Monday, December 29, 2008

Target #254: Pickup on South Street (1953, Samuel Fuller)

TSPDT placing: #737

Directed by: Samuel Fuller
Written by: Dwight Taylor (story), Samuel Fuller (screenplay)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

Shock Corridor (1963) was my first film from Samuel Fuller, and there I was impressed with the director's astute blending of B-movie and big-budget aesthetics, even if the story itself was pure schlock. Pickup on South Street (1953) was released a decade earlier in Fuller's career, obviously produced on a larger budget from a big-name studio, Twentieth Century-Fox. Nevertheless, the visuals are still notable in that there's a somewhat raw, naturalistic element to the photography, not unlike Dassin's Night and the City (1950) and Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950) {the latter was also shot by cinematographer Joe McDonald}. In some scenes, Fuller shoves the camera so close to his actors' faces that they're out of focus, bluntly registering the intimate thoughts, emotions and brief inflections that are communicated through that most revealing of facial features, the eye. Though (unexpectedly) prone to melodrama, and with just a hint of anti-Communist propaganda, Pickup on South Street is a strong film noir that succeeds most outstandingly in its evocation of setting – the underground of New York City.
When just-out-of-prison pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) snags the purse of a woman on the subway (Jean Peters), he pockets more than he'd originally bargained for. The woman, Candy, and her cowardly ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley) had been smuggling top-secret information to the Communists, and McKoy has unexpectedly retrieved an important roll of micro-film. Will he turn in the MacGuffin to the proper authorities, or sell it to the highest bidder? If Pickup on South Street has a flaw, it's that the story seems designed solely to bolster an anti-Communist agenda, reeking of propaganda like nothing since WWII {Dwight Taylor, who supplied the story, also notably wrote The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), the only propagandistic movie of the series}. For no apparent reason, every identifiable character – even the smugly self-serving Skip McCoy – eventually becomes a self-sacrificing patriot, the transformation predictable from the outset. In traditional film noir, the unapologetic criminal always gets his comeuppance, the rational punishment for his sins, but apparently not when they've served their country; patriotism wipes the slate clean.

Richard Widmark, an actor who I'm really beginning to like, plays the haughty pickpocket with composure, though always with that hint of ill-ease that suggests he's biting off more than he can chew. The opening scene on the train is the film's finest, as McCoy breathlessly fishes around in his victim's hand bag, recalling Bresson's Pickpocket (1959). Thelma Ritter is terrific as a tired street-woman who'll peddle information to anybody willing to pay for it (though, of course, she draws the line at Commies). Jean Peters is well-cast as the trashy dame passing information to the other side, playing the role almost completely devoid of glamour; Fuller reportedly cast the actress on the observation that she had the slightly bow-legged strut of a prostitute. Nevertheless, Peters must suffer a contrived love affair with Widmark that really brings down the film's attempts at realism. Fascinatingly, upon its release, Pickup on South Street was promptly condemned as Communist propaganda by the FBI, and the Communist Party condemned it for being the exact opposite. Go figure.

Currently my #5 film of 1953:
1) From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)
2) Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder)
3) I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) The Titfield Thunderbolt (Charles Crichton)
5) Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller)
6) Roman Holiday (William Wyler)
7) The War Of The Worlds (Byron Haskin)


Friday, December 26, 2008

Target #253: Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler)

TSPDT placing: #321

Directed by: William Wyler

Watching Ben-Hur (1959) is a lot like paying a visit to the Colosseum. Situated in Rome, Italy, this massive elliptical amphitheatre is the largest ever built in the Roman Empire, able to seat up to 80,000 spectators for gladiatorial games and various public spectacles. I've never been to Rome myself, but I'd imagine that one would look up at this amazing feat of ancient architecture, and be left in awe at the scale of it all. You would marvel at the amount of care and labour that must have gone into such a project, particularly given the comparatively primitive tools with which the builders had worked. I feel the same way about Ben-Hur – William Wyler's epic of epics, and, at the time, the most expensive film ever made. Winner of eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, this colossal cinematic gamble resurrected M-G-M from financial ruin. But is it worth nearly four hours of your time? Like a lumbering elephant, Ben-Hur wallows in its immensity, extravagance and self-importance. But it is epic – oh, so very epic! – and, like the Colosseum, demands our awe.

Earlier this year, I decreed Ben-Hur to be the one film that I wouldn't watch for the first time until I had the luxury of viewing it at the cinema. Sooner than expected, the opportunity came along, though the Christmas Eve screening date made it essential that I bring the usual holiday festivities forward one day. The sacrifice was much warranted, for the film can only be fully experienced in the movie theatre, not least because of the breathtaking 70mm anamorphic print, with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1 – one of the widest ever made. William Wyler fills every frame with rich extravagance, such that even the quietest person-to-person conversation takes place in a magnificent, lavishly-decorated chamber. Such expansive surroundings often promote coldness and detachedness from the audience (many uninvolving historical epics were produced around this period), and Ben-Hur doesn't entirely escape the same fate; for every exciting and emotional sequence, there are maybe two scenes of negligible exposition. But the film thrives on its excesses, and, fortunately, the good scenes are so incredibly good that they merit the wait.

Charlton Heston won an Oscar for his portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur, though his performance is merely adequate without being particularly brilliant. Heston, an actor who flourished mostly on sheer charisma, I think, appears to struggle in the film's most emotional moments {my personal pick for the award that year would have been Laurence Harvey in Jack Clayton's Room at the Top (1959)}. Stephen Boyd, though un-nominated, is quite terrific as Messala, Judah's boyhood friend who was later corrupted by the evils of the Roman Empire. Though there are many exciting scenes – such as the fiery ocean battle or Christ's crucifixion – the film's undisputed centrepiece is, of course, the extraordinary chariot race, a marvel of adrenalin-charged action and suspense. Every single metre of the contest had me enthralled, every jolt and tremble of the carriage sending an agitated chill down my spine. The sequence's enduring influence is to be found in practically every historical epic that followed, most noticeably Ridley Scott's Best Picture-winning Gladiator (2000).

To be denied one's name is the film's greatest tragedy. When condemned to a lifetime of slavery aboard a Roman galley, Judah loses his important status and is delegated a generic identification number – #41. His mother and sister, having contracted leprosy after years in confinement, later flee to a leper colony, where, we are told, names are of no use. After being liberated from captivity by the kindly nobleman Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), Judah takes on the name of his newly-adopted father, a compassionate gesture but one that he is later ashamed to have accepted. To be denied one's face, on the other hand, is apparently divine. Claude Heater, as Jesus Christ, is never properly seen, glimpsed only from behind or at a distance. In this way, the Messiah is portrayed as something holy and angelic, not to be glimpsed by mortal eyes. Though the story of Christ may only form a subplot, thematically it sits at the film's heart. Ben-Hur is about the beginnings of Christianity, and how its teachings have inspired people from the very beginning, and ever since.

Currently my #8 film of 1959:
1) Die Brücke {The Bridge} (Bernhard Wicki)
2) Room at the Top (Jack Clayton)
3) North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder)
5) On the Beach (Stanley Kramer)
6) Le Quatre cents coups {The 400 Blows} (François Truffaut)
7) Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
8) Ben-Hur (William Wyler)
9) The Tingler (William Castle)
10) Some of Manie’s Friends (Bob Finkel) (TV)


Target #252: Heat (1995, Michael Mann)

TSPDT placing: #381
Directed by: Michael Mann
Written by: Michael Mann
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Mykelti Williamson, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner, Natalie Portman

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

Like him or not, director Michael Mann has his own distinctive style, but what matters is how well he is able to use it to tell a story. Manhunter (1986), a solid and well-acted thriller, was tarnished by Mann's excessively "trendy" style, and a musical soundtrack that has kept the film perpetually trapped in the 1980s. More recently, Collateral (2004) demonstrated a precise and balanced combination of style and substance, making excellent use of the digital Viper FilmStream Camera, perfect for capturing the low-key lighting of Mann's favoured night-time urban landscape. His follow-up, Miami Vice (2006), was almost entirely devoid of substance, a meandering crime story redeemed only by a thrilling shoot-out in the final act. Heat (1995) is among Mann's most lauded achievements, and I'm happy to say that it's probably the finest of the director's films I've seen so far. Most noted for being the first film in which Al Pacino and Robert De Niro shared the same screen (they were separated by decades in Coppola's The Godfather: Part II (1974)), Heat is sizzling, action-packed drama.

Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is something of a cliché, the hard-working homicide detective who is distant from his family. However, Pacino gives the character depth, a hard-edged, street-wise cop who is basically good at heart. When writing dialogue for Al Pacino, the temptation is always there to make him shout a lot, and there are several scenes when Mann does exactly that, but the character is strongest when he's not talking at all, lost in silent contemplation or embracing the hysterical mother of a murder victim. Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) sits on the opposite side of the law, a principled professional thief who has dedicated his entire life to crime. McCauley has a motto: "don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." His failure to adhere to this advice is ultimately what gets him killed, for, though he is prepared to discard his relationship with a sincere art designer (Amy Brenneman), McCauley unable to walk away from his own principles.

Heat boasts an impressive supporting cast – including Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Haysbert and Jon Voight – but it's no surprise that Pacino and De Niro dominate the film. Their single face-to-face encounter is a corker, as they sit opposite each other sipping coffee (the table between them representing not only the border between police and criminal, but also a mirror of sorts). Hanna and McCauley exchange terse pleasantries like old friends, despite having never met before, and the two master actors coolly and effortlessly exude charisma with every word. The film's promotional tagline boasts "a Los Angeles crime saga," suggesting that Mann was attempting something akin to his own The Godfather (1972), though he doesn't quite pull it off as readily as Coppola. His film could have done with a few trimmings, excising a few largely superfluous personal subplots, including an impromptu suicide attempt that came right out of left-field. Nevertheless, Heat is a gripping crime story, with great performances, and one of the best shootouts that you'll see anywhere.

Currently my #3 film of 1995:
1) Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam)
2) Se7en (David Fincher)
3) Heat (Michael Mann)
4) GoldenEye (Martin Campbell)
5) La Cité des enfants perdus {The City of Lost Children} (Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
6) Braveheart (Mel Gibson)
7) Apollo 13 (Ron Howard)
8) Babe (Chris Noonan)
9) Die Hard: With a Vengeance (John McTiernan)
10) Toy Story (John Lasseter)


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Target #251: Get Carter (1971, Mike Hodges)

TSPDT placing: #570
Directed by: Mike Hodges
Written by:
Ted Lewis (novel), Mike Hodges (screenplay)
Starring: Michael Caine, Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland, John Osborne, Tony Beckley, George Sewell, Geraldine Moffat

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

1971 was the year when mainstream filmmakers began to the push the limits of what was acceptable to show on screen, both in terms of sex and violence. Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) enthralled and disgusted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, picking up a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Picture but later being voluntarily withdrawn from circulation by its director. Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) shocked audiences with its uncompromising exploration of inherent human violence and vigilantism. Likewise, Get Carter (1971), from director Mike Hodges, is an incredibly gritty underworld gangster film, so much so that you can almost taste the gravel between your teeth. It won't escape your notice that all three of these films are British, or, at least, were produced with substantial British input; apparently, it took Hollywood a few more years to become quite as well accustomed to such themes, though that year's Best Picture-winner, The French Connection (1971), does rival Get Carter as far as grittiness goes.

Jack Carter (Michael Caine) is a London gangster, an entirely unglamorous occupation that entails such duties as gambling, murder and watching pornography. After his brother, Frank, dies in Newcastle under suspicious circumstances, Jack goes up there, against the wishes of his employer, to find out exactly what happened, and to punish all those responsible. What he finds is the usual assortment of sleazy low-lifes and lascivious whores, all part of the underground lifestyle into which he sold himself. Get Carter obviously derived a degree of influence from the trashy pulp-fiction novels of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, and, indeed, this inspiration is openly acknowledged when Carter is seen reading "Farewell My Lovely" {adapted by Edward Dmytryk as Murder, My Sweet (1944)}. Like many of the hard-boiled anti-heroes of 1940s and 50s film noir, he has sold his soul for a chance at revenge, and there's no going back. A detail worth noting is that Carter's eventual assassin is first spotted in the opening credits, sitting opposite in the train carriage. A cruel coincidence, or was his fate sealed from the very beginning?Get Carter may have served as inspiration to the recent generation of British gangster film, but the Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie style of film-making favoured today – the most notable example of which being Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) – is often excessively trendy and highly stylised. Mike Hodges' idea of a gangster film is ugly – disgustingly and uncomfortably repellent, offering not a glimmer of respectability nor nobility in its selection of depraved characters. Even Jack Carter himself is not a man we are asked to admire. He may have a steady supply of droll one-liners at hand, but at his heart he is cold, almost completely devoid of human emotion. Just watch Carter's stone-face as his car is rammed into the bay (with an unfortunate captive in the boot), or his indifference to the fate of friend Keith (Alun Armstrong), who is thoroughly roughed-up while lending a hand. Hodges appears only to find decency in the deceased Frank, who represents the honest, working-class type of man. However, even this legacy is coming to an end, for the next generation, Doreen, has already been corrupted.

