Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, USA, 1942) is one of the most famous ‘women’s films’ of all time and Bette Davis’ greatest box office hit when she was ‘Queen of the Lot’ at Warner Brothers. The story is one of transformation: Charlotte Vale, an old maid bullied by her mother and put-upon by her family goes away from home and transforms herself into a glamorous and sophisticated woman. It’s a story of survival and metamorphosis: the ugly duckling becomes a swan, the nervous wreck becomes confident, the one who hides and is hidden in a closet….; Now, Voyager is a film that had, and continues to have, great resonance with LGBT audiences: Charlotte Vale gets ‘caught’ with a boy, she’s bullied and made fun for being who she is, she’s nervous about how to behave in public, she’s got to practice the persona she performs in public, she has secret trysts, she has to figure a dialogic way of communicating in public so that her loved one hears one thing, strangers another; she’s got to figure out another way to be happy that doesn’t involve the nuclear family or indeed maybe romance: ‘Why ask for the moon when we have the stars’. Bette Davis wears a fabulous wardrobe by Orry-Kelly; It’s the film where Paul Henreid famously lights his & her cigarettes; and it has one of the most memorable closing scenes in the history of cinema. It’s not a great film; it’s too choppy and somewhat crude. But it’s a film that still continues to involve audiences today. Every time one shows it, it’s once again a hit. It was Bette Davis’ greatest hit of all time.
Also with great performances from Gladys Cooper as the mother and Claude Rains as the psychiatrist who puts Davis on the right path.
An extraordinary clip from ‘the pre-Code Ex-Lady (Robert Florey, USA, 1933), the film that was meant to turn Bette Davis into an above-the-title star but didn’t. Here Bette Davis, whilst emphasising she’s not ‘that kind of girl’, nonetheless has a boyfriend who has a key to her flat. She favours work, is not interested in marriage or children, and has ‘modern’ ideas about sexual relations outside of marriage and believes. She also believes in a woman’s rights to her body and to her own agency. This couldn’t be expressed more clearly by Ex-Lady. It’s the kind of clip that illustrates how even this early in her career her star persona was already a sight of struggle over notions of femininity. I wonder how feminist film studies might have been differently written had these films been more available in the 70s.
Almost universally derided as lurid, overwrought, excessive: I liked it very much. The title at the intro warns us that the film is a story of evil. In Beyond the Forest, evil is personified by a woman, Rosa Moline (Bette Davis), married to the too-nice local doctor (Joseph Cotton) but desperate to get out of that one-horse town and into the nearest big city – Chicago – for the sophistication and excitement she craves. Why is she evil? Because she’s a slattern – the house is full of dust — because she cheats on her husband, because she’s killed a man. But the worst bit – the bit that got cut out of prints in several US cities – is because she’s willing to jump off a hill to abort the child that’s keeping her from the bright lights of the big city. At the beginning, she says that life in Loyalton is like waiting for a funeral to start. The film shows us just how true that is, as she collapses and dies just as she’s about to make the last train outta there.
The film is probably best remembered for Davis’ speaking of the one line ‘What a dump!’, a camp classic made respectable when re-deployed by Edward Albee in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and even more famous when Elizabeth Taylor spat it out in the film version. But the fame of the line obscures what surrounds it and makes it potent: Rosa’s refusal of the constraining and defining options for women in Loyalton.
‘I don’t want people to like me. Nothing pleases me more than when they don’t like me. It means I don’t belong.’ When her dull milksop of a husband — shown drinking a glass of milk in case you didn’t get it — tells her he just saved a woman’s life, her retort is ‘Saved her for what?’ Hating everyone makes her feel alive, keeps her from accepting the conditions of the existence she didn’t choose, keeps her in revolt. ‘I’m going to bed,’ says the husband. ‘That’s big news. Where else could you go?’ Gay audiences of the time might have laughed at the line but surely the feeling that if they didn’t get out of their small towns and into a big city, they’d die, that towns like Loyalton would kill them, is a situation they could connect to, one that spoke them and dramatised their plight?
