Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR is a film I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. The Tramp’s first talking role, it’s an audaciously silly and scathing takedown of Hitler back when the US was loathe to get involved, and a reminder of what art can do in uncertain times.
Instead of a full review, I’m now going to be super indulgent and simply copy and paste Chaplin’s speech from the end of the film. (more…)
Happy Halloween! This year I’m celebrating with a horror classic: Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s famously low-budgeted CAT PEOPLE. It stars the riveting Simone Simon as Irena, a young Serbian woman who believes that if she is intimate with her new husband, she’ll be consumed by an ancient family curse and turned into a murderous panther. The film has been lauded for creating a cheap but effective monster out of shadows, sound, and imagination, and rightfully so. The art direction elevates the film well beyond that of a bargain monster movie, with perfectly utilized sets, clever editing, and gorgeous dramatic lighting that lends just the right spooky atmosphere. And it’s a great setting for Simone Simon’s performance, which strikes a precarious balance between victim and villain. Even without knowing the context of CAT PEOPLE, and how it influenced the horror genre during an era of cheesy creature features, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable film that delivers all the requisite Halloween thrills.
Here’s my contribution for the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. Make sure to take a look at everything else being blogged this week in the Criterion-verse.
Although it’s considered one of the greatest French films ever made, I was still a little wary going into a 3+ hour epic featuring a mime. I shouldn’t have worried. Marcel Carné’s CHILDREN OF PARADISE is engaging and perfectly paced throughout its two parts, and the pantomime is delightful. Set in the early 1800s Parisian theater scene, the story revolves around the beautiful Garance and the men who fall for her, all based on historical figures: an actor, a crook, an aristocrat, and yes, a mime. The story woven between these characters is constantly shifting, highlighting new aspects of love, humanity, and the stage at every turn. It’s a dense, complex film that feels light and effortless. And while the performances are all outstanding, it’s Jean-Louis Barrault’s portrayal of the lovesick mime that’s the most difficult to look away from. I’m sorry I ever doubted it.
Whenever I sit down to yet another film about filmmaking, I have a hard time not rolling my eyes. Yes, I get it that filmmakers like talking about their immediate surroundings; who doesn’t? But Preston Sturges’ SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS places its scope well beyond Hollywood. Set at the tail end of the Great Depression, it stars Joel McCrea as Sullivan, a director of light comedies who wants to make a serious film about poverty. (He wants to call it, incidentally, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?—maybe that’s old news for you diehard Coen brothers fans, but it was a fun surprise for me.) When it’s pointed out how little he knows about trouble, he decides to hit the road with ten cents in his pocket to find out. He has a few false starts, but succeeds in meeting the glamorous yet plucky Veronica Lake who wants to tag along. Unable to say no to such flawless shiny hair, they set off to experience poverty together, depicted in a loving silent montage. I’ll admit that Pulp’s “Common People” kept playing as the soundtrack in my head, but this is a satire that recognizes the flaws of the well-meaning. The beauty is that making fun of Sullivan’s desire to comment on poverty and the human condition also allows Sturges to do just that. And he does it warmly and movingly and full of humor, especially towards the end, concluding on what may well be his career’s thesis. No wonder that the Coen brothers wanted to pay homage to that.
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It’s hard to categorize THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, one of the many collaborations between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and my favorite of the ones I’ve seen. The film spans 40 years in the life of General Candy as he navigates three wars, a changing society, friendship, love, and loss. So it’s both a historical epic and a lovingly rendered character portrait. It’s also a comedy, when it’s not being a heartfelt drama. The film manages to be both satirical and sympathetic towards the old British ideals that Candy represents. And in 1943, at the height of WWII propaganda, it gives some of its most beautiful monologues to a German officer. The amazing feat of the film is that it does all this without contradiction, and without losing its focus. What could easily be a sprawling mess is instead a tightly woven tapestry of British history and life experience. Special mention goes to Deborah Kerr, who takes on three distinct roles with aplomb, and a downright gorgeous use of Technicolor.
When Hitler’s Germany marches into Prague, a young woman is arrested in an attempt to reach her scientist father. What follows is an adventure that spans Europe by boat, train, and gondola, chock full of thrills, lies, and hearty anti-Nazism. The film was released in the early days of World War II, so it’s not exactly an accurate picture of the times—the Germans don’t even speak German. But who needs accuracy when a movie is so entertaining? Margaret Lockwood and Rex Harrison have some nice chemistry as the scientist’s daughter and the British officer determined to get her back, although romance is barely a plot point. Like any good thriller, it’s all about the deceit and close calls, especially the nail-biting conclusion. There’s even some injected comedy by way of two buffoonish Brits who find themselves roped in. All in all, NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH is a great bit of entertainment from the early days of the war.
I’m going to start this review with a very philistine comparison, but Jules Dassin’s THE NAKED CITY feels like the original 1948 Law & Order. I love Law & Order, so that’s a compliment, I promise. When a model is found murdered in her apartment, it prompts sensational headlines and an investigation that spans Manhattan. Instead of overdramatizing the search, the film focuses on the day-to-day routine of the detectives, including tedious legwork and interrogations that go nowhere, and punctuated by dry humor and bouts of action. It’s also filled with eccentric and mundane snapshots of New York City life: basically, the formula for Law & Order and countless other crime procedurals that followed. It’s notable that the entire film was shot on location (notable enough that it’s mentioned in the film’s opening), and it shows in the beautiful black and white images of the city’s streets, trains, skyscrapers, and people. I have a definite soft spot for New York City history, and so it’s not a surprise that I enjoyed this film, where the protagonist is the city itself.
I think the first thing that needs to be said about BLACK NARCISSUS from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is that it’s a stunningly gorgeous film. The story revolves around a group of nuns who try to set up a school and hospital in the Himalayas, but soon find themselves tested by the harsh weather, the fickle natives, and their own memories and desires. I was never quite invested in the plot, despite some engaging moments—particularly the dramatic ending. And the writing predictably suffers from some well-meaning racism. But that doesn’t detract from how beautiful everything is, with the film’s rich color and striking cinematography. The extreme bird’s-eye angles and careful pans of the camera set the mood without any story at all. And the tension between Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron, who give wonderfully contrasting performances as two antagonistic nuns, is equally worth watching.
Since I don’t like to give any spoilers on this little blog of mine, a review for Preston Sturges’ UNFAITHFULLY YOURS is going to be hard to write. I’ll say this much about the plot: Rex Harrison plays a symphony conductor with world renown and a loving wife. But when he suspects his wife might be having an affair, he begins to entertain some pretty dark fantasies. I won’t say what happens next, because it definitely took me by surprise, but I promise it’s both macabre and comical. The screenplay is unique, with a somewhat experimental structure—and I do love a film with a good structure. It also holds nothing back in terms of how it feels to be a jealous husband, and how jealousy can reduce the best of us to slapstick.
A fairy tale can receive no better film treatment than Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. The well-known story is made rich with dream-like effects, gorgeous sets and costumes, and superb acting. Some of the imagery—Belle emerging through a wall; disembodied arms holding chandeliers which burst into flame—is the stuff that stays with you forever. And Josette Day’s stately portrayal of Belle is a perfect complement to Jean Marais, who plays both the Beast and Belle’s suitor, with all the subtleties between monster and man. This is a fantasy through and through, which means it’s more interested in archetypes and mood than character development or convincing illusions. That’s why I enjoyed the film much more when I stopped trying to analyze it, and instead let it seep into the subconscious like a good fairy tale should.