The Good Soldier Švejk (1955)

Here's Czech animator Jiří Trnka, "the Walt Disney of the East", working on his stop-motion version of Jaroslav Hašek's legendary comic novel The Good Soldier Švejk (1923), currently showing as part of a Trnka retrospective at London's National Film Theatre that you are strongly advised to check out. An artist known for bringing Czech folk stories and fairy tales to the screen through lovingly crafted puppet animations, Trnka here attempted the mammoth task of adapting Hašek's lengthy story of a hapless infantryman into a series of short features and succeeded admirably. True to the spirit of a cherished book and to the style of its original illustrations by Josef Lada without being overly precious about either, Trnka wisely chose three typical episodes from the source for his three part Švejk cycle rather than attempting to tackle the whole thing. A shrewd move as Hašek's book, a scathing satire of the Austro-Hungarian officer class and a tribute to the redoubtable spirit of the Czechs forced to serve in the empire's war machine, includes over 200 characters with whom its protagonist interacts.

We first meet the imperturbable Švejk in part one of Trnka's trilogy failing to acquire a bottle of bootleg brandy for a commanding officer he has exasperated with endless anecdotes. In part two, Švejk is tossed from a train and forced to make his way back to camp on foot through the snow, getting lost innumerable times along the way, before being arrested as a Russian spy by his own side in the glorious concluding act. The result is huge fun, an ode to beer and buffoonery that is both cheerily slapdash and filled with carefully chosen detail. The mustaches and brows of the puppets bristle and wrinkle in fury, their newspapers flap, their handwriting trails off into doodles after one drink too many while smoke rings waft from Švejk's pipe as he sways drunkenly before the generals he is failing to explain himself to. The filmmaker would go on to satirise the oppressive totalitarian rule of the USSR in his most daring work, The Hand (1965), for which he is fondly remembered as a hero in his homeland.


The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1978)

From the sublime to the utterly ridiculous. After a week of immersing myself in the very best of French cinema, I made the quixotic decision to seek out this travesty, unquestionably the worst of British. A spoof of the popular 1902 Arthur Conan Doyle novel starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson and directed by Andy Warhol collaborator Paul Morrissey, my hopes weren't high. However, I just couldn't resist a film with a supporting cast headed up by veteran greats Terry-Thomas and Joan Greenwood and boasting the likes of Kenneth Williams, Irene Handl, Hugh Griffith, Max Wall, Roy Kinnear, Penelope Keith, Prunella Scales and Denholm Elliot. But even with low expectations, I wasn't prepared for quite how piss-poor this turned out to be. Only Thomas, clearly unwell in his final screen performance, emerges from what stands as a chronic squandering of money and talent with any dignity whatsoever. Greenwood is positively degraded, Williams is creepier than ever in a sad caricature of himself and the rest have almost nothing to do. The jokes are non-existent, the sets are embarrassing, a grotesque parody of The Exorcist comes five years too late and the pissing chihuahua business goes on for far too long. Above all, there's just no heart being put into what might have been a pleasingly anarchic trampling on a literary classic. A distressing shambles. Sub-Hammer, sub-Python and even sub-Carry On. Wretched.

An early appearance by Spike Milligan is an ill omen, threatening the tedious Goon Show mugging and silly voices you certainly get, although his cameo as a policeman is mercifully short. Cook adopts a nasal, East London Jewish twang for Holmes while Moore spends most of the film grappling with a preposterous Welsh Valleys accent - one wonders what co-stars Handl and Griffith made of these unfunny affectations. Cook, one of the most naturally gifted wits England has ever produced, looks bored from the off, leaping at the opportunity provided by Conan Doyle's plot to absent himself from proceedings early on by handing the case over to Moore's Watson so that he can bugger off to a brothel (above). His lack of interest in the project is nakedly apparent and compounded by the decision to shoehorn-in haggard old Beyond The Fringe routines such as the One Legged Tarzan sketch for no other reason than the want of any fresher material. The stench of laziness and indifference haunts the whole production - it's astonishing that Cook and Moore cared so little about quality control because a film this bad could easily have sunk a lesser brand. This may just be the worst film I've ever seen. The dog, at least, deserved better. For god's sake get hold of the 1939 Fox version with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce instead. 


Le Jour Se Lève (1939)

Another splendid exercise in romantic fatalism and spiritual desolation from the fruitful partnership between director Marcel Carné and poet Jacques Prévert that flourished during the French Golden Age. Like their previous collaboration with Jean Gabin, Les Quai Des Brumes (1938), and Renoir's La Règle De Jeu (1939), Le Jour Se Lève was blacklisted by the Vichy government for fear of its abiding pessimism contaminating the French public at a dangerous time. It would also be suppressed by Hollywood after the war in order to boost RKO's The Long Night, a 1947 remake starring Henry Fonda, Barbara Bel Geddes and Vincent Price. However, the original proved resilient and remains a classic. You can't keep a great film down.

In what may be his most archetypal role, Gabin plays everyman François, a sandblaster at a foundry who shoots a villainous love rival and hides out in his flat on the top floor of a shabby tenement building under siege from the police. The rest of the film occurs in flashback, as François barricades the door, chain smokes and recalls the events that led him to this unhappy state of affairs, beginning with his chance meeting with Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent), a pretty young florist whose innocence and naivety charms him. François pursues his near-namesake and fellow orphan and the pair fall in love. One evening, Françoise disappears and her lover follows her to a local night spot where she is watching a performing dog act. François takes an instant dislike to the dogs' trainer, a sleazy vaudevillian named Valentin (Jules Berry) who clearly has a prior relationship with the girl. Upset, François begins an affair with Valentin's jaded assistant (Arletty) but continues to run into the jealous older man, who is aware of his ties to Françoise. Their rivalry becomes increasingly bitter and leads to the confrontation in which Valentin is killed. In the present, François commits suicide just as the sun rises and the tear gas grenades rain down, the two women who loved him appearing among the assembled mob waiting below his window, heartbroken and powerless to intervene.

An exquisitely sombre piece of work, notable for its brooding central character, sympathy for the travails of the working stiff and distinctive sets, Carné's designers creating a provincial town whose alleyways, shop fronts and lone factory convey the same air of stifling hopelessness as the tower block in which Gabin's trapped murderer awaits his end. As marvellous as the star is here, the real revelation is Jules Berry as Valentin, an agent of evil and quite possibly the most appalling rodent ever to crawl onto celluloid. Valentin is as cruel and gleefully manipulative in his way as Dickens' poisonous dwarf Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), a sneering decadent relishing his own odiousness and François' obvious disgust at his lies and dandyish affectations. Only a true monster could conjure such tragedy so casually.


La Règle Du Jeu (1939)

Mila Parély as Geneviève the jilted mistress in Jean Renoir's masterful La Règle Du Jeu, commonly regarded today as among the finest films ever made but widely misunderstood upon its release just prior to the outbreak of World War II. Indeed, audiences roundly booed early screenings of the film in Paris for its perceived lack of patriotism, causing it to be butchered at the censors' request and finally banned by the French and Vichy governments on the grounds that it was "demoralising". Renoir was hurt by this hostile reception and abandoned France for Hollywood as the prospect of war loomed over the land once more. The original negative was then destroyed during an Allied bombing raid and the work was feared lost before a fresh print was discovered in Germany and a painstaking restoration undertaken in 1959, leading La Règle Du Jeu to be reassessed and finally receive the acclaim it had always deserved.

Renoir's film is essentially a tragicomic satire on the aristocracy of the Third Republic, who fail to engage with a changing world and its darkening skies and are preoccupied instead with idle hobbies and outmoded, artificial notions of class, propriety and social standing. Guests assemble at La Colinière, the country chateau of Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), for a weekend's shooting party while the camera follows the various romantic entanglements of the gentry and servants below stairs. Celebrated aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain), a national hero having just flown the Atlantic in 23 hours, is invited and pursues Chesnaye's Austrian wife Christine (Nora Gregor), with whom fellow guest Octave (Renoir himself) is also in love. All three are outsiders to the group for different reasons but are tolerated in spite of this. Their host, a collector of mechanical nicknacks, is meanwhile attempting to break off his affair with Geneviève without hurting her feelings. Matters are also complicated among the domestics, with poacher turned servant Marceau (Julien Carette) seeking an amorous liaison with Lisette (Paulette Dubost), Christine's maid and the wife of jealous Alsatian gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot). Their rivalry comes to a head after the day's shooting when Schumacher catches the pair together and chases Marceau around the house with a shotgun, an embarrassing farce for which the pair are promptly dismissed. The cuckold loiters around the grounds, however, devastated by Lisette's decision to stay with her mistress rather than leave with him, and makes a fatal error when he spies an assignation taking place in the estate's greenhouse involving a woman wearing his wife's cloak.

Images of death abound here, from the surreal skeleton dance during the evening's entertainment to the traumatic montage of cute little bunnies and fleeing pheasants being massacred for sport, both vivid metaphors for what was to come. Renoir's cast are uniformly excellent and clearly benefited from his patient coaching. The director himself gives a touching performance as Octave and was a great believer in the importance of appearing in front of the camera so that he could gain a better understanding of the demands he was placing upon his actors. This sympathetic approach provides a marked contrast with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, who resented actors and famously dismissed them as "cattle", only ever appearing in his own films in joke cameos as a means of inscribing his signature upon his work. As great a technician and thriller director as he was, none of Hitchcock's films could be considered an ensemble piece and I'd argue that Hitch was incapable of producing a work as rich in character and subtleties as La Règle Du Jeu as a direct consequence of his dismissive attitude towards the actor's craft. Far more than an upstairs-downstairs comedy of manners of the sort popularised by Julian Fellowes in recent years - Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2000) and Downton Abbey on television - La Règle Du Jeu is an exquisite skewering of a privileged elite, its futile snobberies and codes, that merits repeated viewings. Watching Modot weeping alone in the night, leaning against a tree trunk for support as the gaiety continues inside, you realise how rare it is to see a grown man cry in films of this period. It's this sort of detail that makes La Règle Du Jeu so original and so special.


La Bête Humaine (1938)

Fernand Ledoux, Simone Simon and Jean Gabin as the three corners of a desperate love triangle in Jean Renoir's heartbreaking melodrama based on the Émile Zola novel of 1890. Gabin stars as Jacques Lantier, a lonely train driver prone to psychotic episodes, who falls for Séverine (Simon), the wife of Le Harve's deputy stationmaster Roubaud (Ledoux), after they meet in the corridor of a passenger car on a trip to Paris Saint-Lazare during which a man is found murdered. The victim turns out to be the wealthy Grandmorin (Jacques Berlioz), a notorious lecher who had a relationship with Séverine's mother while she was working for him as a domestic. Lantier realises that Roubaud has slit the villain's throat in a fit of jealousy over his manipulation of Séverine, his god daughter, while she was underage. Lantier conceals his deduction from the police and pursues a friendship with the couple, watching them disintegrate through shared guilt. Lantier and Séverine fall for one another and plot to dispose of Roubaud so that they can be together before tragedy strikes.

Renoir was reunited here with Gabin and comedian Julien Carette (above) after their triumph in La Grande Illusion (1937) and the trio again struck gold. Although Zola's story presented the director with a smaller canvas than the Great War, he nevertheless again rose beyond the conventions of genre to turn in a devastating human drama on a universal theme. Almost noirish at times, La Bête Humaine anticipates the likes of Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) in leading a doomed couple to suppose that murder is the only way they can secure their happiness (an idea that also forms the core of Zola's 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin). Renoir though is more interested in the humanity of the situation than crime plotting and teases maginificent performances from Gabin as the tormented engineer who quite literally kills the thing he loves and from Simon, an actress cast for her "enchanting pekinese profile", according to the director, which he felt would help wrong-foot audience expectations. Of his star, Renoir wrote in his autobiography, "Gabin could express the most violent emotion with a mere quiver of his impassive face where another man had to shout to get the same effect... [He] could overwhelm the audience with a mere flicker of his eyelids." The director appears on screen himself here as Cabuche, the mercurial ex-con who is wrongly accused of the slaying of Grandmorin.

In his second Zola adaptation after Nana (1926), Renoir makes extraordinary use of real locomotives, offering us a thrilling rollercoaster ride early on by shooting in the first-person as "La Lison" tears through the countryside, dipping into tunnels at great speed and billowing coal smoke. A perilous business to be in but the director proudly recalled in 1974 that he only faked one shot in the entire film - agreeing to place matresses beside the track for Gabin's fatal leap at the end after the actor persuaded him that it might be best for the sake of the production if he were to survive the fall just in case they still needed him for reshoots. Other notable touches of brilliance come in the murder scene, which is entirely unseen, taking place behind drawn blinds, and the lovers' romantic first night together seeking shelter from the rain in an abandoned railway shed. Fritz Lang would remake La Bête Humaine as Human Desire in 1954 with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, his second Renoir remake after turning La Chienne (1931) into Scarlet Street in 1945.


The Gay Divorcee (1934)

That's "gay" as in "happy" friends. No need to get excited. This was the first pairing proper of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire after their appearance together in Flying Down To Rio (1933) and cemented the partnership for all time despite Fred's initial reluctance to commit himself to another double act. He plays Guy Holden, a famous dancer vacationing in Europe, who runs into Ginger's Mimi Glossop at British customs when her skirt inadvertently becomes trapped in her dithering aunt's packing trunk. Smitten, Guy pursues Mimi but she proves evasive, focused instead on her efforts to win a divorce from a tedious geologist husband. By coincidence, Mimi's aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) has engaged Guy's lawyer friend Egbert Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton), an old flame, to advise on the separation. Egbert recommends that Mimi allow herself to be caught in the arms of a "hired co-respondent" in order to create the necessary grounds for divorce. Heading off to a laughably resplendent English seaside resort called Brightbourne, Mimi inadvertently mistakes Guy for the rented gigolo, actually Erik Rhodes' Italian buffoon Tonetti ("Your wife is safe with Tonetti, he prefers spaghetti!"), and a farcical yet typically elegant series of misunderstandings ensue.

The Gay Divorcee was based on a hit musical that Fred had starred in on Broadway and the West End by Dwight Taylor featuring the songs of Cole Porter, entitled The Gay Divorce. The Hays Office couldn't abide a title implying that a marital break-up could be a cause for celebration, however, hence the change when the play came to be adapted for RKO by Kenneth S. Webb and Samuel Hoffenstein. Mark Sandrich's picture from their script also ditched all but one of Porter's tunes, 'Night & Day'. Of the rest of its musical numbers, Fred's solo 'Needle In A Haystack' is pleasing slapstick and 'Let's K-nock K-nees' boasts the astonishing prospect of Edward Everett Horton jiving around in shorts, socks and sandals plus an early cameo from wartime pin-up Betty Grable. Only 'The Continental' proves a significant misfire, with the stars largely sitting it out to make way for an over-long Busby Berkeleyesque sequence featuring a multitude of couples throwing each other around in the moonlight. It may have won an Oscar but, for me, it's the film's weakest moment, verging on boring.

As a whole, The Gay Divorcee is very much a blueprint for the rest of the Astaire-Rogers series to follow. The pair overcome confusion to realise their romance and are variously helped and hindered by the likes of Horton, Brady and Eric Blore, the latter on especially deranged form here trying to tempt Horton with crumpets and toasted scones (I love that someone has written "Eric Blore is my homeboy" under this video on YouTube). Brady gets some of the best lines, advising her niece, "Be feminine and sweet. If you can blend the two", and flirting outrageously with the terminally flustered Horton throughout. A great joy as always then - there's even a high-speed car chase to recommend it - but ultimately perhaps not quite as tight a production as Top Hat (1935) or Swing Time (1936).


À Nous La Liberté (1931)

"Everyone sits in the prison of his own ideas."
- Albert Einstein

René Clair directed this amazingly influential and charming satire about two convicts, sick of piecing together toy rocking horses on a production line, who escape prison and begin new lives. Louis (Henri Marchand) reinvents himself as a market trader selling phonographs and works his way up to become a rich industrialist while Émile (Raymond Cordy) takes a job in his friend’s ultra-modern factory and falls for the lovely Jeanne (Rolla France). Their lives are complicated by haughty socialites, overbearing uncles, fascist foremen and blackmailing gangsters before the pair conclude that the world of work is really not so different from life behind bars, hand over the factory to the workers and hit the road in search of real freedom.

Perhaps the stand-out scene here is the finale, in which Louis makes a speech inaugurating his newly mechanised plant in a strong wind while a suitcase full of money is blown open and sends franc notes billowing around the yard, an event that causes the assembled dignitaries to race around in their toppers greedily grasping for bills rather than listening to the remainder of the ceremony. It’s easy to see the roots of Laurel and Hardy in the bumbling of the physically similar Marchand and Cordy in À Nous La Liberté, which also prefigures the madcap Marx Brothers thumbing their noses at privilege and the bemusement with new technology that Jacques Tati would make his theme in Mon Oncle (1958). That’s to say nothing of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), which shared Clair’s industrial age concern with the dehumanisation of the workforce and borrowed much from this film (despite Chaplin’s later protestations that he’d never seen it), not least the scene in which Louis, distracted by love, disrupts the whole assembly line by chasing after a half-finished record player he’s neglected to tackle. With an eccentric musical score by Georges Auric very much in its favour, Clair’s film is a delightfully daring and inventive comedy in its own right but also an extraordinary example of the breezy cross-pollination that went on between Hollywood and Europe in the early days of cinema.


Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948)

Vienna, 1900. Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), a washed-up concert pianist, returns to his rooms after a night on the town and prepares to flee before dawn in order to evade a duel. Upon entering, Brand's valet (Art Smith) presents him with a letter left by a former conquest, which he sits down to study after catching its ominous opening line: "By the time you read this, I may be dead." What follows is an account of the life of its author, one Lisa Brendle (Joan Fontaine), an impoverished neighbour of Brand's from earlier in his career when he was still regarded as a promising prospect. Lisa confesses that she fell in love with Brand after hearing him rehearse and became entirely infatuated, rejecting other suitors and lingering beneath his window until long after midnight. Eventually she contrived for them to meet and a brief affair ensued, after which he disappeared, unknowingly abandoning her with child. Lisa writes that she raised her son alone and eventually married an older man (Marcel Journet), living happily until a chance encounter with Brand at the opera 10 years on reignited her passion. His practised attempt to seduce Lisa a second time convinces her that he doesn't remember their past and she leaves him, broken-hearted once again. A postscript to the letter informs Stefan that Lisa has since died of typhus. Chastened, he heads out into into the dawn to face his challenger: Lisa's husband.

German Jew Max Ophüls had fled his home country for France in 1933, anticipating the rise of Nazism, and was soon forced to leave his adopted home as well with the onset of World War Two, reaching the US in 1941. There he continued to direct pictures, of which Letter From An Unknown Woman is commonly regarded as one of the best. It's a typically exquisite romantic melodrama from Ophüls concerning tragic heroines, fine feelings and aristocratic intrigue, perhaps not quite in the same league as Madame De... (1953) but featuring many of the director's most admired traits, not least a roaming, observant camera and some deftly handled symmetrical plotting. The film was based on a 1922 period novella by Stefan Zweig and adapted for the screen by Howard Koch, a left-wing writer who worked on Orson Welles's hysteria-inducing radio version of War Of The Worlds in 1938 and on Casablanca (1942) before he was blacklisted and exiled in 1951. The resulting work from his script is steeped in nostalgia for turn-of-the-century Vienna by Ophüls and magnificently played by Fontaine as the lonely obsessive and Jourdan as the object of her affection, seemingly a complacent womaniser and playboy who has never really had to work hard at anything in his life. Critics like Tag Gallagher, however, have pointed out that the entire film is presented from Lisa's perspective and as such forces us to see things solely from her point-of-view. Perhaps Brand is really a more sympathetic character than the cad Lisa portrays him as. Lisa could be a decidedly unreliable narrator and certainly regards herself as something of an angelic innocent while betraying some rather unhealthy characteristics in the recounting of her autobiography, not least her almost pathological pursuit of this charmer and her morally dubious decision to marry a man she does not love to secure her future. This is to take nothing away from what is a touching and sad tale of doomed passion but such an interpretation does help to blur the lines in an interesting way, I feel.