Beyond the Forest has many great scenes but one worth lingering over is the one where she leaves the husband and runs off to Chicago only to find Neill Latimer (David Brian), her lover, doesn’t want to marry her (see above). He offends her by offering her money. But even as she refuses, she’s interpellated by everything that surrounds her as laughinstock and a whore: she’s kicked out of a bar for being a single woman, a drunk thinks her a prostitute, the police have their eye on her, even the newspaper boy seems to detect her plight. It’s a fantastic scene. Some might think it too much. But too much for what? King Vidor directs this is as if it were an opera, all is emotion and he’s finding the right pitch to convey it, with situation, camera, setting and angles, even the tone of a stranger’s laughter. Everything here symbolises, creates, evokes and conveys feeling. Clearly.
Ruth Roman is in the movie merely as an ideal of womanhood, everything Davis’ Rosa Moline isn’t. Max Steiner’s score is so unimaginative he has to rely on underscoring Fred Fisher’s ‘Chicago’ over everything. And yet, Beyond the Forest is lurid, is excessive, is overwrought. It is also great. The film achieves the latter through, not in spite of, the former.
I’ve just been playing around, trying to learn some editing skills and wanted to do a summary of scenes from Jezebel that had a particular resonance to me, bring them all together and see what they looked like. It’s a bit crude. I’m not very skilled. It feels like beginning to learn a new language where there’s all these things you want to express but can only manage ‘bonjour’ ‘au revoire’ and ‘un bière s’il vous plait’. On the other hand one does get the arc of the story and some of the most famous scenes, which I think interest in and of itself.
Pauline Kael called Dark Victory a ‘kitsch classic’. It was certainly one of her most popular films and continues to be one of her most enduring. If it weren’t for her, I’d find most of it hard to bear. The script is one cliché after another. Edmund Goulding directs skillfully, but cynically — one can’t imagine him believing what he’s trying to get us to swallow. It’s got George Brent, arguably the dullest leading man in film history (though it’s a category not short of contenders), Ronald Reagan (another contender for the title: leaden, amateurish and completely unconvincing as a drunken playboy), and Humphrey Bogart as an Irish ‘stable boy’ (you’ll find it hard not to giggle at his accent).
Davis plays Judith Traherne, a rich Long Island heiress who lives for parties and horse races (‘I won’t be tamed!’). She gets headaches; she begins to see double. She doesn’t mind putting herself in danger, but when she almost kills a horse she allows her best friend Anne (Geraldine Fitzgerald) to get her to her family doctor. A younger, smarter, doctor, Dr. Steele (George Brent), finally diagnoses a fatal disease.
An operation is called for. It’s only a partial success: she’ll live normally for a few months but then one day her vision will begin to cloud and that will be a sign that she’s only got a few hours to live. Anne and Dr. Steele decide to keep the verdict from Judith, who falls in love with the doctor, finds out they’ve been hiding information from her, suspects the Doctor’s only agreed to marry her out of pity and decides to live life to the full while she can; a situation Irish Bogart threatens to take advantage of. Eventually she ‘sees sense’, marries the Doctor, and a has a few happy months until one day she imagines the sky clouding over whilst the sun is still hot on her hands, and then she and Ann, in a neat reversal, keep the good doctor from knowing she’s just about to die in order to minimise his hurt.
The only reason to see the film today is for Davis and for the celebrated final scene. In the trailer for the film, Warner Brothers promises: ‘In the career of every great actress one role lives forever as her finest creation….The most exciting star on the screen in a story that light the full fire of her genius’. Whilst Judith Traherne is far from Davis finest creation — she’s better in Jezebel and The Letter, amongst many others — she is definitely a star of fire and genius in Dark Victory. Most of the fire is misguided, the first scenes are all snap and verve, and such are the mannerisms that would be accentuated in later years by female impersonators defining her by what are essentially her worst characteristics: the bulgy eyes, the nervy arm movements, the speedy clip of a walk, the turn of the head.
