Saturday, April 25, 2009

Target #269: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

TSPDT placing: #147

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) was produced at the height of World War Two, and that such an illustrious Technicolor production was completed amid both nightly London bombings and the opposition of Prime Minister Winston Churchill is a testament to the consummate professionalism of The Archers, producer/writer/director team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Certainly one of the more magnificent British productions of the 1940s, the film starred Roger Livesey as Clive Wynne-Candy, an illustrious veteran who with the onset of WWII, to his dismay, finds himself ignored by those who should be respecting his military experience rather than dismissing it. Livesey (a replacement for Laurence Olivier) plays Wynne-Candy in three stages of his life, authentically and sympathetically tracing his fluctuating disillusionment with "honourable warfare" through years of hard-earned living. The portrayal sidles a delicate line between geniality and parody, and as a lifetime-spanning dramatic performance, it's easily on par with Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941).

The film's title was borrowed from a comic strip by David Low, in which the titular Colonel Blimp was presented as dim-witted British reactionary, a bloated old man with a walrus moustache who issued absurd political commands from the comfort of a Turkish Bath – "Gad, sir," he once says, "we must have a bigger Army to protect the Navy, and a bigger Navy to protect the Army." As a political candidate, Low's Colonel Blimp proposes "shooting down politicians and establishing a Dictatorship of colonels to safeguard democracy." Contradictory and anachronistic, a symbol of both jingoism and complacency, the character epitomised Low's dissatisfaction with contemporary British politics. Powell and Pressburger's version of Colonel Blimp is substantially more sympathetic, tracing in flashback the leading character's transformation from a young, impetuous Boer War soldier to a pot-bellied veteran with an outmoded belief system. As the times changed, our Colonel Blimp didn't. But a new World War demands a new set of rules, and if Britain is to survive she must embrace the dishonourable tactics of her enemy.

I originally decided to watch The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as a tribute to the recently-deceased cinematographer Jack Cardiff, but I apparently got the film confused with a later Powell and Pressburger production, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Cardiff did, indeed, serve as a camera operator in 'Colonel Blimp,' but the praise for the film's breathtaking Technicolor photography must go to Georges Perinal, who captures and savours every vibrant hue, transforming each frame into a vivid cinematic canvas. If for no other reason, then the decision to shoot in Technicolor was worthwhile for capturing the stunning green eyes and red hair of Deborah Kerr in her first major role. As Clive Candy's "romantic ideal," to which all other women in his life must aspire, Kerr demonstrates such beauty, elegance and independence that you just about want to marry her – not once, but three times. Antony Walbrook also does an excellent job as the impressively-named Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, Candy's German duelling opponent and later best friend.

Powell and Pressburger, to their credit, didn't deal in stereotypes. Even in propaganda pieces like 49th Parallel (1941), the enemy Germans were portrayed as ordinary humans, with their own hopes and ambitions. Likewise in 'Colonel Blimp,' the character of Kretschmar-Schuldorff is inherently good, despite his occasional disenchantment towards the "winning" side. Note, for example, how readily Candy and his adversary reconcile their differences in the Berlin nursing-home, not with violence – as was forced upon them by their respective nations – but through mutual understanding; its with some irony that the filmmakers satirise how easily individuals, but not countries, can reach a satisfactory compromise. The manner in which Powell and Pressburger goodnaturedly (and even nostalgically) poke fun at the stuffy ceremonial formality of traditional warfare reminded me of the exploits of fictional French patriot Brigadier Ettiene Gerard. Pressburger must certainly have been aware of the stories, since he worked in a reference to Arthur Conan Doyle {and while we're on the topic, watch out for Arthur Wontner and Ian Fleming, who had previously played Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, respectively}.

Currently my #1 film of 1943:
1) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
2) Five Graves to Cairo (Billy Wilder)
3) Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (Roy William Neill)
5) This Land is Mine (Jean Renoir)
6) Journey into Fear (Norman Foster)
7) The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson)
8) Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (Roy William Neill)
9) Hitler’s Children (Edward Dmytryk, Irving Reis)


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Target #268: Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur)

TSPDT placing: #471

Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen

In Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) brainstorms ideas for the latest B-movie horror project to fall into his lap. Unhappy with the feline costumes they'd been testing, he proposes not showing the titular "cat-men" at all: "And why? Because the dark has a life of its own. In the dark, all sorts of things come alive." Shields was obviously referencing Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942), the brainchild of legendary horror producer Val Lewton, who made B-movies so professionally-crafted that to call them B-movies would be to do them a disservice. My first Lewton film was The Seventh Victim (1943), a clash of superb cinematography and a ridiculous plot, but fortunately Cat People has a more palatable storyline – though, of course, you'll still have to suspend disbelief on the odd occasion. If this film is a triumph, then it's a triumph of atmosphere, with Nicholas Musuraca (one of film noir's most accomplished cinematographers) prolonging the intrigue and suspense through his masterful use of lighting and shadows.

When American Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) marries Serbian immigrant Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), he convinces himself that his wife's fear of intimacy is simply a remnant of her superstitious childhood. But Irena is adamant that she not consummate the marriage, for she fears that, due to a Satanic family curse, her sexual passion will force her into the form of a bloodthirsty panther. Irene constantly surrounds herself with feline imagery, is instinctively drawn to a captive zoo panther, and her fears swiftly become a psychological obsession that threaten to take her over. Oliver confides his concerns in attractive co-worker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), who is biased by her love for him, and psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway, who oddly appeared in the same role in The Seventh Victim), who dismisses Irena's worries as mere insanity. The three supporting players give good performances, but Simone Simon is weak; she does display a certain exotic allure and a shy vulnerability, but her dialogue delivery is entirely unconvincing.

Val Lewton originally instructed Tourneur to completely avoid showing the elusive panther, but RKO demanded more money-shots. Even so, Irena's feline form is on screen only for a few shots, and never in plain view. The filmmakers evidently understood that seeing nothing was infinitely more frightening than seeing a trained animal, and so the unknown – a shadow that lurks cunningly in the shadows – is exploited for maximum thrills. Lewton's initial insistence on not showing the panther, maintaining ambiguity on Irena's mental state, suggests that he had in mind something more than a simple "monster picture." Is this panther that plagues a shy, married woman's mind representative of something within ourselves – of suppressed jealousy, aggression and lust? Sex and violence have often blended together in mythology. Mafdet, the Ancient Egyptian goddess of justice and execution, possessed the head of a lioness; she was later replaced by Bast, whose image then changed to represent fertility and motherhood. In the same way, Irena's marital lust is intrinsically linked with her aggression, and abstinence alone will only temporarily quell her desires.

Currently my #8 film of 1942:
1) Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
2) To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch)
3) This Gun for Hire (Frank Tuttle)
4) Holiday Inn (Mark Sandrich)
5) The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder)
6) The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler)
7) The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)
8) Cat People (Jacques Tourneur)
9) Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (John Rawlins)


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Target #267: The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah)

TSPDT placing: #58

Directed by: Sam Peckinpah
Written by: Roy N. Sickner (story), Walon Green (story & screenplay), Sam Peckinpah (screenplay)

The Wild Bunch (1969) is about the end of the Western era, a theme director Sam Peckinpah also explored in his first success, Ride the High Country (1962). The year is 1913, and the aging gunslingers of yesteryear now find themselves strangers in a modern, civilised world: the once indispensable horse is being replaced by the automobile, and traditional firearm duels now play out with M1917 Browning machine guns, which belt out bullets at 450 rounds/minute. So advanced, in fact, has the American West become that its cowboys must seek out action over the national border in "primitive" Mexico, where oppressed civilians fight valiantly, with minimal resources, to overthrow the resident dictatorship of General Mapache (Emilio Fernández); it is only in these revolutionists that the heroic spirit of the Old West survives. Aside from Angel (Jaime Sánchez), who is fighting for an ideal, there is not a single noble character in the film, not even the law-enforcer (Albert Dekker), who arrogantly and cowardly bullies criminal bounty-hunters into doing his work.

