Archive for Harry Baur

Screening the evidence

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2012 by dcairns

Watched LA TETE D’UN HOMME, Julien Duvivier’s Maigret film, made at exactly the same time as Renoir’s take on the Simenon sleuth, LA NUIT DE CARREFOUR, and based on the same book as the later Meredith/Laughton MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER. I essentially watched the film by mistake, as part of my researches into Pathe-Natan, based on a filmography that erroneously cited the film as shooting at Natan’s studio.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake I can’t regret as I loved the film when I first saw it at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and I loved it just as much this time. Harry Baur is a near-definitive Maigret. Impossible for the high-octane thesp to match the air of depleted nothingness Pierre Renoir brought to it, perfectly capturing the human, dour functionary of the books, but Baur dials down his towering charisma and actually seems to shrink into the part, despite being by some way the biggest man on screen. Duvivier helps by casting the gangling sunflower Alexander Rignault, with his big flapping orang-utan hands, so there’s one actor taller than Baur, if not bulkier.

Valery Inkijinoff is amazingly sinister as the psychopath Radek. A Russian with eastern features, he had a looong career playing Eskimo, Chinese, Japanese, Red Indian, and even occasionally Russian. Given the role of a lifetime, he manifests an incredibly compelling screen persona — his delivery seems a little overemphatic at times, but it really doesn’t matter, because his LOOK and his posture are so utterly hypnotic. We’re talking Peter Lorre levels of you-can’t-look-away-ness.

One very interesting effect — Pathe-Natan may be nowhere in the mix, but Natan’s friend the inventor Yves Le Prieur contributed his Transflex… let me explain. Le Prieur is best remembered as a co-inventor of the scuba, but he also came up with air-to-air rockets for WWI and a translucent movie screen called the Transflex which facilitated rear projection. If you use an ordinary movie screen, you can’t get a bright enough image on the reverse side, but the Transflex was opaque enough to hide the projector, but see-through enough to show a strong image to the camera.

Le Prieur declined to patent his invention, and it swiftly found its way to America where it was deployed on JUST IMAGINE and LILIOM. Of course, it was a huge help, after some Hollywood fine-tuning, on KING KONG, but sadly the inventor is rarely credited.

In this scene, one of Maigret’s assistants questions a series of witnesses. In fact, he’s standing in front of a Translux upon which the background and his interviewees are projected. In a series of dissolves which have already been produced in the lab, the backgrounds melt away into one another while the detective remains in place in one continuous shot, as if he were teleporting from one location to another. The process of the law captured in a process shot.

There’s also a sequence in which the desperate fugitive/patsy steals bread from a child, which seems very much influenced by James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN, although the shots are actually entirely different ~

Wow. Click and enlarge any of these stills for your daily beauty fix.

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Askew

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2012 by dcairns

Harry Baur’s marble-dusted complexion makes him blend seamlessly with the statue he’s propping up, an impressively gargoylesque opening image…

The crowning glory of Pathe-Natan, delivered just before the financial axe fell, was Raymond Bernard’s five-hour epic LES MISERABLES. I feel this masterwork is disqualified from appearing as a piece in The Forgotten, by virtue of its being available from the Criterion Collection (along with Bernard’s WWI epic LES CROIX DE BOIS) but I can and enthusiastically will write about it here.

As a kind of three film mini-series, the Victor Hugo adaptation delivers the long-form pleasures distinct to works such as LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS and THE MYSTERIES OF LISBON — we get to meet a large number of characters, to observe them over time, seeing them grow up or age, and seeing them tested to destruction by the forces of history and/or narrative.

Shamefully, I’ve never read any Hugo, and the only other adaptation of this one that I’ve seen was the Twentieth Century Fox version produced a year later, which conspicuously lacks the epic sweep even if it has big splashy set-pieces and fine stars (though Fredric March seems miscast — he might even have traded roles with Laughton to better effect).

Bernard commands a giant production, and delivers it with his favourite stylistic devices, most of which seem to have been popular at Pathe-Natan and maybe owe something to Gance, while prefiguring Welles: sweeping camera moves, frantic montages of action, and especially in part three, a flurry of handheld shots to simulate the chaos of battle. Bernard also loves his tilted angles, as Michael Koresky says in his excellent liner notes: “The result was a faithful, as well as compellingly askew, vision of the book’s post–Napoleonic era France, from the ballrooms of the aristocracy (shot at such a drastic angle at one point that the dancers look as though they may slide right out of the frame) to the impoverished back alleys of thieves and prostitutes (evoked with palpable decrepitude and anguish) to the barricades of the 1832 student revolt (filmed at times with remarkable handheld fury).”

Such a film also needs strong performers, and it has them: Charles Vanel channels his granite gravitas into the stiff and grudging Javert, allowing the character’s blinkered obsessiveness to emerge slllooowwwlllyyy. He also, in his final scene, manages to closely resemble the great Dick Miller, and there can be no higher praise in my book. The film’s real discovery is little Gaby Triquette as the child Cosette, a wondrously natural and expressive kid. In a brief five-year career she managed to work for Bernard, Julien Duvivier, Abel Gance and Marcel L’Herbier.

This fairy-tale nightmare forest — complete with handheld lurch towards eerie skull-faced tree hollow — might have influenced SNOW WHITE — Bernard Natan visited Disney in 1934 and bought the French rights to Mickey Mouse.

There’s also the astonishingly youthful Jean Servais, whom I knew from his much later performances in RIFIFI and TAMANGO. Next time I see one of those I may start to cry, because his descent from handsome young blade in 1934 to the raddled and hangdog figure of Tony le Stephanois is heartbreaking. Whatever he went through in the intervening years, including World War Two, it must have been pretty devastating.

Servais, right. I think in this shot, Raymond Bernard has found Servais’ perfect angle.

But the movie is inevitably dominated by its Jean Valjean, the incomparable Harry Baur. Again, the film has an actor unafraid to take his time, so he spends the first half hour as a hulking brute, frustrating us with his unwillingness to learn from experience — and then he starts to weep and it’s devastating. From then on, he holds not just our attention but our admiration with his hulking anthropophagous of a performance. It’s always tricky when a movie casts a tall, fat actor as a very strong character: do we believe he’s a tough guy, or is he just extremely large? Possibly a man that size needs to be superhumanly strong just to move around? Baur sells the fight scene where he defeats seven assailants, but the last act, where he carries Jean Servais on his back through the streets, down a ladder into the sewers, and then through shoulder-high filth, is where we really had to sit back and admit this guy is TOUGH.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)

The Place of the Skull

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2009 by dcairns

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Look — it’s Jesus!

Since Easter is approaching, we decided to watch a man get nailed to some timber.

To say that Julien Duvivier’s GOLGOTHA — a big budget, star-studded life-and-death-and-life of Christ movie — falls into the trap of the biblical movie, is to not say nearly enough. Duvivier’s film flings itself headlong into that trap, with the crazed abandon of Joe Cocker, if Joe Cocker were a film about Christ. It’s not the best metaphor in the world, but you get what I mean.

To clarify: a common complaint about Hollywood epics is that they lack real people, or at any rate people we can relate to. Part of the trouble is dialogue. “I don’t know how a pharaoh talks,” as Howard Hawks put it, is a brilliant encapsulation of the problem of presenting characters from an age and culture very different from out own, who would have spoken a language different from the one we’re presenting them in.

(Sidebar: Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic flogathon THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST cuts this Gordian knot with the classic simplicity of the true moron: it doesn’t matter that the languages used in Gibson’s s&m porno Christ are not the right ones for the period. All that matters is that the vast majority of modern viewers don’t understand a word of what’s being said, thus accurately recreating the effect of being present at the real crucifixion.)

The result of all these difficulties with speech and characterisation is often a certain wooden quality, often reinforced by the scale of these productions. Recreating life in ancient times can be very expensive, and filmmakers sometimes see this expense as a goal rather than a result. Plodding, monumental epics naturally tend to diminish the human element, encouraging the actors to declaim and strike poses, so the whole problem is exacerbated.

And then again, it’s an artistic challenge to imagine what people were actually like in earlier times. We can err by making them too like us, but also by making them too different. When Peter Ustinov blew on his soup in QUO VADIS?, he was told the gesture was too modern. “In what age,” he inquired, “did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?”

Duvivier’s movie, a super-production of the kind more associated with Hollywood than France, was filmed amid giant sets, with a ceaselessly gliding camera. Since the days of CABIRIA and INTOLERANCE, filmmakers have recognised that camera movement allows for the celebration of vast scale, although they have likewise struggled with the fact that such movements, when motivated by a desire to explore space rather than follow characters around, can tend to minimise the people still further. Duvivier, like George Lucas, built his fantasy city in Tunisia, although his gigantic Jerusalem — a combination of massive sets, existing structures and special effects — easily beats the crap out of Mos Eisley Spaceport.

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“There never was a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

The restless tracking shots with which Duvivier examines this vast arena call to mind Michael Curtiz, with whom Duvivier is often compared. Such an analogy often does a disfavour to both men, by implying that they’re impersonal artisans, capable of turning their hands to any genre, and devoid of personal trademarks. Curtiz certainly has a signature style, which involves a high-gloss visual surface, a roving camera, and an avoidance of thematic obsessions, apart from a tendency to linger on moments of sadism. Duviviershares some of the visual concerns, but was also usually involved in the scripting of his films, which do cover a wide range of territories, but feature recurring themes and character types too. In this film, however, he could almost be a parody of Curtiz, ignoring the people and story and concentrating most of his attention on design and cruelty.

But the devotion to the look isn’t 1005 consistent. Although most of the characters are chipboard stereotypes — grumbling pharisees, a shifty Peter, an angsty Judas — a few touches give humanity (of a degraded kind) to the Roman soldiery, who are heard grumbling about the weather and laughing as they poke a blindfolded Christ with a stick (“Which one of us was that, eh?”), in a variation on the arse-kicking game played by Hugh Herbert in FOG OVER FRISCO. And while Christ himself is weirdly de-emphasised as a central character, rendered more as icon than personality, Pontius Pilate and Herod each get moments when the film slows its pace right down, and Duvivier pays rapt attention to the faces of his actors. Of course, since the actors are Jean Gabin and Harry Baur, this kind of star treatment is to be expected, but it’s nonetheless startling when Duviver holds on Baur’s great face for second after second, as Herod sizes up an off-screen Christ. (Christ is frequently off-screen, even in scenes where he’s present. It feels like Duvivier wants us to be startled whenever we do actually get to see his main character: a commendably mad idea.)

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This is a remarkable scene all round, since it has become invested with the grimmest of all possible ironies. Herod is played by an actor later tortured and murdered by the Gestapo. Jesus is played by an actor who was a fervent collaborationist and Nazi sympathiser, Robert Le Vigan. To see Baur passing judgement on Le Vigan is quite weird, melancholy and disturbing.

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Then comes the flogging, which Duvivier does not show, instead slowly closing in on the faces of witnesses gazing through a barred window. “We want to see!” someone cries, but Duvivier does not let US see. There’s a sly, cynical wit here that Mel Gibson could learn from, if it were possible to put the words “Mel”, “Gibson” and “learn” in the same sentence without the sky falling in. There’s also the famous “blood libel,” which brought Gibson some criticism — as I understand it, the line is in the bible, so Duvivier (or even Gibson) including it is defensible on grounds of fidelity to the source, but it’s still unfortunate.

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Which it does, right after they nail Jesus up. The traditional death mass (AKA “the theme from THE SHINING”) gives way to an insane xylophonic freakout as the firmament pours past at time-lapse velocity, rent asunder periodically by the most convincing SFX lightning-flashes I’ve ever seen in a ’30s movie.

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I never knew Judas hanged himself on Skull Island.

As you can probably guess from my description, and from any memories you might have of George Stevens’ beautiful but lumbering arse-marathon THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, Duvivier’s film isn’t exactly moving, just solemn and sweeping, but it’s at least spectacular in creative ways, and follows its own perverse course so blindly that it achieves a kind of artistic grandeur above mere spectacle. It’s exactly the kind of film which might tend to reinforce the usual prejudices about Duvivier as an empty-headed purveyor of glossy production values, but once you’ve seen LA FIN DU JOUR or PEPE LE MOKO or POIL DE CAROTTE or PANIQUE you ought to be inoculated against that kind of poppycock. And there’s an underlying strangeness to the whole approach that seperates it from the monumentalism of Stevens’ much-maligned film.