Archive for Eugen Schufftan

Tuttle Recall

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2018 by dcairns

Frank Tuttle was a rather gifted director, I’m inclined to think, but he’s a bit problematic politically — in 1947 he was blacklisted due to his former membership of the communist party. In 1951 he gave HUAC thirty-six names (according to Wikipedia).

During the interim, he made GUNMAN IN THE STREETS in Paris, so I guess it’s the equivalent of Dmytryk’s rather good OBSESSION — the bridge between his pre-rat and post-rat phases. It’s almost a really good movie, too, though it lacks the verve and grit of something like RIFIFI (also made by a blacklistee in Paree). It’s more like the pre-war poetic realism stuff.

Dane Clark plays an American gangster in Paris, an ex-serviceman gone rogue, now a fugitive trying to get out of the country. Phlegmatic copper Fernand Gravey is hot on his trail, or as hot as Fernand Gravey ever gets. Clark turns to his former moll, Simone Signoret, and she gets funds from her current lover, Robert “who he?” Duke. There’s a double amour fou going on, with Signoret powerless to resist Clark and Duke in thrall to her.

The events of the story are all interesting in theory, and Tuttle’s visual approach — mostly elegant sequence shots — is fine, enhanced by Eugen Schüfftan’s misty cinematography (IMDb also credits Claude Renoir, but the movie doesn’t). The problems come from the script and the actors.

The great Jacques Companéez (listed as “Jack”), a master of this milieu, seems to have originated the story, but the dialogue feels like a too-literal translation from the French. We don’t need lashings of argot, necessarily, but we can’t have a hoodlum saying “I left my identification in my automobile.” It’s a slight problem having American and French characters and everyone speaking English, but the bigger issue is that it’s such flavourless, denatured English.

 

Gravey is good, but lacks the drive to propel his manhunt narrative forward with urgency, and he’s surrounded by Francophones whose timing is way off, a problem in Tuttle’s long takes. Then you have the romantic triangle, where Signoret’s style is rock-solid — her last close-up is devastating — Clark is miscast as a tough guy though he does his best — and Duke seems at sea in a difficult part. He comes across as a wimp and I’m not sure he’s supposed to.

Colourful supporting performance from Michel Andrê as a sleazy “artist” complete with dressing gown and cat.

Apparently there’s a simultaneously-shot French version of this movie, with several less writers, and Borys Lewin as credited director. Same cast. Wonder what that’s like?

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The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by dcairns

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I’m finally reading Tim Lucas’s magisterial Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. I can’t fault the scholarship — few filmmakers are lucky enough to get books as exhaustive and considered and respectful as this. It’s all the sweeter since Bava was such an underrated artisan in his lifetime.

I wouldn’t dare to contest Lucas’ unparalleled expertise in this subject, but one little bit where I think he’s not quite right gave me an idea for today’s piece.

The book not only examines Bava’s directorial legacy, it probes into his work as cinematographer, and also provides as full an account of the career of his father, Eugenio Bava, cinematographer and visual effects artist of the silent era. Lucas examines the legendary CABIRIA, whose effects are jointly ascribed to Bava Snr. and the great Segundo de Chomon. Chomon usually gets most of the credit, and Lucas thinks this is probably unfair — he claims Chomon’s effects “were usually rooted in the principles of stop-motion animation.” In fact, I think it’s going to be impossible to make any calls on who did what, other than that we are told Bava Snr. built the model Vesuvius. Chomon’s imitations of Georges Melies’ style saw him performing every kind of trick effect known to the age, to which he added the innovation of stop motion, cunningly integrated into live action sequences. I think it’s fair to say than any of the effects in CABIRIA might have been the work of either man.

Lucas goes on to focus on one spectacular shot of the erupting volcano, a composite in which the bubbling miniature shares screen space with a line of fleeing extras and sheep (do the sheep know they’re fleeing? Perhaps they’re just walking). Lucas notes that smoke pots in the foreground, placed near the extras, waft fumes up across the model volcano, which makes him think the shot could not have been achieved as a matte effect. He deduces that the volcano was filmed through a sheet of angled glass, one corner of which was brightly lit to reflect the extras.

I would suggest that the shot is in fact a pure double exposure, with no mattes. The volcano is dark apart from the bright lava. The shot of the extras is also dark apart from the extras, sheep, and smoke. Double exposed on the same negative, the bright parts register and the black parts stay black. Thus the white smoke can drift up through the frame, appearing transparently over both the darkness and the bubbling Bava-lava.

belle et la bete end

More examples of this effect: at the end of Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, two characters fly off into the sky. The highlights on their figures cut through the superimposed cloudscape, but the shadow areas become transparent, phantasmal, in a way I don’t think the filmmakers intended; and in CITIZEN KANE, Welles crossfades slowly into flashback, with Joseph Cotten remaining solidly visible long after his background has disappeared, a trick achieved by fading the lighting down on the set while keeping Cotten brightly lit — no matte was needed, and had Cotten puffed on one of those cigars he was talking about, the smoke could have drifted across the incoming scenery, provided a sidelight picked it out of the darkness.

Lucas’s reflection trick, a kind of Pepper’s Ghost illusion, would have anticipated the more refined Schufftan effect by more than a decade (Eugen Schüfftan used mirrors to combine miniatures with full-scale action within the same, live shot on METROPOLIS) and Lucas suggests that Mario Bava resented this claiming of an invention his father had anticipated, and makes his disapproval known by including a character called Schüftan in his movie KILL, BABY, KILL. Since I don’t believe Eugenio anticipated Eugen in this technique, I think we can say that the use of the name Schüftan for the film’s heroine is more of an affectionate tribute to a great cinematographer, effects artist and a near-namesake of his dad.

Quibbles aside, I repeat: this is an amazing book.

Shanghai Drama

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2008 by dcairns

“You’ve never seen any of the Romy Schneider SISSI films? Oh, you don’t know what agony is.” ~ David Wingrove.

Yes, David was round at our place, translating another movie in his role as Benshi Film Describer. Ironically, while the world goggled, presumably, at the Olympics opening ceremony, we distracted ourselves from the horror that is SPORT with a ripe slice of chinoiserie, G.W. Pabst’s 1938 LE DRAME DE SHANGHAI.

Double it with Ophuls’ DE MAYERLING A SARAJEVO, two romances where the melodrama collides with a propaganda film coming the other way, with dire consequences for both. While Ophuls’ most lacklustre film is effectively scuttled by all the Vive La France material hitting it below the waterline in the final reel, Pabst’s film is stranger and darker, and just about gets away with its support of China against the Japanese invaders, which has at least been a recurrent theme in the film.

But what grabs the attention is the emotional side of the story — but not the mother-daughter stuff. Christl Mardayne, a star of Nazi escapist flicks, plays “Kay Murphy”, a pseudonymous Russian refugee who’s found stardom singing at “the Olympic” (synchronicity!), but yearns to be reunited with her daughter, raised in isolation and innocence at a Hong Kong finishing school. The teenage daughter has no idea that her mother sings in a sleazy dive and is also a spy working for “the Black Dragon”, a nefarious but faintly-sketched criminal organisation, in which estranged husband and father Louis Jouvet is a prominent figure.

“War is the triumph of beast over man. Peace is the triumph of man over beast. But man is more beast than man,” says Jouvet, his knife of a face cutting through the gloom. Once the obscure plot threads start to come together, Pabst’s skill with dramatic composition and his particular flair for the morbid can kick in. The great Henri HOTEL DU NORD Jeanson provides suitably noirish dialogue.

While Jouvet’s appearance, back from the dead with a scar snaking up his brow like a withered tree, is strong, his departure is even better. Discovering his daughter in Mardayne’s flat, he sees a halo of light cast around her face by the chandelier.  Finding a photograph of himself in her hands, he takes it to the mirror to compare the idealistic Russian of fifteen years ago with the corrupt gangster of today. The daughter is shepherded out by an alarmed Mardayne, and Jouvet grimly smiles at the contrast in the two images of himself.

A rather stunning shot-reverse-shot on the same actor!

Then, somehow, a blind is drawn, although no one is there to draw it. The chandelier falls dark, and the halo on the wall which illuminated the daughter’s purity fades, leaving only blank stone.

Jouvet goes to the window and announces his intention to induct his daughter into the Black Dragon organisation. Mardayne shoots him in the back. His dying words are “Why didn’t you do that fifteen years ago?”

Splendid!

No film can altogether survive the loss of a thesp like Jouvet, but this one carries on, offering us assorted sinister orientals, and a couple of noble ones. The Chinese actors are all listed on a separate card from the French, a kind of apartheit of credits. There are some genuine Shanghai crowd scenes. Mardayne and her daughter are freed from prison as the Japanese attack, but a Black Dragon assassin (louche Romanian actor Marcel RIFIFI Lupovici) stabs Mardayne. Her lifeless body is borne along by the crowds, as great chunks of newsreel footage start to invade the movie.

A poor coolie is beckoned to his doom. Cinematography by Eugen Schufftan and Henri Alekan.

A French film set in China with a German director, LA DRAME DE SHANGHAI has been released on DVD by the Italians, so it was great to have David to translate it, using both the French dialogue and Italian subtitles, which collide somewhere in his unique brain and emerge from his mouth as English.