Moontide Torrents

So, I finally figured out, sort of, how to download movies by bittorrent, which is a horrendous headache I wouldn’t recommend to anyone except my goodness the things you can find. Expect more absurdly rare stuff to feature here soon.

Now, a Fever Dream Double Feature.

Since I’ve been reading a lot about the recent DVD release of MOONTIDE, it was a delight to snap up a copy. Written by John O’Hara and directed by Archie Mayo after Fritz Lang dropped out due to complications in the bedroom (both he and the film’s star were sleeping with Marlene Dietrich), this was a star vehicle for someone who was not yet a star in America, a delicate operation designed to introduce Jean Gabin to the US. Gabin was temporarily in residence stateside as his native homeland was enduring the German occupation.

Introducing a star is a tricky proposition, but the Hollywood studios had plenty of practice. They must have sensed a challenge with Gabin, however, since he could hardly be introduced as a newcomer and built up in the public consciousness through small supporting roles — he had to be given a vehicle that showed what he did as a star, his distinctive persona. One problem with this was that Gabin’s French films have distinct qualities that do not translate, or could not be translated, into Hollywood terms. The fact that Gabin played an army deserter in QUAI DES BRUMES (a film which Jean Renoir reportedly blamed for France’s early defeat in the war) gives some clue to this. Nevertheless, MOONTIDE tries to reproduce the Gabin persona in a new context.

Borrowing its foggy dockside setting from QUAI DES BRUMES, and giving Gabin a dog as in that film and fits of homicidal rage as in LA BETE HUMAINE, the makers cast him as a drunken dockworker, an undependable, vacillating kind of character who often does the wrong thing, but cannot be relied upon to do so. Not a type that was regularly welcomed by American audiences. The poetic realist school of French cinema was driven by fatalism, even more so than film noir (no wonder, if this was the national mood, that the country crumbled in the face of invasion!) and so its anti-heroes are regularly ineffective, passive, fickle, misguided, discouraged or just inept. This works like gangbusters in the French films, but has serious repercussions when combined with the Production Code’s insistence that vice must be punished and virtue rewarded, and must have represented a challenge to audiences used to the easy morality plays of the standard Hollywood productions.

Nevertheless, MOONTIDE, as photographed by Charles Clarke and Lucien Ballard, is visually stunning, touching, and endearingly peculiar. Mayo has an odd habit of cutting directly down the line at the action, jumping from medium-shot to medium-close-up, without any apparent dramatic purpose, but he only does it a few times and otherwise his work is unobtrusive and effective. The superb lighting carries the film otherwise.

Gabin is excellent — I’d never heard him speak English before! His accent isn’t too strong, although his friend Nutsy (Claude Rains) unfortunately sounds like “Nazi” when Gabin calls him by name. Whether it’s from taking her cues from Gabin’s simmering underplaying, or because Mayo’s got her tightly under control, or whatever else, Ida Lupino is spectacularly effective, a very modern, muted kind of performance that holds everything back for the key moments. And I like Ida anyway. She’s doing her natural cockney accent with a soupçonof Californian, and that seems to help her attain an unusual level of naturalism. We care far more about her than we do about Gabin, which works fine for the film.

Thomas Mitchell and Claude Rains are as excellent as one would expect, although Rains doesn’t quite get into the swing of the underplaying — he’s always very measured and clipped, and has a formality that’s perhaps very slightly out of keeping with the general air of relaxation. Mitchell, looking like a schoolboy whose suddenly SPROUTED, makes a weird and memorable villain, although by characterising him as a weak parasite, the script robs him of the chance to add serious dramatic tension to the meandering plot, at least until the end.

The Production Code seems to have imposed strange limitations on the film (Lupino’s past life appears to have been a shameful one, but the occupation given her – hash-slinger – hardly seems sufficiently sinful), yet at the end Gabin is effectively a murderer twice over, which seems odd, to say the least. Not unwelcome, but odd. The movie is a decidedly eccentric addition to Fox’s output, but a welcome one. Nevertheless, the makers might have capitalized on Gabin a bit more…

Mistake One: introducing Gabin drunk, and then hungover (there’s a magnificent expressionistic drunkenness montage) means it’s a very long time before we get to see him as he naturally IS. It’s a striking entrance, struggling with his dog leash and demanding a pint of whisky, but it takes a definite chance. Thomas Mitchell in this scene appears more like a comedy sidekick than a villainous blackmailer, and he appears to have no hold on Gabin whatsoever, which has fairly disastrous effects on the narrative tension. He can only reassert himself by towel-whopping a naked Claude Rains — the movie has driven him to this extreme!

Mistake Two: Gabin strips to the waist to rescue Lupino from drowning, and the sight is awe-inspiring. No Hollywood leading man was this ripped. He makes Johnny Weissmuller look doughy and wan. The mistake was in not having him partially denude every twenty minutes, on the slightest pretext. Audiences wouldn’t have been able to believe their eyes. Wives would have regarded their husbands in a new and dimmer light. Gabin, clothed, always has something of the schlub about him, albeit a strangely intense and fiery schlub, so this stripshow is particularly startling. He never did it in France, that I can recall, but had he done so in Hollywood he would have eroticized the hell out of the place. The sexual revolution would have started early.

Mistake Three: I can’t really call it a mistake, because looking at it now, MOONTIDE gains a great deal from it’s jerky plot movement and aimless characters, but jettisoning some of this gallic ennui and injecting some good old American THRUST would probably have worked wonders at the B.O. But I’m kind of glad they left it like this, a fogbound peculiarity, out of time and place.

THE IMPOSTOR, directed by Julien Duvivier from his own story, was Gabin’s second assault on the US market. Weirdly, his accent is stronger and he’s harder to understand in this one — presumably because Duvivier, as a Frenchman himself, was less able to troubleshoot on matters of pronunciation. It’s no big problem though.

Gabin plays virtually the reverse of his QUAI DES BRUMES deserter, this time being an escaped convict in conquered France who inveigles his way INTO the army, borrowing the uniform and papers of a slain war hero. Gabin’s introduction is splendid, as he plays an arch-cynic as indifferent to his own execution as he is to the policeman he’s killed in a riot. As the German bombs drop in this distance, he muses, “Makes the guillotine seem a little old-fashioned, no?” Soon those bombs, acting on behalf of fate, have freed him.

The film bogs down slightly as Gabin escapes with the remnants of the French army to colonial Africa. Now that Gabin has to keep his cynicism to himself, in order to blend in, he’s less fun for us to be with, and the plot seems to lack momentum. There are also unfortunate ironies: “This is French soil,” enthuses commanding office Richard Whorf, trying to inspire his men, conveniently overlooking the fact that this tropic jungle is French only by the same law that says Paris is now German. Duvivier’s attitude to Africa and the Africans (it was at least continent he knew, having filmed there several times) is a recurring problem in the film.

A particularly beautiful scene, full of tightly crammed deep-focus figures sheltering from a monsoon at Christmas, shows Gabin’s comrades reminiscing over Christmas in France, while he fumes at his lack of any such warm memories. This section of the story deals with Gabin’s gradually bonding with his comrades (a banker, a farmer, an actor). Not only does he reconnect to humanity, but to life and a sense of his homeland. There’s almost a supernatural sense of him being taken over by the identity he’s adopted. This is one of the film’s greatest strengths: its poetic realist weirdness, which undercuts the flag-waving message with fatalism and tragedy. The Production Code makes it pretty clear that Gabin will end by dying for his country… what’s surprising and rather grim is how he ends up dying without an identity.

