Archive for Michel Simon

Under Steam

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

vlcsnap-2013-08-24-09h54m34s159

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 –

vlcsnap-2013-08-24-09h53m26s7

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 –

vlcsnap-2013-08-24-09h54m19s226

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.

vlcsnap-2013-08-24-09h57m18s24

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).

vlcsnap-2013-08-24-09h52m40s40

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.

Marcel Wave

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2012 by dcairns

Marcel L’Herbier, having shot L’ARGENT at Bernard Natan’s studio, returned to work for Pathe-Natan on three features.* ENFANT DE L’AMOUR has the reputation of being a dud, but L’AVENTURIER is rather good and LE BONHEUR might just be a masterpiece. A strange one, to be sure, but still…

In L’AVENTURIER, Victor Francen is the black sheep of a bourgeois family who returns from a wild life abroad as drug dealer, arms trader and slave trafficker, to shepherd the family business through a problematic bit of industrial relations. The middle-class emerge as weak and corrupt, whereas Francen’s character is portrayed as strong, masculine, effective — and an amoral fascist. But he’s true to his own ideas and we’re meant to find him fascinating and alluring. Politically, it’s quite worrying, but L’Herbier’s filmmaking is assured and elegant.

LE BONHEUR is more twisted still, but fascinatingly so. Charles Boyer plays some kind of ill-defined nihilist, an “anti-social,” who shoots a beloved singing star (Gaby Morlay) as a purely gestural act of defiance to society. When Morlay survives, she becomes enamoured of her would-be assassin and waits for him upon his release from prison. Their subsequent love affair understandably shocks everybody, but the film is on their side.

“Charles Boyer didn’t get to play anarchistic assassins when he was in Hollywood,” remarked David Wingrove, my benshi translator for the occasion.

The film also sports, like L’AVENTURIER, a walk-on for a young Jean Marais, a very sweet performance by Paulette Dubost, and uniquely, a camp turn by Michel Simon as Morlay’s swishy agent. It’s a rather affectionate caricature, it seems to me, Pangbornian in the best sense, and quite a surprising thing for the burly Simon to attempt, let alone pull off. It’s also interesting since Marcel L’Herbier was France’s most openly gay director. More people knew about him than about Cocteau, it seems. Whether his wife was in on the secret, I don’t know.

LE BONHEUR might be my favourite L’Herbier yet, which is interesting since conventional wisdom regards him as a spent force by the dawn of talkies. It’s a meditation on the power of cinema, brought home when the lovers part but he tells her that he’ll see her on the screen. It’s also a fascinating melodrama because, despite much discussion and self-analysis by the characters, essentially all the major events take place for no explicable reason –

Boyer’s shooting of Morlay –

His subsequent love for her –

Her love for him –

His leaving her –

All happen as if plot requirements were puppeteering the characters. And yet the characters never cease to feel real, rational to a degree, and human. It’s quite a strange take on the melodramatic form, and I can’t wait to see if it’s carried on in L’Herbier’s subsequent films.

Paulette Dubost, who cheated us out of an interview by dying a year too soon. She’s wonderful in this, as a wide-eyed working girl. Testifying at Boyer’s trial, she hangs her handbag on the witness stand. Touching and funny.

*L’Herbier wrote to Natan after shooting L’AVENTURIER, fulsomely praising working conditions at the studio. Then he was injured on set making LE BONHEUR, and sued the company for negligence (he seems to have been a pioneer in industrial accident litigation, in fact). By the time of Natan’s arrest for fraud, L’Herbier was writing to the press demanding that foreign filmmakers in France, “these people with names ending in ‘isky’,” should be prevented by law from changing their names to sound French. All very unfortunate.

The Sunday Intertitle: The World’s Greatest Lover

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on June 10, 2012 by dcairns

Theory — to make sure Ivan Mosjoukine registers as a convincing Great Lover in Alexandre Volkoff’s 1927 CASANOVA, he’s surrounded by male grotesques — notably an early appearance by Michel Simon (right). I always assumed Simon perfected his  “look” in the boxing ring, but however far back you go, the spectacular kisser seems just as alcesian (moose-like) . Age and weight added “character” to it later, but this was surely redundant — Simon was already a flesh-cartoon drunkenly doodled by God on a beer mat, then foolishly allowed out into the world before sobriety could intervene. A boozy decision we can all be grateful for.

In one scene, Casanova startles an angry creditor and the bailiffs (above) by inflating himself to colossal size (something not nearly enough characters do in films). While the bulbous Mardi Gras Casanova that results is indeed alarming, it’s hard to see how it could startle Simon, who after all must face himself in the mirror to shave every day.

Mosjoukine DOES impress, though I’ve never been partial to periwigs myself. Actually, his very first appearance is a neat trick, as two white wigs fill the screen, creating an indistinct sort of woolly cloud, then they part as Casanova’s female servants stop fussing with him, revealing Mosjoukine in all his glory.

Another good bit of storytelling — a servant brings a message for the Great Lover, and stops an old Venetian gent to ask directions. The senior citizen cups his ear –

– yells the boy. The old guy is still baffled, shaking his head — but every shutter in every window opens and a woman appears at each, pointing the way.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 357 other followers