28/10/2012

The Trial Of Joan Of Arc (1962)

Now I know how Joan of Arc felt. Robert Bresson shot this documentary-style reconstruction of the final days of the legendary French martyr using the actual minutes from her heresy trial at the hands of Catholic bishops in 1431. The strictness of the parameters Bresson set himself in sticking to these remarkable historical records meant there was no room for epic battle scenes or spectacular sets and ensured a tight focus on Joan's emotional response to persecution. As was his custom, Bresson hired a cast of largely non-professional actors in order to make the film more naturalistic and because of his loathing for actorly artifice, a tactic also employed by Pier Paolo Pasolini in his Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964). To this end, future novelist and academic Florence Delay makes for an utterly mesmerising "Maid of Orléans", defiant in the face of her inquisitors at Rouen and unshakeable in her conviction that the voices in her head are those of St. Catherine and St. Margaret bearing messages from God. Delay's Joan does not recognise the authority of the ecclesiastical court convened to convict her and only flatly responds to the questions of Bishop Cauchon (Jean-Claude Fourneau, a surrealist painter by trade). She dies assured that the hypocritical clergymen who condemn her do not represent the will of her maker and leaves behind only a pair of smouldering iron shackles, a symbol of the meaninglessness of the church's terrestrial tyranny over a true believer. Her execution is a confirmation, not a tragedy.

Leonard Cohen - Joan Of Arc

20/10/2012

Le Corbeau (1943)

A mysterious figure begins sending poison pen letters to the great and the good of the small French town of St Robin accusing them of various misdeeds, signing his mischievous epistles simply as "The Raven". The first recipient is Dr Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), the new town physician, whom the anonymous tipster alleges has been carrying out illegal abortions and conducting an affair with Laura Vorzet (Micheline Francey), the young wife of a colleague. As more and more taunting letters arrive, Dr Germain sets out to unmask the vigilante agent of chaos responsible. His suspects include his own hypochondriac mistress Denise (Ginette Leclerc, below), the town wit Vorzet (Pierre Larquey) and even 14 year-old schoolgirl Rolande (Liliane Maigné).


A whodunnit in the sense that Michael Haneke's superficially similar The White Ribbon (2009) is a whodunnit, Le Corbeau is really a savage critique of French provincial life. Screenwriter Louis Chavance peoples the microcosmic St Robin with weak, corrupt, morally compromised leaders and a hysterical populace governed by fear and mob mentality. St Robin's is a society ready to crumble at the first hint of insinuation and The Raven duly obliges with an inky terror campaign that teases out the secrets and communal tensions lurking beneath the bourgeois respectability of its surface. A vision of a rotten town (and, by extension, country) akin to anything in American pulp fiction or noir and a grim meditation on the destructive power of accusation and hypocrisy, it's a wonder that director Henri-Georges Clouzot managed to get it made.


Clouzot was then in the employ of Continental Films, a Nazi-controlled studio charged by Joseph Goebbels with producing "mindless entertainment" with which to distract the French public while under occupation. Ironically, Continental was much less concerned with propaganda and censorship than the Vichy government, so Clouzot was allowed to proceed with his dark satire unimpeded, right up until the final cut offended everyone in sight (despite its deeply and deliberately ambiguous nature). Le Corbeau was hated by both left and right-wing critics for undermining the French character and French social institutions, by the Catholic church for its pungent cynicism and morbidity and by the Nazis for its attack on the informant culture they had sought to cultivate since seizing power. Unsurprisingly, the film was ultimately banned while Clouzot himself was prohibited from making films for two years in 1945 as punishment for collaborating with Continental. However, Le Corbeau was soon re-released and hailed as a masterpiece, allowing Clouzot to go on and become known as the "French Hitchcock" by directing such classics as The Wages Of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1954).

