Archive for Max Ophuls

Litvakuation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2020 by dcairns

Litvak hops from country to country, sometimes making the same film in multiple languages. I’m grateful to Shadowplayer Everett Jones for directing me to SLEEPING CAR at the Internet Archive, not least for its historical import, its service to my Litvak completism, and the novelty of seeing Litvak make a British film, for Michael Balcon no less — but also because it’s really pretty damn fine. The best Ivor Novello film I’ve seen that’s not THE LODGER.

When I saw THE GHOST GOES WEST I felt that Rene Clair’s sense of lively movement had been somewhat flattened by his collision with the British way of doing things. No such conditions prevail here — from the first shots, Litvak is sweeping about with his camera in the bold, propulsive and grandiose style we see in his Hollywood features. I particularly liked the way the camera pushes onto the railway platform, tracking along the approaching locomotive in a reverse direction, stopping just as it does, with its title plaque reading Orient Express perfectly framed.

There’s great funny kid and funny dog action, and there’s Madeleine Carroll, though I don’t like her hair in this.

The story is a little disjointed — a plot point about La Carroll having to marry to stay in France comes in at the halfway point, when it seems to me a necessary Act One curtain kind of thing, at the very latest.

But it’s fun, and bee-yoo-tifully made — even the view from Novello’s mistress’s window seems more convincing, dimensional and interesting than is typical in films of the time, from any nation (designer is Alfred Junge, of Powell-Pressburger fame).

COEUR DE LILAS is a major one but I haven’t revisited it lately. It’s major early Gabin (he dominates) and has beautiful location filming. For reasons of celluloid fetishism it showed in Lyons as a dupey, underexposed mess, but can be seen in a gorgeous digital restoration. Phoebe Green delivered a great piece on in for Shadowplay’s Late Show Blogathon a few years back.

I saw L’EQUIPAGE even further back, when researching NATAN, the feature doc I made with Paul Duane. This was the last Pathe-Natan production, 100% French, and a remake of a Maurice Tourneur silent which is now at least partly lost. I suspect they recycled flying sequences from the original film. Why not? Easy to do, and the different frame rate is unlikely to show. You might avoid killing some aviators.

I remember the film was good, and concentrates on a conflict between two French fliers in WWI, competing over Annabella (do you want to tell them, or shall I?) with the war as a dramatic backgrop. But I don’t remember much more, particularly about it’s visual style. I should rewatch it, but I thought it better to catch up on something I’ve never seen, so Fiona and I ran MAYERLING. David Wingrove had described it as an aboslute masterpiece, and Fiona is now speaking of Litvak as a favourite director, so it wasn’t a hard sell.

It’s very, very good — Litvak remade it, at huge expense, for TV in 1957 with Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer, which seems to have been a mistake. Then Terrence Young did it in 1968 with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve and bits of it, I’m told, are shot-for-shot identical except in colour and widescreen and a leading man in whiteface.

Fiona went in not actually knowing the historical storyline — which is disputed, but Litvak goes, understandably, with the most famous and romantic version. Not that the film wholly romanticises suicide — I think a case can be built that the film not only finds it tragic in a Romeo & Juliet way, but rather blames Charles Boyer’s melancholy Archduke for getting Danielle Darrieux’s innocent baroness into the idea.

It’s very Ophulsian indeed — Vienna, a tragic romance ending in death, dueling officers, sumptuous sets — Ophuls, graduating from being Litvak’s AD, had already used all these elements in LIEBELEI, but there’s reason to suspect he may have looked at this one and felt a little envy — he later made DE MAYERLING A SARAJEVO, a quasi-sequel about that other unfortunate Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, which may be Ophuls’ least interesting or successful film. Certainly the dive into WWII propaganda at the end doesn’t help it, though one appreciates the desire to do one’s bit (Ophuls anti-Nazi radio broadcasts marked him for execution and he had to flee to Switzerland, smuggled out by Louis Jouvet, when France fell).

It’s useless to speculate on why Ophuls is revered by critics who despise Litvak — and it’s always tempting to invent preposterous reasons to denigrate such opinions. (I’ll grant that Ophuls best films are better than Litvak’s — but I would deny that Ophuls’ genius makes Litvak look like trash.) My best example of such a reason would be that Ophuls made “womens’ pictures” — usually despised, but in rare cases such as Ophuls and Sirk, embraced by the Cahiers critics. But Litvak, like Wyler, made guy films too, and that seems to be harder to swallow. The idea of a filmmaker making all kinds of pictures, unless there’s some kind of very clear superimposed personality as with Hawks, seems to be troubling to some. But as I say, I’m kind of imputing reasons where reasons are not exactly clear: I’ve never seen a Litvak takedown that seemed to me to relate to the qualities of the films he actually made.

Oh yes, MAYERLING. Well, Litvak enjoys hell out of his huge budget, as he always did. The lovers-to-be meet for the second time at the ballet and Litvak keeps pushing in one them, evoking their magnetic attraction with his camera. It’s epic.

Arguably Litvak enjoys the scenes of debauchery a bit too much, they become frantic musical numbers. Even with a glimpse of bosom as the Archduke runs amok on rum and rips a floozy’s dress open. But everything in this film is an aesthetic feast, feeding Litvak’s voracious eye. It’s why it can’t help but glamorize the lovers’ pact a bit. But the grim little scene after Boyer shoots Darrieux in her sleep — because she’s said she doesn’t want to know when it’s going to happen — where he explains away the gunshot to his faithful servant, before going back into the bedroom to kill himself, isn’t a necessary scene if you’re intent on making an exotic spectacle of suicide-murder. It complicates our feelings and adds greater disquiet to the drama.

The build-up to the fatal night — well, that’s what the whole film is. And it’s sort of accurate to the psychology of suicide. Someone is under competing pressures that can’t be reconciled and which keep intensifying. Eventually a Gordian-knot style solution suddenly offers complete relief. Those around the tortured individual, by trying to push in one direction or another for the individual’s perceived own good, are just adding to the strain pushing them towards the exit. Kids commit suicide over exams because the pressure is unrelenting and its made to seem the most important thing in the world by well-meaning people.

It’s really hard to make a good story about suicide — you can’t, I think, use suicide as a solution to a plot. But that’s not what this is. Everything is driving the protagonists to this ending, including all the glamour and majesty of an empire in decline.

Uncomfortable side-note: Boyer, who is fantastic here and who would reconnect and collaborate with Litvak again in Hollywood (including on another masterpiece, TOVARICH), committed suicide himself at age 78, two days after his wife’s death from cancer. I don’t admire suicide, I think it’s always damaging to those left behind, but it’s hard to hold it against him under the circumstances.

Music is by Arthur Honegger (LES MISERABLES) and it’s hauntingly beautiful, as is the film.

More love for Litvak

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2020 by dcairns

NIE WIEDER LIEBE! (NO MORE LOVE, 1931) is the earliest Litvak directorial work I could get my mitts on. The success of this light romantic comedy enabled Litvak to get the job of doing COEUR DE LILAS (1932) which is the other earliest AL film I’d seen (in Bologna).

This is a frivolous film, typical it seems of Litvak’s early work, but very stylish — the tendency is to extend shots for whole sequences, zip-panning (a persistent Litvak trope) rather than cutting, roving ceaselessly. Litvak was known for his long traveling shots later, but I sometimes wish they could be longer. This time, I get my wish. Very Ophulsian — and in fact it turns out that Max Ophuls was the assistant director. Fun to realise that Litvak worked for Gance, Pabst and Tourjansky and Ophuls worked for Litvak… so did Don Siegel. You can’t make it prove anything, it’s just fun.

We begin in a fantastic, fog-and-light Manhattan, the camera gliding through a miniature, neon-sparkling cityscape, then through a life-sized window into scene one, where hero Harry Liedke is being fleeced by a seductress. He’ll swear off women, on a bet, but just before his five-year abstinence is over, he’ll meet Lillian Harvey. You’ll see how that could complicate things. Harvey has no tits hardly at all but is extremely vivacious, and that can be a powerful combination. She’s certainly a funny kind of girl for a fella to meet who’s been up the Amazon for a year. Harry has been sailing round the world for FIVE…

A youngish Felix Bressart (NINOTCHKA, TO BE OR NOT TO BE) is a fine dry comedy manservant, longsuffering variety. It’s strange to hear the familiar voice speaking its native German. He’s no longer a funny foreigner. He’s just funny.

Margo Lion, chanteuse (Pabst’s THREEPENNY OPERA) sings a song on top of a piano, Dietrich-style, in a ridiculous version of a New York waterfront dive, but it’s full of black and white people getting sloshed together, so that’s nice.

As with all the early Litvaks, this one is co-written by the director and the splendidly-named Irma von Cube, who would also go to Hollywood, become Irmgard von Cube for some mysterious reason, and write JOHNNY BELINDA with a couple of male collaborators.

This was also made in a French version, CALAIS-DOUVRES, starring the trilingual, London-born Harvey, with André Roanne (DIARY OF A LOST GIRL) and Armand Bernard (THE CHESS PLAYER).

Litvak also supplies some rhythmic montages so the long take style never gets stale. These are sometimes partly made up of moving machinery, and one senses either the influence of Lang or some zeitgeisty Germanic thing that just loves fetishised close-ups of machine parts. Here, the hero sails off on his ship with his crew singing a jaunty march celebrating their new-found celibacy and misogyny as the pistons pump, the water rushes by, the mouths sing…

Then there’s a lovely comedian-harmonists type number, once the men have all gotten lovesick. You’ll like this —

And the climax is at Nice amid big carnival heads and so on. Hero Harry Liedke isn’t as appealing as Ms. Harvey, but I don’t think he deserved to be kicked to death by invading Russians at the end of WWII, though I guess his presence on German soil made him a Nazi by default. But a light musical comedy Nazi. Surely other men deserved death more.

I was also able to see LA CHANSON DE LA NUIT (1932), which is the French version of DAS LIED EINER NACHT, also made in English as TELL ME TONIGHT. All three versions star Polish opera singer Jan Kiepura and Magda Schneider (Romy’s mum, star of Ophuls’ LIEBELEI). The third lead/comic relief is a young and strangely fey Pierre Brasseur, a long way from EYES WITHOUT A FACE, in a role taken by Sonnie Hale (SABOTAGE, Mr. Jessie Matthews) in the UK version and Fritz Schulz (don’t know him) in the German. Most intriguingly, Henri-Georges Clouzot gets a script credit on this frothy Riviera-set quasi-musical, but it seems his job was just translating Litvak and von Cube’s original, rather unmotivated farce.

But there are some good gags! Mostly in the bravura opening sequence, which shows the voice of its star blasting out over the airwaves, to be received by a series of beautiful vintage wireless sets and assorted vintage listeners. Big laughs! You can watch it!

ACK! It’s gone! This was on the YouTube, now it has vanished, leaving only a scene —

Happiness is no Lark

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2019 by dcairns

Last full day of Il Cinema Ritrovato — I gave it a gentle start with Borzage’s STREET ANGEL at 11.15, entering Fox’s studio “recreation” of a smoky, crumbling Naples — 100% unlike the real thing but unbelievably beautiful. This was with a Movietone soundtrack, which at first seemed to impose a distance between me and the film, though having sat near the entrance I was also getting a distancing effect for free from all the latecomers stumbling in. (Cinema etiquette at Bologna is not quite as exemplary as one might hope.)

But, as with SUNRISE and TABOO, the music and film seemed to come closer together as the film went on, and the miraculous climax saw sound and image in perfect harmony.

Also: I think that was Josephine the capuchin monkey, star of THE CAMERAMAN and THE CIRCUS, nestling in Janet Gaynor’s arms, making this a hat-trick for the celebrated simian.

Lunch was followed by Dick Cavett’s Show — having failed to read the programme, we expected this to be a documentary about the eminent talk show host, but it was actually the episode where John Cassavetes, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara turned into the Marx Bros. to promote HUSBANDS, which was screening in a new restoration. I think the sales tactic didn’t work because we didn’t rush over to the Cinema Arlecchio to see it, instead dropping in to three shorts by Franju, which seemed a nice circular way to more or less end a festival that began for us, more or less with his NOTRE DAME, CATHEDRAL DE PARIS.

I’d seen EN PASSANT PAR LA LORRAINE and found it weirdly boring — being an English-language version and a ratty print didn’t do the uninspired travelogue any favours. Joseph Kosma’s music was the only poetic element.

LES POUSSIERES, a short film about DUST, was not as dry as you’d expect. Jean Weiner, the reappearing pianist of Rivette’s NOROIT DUELLE, provides a spooky, beautiful soundtrack which I want to rip off someday. The subject is broad enough to allow Franju some room to be strange and poetic.

LE THEATRE NATIONAL POPULAIRE was a bit flat by comparison, but we got to see an extract of Maria Casares playing Lady Macbeth — every bit as intense as you might expect, and a revelation to me since my main references for the role are the Welles and Polanski film versions. In the hands of a powerhouse professional, the role is transfigured.

We SHOULD have stayed in our seats for SANGEN OM DEN ELDRODA BLOMMAN, a 1919 Mauritz Stiller with Lars Hansen, but we were fading, so we went out into the blazing sun, ate at the flat, and separated, Fiona finally managing to stay awake through WAR OF THE WORLDS (not an easy one to fall asleep in, you would have thought, but then have you experienced Bolognese weather?), me heading to the Piazza for LE PLAISIR, a favourite Ophuls now magnificently restored — the grain was imperceptibly fine, the images radiant and impossibly detailed. Each time I see it I’ve seen more French films, so actors like Gaby Morlay, Madeleine Renaud and Paulette Dubost mean more to me.

This was sort of the last Piazza Maggiore screening of the fest, so I forgave the loquacious Gianluca Farinelli his tendency to talk, untranslated, for twenty minutes at a time. A movie like LE PLAISIR makes up for a lot.