Meanwhile there’s more awkward and unattractive racial attitudes to deal with: the ex-actor proposes setting up a business after the war to sell perfume and makeup to the Africans (because Africans smell bad and are ugly, see?) which in a Clouzot film would just be a sign of how obnoxious everyone is, but here is jarring since we’re supposed to find these guys appealing. A woman shows up and everybody makes a fuss. “A black girl?” asks one fellow, roused from his sleep. “Do you think I’d disturb your beauty sleep over a black girl?” It’s quite credible that Frenchmen of this period would talk this way, but it’s not clear that Duvivier doesn’t share their prejudices. Not that he should announce his disapproval in some obvious way, but the fact that he includes such sentiments in what is still a piece of war-time propaganda is disturbing.

The moment that actually becomes interesting, as opposed to just uncomfortable, is when the men stand around and listen to La Marseillaise over the wireless. Actually a moving and powerful scene, and I’m normally highly resistant to any appeal to patriotism, especially if it involves the suggestion of laying down one’s life — one’s single, fleeting life — in the service of the immortal state. After cutting from closeup to closeup of the emotional soldiers, Duvivier actually ends on a group of Africans, listening with unreadable expressions. Either this is meant to be an inclusive gesture: “These, too, are Frenchmen” — in which case it’s too little, too late in my opinion — or Duvivier is pointing to this other conquered nation and actually equating France and it’s colonies to Nazi Germany and its occupied territories. Which would be very interesting and provocative, and casts a different light on the racist remarks quoted earlier.

The fact that these ambiguities exist, when Duvivier was certainly smart enough to eradicate them and create a full-on call to arms flick with no disturbing elements if that had been his goal, makes THE IMPOSTOR more uneven but also more interesting, more akin to the ambivalent and tormented cinema of poetic realism.

Now I want to see more Gabin English-language films, but I CAN’T. HE NEVER MADE ANY.

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28 Responses to “Moontide Torrents”

  1. Wow, so you finally caught up with it, the liquor-bottle clock popped right out at me. Glad you enjoyed it, especially so since the noir purists on this other blog dissed it (I was the sole exception). Funny you should say that about Gabin’s torso, it must just be his face and head that give viewers the erroneous impression. I like Lupino a great deal, with her bird-like bones, she’s great in The Sea Wolf, Ladies in Retirement and others to numerous to mention. The Impostor looks exciting as hell to me, now it’s something I’ve just got to see. Btw, the end of Moontide reminds me a great deal of the end of Portrait of Jennie, where Cotten reaches out for Jennifer Jones as she’s washed out to sea.

  2. The remarkable, rarely mentioned fact is that noir has a heckuva lot more in common with French poetic realism than with German expressionism, though more Germans made noirs in Hollywood than Frenchmen. And that might just be because there were more Germans in town, for obvious reasons. Moontide undoubtedly wants to be poetic realist, self-consciously so. The beauty of noir films is their lack of self-consciousness — as soon as the genre had a name, it was dead. All neo-noir tends to have this mannered, deliberate quality that cheats it of greatness, and Dmytryk et al were always at pains to point out that they weren’t thinking in terms of a genre.

    Must post on The Sea Wolf, there’s a great party game you can play with that one!

  3. Three of my favorite films all have fatalistic endings, Quai des Brumes, Out of the Past, and Odd Man Out. Something about the deaths of Gabin, Mitchum and Mason speak to something deep inside of me. Have you seen Ladies in Retirement? Lupino considered it one of her greatest performances. Has to be seen for the intro, all the opening credits are on tombstones. As for noir, the Germans contributed the look, but the French possessed the soul of noir. What’s the German word for black?

  4. Schwartzes, isn’t it? Film schwartzes doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    Haven’t seen Ladies in Retirement, but clearly I must.

    I wonder if Lupino’s issues with depression informed her performance here — rarely have I seen an actress so vanished inside herself at the start, which makes it all the more moving as she emerges.

    Some of those French films look pretty much like noir: Hotel du Nord, in parts, and Les Portes de la Nuit.

  5. Those are the two I haven’t seen, last I checked Hotel du Nord was available in region 2 on DVD, my player’s a region 1, plus it was expensive. I wish someone here would see fit to release them. Damn. Lupino was good in Deep Valley, played a young girl living with her parents in a house in the country, falls in love with escaped convict Dane Clark. That wounded soul persona she projected in some of her films, that’s when she was at her most effective as an actress.

  6. Dane does wounded v well also — as in the sublime Moonrise. Maybe I should mail you Hotel du N also, no point just sending one or two movies all that way!

  7. I have a very nice copy of Moonrise on VHS, and I agree, it is sublime. Rex Ingram (the genie in The Thief of Baghdad) has an unforgettable role in it. Borzage and cinematographer John L. Russell are the real stars, however, They’re the ones who gave the film its dreamlike quality.

  8. Yes, it’s like a strange reawakening of silent movie aesthetics in the talkie era. Not noticeably like any other film, though I’ve often thought it’d make a great double bill with Night of the Hunter. The only problem being, how to face going back to reality after such a screening?

  9. Ah, Ida Lupino! I’ve got a lot of affection for “The Hard Way,” which is sort of a trial run for “Mildred Pierce” (complete with suicide attempt at the start). Lupino has troubles with her *sister* (Joan Leslie); Vincent Shermnan directs, James Wong Howe photographs, Daniel Fuchs is one of the writers.

    Then there’s always “The Light That Failed,” or the cameo in “Peter Ibbetson,” or the Walsh-directed “Man I Love” …

  10. The Hard Way’s certainly on my list, as we’ve been enjoying lots of Sherman this last year.

    Acquired Lupino’s The Outrage and a nice documentary about her also — watched the doc but still to run the movie. She’s a fine director, all the more impressive given her frequent crises of confidence personally.

  11. I wasn’t aware of Ida’s problems with depression. I would’ve been glad to have offered her comfort in times of duress. I’m no Howard Duff, but I am a Guy Budziak for what it’s worth.

  12. She’s certainly apt to stir the protective instincts. She had all kinds of problems — drink was involved too at various times. Howard Duff wasn’t particularly good for her.

    I’m fascinated by her supernatural experiences also, but haven’t found a really reliable account I can quote.

  13. You’ve got me going here David, I know about Lupino the actress, far less about Lupino the woman. Is there a particular biography you can recommend?

  14. That’s the trouble, I haven’t found a really satisfying one. Any you can find is probably OK, but not necessarily better than that. Perhaps someone else can suggest one?

  15. I’ll do some digging. Btw, for what it’s worth, the US Post Office has issued a Bette Davis commemorative stamp recently, I bought a sheet yesterday, her portrait’s from All About Eve.

  16. Not bad. I’d have gone for Jezebel, to catch her at her most beautiful. It would’ve been a shock to post office customers to see how glamorous she was. I’d definitely like to lick the back of her head in that film.

  17. Lather down that cowlick…

  18. Well, there’s always the “Now Voyager” Davis in her big white hat …

    I remember showing a 20-ish young woman the image of the “Bordertown” poster, and she was shocked at how sultry Davis appeared. “But I only know her as ‘scary old lady,’ ” was my friends explanation (in so many words).

  19. This now has me pondering which of the cast of Whales of August I’d rather make out with. Not good.

    But yes, Bette could look stunning at times, and got a lot of favourable attention from men in real life also because she gave of a vibe of being genuinely enthusiastic about sex.

  20. She was pretty fearless as an actress, I could see that spilling over into her approach toward sex. By the way, von Sternberg’s Last Command was FANTASTIC, made all the better by the live score. I asked one of the musicians as to whether or not it would be released on DVD, he said that it is being discussed. Highly recommended.