19/10/2012

The Wicked Lady (1945)

A jewel of the “Gainsborough Gothic” cycle identified by critic Francis Wyndham, Leslie Arliss’s The Wicked Lady was a box office smash in 1945 and stars the ravishing, raven-haired Margaret Lockwood as Barbara Skelton, a 17th century aristocrat who takes to the road to become a highwayman as a means of escaping provincial boredom. A lusty romantic melodrama filled with bawdy humour, lavish costumes and a dashing James Mason, The Wicked Lady was clearly made to cater to the fantasies of a predominantly female wartime audience of land girls and munitions factory workers whose husbands and lovers were away at war. In the US, films like 20th Century Fox's Jane Eyre with Orson Welles were churned out for much the same market. However, as Graham Fuller of Sight & Sound recently pointed out, the plunging cleavages of The Wicked Lady’s heroines, which upset American censors almost as much as Jane Russell’s joyous jugs in The Outlaw (1943), would hardly have deterred the menfolk.



Although pre-feminist (taken from Magdalen King-Hall’s novel of the same year), the film presents us with a female protagonist who is sexually liberated and simply takes whatever her heart desires – starting with Sir Ralph (Griffith Jones), the fiancé of her Plain Jane cousin Caroline (Patricia Roc), an impulse that leads Barbara Skelton almost casually towards a life of crime. The Wicked Lady’s frankness about sex comes as something of a surprise when one is accustomed to the generally more coy output of the period. Barbara’s bridesmaids leer, giggle and exchange innuendos as she prepares for her wedding night while her hated sister-in-law, Lady Henrietta Kingsclere (Enid Stamp Taylor), bites her lip hungrily at the very thought of being accosted by Mason’s notorious Captain Jerry Jackson. The latter himself is no slouch on this front: “Oh just one more!” cries Barbara as she hurriedly unloads gold bullion from a coach they’re robbing; “I’ve heard you say that in other circumstances...” he smirks.


The unjustly forgotten Lockwood is captivating and turns in a boisterous central performance as a woman who ultimately murders three men over the course of the picture - British cinema wouldn't ask us to root for a loveable serial killer again until  Louis Mazzini dug out the family tree in Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949). There’s excellent support from Roc, Stamp Taylor, Francis Lister and the under-used Martita Hunt and Jean Kent. The other male leads – Jones and Michael Rennie – are more forgettable but Mason is great fun: “By my stars... So it’s a skirt we have in the saddle!” He doesn’t always seem comfortable – as though he’s not entirely convinced that he doesn’t look ridiculous – especially in his scenes with buxom doxies at the debauched Leaping Stag tavern, but that only adds to the charm of the production. His merry ascent to the gallows at Tyburn is as funny as his return from the grave to rape Barbara is shocking. A fascinating and highly entertaining caper, The Wicked Lady gallops along at a lively pace thanks to some sharp editing from future Hammer horror director Terence Fisher. Arliss shows some real flair behind the camera too, shooting from inside a lit fireplace at one point so that its flames appear to lick at Barbara while her servant Hogarth (Felix Aylmer) lectures her on eternal damnation and recoiling backwards out of the window at another as an aghast Kit (Rennie) finally rejects the dying adventuress for her villainous ways. An ice skating scene on the frozen Thames is also inventively staged. Overall, a splendid romp.

14/10/2012

The Bohemian Girl (1936)

Stan and Ollie doing opera? It happened. Here the boys take on Irish composer William Michael Balfe's The Bohemian Girl of 1843, which in practical terms gave them an excuse to don traditional Central European folk costumes and pageboy haircuts and look ludicrous, a bright idea they would repeat soon after in Swiss Miss (1938). Balfe's plot lands our favourite saps in 18th century Austria,  where their simple existence as gypsy pickpockets is turned upside down when Ollie's fearsome wife (Mae Busch) kidnaps Arline Arnheim (Darla Hood), the young daughter of a cruel count (William P. Carleton) and then elopes with her raffish lover Devilhoof (Antonio Moreno), leaving the boys quite literally holding the baby.

