BLACK ORPHEUS, as the title might imply, is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, set in Rio de Janeiro with an all-black cast during the vibrant festivities of Carnival. As a refresher (because I had to look it up myself), Orpheus is the musician who ventures into Hades to retrieve his dead love. Unfortunately, the more compelling parts of that story (the going-into-hell parts) get far less screen time than the introduction of Eurydice and the love triangle that results. But this isn’t a film about the uneven storyline or the undeveloped characters. It’s only about the colors, costumes, dancing, and of course the revolutionary bossa nova soundtrack, which apparently paved the way for João Gilberto to do his thing. It’s certainly a fun film to watch, especially once the celebrations get fully underway, and it has some neat surreal elements towards the end. The viewer should be aware that the film’s clear love of Brazilian culture is a little tainted by its outsider French, white director. But that won’t stop me from my love of drawing dancing people.
Robert Bresson’s PICKPOCKET tells the story of a young petty thief who believes himself above the law. He tries to live outside of society and away from the law’s grasp, and doesn’t realize that what he actually seeks is redemption. If that premise sounds familiar to you, then perhaps you’ve also recently read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It happens that I finished the novel only months before seeing this film, and was not expecting the two to be related. But Bresson’s film unfolds like a loose adaptation, working with a very different setup but trading in the same themes of isolation, sin, and eventual grace. The style is sparse and unsentimental, almost as disconnected as the protagonist himself. But the shining moments are the actual scenes of pickpocketing, beautifully filmed and choreographed like a particularly suspenseful ballet.
Although it’s a film about the legal system and the social climate of the 1950s, there is nothing about 12 ANGRY MEN that feels dated. Sidney Lumet’s directorial debut takes place entirely in one afternoon and one jury room, where twelve men must decide the fate of a teenager who has allegedly murdered his father. Eleven are certain of his guilt; one is unsure. It’s that small uncertainty that sets up the simple conflict of the story, and plays out in the most riveting, nuanced manner. In different hands, such a straightforward film could easily turn stale. But clever camerawork, intelligent dialogue, and the slow reveal of information makes the entire journey as entertaining as it is provoking, and easily one of the best courtroom dramas I’ve seen.
Considering I call Stanley Kubrick my favorite director, it’s shameful that it took me so long to watch this early masterpiece. Set among the French troops during World War I and based on actual events, PATHS OF GLORY is more than just an antiwar film. It’s a moving, cutting look at corruption and the abuse of power at the cost of human empathy. Kirk Douglas, who is magnificent in his impotent outrage, portrays a colonel who must defend his men against being sacrificed. The scenes of battle are dramatic, but the trial that results is even more tense and horrific. And Kubrick’s direction is gorgeous—particularly the constant tracking shots through the trenches that make the film so obviously his.
In a story that falls somewhere between horror film, family drama, and fable, Robert Mitchum plays a malevolent preacher who preys on a widow and her two children during the depression. This might be hyperbole, but THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in black and white. The lighting is extraordinary, painting everything in deep contrast, with menacing shadows and piercing moonlight. It makes the film feel a bit unreal and story-like—glossy, but still threatening. There is one particular underwater scene that’s simultaneously macabre and breathtaking, impossible to forget, and I think the entire stylized look of the film adds to its emotional weight rather than detracts. It’s a terrible shame that this is the only film actor Charles Laughton ever directed, and that it was so unsuccessful. I think I’m developing a real taste for 1950s bucking-against-the-system cinema.
In THE 400 BLOWS, François Truffaut’s first feature film and a milestone of the French New Wave, a young, stoic troublemaker named Antoine Doinel is pitted against the world. Even when he tries to do the right thing it tends to go wrong, and he is failed repeatedly by his uncaring teacher, his frustrated parents, and a misguided juvenile justice system. It sounds dark, but THE 400 BLOWS is sincere without being melodramatic. And the serious themes are punctuated by touching montages of friendship and boys-being-boys. What makes it all the more meaningful is knowing that Truffaut’s depiction of a difficult childhood is largely autobiographical. I look forward to seeing more of his alter ego Antoine, who appears in a number of his later films.
James Mason is riveting, frightening, and other adjectives in the 1956 drama from Nicholas Ray, BIGGER THAN LIFE. A well-liked father and teacher, his life is turned upside down when he is diagnosed with a fatal condition, which can be kept in check by a miracle drug that comes with its own consequences. Slowly, as he begins to abuse the drug, he is transformed into something unrecognizable. What makes this film disturbing is not that he becomes a monster, but that it’s a familiar monster. Abusive fathers really do exist, with or without mind-altering drugs, and his family’s acquiescence is all too believable—although I’m sure it was a shocking depiction in the 50s. Aside from Mason’s performance, there are also some brilliantly shot scenes, like the one illustrated below. I generally try not to choose images that Criterion has used for their DVD art, but the tableau of Mason’s shadow looming over his son was too perfectly iconic to pass up.
In ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, Jane Wyman plays a widow in a conformist suburban town whose gardener just happens to be Rock Hudson. It should come as no surprise that they eventually fall in love, although it does seem to surprise everyone else in the film, from her catty neighbors to her selfish children. Not only is Rock Hudson much younger than her, but he also leads a modest bohemian lifestyle in the woods, and doesn’t believe in the opinions of others, a lesson that Wyman is slow to learn. The film is straight up melodrama, full of predictable clichés and bordering on the schmaltzy. (One of my favorite scenes is the magical Hudson feeding a deer in the snow!) But the Hollywood sheen masks the social indictment at the heart of the story. And the treatment is so beautiful, with rich colors and careful framing, it made me want to have my own Thoreau moment in the countryside.
Happy July 4th! The blog has been on hiatus, but now I’m back with a film that has absolutely nothing to do with American independence. I’ve also had a few requests that I plan to fill in the near future, so stay tuned. (I’m always taking requests, in case there’s anything you’d like to see.)
The lush film THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE…, directed by Max Ophuls, opens on the unnamed heroine, beautifully portrayed by Danielle Darrieux, choosing jewelry that she can pawn to pay off her debts. She settles on a pair of earrings that were a gift from her husband, and thereby sets off a chain of events that ultimately upsets her comfortable life and changes her. Right from the start, the careful camerawork and rich setting set the tone for the film. They mirror the frivolous role in high society that Madame de… occupies, which is threatened when she meets an Italian baron who returns her earrings. As the conflict rises, the characters gradually reveal the depths that are hidden under their aristocratic facades. And that’s how I would describe the film as a whole: lavish and elegant on the surface, but unexpectedly profound by the end.
I fell in love with this movie from the first five minutes, charmed by a band of dogs stirring up trouble around town, and I continued to be charmed for the rest of the film. The director, Jacques Tati, reprises his role as the quirky, absentminded M. Hulot. He’s the titular uncle of the film, and a hero to his nephew who’s trapped in his parents’ horrifying modernist museum of a home. Anything that can make modern furniture look ugly to me is perfect satire. And the scene where Hulot battles an automated kitchen is priceless. Although most of the humor is slapstick, a lot of it is so subtle it’s easy to miss, and there are often layers of it in one scene. I basically enjoyed every aspect of this film, and when I thought it couldn’t get better, the charm, comedy, and satire were wrapped up with a sentimentally sweet ending.