Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Hôtel du Nord (1938)

I’ve now seen quite a few examples of French film noir from the late 1930s, and I’m completely addicted. Hôtel du Nord, directed by Marcel Carné, is a perfect specimen.

French film noir is sometimes also referred to as poetic realism, and both terms are in their own ways perfectly appropriate. The feel is similar to, but by no means identical with, the later and more familiar American style of film noir.

The setting is a cheap hotel in Paris, the Hôtel du Nord. At the beginning we meet the owners, the permanent guests and regular customers, a motley but mostly good-hearted and fairly likeable assortment of low-grade workers, petty criminals, cops and whores.

And we meet the newest guests, Renée and Pierre, a young couple obviously very much in love who have chosen Room 16 in the Hôtel du Nord as the place in which to spend their last night on this Earth. Defeated by life, they have made a suicide pact, but events don’t turn out as they expected. What does happen has a profound and unexpected effect on Edmond, a rather dandified, somewhat cold-blooded and very enigmatic ex-criminal who lives there with his prostitute girlfriend Raymonde.

Suicide, both active and passive, and other attempts at evading life are the principal themes of this movie. It has the characteristic film noir fatalism in spades, although oddly it manages to avoid being a mere wallowing in self-pity and bleakness. It’s both an affirmation of life and an acceptance of fate.

Louis Jouvet gives a subtle performance as Edmond, a character for whom we have little sympathy in the beginning. As the film progresses we come to understand him, as the character comes to understand himself and his destiny. The same change occurs in our perception of Jean-Pierre Aumont as Pierre and Pierre’s view of himself. In fact the key characters are all confronted by circumstances that turn out to be turning points in their lives and in their self-awareness. Annabella is sweetly vulnerable as Renée, while Arletty (there seem to have been a real fashion at this time for French actresses to have single-word names) is amusing and engaging as the cynical Raymonde.

A superb movie that works on both an intellectual and a emotional level. The ending is inevitable, which makes it all the more effective. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Whirlpool (1949)

Otto Preminger’s 1949 film Whirlpool is one of those movies that stretch the definition of film noir, although that hasn’t stopped Fox promoting it as such.

Successful psychoanalyst Dr William Sutton and his wife Ann have it all. They have all the material trappings of success, they have status, they have respectability. They’re poster children for the American Dream. Preminger shows us, at first, just the tiniest cloud to their happiness. It’s impossible to imagine it could seriously threaten them. They’re so perfect and so beautiful. They have such a beautiful home.

But Ann has secrets, secrets from her childhood, and they put her in the power of David Corvo, a quack hypnotist, and she finds herself accused of murder.

Whirlpool is a product of 1940s Hollywood’s infatuation with psychiatry and hypnosis and other mysteries of the mind. It requires the audience to believe things about hypnosis that no modern audience is likely to be able to do, but then contemporary movies like Spellbound stretched credibility to the limit as well.

Jose Ferrer does well to make an implausible character, Korvo, seem reasonably plausible. It’s a delightfully oily performance. Richard Conte is solid as Dr Sutton, who eventually has to face up to the fact that he wasn’t as ideal a husband as he thought.

Gene Tierney is Mrs Sutton. She’s often accused of being an indifferent actress but she often had to play characters, in movies like Leave Her to Heaven and Whirlpool, who demonstrated what modern psychiatry likes to call Flat Affect. She seems slightly disconnected and distant but that’s how the character she is playing is supposed to be like and her performance is actually quite effective (leaving aside the fact hat a modern audience isn’t going to swallow the film’s psychiatric explanations for her behaviour. For me her performance is perfect for the type of film and the type of role.

The movie is a fascinating example of the psychiatric thriller that was so popular at the time, and Preminger gives us an interesting and entertaining movie.

This one is also available on DVD from Fox’s Film Noir series, although personally I don’t think there’s anything even remotely film noir about it. It doesn’t matter - it’s a great movie anyway.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Otto Preminger is rapidly becoming my favourite film noir director, and his 1950 production Where the Sidewalk Ends is yet another Preminger masterpiece.

Mark Dixon is a cop who is much too fast with his fists, and as the film opens he’s in trouble with his superiors once again. As the movie progresses we discover something about the demons that are driving this man. Following up a murder in a gambling joint Dixon resorts to violence once too often, and his world starts to fall apart (although in fact he is already well on the road to disaster before this). Now he has a body on his hands, and the father of the girl he’s just met (and is falling in love with) is the prime suspect. His boss (Karl Malden as a very keen and very upright chief of detectives) is keen to nail dear old dad for this crime, and Dixon has to find a way to divert suspicion elsewhere.

Dixon is also obsessed with his pursuit of gangland boss Tommy Scalise, which not only complicates things but is also a sign of his increasing loss of control over both events and his own feelings.

This may be a movie that actually works better today than it would have done in 1950. We’re possibly more aware of, and more sensitive to, the abuse of power by those in authority than a 1950 audience would have been. Although we feel some sympathy for Mark Dixon, we also can’t avoid being horrified by his behaviour and by his over-fondness for violence.

Dana Andrews does a superb job as Dixon, a man so confused by his own emotions that he no longer has any real insight into his situation or his own actions. Gene Tierney is innocence personified as the daughter whose father is unjustly accused of murder. They key scene in the movie is the moment when she finally realises that her father’s innocence is not going to automatically protect him, and that her faith in the system is sadly misplaced.

The cynicism of this movie, and its portrayal of a cop who is both dishonest and in fact little more than a thug, are typical of Preminger’s willingness to push the boundaries of the Production Code as far as he could.

Gene Tierney always gave fine performances for Preminger, and this movie is no exception.

Superlative acting by Dana Andrews coupled with some great writing by Ben Hecht and the sure touch of director Preminger adds up to a great example of classic film noir.

It’s available on DVD in Fox’s Film Noir series.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Erotikon (1920)

Mauritz Stiller’s Erotikon is a delightfully wicked and outrageously immoral 1920 Swedish silent comedy about infidelity.

Leo Carpentier is a rather stuffy professor of entomologist. He knows rather a lot about the sex lives of beetles, but rather less about the sex lives of attractive young wives, such as his own. His wife copes with marriage to the somewhat unexciting professor by taking a lover. In fact two lovers. The professor isn’t pleased when he finds out, although if the truth be known he has developed a very cosy relationship with his attractive and fun-loving niece Marthe.

This movie was apparently a major inspiration for the young Ernst Lubitsch, and it has a similar feel to Lubitsch’s films – it’s sophisticated and sexy, and totally lacking in any redeeming moral message. Stiller assembled a superb cast for this movie - Tora Teje is wonderful as the free-spirited wife, Karin Molander is great fun as Marthe, and Anders De Wahl is pompous but likeable as the hapless entomologist.

It’s the sort of silent comedy that has nothing whatever in common with the ghastly slapstick comedies that most people associate with that era, and the acting is modern and naturalistic. Stiller was a pretty good judge of acting – among his discoveries was a young actress named Greta Garbo.

The first thing you need to do when you put the Kino DVD in your DVD player is to turn the volume down to zero and leave it there – the score is possibly the most atrocious I have ever encountered. It’s both intrinsically awful and ludicrously inappropriate.

On the plus side the picture quality is generally extremely good, and there are some extras including a useful introduction to the film by Peter Cowie. And it preserves the tinting of the original, a feature that adds so much to the distinctive flavour of silent cinema

I highly recommend this one to fans of silent cinema, and if you’re not a fan of silent movies it’s not a bad place to start.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Servant (1963)

The Servant, made in 1963, was one of three collaborations between writer Harold Pinter and director Joseph Losey, and one of four films which teamed Losey with star Dirk Bogarde. It’s one of those queer films where the queer content is all sub-text, but there’s plenty of sub-text! The Servant seems at first to be simply about class but as the film progresses other undercurrents appear. And it seems to be a role-reversal film, with manservant Barrett (Bogarde) gaining the upper hand over his employer Tony (James Fox). Again, though, the situation becomes more complex.

The class system has corrupted both the oppressors and the oppressed. Tony’s girlfriend Susan is unable to prevent Barrett from taking over Tony’s life, and this is at least partly because she is incapable of thinking of a servant as a human being. There are some subtle hints of homoeroticism which work because they are subtle.

The plot is in essence very simple. Tony is an upperclass man-about-town who advertises for a manservant. He gets more than he bargained for in Barrett. While Barrett sets about gaining control of the household he and Susan become involved in a power struggle for control of Tony. Barrett then brings his “sister" into the house, and she sets out to seduce Tony.

Losey’s direction is fabulous. So many unsettling camera angles, extreme low-angle shots, mirror shots, all contribute to a feeling of things spiralling out of control, and to a feeling of tensions building to unbearable degrees. There’s also a scene in a restaurant in which we hear disjointed pieces of various conversations which have nothing whatever to do with the film, but they again have the effect of making the viewer uncomfortable. There are one or two brief outdoor sequences which only serve to emphasise the claustrophobic hot-house atmosphere of Tony’s townhouse in which almost all of the action takes place.

Bogarde’s performance is superlative, at times menacing, at times downright nasty, at other times charming or obsequious, but always sinister to some degree. James Fox is also superb as Tony. Sarah Miles as Barrett’s “sister” and Wendy Craig as Susan are both solid. The music, a very jazz-influenced score by Johnny Dankworth which includes Cleo Laine singing a song that recurs throughout the film, is very effective. It’s a movie that seems longer than it is, not because it’s dull but because it’s so tense. A great film.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Angel Face (1952)

While it isn’t Otto Preminger’s best-known exercise in film noir, Angel Face may be his best. In 1952 Howard Hughes was apparently so intent on forcing Jean Simmons to make one more movie for him that he was prepared to give Preminger complete artistic control if he could guarantee to shoot it in 18 days, which was all that remained of her contract after a rather acrimonious legal battle between the star and Hughes. Preminger jumped at the chance. The result is a movie that is both a superb example of noir, and a slightly unconventional one.

Robert Mitchum is ambulance driver Frank Jessup, who is called out to the home of a writer, whose wife has almost died from the effects of a gas tap being let on. Was it an accident? The wife doesn’t think so. In the course of this call-out he meets the writer’s daughter Diane (Jean Simmons), whose reactions to these events are odd to say the least. Jessup has a girlfriend, Mary, but Diane pursues him and he finds himself fascinated by this beautiful but puzzling young woman.

It seems like a classic noir setup, with Mary as the good girl and Diane as the femme fatale, but Preminger (who was able to have the script rewritten to his own requirements) doesn’t give us anything quite so straightforward.

Angel Face is particularly interesting because it’s a fairly rare example of a classic period film noir made by a director who was in the position (thanks to the eccentricities of Howard Hughes) of being able to impose his own vision on the movie, of being able to be a true auteur. Preminger is famous for his “detachment” and “objectivity” – his reputation for allowing the audience to come to its own judgment about the characters in his films, rather than having those judgments made for them by the film-maker.

What I notice about his films (and it’s useful to compare Angel Face with his non-noir Bonjour Tristesse, made a few years later and dealing with a similar situation) is that his characters do things for reasons that seem to them to be good and sufficient reasons. They may do things that could be seen as wrong, or they might do things that turn out to have evil consequences, but in their minds these actions are not merely justified, they may even seem necessary.

In both Angel Face and Bonjour Tristesse we see characters performing actions that they see as being essential for their own protection or for the protection of someone they love. They may be wrong, but that’s how they see things. This is something that becomes more evident in Preminger’s movies during the 50s as he gained increasing artistic freedom. In some of his earlier noirs, such as Whirlpool, there are clear-cut villains who are aware of doing wrong. There are no clear-cut villains in both Angel Face. If you look at the behaviour of the one character who could be construed as villainous, her actions can be seen as reasonable and moral if you accept that her understanding of the situation, although deluded, is sincerely held and that it is real to her. She acts in some senses as a classic noir femme fatale, but then just when you expect her to do something that a femme fatale would do, she does the opposite.

Women take centre stage in Preminger’s movies. While many noir films portray women in a very unsympathetic light, this cannot be said of Preminger’s movies. The women in his movies are complex and are certainly not plaster saints, but they’re nothing like the scheming spider-women of noirs such as Double Indemnity and Scarlet Street.

In 1964 Jean-Luc Godard named Angel Face as one of the ten greatest American movies of the sound era. He may well have been right. It’s certainly a superb movie, and I highly recommend it to both noir fans and non-noir fans.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Although most sources name The Maltese Falcon as the movie that began the American film noir cycle (or genre, or school, or tendency, or style, or whatever you happen to believe it is) an RKO movie that came out a year before actually has a far better claim to be the first Hollywood film noir. The movie in question is Stranger on the Third Floor.

It has most of the key features of the classic film noir, including voiceover narration, flashbacks and it’s photographed by one of the masters of noir cinematography, the great Nicholas Musuraca. Musuraca’s noir style is already present in this film, with shadows aplenty. It has noir cynicism, with a criminal justice system that doesn’t care if a man is innocent or guilty, and reporters who treat matters of life and death as a joke. The plot also incorporates key noir themes, although I don’t want to reveal too much about it so as to avoid spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it.

In broad outline it concerns an up-and-coming reporter who is a key witness in a murder trial, who later discovers the costs of taking what seems to be overwhelming evidence at face value.

Peter Lorre gets star billing. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but as usual he makes the most of what he gets. Margaret Tallichet (an actress who career was surprisingly brief) is very good as the journalist’s girlfriend who starts to have doubts about the case. John McGuire is unfortunately not terribly convincing as the reporter. Elisha Cook Jr, who went on to make so many movies of this type, is the accused man. He overacts as he tended to do, but he’s entertaining as always.

Boris Ingster (whose directing career comprised a mere three films) does a solid job. The movie features the sort of dream sequences that were to become so popular later in the 40s, and these sequences serve effectively to highlight the mod of paranoia, doubt and suspicion. That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have its faults.

The plot is absurdly melodramatic and contrived, but the film has enough style to compensate for this deficiency, and at only 64 minutes running time it’s not likely to wear out its welcome.

It’s not an easy movie to get hold of but Stranger on the Third Floor is of great historical interest and it’s a thoroughly entertaining little movie as well. And stylistically it’s exceptionally interesting and points the way forward for so many of the classic Hollywood movies of the 40s. There had of course been some superb French movies in the noir style in the late 1930s, but this movie is arguably the first serious American attempt at making this type of movie, and it's a fairly successful effort.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Josef von Sternberg’s 1941 film noir The Shanghai Gesture is really more of a Josef von Sternberg movie than a film noir. It’s full of his visual style, and it’s full of his obsessions. It’s a wildly decadent movie.

It’s set in Shanghai, presumably at some point during the 1920s or 1930s. A rich young woman, Poppy (Gene Tierney) is lured into a world of corruption, self-destruction and sexual obsession when she discovers Mother Gin Sling’s casino, the biggest and richest in Shanghai. While this is going on Mother Gin Sling is manoeuvring to prevent Poppy’s fabulously wealthy industrialist father (Walter Huston) from driving her out of Shanghai.

The original play was set in a brothel, but apparently the Production Code people decided that showing gambling was OK (because gambling just destroys people’s lives) but it was vital to pretend that prostitution didn’t exist. In fact the change to the gambling theme worked in von Sternberg’s favour because it emphasised the corruption and the degradation. The casino itself is a von Sternberg visual tour-de-force, comparable to the palace in The Scarlet Empress. He gets a wonderful performance from Gene Tierney – she really specialised in playing women who were psychologically damaged or psychologically blank and she was rather good at such roles. An underrated actress.

Walter Huston is of course excellent. There are some delicious supporting players – Eric Blore and Mike Mazurki among them. The real star is Ona Munson as Mother Gin Sling. The Hollywood practice of having Europeans playing Asian roles works to von Sternberg’s advantage – it emphasises the stylised feel of the film.

