this film is a comedy on the surface, which hides a very hard and crude criticism of the situation of Spanish society during the dictatorship. In those years, Spanish filmmakers couldn't speak freely and openly about the dismal state of their country, so they had to pass their message to the audience between the lines. Berlanga was a master at doing this, and Plácido is one of his finest examples. The abysmal differences that existed between the very poor (the majority of the population at the time) and the very rich, who treated the rest with utter contempt and ridiculous condescency, is portrayed with such strength that it can't leave anyone indifferent. But it is done in the form of a comedy, and a very funny one, full of absurd situations and memorable dialogues, but also a very black one, with some scenes, especially near the end of the movie, which are on the edge of the truly macabre. A true masterpiece from one of the greatest Spanish directors.
The atmosphere of this film took me back to another time and place, to a very naive and innocent Spain. This film is Garcia Berlanga's incursion into his own brand of neorealism. The music keeps evoking the scores of the great Italian masterpieces of that period.??Placido, the hero, in a way, is everyman caught in a web of bureaucracy where he has to fight against all the odds to keep his vehicle in order to survive. He does whatever he can in order to pay the draft, but all conspires against him. Placido is a decent working person, a man of honor who has to fulfill his obligations, in this case, paying the draft that is due on the day the story unfolds. Everything is against him. We see him fighting his way to do so, in this, his long journey into the Christmas Eve celebration.??Cassen was a marvelous and charismatic actor who was very convincing as Placido. He's always at the center of the action, and at times, he is even at the center of some of the other characters conflicts. Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez, is very effective as Gabino, the photographer. The rest of the ensemble cast perform very well under the direction of Garcia Berlanga.
In a small town of Spain, on the eve of Christmas, some ladies are invented the Christmas campaign "dine with a poor", so that the poorest people, enjoyment by a night of warmth and affection that do not have, sitting at the table of the rich families. In the middle of the preparations is "Plácido", (Cassen), which is hired to participate with his motorcar in the cavalcade organized for the campaign, but there is a small detail which prevented him from devoted solely to his task: the same day of Christmas Eve, defeats him the first invoice of motorcar, his sole means of livelihood.??It is one of the masterpieces undisputed and fundamental filmography of Luis Garcia Berlanga. Filmed at the time summit of their creativity, in a period cultural difficult, where the enormous censorship of the political regime, exacerbated the ingenuity and imagination of the scriptwriters. A script, with malevolent intent, of own Berlanga and Rafael Azcona and under the direction of Berlanga very far from the tenderness that taught in previous work, make a comedy coral with a bitter, pessimistic reflection on the Spanish society of the time.??It is a acquired late, both in the form as in the fund and a portrait heartless and merciless of a society hypocritical, petty with double standards, where the most important are the appearance, and that preaches charity but not the practice, which is bothering him poverty but that does nothing to eradicate and that it needs to launch a cruel farce, in the form of Christmas campaign.??The movie has breakdown unrepeatable major players in their best performances, which would have to be stressed in all. It's full of memorable sequences, grotesque, surreal and the time dramatic It's especially unforgettable which develops in the public toilet. And the long scene, genial sequence in which the sudden deterioration of the state of health of one of the poor, seriously ill, triggers a situation comic-pathetic which shows all the miseries of that society amoral??The film has a indent brilliant, and the dialogs never ebb, are kept in a high level of ingenious humor . It has nothing to envy Italian masters such as De Sica or Fellini and that in movies such as "Placido", is even better.??I think it is my favorite movie.
Screened December 17 2009 on .avi format downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn NY
TSPDT Rank # 938 IMDbWiki
This post is dedicated to Matthew Dessem, proprietor of The Criterion Contraption. I'm going to co-opt his lengthy, conversational approach to writing up films, to savor this film as well as the remaining entries of my own project...
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
"What separates us from yesterday is not a rift but a changed position." This enigmatic title that opens the film may sound like a distinction without a difference. But as we follow the travails of Anita G., an East German refugee trying and failing to get a foothold in West Berlin, the notion emerges that her sense of alienation (as well as the film's) is a rift caused by the shifting positions - economically, socially and intellectually - adopted by West Germans as they busily build a future. What's fascinating is how much this thesis is embedded in both the film's style and its lead performance by Alexandra Kluge (the director's sister), both indulging a dazzling display of rampant, disjointed eclecticism. Take the above shot beneath the title card, with Anita clearly out of place in a high class hotel lobby, and acting even more conspicuously by fussily changing chairs. It's as if she and the film are mimicking the shiftiness they see in polite West German society but stripped away of socially acceptable conventions.
Even before this shot, we as viewers are thrown off by the opening scene (really a fragment of a scene) where Anita is in the midst of an unexplained fit of laughter, before reading an unidentified text (possibly an account of Nazi officers separating Jewish families during the Holocaust) in an unsettling, specious tone.
For the most part, Anita's default demeanor is blank-faced incomprehension, smiling and nodding while trying to get along with others. In these shots, one can't help but think that Anita is modeled after Anna Karina's Nana in Godard's Vivre sa vie:
Here she's in a courtroom listening to a judge sift through certain facts of her life: that she's from East Germany; that she was caught pinching a sweater from a co-worker; yet she left the sweater in plain view which is how she was caught; that her parents were Jewish and were persecuted during the Holocaust. As the judge sifts through this data, it becomes clear how much of his verdict is pre-determined by his assumptions of her, as he repeatedly reads subtext into her ambiguous responses. (Judge: "Why did you move West? Because of certain incidents?" Anita: "Because of prior incidents." Judge: "You mean from '43-'44? I don't believe that. In my experience, they don't affect young people."). In the midst of this there's a disconcerting cut to the judge's stern, tight-lipped gaze, even as their dialogue continues, acting like a cutaway to his inner judgmental state:
He's but the first of several caricatures of social types that Anita encounters, none of which are portrayed with much charity. As such the film is clearly a polemic; yet its discombobulating array of stylistic approaches keep its rhetoric from being two-dimensional. A social worker is introduced with a Bergmanesque direct address to the camera:
Before she becomes a stand-in for an overt Christian moral-mindedness that all but stifles Anita during her probationary stint:
She eventually escapes to work for a sales manager of foreign-language recordings, who's also introduced in Bergmanesque direct-address manner. But whereas Bergman's characters bare their souls when facing the screen, these vignettes show their characters as they would like to see themselves, putting their best public face forward.
The manager isn't exactly Don Draper in terms of looks or charm, but his austere marketing spiel drives home a message of self-improvement that apparently works on Anita, as we come to learn that they're having an affair. This development is conveyed with an obliqueness that's brilliantly original. First we're given random shots of idealized German family life:
That gradually fold into these ambiguously nostalgic illustrations of old-style German towns:
culminating in a majestic shot of a dinner table revolving across vast Berlin cityscape. The world is literally yours for consumption, the modern consumerist fantasy par excellence.
This leads to a shot of Anita in a department store trying on fur coats, and expensing them on her boss' account. Not only do we now learn that she's a kept woman, but retrospectively we wonder if that skyscraper restaurant table was the site of one of their trysts. In any event the manager's wife catches wind of the affair and Anita is swiftly given the boot. But Anita won't give up on making it in this society, as this title (harkening to the silent age of film, a period of nascence and limitless potential) makes clear:
After getting fired from a subsequent hotel housekeeping job for suspected theft (or was she scapegoated?), Anita moves onto another dead-end tryst, this time with a much younger man, though their encounter is treated with an intimacy found nowhere else in the film, with shades of tender, desperate empathy.
In these moments the camera exposes the lines on Anita's face, bringing a vulnerability and rawness to their moments together:
Through their brief time together she resolves to make a go at attending university, and sits in on lectures, though the results aren't very encouraging:
She bluffs her way into enrolling by pretending that she's taken courses before; her good looks appear to compel one professor take her at her word, while also eliciting one of the weirdest come-on lines in cinema history:
Her efforts at entering academia prove to be a fiasco, while her habit of staying at hotels without paying starts catching up with her; she's recognized on the street as a deadbeat tenant, leading to an episode on the lam rendered in psychedelic police lights mixed with footage of police parades and carnivalesque exhibitions of their precision. This leads to scene of two men, presumably Nazis, forcing a woman to make an excruciating decision:
Could this be a flashback from Anita's childhood? We are never told the answer; it plays as much as an unaccounted, repressed memory for us as it might be for her, lurking like some demon kept in the basement of history only to seep out at an unexpected moment. Other unhinged images ensue:
Eventually she and the film return to the "real" world, and she takes up with Pichota, another married man, and a member of the Culture Ministry. She accompanies him on one of his appointments, where pleasantries are read from cue cards:
Kluge seems to save the best of his satircal venom for this guy, as he represents the cultural establishment and thus the forces of aimless ceremonialism and convention that Kluge dedicated himself to opposing (see the Oberhausen Manifesto). Pichota foregoes an official ceremony to unveil a rare Goethe notebook so he can go another round bedside with his paramour, then chastises her for not finding a flat of her own, but won't give her any money towards a deposit. Instead he decides to mold her in his own image, reading literature to her and teaching her an 19th century song of unrequited love. Guess what he does when she finds out she's pregnant?
Shots like this one above threaten to turn this girl's outcast status within a West German society that is unable to either fully understand or incorporate her into its own kind of mythography. It risks placing her in the category of romantic anti-establishment type, which, if it wasn't a ready-made cliche back then, certainly is these days. The saving grace is Alexandra Kluge's performance, no doubt a conceptual collaboration with her brother director, but in her hands the character Anita G. defies any easy categorization, vacillating incessantly between being an icon, a postulation and a flesh-and-blood human being. This results in an unstable dynamic between protagonist, her world and the viewer, who becomes as much an alienated observer of this world of surfaces and pretensions as she is. Dissonant in their dissidence, the shifting modes of filmmaking and onscreen behavior have an energy and engagement with its world, doggedly picking apart its assumptions and presumptions, that's as valuable today as ever.
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Yesterday Girl among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Hans Gunther Pflaum, Steadycam (2007)
Hans Helmut Prinzler, Steadycam (2007)
Jeanine Meerapfel, Sight & Sound (1992)
Ulrich von Thuna, Steadycam (2007)
Wolfram Schutte, Steadycam (2007)
Sight & Sound 360 Film Classics (1998)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
WATCHING the plight of "Yesterday Girl," a poor, buffeted young derelict in West Germany, some viewers may wistfully hark back to the teary but untangled sagas of Sylvia Sidney in Hollywood during the Depression years. Miss Sidney's cases, at least, were stated with soggy succinctness.
The hard-luck drama that unfolded last night at the New York Film Festival, the first feature directed by the German novelist Alexander Kluge, is so hell-bent on stylistic effects and so sauvely stingy in siphoning simple case-history facts that we learn little and subsequently care less about the heroine. A pity, too, for the hapless girl peering from the circuitous labyrinth of film footage is the director's sister, Alexandra. She even has Miss Sidney's stricken eyes and quivering under-lip. That much is obvious.
It seems—repeat, seems—that the girl has fled from East Germany and been arrested for shoplifting in the West. She serves a jail sentence, then starts a descent on the fringes of society in a succession of odd jobs, including a brief go at prostitution. Bruised by bureaucracy, fate and at least one lover who discards her, the girl slinks off into the night, clutching a suitcase, and has a baby at a state hospital.
Mr. Kluge's picture, with its down-and-out protagonist, is according to advance publicity, an ironic commentary on the West German's economic well-being. How? We see little evidence of prosperity in Miss Kluge's mouse-hole itinerary. Most of the people who speed her on her descent are glacial, urban stereotypes. And from what little is revealed about the heroine's true character, she appears to be a listless girl who would have a tough time mastering a job anywhere.
Whatever "Yesterday Girl" symbolizes, Mr. Kluge applies his camera like a clouded microscope, side-stepping simple compassion for bland, clinical detachment. A stethoscope, applied just once, would have conveyed much more.
Kluge's first feature traces the misadventures of Anita G. (played by his sister Alexandra), a young refugee from East Germany, as she wanders through the Economic Miracle but fails to find a place in it. Always penniless and often involved in petty crime, she meets a string of people who try to 'improve' and/or seduce her, but never gets to the root of her problems. Kluge makes it clear that she's a product of Germany's past, and his basic point is the simple one that Germany is trying to sweep its history under the carpet. But his Godardian wit and informality give the argument countless resonances, and keep the movie surprisingly fresh.
The film's tersely written preface, "What separates us from yesterday is not a rift but a change in position" reinforces this sense of subconscious, recursive inevitability, as the heroine, the titular Anita G, is introduced through incisive, cross cut images: initially reading a piece of paper in subtly varying intonation, then subsequently, from a high angle-shot title sequence as she repeatedly assesses her vantage point before changing seats at a hotel bar lounge. From the juxtaposition of these fractured opening images, Kluge establishes the idea of postwar collective memory as an empty shell game that has been essentially formed from the simple, but implicitly deliberated modulation, displacement, and reconstitution of latent, prevailing cultural mores.
This sense of an ingrained, un-rehabilitated, and perhaps even defiant national psyche is also reinforced in Anita's appearance in court before a judge over a theft charge stemming from a colleague's appropriated cardigan sweater. Reviewing Anna's background as a German Jew from Leipzig, now in (the former) East Germany whose family business was confiscated by the Third Reich, then reinstated after the war, the judge is eager to exonerate the possibility that the "certain incidents of 1943-44" had contributed to Anita G.'s current charge - an association that she, herself, never implied - attempting instead to trivialize her relocation to West Germany as a simple search for opportunity that, like any other outsider (despite being born in a unified Germany before the war), is an attempt to exploit the country's bourgeoning economy. Challenging her sense of guilt for the offense by her curious behavior in not hiding the cardigan - an inaction that Anita admits stemmed from confusion over "prior events" that the judge, once again, is quick to erroneously suggest that she is attempting to evoke the tragedy of the Holocaust in order to gain sympathy from the court - the inquisition itself reveals the underlying hypocrisy of German society after the war, where people who served in positions of power during the Third Reich (obtained through party loyalty) were often restored to their bureaucratic appointments. This contradictory behavior that is, at once, an all-too-ready admission of (factually verified) historical culpability and a trivialization of the consequences of its legacy reflects a culturally pervasive attitude, a tenuous co-existence between half-hearted acknowledgement and adamant denial that is encapsulated by the judge's curt dismissal in continuing the line of inquiry that raises the specter of the human tragedy (one that he, himself, has introduced out of apparent habit): a pre-emptive declaration of its particular - and implicitly broader - irrelevance towards the resurgence of an inclusive, tolerant, and transformed "New Germany". Ironically, it is a metamorphosis that, nevertheless, perpetuates a climate of exclusion (East versus West), moral imprisonment (the evangelical probationary officer attempts to convert her to Christianity), and dispossession (the landlady's decision to evict her from the boarding house by impounding her suitcase). Inevitably, perhaps the key to Kluge's fragmented, yet lucid and penetrating social interrogation is revealed in a university professor's sterile and philosophically dense lecture on the relativity of the Greek concept of aischron and the opposing corollary ideas that the greater shame resides either for the one who commits the transgression, or the one who suffers from it - a delusive posture of righteousness that re-invents collective history through the perspective of defiant transgressors as the greater victims of their own willful, moral complicity.
Alexander Kluge's debut feature Yesterday Girl is a kaleidoscopic burst of energy, a frenetic but never haphazard film that gives the impression of an eager young director, unwilling to commit to any one storytelling mode or aesthetic, instead experimenting with anything he can think of. The result is a quickly paced collage, a jittery, jazzy patchwork that augments its sparse central narrative with myriad diversions and non sequiturs. The film owes much to the example of the French New Wave, and especially to the montage and stylistic catholicity of Jean-Luc Godard, but there is undeniably something distinctive about Kluge, something unmistakable. His rhythms are his own, as is his sense of playfulness, his unexpected detours into surrealism and absurdist farce. Kluge's sister Alexandra plays the heroine, Anita G., an obvious stand-in for the New Wave's young archetypes — she even has those big, black-lined Anna Karina eyes.
Kluge tells Anita's story through an astonishing variety of cinematic language. As in the first sequence, each scene throughout the film is methodically broken down, with blunt editing that serves to fragment Anita's story. Her experience of life is discontinuous, marked by abrupt breaks and disjunctions, and Kluge passes this experience on to his audience. He frequently resorts to extreme closeups, in which talking heads orate from an abstracted, empty gray space. But just as often he avoids showing the characters' faces at all, cutting to their hands or the backs of their heads or to the walls and objects around them. At other points, he inserts entire, seemingly unrelated sequences into the film, cutting away to visual non sequiturs like a shot of a rabbit that appears during a hallucinatory sequence in which Anita shoots, or more likely imagines she shoots, a police officer who's chasing her. Even time itself is malleable in Kluge's hands: the action frequently speeds up, with Anita and her pursuers racing around like Keystone Kops, and time-lapse photography condenses hours of time spent on a city street into a blurred, pulsating few seconds.
The effect of this elaborate montage aesthetic is to position Anita's story as just one element, one brick, in a mad societal structure. This also seems to be the point of the enigmatic final epigram, "we are all to blame for everything, but if everyone knew it, we would have paradise on earth." Kluge's vision of the world, on the other hand, is far from a paradise — if anything it's a dystopia — but his dense, free-associative aesthetic crafts a cogent and darkly funny critique of the systems that preside over this nonsensical world.
Already in Kluge's first feature, Yesterday Girl, the editing is very abrupt. Scenes are juxtaposed without transitions and, within scenes, jump cuts and other temporal elisions abound. A love scene becomes a wrestling montage. Sometimes parts of different scenes are intercut. Nonnarrative materials such as drawings of a city, an interview, or a child's storybook are interjected between and in the middle of scenes without motivation or explanation. Scenes of a Jewish cemetary are inserted, like documentary B-roll, into a conversation about German history. This quirky editing results in the brisk pace of this film and similar sequences in other Kluge films. But Kluge also employs a variety of techniques to slow down the ace. Shots are often held longer or started earlier than in classical Hollywood cinema, leading frequently to uncomfortable silences and strange facial expressions. Often, reaction shots do not seem to work because the timing is wrong.
Viewers of conventional Hollywood films are accustomed to having certain expectations fulfilled in the course of the work: we assume the events portrayed on screen to have some causal, temporal, or spatial connection, we expect to have at least some sense of resolution at the end of a film, and we often premise our viewing on conventional styles of cinematography and mise-en-scène. In Alexander Kluge's 1966 film Yesterday Girl, however, the modern viewer is presented with a challenge. Many common cinematic assumptions are undermined by Kluge's deliberate refusal to follow Hollywood guidelines; at the same time, though, the film does not attempt a blanket refusal of all narrative conventions. Indeed, it is this very mixture of traditional and innovative narrative techniques that makes the film especially fascinating, and the sense of ambiguity that arises adds to the viewer's resulting insecurity and even confusion.
The theme of forgetting and remembering runs constantly throughout your films. In Yesterday Girl, Anita G. is encumbered with a double past that society is encouraging her to forget: at the beginning of the film she’s being told by a judge to forget her wartime experiences because they’re not “relevant” to her present situation; later, when she’s supposedly being rehabilitated for society, she’s told by one of the prison counsellors that she’ll soon be out and able to forget all about it. It seems obvious to me that, through your films, you’re attacking not just the politics of oblivion, but also the moral notion of absolution that this frequently implies.
Experience is always a question of a specific situation. In this concrete situation, there is always future, past, and actual present: it’s the same. In a mass medium like the cinema, or in art, it seems as if you have a choice. A great deal of art—Proust, for example, or any of the 19th-century classic novels—attempts to counter the dominance of the present, to invent a second reality to serve as viceroy to the forgotten or demolished past. That’s one choice. The other choice, which is made by television and by the press, is the actuality principle. It’s also the choice made by the film camera, which can only photograph something that’s present. And I think it’s a false choice, because in a concrete situation, such as we actually live in, you can never make that separation: you can never give up the past, you can never exclude the future. Which is why I prefer the past or the future to the present. Whether I’m making a science-fiction film or historical film, using inserts, making a documentary or mixing fiction and nonfiction, it’s exactly the same. The three parts that exist in our minds and in our experience are always present. When Freud describes the way a person thinks and feels, he always talks about free association as the elementary unit. Grammar, for instance, is one of mankind’s most interesting illusions. It’s a sort of repression of an experience, like logic, or like rationalism. You have to understand that I’m never against grammar, rationality, or logic; it’s just that they’re only abstractions. In any concrete situation, these abstractions must be reduced to the concrete situation. And that’s the province of film. This sort of mass medium film has its basis in people’s minds and experience over several thousand years.
For instance, the title Abschied von Gestern [the German-language title for Yesterday Girl] provokes a contradiction. Because you never can say goodbye to yesterday. If you try to, you get as far as tomorrow only to discover yesterday all over again. The whole film is a contradiction of this title... What part of your question shall I answer now?
The rumour that Alexander Kluge is supposed to have turned fifty recently is as persistent as that other absolutely ridiculous assertion that this very same Kluge got married sometime toward the end of the year! It is reported that he actually went ahead and had a private matter officially institutionalized by an official state institution. An absurd notion—several hours' worth of stirring movies by the filmmaker Kluge, as well as a whole lot of illuminating and stimulating prose by the writer Kluge, do document after all that it is one of his chief aims to call every kind of institution into question, particularly those of the state—if I interpret half way correctly—and if his work is not indeed even more radical, that is, designed to prove that basically Alexander Kluge is interested in the destruction of every type of institution. Furthermore—an anarchist just doesn't go and turn fifty, the age at which people celebrate you. Categories like that are meaningless to him. I mean, it is precisely rumors of this sort about one of us, serving the purposes of cooptation, that make various things clear, and at the very least remind us of the necessity of continuing to struggle for our cause and of the eternal danger of growing weary in the face of gray, streamlined reality.
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Alexander Kluge is Supposed to Have Had a Birthday” in Michael Töteberg & Leo A. Lensing (eds.), The Anarchy of the Imagination, Baltimore & London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Cited in Michelle Langford, Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography of Kluge
Alexander Kluge, the chief ideologue of the new German cinema, is the author of various books in the areas of sociology, contemporary philosophy, and social theory. In 1962 he helped initiate, and was the spokesman for, the "Oberhausen Manifesto," in which "Das Opas Kino" ("grandpa's cinema") was declared dead.
His method is grounded in a rich and representative mosaic of sources: fiction, public records and reports, essays, actual occurrences, news, quotations, observations, ideas, and free associations. The method is used by Kluge as a principle of construction in his best films, such as Abschied von gestern, Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: ratlos , In Gefahr und grösster Not bringt der Mittelweg den Tod , and in the series of collective films: Deutschland im Herbst, Der Kandidat , and Krieg und Frieden. The theme of war, in particular the Second World War, appears in all his works.
Kluge's films probe reality—not by way of the fantastic fictions of Fassbinder, or film school pictures as with Wenders—but through establishing oppositions and connections between facts, artifacts, reflections, and bits of performance. The protagonists of his feature films are mostly women who seek to grasp and come to terms with their experiences. For the sake of continuity these women are played either by Alexandra Kluge, his sister, or by Hannelore Hoger. They move through the jungle of contemporary life, watching and witnessing, suffering and fighting. The director mirrors their experiences.
"The old film is dead, we believe in the new one" - that is the concluding sentence of the Oberhausener Manifesto. Alexander Kluge was one of the authors of this legendary avowal from 1962 which marked the beginning of New German Cinema. No one meant this as earnestly as he, either at that time, when he was still making his mark on German cinema, or 45 years later. For Alexander Kluge, cinema is a constant development; the spirit of discovery and joy of experimentation are inherent to everything he touches. Then, he wanted to turn cinema upside down, and he still does. And he is probably the only filmmaker who still reflects seriously about how Internet and cinema can be united by more than the mere sales and distribution platform.
Kluge believes that the aesthetic and political possibilities of cinema should and can be based on subjective modes of experience. A term frequently used by Kluge in his writings on the notion of spectatorship in the cinema is that of 'Phantasie,' (literally, 'fantasy') and this term acquires a very particular meaning in the context of his work. Phantasie is not like the English term 'fantasy' in the sense described by psychoanalysis, but is more akin to imagination. It equates with the spectator's ability to make connections between disparate things and it hinges on Kluge's conception of montage.
…since every cut provokes phantasy, a storm of phantasy, you can even make a break in the film. It is exactly at such a point that information is conveyed. This is what Benjamin meant by the notion of shock. It would be wrong to say that a film should aim to shock the viewers—this would restrict their independence and powers of perception. The point here is the surprise which occurs when you suddenly—as if by subdominant thought processes—understand something in depth and then, out of this deepened perspective redirect your phantasy to the real course of events.(12)
In other words, Phantasie is that which lies beneath the guarded exterior of the stimulus shield, and it is Phantasie that is set free when shock is able to break through the barrier.
Kluge has often invoked the figure of the child as the ideal spectator of his films. Kluge contrasts his cinema with that of conventional narrative cinema with an evocation of two different kinds of landscape. He writes:
At the present time there are enough cultivated entertainment and issue-oriented films, as if cinema were a stroll on walkways in a park…One need not duplicate the cultivated. In fact children prefer the bushes: they play in the sand or in scrap heaps.
Though often acknowledged as one of the most important avant-gardists of his generation in Europe, Alexander Kluge does not think of himself as such. He considers himself a partisan of an “arriere-garde” whose project is not to push into new aesthetic territory or be the vanguard of a new kind of film art, but to “bring everything forward”—to bring forward all the lost utopian aspirations of past political and aesthetic projects, all the wishes and hopes that history has left unrealized. His is a project of redeeming past failures. This might seem an odd claim by Kluge, who was a pioneer of the German New Wave as it emerged in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and a signatory and moving force behind the famous Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962 which declared “The old film is dead.” But like his intellectual precursor Walter Benjamin, Kluge has always thought any project for authentic renewal must consciously detour through the past in order to avoid creating what another of his great intellectual mentors, Bertolt Brecht, called the “bad new”—essentially the recreation of existing oppressive social relations and tired aesthetic forms in the guise of a glossy, marketable and illusory “New.” For Brecht, Fascism was the exemplary “bad new”; for Kluge, the “bad new” consisted of the dreary products of the “culture industry” and the tedious social conditions prevailing in Germany—about which he once said that they were bad enough that no one was really happy, but not bad enough to make anyone do anything about them.
Kluge's feature films challenge customary patterns of recognition. German history provides a point of departure and a constant site of return for his endeavors; complex and conflicted, this history, maintains Kluge, does not readily lend itself to easy identification or transparent presentation. The bombing of his hometown, Halbersradt (80 percent of which was leveled by American and British planes on April 8, 1945), and the demise of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in February 1943 remain defining experiences in his films (and throughout his work), which must be thought of first and foremost as attempts to reflect truthfully the impossibly complicated and contested "reality" of postwar Germany--a task that could not be achieved, Kluge argued, by conventional means. Thus he eschewed the spurious sutures of continuity editing and the seamlessly neat, easily accessible narrative packages that they produce. For all its intellectual resolve, his cinema is also loath to the dynamics of Eisenstein's montage. The Soviet master's collision of attractions leads the spectator, through an appeal to the senses and the emotion, to an inevitable dialectical conclusion, which is, in the end, just a more sophisticated sort of other-direction, and therefore anathema to Kluge.
Reality and realism are central terms in Kluge's aesthetic conception and important for any understanding of his films. Neither a state of nature nor the way things are, reality is produced and not given; for that reason, it can be comprehended only in its constructedness and its connectedness, its Zusammenhang. Simply to document something, Kluge submits, is not realistic; reality does not exist without actions, fantasies, and wishes, which is to say, unless human senses and feelings are in motion. Feelings, to be sure, are anarchic and often unreliable; for that reason one tries to harness them, often with success (sometimes, as in the case of National Socialism, with too much success), and enjoys all the more indulging their power in the form of films, operas, plays, and novels. Inclusiveness and generosity figure seminally in Kluge's suggestive and elusive choreographies of sights and sounds. They generate networks of meaning linked by interrelation rather than by flow or continuity, bringing together things that do not seem to belong together at all. This higher realism aims to encourage responses that go beyond directorial design and authorialvolition
. Viewers should be free to pick and choose from a wealth of offerings so that films might arise "in the head of the spectator"--without question Kluge's key concept and best-known catchphrase
Gary Indiana In many of your films you show found footage from very early movies, archive photographs and drawings with the frame cropped in various ways, a Brechtian effect: the films are like free-ranging meditations rather than linear narratives. The viewer notices the cutting. What do you see as the advantages of these techniques?
Alexander Kluge I show the cutting because I don’t believe pictures have to do with one another, whether they’re contrasting or similar. They don’t carry the information, the information is carried by the cut, the splice. Therefore, the cut should be visible. This is an ideal of early Eisenstein; it’s an ideal in literature. In music also, you always reveal your effects. The early forms of cinema are better: before 1907, and before the sound track. The problem isn’t with sound, but with the theater principles and middle-class interests which came into the cinema and destroyed some of its rich possibilities. Theater is a little schematic, while epic texts, like Joyce’s, are rich.
GI Epic narrative is porous. In other words, you can cut into it at any point?
AK Yes. Nowadays, we live in something like the Babylonian Empire. One text doesn’t understand the other. People can understand each other but the texts they speak are, to some extent, autonomous. If I speak to you, and a policeman hears this text, it’s no longer the text you and I speak together. Texts have their own life, and images too. As I have to deal with the situation of the 80s, not of 1907 if we have this Babylonian confusion that one language doesn’t understand the other, it’s also necessary to bring more context into narration. For example, it isn’t useful to tell the story of a complete industry. Like the German chemical industry—there’s been a huge 12 hour film made on this subject, but in it you see the family life and the love stories of the bosses and their daughters and so on. All of that isn’t the reality of the German chemical industry in the ‘30s. It was a very cruel reality for some people. To be more realistic, you need more context.
GI One more question. You’ve often said that cinema exists inside our heads, that the repertoire of mental images and feelings that cinema creates corresponds to the mode of consciousness of human beings over the past several thousand years. How is that different than music?
AK Music is an elaborated art. It is more than we’ve carried within us for thousands of years. It’s more to do with the four billion years we’ve existed on earth—with our ancestors, who were very small. Music has to do with sounds within the belly, sounds within the ancient oceans, when the oceans were 37 degrees celsius, like our blood. Some people believe the cosmos is making music, and so on. Music is older and more differentiated. Film is very robust. It’s only 90 years old. It corresponds more with anthropology. Music is made in a very aristocratic way, never by majorities. Cinema, from the beginning, was made as a counter-effect to what our senses do all the time. It’s an imitation of what our brains do. Music is not an imitation of what our ears do.
- Alexander Kluge interviewed by Gary Indiana, BOMB Magazine
As a card-carrying fan of Mad Men, at times I have to check my enthusiasm against the complaints of its detractors. One consistent criticism is that the series operates too much from the vantage of winking, condescending hindsight. I'll have to save the full length of my counterargument for another time, but for now, the skinny: this critique is based on a presumption that such a thing as an authentic historical viewpoint is fully possible, much less preferable to one whose subjective filters are made plain. For me, Mad Men is less about achieving verisimilitude than it is about the making and misleading of desire, and not just the desire among the show's characters, but the desire of its audience for an idealized past. There's a fascinating dynamic between the show and its audience as they collectively explore the nature of nostalgia. Our longing for a romanticized history runs parallel to the characters' Pyrrhic pursuits of happiness.
Strangers When We Meet illuminates some of these issues concerning Mad Men. Unlike Mad Men, it's absent of any mention of historical events or other markers, other than what's simply on screen: outfits, the make of cars, the products in supermarket aisles. The film boasts a wonderful realism that gives authenticity to its essentially sudsy suburban adultery plot. But that's not a knock on Mad Men per se - again, the historical references in the show have everything to do with modulating its contemporary audience's desire for the past as a function with our dissatisfaction with the present. That fundamental discontent with what one has is also at the core of Strangers When We Meet. What I find shocking about the film - and what has me wanting to board a time capsule to check my own take on period sensibilities - is that there's no moral virtue to the affair between Kirk Douglas' architect and Kim Novak's housewife. They're basically horny and bored. The electricity between them is not based not on mutual understanding but lust and desperation. The feeling of tragedy and loss that cascades over the ending isn't over the failure of a true romance, but of a life built upon shifting values and ethereal desires, doomed never to be fulfilled.
Who knows how audiences at the time reacted to this (maybe after Picnic and Peyton Place the door to illicit suburbia had already been flung open?). But what elevates this film beyond potboiler status into the realm of cinema is Richard Quine's attentiveness to these hollow, well-groomed spaces of affluence (it may be too easy to namecheck Antonioni's L'Avventura, made the same year, and yet there it is... there's a party sequence in this film that anticipates the one in Antonioni's La Notte, made one year later). They're breeding grounds for bad behavior among a class that's grown accustomed and entitled to getting what they want. They're also the sites for some remarkable acting, each character treated with sensitivity to a shared plight, even as they become adversaries. Kirk Douglas gets to smash Walter Matthau's jaw after catching him trying to cheat on his wife (Barbara Rush), but the horny neighbor is really the philosophical standard-bearer of the whole block. The only thing really separating the two are degrees of tact and consent with their targets.
They both come away relatively unscathed compared to the women; both Novak and Rush have devastating onscreen breakdowns inside their domestic prisons. Novak's performance here is revelatory: whether it's great acting, or the wear of her off-screen breakup with Quine seeping on screen, there's a genuine tiredness in her eyes and shoulders that accentuates the tight-mouthed neuroses already familiar to Vertigo fans. One can almost be certain that Quine saw Novak through a Vertigo-shaped frame - he's constantly boxing her profile in doorways and other suburban outlines like a magazine ad. She's an image of perfection, searching for substance beneath a world of surfaces, including her own (notice how she scowls in true Betty Draper fashion when her lover's young son calls her "pretty").
In the end, the film maintains the same kind of ambivalence towards the objects of desire it holds up for audience consumption as Mad Men. Whether this amounts to perverse have-your-cake-and-eat-it indulgence-cum-social critique is up for argument. But I'll take self-reflexive consumerism over the blind variety any day.
Eduardo Torres-Dulce, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Jean-Loup Bourget, Positif (1991)
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Drama (1993)
There had always been speculation about the love life of the notoriously press-shy Novak with rumors of past affairs with Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ram Trujillo. The romance with Quine, however, was now public knowledge but on the set it had different ramifications. In her earlier years in Hollywood Novak had been a reclusive, passive presence on movie sets such as Pal Joey (1957) but now she had gained more self-confidence and was flexing her power as one of Columbia's biggest stars. According to biographer Peter Harry Brown in Kim Novak: Reluctant Goddess, "Her experience on Middle of the Night  convinced her that she was an actress to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, she picked the wrong director (Quine) and the wrong star (Kirk Douglas) upon whom to vent her spleen. Technicians laughed behind their hands one afternoon when Kim seriously tried to give acting instructions to Douglas, who listened with a deadpan face. Off camera, he referred to her as the 'broad Harry Cohn built.' Within days, relations between the two stars became frosty and threatened to divide the company into armed camps. Kirk, usually a model of patience, began complaining about the time it took to photograph Novak from just the right angle, in just the proper light, and during just the right mood. The inference was that Quine was tilting the production heavily in favor of Kim."
In his autobiography, The Ragman's Son, Douglas recalled some of the difficulties in making Strangers When We Meet: "One morning, we were shooting a scene down at the beach. Obviously, Kim and Dick had been discussing the scene, and she was excited about a wonderful idea she had come up with. Apparently, Dick had agreed with her wholeheartedly. I listened to her argument, told her exactly why it was impossible to do the scene that way. She looked at Dick. He looked at me and said, 'You know, Kim, he's right.' Kim went berserk. She ripped up the pages, started to make incoherent sounds, screamed, went nuts. It was impossible to shoot with her for the rest of the day. The next day we shot the scene the way it was written. We got through the picture, and I enjoyed working with her, although I do think that she convinced Richard to give the picture the wrong ending. The original ending in the book, very powerful, was that after our love affair had ended, Walter Matthau, who was playing a heavy, comes to pick her up in a car, and she decides what the hell, and goes off with him. Life goes on. Instead, she preferred to spurn him, pull her trench coat up around her neck, and walk off like Charlie Chaplin. I didn't think that was the right ending, but those are the hazards of working with someone who's romantically involved with the director."
Douglas's recollection of the original ending isn't entirely accurate because HIS character is the one that calls off the affair and tries to make a go of it with his wife and family in Hawaii where an ambitious five-year project awaits him. The ending from Evan Hunter's novel (he also wrote the screenplay) wouldn't make much sense either since the Walter Matthau character was a boring lecher and completely inconceivable as the sort of man Maggie would gravitate toward to fulfill her emotional and sexual needs. The present ending of Strangers When We Meet actually rings true since none of the characters are able to escape their own private hells. So, Novak was right to sway Quine's opinion on the film's conclusion. Novak "would always refer to Strangers When We Meet as 'that great lost weekend.' (Several years later Kim reaped revenge on the actor in Boys' Night Out  by having James Garner chastise a smiling friend with the lines: 'Stop showing off your teeth. Who do you think you are? Kirk Douglas?')."
Quine had many dalliances with his actresses (including Judy Hollidayand Natalie Wood) before and after, but the affectionate way he still spoke about [Kim] Novak three decades later suggests she meant a bit more. In 1959, when they were shooting Strangers When We Meet around Bel Air and Malibu, their romance was so public that the brass at Columbia took the unusual decision to build a real house instead of a set. They bought — not leased — the plot in Bel Air where Kirk Douglas’ architect is building client Ernie Kovacs’ house in the movie. The studio planned to give the house to Quine and Novak as a wedding present, as Quine was to marry his star right after the shoot — the wrap party to end all wrap parties. But Novak panicked, bolted and left him at the altar, with only the key to happiness (he got the house).
Strangers, on the surface a mediocre potboiler by Evan Hunter about suburban life (with leering Walter Matthau as a neighbor and panicky wife Barbara Rush, we’re just a few blocks away from Peyton Place), is really about professional ambitions: The subplot involves Douglas pushing Kovacs — a best-selling author — to go for an unconventional house that would best suit who he is, just as he talks him into writing a “real novel” instead of his usual crowd-pleasing mush. Quine, a serious man mostly known as a maker of commercial pap, clearly identifies with both characters, and their scenes together are by far the best in the picture. Douglas kept seething throughout the production, feeling that Quine was keeping him at arm’s length, not only due to his infatuation with Novak, but also because of the clear complicity between Quine and Kovacs, who had worked together before. But Douglas’ frustration works for the picture and its sense of a man torn between love and responsibility, not only with regard to his family, but also his work.
There is a great scene in a Malibu restaurant, when Novak has to come up with lame excuses as to why she let herself be screwed by the supermarket bag boy (or the milkman — it’s that kind of film). You barely hear the bad lines; you just see the panic in her eyes, looking not at a furious and unforgiving Douglas sitting across from her, but beyond the camera at Quine — searching, maybe, for excuses to leave him. When she did leave, not quite at the end of the film, Quine was publicly humiliated. Some wag, in spite of the news, ordered champagne delivered to the set, which had to be returned. But the two former lovers remained friends, and even made one more film together, The Notorious Landlady, two years later.
“Kim knew she’d just lucked into stardom and was not well equipped for it,” Quine told me that day in 1987. “She knew she’d have to work at it, and she did. She was a bright and intelligent woman. She knew that for most people, she was still the gal who posed for those Thor-refrigerator ads.”
Dear Old Hollywood has a wonderful tour of the Los Angeles locations for the film, revsited today, with photo comparisons:
To figure out this location the only thing I could match was the white pillars next to the stairs in the center of the photo. If you look in the below photo you can see the same white pillars and the stairs going up the building. If it wasn't for that detail I don't think I would have ever found this location!
Strangers When We Meet (Bryna-Quine; Columbia) discusses adultery, but instead of probing to the heart of the matter, it settles for pure tripe. Its outlook is expressed in the observation: "Anyplace you've got a housewife, you've got a potential mistress. We're slobs in our pajamas—shaving at home—but next door we're heroes."
Inevitably, Douglas' wife finds out about his infidelity, and he has to end his affair with Kim. That is all. No one is very much upset, Hollywood's point being, it seems, that if you can't take it with you, you can at least get away with it.
Richard Quine's Strangers When We Meet is another distinguished moment for the melodrama as it reaches a major key. An undervalued film, Strangers differs from the major accomplishments in the genre of Minnelli, Max Ophuls, and Douglas Sirk, all of whom brought to their work some degree of distanciation, either through elaborate camera technique or exaggerated mise-en-scene. Their point was usually to give the viewer some place from which to critically analyze a film without becoming removed entirely from emotional involvement. Quine's film allows no such position, but instead uses a realist dramatic mode that, heightened in the manner of the then-popular expose - Confidential magazine is a representative if degraded example - is astonishing in its candid portrayal of the emptiness of marriage and postwar suburban life. The empathy allowed the spectator is disconcerting as the breadth of the film's condemnation becomes clear.
Made at a time when Eisenhowerian America was on the cusp of a major shift in social mores Richard Quine’s wonderful Cinemascope melodrama tells story of an adulterous relationship in the heartland of middle class suburbia as architect Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) and housewife Maggie Gault (Kim Novak, who made 4 films with Quine), give way to their desire for each other. The carnality is alluded to with finesse, the main issue being, of course, the threat to their safe, apparently ideal lives and their resulting re-evaluation of their commitment/sense of obligation to it. With a strong script by Evan Hunter from his own novel, fine performances from Douglas and Novak and excellent direction from Quine who gives the characters' moral quandaries great visual resonance this remains a compelling and affecting film. Although dramatically the film is weighted a little too much on Douglas’ struggle with himself with Novak’s character being largely assumed to have surrendered body and soul to the call of love, this is, nevertheless, a treat for lovers of 50s melodrama.
The sympathetic treatment of the lead characters is enhanced by director Richard Quine's judicious use of the widescreen frame, setting most shots at a comfortable distance from the characters and cutting to close-ups only at key moments in the plot. Such remove creates the impression that Larry and Maggie are only barely comfortable in their environment, forever tempted by dissatisfaction. It also reinforces a mood of melancholy, a rueful conviction that fine belongings and lavish residences cannot compensate for emotional malnourishment.
I had heard from several smart critics that not only was this Quine's best work, but also a great L.A. film. Both claims are true, and anyone fascinated by the way the real city has been used in movies will be endlessly absorbed in trying to identify the many locations captured by the great Charles B. Lang's perceptive color and widescreen camerawork.
The neighborhood where the central characters live -- where Douglas and Novak first see each other, dropping off their kids at a school bus stop -- is unidentified, but would seem to be in the northeast section of Santa Monica or Brentwood. One sequence takes place in and outside the legendary Romanoff's restaurant, and for those whose memories predate the Beverly Center, the lovers and their children have an encounter at the pony ride lot that long occupied the property.
Douglas' character is an architect designing a modernist dwelling for Ernie Kovacs' neurotic, womanizing author, and one watches the house go up in the mountains above Malibu as the film progresses. And then there is Malibu itself, where Douglas and Novak commence their tryst at the now-gone Albatross Hotel Restaurant with the assurance they'll run into none of their friends way out there.
But the real issue here is the perception of a disconnect between the film's familiar melodramatic format, which is what made sophisticates condescend to it half a century ago, and the absolute emotional and dramatic truth of every scene in the movie, which render it virtually undated after all the years (it's also a pleasure to note that the film's leads are still with us).
The operative cliche is that two attractive neighbors, both a bit itchy after some years of marriage, won't be able to resist lighting a fire in their lives; the truth lies in the details of how the characters deal with their desires in a realistic context, and it's here that a one-time alleged potboiler like "Strangers When We Meet" seems more credible and mature than a committed truth-teller such as "Revolutionary Road" or, for that matter, Mendes' earlier "American Beauty."
Like some of the heavier suburban melodramas of the 1950s (Peyton Place, Some Came Running, anything directed by Douglas Sirk), director Richard Quine's entry in the genre stands in stark contrast to the bedroom farces of the same period. Hollywood seemed to be walking a tightrope in the pre-sexual revolution America. Suburbia was either a repressed zone where the lid was about to be blown off middle-class hypocrisy, or it was an upwardly mobile, modern-day arcadia in which martini-fueled executive satyrs pursued nymphet housewives (not their own) for trysts at the supermarket, on the patio, or at the school bus stop. Actually, thanks to the novel and screenplay by Evan Hunter (The Birds), Quine finds some middle ground. This picture, shot in Panavision at a leisurely pace to fully capture the sunny bliss of the Los Angeles suburbs, makes the case that an extramarital affair might not be such a lark—yet it's also not the end of the world. When episodes of "Mad Men" turn from Madison Avenue to the faraway suburbs, the series taps into a rich vein of human drama that this nearly forgotten film mined long ago.
In the late 1950s unfaithful spouses were still classified as adulterers – of the “Thou Shall Not” kind. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s and 70s that the wanderers could see themselves as “swingers” or “wife-swappers/husband hoppers.” The dominant look of Mid-Century modernist architecture -- with all its open spaces and transparent glass walls – lent itself to this much more open kind of marriage and relationships. Thus, it’s quite fitting that the house designed by Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) in STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET has an open-space interior but lots of Japanese-style wooden walls indoors and outdoors, which clearly keep the indoor sexual trysts with Maggie Gault (Kim Novak) hidden from view. The adulterous couple may be on a hillside out of reach of their neighbors, but they need to keep the relationship also out of sight. A decade later the window/walls of glass in MCM homes would serve as picture frames or even proscenium arches containing often very visible trysts or orgies. By the 1970s exhibitionism and voyeurism hooked up quite easily in the hills surrounding the Hollywood film industry. The dominance of Mid-Century modern architectural styles made it all the easier. Larry Coe's home design in the film combined elements of East and West (Japan and California) in a way that ensured privacy while providing great views of the hillsides and valleys of Bel-Air. Throughout the film the house, actually being built during the film's production, would become an important co-star to Douglas and Novak.
Richard Quine’s masterpiece Strangers When We Meet is the story of an adulterous relationship. Kirk Douglas is architect Larry Coe. Kim Novak is housewife Maggie Gault. The two are neighbors with children who attend school together. Early on, Quine films several scenes from Larry’s point-of-view, indicating the attraction he feels for Maggie. (This is particularly evident in the film’s very first scene, but it’s obvious also in a later scene where the two interact in a grocery store and, in a great tracking shot, the beautiful Maggie is revealed to the audience just as she is revealed to Larry.)
Later, Larry invites Maggie to come with him to survey a lot where he is about to build a house for a new client. Larry is standing next to his parked car as he speaks to Maggie opposite him. When Quine cuts to reverse shots of Maggie towards the end of the scene, it’s again obvious that we are seeing her as Larry perceives her; Novak is beautifully backlit in these shots. Maggie initially declines to join Larry, but eventually he is able to persuade her. “Change your mind,” he insists. In the shot in which he is seen saying that key line, Quine frames Larry with an intersection clearly visible behind him; despite the entire exchange taking place in the same location, this is the first time Quine has shot Larry in this way. Therefore, it is undeniably tempting to see the image of the road in metaphorical terms; depending upon Maggie’s answer, the two could be going down a path which will alter the courses of their lives greatly. Maggie agrees to go with Larry.
Another wonderful moment of visual metaphor comes when they meet at a seaside restaurant. It is storming outside and violent waves can be seen outside. Fittingly, Larry and Maggie acknowledge that they feel guilty about their adultery. And while neither one of them decides to end the relationship, the audience remains ill at ease with the morality of what they are doing. I believe this to be Quine’s intention. Think, for instance, of the moment when Maggie is thinking of Larry as she is doing the dishes. But her son yells, “Mom,” off-screen, asking for more milk. As Quine pulls back from a close-up of Maggie to a wide shot as she walks to the refrigerator, the audience is reminded palpably of her dual life.
Maggie’s deception of her husband is portrayed in hard-edged terms by Quine’s mise-en-scene. At one point, Maggie receives a call from Larry. She goes to answer it in the kitchen. The wide shot Quine selects for this moment includes both the kitchen to the right, the living room to the left in which Maggie’s husband can be seen sitting in an easy chair, and the wall which separates the two rooms—and, hence, Maggie from her husband. When the call is over, she says she was speaking to one of her girlfriends. (This shot, incidentally, brought to mind a similar one in Robert Mulligan’sClara’s Heart, a film which also features an unhappy married couple; the shot in Mulligan’s film has long been championed by critic and Mulligan scholar Fred Camper. The two shots are so similar that it’s hard for me to imagine that Mulligan was unaware of Quine’s film.) The conclusion of Strangers When We Meet, set partly in the fully constructed house which Larry has been building over the course of the film, ends not on a note of romance, but with two long shots: one of Larry standing atop the hill on which his grand house has been built; the other of Maggie driving away from the house.
A shade hazy, but colors seem only slightly paled. I wish it was sharper, but I think it is acceptable. Novak seems to look great in every scene she is in, so it makes it all the harder to be critical. Black levels are very good, and as customary by Columbia now, minimal menus which I don't mind. No extras excepting the "previews" (yet again). Overall no effort seems to have gone in but the stock from the vault is reasonably healthy.
A prolific director of over thirty Hollywood features made between 1948 and 1979, Richard Quine’s (1920-1989) career achieved a sustained peak during the 1950s and 1960s while working at Columbia Pictures. A specialist in comedy who was instrumental in launching the careers of Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon and Blake Edwards, Quine has long been overshadowed by the other great directors of late studio era comedy: Billy Wilder, Frank Tashlin and Edwards himself. Only recently has Quine been rediscovered as a filmmaker of equal rank, an artist able to infuse studio comedy and melodrama with unexpected warmth and melancholy.
Born in Detroit in 1920, Quine was already acting in Hollywood and on Broadway by the mid-1930s. After serving in the Coast Guard during World War Two, he turned to directing and quickly secured a contract at Columbia, where he began by filming a string of comedy shorts before turning to a series of musicals. During the 1950s, Quine hit his stride with such hit comedies as The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) and Bell, Book and Candle (1959), commercial success that continued well into the 1960s, after Quine had left Columbia.
Quine is perhaps best understood placed between two other celebrated directors of 1950s comedy: Billy Wilder and Frank Tashlin. More understated than Tashlin, Quine replaces Tashlin’s manic energy with understated charm. Although Quine shares a number of Wilder’s favorite actors, most notably Jack Lemmon, and often echoes Wilder’s striking visual realism, Quine’s films are less sour than Wilder’s. Where Wilder’s films deliver a jaundiced, biting critique of postwar America, Quine’s work thoughtfully examines the melancholy underside of American life, the drifting world of the so-called “lonely crowd.”
This unique combination of charm and melancholy, with an emphasis on the lonely heart of American society, reaches a poignant apex with Strangers When We Meet (1960), a melodrama of suburban adultery that is remarkably restrained for late Hollywood. While Quine’s later comedies grow more manic and cynical, his greatest work from the 1950s and 1960s—the focus of this series—reveal the talent of a consummate storyteller and restrained stylist.
The archetypal Hollywood movie star of the postwar era, Kirk Douglas built a career with he-man roles as soldiers, cowboys and assorted tough guys in over 80 films. His restless, raging creations earned him three Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and one Golden Globe win for his portrayal of Vincent van Gogh in "Lust for Life" (1956). But besides his lasting mark as a seething strong man with a superhero-like head of hair and the most famous dimpled chin this side of Shirley Temple, Douglas was a Tinseltown innovator and rebel. As one of the first A-listers to wrest further control of their career by founding an independent production company, Douglas also effectively ended the 1950s practice of blacklisting Hollywood talent suspected of communist ties when he insisted on crediting famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for his script adaptation of "Spartacus" (1960). Douglas maintained his position as a perennial favorite - often opposite fellow tough guy Burt Lancaster - in Westerns and World War II films until the early 1970s, when changing tastes edged the timeworn genres into the wings. He began a second career as a writer and focused on the philanthropic efforts of The Douglas Foundation, occasionally surfacing throughout the 1980s and 1990s to portray irrepressible old firecrackers in made-for-TV movies and the occasional feature.
His screen persona has been characterized by resoluteness and ferocity, the typical ingredients of his steadfast, driven heroes, and occasionally the psychological foundation for his formidable and relentless villains. These variations on a theme of perseverance have pleased audiences who have come to know the Douglas face as a movie icon—eyes blazing with anger or resistance, teeth clenched in determination, a distinctive cleft in his firmly planted chin.
All my life, I have taken inventory at intervals. For example, when I became a movie actor and suddenly I had to deal with fame, money and playing so many roles, I lost myself. I said, "Who am I?" And I wrote my first book to deal with that, "The Ragman's Son."
Then the next thing that happened: I was in a helicopter crash. We crashed into a small plane with two young people who were killed instantly. I fell to the ground, and I said, "Why?" I tried to find God, so I wrote a book, "Climbing the Mountain." Then the worst accident in my life happened with a tingling across my cheek, and then it developed into a stroke, and I couldn't talk, and an actor who can't talk is a big problem. But then I wrote the book "My Stroke of Luck" that helped me and helped a lot of other people. That was gratifying.
After that, here I was, 92 years old, impediment in my speech, and was reflecting on my life, and people thought I would write another book, and I said no, I'm going to do a one-man show. My friends laughed; they thought it was a joke, but I did it.
- Kirk Douglas, interviewed by Matthew Carey, CNN, April 9 2009
Kim Novak has often been disparaged as the last star manufactured by the studio system. In 1953, when Harry Cohn realized that Columbia's reigning sex goddess, Rita Hayworth, was becoming too rebellious, he supposedly decided to "create" a replacement. He selected Novak and, having her groomed and promoted through a huge publicity campaign, cast her in several films meant to display her sex appeal. Cohn's investment actually offered Novak an opportunity: she achieved stardom by developing an individualistic screen persona, and through her own accomplishments as an actress.
It’s possible that the star we know as Kim Novak was partially the invention of Columbia Pictures—- conceived, as the Canadian critic Richard Lippe puts it, both as a rival/spinoff of Marilyn Monroe and as a replacement for the reigning but at that point aging Rita Hayworth. At least this was the favored cover story of Columbia studio head Harry Cohn, whom Timemagazine famously quoted in 1957 as saying, “If you wanna bring me your wife and your aunt, we’ll do the same for them.” It was also the treasured conceit of the American press at the time, which was all too eager to heap scorn on Novak for presuming to act–just as they were already gleefully deriding Monroe for presuming to think.
But Monroe, as we know today, was considerably smarter than most or all of the columnists who wrote about her. And Kim Novak–a major star if not a major actress–had something to offer that was a far cry from updated Hayworth or imitation Monroe (even if the latter was precisely what Columbia attempted to do with her in one of her first screen appearances, in the 1954 Judy Holliday vehicle Phffft!). In point of fact, Novak was more beautiful than either actress, yet paradoxically she was also less of a fantasy. Marilyn Monroe was plainly a comic-strip figure and a fantasy wish-fulfillment that simultaneously converted all the men in her orbit into both fathers and infants, whereas Hayworth apparently lived up to her own self-characterization: “Men go to bed with Gilda but they wake up with me.” But Novak was real from the get-go, and it’s tempting to think that her humble Midwestern origins had something to do with her reality.
One: Is it backhanded praise to say that One, Two, Three is a movie you don't even have to look at to enjoy? For the first half hour I just wanted to close my eyes and let the non-stop flow of dialogue carry me along. While Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond are known for their wit ("You will send papers to East Berlin with blond lady in triplicate." "You want the papers in triplicate, or the blond in triplicate?" "See what you can do.") it's the musicality of the banter that captivates me: the compulsive clicking of a subordinate's heels, Cagney's numerical method of dictating agendas to associates, and countless little moments where the words turned against their speakers, batted around like a beach ball.
That's not to say the film lacks for visual interest. Cagney's office is an expansive executive space over which looms a global map of Coca Cola conquest; it's stately and big enough to contain Cagney's booming voice, and eventually becomes a staging ground for one of the most breathless one-set slapstick routines of post-30s Hollywood.
Two: Somewhere around the half hour mark, the non-stop stridency of Cagney's delivery starts to wear on the ears; and when it's doubled by Horst Buchholz' angry young Communist, it's like listening to two bugles blasting at each other over the Berlin Wall. Arlene Francis plays it a little too straight as the hapless wife. The whole middle section feels like an extended set-up for the next set piece, a late night negotation between East and West set over heavy cigar smoke, dishes of caviar and a table-dancing barefoot blonde in a form-fitting polka dot dress. The whole bar starts shaking to their gyrations, ideology coming undone under pure sexual lust.
Three: Back to that finale, a bravado sequence that moves at the speed of thought, as Cagney's McNamara improvises his way to transform Horst Buchholz from a wet-behind-the-ears Communist to a spit-polish Capitalist in under 40 minutes. Well, at least it's supposed to be improvised, but it doesn't quite feel that way - it sounds and looks thoroughly written every step of the way. All the same, it's a jaw-dropper, the way it summons every plot and subplot laid throughout what preceded it and weaves it into a three ring circus with Cagney the ringmaster-standin for Wilder. It's an awesome, relentless juggernaut of a sequence that, allegorically speaking, combines Soviet unilateralism, American showmanship and German efficiency. Looking at it meta, it also evokes the Hollywood studio system at the peak of its creative and collaborative energies; as such, timed at the demise of that same system, it makes for a fitting swan song.
Below: Poster mural inside the Delphi Filmpalast in the former West Berlin, taken during the 2009 Berlinale
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of One, Two, Three among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They:Fernando Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Helmut Fiebig, Steadycam (2007)
Katja Nicodemus, Steadycam (2007)
Lars-Olav Beier, Steadycam (2007)
Rob Blackwelder, BobSassone.com (2003)
Bertrand Tavernier, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)
HISTORICAL REVIEWS, PRESS AND PRODUCTION INFORMATION
IT is too bad the present Berlin crisis isn't so funny and harmless as the one Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond have whipped up in their new movie, "One, Two, Three." And it is too bad it can't be settled so briskly and pro-Americanly as James Cagney settles the one in this picture, which came to the Astor and the Fine Arts yesterday.
But the sharpness of wit and satire is less conspicuous than the magnitude and speed of the obvious jokes and comic action as they pour through the film like a cascade. There is nothing subtle about it, least of all about Mr. Cagney's role, which is that of the deus ex machina (or "mein fuehrer," as his wife refers to him). It is simply a matter of moving very fast and getting lots of things done, from sales pitching for Coca-Cola to an automobile chase through East Berlin.
With all due respect for all the others, all of whom are very good—Pamela Tiffin, a new young beauty, as Scarlett; Horst Buchholz as the East Berlin boy, Lilo Pulver as a German secretary, Leon Askin as a Communist stooge and several more—the burden is carried by Mr. Cagney, who is a good 50 per cent of the show. He has seldom worked so hard in any picture or had such a browbeating ball.
His fellow is a free-wheeling rascal. His wife (Arlene Francis) hates his guts. He knows all the ways of beating the rackets and has no compunctions about their use. He is brutishly bold and brassy, wildly ingenious and glib. Mr. Cagney makes you mistrust him—but he sure makes you laugh with him.
And that's about the nature of the picture. It is one with which you can laugh—with its own impudence toward foreign crises—while laughing at its rowdy spinning jokes.
WEST BERLIN -- Billy Wilder, producer-director, strode out of his Hilton headquarters here the other day, took a quick look up at the clearing skies and said, in his nervous, impatient way: "Okay. Get your steel helmets, everybody. We're going back to the Gate." And with that he jumped into a waiting car and sped to a location site on the Strasse des 17 Juni, near the Brandenburg Gate, followed by the cast and crew of his new comedy, "One, Two, Three," which he is making here for United Artists release late this year.
While the armament was strictly a figure of speech, it did fit the situation. Ever since Wilder placed the picture before the cameras in early June, he has been engaged in a private war with the East Berlin authorities over permission to shoot a sequence through the gate, which lies entirely within the Soviet sector of "Splitsville," as the divided city is known to the company...
The project represents the Viennese-born director's return to his old home grounds. In 1934, carrying a half-filled suitcase, he fled Berlin one step ahead of the Gestapo. Eleven years later, he was back as film chief of the American Information Control Division in Germany. Those experiences inspired the memorable comedy "A Foreign Affair," with Marlene Dietrich as postwar Berlin's most attractive commodity.
In many respects, Wilder is a bigger star on his own pictures than any of his actors. Something of an aggressive imp, he achieves his results with a steady barrage of bubbling comments, most of them derogatory, many of them unprintable, but all of them highly quotable. Speaking of one of his associates of some twenty years, for example, he said, "Obviously the man has no talent but I'm used to him." Another time, after one of the rebuffs at the gate, he commented, "I wonder if they'll let us shoot there if I have the musical score written by Irving East Berlin."
Though some of the action of the story, which is an outrageous attempt of American big business to penetrate the Iron Curtain market, takes place in East Berlin, none of the film will be shot there. Thanks to Berlin's sense of history, there are many places here that have been left just as they were when the Third Reich fell. Some of these areas, particularly those centering on Margareten and Victoria Strassen and the Anhalter railway station, are dotted with gutted buildings and piles of debris and look for all the world like most of the Soviet sector.
Playboy: Though it certainly didn't dwell on the subject of human meanness, One, Two, Three was an incisive satire of both sides involved in the Cold War. Were you concerned, while filming in Berlin, that the authorities on one side or the other might cause trouble?
Wilder: We got to Berlin the day they sealed off the Eastern sector and wouldn't let people come across the border. It was like making a picture in Pompeii with all the lava coming down. Khrushchev was even faster than me and Diamond. We had to make continuous revisions to keep up with the headlines. It seemed to me that the whole thing could have been straightened out if Oleg Cassini had sent Mrs. Khrushchev a new dress. But we weren't afraid of creating an incident like Mr. Paar. We minded our manners and were good boys. When they told us we couldn't use the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, we went to Munich and built our own.
Playboy: Was there any negative reaction to the picture as a flip treatment of a serious subject?
Wilder: Of course. There is a little group of people who always say I'm not Spinoza. The thinner the magazine, the fatter the heads of the reviewers. They were shocked because we made fun of the Cold War. Others objected because it was very quick-paced and they could not catch everything. People either loved it or hated it.
- Interviewed by Richard German, Playboy, June 1 1963
Wilder's constant obsession with pace in screen comedy found its own answer in ONE, TWO, THREE - a rapid, brutal and over-wrought comic statement on the Cold War. How fast is fast in comedy, Wilder asked himself. Can you machine-gun audiences with sound track satire? Do audiences have the stamina to pay close attention continuously, or must they come up for breath now and then? In London for the British premiere of ONE, TWO, THREE, he remarked that the tendency in contemporary films is length and slowness: 'I think because the critics think highly of European directors like Antonioni who have gotten away with it - the idea that slowness and solemnity are the same thing as profundity.' But he wondered if in ONE, TWO, THREE he hadn't gone too far with his 'experiment in keeping up the tempo the whole time.'
The plot of ONE, TWO, THREE is borrowed from a one-act play by Ferenc Molnar, who would be astonished to think that any hero of his could turn up as the manager of a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Yet that is what the picture's hero is. 'It is a farce that intentionally mocks and reverses every conventional attitude we have, or think we ought to have; virtue is punished, corruption and stupidity are rewarded and the whole German people, as if in a trifling aside, are indicted as lickspittles or martinets, and we sit watching and roaring with delight,' is the way Brendan Gill described the film. 'For this tour de force of fratricidal subversion, we have to thank not only Mr Cagney who makes it shamefully attractive, but, again, Mr Wilder, who produced and directed the picture and who could, no doubt, wring a hearty yock from bubonic plague.' (New Yorker, 6 January 1962) Reflecting on Wilder's ability to make bubonic plague into comedy, Pauline Kael felt that, execept perhaps in a different way in Ace in the Hole, Wilder had 'never before exhibited such a brazen contempt for people.' (I Lost it at the Movies,1965)
Wilder's direction is sharp and so furious that the Variety reviewer wondered if even the cream of an audience would catch more than seventy-five per cent of the significance of the dialogue at first hearing. (Variety, 29 November 1961) Cagney, who suffered from acute homesickness during the shooting in Germany, proves himself a good, snappy farceur with a glib, full-throttled characterisation. The staccato delivery wasn't always easy to film, and one speech during a shoe-shine session required fifty-two takes - only seven short of the all-time record with Marilyn Monroe on Some Like It Hot. While Buchholz and Pamela Tiffin fail to register much, Arlene Francis is just right as Mrs MacNamara, and some of the supporting roles are brutally in focus - Howard St John as the tycoon of Coca Colonisation, and Hanns Lothar as a heel-clicking right-hand man. Trauner's art direction contributes importantly to the comedy, notably in a scene set in a smoky East Berlin nightspot, and Andr? Previn incorporates period pop themes like 'Yes, We Have no Bananas' with incongruous effect into his score.
ONE, TWO, THREE was shot in Berlin during the autumn of 1961 at a time when the East-West climate deriorated daily, and before Wilder could yell 'Cut!' the last time, the Berlin Wall was under construction. Permission to shoot in East Berlin was revoked three weeks into production, forcing Wilder to have Trauner build a full-sized replica of the East side of the Brandenburg Gate on the back-Iot of the Bavaria Studios in Munich.
Wilder managed one little revenge. He made a dry run of a shot up to the boundary-line, and then sent word to the heavily armed East German police that they were in the picture, and while it was all right with him, he was afraid it would give audiences the impression that East Berlin was a Police State. That cleared the gate for several hours.
One, Two, Three is the smoking gun that proves Diamond did it. That is, ruined Wilder by downgrading his work to processed shtick. Today, One, Two, Three is as dated as a rerun of Pete and Gladys. It was just as dated when it came out, at least according to Pauline Kael. Reviewing it in 1961. she wrote, "It was shot in Berlin and Munich, but the real location is the locker room where tired salesmen swap the latest variants of stale old jokes. " A typical howler: The Russians reject a shipment of Swiss cheese because it's full of holes.
The reason why One, Two, Three, set as the Berlin Wall was going up, seemed crass to Pauline Kael in 1962 is that its manic scenario exploited a situation which had complex political dimensions. With distance, Sinyard and Turner in 1979 read the film as mirroring America's evolution from Virgin Land to Superpower. With greater hindsight, this dynamic screenplay not only simplifies the ragged conflicts of German and American history, but recalls the most manic of '30s Hollywood screwball comedies. As is usual with Wilder, no distracting camerawork or cutting is allowed to stand in the way of dialogue, which cuts its cloth to fit MacNamara's (and Wilder's) myopic odysseys.
Though it was rumored that Wilder and his "One, Two, Three" star James Cagney didn't get along, [Charlotte] Chandler [author of Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography] says they liked each other, though the veteran actor didn't like the rapid-fire dialogue he had to deliver. "I remember when I spoke with [the film's costar] Horst Buchholz, he said he found James Cagney dancing one morning as fast as you can imagine. Cagney said he was dancing that fast because it helped him get up to speed verbally."
>An odd combination of fast-paced screwball comedy and political satire, the movie offered director Wilder (who fled Germany in 1932 as Hitler ascended to power, several members of the director's family later perishing at Auschwitz) an opportunity to poke fun at Berlin's volatile politics and take a few swipes at his home country's post-Nazi culture; the movie also afforded the 62-year-old Cagney the chance to sink his teeth into one last meaty role while making a few sly jokes about his own public persona in the process...
As the hot-headed young Red, Bucholz seems hell-bent on acting Cagney off the screen through sheer volume and fury; years later, Cagney would remember that this was the only time in his entire career he ever worked with a competitive, uncooperative actor, saying that Bucholz resorted to "all kinds of scene-stealing didos, and I had to depend on Billy Wilder to take some steps to correct this kid. If Billy hadn't, I was going to knock Bucholz on his ass — which at several points I would have been very happy to do."
Revisited today, Billy Wilder's 1961 farce One, Two, Three is a Cold War poltergeist, rattling chains in the vanished spook house that was West Berlin. Indeed, this artifact from the era of geopolitical competition and nuclear crisis, sufficiently prescient to conjure the idea of Soviet missiles in Cuba, was actually in production when the Russians and East Germans sealed the border and ringed Berlin's western zone with a double-tiered wall...
Wilder never made a movie with more one-liners, and Cagney never had to talk faster ("put your pants on, Spartacus," he snarls at Buchholz during a marathon fitting session). But while the jokes are largely verbal, One, Two, Three is not without its visual treats. A onetime Berliner, Wilder makes better use of the dead zone around derelict Potsdamer Platz than any director before Wim Wenders. The entropic mise-en-scéne of East Berlin's imagined Grand Hotel Potemkin suggests a red Sunset Boulevard: An ancient dance band plays a German version of "Yes We Have No Bananas" while a couple of Rosa Klebb clones crowd the floor and a few bewhiskered comrades contemplate their chess games.
Not so far from the contemporary worldview of Mad magazine, One, Two, Three was essentially good-natured. By the time it opened in late '61, however, the nation was gripped by war panic. The New Yorker nervously suggested the filmmakers had pitched their "circus tent on grounds that threaten to become a cemetery," and other reviews were notably hostile. Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (the season's other cine-statement on postwar Germany), deemed Wilder's jape so tasteless, he felt obliged to apologize for it at the Moscow Film Festival. Such publicity notwithstanding, One, Two, Three proved a financial disappointment.
The movie may be manic, but it lacks the sustained velocity to be a great farce. Still, One, Two, Three looks forward to the 1960s' two great black comedies, anticipating Dr. Strangelove in its cynical realpolitik and The Producers in its relentless Nazi baiting. Adapted for the stage in West Berlin and re-released in West Germany during the mid '80s, it even became a cult film—something to hang on the still-extant wall.
Certainly there are other films that Billy Wilder made that I love more than One, Two, Three (Sunset Blvd. is in my all-time Top 10), but the more I see it, the more I realize that Wilder may never have made a movie that's as much fun. James Cagney may have achieved stardom in gangster films, but if you put all those together, I doubt the machine gun fire contained within would come close to equaling the speed of the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue that he fires in this Cold War (and cola war) comedy. No wonder Cagney decided to quit movies for 20 years after this — he must have been exhausted and needed that long to catch his breath...
No Wilder film moves like One, Two, Three does with pacing that is downright remarkable. On top of that, there are subtle messages about capitalism, communism and just about everything in between. When a jaded Otto realizes that one of his communist comrades is ready to leap to the west side of Berlin, he asks, "Is everyone in the world corrupt?" to which the defector replies, "I don't know everybody." With One, Two Three, Wilder bottled a concoction with more fizz than any bottle of Coke. Really, it was Wilder's last truly great film, yet many people haven't seen it. They don't know what they're missing. One, Two Three is the real thing.
James Cagney is the whole dynamic show in this hilarious Billy Wilder satire (1961) on Coca-Cola diplomacy in divided Berlin. The plot is something about a Coke executive (Cagney) who has to chaperone the boss's daughter (Pamela Tiffin), who is infatuated with one of Berlin's ever-present communist students (Horst Buchholz), who is in turn dedicated to destroying everything symbolized by Coca-Cola, etc, etc. The pace is blistering, and Wilder's deep-seated hatred of Germans has never been put to more comic use.
I suspect that One, Two, Three fizzles out frequently for younger audiences. So much of the humor is topical, referring to events that were current in 1961, or have a cultural frame of reference for adults of that era. While it is fascinating to see a film that takes place in a divided Berlin before the wall went up, gags about Nikita Kruschev probably require explanation for some. Jokes about Adlai Stevenson and Chet Huntley may seem obscure. Too many of the jokes concerning Pamela Tiffin's ditzy character of Scarlett refer to Gone with the Wind, although the jokes about Southern contempt for Yankees are still funny. Lilo Pulver, the tall, blonde, gum chewing secretary, remains sexy and funny, periodically recalling Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot, especially in a scene where Hanns Lothar has to wear her clothes for a temporary disguise.
This is the featherweight comedy film on the Cold War that James Cagney decided to end his illusturious film career on, only to come back twenty years later to make in 1981 Ragtime. Billy Wilder ("Avanti!"/"Buddy Buddy"/"Irma La Douce") directs this zany but heavy-handed sitcomlike comedy that's based on an obscure play by Ferenc Molna. It's cowritten by Wilder and regular writer I.A.L. Diamond. Despite being fast-paced, hard-hitting, and filled with topical gags, it's creaky as the targets of Wilder's satire--a vulgar American capitalist culture and an outdated Russian Communist culture--are too obvious to be that funny. It's a futile attempt at farce to return to Ninotchka territory, that drags its heels through an overlong hardly funny middle-part and a crudeness that is hard to overcome. Cagney as the harried but crafty executive is splendid, delivering one-liners with machine-gun rapidity and being the entire force of the film.
One, Two, Three is Billy Wilder’s most consistently hilarious and most gorgeous comedy... The breakneck pace conforms to the instruction that heads the script: “This piece must be played molto furioso.” The underpinning delight, on the mark (a double-meaning there), is how Otto’s ideological resistance flows into complicity with the effort to turn him into a rich capitalist. Horst Buchholz is spectacularly funny as Otto.
You really can’t say enough about James Cagney’s performance here. While he will always be remembered for the gangster films, where he was usually riveting and added a dimension to the characters that other actors almost never could, Cagney was an extremely versatile performer who was adept in musical and comedic roles as well as drama. In One, Two, Three, he really excels and is able to give full justice to the madcap lunacy found in the screenplay written by Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor who could pull off this role half as well as Cagney. On the surface, MacNamara is not a likeable character, but Cagney manages to make him simply gruff and grumpy in a way that the viewer can’t help but like the guy regardless of whether you like what’s he doing, reminiscent of the persona Walter Matthau later would adopt in many films. The rapid-fire delivery Cagney uses to such good effect here is a logical continuation of the style he developed in his gangster roles.
The set piece of the film is an eight-minute stretch where MacNamara does a high-toned makeover on the beatnik Piffle, bringing in a parade of tailors, barbers, haberdashers, etc., and rattling off pages of exacting dialogue with perfect articulation and precision - precisely as Wilder wrote it (it reportedly took many takes and some strained tempers). This dovetails into a mad car chase to the airport and a sharp finish. Audiences laugh - and then quiet themselves to not miss out on the next joke - Wilder's pace leaves little room for reaction time, just a raised eyebrow or a quick breath.
The best-looking disc in MGM's "Billy Wilder DVD Collection" and the second-most handsome of the Wilder titles available on the format thus far (edged-out by Sunset Blvd.), One, Two, Threepreserves Daniel L. Fapp's Oscar-nominated cinematography with tremendous clarity of detail and contrast. (Sadly, Fapp received the film's only Academy nod.) Ignore the pan-and-scan side of the disc in favour of the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer; I just wish I knew why MGM keeps replacing original logos with the '90s-era growling Leo: it makes no sense to introduce a b&w movie with a splash of colour, for starters. Source material is in excellent condition with the exception of irregular blotches that could be water damage. (It's doubtful the immersed viewer will notice them, anyhow.) The 2.0 mono soundtrack potently reproduces Wilder's sixties composer André Previn's riffs on Richard Wagner and Aram Khachaturyan, and Cagney's voice lacks the shrill quality one anticipates from previous viewings. One, Two, Three's theatrical trailer rounds out the disc.
The writer-director Billy Wilder, impressed by the skits Diamond wrote for a Writers Guild dinner, asked him to cowrite a screenplay. Wilder had worked with several writers since his breakup with the writer-producer Charles Brackett, but had failed to find the ideal collaborator. Though their personalities were dramatically different, Diamond's withdrawn, introverted qualities proved to be the perfect balance for Wilder's extrovert nature. They not only shared a common European immigrant background, but the same dry sense of humor.
Beginning with Love in the Afternoon, their partnership spanned 25 years and a dozen films. While popular and critical reception of the pictures varied, their combined talents created some of the best and most enduring comedy/dramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Witty dialogue and sophisticated sexual situations marked their stories. They openly challenged the long-standing assumption that allHollywood productions should be family oriented, and provided moviegoers with tasteful, adult entertainment. Their most satisfying pictures combined cynicism with sentiment, playing the two extremes against each other until the softer side of human nature won out. Frequently focused on illicit sex, their scenarios were also about love and the emotional vicissitudes of intimate relationships.
For Diamond and Wilder cynicism knew neither sexual nor age boundaries; it belonged to the middle-aged male (Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon and Fred MacMurray in The Apartment), to the youthful bachelor (Curtis and Lemmon in Some Like It Hot), and to the simple working girl (Shirley MacLaine in The Apartmentand Irma La Douce). They poked fun at modern mores (Avanti!), at the American Dream (One, Two, Three), at ambition (Kiss Me, Stupid), and at greed (The Fortune Cookie). Their repeated casting of stars such as Lemmon, MacLaine, and Walter Matthau gave an additional continuity to their work. Particularly effective was the teaming of Lemmon and Matthau in a series of films (The Fortune Cookie, The Front Page, and Buddy Buddy) focusing on male relationships.
Maybe it's only in America where a man can act like an unrepentant juvenile and become a multimillionaire megastar... and a master filmmaker. Moreso than Spielberg, Lucas or early Judd Apatow, Jerry Lewis takes the boy-in-a-man's-world ethos to heart, and it powers his moviemaking at every level: not just in his performance, but in the very way his films are constructed. Here his trademark nebbish cowers in a boarding house full of women; it's less a coherent story than a series of one-offs riffing on Lewis' klutzy gynophobia. While the results range from flat misfires to riotous genius, the relentless repetition of these set-ups amount to as much of a compulsive ritual as Wile E. Coyote's pursuit of the Road Runner, and just as captivating in its flurried variations.
But unlike the Coyote's Sisyphean purgatory of ambition-cum-self-torment, what gets Lewis enacts again and again is a spasmodic rebelliousness that champions the eternal wellspring of boy-like wonder. It's a world where adult concerns for structure and story give way to childlike free play with objects in a seemingly elastic space. Something as rudimentary as narrative is regarded like a rigid schoolmarm that both threatens and gives form to Lewis' playtime. And for all his undeniably male preoccupations with the terrifying spectre known as woman (in this instance, an entire house full of them), the fact that Lewis' legendary million-dollar set amounts to a super-sized dollhouse suggests a boy who likes to play with dolls. The libido on display isn't hurtling towards manhood; it's actively resisting the obligation to fall into the pigeonhole of masculinity.
That said, there's plenty of male scopophilia on display, with the two knockout musical numbers near the beginning and end expressing breathless pleasure at watching how women move, set to vivacious jazz. It surprises me that in all the articles I've dug up about Jerry Lewis and The Ladies Man, not once do I find a reference about Lewis possibly being the most jazz-informed filmmaker of his time. Again, it's the sense of taking a bare-bones theme and freestyling it to the rafters, unafraid of hitting false notes (and there are not a few in this film) for the sake of striking golden ones (and there are not a few in this film). When Andrew Sarris complained that Lewis "never put one brilliant comedy from fade in to fade out," he missed the point entirely. Being a Hollywood classicalist, Sarris couldn't entertain the notion of a post-narrative comedy in the John Coltrane/Ornette Coleman era, where story comes second to the revelations of a spontaneous, inspired moment, as eruptive and unexpected as laughter itself.
Now, four decades later, Lewis' filmmaking feels even more apropo to the digital age, when classical storytelling, both in Hollywood and the arthouse, is yielding to the impulse for immediacy that rules the day, for better (e.g. Public Enemies) or worse (e.g. Transformers). But championing The Ladies Man as a template for a Cinema of Our Time doesn't mean we write a blank check to slack, formless filmmaking trying to catch cinematic moments with a torn butterfly net. Ultimately, The Ladies Man does have a profound reverence for form - though it's not classical story form, but the form of the two-dimensional movie screen. Like a pre-Columbian cartographer, Lewis accepts that the world is flat, but he takes that and goes the distance with it, with brilliant gags that open up new pockets of space within the frame (i.e. falling through his "bunk" bed; the play with non-existent mirrors in the girl-crazed morning number; encased butterflies that come to life). Working within limitations, his revelations hint at limitless discoveries, as well as a few paradoxes. His megalomanical control of spatial and character interactions explodes into a comic free-for all. Likewise, he validates his auteur status, a self-proclaimed "total filmmaker," by regressing wholeheartedly into a terminally narcissistic childhood.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEARN MORE?The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Ladies' Man among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Bettina Thienhaus, Steadycam (2007)
Hans-Dieter Delkus, Steadycam (2007)
Michael Althen, Steadycam (2007)
Charles Tesson, Nouvel Observateur: Best Films 1953-2002 (2002)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Alternative 100 American Movies (to the AFI
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
Slant Magazine, 100 Essential Films (2003-2007)
Various Critics, Book - 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
"THE LADIES MAN," with Jerry Lewis, needs more than just an apostrophe. As Mr. Lewis howls at one point during this color comedy from Paramount, "Boy, what a little imagination can do!" Boy! He can say that again.
Now, in all fairness to a frankly light-headed vehicle that dies on its feet, Mr. Lewis' latest gets off to a fresh and really funny beginning. And offhand, especially after those early bright moments, it would certainly sound as promising as any Lewis package in a long time...
But after half an hour it all folds like a tent. The remainder of the picture, with everyone else firmly relegated to the background, has Mr. Lewis shuffling and stumbling in full view, as if he and the movie were merely improvising.
The film's greatest fame rests not in the slim script nor in the inventive set-pieces, but in the set itself: a massive construct that swallowed up two soundstages at the Paramount lot. Lewis the director shows remarkable patience as he slowly reveals the magnificent construction to the audience over the morning routine of the household. The camera glides from room to room and cranes down the staircase as the girls rise and make their way down to breakfast, the trickle of individuals gathering into a herd of females. Finally Herbert awakens, gawking at the magnificent mansion on his way downstairs while the camera (mounted on a camera crane so big it took up another soundstage) slowly pulls back to fill the screen with the sprawling four story set, a life-size dollhouse with cutaway walls revealing a warren of bedrooms and hallways.
More than merely a visual inspiration, it was an engineering marvel: 60 rooms, each wired for sound with built-in mikes and individually illuminated with hidden lights, on the largest indoor set built up to that time. It gave Lewis the freedom to choreograph action through multiple rooms and follow it with fluid, unbroken camerawork, or to pull back to show the hive of activity in the honeycomb of a house.
Lewis was so proud of his accomplishment that he posted a sign outside the stage door: "This is NOT a closed set." He even erected bleachers for visitors to watch the shooting. "This was the film that Francis Ford Coppola visited," remembers Lewis (Coppola was an intern at Paramount at the time). "He was on the set almost every day of the shoot. He loved the set, he loved the girls, he loved the idea, and he was enamored with what I did with the video assist and the shoot." The video assist was a pioneering idea and Lewis was the first to make use of the technology on the film set. (Coppola took the video assist into the next generation when he brought video technology into his fledgling Zoetrope Studios decades later.) There was no videotape in 1961 but through the placement of monitors around the set, Lewis could see the camera eye while performing.
The ensemble scenes are choreographed (with the help of Bobby Van) as much as they are directed, with numerous scenes playing out wordlessly to the brassy swing soundtrack. Like much of the crew, composer Walter Scharf was a longtime Lewis collaborator and his energetic score helps set the pace and tone of the film. In one stand-out scene, a forbidden door opens into the all-white room of a seductive dancer who descends from the ceiling and as the walls expand and Harry James and his Orchestra perform on a balcony that doesn't exist anywhere but in Lewis' imagination. In another hilarious sequence, Herbert drives tough guy Buddy Lester into a quivering mass of jelly, creating a classic twist on the slow burn. Lester was subsequently cast as the bartender in the unforgettable Alaskan Polar Bear sequence of The Nutty Professor (1963).
Lewis bragged about the savings that his technological innovations brought to the ambitious production, but the film still finished over schedule and over budget, costing over $3 million. The set itself cost $1 million, according to Lewis. It was money well spent. American critics were (for the most part) impressed and the French were ecstatic. Yes, the cliché about the French proclaiming Lewis a genius was born here, but there is justification for the claim. While some may cringe at his spastic performance and baby-talk dialogue, it's hard not to be awed by the technological leaps of this production, and at their best his gags delve in to the realm of the surreal last visited by the Marx Brothers.
It's widely known Jerry Lewis hates to do multiple takes in his movies; if for no other reason, he feels it impedes the spontaneity of the work. This approach is very evident in The Ladies' Man.
There are frequent camera bobbles and hesitations as the operator fights to anticipate and follow the hyper comic.
At the tail of a ballroom dance number, strangely coupling Herbert and dapper screen legend George Raft (as himself), Jerry takes off goofily around the set, leaving an unprepared spotlight technician with the actor in the dark.
In the movie's running gags involving a ferocious pet named Baby, Herbert drags a whole side of beef from the kitchen to the animal's quarters. In the close-up, H. H. H. struggles to push the carcass through the doorway to the waiting beast, although we see Lewis is only pretending to hold the meat. His hands are empty, inadvertently caught in the picture.
In a ballet sequence, clumsy, energetic Herbert prances with several ballerinas. He slips and takes a comedic pratfall. We see (but not hear) Jerry the director switch gears to yell "Cut!" to his crew at the same time a ballerina also falls down; his head jerks around to her in complete surprise. It's obviously a blooper, but the ballerina's stumble helps the scene, nonetheless.
I enjoy this looseness. What's important to me, first and foremost, are the laughs. Everything else is secondary. Besides if Lewis had deleted all the blemishes, we might not have the funniest sequence in the movie.
Hard-faced character actor Buddy Lester appears as tough guy Willard C. Gainsborough (the "C" is for "Killer"). Willard intimidates Herbert, until our hero accidentally sits on the man's hat. Herbert tries to repair the damage and reshape the brim after he places the hat on Willard's head. Lester's blank, exasperated facial expressions and delivery are hysterical as Jerry manipulates the hat and restyles the gangster's hair into as many unflattering positions as possible.
The camera is shooting over Lewis' shoulder, so we see most of this footage from the back of his head. The amazing thing to note is Lewis breaks character, cracking up at Lester's performance. We see and hear Jerry snort as he struggles to continue with the scene. Then, regaining his composure, Herbert plucks a thread dangling on Willard's forehead. He tells the man he's removing the thread. Willard deadpans, "That's my eyebrow." Jerry goes off again, expels air through his nose in burps and blatantly turns his face further away from the camera in a desperate attempt to save the shot.
All of this action is quite hilarious -- but, hey, we're looking at an A-list major motion picture. What other director would be so bold as to include a crack-up outtake? And get away with it!
With Jerry, these blemishes are business as usual. One of his strongest lures as an entertainer is danger, not playing by the rules. His meteoric, literally overnight, rise to stardom and cultural sensation with former partner Dean Martin was heavily indebted to frequent breaking of the "fourth wall" between the performers and their audiences, wherein lurked the tantalizing promise and fulfillment of uproarious ad-libs and asides. This device alone made him a household name and put untold millions into his pocket.
Let us look briefly at that extraordinary tour de force of mise en scene, The Ladies' Man. Here, Jerry Lewis — Herbert Heebert — is kept prisoner in a spectacular set of his own making. He has built his maze, even employed video cameras behind the scenes (a Jerry Lewis invention) to spy on his every move. As in The Bellboy, he is here too a victim. But rather than being set in the swanky resort location of the Fontainebleau — the stomping grounds of Jerry Lewis the star — The Ladies' Man occurs clearly on a Hollywood set. Were this a populist film, we would expect to find in the cross-sectioned set a representative sample of humanity. But this cross-section is uniquely "Lewisian" in being a glossy, plastic house full of aspiring performers (into which walks George Raft, as he does also in The Patsy, a film directly about Hollywood). Herbert Heebert compulsively remains on this set with these Hollywood people. He is even drawn to the lair of the ultimately dehumanized performer — the woman in black. He is, in short, a prisoner of his own fascination with this extraordinary make-believe world.
The Ladies' Man shows Hollywood the trap once removed in the fictional context of Helen Welenmelon's house/set. It is a gigantic distortion of reality, threatening to consume and destroy the mild-mannered guy who cannot leave it.
Anyone wondering why Lewis is often cited for his technical prowess with a camera and a crane need only look at The Ladies Man to determine the filmmaker's dexterity with a dolly. Lewis's lens moves in and out of his man-made half-mansion, passing around absent walls and shooting through glassless mirror frames to give the story a kind of crazy, fairytale quality. Combining primary colors with intricate artistic touches, The Ladies Man is a marvel to behold, a film rich in visual flair and even more powerful production value.
Combined with the massive amount of narrative and visual invention is that same old Lewis desire to entertain and enliven. There is very little dead space in The Ladies Man, as if the filmmaker was trying to cram as much craziness into the story as he could. From the hilarious joke names given to the cast (Herbert Heebert, Helen Wellenmellon) to the reliance on cameos (by the likes of George Raft, oddly enough) and that comedy mainstay, drag (Jerry is one fugly female as Herbert's beloved "MA!"), this is a master class in old fashioned Hollywood hijinks. Add in the brilliant supporting performances (opera diva Helen Traubel is just terrific, as is Lewis regular Kathleen Freeman) and Jerry's own unique brand on brainless mugging, and you've got a sight gag filled frenzy that barely lets us rest.
There will be some who point out that Lewis never gives us a clear set of characters here. Performances are driven by personality quirks (the quiet girl, the lazy girl, the eccentric girl, the musical girl) and that the comic's typical overt sentimentalism is surprisingly kept in check. But the reality is that these are elements that actually make The Ladies Man a better movie. As long as we are centered on Herbert and his quest for perpetual bachelorhood, this film is a bright breeze of buffoonery. But the minute we drift off into to heart-tugging territory (for a couple of brief minutes at the end), the movie seems to go sour, if only for a second. It is this last-second dash for the melodramatic that keeps The Ladies Man from launching into a stratosphere of pure comic bliss. Unlike The Nutty Professor, which gave us a romance to root for in Professor Kelp and Ms. Purdy, Herbert has no such honey to hope for. Instead, he wants to avoid all the women in the hostel. So when Pat Stanley's Fay finally makes her play, it's far too little, way too late. Thankfully, Lewis avoids the obvious love affair to keep the film focused on the crazy and the crackpot. The result is something both sincere and very silly. Right up there with his best, more beloved works, The Ladies Man is pure, potent Jerry Lewis.
It opens in a studio re-creation of tenuous order ("a very nervous little community") razed by a daisy-chain of comic catastrophes -- Jerry Lewis's forthright declaration of modernism is further elucidated at the graduation-day assembly, a composition unsettled by the spazzing Jerry. As Herbert H. Heebert, he declares everlasting bachelorhood after seeing his beloved with another; Lewis on a red bus-stop bench wearing a gray suit that shows a good few inches of socks and cuffs is a grand sight, thrown into the world after a Freudian embrace from his mother (played by the total filmmaker himself). As if in danger of focusing exclusively on performance, Lewis rolls out his technical marvels: A jerky zoom that steers the protagonist towards the boarding house evolves into the tilt up Mona Freeman at the door and, finally, into the quicksilver floating crane that surveys the vast edifice as an ocean of femininity fills it. Herbert gazes at the 30 shapely occupants in horror, but the tears of the trilling owner (Helen Traubel) convince him to stay, next he's being spoonfed porridge in a high chair. Buddy Lester supplies a fearsome deadpan under a crushed hat and George Raft flubs his coin-flip yet aces his tango, but the majority of the gags are aimed at the estrogen overflowing in every room, and only Fellini and Peckinpah can rival Lewis as artists working through their misogyny via their art. Even after its transparency as a movie set is foregrounded when the TV crew crashes its atrium, the boarding home remains a dollhouse of the mind, its screens-within-screens hiding audacious sexual routines -- the offscreen, roaring pussy(cat) that splashes Herbert with milk and chews his offer of meat till there is only bone left, as well as the forbidden chamber where bat-laaaaaady Sylvia Lewis welcomes him with Gothic slinkiness and Harry James's orchestra. Pat Stanley spells out the treacly moral ("how nice to be really needed"), but this masterwork of demasculinization hinges much more trenchantly on the subversive despair of the Lewis schnook, always "alone with noise."
In a career with its fair share of public relations blunders, probably the most notorious faux pas made by Jerry Lewis was his 2000 proclamation that he has never liked any female comedians and that he considers women's function in the general scheme of things "as a producing machine that brings babies in the world," either the woeful words of a severely disillusioned man battling various physical and mental ailments or a misguided, Andy Kaufman-esque attempt at performance art stand-up. At any rate, the comment isn't so radically out of step from the Jerry Lewis who made the masterpiece The Ladies' Man, which even though it could undoubtedly be taken as a manifesto on machismo, also happens to be a bizarre, sexually ambiguous, cantankerously skeptical burlesque on the ascent of feminine independence and the resulting commodification of masculinity, especially of the domesticated variety.
Lewis stars as a disconnected graduate from Milltown ("a very nervous little community") magnificently named Herbert H. Heebert (more than once, the shrill manner in which some of the female characters yell out his name ends up more closely resembling the epithet "pervert"). After discovering his girlfriend making out with a letterman, Lewis seems to regress on the spot into a total presexuality, an adolescent form of misogyny that dictates that he can't be around women, period. (Ten minutes in, Lewis is already wallowing in a Freudian quagmire of repressed homosexuality, amplified by Lewis's one-shot cameo in drag as his own mother.)
So where does he find his first job? In a women's boarding house, naturally. Lewis (the director) effectively validates Herbert's mistrust of women by having the boarding house's owner, the regal Miss Wellenmellon (Helen Traubel), and maid, Katie (Kathleen Freeman), go out of their way to obfuscate the nature of their establishment during Herbert's "job interview," which consists mainly of an impromptu psychoanalytical session wherein Herbert gets his disappointment in women off his chest. (It's worth noting that both women are portrayed as being emphatically past their sexual prime, so Herbert isn't threatened.) They hire him and sneak him up to his room through the back hallways. It isn't until the next morning that Lewis reveals not only the throng of 30 gorgeous women with whom Herbert will be sharing living space (the film's on-screen universe), but also the mind-bogglingly immense dimensions of the ant-farm set that is meant to represent Wellenmellon's mansion.
Lewis pulls the camera out as far as it will go while keeping the strutting lines of women in perspective, but he also cannily reveals the edges of the set to accentuate its artificiality, in effect showing the audience that the on-screen space isn't meant to be taken concretely, but also as an extension of Herbert's entrapped psychological state. There are basically two rooms that are emphatically privileged as "off-screen space," the room in which Wellenmellon and her girls keep "Baby," a roaring, unidentified creature (which almost surely represents its namesake: the consequences of heterosexual discovery), and a mysterious room belonging to a "Miss Cartilage" that Freeman nebbishly demands Herbert never enter.
From its very first scene, depicting a mechanistic causality in which everyday life is figured as a linkage of moments of chaos and catastrophe, The Ladies Man signals its status as a calculated and rationally built object. Quickly, this depiction of the constructed nature of the narrative universe becomes a full-fledged self-reflexivity in the famous shot where, to a musical fanfare, the camera pulls back and reveals the ladies' boarding house as a large-scale cutaway. The set manifests itself explicitly as a set: lateral to the camera, the rooms of the boardinghouse are sliced open so that we can see into each and every one of them at the same time. This set, legendary in its status in film history, speaks of the act of creation in several ways. First, obviously, its artificiality and unreality signal the constructed nature of this narrative universe: this is decidedly, emphatically, a set. Secondly, the resemblance of the set to a dollhouse resonates with the thematics of the latter: the dollhouse is a form of creativity in which its owner manipulates reality as a godly figure lording over a controlled universe. The dollhouse set of The Ladies Man speaks not only of the creation of its narrative world but of the omnipresence and even omnipotence of its creator, the auteur who generated this fictional universe.
In keeping with these larger functions of the cutaway set, the division of the boardinghouse into a series of individual rooms allows for a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of narrative. As Herbert enters each room, a new story, a new sketch, can begin and signal the constructed nature of all such scenes, the way they are called into being by a narrational agent. (The set here bears obvious comparison to one used by another famous director whose films are often also about the director as a veritable authoring god: the courtyard of Hitchcock's Rear Window, where what Jeffries peers into is the world of narrativity itself, each window that is facing him a mini-story of life, love, or death.) Additionally, the multiplicity of rooms goes beyond narratological function to enable formal experimentation: each room has its own look, its own design, and its own coloration arranged according to unique and irreducible palettes. At the same time, it is important to note that each of the bedrooms reveals not any-story-whatsoever but stories or scenes specifically connected to a world of spectacle and showmanship, thereby signaling self-reflexively the film's emphasis on a world of performance: for example, in one room a woman auditions for the theater, while in the strangest of rooms, Herbert dances with a batlike woman while a band plays hip music, all of this in a decor that is highly stylized, offering hyperaware commentary on its own constructedness. When, toward the end of the film, a TV crew comes to the boardinghouse to film a documentary, the self-reflexive function of the set comes full circle and we participate in a film filming a filming (with Herbert Heebert then mimicking Jerry Lewis when he looks through the viewfinder and plays with the sound-recording technology).
Two moments of fantasy in The Ladies Man are prime Lewis. In one scene, Herbert, dusting a living room, opens a case displaying a group of exotic butterflies, which take wing and vanish past the camera. Conscious of having done a bad thing, he whistles them back; miraculously they return to their places, and he shuts them back in their display case. This scene is a great metaphor both for the story of The Ladies Man and for Lewis' own activity as a director: a discoverer of beauty, he animates beauty by beholding it, but this animation is loss, so he summons the beautiful objects back to their place and resolves to keep them there.
Later in The Ladies Man, Herbert enters the forbidden room of the mysterious Miss Cartilage (Sylvia Lewis). Within the artificial universe of the boarding house, this room is a universe unto itself, with its own all-white decor; it also has its own spatial laws, since it proves to contain not just Miss Cartilage's bedroom but a vast ballroom with a bandstand, on which Harry James and his big band are gathered to give a private concert. Lewis reveals the ballroom to us by a cut that transforms not only space but costume: Herbert leaves one shot wearing his usual casual attire, to emerge in the next shot wearing a snazzy suit. The Miss Cartilage sequence encapsulates the whole film: a private episode for Herbert, self-contained and without antecedents or consequences in the narrative; a dangerous encounter with the figure of Sexual Woman, from which he has been in flight since his sweetheart's traumatizing betrayal; and a fantasy in which he momentarily asserts a mastery of performance (and a slick wardrobe) not revealed in the rest of the film.
This fantasy reveals Lewis' cinema as one of pure pleasure, expressed through the control of colour, decor and camera movement in a studio environment, and expressed also through dance and through the indulgence of his love of big-band swing (which features in many Lewis films, notably Cinderfella[1960, produced by Lewis and directed by Frank Tashlin], The Errand Boy and The Nutty Professor). In Lewis' work in general, all these elements are linked to the free exercise of the imagination, and they point to a conception of film as a medium of transformation and escape, aligned with a tradition of Hollywood luxury and artistry – a conception that prevails from his first film, The Bellboy, to his last feature to date, Cracking Up.
The characters of The Ladies Man have no exit from the film's world, and yet the exit is available at all times to the audience, who are granted the privilege of perceiving the constructedness of this world: it's a stage set, a doll's house, a charged space of libidinal drives surrounded by an emptiness that Lewis sometimes pulls his camera back far enough to let us see (as he nearly does again in the astonishing overhead crane shot in Kelp's laboratory in The Nutty Professor – in which the camera reaches a distance hard to reconcile with the supposed real dimensions of the space, letting us know explicitly that this is a fantasy space, a movie set, a space of transformation).
In the films of Lewis, the carefully delineated narrative situations and conflicts that constitute the logic of the syntagmatic chain inevitably fall victim to a degeneration into a series of isolated sketches unrelated to the main narrative. The discursive operations of these films are dominated by digression and repetition, rather than by causal logic and narrative closure, and are thus more easily linked to the associational language of the patient than to the telos of the narrator. This tendency is most emergent in Lewis' most "total" productions: the carefully prepared scenario of The Ladies Man, with gradually introduced characters, settings, and conflicts, disintegrates into a series of blackout sketches unrelated either through chains of causality or the impetus of narrative functions. In The Ladies Man, architectural structure replaces narrative structure, as the massive cutaway house (which is simultaneously open and closed) operates as the merest gesture of containment toward the multitude of frenetic actions taking place within.
Jerry Lewis' second film as director is one of his greatest, with its star almost overwhelmed by his one major set, the split-level interior of a Hollywood boarding hotel for aspiring actresses, where one Herbert Heebert, practising misogynist, has been taken on in all innocence as a houseboy. Lewis' camera performs some virtuoso movement around the rooms (Jean-Luc Godard and Julien Temple were to borrow this device), and the ultra-loose plotline allows for some hilarious sequences, and even a touch of surrealism in one entirely white interior. Highlights include Lewis breaking up a television show and dancing a tango with George Raft.
Jerry Lewis conjured up one of his simplest concepts for this 1961 hit, but it required a lot of scaffolding. The Ladies Man puts love-scarred Jerry (who has sworn off women) in an all-girl boarding house, infuriated by the constant temptation. Except for the opening sequences, the film is entirely shot in the four-story-high, cut-away set of the boarding house, one of the most elaborate indoor sets ever made in Hollywood up to that time. Lewis, as director, finds dozens of angles to shoot within the set; this movie is one of the reasons the French are always talking about his directorial genius. (Jean-Luc Godard, who once called Lewis "the only one in Hollywood who's doing something different, the only one who isn't falling in with the established categories," borrowed the cut-away building idea for his film Tout va bien.) There's some great physical stuff, such as Lewis trying desperately to save the crushed hat of visiting tough guy Buddy Lester, plus a lot of Lewis vocal whining, especially concerning his name: Herbert Heebert, not Herby Heebert. The film has its share of gags falling flat, but for Lewis fans it's prime stuff, not far from the high-water mark of The Nutty Professor.
Never mind that The Ladies Man isn't all that funny. (And to be fair, it's much funnier than anything else so far in the Paramount collection.) A gag involving Herbert destroying a visiting boyfriend's hat goes on so long and is so demeaning that your eyes pop out of your head, while a sequence involving a black-clad resident and her all-white apartment (with accompaniment by Harry James) is so deeply strange that you can't believe it's from the same guy who does that telethon every Labor Day. Colour is used sparingly but shockingly, and I swear that the wide shots of the cross-sectioned house were the inspiration for the opening of Tout va bien. For once, Lewis himself is calling attention to the jokes instead of himself, making even the de rigueur saccharine interludes inoffensive. Weirdo cineastes, your ship has come in; see this one twice for sure.
Jerry Lewis' The Ladies Man (1961) is yet another work of genius, featuring Lewis as a girl-hating bachelor who winds up working in a boarding house packed with sexy, available young women. Most of this virtually plotless film is set in the astonishing three-story set with open walls and winding staircases and Lewis' camera glides freely up and down, in and out all the rooms. Some of the gags go on too long, notably one in which Lewis deals with a tough guy gangster waiting for his girlfriend in the lobby, but others are pure delight. Lewis even plays a touching scene in which he cheers up one of the girls, depressed after a failed audition. As with The Nutty Professor, the richness of color makes this a visual feast.
The film ran out of gas well before the finish line, ending in Jerry's usual sentimentality--this time he must get confirmed that all the gals really needed the nebbish around because he's such a nice feller and not just to run errands. The episodic film had much energy early on and scored well, even though the gags were uneven, which showed me if you can reign Jerry in he could be funny without being too annoying. But for me, too much of Jerry is not a good thing; he does wear out his welcome, even in this above average Jerry film.
In Lewis's work, identity is always performed; there is no private self, and an audience is always present. In The Ladies Man, Herbert refuses to believe guest star George Raft's claim of who he is and demands that Raft prove his identity by, in effect, playing Raft. Lewis uses Raft as an ideal masculine image in order to show that the image is not just "only" an image but first and foremost an image, one that not only the Lewis character, but George Raft himself, has trouble living up to. Lewis's direction of actors insists on an exaggeration that implies the awareness of an audience, suggesting that his characters (like those of John Cassavetes) are constantly involved in performances of themselves.
ABOUT THE DVD
Video & Audio
Originally printed by (though not filmed in) Technicolor, Paramount's DVD of The Ladies Man looks very good, well above average, with great color and a sharp 16:9 anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) image. The Dolby Digital mono sound is likewise very strong; English and Spanish subtitles are included, as well as an alternate French audio track.
Something of a disappointment on this disc is the remarkably dull commentary track from Jerry Lewis and Steve Lawrence. Lots of silent gaps (I think at one point they may have left), and the conversational tone is very, very low key, with Lewis interjecting very little of substance. A few bits of salient insight on the large supporting female cast, but overall a snoozer.
Under the heading of Archival Materials Paramount has gathered up a curious mix of old promotional and studio footage that while low on content is at least interesting to look at. Included is a pair of deleted scenes, including a nearly nine-minute opera selection from Helen Traubel that is played completely and utterly serious. There is also a shorter scene entitled "Jerry Rains Confetti on Girls" (01m:27s), in which the female cast gets a mountain of torn paper poured on them by a very spastic Lewis. Outtakes has a couple of pure space fillers in the form "Jerry Asks Helen About Opera" (01m:44s) and Jerry Demonstrates the High Chair (:53s), two bits of behind-the-scenes clips that are essentially pointless aside from getting a quick glimpse at Lewis the director. A fast-motion Construction of The Ladies Man Set (:54s) shows the creation of the memorable dollhouse set, and an MDA Public Service Announcement (01m:52s) that features the same locale with Lewis using a stopwatch to make a genuinely heartfelt 60-second plea. Dance Rehearsal (:37s) shows Lewis hoofing it with one his co-stars, while the Auditions segment has the on-set tests for Pat Stanley (01m:03s) and Sylvia Lewis (03m:28s).
Jerry Lewis' favorite films, according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They:
The Adventures of Robin Hood
An Affair to Remember
All About Eve
Breakfast at Tiffany's
On the Waterfront
Shadow of a Doubt
Was there ever a man or movie star less ordinary than Jerry Lewis? Even among screen comics, he would win few votes if we were electing that personality who best incarnated the common man. His public image is that of a gargantuan mutant outgrowth of the hot-house borscht-belt world of stand-up comedy. Listed in critical ledgers as either a sanctimonious retardate or an inspired genius — or both — Jerry Lewis is clearly and self-consciously extraordinary. But somewhere between the infant-fool and the towering renaissance film-man (both images that Jerry Lewis himself has promoted) is the notion of Jerry Lewis the average guy. And central to an understanding of his work is the myth that threads its way through his films with Frank Tashlin in the mid-1950s, and is developed with parabolic dynamism in his first five self-directed films, from The Bellboythrough The Patsy. That is the myth of the ordinary man in an extraordinary world — more specifically, of Joseph Levitch in Hollywood.
Because he did learn so much during the 1950s, it is worth a brief examination of Lewis' most fortuitous apprenticeship with Frank Tashlin. It is in Hollywood or Bust and Artists and Models, coming at the end of his partnership with Dean Martin and the start of his collaboration with Tashlin, that the dominant Jerry Lewis myth begins to clearly emerge. Jerry the simple idiot-boy of films like Scared Stiff orJumping Jacks starts to develop a self-consciousness. In Artists and Models he is — if only in his dreams — a creative comic book genius. And in Hollywood or Bust, the awareness he reveals of Dean Martin's duplicity is not merely a revelation pulled from Tashlin's hat. It is a sign (albeit still submerged) of an increasing self-awareness and distance from his stereotyped screen persona. Placed in Tashlin's surreal universe, where everything is a caricature of itself, Jerry's increased consciousness serves to reveal the world's (Dean Martin's) hypocrisy.
It is as commentaries on psychological dementia in the 1950s (bosom fixation, infantilism, obsession, regression, popular culture) that Tashlin's films succeed where Jerry Lewis' personal directorial efforts only tangentially venture. Although a wide range of socially determined targets is set up and blasted in Jerry Lewis' movies, it is Jerry who becomes the center of interest and the raison d'etre of his own films.
The central, developing issue in the self-directed films, from The Bellboy through The Patsy, and even to Which Way to the Front?, is the main character's attempted "normalization." Each film is an elaborately choreographed movement around the problem of Jerry's uncertain relationship to the world around him. It is revelatory to see this man's grappling with his own being in each film in terms of the conflicting concepts of Jerry the ordinary guy — or extraordinary genius — in a Hollywood world of complete insincerity — or of noble aspiration. The complexity of the problem assumes schizophrenic dimensions when, in order to deal with the extremes of self-awe (for his genius) and self-hate (for his insincerity), as well as sanctimonious self-love (for his ordinary humanity), Jerry Lewis begins to spin off personalities — up to seven in The Family Jewels — each of which forms one perspective on the central structure of his films — the dilemma of a life-sized man trapped on the larger-than-life Hollywood movie screen.
In American Cinema, in a section titled "Make Way for the Clowns," Sarris compared Lewis unfavorably to Blake Edwards, whose "The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark, and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy are funnier than all the Lewis-Tashlin movies." Among the twelve reasons for his skepticism about Lewis' "talent as a creator" Sarris listed that Lewis' "aspirations exceed his ability;" that his work reveals a disjunction between a "verbal sophistication in nightclubs and sometimes on television and... [a] simpering simplemindedness on screen;" and that his comedy lacks "verbal wit" and appeals mainy to "audiences in the sticks and to ungenteel audiences in the verbal slums." Sarris faulted Lewis for his weaknesses of narration and found "the feature length film an appropriate vehicle for farce," also commenting that in Lewis' remakes he has played "the innocent" with themes of "effeminacy and transvestitism." Critical as well of Lewis' "conformist, sentimental, and banal dialogue," he suggested that "he has never put one brilliant comedy together from fade in to fade out."
Gerald Mast wrote in The Comic Mind, "Jerry Lewis' primary failure is that he never discovered who he was." His gags "do not flow from any human or personal center" and he "cannot manage a plot." In one sense Mast's comments, and Sarris' even more, are neither wrong nor arbitrary. Rather, they are indicative of the substitution of judgment for analysis. They stop at evaluation where they should begin with examination. As John Russell Taylor summed up "Anglo-Saxon" critics in the 1950s, "When they were not moralizing about the overstressed sexuality of Elvis Presley and the dangers of his effect on the young, [they] were likey to be tut-tutting about Jerry Lewis' spastic humour and claiming that his moronic screen persona made cruel fun of the afflicted."
The philosopher Gilles Deleuze has written eloquently on Lewis' ingenious and unique contributions to the cinematic image, particularly pointing to the ways in which the comedian's films can be seen to belong to the post-World War II regime of the "time-image." Here, "the image no longer refers to a situation that is globalising and synthetic, but rather to one that is dispersive. The characters are multiple, with weak interferences and become principal or revert to being secondary." This cinema of the time-image no longer expresses the character to determine and overcome situations. Instead, character and situations constantly splinter (as in a dream) and metamorphose into different perspectives and mlieux. Deleuze also sees Lewis taking up "the classic figure of American cinema, that of the Loser, of the born loser, whose definition is 'he goes too far.' But it is precisely in the burlesque dimension that this 'too far' becomes movement of a world which saves him and will make him a winner." The new burlesque with which Deleuze associates Lewis belongs not to the Bergsonian comedy of the mechanical but to the electronic world: it "arises from the fact that the character places himself (involuntarily) on an energy band that carries him along... The comic is no longer something mechanical." Lewis is situated not as a star, personality, or individual but as a process. In comparing Lewis' films to those of Tati, Deleuze - like Bergson - seeks to identify the character of this new automatism that seems to transcend a national context. For him, Lewis becomes post-modern; his work precludes certain kinds of analysis (e.g., psychoanalysis) where unconscious motivation continues to play a role and reveals a dream world where boundaries between the real and imaginary dissolve. This regime of the time-image is symptomatic of a different form of cinema that exposes, if not undermines, the classical cinema of action and character of the pre-World War II era.
What is it, then, that Jerry Lewis contributed to show business? I wouldn't deny that his ability to cause irritation is part of what he is doing as a comedian. Even back when I was a kid, Jerry's funny voices and facial contortions had the rare power to drive my parents out of the room. What grated on them, as it still does on viewers today, was the relentless infantilism of Jerry's act. Think of a small child's short attention span, its underdeveloped motor skills, its manic hyperactivity, its lack of inner restraint, its inability to acknowledge the needs of others or to resign itself to deferred gratification. These are the very elements that make up Lewis's comic persona. His slapstick routines have none of the grace and elegance that we find in the work of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or for that matter Jackie Chan. Instead, Lewis wallows in klutziness. He has a very strange relation to machines and other physical objects. The slightest touch is enough to make everything go awry. The effect is always wildly disproportionate to the cause. Jerry pushes a button, and triggers an alarm clock that won't stop ringing. He pulls at a loose thread, and an entire fabric unravels. He sings a wrong note, and glass shatters everywhere. He takes a photo with a flashbulb, and night is suddenly transformed into day. I find these routines funny, but I suspect that they are also the very thing that many people find excruciating. Because they depend on a set-up in which everything is ever-so-slightly off. Lewis is a master of doing things just precisely at the wrong time. His body seems to flail about at random, triggering chain reactions of chaos in his surroundings. His personality, just like his body, has no center. Jerry is always teetering on the brink of complete disorganization.
All this is to say that Lewis's humor has a high discomfort factor. Often I laugh, but just as often it makes me nervous. That Jerry is infantile also means that he's excessive. Anything goes, without regard for norms of intelligence or taste. Even when Lewis has a good comic idea, you get the feeling he doesn't know when to stop. He pushes everything just a little too far. This excess is not an artistic mistake; it's the very point of Lewis's act. Most comedians create a sort of magical world, in which their particular brand of insanity rules. Such is the case for film comedy on nearly every level, all the way from the Three Stooges to Woody Allen. Lewis is nearly alone as an exception to this rule. His persona is never able to rearrange the world to his own liking. As a result, you don't get a sense of freedom from his films, the way you do, for instance, with the Marx Brothers or Monty Python. You never escape from that voice in the back of your mind that keeps on telling you how stupid this all is. There's always an air of shame and embarrassment to Lewis's films. The nerdy, wimpy Julius Kelp of The Nutty Professor can only escape his sense of inferiority by turning into something yet more obnoxious: the conceited bully Buddy Love. In Smorgasbord, Jerry's character is so messed up and so incompetent that he cannot even kill himself successfully. The film's a series of gags built around the fears and humiliations of an unsuccessful psychoanalytic treatment. But it is precisely this sense of discomfort, of being a square peg in a round hole, that Lewis' comedy captures so successfully.
To note that the films of Jerry Lewis are a rich, pleasurable and endlessly fascinating meditation on their medium is to say little. With Lewis, it's necessary to specify which medium. Film, of course; but this is a medium that Lewis' work has changed and redefined – through such inventions as the video assist, which he introduced in 1960, and through the inventions of sound, image and performance that proliferate in his films. Then there's the medium of selfhood; and as Lewis' selfhood is public, intensely so, as well as private, his films meditate deeply on (and through) celebrity. He himself is a medium, a total one, to borrow the adjective he placed so significantly in the title of his book The Total Film-Maker, and no director has done more than Jerry Lewis to exploit the meaningful possibilities of that medium.
Isolating for commentary Lewis' work as a director is no simple procedure. Complications arise, in part, from Lewis' multiple status as actor, comic, entertainer, humanitarian, writer and producer; and trying to determine where Lewis leaves off in one of these roles and where he begins in the next can seem a pointless task. Merely establishing the corpus of Lewis' directorial work is difficult. If we see (as much urges us to) the Martin and Lewis films, though signed Marshall, Walker, Taurog, Pevney or even Tashlin, as having been co-directed by Lewis, we can't exclude the probability that Lewis also co-directed Martin and Lewis' many appearances on The Colgate Comedy Hour. If we hear “direction” as synonymous with “authorship”, then Lewis is, by his own completely credible claim, the director of the duo, having come up with its formative conception (“a handsome man and a monkey”) and guided its development. Moreover, after the break-up of the team, Lewis exercised creative control over his innumerable film, television and stage projects at a level evidently deserving the name “directorial”, even though frequently the credit, and many of the functions, of director were delegated to others. Who will deny that Lewis is the creator of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon which, despite advanced age and a raft of health problems, he continues to host every Labor Day? Is not then each Telethon part of Lewis' directorial work?
Jerry Lewis was born into a world of cinema, of images that fascinated him. Brought as a performer and star to the place where films are made, he learned film as a child learns the ways of the world. Like a child, obsessed with finding out things, he took apart the toys he was given, trying to see what was inside them and how they worked. When he won the chance to direct his own films, he used the opportunity to launch a relentless examination of his own relationship with filmic and verbal language.
Taking his curtain call (in character as goofy Professor Kelp) in The Nutty Professor(1963), Lewis stumbles and falls into the camera lens. Lewis's understanding of film is such that the lens is never merely a point in space, an abstract function that organizes images, or a metaphor for consciousness grasping the world. The lens is a physical thing, part of the great big mess of material existence. In The Family Jewels (1965), the photographer Julius (Lewis) repeatedly presses his finger onto the lens of his camera, to show his niece (Donna Butterworth) where she should look ("You'll have a face full of fingers," he even remarks). In The Bellboy (1960), Stanley (Lewis), realizing on entering a room that he is surrounded with female models in negligees, crosses to the foreground and prudishly covers the camera lens with the palm of his hand. In the ball sequence in One More Time (1970), the eruption of a long-suppressed sneeze causes Charlie (Sammy Davis Jr.) to lurch forward, Kelp-like, into the camera lens. The cut shows a reverse field where already—in the instant of the cut—the exaggerated force of Charlie's sneeze has toppled a group of party guests, who slowly start picking themselves up from the floor, like the animated suits of armor in a magnificent gag in The Errand Boy (1961).
In all these scenes, Lewis is concerned with two fundamental questions of cinema: How to see? and What should be seen? He uncovers the logic that makes seeing aggression, the logic of the look that topples the object (like Kelp's out-of-focus look in the bowling alley inThe Nutty Professor, when he mistakes a group of people for bowling pins) or of the object that topples the look (Herbert [Lewis] witnessing the infidelity of his beloved Fay in the graduation-day sequence of 1961's The Ladies Man). The look confronting its object (taking or mistaking it, or being taken by it) is one of the basic structures of Lewis's work, from which he forms spiraling long-term patterns of conflict, avoidance, and reversal, welcoming or ignoring contradiction, violating the premises of a scene or even a whole film in search of new experimental truths (as in the classic hat scene in The Ladies Man, the nightmarish Copa scene in 1964's The Patsy, or throughout the breathtaking entirety of 1970's Which Way to the Front?).
Lionized by the French critics as a comic auteur equal to Chaplin and Keaton, Jerry Lewis has seldom found much favor with critics in his own country. While other comedians such as Abbott & Costello (even The Three Stooges) who were similarly dismissed by contemporary reviewers but have since achieved a degree of artistic respectability—in some quarters, more than that—with the passage of time, Lewis has yet to experience such reappraisal. He remains more honored in Europe—especially France, although Germany and Spain have showered him with honors, too—than at home despite a career as prolific in its output as those of his more esteemed comic colleagues.
The reason for this may be that Lewis's style of comedy—which, in its post-Dean Martin period, focused almost exclusively on Lewis himself, almost never the characters or events surrounding him—strikes people as self-indulgent, self-centered, even egotistical; this is a major turnoff, particularly to critics. Also, the screen character he created and lavished so much attention on—the child who never grew up, a mugging simpleton Lewis dubbed "the Kid"—is very much an acquired taste. Children, especially young tots, find the character amusingly simpatico. But many older viewers, from age 20 on, find it forced, grating, shallow, stupid, and excruciatingly witless.
In 2003, in Bertolucci's The Dreamers, there is a discussion on films between the French and American boys. At one point, the Frenchman says, "You Americans don't understand your own culture. No wonder you never got the point of Jerry Lewis." The American replies, "Don't even get me started on Jerry Lewis." This exchange crystallises the dichotomy that is supposed to exist between the attitudes of anglophones and francophones towards Jerry Lewis: American no-bullshit pragmatism v pretentious French theorising, or American philistinism v French enlightenment.
In fact, it was the critics of the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema who first directed Americans' attention to Lewis as an auteur. It was also this same magazine that alerted Americans to the value of their own directors such as Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and Nicholas Ray. Plus, it must be remembered that when Francois Truffaut's extended interview of Alfred Hitchcock was published in 1967, the director, with his best work behind him, was greatly underrated especially by American critics. Gradually, perceptive American and English critics have begun belatedly to reassess and credit Lewis's work.
As Gilbert Adair, who wrote the screenplay for The Dreamers, argued in his book Flickers, "For heaven's sake, how can Jerry Lewis be Art? And yet exactly as if a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell were to be exhibited in the Prado, where its usurped prominence would take some getting used to, but once you have got used to it, why yes, yes! It didn't seem at all incongruous beside the El Grecos and the Goyas and the Velasquezes."
In 2006, Lewis was presented with the Legion d'Honneur in France on his 80h birthday. But, as the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has written: "Lewis's popularity in America is far greater than any French love of Lewis ... American denial of the American love of Jerry Lewis is pathological." In a way, Lewis receiving the Jean Hersholt award at the Oscars could be seen as a back-handed compliment rather than an honour.
It suggests that Lewis, who has never been even nominated for an Academy Award, is being recognised for his annual telethons rather than for the films that made him famous enough to do them in the first place.
Beneath the struggle to control body, speech, and desire, there exists in Lewis' work an ongoing but finally failing struggle to control identity itself. Here lies the interest of the career of Jerry Lewis, in both its successes and failures. If the characteristic banality of Lewis' rhetoric on "love" and "being a somebody" suggests the presence of a recuperative function (which perhaps reaches its apotheosis in Lewis' role as a healing and uniting force on his annual telethon broadcast along the Love Network), a positivistic attempt to contain and define the subject then the maze of internal contradictions, displacements, and transformations that crosses these texts continually subverts such a function in a deeply and successfully ambivalent manner...
It is now a staple of cinematic theorization that the movie screen serves as a Lacanian mirror, providing the spectator with an ego-ideal. Our experience before this mirror reassures and resituates us at the perfect center of a stable world. The Lewis film, it should now be clear, often presents something quite different, and perhaps it is here that the American resistance to Lewis (text and figure) has its genesis. Jerry, far from the idealized and coherent self we are encouraged to see, is instead more closely aligned with the image of the infant, as Lacan put it, "still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence." An image of motor incapacity, sexual ambiguity, and unfixed identity: surely these are the precise phenomena that must be denied by the ego craving reinforcement. And so the spectators are palced in the radical position of searching into the mirror's depths, only to find reflected back the incoherent and fragmented, multiplied yet elusive image of Jerry Lewis.
1926: Born Joseph Levitch on March 26 in Newark, the only child of vaudevillian Danny and wife Rea.
1946: Teams with singer Dean Martin for the first time on July 25 at Atlantic City's 500 Club, becoming an overnight sensation in the second show after bombing in the first.
1949: Martin and Lewis become contract players at Paramount Pictures, leading to 16 phenomenally successful movies.
1950: On TV specials with Martin, Lewis begins his crusade on behalf of the recently formed Muscular Dystrophy Association.
1956: Wacky road pic Hollywood or Bust released, but partnership with Martin dissolves during final week of July, nearly 10 years after their teaming.
1960: Lewis' first directorial effort, The Bellboy, premieres in July, earning him previously eluded international acclaim.
1963: Jekyll-and-Hyde high jinks in The Nutty Professor, universally regarded as Lewis' best movie, which opens in June.
1965: Falls during a performance in March, injuring his spinal cord and leading to "37 years of pain."
1970: Appears in his last movie for 11 years, the poorly received Which Way to the Front?
1976: In a surprise arranged by Frank Sinatra, middle, Lewis is reunited with Dean Martin on live TV.
1977: Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with muscular dystrophy.
1983: Receives critical acclaim for his dark role as TV talk-show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy.
1995: Premieres on Broadway in a revival of Damn Yankees, leading to a nationwide tour.
2002: Credits a surgical implant and its hand-held controlling device with making him pain-free for the first time since 1965.
Though he has long been chided for being abrasive and egomaniacal, Lewis can be uncommonly gracious and outgoing. He has finally reached that stage in his career when he can reflect and inspire others to do the same.
"From 1936 on," he explains, "I have taken more falls than any other 20 comedians put together. From the time I was 21, I've taken them on everything from clay courts to cement to wood floors, coming off pianos, going out a two-story window, landing on Dean, falling into the rough. You do that and you're gonna have problems. I had pain during the last eight films; I've had pain in 37 straight telethons. I've never had a day without pain since March 20, 1965."
That's when he took a professional fall that chipped a piece of his spine "that would have paralyzed me if it had been another 15th or 16th of an inch." As it was, the chip led to a much-publicized Percodan addiction at its worst in the early '70s — and more recently a domino effect of afflictions, including nerve damage and the pulmonary fibrosis that has mandated his taking of the steroid prednisone. The drug contributed to his 45-pound weight gain. Lewis says his longtime friend, famed heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, calls prednisone the "greatest worst drug in America." This is all atop past double-bypass surgery, prostate cancer, spinal meningitis and pneumonia.something like a TV remote. Manufactured by Minneapolis-based Medtronic, it's the controlling component of a surgically inserted battery pack that one can see vaguely outlined in his left side when he lifts up his shirt. ("I hate to show you this because I'm so fat," he says, "but look — see it?")
Doctors cut bone out of his spine and replaced it with two large electrodes. From the battery pack, he says, "the two electrical leads lock in and are naturally covered with scar tissue. I'm sitting here in pain, but in a minute, I'm not going to have it. When I turn it on like that (beep), I'm vibrating like a vibrator within my skin. I raise the level if it's not working totally. ... I've had no pain since April 20.
"It also opens my garage," he deadpans.
Earlier in the conversation, Lewis has been asked to name the biggest misconception people have of him. The question throws him, but later he returns to it. He doesn't quite answer it head-on, but what he says reveals something about the struggle to be a professional child but also an adult.
"My misconception," he explains, "is that I want you to remember I'm a monkey and that Martin and Lewis were 'sex and slapstick' unequivocally. That's my title, I wrote it. But Jesus, both men can have sensitivity, a brain, a point of view and certainly a component that made them say, 'I am here and pay attention.' All that is gone if you're a monkey with a banana on a chandelier. That's the misconception that bothers me. I'll be the monkey if you want. But you asked to meet the man, so I'll give you what you want."
Did this confuse the public for a while?
"Of course. Terrible confusion. Because when I would be myself, I was being big-headed. I was being egotistical. I was a megalomaniac, when it really was just having not to be a monkey for a few hours a day. And fulfilling the need to be a man."
A few years ago, I thought I might open a chain of eulogy stores where you could go in off the street and, for twenty bucks, they'll tell you all the nice things they're going to say about you after you croak.But I don't want people to say wonderful things about me when I can't hear them. Tell me now, while I'm still here.
- Lewis, Interviewed by Amy Wallace, Esquire, December 31, 2005
An early landmark in New York City's storied history of low-budget indie filmmaking, Blast of Silence may be most famous for its wall-to-wall second person voiceover narration ("You can depend on yourself, no one else. You learned the hard way... When people look at you, Baby Boy Frankie Bono, they see death." ). It's a neat trick that sets an otherwise mundane hitman plot over a dense interior landscape of self-loathing, paranoia and motivational self-talk. But it barely makes the top five things I love most about this film.
For one thing, Meyer Kupferman's multifaceted jazz score, moving deftly from vibraphone cool to trumpeting distress, does as much to express Frankie Bono's inner state. Mixing hard bop discord with symphonic lyricism, it foretells what Bernard Herrmann would do in Taxi Driver. The numerous authentic locations, from the storefronts on Fifth Avenue to the beatnik streets of the West Village, set the voiceover's raging sociopathy against a documentary sense of the real world, making its unease all the more pervasive (yet another of several cues Scorsese took from this film).
All of these elements come together less than 20 minutes into the film, in a stunning five minute sequence that has the anti-hero simply walking through an iconic Christmas-in-Rockefeller Center setting. The voiceover gets softer and more taciturn; the music settles into a Christmas choir followed by a pensive flute melody. Shadows grow long as day turns to night; the warm glow of toy store windows ironically cast him into a stark silhouette as he walks past, trying to recapture the seminal sensations of his childhood. The real-but-unreal storefront utopia of Fifth Avenue is transformed into a dreamscape of lostness. It's nothing less than the ultimate cinematic depiction of the Christmas blues.
Another innovative sequence follows: the hitman accidentally runs into childhood friend who invites him to a Christmas party that eventually has him pushing a peanut with his nose across the floor as a roomful of strangers laugh and cheer. It's a stunning moment of debasement for such an iconic figure, at once mocking the lone gunman myth while also unmasking him to be a lonely, desperate figure terminally unable to relate to others. This leads to another genre stunner, when he manages to take a girl home, only for his awkwardness to lead to an attempted rape.
Having done so much to overturn the criminal anti-hero's swagger in its first half hour, it's a shame that the film doesn't know quite where to go from there. Like its character, it reels from having gone so far into the uncomfortableness of the real world, and withdraws into its hired killer plot for the rest of its fairly predictable arc. But these breakthroughs are more than enough to seal the film's status as an ur-text of urban alienation cinema.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Blast of Silence among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Christoph Huber, Senses of Cinema (2000)
Norbert Jochum, Steadycam (2007)
Robert Fischer, Steadycam (2007)
Wilfried Reichart, Steadycam (2007)
They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films
AN ambitious young writer-director-actor named Allen Baron has given himself a large but unpleasant role in his first film effort, "Blast of Silence." In the low-budget melodrama, which arrived yesterday at neighborhood theatres, Mr. Baron enacts a lonely professional killer, bothered by the festive Christmas crowds that jostle him as he ruthlessly stalks his prey.
Much of the confusion in this curious little film seems implicit in the mixed intentions of its stubbornly independent creators, Mr. Baron and his Brooklyn-born producer, Merrill Brody. Operating on a minute budget with unknown actors, a hand-held camera and a minimum of technicians, this do-it-yourself team obviously wanted to be offbeat and "arty" while still conforming to Hollywood's tested commercial formulas.
The result is simultaneously awkward and pretentious.
Even so, Mr. Baron has some interesting ideas about New York locations, and aided by the expert photography of Erich Kollmar he has made effective use of such settings as the Staten Island ferry, Rockefeller Plaza and the Village Barn night club. The outdoor scenes have a spontaneous vigor that augurs well for the director's future.
EXCERPTS FROM THE BEST REVIEW OF BLAST OF SILENCE:
Allen Baron's Blast of Silence was dumped like a corpse into a handful of theaters by Universal-International in April 1961 and rapidly vanished without a trace, only to be revived with no real frequency over the ensuing decades. Looking at it from the studio's point of view, it's not difficult to see why the film was barely a priority at the time of its release, being a cheap distribution pick-up from a couple of executive producers in New York (one of whom, Dan Enright, had distinguished himself as an especially mendacious figure in the Quiz Show scandals that consumed America for several months in 1958). In fact,Blast of Silence must have seemed downright perverse to executives at U-I, given that its protagonist wasn't played by a Star, or anyone well-known to the public from either film or television, but by its writer/director; a pudgy, 26 year old non-actor whose prior directing credits had been a couple of Hawaiian Eye episodes and an assistant director gig on that piece of dreck, Cuban Rebel Girls (1959) — a picture that, had it not been for the allure of seeing Errol Flynn hitting the skids on celluloid, probably wouldn't have been screened anywhere outside a couple of mangy drive-ins in Alabama and Kentucky. But Blast of Silence was a fast, cheap thriller with the requisite amounts of violence and gunplay, and those things could always make a couple of bucks for a studio in the end if the deal was right.
Of course, nobody was thinking in terms of "film noir," certainly nobody in Hollywood in 1961. By the time cinephiles were busily compiling the noir canon like a pack of faith-crazed monks later in that decade, Baron's film had already disappeared into the ether without them noticing; a film born obscure that soon passed into the endless night of a still greater obscurity. Which is as unfortunate as it is typical of the mass-market cinephile's perpetually distracted mindset, for Blast of Silence is possibly the great lost masterpiece of film noir; a twilit, deathward emanation of everything that had underlain the form from its beginnings. No American film before it, made in Hollywood or anywhere else, had trafficked so promiscuously in unadulterated nihilism, or so used the condition of Hate — constant, irritated Hate, with no coherent Other to direct it toward — as its emotional motif. The loneliness and doom and spiritual unease that operated at noir's core and became more pronounced as the form slowly began shedding its visual trappings in the 1950s, here became its dominant emotional surface, infecting everything, consuming every character in the film rather than simply its protagonist.
In earlier, more celebrated noirs, for instance, no matter how twisted the nominal hero or his adversaries might have been from within, screenwriters always managed to balance out their human landscape with so-called "normal" people, usually in the form of cops, sweethearts, and other assorted bystanders to the gathering darkness of these scenarios. That these characters were usually the least believable of all made them no less necessary to a Hollywood storytelling model that had long ago steadfastly rejected nuance. But in Blast of Silence, Allen Baron ignored the rules and brought forth a dissociated, ugly vision of his fellow man that, unlike its closest spiritual predecessors in noir, Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Irving Lerner's Murder By Contract (1958), never resorts to either grotesquerie or easy symbology.
Blast of Silence goes further than any previous noir in eschewing a lumbering chiaroscuro in favor of a naturalism closer to something like Cassavetes' Shadows, further than even a later, comparatively sun-drenched noir such as Gerd Oswald's Crime of Passion (1957). Having to work within the thinnest of shoestring budgets, Baron elected to use, as few filmmakers had before, the expressive potential of New York City; bringing his camera into the streets of midtown Manhattan at Christmastime, to Rockefeller Center, Harlem, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Whether it was a conscious strategy or the result of having no resources to create a setting for his tale from scratch, this unglamorous, rather desolate photography of the city by Merrill S. Brody (who also acted as the film's producer) worked immeasurably to Baron's advantage. Indeed, as a directorial debut, Blast of Silence is an altogether prodigious achievement. A model thriller and character study, it takes us step by step through Frankie Bono's process in setting up his prey for the eventual kill. And at every turn, Baron's control of his mise-en-scene remains assured and proficient, with few if any missteps. If the film can be said to have a diminishing flaw, it's that the wall-to-wall narration at times goes beyond underscoring the action on-screen and becomes simply redundant. There are moments when it tells us nothing that the film's bleakest images could not have handled on their own. But where one might expect a certain amount of clumsiness in a no-budget film from a first-time film director, Blast of Silence is an unusually expert piece of film craftsmanship, coming as it did from a filmmaker who had no track record at all and, as the years passed, would never really succeed in making a name for himself in his chosen field.
Blast of Silence, despite its graphic vigor and its documentary-like immediacy, shares some of its hero’s radical isolation from his surroundings: a stubborn neither-here-nor-thereness and—especially now, nearly half a century later—a haunting sense of being somehow suspended in time. When the picture was released, film noir was effectively over, and the era of hit-man chic ushered in by Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was still more than three decades in the future. It’s commercially dangerous for any work of popular art to be either behind the times or too far ahead of them. Blast of Silence—yet another strange distinction—is both.
Mr. Baron’s stripped-down visuals are complemented by an almost continuous voice-over narration, composed under a pseudonym (“Mel Davenport”) by the blacklisted writer Waldo Salt (“Midnight Cowboy”) and read (with no credit at all) by the blacklisted actor Lionel Stander: “You were born with hate, and anger built it. Took a slap on the backside to blast out the scream. And then you knew you were alive.”
This curious mode of address — the second person accusative? — places the viewer in Frankie’s uncomfortable skin, cornering us into taking the side of this faceless, largely passive psychopath as he drifts along to his noir-mandated doom.
But for all of its pulp poetry — the picture begins in a railroad tunnel, transformed by the narration into a birth canal that will blast the silently screaming Frankie into the harsh reality of Penn Station — the film retains a down-and-dirty, documentary aspect. The studiously gray, unglamorous views of 1961 Manhattan — St. Marks Place, where Frankie takes a room at the Valencia Hotel; the blanked-out East 30s, where Frankie’s mark has a girlfriend stashed in a walk-up apartment — are worth the price of admission alone. Here’s what was being left out of those Madison Avenue melodramas and Park Avenue romances of the period.
Baron’s crumpled, shoestring noir boasts the authentic seediness and soul-sickness of a Weegee photograph, with vérité views of Harlem pinpointed next to a storefront Santa’s inane ho-ho-hoing and the drum-smacking and smoke of a squalid nightclub. Others in the urban nocturne include a rotund underworld hanger-on (Larry Tucker) with soft voice, fungus-like beard and caged pet rats, and a targeted mobster (Peter H. Clune) who brings his mistress a huge panda plush doll. If rejection from an old friend’s sister (Molly McCarthy) doesn’t seal the protagonist’s loneliness, then the Lionel Stander voiceover rasping in his ears surely does: "You don’t have to know a man to live with him, but you have to know a man like a brother to kill him." Or: "He thinks he looks like a gentleman if his shoes are shinned. You could kill him right now with pleasure." Paddy Chayefsky, Cassavetes’s Shadows (and Johnny Staccato), Melville. Baron's New York finds its completion in Taxi Driver: if the city is a dusky valley, then the man is a speck trying to grow larger by ambling down the sidewalk toward the stationary camera. The assassin labors to see himself as the hand of fate but is shown up as a greasy hood in fedora and trench coat, alone with delusions -- you’d have to wait until The Killing of a Chinese Bookie for a deeper autopsy of the gangland macho ethos. With Danny Meehan, Dean Sheldon, and Charles Creasap.
Either the last film noir or the bridge between the genre and the American independent movement to follow, Allen Baron’s megalomaniacal 1961 low-budget hitman saga is a fine member of any of its multiple categorizations. Baron wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film, which relates a gutter-noir tale of an assassin whiling away time in New York City over X-Mas as he plans a hit. Its influence on everything from young Scorsese to, in one subplot, Grosse Pointe Blank is undeniable. And if Baron’s a bit of an inexpressive lump on-screen he was at least smart enough to cast Shock Corridor’s Larry Tucker (see picture) as a terminally distracted gunsalesman. But what really sets it apart from the pack – along with its amazing location photography, often shot with natural lighting – is what’s on the soundtrack. Let’s not mince words: Blast of Silence features the greatest voiceover in film history. This isn’t the first-person confessional of Double Indemnity, or even the third-person of Band of Outsiders. It’s second-person - a perspective I don’t think any other film has ever adopted. Written by Waldo Salt and delivered with great relish by Lionel Stander (neither of whom were credited), it alternates between offering a snarling evocation of his nihilistic thoughts (“You’re feeling better now that you’ve got that Christmas out of your system”) and mocking his self-enforced isolation from the world. Oddly, the very rottenness of the narration gives the film a poignancy, particularly when this miserable bastard makes a fumbling attempt at relating to some old friends.
By the time of Blast of Silence, Walter Benjamin, if not Edgar Allan Poe himself, had long ago laid the connection between detective fiction and flâneurs, and a new type of consciousness (emblematized specially by the modern phenomenon of movie-going), in which the crux of identity lies in nothing innate and little lasting, but in the act of perceiving, and, perceiving, in particular, the city: detective’s work. Yet neorealism would seem to be a necessary condition for flâneur movies, which, despite Night and the City’s influence, may be why relatively few major noirs followed in Benjamin’s tradition, devoted entirely to cutting through swaths of city spaces and social milieus, to exploring parties and restaurants and businesses around town in an ostensible search for clues, and to depicting a man as he finds or loses himself—perhaps the same thing—in urban phantasmagoria.
Filming perceptions, Resnais and Antonioni pose the old phenomenological quandary of what’s subjective and what’s objective; so too Baron, if a bit more crudely. Stander, the soundtrack, is subjectivity, and the images, straight-up documentary footage straight from the streets, are objectivity. Yet Blast suggests the Dostoevskian possibility—or rather, preaches it—that all civilization’s pretty Christmas lights are glitzy decorations over the truth of one man’s private hell (all men, perhaps, but loneliness is essential to Baron’s neorealist conception of hell). For most of the film, the bright lights of consumer culture seem to be about all that emerge from the dark.
This is more or less the sentimental romance of Raymond Chandler; it is Baron’s contribution to blame the doomed love not on a flea-bitten idealist run out of dreams, but (as Robert Altman would later do with his The Long Goodbye) on a swinging culture that will make you push peanuts on the floor with your chin for the entertainment of the crowd. There are loners and there are the masses, as there are in La Notte and L’Eclisse, and both are guarantees of anonymity; there are also, in Silence, the dead, the most anonymous of all. And for Bono, trying hard to keep quiet and repress his worst instincts and get a job done, anonymity is always the goal.
"You were born in pain," a voiceover announces over the black screen that opens writer-director-star Allen Baron's 1961 film Blast Of Silence. "You were born with hate and anger built in," it continues as it becomes clear that this ugly telling of the film's protagonist's birth accompanies a point-of-view shot of a train emerging from a tunnel. "Took a slap on the backside to blast out the scream and then you knew you were alive." That won't be the last time Blast Of Silence draws symbolic power from images shot on the fly, or finds violence embedded in everyday life.
Working with a miniscule budget, Baron creates charged compositions out of found locations and makes a virtue out of the film's cheapness. The soot and litter almost seem summoned by his character's mental state. Established admirer Martin Scorsese could easily have had it in mind when he made Taxi Driver; Blast Of Silence shares that film's tortured philosophizing. Working under a pseudonym, blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt provides the beautifully purple second-person narration that puts viewers in the position of the film's protagonist as he makes his way through a city where death waits at the first sign of weakness. Or tenderness.
Indeed, the cinematography of Blast of Silence is so outstanding that it turns New York City into a character rather than a mere location. Even though Blast of Silence was Baron’s first movie, his professional background as a comic book illustrator gave him a firm understanding of visual concepts such as framing and composition. The result was a series of truly breathtaking shots. Consider, for instance, the long shot of Frankie walking down the street towards the camera with the skyline of the buildings off to the sides, which feels as menacing as it does inspiring.
With one foot planted firmly on the Kiss Me Deadly era of film noir and the other closer to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Blast of Silence begins with a brutal, uncompromising invocation of birth and ends with an almost mystically sensitive death. The story of socially isolated hit man Frankie (Allen Baron) who comes to terms with his deferred need for human connection just in time for a) Christmas, and b) a job that will require him to be especially cold-hearted, Blast of Silence is less a manifestation of the labrynthine plot trajectories of great noir than a early harbinger to the DIY moxie of the American independent movement.
Shot on a shoestring, director/writer/lead actor Baron's blunt, almost perfunctory story doesn't reveal much about the inner workings of its central character but instead takes advantage of the downright dull aspects of New York City, a city films (especially films noir) often depict with mythic reverence as a succession of places you'd want to visit but aren't even sure you could live therein. So far as the movies are concerned, New York is as artificially engineered an environment as Disneyland or Stepford, Connecticut (or Hollywood). What Blast of Silence gets and gets right is the sense that New York, for all its "top of the world" potential, is also a working metropolis with accompanying concessions, mediocrities, and isolations.
For all the narrator's insistence on stressing the dangers around every corner, the film's bland images suggest the world truly couldn't care less about Frankie's dogged pursuit of a gun with a silencer; at one point a headline screams one of his crimes, but he's the only character shown actually reading the article. Haunting, remote, and workmanlike, Blast of Silence may be the only film I've ever seen with a trip on the Station Island Ferry in which I expected a tumbleweed to flit across the deck.
Although done on the hustle — Brody also produced and edited; Carol, his wife, was assistant director; Kollmar plays a bit part as the Bellhop; part of the picture was shot using free test stock from Kodak, etc — Blast of Silence is a first-rate technical achievement. Meyer Kupferman’s modern jazz and classical score deserves special mention. While a soundtrack album was never released — not a huge surprise, as the film itself was given zero promotion by Universal, who picked it up for distribution as a second feature — one would be welcome even today as the perfect entree to Kuperfman’s vast and original sound world.
There's a kind of existential dread at the heart of every film noir—they all take place in that dark and brooding world in which no good deed goes unpunished, and you're thankful that there's style to burn, because it and everything else are going to go up in flames by the time we get to the final fadeout. But Allen Baron's Blast of Silence may be the most self-conscious of the sort, playing out almost like a mob version of Camus's The Stranger. It's a strange and energetic movie that runs like the wind, and you just wish that it would trust itself a little bit more.
What gets rather too distracting is that the movie is wallpapered with voice-over, either Frankie's interior monologue or the dime-store novel that the character imagines himself starring in. It's delivered by Lionel Stander, whose gravelly voice matches the hardened exterior of the protagonist—but it's just so relentless and overwrought, tarting up just about every scene ("The conga drum beating your head until you taste the hate on your tongue," and so on), that it starts to leech the drama out of Frankie's story. You can understand the inclination—the lead character is so fierce about keeping his own counsel, and you almost sense that Baron trusts himself more behind the camera than in front of it. But at some point you want to holler back—enough already! Baron actually figures that out by the end of the run of the picture, which is a blessing, even if a bit too late.
Arriving three years after Orson Welles´ "Touch of Evil," Baron´s film is either a straggler at the end of the classic film noir period, or one of the earlier neo-noirs. Film noir was a term applied many years after the noir cycle began, so it´s unsurprising that critics can´t agree on the precise timing of each of the noir cycles or even how to define the genre. Many films have noir qualities but aren´t really film noirs. That´s not the case with "Blast of Silence," a noir by any definition. Like most noirs, the film´s universe is one that is severed from any sense of a higher being, a world covered by only a thin veneer of civilization where even the slightest mistake, a stumble or a wrong turn, leads inevitably to tragedy. Frankie was "born in pain," and he lives in pain, always trying to drown out the scream that heralded his entry into this cruel world.
The film plays like an unholy marriage between the realist films noir of the '40s like "The Naked City" and the early independent dramas of John Cassavetes, with a narrator (uncredited Lional Stander) speaking in second person like the twisted inner voice of a soul that has been basting in antipathy and spite for years. The hard-boiled riffs play like pulp beat poetry distilled into pure misanthropic cynicism.
The story is standard issue, but what Baron does with it is amazing; his graphic sense is on view from the first image, a cosmic abstraction that bursts stunningly into grim reality, and his conception of the character, blending the heat of hatred and the chill of method, is unusual and fascinating.
I can't think about Allan Baron's 1961 Blast of Silence without thinking of Cleveland, even though not a frame of the film takes place or was shot there. But the film's hitman anti-hero, "Baby Boy" Frankie Bono (played with note-perfect inarticulate inexpressiveness by Baron himself), is, as Lionel Stander's narrator notes, "out of Cleveland," and this bit of info was sufficient to compel a small coterie of film freaks from that burg to even-more-fanatically embrace a film they would have loved anyway.
If one looks at Blast of Silence as a straightforward film noir, it can come across as a little irritating and repetitive. The narration, an old noir standby, is virtually omnipresent, to the point that it almost feels overdone and way too intrusive at times. But it's important to realize that the narration (written by Waldo Salt, under the pseudonym "Mel Davenport") isn't just there because other movies of its kind have included it too; rather, you can almost see it as a way to poke fun at such genre conventions.
You know the movie’s not perfect. The plot gets a little convenient, and if he can’t see the ending coming you figure Baby Boy Frankie Bono may not be the sharpest cannon in the shed.
But you’re not watching this one for the story. No. You’re watching it for the mood. The feeling. The energy that Baron finds on the streets of your hometown and channels into every frame. In Harlem. In Greenwich Village, beatniks pounding their drums and their libidos ‘til everything’s raw.
Blast of Silence feels like a French New Wave film, coming out in 1961 on the heels Godard’s Breathless, and foreshadowingAlphaville . Blast of Silence is a must see for movie fans. A beautifully crafted film. The simplicity of its narrative, its character, images and theme, cuts like a switchblade but with the precision of a surgeon using a scalpel. Fallen out of love with movies? Watch Blast of Silence and rediscover why you fell in love in the first place.
The second-person narration not only helps fill in for professional assassin Frankie Bono’s trademark taciturnity, but it forces us to imagine ourselves in the shoes of a methodical killer. The film may have influenced the silent-cool antiheroes of Jean-Pierre Melville’s later noirs (like “Le Samurai”), but while Melville’s reserve promoted existential alienation, Baron’s narration asks us to empathize with a monster on the brink of reform.
Bono’s odyssey is one of methodical purpose. Baron exerts great care in documenting his preparatory activities without clouding them in concessions to morality. There’s an extended sequence where Bono cleans and readies his gun, set to the strains of a solo jazz trumpet, which is particularly effective in this regard. Elsewhere, the vibraphone-dominant soundtrack, feels somewhat dated and intrusive. A Bohemian party where Bono attempts to connect with old friends is similarly time-locked, couples waltzing and carousing politely while in another corner of the room a hipster palms and awkward bongo beat. A comical peanut-pushing race serves as quixotic culmination.
While Baron has no clue how to stage or direct people talking, walking, driving, fighting, kissing or smoking in dingy hotel rooms, two or three grand visual metaphors demonstrate what he might have achieved if only he’d had more dough. The picture opens with the camera moving at great speed through blackness towards a distant tiny dot of light. As the light grows and grows, Stander recites in second person a litany of the reasons ‘you’ wished you’d never been born. But too late, Stander says, as the light blossoms, you were hurled against your will into this awful world! Boom—the light becomes the end of a subway tunnel and New York City, in all its cloudy-day glory looms, promising only futility.
This Criterion is touted as a 'DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION' although the most appealing aspect for many Criterion fans will be that the 4:3 ratio film is NOT pictureboxed (see our description of 'pictureboxing' in our Kind Hearts and Coronets review). The Criterion is progressive and dual-layered, and hence the image quality towers above the frugal Alive Film single-layered edition from Germany. The Criterion still shows some infrequent noise but it is easy to state that this is the best digital image of the film to date... and possibly ever. As usual the Criterion has clear mono audio (weak in spots) and optional English subtitles.
Criterion offer some supplements: Requiem for a Killer: The Making of “Blast of Silence” is almost an hour long and humorously starts with Baron admitting that he didn't even know what 'Cannes' was when the film was attempted to enter but fell short of the deadline. The featurette has some interesting and amusing production anecdotes but I found it a bit long. There are two gallery sections of static photography: Rare on-set Polaroids are somewhat worn but add to the pragmatic creation of the film. There is also Locations revisited in 2008 which shows some past shots compared to modern ones often with Baron in the present image. A theatrical trailer is included and a 12-page liner notes booklet featuring an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty and a four-page graphic-novel adaptation of the film by acclaimed artist Sean Phillips.
So nice to have this Noir gem in a competent, complete package and it is wonderful news indeed that Criterion appears to have abandoned pictureboxing.
This Criterion is touted as a 'DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION' although the most appealing aspect for many Criterion fans will be that the 4:3 ratio film is NOT pictureboxed (see our description of 'pictureboxing' in our Kind Hearts and Coronets review). The Criterion is progressive and dual-layered, and hence the image quality towers above the frugal Alive Film single-layered edition from Germany. The Criterion still shows some infrequent noise but it is easy to state that this is the best digital image of the film to date... and possibly ever. As usual the Criterion has clear mono audio (weak in spots) and optional English subtitles.
So nice to have this Noir gem in a competent, complete package and it is wonderful news indeed that Criterion appears to have abandoned pictureboxing.
Blast of Silence is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this dual-layered disc. The image has thankfully not been picture-boxed. Criterion presents a very strong digital transfer, though the source material has a few issues here and there. The film's sharpness varies throughout, looking sharp and crisp most of the time but murky and soft at others. There's no consistency to it so my guess is it just has to do with the source. The film is in black and white and during the film's sharper, cleaner moments the blacks are very deep and dark. It also presents strong whites and grays with excellent contrast. During the murkier moments the blacks come off more on the grayish side. Considering the film's very indy roots I'm not too shocked at the inconsistencies presented throughout, but I am quite surprised by how clean the image looks in terms of dirt and debris. While there is the occasional mark (the opening has a vertical line somewhat noticeable to the right) the print used has been cleaned up substantially. Despite its few issues, this is still a very solid transfer.
The film is presented in a Dolby Digital 1.0 track, audio coming out of the center. This is actually a surprisingly strong track, though not without its own flaws. The opening bit presents very harsh sound effects and some of the music can sound like it's been cranked a little too much, almost distorting. But it's still very clean. I didn't notice any hiss or any background noise. Dialogue is also very strong. The film has a voice over narration by Lionel Stander, whose voice is deep and gravely, and there's no issue whatsoever in understanding anything said. Despite some moments where I felt the music, sound effects, and/or background noise were probably a little too loud, it’s an nicely cleaned up track.
Blast of Silence - Criterion Collection is packaged in a clear plastic case with printing on all sides of the cover. The front image, menu design, and all of the interior images were done by comics artist Sean Phillips, whose own Criminal series with Ed Brubaker tells tough-minded crime tales in the tradition of Blast of Silence. Having Phillips' art throughout gives the packaging a wonderful design unity. In addition to the regular Criterion booklet, which has an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty, an extra four-page insert by Phillips adapts some of the Waldo Salt voiceover from the film into a brand-new promotional comic. It's a very cool extra.
Beyond the packaging bonuses, there are four features on the DVD itself. Two are photo galleries, including one of Polaroids from Allen Baron's set and a new collection showing the Blast of Silencelocations today. The new photos are juxtaposed with images from the movie, and some of the new ones even feature Baron. There are title cards in between explaining what you are seeing.
The original theatrical trailer is like a mini film unto itself, lurid and intriguing all on its own. It makes the audience's pact with the killer implicit. "You will walk side-by-side with Frankie Bono!"
The final extra is a brand-new, hour-long documentary called Requiem for a Killer: The Making ofBlast of Silence. It's both a biography of the film and of Allen Baron, of his love affair with the city he grew up in, how he got into cinema, and how he made this impressive debut. Culled from an older German TV program, it's built around Baron taking us on a walking tour of Manhattan, telling us a ton of great stories of the time when Blast of Silence was made. The revelation that he had been a cartoonist makes the comic book stuff even more apropos.
Born in 1935 (and currently still living), Allen Baron had a steady, relatively prosaic career after writing and directing Blast of Silence. He followed it up in 1964 with Terror in the City, another thriller of his own script that also went nowhere, only this time for Allied Artists. In 1972 he co-directed (with actor G. D. Spradlin) a draft-dodger melodrama, Outside In; and ten years later directed his fourth and final feature, a species of Ozark romance entitled Foxfire Light (these films remain, like their predecessor, trapped in the cinema rabbit hole). During this period Baron directed episodic television. A lot of it. Throughout the 1970s and '80s his name could be found on everything from The Night Stalker and Barnaby Jones, to The Love Boat and the show he directed more episodes of than all others, Charlie's Angels. If he was known for anything, it was television. And he stopped directing it for good in 1986.
At the time Blast of Silence was shot (in 1959 and 1960), Baron was an occasional actor and a former comic-book illustrator who thought he could make a movie and had managed to raise the twenty grand or so he needed to turn out something that would look reasonably professional. Although Baron was a native New Yorker, Brooklyn bred, he chose to film a story about a man who is not: a tense, wary out-of-towner who, like so many who come to Manhattan from smaller, less daunting places, responds to the perceived hostility of the city with some pretty serious hostility of his own. In those days, of course, making a movie in New York—three thousand miles from Hollywood and on a budget even a studio B movie would be ashamed of—was an uncommon and risky venture, and at least a trace of chip-on-the-shoulder attitude is discernible in every Gotham indie of that era: a sense of alienation was, as this movie’s narrator might say, built in.
And Baron has the wit (or the instinct) to turn that uncomfortable feeling to the movie’s advantage. Maybe the most impressive thing about this debut feature is how rigorously its inexperienced director sustains a mood of endemic existential anxiety, of a pervasive wrongness in the world. In a way, it’s fortunate that Peter Falk, whom Baron had cast as Frankie Bono, was unable to play the part. (Falk opted to take the role of a different hit man, in Burt Balaban’s 1960 Murder, Inc.) Baron’s a lesser actor, obviously, but his relative lack of ease before the camera lends a little extra edge of tension to this already tightly wound character. There’s a weird poignancy in his stiffness. As Baron plays the character, Frankie looks like a man who’d be an out-of-towner anywhere on earth. He’s a stranger in his own skin.
But Allen Baron, unlike his luckless hero, has survived. He hasn’t directed a TV show in better than twenty years. He has begun painting again, and is preparing a series of abstract canvases for a gallery show, his first, in Los Angeles. He still sounds like a New Yorker. New Yorkers feel noirish a lot of the time, but not always. Sometimes they even manage to remember the truth uttered by one of the city’s great sages, a contemporary of Baron’s named Lawrence Peter Berra. It ain’t over till it’s over, he said, and New Yorkers never argue with Yogi.
Ingmar Bergman stumbles out of the '60s, his most creatively expansive and emotionally exhausting period, with one final attempt to channel New Wave stylistic vitality into his foursquare obsessions with individual angst. As with the other entries in his "Island Trilogy" (including Shame and Hour of the Wolf), it's fractured, dissonant and despairing. The sensual glow of Sven Nykvist's cinematography (in their first color film) blazes into a vision of apocalypse, rife with animal slaughter, tortured fornication and a marriage verging on homicide.
Max Von Sydow plays an unassuming island yokel who's emotionally corrupted by three Bergman regulars: his neurotic wife (Liv Ullmann), a neurotic adulteress (Bibi Andersson), and a controlling patriarch (Erland Josephsson). Von Sydow's slide into a flailing rage at modernity is mirrored by Bergman's slapdash employment of self-conscious techniques: interviews with the cast about their roles, voiceover narration by the director, a dream sequence explicitly referencing Shame. The interviews are especially unsatisfying, suggesting a dynamic interrogation of the space between actor and performance that's left largely unexplored.
The film is most successful in its project of mining for the ugly truth when it's simplest: two extended, soul-baring monologues by Ullmann and Andersson that stare down the camera. These moments complicate Bergman's characteristic misogyny, daring the viewer to call out these naked displays of emotion as so much female wiliness. They also point to the maturity of the more modest, person-to-person realism awaiting Bergman following his late 60s creative burnout.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Passion of Anna among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Antonio Castro, Dirigido Por (1992)
Peter Harcourt, Sight & Sound (1982)
Robin Wood, The Manitoban (2008)
? New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)
? Take One, Best European Films of the 'Decade' 1966-77 (1978)
The Passion of Anna is one of Bergman's most beautiful films (it is his second in color), all tawny, wintry grays and browns, deep blacks, and dark greens, highlighted occasionally by splashes of red, sometimes blood. It is also, on the surface, one of his most lucid, if a film that tries to dramatize spiritual exhaustion can be ever said to be really lucid. However, like all of Bergman's recent films, it does seem designed more for the indefatigable Bergman cryptologists (of which I am not one) than for interested, but uncommitted filmgoers...
There is no confusion in The Passion of Anna between reality and fantasy—it is all fantasy. That, at least, is the effect of a device by which, at four points in the film, he steps back and asks each of his principal actors about his conception of the role he is playing. The result is not so much enlightenment as it is an expression of Bergman's appreciation to his stars, particularly von Sydow, Miss Ullmann, and Miss Andersson, who have contributed so much to so many of his films.
They are all superb here, and Bergman gives each of them extraordinary moments of cinematic truth, monologues of sustained richness and drama that are the hallmarks of Bergman's best work, when the camera, without moving, records the birth of a character largely through facial expression and dialogue.
All Bergman's films in the late '60s centre on isolated social groups (often the partners of a marriage) and show them under attack from both inside and out: Laingian fissures and cracks open up between the characters, and their precarious security is challenged by irruptions from the outside world. Bergman preserves and extends his private mythologies (witness the way that images and names recur from film to film), but in a broader (less precious, more honest) context. Liv Ullmann says it all in The Shame when she dreams of 'living in the truth'. Here, another bold step forward in Bergman's analysis of human isolation, the public and private manias of Hour of the Wolf are brought down to earth among middle class intruders in an island community.
– Tony Rayns, Time Out
"Ingmar Bergman's film about the impossibility of purity and consistency in a world where to live is to contradict yourself. The passion of the title is not sexual, but the ability to live with the contradictions of life and to bear them without resignation. A tentative, plotless film that pulses with the rhythms of life rather than the rhythms of drama.
Ingmar Bergman’s 1969 drama En Passion / A Passion (in the U.S., mistitled as The Passion of Anna) is a great film — in fact, it may be the best of Bergman’s mid-to-late-1960s efforts dealing with human relationships and the Self — e.g., Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame.
Of the three films that show von Sydow and Ullmann as lovers — Hour of the Wolf and Shame are the other two — the portrayal found in A Passion is the most realistic and multi-faceted. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist makes a smooth transition from black-and-white to color, and some of the symbolism early in the film, such as a sundog that fades to clouds, is superb. Such a shot would be impossible to distill so powerfully in black and white. Von Sydow also looks better in color, as his features smooth out, making him look younger.
The Passion of Anna is one of the difficult Bergman psychodramas of the sixties, and while it is not the best Bergman film of this period it nevertheless has many things in its favour – an intelligent script, impeccable acting and Sven Nykvist’s beautiful colour photography. The characters are complex and can be interpreted in any number of ways depending on the individual viewer, but the film’s argument isn’t that difficult to follow – while the characters themselves are somewhat fragmented, the storyline itself, at least on the surface, is fairly linear.
The film’s apparent linear narrative actually conceals a circular pattern, each of the characters displaying a propensity for recurring patterns of behaviour and playing-out roles that they have previously enacted with their previous partners. Anna’s previous husband Andreas and Max von Sydow’s character, tellingly with the same name Andreas, both have had an affair with Eva which seems to have been conducted and ended in similar circumstances. The story of Anna’s break-up with her husband also resembles the story of Andreas’ estrangement from his wife. Bergman appears to be examining the recidivist nature of people to fall back into familiar patterns of behaviour, but he also blurs the lines between what actually happened and what people believe happened, how they interpret events for themselves according to their experience and memories of past events. This gives the film a confused, dream-like quality where we are never quite sure whether something is actually happening or is being forced to fit a predetermined sequence of events based on the perceptions or delusions of the damaged minds of the characters in this isolated community. The strange unresolved subplot of the killer and the islanders’ search for someone to blame could be an external representation of madness that reflects the suppressed madness of one or all of the characters, but it is difficult to interpret.
What makes this somewhat less confusing and particularly enjoyable to watch is the attention to detail and the sheer emotional force that each of the characters brings to their role. All of the actors at this stage have long been part of the Bergman’s company and very familiar with working together on this type of material, but they bring a particular intensity to this film which often frames them in close-up, capturing every flicker of emotion and passion. Sven Nykvist’s photography is in this respect simply marvellous – somewhat looser than the fixed, studied head poses of earlier films, the film also benefits from the warm colours that bathe the characters and landscapes in orange glows and is able to draw the full visceral effect from an image of blood on snow. It all contributes to the unspoken language that gives this film particular force despite the ambiguities and confusions inherent within the story.
The Passion of Anna has not dated as well as some other films of this period and compared to Shame or Hour of the Wolf it seems laboured and predictable. The use of then fashionable post-modern devices doesn’t really work either. The film contains interviews with the actors about their views on the characters they’re playing, snippets which tend to achieve little other than make you reflect on how much younger Max Von Sydow looks without his beard. There’s also a narration from Bergman which doesn’t help much either – although the final line of this is probably pivotal to understanding his conception of the world as a place where we, no matter how hard we try, we can’t hide from ourselves. Overall, however, it is a powerful and disturbing film which contains scenes that resonate in the mind even though you’re not always sure why – Elis’ collection of photographs of violent acts by people, the love scene in silhouette, the blood of the animals against the mud of Faro’s winter. It also reminds us that we are all prisoners of our pasts, a theme which recurs at the very centre of his next major film, Cries and Whispers.
Although this movie is identified as En Passion, the card in the title position on the film itself simply reads L 182. There's no other title given on the DVD. I found no explanation of this in the docu, the commentary or on the IMDB. Oddness or inconsistencies in a Bergman film always feel like misreads ... it comes from being intimidated by world-renowned, serious art filmmakers, so I'm assuming that there's a story behind this that I've yet to catch up with. 1 In the context of the film, "L 182" would seem to correspond to the neat boxes of photos that the Erland Josephson character stores in the creative office in his windmill. The thousands of filed images corresponding to specific subject matter - happiness, violence - seem to either be Bergman's criticism of the 'organized' mind, or the unconscious repository for the feelings of man who shows no feelings ... sort of a variation on the hidden rooms with terrible secrets in the house belonging to Peeping Tom.
The Passion of Anna is more accessible, less frustrating and less mysterious than some of Bergman's previous studies in psychological opacity. In bringing his inner concerns to the surface, Bergman uses readily-interpretable symbols and situations. The characters spend less time gazing at the camera in blank-faced introspection and there are fewer indigestible unknown factors. The film is also photographed in color, something we didn't expect from the Swedish master of stark, ascetic grays.
Anna is definitely a visual departure for Bergman. The interesting color is often warm and mellow, radiantly so in Bibi Andersson's big scene with Max's old swing record. The hues are intense without being exaggerated, like old Kodachrome home movies. I am told that original prints used grain interestingly; it's less visible here except in the final scene. Perhaps the grain was only on duped American prints.
Bergman's thematic use of color is actually rather commonplace - the color red bounces between fire trucks and flames, signaling alarm and panic in the Anna Fromm character. At one point, Ullman's red scarf is used to mirror the pools of crimson blood from the throats of slaughtered sheep.
Bergman's dream sequences are vivid - one with Ullmann in a boat resembles a situation in Shame and could almost be an unused sequence from it. Bergman cuts away to format-disrupting false interviews for all four main actors, a gambit that isn't any more successful than it would be in anybody else's avant-garde film. He probably felt something was needed to break up the rather conventional drama. There's plenty of disturbing content here, but often conveyed with atypical technique for the Swedish master, including overlapping dissolves in the barn-burning scene. The film is more accessible and less mysterious - one doesn't necessarily have to read a film book or peruse a critic's exegesis to follow what's going on.
There is no perfect analogy for the relationship an actor has to the character, but the connectedness they have makes the ones’ commentary on the other a form of introspection. This is interesting for Andreas/von Sydow because his character is so wrapped up in himself. His perspective, the film’s perspective can best understand the character/actors by how they understand themselves.
This representation makes the film dynamic. It brings the meta-narration that Bergman was hashing out in Hour of the Wolf and Persona to the forefront, and involves it directly in the plot and character of the film.
Although not one of Bergman's most popular efforts, The Passion of Anna is a complicated work from an undeniable genius. It's execution is at times muddled and confused, certain turns in the plot end up feeling unnatural and forced, yet this only adds to the disjointed knowledge that we are, in fact, watching a constructed story. At several points in the story the plot evaporates and the actors speak to us about their characters. This device works wonders for the female cast members who have improvised their statements, adding insight to their characters' development and future, yet the males read speeches prepared for them by Bergman, and in doing so they falsify their interviews. These abstract moments do distract from the functional use of the film as entertainment, making it a flawed yet effective work of artistic experimentation.
Shot in color, The Passion of Anna (1969) takes place -- like its predecessors Hour of the Wolf and Shame -- on a remote island, where Andreas (Max Von Sydow) lives a solitary existence, until widowed Anna (Liv Ullmann) comes along. She tries to convince herself that she had a happy marriage, but Andreas knows differently. When Anna accidentally leaves her purse behind, Andreas reads a letter from her husband attempting to end the marriage. Nevertheless, Anna moves in with him and the cycle repeats. Bibi Andersson adds another layer as a confused married woman who has a brief fling with Andreas. Strangely, Bergman occasionally cuts away from the action with on-camera interviews of the actors explaining their characters' motivations. I generally prefer Bergman's black-and-white films, but Sven Nykvist's color cinematography makes Ullmann's blue eyes a thing to behold.
Colors are the most notable change in the first of Bergman's films to escape the realm of black and white. What a difference a few hues make! In the beginning you are introduced to Andreas Winkleman, (played by the wonderful Max von Sydow). He is a forty something year old man who is living alone on a slightly inhabited Swedish island. We watch as he applies stone tiles to the roof of his humble abode during the hazy, snowy days of winter. Silence seems to pervade the area with only a few sheep clopping around the hilly snow banks in the distance. It's here in the film that the viewer gets a look at an amazing cinematic shot of the horizon. But suddenly, the orange sky becomes darkened by a mass of clouds and the bright sun changes into a dull gray sphere. A telltale sign of things to come?
I can definitely respect this film's honesty. Yet, the constant subtle sadness never lifts and I felt a bit weighed down by it's empty outlook. Also, the characters have already lived through all their hardest times and trials before the film begins so as a viewer you feel as though you missed out on all the main reasons underneath their sorrow. Never in Bergman's career has he created a film with characters so heartbreakingly devoid of hope. The four seem to know that the sun will never shine brightly for them and even more, they cannot push away the dark clouds from their view. Anna Fromm has a passion, but it's only held together with old happier memories that serve to keep her spirit from dying.
There's two ways “The Passion Of Anna” (released in Sweden under the less exclusionist title, “Passion”) can be viewed: in the eyes of Bergmanites, it's a radical, triumphant work of deconstructionist cinema; or because of the real-life break-up between director Ingmar Bergman and star Liv Ullman, it's a therapeutic exercise, affected by major creative blocks.
Even co-star Erland Josephson admits in his interview segments for the DVD's documentary that some of Bergman's impulsive ideas harmed the final film, citing on-camera mock interviews with the four stars, edited into the film; tearing the viewer away from the drama, it's either a distraction, or a delightful twist in a film that's actually more challenging than “Persona.”
The Passion of Anna is another of Bergman's diegetic efforts, it is a film which draws attention to it's medium, a counterpart to his 1966 masterpiece, Persona. Although there are many similarities between these two psychodramas, there are also many through lines between The Passion and his film made the year before, Shame. Aside from the obvious similarities, namely the lead actors and the black and white footage of Liv Ullmann on a boat which Bergman pulled from Shame and inserted into The Passion of Anna, there are parallels in the depiction of the brutalization of more-or-less harmless citizens. With Shame, it is the horrors of war and the government's complicity in such horrors which visit upon them, while The Passion of Anna indicts society's blind thirst for justice and obscene love of "truth."
The passion here springs from the emotion over isolation and not being able to live in harmony in a community. It concerns four troubled souls living on a remote Swedish island. Ingmar Bergman's ("Through a Glass Darkly"/"The Shame"/"The Silence") second color film is stunningly filmed by master cinematographer Sven Nykvist on Faro island. This outstanding psychological drama is one of his better and more poignant films; it's never less than fascinating, even when it falters; it's well acted by his stock company and bears the filmmaker's usual unique stylistic expressions and high middlebrow symbolism. It's the final film in the "island" trilogy that includes Hour of the Wolf and Shame.
In what strikes me as something gimmicky and unnecessarily staged, during the film Bergman breaks from the action as he conducts “interviews” with his stars and pries from them their thoughts on the characters they play. The responses are revealing, but it seems to be an effort to force-feed us on how the characters were scripted and not allow us to determine for ourselves what the characters were all about.
"I'm sorry to say that those [interviews with the actors] are very unsuccessful. I just wanted to have a break in the film and to let the actors express themselves. Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann improvised their interviews, but Max von Sydow and Erland Josephson had no idea what to say, so they said what I told them to. This led to two different films, and I no longer understand why I left the whole batch in, because I always realized that they wouldn't work. But I like coups de theatre, things that make people wake up and rejoin the film. This time, however, it wasn't successful."– Ingmar Bergman (1971)
"The Passion of Anna could have been a good film, had the traces of the 1960s not been so evident. They leave an imprint, not only because of the skirts and hairdos, but, even more essentially, because of the important formal elements: the interviews with the actors and the improvised dinner invitation. The interviews should have been cut out. The dinner party should have been vastly different, much tighter. It is regrettable that I frequently became so worriedly didactic. But I was scared. You are scared when you have, for a long time, been sawing off the branch upon which you sit. Shame was truly not a success. I worked under the pressure of a firm demand that my film be comprehensible. I could possibly defend myself by saying that, in spite of this, it took all my courage to give The Passion of Anna its final shape."
– Ingmar Bergman, Images: My Life in Film
During a seminar at the American Film Institute in 1973, Liv Ullmann (who played Anna) recalled working with Bergman and how he experimented in this film by allowing the actors to deviate from the script. "He has always been very strict in wanting us to keep to his sentences. There was the dinner party in The Passion of Anna where the four tell their own story. In that scene, we had complete freedom. But we had to stick to the character. One day a lady arrived and made a beautiful dinner. Max von Sydow drank red wine and all of us asked him questions. He had to answer as the character and the camera was on him all the time. Bergman did the same thing with all four of us. Then he edited it. Bergman further experimented by interviewing the actors during the film, The characters sort of came out and spoke as the character. [A]fter the picture was finished he asked us to come to the studio and to speak as actors. Bibi Andersson used the text from her character."
According to Peter Cowie in his book, Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography, shooting the film (from September to December 1968) was full of difficulties. Max von Sydow was under pressure also, for he was appearing at the Royal Dramatic Theater for two performances each weekend during the forty-five day production schedule and had to commute by boat during the late fall season. Sven Nykvist [Bergman's cinematographer] and Bergman frustrated each other; Bergman felt a recurrence of his old stomach ulcer and Nykvist suffered dizzy spells. In the final stages even the editing proved difficult, and over eleven thousand feet were left on the cutting room floor. [..] Conditions for the crew were similar [at the studio] to those on any location. They worked from 7:30 AM to 5 PM except for Monday, and in their free time they could play ping-pong, bathe in the icy sea, drink wine and eat cheese, and amuse themselves at the holiday campsite of Sudersand, when it was open.
If the challenge of color inspired innovation, the film's temper and issues continue to form part of the common denominator which subtends 'sixties Bermgan. The filmmaker himself has remarked that A Passion follows "a line of development" stretching from Through a Glass Darkly, and it is clearly the terminus for that segment of the line, beginning with Persona and passing through Shame, in which the island settings serve as metaphor for a besieged consciousness. Although any script Bergman might have written in 1968 would probably have shown a similarity, A Passion evolved directly from Shame; indeed, he looked upon it as virtually a sequel.
A Passion is a product of [Bergman's] dream machinery - and after a quarter century of filmmaking, Bergman had cause to wonder whether he really controlled its levers or the machine controlled him. It is not only Andreas who is sucked into reproducing a preexisting patern. When Bergman was asked to explain his pronouncement at the very end of hte film, he replied, "It means a sort of giving up... You must feel behind the [ostensible] meaning another you cannot define. For me, it expresses a feeling of boredom. I mean, 'This time his name is Andreas'; but I will be back and next time my character will have another name. I don't know what it will be, but this boring character will be back.
The Passion of Anna is an amazing movie, in some ways pursuing the quest for a new, open film form beyond even the experimentations of Persona. The hard-edged, precise brilliance of the former gives way to a loose, freewheeling, almost haphazardly structured film text breathing the indeterminate and the elusive, in a world still dominated by the experience of nothingness.
Bergman... is sharing the "text-in-process-of-becoming" with us. The actors seem to be sharing in creating the plot and the character: there are possibilities, probabilities; this could happen or that. Here is a kind of cinema of virtualities, showing us various potentialities, and in that, reflecting the filmmaking process. Alain Resnais was doing something of the sort in a number of his films (especially Providence later one), but with an aggressive and overt brilliance. In The Passion of Anna we have a leisurely and "open text," deliberately "imperfect," "unfinished," much as Eco was suggesting in The Open Work. Without the showy super-intellectualism and super-craftsmanship that exploded in Persona, Bergman has found a way of directly addressing his audience, as it were, sharing with us the awareness of what the nature of film, this film, really is. The final image may be of the actual visual disintegration of the central character, commented on by "author" Bergman; but we are very much aware that we are witnessing an artificial act of artistic legerdemain. Bergman makes us feel the nothingness, but also he makes us distance ourselves from it with the consciousness that it is an art object we are contemplating, and a highly complex one. Perhaps, because of the visible structuring of the film, we are prevented from taking the ending literally, at face value. For there are, after all, four factors in the equation, each with his or her possibilities. And so for life: we are watching Bergman work out some of the feasibilities. The context may still be grim, and nothing is clear; but here are four types of people reacting, each with his or her virtualities.
The Seventh Seal presented different kinds of fates for different individuals. But there one felt Bergman personally involved, working his way to some kind of affirmation and imposition of order. This would be pursued with growing clarity, as we have seen, in succeeding films. But with The Passion of Anna Bergman no longer feels the compulsion to be the prophet seeking the answer. For better or for worse, having faced the unbearable anguish of ingenting, he is now able to step back, seeing all options represented by the characters as data or possibilities (or maybe not!). Maybe ingenting itself is just that, one of the possibilities and maybe, braced by that conviction, one can surivive, can get on with one's life... Perhaps.
NOTES ON THE BERGMAN "ISLAND" TRILOGY: HOUR OF THE WOLF, SHAME AND THE PASSION OF ANNA
The Passion of Anna completes a loose trilogy of films in which director Ingmar Bergman examines how external factors can influence a person’s psychology and result in the break-up of a close male-female relationship. It follows the expressionistic Hour of the Wolf (1968) and the wartime drama Shame (1968), with Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann playing the lead characters in all three films. Each of the films continues Bergman’s exploration of existentialist themes – the nature of identity, the meaning of reality and the difficulty of living in a world filled with irreconcilable contradictions.
Stylistically, these three films could hardly be more different. Whereas the first two are filmed in high-contrast black-and-white and have a grim claustrophobic intensity, The Passion of Anna is shot in colour and feels much looser, less confined, and far more naturalistic. However, the similarities between the films are as striking as the differences and lead one to conjecture that they depict not three separate stories, but the same story, seen from three different perspectives. One possible clue to the relationship between the films is in the inclusion in The Passion of Anna of a short sequence from Shame to represent part of a dream. The hint is there that, perhaps, the whole of Shame is a dream, or maybe a twisted reinterpretation of the world as seen by Anna.
Mental derangement features heavily in all three films, and in each film Liv Ullmann plays a character who is either obviously unhinged or else looking as if she might be teetering on the brink of insanity. Assuming that Ulmann's character is the linchpin to each film, it is plausible that what the films are showing are a single mind that is fragmenting into various pseudo-realities – states that exist between reality and imagination. For this character, reality as we know it (or rather, as we think we know it) has ceased to have any meaning.
A more evident connection between the films is the idea that an individual's identity can be strongly affected by external forces. In Hour of the Wolf, it is the bleak, solitary landscape in which the story takes place which results in the mental collapse of the main protagonist. In Shame , the experience of war completely changes the way a husband and wife behave towards one another, ultimately ruining their relationship. In The Passion of Anna, it is the senseless killing of livestock by an unknown maniac that leads to the breakdown in trust and affection between Andreas and Anna.
The transfer is very good, with strong colors and accurate fleshtones. There's a lot of detail in the image, and the source print contains occasional speckles. For the most part, grain is not a problem, although it does pop up in the occasional darker scene.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
The mono sound is fine, with no trace of harshess or hiss. While limited in fidelity, it's perfectly serviceable, and the occasional sound effects come through clearly.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
While The Passion of Anna is probably the least interesting film in MGM's The Ingmar Bergman Collection boxed set, its supplements are the most insightful and revealing of the lot. Liv Ullman's 4m:05s interview is an amusing anecdote about her dachshund "Pet", and reveals the truth about the writing behind Bergman's films. In the 4m:53s allotted to Bibi Andersson, she comments on Bergman's dedication to his art, how the filmmaking climate in Sweden has changed and how it has affected her, and explains why it's not a good idea to invite Bergman to dinner. Erland Josephson speaks of his enduring friendship with Bergman in his brief (2m:25s) interview.
The Photo Gallery consists of the Swedish release poster and 17 production photos, which are duplicated from the Supplemental Materials disc. The U.S. theatrical trailer is in poor shape, with scratchy sound and a damaged source print, but the transfer is adequate.
University of Montreal film professor Marc Gervais contributes the commentary track, as he does for most of the films in the set. It's probably his least interesting talk, which is fair enough because there's simply less the say about this film than the others. He places it in the context of Bergman's other "disintegration" films from the 1960s, and discusses how the film reveals aspects of Bergman's character and personal life. The deconstructive elements of the film are analyzed, including the last shot of the film, where the image of Andreas is gradually obliterated, but this shot is almost certainly an optical effect and not a simple zoom as Gervais claims.
The documentary, Disintegration of Passion, is a bit shorter than the rest in the set, but follows the same format: clips from the film, interview snippets with the actors, comments by Gervais, and excerpts from a 1970 Bergman interview. Gervais mostly repeats observations from his commentary, but the remarks by the other actors provide insights into Bergman's unhappiness at the time, his hesitancies during filming, questionable use of improvisation, and indecision at including the interview segments in the film. If you can ignore the inclusion of the unrelated segments from the 1970 Bergman interview, this is a revealing, insightful documentary.
There's one supplement that breaks away from the formula used on the discs in this set: Elliott Gould reading the story treatment on which The Passion of Anna was based. Bergman typically writes out a detailed version of the story before shooting begins, then shares it with his cast and crew, who use it as a basis for their work. Over the course of more than an hour and a half, Gould reads the story, and it provides a fascinating glimpse into Bergman's working methods.
The following quotes are found on the TSPDT director profile for Ingmar Bergman:
"Bergman has never set out to be less than demanding; and as an artist his greatest achievement is in digesting such unrelenting seriousness until he sees no need to bludgeon us with it...Bergman has seen no reason to abandon his faith in a select audience, prepared and trained for a diligent intellectual and emotional involvement with cinema." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)
"Although he may be faulted for an occasional cold, humourless pessimism that may seem contrived, both his intellectual gravity and his uncompromising devotion to cinema as a serious art form are undeniable." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)
"Bergman's unique international status as a filmmaker would seem assured on many grounds; his prolific output of largely notable work; the profoundly personal nature of his best films since the 1950s; the innovative nature of his technique combined with its essential simplicity even when employing surrealistic and dream-like treatments; his creative sensitivity in relation to his players; and his extraordinary capacity to evoke distinguished acting from his regular interpreters." - Roger Manvell (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
"Human laughter, sorrow, joy, and anxiety are analyzed and compellingly illustrated by Bergman, one of the great directors." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
"Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls." - Ingmar Bergman
"I write scripts to serve as skeletons awaiting the flesh and sinew of images." - Ingmar Bergman
When you think of Scandinavian movie stars, the first name that comes to mind is Max von Sydow. Since his screen debut in 1949 in Alf Sjoberg's Only a Mother, he has appeared in countless films, including titles as diverse as Hannah and Her Sisters and Conan the Barbarian, The Emigrants and The Exorcist, Pelle the Conqueror and Judge Dredd. The actor is easily recognized by his gaunt appearance: he is tall, with a long, lean face and sharp features. These physical characteristics have been an asset in both aspects of his screen career, comprised of the character roles he has played in English-language films and his status as a principal on-screen interpreter of Ingmar Bergman.
Von Sydow has co-starred in a number of European productions by prominent directors, including Mauro Bolognini, Bertrand Tavernier, Jan Troell, and, most recently, Bille August. But it is his work with Bergman for which he will be best-remembered. He earned his initial international acclaim in Bergman-directed films, particularly The Seventh Seal (as the tormented knight who rides through the plague-ridden countryside in search of a good deed he might perform before the figure of Death takes him away) and The Virgin Spring (as the father who avenges the rape-murder of his young daughter). Indeed, in his best roles for Bergman (in which he has, more often than not, played husbands and artists), von Sydow has embodied the anguished soul who suffers as a result of his desires, or guilt, or the guilt he feels because of his desires.
From the mid-1960s, Liv Ullmann represented to American audiences a sensual and sophisticated screen presence that did not exist within Hollywood. Her earthy beauty was best utilized in a series of provocative films directed by her mentor, Ingmar Bergman.
Her film credits were few and minor—she had appeared in several little-known Norwegian features—when Ullmann first met Bergman in Stockholm. He offered her the principal role of the mute Elisabeth Vogler in the psychologically complicated and exacting study Persona. There followed not only an artistic collaboration between the director and actress, but for a time, a deep personal and emotional relationship. Persona gave Ullmann a great acting opportunity, and was both an artistic and personal success for her. "It was difficult," says Ullmann. "I prepared myself so that I read the script several times and I tried to divide it into certain sections. Bergman helped me a lot. He differs very much from what the majority of people think of him. People say that he is a demon, but it is not true at all. He simply knows whom to engage. He listens and then he tries to get the maximum from an actor."
Under Bergman's influence, Ullmann became an internationally recognized actress. In the films Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, and Face to Face, she creates immensely complicated portraits of contemporary women. Able to communicate an entire range of emotions through minute details of action, she relies neither on sharp mimicry nor intensified vocal intonation in her portrayals. Nevertheless, she is capable of expressing urgency, sensitivity, and agitation by the slightest movement of her eyes. Ullmann interprets the feelings and inner actions of her heroines by suggestion. Although trained in the theater, her experience there is not evident, except perhaps in some long Bergmanesque dialogue passages in which, through her ardor, she is able to draw the audience into her own inner conflict. Ullmann's mastery of the dramatic consists precisely of the simplicity and realism of her expression.
Like other European-trained actors, Andersson's work is not an emotionally cathartic experience, but rather an exercise of knowledge and technique, as her versatility proves. Following her role in The Seventh Seal, as the wife in the pair of fairground innocents who survive the destruction of the knight and his family after the apocalypse, she played the hitchhiker in Wild Strawberries, again projecting a youthful hopefulness and innocence. Her portrayal of the unmarried mother in Brink of Life revealed a broader range and won her an award at Cannes (along with Ingrid Thulin for the same film).
With the exception of a role in Now about All These Women, Andersson did not work with Bergman for six years. Their collaboration resumed with her most important film, Persona, in which she established herself as an actress of international stature. This masterpiece owes much to Andersson's brilliance and is evidence of her greater emotional experience than was apparent in her earlier work. Playing opposite Liv Ullmann as the mute Elisabeth, Andersson was required to carry the dialogue of the film. A mutual transference of personae occurs, signified by the merging of their images on screen. The film required of Andersson an enormous extension of her talent; her submission to the film's somewhat cruel objectivity attested to Andersson's dedication—not only to the aims of Bergman's films but also to the demands made by a role of extraordinary emotional complexity. The characterization did much to erase the rather condescending view of her as a pleasant, lightweight actress, and elevated her to the first rank of Bergman's ensemble, along with Thulin and Ullmann.
Andersson then made a number of films with other Swedish directors, and worked again with Bergman in a supporting part in The Passion of Anna, in a central role opposite Elliott Gould in The Touch, and in a brief appearance in one episode of Scenes from a Marriage, which would be the last films they made together. In The Touch she turned in a performance that established her, according to one critic, as the warmest and most free-spirited of Bergman's women, both robust and compassionate.
Jean-Pierre Melville's last feature in black and white is an extended study of a gray terrain: a criminal underworld that's less dark than cloudy, where truth, loyalty and honor stumble through a mist of greed, distrust and hubris. Melville immerses the viewer in a similar experiential haze by casting a sprawling narrative that spreads gaseously through the oblique and largely unstable relationships among its ensemble; it's not until the masterful heist sequence at the midway point that the film finds its focus. It's an ambitious gambit, carried over largely by Melville's assured deadpan style, working through scenes with a consummately professional attention to detail mixed with emotional detachment. The lack of the latter spells the doom of tough but aging ex-con Gu (Lino Ventura), whose plans for one last big score are usurped by the compromising of his good name, ironically incited by a police trap that exploits his insecurity over his reputation. This professional code is the real protagonist of the film, demonstrated in virtually every scene and mediated through each character's decisions and the viewer's responses. Predicated on a world of crime, the code itself is not an absolute good, as it enables Gu and his accomplices to justify killing innocent cops along with more deserving double-crossers and agitators. As with the resistance fighters in Melville's Army of Shadows, the code is an imperfect talisman guiding its followers through a world of overwhelming danger and corruption; among the criminals in this film it proves to be just as fatally insufficient. Nonetheless, it remains Gu's sole remaining principle as he makes a furious bid to redeem his professional honor at all costs, an act of equal parts salvation and suicide.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Le Deuxieme souffle among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Mika Kaurismaki, Sight & Sound (2002)
Robert Fischer, Steadycam (2007)
Wilfried Reichart, Steadycam (2007)
Jean A. Gili, Positif: 10 Favourite Films 1952-2002
Sight & Sound, 360 Film Classics (1998)
They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films
Titles by Jean-Pierre Melville in the 1000 Greatest Films:
#240 - Le Samourai
#559 - Bob le flambeur
#573 - Army of Shadows
#734 - The Red Circle
#786 - Les Enfants Terribles
#928 - Second Breath
Le Deuxième Souffle is less well known than such celebrated films as Le Doulos, Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, and has been regrettably neglected due to its long unavailability. The long overdue home video release reveals a transitional film between the romantic genre play of Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos and the austere and existential Le Samourai. The moments of light humor and romantic diversions from his earlier films have been banished from this portrait of the criminal underworld and the romantic code of underworld honor comes at a steep cost. Melville's direction is more stripped down and austere, his camera more sensitive to the minutiae of detail and his exacting pace and meticulous editing attuned to the weight of time. The careful casing of a room and the tense wait for the arrival of a target are as meticulously measured as the exacting details of a robbery or a shoot-out. It's all there from the brilliant opening scene, a prison break where we never actually see the prison, only the abstract pieces of walls and doors and guard towers that the three convicts must navigate to reach their freedom. In the gray light of early dawn, they wordlessly make their leap, the oldest of the three straining to keep up with the youngest, huffing as he tramps through the forest and races to catch an open boxcar on a passing train.
The film is based on a novel by José Giovanni, the pen name of Joseph Damiani, a real-life petty thief who started putting his experiences and stories to paper while serving eight years of a life sentence. Melville, In his interviews with Rui Nogueria (published in the book Melville on Melville), proclaimed that "I retained everything that was Melvillian from the book and threw everything else out." Melville scholar Ginette Vincendeau, in her book Jean- Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, observes that his adaptation is in fact largely faithful to the original novel, but that the minor changes are also defining. Melville cuts minor characters, removes private lives from his professional characters and makes Gu an isolated loner too proud to accept the charity of his friends. He also restructures the story, providing a strong, clear narrative line through the complex web of relationships and betrayals and the multiple story strands that he slowly winds together: Gu's life in hiding and his scheme to from France, the platinum heist masterminded by his old friend Paul (Raymond Pellegrin), the bad blood with Paul's unprincipled brother (Marcel Bozzuffi) and the dogged investigation by maverick Commissaire Blot (Paul Meurisse), a cagey Paris cop with a savvy understanding of the politics of the underworld. "He isn't your usual killer," he warns his men as they close in on Gu. "He's doomed and he knows it." But Gu does have something to lose. When a less disciplined cop leaks to the papers that Gu snitched on his fellow gang members, Gu becomes almost feral as he risks his own life to restore his honor and redeem his reputation.
Melville began pre-production on Le Deuxième Souffle in 1963, but a long legal battle with another production company (who had also purchased the rights from Giovanni, who apparently thought Melville's option had lapsed) delayed the start until 1966. Ventura has originally been set to play Commisaire Blot opposite Serge Reggiani (from Le Doulos) as Gu. By 1966, Reggiani was out (over a contract dispute, according to the actor), Ventura took over the lead and Melville reworked the role of Gu from an exhausted and fragile older man to an aging but still robust veteran. According to Melville, Simone Signoret was originally signed to play Manouche and the rest of the film was almost entirely recast. The film was rushed into production in February under "extremely difficult conditions" and shut down in mid-March for three months, according to Melville. "When we started again on 7 June, it seemed like a miracle." Even after it was finished, Melville ran into problems with censors over a scene where the police, during their interrogation of Paul, put a funnel in his mouth and pour water down his throat. The Censorship Commission demanded the scene be cut because: "This is not normal practice in the French Police." It was, however, an echo of recently revealed Army interrogation practices in Algeria, which may have made the scene even more troubling to the censors.
Le Deuxième Souffle is at heart a romantic fantasy of underworld loyalty and lives of calculated risk and violence anchored by brilliantly staged and shot set pieces, from the opening prison break to the precision execution of the armored car a heist. But there is a harder edge to the moral compromises made in the name of professionalism (notably the cold-blooded killing of two motorcycle cops played out with the cold dispassion of a military attack, an act Melville doesn't shy away from but neither condemns). For all that thematic darkness, the film became his biggest hit to date and firmly established the maverick auteur as a major mainstream director.
Early in Le Deuxième Souffle, police investigator Blot (Paul Meurisse) preemptively details the various phony-baloney stories some criminals involved in a shootout plan to tell, though the crooks' threadbare tall tales still prove successful at keeping them out of the slammer. Jean-Pierre Melville's 1966 film functions in a similar fashion, its story a compendium of well-known, somewhat tired characters, situations and tropes that the director nonetheless utilizes effectively, and thrillingly. In its most basic outline, the plot concerns Gu (Lino Ventura), a thief who breaks out of prison and both commits murder to protect his devoted sister Manouche (Christine Fabréga) and partakes in an armored car robbery for 200 million francs. As with most of the French auteur's noirs, however, the ensuing action defies easy summarization, so unstable and evolving are all of its underworld figures' allegiances to each other.
Written with José Giovanni (based on his novel), Melville's film is another of his meditations on predestination, with Gu's plans to escape from the cops (and France) as futile as any would-be stabs at fleeing his fundamental self, an existential endeavor the roughneck doesn't for a second even consider, so convinced is he that only death awaits. Gu's criminal code of ethics (don't rat, don't betray) is also typical Melville, though the director's handling of these pet themes is, compared to Le Doulos or Le Samouräi, occasionally more sluggish than scintillating, thanks mainly to a script that indulges in a few too many silent, protracted sequences that are gripping in the abstract but, strung together, hinder momentum. Taken as a series of bravura showcases for the director's unparalleled modulation of tone, rhythm, texture and mood, however,Le Deuxième Souffle smolders, its portentous fatalism generated from hyper-composed camerawork and an experimental jazz score that help couch the proceedings in a nowhere-world situated between dream and reality.
Characteristic of Melville's crime canon, the film's rigorously mannered aesthetic creates a decidedly artificial environment, and yet that environment is so meticulously, thoroughly realized that it's breathtakingly immersive. And at no point does Melville's blend of the natural and the self-consciously synthetic produce greater results than during the centerpiece heist, during which the director's masterful command of cinematic grammar—especially his dazzlingly swift transitions in perspective—proves both viscerally and intellectually heady.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s methodically paced, existentially motivated Second Breath is a remarkable study in back alley morality. The movie nearly transcends its heist film roots, slowly growing as it proceeds into a shadowy examination of pride. It’s a film that’s considerably enhanced by its director’s consummate, unerring skill behind the camera. Several sequences in this black and white film are stunners. For example, the way that Melville films the opening prison break sequence transforms it into a geometric marvel. He chooses stylish angles to abstract the action, and stages it in a deep gray light that casts a pall over much of what’s to follow. There’s no music in this bit, and that choice remains a near-constant throughout the remainder of the film. The effect is one of a heightened reality that can switch from glamorous to gritty in a second, as the well-dressed men that populate the picture suddenly reveal their thuggish nature.
The plot of Second Breath, in which the aging, escaped fugitive Gu (Lino Ventura) must perform one last heist before fleeing the country, is textbook stuff, but the execution is superb. Melville focuses on the symbiotic relationship between cops and robbers, which strikes the old-school Gu as a sickening development. It’s not until about a half hour into the movie that the plot details concerning the heist are made explicit. The time spent before that scene is used to establish not only the large cast of characters, but also the allusive doublespeak and ethical codes that exist in their underworld. Particular attention is paid to the exalted reputation of Gu, who performed a legendary heist years earlier. Doggedly pursued by the morally alert Police Commissioner Blot (Paul Meurisse), Gu is a fascinating subject that transcends the clichés inherent in his caricature.
For the bulk of the run time, the film is not so much exciting as it is absorbing. Some of the detail that accumulates early on may seem arbitrary at first, but it soon comes to inform the drama that unfolds in the film’s second half. Exciting, however, is exactly the word to describe the climactic highway heist that serves as the film’s centerpiece. In this tense, expertly filmed sequence, Melville demonstrates why he’s perhaps the best director ever to inhabit this genre. He establishes space masterfully, taking time to pause for occasional observational details (such as the ants on the ground that one hood spies as he waits), and then watches in broad daylight as his plot unfolds with ruthless efficiency. The sequence moves so matter-of-factly, though, that it scarcely dominates the less overtly energetic scenes that surround it.
A procedural pitched from the perspective of the man in hiding, Second Breath uses the locations it was shot on to full effect, establishing a poetic quality that in no way interferes with believability. The plot spans a period of a few months, but the tight editing and frequent camera wipes make time fly by. Large swaths of the film proceed with next to no dialogue. When Melville does need to stage a conversation, he does so simply, with extended medium shots that do a great deal to show off his cast’s talent and his fluid camerawork. The net impression of such unobtrusive mastery is awe. The product of a director in complete control of his talents, both on a technical and narrative level,Second Breath musters enough depth that by its conclusion it feels only nominally like a heist film.
A 1966 film by Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the great eccentrics of the French cinema. Melville specialized in severely stylized versions of American gangster films, bringing out their unspoken existentialism through a camera style that sometimes evokes the minimalist purity of Bresson, sometimes the seamless studio realism of William Wyler. Second Breath, one of his few commercial successes, is a painstaking account of an aging gangster (Lino Ventura) who escapes from jail and plans an elaborate armored-car robbery to prove he's still in the game. It isn't an easy film to watch, perhaps because it moves so deliberately in comparison to its American models, but this somber, repressive, and perverse work displays a ferocious moral and formal integrity.
Melville's great film noir Le Deuxieme Souffle (Second Wind), one of the pinnacles of the French crime movie, is based on an icily knowing novel and script by ex-Death Row inmate Jose Giovanni, the writer of the noir classics Classe Tous Risques and Le Trou. It stars that magnificently dour, Bogartesque hard guy Lino Ventura as Gustav “Gu” Minda, a famous (in the underworld and among the flics), hard-bitten career criminal who escapes from jail and gets entangled in a doomed heist.
The movie is beautifully shot in crisp, gloomy black and white by cinematographer Marcel Combes, and the supporting cast includes Paul Meurisse of Jean Renoir's Picnic on the Grass (as the bemused inspector Blot), Raymond Pellegrin (as fellow crook Paul Ricci) and The French Connection‘s assassin-on-the-El, Marcel Bozzufi (as the other, badder Ricci brother Jo), and blond anti-femme fatale Christine Fabrega as Gu's good angel Manouche.
Le Deuxieme Souffle was greatly influenced by Robert Wise’s moody, jazzy 1959 American heist thriller Odds Against Tomorrow, which was one of Melville's three favorite films (the others are John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives). Melville's veneration for Wise's picture extends even to his duplicating the wallpaper here from Robert Ryan’s apartment -- but what he captures more than anything is that mesmerizing, fatalistic, anti-heroic quality of the great American noirs, that sense that crooks and cops are ensnared together in a web of fate that will not release them until the end of the road. Certainly this is what happens to Gu, the most tragic of all Melville's gangsters, a man without a country in a world without a moral compass.
From the novel Un reglement de comptes, by José Giovanni, Le deuxième souffle is among Jean-Pierre Melville’s most morally complex and visually captivating works. The film opens as gangster Gustave (“Gu”) Minda and another inmate escape from prison, thus winning a “second breath” of freedom. An overhead shot, because of the design of the prison roof, entombs upright officials in an enormous coffin-like space, suggesting a limit to all breath and “second breaths.” The two escapees jump a train, but the younger man, who jumps off for his destination, ends up a suicide when cornered by the law intent on sending him back to prison. This could have been Gu, whose pilgrim’s progress during his “second breath” the film follows.
Cold, clear-eyed, exceptionally brutal, Melville’s black-and-white Second Breath boxes viewers in a mental coffin, steeping them in an intricate mortal world of cops and criminals. Not for the first or last time in Melville, the drop of a hat off a shot-dead man’s head releases a poignant reminder of our ultimate vulnerability.
Like many of Melville’s later films, Le deuxième souffle is a kind of “minimalist epic” that has the precision of a scalpel and the intensity of a full-blown melodrama, without being restrained by the coolness of the one or the histrionics of the other. It is a contradictory and paradoxical work in which the pulse of life appears to be pumped in and withdrawn at the same time. These qualities are directly related to how Melville represents physical actions and gestures. Gu’s movements throughout the film are both organic—they seem natural and appropriate—and regimented by the closed-in environments he is placed within. For much of the first half of the film, we watch Gu as he waits for the opportunity to break free from the tawdry, cell-like microworlds he is forced to hide in. Ventura’s performance emphasizes his stocky physicality, the on-set tension between director and actor perhaps bringing a very real sense of hostility and irritableness to his character (though like other Melville characters, he also displays an extraordinary, almost Zen-like patience that is linked to his professional typology). Also typical of Melville, there are numerous shots and scenes that show us characters traveling in cars, but here these act less to open out the landscape and allow these figures the freedom of mobility than to show the restrictedness of the space they occupy and move within (one of the most hypnotic sequences involves Gu traveling on a series of buses, his bulky frame squeezed into ill-fitting seats, to reach his next hideout).
In Melville’s cinema, characters are rarely given a complex psychological dimension and are defined and judged by the “purity” of their actions. Gu is a brutal, driven, and pared-down figure who gains respect, even from Inspector Blot (the wonderful Paul Meurisse), who recognizes his murderous brutality, because he ultimately conforms to and doesn’t break from his “code.” In fact, the key crisis for this character occurs after he is tricked by the police into informing on his criminal collaborators. His hysterical reaction, including an attempt at suicide, underlines the definitional importance of his inscrutable ethical code. But this code or typology is also central to the ethics of the film, and Gu is rewarded with a degree of respect and a heroic death for maintaining it.
Like many of Melville’s films, Le deuxième souffle pivots on a dazzling set piece that relies upon these qualities of observation, varied perspectives, and an almost documentary-like rendering of actions. This central heist sequence is a study in contrast. Whereas most of the film is defined by its cramped and dank interiors, or the minimalist gaudiness of some apartment and nightclub settings, the heist is staged in a vast, windswept, and elemental environment that almost seems to visibly shock the gang. The sequence is a model of both restraint and meticulous detail, showing us a series of actions, gestures, and perspectives that constitute the event. It shows Melville as a complete master of framing, mise-en-scène, and montage, combining and fragmenting each to give us the full sense of this dramatic episode, including its atmospheric brutality. The precision of the sequence mimes the matter-of-fact but bravura professionalism of the gang, as well as the epic minimalism of the film itself. It is a remarkable display, but it is also absolutely in keeping with the pinched, battened-down, almost parched theatrical realism of the rest of the film.
A little too much has perhaps been made of the fact that Melville was an avid cinephile who actually lived above his own film studio, actively blurring the distinction between the world of cinema and everyday life in much the same way that his films do. Nevertheless, much of Le deuxième souffle can only be accounted for in terms of its immersion in and refinement of the iconography and generic conventions of Série noire, film noir, and the American gangster film. Melville’s films in this mode have the quality of afterimages, modernist apparitions of established models fueled by a ghostly world-weariness and the characters’ self-consciously ritualized actions and gestures. A wonderful example of this occurs in the second half of Le deuxième souffle, when Orloff (Pierre Zimmer)—a loyal compadre who offers the desperate Gu his place in the gang—arranges to meet the other gang members to discuss Gu’s inadvertent betrayal of them to the police. As in Melville’s next film, Le samouraï, the main preoccupation in this scene is with process, the meticulous preparation that leads toward what we might call action. Both Orloff and a member of the gang “case” the arranged meeting place first, looking to gain the upper hand, but also preempting the generic requirements of the scene. These preemptory actions highlight the gestural and sartorial qualities and definitions of these characters, their movements having both a narrative and an archetypal function and origin. Orloff seems to be rehearsing the poses of his archetype—and he really is little more—theatrically prestaging the various postures and stances of the standoff that will occur. His awareness of the situation, of his place in the world, and of how this scene will unfold is characteristic of the existential, worldly, and ritualistic nature of Melville’s world. Similarly, it is not until Gu changes into clothing more closely resembling that of a gangster that he is able to break free, even if only briefly, from his clandestine existence.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Le deuxième souffle is its treatment of time. This emphasis is clearly signposted by the almost maddening preponderance of dates and times that appear on the screen, drawing attention to both the procedural and quotidian dimensions of the film we are watching. This play with time, its fragmentation and our awareness of it, places Le deuxième souffleclearly within the realm of the sixties European art movie. But Melville’s film is actually one of the most contemplative and quiet of all crime films, and his concern with time also has more profound implications. Love, friendship, communication, self-respect, and “life itself” are not impossible in Melville’s cinema but are explicitly finite or time-bound. The bittersweet, gruff, highly stylized but deeply felt quality of the director’s work suggests that his preoccupation is less with feelings of contemporary isolation—common in sixties art cinema—and the opportunities that sound and image “situations” offer for compositional abstraction, à la Antonioni, than with the melancholy contemplation of the play of intimacy and inevitable betrayal. Ultimately, Le deuxième souffle offers one of the richest and starkest portraits of the Melvillean universe.
Melville's ninth film and last to be shot in black and white, Le deuxième souffle (known in English as Second Breath or Second Wind) is, I'd argue, the one most indebted to the Hollywood gangster films he famously loved. It's not his best by some margin, ranking roughly in the upper middle of his impressive output, but no other film Melville directed could so easily be pictured as a potential Warner Bros. success starring Cagney and clocking in at just over half the 150 minutes of Le deuxième souffle. What Melville does is take a fairly basic story, which he co-adapted from the José Giovanni novel with the author, and quite literally turn it into an epic. The plot is plucked almost directly from any number of pictures where a convict escapes from jail and takes on what he perceives to be a final job, only for things to eventually go awry. There are several nuances that keep this idea eternally fresh and relevant, but Melville falls for few of them. He instead seems to consciously position his film as an alternative to the fast-paced entertainment of the Warner Bros. gangster movies. Le deuxième souffle is no one's idea of being fast-paced.
From the opening prison break and through the planning, execution, and fallout of a platinum heist, Melville's Hollywood adoration mixes nicely with his desire to add some extra meat to the thin bones of the American gangster film. Every little decision and ramification gets probed and prodded. The utter banality of an unofficial profession seemingly exciting to a fault becomes fascinating in the sheer detail used. We see the methodical nature of the heist and its planning, waiting, and clean-up. This isn't Rififi or Melville's superior Le cercle rouge, but it's certainly in that same vein at times. A single job is still the centre point and it serves as the catalyst for everything that happens before and after. The quick, yet violent efficiency employed during the heist is almost hypnotic in its matter-of-fact style. By also sketching out relationships that Gu is entwined in, either romantically with the icy blonde Manouche or through tacit friendships with men like Orloff, Melville adds some gravity to the proceedings. Gu is intimidating to the point of being likable, but he's hardly redeemable. This is a criminal through and through - guilty, convicted, imprisoned and escaped, and still unable to leave well enough alone before making another violent run for the money. Where Le deuxième souffle struggles for elbow room is in convincing the audience that these people are worthwhile at all.
Those even remotely familiar with Melville's other films may be able to guess at the final result. For all his interest in these gangsters and criminals, Melville certainly seemed unimpressed by their plight when it came to stamping out a fate. Over and over again, the men at the centre of his films die violently. They either accept this conclusion or they struggle to overcome it, but there's ultimately no escape. The twinge of melancholy for Gu is established in his counterpart, a police commissioner identified as Blot (Paul Meurisse). He's played superbly by Meurisse as someone just as interested in the unwritten code of his profession as Gu. When Melville lets criminals be his protagonists, he usually makes sure to attach the ethics of the trade near their murderous hearts. Blot is a total funhouse mirror of Gu with the obvious distinction that he's chosen the other side of the law. There's an interesting distance maintained between the two for much of the film, though this seems as incidental as it is necessary. Those paying attention may notice that Michael Mann tends to wear his Melville influence on his sleeve in a handful of crime-related films. The relationship between Ventura and Meurisese isn't entirely unlike that between De Niro and Pacino in Heat. The main difference lies in allegiances. Few will watch Le deuxième souffle and hope for Meurisse's Blot to triumph while Pacino is positioned more as the protagonist in Heat. Mann tends to follow this line of placing sympathy in the direction of the good guys in a couple of his most Melville-influenced films, notably the excellent Miami Vice (with Thief being more classically in the spirit of Melville).
Aside from the either painfully or deliciously patient approach used, depending on one's perspective, Le deuxième souffle seems intent on establishing every last demon contained within Gu's deceptive freedom. The film progresses and his liberation increasingly feels like a trap at most every turn. Since Melville peddles in tragedy as much as he does character-oriented crime tales, the expectations for the protagonist's future should be limited, but if you're watching intently then you're probably in his corner to a certain extent. The existential wave had not yet completely fallen over Melville by this film, but where Gu goes and where he has to go become basically identical. The commentary on this disc even goes so far as to question whether Gu could be subconsciously suicidal. On some level, that may be a valid reading. His actions don't necessarily resemble those of a man content to live out his life on a beach somewhere. Part of what makes Melville's films so endearing is his reluctance to romanticise the crime genre despite allowing the characters to exist within a warm, though still detached, frame. The director doesn't really seem indifferent to them, but he's ever the realistic pessimist. In the world he created on film, he has reason to be.
On its release, ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ was an instant hit and is one of Melville’s most commercially successful films. The Parisian underworld was familiar territory for Melville, and the obsessive glare with which he repeatedly explored such a troubling and seductive milieu meant he took great pleasure in romanticising and glamorising the exterior world of the hardened criminal. Masculinity was a key thematic motif and the imagery of the underworld in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ is one that holds a deep prejudice towards women, and patriarchal rituals that occur between the male characters in many of Melville’s films are evident in how the central protagonist and anti-hero, Gu, has no real desire to abscond with his lover, Manouche. Instead, having already escaped from prison, Gu is lured back into the underworld when he is offered the chance to help pull a lucrative heist in the foothills of a desolate Marseille landscape.
When Gu is framed by the police as an informant, he goes to extreme lengths in order to clear his name and prove to the underworld of his religiously devout adherence to a moral code that can never be compromised or corrupted in anyway by righteous institutions like the police. Redemption rarely ever exists in the world of Melville’s crime films, and Gu is another in a long line of stylish, likable criminals who are made to suffer at the hands of a nihilistic underworld that cannot offer any kind of escape. Escape becomes almost like a form of humiliation in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, and though this macho attitude espoused by Gu is spectacularly conventional in how it is manifested in the final sequence in which he goes seeking some kind of payback, it also functions as an extended metaphor for a repressed desire to seek death at the hands of morally dubious men like himself.
If conventionality in terms of genre is something that finds itself quite visible in the narrative, what separates ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ from Hollywood crime films is Melville’s intricately detailed and visually minimalist manipulation of framing, composition and camerawork; technical elements that would are usually rendered obsolete and unoriginal in most Hollywood mainstream genre films are deliberately fore grounded so that when a character enters the frame, where they are going to position themselves within the frame becomes a point of active interpretation that is intellectually rewarding for the spectator.
The heist sequence in any Melville film is a real dramatic high point, and in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, the heist of an ordinary armoured van is made altogether more gripping for Melville’s instance to set the action in the scenic landscape of rural Marseilles. Melville’s greatest tool for making the heist sequence in his films a genuinely enthralling spectacle was the rejection of a bombastic Hollywood soundtrack used by many filmmakers to create a false kind of emotional investment. Silence, minimal dialogue and natural sounds in the heist sequence forces us to observe rather than become preoccupied with the nature of the event. Such a primitive technique used by early cinema pioneers works superbly in the hands of Melville, making us value and experience the micro details that are typically excised in traditional crime films.
Though his characters are infinitely stylish and have a wonderfully eclectic dress sense, Melville more than anything wants us to see the edges to the stark reality of the life that Gu must lead once he has escaped from prison. It is a life made up of living in the shadows, hiding and making oneself invisible to the naked scrutiny of an unforgiving society that views criminals as a cancerous disease. When Gu is killed at the end in a hail of bullets, nobody mourns his life except Manouche, his lover and the only female character in the film, but even she can now finally see the worthless and indispensable nature of the underworld and how treats its own occupants, citizens and loners with nothing but contempt.
Le deuxiéme souffle was adapted by Melville from the book and screenplay by José Giovanni, the real-life criminal who also wrote Classe tous risquesand the jailbreak picture Le trou, the latter based on his own famous prison escape. Giovanni rarely resorts to gangster movie clichés, instead writing his scripts more like reportage. To match this, Melville and cameraman Marcel Combes shoot Le deuxiéme souffle in a pseudo-documentary style, almost like French Noir Neorealism. They use real locations and a loose, fluid camera style that follows the action rather than dictating where the action goes, maintaining a spontaneity even in the carefully planned crime sequences or Gu's overly cautions travel patterns. The platinum hijacking is shot as a virtuoso action scene, each moment planned to the tiniest detail, and with the patience and precision of the jewelry store break-in in Dassin'sRififi (later aped by Melville in Le cercle rouge). The men don't speak, they just fulfill their roles. Yet, even with this eye towards realism, the director doesn't abandon the expressive shadows of old-school noir completely. Take, for instance, when Manouche goes to see Blot, and the police station corridor is so dark, we can barely see their faces. It's questionable whether Manouche is being led to her salvation or destruction.
Giovanni's felons are only glamorous in the sense that they come off as lone warriors trying to stave off change, to continue to operate within a system that is becoming obsolete. Lino Ventura played a similar criminal type in Classe tous risques, the older thief who is ready to get out of the game. Melville likely saw something in these men that appealed to him. His crooks are professionals who do their jobs and they do them well, or else they might lose their lives, much in the same way hardboiled gumshoes of American detective fiction managed to maintain a level of good in a rotten world by sticking to their manly code of personal ethics and the structure of "how things are done." The ultimate expression of this ideal would come a year later, realized by Alain Delon in Le samourai, but Le deuxiéme soufflehas a trench-coated precursor to Delon's hitman in Orloff (Pierre Zimmer), the movie's ultimate get-it-done man. He's the one who hooks Gu up with the platinum heist, forgoing the big money himself, all because he respects Gu and knows he needs the work. Orloff doesn't even want credit for it, forbidding anyone to tell Gu he was responsible even while vouching for the older hood's viability. Orloff says Gu can do it, and that should be good enough; likewise, when things do go wrong, there is nothing more important to Gu than clearing his name.
And trust me, it's not a spoiler to reveal that things go wrong. From the very start of Le deuxiéme souffle, there is a sense of impending doom hanging over Gu. It's not just that calendar, either, though that does serve as reminder of time running out--not that we know when the deadline is, just that one is coming. Before Gu even appears on screen, a title card informs us that some believe that man's only true power in life is to choose the time of his own death, though for any one of us to give up simply because we are tired is to waste everything we have experienced prior. Once we read that, we know that Gu can only have one destination, it's just a question of how he gets there. In one sense, I suppose, we know he can never escape and just retire, that wouldn't fit Melville's mission statement. We also can't believe someone as meticulous as Gu would walk into his own death without at least having some plan for escape. No, Melville never intended his little lead-in to be taken so literally.
Rather, the director was giving us something to chew on, like the Eastern proverbs he would use in Le samourai and Le cercle rouge, little pearls of wisdom for the audience to roll around in their heads while watching the drama unfold. As our existential hero, Gu isn't looking to end his life, but instead he attempting to take back his right to choose his own fate, to wrest it away from the cops and criminals who are trying to dictate how he will go out. This solidifies metaphorically as his eventual quest to clear his name, to prove to his peers that he is not a rat. The one time he actuallydoes attempt suicide, it's a desperate, flailing attempt to silence the lies. In a hard-bitten society like this one, actions must trump words. Honor matters, but it's what a man does that proves he has it.
As the credits roll, Le deuxiéme souffle leaves one with the strange satisfaction of a self-fulfilling prophecy. While in other instances, Gu's fate would be cause for sadness, in this case, it comes off more as a job completed. It still gives us reason to reflect, but not to lament.
"You have to choose, to die or to lie," prefaces 1962's Le Doulos, French slang for "informer." Le Deuxième Souffle (1966) begins with, "A man is given but one right at birth: to choose his own death." Cowboy gangster Jean-Pierre Melville almost always chose to die and almost always violently. Thieves, murderers, fugitives, solitary men coming into contact with one another to reassert their honor and betray their friends, Melville's heroes usually get Le Deuxième Souffle's "second wind," but to call it fleeting ascribes time too much elasticity. Le Doulos' B-grade noir heist film piles up bodies faster than Jean-Paul Belmondo can drop a dime or get Richard Widmark on a dame, but Belmondo never quite achieves full focus of character. Melville can't make up for his own script, which drags even for the director's usual measured pacing. Serge Reggiani (Casque d'or) shines like a single bulb swinging in an attic murder, his hushed tones and hunted glances unforgettable. A vintage interview with Reggiani documents his decadelong professional "blackout," in which he refused to keep up with the Joneses. In this case, that's Melville favorite Lino Ventura, of recent Criterion gripper Classe Tous Risques, as well as the great Paul Meurisse (Diabolique). Ventura opens Souffle escaping from "the can," hot as his henchman's luger, out to settle some scores, dodge Meurisse, and pull one last heist on his way to Sicily. Melville's every bit as methodical, but his material's better and his leading men titans of French film. At nearly 2½ hours, almost every minute clenches its jaws in gangster predestination. Behind Melville were Criterion essentials Les Enfants Terribles and Bob le Flambeur; ahead lay Le Samourai,Army of Shadows, and Le Cercle Rouge, also gold-bullion DVDs. In these bloody B&W sieges, Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) lay down with death and got up once again on equal footing with William Wyler (The Desperate Hours), his American idol.
The heist is only one part of the film. What Melville is primarily interested in is Gu's sense of honor, the code he lives by, and that he hopes others adhere to. Ventura was forty-six at the time of filming, and is presented as a guy who is starting to get old. Minda makes the leap across the prison roof, but barely is able to catch the freight train that takes him to Paris. Christine Fabrega's Manouche is a woman still attractive, but no longer youthful. Added to this mix is Paul Meurisse as Blot, a police detective who is so familiar with the Parisian gangsters he deals with that he can supply them with their own fantastic alibis before they are offered, spoken with deadpan, sarcastic delivery. Le Deuxieme Souffle is about people who know that they have limited futures. This may be best seen in a shot of Minda, alone on New Year's Eve, ripping off the last page of a daily calendar, leaving only a blank page.
Much of the action takes place in empty, or nearly empty spaces. The buildings are crumbling, while the interiors are shabby and in need of repair. It is not surprising that the only thing shiny and new in Minda's hideout is the lock that isolates him from the outside world. The heist takes place on a rocky stretch of road that gets little traffic. The heist partially takes place in the rain, while another scene is of Minda interrogated in a muddy lot. As in his final film, Dirty Money, Melville likes to put is characters in a nowhere town stuck in crappy weather. Melville's Paris seems empty of people, even during the daytime. Against this austerity is the what appears as a visual non sequitur, at least initially, of a dance troupe performing in a dive more bar that nightclub, appearing in the early Paris based scenes. There is really no reason for the girls to be in the movie from a narrative standpoint, but they do look good making their moves against the cool jazz style score ofBernard Gerard. In the end, Le Deuxieme Souffle is about people who are alone, even when they are with other people, fighting to maintain their individual sense of integrity in the face of compromises imposed by others.
Why is Gustave Minda — I guess I’ll call him “Gu” from here on in, like everyone else does, even though the nickname is incongruously babyish — such a sympathetic figure? Or at least a figure you find yourself rooting for? He’s more than just a hard, hard man, after all; he’s a killer equally capable of killing people from a distance (like the guys on the motorcycles guarding the van full of platinum) or close up. (Gu has a thing for taking people on drive through the countryside and killing them while the car is still moving — it’s unclear whether this is a way of ensuring he’ll have fewer witnesses to the crime or if the gun, the victim, the highway, and the moving car are a peculiar constellation of elements that satisfy some inchoate psychopathic compulsion deep inside his brain.)
Maybe it’s that shot early in the film of Gu clumsily climbing aboard a train car shortly after climbing over the prison wall, barely able to run fast enough to keep up with the car, and then barely able to swing his leg up into the open cabin. (According to Ginette Vincendeau’s audio commentary on the Criterion DVD of the film, Melville instructed the engineer to make the train go faster than Lino Ventura was expecting in order to achieve precisely this level of unathletic awkwardness.) Maybe it’s the sight of Gu later in the film trying to keep a low profile as he travels to Marseilles: he’s grown a fussy little mustache and wears a pair of glasses as he rides a seemingly endless series of buses to his destination, looking like a dumpy office manager who can’t afford a car and has to take public transit on his business trips. Is it the shot of Gu showing up at his old flame Manouche’s apartment, his head bizarrely appearing at the bottom of the half-open door, like a five-year-old cautiously spying on his parents? Is it the little domestic glimpses we get of Gu holed up in various cramped hideouts, briskly shaving in anticipation of a dinner with Manouche, or enjoying a cozy solitary dinner on New Year’s Eve, smearing a thick coating of pâté onto a piece of toast? Or is it the genuine agony he displays when Commissaire Blot tricks him into identifying his partner in the platinum heist, branding him forever as a police informant?
Gu is the character we get to know best in Le Deuxième Souffle, and yet by the end of it, we feel as though we barely know him at all, or why his inevitable doom affects us the way it does. Except for Blot, the characters don’t speak much, and they operate according to obscure motives and codes of criminal conduct. (It was reassuring to listen to the DVD commentary and hear Vincendeau and fellow Melville expert Geoff Andrew admit that the plot is kind of confusing the first time through — I was starting to think I was just slow.) The characters have a certain glamour, thanks to the charisma of the movie stars playing them, but they live drab, joyless, sexless lives that no one watching them would envy.
Maybe it’s Melville who I truly envy: the restraint of his storytelling, his treatment of violence as a grubby, matter-of-fact reality instead of an occasional for spectacle, his ability to take this complicated set of criminal plots and counterplots and transform it into a nearly abstract meditation on loyalty, honour, and age. Strange that a director so austere and grown-up — it’s impossible to imagine any of Melville’s characters ever being children — should have been such an inspiration to a filmmaker as exuberantly adolescent as Quentin Tarantino.
Stray Observation: As in Le Doulos and Le Cercle Rouge, Melville stages a couple of scenes in a nightclub and pauses the action so we can enjoy the kooky floorshow — this time, it’s a bunch of girls in black cocktail dresses and cigarette holders striking poses together to cool jazz music. I love these scenes, although I’m always amazed at how these little clubs can afford to keep a team of 10 dancers on staff every night along with all those waiters and bartenders.
For me, there are two primary aspects to consider when judging a film: what does it have to say, and how does it say it. A flick can succeed or even excel in one department, but it's all for naught if it lets viewers down in the other. Case in point, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Deuxième Souffle, a French gangster noir with a hell of a story on its hands. The film's main aim is to question the idea of honor among thieves, of whether those engaged in such seedy activities truly abide by any sort of shared moral code. Melville has a great concept to work with, but the laborious way in which Le Deuxième Souffle moves along ends up almost crippling the movie's burgeoning coolness factor.Casting an introspective eye on the criminal underworld is all well and good, often doing Le Deuxième Souffle a great thematic service. But it's in moving away from overtones and towards building up an actual story that Melville makes the first of numerous missteps. Most of the time, watching the film is like watching him play Pin the Tail on the Donkey — sometimes he's right on the mark, and other times he might as well be in Timbuktu.
The trouble is that Melville's focus is way too inconsistent. He builds up the pivotal heist sequence throughout the film's first half, but once it's over and done with, he just sort of meanders his way through the crime's aftermath. You can almost see him let the camera keep on rolling as he goes off to make a sandwich or something. The film's style and sharp look (which, thanks to the Criterion Collection's restoration, is nothing short of gorgeous) begins to emerge as dressing that barely covers up the bitter taste left by Melville's prolonging of the plot. Aimless scenes abound in the latter two acts, with Melville eventually losing his storytelling finesse and, disappointingly, ending the rather messy affair in an obligatory hail of bullets.
Le DeuxièmeSouffle was, when it was released in Europe in 1966, the last film to be shot by Jean-Pierre Melville in black-and-white. The French master's first color film was Le Samourai in 1967 and was followed within two years by Army of Shadows, two inarguable masterpieces that the US wanted nothing to do with at the time. Like few other directors, Melville took naturally to color, uncovering a deeper isolation in an array of tones that had seemed simply tragic in his peerless black-and-white work. Recently remade in France with Daniel Auteuil in the lead, Le Deuxième Souffle, which literally translates into "The Second Breath," might be considered "minor" Melville in comparison to the towering giants that followed it, but even that would rank it among the best crim films of the 1960s.
Deuxième Souffle is perhaps Melville's most elementally structuralist affair. The acting is superbly restrained, the movement and space mapped meticulously. It is perhaps the most fluidly edited of the master's films. In this respect, though, it is thoroughly apolitical, the film foresees the globe-trotting paranoia of Army of Shadows and the director's late-era crime epic Le Circle Rouge rather than representing the penultimate work of Melville's black-and-white period.
Few things in Melville's oeuvre rival the centerpiece heist of the police transport, executed with the precision of a Swiss stopwatch. Bernard Gérard's unhinged jazz accompaniment is suspended while Melville focuses on procedure and movement, ingratiating the scene with the permanence of the hold-ups and shoot-outs of Ford and Hawks. Like those two directors saw the myth of America in their westerns, Melville sees the cold efficiency of the French bourgeoisie in his teeming underworld, two worlds he often remarked as being nearly one and the same.
Of all the gangsters, thieves and hoodlums that populate Le Deuxième Souffle, few have the presence that Pierre Zimmer gave the properly-named Orloff, a gigantic, reserved gangster who passes the heist to his old friend Gu and remains one of the few people who sticks with the aging thief when he accidently rats on Paul. Possessed of nearly the same frosty manner as Ventura, Zimmer dominates his scenes with stiff physicality and a collected expression, especially in a nerve-wracking sequence where he looks to be cornered by Jo and Antoine. That this was Zimmer's debut performance renders it near-astonishing.
Not many of Melville's crime sonatas end happily and Souffle is no exception. Tracked by a corrupt police force, Gu ends up stuck between Jo Ricci and his thugs and Commissar Blot (the great Paul Meurisse), the investigator who has been following him throughout. Like the doomed samourai that he so often filmed, Melville became increasingly fatalistic while approaching his 55th birthday, seeing as both his father and grandfather had suffered fatal heart attacks in their 55th year. Eerily, he suffered the same fate only two months before his 56th birthday in 1973, a year after releasing his swan song,Un Flic, in France and two years before it would see release stateside. Like Gu, there is a sense he saw his fate coming and, rather than let his reputation succumb to uneasy modernity, simply said "To hell with it!" and continued to make brilliant, tight-lipped noirs like this.
It all came affirmatively back to me: the geometrized prison break in the cold gray (black-and-white) dawn; the seven silent minutes to the first line of dialogue; the five-minute unobtrusive single take as the prissily sardonic police inspector (Paul Meurisse) sizes up the scene of a nightclub shooting, supplies all the answers and alibis to his own questions, and proves himself in the course of this virtual monologue the equal of Melville (or vice versa) as an aficionado of the underworld; the pregnant first look between the escaped convict and the cotton-candy-haired gun moll at their reunion, matched and surpassed by their pregnant last look much later on; the protagonist’s trademark killings in a moving vehicle; the mountain-road stickup of an armored car; the superb ruse by which the policeman gets the gangster to spill a single bean; the evocative shots of dark-coated figures in a landscape, scantily clad chorines on the dance floor, abstract polygons of light and shadow; the spare, neurotic jazz score; the stoic camaraderie and the stern judgmentalism about good people and bad, whether crooks or cops. And through it all, that great block of granite, that craggy colossus of the French screen, Lino Ventura — a block with worrisome cracks in it (is he over the hill? all washed-up?), a block that undergoes liquefaction over his deviously induced betrayal of his cronies and his principles, an unnerving turn of events that can only be put right by doffing his fusty mustache-and-glasses disguise, donning a regulation trenchcoat, and doing penance by way of a two-gun suicide.
Near the end, my most treasured sequence in all of Melville leaves Ventura out entirely, and centers on a subordinate figure in the large population of characters, a natty iceman (Pierre Zimmer) with the sinister name of Orloff. “He’s all style and no action,” someone appraises him. Well, let’s see. It is he who is tabbed as the protagonist’s go-between at an assignation with three ticked-off mobsters. As a precaution, he visits the meeting place ahead of time, picks out a spot atop an armoire where he can stash a gun out of sight from normal human height. He practices standing with his back to the armoire, reaching up over his head, pulling down the gun with the business end forward. He goes away satisfied. Then the gypsy triggerman from the hostile trio also checks out the meeting place beforehand, finds the gun, keeps it. He’s satisfied as well. Comes the meeting. The talk turns testy. Orloff sidles over to the armoire, positions himself in front of the empty hiding place. The gypsy tenses in anticipation, eggs him on. Mr. Cool Cat is about to have his fur ruffled. You’ll need to see the film to find out what happens next, a moment even more magicianly than the one in Le Samourai when the professional assassin unveils his white gloves from beneath a washroom towel. And, as I would tell the undergraduates, this alone should suffice to deter us from a life of crime: we’re not smart enough.
To object that Melville glamorizes his subject would be to miss altogether the point of a film that is manifestly a movie buff’s fantasy. Aside from that, the film is doubtless a “meditation,” as they say, not just on the gangster genre but on themes of loyalty and trust, aging and death, sang-froid and savoir-faire,arbitrarily in gangster garb. Any piddler of course can meditate on such stuff. It takes a true artist to arrange his thoughts and feelings into a form that will fully express and validate them. Many a filmmaker loves gangster movies, pays homage to them, imitates them. Melville improves them. His love runs deep. I can’t say that the extra twenty-five minutes, when I could identify them, added anything to the film but length, two and a half hours all told. Mere length is not nothing, however, in a film I never want to see come to an end. The extra minutes necessitate no revision in my previous opinion of it.
The films of Jean-Pierre Melville are obsessed with detail. Consider the scene in Le Deuxième Souffle, in which Gu and his associates conduct a carefully-planned heist. Every single detail of this heist is outlined with cautious observation. Melville wants to give us a sense of where everyone is and what they are doing at all times. This is not uncommon for a heist sequence; many films have examined such scenes in careful detail. What sets the work of Melville apart is the fact that gives every single scene in his movie an equal level of artful attention. The director is equally fascinated by the conversations and actions of every character related to the situation. The set-up is just as important as the event itself, and more surprisingly, so is the aftermath.
Le Deuxième Souffle gives us yet another Melville film that offers up one compelling sequence after another. I would love to know what the average shot length is in his films. I know that it has to be considerably higher that it was for most directors of the era. Melville's lets his camera run on and on and on, sometimes sitting still and sometimes slithering in a voyeuristic manner across the room. However, I don't think Melville is showing off. The shots do not draw attention to themselves, and they are always quietly supporting the action rather than outshining it.
That may be largely because Melville provides such engaging characters for his camera to study. Here there are two important performances that are equally fascinating. The first comes from the rugged Lino Ventura, who takes Gu across a long and carefully-modulated character arc. Ventura is quiet and reserved most of the time, dealing with each new situation with a low-key efficiency. Then watch him in the moment when he is asked to participate in the heist. He is told that his friend Paul is involved. "Paul!" he says excitedly. It's the first little burst of emotion we see from the character. When he reaches his loud scenes towards the conclusion, they have an explosive impact due to Ventura's patient and finely-tuned portrayal.
The other notable performance comes from Paul Meurisse as Blot, the man on the side of the law. Meurisse has less screen time than Ventura, but he does a lot with his scenes. Meurisse is the most charming and charismatic character in the film, blending wit, sarcasm, kindness, and intelligence into the character. We are constantly surprised by the way Blot reacts to certain situations. He has an unusual ability to see the truth of any situation. Consider a moment when others in the police department suggest several tactics they might use to catch Gu. Blot smiles gently and dismisses them all, declaring that there's more or less nothing than can do until Gu makes some sort of mistake and leaves some sort of clue. This is a man who can follow the smallest of leads to a conviction, but he is honest enough with himself and the department to know that he might as well be shooting at gnats unless he finds a starting point.
Once again, Melville successfully blends many aspects of American gangster and noir genre films with French culture. His movies do not look or feel like most of the French films being released during the 1960s, and they have a unique vibe that can't really be found anywhere else. His films have the aesthetic of a Bogart movie, but the meditative and reflective qualities of a European film (though not necessarily a French film). Many American noir efforts combined a gorgeous visual style with a breathless narrative speed, but Melville is too much in love with the genre to permit himself to breeze through it. He wants to soak in each moment, stretch it out, give viewers time to fully appreciate every detail of it before moving on.
Melville clearly has a taste for the existential and the absurdist—with character names like Gu and Blot (the chief inspector), it sometimes sounds as if we're in a late-period Beckett play, Endgame with guns, or something. There are some absolutely extraordinary sequences in the picture, without question—the most notable would have to be the central heist, a 200-million-franc job that's too sweet for Gu to resist, even though he's hot as blazes. It's kinetic and tense and visual, Melville at his best, sort of both a tribute to and a conscious attempt to outdo Rififi. But other scenes make you feel as if you're in some sort of noir echo chamber, scenes that bear little or no relationship to real life, or even to the story, but are there simply to conjure up the mood of the gangster pictures so close to Melville's heart.
Titles pop up with date, time and location, alerting us that we're barreling toward the inevitable and unpleasant climax—it's a familiar noir device, maybe most famous from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. And the odd brother/sister relationship is in many respects at the heart of it all—there's something a bit untoward and overly intimate about their relationship, and he seems at other times ready to pimp out Manouche, who understands the power she can exercise over men. Her interactions with Blot are especially charged and dangerous. (Christine Fabréga is beautiful and ice cold in the role.) But it's also unquestionably an excessively long picture—it clocks in at two and a half hours not because it's got a tremendous amount of ground to cover, but because it's a little too in love with or impressed with itself.
Criterion's disc shows minor signs of age and wear and some chemical degradation across some reels (noticeable mostly in darker scenes), but it's eminently watchable and a welcome release for the rarely screened Melville film. The DVD features commentary by Melville scholar Ginette Vincendeau and critic Geoff Andrew, who intersperse their reading of the film and observations of style with production details, and a new video interview with filmmaker and critic Bertrand Tavernier, who worked as an assistant and publicist for Melville in the sixties and shares stories about the director. Also features a pair of archival interviews with Melville and Ventura: a short four-minute newsreel piece (which includes a brief clip of actor Jose Ferrer, who is not in the finished film but was apparently cast in the film at one time) and a more formal 26-minute interview from the French TV series Cinema. An accompanying booklet features an essay by film professor Adrian Dirks.
Aside from a few more noticeable artefacts in the darker scenes of the beginning - this Criterion transfer settles down to have some fairly strong moments. It appears to have a few more earmarks of Criterion digital restoration magic which I, actually, never found overly obvious but it seems to have helped smooth out the source inconsistencies. I wouldn't say it is a perfect transfer but for the most part it looks quite competent and reasonably clean. It is anamorphic (in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio), progressive and situated on a dual-layered SD-DVD. Hopefully the screen caps below will give you a good idea of what it will look like on your system.
Criterion has done a nice job with the 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Le Deuxieme Souffle on this DVD. The black and white image is nice and stable and while eagle-eyed viewers will probably spot a couple of minor compression artifacts in some of the darker scenes, overall things are pretty stable. Contrast looks set properly and there aren't any problems with any serious print damage save for a couple of fleeting instances that thankfully don't last too long. Only some specs and grain now and again are constant. Detail levels are pretty strong despite occasional softness in some of the far away shots and a tiny bit of edge enhancement.
The French language Dolby Digital Mono audio track comes with optional subtitles in English only. While it's a little on the flat side there aren't any serious problems with it to report. Dialogue remains clean and clear throughout and the levels are all properly balanced. A little bit of minor distortion is noticeable in a couple of spots but unless you're listening for it you probably won't pick up on it. All in all, the movie sounds just fine.
Ginette Vincendeau, the author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American In Paris joins BFI programming head Geoff Andrew for an excellent commentary track. Both participants have a fair bit to say about this film, putting it into context and comparing it to Melville's other pictures and pointing out some interesting notes about both what we see on the screen and about what we don't see. Much attention is paid to Melville's use of shadow and about the film noir style employed but the pair also discusses the intricacies of the plot and detail the history of the film and those who made it. As far as critical commentary tracks go, this one is pretty impressive.
From there, check out the twelve minute interview with film critic and publicity agent Bertrand Tavernier (11:36) who speaks about his involvement with this film and his working relationship with Melville and who lends some unique insight into the picture's history. Up next is a four minute archival piece from a French television show entitled Province Actualities(3:59) that is essentially a news clip that gives us a quick look at the set of the film while it was in production - basically Melville, Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse discuss the film briefly while sitting at a bar. A lengthier twenty-six minute interview segment entitled Cinema (25:50) features Melville and leading man Lino Ventura being interviewed by television host Francois Chalais. This is considerably more in-depth than the first interview is and it's a joy to listen to the sunglasses wearing Melville talk about his work on the film and to hear from Ventura about his contributions to the picture as well.
Rounding out the extra features is an anamorphic widescreen trailer (2:18) for the film, some classy menus, and chapter selection. Inside the keepcase is an insert booklet that features an interesting essay on the film written by film critic Adrian Danks.
"Melville was a precise, methodical director with a predilection for themes of war and crime. The former preoccupation was attributable to his own experiences, and the latter was the probable result of his nostalgic admiration for the Hollywood cinema of the 30s...Beginning in the early 60s, Melville worked with larger budgets and with name stars like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon and showed an increasingly technical mastery of the medium." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)
"He had a built-in breathlessness, in fact, an adopted resignation to transience and mutability that is partly an eccentric individualism and partly what Melville inherited from American mobility and obsolescence. It gives his gangster films a true supercharge - "en quatrième vitesse" - and he transformed Belmondo and Delon into beautiful destructive angels of the dark street." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)
"Powerful endings and memorable set-pieces have a place in all Melville's work, even the earlier films, some of which are far removed from his later world of 'flics' and gangs', where the night-time photography glitters as cold and metallic as a gun barrel." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)
"Betrayal, revenge, and the criminal mind are significant elements in the work of Melville. His films are not so much reflections of the Hollywood crime genre as indications of a unique sensibility creating from the same source material - crime and criminals." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
Tribute by Mystery Man on Film features more quotes and an excerpt from a 1961 radio interview between Melville and Gideon Bachmann.
Jean-Pierre Melville said it himself: "I have a bloody awful character." In 1972, towards the end of his career, glowering at the world through smoked glasses under a Texan ten-gallon hat, the man whom some consider to be the "father of the nouvelle vague" listed the collaborators for whom he still felt gratitude after 25 years in the business. None of his stars stars got a mention; neither Belmondo, Delon, Lino Ventura nor François Perrier. Nor, outrageously, did his his great director of photography, Henri Decaë. Melville told the journalist Rui Nogueira, author of The Cinema According to Jean-Pierre Melville (1996) that he only felt gratitude to Pierre Charron and René Albouze. Charron chose the furniture for his films; Albouze was a prop man.
This is as good a clue as any to the character of this provocative, morose, secretive, private and perverse man, whose life was a running battle with collaborators, former admirers and critics. He once said he was "a solitary to the power of five - myself, my wife and three cats."
It was of course this sacré caractère which drove Melville to employ the independent methods of a "new wave" director well before the nouvelle vague. Melville made his first feature in 1947; the nouvelle vague proper did not appear until 1959. Frustrated by the film establishment, which regarded him as an amateur, and angered by what he saw as the "communist dictatorship" of the unions, he built his own Studio Jenner, in 1947, the only director to have one. It was destroyed by fire in 1967.
Melville's hardboiled world is really that of the film buff, but a skilled one. He involved himself in every aspect of film-making; set design, writing the script, running the camera, and designing his heroes' fetching gangster gear. Here we come to a puzzling contradiction. Alongside his seemingly obsessive gangster pastiches, Melville was perfectly capable of producing work that was restrained, precise and sensitive with no reaching for decorative symbolism.
The career of Jean-Pierre Melville is one of the most independent in modern French cinema. The tone was set with his first feature film, Le Silence de la mer, made quite outside the confines of the French film industry. Without union recognition or even the rights to the novel by Vercors which he was adapting, Melville proceeded to make a film which, in its counterpointing of images and a spoken text, set the pattern for a whole area of French literary filmmaking extending from Bresson and Resnais down to Duras in the 1980s. Les Enfants terribles, made in close collaboration with Jean Cocteau, was an equally interesting amalgam of literature and film, but more influential was Bob le flambeur, a first variation on gangster film themes which emerged as a striking study of loyalty and betrayal.
But by the time that the New Wave directors were drawing from Bob le flambeur a set of stylistic lessons which were to be crucial to their own breakthrough—economical location shooting, use of natural light, improvisatory approaches, and use of character actors in place of stars—Melville himself had moved in quite a different direction. Léon Morin, prêtre marks Melville's decision to leave this directly personal world of low-budget filmmaking for a mature style of solidly commercial genre filmmaking that used major stars and tightly wrought scripts to capture a wide audience.
This style is perfectly embodied in the trio of mid-1960s gangster films which constitute the core of Melville's achievement in cinema. Melville's concern with the film as a narrative spectacle is totally vindicated in these films, each of which was built around a star performance: Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le Doulos, Lino Ventura in Le Deuxième Souffle, and Alain Delon in Le Samourai. Drawing on his 1930s viewing and his adolescent reading of American thrillers, Melville manipulated the whole mythology of the gangster film, casting aside all pretence of offering a social study. His criminals are idealized figures, their appearance stylized with emphasis on the belted raincoat, soft hat, and ever-present handgun. Their behavior oddly blends violence and ritualized politeness, and lifts them out from their settings. Melville had no interest in the realistic portrayal of life. He disregarded both psychological depth and accuracy of location and costume. The director instead used his stars to portray timeless, tragic figures caught up in ambiguous conflicts and patterns of deceit, relying on the actor's personality and certainty of gesture to fill the intentional void.
Le Samourai, a perfect distillation of the cinematic myth of the gangster, remains Melville's masterpiece. Subsequent attempts to widen his range included an effort to transpose his characters into the world of Occupation and Resistance in L'Armée des ombres, as well as a film—Le Cercle rouge—that combined his particular gift for atmosphere with a Rififi-style presentation of the mechanics of a robbery. These films are interesting but flawed works. Melville's frustration and dissatisfaction was reflected in his last work,Un Flic, which completed the passage towards abstraction begun in the mid-1960s. It offers a derisory world lacking even the human warmth of loyalty and friendship which the director had earlier celebrated. In retrospect, it seems likely that Melville's reputation will rest largely on his ability, almost unique in French cinema, to contain deeply felt personal attitudes within the tight confines of commercial genre production. Certainly his thrillers are unequalled in European cinema.
In 1963, Raymond Durgnat pertinently suggested that “Melville has a way of watching, rather than sharing, his characters' perplexities. He seems not to mind what they do, provided it suits them. He is not unkind, but feline.” Durgnat's astute reading of Melville's work nevertheless over-emphasises the purely detached and relatively amoral perspective that it offers. The subtle scene described above is one of many moments in Melville's cinema in which his mostly male characters appear to be both within and outside of a dramatic situation, able to engage in the emotion of the moment while also stepping outside of it to contemplate a configuration of events, actions and bodies. Bob recognises his complicity and involvement in the coupling he sees staged in his bed but he also recognises the beauty of this staged composition, its 'rightness,' in a way. In a similar fashion, the lone assassin protagonist of Melville's most celebrated film, Le Samouraï (1967), both enacts his crimes and observes the patterned compositions he creates through his meticulous movements and steely actions. There is another moment in Bob le flambeur where Bob looks, as many of Melville's characters do, at his unshaven face in the mirror. Though this provokes a momentary shock of existential awareness – the notation of age and a concomitant world-weariness – it is also a moment of pure contemplation; the character simultaneously sees both from within and outside himself. Typical of Melville's aesthetic style (and his ethical perspective), we are shown these moments and events through a mixture of seeming point-of-view shots and a vast array of detached perspectives (which rarely repeat camera set-ups). Thus, while the characters are both 'interior' and 'exterior' to the situation, we are also both inside and outside their view of it, engaged in the film's action while also observing it. It is this combination of direct engagement and distanced contemplation, of feeling character and observing actor, as well as the joining of real-time observation – which Colin McArthur describes as a “cinema of process” – and aesthetic abstraction (heightened or drained colours, self-consciously staged compositions) that defines Melville's cinema.
Melville himself has been careful to place his work within the context of a composed or synthetic tradition of filmmaking: “I am careful never to be realistic.… What I do is false. Always.” But this statement encapsulates only 'half' the story, as John Flaus suggests: “He [Melville] does not seek to simulate the world but to create anew from the materials of the world. The severe form, the precise detail, the delicate effect are part of a style which shows rather than refers to its subject.” Essentially, Melville's cinema is a highly complex and regulated thing within which nothing, not an edit, a gesture, a sound or a camera movement, is wasted (though it is also a cinema that is often also stylistically adventurous). His films present a collection of minute observations and actions played out in what seems to be real time, while also reveling in self-conscious displays of what could pass for pure style. Melville combines this with an overwhelming sense of lived experience. His films are often, all at once, highly personal, non-naturalistic (full of attenuated shades and colours or self-consciously fake back projections), dream-like fictions, and documentary-like narratives.His style often also revolves around the meticulous placement and withdrawal of certain cinematic techniques. For example, despite the head of the character of the niece being consistently framed in Le Silence de la mer (1949), she is never given a close-up until the penultimate point of the film.
Les Enfants terribles
Melville is a filmmaker that almost everyone seems to admire, but few know what to do with (other than those who attempt to slavishly copy or evoke his work). Similarly, many accounts of his cinema focus only on his gangster films, finding it difficult to encapsulate the trio of films he made about the war-time occupation of France into an overall understanding of his work; particularly any 'summary' which attempts to present a teleological narrative that moves from the initial 'literary' works such as Le Silence de la mer to the explicitly cinematic genre and audio-visual abstraction characterising his last film, Un Flic. Critical discussion of Melville's work is also obsessed by the American affectations of his films and his personal style (the car he drove, the Stetson he wore, the Coca-Cola he drank, the evocative New York-based or influenced films he made such as Deux Hommes dans Manhattan and L'Aîné des ferchaux ), as well as his status as perhaps the first truly self-conscious cinéphiliac director. It is in these obsessions that most critics see Melville's talismanic importance to the nouvelle vague, as an exemplar of particular critical proclivities and independent production processes. Nevertheless, Melville seems to belong to a separate generation or movement (closer to other singular figures of French cinema like Robert Bresson, Georges Franju and Jacques Becker). His valediction of such highly classical directors as William Wyler, John Huston, Robert Wise and Charles Chaplin points toward an unflinching, or aspirational, classicism in his own style; expressed in his films' attention to detail, deployment of iconographic objects and often restricted emotional, tonal and aesthetic palette. But his films, particularly from Le Doulos (1962) onwards, also seem to belong to an explicitly modernist tradition in which the world created appears predetermined, patterned, almost geometric – and such patterns or geometries emerge as key themes and visual preoccupations of films such as Le Samouraï and Le Cercle rouge. Thus, although Melville would like to be connected to names such as Huston, Wyler, William Wellman and John Ford, he belongs as much to a formalist cinema defined by its compositional clarity and spatio-temporal experimentation, and thus should be examined equally alongside such directors as Yasujiro Ozu, Alain Resnais, Bresson and Jacques Tati.
Melville's cinema is essentially tonal: a sensibility (melancholy, poetic, unhysterical) which is founded upon a 'purity' of style, performance and narrative action. It is this 'sensibility' or 'tonality' – existential, ritualistic and formed around the incapability of the individual and their community – that preoccupies most critical accounts of Melville's cinema. John Flaus has suggested that Melville “is a self-confessed addict of the structure & ethos, but not the tone, of the Hollywood crime genres.” Thus Melville's films often appear as intricately choreographed shadow plays in which the elements of genre become isolated, detached and abstracted. This abstraction goes hand-in-hand with a career long fascination with totemistic objects brought either to the foreground of a shot or arranged purposely in the background of the frame. Melville's films are full of moments in which characters fix on a particular object or fetishise certain keepsakes or elements of mise-en-scène. This isolation of individual shapes, objects and actions is playfully noted in the scene in Le Samouraï where the character of Weiner is asked whether he can identify the man (Jef, played by Alain Delon) he passed in the foyer of his lover's apartment block. Not being 'observant,' he cannot recognise the 'person' of this man but constructs a readily identifiable composite; he points out a hat, a coat and a kind of face that he remembers brushing past...
The endings of Melville's films tell us much about the moral codes and frameworks that they set up. In many of his films the majority of the central characters end up dead. These endings – which often have the feeling of ritual – reestablish the intimate connections that have been created between characters whose relationships are made impossible by a variety of legal, social, moral and criminal codes. In this sense they have much in common with the cycle of 'chamber' Westerns made by Budd Boetticher with Randolph Scott; in fact the moral climates, dilemmas and group dynamics of Melville's films often seem closer to the Western than film noir. It is also in respect to this focus on the relativity of social roles and functions (often with characters on either side of the Law), as well as their explicit revision and abstraction of the crime genre, that one can see the clear influence of Melville on directors such as John Woo, Johnny To, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and Quentin Tarantino. It is also in these endings, particularly in his last five films, that Melville tells us something about the end of a kind of classicism; of a classical world of archetypes, moral and physical integrity, and ritualised ceremony that is passing from view. They also prefigure the end of a cinema that Melville considered to be a “sacred thing.”
Classical cinema, basically, had to do with heroes, so-called modern cinema is to do with grubs. I have always refused to go along with this regression… I always arrange my characters – my 'heroes' – to conduct themselves within their environment, whatever it might be, the way I would conduct myself […] To be frank, I'm only able to become interested in characters who reflect some aspect of myself. Egocentric, paranoiac, megalomaniac? No: quite simply the natural authority of the creator.
- Melville, as quoted by Danks in Senses of Cinema
Screened January 3 2008 on DVD in Weehawken NJ
TSPDT #896 IMDbWiki
I generally groan at the creakily subjective categorizing of film directors employed by Andrew Sarris in his American Cinema, but in the case of Elia Kazan I tend to agree with his label of "less than meets the eye." The often hysterical displays of moral angst and sexual neurosis among his Method ensemble in A Streetcar Named Desire [TSPDT #356], East of Eden [TSPDT #583] and On the Waterfront [TSPDT #104] (where the most histrionic performer is Leonard Bernstein's score) may have broken taboos in the Eisenhower era, but today they come off as Oscar bait bordering on camp, offering more heat than light. In contrast to these films, Wild River is a revelation, both even-handed and even-headed, foregoing steroidal drama for the sake of taking in the full registers and rhythms of a way of life on the way of being literally drowned out of existence.
Kazan's empathy for his subject matter is embodied in Montgomery Clift's Tennesse Valley Authority agent charged with evacuating a prideful matriarch (Jo Van Fleet, magnificent) from her soon-to be submerged island on a newly-dammed stretch of the Mississippi. Clift occasionally succumbs to Method ham with a halting line delivery or twitchy mannerism, but mostly his eyes convey his character's liberal earnestness in trying to win through patient, reasoned conversation. Similarly, Kazan's town hall pacing gives time for practically every contending point of view to have its say, and his autumnal location camerawork achieves an authenticity of place and way of life that's hardly to be found elsewhere in his oeuvre.
For once, Kazan's theater-bound allegiance to script and performance give way to moments of cinematic lyricism worthy of Ford, particularly in scenes between Clift and Lee Remick's wistful young widow, whose exchanges are performed with such exquisite timing that it's breathtaking. For once, the pscyhological and romantic strife of Kazan's characters are largely internalized with nuanced body language, and expressed as equally by the film's masterful light. Clift and Remick's casual introduction elides into a wordless riverside passage where the distant sounds of hymns being sung over the current's gurgle, conveying a romanticism so subtly natural that it stealthily sets up a knockout blow in Remick's dilapidated house, where Remick's heartbreak and sexuality quietly arise among increasingly looming hues of sunset and shadow.
The film was an immediate flop upon release, its concern with the Depression-era South seeming hopelessly unfashionable, its quiet treatment of sex insufficient to arouse audiences. In retrospect, its measured concern with social progress in the South, especially in its attentiveness to racial politics, gives it a rare prescience towards the civil rights struggle that would dominate the decade to follow. But above all, its sensitivity and beauty tower over much of Kazan's other work, and American cinema.
Want to go deeper?
I’d conceived this film years before as a homage to the spirit of FDR; my hero was to be a resolute New Dealer engaged in the difficult task of convincing "reactionary" country people that it was necessary, in the name of the public good, for them to move off their land and allow themselves to be relocated. Now I found my sympathies were with the obdurate old lady who lived on the island that was to be inundated and who refused to be patriotic, or whatever it took to allow herself to be moved. I was all for her. Something more than the shreds of my liberal ideology was at work now, something truer perhaps, and certainly stronger. While my man from Washington has the ‘social’ right on his side, the picture I made was in sympathy with the old woman obstructing progress.
Perhaps I was beginning to feel humanly, not think ideologically. The people in my life for whom I’d felt the deepest devotions were three old-fashioned women: my grandmother, my mother and my schoolteacher … I no longer had a taste for liberal intellectuals. I always knew what they were going to say about any subject. I simply didn’t like the reformers I’d been with since 1933, whether they were Communists or progressives or whoever else was out to change the world. I’d only believed I should like them. I’d followed the crowd, which during those years was going that way.
The film that resulted from all this is one of my favorites, possibly because of its social ambivalence. Jean Renoir’s famous phrase, "Everyone has his reasons" was true here. Both sides were "right." Wild River is also a favorite of certain French film critics [….] Skouras (the studio director) had an opposite view and treated the film deplorably, jerking it out of theatres before it had any chance to take hold and booking it thinly across the country. It was not exhibited in Europe until I staged a stormy scene in [the studio director’s] office and shamed him. I hope the negative is safe in one of Fox’s vaults, although I’ve heard a rumor that it was destroyed to make space for more successful films. This would not surprise me. Money makes the rules of the market, and by this rule, the film was a disaster."
- Elia Kazan, A Life. Page 596
DESPITE a tempestuous title, "Wild River," which came to both the Victoria and Sixty-eighth Street Playhouse yesterday, emerges as an interesting but strangely disturbing drama rather than a smashing study of a historic aspect of the changing American scene.
In focusing his color cameras on the South and the Southerners affected by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the early Nineteen Thirties, producer-director Elia Kazan, oddly, enough, distracts a viewer with a romance that shares importance with the social and economic upheaval that unquestionably is closest to the heart of this movie matter. In following two courses simultaneously, the potential force of "Wild River" has been diminished.
Mr. Kazan deserves real credit for not being partisan about the socio-economic aspects of his story. The similar accent on its romance dilutes its drama.
This 1960 drama is probably Elia Kazan's finest and deepest film, a meditation on how the past both inhibits and enriches the present. Lee Remick costars as Van Fleet's widowed daughter, giving one of the most affecting performances of her underrated career. The tone shifts from hysteria to reverie in the blinking of an eye, but Kazan handles it all with a sure touch.
Maybe it's the location shooting, maybe it's the performances, but Kazan's lyrical, liberal account of a Tennessee Valley Authority agent (Clift) struggling to persuade an obstinate old woman (Fleet) to abandon her home before it is flooded by a new project, is one of his least theatrical and most affecting films. Partly that's because the battle lines - between city and country, old and new, expediency and commitment - are effectively blurred, making the conflict more dramatically complex than one might expect; but Kazan's evident nostalgia for the '30s (New Deal) setting also lends the film greater depth and scope than is usually to be found in his work.
Although the picture was directed by Elia Kazan, then a major American filmmaker, was produced by a major American studio (20th Century Fox) and starred Montgomery Clift and a particularly luminous Lee Remick, Fox at some point lost faith in the film, gave it a modest release in 1960 and, despite respectable reviews, let it die. Kazan was so disappointed by the way it was handled that he tried to buy the negative back from the studio and arrange an independent release, but he couldn’t afford the price.
Who cared, a quarter-century after the fact, about the creation of the vast system of dams that tamed the Tennessee River, which almost annually flooded, carrying away millions of dollars worth of land, buildings, livestock – not to mention people? Who cared, any more, that the TVA brought electricity to a seven-state region that had been nearly devoid of modern life’s most essential power source? That was stale news.
Forty-five years have passed since “Wild River’s” failed initial release. It could be argued that the TVA is even staler news now than it was. But I don’t think so. For more than 30 years, the argument against “big” government has been drummed into our ears by the right. It is inefficient. It crushes the spirit of individualism. Yadda, yadda yadda. But there are some things only a strong, centralized government can accomplish. A rational health insurance system instantly springs to mind. The stern enforcement of environmental (and workplace) protections is another. Yadda, yadda, yadda – again.
At the time, its supporters always called the TVA a “yardstick” by which we might measure the effect of government on our better, as opposed to our meanest – or Bushian – selves. In that, it succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams.
“Wild River” exceeded Kazan’s highest hopes too – as a film that, fully aware of the pain implicit in the process of change, continues to summon us to our lost social consciousness. And conscience.
[Kazan] wanted to achieve what he called a "laconic, pictorial" style in the film, to "boil the words out of everything." He thought: "Art goes from peak to peak. Nature has valleys. Art should have none. Here in this picture you have a brilliant opportunity to do everything very, very pictorially and very much without words... Just have a succession of meaningful events... Go from peak to peak."
He did not quite achieve that. There are plenty of words in Wild River. But they are rarely abstract words. And they are rarely pitched at the high melodramatic level of, say, East of Eden or A Face in the Crowd. These people are soft-spoken in their contrasting stubbornness; their rages are more felt than openly expressed. And I think more effectively than he did in East of Eden, Kazan achieved the pastoral quality that [Michel] Ciment imputed to that picture. Indeed, I think Wild River comes close to being a great film - in its - yes, laconic - humanization of a large conflict, in its evocation of a lost American landscape and spirit, in the simple beauty of its imagery (its largely unsung cinematographer was Ellsworth Fredericks), in the force of its acting, in its almost Chekhovian realization of little lives under pressures they do not entirely comprehend.
For Elia Kazan, the making of Wild River was the fulfilment of a 25-year long dream. Ever since he visited the Tennessee Valley in the early 1930s, he had longed to make a film depicting what he saw: landowners being driven from the area to make way for a massive dam construction project. The film Kazan ultimately made in 1960, adapted from two novels (William Bradford Huie’s Mud on the Stars and Borden Deal Dunbar's Cove) is one of his greatest achievements, a potent mix of melodrama and socio-economic study that is both informative and emotionally engaging. It is also a thought-provoking work, since it questions the wisdom and morality of government schemes that irreversibly transform the landscape for socio-economic reasons. The film also touches on racial issues, specifically the appalling way in which black workers were discriminated against in the southern states in the 1930s.
Kazan was a director who is renowned for the authenticity and realism he brought to his films - most notably in his 1954 masterpiece On the Waterfront, which starred one of his Actors Studio protégés, Marlon Brando. Wild River is just as noteworthy for its realism, but it has also an alluring lyrical quality which the location (Lake Chickamauga and the Hiwassee River), beautifully shot in crisp autumnal hues, naturally provides. Kazan’s use of non-professional actors for extras strengthens the film’s naturalism and lends an almost documentary-style feel in places, setting it apart from most American films of this period.
What makes Wild River particularly memorable are the outstanding contributions from its lead actors. The chemistry between Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick is remarkable in that it conveys undercurrents of desire and emotional turbulence without explicit love scenes and overly dramatic confrontations. At this time, Clift had begun his tragic downward slide that would soon result in a terrible facial disfigurement and an early death from combined drug and alcohol abuse. In the last week of the shoot, he broke his promise to Kazan to stay away from hard liquor and very nearly put the kybosh on the film.
This powerful historical drama about the clash between public necessity and private autonomy remains one of Elia Kazan’s finest films. The story opens with a real-life newscast depicting the devastation wrought on poor Tennessee farmers after the Mississippi River has once again flooded the area, thus establishing Clift’s TVA-sponsored presence as a necessary evil — yet it’s impossible not to side at least partially with crotchety Ella Garth (Van Fleet), whose entire identity is wrapped up in the island her family has owned for years. While it’s clear that Garth will somehow — eventually — be “convinced” to move, the story of how this happens remains compelling until the end.
Wild River is most memorable, however, for its remarkable performances — primarily by 46-year-old Van Fleet (her make-up artist deserves ample praise as well) and 25-year-old Lee Remick, who has never looked more stunning or been more affecting. This was purportedly Remick’s personal favorite of all the films she made, and it’s easy to see why: she invests her character with a lifetime of loss and hope, turning what is clearly a convenient “plot device” romance into a believable dimension of the story. Other supporting actors — and Clift himself — are fine as well, but it’s Van Fleet and Remick who really make this powerful film must-see viewing.
In an apparent attempt to make the film more appealing to younger audiences, Kazan has created a romance between Glover and Mrs. Garth’s widowed daughter Carol. What might otherwise have been nothing more than adventitious Hollywood schlock is redeemed by Lee Remick’s compelling performance as Carol. If Chuck represents liberal progress and Ella conservative continuity, Carol is caught between these two worldviews. Although she finally sides with Chuck, we sense what has been lost in the process. It is altogether fitting that Ella dies shortly after she is removed from her land.
The mindless worship of technology that sometimes passes for conservatism in the modern era would object to the TVA only because it is a government program. As an artist, Kazan is able to appreciate a more fundamental conservative sensibility—one that recognizes the cost of progress. At the same time, he does not romanticize the rural folk. The petty cruelty and racism of some of these people are presented as lamentable facts of life. For a film that deals with profound moral issues, Wild River is remarkably free of tendentious moralizing. One cannot help thinking that the ambiguities of his own political struggles enabled Kazan to see the shades of gray in other contentious areas of American life.
Elia Kazan ("America, America"/"Pinky"/"East Of Eden") directs this evocative sociological/historical melodrama getting across his old-fashioned liberal views. It's one of his best efforts and that has to do with it being less theatrical and more genuinely moving than his usual endeavors, as it features a battle of progress versus tradition.
The 1960 movie Wild River by Elia Kazan is kind of The Fountainhead in reverse: The government is presented as the source of progress, while the individual provides the impediments. To paraphrase Ellsworth Toohey, all the wrong people are on the wrong sides. Despite this flawed premise, if understood correctly, Wild River hints at some valuable lessons on human rights.
Viewed casually, Wild River is a monument to the false dichotomy of progress versus individualism. The director Elia Kazan — a liberal despite his heroic HUAC testimony — may have had in mind apparently was: The deplorable but inevitable tragedy that for collective safety and progress individuals must be sacrificed. But of course progress doesn't come at the price of individual sacrifice — rather, it is the individual who makes all progress.
The whole problem is only caused by the TVA's own stupidity. They should have assembled their lot before building the dam. If someone refused to sell, they would have to build the dam elsewhere. But what if there is only one possible site? Even that is no excuse for eminent domain. Besides, with all the expenses for moving Ella, they might as well have built a levee around her island.
Now, someone might defend eminent domain by claiming reason only goes so far — or that Ella is insane to oppose the values of progress. That Glover was unable to reason with Ella doesn't mean reason is limited. It doesn't even mean she's insane. It is only that she values other things than Glover, me, and most of us. Instead of dams, electric power, and flood control, she values her farm. Some of her reasons are purely sentimental, like her wish to get buried on the island next to her husband. Other reasons, like not wanting the good soil submerged, are perfectly reasonable.
In the long run, however, progress is only possible through the work of the individual. The preconditions for his work are his absolute, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property. That means in the short run we pay a price for our rights: The price is that we have to respect the rights of every other peaceable citizen — no matter what he values. If we cannot get a dam, a skyscraper, or a job without looting — then we cannot have that specific dam, skyscraper, or job.
Wild River was shot entirely on location in Tennessee, in the towns of Cleveland, where the cast and crew were lodged, and Charleston, and on Lake Chickamauga and the Hwassee River. The large set used for the Garth farmhouse took two months to construct at a cost of $40,000 and was subsequently burnt down for one of the film's final scenes. Eighty percent of the film's approximately fifty speaking parts were filled by locals with no previous acting experience. According to an article published in LA Mirror-News in Nov 1959, Kazan sparked a controversy in Cleveland after he hired extras from a slum known as "Gum Hollow" to play Depression-era Southerners. A number of prominent townspeople were angered by Kazan's casting choice and allegedly claimed that the "white trash" of Gum Hollow did not accurately depict the area's Depression unemployed. Kazan reportedly had to reshoot a few scenes, this time using "respectiable, legitimate unemployed" in place of the "squatters."
Cahiers du Cinema: People have said... about Wild River - that the photography was too exaggerated, was false. What do you think of that?
Elia Kazan: I feel that the photography was very good, especially in the exterior scenes. But I am not as fond of the photography of the dramatic scenes shot close up in interiors. I said to myself - his face is too orange, it looks too pleasant - especially that of the hero. As for Clift - who is dead no, and who was a great artist - at that time Monty Clift's skin was in very bad condition, and consequently he used too much makeup. Therefore the colors were at once too crude and too healthy. So I said to the cameraman - this man is an intellectual; he has never seen the sunlight before coming here; he has come down here among us straight from his office. Thus I want him to have the air of a bureaucrat, to have a touch of the bureaucrat about him. But that did not work very well... Oh, I do not want to blame anyone; merely, I failed and I regret it. All the more because I would have liked very much to get the contrast between his pallor and the wholesome glow of the girl.
- Interviewed by Michel Delahaye in Cahiers du Cinema, published in Elia Kazan: Interviews. By Elia Kazan, William Baer. Published by Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2000. Pages 82-83
"In works like Viva Zapata, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, Baby Doll and Wild River (his quietest and best film), he abandoned the studio for location shooting, but retained the services of Actors Studio stars like Brando, Dean and Steiger, effectively revolutionising film acting; in retrospect, however, many of the performances look less naturalistic than overwrought, just as the direction, despite the focus on 'serious' issues, often seems overemphatic." - Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)
"As an archetypal auteur, he progressed from working on routine assignments to developing more personal themes, producing his own pictures, and ultimately directing his own scripts. At his peak during a period (1950–1965) of anxiety, gimmickry, and entropy in Hollywood, Kazan remained among the few American directors who continued to believe in the cinema as a medium for artistic expression and who brought forth films that consistently reflected his own creative vision." - Lloyd Michaels (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)
"All of Elia Kazan's films have strong social themes, a keen sense of location and superb performances. Despite his betrayal of his friends at the McCarthy hearings in 1952, Kazan's reputation as one of the finest directors in the US has never wavered." - Ronald Bergan (Film - Eyewitness Companions, 2006)
"A social critic who examines Americans and the American dream, Kazan has turned out some of the most powerful cinema studies since World War II.." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
"When you know what an actor has, you can reach in and arouse it. If you don't know what he has, you don't know what the hell is going on." - Elia Kazan
His films have been most consistently concerned with the theme of power, expressed as either the restless yearning of the alienated or the uneasy arrangements of the strong. The struggle for power is generally manifested through wealth, sexuality, or, most often, violence. Perhaps because every Kazan film except A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Last Tycoon (excluding a one-punch knockout of the drunken protagonist) contains at least one violent scene, some critics have complained about the director’s “horrid vulgarity” (Lindsay Anderson) and “unremitting stridency” (Robin Wood), yet even his most “overheated” work contains striking examples of restrained yet resonant interludes: the rooftop scenes of Terry and his pigeons in On the Waterfront, the tentative reunion of Bud and Deanie at the end of Splendor in the Grass, the sequence in which Stavros tells his betrothed not to trust him in America America. Each of these scenes could be regarded not simply as a necessary lull in the drama, but as a privileged, lyrical moment in which the ambivalence underlying Kazan’s attitude toward his most pervasive themes seems to crystallize.
Passion -- or, more specifically, intensity -- was the recurring motif of Kazan's career, as well as his preferred method. Beginning with his involvement with the Actors Studio during his theatrical days and the development of the so-called Method Acting (or, as Humphrey Bogart once tagged it, "the scratch-your-ass-and-mumble" school of acting), he was obsessed with pumping visceral physicality into scenes. To a firm believer in the dramatic power of two bodies slamming against each other, no argument would be complete without overturned tables and smashed china. Bracketed by the gentility of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1945 and The Last Tycoon in 1976 lies a wide variety of rows, collisions and eruptions -- a fortissimo style that, in the words of vintage iconoclast Dwight Macdonald, was "forthright the way a butcher is forthright when he slaps down a steak for a customer's inspection."
Meat slab or not, Kazan's handling of material could be maddening. For all the vividness of the details and the rawness of his players, the intensity of his direction was often, in the words of Andrew Sarris, "more excessive than expressive." It's difficult to believe, for instance, that the heightened mannerisms of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) were ever considered the latest word in naturalism, and A Face in the Crowd (1957) is so overloaded with Kazanian sweat and bellowing that it all but shatters the camera lenses. My own path with Kazan's movies has been bumpy. When I first encountered his many award-coddled classics, I thought he was sweating a little too much for effects -- as far as emotional intensity and ballsy idiosyncrasy were concerned, Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller were much more to my liking.
I like his later, calmer, quieter movies far better: Wild River (1960), Splendor in the Grass (1961) and particularly America, America (1963) are, in one word, overwhelming. In them, one feels Kazan pruning his stylistic hysteria into a direct connection with audiences, achieving what he set out to do from the beginning -- that is, to speak through film in the first person. And that is why, no matter how I may feel about his actions and his intransigence toward them, I respect and admire Elia Kazan. He directed as he lived, full ahead with his guts, and if that made him a pariah to many, well, that wasn't his problem.
Among the 17 films that Montgomery Clift appeared in, it is impossible to point to any one role as "defining" Clift's image on screen, in the way that A Streetcar Named Desire and Rebel without a Cause established Brando's and James Dean's personalities in the public's mind. Yet Clift was one of the first actors of his generation to capture the attention of moviegoing audiences with performances that were sensitive, complex, and deeply introspective in nature. The combination of intensity and vulnerability that he brought to his characters—qualities magnified in later years by the car accident that destroyed his matinee-idol good looks and compounded the problems of an already troubled personality—was unique in 1948, when Clift was catapulted to stardom by the release of his first two films, The Search (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and Red River.
With the recent revelation of the fact of Clift's bisexuality, one is able to see more into the correlation between his star personality (that of vulnerability, sensitivity, and almost effeminate masculinity closer to androgyny) and the real-life Clift (whose swinging sexuality and unsettling dissatisfaction throughout life mirrors and projects a troubled soul onto the big screen). Clift's own claim regarding this uncertainty in him reveals more than a touch of stubbornness and pride: "I don't want to be labeled as either a pansy or a heterosexual. Labeling is so self-limiting" (quoted by Graham McCann in Rebel Males). Throughout Clift's career, one sees a wide range of roles played, each of them nothing short of constant erotic tensions coming not only from the dramatic characters or his acting but also from a lifelong felt and lived conflict of an unsettled sexuality.
Central to Lee Remick's complex and fascinating screen presence during the first phase of her career is a sense of erotic warmth, an irreducible sensuality, capable (when combined with her remarkable gifts as an actress) of the most diverse inflections, depending on the degree to which it is allowed or denied free expression. Consider two of her finest performances, in the two finest films in which she appeared, made within a year of each other: Anatomy of a Murder and Wild River. The former is built upon the character's sexual knowingness, seductiveness, promiscuity, the latter on the character's sexual deprivation and subsequent reawakening. Preminger uses Remick's sensuality as one aspect of his detailed, multifaceted exercise in sustained ambiguity: she plays a woman ready deliberately to exploit her attractiveness as a means of manipulation, yet the erotic charge she communicates is so strong that its genuineness is never in question. The character's uninhibited sensuality, which might have been presented as merely degenerate (the Hollywood stereotype of the "nymphomaniac"), becomes in Remick's performance engaging, oddly touching. Wild River seems easily Kazan's best film, the only one in which his self-conscious pretensions to social significance are completely assimilated into a fully realized dramatic texture, and Remick's performance as the young, uneducated, widowed mother is crucial to its success. In her earlier scenes, she movingly communicates a potential for life stifled by calamity and deprivation, above all by erotic starvation. She then beautifully realizes the gradual transition to rebirth, a rebirth at once sexual and spiritual, made possible by contact, not with an overt, macho sexuality, but with the sensitivity, diffidence, and gentleness rendered by Montgomery Clift with an inwardness that equals Remick's—creating one of Hollywood's finest love stories.
Wild River was not only Lee's favorite film to make, but Elia Kazan's as well. "I love Wild River," he said, "just the ease of it, the simplicity. I tried to deal more with my own sense of beauty. It’s purer, one of the two purest films I‘ve made."
Thinking back over her experience making Wild River, Lee said almost the same thing. "My interpretation of the role in Wild River," she recalled, "was the truest in my experience, and it was Kazan who enabled me to make it true."
Wild River was Lee's second film with Kazan, (her first was, A Face in the Crowd). "As for the love interest", Kazan explained, "I cast one of the finest younger actresses I knew, Lee Remick, then at the top of her strength and confidence."
The film was made on location in Cleveland, Tennessee – a little town of about 20,000. Many of the local townspeople had small parts or worked as extras, and there were usually a handful of locals on hand to watch the magic of movie-making. Lee remembers an amusing incident that involved a few young college boys who, having seen Lee's performance in Anatomy of a Murder, were surprised to see Lee's characterization of a backwoods Tennessee girl. The following is taken from an article by Joe Hyams called, The Notorious Adventures of a Nice Girl in Hollywood.
"When I was doing Wild River, Gadge [Elia Kazan] had me work without make-up, my hair hanging down to my shoulders and wearing sneakers. One day when we were just outside of Cleveland, Tennessee, I was in costume for the role, wearing a bedspread made into a dress. After we finished shooting I passed some college kids who had come to watch.
"Later that night my phone rang and it was one of the college boys saying he had a bet with the boys at school that it really was me they had seen that afternoon. I said it was and asked why there was any doubt. 'Last time we saw you in a picture you were wearing slacks and high heels and were very sexy,' he said. 'Tell me, Miss Remick, what's happened to you since that picture?'"
The young boys seemed to forget – Lee Remick was an actress!
This remake of pioneer cineaste Louis Feuillade's 1916 action serial featuring cinema's original caped crusader can function today as a surreal subversion of the modern superhero genre that dominates movie houses the world over. While Judex (played by real life magician Channing Pollack) makes a bold entrance in a tuxedoed bird costume to orchestrate the death of a greedy financier, he, unlike most contemporary superheroes, is mostly ineffectual for the remainder of the film. He's upstaged by a slinky, shape-shifting minx (Francine Berge) who changes disguises at every step of a kidnapping plot so haphazard it slips like mercury through the viewer's grasp. No one character maintains control of the narrative, which operates like a soccer game, bouncing in jagged trajectories with every unexpected death, deception or deus ex machina revelation. But once in a while a stunning moment will materialize to sear itself into the memory: a masked ball of wealthy socialites wearing bird's heads; Francine Berge's lightning transformation from a sweet-faced nun to a sleek cat burglar outfit; Edith Scob's delicate body floating downstream; a boy staring transfixed at the fresh corpse of a woman who's fallen to her death. Feuillade's grand vision was of a world whose capacity for imminent, explosive chaos resisted the authoritative logic of 20th century narrative; Franju is clearly sympathetic to Feuillade, but goes further in imposing a new authority, one of the lyrical dream image. If only more summer blockbusters had that sense...
Want to go deeper?
There's a world of difference between the natural, "found" surrealism of Louis Feuillade's lighthearted French serial (1914) and the darker, studied surrealism and campy piety of this 1964 remake by Georges Franju. Yet in Franju's hands the material has its own magic (and deadpan humor), which makes this one of the better features of his middle period. Judex (Channing Pollack) is a cloaked hero who abducts a villainous banker to prevent the evil Diana (Francine Bergé in black tights) from stealing a fortune from the banker's virtuous daughter. Some of what Franju finds here is worthy of Cocteau, and as he discovered when he attempted another pastiche of Feuillade's work in color, black and white is essential to the poetic ambience.
Franju's superbly elegant and enjoyable tribute to the adventure fanatasies of Louis Feuillade sees the eponymous righter-of-wrongs (Pollack) abduct a wicked banker in order to prevent villainess Diana (Bergé, glorious in black cat suit) laying her hands on a fortune the banker's daughter (Scob) is due to inherit. Cue for a magical clash between good and evil, with the director revelling in poetic symbolism (the opening masked ball finds our hero, with forbidding bird mask, creating a dove out of thin air), black-and-white photography that thrills with its evocation of a lost, more innocent era, and surreal set pieces.
Judex adds a subtle, sophisticated and endearing chapter to the swollen literature of cinematic pop art. In homage to French Movie Pioneer Louis Feuillade, Director Georges Franju tenderly resurrects Judex, a formidable mass hero whose dime-novel adventures burgeoned on the silent screens of France between 1916 and 1918, decades before Superman got off the ground as a force for good. Happily, Franju never yields to the temptation of playing a soggy old classic for easy laughs as a smart-alecky spoof. Instead he celebrates it with sound, as a nostalgic song of innocence, an ode to an era when all the battles that Virtue waged against Vice were won without tricky compromise.
Wearing a black cloak and several delicious disguises, Channing Pollock portrays Judex with the stubborn, single-minded intensity of a reformed Dracula. The plot that roils around him is mostly post-Victorian gimcrackery, carried out in a pure period style that offers everything from mad little chases in vintage jalopies to the acrobatics of human flies, from reunions of long-lost sons and ruined fathers to the machinations of a rascally banker whose ill-gotten capital gains keep Judex awake nights. So does the banker's daughter (Edith Scob), a lovely wisp of a heroine. All crumpled organdy and helplessness yet clearly indestructible, she is drugged, chloroformed, kidnaped, nearly impaled on a hatpin, and at one point must be pulled out of the river after a prolonged dunking that would have drowned a plainer girl. Most of her woes are devised by a supple archvillainess (Francine Bergé) who revels in evil for its own sake, keeps slipping out of her period gowns to dart away in tights, only to reappear moments later as an apache dancer or murderous nun.
Judex has too much low-key charm and seriousness to be wildly funny, but Director Franju seems content to woo a minority taste. He affectionately thumbs through an album of thrills remembered from boyhood, shrewdly heightening the original and sometimes shading in his own touches of nightmarish reality—most strikingly at an eerie masked ball where all the guests are feathered out as birds, again in a cell where a rotter confronts his festering conscience in a mirror that swivels to catch his every move. The spare, clever background music by Composer Maurice Jarre is a pleasurable bonus in a movie that does not just dwell on the past but feelingly rediscovers it.
An unusual concoction, this 1963 Georges Franju picture, which goes about its business as if the nouvelle vague never existed, among other things. An homage to the 1915 Louis Feuillade serial about an almost super-powered crime fighter who nonetheless has a fairly arduous time bringing the main evildoes to justice (the defining paradox of such serials, I suppose), it honors Feuillade as a surrealist precursor by introducing (or at least we believe we haven't seen him before) the title character as something out of a Max Ernst collage.
Villainess Diana (Francine Berge) is quite the adventuress, thinking nothing of attempting murder whilst dressed in a nun's outfit. Seen above, she's making the first in a series of daring escapes. She's quite a contrast to the handsome but rather impassive Channing Pollock, the real-life stage magician playing Judex. And so, it's fun, fun, fun all the way for a while, as Franju's pastiche grows ever more thrillingly absurd and self-referential. We see the incompetent detective Cocantin reading an adventure of Fantomas, another famous subject for Feuillade...
The film's climax constitutes one of the most hilariously arbitrary flauntings of the deus ex machina ever. Judex is trapped by the villains on the top floor of a tallish building, the entrance to which is barred. Hence, Cocantin and the young fella known as "The Licorice Kid' in Feuillade's original are sitting outside, disconsolate. A circus caravan passes by, and one of its coaches is that of, what do you know, one Daisy—in this film an old flame of Cocantin's. The gorgeous Sylva Koscina's cameo is an almost ineffable delight. Sad-sack Cocantin's explanation of what's going on doesn't sit well with Diana. Why aren't you helping your friend, she asks. He would, he explains, but he can't get to where his friend is. After all, he's not an acrobat—"But you are!" he brightens, and sends Diana up to the roof for what will be a helluva catfight with the villainess.
And it's at this point the film changes. From almost out of nowhere, the Franju who made his name as an unblinking observer of horror (with films such as Le Sang des betes and the aforementioned Les Yeux sans visage) suddenly asserts himself.
Hanging from the rim of the roof, Diana, once the personification of immorality's fearlessness, is now a pathetic, wide-eyed, impotent creature. And Franju doesn't let it go at that—her fall, its thud, her lifeless body, its horrific expression fixed on her face (and witnessed by that cute little Licorice Kid). The pall it casts hangs heavy even as we watch Judex finally unite with his beloved; their stroll on the beach somehow brings to mind a similar seascape in Murnau's Nosferatu...
George Franju treats the horrific and the strange with the approach of a filmmaker directing the most rote literary adaptation. This produces a slowness to his scenes, to his pacing (Dan Sallitt recently wrote of a similar effect in Franju's Eyes Without a Face), a stolid, regular quality to the mise-en-scene that consequently makes that horror, that strangeness all the more uneasy and abrupt, a lyrical inclusion in what initially seems something regular, unremarkable.
This weight of normality, of unnotable cinema makes Franju's masterfully vignette based, tone-jumping 1963 revision of Louis Fuillade's serial Judex work all the more successfully. It allows the homage to start as a film tracking political terrorism in the guise of surrealist horror, and move from this to trapdoors and automobile getaways, deering-do numbers, a segment centered on the comedic duo of a tramp child and a goofy detective, and a death scene that grants the film's villainess more dignity than a million movie deaths before and after will ever condescend to treat their characters. All this wild divergence is treated with the same stolidness, and as such never seems inconsistent. The fantastic is always possible when it is treated as nothing fantastic at all.
Ending with a coda to the unhappy era that Feuillade's 1914 serial was produced in, Franju's seemingly standard "homage"—pre-pastiche, post-New Wave—predicts a Cold War global catastrophe and posits itself as a predecessor to this future catastrophe: so read into its not-so-equal doses of innocuous costume shenanigans and capitalist terrorism what you will.
The ferocious poetics of Georges Franju's style have silent-film purity -- the use of pre-Griffith iconography studding many of his feature movies is no fashionable Nouvelle Vague hommage, but an artist acknowledging his stylistic roots and pondering their validity in modern times. There are disguises, night raids and rooftop chases, though, as in Feuillade, Franju's lenses remain cool even as the action gets more delirious. Judex's first appearance, resurrecting doves at a costume ball while decked in a majestic bird mask, is an astonishing visual epiphany, yet the movie's vitality lies with Bergé's Diana, whose energy, whether climbing walls in tights or masquerading as a nun, puts the story's WWI-era patriarchy in '60s perspective. The picture's reverence notwithstanding, the two filmmakers are virtual polar opposites -- where the old master used documentary aesthetics to record the extraordinary, Franju filters the ordinary through the gauze of ominous lyricism. The results contain all the fascinating tensions that the collision implies.
French cinema of the mid-1960s saw something of a revival of interest in the old Louis Feuillade thriller serials of the 1910s. Feuillade’s criminal mastermind Fantômas came back for a second round of murderous mayhem, and a certain amount of mirth, in a series of three films directed by André Hunebelle and starring Jean Marais and Louis de Funès, beginning with Fantômas (1964). The previous year had seen the release of another remake of a Feuillade classic, Judex, directed by Georges Franju. It would take another three decades before Irma Vep, the villainous queen of crime from Les Vampires (1914) would return to the big screen, played by Maggie Cheung in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996) – although this hardly counts as a remake.
Georges Franju’s fascination and love of the silent Feuillade thrillers is evident from this inspired, and ever so slightly camp, reinterpretation of Judex. The film is an obvious fan homage to Feuillade’s work – employing the episodic structure to almost ludicrous extremes whilst evoking the dark menace and poetry of Feuillade’s films through its stylish expressionistic design and lush black and white photography. Feuillade’s grandson Jacques Champreux worked on the screenplay, which has many of the elements of the original 1916 Judex film, but curiously omits the justification for why Judex behaves as he does, and so the central character becomes an avenger without a cause.
Channing Pollock is a surprising yet effective casting choice for the role of Judex. He had previously appeared in just three films and, with his stunning good looks, was being promoted as the next Rudolph Valentino of Italian cinema. He was much better known as an illusionist and magic would be his metier for most of his career – Judex was to be his last screen credit. What Pollock may lack in experience as an actor, he makes up for with charm and charisma, and the film certainly makes good use of his real talent, as a conjuror. The svelte Francine Bergé revels in the part of the deadly female villain Diana Monti, the role that Musidora made her own in the original Feuillade serial. Interestingly, Brigitte Bardot was briefly considered for this part...
The 1963remake of Judex is regarded more highly today than when it was first released, partly because Franju’s reputation as a filmmaker has risen substantially in recent years. It is true that Franju’s Judex is stylistically very different to that of Feuillade. Whereas Feuillade sought to achieve a synthesis of fantasy and realism, Franju is clearly more preoccupied with the fantasy side of the equation. In common with many of his films of this period – Les Yeux sans visage (1960) being another good example – Judex has the character of a Daliesque dream, with ill-defined characters shifting in and out of focus in a plot that is fantastic and barely coherent, but with stark, almost surreal images that make a strong impression on the spectator. The film may lack the pace, darkness and narrative solidity of Feuillade’s film, but it makes up for this, at least in part, with its inspired visuals, which owe as much to Jean Cocteau as they do to Louis Feuillade.
Judex... with its Ernstian feel for the surrealism of late Victorian iconography, is utterly anachronistic, as is Franju's fascination by the melodramatic scenario in which innocent daughters are plunged into distress by their father's nefarioius actions: the melodramatic pieties are subverted by a modernism that has no faith in knights in white armour. Franju's anachronisms testify to the intensity of his empathy with the forest's medieval dream world.
Franju sought in particular to recapture Feuillade's sense of documentary and his playfulness. He reproduced with as much exactitude as possible the costumes and settings which Feuillade filmed in scrupulous detail. Feuillade's street-scapes are now an invaluable documentary record, but Franju also paid particular attention to reproducing the elaborate interior designs and furnishings of the day, resulting in settings of quite extraordinary detail and clutter. Franju also sought, despite the playfulness, to avoid any camp satire of these elements by over-emphasis or any special attention being paid to them.
In the title role, Franju pulled off his most brilliant coup by casting the master prestidigator of his day, near godlike in his handsomeness, Channing Pollock. Pollock's skills as a magician were employed to produce a dazzling array of apparent magical occurrences involving, most particularly, disappearing doves, a plot device that Feuillade uses to enable the regular rescue of the heroine and others by Judex. Franju's Judex is a far livelier, less sombre, more inventive and more mysterious character than that of Feuillade.
Judex shows his sensitivity to the atmospheric tension of Feuillade's serials while discovering an element of dramatic irony missing in the originals. Whereas Feuillade's serials seem to accentuate the murkiness of his lurid plots and his characters' romantic mystique, Judex balances its eerie tone with a more extravagant delineation of the characters' valor. The hero's walk through the ball with the dove is faithful to the original while isolating its most overtly romantic elements. Unlike Feuillade, who magnifies the fear and fatalism that surround his players, Franju reveals the vulnerability and resiliency of his heroes and villains. The slow, solemn pacing in Feuillade is an extension of the numerous plot complications; in Franju there is a methodical inquiry into both the charm and deviousness of the genre.
- Aaron Sultanik, Film, A Modern Art. Published by Associated University Presses, 1986. Page 396
Judex bears a dedication to Feuillade in its closing credits, and is nominally a remake of Feuillade's 1916-17 serial film of the same name (also remade as Judex 34 in 1934 by Feuillade's son-in-law, Maurice Champreux), but in interviews (collected in the booklet that accompanies this double-disc edition), Franju made no secret of the fact that he was much more interested in the character of arch-villain Fantômas (whose criminal enterprises were serialised by Feuillade in 1913-14) than of the rather bland avenger Judex. Unfortunately Franju and his screenwriter Jacques Champreux (Feuillade's grandson) were unable to afford the rights to Fantômas (which was in fact made into a black comedy by André Hunebelle in 1964), but Champreux includes in Judex a scene in which the bumblingly bookish Detective Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau) is shown engrossed in a Fantômas pulp novel whose details (an empty coffin, nuns with guns) reflect elements of the plot that Cocantin is himself supposedly investigating. Meanwhile, Diana Monti (Francine Bergé), the catsuit-wearing, rooftop-climbing femme fatale in Champreux's reimagined Judex has been modeled on another Feuillade villain, Irma Vep from Les Vampires (1915-16).In Feuillade's original serial, Judex is sworn as a boy by his Corsican mother to seek vengeance for his father's suicide as a result of the wicked banker Favraux, but so thoroughly does Franju efface this original story that what remains is merely an avenger without a cause – who is also, adding to his aura of mystery, an accomplished magician. The art of the illusionist is key here, for Franju himself is less interested in the banal mechanics of his plot than in the uncanny spectacle of its execution, as he repeatedly wrongfoots the viewer with a series of false deaths, trick substitutions, and similar cinematic sleights of hand.
Courtesy of a cunning disguise, Judex has, in fact, already been onscreen, unbeknownst to either Favraux (Michel Vitold) or the viewer, since the film's opening scene, but when he makes his “first” recognisable appearance at a ball, wearing the mask of a bird of prey and conjuring an apparently dead dove back to life, his intention is to poison the host Favraux – but crucially, after Judex has handed him a glass, without even taking a single sip the banker drops down dead (albeit not really any more dead than the dove, as the sequel will show). The eeriness of the masque imagery and the irrationality of the sequence mark Franju himself as the master prestidigitator here, with Favraux, Diana, and even Judex himself just inferior pretenders to the throne of dissembling, manipulation, and bluff. The criss-crossing, episodic story that follows is full of sadistic incarcerations, ruthless crimes, improbable coincidences and miraculous resurrections, but really it is Franju's dream-like visuals that remain most memorable: a knife-wielding nun, a woman floating down the river, three men in black climbing a wall like spiders. As a hero, Judex may cut a somewhat dull figure once his true face has been revealed, but Franju has set him within a haunting shadow-world where vengeance is too strange to be sweet.
Although just as beautiful, perhaps more so, Georges Franju’s remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 Judex is as different from the original as is night from day. It is slower and graver; it is also more darkly magical (Judex, this time, is a magician—a touch here of Fritz Lang’s 1921 Destiny?); its world isn’t ours, as it is in Feuillade’s version, but something stranger, more self-contained; it is a period-piece. It is also in black and white (Marcel Pradetal, his cinematographer, helps make Franju’s film by far the more gorgeous of the two); but Franju’s Judex is moody and mysterious, and also somewhat deterministic, while Feuillade’s is airier, freer, lighter and more open. Feuillade’s Judex is touched by dream(s); Franju’s whole film feels subterranean, as though playing out in his or somebody else’s unconscious. In both style and tone, the film is scarcely different from Franju’s grim, sorrowful Eyes Without a Face (1959), although here we get to see Edith Scob’s lovely face—and also likely determine that her profound performance far outdistances that of Feuillade’s Jacqueline, Yvette Andréyor. (On the other hand, Franju’s Jacques Jouanneau is no match for Feuillade’s Cocantin, Marcel Lévesque.)
Of course, another difference is striking and omnipresent: Feuillade’s film is silent; Franju’s isn’t—although the absence of extraneous noise gives his Judex, at times, an eerier quiet. There is considerable talk in both versions, but few titles in Feuillade’s, where the pantomime-like acting more often conveys the gist of what people are saying. (Yes, film actors had faces then—but also hands.)
One thing more: Franju’s camera moves, and evocatively; Feuillade’s doesn’t.
Franju attempts to recreate the mood of the silent era with slow pacing and expressionist lighting (with great shadows) as well as decorative intertitles and even a few iris shots and a keyhole mask. However, he ignores the quality that made Feuillade’s style so distinctive – his stunning visual compositions. In the original, whole scenes were shot with little editing and a still camera (this was pre-Griffith of course), with the action beautifully framed, often in depth. In Franju’s revisitation, it is replaced with classic continuity editing. Yet, he equals if not betters Feuillade in achieving dreamlike expressionism from (unlike the German silents) real locations, finding the poetic and lyrical in reality much as he did in his documentaries.
The iconography of Feuillade’s world is perfectly captured – most notably in the moonlit rooftop scene where two women in leotards (one black and one white of course) fight to the death. Franju even trumps the original’s surrealist tendencies with the bizarre masked ball at the start of the film, in which all the guests wear creepily realistic bird heads - Judex a hawk and Favraux a vulture. Other moments of startling poetry include the scene in which a drugged Jacqueline (Franju regular and the masked star of Les Yeux sans visage Edith Scob, with her own face this time) is thrown from a bridge and floats down the river before being rescued by children. If Franju’s film has a major flaw it is in trying to cram five hours (12 episodes) of serial plot into a 90-minute movie. The silent era storyline must at times seem rather far-fetched to modern audiences but in such a magical film it almost works.
Perhaps the main difference between the two versions is one of intention. Feuillade is aiming for pulp entertainment and almost accidentally hits poetry whereas Franju sets out to make an enchanting lyrical film, paying little attention to the drama. Nevertheless, there are enough brilliant set pieces and beautiful cinematography to thrill the fans of Les Yeux sans visage.
Franju's aim in remaking Judex was primarily to create an aesthetically enhanced version of Feuillade's world that could communicate magic, poetry and the fantastique. Period interiors were precisely reconstructed, and some typical effects from Feuillade and his age - the arabesque flourishes framing the intertitles, irising in and out, even one keyhole shot - carefully retained. Plasticity was more important in Judex than in any other of his films. Franju stated. His photographer Marcel Fradetal went to extraordinary lengths to recreate the qualities of Feuillade's orthochromatic film, by imitating Feuillade's photographer Guerin and arranging lighting so that decor and the character(s) in shot could be lit at the same time, rather than one at the expense of another. The costumes for the film were designed by Christine Courcelles, who used magazines from the 1912-1918 period to get the styles exactly right. What carried the film was 'le cote decoratif esthetique.' Possibly as a consequence of Franju's concentration on style, plasticity and effect, however, his Judex has a perceptible lack of narrative drive remarked on by a number of reviewers at the time, who called his rhythm 'paresseux' and the directing 'nonchalante, pour ne pas dire laborieuse.' Impressive though its set pieces were, the film relied on them too much and seemed not to be able to link them up; its approach to the story's fantastic episodes and images was too studious, and lacked panache. The actors had an absent air that seemed to result from not identifying with their roles, and the mystery and poetry of Franju's mise-en-scene faded as the film progressed because it had been created too obediently, 'avec une piete de conservateur de cinematheque.' Perhaps the best summary of these weaknesses in narrative construction was given by Claude Mauriac in Le Figaro litteraire, who stated that the spectator of Judex was prevented from identifying with the action because the attention to single images and 'plastic beauty' demanded of him or her interfered too much with this process. Critical reception of the film was generally very admiring of the homage to early cinema Franju had created - its 'retro' mode - but aware too of problems that had resulted form an over-conscientious approach to style and atmosphere.
- Kate Ince, Georges Franju. Published by Manchester University Press, 2005. Pages 56-57.
Franju made his name as a director with the 1959 French horror film Les Yeux Sans Visage (aka: Eyes Without A Face), a film that earned him a reputation for being a director who could bring the fantastical and the eerie out of the most mundane settings. Judex is a film that continues very much within this tradition and the eeriness is portrayed in a number of powerfully expressionistic scenes that are, nonetheless, anchored in a strange form of realism.
The first of these two scenes is Judex's entrance into the house of the banker. In eveningwear and a giant bird's head, the scene opens with the camera panning slowly up his body to reveal the sinister head staring right into the camera. Judex then wanders through a masked ball with a dead dove in one hand. He climbs the stage and begins a magic act carried out in complete silence and which begins with the reanimation of the dove. Creepy, surreal, disturbing and utterly fantastical, this scene matches the otherworldliness of Jean Cocteau's 1947 adaptation of Beauty And The Beast, as well as the surreal decadence of Renoir's 1939 satire of upper class France, The Rules Of The Game. The second scene is shot on a roof in the dark, and scored with some beautiful and yet disturbing electronic music, as the femme fatale battles it out with an acrobat who, in true deus ex machina fashion, happened to be passing and decided to risk her life for the good guys. Again, conducted in silence, this scene is evocative of Fellini's taste for surrealism and fondness for circus folk. While these two scenes are beautifully shot and richly evocative, the other 80 minutes or so of the film are somewhat puzzling.
Despite being an adventure film, Judex is seriously lacking in pace or even excitement. Franju bloats the running time by showing the characters doing mundane things such as putting on hats and getting in and out of cars. This, along with the fact that the action scenes are clearly not in the least bit choreographed, gives the film a kind of amateurish feel that does not exactly capture the attention. The writing is also largely sub-par with the film lacking any real point or thrust; the characters are paper-thin and things just happen for little or no reason. Indeed, if this film had been made today, it would be tempting to see it as a kind of satire of the all-conquering superhero genre as none of the action/ thriller genre conventions are obeyed or even acknowledged.
Judex is dominated by an on-going battle between the film's more fantastical elements and the relative mundanity of its setting and characters. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) draws attention to the fact that Batman (and the Joker who comes in his wake) is actually an utterly bizarre thing to have running around your city. The surreal nature of Batman is clearly what is behind the decision to make Gotham city seem a far more mundane place than it was in Batman Begins (2005). Judex mines a similar vein of surrealism by having Judex drive around in perfectly normal cars. Indeed, when he wanders around in his cape and hat people barely acknowledge the fact that he looks weird. Nor does anyone question how Judex found out about these injustices, let alone ask what business they are of his. If Judex existed in a world full of ninjas and castles, we would not question his presence but the fact that he exists unquestioned in a largely mundane world sets up a tension between realism and fantasy that actually makes the film and everything in it seem quite eerie. This eeriness is also increased by the film's frequently strange soundtrack, which includes incredibly loud birdsong whenever the characters are outside, including at night.
Ultimately, aside from a few admittedly beautiful scenes, Judex has little to offer. If judged as the action/ adventure film it was supposed to be it is a clear failure as the mundanity of the world, and the lack of any real pace or drama, make it a rather monotonous watch. As a work of film-as-art it is pretty enough and the scenes that clearly inspired Franju are undeniably well shot, but there simply is not enough here to support a film that is dangerously close to two hours long.
It never quite finds its feet after a strong, intriguing opening, probably because that hero fails to live up to his introduction, looking as if Franju simply wasn't that captivated by him. Who he was captivated by is the villainess, Diana Monti (Francine Bergé), a slinky and amoral brunette who, posing as Favraux's maid, has worked out a scheme involving his innocent daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) and young granddaughter.
So it's Diana who makes the most of her screen time, disguising herself as a nun to kidnap Jacqueline, who she then plans to murder after she realises the woman recognises her and therefore can lead the police to her. There's a delicate nostalgia here for the times when adventures like this were par for the course, but a more robust approach might have been to the project's benefit, and on occasion it seems as if a strong gust of wind could send this all flying. Still, there are images that linger in the mind, such as Sylva Koscina as a circus acrobat who scales the wall of the bad guys' hideout to save the day, or that great bad girl Diana stripping out of her habit and slipping into the river to escape. If only the rest of Judex had been as effective.
Charming and entertaining as it is, Judex is never quite as good a film as it could have been for one very simple reason: the subject was not director Georges Franju's first choice. Knowing that a femme fatale and a diabolical master of disguise provided rather more interesting anti-heroic possibilities in tune with his own sensibilities, his preference was for two of silent serial director Louis Feuillade's other characters, Irma Vep of The Vampires – work out the anagram of her name, as a predecessor of "Johnny Alucard" – and the eponymous Fantômas...
The most telling scene with regard to the difference between the two men's sensibilities is one late here that sees Judex encounter Favraux . As Judex lurks outside Favraux expresses contrition for his old actions and indicates that he is does not want his old life back any longer. In part this is because he knows it suits several influential people for him to be dead to the world, with the implication that if he did dramatically reappear – a reappearance not outwith the realms of probability in the universe of these films – he would then soon wind up dead for real. Judex then bursts in regardless, still determined to act as judge, jury and executioner without evident regard for the clear selectiveness of his approach – a selectivity which becomes still more evident and compromised by the end of the film – but also his impotence in the face of what is clearly an endemic criminality amongst the respectable classes. As such, if Feuillade's Judex was a figure and a film acceptable to the establishment, here Franju pushes both that little bit further to bring the inherent contradictions of his predecessor's work to the forefront.
I would say that Franju's combination of new and old works better than that of Truffaut in Shoot The Pianist, as a film set in the present but making use of anachronistic techniques, and perhaps even Jules Et Jim, as a film set partly in the same period.
Whereas to me Truffaut's use of irising and suchlike can come across as somewhat mannered, Franju's assemblages always have a sense of authenticity. There's the sense that unlike his younger counterpart he was never trying to impress anybody with his knowledge of cinema history and technique but was simply expressing himself and the delight he found in the early cinema. (Whereas Truffaut 'studied' at the Paris Cinematheque, Franju, along with Henri Langlois, founded it.)
This is a two disc affair with the first being the 1963 Judex - an homage/remake of the iconic Louis Feuillade 1916 serial. The Masters of Cinema DVD is anamorphically enhanced in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, progressively transferred - residing on a dual-layered disc (taking up 7.44 GB.) It looks good but not pristine - which is actually more suitable to the silent-era homage sparking references that were constantly reminding me of Les Vampires or Fantomas. Franju's Judex is 45 years old now although the PAL image can look remarkably strong even if contrast can be slightly muddy at times. I loved all the Feuillade markers in both films with costumes, 'healthy' women, an intricate plot and a general emphasis on obtaining justice against wrongdoings. Franju's use of intertitles help evoke that aura in Judex.
Disc two has Nuits Rouges. The transfer is also in 1.66 and progressive but it is not 16X9 enhanced. Colors are wonderful and the image can appear extremely sharp. I should note that I am no expert on edge-enhancement and Gary could chip in once he receives his DVD(s). The film was made in 1973 but it didn't have the same appeal for me as Judex. Despite lack of anamorphic enhancement the image projected is an appealing visual presentation.
On the French mono audio - Judex had some inconsistencies in the sound department - perhaps reflecting its age. Nuits Rouges seemed stronger but had some background hiss although neither inferiority hindered my enjoyment. Optional English subtitles are available for both features.
Extras - Supplements sport two separate interviews (one per disc) with Jacques Champreux who is Louis Feuillade's grandson. They total about 20 minutes where he talks about Franju and his memories of the making of the films. Typical for masters of Cinema they include a healthy 40-page booklet with illustrations and interviews. It's a wonderful keepsake addition (as are all their liner notes booklets).
Over the past couple of years I've really come to treasure my Masters of Cinema DVD collection (although, unlike Gary, I don't have all of them). Judex/Nuits Rouges is another entertaining addition and I'd never have seen these films if not for their coverage.
1- 52m 58s. 33 seconds are missing; the end of the shot showing a man walking away from the camera; the whole of the following shot, showing the doctor walking behind a pair of children; the start of the next shot of the doctor.
2- 53m 11s. After the woman tells the children "This isn't a sight for you," they walk away. In the MoC edition, the shot ends here; in Sinister's tape, it continues for an additional 5 seconds with the boy turning around and shouting at the woman.
3- 53m 23s. The whole scene (46s) showing the man getting into a car and talking to the nun has been cut.
4- 54m 37s. A 35s shot has been cut; this shows two men carrying a stretcher into a room and placing a woman on it.
5- 55m 8s. Shot slightly shortened.
6- 57m 20s. A 3s shot showing a man getting out of a car is missing.
7- 58m 1s. 4s of dialogue is missing after the man says "It's quite a walk, you know."
The same cuts (amounting to roughly two minutes) are present in the earlier French release, with which the Masters of Cinema disc shares the same transfer. As both releases were licensed directly from the film's producer and struck from the original negative, it appears -- judging from the fact that all of the gaps occur within a 5m section of the picture -- that the negative suffered some damage during its decades of storage.
Mind you, the cuts are not disruptive or critical, and these Region 2 releases do offer the best quality for this important title we are likely to enjoy. That said, the completists in our audience may still wish to acquire the Sinister disc while it's still available as a reference copy of what now appears to be lost footage.
Update 9/9/08: Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant responds: "Your description of missing bits from the DVD of JUDEX doesn't read like the result of film damage. The choice of connecting tissue omitted indicates that someone trimmed 'unnecessary' footage to perk up the pace (the slow, 1901 pace we love). This happens more often than one would think, and to the original negative sometimes... a distributor or other nefarious party suddenly decides to 'improve' the film. First it's the 'unnecessary' beginnings and endings of scenes. Soon thereafter, they're cutting METROPOLIS in half! I remember the kid yelling... I hope the little pieces aren't gone forever."
"Georges Franju combined realism and fantasy, poetry and polemics, savagery and tenderness to unique effect. Imbuing his films with a surrealist's antipathy to established notions of normality, he was one of cinema's most fiercely independent visionaries...His surrealism was not a matter of artifice, but of a highly personal vision that was at once elegant, horrific, provocative, becalmed and nostalgic." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)
"Franju's career falls clearly into two parts, marked by the format of the films: the early period of documentary shorts, and a subsequent period of fictional features. The parts are connected by many links of theme, imagery attitude, and iconography." - Robin Wood (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
"Some reckon him one of the greatest of all French film directors; others don't reckon him all. Franju is cult material par excellence, and from his first bravura documentary release, Le Sang Des Bêtes (1949), in which he casts an unswerving eye on the brutal business of meat slaughtering, it was obvious that Franju was not to be conveniently filed and docketed. A co-founder of the French national film archive, he alternately stimulates and shocks, as for example, with his sensationally surreal horror classic Eyes without a Face." - Mario Reading (The Movie Companion, 2006)
"First known as a documentarian, Franju has contributed some fine horror and suspense films." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
Franju's films are a witchlike fusion of melodrama and expressionism. When we watch a Franju film, eyes stare soulfully out of the screen at us. They belong to men and women in an iron mask: to the heroine of Eyes Without a Face, whose scientist father abducts young girls and lifts their faces in an effort to repair her ruined mask; to Therese Desqueyroux, betrayed by curiosity into a rural bourgeois life that shuts like a prison around her; to Francois Gerance in La Tete contre les murs, consigned to an asylum by a father outraged by his motorcycle-boy defiance. Only in Judex is the concealment of the face the sign of liberation: and its hero is the superhuman masked man of popular fantasy, Fantomas, the French outlaw Batman; liberation is a beautiful dream. With their lilting music, Franju's films are dark fairy tales in which people seeking to become themselves are rendered vulnerable by their hesitancy and suffer transformation into puppets by a bad sorcerer, a poetic version of the melodramatic villain. The girl wandering tentatively down a corridor, that key Franju image, is the soul trapped in a Gothic labyrinth expressionistically darkened by the impossibility of redemption. Only the eyes behind the mask tell us this person was once 'one of us.' As in German expressionist films, the mask is a trap glued to one's face by society, the father - in short, an authority whose insanity is evident in the blank rigidity of the eyes at the heart of its mask. Franju's heroes bang their heads against the asylum walls in an effort to dislodge the cage affixed to their faces. Like Francis in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, they have made a trip tot he fair that ended in a prison house.
Despite, or because of , his links to the public institutions of cinema, Franju’s films sometimes occasioned scandal—Blood of the Beasts required the critical intervention of Jean Cocteau to speak up for its merits against controversy (Ince, 32), a defense which recalls Cocteau’s defense of Jean Genet, perhaps. (The letter Cocteau wrote with Jean-Paul Sartre, in defense of Genet, addressed to the President of the Republic, appeared in the same year as his defense of Blood, White, 1993, 334-335.) Nonetheless, Franju would later be dismissed as too ensconced inside the institution of culture, the view of some New Wave directors and the generation after 1968 (Ince, 7-8), for whom he was outmoded, a fuddy-duddy who favored literary adaptations and was part of a film establishment. His relation to what we might now, anachronistically, call splatter (for example, on-camera slaughter and dismemberment of a horse, cows, calves, and sheep in Blood; the notorious face removal in Eyes, the lingering depiction of a patient in straitjacket being force-fed in Head against the Walls [La tête contre les murs], 1958) apparently currently disqualifies him from any consideration other than as a cult film maker. Yet, one might argue that it is exactly his anomalous identity, part provocateur and part archivist, his lifelong alliance with a militant avant-garde while working in the mainstream of national cinematic culture, as well as his uncertain positioning between the institution and what it expels, that makes Franju a director who can speak with particular eloquence to contemporary concerns about social ambiguity and cultural ambivalence.
- Michael du Plessis, "Fantasies of the Institution: The Films of Georges Franju
Although Marcel Fradetal is most readily identified with the director Georges Franju, his career has evolved through association with several filmmakers. In the 1930s he worked under various leading cameramen, notably Rudolph Maté on Dreyer's atmospheric Vampyr, Maurice Desfassieux on Henri Diamant-Berger's Les Trois Mousquetaires, and Ted Pahle on L'Herbier's Entente cordiale. Their influence is discernible in his work.
It is essentially his 30-year collaboration with Georges Franju, however, that has cemented Fradetal's reputation. The association began in the 1940s with Le Sang des bêtes, and a series of documentaries, features, and eventually television films followed. Franju initially hired Fradetal because of his work with Maté whose insistence on lighting and composition corresponded to Franju's own preoccupations.
Fradetal's camerawork is equally vital to Franju's features. In Pleins feux sur l'assassin an eerie son-et-lumière sequence at a castle is created, and in contrast an accelerated funeral, à la Clair, irreverently conveys the joy of the dead man's beneficiaries. In Judex, a homage to Feuillade and the early serial, Fradetal brilliantly reproduces the orthochromatic tonal qualities of the silent cinema to create a visual symphony of light and dark effects as good and evil join battle. The screen version of Cocteau's Thomas l'imposteur exposing the heroic myth renders concrete the writer's imagery, such as the horse with its mane ablaze, while beautifully composed luminous shots of Belgian beaches with sea mists rolling across the trenches combine to produce a hauntingly atmospheric film about the realities and the unreality of war. For Zola's La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, Fradetal achieved powerful, almost surrealist images such as the statue of the Virgin appearing to rise spontaneously from a packing case, but the essentially poetic quality of Zola's work is often disappointingly labored in the visual transcription.
The quality of Fradetal's camerawork ultimately resides in his experienced, sensitive, and appropriate response to his material. Where his camera is required to observe unobtrusively it does so, and where images of pristine clarity are expected then Fradetal provides them. Nevertheless, where a synthesizing image, or a telling close-up, or an atmospheric composition, or a specifically paced tracking shot is needed, he imaginatively satisfies his director's wishes. A self-effacing professional, Fradetal has left his mark both on fictional as well as documentary cinema.
Screened December 28, 2008 on New Yorker VHS in Weehawken NJ
TSPDT #988 IMDb
We have Bernardo Bertolucci's second feature to thank for serving a vivid analogy to the flaws of communism: like sleeping with your hot aunt, it's a utopian fantasy that, once achieved, goes downhill in a hurry. This semi-autobiographical account of a doomed love affair between a young bourgeois leftist (Francesco Barilli) dallying and diddling with his disaffected aunt (Bertolucci's then-wife, the delectable Adriana Asti) is filmed with genuine emotional conviction towards its ideological confusion, trying its damnedest to articulate its ambivalence through a barrage of stylistic conceits openly borrowed from New Wave contemporaries (even Asti is a mash-up of Anna Karina kitten-cute and Vitti-Moreau-nioni neurosis). The jump cuts, poetic monologues and musical interludes are alternately impressive in their omnivorous ambitions and overbearing in their bombast (especially when Ennio Morricone's music swells to overkill levels). The most memorable stylistic elements are those that would become the touchstones for Bertolucci's career: a camera that moves like a dancer through time and space, wishing to brush its gaze against everything in sight; and a darkly sensuous knack for depicting forbidden sex as a form of self-knowledge, an inescapable vortex at the heart of existence. Few filmmakers have been able to channel the cinema to evoke their all-consuming libido; the catch is that the leftist sentiments depicted in this film (which, upon its spring '68 release in Paris, helped incite the May Riots) amount to just another dalliance for this quintessentially bourgeois superconsumer of life experience. It amounts to an international arthouse version of The Graduate [TSPDT #215], as clever as that film in fashionably tweaking middle-class boredom with cougar sex and hip filmmaking to compensate for a muddled, reactionary critique of society. As far as movies depicting scandalous intercourse leading to social revolutions go, Harold and Maude [TSPDT #493] reads like Das Kapital compared to this defeatist tract.
Wanna go deeper?
Last night, Philharmonic Hall presented "Before the Revolution," an unheralded Italian feature by an unknown writer-director named Bernardo Bertolucci. He is 23 years old, and his film is a beauty.
So is its star, Adriana Asti, a large-eyed brunette making her celluloid debut, appeared onstage with the director to take a modest bow before the screening. Her unfamiliar face meant little to the audience at the time. Before the evening was over, it had become a face that discerning filmgoers are unlikely to forget.
She is the focal point of a poignant love story epitomizing a young man's growth through the dense, chaotic jungle of contemporary civilization. Like many of the best modern films, the drama is difficult, subtle and extraordinarily complex in its imagery.
It is a moving story on the most immediate level, and the director has given it sweeping connotations. When the boy, unable to cope with the extraordinary young woman, abandons his struggles and lets her drift away, the drama reverberates with evocations of loss. His failure at love symbolizes a death of the past, an angst-ridden sense of futility in any kind of revolutionary striving, whether emotional, political or merely intellectual, amid the defeat of contemporary society.
Viewing life in such romantic terms is the special province of a very young director, but Mr. Bertolucci has approached his story with such deep feeling that its full implications are communicated. This is a young man's film, but it has large social references.
Cinematically, it is also filled with references, to the best modern directors in Italy and France. Knowledgeable viewers can detect strong influences from Roberto Rossellini and Alain Resnais in Mr. Bertolucci's sophisticated style.
Astonishingly, he has managed to assimilate a high degree of filmic and literary erudition into a distinctively personal visual approach. Technically, he displays authoritative control. Here is a new talent of outstanding promise.
A boyish nonprofessional, Francesco Barilli, is ideally cast as the groping Fabrizio, but Miss Asti is so stunning as the aunt that her character takes over the film. Amid a cast of inexperienced actors, she displays a stage-trained skill and an impressive presence that mark her for an impressive future on the screen.
"Before the Revolution" will be released in this country by Angelo Rizzoli. It is the revelation of the festival.
The contrary attractions of sensuality and politics have been the subject of many of Bertolucci's films, but the conflict is presented most passionately and personally here, through the figure of a young bourgeois revolutionary (Francesco Barilli) involved in a tortured relationship with his aunt (Adriana Asti). The visual style suggests Minnelli in its lush subjectivity, particularly when the black and white gives way to color for a brief lyrical sequence.
In all of Bertolucci's movies, there's a central conflict between the 'radical' impulses and a pessimistic (and/or willing) capitulation to the mainstream of bourgeois society and culture. It's a contradiction that takes on juggernaut proportions in '1900', but it stands as a major source of tension and interest in many of the earlier films. Both Before the Revolution (Bertolucci's second feature) and Partner try to examine it head-on. Revolution is about a middle-class 20-year-old who 'discovers' Marxism and tries - for a while - to change his life; Partner is an exuberant response to the student riots of '68, with Pierre Clémenti as a timid drama student confronting his own anarchic revolutionary alter ego. The first is mostly 'classical' in style, while the second is aggressively 'new wave', but both are full of interruptions and digressions: they throw out ideas and allusions (usually to other movies) with reckless enthusiasm, and they remain invaluable aids to an understanding of the '60s.
In Before the Revolution, Bertolucci first presents the theme which will become foremost in his work: the conflict between freedom and conformity. Fabrizio, the leading character, is obliged to decide between radical political commitment and an alluring marriage into the bourgeoisie. In this reworking of Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma, Bertolucci expressly delineates the connection between politics and sexuality. The film also establishes the Freudian theme of the totemic father, which will recur throughout Bertolucci's work, here emblematized in the figure of Fabrizio's communist mentor, whom Fabrizio must renounce as a precondition to his entry into moneyed society.
A must for Bertolucci afficianados is Before the Revolution, made, in wide-screen black-and-white, when he was an extraordinarily precocious 23. Understandably, it's autobiographical. The protagonist, Fabrizio (furrow-browed Francisco Barilli), is, like the youthful filmmaker, girl-and-movie crazy, and Marx-and-Freud obsessed, a tie-and-coat high bourgeoisie trying to be a renegade and relate to the historic struggles of the masses...
Though Farbizio orders a suicide-prone friend to a screening of Hawks's Red River, and though Farbizio takes a quick break to see Godard's A Woman is a Woman, mostly he is too stressed and distracted by love and political concerns to benefit from film going. So Bertolucci provides him with a hilarious cinephile friend, who spends his whole sentient life at the altar of movies (he sees them twice in a row). Afterward, he smokes and philosophizes about them. "I remember the 360 degree dolly shot of Nicholas Ray, I swear, one of the highest moral facts in the history of cinema," this friend says, and, "Remember, one can't live without Rossellini!"
Bertolucci, the film geek, is all over his shooting, as Before the Revolution is a perpetual homage to his cinema masters, old and new. Gina, alienated in fashionable clothes and photographed against architecture, comes from Antonioni, Gina in a telephone monologue from Rossellini, Gina framed formally with bare legs from Godard, Gina making faces in granny glasses from Truffaut. (It's interesting to see Bertolucci in 1963 quoting A Woman is a Woman and Truffaut's Jules and Jim, both of 1961, as if they are already canonic texts.)
Bertolucci's other source: Stendhal's early 19th century novel, The Charterhouse of Parma. Thank you, Bernardo, for affording me an excuse to spend several long plane rides reading Stendhal's fabulous 500-page Machiavellian melodrama about the post-Napoleon political maneuverings in the city of Parma. What does it have to do with Before the Revolution? The names of the three main characters are the same--Fabrizio, Gina, and Clelia--and, in each case, Farbizio bypasses the love of his flashy aunt for that of a pious, straightlaced younger girl. And there's stifling Parma, and there's a common setting for high drama of the opera.
But the contrasts are far more telling. Gina of the book is the most conniving belle at court, almost as obsessed by power and riches as she is by conquering Fabrizio. Gina of the movie is a little lost rich girl, panicked and neurotic, a walking nervous breakdown with no aspirations except getting men to love her. (At times, she is a drag, and her multi-moods are the most tiresome part of the movie.) Fabrizio of the book is a soldier (he fights at Waterloo), an adventurer, a nobleman, an autocrat, a political opportunist with little worry of conscience. Bertolucci's Fabrizio is a person of acute self-consciousness, pained by his political ineffectuality (that of the bourgeois class) and agonized that the promised Marxist paradise will never come.
Apart from Pasolini, who cited the movie in a famous essay, “The Cinema of Poetry,” in 1965, the Italians hated “Before the Revolution.” The French adored it. The movie was screened during the Critics’ Week at Cannes in 1964, where it won prizes and was identified by French critics as “an homage to the school of the Cahiers,” which it certainly was. Bertolucci had been a regular reader of the Cahiers almost since he was a child—he was introduced to the magazine by his father, who wrote movie reviews as well as poetry—and he was an acolyte of Godard, whose stylistic fingerprints are all over the movie. Bertolucci became the New Wave’s adopted Italian. He went to Paris and met Godard, Langlois, Agnès Varda. Though no one could see his movie, because it lacked a distributor, it became a critical touchstone at the Cahiers. (The movie also played a role in the so-called Hollywood New Wave; it is an influence on Martin Scorsese’s first major picture, “Mean Streets,” which came out in 1973.) For his part, Bertolucci used to say that he preferred to give interviews in French, on the ground that French is the true language of cinema. [Henri] Langlois himself was responsible for the French release of “Before the Revolution,” which finally happened in 1968. The Cahiers critics all awarded it four stars, their highest rating—“chef d’oeuvre.” By 1968, student radicals were citing it as explanation and inspiration, and the phrase “before the revolution” appeared in accounts of the events of May in the French press.
The words are taken from a remark of Talleyrand’s: “He who did not live in the years before the revolution cannot understand what the sweetness of living is.” Bertolucci insisted that he meant the title ironically, that life “before the revolution” is agony; he has his protagonist mutter, despairingly, “It’s always ‘before the revolution’ if you’re like me.” But with movies you believe the camera—what the camera loves cannot be all bad—and the camera tells us that although Talleyrand was undoubtedly on the wrong side, he was not wrong. “At first my story was a modern ‘Charterhouse,’ ” Bertolucci explained in an interview in the Cahiers in 1965, “but then it gradually developed into ‘Sentimental Education.’ ” Fabrizio is not a revolutionary; he is playing at being a revolutionary, because that is what young people in the postwar middle class do. His kind of revolution is just a chapter in the bourgeois family romance (thus the incest: it violates the norms of the nuclear family). If “Before the Revolution” is a prophecy of the rebellion of May ’68, in which students from the Sorbonne marched in solidarity with workers from the Renault auto plants, it is also a prophecy of its failure.
Bertolucci used Before the Revolution to explore the nature of political doubt: Fabrizio abandons one type of patriarchy (his conservative family) for another (the ideological demands of Marxism). As in most of the director's films, this dichotomy is accompanied by sexual tension: While left-wing politics and haute bourgeois surroundings provide the milieu for Revolution, the main narrative (a very loose adaptation of Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma) concerns Fabrizio's affair with his aunt Gina (Adriana Asti). But unlike in his later works, Bertolucci doesn't quite manage to reconcile the film's sexual politics with its more overt ideological content. Try as we might, it's hard to read Gina as a symbol for anything – she simultaneously represents sexual freedom and Fabrizio's stuffy family relations; it's hard to divorce her from the rest of the world, even though she is clearly an outcast in her own surroundings. (It's also possible to read the incest taboo as a sublimation of homoerotic desire; several early scenes are devoted to Fabrizio's clearly gay, suicidal young friend Agostino [Allen Midgette], whose death is one of the centerpieces of the film.) Ultimately, what emerges from Before the Revolution is not a coherent vision but a brilliant, highly kinetic portrait of a very confused young man – made, perhaps, by a brilliant and very confused young man. Bertolucci even throws in a beautifully filmed, lushly scored ode to the environment, in which a minor character delivers a lyrical monologue to the decaying Po River, right near the end – a gorgeous sequence that almost feels like it deserves to be its own short work.
Bertolucci’s film is gorgeously written and acted – it’s Asti’s film all the way though – and it paves the way for The Conformist, a film whose protagonist is on the opposite side of the ideological fence from Fabrizio. If there’s any complaint, it’s with some of the montages that look a bit too much like Godard lite (complete with jump cuts), but that is a small complaint. Most of the film has a visual elegance that prefigures Bertloucci’s better known works such as The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris. (This film’s beautiful black and white photography is by Aldo Scavarda, who shot Antonioni’s great L’Avventura.) Some of the film’s later scenes, where we see Fabrzio and his fiancée meet Gina at a performance of Verdi’s Macbeth are almost elegiac in their melancholy beauty. Rough going for some viewers, no doubt, but particularly rewarding of second and third viewings, Before the Revolution is a brilliant social document and masterful filmmaking.
Inspired by Godard and Resnais’s Marienbad (1961), Bertolucci tries everything: zooms; a moving car camera, attached either to the front or the side; dissolves within a scene—if you will, “soft” jump-cuts; hard jump-cuts; misty lyrical poetry by a lake. This movie is in love with movies and movie-making.
It is also one of the most important films for understanding the sixties. Its lovely incest (seven years before Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart) reaches for a synthesis derived from thesis (family, structure, order) and antithesis (the pleasure of doing one’s own thing). In the States we knew on the basis of this reconciliation that revolution would never happen here.
Or, perhaps, anywhere else in the postwar West. A schoolteacher tells Fabrizio, “[Y]ou can argue only with people who have the same ideas.”
Michael Guillen re-organizes a number of the above citations in his own essay on the film for Twitch
Attilio Bertolucci called his son's films from the 1960s "autobiographical in a symbolic sense." "We are all Catholics," he said, "Bernardo was baptized and all that. There is a contradiction in Bernardo. I think that at the same time he hates and loves his background, his life, his class. Therefore the heroes of his autobiographical films always try to break loose but fail in the end." Bertolucci himself contended: "More than just being autobiographical, it was a way to exorcise my own fears. Because to be like that character is almost a destiny for all bourgeois young Europeans." When asked about the origins of his Marxist sympathies, Bertolucci said: "I was always like that. Marxism in Italy is very common."
While the more immediate Grim Reaper has retained most of its original freshness, the impact of Before the Revolution has gradually weakened with the passage of time because so many of its stylistic elements are characteristic of the 1960s search for a new language. This reflective first-person film testimony is, in a way, an anthology of the efforts by 1960s filmmakers to renovate film narrative by, among other things, basing it on present-tense stream of consciousness. Bertolucci's restless camera uses many components cherished by various New Waves, which, in retrospect, appear outdated: high-angle shots culminating in frozen compositions, repetitions of the same shot from a slightly different perspective, freeze frames, unexpected and unmotivated changing of distance between camera and object, subjective tracking shots and pans, etc. Bertolucci's style is based on insistent, extremely seductive takes reminiscent of the language of Romantic poetry with its highly personal sets of signs.
In its time, Before the Revolution was hailed as a major achievement of the New Italian Cinema, equaled only by Fists in the Pocket. The film amassed many awards and strengthened Bertolucci's image as a prodigy. But its box-office results were rather poor, and the producers labeled Bertolucci "noncommercial." He had to wait another four years before he could embark on his next feature film, Partner (1968), which reconfirmed both his exceptional talent and his avowed eclecticism.
If there is a single subject in the film, it is the existence and future of the individual within an ephemeral moment, and the future of that moment itself within a larger historical process. Bertolucci uses the conventional set-up – romance and revolution – but disguises it in a strikingly novel manner. It seems unfortunate that over the years, the critical dialogue on Before the Revolution seems to have overlooked (or at least undermined) the love story in the film. I assume that this is because it is a puzzling romance, doomed from the beginning and consistently fraught with doubt and disorder. But watching Gina and Fabrizio is like looking upon parallel rail-tracks from the window of a moving train – they come together, collide, move apart, and all at a speed that makes the spectacle hypnotic and their inevitable separation so abrupt. From the familial warmth of their first encounter, to the innocent gaiety as they shop in the streets of Parma and the painful solemnity of their separation at the opera house, their relationship morphs unpredictably from one state to another. Their utterances stretch from the intimate (“I exist because you exist”) to the banal (the endless talk of rain). Their first love-scene is as erotic as anything Bertolucci has subsequently fashioned, reaching a height of sensuality even as Fabrizio and Gina lie on separate beds. It is difficult to imagine the realisation of such a moment in the cinema of today, with the common perversity attached to acts of self-gratification. Sensibly, the film is also not completely devoid of a romantic idyll. In what could be considered the centrepiece of the film – a single 3-minute long take – Bertolucci’s camera circles Fabrizio’s living-room to almost magically transform a dull bourgeois conversation about eating, into a picture of the lovers dancing to an evocative song on the radio. The father exits, the grandmother is asleep, and we are left alone with a frame that closes in to reveal the geographies of mouths and necklines.
The most remarkable aspect in the presentation of this love affair however, is that the incestuous underpinnings that appear to be the most obvious reason for its termination are not necessarily suggested as being entirely responsible for its failure. Gina and Fabrizio are depicted as fundamentally different individuals. She idealises the present and would like nothing to move; “everything still like a picture with us in the middle, motionless”. She also questions the significance of time and the idea that the world has order that can be manipulated. For Fabrizio, time is everything – the key to historical progress and structure. His relationship with the present is more nostalgic because with every passing moment his future becomes his past. The relationship seems hopelessly self-destructive and both characters riddle themselves with guilt. Gina is prone to bouts of madness and cries out that every war, storm and fire is her fault. Fabrizio’s ideological preoccupations leave him cold, and he later admits that he wanted to fill Gina with vitality but gave her anguish instead. Finally, the lovers are never ready to confront the possibility that their affair is more than just a satisfaction of curiosities or a remedy for boredom. To use Gina’s allegory, “clouds pursue clouds”. She pursues him pursuing her.
The centrality of Fabrizio’s political “disarmament” in Before the Revolution has elicited several responses to Bertolucci’s intent in this film. Was he exploring the nature of his own political doubt? This seems likely in view of the proximity between Bertolucci and his protagonist, and he has claimed that the film served as an exorcism of his Marxist fears of being sucked back into the “milieu”. Some even suggest that the film prophesises the failure of the May ’68 uprising. In essence, not unlike the love story that runs parallel to it, the political narrative of Bertolucci’s film highlights the vagaries in following a nebulous idea. Fabrizio presents himself as a staunch Marxist; he sees activism as ennobling and a source for meaning (like poetry). But he is merely a pretender to the cause. He brandishes a bookish rhetoric but this is only to sound convincing. Towards the end he chokes while chanting a Marxist slogan. This is the realisation that he will never be the “new kind of man” that he believes in – one that is “wise enough to educate his parents”. So there is some irony in Bertolucci’s appropriation of Talleyrand’s remark. For Fabrizio there is little “sweetness” in this time “before the revolution”; it is filled instead with agony and despair.
Is it surprising then that people criticise the film for being intangible? Bertolucci claims that at the time he sought out a cinema that did not engage the audience on an obvious sensual level. Like the directors of the nouvelle vague, he was keen to challenge the fascist model of the passive spectator exercised by popular cinema. This involved a deliberate distanciation of the audience through an unconventional employment of narrative and style. But there was always the fear of being ignored, of completely alienating the spectator to the point where the art became incomprehensible. Fortunately, in Before the Revolution, the amorphous structure of the film becomes inextricably linked to the ambiguities of the subject. A shapeless figure (the spectator) pursues a shapeless form with shapeless substance. 40 years after its release, Bertolucci’s film continues to demand that we suspend our traditional habits of viewing. It remains inconsumable in the conventional sense but it is hardly incoherent.
Bertolucci's artistic 'piece de resistance', Before The Revolution, is an intangible and anti-narrative experiment in film cohesion. The film progresses seamlessly towards an enigmatic conclusion, while charging indoctrination with corruption and utilizing propaganda as style. Bertolucci responds to dogma by replacing media with medium. Textually the signified here becomes the signified. Characters in the film are meaningless, and vacant icons; they become the images (the shadows on the wall) that they 'act' upon. However, this style and deconstructionist meta-theatricality make the film unabsorbable. Where Pasolini's intention of creating an un-consumable film worked in Salo, Bertolucci's Before The Revolution spreads itself too far and too thinly. The plot revolves around Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli), a melancholy man in a disintegrating world, who, after the death of his friend Agostino (Allen Midgette), falls in love with the esoteric Gina (Adriana Asti), his aunt. Love blossoms between the two, then fails in a final act of desperation. The film covers many themes, from alienation to sex, from cinematic history to understanding. Collage-like in structure, the film begins with a premise of monumental grandeur, shot in striking B&W and magnificently filmed by Aldo Scavarda (who filmed the earlier L'avventura of Michelangelo Antonioni), the film exudes an artistic quality that attempts poetic lyricism. Via repetitious zooms, and varying editing, the viewer is dislocated from the 'light-show' and is deadened by the phlegmatic momentum. (A momentum that is so overbearing the film almost becomes parodic.) As Fabrizio meanders through city-scapes, falling in and out of love with Gina and endlessly searching for an existential meaning, his encounters with political forces are too conspicuous and diverting. The viewer simply cannot care for both Fabrizio's search and the heavy-handing statements about 'thought-control'. While we, the consumers, become so easily pleased with the sugar-coated beauty of the film, its caustic message is lost.
Obsessive still shots are also characteristic of Bertolucci's film, Before the Revolution. However, they have a different meaning than for Antonioni. However, they have a different meaning than for Antonioni. The world-fragment, imprisoned in the frame and transformed by it into a fragment of autonomous beauty which refers only to itself, does not interest Bertolucci as it interests, in return, Antonioni. Bertolucci's formalism is infinitely less pictorial: his frame does not intervene metaphorically upon reality, sectioning it into so many mysteriously autonomous places, like pictures. Bertolucci's frame adheres to reality, according to the canon of a certain realist manner (according to a technique of poetic language, followed by the classics from Charlie Chaplin to Bergman): the stillness of a shot upon a portion of reality (the river, Parma, the streets of Parma, etc.) reveals the grace of a profound and confused love precisely for that portion of reality.
Practically, the whole stylistic of Before the Revolution is a long "free indirect subjective" based on the dominant state of mind of the protagonist, the neurotic young aunt. Whereas there was, in Antonioni, a whole substitution of the sick woman's vision for that (of febrile formalism) of the author, in Bertolucci such a substitution does not take place. What there has been is a contamination between the vision the neurotic woman has of the world and that of the author, which are inevitably analogous, but difficult to perceive, being closely intermixed, having the same style.
The intense moments of expression in the film are, precisely, those "insistences" of the framing and the montage-rhythms, whose structural realism (derived from Rossellinian neo-realism and the mythic realism of some younger master) is charged, throughout the uncommon duration of a shot or a montage-rhythm, till it explodes in a sort of technical scandal. Such an insistence on details, particularly on certain details in the digressions, is a deviation in relation to the system of the film: it is the temptation to make another film. It is, in sum, the presence of the author, who, in a measureless liberty, goes beyond the film and threatens continually to abandon it for the sake of an unforeseen inspiration which is that - latent - of the author's love for the poetic world of his own life-experiences. A moment of a naked and raw subjectivity, entirely natural, in a film in which - as in Antonioni's - subjectivity is mystified by a method of false objectivism, the result of a pretextual "free indirect subjective."
Beneath the style generated by the disoriented, disorganized, beset-by-details state of mind of the protagonist, is the level of the world as seen by an author no less neurotic, dominated by an elegiac, elegant, but never "classicist" spirit.
- Pier Paolo Pasolini, "The Cinema of Poetry." Published in Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Edited by Bill Nichols. Published by University of California Press, 1976. Pages 553-554
Fabrizio epitomizes the contradiction between the power of the bourgeois past and the felt need for the revolution to be carried out by the Communist party. Fabrizio's conflicts with the other characters, each representing another segment of Italian society, turn the film into an analytic metamovie. The major conflict between Cesare (representing the political aspect) and Gina (representing the sexual apolitical aspect) is resolved only in Bertolucci's following films which synthesize Freud with Marx. Before the Revolution is a film "before the analysis" (the beginning of Bertolucci's analysis was in 1969) in which both the political and the sexual are betrayed by the young, immature protagonist. And, indeed, the film not only identifies with Fabrizio but also criticizes him on every level. Fabrizio is criticized by both Gina and Cesare. Gina criticizes Fabrizio for capitulating to bourgeois morality while Cesare criticizes him for being incapable of acting correctly on either the personal or political level. Gina in Before the Revolution (giving voice to the reactionary position from a leftist point of view) argues with Cesare that people cannot change. To support her argument she quotes Oscar Wilde's dictum, "You can't change even one person." In The Last Emperor, however, (which coincides with the end of Bertolucci's first analysis) Bertolucci based his thesis on the belief that man can change. If we take Bertolucci as representing the authorial position of Before the Revolution, then we can take Fabrizio's capitulation to bourgeois filmmaking. Although the film, through its shifting narrative and character focalization, privileges Gina's and Cesare's positions, Bertolucci's career has followed Fabrizio's path.
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and enhanced for widescreen TV's Before the Revolution has undergone substantial restoration and the results are stunning! With an exceptional degree of detail, spectacular contrast, a flawless progressive transfer, no print damage, and an image that sparkles with its beautiful black and white gradation this DVD presentation by RHV is without a doubt a collector's dream. I can hardly think what else the Italian distribs could have improved on this presentation as just about every aspect that is typically scrutinized by film buffs has been treated with enormous care. Quite frankly this is as good as this film has ever looked. Region 2, PAL.
There have been some heavy speculations that Criterion might release Before the Revolution as part of their collection and I most certainly hope that this is not just a rumor started by those who like to play with possibilities. With this said however unless such release materializes with a lengthy commentary by the director of the film sharing his thoughts and memories I believe that English-speakers need not wait for a better release. Why? I can hardly see how this all-English friendly DVD could be topped by anything the R1 distribs may or may not release. Indeed, ALL of the extras on this double DVD set have been subbed in English:
On disc one you would fine the theatrical trailer for the film as well as a nicely done gallery of stills. There is also the short "Cinema D'Oggi" extract where Bernardo Bertolucci comments on the film while selected footage is being shown. Next, there is the "Effetti Personali" segment where selected dialogs and lines are being recited by the cast (approx. twenty years later) throughout locations from Before the Revolution with the original footage from the film being inserted as well.
On disc two you will find the remaining extras from this spectacular release. First there is a short segment titled "Traveling Companions" where Enzo Siciliano, and Adriano Apra are being interviewed. Much of what is being said is recollections pertaining to film's history so there is plenty that fans of Bertolucci will find intriguing. Next, there is a massive interview with Bernardo Bertolucci where he goes into great detail talking about his film and practically touching upon just about all that one might be curious about (I consider this to be the strongest extra from the DVD as I am most certain if a R1 release actually happens it is likely that RHV will not license it). "Gina and Fabrizio" is the next interview provided for this release where Adriana Asti and Francesco Barilli share their thoughts on the roles they were given in Before the Revolution. Unlike the previous interview with Bernardo Bertolucci however I was not as impressed as I thought I would be. "The Workshop of the Young Masters" provides another set of interviews with Ennio Morricone, Roberto Perpignani, and Vittorio Storaro where they discuss their involvement with the film. Morricone's comments were particularly interesting given his enormous reputation between Italian film directors. Next, we have "Re-Readings" with Francesco Casetti, Lucilla Albano, and Giovanna Grignaffini where everyone once again shares their thoughts and recollections on Before the Revolution while highlighting their involvement with the film. Next, there is the "After the Revolution" segment where directors Marco Tullio Giordana (The Best of Youth) and Marco Bellocchio talk about the impact Bernardo Bertolucci and his film had on Italian cinema. Last but not least we have a special documentary that follows the restoration process of this film while highlighting the success which the producers were able to achieve spending thousands and thousands of hours working for the best possible quality.
Quite frankly this is the most spectacular R2 presentation of an Italian film I have ever seen!! RHV truly have delivered a package that is without a doubt the definitive version of Before the Revolution (both in terms of technical presentation and in terms of supplemental material). I would go on record here and reconfirm my opinion that a Criterion release will NOT surpass the wealth of extras as well as the stunning audio/video restoration work the Italian distribs have provided. Unless somehow Criterion manage to convince Bertolucci to record a commentary for this film (and I wonder what else he could contribute as practically ALL he has to say could be found in his interviews provided for this double Italian set) there is no reason for you to wait!! This is one of the all-time BEST R2 English-friendly releases I have seen, all cinema considered: DVDTALK Collector's Series.
Rarely does a DVD come along that deserves the title definitive version and in the case of RHV’s Before the Revolution DVD they have put together an impressive release that truly deserves the title of definitive edition, highly recommended.
Quotes found on the TSPDT profile page for Bertolucci:
"At the age of twenty-one, Bernardo Bertolucci established himself as a major artist in two distinct art forms, winning a prestigious award in poetry and receiving high critical acclaim for his initial film, La commare secca. This combination of talents is evident in all of his films, which have a lyric but exceptionally concrete style." - Robert Burgoyne (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)
"One of the cinema's greatest masters of visual beauty, especially when assisted by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci's films are also dramatically naive and pretentious far too often, even addled at times, resulting in risible scenes even when respected actors are used. But at least the nine Oscars won by The Last Emperor, one of his three near-masterpieces, have assured that Bertolucci will not simply go down in history as the man who made Last Tango in Paris." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)
"One of the most accomplished directors of the contemporary Italian cinema...Bertolucci, who believes that "cinema is the true poetic language", had applied his celluloid poesy mostly to political-human themes, but with Last Tango in Paris (1972) he moved into the realm of the purely human. It established Bertolucci as a commercially viable director as well as a highly gifted one." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)
"The psychological and intellectual man in society has been brilliantly explored by Bertolucci." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
"I'm no longer interested in making political films. There's something old-fashioned about them. Young people now don't care for politics. It isn't present in life as it used to be. And increasingly I like films which reflect present-day reality." - Bernardo Bertolucci (1999)
Very few international directors in the past four decades have managed to remain at the “critically successful” as consistently as Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, whose career has straddled three generations of filmmaking, four continents, and several movie industries. Alongside his provocative explorations of sexuality and ideology, his highly kinetic visual style – often characterised by elaborate camera moves, meticulous lighting, symbolic use of colour, and inventive editing – has influenced several generations of filmmakers, from the American “movie brats” of the 1970s to the music video auteurs of the '80s and '90s. Perhaps the most important reason for Bertolucci's continuing relevance has been the intensely personal nature of his movies: although he makes narrative features, very often based (albeit loosely) on outside literary sources, Bertolucci's films over the decades reveal distinct connections to their creator's private dilemmas and the vagaries of his creative and intellectual life. In other words, he has been able to fulfill his dream of being able “to live films” and “to think cinematographically” – to lay bare his inner life through his work.
Bertolucci's films exude a stylishness and filmic beauty that has rarely been captured by the artifice of cinema, yet the substance of Bertolucci's films, and indeed his primary point, remains quite confused and vague. While Bertolucci openly criticises and 'mocks' the conventions of Western cinema, his films tend to resemble collages or aglomerations of well-designed set-pieces that do not coalesce into a unified form. Perhaps, this was Bertolucci's intent, to create a cinema that defies categorization and elucidation. The interrogations in The Grim Reaper resonate with self-reflective examinations of film; as Bertolucci queries the form and substance of cinema. However, Bertolucci's interrogations manifest themselves in extremely varied and uncomfortable constructions, as he cannot seem to fully devote himself to an interpretation.
This lack of coherence and the inconsistency reaches its height in Before the Revolution, which, although being quite breathtakingly beautiful, is absurdly self- engrossed. Bertolucci's later Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist engage in a self-reflexive hyper-realism that borders on visual genius. Bertolucci's critique of the spectator and fascism gives breathtaking insight into the apparatus of 'propaganda' and the emotional usurping of the individual within the web of 'cinema.' Bertolucci challenges the 'authority' of film by holding images and viewers hostage (willingly, of course) with a political and ideological blitzkrieg.
BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI is a true child of the cinema. His father, a poet and teacher of art history in Parma and Rome, was also a film critic, and little Bernardo tagged along with him to two or three films a day. Bertolucci made his first film—a ten-minute short—when he was 15, his first feature when he was 20. By that time, he had also published a prizewinning book of poetry, In Search of Mystery, and worked as an assistant to Pier Paolo Pasolini on Accattone! "He was just as virgin to the cinema as I was," Bertolucci recalls. "So I didn't watch a director at work. I watched a director being born."
Bertolucci was born as a director with his second feature, Before the Revolution, which brought him, at 23, the sort of critical tributes once lavished on the youthful Orson Welles. The film's title recalls Marx, but it is actually taken from Talleyrand: "He who did not live in the years before the revolution cannot understand what the sweetness of living is." The film is about a young man's struggle to reconcile radical politics with an almost lavish romanticism, to fuse Marx and Talleyrand in his lofty, poetic soul. Revolution has the intimate feeling of a personal memoir, of experience hardly assimilated and still freshly felt.
Revolution also set the pattern of Bertolucci's lush, visual style, a kind of free-flowing flamboyance that seems to be a celebration of the act of filmmaking. There were references to movies, countless movies, everything from early Godard to Red River. Bertolucci continues this tradition of paying homage to his mentors: In The Spider's Stratagem, made in 1969, the camera lingers briefly over a poster for Robert Aldrich's Wagnerian western The Last Sunset; in Tango there is a scene aboard a barge, between Maria Schneider and Jean-Pierre Leaud, that is meant to evoke Jean Vigo's classic L'Atalante.
Bertolucci made his first film after years of apprenticeship with some of the greatest personalities of the Italian artistic scene. Introduced by his father, Attilio, the famous Italian poet and literary critic, Bertolucci started attending regular discussion meetings of an artistic group that included Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Giorgio Bassani, the brothers Sergio and Franco Citti, and P.P. Pasolini, the host. Two women, both aspiring actresses, belonged as regular guests at Pasolini's house: Laura Betti and Adriana Asti. But soon there was a rift, caused by Bertolucci, at the time an extremely attractive young man. Betti wanted to influence his life and career, but he preferred the less explosive Asti, choosing her for the leading female role of his second film Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964) and eventually marrying her. Betti, who became one of Italy's best actresses, did not speak to them for years. The encounters at Pasolini's place went on (after 1963 in his modern duplex at Via Eufrate), but Bertolucci and Asti were rarely among the guests. In retrospect, it seems that it was not Asti who caused the split. Rather, Bertolucci wanted to free himself from the influence of Pasolini, whom he first met at the age of fifteen.
Yet it took many years for Bertolucci to liberate himself from his "spiritual father." In 1975, he contended: "Pier Paolo Pasolini has always been a father figure to me. When he spoke badly about Last Tango in Paris, I felt a kind of liberation. The more he insisted on the film's poor qualities, the more he was destroying his image of the father figure."
Dino Risi, who passed away this June to little fanfare, helmed nearly 80 features over a career spanning seven decades, the most celebrated of them being this road comedy, one of the early influencers of the genre. A mild-mannered student (Jean-Louis Trintignant, more buttoned-up than usual) has his eyes opened to the excitements and vices of booming 60s Italy when he's taken for a ride by a braggadocio businessman (Vittorio Gassman, whose last name fits his character in terms of his talking and driving). The garrulous script is co-written by Ettore Scola (We All Loved Each Other So Much, A Special Day), and it shows in the story's reliance on broad social types who require a full story arc to acquire dimension and pathos. Trintignant never overcomes the flat naivete of his character, basically a prop for Gassman's blowhard hedonism, which borders on belligerence (not surprisingly, Risi also wrote and directed the original version of Scent of a Woman). But when Gassman points out a family secret to his protege's unbelieving eyes, he gains credibility as a social critic who's not so much an asshole as too smart for his own good, earning the film a rib-jabbing cynicism worthy of Billy Wilder. The sudden, tragic ending feels as arbitrary as the one in Easy Rider [TSPDT #331], a film it allegedly inspired, while other sardonic moments are undercut by the film's essential ambivalence towards its own social critique: a fete full of gum-chewing teenyboppers eager to lose their virginity brims with leering undertones of adult envy; a sun-baked beach party exceeds tourist ad levels of brain-fried fun. The Easy Life's ambivalent worldview may lack the singular formal curiosity of Antonioni (whose L'Eclisse is the target of the film's biggest punch lines) or the carnivalesque lyricism of Fellini, but the way it mixes equal parts hipper-than-thou wisecracks, mainstream morality and tasty dollops of la dolce vita may account for its mass appeal.
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Il Sorpaso / The Easy Life on the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Joaquin Oristrell, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Orlando Lubbert, Miscellaneous (2001)
Paolo D'Agostini, Sight & Sound (1992)
Rainer Knepperges, Steadycam (2007)
CIAK, 100 Capola Vori del Cinema (2000)
Italian Critics Best Italian Films 1942-1978 (2008)
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Vittorio Gassman as a middle-aged playboy who takes law student Jean-Louis Trintignant under his wing, the better to teach him the cynical lessons of modern Italian living. Dino Risi's corrosive social comedy managed to combine the aggressive energy of the French New Wave and the dissipated drift of Antoniennui in a way that seemed fresh and daring in the Italian commercial cinema of 1962. It still holds up today, though Risi's attachment to surfaces (the superficial as corollary of the social) looks less like criticism than complicity. Still, it's an unsentimental vision he offers, edging toward nihilism, with little of the thematic softening and emotional backing off that frequently mar the comparable efforts of Wilder. The cynicism is thoroughgoing and more than a little heartless, but the styling, with its astute balancing of commerce and modernist understanding, is resolutely assured.
DINO RISI, the Italian writer-director known here only for "Poor But Beautiful" ("Poveri Ma Belli"), shown in New York five years ago, has improved immensely to judge by "The Easy Life" ("Il Sorpasso"), which arrived at the Festival Theater yesterday. For his examination of an aimless wastrel and his destructive effect on an idealistic youngster and others, he merely touches on his flight from responsibility in a seemingly simple and obvious, yet sensitive commentary on what certainly are universal faults.
Call this a comedy-drama in which the comedy is only a surface symptom. Basically, Mr. Risi and his scenarists are telling the story of Bruno, a youthful but middle-aged happy-go-lucky type, who adores his fast white roadster as much as he does the girls and the self-indulgent life it symbolizes. This is also the story of Roberto, an ill-fated serious, Caspar Milquetoast-type of Roman law student who is drawn, quite casually, into Bruno's swift orbit for two days during which he loses not only his perspectives and ideals but also his life.
The views and the girls are extremely photogenic and the headlong dash toward fun and games would appear to be obvious and somewhat pointless if they did not add up to a dramatic whole.
But Mr. Risi's fast-paced direction and, more important, the truths he underlines, give his uncluttered film meaning and poignancy as well as mere speed. He is fortunate in his principals, too. Vittorio Gassman makes a superbly brash, coarse, hail-fellow-well-met Bruno who, in one of his rare moments of honest sadness, warns Roberto away from his "easy life" because "I've never had a real friend." As the diffident, introspective Roberto, Jean-Louis Trintignant, who has been seen here in a variety of French films, is excellent as his opposite number, an impressionable youngster whose shame and fears finally turn to admiration of his strange friend's "easy life."
After learning about commedia all’Italiano, I found more to appreciate in The EasyLife. I had always found the film a high-spirited adventure made on a modest budget and influenced by the breezy style of the French New Wave, but now I see it as the embodiment of comedy, Italian style. The deceptively simple story follows the adventures of Roberto, a young college student who is persuaded to hit the road with Bruno, an older playboy. Bruno drives a gleaming white sports way too fast, and he honks the cutesy-sounding horn way too much; the car makes a nice symbol of Bruno’s larger-than-life but invasive presence. My favorite part of Bruno’s car is the tiny record player built into the dashboard. In one scene, Roberto pops in a favorite record as the old man who is their temporary passenger looks on in wonder. (This is the pre-audiocassette era but who knew there were cars equipped with record players!).
The pair whiz past newly built apartment buildings that all look alike, stop by a popular but overly crowded new tourist spot along the beach, talk about modern alienation as revealed in the new Antonioni movie, and listen to new music in Bruno’s high-priced sports car — all the result of the economic prosperity and consumerism foisted on the public by marketing and advertising.
The audience identifies with Roberto, and sometimes the camera is positioned in the car’s back seat, creating the illusion that we are riding along with the pair and are part of the party. Like Roberto, we are repelled by Bruno (the embodiment of the new Italy), who is rude, crass, and disrespectful of religion, monogamy, and other traditional values. But, also like Roberto, we are attracted to this handsome playboy, because he is sexy, fun, and just too hip for the room. Yet, we are right to be wary of him, and at the end of the film, we discover the consequences of his lifestyle and its influence on a new generation. The film’s title, The Easy Way, has a double meaning; it not only refers to Bruno’s preferred lifestyle but it was also contemporary slang for Italy’s economic boom.
There are curves that you cannot fail to remember. We're are not talking about breasts here, we're talking about the Calafuria reef near Castiglioncello. This is where Bruno Cortona (interpreted by Jean-Louis Trintignant) died in a car accident, in the Italian cult movie Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life) by Dino Risi. The shore between Livorno and Rosignano has always been famous as a tourist spot, but after hosting the set of Il Sorpasso, Vittorio Gassman's most popular movie, it turned into a symbolic place, forever branding the Italian cinematographic imaginary.
The movie by Dino Risi - who recently passed away at the age of 91 - was shot in the summer of 1961, casting places like the Pineta Marradi, the Pratovecchio and the Romito on the movie screens, giving a new dimension to the cinematographic holidays. Il Sorpasso pictured the road as a symbolic space, taking place at the end of the Italian boom ruined by the individualism and coarseness of industrial society, turning this movie into a national cultural phenomenon and allegedly inspired the American road movie Easy Rider.
The movie's most memorable symbol is the Via Aurelia, the Roman road which also gives the name to Vittorio Gassman's spyder, the Aurelia B24. The trip starts from the capital's high class quarters, winds down the "borgate romane" (the working-class suburbs of Rome) and runs along the Fregene and Capalbio shores, motoring through places that capture the generational myth of the summer holidays and the awkward euphoria of people who have just discovered the freedom of the open road.
- Martina Magno, Emanuela Marchetti, Check In Architecture. See accompanying video with footage of locations from the film as they exist today:
There is a brief but telling scene in Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life, 1962) that encapsulates his vision as a film-maker. In it, Vittorio Gassman’s playboy parks his racer illegally, and then casually tucks under the windscreen wiper the parking ticket from a neighbouring car so as to avoid getting a fine himself.
The gesture’s mix of elegance, bravado and cunning are for Risi both the best and worst of his fellow Italians’ characteristics, and emblematic too of the country’s postwar transformation from the values of a traditional society to those of consumerism.
This theme supplied the material for the most successful of his 50-odd films, and customarily led Risi to be hailed as one of the chief creators, both as director and screenwriter, of the commedia all’italiana, at once funny and tragic. It might be more insightful, however, to say that the preoccupations of his films simply chimed with his own character — sardonic, melancholic, perpetually unfaithful and disappointed in love. He had trained as a psychiatrist, and his work is notable for its psychological insight.
The title "maestro of Italian film comedy" was one that Dino Risi, who has died aged 91, shared with Mario Monicelli, 18 months older, but still alive. Along with the late Pietro Germi, who made Divorce, Italian Style (1961), they created the genre which became known as "comedy Italian style", a considerable improvement on the average Italian comic films of the time. Even if Risi's 1974 film Profumo di Donna (Scent of a Woman), with Vittorio Gassman as man trying to come to terms with his blindness, was perhaps his greatest international success (winning him an Oscar nomination for its screenplay and a Hollywood remake with Al Pacino) it was his 1962 comedy, also starring Gassman, Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life), which was to become a cult movie. It is among the films that most reflected the mood of its times, in this case the social malaise behind the Italian economic "miracle" of the 1960s.
Like Germi and Monicelli, but also Federico Fellini, of whom he was a friend and admirer, Risi never took part in the militant political battles of those years, and was thus often snubbed by leftist intellectuals, but among his 50 or so features, many were biting satires of Italian foibles in which Gassman, who made 16 films under his direction, and other great stars of those years such as Ugo Tognazzi, Marcello Mastroianni, Nino Manfredi, Sophia Loren and Monica Vitti had scintillating and significant roles.
Risi was the son of a distinguished Milan doctor who was the physician of the La Scala opera house: among his patients was a young journalist named Benito Mussolini. But the Risi family was anti-fascist, and after the armistice of 1943 it refused to become involved with Mussolini's puppet republic of Salò. The family took refuge in Switzerland, where Dino and his brother Nelo, a poet also destined to become a film director, forgot their medical studies and became interested in films.
In Geneva, Risi took a film course with exiled French director Jacques Feyder. Back in Milan after the war, to please his father he got his medical degree, but started making short films. One of these, Darkness in the Cinema, about a man suffering from depression who after an afternoon in the cinema recovers his joy for life, was seen by the producer Carlo Ponti, who bought it and hired Risi as a scriptwriter.
After his first two forgotten features, in 1955 he directed Loren in two films, in both of which she co-starred with Vittorio de Sica. One was The Sign of Venus, the other Scandal in Sorrento, the third of the popular Bread and Love films (Pane, Amore e ...), which the director of the first two films, Luigi Comencini, and their star Gina Lollobrigida had declined to make. These were followed by a series of comedy successes with young stars which were scathingly accused of turning neorealism into "rosy realism", but expanded the possibilities for Risi as a director.
In 1961 he made A Porte Chiuse (Behind Closed Doors) with Anita Ekberg, with whom he had an affair. That same year he made Una Vita Difficile (A Difficult Life), his first cynical look at the "social malaise" of the times, scripted by Rodolfo Sonego, in which Alberto Sordi plays an idealistic communist party follower who finally gives in to the temptations of the new capitalist era only when in desperate economic plight. Humiliated, he makes a pathetic if dignified attempt to save his honour. Recently restored, this film has at last won due recognition.
But it was the clamorous success of Il Sorpasso the next year that finally took Risi out of the "rosy realism" ghetto. Gassman played the phoney playboy driving a sports car around a deserted Rome on a summer's day who induces a studious young man (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) to keep him company, dragging him into an "Easy Rider" trip towards adventures on the road and in seaside resorts, before a reckless "sorpasso" (overtaking) sends the car over the cliffs. Gassman is thrown out of the car and survives, but Trintignant is killed. The producer did not want the tragic end, saying: "This is a comedy!" Risi made a bet with him: "If it rains tomorrow, I'll agree to find a happier ending." It did not rain, and the director's ending was shot as written, without damaging its box-office triumph.
Among his subsequent hits, of varying quality, the one still most appreciated remains I Mostri (The Monsters, 1963), 20 sketches in which Gassman and Tognazzi were given the chance to indulge in grotesque caricatures that ranged from fanatical soccer fans to corrupt politicians, a rogues' gallery that can still make Italians laugh and wince. But Risi would often tackle serious subjects such as in Caro Papà (Dear Dad, 1979), in which Gassman played a businessman former partisan, whose son studies semiotics but is a member of a terrorist group. He discovers too late that his son had been trying to convince his comrades not to execute him.
In 2002 Risi was given the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice film festival. Two years earlier he had already made his last film, a cynical look at the Miss Italy beauty contest which was shown only on television.
He was separated from his Swiss-born wife Claudia, mother of his two sons, Marco and Claudio, both film directors. He is survived by them and by the choreographer Leonice Snell, with whom he has lived for the past 30 years.
In the early 1950s, Italian cinema was turning away from the politically charged movement known as neorealism, with its harsh, documentary-like depiction of daily life. Adding an element of sentimentality and comedy, Mr. Risi joined a group of filmmakers who at first were condemned with the label “rose-colored neorealism,” but quickly earned the affection of an Italian public eager to put war trauma in the past.
Risi is considered one of the prime creators of "rose-tinted" neo-realism ("neo-realismo rosa"), having big box-office hits with Pane, amore e . . . (Scandal in Sorrento, 1955), starring Sophia Loren at her most voluptuous, and Poveri ma belli (Poor But Beautiful, 1956), after which he established himself as a master of caustic Neapolitan comedies that used buffoonery to satirise the often bleak realities of contemporary Italian life. "The Neapolitans say that there is no burial without a burst of laughter," he said. "Life is a mixture of the serious and the comical, the good and the bad, continuously."
Notable among these early movies was the first film he directed starring Gassman, Il Mattatore (Love and Larceny, 1959), and a very funny comedy poking fun at Italy's judiciary, A Porte Chiuse (Behind Closed Doors, 1960), featuring a delightful performance by Anita Ekberg as an amoral beauty on trial for the murder of her wealthy lover. Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life, 1962) starred Gassman as a hedonist travelling around Italy in a sports car with a shy student (Jean-Louis Tritagnant) and was described by the critic Paolo D'Agostini as "a skilful description of Italy's and Rosi's own transition from youthful euphoria to utilitarian cynicism."
Rosi told the French historian Jean A. Gili, "I joined the ranks, not of militant realism, but of those films which later revealed themselves to be perhaps even more politically committed than the ones that claimed to be, in their stressing of the evils of Italian society".
Asked to define his directorial style, Risi replied that it was hybrid. "Critics like classifications, they always want to put you in a compartment. I bring subjects to the screen that I'm interested in and which can be very dramatic, though I always add a pinch of irony in even the most serious stories". Risi was given a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 2002, the year he retired after spending his final years mainly writing for television. In 2004 he published an autobiography, I miei mostri ("My monsters").
screened December 22 2008 on 16mm at the MoMA Media Study Center
TSPDT rank #677 IMDb
In some ways, Stan Brakhage's 4-plus hour magnum opus isn't so much an epic of experimental cinema as the most intensely comprehensive horror movie that hardly anyone has seen. It's a horror of metaphysical proportions: its five-part structure takes universal elements of existence and renders them into a symphony of shock visuals inducing a state of alienated perception. Brakhage's exhaustive vision summons a bracing repertoire of filming and editing techniques, including whip pans, color tints, lens distortions, and scratched and painted frames. Assaulting and enthralling, this technique calls attention to the celluloid medium existing almost independently of the real world, and impels an ethos of seeing for seeing's sake.
The Prelude launches a barrage of images of the natural world chopped and decontextualized into a stream of organic gibberish. It's a ruthless effort to deprogram viewers from their anchoring in narrative and divorce vision from cognition, replacing meaning with the sheer sensory power of image-in-itself. It's somewhat puzzling that he follows this brazen opening with Part I, which teases a basic narrative of Brakhage arduously scaling a snowy mountain, suggesting a symbolic struggle of everyday life. Part II returns to a more abstract representation, intercutting shots of an infant with flashes of the world around it: the bewilderment of childhood, naked and exposed to a fearsomely vast universe.
Part III, the most wildly sensual section, can stand on its own as one of the longest and strangest sexual acts ever committed to celluloid. Sex is conveyed not through literal intercourse but through lingering close-ups of skin and hair, lurid orange and blue tinted glimpses of naked flesh writhing in fluid, and nauseating shots of guts being torn apart, conveying both a physical and emotional rending of self in the throes of erotic passion. It's charged with both excitement and dread, horrified and inflamed by sex as an act of both love and violence.
Part IV seems to end over and over in a relentless loop, repeatedly showing Brakhage hacking away at a tree with an ax, existence as a restless cycle of debilitation slowly winding down to death, while flashing to distorted shots of body parts, landscapes and scratched and painted celluloid. In the end, there is only the work as a remnant of life's toil and suffering, whose value amounts to nothing more than fiery embers eagerly consuming its own existence.
Want to go deeper?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Art of Vision on the TSPDT list of 1000 Greatest Films:
Annette Michelson, Sight & Sound (1992)
Jonas Mekas, Sight & Sound (1992)
Michael Tolkin, Sight & Sound (1992)
Paul Arthur, Village Voice (1999)
Yoel Meranda, The Cinematheque Top 10 Project (2007)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Stan Brakhage, 37, a husky hypochondriac who lives with his wife and five children in a log cabin in Colorado, has radically rewritten movie grammar. By fragmenting his films into frames, Brakhage has established the frame in cinema as equivalent to the note in music; whereupon he proceeds to make films with frames the way a composer makes music with notes. His Art of Vision, an attempt to do for cinema what Bach did for music with his Art of the Fugue, is an ambitious example of what Brakhage calls retinal music. One problem: to watch the violently flickering flick for 4½ hours, a spectator would require steel eyeballs.
- from "Art of Light & Lunacy: The New Underground Films," Time Magazine, February 17, 1967
The Art of Visionis a film that can change our whole ideas about the relationship of seeing, perception, and emotion with the preoccupations of the mind and the subconscious. The immediate effect of seeing the film for the first few times is to discover oneself infinitely more sensitive to the meanings inherent in our perceptions of the physical qualities of everyday objects. To put it bluntly, Brakhage has shown the value and meaning of real seeing. The manner in which we perceive the physical structure of the world around us determines our view of that world. This is the principle on which all great films have been based. But it has never been clearer than in The Art of Vision.
The Art Of Vision, which is made up of Dog Star Man , has a rather elaborate structure of relationships, and it is these interrelationships that make up the content of the film. The basic action is Brakhage himself portraying a woodsman with an axe, climbing a mountain with a tree, followed by his dog. He plants the tree, then tears it down and chops it up. But the things that are filmed mean far more to Brakhage. He has said, "I saw the whole forest in relation to the history of architecture, particularly religious architecture, at least in the western world. Sensing structure, architecture, history of the world emerging, I began seeing prismatic happenings through snow falling, etc., and in relation to stained glass windows, for one example." Another example of symbolism is the white tree, of which Brakhage said: "There are other kinds of white trees (there can be a silver tree) but if it's a white tree, then in the mind it's a dead tree." During the film, Brakhage journeys up the mountain, this is another gesture of symbolism, perhaps of conquest or exploration. His battle with the dog possible represents man coping with beast. The man is Brakhage himself-- he is his own alter ego. This symbolic complexity, of which Brakhage has a reason for every fragment, is combined with an attempt to illustrate the dream process. Apart from the natural abstraction of hand painting, everything else in the film is "hyperconscious." In essence, "The Art of Vision" is composed of the sum total of Brakhage's own accumulated experience from what he sees and how he lives, to what he has read.
Really when I had the sense of being finished with this work was when the four and one-half hour work got a title separate from the seventy-five minute Dog Star Man composite. That happened when I visited the Kellys. We looked at all that material in order I had given it. The morning after we had seen the whole thing, [Richard] Kelly said at breakfast: "It seems to me you ought to read a life of Johann Sebastian Bach." We took another couple of sips of coffee, and I thought, "Un-humm, well, that would be a good thing to do." Then suddenly he came out with: "Well, to get that sense of form whereby a whole work can exist in the center of another work, or spiral out into pieces in another work, as in Baroque music, and that second arrangement be another piece entirely." I said: "Well, you mean like - but that isn't exactly what happens in The Art of the Fugue, but something like that." Suddenly he came out with: "Why don't you call it The Art of Vision?" Immediately that seemed to me a completely perfect thing to do.
An art of vision possible in a medium that has dominated our century and that herewith frees itself from dependence on all other art forms. Film has tended, even in the most experimental contexts, to be a composite of literary and plastic arts, dance and music, the eye at the mercy of intention, culture, pretense, and imitations. Now Brakhage's Art of Vision exists utterly free of all that. It is a totality of making so intense it becomes a systematic exploration of the forms and terms of the medium itself. To explore the form without exhausting the form: A definitive making in any art is the health of the whole art, of the arts. Art in its oldest sense is skill, skill of making; The Art of Vision is the skill of making seeing. The Art of Vision, The Art of The Fugue, a presumptuous comparison only so long as we accord film only evidential value. This film makes immediate the integrity of the medium. Climax of the edited film, a new continent of the eye's sway. Mind at the mercy of the eye at last.
- Richard Kelly, "On the Art of Vision." From Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker. Edited by David E. James.
Published by Temple University Press, 2005. p. 32
What interested me most about "The Art of Vision" was the effect the repetition of the images had on my mind. It was, in itself, a metaphor for seeing.
When an image is repeated many times, superimposed with different shots, and each time put into a totally different "context" by the shots preceding them, it is impossible to not realize how our seeing is affected by the state of our brains. The experience of the image is completely different each time it is shown and to realize of our ability to experience such different feelings towards the same "thing" is simply mind opening.
"Dog Star Man" is one of my favorite films, although I have seen it only on DVD. I also had the chance to inspect it frame by frame many times, which I'm sure added a lot to its pleasure. Watching "The Art of Vision" was completely different partly because of what I have mentioned above.
Also, I knew a bit about the film's structure but for some reason I thought the last reel of "Dog Star Man" would climb to a climax at the end, the individual rolls followed by more and more complicated superimpositions. I was wrong, of course, Brakhage knows much better than that. The sense of that amazingly beautiful 4-reel superimposition decomposing helps the film blend into the daily life, something very rare in cinema.
The center of Brakhage's theoretical discourse was always the poetics of vision. In his later formulations, he used the phrase "moving visual thinking" to denote the incessant moiling of the optical matrices that ground all acts of seeing (even in sleep), which he repeatedly insisted are prior to and beyond the reach of language. His first dramatic act of artistic self-incarnation, at the age of seventeen, was to throw away his glasses. Here's what he told interviewer Scott MacDonald:
One time, an optician, on looking into my eyes, said,
"Well, by your eyes, physically, you shouldn't even
be able to see that chart on the wall, let alone read
it. But, on the other hand, I have never seen a human
eye with more rapid saccadic movements. What you
must be doing is rapidly scanning and putting this
picture together in your head." ... I wasn't trying
to invent new ways of being a filmmaker, that was
just a byproduct of my struggle to come to a sense
- P. Adams Sitney, from his eulogy for Brakhage, Artforum, 2003
Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of "Green?" How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the "beginning was the word."
To see is to retain- to behold. Elimination of all fear is in sight - which must be aimed for. Once vision may have been given - that which seems inherent in the infant's eye, an eye which reflects the loss of innocence more eloquently than any other human feature, an eye which soon learns to classify signts - an eye which mirrors the movement of the individual toward death by its increasing inability to see.
But one can never go back, not even in imagination. After the loss of innocence, only the ultimate of knowledge can balance the wobbling pivot. Yet I suggest that there is a pursuit of knowledge foreign to language and founded upon visual communication, demanding a development of the optical mind, and dependent upon perception in the original and deepest sense of the word.
Brakhage's great subject was light itself, its infinite varieties seen as manifestations of unbounded and unrestricted energy and its concretization into objects representing the trapping of that energy, and his great desire was to make cinema equal to the other arts by using that which was uniquely cinematic — by organizing light in the time and space of the projected image — in a way that would be worthy, structurally and aesthetically, of the poetry, painting, and music that most inspired him. The subtleties of his work, the intricacy with which he used composition and color and texture and rhythm, resulted in films that
strip from Chartres Series courtesy: The Estate of
Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper
virtually demand multiple viewings. The best known and most important of avant-garde filmmakers, he was also in my estimation among the half-dozen greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium — and, as I believe time will establish, one of the very greatest artists of the 20th century in any medium.
His central achievement is often seen as the personalizing of the medium, his transformation of the projected image away from the relatively neutral record of the world to which documentaries aspire to an expression of an individual's emotions, ideas, dreams, fantasies, visions, eye-music, closed-eye seeing, and nightmares. To achieve this transformation he marshaled — and in some cases pioneered — a daunting panoply of techniques, from out of focus and over and under exposure to rapid editing to painting directly on the film strip to anamorphic distortion to collaging objects directly onto celluloid to heating raw stock before exposure. Hand holding his camera allowed him to transfer his own physiology to film, through a controlled use of jiggle that suggested his pulse and heartbeat.
But "personal" cinema is in some sense too easy: almost any film student can figure out how to use imagery and editing to express an emotion, and Brakhage always meant to present much more than the affections. More significant is the way that his films elude predictability. There is, of course, none of the arc of anticipation created by conventional narrative, but his films are also less predictable even than those of most of his colleagues. At the moment that a few seconds of a Brakhage film appear to be establishing a pattern, he breaks the pattern, and his purpose in doing so was not simply to be contrary. At the center of his ethos is a desire to create a filmic parallel to what Gertrude Stein, a major influence, called the "continuous present." His films don't present themselves as a mappable terrain each part of which helps one understand the other — and in that sense his work is the antithesis of Peter Kubelka's, though they admired each other's achievement — but rather they continually locate, and relocate, the individual viewer in the perceptual instant. While the paragraph about trying to imagine childhood vision that began his first book, Metaphors on Vision, is his most-often quoted statement, less often mentioned is the desire, expressed in that same paragraph, to try to experience everything in life as "an adventure of perception." But "adventure of perception" is what his films aspire to: his avoidance of predictable forms places the viewer at the center of a figuring-out process that will not only be different for each viewer but is never intended to lead to a fixed conclusion.
One small detail of Brakhage's work that all too often gets left out is that his films are stunningly, even ravishingly beautiful. It's no easy or static prettiness that he was after, but the kind of beauty that cleans out one's sensorium, that seems to scour one's sight all the way from the cornea to the optic nerve, that reorients the very way one sees. Brakhage's films serve as eye-training, both for seeing other films and as an opening onto more imaginative ways of seeing the world. If I had a friend who wanted me to teach him how to look at films, and unlimited access to an archive of world cinema, I'd begin with a couple of months worth of Brakhage.
Brakhage has moved... through the climate and space of Abstract Expressionism, severing every tie to that space of action which Eisenstein's montage had transformed into the space of dialectical consciousness. Brakhage posits optical space as the "uncorrupted" dwelling of the Imagination which constitutes it. Dissolving the distance and resolving the disjunction Eisenstein had adopted as the necessary conditions of cinema's cognitive function, he proposes, as the paradigm of contemporary montage style, an alternative to Intellectual Cinema: the Cinema of Vision.
- Annette Michelson, "Camera Lucida/Camera Obscura." From Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker. Edited by David E. James. Published by Temple University Press, 2005. p. 32 p. 36
One result of superimposition, collage, painting, negative imagery, fast cutting, anamorphic photography, and swish panning was the flattening of the visual field. In demoting photographic depth from the norm to the exceptional instance, Brakhage pushed the filmic image in the direction of the most ambitious painting of his older contemporaries, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, and others without yet embracing their commitment to abstraction.
- Ted Perry, Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema. Published by Indiana University Press, 2006. Page 107.