The surviving outlaws of the Old West – William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien – cling to the tattered vestiges of their former ways, embracing an outdated code of "honour" that feels woefully inadequate in the modern world: they are "unchanged men in a changing land. Out of step, out of place, and desperately out of time." But unlike 'Ride the High Country,' which featured genre stalwarts Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott as washed-up Western heroes, none of the "Wild Bunch" ever were heroes. Having always lived on the dark side of the law, as wanted outlaws, how can these men possibly recover any sense of nobility? They do, indeed, march wordlessly across General Mapache's headquarters to reclaim their captive member, but only after passively watching him endure hours of torture. Is it guilt that prompts Pike Bishop to come to the aid of his companion? With the old Western heroes long dead, must it fall to its villains to display some sort of decency? Is that what our society has come to?

The stylisation of Sergio Leone (particularly Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)) was clearly an influence on The Wild Bunch, but Peckinpah also makes the style his own. Unlike Leone, whose greatest mastery is in the prolonged build-up rather than the climax, Peckinpah simply prolongs the climax itself. The tempo of Lou Lombardo's editing seems to resemble, if anything, the spatter of machine gun fire, cutting ferociously from one shot to another – often utilising almost balletic slow-motion – and consciously mimicking the feverish confusion of a shootout. Though one might describe Peckinpah's use of violence as gratuitous (and many did in 1969, with the film almost landing an X-rating, and garnering plenty of controversy), there is a clear streak of disapproval running through the film's two major bloodbaths, in which the participants are seemingly depicted as immature children gunning each other with toy weapons; it is as though the anachronistic outlaws are merely grasping for their younger years, when their actions were considered significant, and their environment well within their control.

Currently my #3 film of 1969:
1) Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger)
2) Andrey Rublyov {Andrei Rublev} (Andrei Tarkovsky)
3) The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah)
4) Take the Money and Run (Woody Allen)


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Target #266: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, Vincente Minnelli)

TSPDT placing: #714

Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Written by: George Bradshaw (story), Charles Schnee (screenplay)

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

If there's one thing that filmmakers know, it's Hollywood. It's the charm, magic and otherwordly emotion of a studio movie set, or – the flip-side – the seedy underbelly of greed, ambition and betrayal. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) is an excellent drama about Hollywood, but it's not quite on par with the similar show-business satires of previous years, particularly Mankiewicz's All About Eve (1950) {which concerned the stage, but tread similar territory} and Wilder's Sunset Blvd. (1950). Perhaps the difference lies in director Vincente Minnelli, whose work is as graceful and professional as ever, but who is quite obviously an optimist: he loves Hollywood, and can't bring himself to despise all that it represents. Whereas Billy Wilder apparently hated everyone and everything, lending Sunset Blvd. its legendary bitter edge, Minnelli looks down upon his disgraced producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) not with hatred, nor even pity, but almost admiration – as a misunderstood genius making a final hopeful bid for redemption. Unlike that Gothic grotesque Norma Desmond, it seems that Shields' "return" will be a success.

The Bad and the Beautiful employs a similar storytelling device to All About Eve (1950), telling its story almost entirely via noirish flashbacks. Three successful artists – a director, actress and writer – arrive at the home of Jonathan Shields, the disgraced Hollywood producer to whom each of the three owes their monumental success. So why do they loathe him? Shields gave director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) his big break in cinema, worked with him to great acclaim, and then shut him out of his dream project, a Gone with the Wind-like epic called "The Faraway Mountain." Georgia Larisson (Lana Turner) was likewise plucked from obscurity, rescued from a lifetime of self-loathing sex and alcoholism, before being abandoned in her moment of triumph. Novelist James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell, in another great dramatic role) already had some acclaim, but also the hindrance of distracting Southern belle wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame). Though he couldn't possibly have foreseen the consequences of his actions, Shields took care of that, as well.