Regulars Busch and James Finlayson, as the captain of the palace guards, are on splendid form here, she as irate and menacing as she was playing a deranged serial killer in Oliver The Eighth (1934) and he once more demonstrating his mastery of the suspicious squint and aggrieved snort. Thelma Todd also briefly appears in what would be her final role, a part that had to be truncated following her mysterious death from carbon monoxide poisoning. The studio sets and costumes are excellent, the gypsy camp makes for a colourful historic backdrop and there's some memorable business with Stan and Ollie trying to rob people while telling their fortune, a scam masterminded by Stan, unusually. The torture chamber finale, in which Ollie is stretched out on the rack to a phenomenal height and Stan horribly condensed in an iron maiden, is another superb gag. But the real highlight for me is the scene below in which Ollie watches enchanted as the grown-up Arline (Jacqueline Wells) trills the exquisite aria 'I Dreamt I Dwelt In Marble Halls' while Stan greedily devours the entire contents of the breakfast table, completely uninterested.



Competently co-directed by James W. Horne and Charley Rogers, The Bohemian Girl is a charming little piece of work but who knows what Balfe would have made of his grand romantic opera being given the Hal Roach treatment? 

06/10/2012

The Leopard (1963)

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
- Tancredi Falconeri

Some have hailed Luchino Visconti’s sumptuous adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's only novel as the finest film ever made and there’s a strong case for it. The Leopard recounts the life of the mid-19th century Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster), an ageing aristocrat initially in denial of the dead soldier on his lawn and the wider significance it represents as Garibaldi’s Redshirts sweep into Sicily. Insisting instead that nothing will change for his privileged caste, Don Fabrizio confidently assures his priest that his decadent world of hunting, picnics and balls will be free to carry on regardless of the outcome of the disagreeable recent spate of skirmishes. However, the prince also knows that his homeland is riven with a self-destructive urge for oblivion and is nothing if not “a country of comprise”. Don Fabrizio soon finds himself forced to make a series of pragmatic decisions in order to safeguard the legacy of his seven children as the “jackals and hyenas” circle to drive old “leopards” like him to extinction. Against his own wishes, the prince votes for Victor Emmanuel and the unification of Italy to ensure that the revolutionary mood of the peasants of Donnafugata does not spill over into violence. Later, he arranges for his dashing nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) to marry Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the daughter of gauche, nouveau riche landowner Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), instead of his own daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), knowing full well she is in love with Tancredi. Finally, Don Fabrizio rejects a prestigious senatorial position with the new government, surrendering instead to provincial irrelevance and mortality with a sigh for a lost age of splendour.


Lampedusa himself was the last in a line of Sicilian princes, a solitary cove who spent his life quietly following intellectual pursuits and pondering the possibility of writing a novel about the opulent lifestyle of his grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, during the Risorgimento. Lampedusa finally commenced the work in 1954 as a means of combating depression, brought on by the death of his mother and the destruction of the family palazzo in Palermo during the war, finishing the work a year later only to face the disappointment of seeing it rejected twice by Italian publishers. After the author’s death from lung cancer in 1957, Il Gattopardo was published posthumously to huge acclaim after being championed by novelist Giorgio Bassani and Visconti’s film followed five years later, taking the Palme d’Or at Cannes but met with bemusement at its New York premiere.
 

A great shame Lampedusa never lived to see his masterpiece achieve the immortality it so clearly deserved. Visconti certainly does him proud, his film a lavish, epic examination of the dawning of modern Italy and an elegy for its past. Visconti may have been a Marxist but he was also the son of a Milanese duke so his sympathy for the subject shines through. He manages to capture the last hurrah of the old nobility in meticulous fashion, owing a huge debt to the exacting work of his production designer, Piero Tosi. The oppressive heat, sunburnt hillsides and rustic majesty of Sicily itself are also superbly caught by Visconti, largely using natural light, just as Stanley Kubrick would a decade later in Barry Lyndon (1975). Outdoor scenes, notably the argument between the prince and his gamekeeper Don Ciccio (Serge Reggiani) seem an obvious inspiration for the Sicily passages in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974). Well known for its exquisite concluding ball, running for 45 minutes and intended to fatigue and overwhelm the audience just as it does Don Fabrizio, The Leopard’s early battle scene between Garibaldi’s troops and local forces is also utterly enthralling. Painterly in execution, the bold uniforms of the protagonists are juxtaposed with fallen stonework and flaming debris as local people flee the soldiers’ musket fire in terror while a mob of widows lynch a policeman in a revenge attack.


