Archive for Michel Simon

Forbidden Divas #1

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2015 by dcairns



David Melville returns with a new series, or mini-series anyway — FORBIDDEN DIVAS. He has a major series up his sleeve too, but that’ll have to wait a wee while. For now ~

Kissing the Flame

“Does that man interest you?”

“Man? Let’s say men interest me.”

Carlos Thompson and Lana Turner, Flame and the Flesh

Some femmes, as we know, are more fatales than others. For French audiences in the 30s and 40s, the gold standard was set by Viviane Romance – a star known to this day as “The Flame”. Born in 1911 as simple Pauline Ortmans, she was by no means a great beauty. She had an angular face, a plump body and a shock of unruly black hair. But she had, also, a warm and earthy carnality that no other star, perhaps, has ever rivalled. (At moments, Anna Magnani and Ava Gardner came close.) Could anyone else “act” allure as compellingly as she could? And, of course, there were always her eyes, dark and liquid, unfathomable…


The 1937 film that made her a legend, Naples au baiser du feu (which translates badly as Naples in the Kiss of Fire) has long been unavailable on DVD. So too has its lavish MGM remake, the 1954 Flame and the Flesh – which stars a far more cosmetic and glamorous sex symbol, Lana Turner. Faced with the all-but-insurmountable difficulty of seeing either film, comparing the two may seem like an exercise in obscurity for its own sake. Yet the films we have not seen can possess our imagination as powerfully – and as dangerously, perhaps – as those we have. And sooner or later, one of them may actually show up.

As the credits roll on Naples au baiser du feu, the first thing you notice is that Viviane Romance is not the star. That honour goes to Tino Rossi, a sculpturally handsome French singing idol of truly spectacular dullness. He plays Mario, a singer-cum-gigolo who entertains rich ladies in a swish Neapolitan restaurant. He shares a house with Michel Simon, a bachelor who describes Mario as his “godson” but whom Mario describes as “my father, my brother, my godfather, my family in fact”. Hmm. As if he were not busy enough, the boy is also chastely engaged to Mireille Balin, the proprietor of the restaurant – in other words, his boss.


The script sets Rossi up (his acting certainly doesn’t) as the apex of a love triangle – in which neither relationship officially involves sex. That, of course, is where Viviane Romance comes in. In the opening scene, a cargo ship is unloading down on the docks. The hold opens to reveal a steaming mountain of hot coal. A black stoker (whose nickname is ‘Blanc’ or ‘Whitey’) makes his way through the lower depths of the ship, where a stowaway lurks. Viviane Romance as Lolita, looking only slightly sweaty in all that heat. Symbolically, this woman rises from the darkest pit of Hell itself. Worse – so the script implies – she may have given sexual favours to a black man just to get a free ride. Proof, for a 30s audience, of her utter depravity.


Perhaps I should mention here that Naples au baiser du feu was directed by Augusto Genina, a pioneer of Italian silent film who also made the Louise Brooks classic Prix de beauté (1930). Very shortly after, he would reinvent himself as a highly successful maker of Fascist propaganda films. (The best known, The Siege of the Alcazar (1940) and Bengasi (1942), are said to be extremely well made.) Although Naples is heavy-breathing tosh with no overt political content, a Fascist aesthetic is visible in the way Genina serves up sex in lubricious dollops – all the while condemning it as vile and unclean. Once the temptress lures Rossi away from the narrow and none-too-straight, he upbraids her as follows: “You spend your whole life lying. You even lie when you kiss me. You lie with your eyes, with your smile. You live only to be desired.” As if boffing sex-starved ladies in return for tips were, somehow, morally superior…


All of which leads on nicely to Flame and the Flesh, which – unusually for an MGM film – is remarkably upfront about how its hero earns his living. Heavy hints are dropped by the song “Pedlar Man” where the lyrics go “Come along, ladies, look and buy / Come along, ladies, don’t be shy”. Something tells you he’s not selling Bibles or life insurance. The young stud in this version is an Argentine actor-singer called Carlos Thompson, who made several Hollywood films before marrying Lilli Palmer and moving to Europe. The kindest thing one can say is that he’s less dull than Tino Rossi. But he still resembles a well-dressed department store mannequin, with a singing voice piped in by ventriloquism.

Alas, Thompson barely seems man enough for Pier Angeli, as the doe-eyed ingénue, or Bonar Colleano, who’s here been downgraded from “godfather” to “war buddy”.  Never mind Lana Turner at her flashiest and most flamboyant. Never a great or perhaps even a good actress, Lana is surprisingly gutsy and impressive as a scheming, devious trollop with one thing (and one thing only) on her mind. Her hair darkened and her figure squeezed into unflattering thrift shop clothes, she seems liberated – as in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – from the usual MGM pressure to be ladylike. She’s at her best in a wordless scene, where her mere appearance on the beach at Amalfi sparks a near riot.


Starting as a pallid Technicolor copy of the French film, Flame and the Flesh improves considerably as Lana lures the poor sap to run away and hit the road with her a la Postman. The director, Richard Brooks, had a flair for women whose sexual and romantic impulses went beyond what society was prepared to tolerate – or, at least, what their hapless male partners were able to provide. Turner here can be seen as a rough sketch (in lurid multi-coloured crayons) for Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Jean Simmons in The Happy Ending (1969) or Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977). Her performance is arguably bolder and more enterprising, if only because she lacks the other women’s talent or technique.

Brooks even allows Lana the luxury of character development, a thing wholly lacking in the absolutist moral scheme of Genina. By the end of Naples au baiser du feu, Viviane Romance has tired of Tino Rossi and taken up with a photographer (Marcel Dalio). She is busy manipulating and lying to this new man, just as she has with all the others. Lana, at the end of Flame and the Flesh, is still in love with Thompson. (Trust me, this does require some acting.) But she gives him up for his own good – pretending to run off with a rich protector, so he’ll go back to that nice girl in the restaurant back home!


Once her good deed is done, Lana says goodbye to her would-be sugar daddy and walks off proudly into the night. We are left to imagine how she will raise the fare to her next stop.

David Melville

The Madness of War

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2014 by dcairns


An entry in Movies Silently’s super-blogathon, the Snoopathon. Subject: ESPIONAGE!

There’s an eye-opening bit in Sam Fuller’s epic war memoir, THE BIG RED ONE, where Lee Marvin’s soldiers raid a Nazi base in a Belgian insane asylum. Amid the skirmish, dazed inmates carry on eating, oblivious to the firestorm around them — an unlikely concept, given that mad people (and people with learning difficulties, who are also included in this fictitious Walloon-y bin) would be likely to be MORE upset by submachine-guns blazing away over the dinner table than even such as I. Then one inmate snatches up a gun from a fallen soldier and gleefully wastes a couple of his fellow patients, crying, “I am like you! I am sane!” And we recognize, hopefully, that Fuller has one foot planted firmly in the terrain of allegory, and is Making a Point. In a scenario where some people are peacefully eating dinner and some are shooting each other, who is crazy? And if the killers are the sane ones, how else should one prove one’s sanity?

(My dad once replaced the wiring in a mental hospital, and met a chap on his way out who had been issued a Certificate of Sanity to help him find work. My dad felt vaguely jealous. HE doesn’t have a Certificate of Sanity.)

The other most obvious films about madness and war which come to mind are CATCH 22, which is TOO obvious to discuss here, and KING OF HEARTS, which some people like but I find twee. Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold are both lovely, but the film seeks to set war (bad) and madness (lovely) as opposites, and has to lie through its teeth to do so. Or maybe it’s just total ignorance bout mental illness, I don’t know. The point is related to Fuller’s — mad people don’t make wars — but it’s not really true, as CATCH 22 can demonstrate.


So I had worries about Raymond Bernard’s UN AMIE VIENDRA CE SOIR… (A FRIEND WILL COME TONIGHT…) would tackle its subject, an insane asylum in the dying days of Nazi-occupied France. But, since I knew Bernard’s work from his Pathe-Natan super-productions CROIX DES BOIS and LES MISERABLES, I shouldn’t have worried. The only weaknesses in this 1946 movie are that, coming right after the war, it portrays its German characters in broadly stereotyped terms, and contains a little too much triumphal material on the heroes of the Resistance. Both those stances are broadly true and respectable, but rather simple and uninteresting dramatically — but one can see why the French would have needed to hear them in ’46.

The film’s strengths are in its unsentimental portrayal of the mad, and the crafty plotting which sees a number of imposters planted amid the staff, inmates and neighbours of the asylum. There’s a Jewish fugitive, a British parachutist, a couple of Resistance fighters, a German spy, and one Resistance leader whose true identity is known only by… but that would be telling.

The actors who may or may not be playing those roles include the great Michel Simon, in the guise of a sweet-natured innocent with Boudou beard, who rejects the existence of evil and has declared himself President of his own republic of one, and romantic Madeleine Sologne, embarking on a tentative romance with a Swiss doctor, Paul Bernard (a favourite of Jean Gremillon). Oh, and Howard Vernon, whose experience in covert shenanigans here would doubtless stand him in good stead for his future collaborations with Jesus Franco.


The treatment of madness allows for some humour, but I think that’s permissible — the movie is quite clear that mental illness is not a delightful escape from reality, but often a torment and something which makes the sufferer unable to function socially. The treatment of war is a touch bloodless, except in the startling references to Nazi death camps and the campaign of sterilisation and extermination, preceding the war, carried out in the name of eugenics and exciting no major opposition from outside Germany, which rid the world of those whose physical and mental disabilities had them classified as “life unfit for life.”

Both the spying and deceit, and the insanity, are great excuses for Bernard to deliver up his trademark Dutch tilts, a staple of his filmmaking since at least the early 30s (LES MIS is full of them). I haven’t seen THE CHESS PLAYER (1927) so I dunno if he was leaning to the side even then, but I know it intercuts a piano recital with military activity — something repeated here.


The movie, which I think is a great one, may also be suggesting that the strife of war will send France itself, and possibly its director in person, mad. Raymond Bernard was Jewish, and had spent the war in hiding, in fear for his life, while his father, the writer Tristan Bernard, was interned at the camp at Drancy, which ruined his health and led to his death just after this film was released.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)


Under Steam

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2013 by dcairns


Back on my Frankenheimer kick — THE TRAIN was one I had fond memories of, but it turns out I’d only seen the last half hour of this two-hour epic. During that section, it’s basically DIE HARD, with the injured but unstoppable Burt Lancaster single-handedly taking on a train full of Nazis with stolen “degenerate” art, the plunder of France.

The earlier parts of the film feature —


Bad dubbing: with a strange old-time prospector voice emerging from the baggy wreckage of Michel Simon’s huge landslide of a face, and weirdly New York accent issuing from Albert Remy, I wondered if this was a misguided attempt at consistency — since Burt is playing a Frenchman, maybe they wanted all the French characters to sound American. But then a character shows up with a strong French accent, and blows that out of the water. (Also, Paul Scofield assumes a German accent to play a German, while some of the bit players around him actually SPEAK German). Jeanne Moreau sounds like herself, but with her accent dialed down to zero — is she dubbed by a soundalike or by herself with an accent coach hovering over her head wielding a bat?

Gritty textures: most of the best war movies are black and white, and this one makes beauty out of dirt and oil and metal and leather, in a way that would have been impossible with colour. And desaturated hues as in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN do not cut it. In fact, with its clanking, thrumming hissing soundtrack and loving detailing of the textures of machinery and grime, THE TRAIN is like the ERASERHEAD of WWII pictures, except —


It’s GIGANTIC — they blow shit up on a massive scale, they crash real life-size steam trains, and they imperil human life in the most terrifying ways, Burt does his own stunts, and poor Remy has to uncouple a carriage from a moving train, and one actor has to stand by while a train comes off its track and nosedives into the gravel inches away.

The DIE HARD connection also calls to mind THE GENERAL, another one man army epic, but Frankenheimer’s aesthetic, which combines mockumentary energy with Wellesian Dutch tilts and propulsive tracking shots, aims at conspicuous production values and a relishing of expense that’s alien to Keaton, who serves up spectacle deadpan.


The pyrotechnics and suspense are augmented by traces of a genuine theme — Scofield’s murderous Nazi actually appreciates the art he’s stealing, not as loot, cultural capital of “the Glory of France,” but as art. And he’s willing to kill for it. Against this is set Lancaster, whose humanist principles are seen as mere animal instinct by the German — he has no comprehension of what’s in these crates he’s required to risk his life for.

The story is told, I think by a screenwriter, of Frankenheimer talking Burt through the psychology of a scene in great detail, only for Burt to say “Ah, what the hell, I’ll just give it the grin.” It’s a story that seems to sum up Burt’s highly physical, movie-star charisma approach to acting — but Burt never actually grins in this film.

He’s very good, if stylised, jabbing and slashing with those huge meaty hands, the actor as athlete.

Movie features a cut from Dr Mabuse (Wolfgang Preiss) to Dr Orloff (Howard Vernon).

Frankenheimer’s ending — incorporating quick cuts of objects littering the ground, objects the story has revolved around — is reprised in many of his films, from THE HOLCROFT COVENANT to RONIN to his last movie, REINDEER GAMES (where the objects are dead Santas, if memory serves).


THE TRAIN is a smart dumb movie, of the kind one wishes were made more often today. If we can’t have smart, we could at least have this.


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