Archive for the literature Category

Fifty Shades of Maigret

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2023 by dcairns

Continental Films, the German company based in Paris at the time of the Occupation, which was sort of in command of the whole French film industry, produced four Georges Simenon adaptations, comprising Henri Decoin’s classic LES INCONNUS DANS LA MAISON, starring Raimu, and three Maigret films, directed by Richard Pottier, Maurice Tourneur, and Richard Poittier again.

I’ve just lately watched the Poittier entries — PICPUS and LES CAVES DU MAJESTIC. I saw the Tourneur, CECILE EST MORT!, but I can’t recall a thing about it except it was great. Time to revisit.

In all three films, Miagret is Albert Prejean and his sidekick Lucas is a fellow called Andre Gabriello. The writers adapting Simenon differ, and this seems to make a big difference. (Simenon wanted to work for Continental and adapt his own works, which may tell you something about him — most of the people who did work at the studio had no choice.) Simenon like Prejean’s performance as his hero, but there was initially some concern that Prejean, primarily a light comic, was too young and too lightweight to play the dour plodder, but audiences embraced him — the only two previous Maigrets, who appeared the same year, were Harry Baur and Pierre Renoir, working for Duvivier and Jean Renoir, who were much closer in age and temperament, though Baur, like later three-time-Maigret Gabin, was a bit more explosive than the character in the books.

The strange thing is, Prejean IS too lightweight, but the films solve that by bending the character to fit — this Maigret is many times more whimsical, flippant, and cheeky than the novels’ version and, like Benoit Blanc, he’s also a celebrity detective (which is not a thing). It’s as if it was felt that taking a famous fictional sleuth and putting him on the screen just naturally required that his fame needed to be acknowledged by the supporting cast. WE’VE all heard of Maigret, so why wouldn’t the populace in the films.

PICPUS is written by the fascinating Jean-Paul Le Chanois (a Jewish communist resistance member working for a German film company) who later became a hate figure for the nouvelle vague as a director of the cinema du papa school, but it needs to be noted that Henri-Georges Clouzot was head of the script department at Continental, and the humour smacks of his playfulness, black comedy and grotesquerie in, say, L’ASSASSIN HABITE… AU 21, and even LE CORBEAU. Fiona became convinced of this.

The plot in this one is insanely convoluted, and then magically boils down to a simple confrontation with very little summary required. A nice job of screenwriting.

There’s a crazy sequence where we’re suddenly at the Last of the Mohicans Archery Club and everybody’s wearing an Indian headdress — it’s interesting that Maurice Tourneur, who directed (co-directed, really) MOHICANS in Hollywood, was around, and would make the sequel. But he doesn’t seem to have ever been attached to this one — I now have a copy of Christine Leteux’s book Continental Films, which produces the receipts.

By the time of LES CAVES DU MAJESTIC, the last Continental production as the occupation ended, scripted this time by the great Charles Spaak, the comedic tone has been modified a bit to allow more emotion, and Prejean’s Maigret has reintegrated the character’s original interest in psychology and humanity — his interest in why is greater than who. But this had been blended with Prejean’s light persona, so that Maigret can say he’s forgotten all about the murder he’s supposed to solve, because he’s more concerned with the human fallout.

This is the film whose shooting is documented in Tavernier’s underrated LAISSEZ-PASSER — Spaak completed the film in prison after being arrested, and this partly explains why there’s so much talk about food in the film — the writer was starving and couldn’t think of anything else. But the film’s concentration on the theme of paternity becomes even more moving when you know that Spaak’s wife, pregnant with their first child, had also been arrested. They got out OK in the end.

Poittier’s more interesting than I had somehow assumed — he throws in a splitscreen shot in PICPUS (as Lucas briefs Maigret on a murder, we see the discovery of the body played out in a little box) and an impressive sequence shot in CAVES.

It’s curious — I tend to rate movie Maigrets on their resemblance to the literary figure, but Prejean’s portrayal demands to be judged differently, on the basis of how successful his warping of the role is. And it’s extremely successful, on its own terms.

All the facts here come from Leteux’s book and Tavernier’s film. Some of the speculations are mine.

The Death of the Arthur: Guinevere Off Course

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2023 by dcairns

SWORD OF LANCELOT — originally LANCELOT AND GUINEVERE — part 3.

The retitling, to emphasise stabbing over kissing, is like the mirror version of THE DEATH OF ROBIN HOOD getting retitled ROBIN AND MARIAN.

I can never quite believe Camelot’s stonework in this one. It seems like a grooved impasto of paint rather than carved stone. It’s close, but it doesn’t quite compel belief, like Cornel Wilde’s out-raj-us accent. It’s really a shame he doesn’t seem to taunt anyone in this film, it would make the MONTY PYTHON connection come shimmering to life.

Not for the first time, though, I’ve judged the film too hastily and harshly — the big battle with the Viking raiders has a slight plot purpose — when Lancelot returns, he has his slain pal carried on his tabard. Seeing this from a distance, Guinevere thinks he’s dead, and Arthur notices her excessive grief. The plot has thickened. Good acting by Wallace and Aherne, a couple of fine thesps.

Ron Goodwin’s romance music is nice — though it doesn’t touch his key works, 633 SQUADRON’s rambunctious theme, and the Miss Marple theme from the Margaret Rutherford films. He also scored the ’73 GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT, which is relevant to our purposes.

The very unchivalric adultery is the talk of the court — Lancelot is tempted to slip away back to Brittany, but Guinevere urges him to visit her bedchamber before he leaves…

Conversation about falconry: we learn that Modred’s adorable little feathered friend is called Griselda, which makes her seem like a witch’s familiar, which might well be the case. Some versions of the saga make Modred/Mordrid/Mordred the son of Morgan le Fey, who is usually a sorceress, so he’s not far removed from black magic. But this is a disappointingly magicless Camelot, in which Merlin’s expertise is limited to knowledge of soap.

Griselda is my favourite character, and she’s only been in one shot.

The sex scene — it’s 1963 so there’s implied nudity with both characters in bed and who knows if anyone’s got one foot on the floor? — confirms my suspicions about Cornel Wilde, as producer, having a hand in the infamous “cunnilingus scene” in THE BIG COMBO, where Richard Conte descends out of shot and Jean Wallace continues to react fervently to some unseen stimulus — because they do the same thing here! True, Wilde has some unmuffled dialogue from below frame, but what’s happening in the gaps between sentences? Wallace’s equally fervid performance provides a hint. The image is fuzzy, veiled by the bed’s translucent canopy, but the implication is pretty clear. Joseph H. Lewis’s claim to have slipped the suggestive scene past Wilde on his day off looks weaker — I love JHL but he wouldn’t be the first director to steal credit for an idea.

It’s not at all clear why Lancelot has chosen to visit his love wearing full-length chainmail. I can’t decide if this is more or less loopy than the full plate mail rogering scene in EXCALIBUR. At least Uther was on his way into battle, so there was a reason for having it on (but perhaps not while having it off).

Some spirited action as the lovers are apprehended post fragrante delicto — L escapes, G is caught.

A pyre is built to burn Guinevere, and this is all so like the turn the plot takes in CAMELOT that I’m wondering how much of this is TH White, but no, it seems to be part of fairly early myths, just stuff I wasn’t familiar with (and not covered by Boorman).

Camelot has a hunchbacked, cackling bellringer, just to make things feel sufficiently classical.

Arthur, it turns out, is responsible for a law which says adulteresses must be burned — he’d like to make an exception, but this would destroy his claim to be a just king. The trouble with this is one is disinclined to sympathise today with any king who would make such a law. One feels King Arthur is supposed to be an admirable figure but this movie undercuts him at every chance. His cuckoldry is muchly of his own making — he throws Lance and Gwen together, particularly by barring her from hunting, which leaves the poor girl with nothing to do except invite the oral attentions of a gleaming Frenchman.

Jean Wallace at the stake — her performance is uncomfortably reminiscent of her performance in the bedchamber, moaning and perspiring at something below the edge of frame. Toothless yokels in fright wigs watch the show, gloating: it’s not absolutely clear why Camelot is a good thing if it provides shelter to these abominations. Wilde’s camera lingers on a Wilfred Brambell type with sideshow enthusiasm.

Lancelot rides in and rescues his girlfriend — I think it’s a mistake of the script to have him kill a loyal knight in his previous escape, rather than here, where it will amp up the dramatic stakes, if you’ll pardon the expression, at the most effective moment. And the lack of swordfighting here makes the rescue seem rather easy.

Uncanny scene where Gawain rides up to a castle and taunts Lancelot. This is backwards — the Frenchman ought to do the taunting, we all know that.

Another good bit of direct cutting (influence of nouvelle vague, already felt in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) — Lancelot agrees to fight Gawain, but we cut directly to the END of the battle, with Gawain defeated and at knifepoint. I’m always happy to take my hat off to a bold elision. Lancelot says he’s going to give Gawain a message for Arthur — and in another bold cut, this one more CITIZEN KANE than LAWRENCE, Wilde cuts to Gawain delivering the message, the framing putting him at just the angle we saw Lancelot at (different distance from camera though), so that he appears as Lancelot’s mouthpiece or surrogate. Neat.

Lancelot’s offer is to surrender himself for punishment, while Guinevere leaves the country. Instead, Arthur lets them all leave, except Guinevere, who is to return to him and not get burned, which is slightly unaccountable except as sheer vacillation.

Four shots: Lancelot looks down from the battlements at a glass painting of Arthur’s camp added to a real (but rear-projected) coastal landscape. Merlin escorts Guinevere through an impressive crowd scene with a glass-painting castle at the top. Then, after all that trouble, the close shot of M & G is an unconvincing rear-screen process shot, no doubt for some practical reason which couldn’t be helped on the day, but which really lets the sequence down. Guinevere’s POV, dollying towards her destiny, Arthur’s darkened tent — it feels like the forward POV dolly towards the execution posts in PATHS OF GLORY, and I bet that’s what Wilde had in mind.

An ellipse too far? Arthur is slain by Modred offscreen, which ought to have been a juicy scene (the film is quite long, admittedly, but CAMELOT would be much longer). In fact, everybody’s dead or dying — Merlin, Adrienne Corri, even Gawain’s one-lunging it after a sticky battle.

Without that shocking regicide, the final confrontation loses a lot of emotional power, I feel. It’s a large scale affair, though. Shot with long shadows on the ground — they must have been scared of losing the light — one of the shadows looks to be the camera crew, but suitably disguised with shrubbery and whatnot — there are no Wilhelm screams but one ludicrous squawk gets repeated several times in this film. Some mildly complicated strategy is attempted but not explained, so I wasn’t too clear on it. A horse steps on a dead man’s leg — I hope he was a dummy. Another helmet gets cloven open.

Editor Thom Noble repeats a shot of a fallen horse thrice — first almost subliminal, then longer, then still longer. I guess he’s going for a MARIENBAD effect but it doesn’t quite come off.

In the midst of this, or rather out of the midst, Lancelot manages to get Modred alone and they have a speedy (slightly undercranked) duel, ending with another ambitious gore effect — L chops right into M’s shoulder. Cue Wilhelm squawk again. To get the effect, poor Michael Meacham has to wear an absurd third shoulder, like an American football player’s padding, for his co-star and director to sink a sword into. OK, I admit I laughed.

It’s not clear what the political ramifications of this shoulder-chop will be, but Guinevere becomes a nun. When Jean W says “When first I was at the convent at Glastonbury” Fiona misheard it as “concert at Glastonbury.” So, there’s a parting forever scene. It’s not not moving. Well, all right, it is not moving. It seems perfunctory, and Lancelot falls in with the idea of his lover marrying Christ a bit too readily — the filmmakers don’t want to do a blasphemy. Again, ROBIN AND MARIAN is a more powerful treatment of this kind of thing because it has a director downright hostile to religion. But I’m always amazed by how much that film moves me, since the love story was entirely secondary in importance to its director. Maybe the focus being elsewhere allowed it to come out more strongly, or maybe it was the actors, who were not available to Cornel Wilde.

SWORD OF LANCELOT has enough invention for a film one-quarter its length, and it’s not all good invention, but some of it is. So I now consider Wilde a worthwhile subject for further examination.

Saving Farce

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , on February 3, 2023 by dcairns

MONSIEUR VERDOUX continued —

Chaplin-as-Verdoux-as-Varney answers the door to the mailman and indulges in his first bit of farce comedy, pretending his wife is upstairs in her bedroom instead of outside dead in the incinerator. Much of the farce in VERDOUX revolves around money, rather than directly around murder, though the murder is not, as Verdoux seems to think, an insignificant side-issue.

The pseudonym “Varney” implies “vampire,” from the Victorian penny dreadful Chaplin may have remembered, though I don’t know how widely read it was by the time of his birth. It also implies Reg Varney, star of lowbrow seventies sitcom On the Buses, but that one’s definitely an anachronism.

Farce is all about the terror of being FOUND OUT, and Verdoux has a lot to keep secret. His methods of collecting his late wife’s savings are treated with Lubitschian lightness — there’s a delight in showing the whole of his journey up and down stairs, in a pedantic, pre-nouvelle vague way. Richard Lester has talked about the difficulty of doing farce on film, because as soon as you start to cut, the audience forgets which door they’re supposed to be watching. The solution may be to cut less often, which may also be why there are more good farces in pre-nouvelle vague cinema than after, and why rather visually primitive TV shows like Fawlty Towers and Father Ted could do farce with an adroitness denied the makers of LOOT, HOTEL PARADISO and ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE.

Chaplin’s counting of the money is a gag that looks like one of his silent-era undercranking tricks, but isn’t. CC has really trained himself to riffle through banknotes at superhuman speed. Verdoux is an ex-bank clerk, but even if he weren’t, this skilled efficiency is appropriate to a man who has coldbloodedly made homicide his business, and is going about it all very professionally. The difference between Chaplin and a real bank clerk is that he doesn’t have to actually keep count, he just has to look as if he is. So as long as his fingers are moving very fast and the banknotes seem to be getting got through by this process, he’s perfectly convincing as well as impressive.

The busy-ness of Verdoux’s business recalls Adenoid Heinkel, rushing from artist’s studio to office. Heinkel too played the piano, and there as here the reference seemed to be to Nero. Verdoux’s ability to entertain himself at the piano while putting through a call which will make use of the money he’s defrauded from his latest victim makes him more inhuman, not less. But it elevates the mood.

I really, really like the piano gag — a knock at the door confuses Verdoux, who thinks something has shaken loose inside the pianoforte. It’s an audio joke of the kind CITY LIGHTS is so full of, it’s the perfect sound film development of the visual gag (see also Tati) and I wish there was more of this kind of thing in the film.

The newcomer is a woman to clean up the house for resale, and she’s played by Christine Ell. Mysteriously, this is her only film. Chaplin must have liked her face, which is indeed wonderfully characterful.

After setting all this in motion, Chaplin cuts away to the police station, where the terrible Couvais family are reporting their relative’s disappearance, and we learn that the police are already becoming aware of Verdoux’s existence, even though they don’t know his identity…

This is useful exposition — the cops established here will play a role later — but more importantly it generates suspense, because all farces are, essentially, thrillers. They have the same sort of moving parts, but move them faster. And, as a tale of murder and theft, MONSIEUR VERDOUX’s farcical elements are far closer to the crime film than is usual.

This cutaway also allows Chaplin to ellipse-elapse some time, so that when we rejoin him he has the house up for sale. He immediately tries to seduce the prospective buyer, Mme. Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom). A sensible woman, she’s understandably creeped out by his rapid advances. Verdoux’s ongoing pursuit of this perfectly sympathetic character will be a second suspense motor powering the later part of the film.

Hitchcock-fashion, Chaplin has us unwillingly root for Verdoux to escape justice, some of the time. But he never makes the moral mistake of having us root for Verdoux to successfully kill. That stuff requires careful handling, and it gets it, even though we can still find fault with some of the choices. Instead, Verdoux’ homicidal plans create suspenseful fear on behalf of his prey, the appealing Mme. Grosnay and the awful, yet perversely likable, Annabella, played by Martha Raye.

Fiona notes that the dressmaker’s dummy establishes the unseen late Mme. Varney/Mademoiselle Couvais as a large woman. “Well, he had to run the incinerator for three days,” I reply.

Verdoux (above left) toys “seductively” with a flower, tickling his chin in EXACTLY the same way he does at the end of CITY LIGHTS, but the effect is decidedly different. His overeager gaucherie in launching himself so wildly at Marie Grosney suggests he’s not as efficient at this as we first thought — the idea of Verdoux as a somewhat inept Bluebeard is not pursued elsewhere.

Verdoux, in an excess of emotion, falls out of a window. Chaplin may have seized on a more verbal form than DICTATOR’s combination of slapstick and dialogue, possibly because he didn’t feel like falling down so much, but his tennis practice has kept him spry and he can still do it.

Does this betray a slight overanxiousness on Chaplin’s as well as Verdoux’s part, a need to reassure us that however “sophisticated” the drawing-room farce gets, there will still be pratfalls?

At any rate, Verdoux doesn’t score, and probably a good thing for him, because shouldn’t he be abandoning the Varney persona, to minimise the chance of his various crimes being connected by the police?

Chaplin finishes the sequence with his first use of a shot of locomotive wheels which will become extremely familiar as the film progresses…

TBC