Archive for Christine Leteux

Small Talk

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2023 by dcairns

The talk I’m doing with Chris Heppell of Changing Faces for the Bo’ness Silent Film Festival is tomorrow. You can find out more here. As far as I can tell it’ll be watchable online both live and on instant replay. I’ll post a link to the YouTube version as soon as I can.

My part of the talk is all written and I’ve timed it, though depending on how fast I talk it comes out massively overlong or massively overshort. Which proves that it CAN be the right length.

It’s about “visible difference” in silent cinema. I belatedly realised that though I have stuff on little guys Angelo Rossitto (THE BELOVED ROGUE) and Harry Earles (THE UNHOLY THREE), I left out big guys Ingram B. Pickett (THE HIGH SIGN, pictured) and John Aasen (WHY WORRY?)

Incidentally, if anybody has a fondness for correcting the IMDb, you might want to tell them that Big Joe Roberts does not play the leader of the Blinking Buzzards in Keaton’s first short, Pickett does. A difficult mistake to account for if you look at images of the two men side by side: a tall, fat man does not resemble overmuch a gigantically tall, reasonably thin man.

The Inaccurate Movie Database suffers from the fact that it was initially quite easy to input information, and then they made it harder to get edits, made, so that correcting all the accumulated mistakes of the early years is going to be a decades-long process. And Eric Blore does not appear in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, so there.

Still, the talk isn’t intended to be a complete encyclopedia of different-looking character actors. But I think it’ll give a sense of silent era filmmakers’ attitudes to difference. Happy to hear if I’ve missed any other notable examples of thesps who capitalized on the features that made them stand out from the crowd.

I’m impressed by the line-up of talks at Hippfest this year: here’s Christine Leteux on Maurice Tourneur.

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 Sunday Intertitle: Doone among the Dead Men

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on July 24, 2022 by dcairns

Beautiful art titles from Maurice Tourneur’s hundred-year-old film of LORNA DOONE:

Tourneur’s technique, having been more advanced than nearly everyone’s in the teens, is now closer to standard in 1922, but his grasp of atmosphere is second to none. His version of Hollywood Olde Englande feels unusually authentic, allowing for the necessary romanticism. He’s not moving the camera, but the lighting is shadowy, the design detailed and original, the performances sensitive. the photography diffuse. Even the landscape shots are appropriately misty: did they go somewhere damper than California or just produce smoke on an industrial scale? I expect Christine Letuex, Tourneur biographer, knows the truth.

Ironically, with all this moody fuzz, the cinematographer’s name is Henry Sharp. He became a fixture at Paramount (DUCK SOUP, IT’S A GIFT), a studio addicted to soft focus.

Magic hour is scary hour!

The idea of highwaymen rising en masse — a merrie men-sized unit — is ahistorical, but dramatic. And here’s a not wholly successful forced perspective, where they’ve added period detail to their landscape in the form of a munchkinesque shack:

Quite strange — you would have to enter it bent double — was it designed by an ancestor of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH’s Captain Mertin?

Ringletted moppet Lorna (a name invented for the novel — passed on to my older sister) is abducted by the highwaymen — they plan on keeping her till she can grow up and marry one of them — an unlikely idea in several ways.

The Doone carriage, having been diverted into the sea like a bathing machine so the ruffians can abduct its little passenger. This is what we look for from Tourneur — a shot which achieves an emotional story point in an oblique way: it’s the aftermath of an event, not the event — no characters appear — but it summarises the calamity and is visually beautiful in itself. The first reaction is to the beauty, but it’s not just an attractive image, it’s what Fellini called meaningful beauty. It’s like Kane’s abandoned, snow-covered sled as the train whistle sounds…

The first appearance of Madge Bellamy as grown-up Lorna:

Beautifully composed — rather than popping on a longer lens, Tourneur takes the time to shoot the medium shot from a new camera position. The backlit halo effect on her hair is extraordinary — does Sharp have a little light hidden right behind her, or a huge one above her, or could possibly it be natural?

The film’s first interior shot depicts the villain, disgraced nobleman Sir Ensor Doone (!)

The cloud of pipe smoke makes it, but note also the silhoutted chair, the hazily lit hall beyond the doorway, the pool of light on the floor which picks out the black-clad highwayman in stark relief.

This film is too full of riches, I’m going to go through it in episode fashion. So this is