Currently my #5 film of 1971:
1) A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick)
2) Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah)
3) Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart)
4) The French Connection (William Friedkin)
5) Get Carter (Mike Hodges)


Target #250: Missing (1982, Costa-Gavras)

TSPDT placing: #841

Directed by: Costa-Gavras
Written by: Thomas Hauser (book), Costa-Gavras (writer), Donald Stewart (writer), John Nichols (uncredited)

Of all the frustrating story devices, red tape is among the worst of them. You can't see it, but Missing (1982) is absolutely swathed in red tape, invisible twines of lies and empty promises that may keep you momentarily satisfied, but ultimately get you nowhere. Costa-Gavras' 1982 political drama is based on a true story, and so, as in real life, there are no easy answers. Exactly how and why did Charles Horman die? Were United States officials somehow responsible for his death? Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) wanders dutifully from hospital to hospital, to every prison and asylum centre, in search of his missing son, gradually becoming disenchanted with the government bureaucrats in whom he'd placed his trust and hope. If the film's conclusion feels somewhat unsatisfying, then Costa-Gavras has succeeded in communicating Horman's confusion, anger and exasperation at the immobility of the political machine. Just as the missing man's father and wife were left without closure, so, too, are we. There can be no resolution as long as governments are set upon protecting their own interests.
Jack Lemmon was no stranger to frustrating film experiences. The Out-of-Towners (1970) is among the most exasperating movies you'll ever see, for its demonstrates a perfect (comedic) incarnation of Murphy's Law, in which nothing goes right, and there's nobody you can blame for it. Missing notably differs in that Costa-Gavras singles out a target for our frustration – the country's self-serving officials and corrupt military officers– and so our annoyance swiftly turns to anger. Lemmon gives one of his finest dramatic performances as as Ed Horman, continually haunted by the incomprehensible disappearance of a son he could never understand. Sissy Spacek isn't quite as strong, but her Beth Horman – the missing man's young wife – is quiet and vulnerable, a woman of fierce convictions that she's too small to carry out. Any filmmaker should utilise a soundtrack by Greek composer Vangelis with caution, for nothing screams "1980s" quite so loudly. However, it isn't all bad news for Missing, as the electronic musical score does actually add a sad, nostalgic element of surrealism to the scenes of violence and bloodshed.

I liked how Costa-Gavras cut directly to flashbacks without exposition or explanation, leaving the viewer disorientated, and wondering if we are, indeed, watching the past or the present. This technique recreates the confusion of the characters involved, and emphasises that our narrator is not omnipotent, but merely, like Ed, trying to piece together the facts as best as he can. The scenes of military violence, with the contribution of Vangelis' soundtrack, are oddly and eerily surreal – particularly the striking image of a galloping white stallion being pursued by a volley of bullets. The visitors to Santiago (though the name Chile is never uttered) are all strangely sedate in response to the images of bloodshed, their schedules unfazed by the nearby murder of local citizens, as though their status as "Americans" somehow places them above all this. At the film's end, Ed Horman dejectedly states "I just thank God we live in a country where we can still put people like you in jail." There's a deliberate hollowness behind these words; as we've just seen, America's policies aren't quite as righteous as they'd have us believe.

Currently my #4 film of 1982:
1) Blade Runner (Ridley Scott)
2) Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner)
3) First Blood (Ted Kotcheff)
4) Missing (Costa-Gavras)
5) The Verdict (Sidney Lumet)


Thursday, December 18, 2008

December 2008 TSPDT Update

That time of year has arrived. After slaving away at the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? Top 1000 for almost one year, the good folks who run the website have released their annual update, which encompasses a wider range of film polls and critics’ lists. Though I had expected my current progress (sitting at 241/1000) to receive a thorough bludgeoning, I’ve actually done quite well for myself here.

The following is a list of new additions and omissions from the updated list; I’ll list only the films that I’ve seen (out of a total of 96 changes).

New additions:
#483: Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter)
#541: Swing Time (1936, George Stevens)
#565: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron)
#576: MASH (1970, Robert Altman)
#601: An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli)
#644: The Usual Suspects (1997, Bryan Singer)
#660: My Fair Lady (1964, George Cukor)
#733: The Matrix (1999. Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski)
#778: City of God (2002, Fernando Meirelles)
#868: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, Frank Capra)
#878: From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann)
#880: Radio Days (1987, Woody Allen)
#898: Starship Troopers (1997, Paul Verhoeven)
#899: Leave Her to Heaven (1945, John M. Stahl)
#917: Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)
#952: Scarlet Street (1945, Fritz Lang)
#953: Lost in Translation (2004, Sofia Coppola)
#956: Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan)
#979: American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes)
#981: Fort Apache (1948, John Ford)

Total additions seen = 20

* The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926, Lotte Reiniger)
* L’ Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat (1895, Lumière, August & Louis Lumière)
* Blood Simple (1984, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
* Jason and the Argonauts (1963, Don Chaffey)
* Knife in the Water (1982, Roman Polanski)
* Love and Death (1975, Woody Allen)
* Rififi (1955, Jules Dassin)
* Russian Ark (2002, Aleksandr Sokurov)
* Shock Corridor (1963, Sam Fuller)
* Stray Dog (1949, Akira Kurosawa)
* The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)
* The Tingler (1959, William Castle)
* Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, Mel Stuart)

Total omissions seen = 13

So, as you can see, the newest update actually boosts my count of films seen, from 242/1000 to 249/1000. Believe it or not, I’m one viewing away from being one-quarter of the way there!

Thoughts on the changes? Well, I’m devastated to see Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934) drop off – two very different films, of course, but each brilliant in its own way. From memory, that means that the Top 1000 is now Jules Dassin-free, which is a sorry state of existence {I recently viewed Night and the City (1950), which is even better, as part of my “Shooting in the Dark” blog}. Furthermore, a list without Nick and Nora Charles isn’t really a list at all. I think I'll drown my sorrows with a martini. We may also lament the childhood favourite Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Woody Allen’s epic Love and Death (1975) and that piece of campy, demented brilliance that is William Castle’s The Tingler (1959).

As far as additions are concerned, many of the new titles appear to be rather mainstream populist films of the last decade; such as The Usual Suspects (1997), American Beauty (1999), Memento (2000) and Donnie Darko (2001). These are all decent films in their own right, but it’s sad to think that they’ve stolen the place of that obscure Czechislovakian war drama that I’ve never heard of, and probably never will now.
The additions I’m most happy with are Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), a superb piece of Halloween craziness, and Swing Time (1936) – one can never have too much Fred and Ginger! Oh, and Terminator 2 is awesome.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Target #242: À bout de souffle / Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)

TSPDT placing: #29

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Written by: François Truffaut (story), Jean-Luc Godard (writer)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

As much as I'd like to think that, after two exciting years, I've been well-and-truly inducted into the world of cinema, I'm really still an amateur. I hear the term "French New Wave" and immediately become intimidated. What's it all about? Hand-held photography, jarring jump-cuts and pretentious philosophical musings? It was with some trepidation that I approached Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de soufflé / Breathless (1960), supposedly the cornerstone of the French movement, though I was somewhat reassured by a brief plot description that sounded uncannily similar to a modern urban thriller: "a young car thief kills a policeman and tries to persuade a girl to hide in Italy with him." In many ways, Breathless is just like a contemporary film. The hand-held camera-work has a gritty, documentary-like immediacy, and a dynamic freshness that wouldn't arrive in Hollywood cinema for another few years {Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964) is the earliest example I can think of}. Stylistically, even recent thrillers like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) and Michael Clayton (2007) owe a lot to Godard, as curious as that may sound.

Both leads are excellent in their respective roles. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a Humphrey Bogart-wannabe, an out-of-his-depth car thief who speaks tough, but whose brave frontage is immediately transparent. His character works effectively as a semi-affectionate satire of Hollywood's hard-boiled film noir heroes – ripped from the pages of Hammett, Chandler and Spillane – who don't actually exist in real life. Jean Seberg, an American actress who only found success after migrating to Europe, is beautiful and sensual as his independent some-time lover, who finds excitement in the notion of a fugitive boyfriend, but has yet to decide if she loves him or not. As far as the romantic subplot is concerned, Godard emphasises the selfishness of his new generation. Love is no longer an intimate and enduring connection between two people, but a succession of lurid and meaningless sexual encounters. Though Michel and Patricia frequently speak their love of each other, their motives are purely egocentric in nature. Each character frequently alludes to their own needs and desires, and Patricia eventually informs on Michel to prove, for her own benefit, that she is indifferent to him.