Each of the three owes their livelihood to Jonathan Shields, and I think that this is the true root of their hatred: they're eternally in debt to him, and like Faust, feel as though they have traded their souls for a room at the top. Kirk Douglas portrays Shields wonderfully, and in the film's most searing moment, he explodes into a fit of rage, his short, stocky stature seeming to inflate as his antagonism grows. But Shields isn't really as inherently "bad" as the film's title would have you believe. He is presented as a flawed genius, whose personal shortcomings stem from the same artistic vein as that which fuels his cinematic intuition (a Graham Greene quote clarifies my meaning: he once described himself as having "a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life," and that "unfortunately, the disease is also one's material"). Indeed, Shields was modelled on several filmmakers, most noticeably Val Lewton (whose Cat People (1942) gets an indirect reference), Orson Welles, and David O. Selznick, whose box-office flop Duel in the Sun (1946) also exhausted considerable funding and several directors.

Currently my #5 film of 1952:
1) Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
2) Limelight (Charles Chaplin)
3) Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
4) On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino)
5) The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli)
6) High Noon (Fred Zinnemann)
7) Macao (Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray)


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Target #265: The Shanghai Gesture (1941, Josef von Sternberg)

TSPDT placing: #790

Directed by: Josef von Sternberg

Having just watched The Shanghai Gesture (1941), I'm not even sure what to make of it. Was it a good film? Was it a complete mess? The 100 minutes unfolded like a drug-induced haze, the alluring scent of an opiate hanging thickly in the air. Somehow, the film's plot – whatever it may have been about – seemed totally and utterly inconsequential, with director Josef von Sternberg placing additional, almost superfluous, importance on the development of mood. Indeed, aside from atmosphere, there's little else to keep you watching the film: the characters are sleazy and grotesque, the sort you'd expect to find at a seedy casino, its employees imbued with the mock dignity of one who deals exclusively in exploiting the weaknesses of lesser men. A good cast – Walter Huston, Gene Tierney, Victor Mature, Eric Blore – is not exactly wasted on such poorly-developed characters, but one gets the sense that even they are not exactly sure what they're doing in this place. But, if the film is a failure, then it's a genuinely fascinating one.

"Mother" Gin Sling (Ona Munson, in unflattering Oriental make-up) is the mysterious and ruthless owner of a Shanghai casino, where desperate men come night or day to gamble their lives and fortunes. Employee Doctor Omar (Victor Mature) does his best to charm the beautiful girls who come his way, in one night snagging both smart-talking American Dixie (Phyllis Brooks) and conceited rich-girl "Poppy" (Gene Tierney). When threatened with closure by wealthy entrepreneur Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), Gin Sling springs into action, using her enormous influence to rebuff the challenge. The Shanghai Gesture is sometimes categorised as film noir. Certainly, other noir pictures like Macao (1952), which Josef von Sternberg directed until he was replaced by Nicholas Ray, utilised a similarly exotic Asian setting, so the non-American locale doesn't immediately preclude it from consideration. In some ways, it fits the bill: every character in the film has a weakness – something to hide – through which they can be manipulated; a shady past that has come back to haunt them.

Despite being restricted by the provisions of the Production Code, The Shanghai Gesture is one of the sleaziest films of its era, leaving a bitter, uneasy taste in the mouth, despite impeccable production values. Hollywood's interpretation of Eastern cultural values was evidently unflattering, and every Asian character is utterly devoid of morals, with particularly prominence given to the proudly misogynistic attitudes of one Chinese employee who likes to brag of his polygyny. A shocking history of sex slavery is exposed, with New Year's Eve guests treated to a recreation of these ghastly practices (or, at least, we're told that it is merely a recreation). But it isn't only the Chinese whose immorality is exposed, and even the seemingly upright Sir Guy betrays a suspect past, doomed finally to suffer for his perceived sins. Walter Huston is excellent as always, bringing conviction to a film in which everybody else seems uncertain of their roles. Gene Tierney, perhaps her most ravishing performance outside Laura (1944), isn't particularly convincing, but her falseness does strangely work, given the desperate phoniness of her character.

Currently my #8 film of 1941:
1) Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
2) The Maltese Falcon (John Huston)
3) 49th Parallel (Michael Powell)
4) The Wolf Man (George Waggner)
5) Shadow of the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
6) Swamp Water (Jean Renoir)
7) High Sierra (Raoul Walsh)
8) The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg)
9) Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock)


Target #264: Rome, Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini)

TSPDT placing: #98
Directed by: Roberto Rossellini
Written by: Alberto Consiglio (story) (uncredited), Sergio Amidei (story & screenplay), Federico Fellini (screenplay), Roberto Rossellini (uncredited)
Starring: Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero, Vito Annichiarico, Nando Bruno, Harry Feist, Giovanna Galletti

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 Only]

On its initial release, Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945) was hailed for its harrowing documentary realism, sharing the 1946 Palme d'Or, and even today it is regarded as the type specimen of Italian neorealism, a movement that produced such treasures as The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Umberto D. (1952). The film's photographic style, which is coarse and unstylised, could certainly be considered classically neorealistic, as could Rossellini's unavoidable preoccupation with Italy's fascist history and war-time devastation. One might suggest that the film's unexceptional film-making technique was imposed upon Rossellini rather than being an entirely deliberate artistic decision; the Germans had only just withdrawn from Rome, and its citizens were still reeling from years of Nazi occupation and Allied bombing. Just as Carol Reed filmed The Third Man (1949) amid the crumbling ruins of war-torn Vienna, Rossellini uses the backdrop of a fallen city to emphasise the disintegration of a formerly unified nation, now surviving only in fragmented patches of human spirit that must now be forged back together again.

Rossellini's film is most often praised for its realism, and for its primary focus on the ordinary citizens of Rome. However, during the film's first half, I didn't find this approach entirely successful. Rather than centering the film intimately on one or two characters, as Vittorio De Sicae did in his two well-known neorealist films, Open City instead jumps from one to another, manufacturing a sense of unity among the oppressed citizens of Rome, but also diluting the viewer's ability to identify with any one character. In this sense, the film is similar to Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966), or even Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925), in that individual characters hold lesser prominence than the ideals for which they are fighting. Suggesting that the art of neorealism took several years to perfect, Rossellini also occasionally veers towards melodrama. Scenes involving the arrogant Major Bergmann (Harry Feist) establish a simplistic "us versus them" mentality, offering Germany as the outright villain in a manner similar to that of any early 1940s American propaganda film.

I must admit that I found myself less-than-captivated during the film's opening half, perhaps because Rossellini wouldn't focus exclusively on any one character. The most interesting moments were those tinged with drama – a German soldier unexpectedly removes a gun from his pocket, a terrorist bomb shakes the city buildings. But if I had any doubts about the director's technique, then the harrowing realism of Anna Magnani's death, photographed as though through the lens of a bystanding newsreel camera, without any dramatic fanfare or unnecessary cinematic punctuation, convinced me of its merits. Notably, Rossellini deviates towards drama in his film's second half, but I considered this an improvement, my complete sympathy now directed towards a specific character, the dignified Roman priest Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi). The German treatment of captured rebels is unflinching in its hostility, including a prolonged torture session with a blow-torch, and a sombre firing squad execution as city children watch on with downcast eyes. Interestingly, Rossellini doesn't end the film with an Italian victory, as might be expected. The misery lingers; any victory could only be hollow.

Currently my #7 film of 1945:
1) The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder)
2) Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock)
3) Brief Encounter (David Lean)
4) 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
5) Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl)
6) Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang)
7) And Then There Were None (René Clair)
8) Roma, città aperta {Rome, Open City} (Roberto Rossellini)
9) Blithe Spirit (David Lean)
10) Cornered (Edward Dmytryk)