Archive for The Train

Iron Men

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2015 by dcairns

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One of my purchases from the beloved Mercer Street Books of New York was a volume called Merely Colossal by Arthur Mayer, subtitled The Story of the Movies from the Long Chase to the Chaise Longue, a humorous account of the author’s career in movie promotion, exhibition, distribution, etc. It looked like the kind of book you might never see twice, so I couldn’t let it go, even though at $9.95 it was more expensive than most of my purchases.

Mayer talks about his days running a film import company, distributing THE NEW GULLIVER, a Soviet animation which had been banned in the USSR for perceived counter-revolutionary tendencies: the powers that be were still willing to allow it to be shown in America, since that would bring in a little cash and the audience would be pre-corrupted. I noted this because one of my prouder accomplishments in life is having helped to get a copy of this movie to Ray Harryhausen, who remembered seeing it in the 30s, and whose career it had helped inspire (although the lion’s share of the credit must go to KING KONG, of course).

Mayer also mentions making a tidy profit on ROME: OPEN CITY, since audiences assumed that the title must refer to an openness to decadence and debauchery, whereas René Clément’s “documentary” BATAILLE DU RAIL flopped. This reminded me that I hadn’t seen the 1946 wartime drama, a kind of French answer to neo-realism, so I popped it in my Maidston supermarket-brand blu-ray player and pressed PLAY…

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It isn’t a documentary, of course — Clément uses actors, and everything is staged and scripted, but in the days when all documentaries were assumed to require reconstruction and staging, I can see how it could be taken as a kind of verité: it’s location shot, based on fact, and has a rough texture to it that smacks of authenticity.

In reality, the purpose is somewhat propagandistic — Clément’s tales of the Occupation all traffick in “the myth of Resistance,” implying that the whole of France was involved in actively resisting the Nazi occupiers, with the exception of a few quislings and collabos, regarded with contempt by all right-thinking Frenchies. In fact, as Melville pointed out, at the start of the Occupation there were only a few hundred in the Resistance, and the impulse to get along was at least as prevalent as the tendency to defy.

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But anti-German sabotage on the railway lines, often an inside job, was a big enough deal that Jean Renoir’s THIS LAND IS MINE!, made in Hollywood, references it. Clément’s film concentrates solely on this area, suggesting that the Germans were consistently thwarted by crafty railwaymen (which raises awkward questions about how the mass deportation of Jews could be carried out).

If the comforting myth, intended to soothe a nation humiliated by defeat and collaboration, is not 100% convincing, the atmosphere and environment of Clément’s film certainly is. Black and whte cinematography is so good for capturing texture, and the clanking, hissing machinery captured by Henri Alekan’s camera here has a fierce power, anticipating the steam-driven nightmares of early Lynch. Clément had assisted on Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, and it’s amazing to think of Alekan lensing two such contrasting shows in a single year.

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Clément’s approach does share with Cocteau an infusion of poetry — he isn’t really a social realist elsewhere in his career, and this “documentary” is enlivened by an imaginative eye which can penetrate character. As one rebellious engineer stands in line to be executed, Clément shows the last sights he’ll see, infusing each image — a spider on the brickwork, black clouds billowing from funnels — with an ecstatic intensity.

Up Against the Wall from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Fans of Frankenheimer’s THE TRAIN (and I’m one) will also be impressed by the industrial-scale destruction of rolling stock, with Clément’s insurrectionists gleefully trashing fifty-foot cranes and transport trains loaded with armoured tanks. All of this is arranged with sneaking subversion — maybe the railway men made such ideal resistance fighters because employees of large corporations are always looking for ways to get on over on their faceless employers anyway. War just offers an excuse to do it on a massive scale. The surreptitiousness of the sabotage reminds me of my school days — looking for ways to game the system without getting caught, or ways of annoying the enemy without them being able to say for sure you’re doing it on purpose.

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And at the end of the colossal derailment, the most French thing imaginable: through the cascading debris, an accordion saunters down the hillside, a wheezing slinky of defiance.

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Under Steam

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

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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 —

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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 —

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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.

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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).

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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.

In It For the Money

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2013 by dcairns

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Came back from Dublin with a rampaging Irish lurgi in my system and collapsed into bed with a fitful cough that made my head explode each time it went off. Comedies were out. I chose to watch the worst thing I could lay my hands on.

That meant the 1980s. That meant Michael Caine. Add Robert Ludlum and John Frankenheimer, during his years of alcoholic haze, and you should have a perfect storm of awfulness perfect for a state of feverish narcolepsy. But actually THE HOLCROFT COVENANT displays dim glimpses of another, better film, as if two movies were projected on overlapping scrims and the wrong scrim was to the fore.

Ludlum: “the man who ruined titles,” as a friend puts it. I have a mental image of his literature — fat volumes of inept prose — but have never read any of it so apart from the fat part I don’t know how accurate/fair that is. He does seem to have yielded very little of cinematic value, and I suspect this may be partly due to weak characterisation — the one real hit in movie terms was the Bourne series, in which the hero is a literal blank. For much of THE HOLCROFT COVENANT, Caine’s character is similarly ill-defined, though that may be partly due to his inability to suggest a New York architect called Noel Holcroft (doesn’t he play something similar in the even-more-awful BLAME IT ON RIO? And with a similar name, Hollis…) and in THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, characterisation is largely replaced by casting.

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So much for the HOLCROFT part of the dreadful title. The COVENANT is a vast bank account of pilfered Nazi funds set up supposedly to redress the Third Reich’s crimes. We’re asked to believe that it was judged wise to keep this money hidden away for forty years (Why?), that the funds shouldn’t have simply been handed over when the Reich fell, and that Swiss banks administer Nazi funds for benevolent reasons. Obligatory Euro-thriller star Michael Lonsdale plays the Swiss banker, with Lilli Palmer adding class and Mario Adorf adding sweaty ebullience.

But why do I suggest that the film is anything more than sheer rot, with an offensively inane premise? Well, the screenplay is the work of three hands — John Hopkins, who did a lot of spy stuff including THUNDRBALL and Smiley’s People, Edward Anhalt, who did classy stuff like THE MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH but also fun like THE SATAN BUG (which I watched the same day by sheer coincidence, mainly because I was convinced I had the titular bug) and George Axelrod, a reminder of Frankenheimer’s glory days via THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

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Axelrod tends to smuggle in humour, sometimes in so black a form it’s hard to receive it as such, and it’s his voice that predominates, or would if the film were in tune with its own best intentions. Lines about Adorf’s character having found the perfect way to conceal his Nazi parentage by becoming world famous seem to leeringly point out the absurdity of the whole story. The NORTH BY NORTHWEST device of a regular joe plunged into the mad world of espionage is entertainingly resuscitated, at least on paper.

Caine is actually very funny in his incredulity at the secret codes and meetings in public places, but his being so evidently himself (complete with blazer) wrecks all the humour the script tries to ring from him being an American fish out of water. Co-stars Victoria Tennant, Anthony Andrews and Bernard Hepton (“Mustn’t grumble”) are forced to try to be even more British than they already are in order to try to make him seem American. Or maybe it’s just that Axelrod has written them as stiff-upper-lip parodies.

(Caine’s career seemed to stagger through innumerable fatal misfires like this one, but like a zombie from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, not even repeated bullets to the head could stop it.)

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Highlights of fatuity — a chase through a Berlin Carnival of Prostitution (because not only do sex workers have lots of disposable income to throw at street festivities, but the city council is keen to promote the red light district as a tourist attraction); a highly public assassination attempt on seventy-one-year-old Lilli Palmer that kills four innocent bystanders and one assassin while wiping out Palmer’s bookshop (“My shop!” she cries, oblivious to the loss of life) but misses its target; Caine constantly meeting representatives of governments and businesses away from their places of business, with no guarantee that he’s talking to the real deal (he almost never is); an eleventh-hour twist about a character’s identity which makes no difference to anything.

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The movie looks glossy and Frankenheimer seems, depressingly, committed — some of his Dutch tilts and one crash zoom on Adorf’s huge cave-in of a face are actually witty. Obviously the money ran out — the score is a pathetic synth dribble, and a series of voicemail messages early on seem to be recorded by the film’s supporting cast, doubling up as offscreen characters. One of them is Frankenheimer himself. Inspiration must have run out too — the climax reprises shots from THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (much as RONIN and REINDEER GAMES would reprise the coda of THE TRAIN) and the story, finally unmasked as the great chain of piffle it is, seems beyond even Axelrod’s powers to parody.

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