Criterion Collection Movie of the Week

CRITERION COLLECTION REVIEW – “CAPRICIOUS SUMMER”

indexCapricious Summer (1968; Dir.: Jiri Menzel)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

For some reason, I watched Capricious Summer with the impression that it was the cluttered but raggedly beautiful predecessor to writer-director-actor Jiri Menzel’s more polished Closely Watched Trains , an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film of 1967. In fact, this bawdy comedy was Menzel’s follow-up to Closely Watched Trains, and while the provincial river bathhouse setting might feel minor in comparison to Nazi-occupied Czechslovakia, Capricious Summer establishes its own mood of existential dissatisfaction and effervescent gloom.

The film is about a trio of paunchy, middle-aged Czech archetypes – a priggish military man, a florid and pretentious priest, and a slovenly laborer named Rudolf who spits a lot and yearns to cheat on his wife.  Their mundane routines and familiar arguments are interrupted by the arrival of a gawky magician played by Menzel (who was an actor before becoming a director). They are especially transfixed by the magician’s beautiful blonde assistant Anna (Jana Preissova), who they regard with a Madonna v. whore duality of awestruck worship and dehumanizing carnality. “She lacks for nothing at all,” whispers Rudolf, as he watches her panhandle from poor people

index2At night, Rudolf immediately sneaks out to court and bed Anna, while his wife dreams of the magician’s cheap tricks and awkward “feats” of physicality. Rudolf is unable to go through with it, but his wife finds out anyway and runs to the magician.  Much like the players in a bad sex joke, the priest (“The Canon”) and the military man (“The Major”) each take their own futile cracks at bedding Anna.  All the while, they return again and again to watch the magician’s performances, which despite their mediocrity, seem to cast a strange spell over the entire town – much of the magician’s audience is huddled into shadows, shyly transfixed.

A comedian by nature, Menzel fills the margins of nearly every frame with local color and sight gags, often weaving bits of slapstick into the scene. The narrative here is as flimsy and incidental as it was in Closely Watched Trains – it feels like a stage play enlivened by glorious slashes of cinema – but Menzel has a knack for Wes Anderson-style costuming-as-characterization, creating magical sequences, and changing tones on a dime. Capricious Summer alternates from the lyrical to the ridiculous and back again moment by moment, as moody and unpredictable as bad weather or the human heart.

June CRITERION COLLECTION REVIEW – “Time Without Pity”

Time_Without_Pity_FilmPosterTime Without Pity (1957; Dir.: Joseph Losey)

GRADE: B

By Mike Dub

By the time Joseph Losey released Time Without Pity in 1957, the “named” communist had been living in exile from HUAC for five years, and had made four films that were released under pseudonyms.  His previous directing credit, The Big Night, details the wounds suffered by a confused teenager (played by John Drew Barrymore, son of legend John Barrymore) over the public humiliation of his meek father.  After four pseudonymous features, Losey picks up right where his last official credit left off, though from the opposite perspective.

While the story of The Big Night is told through the eyes of its young protagonist, Time Without Pity centers on the story of a father, David Graham (Michael Redgrave), a recovering alcoholic whose son Alec (Alec McCown) awaits a death sentence.  Alec has been convicted of murdering his girlfriend, a crime he didn’t commit – we see the murder occur in beautifully harrowing shadows in an opening pre-title prologue that reveals the killer.  David, who has spent the last stretch of time secluded in a sanitarium to dry out (“They wouldn’t allow me to receive any mail”), arrives from Canada with 24 hours to save his son’s life.

cGFmOujnFBgBoqWfaQQtGTnlGtaThe plot may sound somewhat preposterous, but Time Without Pity is a tight, frenzied “B” movie that doesn’t mind sacrificing some narrative logic for thematic and dramatic impact.  Losey’s gripping visuals and the incessantly explosive performances are enough to distract his audience from the mediocre script to create a tense, entertaining, and quietly complex film about family, responsibility, and redemption.

Because the real killer, corporate magnate and surrogate father Robert Stanford (Leo McKern, captivating as he relishes every maniacal emotional swing he is given), is revealed in the opening sequence, Losey allows the story to develop into something closer to melodrama than mystery.  For Losey, the world is a dark and crushing place, particularly so for young people.  Alec’s victimhood has been set in motion long before the film begins, first by the abandonment of his father, and then by the necessity to find a replacement.  Betrayed by both, he awaits his death with a resigned, emotionally deadened acceptance of the inevitable.  As a prison guard explains to David, “Your son has adjusted himself…. And we all feel here that it’s a great blessing.”

vlcsnap-77981Though the brilliant black-and-white cinematography by Freddie Francis intensifies every scene with a stunning blend of shadows and light, punctuated by severe close-ups and a clever use of reflections, the script often feels easy and transparent.  David rarely discovers any information in his investigation, but rather the script allows suspects and witnesses to blithely reveal key pieces of information (which they were presumably clever enough to keep from the police).  However, as David, a writer by occupation, goes through the predictable routine of solving a crime that confounded professional detectives, he also flows through waves of guilt and self-pity – the regrets of a misspent lifetime, his culpability in his son’s predicament, and his impotent fight against the justice system.