As for the stars, Lancaster proved a highly controversial piece of casting in the lead - third choice behind Nikolai Cherkasov and Laurence Olivier and originally dismissed by US critics for lacking stature in the role - but delivered one of his best performances, managing to embody this man out of time despite some ropey voice dubbing occasionally working against him. American actors always seem to benefit from Italian direction – think of Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone, Jack Nicholson and Michelangelo Antonioni, Marlon Brando and Bernardo Bertolucci and, more recently, Sean Penn and Paolo Sorrentino. Frenchman Delon is cool and nicely understated while Cardinale (phwoar) apparently managed to juggle shooting scenes for The Leopard with Fellini’s , which was in production at the same time. Incredible.

02/10/2012

You're Telling Me! (1934)

"It's a funny old world... Man's lucky if he gets out of it alive."
- Sam Bisbee

Although this W.C. Fields comedy for Paramount is one of the old rascal’s finest outings, it’s also unquestionably his saddest film. Fields often played oppressed husbands but his familiar blustering con artist never came close to surrendering to despair, always finding consolation in the bottle and the support of a doughty daughter when matters took a turn for the worse. But that finally comes to pass here and I can think of few more quietly devastating scenes in movies than that of Fields’ hapless inventor Sam Bisbee composing a suicide note and planning to poison himself with iodine on the train home rather than face his wife and child in disgrace. Fortunately, a fairy godmother intervenes in the person of the lovely Princess Lescaboura (Adrienne Ames) but the thought that even as resilient a cove as Fields can’t bear to live any more is an upsetting one indeed.

The reason for this aspiring Edison’s depression is the recent humiliation he’s suffered in front of the National Tire Company’s board of directors when attempting to demonstrate his most prized invention – a puncture-proof automobile tyre. Having previously installed four of these babies on his own car, Bisbee begins brazenly firing bullets at the vehicle while the suits look on, little realising that the rubber he’s busy deflating belongs to someone else’s jalopy – his own having been towed away by the cops while he was pressing the flesh inside. Things are bad at home too. Abigail (Louise Carter), his wife of 20 years, is embarrassed and aggravated by his every move – there’s a superb bit of business in which Fields drives her nuts by getting himself, his straw hat and the shoes he’s carrying hopelessly tangled up in some ornamental curtain ropes – while his daughter (Joan Marsh) is involved with a man whose family are appalling snobs. This suitor is played, incidentally, by the unbelievably square jawed Larry “Buster” Crabbe – an Olympic gold medallist swimmer who would go on to star as Tarzan, Buck Rogers AND Flash Gordon before the decade was out. Despite these troubles, help is at hand for Bisbee as the sympathetic princess turns the town of Crystal Springs upside down to her friend’s advantage and puts the ghastly Mrs Murchison (Kathleen Howard) well and truly in her place.


Directed by the prolific Erle C. Kenton, who made The Island Of Lost Souls for the studio with Charles Laughton in 1932, You’re Telling Me! ends up being a damning indictment of provincial snootiness and hypocrisy, embodied by the strident Howard as well as Fields regulars Nora Cecil and Elise Cavanna as the snide town gossips. Disapproving prospective in-laws were a common Fieldsian theme, also present in the likes of The Old Fashioned Way (1934) and Poppy (1936). Another recurring motif present here is the concluding golf scene with Tammany Young as an oafish caddy, essentially a remake of W.C.'s 1930 RKO short The Golf Specialist but priceless all the same. Perhaps the highlight here though is the film’s contrived but spectacular runaway ostrich chase, Fields trying frantically to hold onto the bird's leash as it sprints off down the street for no good reason whatsoever. Bisbee’s homemade inventions are also hilarious, including an attachment for guiding a drunkard’s key to the front door when under the influence, a double necked milk bottle for twins and the “murder chair”, a burglar trap that might have come in handy in the opening scene of The Man On The Flying Trapeze (1935). Fields glugging more than just a nip from the mayor’s “something on the hip” is my favourite scene though. As soon as you catch this happy sight, you know that all's right with the universe once again.