The Reflection of Narcissus

The Film Festival has shown two newly restored British classics directed by the supreme Alberto Cavalcanti — WENT THE DAY WELL? and THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE. While the former is a well-known classic in the UK which is only now slowly gathering a reputation elsewhere, the latter is probably better known abroad, thanks to Kino’s DVD release, which treats it as a noir.

The description seems accurate, yet I suspect the filmmakers’ influences go farther back, to the pre-war American gangster film and the pre-war French poetic realism. Anyhoo, Trevor Howard plays a drunken ex-serviceman bored by postwar London who decides to carry on fighting to pass the time, hooking up with gangster Narcy (short for Narcissus), plays by Griffith Jones. But when he realizes how rotten his new boss is, he rebels, is framed for the murder of a copper, escapes from prison (it’s a convoluted structure) and tries to clear his name. The whole thing ends with a terrific brawl in an undertakers, which deserves it’s own post.

“They don’t want sincere actors nowadays,” Jones would grumble when drinking with my friend Lawrie. Looking at him here, his sincerity is not in doubt, and for a Welshman he essays a passable cockney accent, but his face is curiously unmemorable. Cavalcanti comes to the rescue with an amazing sequence where Narcy batters his ex-girlfriend, showgirl Sally (Sally Gray, at her most beautiful). Here’s Narcy before he strikes the first blow ~

And here he is, immediately after ~

Cavalcanti’s use of a warped mirror finally gives Narcy the face he deserves. Seconds later, Cav is spinning the camera around as if in a washing machine, as Narcy lays into the stunned Sally. And so it goes — unlike an American filmmaker like Hawks, for who violence is usually a mere break in the patter, to be dispensed with as soon as possible (Hawks on Peckinpah: “I can kill three men and have ’em buried in the ground in the time it takes him to kill one”), or Walsh, who can imbue everything with a sense of impending or actual violence, Cav treats the conversations straightforwardly and gets positively delirious whenever blows are exchanged. There’s a sadomasochistic flavour to a lot of it. See also the tender scene where Gray picks buckshot out of Howard’s shoulder with her eyebrow tweezers. “She loves me… she loves me not…” he mutters as each fragment of lead is dropped into the waiting bowl…

17 Responses to “The Reflection of Narcissus”

  1. Not to forget Cav’s knockout (and delirious) DEAD OF NIGHT segment! Best onscreen performance by a Redgrave?

  2. Well, Michael is awesome in several films — but that one plays to his particular strengths (which are all to do with portraying weakness). I’ve written about Cav’s odd, peripatetic career before: there’s far more there than anyone suspects.

  3. Cavalcanti is long overdue for extended critical analysis. I was thinking of him lately while writing about Leopoldo Torre-Nilsson Is there an Argentinian “sensibility”?

  4. Wasn’t Cav Brazilian? Still, Argentina should always crop up in blog entries with Narcissus in the title!

    And speaking of Argentina, TETRO got a damn good thrashing from Peter Bradshaw in today’s “Guardian”.

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    Jones is just superb in this film; one of the great spivs of Brit Noir–he was cast against type here since his bland, rather pretty face relegated him in the 30s and early 40s to playing conventional male ingenue roles.

    His daughter is actress Gemma Jones.

  6. David Boxwell Says:

    Sally Gray’s whole body just hung off her cheekbones.

  7. LOVE Gemma Jones in The Devils !

  8. How is the print of THE MUSIC ROOM, that’s probably Ray’s best.

    Now I have to see ”The Seven Madmen”.

  9. Didn’t get to that Ray screening. I would imagine OK prints are available.

    The Seven Madmen is a revelation.

  10. According to a documentary made by a film student here, Argentineans are all in therapy, to help them deal with the complexity of being Argentine.

    Cav was certainly complex — he was a child prodigy — but Brazilian.

  11. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by dcairns, Jennifer. Jennifer said: RT @dcairns: A Brit-noir classic — […]

  12. Well Ray suffers greatly from poor preservation conditions in India(a country that takes total zero interest in film preservation and gets little to none government funding). His colour films have suffered greatly. Luckily ”The Music Room” was one of the films restored by AMPAS in the early 90s around the time he won lifetime achievement award but even then it’s not as good as it should be. It’s still very beautiful though.

    Borges’ stories are full of the complexities of being Argentine, especially his favourite of his stories, ”The South”.

    Brazil of course was the center of the Cinema Novo, the Latin American New Wave. Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira Dos Santos are its masters.

  13. Cavalcanti went back to Brazil in the 50s, I think, and helped get the industry back on its feet. So the Cinema Novo owes something to his efforts. I’d love to see his Brazilian movies. Sadly, he felt as much an outsider there as he had in Europe, and returned to England, where he made a children’s film and retired.

  14. And mustn’t forget the importance of Cuban cinema for the 1960s New Latin American Cinema!

    Hm, Brazil vs Chile this evening…

  15. It’s quite a nice article, but it still completely leaves out his work as production designer and doesn’t really tell you anything about his French work. Cavalcanti remains a largely unmapped continent — I’ve probably seen more of his work than most, but it’s still fragments.

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