She’s got some beautiful moments, the famous ending of course, but also a drunk scene with a wooden Ronald Reagan (see clip above) where she gets the band to stay after hours and play ‘Oh Give Me Time’ for her. It’s very restrained: she doesn’t overdo the drunkenness. It’s also poignant of course, because Judith has little time. It’s very-well directed (as opposed to merely ‘professional’, like the rest of the film). She’s very glamorously made up. Orry-Kelly has her in a black dress, with a fur bolero and matching hat, the hairs of which match and rhyme with the shadows cast by her eyelashes, her face framed by the fur, and a glistening diamond brooch on the black dress. It looks exquisite. She’s clearly at her peak yet soon to die. It’s beautifully done. But Davis is even better, and her acting is part of the mise-en-scène. Just look at the very last shot, where she sighs, her shoulders droop and she seems to expire before us as the scene fades to black (see image below): At her most beautiful yet soon to die. It’s the stuff of melodrama. But Davis elevates it, makes it beautiful and true. With her, it’s melodrama at its best.
Aside from Davis, I’m interested in how the story lends itself to a gay reading, not in all its aspects, more like a kaleidoscope in which only some parts glisten towards that particular audience. It’s a place I suppose where the female audience the trailer addressed might have intersected with a gay male audience (of yesterday and today). The trailer (see below) tells us Dark Victory is, ‘The story of a free soul: ‘I’ve never taken orders from anyone, as long as I live I’ll never take orders from anyone. I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me’; dialogue extracts include: ‘‘What a relief to know you’re no better than I am’; ‘Are you afraid to burn Michael’? We’re told that she’s:
Dangerous (the title of the film she won her first Academy Award for; Reckless is the title of a Jean Harlow vehicle)
I’m sure many gay men felt the same way. The line, ‘She tried to give her heart honestly and completely, fighting the terrible shadow that stood between her and the man she loved’ might still have particular resonance with men with HIV.
I suppose it’s kitsch because its full of clichés we know are false, yet their particular rendering here is entertaining. We recognise them, laugh at them, enjoy them. Yet, one can’t deny there are moments when one becomes genuinely moved in spite of the kitsch. These are the moments we owe to Davis. It’s why we still continue to see these films; why these films are still worth watching.
I’m still trying to process American Honey but first impressions are: that it’s great and original, that it’s too long, that it doesn’t know how to end, that Sasha Lane and Shia Lebeouf are excellent; that you’ve not quite seen anything like this: I wrote a series of posts on films –significant ones from female directors — that mourn the idea of America but this is the Ur-Mourning America text and amongst the most relevant and alive of road movies.
It’s a film that really stays with you and that you feel that you should see again but don’t really want to. There are moments where it’s a really hard watch even though nothing terrible really happens. I love the structure, the way it begins and (almost) ends on a commentary on two different kinds of broken families, but also the way each stop in the road trip becomes a commentary on America as well as an advancement of plot and a development of relationships, with the rap singing in the bus a kind of Greek Chorus running commentary.
I love the equivalence between Star and Jake: we can see how easily she might opt for prostitution; but he’s been a pimp, thief and whore from the beginning, less profitably and less self-aware of it. I love how the film makes us feel sad for both; how it’s inclusive in all kinds of ways: gender, sexuality, to a lesser extent – ethnicity — it would have had to become a different film with more black kids on the bus. I love how the film has a neoealist feel — the poverty of the kids on the bus is written on the skin — but also how it uses imagery poetically.
I can’t think of a higher compliment than to say the film feels both real and poetic. I think Riley Keough gives an extraordinary performance as Krystal, the ruthless leader of the work-gang. I think it’s a film everyone should see at least once.