  21. An official release would be most welcome. I just got a pretty good copy of it at last, but with Sternberg image quality is almost everything. Since he started in the labs, I think he was more aware than anyone of the photochemical nature of film, and from handling and repairing so many prints he came to think of a film as an object, one that should be beautifully designed like any other object.

    Of course, for all his denials, thematic content is hard to miss in his work. In The Last Command he obviously doesn’t give a damn about the Russian Revolution, but he’s quite heavily invested in the idea of dignity and humiliation.

  22. Evelyn Brent was wonderful, my first time seeing her on film. I was talking with someone last night about the film, she had seen the film before, and wanted to know what I thought of her. Then we went into this Brent vs. Dietrich thing, where I agreed with her and said while perhaps Brent was the better actress, with Dietrich it’s not so much about acting as it is Iconic Presence, something Brent obviously did not have. Nonetheless, she was both lovely and memorable. How ironic that a German actor should be the recipient of the Academy’s first Best Actor trophy. He expresses dignity and humiliation as well as anyone. I was also reminded at the end of a parallel between Janning’s character and Norma Desmond, both in similar states of mind, the Grand Duke deluded into thinking that he’s reliving history thanks to cinematic artifice, and Norma deluded into thinking she’s in the midst of a shooting a film when she’s not.

  23. If I recall correctly, the storyline was suggested by Lubitsch, but Sternberg certainly makes it his own.

    Louise Brooks, praising Von S, said that he had the ability to size up an actress and subtract whatever about her didn’t work. Evelyn Brent used to stomp into a scene, plant her feet wide apart with her hands on her hips, and strike a pose. In Underworld Sternberg dressed her in feathers and kept her moving, adding a lightness to this stocky, energetic figure.

    “And Dietrich was nothing but a galloping cow before Sternberg.” He MADE her strike poses, stopped her clumping about.

    I blogged about Daughter of Shanghai, a 30s film with Brent, and she’s backslid in that one — she’s all but punching holes in the walls.

    Dietrich is an underrated actress, I think — hilarious in her cleaning woman disguise in Dishonored, also in the innocent scenes of Scarlet Empress. Sternberg made her an icon — that wasn’t inherent in her, but she was already a good actress.

  24. Well, I’ll get to see Evelyn in light feathered movement this evening, since I plan on attending the showing of Underworld in a few hours. Tomorrow the Detroit Film Theatre shows Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, by Cooper and Schoedsack (1927), followed by Murnau’s Nosferatu. I decided to take the plunge, I acquired a Discount Pass card yesterday so I could attend them all.

  25. Underworld is superb, you’ll have a blast. Although George Bancroft is perhaps an unlikely leading man. But great support from Clive Brook, much more appealing than he is in Shanghai Express. And if you keep Scarface and Rio Bravo in mind, you’ll see how much Howard Hawks lifted from this…

  26. […] that in this case) and the Canadian settings give it a wintry splendour. Charles G Clarke also shot MOONTIDE, and he has a real feeling for the […]

  27. Danielle Says:

    Great reviews!

    This paragraph in the “Moontide” review:

    “Mistake Two: Gabin strips to the waist to rescue Lupino from drowning, and the sight is awe-inspiring. No Hollywood leading man was this ripped. He makes Johnny Weissmuller look doughy and wan. The mistake was in not having him partially denude every twenty minutes, on the slightest pretext. Audiences wouldn’t have been able to believe their eyes. Wives would have regarded their husbands in a new and dimmer light. Gabin, clothed, always has something of the schlub about him, albeit a strangely intense and fiery schlub, so this stripshow is particularly startling. He never did it in France, that I can recall, but had he done so in Hollywood he would have eroticized the hell out of the place. The sexual revolution would have started early.”

    is without doubt one of funniest and most well written review bits that I’ve ever read! LOL! Glad I found your site!

  28. Thanks! I guess looking back I can see where I was on a roll. I think the trick is to become absurdly over-interested in something!

    Drop by anytime! Updates daily.

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