Archive for Pierre Chenal

Wish Upon a Starewicz

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 12, 2013 by dcairns

Researching NATAN in the Gaumont-Pathe Archive, I learned that any late 1920s or early 30s documentary footage that was more stunningly framed than absolutely necessary was likely to be the work of Pierre Chenal. He made lots of little documentary subjects that the IMDb doesn’t know about yet. PARIS CINEMA is one, and it’s notable for a ton of invaluable making-of footage and behind-the-scenes tomfoolery in the major studios and labs of Paris, circa 1929.

Most exciting of all for auteurists and overgrown, morbid schoolboys, is the visit to the workshop of Ladislas Starewicz, master animator, who was based in the City of Light at that time. As with Jan Svankmajer, his place of business is a cross between Aladdin’s Cave, Lilliput and a Natural History Museum for toys. Or a flea market and an alchemist’s laboratory. Wallow in it!

Incidentally, I can’t locate the Starewicz productions mentioned here on his list of IMDb credits either — lost films, neglected ones, or abandoned projects?


Starewicz with his daughter and star, Nina Star.

The Mad Bunk

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 3, 2012 by dcairns

As long as Mother Russia is in the hands of men with the word “putin” in their name, things well never go smoothly.

Pierre Chenal’s THE NIGHT THEY KILLED RASPUTIN is a late work and a bit of a Euro-pudding, so one should be merciful. I’m not going to be, but I will admit that one should. Actually the original title of this Franco-Italian co-concoction translates as NIGHTS OF RASPUTIN, which gives you a better sense of the intent — the movie wants to make Rasputin sexy, and I’m morally certain there’s a European print out there studded all over with nipples like barnacles on a hull.

But I only had the English dub, so I could enjoy John Drew Barrymore, usurping his father’s role as Prince Youssoupoff from RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS. Chenal and his co-scribes have rewritten Prince Y as a weakling, which explains why he’s so ineffectual through most of the story, and is certainly within JDB’s range as actor (was anything else?). But Y is only a small part in the film, where even the Tsarina (Gianna Maria Canale, either brilliantly dubbed or possessed of a convincing cut-glass accent) is almost a walk-on.

Chenal has had one great idea, and it’s to make Rasputin the hero. He is the story’s most interesting, amusing and competent character, so it actually works. The fact that he’s a terrible bastard makes him complicated and fun to be with. That single decision would make this a terrific movie, were it not for the casting of…

Can you imagine how bad Gregory Peck would be as Gregory Rasputin? All stiff and uncomfortable and trying to hard, glowering unconvincingly, putting on some kind of voice, waving his arms about? Now imagine…

Edmund Purdom.

Yes, Edmund “The Englishman has a hard-on!” Purdom. If you don’t know his work, I can’t explain, just picture Gregory Peck in a big beard and smock and then take away the… the… anything you can think of that might help him. I can’t actually think of a worse casting idea. A one-legged Dudley Moore as Tarzan would at least convince while he was swinging from a vine, sort of.

I asked a friend to suggest a terrible Rasputin, and he named Rod Steiger. But Rod, wherever you place him in your personal hamtheon, would have given it his all. And he would have had enough “all” to give, probably too much. You’d have felt discomfort, sure, but it wouldn’t all have been based on embarrassment and pity. Really, everybody would be better than Edmund Purdom. Jay Robinson? Hugely preferable. Wendy Craig? Interesting call. Joe Pesci? That could work. Mickey Rooney? Only if he played it Japanese.

Purdom tries to rise to the occasion, but he can’t lower himself. He rasps his voice trying to evoke something, and just comes off like he’s been dubbed. In fact, Purdom trying to act sounds exactly like those awful put-on voices you hear straining to do fifteen different voices in a badly-translated martial arts film, spaghetti western or porno.

The challenge of making Rasputin work as protagonist has still to be met, but Chenal at least demonstrates that the goal is a worthy one.

The movie has its moments, but most of them involve baroque print damage.

Holt — In the Name of the Law!

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on August 6, 2012 by dcairns

Watched Pierre Chenal’s L’ALIBI as I’m on a Chenal kick. Not sure yet whether he’s stylish and fun or something better.

L’ALIBI has Erich Von Stroheim as a mindreader/gangster called Professor Winckler — he shoots a rival in the face and then turns up at the apartment of poor-but-honest dance hall hostess Jany Holt — he offers her a wad of money to claim he spent the night, and she accepts, much against her better judgement.

Enter police chief Louis Jouvet, as mercurial and dolorous as ever, but much, much slicker in appearance than his flic role for Clouzot in QUAI DES ORFEVRES. Holt is now getting grilled by the cops and threatened by Stroheim. And now enter Albert Prejean, a likable drunkard who falls for Jany and also becomes the cops’ top suspect. Will our girl crack under the pressure? Will the villainous Dr Winckler try to silence her first?

Pleasures include Von’s broken French, which leads him to monologue in English for protracted periods, and so we get a rare audio-snatch of Jouvet speaking the Queen’s tongue — quite well. He could have been a star in Hollywood but he didn’t need to; then there’s Von’s spooky telepathy clinic, complete with oriental assistant Fun-Sen (who had a pretty cool career, working with Ophuls, Siodmak, Carne, Pabst, and Tourneur Snr); and there’s the set-bound artificiality of it all, a noirish fist clenched around actors until Prejean arrives with a sudden gust of exterior locations.

Interesting to contrast Prejean, a casual collaborator with the visiting Germans a few years later (not that he seems to have been political, he just didn’t see any reason not to shake any hands that were proffered) with Jany Holt, a Romanian emigré at this point married to Marcel Dalio, who would become a covert resistance hero and win the Croix de Guerre from General de Gaulle. She’s slim and brittle like a glass sculpture, impossibly chic and altogether alluring. And she has a way of holding her mouth when she’s thinking, bared teeth which don’t quite meet to form a grin, suggesting the pensive state of a bite not taken, that’s very Jean Arthur.


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