Moby Dick (1956)

Gregory Peck’s monstrous Captain Ahab stands defiantly astride the deck of the Pequod in this superlative adaptation of Herman Melville’s Great American Novel. Despite its being attempted twice previously by Hollywood, the tome was long regarded as unfilmable. However, this didn't stop the ever-adventurous John Huston, who took the project on manfully and delivered a suitably epic opus of crashing waves, roaring typhoons, moonstruck madness and really big fish courtesy of a script co-written, acrimoniously, with science fiction novelist Ray Bradbury. Not recommended for landlubbers.

Huston and Bradbury cherry pick some of the finest scenes from the novel while necessarily dispensing with much of Melville’s long passages on leviathans, the proper way to boil blubber and other nautical matters. Ishmael (Richard Basehart) venturing into the Spouter Inn in New Bedford and meeting Stubb (Harry Andrews) and Polynesian harpooner Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur) over a tankard of shilling rum and a jig is one such example. Elijah the Prophet (Royal Dano) makes his ominous appearance at the docks on cue while the extraordinary sermon of Father Mapple on the fate of Jonah is also present and correct. Orson Welles cameos here, in a small but vital early appearance similar to his turn as Cardinal Wolsey in A Man For All Seasons (1966), speaking from a pulpit made from the prow of an old ship and giving a barnstorming rendition (see below). Welles would use his fee for the part to bankroll his own theatrical production based on the novel, Moby Dick-Rehearsed, a play-within-a-play then being staged at London’s Duke of York Theatre with an all-star cast. Peck himself would take the part of Mapple in a rubbish TV miniseries version of the yarn starring Patrick Stewart in 1998, following on from his similar lap of honour in Martin Scorcese’s Cape Fear (1991).

Although the film came in at double its original budget, eventually costing around $4.4m, it’s a sturdy piece of work that captures much of Melville’s poetry and offers a wholly authentic experience of sea-going life in the nineteenth century. Every creak of the ship, every strain of its ropes and every swoosh and clang of the crew’s flying lances helps capture the essence of this sun-beaten world of perpetual motion, salted air and sublime nature. Huston shot as much of the action as he could on location at real whaling grounds off the coasts of Spain and Portugal, using the town of Yougal in County Cork, Ireland, as the stand-in for New Bedford. Moby Dick himself was a 12 tonne, 75 foot model built by Dunlop Rubber in Stoke-on-Trent, UK, and apparently required 80 drums of compressed air as well as a fully-automated hydraulic system to stay afloat. Fans of vintage British cinema will be pleased to spot the likes of Bernard Miles and Noel Purcell aboard ship, the former a reliable hand with a literary adaptation and the latter something of a specialist in playing weathered sailors, while Scotsman James Robertson Justice also pops up in a small role as Captain Boomer, another seafarer who has lost a limb to the White Whale. Look out too for Mervyn Johns, Bob Cratchit in Brian Desmond Hurst’s Scrooge (1951), as a bewhiskered Peleg, the mate to whom Ishmael and Queequeg sign away their freedom.

Peck may not have been the original choice for the monomaniacal Ahab – that was Walter Huston, John’s father, who died before the project could be realised – but the star carries the film with a suitably angry, strained performance, his insanity only gradually revealed (although there’s also some strong support from Leo Genn as the troubled Starbuck). Peck does look unfortunately like Honest Abe Lincoln, which takes some getting used to, but rises above it and his demise, lashed to the side of the beast and beckoning his crew to join him in a watery grave, is as chilling a moment as it unforgettable.