And this is a very stylised film. There are no concessions to reality here. Munson does a fine job. The real surprise is Victor Mature as an alleged Persian doctor – he describes himself as a doctor of nothing. It’s an amazingly decadent and sexually ambiguous performance, and it’s an amusing and witty performance. Who knew Victor Mature could act?

The Shanghai Gesture is on Sternberg at his best – delightfully over-the-top and overwrought, very melodramatic, visually gorgeous, disturbing acting performances. A wonderful film. Don’t be put off by negative comments about the DVD quality of the Image Entertainment release – it isn’t great but it’s OK and the movie is so good you can’t afford not to see it. And it’s certainly better quality than Criterion’s DVD of The Scarlet Empress.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, based on Horace McCoy’s novel of the same name, is one of only a handful of movies starring James Cagney that could be considered as a film noir. It’s told in flashbacks, and although it lacks a film noir hero of the usual type it does have a number of characters satisfying at least some of the requirements of the classic femme fatale.

Cagney’s character is yet another Cagney psycho, Ralph Cotter, who is shown at the beginning of the movie escaping from a prison farm. He’s helped by a young woman with the unlikely name of Holiday Carleton whose objective is to free her brother. The brother doesn’t make it, but Cotter soon makes it plain to Holiday that she isn’t going to be able to get rid of him.

Holiday (played by Barbara Payton) is actually closer to the usual type of noir hero – she’s basically a decent ordinary person who makes one mistake and finds herself hopelessly enmeshed in the criminal underworld, tied to a man who is both vicious and clearly quite mad. But, and this again links her to the classic noir hero, she also falls in love with him, so she’s both a willing and unwilling victim, a victim of fate and someone who has chosen their path and chosen badly.

And there are further complications, in the shape of wild rich girl Margaret Dobson, and she’s another ambiguous character, both innocent dupe and would-be femme fatale. Cagney’s performance is effective, as you’d expect in a movie in which he’s cast as a violent psychotic, but it’s the people around him who are far more interesting, and the effect he has on them. Some are already corrupt, while others are corrupted by him.

One very interesting feature, for a 1950 American film, is the extraordinarily honest and forthright way the police are presented – they’re cowardly corrupt thugs, every bit as vicious as the crooks. The brutality and stupidity of the criminal justice system is also emphasised in the way the prison farm is portrayed.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye benefits from a very good supporting cast, something that is crucial in a film that has half a dozen or more important characters. It’s quite violent and quite gritty by 1950 standards.

The Region 1 DVD release includes no extras whatsoever but it’s fairly inexpensive and the movie looks and sounds very good. I recommend this one!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Christopher Strong (1933)

In the early 1930s Dorothy Arzner was the only woman director working in the Hollywood studio system. Christopher Strong is one of the 17 movies she directed between 1927 and 1943.

Katharine Hepburn is Lady Cynthia Darrington, a pioneer aviatrix who has a love affair with a married Member of Parliament, Sir Christopher Strong. At the same time Strong’s daughter Monica is also having an affair with a married man. While Monica’s lover is anxious to obtain a divorce, Sir Christopher is unwilling to face a scandal or to leave his wife.

Hepburn gives one of her best performances, free of some of the more annoying mannerisms she later developed. Colin Clive as Christopher Strong is convincingly stuffy, but sympathetic. Billie Burke is amazingly annoying as his clinging and manipulative but conventionally good wife. It’s clear that the movie’s sympathies are on the side of love rather than duty.

Dorothy Arzner was a lesbian, and was quite open about the fact. It has been suggested that Christopher Strong can be read as a coded story about homosexual love, with the romance between Sir Christopher and the supposedly rather masculine Lady Cynthia representing a homosexual romance. The problem with this is that although Lady Cynthia certainly doesn’t fit conventional female stereotypes of the time, she isn’t particularly masculine either. The movie does however very definitely deal sympathetically with people with people whose desire for love is thwarted by the rules of conventional society, which would presumably have had some resonance for a woman like Arzner living fairly openly as a lesbian in 1933.

A major problem is the complete lack of any chemistry between Hepburn and Colin Clive. We have to believe that she’s besotted by him and so in lust with him that she’ll defy all society’s rules, but it’s just not believable.

This is a pre-code movie, and it’s quite explicit about the fact that Lady Cynthia and her lover are having sex, and that Sir Christopher Strong’s daughter is indulging in pre-marital sex. It’s also noticeably non-judgmental about this. Unfortunately, as so often in pre-code movies, the ending is problematical and undermines most of the positive pre-code features.

Christopher Strong is a love story, and it’s quite a good one although it has some serious flaws. But the highlight of the movie has to be the silver moth costume sported by Katharine Hepburn! It’s delightfully kinky.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Morocco (1930)

Morocco was Marlene Dietrich’s second movie with director Josef von Sternberg, and her first Hollywood movie. She apparently spoke very little English at this time, which makes her performance even more miraculous.

This 1930 Paramount release has its fair share of pre-code moments.

She plays Amy, a night-club singer (of course), who falls for a somewhat disreputable private in the Foreign Legion (played by Gary Cooper). She in turn is pursued by the wealthy Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou). The initial meeting between Dietrich and Cooper is pure sex. She later says she doesn’t know if she loves him. Which is true, but she knows she’s hot for him.

That’s pretty much the extent of the plot, but plot is beside the point in a von Sternberg movie. What this movie has is style, it has glorious visual compositions, gorgeous sets, this movie is simply luscious. I loved the scene where Dietrich was running up and down the line of returning legionnaires, looking for her Private Brown. Wonderfully well done. And it has lots of smouldering sexuality. And Dietrich looking fabulous. She sings of course. She never could sing, but that didn’t stop her from being a great singer.

It also has Dietrich’s notorious kiss, the one that made her a lesbian icon.

It’s a wonderfully romantic movie, and marvellously exotic. The ending is ridiculously romantic and totally absurd, but somehow von Sternberg and Dietrich make it work so that it seems right. After all Amy always said there was a Foreign Legion of women too.

This movie is utterly fabulous, and it looks fantastic on the DVD in the Universal Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection boxed set (a set I highly recommend).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Male and Female (1919)

Cecil B. DeMille’s 1919 comedy Male and Female is based on J. M. Barrie’s popular play The Admirable Crichton.

An aristocratic family and various hangers-on, long with their faithful butler Crichton, are ship-wrecked on a deserted tropical island. It is soon apparent that Crichton is the only one who has the slightest idea of how to survive. Before long the class roles have been reversed, with Crichton as uncrowned king of the island and his former employers as his devoted slaves. With the young Lady Mary (Gloria Swanson) being particularly devoted, much to the disgust of her lady’s maid who has long nursed a secret passion for Crichton.

DeMille handles the social satire with surprising skill and lightness of touch. He also manages to introduce a fantasy sequence that lets him transport his ship-wrecked mariners back to ancient Babylon, and as you’d expect deMille has a lot of fun with this segment, and it looks wonderful. The island itself is a typical Hollywood fantasy of a tropical island, with an unlikely assortment of wildlife including the obligatory leopard.

Swanson looks lovely, her acting is restrained and naturalistic and she handles the comedy with ease. Thomas Meighan as Crichton and Lila Lee as the maid are both great – they’re both now all but forgotten, which is a great shame.

I’ve seen other adaptations of Barrie’s play, and this one compares pretty well, and has a surprising amount of bite. This is largely due to Meighan’s excellent performance – you really get the feeling that Crichton is getting enormous satisfaction from humiliating his erstwhile masters.

It’s a movie that looks marvellous, and fortunately it’s in superb condition, especially considering it was made in 1919. An absolute must for silent movie fans.

I’m not a fan of silent comedy in general but I do enjoy DeMille’s rather sophisticated efforts in this genre.

This movie is part of Passport Video’s six-disc Gloria Swanson Collection. The transfers are extremely variable in quality, and some are quite poor, but the set is very cheap and includes some great movies.