Archive for Pepe le Moko

The End of Their Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2008 by dcairns

Truffaut once told Marcel Carné that Carné’s LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS was worth more than his own entire oeuvre. Carné replied, “It’s a shame you’re not a critic anymore.”

The reason for this bad grace is easy enough to see. During his days at Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut had been persistently negative about Carné and most of his contemporaries (Renoir alone could do no wrong). Although there was considerable variation among the Cahiers critics (Godard liked one René Clair film, LE QUATORZE JUILLET, for its portrayal of working-class holiday activities, but Truffaut hated them all), a broad general consensus could be found. Carné, Clair, Clouzot, Duvivier, Yves and Marc Allégret, Christian-Jacque and Claude Autant-Lara represented the paternalistic, old-fashioned “cinema du papa”, or “tradition of quality”. The goal was to destroy this brand of filmmaking (Rivette awarded a symbolic “bullet” to every Duvivier film released during his time at Cahiers — the bullet means “You’d be better off staying home than seeing this,” but it obviously has another, even more hostile implication).

In fact, Cahiers was always a pretty small-circulation magazine, and although the attacks on France’s sacred cows got plenty of attention, they certainly didn’t finish anyone’s career. Even René Clair, who withdrew from cinema with a feeling of having outlived his time, didn’t do so until the mid-sixties, some time after the Cahiers broadsides started.

The movement of Cahiers critics into film-making had a greater effect on the old guard. Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Rivette demonstrated in film what they could only argue in print, that it was time for more modern techniques and younger blood. In addition, the whole cultural scene was moving on, so that even without those iconoclasts, filmmakers who had been active since the ’20s were starting to look out of touch.

And it’s true that many of the old guard were no longer making their very best work. The infusion of freshness brought by the nouvelle vague cannot be underestimated: it must have been like the coming of rock ‘n’ roll. But the very politique des auteurs which they represented can be used to argue that film culture would have been richer if the cinema du papa crowd had all been allowed to continue making films alongside the new guys. It’s possible the nouvelle vague thought so too: Truffaut made his generous remark to Carné after his own directing career was in full bloom. Mostly hostile to Clouzot in reviews, he later paid tribute to LE CORBEAU and urged the director to return to filmmaking, resulting in the neglected masterpiece LA PRISONNIERE, a tale of kinky sexual shenanigans among the kinetic art set:

When you get into a director, it can lead you to appreciate the lesser films for their role in the body of work as a whole. Sometimes, what look like failures can assume greater stature in the light of the rest of the corpus. Certainly, only hardcore Hawksians treasure the director’s later works like RED LINE 7000, which is likely to seem extremely old-fashioned for a 1965 movie unless you go into it with a sympathetic eye for the filmmaker’s trademark concerns and mannerisms. Some will even place this film maudit amongst Hawks’ best achievements, and make a solid case.

Similarly, it’s undoubtedly a Good Thing that Chabrol and Godard and Rivette are still with us and still making films, along with contemporaries like Varda and Marker.

I haven’t seen Carné’s last film, 1977’s LA BIBLE (the film of the book?) but his 1974 LA VISITE MARVELLEUSE, a sort of hippy version of an H.G. Wells story, is very lovely. It has the same love of the fantastic and the same doomed romanticism of classic WWII-era Carné. Based on that, I’d like him to have made more late films. I’d even like to see his much-derided juvie delinquent drama LES TRICHEURS (1958).

http://tsutpen.blogspot.com

Julien Duvivier is a filmmaker I have a special affection for. He kept going despite the change in fashions until his death aged 70 in a car crash. I suspect he represented a special offense to the Cahiers boys, since he spoke of himself as a craftsman and always gave principle credit to his writers, notably Charles Spaak and Henri Jeanson. He was as far from the politique des auteurs as you can get. I think he’s a marvellous filmmaker, and I deplore the absence of most of his French-language work from the marketplace. PEPE LE MOKO is rightly hailed as a masterpiece of the poetic realist school, and available on a magnificent Criterion disc, but apart from the (justly acclaimed) American films, it’s nearly impossible to appreciate any of his works unless you speak French. Even in France the number of his films available is pitiful. For this reason alone, the Cahiers/nouvelle vague attacks are to be regretted: Duvivier’s reputation has slipped into the shade, with the result that it’s extremely hard to see his films and reassess them.

From AU BONHEURS DES DAMES — an eeeaaarly Duvivier.

Well, maybe it’s hard for one blog to make much of a difference in the face of 40 years of neglect, but we do what we can. Starting shortly, THE GREAT DUVIVIER GIVEAWAY will attempt to popularise and reclaim from history a 1939 masterpiece that’s been shunted into the sidings of obscurity. Watch this space and CLAIM YOUR FREE FILM, and your place in nothing less than the rewriting of movie history.

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Things I read off the screen in “They Drive By Night”

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2008 by dcairns

This is the 1938 British movie THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, not the 1940 Raoul Walsh one with the same title. Walsh’s film is a searing drama about truck drivers. Woods’ film is a crime thriller that isn’t really about truck drivers at all, which is maybe part of the trouble with it.

Lots to read in this movie! Maybe that’s what they mean by British cinema being in thrall to the literary tradition. Nearly every plot point gets reported in the papers and then shown in print onscreen. Also, the busy studio-based world of the film, a very convincing and atmospheric creation, is alive with advertising, signage and print of all kinds. In one exciting scene the hero flees past a shop selling “everything”, plastered with product names and so busy that the human eye goes spastic trying to take it all in.

Newly released from prison, good-hearted crook Emlyn Williams goes to see a friend who runs a SNACK BAR.

Many are the ads for Player’s Cigarettes in this film! I won’t reproduce them all or you will be hypnotised into craving the Smooth Smoke Doctors Recommend, and I don’t want that on my conscience. The items offered by CHARLIE’S include TEAS, you will note. For a hard-boiled crime drama, this film shows quite a lot of tea being drunk. It’s an odd effect.

Graham Greene praised TDBN, saying it was “on a level with the French cinema” — Greene was a great fan of PEPE LE MOKO — which rather misses the point. What it’s blatantly trying to do is mimic American levels of pace, vigor and aggression. The dialogue is a weird mixture of British (girls = judies) and U.S. slang. The plot races along with casual abandon, driven by outrageous coincidence and a hunger for action, but moving in loosely structured fits and starts. Greene wouldn’t have minded the coincidence — check how, in Gun For Sale (filmed as THIS GUN FOR HIRE) the fugitive assassin hero happens to get on a train with the girlfriend of the detective leading the hunt! The man chiefly responsible for TDBN’s coincidences is film editor Derek Twist, who rescued Michael Powell’s THE EDGE OF THE WORLD in the cutting room, and adapted this script.

DIGRESSION — Powell & Pressburger gave Twist his directorial break on END OF THE RIVER, a jungle drama with Sabu. In his highly readable 2-volume autohagiography, Powell blames Twist for the uninspired result, “making the Amazon basin dull”. But my friend Lawrie Knight, who was manning the communications centre back at Rank’s Denham Studios, told me that in fact Twist got sick after a few days and it was Powell himself who took over direction of the film. “And he ruined it. It was supposed to be about the slow pace of life on the river contrasted with the speed of city life, and Mickey directed the whole thing like a train.” Cinematographer Christopher Challis observed in his witty autobio, Are They Really So Awful?, that you couldn’t see the rain forest except by flying over it, so it proved surprisingly unphotogenic.

TRY OUR HOT \__/  \__/ THEY’R GRAND. Hot pictographs! My, that DOES sound grand. Instants later, our hero has stumbled upon an old flame, lying strangled, and goes “on the lam.”

I like everything about the above image. The ad for Woodbines proves the makers’ aren’t totally in Player’s pocket. The tiny sign saying “BLACK CAT” makes it for me, and the nuns. Emlyn Williams is an unlikely hero — he’s Welsh, playing working class, unhandsome, vaguely effete, and cast as a tough hero called “Shorty”. But he’s rather good. He has the advantage of unexpectedness. But British cinema didn’t know what to do with him. Like Robert Newton, he was tried as a male lead and found wanting. Just as Hollywood found a role for Newton (saying “Arrr!” a lot), so it was a Hollywood filmmaker who first saw Williams’ true potential — Josef Von Sternberg cast him in his abortive epic I, CLAUDIUS, as Caligula, a man so decadent he was “maybe even a little sissy, but not too much.”

NEWS THEATRE. That is such an exciting concept — a tiny tiny cinema devoted to newsreels. Next door to a shop selling “TOBACCOS”, so you can go in and smoke and make the projector beam stand out nicely.

Hiding out, suspected of a crime he — for once — didn’t commit, jailbird Williams is upset to find the feature attraction is all about MURDERERS. Is the “No. 17” a homage to the Hitchcock film of the same name? Williams, a talented writer, helped script the original THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH for Hitchcock. He’s also the author of a horrifying but moving and brilliant true crime book, Beyond Belief, dealing with the “moors murderers” Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Follow the link to see the iconic mugshot of Myra, which caused John Waters to remark, “She’s going to do an extra twenty years just because she didn’t get her roots done that week.”

But Williams’ greatest contribution to cinema is his play, Night Must Fall, which has been filmed twice. Williams wrote the part of the psychopathic Danny for himself to play, and he seems perfect for it. In movies, the role provided great opportunities for both Robert Montgomery and Albert Finney, who gave contrasting performances of great detail and intensity. Well worth a look — but I wish there was a third version starring the creator of the role.

“You come out of the movies and the world’s changed,” complains Steve Martin in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN. Emlyn finds this especially true: not only is it raining (a proper British downpour which will last for the next two reels) but he’s now officially wanted for murder. Bummer.

Grabbing a bus out of London — the conductor is “Billy Hartnell”, future film star (BRIGHTON ROCK) and TV’s first Dr. Who — our Emlyn winds up at the first of the film’s several Transport Cafes, where CAMP COFFEE is on offer but the long distance drivers inexplicably prefer tea. It was at “greasy spoons” like this that Anthony “Puffin” Asquith, top film director and son of the prime minister, would moonlight, helping out in the kitchen in order to pick up truckers. Emlyn is himself picked up by a trucker, and after numerous adventures, ends up — at another cafe.

Along the way there’s an altercation with what should be some “Truck Stop Dames”, but since this is England, we have to call them “Lorry Girls”, which doesn’t sound right, somehow.

The big attraction at WALLY’S CAFE is the TEAS again:

British tea-drinkers are strongly advised not only to DRINK, but also to ENJOY their MAZAWATTEE TEAS. You have to remind them or they’ll forget, you know. The film now gets on with the lorry-based action, fifteen minutes of it, after which it moves on, having justified its title to its own satisfaction. Winning over a dubious trucker, bumping into an old friend who’s a dance-hall hostess and friend of the murder victim, and escaping from police, Emlyn makes the headlines again — stick with me, this is ABOUT TO GET WEIRD.

I question the “glamour girl” part slightly, but not as much as I question the other “top stories” — MERMAID WEEPS and DON’T SUCK YOUR PEN! Remember, this is 1938. Europe is poised on the brink of war. And the paper devotes its front page to a penny-ante murder story, a sobbing water nymph, and advice on what to not suck. BIZARRE. Oh wait, it’s the Daily Mirror, that explains it.

These aren’t quite as good, but HANDBOOK TO GUIDE VOLUNTEERS and RADIO JERKS FINANCE HITCH are still pretty interesting. This is a completely unnecessary newspaper montage anyway, recapping the action we’ve just seen, and introducing headlines we’ll get to see later.

Now the plot swerves into PIEGES / LURED territory, with Emlyn’s lady friend attempting to ID the real killer from among the clients at the PALAIS DE DANSE where she works. It suddenly becomes clear that the movie could have usefully omitted Emlyn altogether and made her the hero. The pretentious French of PALAIS DE DANSE was a British tradition — nearly all dance halls were known as “the palais“, it seems.

In an American movie the professional dance partners would be prostitutes, disguised for the sake of the Production Code. And I guess they are here, too. Some of them sound pretty POSH though. Now the film tips its hand, revealing the TRUE KILLER — Ernest Thesiger. Yes, red-blooded, testosterone-fuelled Ernest Thesiger is strangling dance hall girls with silk stockings and then going home, slipping into his housecoat and leering at hardcore pornography:

PARIS NIGHTS. Disgusting! The film devotes the rest of its running time, apart from the matter of rounding off the plot, to Ernest’s reading material. Apart from the odd house number (Ernest resides at No. 3), we only get to read what Ernest has read. His literary sloppy seconds, as it were.

MODERN DANCE AND THE DANCER, and THE STOCKING PARADE. It’s beyond depravity! Ernest plays Walter Hoover, a retired schoolmaster and pub bore who lectures the local drunks on the niceties of psychopathology, explaining how the killer derives a thrill from wielding power over life and death. “You do give things a queer twist!” remarks a regular. Maybe because the psychobabble is, for once, coming not from a pipe-smoking Lew Ayres type prof, but from an actual murderer, it’s surprisingly reasonable.

Thrillingly, the flick affords us not one but TWO glimpses of Ernest’s library, where he keeps his many leather-bound volumes. The room no doubt smells of rich mahogany. And semen.

SEX IN RELATION TO SOCIETY sounds hilariously dry and vague, but SOCIAL CONTROL OF SEX EXPRESSION is the real winner. Havelock Ellis was a real author, wasn’t he? (He was — I just read up on him, and he’s bloody fascinating. Click on his name.) So these aren’t mock-ups, but perhaps items from the Sinister Library of Derek Twist. “You do give things a queer Twist!” But there’s more to come:

CROOKED PERSONALITIES IN CHILD HOOD AND AFTER — well, that “AFTER” certainly covers everything. TWENTY HUMAN MONSTERS sounds like a damn fine read, likewise THE THRILL OF EVIL, but it’s SEX IN PRISON that makes me choke on my Mazawattee Tea. That’s so frank I can’t believe they even included it. Is it the novelisation of William Dieterle’s SEX IN CHAINS, I wonder?

And this is from Ernest’s scrapbook of murder, hidden behind the porn. BEDROOM MYSTERY is a fine, fine headline. Unfortunately, since Ernest has clipped out and saved all the bits relating to his crimes, he’s failed to preserve the advice DON’T SUCK YOUR PEN! Perhaps this will be his downfall.

Now the film continues to become derailed and unstuck, as the climax hinges on whether Emlyn can lick Ernest in a fight. IN A FIGHT — get your minds out of the gutter. Since we’ve already seen Em knock Er for six with a single mighty chop, there’s not much suspense in this. Ernest is a fey cat-loving schoolteacher(“Come here, my subtle one,” he coos at a kitty) while Emlyn may be a shorty but he’s a hardened crim. “Ernest Thesiger could be overpowered by his own kittens,” remarks Fiona. Emlyn beats them to it, and the film’s glossolalia serves up one final message: