Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Brighton Rock (1947)
And God Created Woman (1956)
And God Created Woman (Et Dieu... créa la femme) wasn’t Brigitte Bardot’s first movie, but it was the movie that made her an overnight sensation. Released in the US in 1956 without a Production Code seal, it was a major art-house hit, due mostly to a very brief nude scene that as considered amazingly hot stuff back then. It was the nude scene that generated controversy at the time, but in fact it’s quite a nasty little film, although for reasons that have nothing to do with the nudity.
In St Tropez rich businessman Eric Carradine (played by the wonderful Curd Jürgens) plans to open a casino. To do so he needs to gain possession of a run-down boatyard owned by the three Tardieu brothers. They won’t sell, and it later transpires that they refuse to sell because as long as they own a business, even a failing business, they can convince themselves they’re middle-class rather than the poor white trash they really are. The situation is complicated by the presence of Juliette (Bardot). Both Carradine and the eldest of the Tardieu brothers are desperately anxious to get Juliette into bed.
Juliette has other problems. The family she has been living with don’t approve of her, and are threatening to send her back to the orphanage she came from (a prospect she regards as being slightly worse than being sent to prison). She wears tight sweaters, flirts with men and listens to music on the juke box, which of course is enough to convince the respectable townspeope that she’s a whore. In a particularly creepy scene she’s told that she can avoid being sent back to the orphanage if she can get a certificate from a doctor proving that she’s still a virgin. She quite reasonably tells the woman from the Welfare Board what she can do with that suggestion.
Antoine Tardieu is a dumb, violent, misogynistic creep who treats Juliette like a whore, so naturally she fall falls in love with him. It’s that sort of movie. To avoid the orphanage she needs to get married, but Antoine considers that women of Juliette’s sort are not the sort of woman one marries. His brother Michel though is willing to marry her. Michel is nerdy, sensitive and kind, so naturally she despises him. It’s that sort of movie. They are married, but Antoine seduces Juliette. Which of course is Juliette’s fault, and proves she really is a whore. There’s no hint of disapproval of Antoine’s behaviour, in fact his mother seems to think he’s done Michel a favour by showing him that his wife is a tramp. Michel finally wins Juliette’s love by slapping her around a bit thus proving that he’s a real man.
Director Roger Vadim’s sexual politics seem, more than anything else, muddled. At one point we are told that girls like Juliette were made to destroy men, and it seems that Vadim can’t quite decide if that’s Juliette’s fault or not. She’s presented as a reasonably sympathetic character, but this was 1956, and female sexuality as a destructive force was still a view that found favour with audiences. And when at one point Juliette is informed that what she needs is for her husband to give her a good spanking the complete lack of irony with which this message is delivered is rather depressing.
I’ve actually liked some of Vadim’s later films, so I’m reluctant to write him off as a mere sexist creep. The movie does have some compensations. Curd Jürgens is very good, as always. And there’s a very good scene with Bardot in a nightclub, dancing to crazy jazz rhythms. If you want to know why was was one of cinema’s iconic sex goddesses this scene tells you everything you need to know. Bardot is actually quite good. Within the limitations of the script she does her best to portray Juliette as a free spirit rather than a manipulative monster. And the movie does offer an intriguing, if rather disheartening, look at 1950s sexual mores.
The Americanization of Emily (1964)
When we think of Julie Andrews it's difficult not to think of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Which is a little unfair - her career has been far more varied than that and includes some rather interesting films. Unluckily for her, her most interesting movies featuring her most impressive acting performances (movies like Darling Lili) haven’t always been her biggest hits. One of her best is The Americanization of Emily, a quirky and very cynical anti-war comedy romance from 1964.
Julie Andrews is Emily, who works as a driver for the armed forces in World War 2. She used to work as a hospital driver but had to give it up - she always felt sorry for the men about to be sent back to the front and she always ended up sleeping with them. And they invariably ended up getting killed. That’s why she finds Lieutenant Commander Charles Madison (James Garner) so attractive. He’s a dog-robber - a personal assistant to an important American admiral. He’s never been anywhere near the front lines, and he has a talent for avoiding even the merest hint of personal danger. For Charlie the war is one big party - fine food, beautiful women and luxury hotels. There’s no chance Charlie is going to break Emily’s heart by getting himself killed, so she can hardly wait to get him into bed with her.
But fate has an unexpected fate in store for Charlie. His boss, Admiral Jessup, apart from being quite insane, sees the war not so much as a war as a PR opportunity for the Navy. And an opportunity to strike at the real enemy. The real enemy being of course the goddamned Army. The Army wants to make the European theatre of operations an army show, but Admiral Jessup has a plan. The first man killed on D-Day is going to be a sailor. The admiral is going to make sure of it. And he’s not only going to be a sailor, he’s going to be filmed getting killed. And Charlie and his buddy and fellow dog-robber Lieutenant Commander Paul “Bus” Cummings (James Coburn) find themselves assigned to the project of making the film. The fact that neither of them knows the first thing about movie-making isn’t the sort of detail to trouble the military mind.
Paddy Chayefsky’s script is delightfully cynical and witty, a brilliant mix of black comedy and very offbeat romance. The affair between Emily and Charlie starts out as simply recreational sex, but Emily has never been able to stop herself falling in love. Emily believes in all sorts of old-fashioned English virtues like duty and self-sacrifice, but gradually realises they’ve never brought her anything but misery and the dishonest joys and self-indulgent pleasures of martyrdom. Her mother suffers from the same syndrome. Charlie’s unashamed cowardice makes her appreciate, for the first time, that perhaps life is better and more worthy of celebration than death.
Julie Andrews pulls off a difficult and complex part exceptionally well. She has to combine all kinds of apparently contradictory emotions and till make her character believable, and she succeeds. She also has to make a woman with a strong streak of virtue and self-righteousness into a likeable and sympathetic character, and this she also does very successfully. James Garner makes Charlie one of the most admirable cowards in movie history. He’s a coward, but he’s a coward with principles. His hatred of war and of the exaltation of war that allows it to happen is perfectly sincere, and his argument that it isn’t the generals and politicians who make war possible but the ordinary people who celebrate the courage and self-sacrifice involved in war is unexpectedly thought-provoking. James Coburn is fun as Bus, and Melvyn Douglas is both amusing and disturbing as the crazed Admiral Jessup.
I won’t give away any hints about the ending other than to say that it works perfectly and it neatly avoids the pitfalls that could so easily have brought this movie to grief.
Anti-war movies always run the risk of making war too entertaining and of celebrating the very virtues that encourage war, but this is one of the very few anti-war movies that doesn’t fall into that trap. It remains deliciously and unrepentantly cynical throughout, and it has the courage to maintain its mockery of the military virtues right to the end. It also manages to be a movie that comes down very firmly on the side of life, and of love. This is a truly superb movie, and I recommend it very very highly.
Dangerous Curves (1929)
Let’s face it, if you’ve seen one circus movie, you’ve pretty much seen ‘em all, and Dangerous Curves is your basic stock-standard circus movie. It does have one big thing going for it, though, and that’s Clara Bow. And that’s enough. She’s Pat Delaney, daughter of a famous high-wire performer, and in love with the circus’s headliner, Larry Lee, also a high-wire artist. Trouble is, Larry’s in love with his current partner, Zara, and he doesn’t even notice poor Pat. And Zara is a no-good dame who’s two-timing him, and she’s bringing him to the brink of ruin. Will he realise in time that Pat is really the girl for him?
This 1929 comedy/romance (one of Bow’s first talkies) is about as corny as a movie can get, but it’s very corniness somehow pulls it through. If it had been a bit less corny, it wouldn’t have worked. And Clara Bow is sensational, as always. It’s a pity Paramount couldn’t have found her slightly better material, bit if you’re a fan this one is still worth seeing.