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An Angel Passes

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2011 by dcairns

Bonjour! Guest Shadowplayer Phoebe Green, known to the comments section as “La Faustin”, started writing this piece on Maurice Tourneur’s last movie in response to The Late Show Late Films Blogathon, but didn’t get it finished that week. But here it is at last, and I’m thrilled tAo be able to publish it — one of the best things to come out of that adventure in joint blogging. The movie is a typically shadowed, moody, droll and soft-spoken thriller from one of the most distinguished and underrated of filmmakers — I await a subtitled copy or an evening with Benshi film described David Wingrove to be able to view it properly, but from glancing at the French VHS and reading Phoebe’s piece, I feel like the movie’s an old friend. One I just haven’t met yet.

TOURNEUR CESSA DE TOURNER  (TOURNEUR STOPPED FILMING)

No, not “Dilemma of Two Angels”, although that’s how a flustered American biographer of Maurice Tourneur translated the title of his last film.  Impasse des Deux Anges (1948) is named after a real dead-end street in the Saint Germain quarter of Paris, but long before Armani and Ralph Lauren made the neighborhood home; back when Simone de Beauvoir described to Nelson Algren the local businesswoman who made her living reselling the tobacco picked from discarded cigarette butts.

This is an alluring agglomeration of a film, where the star-crossed love story theoretically driving the intrigue recedes into the background as successive fascinating whatsits pop up.  Tourneur himself felt the suggestive magic of studio sets for unknown productions glimpsed as he went about his own work.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful, he wrote, to take a group of such empty sets, shut a writer in with a list of actors, a bottle of whiskey and a typewriter, and let him out when the bottle was empty and the script complete?

The sets of Impasse are the work of Jean d’Eaubonne, responsible for the sharply specific Paris of Casque d’Or and Touchez Pas au Grisbi as well as the oneiric worlds of Orphée, Madame de … and Lola Montès, among others.

After the titles, drifting diagonally up against the background of a silvery/sooty impasse and blasted by a doomy waltz, we’re prosaically in a bank where safe deposit box 13 is being opened for the Marquis Antoine de Fontaines (Marcel Herrand).  He is retrieving from the diamond necklace conferred by Louis XIV on the Marquise de Fontaines and worn since then by every Fontaines bride on her wedding day.  (“Tradition is the superstition of the well-bred,” observes the Marquis, whose mondanity, a smooth blend of Herbert Marshall and Sacha Guitry, is given a dubious edge by the memory of Herrand as Lacenaire in Les Enfants du Paradis.)

He is observed from the street by two hollow-cheeked crooks, Minus and Bébé (Paul Demange and Reggie Nalder), who alert their boss, “Le Vicomte”.  He, back at the office, is leafing through newspaper articles on the Fontaines necklace and on tomorrow’s scandalous marriage of music hall star Marianne to the Marquis, while awaiting an American visitor, “le spécialiste”, who is to steal the necklace that night.

“Le spécialiste”, when he shows up, is Paul Meurisse, with a Warner Brothers deadpan so emphatic it’s funny.  (Perhaps a souvenir of Meurisse’s 1930′s cabaret act, singing peppy popular songs gloomily.)  The senior crooks effortfully welcome their brooding, silent guest in franglais (“Pleez come ‘ere” … “Very honoré”) until he puts them out of their misery by telling them he is more Parisian than they.  There is some huffiness about “the fashion for Anglo Saxons” for big jobs, echoing M. Tourneur’s reception upon his return from Hollywood.  Requesting a cigarette, Jean, the “spécialiste”, turns down the secretary’s proud offer of her “Loockies”, tossing her his own pack in return for a Gauloise, savored in close-up.

Now we’re at the musical hall rehearsal of “Le Chevalier d’Eon”, where journalists have come to capture Marianne handing over her leading role to her understudy.  Marianne is a brunette Simone Signoret, fabulously leggy in silk stockings and tricorne, as down to earth and glamorous as Marlene Dietrich taking a cake out of the oven.

This is why little American girls want to be French when they grow up.

Antoine, meanwhile, has outraged his sister by refusing to sign the marriage contract the family solicitor has drawn up. He will not accept any protection from the law of community property; he is throwing himself heart and fortune into his first romantic folly.

Marianne returns to her hôtel particulier where that evening she will host a reception for the des Fontaines relatives en masse – “Saint Germain — the Faubourg, not the Café de Flore,” she notes worriedly to her retinue.  (This includes a bespectacled bluestocking come to drill her on the imperfect subjunctive, but instead offered her choice of an evening gown – Volupté or Vol de Nuit – for her wasted pains.)  It’s an impressive place – Bébé and Minus, casing the joint from the street, remark that it’s easier for a woman to be honest and still do well than it is for a man.

Antoine presents Marianne with the necklace, to be kept in her safe overnight.  It’s obvious that this is a “marriage of reason” for her – she treats her fiancé with slightly sardonic respect and distance, not letting him supply the money she gives to fawning old stager who appears to pay his respects, and when he requests that she change her stage name Marianne (“it’s as though I were marrying the Republic”) to Anne-Marie she refuses because “That’s my real name” – something she’s never revealed to him before.

“Le Vicompte,” acting as an extra servant at the reception, lets “guest” Jean in to snag the necklace.  As he returns from emptying the safe, inevitably, he and Marianne meet and recognize each other.

They leave the reception together, to the dismay of Jean’s accomplices and eventually of Antoine (Marianne’s faithful butler can cover for her only so long).  They will go away together.

They remember the last time they saw each other – and in double-exposure, we see the ghosts of their past selves.  A younger, poorer Jean gets out of a taxi, kisses a plain, frizzy-haired Anne-Marie goodbye, and goes off in the taxi – where, unseen by Anne-Marie, plainclothesmen handcuff him.  The ghosts of even earlier selves walk on the quais – she’s bored being a shopgirl and a friend of hers might be able to get her on the music hall stage; he’s a notary clerk, not having been able to afford to become a lawyer.

They try to return to their old love nest, his attic room in the Impasse des Deux Anges, where they grew geraniums and fed pigeons.  It’s a boarded-up ruin now, skittered through by a fierce little stray cat of a girl – Danièle Delorme – a hanger-on of the gangs that have made the lot “leur market“, she says, for American cigarettes and contraband.  Her name is Anne-Marie.  She resists Marianne’s attempt to connect with her – “Were you ever poor?” – but helps the pair escape the pursuing Bébé and Minus and defies the latter’s quasi-paternal bullying (“Kids today!”)

The couple are forced to take refuge in a half-built apartment house (“the money ran out”) in a neighboring lot, a framework of boxes within boxes.  A young man living in the only occupied apartment shelters them in and offers to bandage Jean’s bullet wound with US surplus mercurochrome and bandages.  He is fascinated by the presence of “real gangsters” – taking possession of Jean’s gun, then letting the gun take possession of him.  “I’m not a kid, I’m strong.”  Holding them at gunpoint, he backs out of the room.

Alone, Marianne and Jean face what he has become – a thief, an outlaw with, he feels, no possibility of return, a “specialist.”  He blames her – she wanted pretty things, he was afraid if he couldn’t afford to give her them she would abandon him for a man who could – but, gently, she refuses to accept his accusation.  Shots ring out from downstairs – once you have a gun, you can’t help using it.  “Another one who says, ‘I’m not to blame.’”

Jean tells the panicked boy crouching over the man he’s killed to say that a lone intruder with a gun came through his window and went down the stairs.  Jean will shield the boy and Marianne.

Back at Marianne’s place, the Marquis and the butler speak.  The butler, it turns out, is Marianne’s godfather.  He knows that she left with Jean – he also knew from the first, as Marianne did not, that Jean had gone to prison for theft.  Antoine leaves.

Jean asks Marianne to let him take cover for the night in her house.  Once inside, received with paternal disapproval by the butler, Jean goes upstairs for a few moments, then settles down for the night in the pantry.  Marianne calls her agent to reopen the question of the South American tour she rejected.

The next morning, Antoine returns to confirm that he wants to marry Marianne and to declare, as he never has before, that he loves her.  The wedding is on.  Marianne and the marquis get into a rather funereal limo (or is it just a premonition of Maurice Tourneur’s fate that makes it seem to glide so menacingly?) and set off down the avenue.  As they do, shots ring out – Jean has been gunned down by Bébé and dies, shrugging off a policeman’s question of who did it:  “It’s not worth it …”  In the car, the couple barely registers the disturbance.  Marianne loosens her furs and reveals the necklace.  Fin.

Maurice Tourneur.

One last thought:  The scenarist Jean-Paul Le Chanois (see Tavernier’s LAISSEZ-PASSER) — a Jew, a Communist, a résistant well before the CP climbed on the bandwagon — worked for Continental Films during the Occupation.  Perhaps there is a relationship to be drawn between this gyroscopic personal equilibrium and what seem to be contradictory impulses in the scenario – the pull of the romantic miserabilism and fatalism of pre-war poetic realism playing against the counter-attraction of personal achievement and material comfort.  Or perhaps the French and the American faces of Maurice Tourneur?

[1] Thanks to the indefatigable IMDB reviewer “dbdumonteil” (3816 reviews and counting!) for the title.  Has no one remarked on the delightful appropriateness of the name Tourneur for the father and son directors?  “Tourner”, literally to turn or roll, as in “Roll ‘em!” is still used colloquially for “to shoot” a film.  Marcel L’Herbier titled his memoirs “La Tête Qui Tourne“, a pun on the expression “my head is spinning”.  Bad luck for any eventual translator that Pauline Kael already claimed “Reeling” for herself.

[2] Thanks to Francomac and his French film (plus) blog for the clip and screen caps.

Who Knew? (No.2)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2009 by dcairns

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“Style is self-plagiarism,” goes the saying, and Hitchcock certainly repeated or developed ideas throughout his career, but the 1956 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is the only instance of his remaking one of his own films in its entirety. And he famously said that the first film was the work of a gifted amateur, the second of a professional.

But some people prefer the original — the very quick delivery of plot points, snappy pace, and loose construction, with its greater room for eccentricity and gags, is indeed quote winning. And I will go so far as to say that John Michael Hayes’ script for the second TMWKTM does have a little fat: it takes a while to get going, and some exchanges between our lovely couple (James Stewart and Doris Day) feel like self-consciously “good dialogue” rather than anything which economically combines character expression with plot development — I’m thinking particularly of the scene where Jimmy and Doris muse about which of his patient’s ailing organs have paid for which parts of their Moroccan holiday.

But asides from that, and the regrettable lack of Peter Lorre, and the fact that Christopher BIGGER THAN LIFE Olsen isn’t as winningly odd as child-woman Nova Pilbeam, I’m afraid the remake has it all over the original. It has Robert Burks on camera, Bernard Herrmann on score, two perfectly suited stars who are great together, production designer Henry Bumstead joining the team, and some excellent bit parts too. Daniel Gelin takes over ably from Pierre Fresnay as the suave French spy who kicks off the story. The principle villains, Bernard Miles and Brenda DeBanzie, start the film so spectacularly colourless that we never suspect them of any role in the plot, and then he becomes increasingly sinister as she becomes more sympathetic. Richard Wattis,  a well-known comic face of the period, gets a tiny walk-on as a flustered underling and makes every second count. And the younger of the two taxidermists featured is played, brilliantly, by Richard Wordsworth, Caroon the mutating spaceman from the previous year’s Hammer hit, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT.

All this and Carolyn Jones!

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Special mention needs to be made of Reggie Nalder as the assassin, Rien (good name!). Adding exotic creep factor where Miles and DeBanzie exude normality, the facially-scarred Austrian enters movie history with a few lines and an alarming smile. Like fellow Euro-creep Daniel Emilfork, Nalder is a good actor with a great face, someone who kept being discovered by moviemakers without acquiring full-on fame. See him in Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, and Salem’s Lot, always adding unbeatable production values with his alarmingly taut smile. He looks like at any moment his skin might split and let his skull get at you. And he knows it.

Fortunately, there isn’t too much Reggie — an entertainment like this couldn’t stand it — and Hitchcock leavens the grim child-abduction plot with humour and intrigue. But he doesn’t fail to take the emotions seriously. Day’s big scene, where her husband dopes her before breaking the news that their child is gone, is a showstopper, fully justifying Hitch’s faith in his unorthodox casting choice (I’d love to have seen both Shirley MacLaine and Doris Day do more films for Hitch). And her utterly savage look when she re-encounters one of the kidnappers in Ambrose Chapel, London, is very impressive too.

Having been to the Marrakech International Film Festival (a luxurious affair, I recommend it if you get the chance) I always enjoy seeing the city on the big screen, even if much of the action here conspicuously takes place before a rear-projection screen. There are still some gorgeously vivid Technicolor ‘scapes to enjoy.

“The Muslim faith allows for few accidents.”

manwho3When the makeup man couldn’t find brown makeup for Daniel Gelin to wear that would rub off on Stewart’s fingers, exposing white skin, so at Gelin’s own suggestion Stewart applied white paint to his fingertips which would then smear pale streaks across Gelin’s blacked-up face. At any rate, this second appearance of blackface in a Hitch film is less uncomfortable than the drummer man in YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

One example of typically Hitchcockian cheek — when Daniel Gelin is chased through the streets by bad guys, he falls in blue paint, making him easy to pick out among the otherwise similarly dressed Arab populace. Then he’s stabbed by an assassin (Nalder?) and the police run right past him, after the knife-man. It seems slightly implausible that they’d disregard the man they’d apparently been chasing — and why were they after him anyway? The whole sequence seems rather hard for to make sense of in light of what we later learn. But it’s excellently staged.

London! The gang of showbiz cronies crashing in on Stewart and Day (as the McKennas — I dig how Jimmy Stewart usually has a Scottish name in his Hitch perfs, cf Scottie Fergusson) seem a little overstretched, but are actually the set-up to one of the most delightful last-scene pay-offs in any Hitchcock movie. And the scattered references to real life celebs like music-hall and movie star Bud Flanagan are pleasing, reminding us of the world of the original TMWKTM.

A slowly developing pleasure in this film is Bernard Herrmann’s score, which confines itself to non-melodic, vaguely eastern sounds in the Moroccan sequence, until Stewart gets the phone call announcing his son is a hostage, and then a familiarly Herrmannesque spiraling tinkle announces the start of the truly Hitchcockian scenario. And the music gets more and more archetypically Herrmann as we reach London — after THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, which is an exception because it’s not a thriller, this movie feels like the development of the Hitchcock-Herrmann style is going on as the movie unfolds before you. Beautiful.

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I love the deserted London streets, and the eerie POV/reaction sequence as Jimmy Stewart navigates the mean alleys of Camden Town and I love the inappropriate but welcome comedy relief of the taxidermists. Many things to cherish here: the slow, pointless intrigue of the elder Ambrose Chappell giving way to the younger. The fact that all the staff are in their dotage. A camera move that circles a big cat, only to reveal it is minus a back end. The shot that posits an extremely menacing tiger head behind Ambrose Jnr, for comically exaggerated menace. The fact that Stewart’s garbled story about the late Louis Bernard seems to be giving poor Mr Chappell the impression that Stewart is a maniac who wants to have his deceased friend stuffed and mounted. And the slapstick fight with swordfish and tiger as adversaries. Plus the prefiguring of PSYCHO.

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More deserted streets outside the real Ambrose Chapel, in darkest Bayswater, scene of a wonderfully scary approach and look to camera by the often-alarming Brenda DeBanzie. Some tricky coming and going manages to separate Stewart and Day, although it’s a little surprising how little in the way of set-piece drama is created (but the suspense never lets up, and unlike in the first version of this story, Hitch and Hayes keep the McKennas separated from their son right till the end). Surprising that Stewart has to break out of the church by shimmying up the bell-rope to the belfry, anticipating VERTIGO, when he could just have smashed a window on the ground floor.

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The Albert Hall assassination attempt manages to top even the matching scene in the original film, via dazzling shots like the one showing the shadow of the conductor’s baton (Herrmann in Hitch-style cameo) touching the top of each note in the score, and the amazing perspective along Nalder’s gun. This is the first musical motif to reach a climax, with the cymbal clash as signal for the hitman (also dig the percussionist’s POV shot looking between his cymbals!), and it’s quite quickly followed by the second, whereby Doris Day’s call-and-answer rendition of Que Sera Sera enables her to locate her son in the foreign embassy. (Which foreign embassy? While the thirties version kept its conspiring nation nameless, it clearly resonates with the pre-war tensions of the day; the remake shuns all reference to the Cold War and studiously avoids political meaning of any kind).

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Surprisingly, the sinister ringleader, Miles’s boss,  is never detected, despite being the mastermind of the whole scheme, and surprisingly we don’t care. As little Chris Olsen is reunited with his folks, Hitchcock, impatient with sentimentality, dissolves to our last shot, the aforementioned beautiful pay-off, so smart and unexpected and deftly delivered and hilarious that it reconfigures everything we’ve just seen as a splendid joke by the Master.

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A. Hall

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2009 by dcairns

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“8 DEC. A HALL. RM.”

Not the Albert Hall who plays the Chief in APOCALYPSE NOW, whose name always makes me chuckle inwardly (but a round of a applause for Albert’s exit-line: “A spear.”) The building.

Is this a reference to the cryptic note in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH? Like Frank Vosper as Ramon the assassin, Rory McBride, the offscreen but much-discussed love machine in Richard Lester’s THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT, has an assignation arranged in the Hall, although he’s entertaining his girlfriends rather than perforating a foreign dignitary.

While we’re on the subject, I always wondered if the scenes of white-clad women queueing outside that edifice were an influence on John Lennon’s lyrics for A Day in the Life. After all, the lines “I saw a film today,” and “The English army had just won the war,” were inspired by Lennon’s experience acting in Lester’s HOW I WON THE WAR. “Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall,” could conceivably have been sparked by THE KNACK, which Lester made between his two Beatles assignments. And the obnoxious rude joke, referring to woman as holes, seems quite Lennonesque.

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My late friend Lawrie filmed in the Albert Hall once, helping out as a third AD on David Lean’s THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS. “It was hard work because, you see, the Albert Hall has no interior stairs, so any time you had to get a message from the camera up above to the extras down below, you had to leave the building, go in another door, and all the way down and then back up again for the next message.” This was in the days before walkie-talkies, of course.

THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS, which only recently became available on DVD, is a very good Lean, closing out his British period and inaugurating the international one, with some modest location filming in Switzerland. Hmm, Switzerland to the Albert Hall, I wonder if Lean was under the influence of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH as well?

The Lean-Lester connection is quite interesting. Lean, a former editor, was blown away by Lester’s “image-mixing” in PETULIA and sent him a wildly congratulatory telegram, which he treasures to this day. Lester subsequently visited Lean, a tax exile in Rome, and thereby hangs another weird conjunction. Lester was struck by how the millionaire lived, accepting unnecessary discomfort with a rather Calvinist resignation — Lean lived in a hotel overlooking Rome’s zoo, and would be awoken at the crack of dawn by the roars of big cats getting their meaty breakfast. Which brings to mind the plot twist in Dario Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, where a phone call is traced via the sound of an exotic bird overheard in the background, meaning that the call came from a hotel near the zoo… at last, with Argento we find a filmmaker we KNOW was influenced by Hitchcock, even down to his casting of Reggie Nalder from the 1956 MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH.

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