Vital titles

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The ’30s was a GOLDEN AGE of titles, I tells ya! And that goes for logos too.

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Continental films is probably the most infamous of these, since they were a German company set up in Paris during the occupation. Filmmakers like Marcel L’Herbier and Maurice Tourneur made films there — while Tourneur’s son Jacques was making movies in Hollywood — but they were never political. Goebbels had said that French movies “should be light-hearted, frivolous and, if possible, stupid,” which suggests that he really missed his vocation as a Hollywood studio executive (a stressful job, but if it all goes wrong you can “return to your roots in community theater” rather than feeding cyanide to the wife and kids). All the filmmakers who worked at Continental were tainted by the connection to Germany, although they were no more guilty of collaboration than anyone whose work aided the economy — most of them felt they were struggling not only for their own survival, but to keep French film-making alive. See Bertrand Tavernier’s marvellous and funny LAISSER-PASSEZ for more details.

The biggest scandal was caused by Clouzot’s LE CORBEAU, of course. A tale of a poison-pen letter campaign in a small town, it was actually hated by the Germans, since it made anonymous denunciation look like a bad thing (although the S.S. were receiving so many anonymous tip-offs from the French citizenry, they couldn’t even investigate them all). London Radio pronounced a death sentence on Clouzot for this unpatriotic movie. After the war, as the denunciations continued, this time for collaboration (if you had annoying neighbours, the occupation and its aftermath was a golden opportunity to be rid of them) and LE CORBEAU was banned, with its director receiving a lifetime ban from film-making. This was later commuted to five years, and within three, Clouzot was back, with MANON — which is even more savage. “I directed it with my whole heart,” said Clouzot.

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29 Responses to “Vital titles”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Criterion’s new logo bears a surprising resemblance to the Continental Films logo.

    ”Le Corbeau” is really a true film de resistance. Sartre and Cocteau went out to bat for it. It takes no comers and is totally against Vichy and Nazi conservatism. The hero is an abortionist(and atheist), the heroine is a nymphomaniac sexpot who genuinely falls in love with her man(and they get a positive outcome) and the whole town is a pack of unresolved tensions and repression. It’s a really great film.

    Comparable in some ways to ”Judex” because of the way characters keep changing their appearances and designs. No way that’s a collaborator’s film. I’ve never seen Clouzot’s ”Manon”, I always believed him to be a talented if highly monomaniacal humourless film-maker(though ”Corbeau” is an exception as is ”Quai des Orfevres”, his most humanist film) but I wouldn’t seeing anything else of his.

  2. Arthur S. Says:

    ————————-
    Goebbels had said that French movies “should be light-hearted, frivolous and, if possible, stupid,” which suggests that he really missed his vocation as a Hollywood studio executive
    ————————–

    I think you are far too harsh on the Hollywood studio bosses. Goebbels believed in dumbing down audiences by feeding them pap whereas the studio bosses of the old days believed in making different kind of films and reacted to the public mood and tastes. The production code wasn’t something they asked for.

    And then they were quite complex. Like Darryl Zanuck being a conservative personally produced two Pro-Union films like ”The Grapes of Wrath” and ”How Green Was My Valley” because he thought they would make good films. Then Harry Cohn had a signed portrait of Mussolini in his office but against the grain he financed ”None Shall Escape” by Andre DeToth, a really powerful anti-Nazi agitprop which features the UN two years before it’s existence. Then Cohn got Lang a job making films at Columbia ending his year long sabbatical after being gray-listed for suspicious ties with Leftists. he also gave Joseph H. Lewis his breakthrough and mostly gave him creative control as well.

    Then Zanuck funded ”The Ox-Bow Incident” even if he knew it would flop at the box-office because he liked the story, and he also produced ”Leave Her to Heaven” which is far beyond Goebbels tiny brain.

  3. Ah, good old Chicken-Pate News.

    It’s true that for every example of studio idiocy, there are many examples of their smarts. Zanuck was generally pretty shrewd.

    I guess Goebbels didn’t have time to be too hands-on, but he presided over a very interesting French cinema! And even the German films are better than you’d expect considering they drove 90% of their best people into exile abroad…
    This is interesting.

  4. Gremillion is a truly great filmmaker. Paul Vecchiali celebrates him, but few others. Lumiere d’ete is my favorite.

  5. Watch out for some Gremillon-based action in The Forgotten soon-ish.

  6. Dunno where to put this, but as you may have heard by now, it’s so long, Donald E Westlake, Richard Stark and Tucker Coe (along with a plethora of other pseudonyms). He was 75.

    I found a fascinating article about his little-known career churning out cheerful smut here:

    http://efanzines.com/EK/eI13/index.htm#nobody

    As most obits point out, he wasn’t well served by cinema, apart from the Parker novels. None of the Dortmunder books were filmed with any care or attention. I haven’t seen Costa-Gavras’ film of The Axe, but the first person I heard talking about filming it was Michael Lehmann, more than a decade ago, so I imagine there was a torturous history behind bringing it to the screen.

  7. Yes, I was sorry to hear this — I’ve been reading Dortmunders for the past year. I might switch to Parker for a change.

    Westlake’s screenwriting career was intermittent, but his work on The Grifters was very fine, I thought. He had an appreciation of and feeling for Jim Thompson’s world.

  8. Made in USA is on YouTube complete in 10 sections.

  9. Arthur S. Says:

    Well apparently the joke about Continental Films was that they were not bound by the censorship that held back Vichy France so if anyone wanted to make films which differed from the same-old same-old run of programmer fodder, then they had to go there at that time. Obviously you had to keep hush-hush and go deep undercover in order so you don’t let anyone in on what you are doing. So Clouzot and his writers would say, “we’re making a suspense thriller or an Agatha Christie story” and no one’s the wiser.

    Roberto Rossellini always believed that it didn’t matter where you got the money from to make your films. All that matters is what you do with that money and what films you make. Some would disagree(for a variety of reasons) but it’s true enough.

    Then Eisenstein made ‘Ivan the Terrible’ with Stalin’s backing.

  10. Arthur S. Says:

    Oh and Godard famously came to Britain to work with either the Stones or the Beatles as a commision for a film defending abortion, the film ”One + One”(or ”Sympathy for the Devil”) has nothing of any sort in that.

    Oh and Bunuel made ”Viridiana” and ”Tristana” in Franco-Spain.

  11. There’s a big irony in that Franco’s Spain was generally far more helpful to foreign filmmakers than to their own. The tight censorship stifled indigenous filmmaking for decades, whereas the place was a paradise for international productions: “For a plain envelope stuffed with cash in the hands of the right bureaucrat you could get permission to film ANYWHERE,” chortled the producer of The Three Musketeers. Franco’s decision to stop American movie profits leaving the country led to a boom in production: the only way to spend that money was to make films in Spain, hence those Anthony Mann epics.

    Continental may have been safer than the French companies, but any political comment still had to be extremely covert. Gremillon seems to have gone further than anyone. While Carne was credited with immortalising the beating heart of an imprisoned France in Les Visiteurs du Soir, he himself said the allegory wasn’t intentional and when people started talking about it he cringed, fearing reprisals.

  12. Arthur S. Says:

    For many others, Godard above all, Bresson captured the beating heart with ”Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne”. I’ll agree.

    Carne’s dilemma recalls Dreyer’s ”Day of Wrath”. He made that when Denmark was facing occupation and it was seen for years as anti-Nazi allegory with the witches standing for Jews and other persecuted. Dreyer said that that was unintentional although obviously a work of art is a product of it’s time and all. Denmark is famous and justly celebrated for the fact that it’s citizenry valiantly defended, hid and protected many Jews from going to the concentration camps. An act of collective heroism like few others in history. “Day of Wrath” served as an influence on Miller’s ”The Crucible” which was an anti-HUAC allegory.

    Anthony Mann’s ”The Fall of the Roman Empire” was one of the epics shot in Spain with Spanish extras and that film is a thoroughly anti-fascist, anti-totalitarian film with a supremely audacious ending. It was written by Philip “Johnny Guitar” Yordan.

  13. Without a doubt my favorite French logo from the ’30s is the one that opens Port of Shadows for Films Osso. The Eiffel Tower towers above a skyline while the rays of the sun throb behind and around it, accompanied by the haunting theme music that pervades the film. Sheer magic.

  14. I’m going to grab that!

  15. Randy Man Says:

    Le Corbeau is a brilliant film, but I think it probably took quite a whle for the dust to settle before most art house audiences might have agreed. It was a Janus Films release in the US, but I cannot remember ever seeing it in a repertory house (it would make a fascinating double bill with Warners 1942 “Kings Row”, another less than idealistic portrait of small town life). Furthermore, its main titles, including the Tobis and Continental logos, are supported by a superbly attention-grabbing music score by the otherwise unknown Tony Aubin. Real tension-inducing stuff, as if it’s saying “Here at last! A true Film Maudit that can only now be shown!”

  16. Compared to Clouzot’s previous work, Le Corbeau certainly sets out to blast the audience with iniquity. Quai des Orfevres is mostly quite sweet by comparison, despite the porn, lechery, lesbianism, illegitimate child, etc — Clouzot’s real mission is to portray this stuff as normal and fine. And his previous film, The Murderer Lives at 21, is funny, fast, and pretty innocuous. With Le Corbeau, he’s still on a mission to get us to accept unusual behaviour (abortion, adultery) as part of the human norm, but there’s a contradictory impulse to overwhelm us with it, rather than win us over, I think.

    This is part of my idea that Clouzot is the true humanist, more than even Renoir, because Clouzot accepts far worse behaviour…

  17. Arthur S. Says:

    How do you explain the misogyny and questionable racial attitude in ”Wages of Fear”? I don’t think Clouzot is a humanist, his interest seems to be in masochism and weird behaviour, a little like Tod Browning. He’s more of a French Browning than a French Hitchcock, lacking the Englishman’s sense of humour and vitality.

    In any case I loathe humanists and the word humanist or humanism. For aesthetic reasons chiefly(I just think it’s a silly stupid word that belongs in children’s playpens). Clouzot doesn’t seem to be a humanist at all. A monomaniac with occassional moments of generosity is more appropriate.

    Renoir on the other hand isn’t a simple humanist either(or whatever a humanist is supposed to be I have no idea, most self-calling ones I know seem like tree-huggers). People who quote “everyone has his reasons”(a partial quote for one thing, out of context for other) don’t really understand Renoir. He said of “The Rules of the Game” once that no one in that film(including the character he plays) was worth saving, he said that it was about a society that he believed then persisted in believing was rotten to the core.

    And in the TV interview with Rivette he summed up the society of the film as “one that needs to kill to survive. And then kill some more. It will kill, kill, kill and keep killing to extend it’s survival always.” Very scary moment. Available on Criterion DVD. That Renoir knows this and still shows his characters as humans doesn’t mean he doesn’t pass judgments just that their humanity makes their actions al the more damning. It’s a worldview far beyond Clouzot’s ken in sophistication. Not that there’s any need to compare since they both sit fine in their own orbits. Like the ”Grand Illusion” in the title refers to the idea that WWI would be the end of all wars or that there would end to war.

  18. I think Clouzot has real affection for his characters — but he likes to show them at their very worst. The characters in Wages of Fear are racist, and their attitudes are designed to expose the ugly thoughts underlying French colonialism. And their attitude to women is pretty awful too — there’s also the homosexual angle, and the male buddy system that keeps women at a distance. But none of this directly represents Clouzot’s own opinion, these are attitudes he wishes to put under the microscope.

    Manon probably shows Clouzot’s all-embracing generosity to his wretched characters at its clearest: a romantic tragedy about apparently quite unredeemed/unredeemable people. There’s a line there that I think is repeated in La Prisonniere: “When you’re in love, nothing is obscene. When you’re not, everything is.”

    So, maybe “romantic” is a better word for him!

  19. “I think Clouzot has real affection for his characters — but he likes to show them at their very worst.”

    Fascinating point, which I mostly agree with. I saw Le Corbeau earlier this year and was absolutely knocked sideways by it — a brilliant movie. When I wrote about the movie I compared it to a very earnest French telefilm about the fate of gay men during the Holocaust. So many Holocaust movies invite you to identify with the noble characters, a device that Clouzot would have despised as quite unearned, I think.

    Le Corbeau absolutely refuses to play to the audience’s desire to be superior to the worst deeds of the characters. Clouzot keeps you leaping to conclusions even as the townsfolk do, until at some point you realize you’re another part of the mob. I agree with you, though, in that I don’t think Clouzot is asking us to despise ourselves, he just doesn’t want us to lie to ourselves. And certainly I don’t think there is reason to think he endorses his characters’ worst aspects, like the racism in Wages of Fear.

    (this is my earlier piece, just in case you want to see it. I hope you don’t mind the link.)

    http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/2007/10/bitter-taste-of-vichy.html

  20. Thanks for the link! I agree with all you say — and recommend Clouzot’s response to the holocaust, except that it’s impossible to see (I saw it in the complete Clouzot retrospective we had here, with soft-titles).

    The Return of Jacques is a twenty or thirty minute episode of a compendium film, and shows Louis Jouvet being nursed back to health in a cheap hotel after surviving the war in a concentration camp. The thing that torments him is the question of how human beings could be so evil. He gets a chance to find out when a German prisoner who’s escaped his guards but been mortally wounded, hides in Jacques’ room. Jacques hides the man from the authorities so he can interrogate him, and he gets his answer — by finding the cruelty in himself. Realising what he’s in danger of becoming, he continues to hide the man so he can die free.

    Pretty amazing.

  21. One might argue that Pasolini’s Salò is a great humanist film.

  22. One might!

    I suppose one problem with the H word is that it can apply to so many things. Only religious works can be excluded, and even then, perhaps not absolutely.

    When Lindsay Anderson expressed his dismay at Clockwork Orange, saying “It’s not a humanist film in any sense,” Malcolm McDowell replied, “But Lindsay, *I* was the human element in that film!”

  23. Arthur S. Says:

    Well Pasolini was humanist enough to make what is considered the greatest film ever made about Jesus Christ. Why is humanism opposed to religion anyway? And I don’t mean organized or fanatical religion?

    “Salo” is a humanist film in that it has enough faith to look at the absolute evil of human beings unflinchingly. But then why call it humanist – honest and brutally truthful is more apropos. Humanism originally applied to the Renaissance scholars like Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas Moore(both of whom were devout Catholics) and also I suppose Francis Bacon. To me the present variety of H-Organizations seems little more than a long self-indulgent pat on the backs to the tradition of European rationality(which coincided naturally with vast colonial holdings). “Salo” on the other hand deliberately questions and interrogates that ideology of rationality. Of course individually the H-Men might not be bad but as a group they are irritating.

    Charlie Chaplin’s ”Monsieur Verdoux” is also a humanist film I suppose even if it concludes that mass murder is the foundation of any form of government. Eisenstein, leftist-darling doesn’t have a humanist bone anywhere in his body. Rossellini was perhaps humanist in the classical sense. Personally my favourite humanist film-maker is Fassbinder, especially his ”The Third Generation” and ”The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant”.

  24. The definition of “humanist” I was taught at school, which is no doubt wrong, was “resembling the values taught by Christianity but without a belief in God”. Just checked my dictionary and it more or less concurs. So that’s one way of using the word, although it obviously isn’t the definition that would apply to Thomas Moore.

  25. I think that Rossellini’s The Messiah is at least as great as Pasolini’s Il Vangelo secondo Matteo. The Rossellini Christ is a much more human figure.
    Pasolini’s Salò, apart from its clear-eyed depiction of evil, is also in my opinion a powerful statement about what it means to live without love.

  26. Arthur S. Says:

    Well definitions change as they are meant to. Humanism is technically an academic term, that’s where humanities comes from. Referring to the great scholastic work done from the Renaissance downwards. The re-discovery of classical texts (by way of translations of Arab translations, the Renaissance would not have been possible without the Golden Age of Arabic Civilization and the Crusades initiated by the barbaric Middle Age).

    Of course the fact is that the scholarship done during the Renaissance on non-Christian or pre-Christian works(where prior it was applied by the Church to it’s own documents, lives of Saints, property records, Inquisition records) undoubtedly led to the current use of the term. And of course the discovery of the different sea-routes and the cartographic revolution in that period.

    ——————————-
    “resembling the values taught by Christianity but without a belief in God”
    ——————————-

    But that can apply to Catholicism. The whole “silence of God” thing that’s all over Graham Greene, Luis Bunuel, Federico Fellini(”La Strada” at least), Martin Scorsese, Robert Bresson, Flannery O’Connor. And among non-Catholics – Faulkner, Bergman(naturellement) and Dreyer and before that Dostoyevsky.

    I’ve never Rossellini’s “Il Messia”. It was his last feature. He wanted to make a film about Jesus for the Marxists(which to his anger, Pasolini beat him to it) and a film about Marx for the Catholics. His never-done film about Karl Marx(which is a great, great loss) would have emphasized his spiritual side which Rossellini believed that most communists neglected.

    I love Pasolini’s film but I consider ”The Last Temptation of Christ” the best film about Jesus, that bit with him on the deathbed in the fantasy is unforgettable as is his confrontation with Saul/Paul(the REAL founder of Christianity).

  27. My favourite contemporary “humanist” film director is Aki Kaurismäki.

  28. I’m hoping to experience a translation of Duvivier’s Golgotha soon, which David Wingrove reckons may be the best Christ-film. (His is a minority view, but with my love of Duvivier I suspect I may share it.)

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