Archive for La Fin du Jour

Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 31, 2010 by dcairns

From Julien Duvivier’s LA CHARRETTE FANTOME, a remake of Victor Sjostrom’s KORKARLEN (THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE). Duvivier’s film might be an all-time New Year classic, right up there with THE APARTMENT, if it were available with an English translation, and/or if Duvivier’s reputation were up where it belongs.

I’ve been watching a fair bit of Louis Jouvet recently. Since LA FIN DU JOUR, one of my favourite actors. In LA CHARRETTE you really get the impression that he’s photosensitive — completely aware of how light and shade is affecting his face and how he comes across. But in other films, this impression is less acute, so I’d say it’s a three-way thing between Duvivier, Jouvet, and cinematographer Jules Kruger.

It’s a visually spectacular film, as the opening shot illustrates, panning from an impressive miniature of a snow-shrouded city, directly onto an elaborate multi-level full-size set.

Duvivier’s unpopularity with the Cahiers critics may have had something to do with the flash way he flaunted his production values — his movies are big, studio-bound, and could be seen as vulgar in their gigantism, their artificiality, and their aestheticism. Of course, I love all that.

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Cheap Shots

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2010 by dcairns

Our friend David Wingrove drew our attention to David Thomson’s Guardian obit of Jennifer Jones, which he thought in rather poor taste. I’d read David Edelstein’s rather vile obit of Brittany Murphy so nothing could shock me. But as David says, the striking thing about this piece is that it’s all about how Jones refused to be interviewed by Thomson for his Selznick bio. Jones is judged and condemned on those grounds alone. Consider:

“Well, she’s dead now, at 90. Gore Vidal told me maybe 10 years ago how he’d recently had dinner with Jennifer Jones and complimented her on … her looks? Her cooking? Her jokes? Never mind now. But she did tell him that she was actually three years older than her official age. So was she 93 or 90? What’s the difference if you hardly recognise anyone any longer and if you prefer not to talk to the biographer of the husband who named you Jennifer Jones, who got you your Oscar and turned your life into such a melodrama?”

What does that paragraph boil down to? The last sentence — “What’s the difference” ie “Why should we care about you?” “if you prefer not to talk to etc” ie “if you won’t talk to me?” Pretty incredible. I think it would’ve been nice if Jones had shared her memories with Thomson, and it might have made for a fascinating addition to film history. But I don’t believe she owed those memories to anybody or any such nonsense — they were her own, private, to do with as she pleased.

I think the reason that paragraph reads so snooty and self-important is that Thomson is just not that careful any more what he writes. It pains me to say this, because my contact with Mr T, when I sent him a copy of LA FIN DU JOUR in hopes of changing his mind about Julien Duvivier, was entirely pleasant and I found him gracious and charming. Asked to write something about Thomson’s new book, The Moment of Psycho: How Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, I shied away, because looking at the opening pages on Amazon I found them disturbingly shaky. For a while Thomson has seemed rather middlebrow in his tastes, his skills as a writer exceeding his verve as a thinker, but now his prose itself is starting to slacken. Consider ~

“People liked his films: in the fifties Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and North by Northwest had all been hits, suspense stories served with the black cream of Hitchcock’s humor.”

That image: black cream. Ugh! And WTF? It won’t do, on a basic level. I’ll pass over with merely a snide snicker the passages in his book on The Aliens Quartet which devolve into an extended sexual fantasy about Sigourney Weaver eating strawberries and cream without a top on — we can put that down to male menopause. What ties together the ugly thought unintentionally revealed in the Jones obit with the casually askew imagery of the Hitchcock piece is a lack of care. Thomson has more or less admitted he doesn’t care so much about movies as he used to* — maybe he should find something he can write about passionately. Something needs to happen.

*His dismissal of Abbas Kiarostami based on a screening of one movie would be enough to confirm this even if he hadn’t come out and said it.

Spent Bullets

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2008 by dcairns

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Shadowplayer and filmmaker Paul Duane sent me a copy of a movie he likes, as an exchange for my sending him LA FIN DU JOUR (touching how many people have felt moved to offer a swap). This meant I was inclined to be guilt-tripped into WATCHING the damn thing, but I was glad I was.

I have a pretty pleasant history with director William Dieterle, who Edgar Ulmer nicknamed “the Iron Stove” since he was a large man who often played knights in armour when he was an actor back in the old country. “He was a big guy, not talented,” recalled Ulmer.

I beg to differ.

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THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME made a huge impression on me as a kid. Now, Charles Laughton is insuperably the greatest Quasimodo the screen has ever held, and Dieterlealso had the help of massive sets, crowd scenes, Maureen O’Hara and the R.K.O. effects wizards. But the way Dieterle puts together striking, expressive angles, with the aid of cinematographer William H. August (a Dieterle favourite) and editors William Hamilton and Robert Wise, still amazes me. The film is monumental, but moves.

What most wowed me as a kid was the ending: had I been exposed to an unhappy ending before? Perhaps not. Had I ever been exposed to an unhappy ending that made me feel strangely elated? The closest thing would probably have been KING KONG, but the monster dying at the end of a monster movie is not what is typically considered a tragedy, although Willis H. O’Brien’sanimation and Max Steiner’s score certainly play it that way.

I’ve just checked, for the first time, and the script of Dieterle’s HUNCHBACK is by Sonya Levien, a prolific high-profile Hollywood writer, and Bruno Frank, who had mostly German credits — the ending is their’s, not Victor Hugo’s. That ending definitely opened my eyes to the pleasures of the downbeat. Today’s kids, raised on the Disney version, which has many visual and musical splendours, have been cruelly robbed of the chance to experience pleasurable melancholy.

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The second Dieterle to blow me out of my socks was THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, which came highly recommended by Leslie Halliwell, author of a Film Guide and a Filmgoer’s Companion, which were the standard pre-IMDb reference works available to me as a movie-loving kid. Now, Halliwell is wrong about practically everything made after 1950; he has pretty, if middlebrow, good taste up to then, although his critical analysis of even the things he likes is pretty lousy; but I have to tip my hat to his grave and say that he did point me in the direction of a lot of good films. This 1941 Americanisation of the Faust story (Dieterle acts in Murnau’s film of FAUST) beneifts from most of the crew on CITIZEN KANE being around and primed to do their best, and boasts really remarkable, extreme performances by Walter Huston as the Mephisto figure, Mr. Scratch, and Simone Simon as Belle, a stupendously erotic minion of the devil. Bernard Herrmann contributes one of his finest scores, and if the ending lays on the Americanism a bit thick, it’s pleasurably ironic given all the talk about collectivism in the film: even the opening credits are simply a list of the “persons who collaborated in making this picture”, actors and crew co-mingled without distinction or job title — that’s tantamount to communism!

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Wee Kenneth Anger.

I wish I’d seen PORTRAIT OF JENNIE as a kid too, since that would have wowed me even more than it does now. The other major one I did see was A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Comrade K, film writer and costumed crimefighter (they call him “the Comma”) says that Dieterle hits a shade of purple few can match, and I guess that’s true in his star-studded Warner Bros Shakespeare, co-directed with his old theatre mentor (everybody’s old theatre mentor) Max Reinhardt. As a kid I didn’t see it as campy or overdone, though, I just thought it was beautiful.

Most of the Dieterle films I’ve tracked down since have swung towards the fruity, with KISMET and ELEPHANT WALK standing out. There are some nifty Warner Bros jobs from the ’30s, like FOG OVER FRISCO (Comrade K admits that Dieterle could be nimble if he had Harry Warner cracking the whip at his heels) and then there are the dreadful Warners biopics that I don’t feel any urge to revisit soon. As Hal B. Wallis said, “Every time Paul Muni parts his beard and looks down a microscope, this company loses two million dollars.”

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THE LAST FLIGHT was the film Paul sent me. A film so smart and sensitive it could almost make the term “pre-code” synonymous with good taste and maturity. Adapted by John Monk Saunders from his own novel (that NEVER happened in Hollywood, did it?) it takes a meandering approach to narrative while exploring the lives of some beautiful freaks, four forgotten men and one half-remembered woman. Here they are:

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Richard Barthelmess, top left, who chased Lillian Gish over the ice floe and would later take to the air in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, is Cary Lockwood, a WWI pilot with burned hands and a devil-may-care attitude to life. He’s on a perpetual bender with his friends, waiting until he feels alive again. “Spent bullets,” a doctor calls these guys: “out to face life, when all their training has prepared them for is death.” Barthelmess, with his unlikely, fluting voice and earnest manner — he’s so earnest he hunches forward as he speaks — is a wonderfully strange presence: he made perfect sense in silent cinema, since he’s kind of beautiful, but then in talkies he’s always weird. Absolutely marvellously so in the later Hawks film, where you just can’t take your eyes off him, wondering what he’s going to DO; and absolutely marvellously so here too, but in a different way. This is a film where everything is slightly off, like the characters, and Barthelmess embodies that. “His nerves are tricky.”

David Manners, bottom left, who got a fright when Boris Karloff went for a little walk in THE MUMMY, is Shep Lambert. Shep has a twitch in his eye after falling 4,000 metres when shot down. Drinking seems to ease the tic, so he drinks all the time. Manners is an even stranger actor than Barthelmess, completely sincere and real and yet completely unnatural and wrong at the same time. I’ve never seen him this effective. In DRACULA he’s a bit of a stick.

Johnny Mack Brown, top right, who had a long career without impinging on my consciousness up to now, is Bill Talbot, an Alabaman cowboy who wrestles a horse in the street to prove how American he is. The most enthusiastic of the dissolute gang, he has a good nature and a tendency to act on impulse which means you may have to keep an eye on him at bullfights. If, as seems to be the case, all four men are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, then his illness manifests itself in the form of recklessness.

Elliott Nugent, bottom right, is Francis, who’s even more serious than Cary and Shep — he even has fun with a serious look.  A crack shot who downed a dozen enemy planes, until his best pal got killed: then he “lost interest”. He only comes to life with a gun in his hands.

Helen Chandler, centre, who had a busy 1931 what with Bela Lugosi, is Nikki, a shortsighted heiress with a yen for tragic servicemen, adopted as a kind of mascot by the gang. “I reckon she’s the kind of girl who sits down on phonograph records,” says Bill, and he’s right. Nikki also has turtles decorated with diamante, named Abelard and Eloise. Chandler seizes on Nikki’s pixillated eccentricity, playing her like a bobblehead doll with intense yet glassy eyes. More extreme in her alien weirdness than any of the actresses who make a living today playing “quirky”, Chandler manages to be affecting even while affected — which is kind of true of everyone in this movie.

Walter Byron, bottom right, who looks more like a leading man than the rest of them but never was, is Frink, lecherous journalist and hanger-on, who has no reason to be with these guys except to further the plot with his sleaziness. But 1930s movies seem able to accommodate unmotivated or implausible stuff and get away with it.

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I think what makes THE LAST FLIGHT such an odd and memorable experience is that it’s very overt and yet totally elliptical at the same time. The talk veers between the bluntly expository and the surreally goofy: “I can walk faster in red shoes.” … “He’s gone to shave a horse.” … “I’ll take vanilla.” Although various dialogues set up the psychological disaffection of this lost generation, most of the time the action is played light and carefree, as exemplified by Cary’s line whenever trying to get anyone to take a drink: “It’ll make you laugh ‘n’ play.”

John Monk Saunders scripted, from his own novel — an unheard-of thing In Hollywood, then and now. I may have to try his books. They’re all about flying, and cracking up, and he also scripted WINGS and THE DAWN PATROL, and wrote and directed THE CONQUEST OF THE AIR before killing himself in 1940.

I briefly toyed with playing a drinking game to the movie, matching the protags martini for martini, but you can’t keep up with those ’30s montages, damnit. This is the age when drunks were not alcoholics (it has a grim sound) but souses or maybe dipsomaniacs (happy and gay words!). The journey towards tragedy, with a side-trip to Lisbon, is a surprisingly cheerful one: getting there is all the fun.

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Shep takes a bullet.

Frink takes several.

Bill takes a bull by the horns.

Francis fades into the night.

Cary and Nikki take the train…