My only previous Godard work, Alphaville (1965), had sufficiently intrigued me with its half-satirical espionage thriller set against a backdrop of science-fiction. However, when the narrative periodically came to a standstill, so too, I found, did my interest in the film. Breathless gave me similar sentiments, albeit to a lesser degree. While never boring, there is a sizable patch in the middle of the film – in particular, a long scene spent inside Patricia's apartment – where Michel's status as a wanted man is entirely forgotten. The film's narrative drive comes to a grinding halt, and the two characters are left in limbo. When he's not trying to entice his American companion into bed, Michel raises seemingly arbitrary philosophical questions – such as, out of nowhere, "do you ever think about death?" – that apparently serve no purpose other than to justify Godard's film as an important "arthouse" picture. Much has been said about the pioneering use of jump-cuts, a creative trick to trim down the running-time without losing key scenes, but I found the technique unnecessarily jarring and unpalatable.

Currently my #6 film of 1960:
1) Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
2) The Apartment (Billy Wilder)
3) Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)
4) Inherit the Wind (Stanley Kramer)
5) The Time Machine (George Pal)
6) À bout de souffle {Breathless} (Jean-Luc Godard)
7) Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla)
8) The Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman)


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Target #241: Partie de campagne / A Day in the Country (1936, Jean Renoir)

TSPDT placing: #147

Directed by: Jean Renoir
Written by: Jean Renoir (writer), Guy de Maupassant (short story)

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

Last week I watched Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) for the first time, and, while I quite enjoyed it, I felt rather distanced from the story, as though the film was so preoccupied with snappy characters and dialogue (as in a stage play) that it didn't bother with emotion or atmosphere, the evocation of time and place. Happily, this wasn't a problem with Partie de campagne / A Day in the Country (1936). Renoir's unfinished adaptation of a short story by Guy de Maupassant gains a wonderful personality through its on-location filming. Even though we ourselves never observe the oppressive, polluted Parisian streets, Claude Renoir's outdoor photography sweeps over us with the cool and cleansing touch of a fresh breeze, somehow translating into visuals the revitalising sensation of clean country air in one's lungs. Unfortunately, it was also this on-location shooting schedule that proved the film's demise, weather problems delaying and eventually leading to abandonment of production. The film was not released until 1946, faithfully edited together using the existing footage.
Renoir's film undoubtedly feels like an unfinished work, but what exists is nonetheless brilliant. Unlike many unfinished orstudio-butchered would-be masterpieces, that A Day in the Country was not completed to the director's satisfaction causes minimal detriment to the sequences that remain today. The narrative up until the "ending"is perfectly-structured and enjoyable to watch, all planned sequencesup until this point having presumably been filmed without incident. However, after Henri (Georges D'Arnoux) and Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) come together for the first time in a reluctant but passionate embrace, the story then jarringly cuts to a years-later epilogue, a wistful conclusion that reflects on events that seemingly never took place. "Every night I remember," confesses Henriette, as she meets her former one-time lover, having settled on marrying a scruffy imbecile (Paul Temps). But exactly what does she remember? There had been nothing in the film to suggest that she and Henri had fallen in love; this eventuality had always been implied, but never satisfactorily executed.
A strong cast – including André Gabriello, Jane Marken, Jacques B. Brunius and Renoir himself – bring lighthearted humour to their respective roles, but it is the budding romance (never quite realised) between D'Arnoux and Bataille that form's the story's heart. Following its eventual 1946 release, A Day in the Country was lauded as an "unfinished masterpiece," and I suppose that such a description is appropriate. Had filming been completed, such that the story followed through its intended and logical arc, I can only imagine what a powerful piece of cinema the film might have been. Have you ever had a wonderful dream from which you were woken prematurely? This is how I feel about A Day in the Country. Everything up until the hasty ending is funny, emotional, glorious, and invigorating, yet we're wrenched from the dream-like clasp of Renoir's hand unexpectedly and disappointingly. But I'm an optimist: we should simply be glad that this much of the film exists for us to enjoy. Reflecting on what might have been is a task that should ideally be left to movie characters.

Currently my #4 film of 1936:
1) Modern Times (Charles Chaplin)
2) After the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
3) Swing Time (George Stevens)
4) Partie de campagne {A Day in the Country} (Jean Renoir)
5) Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich)
6) Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock)
7) Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra)
8) Secret Agent (Alfred Hitchcock)
9) Intermezzo (Gustaf Molander)
10) My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava)