Thursday, March 27, 2008

Target #205: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, Robert Hamer)

TSPDT placing: #158
Directed by: Robert Hamer
Written by: Roy Horniman (novel), Robert Hamer (screenplay), John Dighton (screenplay)
Starring: Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, Audrey Fildes, Miles Malleson, Clive Morton

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Though it had been producing films since the 1930s, it wasn't until 1949 that Ealing Studios finally commenced its golden period. In was in this year that they released the first batch of their most entertaining comedies, including Alexander Mackendrick's Whisky Galore! (1949), Henry Cornelius' Passport to Pimlico (1940), Charles Frend's A Run for Your Money (1949) {a little-known gem of which I'm very fond} and, of course, Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), which launched Alec Guinness into a successful career with the studio. Easily one of the darkest comedies of its era, Hamer's film was loosely adapted from the novel "Israel Rank," by Roy Horniman – among other changes, the main character was renamed from Israel Rank to Louis Mazzini, to avoid any perceived anti-Semitism so soon after World War Two. The title itself was derived from an 1842 poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which reads, in part: "Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood."

The films of Ealing Studios can often be characterised as good-natured, down-to-earth comedy offerings, light-hearted in tone and always steering towards the attainment of community betterment; characters typically conclude the film having learned a valuable lesson, and the ending is usually most ideal for all concerned. Later films such as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and especially The Ladykillers (1955) returned to the murky themes of Hamer's film, but they couldn't avoid reinforcing the age-old adage that "crime doesn't pay," whereas this comedy leaves ample room for the possibility of our killer escaping scot-free {however, for audiences across the Atlantic, the Production Code dictated that this ambiguity be removed}. Likely influenced by Charles Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947) – a "comedy of murders" – Hamer unwaveringly filled his film to the brim with dark themes, dry wit and bitter irony, finding a hilariously suave and classy serial killer in actor Dennis Price, whose unflinching murderous plight attains a twisted sense of empathy through the maltreatment of his mother's memory at the hands of the D'Ascoyne family.

I've often remarked that Alec Guinness never plays the same role twice, his character changing unrecognisably from picture to picture. In the case of this film, he virtually changes from scene to scene, portraying all eight heirs to the Dukedom of Chalfont with uproarious charisma and versatility. It helps that most of Guinness' creations, merely targets for the conniving Louis Mazzini, are wholly unlikable or frustratingly senile, though there's certainly a pang of regret when the amiable photography hobbyist is murdered, and the manner in which The Duke is dispatched is shocking in its sheer cold-bloodedness. Perhaps a single complaint is that the murders of Lady Agatha and the General were skipped over much too quickly, and I would have enjoyed a more in-depth examination of the mechanics of the crime. The final act of the film is swathed in a healthy dose of irony, as Mazzini is arrested and charged for the one murder he didn't commit, his fate sealed and then rescued by his jilted mistress, Sibella (Joan Greenwood), who alone guesses the truth about what he has done.

Currently my #2 film of 1949:
1) The Third Man (Carol Reed)
2) Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer)
3) A Run for Your Money (Charles Frend)
4) Nora inu {Stray Dog} (Akira Kurosawa)
5) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)


Monday, March 24, 2008

Target #204: The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Orson Welles)

TSPDT placing: #412
Directed by: Orson Welles (uncredited)
Written by: Sherwood King (novel), Orson Welles (screenplay), William Castle, Charles Lederer, Fletcher Markle (all uncredited)
Starring: Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia, Erskine Sanford

