Archive for Clouzot

The Insult that made a Man out of Quimby

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2019 by dcairns

TENSION (1949) is a film I always used to get mixed up with SUSPENSE (1946) and also IMPACT (1949), but I think I’ve got it straight now. Barry Sullivan helpfully illustrates the title with an elastic band in scene one, where he talks to us, his chums in the audience, about his patient, sadistic, Porfiry Petrovich style cat-and-mouse approach to catching killers.

But the star of the film is Richard Basehart, that character actor in a leading man’s body, who plays milquetoast drugstore proprietor Warren Quimby — and this is an MGM film so Fred Quimby was running the animation unit — and I’m also assuming at least one of the three writers knew the obscure meaning of that first syllable.

Basehart is quimby-whipped by his mean wife, Audrey Totter, cast much to type, and the noir staples of misogyny and post-war malaise are much in force: “You were cut in uniform,” is Totter’s explanation for her otherwise incomprehensible decision to marry this wimp for whom she expresses nothing but contempt. When she runs off with rich lout “Barney Deager” — the names in this movie are GLORIOUS — Quimby hatches the most pathetic murder scheme ever put on film.

Humiliated by hairy-chested (and hairy-backed, and hairy-armed) Deager on the beach, Quimby breaks his specs. Getting them repaired, he learns of the new miracle of contact lenses, and has an idea. He’ll get a pair of these new-fangled things and be A NEW MAN — unrecognizable as he sets up a false identity as Deager’s neighbour, snuffs him, and then vanishes without trace. Sort of a Clark Kent/Superman thing, only with more murdering. Like the Zack Snyder Superman, in other words.

This plan is so dumb it doesn’t even have to gang aglae for Quimby to be in trouble, but it gangs aglae from the start: he falls in love with Cyd Charisse, who embodies every submissive virtue lacking in his spouse. Then he decides, at the last minute, not to go through with the killing, but someone else does, and suspicion rapidly falls on our mild-mannered pharmacist.

This being MGM, the more conservative aspects of noir are to the fore, but being a John Berry film (subsequent blacklistee), it’s also more complicated. The institutions of marriage and the police don’t emerge untarnished: Sullivan and his partner, surly William Conrad, are nasty pieces of work. When Totter memorialises her slaughtered lover with the words, “He was full of laughs,” Conrad snarls back, “Now he’s full of lead.”

Charisse is a delightful presence so she manages to make her insipid role bearable, but Totter is much more fun. The daft plot’s machinations are cruelly effective in that she and Basehart are thrown back together just when he’s decided he doesn’t want her anymore, and the finger of guilt starts prodding him in the nose even as Sullivan woos his wife right under it.

For a while there I wondered if the writers had lifted the concept from Clouzot’s QUAI DES ORFEVRES, but if so they left out the final twist that allows that movie an absurdly happy ending.

SPOILER:

This one contrives to punish the guilty and reward the innocent (after making them sweat a little), but fades out in a hurry before the final clinch, since embracing a woman other than your wife is technically a no-no even if it’s just a matter of time before the execution.

TENSION stars Ishmael; Adrienne Fromsett; Gabrielle Gerard; Tom Amiel; Walter Winchell; and Frank Cannon.

Les tetes parlantes

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on May 7, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-05-07-08h38m24s57 HITLER, CONNAIS PAS (HITLER, NEVER HEARD OF HIM) is director Bertrand Blier’s first feature, a 1963 documentary which is on the one hand completely suis generis and unrelated to his other work, and on the other, absolutely archetypally him. It’s also a fantastically interesting accomplishment. Opening titles inform us that the film gathers a bunch of twenty-something french people and interviews them. none of the young folks knew each other or met each other during the shoot. This information is vital as Blier consistently intercuts his interviews, creating purely fictitious reaction shots in which each interview APPEARS to be listening to and reacting to the others. In reality I guess they’re reacting to Blier’s questions — which we never hear. vlcsnap-2015-05-07-08h39m37s21 Blier’s other most striking technique is to expose the mechanics of the shoot, showing the studio, the lights, the crew and the cameras and dolly equipment. When he appeared in Edinburgh with LES ACTEURS some years ago, he said that his life’s mission had been the Godardian one of “exposing the mechanics of cinema while preserving the emotion of cinema.” Brechtian alienation without the alienation, I guess. So showing the kit is one way of doing that (we see Blier directing within LES ACTEURS and MERCI LA VIE also, movies which implicate the filmmaker quite openly). Here, he may well have been influenced by THE PICASSO MYSTERY, in the sense that Clouzot in that movie turns his own film shoot into a show, with the clicking of the footage meter used to generate suspense and the presence of cameras not disguised but positively celebrated. The film is its own making-of documentary. vlcsnap-2015-05-07-08h38m58s142 Blier’s array of cameras is so extensive he could probably have created a bullet-time sequence if the digital technology had existed. Apart from being able to cut in a semi-circle from one camera position to another, showing his subjects in profile, three-quarter-face, full-face, and multiple sizes, he also has a semi-circular track passing behind them, allowing for lovely circling/stalking movements shooting straight at the bank of cameras in front. The interviewees themselves are fascinating. The range of social classes was obviously a deliberate choice — each seems tightly circumscribed by money and upbringing — the poor have limited options and the rich have limited understanding. One girl is heartbreaking — she escaped her oppressive family home (a mother whose health was wrecked by having ten kids, no money), got herself a job in Paris at 14, got knocked up, and now lives in a charitable institution with her baby. Another girl, sexually liberated to a fairly far-out degree, seems to have no emotional connections to anyone in her life. One young man describes mugging an elderly woman, getting arrested, and then turning his life around. He’s now an electrician. The most disturbing character is the boss’s son, who says he floundered through life for years not knowing what he’d do with himself, before deciding he’d probably go into business with his dad and wind up running the company. An easy choice. He keeps files on all his activities — he has a dossier with details of all his holidays. You start to suspect he has a folder on all the little boys he’s abducted and eaten, but perhaps I’m being unfair. He’s certainly lacking insight into the rest of society. Workers are “simple and honest” but obviously “lack ambition” otherwise they wouldn’t be workers, would they? Blier’s chauvinism, a constant in his filmmaking, is readily apparent — he films a girl’s knees and crosscuts with men staring and licking their lips. He doesn’t pursue stuff that seems really striking and worthy of interrogation, as when a girl says “I don’t believe rape exists.” We want to know more about this shocking statement. We learn that the men certainly believe it exists, as several have seen it. The boys and girls have a lack of respect for the opposite sex that’s a little worrying. We can certainly see why the girls think the way they do though. vlcsnap-2015-05-07-08h39m10s5 The title is slightly opaque as there’s no pop quiz to see if the Youth of Today, wrapped up in their jazz clubs and they Brigitte Bardot movies, are aware of larger social and historical issues. I suspect it’s a reference to some meme of the early sixties in which the lack of cultural awareness of these modern kids was being bemoaned. Blier’s film is more of a sympathetic exploration than a conservative angst-piece.

Piss and Vinegar

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2015 by dcairns

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For some reason, even for a confused liberal like me, it’s often extremely satisfying to see a policeman protagonist smacking suspects around and GETTING ANSWERS. It’s something that seems to just work in drama, and it can even be amusing, which speaks to something dark and stupid in human nature. Also, maybe it’s pleasing because it acknowledges something we believe goes on, but which isn’t always admitted in reassuring fictions. Still, after the recent massacre in Paris, there was something satisfying about watching both of Claude Chabrol’s Inspector Lavardin films (POULET AU VINAIGRE and INSPECTEUR LAVARDIN), in which glinty, flinty Jean Poiret plays Dominique Roulet’s quirky copper (likes his eggs just so), beating up witnesses, letting killers off on a whim, stitching up those who may not be precisely guilty as charged.

“Life is absurd,” is Lavardin’s philosophy, and the films are charming and entertaining because of not despite their ethical shock factor — it’s liberating to see a character who cares nothing for the accepted rules of his profession and operates entirely according to his own sensibility. The disturbing undercurrent is the certainty that these methods ARE used, and are not so whimsically funny in real life.

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Lavardin is like Kurosawa’s Sanjuro character from YOJIMBO and SANJURO, upsetting the accepted codes of his genre and being so popular doing it that an immediate sequel becomes necessary. While Kurosawa boldly cast the same actor, Tetsuya Nakadai, as Toshiro Mifune’s opponents in both films, killing him off each time, and Sergio Leone repeated this trope with Gian Maria Volonte in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (even though FAFDM has nothing in common with SANJURO except that it’s a sequel to a version of YOJIMBO), Chabrol was not quite so shameless: he waited until Lavardin got his own TV show (Les Dossiers Secret de l’Inspecteur Lavardin) to recast ex-wife Stephane Audran.

The first film enjoys a slow, convoluted set-up, one of those things where one worries that the various dastardly characters, their dysfunctional relationships and covert schemes will never fully become clear, or that one won’t be clever or French enough to understand them. Lavardin enters quite late in the action, because the deaths don’t start until midway. It’s a familiar structure from movies like GREEN FOR DANGER or FARGO or the TV show Columbo or its antecedent, QUAI DES ORFEVRES. Whereas FARGO and Columbo show the elaborate set-up to a crime, concealing nothing, and QUAI DES ORFEVRES pretends to but keeps something up its sleeve, Lavardin’s first case echoes Inspector Cockrill’s (Launder & Gilliat wanted to star Alastair Sim in a whole series of Cockrill adventures after GREEN FOR DANGER, based on Christianna Brand’s delightful whodunnits, but the star refused to repeat himself) — we see and hear plenty, but not enough to fully understand the key elements. Then Lavardin comes along and not only catches up with us in record time despite everyone lying their heads off, he supercedes our understanding and cracks the case (and a few heads).

Enjoyable as this is (with a surprising number of plot elements from PSYCHO — crazy mother in cellar, car winched from ravine), the sequel is even better, starting as it does with a corpse on a beach (the word “PORC” etched on his chubby back). This means Lavardin is on the scene in an instant, and we discover the intricacies of the case through his beady, skeptical, humorous but reptilian eyes.

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I’ve heard it suggested that Chabrol came to despise mankind or at least his characters, but this does not quite seem to me to be true. There’s a bit of Clouzot’s wry affection (seeing mankind at its worst but rather liking it anyway) and there’s also the Coen defense, that these are genre exercises and the people AREN’T REAL. The filmmakers want their rats to not only run a maze, but an obstacle course. It’s all in fun, except when it’s not.

I’ve not quite decided if Chabrol’s latter-day authorial cynicism amounts to full-scale misanthropy. He seems too jocular for that. But if you want to see traditional detective stories reinvigorated by a change of attitude in the central character, Lavardin’s your man.

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To get both films you have to buy two box sets, it seems. But hey, that means more Chabrol.

The Claude Chabrol Collection – Vol. 2 [DVD]

In desperation, the pun “Poulet au Vinaigre” which means Chicken with Vinegar but also “vinegary policeman” has been substituted with the title COP AU VIN, which is easier for Brits to understand except it doesn’t really mean anything.

The Essential Claude Chabrol Vol. 1 (3 disc box set) [DVD]