Archive for M

M People

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 2, 2013 by dcairns


My first and last trip to Berlin I recall trying to sleep in the day time in the Alcatraz youth hostel, where we guests of Britfest Short Film Festival had been placed after smarter accommodation fell through. I had been unable to sleep in this establishment for something like four nights and was almost starting to hallucinate. I lay on my bunk and could hear children playing in the street. German children. Which called to mind Fritz Lang’s M, and made me even less inclined to sleep.

M is one of those seminal films I haven’t actually watched very often. When first introduced to it, I had a fairly normal, banal reaction to early sound cinema, reacting to the perceived creakiness, and particularly the unsteady lurches of the camera and the fact that the movie’s studio version of Berlin has no incidental traffic noise. That last fact is now one of the pleasures of the movie for me — I like how the whole film seems to have beamed down from space, with alien modes of behaving and strange, grotesque characters. I ran it for students last week and they got to experience the weirdness for the first time, but I seem to be past it. I’m *in* 1930s cinema now.

The whole look of the movie’s world is incredibly beautiful to me — and yet many of the objects we see must have been quite commonplace. The water-pump that crouches amid the children like a preying mantis or an iron vulture is a perfectly naturalistic detail from a time when children played in tenement courtyards and every courtyard had a water pump. But it’s welcomed into the composition for its malign aspect. The drain set into the cement is somehow grim and suggestive of slaughter.


An aerial track along a heap of confiscated weapons made me think of TAXI DRIVER, and recall that Scorsese spoke of Lang’s influence on AFTER HOURS — tracking shots that make you feel locked into the character’s horrible destiny — so Lang surely must have been hovering over the earlier film too. (Scorsese’s overheads, which carry over into LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST also, are not like Hitchcock’s God shots, they are geometric like Lang, and dissociative like an Out Of Body Experience (O.O.B.E.).


Who is the central character of M? Who’s side are we on? Sometimes the answer to both questions comes in the uncomfortable form of pudgy young Peter Lorre, but really it’s a movie about a society rather than an individual — as with THE BOSTON STRANGLER which mimics the structure closely, you could replace the killer with a virus or a weather formation. But despite a rather cool, detached view of its often appalling characters, many of them Georg Grosz cartoons made flesh, the movie is certainly not lacking in human interest.


Oh, did I miss something — why do we get this angle? It seems to betray a frankly inexplicable interest in Otto Wernicke’s genitalia. The fact that Lang was, according to information received, possibly bisexual, in no way accounts for this.

M (Masters of Cinema) Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD) [1931]

Film Club Monthly: La Rupture

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2009 by dcairns


I came to Claude Chabrol’s 1970 drama-thriller LA RUPTURE with little advance knowledge, having seen a pretty sparse smattering of Chabrol movies, and knowing nothing of the plot beyond the words “divorce drama.” Which is quite a good approach if you want to be blown away.

I guess this means that people who haven’t seen the film shouldn’t read this. Maybe read far enough to get excited, then run out and buy it before I spoil everything.


The opening, of course, is a shocker. Like a very very compact version of THE SHINING — Stephane Audran’s husband, the disturbingly-faced Jean-Claude Drouot, even does the “crazy Kubrick stare” a decade before Jack Nicholson displayed it so memorably. The domesticity in the first couple of shots has a nervous, unstable quality, sparked into edginess by Chabrol’s zippy pans and quick cuts. Then — total violence! Drouot’s half-throttling of Audran is abrupt and startling enough, but the child-hurling incident is practically unprecedented, barring Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING. And then Audran fights back with kitchenware, bludgeoning hubby into submission with deadly Gallic efficiency.

Horror movie titles appear over the fast traveling shots that take Audran and her fractured son to the hospital, accompanied by Chabrol regular composer Pierre Jansen’s galumphing musique concrete score. The slasher calligraphy clashes with the documentary street photography in exactly the way Chabrol’s elements of naturalism and stylisation clash throughout the movie.


My Chabrol problem: I don’t like his zoom-happy camerawork in the 60s and 70s, although I like all kinds of zooms in others’ hands. I also don;t find the look of this film very pleasing, but I suspect the yellow-green pall  suffusing it is down to fading film stock. Why would you want a film to look like that? Chabrol’s interior design is also mildly suspect — I know it’s 1970, and I know a lot of the action takes place in a down-at-heel hotel, but there are still pleasing aesthetic choices available… but movies like TEN DAYS’ WONDER and ALICE show that CC has more than one string to his bow, and I’m actually learning to like what he does in his more typical films.

The plot, set in violent motion before the credits have even rolled, now settles into a quasi-naturalistic tone, lulling us to expect a slightly more normal divorce drama. Drouot, we learn, is a struggling writer (shades of Jack Nicholson again) whose mind has been derailed by drugs (Chabrol seems to have odd ideas about drugs; I don’t think he’s very experienced in that department — the nature of Drouot’s addiction is quite unclear, but drug-induced psychosis is at least credible: the psychedelic trip later on is less so). He’s now back in the care of his monstrous rich parents, who wish to win custody of their battered grandson from Audran, whom they despise because she was once a stripper and now works as a barmaid.

I think the film’s class-war aspect could have been raised a bit had someone other than the unswervingly elegant Mrs Chabrol played the lead. A smart, powerful working-class woman is a rarity, so it’s a shame to see the part played by someone who seems so bourgeois. But maybe that’s part of the point — Audran’s parents-in-law misunderestimate her from the start, and thus set in train a lethal chain of events that gradually tip the film from the approximately realistic into the bizarrely melodramatic. Which is a good thing, in this case, you understand.

Michel Bouquet, as dad-in-law, makes the mistake of hiring Jean-Pierre Cassel, the son of a former business partner Bouquet has ruined, to find evidence that will make Audran look bad in court so he can take her son away. Cassel’s antipathy to his new boss is a handy red herring, for as his job gradually entails more and more dirty work, we wonder if he will at some point back off and betray his boss. In fact, the opposite happens, with Cassel preparing an outrageously nasty scheme that’s far beyond anything Bouquet would have asked him to do (although Cassel deduces, probably correctly, that his employer will be happy  with any crime as long as he gets the result he’s after).


Cassel’s big scheme only starts ticking along after the film has been going for some time, and Chabrol prepares for it by undercutting his realistic locations, sound, and central performances, with wild fantasy characters, who seem to have been hammered into slots in the naturalistic storyline, bent all out of shape but still retaining their too-vivid colours. The three old ladies at Audran’s boarding house reminded me of the three spinsters in Mamoulian’s LOVE ME TONIGHT. Rather than weaving a tapestry like the Fates, they play with Tarot cards. The unemployed actor (Mario David) is a strolling tragedian hammier than any sketch-show caricature, whose every line reading threatens to blow the set walls down. Intriguingly, he gets more low-key as the story progresses, revealing authentic human qualities hidden beneath the bombast and bluster. Indeed, one of the narrative’s surprise delights is the gradual revelation of a world of goodness struggling along in what had seemed an irretrievably fallen universe. The nastiness established early on is such that nice young men like Audran’s doctor and lawyer never seemed quite trustworthy, but they turn out to be just as honest as they tried to appear.


For me, the trickiest unreal character was, not the balloon-seller (a nod to Fritz Lang’s M?) but the landlady’s handicapped daughter Emilie. Apparently a young woman, but dressed as a little girl, she’s played by Chabrol fave Katia Romanoff in a manner that seems more mime-show than observation. She wears unattractive glasses, but where you might expect thick lenses (since brain damage is often accompanied by poor vision) they have ordinary glass. Everything about her is unconvincing — she’s no particular type of “mentally handicapped person,” as Drouot is no particular type of drug addict. I was never entirely comfortable with her, but I think she probably does work in the context of the other unreal elements.

Anyhow, she’s central to Cassel’s crazy plan, which only starts unfolding after a lot of what could be flat exposition, but which is put across with weird jolting flair by Chabrol. Audran tells her lawyer of her past on a tram ride, with frequent cutaways to the trolley pole sparking on the overhead power line, and the view out the front window of oncoming street, with an eerie reflection of the driver’s hand clutching the dead man’s switch. (All tram terminology pulled out of thin air.)

“Do you like films in which someone says, ‘Let’s go to the beach!’ and then we cut to the beach?” Chabrol once asked an editor. The implication is that HE doesn’t like that — but he does it all the time here. I’ve always found it a prosaic but highly efficient way to propel action forward while maintaining clarity. Certainly Chabrol’s direct cutting (associated with nouvelle vague cinema but very common in Duvivier also) adds welcome zip to his long and winding narrative, which has to divert into side-stories about Cassell and his constantly naked girlfriend, Audran’s landlady and her alcoholic husband and daughter with learning difficulties, and the dastardly in-laws’ legal proceedings.

The plan: Cassell, having tried and failed to find evidence that will discredit Audran, and faked up a lot of general gossip against her character, suddenly takes the plunge into overt criminal depravity with a scheme which will involve fraud, kidnapping, theft, and sexual assault. His giggling slut of a girlfriend (a borderline misogynist cartoon, except Chabrol wins points for Audran’s strong character, and the grim-faced but honest landlady, and anyway, such persons do perhaps exist — American readers won’t have heard of Danielle Lloyd, and maybe in a few years none of us will have, God willing) is happy to take part in all of this, and moments where Cassell looks like he might be having second thoughts are pure red herring. In fact, he’s an expert at compartmentalizing: when he’s with Audran, his affection for her seems real, and may in fact be so. But it’s not going to stop him destroying her.

What’s so great about Audran is that she’s never dumb, she never lets the audience down by falling for something we wouldn’t fall for. In fact, given the slightest grounds for suspicion, she’s instantly alert, and she’s totally strong-willed and unwilling to compromise where she knows she shouldn’t. She’s so much smarter than we would be, I suspect only the fact that we’re given so much more information than her allows us to keep up. And this is incredibly unusual in thrillers.


Analysed coldly, Cassell’s plan is preposterous and bound to miscarry, but the film keeps us off-balance with its crazy storybook characters and blasts of realism that genuine suspense is created. Even if Cassell screws up completely, he could still get Audran killed, or someone else, or in any number of ways destroy all prospect of a happy ending.

Chabrol manages to create an edgy, uncertain happy ending, amid a flourish of psychedelic solarized imagery, flying balloons, and hokey homicide. The cartoon characters all act out of character, breaking through into a third dimension after two hours of silly caricature, and Cassell’s defeat is both satisfying and awful. The whole movie strikes me as a brilliant balancing act, one that involves crossing a high-wire not by walking or unicycling, but on a pogo-stick, wearing a suit of armour and flippers. It’s such a grotesque and peculiar display that Chabrol can even get away with the occasional misstep, since who’s to say such stumbles are not part of the act?


Suggestions are now open for more Chabrol I should be seeing! He’s made 69 films, the awful bastard, and while I might not be willing to make next year Chabrol Year on Shadowplay, I’m very keen to see more.

Questions:  who does Flemish surrealist Harry Kumel play? I know what he looks like but I couldn’t spot him. Is he in the satanic porno?

What is the connection to Murnau’s SUNRISE?

Who Knew?

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2009 by dcairns


I went into THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Hitch’s comeback film after the “lowest ebb” of WALTZES FROM VIENNA (Hitch also used the ebb-slam to dismiss his earlier CHAMPAGNE, which like WFV is not without its pleasures regardless) thinking I knew it fairly well and wasn’t too keen on it. Certainly THE 39 STEPS is a more ambitious and confident work. But it’s amazing how seeing MAN WHO KNEW in sequence, after experiencing all Hitchcock’s extant previous work, crystallizes the film’s merits, making clear that it was indeed a leap forward in his development as (cliche ahoy!) the Master of Suspense.

Let me simply enumerate a few of the film’s many points of interest.

1) Settings. St Moritz. This was the Hitchcocks’ favourite holiday destination in real life, so they begin the film there, making this the first thriller Hitchcock made with an element of globe-trotting to it. Glamorous and exotic locations became a standby of Hitchcock’s films, and indeed he had exploited foreign shooting in his very first film, THE PLEASURE GARDEN, as well as in EASY VIRTUE and especially RICH AND STRANGE, which is the story of an exotic holiday. THE MAN WHO begins with a pair of hands leafing through holiday brochures — Hitchcock’s first pre-credits sequence! — and continues to an Alpine skiing resort recreated largely in the studio (the film was a fairly low-budget affair).


London. Hitch told Truffaut that the contrast between the open spaces of Switzerland and the dense streets of London was central to his conception of the film. For the first time since the opening of BLACKMAIL, Hitchcock’s camera invades the mean streets of working class areas, in this case, darkest Wapping.

The Albert Hall. Returning to this landmark last seen at the climax of THE RING, Hitch repeats the trope of BLACKMAIL of staging a climax in a familiar landmark, but improves on the idea by building the setting into the story, rather than having it appear in an arbitrary fashion. He also uses this sequence to weave the soundtrack into the plot, with an assassination attempt timed to coincide with a cymbal clash in the orchestral piece being performed at the hall. The idea of integrating music in this way, touched on in earlier films such as MURDER!, reached its first full flowering in the otherwise atypical WALTZES FROM VIENNA, and here is applied to the thriller genre for the first time. It won’t be the last.

2) Autobiography. Charles Barr, author of the terrific English Hitchcock, likes to think of MAN WHO as a quasi-sequel to RICH AND STRANGE, and I can see what he means. That film saw the suburban couple reaffirming their ailing marriage by determining to produce a child. The couple played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best in MAN have a young daughter, a little older than Patricia Hitchcock was at the time, but the family is once again in danger of tedium or splintering. The crisis of the plot rescues the nuclear family.

Barr perhaps makes too much of the hints of friction or instability in his book, but he’s onto something: every line exchanged between Banks and Best stresses their alienation, albeit in a lighthearted way. There’s much joking about Best’s infatuation with Pierre Fresnay, for instance. And between Best and her daughter, Nova Pilbeam, there’s likewise a lot of playful sniping. The performances make it clear that none of these lines (“Never have children,”) are meant seriously, but they’re so insistent that they’re clearly more than an ironic build-up to the daughter’s kidnapping.

3) Successive drafts. Knowing a bit about the project’s history sheds a fascinating light on what’s onscreen. Reuniting with Charles Bennett, whose play had provided the source for BLACKMAIL and who would be the key collaborator in all of Hitchcock’s British thrillers until THE LADY VANISHES, Hitchcock produced a treatment entitled Bulldog Drummond’s Child, but was unable to get it produced. When Michael Balcon visited Hitch on the set of WALTZES, he asked if Hitch had anything lined up, and the director took the opportunity to resurrect the project, but ditched the familiar character of Drummond. A cross between the stiff-upper-lip stoicism of Biggles, and the globetrotting adventurism of James Bond, Drummond was a pulp favourite who had already been played by Rod la Roq and Ronald Colman. The year of MAN, 1934, saw him embodied by both Colman and Ralph Richardson.

Abandoning the traditional hero leaves a somewhat weakened character for Banks to play. I wondered if Hitchcock and Bennett took the protagonist’s heroic reputation for granted, so that they forgot to give him anything daring or manly to do, but then I suspected that Hitch had deliberately moved the character away from the professional adventurer type he always affected to dislike. Banks’s character becomes a rather ordinary, albeit prosperous, husband and father. We never learn his profession, but we have no reason to assume it’s in any way glamorous. Making the hero an ordinary man is a key step in manufacturing the template for future Hitchcock adventures in the NORTH BY NORTHWEST mould.



Another pair of plot points that mutated during the script’s development are Edna Best’s status as an outstanding markswoman, and the villains’ use of hypnotism. The first version had the bad guys brainwashing the heroine and using her as their assassin. But Hitchcock balked at what he saw as the implausibility of this, and declined the opportunity to make the original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Instead the hypnotism gag was reduced to a side-show to the main event (it could easily have been eliminated altogether) and Frank Vosper is introduced as a rival sharp-shooter. Best’s dead-eye skills are introduced as a means of having our English holidaymakers encounter the foreign assassin, and the secret agent who is spying on him, and they pay off at the climax when Best rescues her daughter with a policeman’s rifle (I like how the cop casually yields his firearm to a bystander!).

Actually, the most economical solution would have been to eliminate hypnotism altogether and use the threat to Best’s kidnapped daughter to motivate her to carry out the terrorists’ plan, but perhaps that would be too simple.

4) Influences. Barr astutely identifies John Buchan as the key inspiring force here. The cryptic message than must be decoded in MAN (“WAPPING G. BARBOR MAKE CONTACT A. HALL MARCH 21ST”) strikingly resembles that in Buchan’s Greenmantle (“Kasredin. cancer. v.I.”), and another of Buchan’s sequels to The 39 Steps, The Three Hostages, features hypnotism, a child-kidnapping, and hero Richard Hannay and his wife making separate excursions into the districts of London to thwart a threat to world peace, all plot elements used in MAN. To this I would add Berthold Viertel’s LITTLE FRIEND, which introduced child star Nova Pilbeam to the world. The story here, of a poor little rich girl whose mummy is being lured away from her stodgy dad by an exotic Lothario, seems to be spoofed in the opening sequences of MAN.


5) Cast. What an interesting bunch they are.

The scar-faced Leslie Banks would never have been granted a leading man role in Hollywood, where he was unhesitatingly cast as the psychotic Count Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. It seems a harsh treatment of a man who got his facial injury fighting for his country in World War I. He’s a little stiff here, but his ineffectiveness is partially the result of a script so keen to deprive him of Bulldog Drummond superheroics that it allows him to miss out on the climax altogether.


Edna Best is fine, but one has to prefer the actors in Hitchcock’s own remake. Nova Pilbeam is pretty extraordinary, though, with her savage, wide-spaced, electro-magnetic eyes, porcelain overhang of brow, and sharp little nose lips and chin (she is a living rebuke to anyone who suggests lips can’t be sharp). She’s an incredibly compelling performer, quite apart from her wonderful mad face.

The presence of Pierre Fresnay, moonlighting from a West End stage production, adds a welcome lightness to the opening scenes, and an intriguing foretaste of the actor’s work in two movies by Clouzot, “the French Hitchcock.”

Frank Vosper is a good sleazoid bad guy (the only obvious thing Hitch took from WALTZES), but obviously Peter Lorre is the important character here. Although the plot throws out a whole gallery of malefactors, including an old lady with a revolver, a threatening dentist, and an evil hypnotist, Lorre dominates effortlessly, just by constantly making strange. Still sporting the carnival-float head of solid fat he modeled in Lang’s M, and decorated with a skunk-like white stripe and a dueling scar to match Banks’, Lorre as “Abbott” drools cigarette-smoke and apologises to the hero after striking him. He’s good-naturedly contemptuous of his own hired hitman, devoted to his nurse, and prefers to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but his goal is to plunge the world into war. 


6) Politics. “Tell me, in June 1914 had you ever heard of a place called Sarajevo?” While taking advantage of global instability to build a scenario based on international intrigue in a contemporary setting (films of Buchan novels had stuck to the build-up to WWI for their settings), Hitchcock uses the assassination scheme as almost a pure MacGuffin — we never learn what countries are involved, or who Lorre is working for. Perhaps the name “Abbott” is intended to defuse the actor’s foreignness somewhat, since Lorre would undoubtedly have been perceived as German by a British audience.

Nevertheless, the alliance of British characters and a French one against a gang led by a teutonic one, is suggestive.

Hitchcock ran afoul of the censors by modeling his climactic shoot-out on the real-life siege of Sidney Street, an east End gun battle he recalled from his youth, which was regarded as a blot on the British police force (and upon then home secretary Winston Churchill, who was criticised for using the mayhem as a photo opportunity) and had been banned by the censor’s office from any screen adaptation. The sticking point turned out to be the idea of policemen turning up with rifles, so Hitch had them requisition firearms from a convenient gunsmith’s, and apparently the force’s honour was saved. It’s fascinating how openly political British censorship was, although no doubt the establishment regarded criticism of the police as outwith the scope of mere politics.

7) Psychology. Barr again — he points out that with the light-hearted but somewhat barbed romantic triangle introduced at the film’s start, there’s something funny about Pierre Fresnay’s death. He’s dancing with Edna Best, who has just teased her unromantic husband, so Banks attaches her knitting to Fresnay, causing it to unravel and entrap the waltzing couples. A shot rings out, and Fresnay slowly collapses (a magnificent effect: “I’m sorry,” whispers Fresnay, dying). 

Barr suggests that this is almost as if Banks planned it, fixing his rival in position for the sniper’s bullet. That’s not literally true, of course, but the idea that the bullet comes as if willed by Banks is a fascinating one, especially as it connects the scene to the opening of Bunuel’s THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ. In that film, once again a bullet SPINGS through a window pane, leaving a neat hole, and kills a character as if at the wish of an onlooker. It’s tempting to suppose that Bunuel may have been inspired by Hitchcock, but if so, he never admitted it, being content to receive Hitch’s praise for TRISTANA: “That leg!” Hitch exclaimed, admiringly.


Despite all Hitchcock’s efforts, and the public’s enthusiasm, his enemy at Gaumont, distributor C.M. Woolf, released the film on the second half of a double feature, with the result that the film’s colossal box office takings were officially credited to the “A” picture. Made cheaply, and attracting a massive audience, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH went down on the company’s books as a flop.

But Hitch had shown what he could do, and his producer ally Michael Balcon encouraged him to continue down this path with his next project… so it’s off to Scotland next week!


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