In discussing the portfolio of Orson Welles, it's difficult not to detect a certain level of tragedy inherent throughout his career. Welles was very much a director who always did what he wanted, a behaviour that caused frequent clashes with anxious studio heads, and, owing to an approach to film-making that was ahead of its time, often translated to poor box-office receipts. Widely-celebrated masterpieces such as Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Touch of Evil (1958) took decades to achieve the reputation that they hold today, and each proved considerable disappointments for the studios responsible, leading to Welles' eventual departure from Hollywood, towards a European career that was fraught with constant financial difficulties. The Lady from Shanghai (1947), likewise, wasn't a smashing success upon it's initial release, and, indeed, one might suggest that Welles did everything possible to ensure that it would fail at the box-office: he filled the screen with bizarre, unlikable characters, and effectively diluted the star-appeal of then-wife Rita Hayworth by shearing and dyeing her famous red hair.
The first forty minutes of The Lady from Shanghai left me relatively indifferent, in the sense that I had no idea where the story was heading, and couldn't understand the significance of the film's events to date. My reaction, apparently, differs little from that of Columbia Pictures President Harry Cohn, who couldn't decipher Welles' labyrinthian tale, and demanded that somebody explain it to him. The story itself was lifted from Sherwood King's novel, "If I Die Before I Wake," which was chosen practically at random. Welles had offered to adapt the book when Cohn gave him an urgently-needed $55,000 to finance costuming for his musical stage-show, "Around the World in Eighty Days." Filming for the film took place, in addition to the Columbia Pictures studios, in San Francisco and Acapulco, Mexico, aboard a yacht belonging to none other than Errol Flynn. Welles' original cut for the film ran 155 minutes, but, as occurred with tragic regularity through his career, the studio raised their scissors to his picture, slicing off at least an hour of footage.

It is perhaps because of this studio interference that The Lady from Shanghai cuts rather choppily from a thriller to a courtroom drama. The trial episode is played largely for satire, with Welles emphasising the blatant disorder of the courtroom, abound with constant interruptions from noisy audience members and sneezing jurors {one cut juxtaposes the judge playing chess with an aerial shot of the courtroom, suggesting that it's all just a perverted game}. Welles' inventive use of the camera is always a treat to observe; in one sequence, as Michael (Welles) speaks with George (Glenn Anders) atop an ocean lookout, the downwards-angled camera dangles the two characters over a fatal precipice. The film's climax is absolutely unforgettable, a gripping and innovative shoot-out in a carnival house of mirrors. As each character blasts away at illusory images of their enemies, the bullets shatter their own reflected profiles, fulfilling Michael's foreshadowing anecdote that compares Elsa (Hayworth) and Arthur (Everett Sloane) to sharks gnawing feverishly at their own flesh.
8/10; my predictability is beginning to annoy even me!

Currently my #4 film of 1947:
1) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
2) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
3) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)
4) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles)
5) Bush Christmas (Ralph Smart)


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Target #203: Pinocchio (1940, Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen)

TSPDT placing: #408
Directed by: Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen (supervising)
Written by: Carlo Collodi (story), Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner, Aurelius Battaglia (story adaptation), Bill Peet (uncredited)
Starring: Mel Blanc, Walter Catlett, Frankie Darro, Cliff Edwards, Dickie Jones, Charles Judels, Christian Rub, Evelyn Venable

Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was one of the defining landmarks in animation history, and proved both critically and commercially successful at the time of its release, briefly the high-grossing movie of all time. Not only was it the first Technicolor feature-length film, but it also set incredible new standards for animated colour and detail, aided by pioneering use of the multiplane camera. Three years later, Disney released a further two feature-length offerings, both of which proved initially unprofitable, but have since grown in stature to become indelible classics of American animation. Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) are two wholly different feature films: whilst the latter is almost experimental in nature, a compilation of music-inspired segments that Disney envisioned as a "roadshow event," the former film is much closer to the spirit of Disney's previous success, adapting Carlo Collodi's 1883 story "The Adventures of Pinocchio" as a heart-filled children's tale, occasionally dark in tone, but never lacking a child-like sense of wonder.

An old and lonely toymaker, Geppetto (voiced by Christian Rub), has made a life out of bringing happiness to young children, and his homely cottage is filled with creative cuckoo-clocks and other whirring wooden contraptions. Aside from his two loyal pets, Figaro the cat and Cleo the goldfish, Geppetto lives a lonesome existence, and yearns for the love of a real child. One night, after finally completing a dancing wooden puppet named Pinocchio, the old inventor wishes upon a star that his creation be made into a real boy, never imagining for a moment that his wish might actually come true. In the basking glow of the moonlight, the beautiful Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable) materialises in the silent bedroom, and, as our humble presenter Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards) watches from the shadows, the static wooden puppet is magically given life, and must prove himself worthy before he is transformed into a "real boy." Jiminy agrees to act as Pinocchio's conscience, steering him towards the path of righteousness, a task that proves considerably more difficult and dangerous than he could have imagined. As was the case in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the animators offer audiences so many colourful characters that at least one is bound to become your favourite. If the film's modest heroes don't strike your fancy, then you might also choose from the sly fox, J. Worthington "Honest John" Foulfellow (Walter Catlett) or his mute sidekick Gideon (Mel Blanc), who attempt to exploit Pinocchio for their own profit. There's also Stromboli (Charles Judels), the greedy Italian puppeteer, Lampwick (Frankie Darro) the mischievous little scamp who finds himself turning into a donkey, and Monstro, the immense, horrifying sperm whale whose heaving form instills terror in every marine creature in the ocean. The film's animation, though perhaps not quite as vibrantly colourful as in Snow White, is impeccably detailed, and often exceedingly beautiful. With excellent characters, and a worthy moral of behaving yourself and being selfless towards others, Pinocchio will persevere for many years to come as an endearing family favourite.

Currently my #5 film of 1940:
1) The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin)
2) The Grapes Of Wrath (John Ford)
3) Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Fantasia (James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Norman Ferguson, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen)
5) Pinocchio (Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen)


Saturday, March 15, 2008

Target #202: Les Quatre cents coups / The 400 Blows (1959, François Truffaut)

TSPDT placing: #46
Directed by: François Truffaut
Written by: François Truffaut (scenario, adaptation), Marcel Moussy (adaptation, dialogue)
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy, Guy Decomble, Georges Flamant, Patrick Auffay

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

I'm a little hesitant about rating and reviewing François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, as my first viewing was a rather dysfunctional and muddled affair, one of those moments when you wish that DVD technology had never been invented as a substitute for the perfection of the cinema screen. A remarkable feature-length debut from the revered critic-turned-director, Truffaut's touching and funny portrait of juvenile angst proved one of the pioneering films in the French New Wave. Just a few days ago, I decided to attend my university's film society for a showing of the film, but, inconceivably and unforgivably, the screening was started a full thirty minutes into the picture, and, due to a wearisome technical fault, we missed a further ten minutes in the centre of the story, including the moment when young Antoine reveals himself to have never seen the ocean, a remark that proves extremely significant once we arrive at the conclusion.

Fortunately, I had a copy of the film back at home, and promptly viewed the scenes that had been neglected, allowing me to better appreciate the intricate depths to which the film explored its characters and their respective situations. Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) was born out of wedlock, and practically abandoned by his parents to live with relatives. After several years, Antoine returns to his resentful mother (Claire Maurier) and his friendly, if inadequate, stepfather (Albert Rémy) to hopefully commence a normal lifestyle, but, driven by the discomfort of his uneasy home relationships, Antoine descends into a life of mischief and petty crime. When his misbehavior becomes overwhelming for his strained parents, Antoine finds himself in a correctional facility for juvenile delinquents, and, despite the institute's strict disciplinary action, he still finds himself yearning for "a life of his own," to be completely independent of his elders, and to live unrestrained by their narrow-minded restrictions.

Léaud, in only his second film appearance, is wonderfully natural in the main role, portraying Antoine's tortured confinement – stemming both from society's restrictive disciplinary system, and his stagnant family relationships – with poignant, and often funny, enthusiasm. He would reunite with Truffaut on a further four occasions between 1962 and 1979 to complete the story of Antoine Doinel's life. There's little doubt that The 400 Blows is at least partially autobiographical. Truffaut himself never knew his natural father, had a detached relationship with his mother and frequently found shelter in his love for cinema. During the film, Antoine discovers a passion for the French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac, whose successful career was borne from a life plagued with personal and professional difficulties, his willful nature often squandering his attempts at business success. Always thirsting for independence from those who dictate rules to him, Antoine relates easily with Balzac, even building a candle-lit throne to the author, but his word-for-word "homage" is mistaken for plagiarism by his short-sighted school teacher.

The film's final moments are rightfully celebrated for their touching and poignant ambiguity, as Antoine escapes from the juvenile institution and proceeds towards the ocean, which he has never seen before; his arrival at the rolling waves representative of that almost-unattainable independence of which he was so desirous. In a single, extremely smooth long-shot, Antoine ambles across the sand, always moving forward but seemingly getting nowhere. As he finally kicks at the breaking surf, Antoine pauses, perhaps uncertain of his path from here. Having acquired his goal of independence, he suddenly finds himself alone and purposeless, a small boy playing dolefully in the water. Antoine turns his back to the ocean and faces the audience directly (does he see his pursuers approaching in the distance?), and the camera zooms in on a captured frame of Antoine's face, his soft, inquiring eyes asking us what he's supposed to do now.
8/10, though a less-fragmented viewing is very much in order

Currently my #5 film of 1959:
1) Die Brücke {The Bridge} (Bernhard Wicki)
2) Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder)
3) North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
5) Le Quatre cents coups {The 400 Blows} (François Truffaut)


Friday, March 14, 2008

Target #201: The Asphalt Jungle (1950, John Huston)

TSPDT placing: #315
Directed by: John Huston
Written by: W.R. Burnett (novel), Ben Maddow (screenplay), John Huston (screenplay)
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Marc Lawrence, Barry Kelley, Anthony Caruso, Marilyn Monroe

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

It was only a few weeks ago that I described Du rififi chez les hommes (1955) as the film that pioneered the traditional crime caper, carving a narrative mould that would continue to be reused in films of its sort for decades to come. While Jules Dassin's picture is undoubtedly the finest in a sub-genre affectionately known as "the heist flick," I have now discovered that the concept stretches back at least another five years, to one of Hollywood's most revered adventure directors, John Huston. Revaling a seedy underbelly of society, overflowing with smarmy criminal figures and crooked authorities, the film is a potent film-noir thriller, employing dark, shadowy black-and-white cinematography, and a selection of suitably sordid characters, whose greed, obsession and violent temperaments ultimately lead to their own demise. The film's success would trigger a considerable boom in the popularity of heist thrillers, most notably in Crichton's The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Dassin's Rififi (1955), Mackendrick's The Ladykillers (1955) and Kubrick's breakthrough picture, The Killing (1956), which also starred Sterling Hayden.

Recently-released criminal mastermind, Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), has, for the last seven years of his incarceration, protected the plans for the most ambitious and profitable heist of his "distinguished" career. He arrives in a dreary, smoggy, crime-ridden city, where low-lifes patrol the darkened streets and law officers, some honest and some crooked, do their best to control the escalating crime-rates. The Doc hires a diverse assortment of essential criminals to ensure the success of his caper – a "boxman," or a safecracker (Anthony Caruso) with a young family, a "top-notch" getaway driver (James Whitmore) with a twisted back, and a small-time "hooligan" (Sterling Hayden) with a costly passion for horses. Also involved in the elaborate scheme is Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a sleazy, treacherous bookie, and Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a bankrupt professional businessman who agrees to finance the operation but houses plans for a disastrous double-crossing. The film's female protagonists come in the form of innocent Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen, prior to her career-defining performance in 'Singin' in the Rain (1952)') and an up-and-coming Marilyn Monroe as Emmerich's sexy, playful and naive young mistress.As was typical in film-noir films of the era, whose contents were dictated by the meddlesome Production/Hays Code, the ultimate moral of the story is that crime doesn't pay. Each of the thieves receive punishment for their involvement in the robbery, either through conviction or death, as does the fraudulent detective (Barry Kelley) whose corruption is described as a "one in a hundred" case. Nevertheless, Huston succeeds in creating a certain amount of empathy towards the criminals, sympathetically presenting the audience with each man's reasonable motivations towards breaking the law. By recruiting our support, Huston invariably places the audience in the shoes of a criminal, suggesting, as the perfect scheme begins to unravel, that our own fates lie in the balance. This evocation of realism is certainly complemented by Harold Rosson's gritty, documentary-like cinematography, and the heist sequence itself – while falling well short of Jules Dassin's breathless 30-minute counterpart – is tense, intriguing and authentic. As Huston himself explains in a pre-film introduction on the DVD release, each of his characters is immoral, largely unlikable and driven by a debilitating vice; however, despite this, or perhaps because of it, we can't take our eyes off them.

Currently my #4 film of 1950:
1) Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder)
2) Harvey (Henry Koster)
3) In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray)
4) The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston)
5) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)


Sunday, March 9, 2008

Target #200: Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks)

TSPDT placing: #245
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Howard Hawks (story), Jules Furthman (screenplay), William Rankin (contributor), Eleanore Griffin (contributor) (both uncredited)
Starring: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, Allyn Joslyn, Sig Ruman

Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not (1944) has often been described as the director's answer to Casablanca (1942), an adventurous and witty love story/drama set in an exotic location. However, Hawks more successfully captured that spirit of passion and outlandish adventure in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), a romantic, screwball comedy-style love story born amid a tense, exciting and epic aviation adventure. Hawks was evidently fond of story lines centred around aviation, considering he had already produced The Dawn Patrol (1930) and Ceiling Zero (1936), and the film's screenplay by Jules Furthman was expanded from Hawks' own 1938 short story, "Plane Four from Barranca." The film explores themes of male camaraderie, professionalism, and bravery, and the amusing consequences that arise when an independent woman arrives to disrupt this closely-knit community of men. The drama unfolds in the small port at Barranca, Ecuador, a village bordered by the might and majesty of the Andes Mountains, and where tropical storms are a regular but treacherous occurrence.

Only Angels Have Wings was filmed in Los Angeles, and does an excellent job of evoking the exotic tropical environment of South America. The characters always appear beleaguered by the overwhelming heat and humidity of the Ecuadorian jungle, and the frequent storms bombard the landscape with stifling fog and rain. The scenes of aviation, largely produced using elaborate model-work, remain mostly convincing, and those few shots that aren't have a likable charm about them. Roy Davidson (photographic) and Edwin C. Hahn (sound) received an Academy Award nomination for their special effects work, the first time that an Oscar had been offered in that category. One particular aviation shot, apparently involving no effects of any kind, follows Richard Barthelmess' mail-plane as he attempts an extremely risky landing on a perilous plateau. Filmed from adjacent aircraft, the long shot follows the plane as its swoops around the makeshift runway and comes in for the landing, coming to a stop just metres from the edge of the cliff. It's an elaborate and meticulously-staged moment that really makes you appreciate what cinema is all about.
The story involves Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), who manages a air-mail business from the small port-town at Barranca. Though he has been romantically-involved with many women, Geoff has basically given away all chances of happiness, being unwilling to place any woman through the stress and fear that besieges any wife whose husband has such a dangerous occupation. Spirited and intelligent Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) arrives at the town, and, despite her initial aversion towards Geoff, slowly finds herself caring about him. Geoff's repeated attempts to rebuff Bonnie's advances ultimately prove futile, and he discovers that the woman who truly loves him will never allow herself to be affected by his rejections, however selfless and noble his intentions. Forming the film's dramatic heart is the character of Bat Kilgallen (Richard Barthelmess), a disgraced pilot who finds himself aggressively slighted by his comrades for ejecting from his aircraft and leaving his navigator, the brother of Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), to die. Even when offered only the most dangerous missions, Kilgallen's unwavering desire for redemption earns him the respect of those who had formerly denounced him as a coward.

Currently my #2 film of 1939:
1) Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (Frank Capra)
2) Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)
3) The Wizard Of Oz (Victor Fleming, Mervyn LeRoy, Richard Thorpe, King Vidor)
4) The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle)
5) Another Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)


Target #199: Les Diaboliques (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

TSPDT placing: #485
Directed by: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by: Pierre Boileau (novel), Thomas Narcejac (novel), Jérôme Géronimi, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Frédéric Grendel, René Masson
Starring: Véra Clouzot, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel, Jean Brochard, Pierre Larquey, Michel Serrault

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

For a brief period during the 1950s, French director Henri-Georges Clouzot temporarily swiped the title of "The Master of Suspense" from Alfred Hitchcock, owing to a string of well-received suspense thrillers, most notably The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955). The latter was an adaptation of the novel "Celle qui n'était plus (She Who Was No More)" by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac; it was released in the UK as The Devils, and in the United States as Diabolique. Upon its initial release, the film was extensively likened to the work of Hitchcock {who, popular legend tells us, missed out on purchasing the novel rights by a mere few hours}, with its slow-burning, deliberately-paced suspense, and a shocking twist that I never for a moment saw coming. Though, with the notable exception of two scenes – both involving a murder, with only one of them being real – the film isn't particularly scary, the tension, the paranoia and the blackened shadows often become overwhelming, and Clouzot deftly toes the line between supernatural evil, and the evil that lurks within all of us.
Christina Delassalle (Véra Clouzot) and Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), both teachers at a boarding school for young boys, have a rather peculiar friendship. Christina is married to Michel (Paul Meurisse), a violent and tyrannical husband who derives pleasure from humiliating his pretty but physically-delicate wife. Nicole, conversely, is Michel's mistress, a proud and independent woman who knows how to take control of a situation. At one point in the film, upon witnessing the two woman quietly conversing, a fellow professor makes a fascinated remark: "I may be reactionary, but this is absolutely astounding - the legal wife consoling the mistress! No, no, and no!" The mere fact that Christina and Nicole have become close should already hint at a sinister situation underlying the surface, and, indeed, it is soon revealed that the two women plan to murder Michel and ridding themselves of his oppression. The "murder" itself – a sedative in the alcohol, and drowning their unconscious victim in the bathtub, is exceedingly disturbing, as we guiltily and uneasily ask ourselves if we'd have the courage to carry through such a scheme.

Alfred Hitchcock often delighted in creating suspense through the audience's subversive empathy for a film's villain, as a murderer attempts frantically to remove all traces of their crime. Clouzot uses a similar technique in his film, though, given the loathsome nature of the murder victim, our sympathy for the two women is almost demanded of us. However, the disappearance of Michel's body from the school swimming pool is completely unexpected, and either hints at a supernatural overtone, or that somebody else is quite obviously aware of their terrible crime. The paranoia from here rarely lets up, and we continually bombard ourselves with an endless stream of questions, unable to provide an answer for any of them. On a weaker note, despite the ever-present air of tension, few scenes actually succeeded in getting my heart pumping at a mile-a-minute, which was a slightly disappointing response that I can't quite explain. Perhaps a few sequences need to have been shortened slightly, just to swipe off ten unnecessary minutes, and allowing for a brisker pace that never gives you a chance to exhale.

Currently my #4 film of 1955:
1) Du rififi chez les hommes {Rififi} (Jules Dassin)
2) The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick)
3) Nuit et brouillard {Night and Fog} (Alain Resnais)
4) Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
5) Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Target #198: One, Two, Three (1961, Billy Wilder)

TSPDT placing: #987
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Ferenc Molnár (play), Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond (screenplay)
Starring: James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin, Arlene Francis, Howard St. John, Hanns Lothar, Leon Askin, Karl Lieffen, Liselotte Pulver

Throughout his long and distinguished career, director Billy Wilder has always excelled at drawing impressive comedic performances from actors that we wouldn't typically associate with comedy. His most exemplary accomplishment would undoubtedly be the case of Walter Matthau, who, prior to The Fortune Cookie (1966), was known prominently for his dramatic work, but went on, with Jack Lemmon by his side, to create one of cinema's most enduring and beloved comedic partnerships. No less remarkable is Wilder's transformation of archetypal gangster James Cagney. Defying all expectations, the director managed to wring a frenetic comedy performance out of his leading man, the experience leaving Cagney so utterly exhausted that he subsequently retired from the acting business {and wasn't seen again at all until Milos Forman's Ragtime (1981)}. Though not one of Wilder's greatest efforts, and certainly paling in comparison with The Apartment (1960) of the previous year, One, Two, Three (1961) is a massively enjoyable comedy romp, and few directors other than Wilder were ever bold enough to poke such fun at the aggressively-escalating Cold War.

James Cagney plays C.R. "Mac" MacNamara, a proud veteran of the Coca-Cola Company, who has dragged his family around Europe for the past fifteen years in futile pursuit of the European managerial position. Now located in West Berlin, his goal is seemingly within reach, despite the elevating friction between the Americans and the Communists of the East. Just on the verge of a groundbreaking deal to distribute Coca-Cola across the Iron Curtain, Mac is unexpectedly asked by his boss (Howard St. John) to babysit his hot-blooded seventeen-year-old daughter, Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin), during her stay in Berlin. When Scarlett suddenly announces her marriage to a fierce Communist radical, Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz), Mac realises that he has just hours to transform this unapologetic Yankee-hater into the perfect son-in-law, otherwise his career is as good as doomed. Racing frantically around his office, barking orders with incredible ferocity, Cagney is absolute dynamite in the leading role, the film's hectic conversational pace often reminiscent of a Howard Hawks film, particularly His Girl Friday (1940) {which Wilder notably remade in The Front Page (1974)}.

Though some of the jokes occasionally miss their mark, the screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond {adapted from the one-act play by Ferenc Molnar} is brisk, intelligent and regularly very funny. The supporting characters each bring a streak of vibrancy to the darkly-themed satire, and, though Cagney always dominates his scenes, each performer complements him well. Schlemmer (Hanns Lothar), an ex-SS member who denies everything, habitually clinks his heels together at every order, despite being asked on multiple occasions to cut it out; Phyllis MacNamara (Arlene Francis) resents her husband's neglect of his family, and verbally articulates her frustration by referring to him as "Mein Fuhrer"; Fräulein Ingeborg (Liselotte Pulver) is Mac's sexy, ambitious secretary, and Wilder certainly knows how to make good use of her. Filled with amusing characters and situations, and more film references than I was able to count, Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three is surefire Cold War entertainment, and fans of James Cagney will relish the opportunity to witness Rocky Sullivan playing the comedian.


Sunday, March 2, 2008

Target #197: Dersu Uzala (1975, Akira Kurosawa)

TSPDT placing: #587
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Vladimir Arsenyev (book), Akira Kurosawa (writer), Yuri Nagibin (writer)
Starring: Maksim Munzuk, Yuri Solomin, Svetlana Danilchenko, Dmitri Korshikov, Suimenkul Chokmorov, Vladimir Kremena, Aleksandr Pyatkov

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

The Sikhote-Alin region of Siberia – cold, bleak and unforgiving – stretches towards the horizon, an endless haze of snowy rocks and stunted forests. There is seemingly little happiness to be found in the icy, windswept plains of the wilderness, where overexposure has claimed the lives of hundreds of under-prepared explorers, and where the nearest human being might not wander within one hundred miles of your present location. Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev made several journeys into the area in the early years of the twentieth century, charged with performing a topographical survey on the vast region's many of mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes. Arsenyev released countless memoirs detailing his explorations, but his most well-known work is "Dersu Uzala (Dersu the Trapper)," published in 1923, which details his three expeditions into the Ussurian taiga, or forest, of Northern Asia, particularly his interactions with a Nanai/Goldi native guide named Dersu Uzala, whose has acquired incredible knowledge, instincts and observation skills through his lifetime of living as a lone nomad in the harsh frontier wilderness.

If I ever had any doubts that Akira Kurosawa was my kind of film director, then I may now consider them groundless. After two solid but flawed efforts in Stray Dog (1949) and Rashomon (1950), I have finally uncovered my first genuine masterpiece from the famed Japanese director, an awesome 70mm epic that emphasises the harshness of the Siberian wilderness, the detrimental consequences of human progress, and the ever-important bond of male friendship. Dersu Uzala (1975) uncovers indescribable beauty in the sheer malevolence of the isolated forest region, where the sunlight, glinting off the fractured layers of snow and ice, offer only a mild relief from the bitter winter cold, and where men cluster eagerly about a roaring campfire to absorb the glowing heat from its flames. In the maddening seclusion of the forest, it is only through teamwork and friendship that travellers can hope to survive the elements, and, in lonely hunter Dersu Uzala, Arsenyev discovers a genuine friend, whose intelligence, awareness and compassion can only be admired with the utmost reverence.
Akira Kurosawa, working with cinematographers Fyodor Dobronravov, Yuri Gantman and Asakazu Nakai, has committed to celluloid some of the most strikingly-gorgeous images since David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The wilderness of Siberia is, at first glance, exceedingly mundane and unremarkable, but, out of the sheer isolation and purity of the landscape, Kurosawa uncovers a noble beauty about the trees, rocks, waters and, indeed, the people who survive there. The film's most breathtaking shot shows Arsenyev and Dersu perched before a pristine sunset, the pair perfectly-framed between the blazing red Sun and the ascending Moon. Out of a bitter windstorm on the frozen expanses of a lake, Kurosawa crafts an intense episode of nail-biting suspense, as the two frantically attempt to gather grass for the purposes of constructing a crude but vital sleeping shelter, their only opportunity to avoid freezing to death in the relentless cold of the Siberian night. Recognising the inherent beauty in the landscape he was photographing, Kurosawa often makes excellent use of long takes, allowing the viewer to simply sit back and absorb the majesty of the wilderness with which he has been surrounded.
Another important theme in Dersu Uzala is the cultural and environmental toll of progress. It was only during the early years of the 1900s that the Sikhote-Alin region of Siberia began to abandon its old-time traditions and lifestyles in order to catch up with the more advanced civilisations that surrounded it. Dersu, who has lived alone in the forest for much of his life, proves a final victim of society's progress, a tragic symbol of a culture that has been irretrievably lost in the past. With his dwindling eyesight, and an escalating superstitious paranoia of the forest caused by his senseless murder of a tiger, Dersu finds that he can no longer provide for himself, and so accompanies Arsenyev back to his home in the city. His spirit crushed and broken, Dersu spends his days staring soullessly into the burning fireplace, consumed by memories of his lifetime in the free and peaceful isolation of the forest. He eventually resolves to return to the wilderness, but is shortly murdered for his expensive rifle; the lone hunter has now been completely destroyed by the unstoppable march of progress, which brings along both its benefits and its unavoidable evils.

Currently my #2 film of 1975:
1) One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman)
2) Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa)
3) Yozhik v tumane {Hedgehog in the Fog} (Yuriy Norsteyn)
4) Pasqualino Settebellezze {Seven Beauties} (Lina Wertmüler)
5) Jaws (Steven Spielberg)


Target #196: An Affair to Remember (1957, Leo McCarey)

TSPDT placing: #452
Directed by: Leo McCarey
Written by: Delmer Daves (screenplay), Leo McCarey (story), Mildred Cram (story),
Donald Ogden Stewart (uncredited)
Starring: Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Richard Denning, Neva Patterson, Cathleen Nesbitt, Charles Watts

Well, consider me surprised and very impressed. After delivering two considerable disappointments in Duck Soup (1933) and The Awful Truth (1937), director Leo McCarey well-and-truly redeems himself with one of the finest romances I've ever seen, one of the few pictures with enough emotional depth to challenge City Lights (1931), The Apartment (1960), or even Casablanca (1942). Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr illuminate the screen as two strangers who meet on an trans-Atlantic luxury cruise and finds themselves falling in love, only to be faced with their own impending marriages to other people. Funny, sensitive and extremely touching, An Affair to Remember (1957) rarely puts a foot wrong in its stirring exploration of mature romance, with both stars delivering rich and authentic performances that complement the pleasant, bittersweet tone of the film. Milton R. Krasner's cinematography, captured using DeLuxe colour, gives the film – particularly the scenes set in New York City – a cold, wintry feel, making the ending even more poignant as the two lovers come together for a warm embrace. An Affair to Remember was a remake of McCarey's own 1939 film, Love Affair, which starred Irenne Dunne and Charles Boyer. Then-acting veteran Cary Grant, who received his big break in the director's The Awful Truth, plays Nickie Ferrante, a witty and debonair social playboy/failed artist, who, in the wedding event of the year, is due to marry wealthy socialite Lois Clark (Neva Patterson). On his luxury cruise to greet his would-be bride in New York, Nickie meets Terry McKay (a lovely Deborah Kerr), who is initially too proud and sensible to have anything to do with the notoriously charming Nickie, but nonetheless slowly falls for him. The pair attempt to hide their budding romance, to the amusement of their nosey fellow passengers, but soon they realise that their situation is simply inescapable. They plan a rendezvous in six months' time, on the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building, giving each other the opportunity to repair their uncertain lives and decide if they truly are in love with each other.

What impressed me the most about McCarey's direction is how seamlessly he was able to blend together comedy, romance and drama. The first half of the film is very much a light-hearted romantic comedy, but the pair's departure from the ship proves an important turning-point in the tone of the story, and the audience is left gripping their seats, wondering anxiously "will they ever get together again?" The film's single misstep lies with the addition of two children's choir musical numbers, performed by a group of freckle-faced urchins under Terry's instruction. These songs have absolutely nothing to do with the story, and I suspect that their inclusion was purely a matter of extending the running time. Conversely, Kerr's musical numbers {her vocals dubbed by Marni Nixon} are touching and beautiful, fuelled with intense emotion, and lovely to listen to. The film's most tender sequence undoubtedly takes place at the the residence of Nickie's grandmother (Cathleen Nesbitt), who plays the piano as Terry begins the sing, the defining moment when we realise that Nickie and Terry are destined to fall in love.

Currently my #5 film of 1957:
1) 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet)
2) The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)
3) Det Sjunde inseglet {The Seventh Seal} (Ingmar Bergman)
4) Letyat zhuravli {The Cranes are Flying} (Mikhail Kalatozov)
5) An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey)