Archive for La Bandera

Stoney Faced

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2015 by dcairns

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LE MURA DI MALAPAGA is Rene Clement’s 1949 Franco-Italian co-production, a neatly bilingual movie with Jean Gabin as a fugitive in post-war Genoa. It’s also a kind of compendium of Gabin’s greatest hits: he’s on the run for murdering his lover, making it play like either a sequel to GUEULE D’AMOUR or an alternative reality version of LA BANDERA. The city becomes his prison, with shots explicitly evoking the urban cage of PEPE LE MOKO ~

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And the poetic realist brand of pessimistic romance and fatalism is everywhere, almost offensively so. It could easily feel too calculated, but there are some striking and particular qualities to this film which help give it originality…

We first meet Gabin hiding out shipboard in that little metal room where they keep the anchor chain. Like where that sailor dies in Lewton’s THE GHOST SHIP. He’s been there in the dark for three days with a toothache, as wince-inducing an analog for hell as I can imagine. So as he determines to risk his neck by going ashore in search of a dentist, I was more than usually inclined to sympathise.

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Gabin’s plan is to get his tooth fixed and then turn himself in, but he gets his pocket picked and has to threaten the dentist into operating — without anaesthetic. Having had his immediate problem fixed, he feels hungry. Waiting in the police station for a French-speaker he can explain his situation to, he loses patience and heads to the nearest restaurant. He figures he can eat a hearty meal and then, in lieu of payment, get the proprietor to call the cops, and it’ll all be the same anyway. But in the restaurant he finds love…

Oh yes, we’re also in QUAI DES BRUMES territory — it’s a great plot engine, the character who has to get out of town in a hurry, and finds a way to do so, but simultaneously makes an emotional connection which prevents him. Although the love story, featuring Isa Miranda (from Ophuls’ LA SIGNORA DI TUTTI) as the waitress with a young daughter (the affecting Vera Talchi: Clement was always good with kids) is quite touching, the fatalism seems more a genre requirement than something Clement is enthusiastic about, and it makes things fizzle where they could have sparkled. But the other strength the film has its environment.

Vera Talchi.

Gabin in his steel shoebox full of massive chain-links at the start cued me to expect another film about metal, like BATAILLE DU RAIL, but this is actually a film about walls (like SATYRICON), variously crumbling, towering and teetering. Smashed statuary and worn steps. Genoa, as shown here, resembles both Piranesi’s infinite prisons and Chirico’s depopulated, abstract urban expanses, frightening and colossal and ancient, perpetually collapsing into rubble yet seemingly determined to stand forever in defiance of time.

A bit like Gabin’s craggy features, no longer conducive to the romantic Hollywood lighting of PEPE LE MOKO (a slash of luminescence across the glittering eyes), already rapidly assuming the quilted hangdog folds of the later years, or decades even. Maybe the fatalism sits less well here since the aged Gabin always suggested a stubborn hostility to the idea of succumbing to time’s bludgeoning blows. Battered, even bowed, but still trudging onwards.

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Legion of Forgotten Men

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on May 14, 2009 by dcairns

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Over at the Auteurs’ Notebook, you can find both a new Forgotten, featuring yet more Duvivier-based fun, and the third and, for now, final installment in my Thugs with Ugly Mugs series.

One More Waltz

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2008 by dcairns

The opening scene of Duvivier’s LA BANDERA, in which crime passionelletype Jean Gabin flees Paris and joins the foreign legion. It’s not my fave Duviv, by any means, but that’s a fine, moody opening.

First, the slinky move across the rooftops, which looks like multiplane animation a la PINOCCHIO, with a weird transition once it comes to a halt, shifting us into live action. Polanski fans could compare it with the move from animated credits to live action at the start of THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.

It illustrates a key point about Duvivier’s generation, who wanted to address social issues and were generally a bit more excited by the underclass than the upper crust (though Duvivier, no left-winger, made films about both). The whole poetic realist school is deeply interested in seedy environments that breed or harbour crime, but they’re paradoxically studio-bound. These guys didn’t want any faux-documetary rough edges, and most of them were probably horrified by that jazzy nouvelle vague roughness when it came along. Marcel Carné started off wanting to bring the camera onto the streets, but soon found satisfaction in recreating the streets — exactly — in the studio.

The boxy interior sound of the couple’s steps testify to the fact that none of this is quite authentic, but the mix of genre thrills — we’re way ahead of film noir here, which has yet to be invented and named, but that’s what this is nonetheless — and social realism is exciting as hell to me.

I love the faux-split-screen composition that allows us a glimpse into a window and onto the street at the same time, and then — well, let’s allow Dudley Andrew to take up the tale, with the two-fisted yet plangent prose that characterises his excellent book Mists of Regret, containing the best writing on Duvivier I’ve managed to find ~

“It’s opening sequence could stand as a prologue for poetic realism as a whole: a dark street seen from above; through a second-story window of a cheap hotel, the silhouette of a figure disappears; at ground level now, a tipsy couple careens towards us from the far plane as the camera moves laterally to frame the glistening street, with the hotel standing on one border; the tipsy woman, white-clad, rests against a lamppost in a closer shot that lets us glimpse a man limned in shadow (Jean Gabin); from her perspective we see the man dart out of the doorway; she grabs him in jest, and he pushes her away in hurrying past; when her boyfriend steps over to help, the lamplight reveals bloodstains where her dress was touched by Gabin; the camera slowly tilts to reveal the street sign: Rue Saint-Victor.”

That tilt at the end of the night scene is a particularly strong piece of DIRECTION, in the literal sense of directing the audience’s gaze towards something. It’s such an authored move, it sticks out, particularly to a modern sensibility — one rarely gets such a bold intervention in film narration these days. So Duvivier isn’t at all afraid to show his hand, though having the kind of craftsmanlike attitude he had, he’d probably deny ever moving the camera in such a blatant way. The move is particularly strong since we don’t know why we’re moving, and even when we arrive at the street sign, its significance isn’t really clear until we dissolve to the next scene.

And then there’s the almost-too-archetypal shot of Gabin through the Venetian blinds — back when that kind of image was basically NEW. Yup, I think if this movie came on TV, based on that opening scene, a lot of us would want to see the rest…

LA BANDERA is available second-hand, but it ain’t exactly cheap…