Much like The Big Night, Time Without Pity buys into the angst-ridden, ‘50s-era caricature of postwar parents as infantilized or impotent role models.  They also each conclude with a surprising, sympathetic reversal that illustrates Losey’s empathy for his characters.  Just as sons suffer the inadequacies of their fathers, the fathers also suffer – perhaps justifiably – out of love for their children.  The dynamic reveals Losey’s conception of the world as not just dark and dangerous for the young, but also cruel and unmerciful to all, one in which forgiveness and redemption are only attainable through each other.

May Criterion Collection Review – Le Silence de la Mer

le silence de la mer PDVD_009Le Silence de la Mer (1949; Dir.: Jean-Pierre Melville)

GRADE: A-

By Mike Dub

“This film has no pretension of solving the problem of Franco-German relations, for they cannot be solved while the barbarous Nazi crimes, committed with the complicity of the German people, remain fresh in men’s minds.” – written introduction to Le Silence de la Mer

With such an introduction, you might expect Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1949 World War II chamber drama, Le Silence de la Mer, to be a fiery, scathing indictment of Nazis, and, more generally, an entire generation of Germans.  A resistance fighter during France’s occupation, Melville would seem to have every right to take such a track, particularly only a handful of years after the war’s end.

However, Melville’s drama, based on a 1941 underground novella by Jean Bruller (under the pseudonym Vercors), aims for more than just fish in a barrel.  For Melville, the horror of the Nazis and their occupation of France surely doesn’t require any moral consideration – leave the impassioned, freedom-loving, flag-waving, Nazi bashing to those Hollywoodsmen who do it best.  Melville’s film instead quietly considers the naiveté of idealism and the passive resistance of a dominated people. In fact, by the end of La Silence de la Mer, we realize the true function of the pre-credits apologia – not to excoriate the German people, but to pacify Melville’s own countrymen for providing such a sympathetic portrayal of a Nazi occupier.

Le_Silence_De_La_Mer1949c10The character in question is Nazi officer Werner von Ebrennac, who arrives at the rural residence of an unnamed man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his adult niece (Nicole Stéphane).  Though von Ebrennac enters their home as an invader, he remains extravagantly polite, always knocking on the door to the living room before entering.  For their part, the couple remain completely silent in his presence, the only act of resistance they can afford.

Von Ebrennac is not your typical Nazi.  He is an idealist of a different sort, a true lover of France, convinced that his army has come to create a wondrous cultural hybrid between the two countries – “like man and wife,” he explains to his unwilling hosts.  While acknowledging his own apprehension toward the militant Nazi force, he sees only the brightest future for both countries.  France is the country of literature, Germany a country of music.  France is beauty, Germany the beast; together, they will “restore France’s greatness.”  His love of France is so impassioned, even his prisoners can’t help but admire him.

UnknownAlmost the entire film takes place inside the living room of their home, and the film is shot brilliantly by Henri Decaë in stark chiaroscuro, with stunning close-ups and noir -ish (or rather, poetic realist) camera angles.  Despite his good intentions, von Ebrennac at times looks like a ghoul from an early Paramount horror film.  Other times, it is the niece’s unforgiving glare that chills us with the thoughts that remain silent behind her eyes.

While the film never really lets us know where it is going, from the subject matter alone we can predict that there is doom at the end of the line.  However, the brutality of this tragedy does not come from the physical violence of war.  It comes from the wrenching disillusionment of idealism, the devastation of facing one’s own culpability in an atrocity.

Perhaps, as he says, Melville has no intention of repairing Franco-German relations with this film.  In subsequent pictures he would revisit the similar thematic territory in different forms, examining characters who suffer from self-delusion and are conscripted to self-destructive idealism.  In films like Bob le Flambeur and Le Cercle Rouge, gangsters suffer from a similar kind of grandiosity of purpose, except their illusion lies in the belief of the big score rather than peace among nations.  In Le Doulos and Le Samouri, Melville’s characters are compelled by grand, even antiquated, codes of duty, which eventually become their downfall.  In retrospect, given the films that followed, a Nazi officer is exactly the kind of character Melville would find sympathetic and tragic.

Still, underneath the apologetic tone of that introductory statement, there also may exist a belief that a film – perhaps even a people – can be patriotic without being vitriolic, compassionate without absolving.  And maybe that’s a start.

MAY CRITERION COLLECTION REVIEW – Kapo (1960)

imagesKapo (1960; Dir.: Gillo Pontecorvo)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

At the age of 17, I saw Schindler’s List in the theater along with everyone else, and loved it along with everyone else. I have not revisited the Spielberg film since then, but I am highly suspicious of my affection for the picture, mainly because I saw it at a time when I was highly susceptible to commercial and critical hype. Two decades removed from the experience, Schindler’s List seems to embody everything that I reject in biopics and modern historical cine-texts, including the implicit assertion that the film is underline-important for merely existing.

Moreover, Spielberg’s Best Picture winner continued Hollywood’s ugly tendency to tell stories of oppressed races, religions, and cultures through the lens of a (usually white) privileged class that allows freedom and dignity to exist. It’s even more vexing to consider that at the time, this perspective on the Jewish Holocaust was largely considered to be definitive, both historically and cinematically. That ignores the long history of films from around the world that had already dealt with the brutal realities of the Holocaust, including Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1960 directorial debut Kapo.

index2The protagonist of Kapo is not only a Jew, and one with a far more tortured and complex inner life than Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler, but also a young girl. As the film opens, 14 year-old Edith (capably but not quite transcendently played by Susan Strasberg) is finishing up her music lessons, and as she puts on her jacket with the telltale gold star, assures her teacher that she will be “safe in Paris.” When she returns home, she sees that Nazis are loading her family into a truck, and she runs to join them rather than take her neighbor’s advice to flee.

When Edith and her family arrive at the camp, they encounter the first of many brutal separation processes, as children are pried away from their parents. While Pontecorvo non-graphically treats the wanton murder and brutality at the camps with a queasy everyday-ness, the real horror in Kapo is in the “nightmare of selection,” a capricious and easily fudged balance sheet of life and death whose maintenance is often left to the prisoners themselves.

Realizing the low value the Nazis place on them, the prisoners live in constant fear of inspection (never more so than when the Allies approach), and many try to exhibit a usefulness that too easily crosses over into collaboration.  Edith escapes execution by relinquishing her name and religion and assuming the identity of a dead thief named Nicole – “If no one had died tonight, I couldn’t help you…” – and gets transferred to a work camp rather than perishing at Auschwitz alongside her parents. Since the former Nicole was a criminal, she immediately occupies the highest perch in the social order of concentration camp prisoners, with Jews occupying the lowest rung.

indexKapo exhibits a lot of the classic pitfalls of a first film, many of which Pontecorvo (who also directed Burn!, which Mike Dub reviewed as part of our Brando in the 1960s festival) would iron out in his follow-up picture, The Battle of Algiers – the intrusive musical score, the idolatry effect of Strasberg’s too-perfect tears, the abrupt romantic angle, and the weighty symbolism that occasionally lands with a crash. We didn’t need Nicole to suddenly obtain a black cat named Faust to understand that she had struck a Faust-ian bargain with the Nazis.

But the film, shot in gorgeously grainy black-and-white by cinematographer Alexasandar Sekulovic, also offers a clear-eyed look at savagery beget by savagery that stands in stark contrast to the shameless tear-jerking of films like Life is Beautiful, The Book Thief, and even Schindler’s List.  In survive-at-all-costs mode, Nicole becomes first a whore for the Nazi guards and then a “kapo,” a sort of “house Nazi” who abuses and informs on her fellow prisoners in exchange for food and other favors.  At its best, the film has the clear-eyed objectivity of a journalist, while still establishing a moral outrage.  Pontecorvo was a Communist, and one of the chief concerns of Kapo is with the hardscrabble class order that exists in even the most dehumanizing circumstances. Without social strata, the prisoners are completely undefined as people, and Kapo seems to argue that class systems are both inherently evil and inherently human, much like inhumanity itself.

*Tomorrow on ESFS, our monthly Criterion Collection reviews continue with Mike Dub’s take on the relatively obscure 1949 Jean-Pierre Melville drama Le Silence de la Mer.

CRITERION/HULU PLUS MOVIE OF THE WEEK

img13I Married a Witch (1942; Dir.: Rene Clair)

GRADE: C+

By Mike Dub

A good screwball comedy is one of the most energetic, witty, and subversive pleasures cinema has to offer.  At their peak, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra made films that spark with so much vitality, watching their films is like breathing pure oxygen.  Unfortunately, Rene Clair’s 1942 domestic rom-com I Married a Witch does not crackle with even a hint of the fire that burns so brightly in the best screwball comedies.  Rather, it is a flat relationship comedy in a screwball story, made watchable by its brevity and two fine supporting performances.

I Married a Witch seems to have all the ingredients of classic screwball: Jennifer (Veronica Lake), a witch burned at the Salem trials, hexes Jonathan Wooley (Frederic March), who accused her with a spell that will prevent him and his sons (and his sons’ sons and so on) from ever falling in love with the right woman.  250 years or so later, she is freed from a spiritual prison, just in time to find Wallace Wooley (also Frederic March), a candidate for governor who is about to marry a superficial socialite (Susan Hayward).  Determined to cause as much havoc as possible, Jennifer hatches a plan to make Wooley fall in love with her.

After a surprisingly modern, Mel Brooks-like flourish in the opening scene – a vendor hocks popcorn during intermission of the Salem witch burnings – the film bogs down with predictable story structure and completely lifeless performances by March and Lake (rumor has it that they hated each other, and it seems to show).  Jennifer’s adolescent poutiness lacks the charm she needs to pull it off, and March, who just a few years later gave an incredible performance as a quietly anguished veteran in The Best Years of Our Lives, feels sorely out of place in the goofy environment.

However, even though the two leads couldn’t muster any energy, the film is enlivened by two great comedic performances.  Robert Benchley as Wooley’s best man provides the flair that is missing from March’s performance.  In every scene, he manages to find the right note, effortlessly oozing charm next to March’s wooden shell.  And Cecil Kellaway, as Jennifer’s warlock father, has a ball as an evil genius conflicted by his duty to his work and his love for his daughter.  In an elongated bit that’s a welcome distraction to the romantic storyline, Kellaway acts with vaudevillian glee as a sour, unruly drunk, retaining the dignity only a sophisticated veteran can muster.

 

I Married a Witch is a pretty disappointing effort from Rene Clair, the Frenchman who made the terrific Chaplin-esque farce A nous la liberte before paddling over to Hollywood.  Originally conceived by Preston Sturges, who wanted to cast Joel McCrea in the leading role, we can only dream about what might have been.  Sturges’ cynical eye for relationships, and his reliability as a director who knew how to invoke energy in both the visuals and performances, seems to be exactly what this film is missing.

Criterion/Hulu Plus Movie of the Week

download (1)The Most Dangerous Game (1932; Dir.: Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

Based on a widely adapted 1924 short story by Richard Connell, the 1932 chiller The Most Dangerous Game is the film that producers Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper made right before King Kong.  There are suggestions of that more famous jungle-kink adventure flick in The Most Dangerous Game, and a number of the same performers as well, including Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong.

However, this story of a rich psycho who hunts humans is more of a creepy chamber drama than an action adventure, and the final third dominated by the hunt is the least interesting part of the picture.  A film that compares more directly with the lusty and violent The Most Dangerous Game is Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, right down to the “exotic” foreign villain who equates bloodletting with sexual virility.

The villain here is Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks, in a mesmerizing display of overacting), a Cossack who escaped the Russian Revolution with his fortune intact.  Zaroff elected to use his wealth in the way that most of would if we’re being totally honest – he bought some nice clothes, a sweet motorboat, and a centuries-old Portuguese island fortress where his mute henchmen help him hunt shipwreck victims like wild game (be honest!).  Zaroff claims that “Providence” made his island a magnet for shipwrecks, and at times the place has the feel of a purgatory, with the leering Zaroff playing host and satyr-in-chief.

Joel McCrea is the hero of the piece, a world-famous safari hunter (ah, the early 1930s!) travelling on the boat of his rich benefactors, where they wear high-waisted slacks with wide ties while discussing “the inconsistency of civilization”.  McCrea argues that hunting is sport for the prey as well as the human predators, and offers this ominous self-jinx: “This world’s divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I’m the hunter. Nothing can change that.”  Cue ironic shipwreck.

At only 63 minutes, The Most Dangerous Game doesn’t have time for wasted space, and as with many films of this era, the story moves so fast that it acquires its own inner logic.  Exaggerated gestures, such as the way Zaroff rubs his head scar whenever he gets a thirst for the kill, become the language of the film’s manufactured world, and only add to the eerie atmosphere.

Even so, some of the most unsettling moments are almost throwaways, like when one of Zaroff’s unwitting victims laughs maniacally, as though he were the hunter instead of the impending prey.  I also could not get enough of Banks’ succulent line readings, including the possessed and slightly pleased manner in which he says, “I shall hunt you like a leopard.” Even if it takes far too long to get to the “twist” that we all see coming from the first five minutes, the pre-Code brutality and sexual deviance of The Most Dangerous Game makes it a fascinating watch, right down to that sick and satisfying final shot.