Archive for Rene Clair

Thoroughly Moderne Killing

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on February 20, 2012 by dcairns

If you were a dapper man-about-town in the 1930s, you would be surrounded by art deco, but you wouldn’t know it because the term for art deco wasn’t invented until decades later, which seems a bit like being an Eskimo without a single word for snow. Your whole environment would be a nameless blur. Must be what being a Republican candidate is like. But in fact those bygone beings of an earlier era did have a term of their own, “moderne” — and so to THE NINTH GUEST, which anticipates Agatha Christie’s Ten Little N*ggers / And Then There Were None by five years and features most of its plot ideas.

Unfortunately for director Roy William Neill and his team, Dame Agatha was a talented plagiarist who improved on what she nicked, so watching 9G today one feels nostalgia for the later Rene Clair film, which is filmically and dramaturgically a far livelier show — and the lack of music in 9G is especially damaging.

But but but — there’s so much to enjoy! If the actors are a little bland, the dialogue clunking with exposition, and the copy on view sadly washed-out, it’s still a visual feast. RWN’s trademark style, employed on 40s noirs, horrors and Sherlock Holmeses, is fully-formed, with canted angles, expressionist shadows, giant foreground objects and snazzy composition in depth the rule rather than the exception. There’s no sense that his dutch tilts evoke a world out of balance, as in Carol Reed, they merely create Dynamism, Decoration and Danger (the 3 Ds). And with somewhat stilted material like this, you definitely need those Ds.

The sets, representing a Manhattan penthouse suite where the exits are electrified and the cocktails contain prussic acid, are delightfully chic, with an illuminated clock glowing smugly from INSIDE A WALL. There’s a big Bakelite radio broadcasting creepy threats, and RWN duly throws in a deranged POV shot filmed from inside it (he’s already given us the traditional Santa Claus shot from the fireplace).Some stretches evince an autistic fascination with lampshades (the camera peers round them like a shy child) almost as obsessive as that in DIAL M FOR MURDER or THE IPCRESS FILE, but the effect is different: wide-angle-lensed and proto-noir, where background figures get engulfed in shadow and midground ones get occluded by the looming trained furniture right in front of the camera. Neill must have loved peekaboo as a kid.

Apart from some textbook comedic faffing from Vince Barnett as a drunken assistant butler, the acting isn’t too colourful, but would have been OK if there were characters to play. The villain, once unmasked, does enjoy some surprising verve, a bit like Chester Morris in THE BAT WHISPERS — a normally lethargic or dendritic thesp reveals an unsuspected aptitude for cartoonish sneering. It’s always nice to watch somebody blossom like that.

Big Head of Pola

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2009 by dcairns


In the fascinating and highly amusing Put Money in Thy Purse, Michael Mac Liammoir’s memoir* of the making of Orson Welles’ OTHELLO, we hear of some silent-era European émigré director whose English wasn’t too hot, shooting a Pola Negri romance, saying he wanted a “big head of Pola,” meaning a close-up. Welles’ cast and crew liked the expression so much they adopted it, so all through the book, Mac Liammoir writes of each day’s filming, “Big head of Pola of me today,” etc.

HOWEVER! The big head of Pola above is not Pola Negri but Pola Illéry, a Romanian actress in France best known (until now!) for her leading role in Rene Clair’s UNDER THE ROOFTOPS OF PARIS (available from the good people at Criterion) but currently under discussion over at the Auteurs’ Notebook, in my regular Thursday piece, where you can find out what Charles Boyer was doing here on Sunday.

*I can’t get over the fact I just typed “Mac Liammoir’s memoir.”

Quote of the Day: Clair on Barsacq

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , on June 1, 2009 by dcairns

This is René Clair’s introduction to Léon Barsacq’s Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions. It’s so lovely I wanted to share it.




Barsacq’s sketch for René Clair’s LE SILENCE D’OR — an ancient movie studio recreated in a modern movie studio.

Scenery? In the theater, scenery is normal, since the stage is surrounded by walls that it would be better to hide behind some kind of decoration, such as a painted backdrop or black velvet curtain.

But in films, where, like fables, “the stage is the universe,” why talk of scenery? The term is as inaccurate as the term “staging a film,” when there is no stage. Film “scenery” is not decoration; it’s generally a construction, a living room or a restaurant, for example, that tends to look the way the same living room or restaurant would look in reality. Now we need to know what we mean by “reality.”

A photograph is not reality but a reproduction of reality that we take for reality because of a convention we are so used to that we no longer recognize the deception involved. We refuse to throw away this piece of cardboard if it bears the features of someone we love, but to a dog, a photo of his owner is just a piece of cardboard.

From the very birth of moving pictures, a dialectic developed. The Lumière brothers, who came to films from photography, focused on aspects of reality (today their followers talk of cinéma-vérité). In turn, Méliès, who came to films from illusionism and the theater, was less interested in reproducing what he saw than in transforming it into what he imagined. A magician, he produced as if from a hat a surreal world that prefigured both the distortions of Caligari and the contemporary fantasies of science fiction. Between these two extremes lies the concept of “imitated” reality, the equivalent of sculpture as opposed to a plaster cast.

In this area, the set designer, however realistic his sets, can impose a style. The height of art is reached when this style relates so closely to that of the work itself that the audience pays no special attention to it. So we could say with a minimum of paradox that in films, the most successful set is the least noticeable one.

barsacq1PORTEBarsacq design for PORTE DE LILAS, AKA GATES OF PARIS.

Léon Barsacq enjoyed that kind of success, and yet, to a trained eye, whatever he designed revealed his touch. So, for the film The Gates of Paris, he built a whole series of streets and alleys whose reality, I think, few spectators would suspect. But when we tried to cut some shots of a real street into the shots of our fake streets, we had to give up the idea. The styles were too different. We might say that reality paled alongside its imitation. “You wouldn’t recognize her,” we sometimes say about a pretty woman surprised by a newsreel camera. Make up her face, light her properly, and you’ll recognize her. The same is true for sets.


Barsacq sketch for LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS.

Here a master of the art tells the story of these great make-up artists of reality, the film set designers. This book written by Léon Barsacq in the last years of his life preserves the memory of works existing only as a few shadows on a fragile strip of film. What castles built for a few hours, what phantom towns, what still-new ruins! In Hollywood they used to take tours through these plywood and plaster cities, those imitation streets where the fake patina of paint was covered by the patina of time. A Romantic poet could have dreamed among those decrepit buildings that once imitated the past, later caricatured it, and today have disappeared. Fiction or reality? Méliès or Lumière? In our own memories, the real world where we thought we lived blends with the world of illusion.