Archive for September 19, 2008

Panic in the Streets

Posted in FILM with tags , , on September 19, 2008 by dcairns

Michel Simon, so good in Duvivier’s LA FIN DU JOUR, in a somewhat buffoonish role that plays to his peculiar, mashed-up physog (Glenn Erickson suggests Simon as a perfect Quasimodo), appears again, much transformed, in PANIQUE, a Duvivier movie from 1947 based on the same Georges Simenon novel that inspired Patrice Leconte’sM. HIRE. The addition of a dark beard does something interesting to the Simon mush, and is part of a very restrained, serious, yet still rich performance. He’s another eccentric, but it’s the darker side of eccentricity — Simon’s Hire is the local weirdo, reclusive and somewhat abrupt, disliked by his neighbours for reasons they can’t quite articulate. Although Hire’s given name, Hirovich, suggests a certain possibly-semitic lack of pure Frenchness that could account for his pariah status.

It seems a bold film for Duvivier to have made, having been out of France in Hollywood during the war years, because it’s a condemnation of the xenophobia that held considerable sway during the occupation period. It was an era of informants: if you didn’t like your neighbour, you could find some excuse to notify the Gestapo (who couldn’t cope with the volume of anonymous denunciations flooding their mailboxes). After the liberation, if someone was still bothering you, why not denounce them as a Nazi collaborator? Nearly everyone could be viewed as a collaborator with a little imagination: even members of the resistance had to be seen to cooperate with the authorities, to divert suspicion from their covert activities. This culture of gossip and paranoia is a big part of PANIQUE’s subject.

M. Hire becomes fatally smitten with Alice, his new neighbour. Alice, played by Viviane Romance, has just got out of jail, where she has been doing time to protect her crook lover Alfred (Max Dalban). It’s quite a strange relationship — Alice speaks of wishing her prison time was harder, the matrons crueller, since her suffering was for the one she loved…

As Alice moves into a room looking onto Hire’s, something happens which my grey-market NTSCVHS copy doesn’t see fit to include: I suspect it’s a bit of ’40s American censorship. Afterwards, Hire is clearly smitten, and reading between the lines it’s obvious Alice has put on some kind of erotic show for him, but it’s not clear why.

Hire follows Alice and her beau to the funfair in the town square (which seems to be a massive artificial construction at Studios Victorine in Nice (in fact, it somewhat resembles the town square at the start of Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT). Alfred devises a plan to ditch his pursuer by persecuting him on the dodgems — soon the rest of the townsfolk join the fun, repeatedly bashing into Hire until he’s trapped in the centre of a bumper-car pile-up, and his quarry has escaped.

One onlooker compares the spectacle to a hunt, with hounds. In a supposedly “light-hearted” way, the citizens are venting their dislike of the outsider character. Simon’s expression maintains an aloof dignity, although he’s well aware of the underlying hatred.

Duvivier’s shooting here is dynamic — frontal POV shots, all motion-blur and velocity, alternate with head-on shots of the characters, gazing just past the lens, and canted angles of the cars buzzing past. An interesting comparison with Bresson’s MOUCHETTE: the dodgem scene in that film, cited as the year’s best action sequence by Manny Farber, stresses the heft and momentum of the jouncing machinery, and allows its heroine a moment of joy that’s surprising to anyone associating Bresson with unrelieved glumness and inexpressive characters.

Duvivier transforms the funfair into a nightmare world where the populace can unmask their hidden prejudices under the banner of fun. His shooting emphasises celerity and onslaught rather than impact, although the percussive collisions judder his lens in a way that would be only just acceptable to a ’40s filmmaker. A bit more shake and we’d be in the nouvelle vague.

Having ditched their pursuer, the young lovers consult a rather extraordinary fortune teller (played, it would appear, by a dragged-up Kenneth Anger), who gives a veiled plot summary of the events to come. Then Hire manages to corner Alice alone, and tells her she’s in danger. For a local woman has been found murdered, and Hire knows Alfred is responsible. He instructs her to consult a certain man at a certain address —

A black cat descends one flight as Alice ascends another. Part of the film’s strange undercurrent of supernaturalism? At this central address, Alice discovers Hire’s secret identity, as an astrologer and consultant for people with problems. In fact, Hire hates the human race and society, and although he has absolute proof of Alfred’s guilt (he claims) he has no interest in going to the police, unless it’s necessary to protect Alice. M. Hire the misanthrope is in love.

Alice, being stupidly faithful to Alfred, goes and tells him everything. He admits his guilt and she stands by him. She notifies him that Hire’s offices are isolated, and that a nearby carpentry shop makes enough noise to cover any sounds of a struggle. But Alfred’s second murder attempt ends in humiliation: Hire sneers at him, disarms him with ease, is incapable of being intimidated, and has a bull-like strength that makes it a simple matter to toss the would-be-assassin out on his ear.

But still Hire doesn’t go to the police. He considers himself quite safe from a chump like Alfred (who appears to wear lipstick throughout) and is only interested in winning Alice. He doesn’t want to alienate her by having Alfred arrested.

“A character who is dramatically interesting THINKS AHEAD,” says Alexander Mackendrick, and everybody here is certainly doing that. As the police move around the neighbourhood looking for clues, Alfred decides to frame Hire, getting Alice to romance him so she can plant a stolen handbag in his room. Alice, being one of a long line of Duvivier femmes fatales, is dumbly happy to go along with this.

Hire takes Alice to his long-abandoned house in the country and tells her his melancholy life story. Despite a warning from the funfair gypsy about boats, Alice allows herself to be taken across the moat-like waters encircling chez Hire. One of the chief engines of suspense is, Will Alice feel the sympathy for Hire that we do? If so, will it be enough for her to abandon Alfred’s monstrous plan?

The plan is set in motion! Alfred starts the gossipping neighbours off on a search for proof of Hire’s guilt. A little girl Hire has been kind to is interrogated for evidence of pedophile tendencies. The most honourable character in the movie, she refuses to be bribed into lying, and is contemptuously dismissed. A search of Hire’s room produces the evidential handbag of doom, and Alfred isn’t even in the vicinity — he creates an airtight alibi by visiting the lady wrestlers’ show at the carnival.

Hire returns home to a strange scene. His face registers the fatal import of the scene, which has the dreamlike emptiness of a de Chirico canvas. The square is deserted but entire town is watching from the shadows. The funfair is dead, the carnies clustered around the machinery. Little throngs of townsfolk are grouped in doorways, alleyways, under awnings. And peculiar huddles dot the street —

As Hire passes, the men turn and trip him, knock his hat, kick it around. There’s a gleeful, carnival spirit to this lynch mob. The police step in to offer Hire the protection of arrest, but chaos breaks out, and there’s a pursuit —


We then have one of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Sorry for the hyperbole, but there it is. Prolonged tension without the traditional narrative signposts of Hollywood cinema which might tell us what kind of release to expect — French cinema has never been as in thrall to the happy ending as the American and British mainstreams. Everything comes into play here — Hire’s considerable strength, established earlier in the story, allows him to dangle from this peeling drainpipe for what seems like several minutes, an ordeal that seems almost as agonizing to us as it must be to him. And a vicious double twist manages to jerk our nervous systems a bit more just when it seems the film has decided to conclude this sequence…

The ending is one of those neat, swift wrap-ups rarely seen in our more overblown thrillers today — Hire’s innocence and Alfred’s guilt, Alice’s humanity and the life-or-death issues of the climax, are all cleared up in a few tense moments. The only coda is a fairground artist’s song about mankind living together in peace and harmony — a little overt, perhaps? But I like it — not everything has to be subtle. Duvivier and Charles Spaak’s script has earned the right to boldly state a theme, and arguably the homily at the end provides the traumatised audience just enough relief from the nerve-shredding ordeal they’ve been put through.

Three on a Meathook

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on September 19, 2008 by dcairns

The Casa de Regista (Filmmaker’s House) in Milan. A 1930s art-deco meat market with leaky windows, but still one of the grandest buildings I’ve ever failed to sleep in. Having stayed at the disused machine shop a few years ago, this place was no surprise to me, but some of the other filmmakers, and especially folks representing foreign film festivals, were a little freaked out.

The Greek team (who eventually missed their flight due to the evils of Italian trams and Italian airports) were particularly distressed, and urged me to come to their festival in Athens, which is far more salubrious, being based in a disused gasworks full of frogs. Honest, I’m not making this up. “It can be quite eerie,” Naya enthused.

But Milan Film Festival, like Italy itself, has enough organisation and skill and love to keep going more or less smoothly, even though it seems to an outsider as if complete collapse could occur at any moment. And it’s so beautiful. The buildings, often defaced with cables and other modern appurtenances, maintain their grandeur. The shops are gorgeously designed in a way that seems to go beyond the practical need to entice customers in. The bookshops bulge with glossy art books, taking up far more space than in their British or American equivalents. Beauty is their birthright.

On my last evening, I met the very tall Enrico Petrelli, who plays a very tall alien in sci-fi flick INVAXÖN. Since his character communicates telepathically, Enrico didn’t have to learn any lines. His main task was to be tall, which he tells me he pulled off with some success.

The movie looks… amusing.

Then I met Franco Calvano, who told me he had screened my movie, CRY FOR BOBO, for friends in a ship in Antarctica. I told him my producer would want to know all the details: name of ship; size of audience, etc, and I think he thought we were going to sue him. But when he realised I just wanted a record of this exceptional screening (which means that BOBO has been seen on every continent on Earth), he was happy to oblige.




On my return, I learn that BOBO is to be posted on the BBC’s online film network, which is why I’ve disabled it on YouTube. A better quality version, on a more prestigious platform, is coming soon.

The Boiling Swan

Posted in FILM with tags on September 19, 2008 by dcairns

More collage. It’s dangerous stuff. You cut out lots of words from newspapers, like William Burroughs assembling a blackmail note (imagine what his note would be like! IMAGINE!!!) and lots of pictures, and lots of people’s and animal’s heads from other pictures, and start jumbling them. If you’re dirty-minded like me, you notice that a snip of the scissors can turn “SCRAP” into “CRAP” and “SPEED” into “PEED” and “ARSENAL” into “ARSE”. Let’s not even talk about “SCUNTHORPE”.

Then you start shuffling, looking for connections, clashes, mind-bending wrongnesses. Sometimes a random juxtaposition just hits you between the eyes like a wad of chewing gum covered in iron filings, and you know you have to reach for the glue and make the connection permanent: