Archive for M

Memory Monday: The Ass on the Bathroom Door

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2015 by dcairns

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So, I’m revisiting those filmmakers I devoted Official Weeks to in the past here on Shadowplay. Joseph Losey got his own week because I had a sense that I hadn’t seen nearly enough Losey and that I hadn’t appreciated him enough — a sense that, actually, I might have some kind of antipathy to his whole approach. As Richard Lester said to Soderbergh, Losey was the last person you would use the word “zany” about, and in fact I found there was a lack of humour which was almost heroic at times. MODESTY BLAISE is the one film Losey made that could be called a comedy, and indeed is absolutely dependent on whimsy since it refuses to be what the producers evidently intended, a campy James Bond sex-and-violence wallow. The only part of that equation Losey didn’t have a fierce antipathy to is the “campy” part, and yet even that was kind of alien to him, which is how he was able to make BOOM! a great piece of unconscious camp.

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I somehow didn’t have a copy of THE CRIMINAL to hand when I did Losey Week, though I knew I would like it when I saw it. When Losey played thrillers more or less straight, they were gripping. When the movie insists on providing a commentary on what it’s about, instead of just being about it, you could get problems, as with the stuff with the gangsters in Losey’s maudit remake of M: the movie insists on offering up a pinko analysis of organised crime as a manifestation of Capital. THE GODFATHER succeeds simply by allowing this idea to play out as drama, not even as an allegory, but as a simple statement of fact. Nobody needs to point it out.

Losey described THE PROWLER, another excellent noir I didn’t get around to writing about, as “a film about false values,” and such stories are powerful and compelling as long as the scenarist can resist inserting a mouthpiece to put it all into words. “The playwright should show conditions and leave it to the audience to draw conclusions,” as Brander Matthews put it.

And so to THE CRIMINAL (1960), which does just that. I think the avoidance of proselytising is something Losey ultimately found very sympatico in the British writers he worked with, which is what led him to bond so well with Pinter, who NEVER tells you what’s on his mind. Here, the writer is Alun Owen, later to pen A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Richard Lester remarked to me that Owen had a multiplicity of useful hats he could put on, as both a Scouser and  a Welshman, and he had a wealth of life experience which informed his work. Very unusually for a British crime film, THE CRIMINAL sets out simply to record a series of events, into which the viewer is invited to read meanings. What it avoids is any Marxist or Freudian analysis of what leads to a life of crime, though you can hunt for clues if that’s your bag.

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We begin in prison, though Owen has written a careful gag, a high-stakes poker game between Brit-flick stalwarts such as Murray Melvin and Patrick Wymark (shockingly young, a tufty-haired rolly-polly joker with a sinister edge, not quite the Toby Jug he would morph into just a few years later). We’re clearly meant to be taken by surprise when we discover the game is being played with matches by lags in a cell. But Losey takes his directorial wrecking-ball to the gag, framing Melvin against a painted brick wall pasted with suggestive imagery (I think that might be Abbey Lincoln and Frances Bacon!), and even before that there’s a short of a prison gate with the producers’ credit over it. This is either a crass insertion by Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy of Anglo-Amalgamated, who had just made PEEPING TOM and were considered the dregs of the industry, or else Losey himself couldn’t resist sticking their names over a shot of a prison gate (maybe he had more wit than I credit him with).

Losey had earlier made a short for Hammer, A MAN ON THE BEACH (1955), a dull Tales of the Very Expected thing entirely predicated upon the shock revelation that Donald Wolfit’s character is blind. Wolfit, whose tread could be as leaden as Losey’s at his worst, plays the whole thing with an unblinking middle-distance star and groping hands, telegraphing “I can’t see a bloody thing” from his first entrance, rendering the whole enterprise pointless. So Losey is one of those filmmakers with a constitutional aversion to the “pull-back-and-reveal” gag, it seems.

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Jimmy Sangster, who apparently originated the story of THE CRIMINAL as well as scripting that benighted short, based a lot of his career on that very narrative trope, churning out DIABOLIQUES rip-offs for Hammer, so Losey’s rejection of the approach is an early sign of an exciting battle of sensibilities. Unlike Sangster, Owen is drawn to narrative sidetracks, and invents a whole prison populace of distinctive characters who don’t really need to be there for story reasons, but are essential for world-building. Asides from Melvin and Wymark (and it’s typical the show opens with such minor figures), we’ll soon get Gregoire Aslan (chucklesome charm subdued into lizard-eyed menace), Tom Bell and Kenneth Cope, who fulfills a similar function here as in X: THE UNKNOWN, which Losey nearly directed and may well have cast him in: turn up, look scared, suffer An Appalling Fate.

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As always, Patrick Magee, of the curling lip and watery eye, who plays the corrupt prison warden Burrows, threatens to rip the whole thing apart with a performance evoking paranoid schizophrenia, satanic possession and narcissistic personality disorder all at once. The only way Richard MacDonald’s spectacular prisons set can contain him is for Owen and Losey to open up other avenues into disintegration, safely channeling the Magee Overflow. Most eye-popping occurs during a monologue by mentally-ill prisoner Brian Phelan, where Losey pushes in fast to a tight closeup and actually irises in to shoot the actor in a vignette, suggesting simultaneously his frightening isolation from reality and his inability to reach Baker on any meaningful emotional level.

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Baker himself is astonishing, the kind of actor without whom this kind of film would be unimaginable. Unapologetically macho — and also willing to associate closely with the film’s themes of sexual variance. His close-quarters combat with Bell and Neil McCarthy has sexual intimations, even down to the “nothing-happening-here” pretense when Caught At It by the warden. Tough guy Clobber (Kenneth J. Warren) has pugilists on his walls and a tender relationship with Phelan.

The film, unusually, contains two long prison sequences, as we meet Baker the day before his release, and when arrested again he arranges an escape. In the outside world, an agressive, overstated heterosexuality reigns. Baker’s swinging crim pad is awash with nudes, both artistic and actual. He playfully spanks the full-length odalisque on his bathroom door. She has a nice behind, but come on — who spanks a door? When former squeeze Jill Bennett is edged out by newbie nudie Margot Saad, she’s more naked that I would have thought was possible in 1960 Britain, unless you were Pamela Green. The value of eroticism was probably the one area where Losey’s interests coincided with Anglo-Amalgamated’s.

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The film has hilariously little interest in its heist, apparently forged in a masterplan by grinning idiot John Molloy inside — we never even see the full robbery, just its aftermath, and never learn the plan, just the betrayals afterwards. These involve sad-eyed copper Laurence Naismith, purring creep Sam Wanamaker, and swaggering Nigel Green, enormous in an overcoat with padded shoulders, inflating his physique to Honey Monster proportions.

It is tempting just to list the cast, isn’t it? But the film is shot by tetchy genius Robert Krasker (THE THIRD MAN) and edited by Reggie Mills who cut most of Powell & Pressburger’s movies. He’s wonderfully sloppy about continuity, and incredibly tight about narrative and psychology, and he has his own taut sense of rhythm. There’s a riot scene which energises all of these talents, and the ragged-edged cast, around MacDonald’s panopticon prison set and allows Losey to really break loose with the camera, which cocks its head like Ygor, crabs fast like Astaire, swoops in like Baron Harkonnen, combining the sardonic glint, the grace, and the leering aggression of all three of those figures. I should add that Johnny Dankworth’s score adds immeasurably to the atmosphere and drama, its romantic longing largely in counterpoint to the hard-edged action.

It’s a bleak film. “Miserable time of the year,” remarks Magee. “If we could only have some flowers. Down there. In summer it’s a blaze of colour.” Here’s the prison garden:

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Here’s a park.

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Here’s a field.

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England as a BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN no-man’s-land. Losey is starting to feel at home.

M People

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

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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.

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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.).

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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