The Letter is a contender for Bette Davis’ greatest film and a brilliant example of classic Hollywood filmmaking at its best. The film begins with a fiercely purposeful Leslie Crosby (Bette Davis) shooting a man we only see from the back, where she shot him and shot him until she ran out of bullets. She defends herself to the police and to her too-loving husband (Herbert Marshall) claiming it was rape. But a letter appears, a letter that reveals otherwise.
By the time William Wyler got his hands on it, The Letter had already had over a decade’s workout as workhorse of a hit play for all the great lady stars of the day. Gladys Cooper (who plays Davis’ mother in Now, Voyager) produced and starred in the 1926 West-End production and turned it into a smash hit, the beginnings of a celebrated theatrical partnership with Somerset Maugham and a career milestone. Katherine Cornell also made a success of it on Broadway in 1927; and Jeanne Eagles gave a celebrated performance in the 1929 film for Paramount. It’s a perfectly structured play with a smashing central role – an adulterous murderess who loves her husband is falsely freed only to acquiesce to a greater justice — that requires a great star and an actress of enormous skill and range; and if that actress was Gladys Cooper in 1926 London, Katherine Cornell in 1927 Broadway and Jeanne Eagles in the movies of 1929, in 1940 the acknowledged great actress and biggest female box-office star of the screen was Bette Davis. She doesn’t disappoint.
The play has a climactic clincher of a line – ‘with all my heart, I still love the man I killed,’ and there was a time when an actress’ greatness was measured on how well they delivered it. Here we see Davis, just a moment after she’s so skilfully lied of her love for her husband while she still hankers for her lover, breaking down as she expresses her passion for one through her regret for another. It’s a moral decision to finally be truthful, to take the consequences that follow, one that leads to the famous finale where she goes into the darkness with the palm trees, the moon, and the clouds over the moon creating different plays of light and darkness, to submit to justice at the hands of the wife who’s husband she killed.
But if that line is what the whole film builds to, it is also preceded by a showcase scene that offers an actress the filmic equivalent of a great aria (see clip below). What interests me in the clip is not only the self-evident genius of Davis’ acting and the brilliance of Wyler’s long-take staging but also how well those lines she acts so richly not only evoke Leslie Crosbie’s desire and admit to her crime but also how well Maugham’s lines evoke a certain pre-Wolfenden Report gay sensibility:
‘Every time I met him, I hated myself. And yet I lived for the moment when I’d see him again. It was horrible. There was never an hour when I was at peace with myself, when I wasn’t reproaching myself. I was like a person who was sick with some loathsome disease but who doesn’t want to get well. Even my agony was a kind of joy.….I don’t deserve to live’
If the film rewards being read through a gay lens, it can also be seen as a dramatisation of colonial revenge for white privilege. Leslie Crosby can get away with murder because she’s a British white woman in Malaya: even her lawyer (an excellent performance from James Stephenson) lies to the point of criminality on her behalf and risks getting disbarred because…well because British Imperialists have to stick together. The film tells us that Chinese areas are dark and dangerous, the film shows us how they are mysterious and unknowable (all the Orientalist clichés are evident in the film, highlighted by Max Steiner’s music). The Eurasian Mrs. Hammond makes the white woman kneel for the letter that will save her life. But that’s not justice. The only justice Eurasians get in this movie is when they take it into their own hands…with a dagger.
It’s a beautifully structured work, bookended as it is by two deaths, the last rhyming with and responding to the first. It is also ingeniously directed, in long takes and with deep staging, in the ‘invisible’ style so prized by Hollywood. William Wyler’s choices are so classic, so subtle, they’re almost unremarkable. Yet, note the shift to a low angle when Mrs. Hammond appears through the beaded curtain to make Mrs. Crosbie beg (above). Note also how the party and court-room scenes are shown in long-shot and full of extras to highlight appearances and the importance of reputation to public life. See how sparing is his use of the close-up, here kept in reserve only for key accents, usually when he wants the film to highlight what Davis is thinking. See also how he’s unafraid of the symbolic, how the way Mrs Crosby tries to crochet her libido out of existence is underlined for us.
Tony Gaudio’s cinematography is essential to Wyler’s achievements. Note how Mrs. Crosby’s house is presented as a kind of prison, with the shutters creating bars all around. This is a film about moral and ethical dilemmas and these are sculpted out of light for us, made manifest as light and darkness through celluloid with extraordinary skill (see above). It’s very much worth seeing on the best quality print or DVD you can get. The story is of its time but its difficult to imagine a production better than this one or to imagine a performance better than Davis’ is here.
Orry Kelly designed a terrific wardrobe, completely in sync with and highlighting aspects of Leslie Crosby’s character, with the lace pashmina one of the many highlights.
The Letter was Davis’ second outing with William Wyler and is, along with Jezebel, an essential film for fans of both.
Bette Davis’ recompense for having missed out on Gone With the Wind; one of her greatest hits; a legendary performance that’s still the gold standard for screen acting. The film’s themes – the conflict between North and South, the battle of the sexes, the constraints of societal morays on individual identity and expression, the price women pay for over-stepping those limits – all are expressively explored. William Wyler directs with great fluidity — the camera always seems to be craning, gliding, moving in, accenting – and in depth. Yet, it feels restrained – or rather, right: it never feels too much.
Watching the film is an immersive experience, as if one is drifting into a cloud of pure emotion, probably lifted there by Max Steiner’s score. The realm of feeling – complex, understandable, contradictory, ours – feels right on the surface of the film; on its skin; and communicated from there to our own. It’s almost a great film. What stops it from being so in my view is all the happy-clappy slaves singing their joy at the Halcyon plantation. This is by no means the worst offender in its time. In fact one can argue that there’s a context in which it can be seen as liberal and progressive. But it does offend current eyes and ears, at least mine.
And yet here is also Davis’ Julie, one of her most popular and celebrated performances, goading Pres (Henry Fonda), challenging his masculinity, confronting convention, proud, arrogant, spoiled, then humiliated and suffering. She’s great, a witch – we don’t know how she achieves what she does; how she communicates such complexity so clearly — and completely bewitching in all her legendary moments: getting off her horse, choosing the red dress, the ball sequence, goading Pres with his ‘stick’ in a phallic battle she wins, the humiliation of her attempts to win him back, her final self-abnegation at the end. A must for anyone interested in great screen acting.
Orry Kelly’s costuming is better than Walter Plunkett’s for Gone With the Wind
The first of three Davis films directed by Wyler, the others being The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941)
A Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942) knock-off, with a poor imitation of an Ilsa and Victor Lazlo sub-plot that threatens to drag the film down in the last half, and still one of the most entertaining films of all time. Once, To Have and Have Not being very loosely based on an Ernest Hemingway novel with a script worked on by William Faulkner brought it a certain cachet: two Nobel-prize winners for literature on the credits of one film. It also created a certain notoriety; that Hollywood could treat such literary giants so cavalierly was proof of its philistinism. But for cinephiles, it’s Jules Furthman’s name on the screenplay that generates excitement. He wrote Shanghai Express (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1932), Bombshell (Victor Fleming, 1933), China Seas (Tay Garnett, USA, 1935), and for Hawks alone, The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959); which is to say, he wrote some of the most memorable female characters in the history of cinema and dialogue that is still indelible today.
In To Have and Have Not we get to hear Bacall say, ‘It’s better when you help’, ‘You know how to whisle don’t you Steve: just put your lips together… and blow’, ‘this money is mine and so are my lips. What’s the difference?’, and so many other great lines. Of course, the way Bogart and Bacall says them helps. To Have and Have Not is Bacall’s first film (she was 19) and it made her one of the greatest stars of the post-war period and a cinematic immortal. In her autobiography, By Myself, she recounts how the famous ‘look,’ which she created and was to be publicised as, was simply due to nerves: She was shaking so much that she tried to hold her chin in to prevent it from showing. You can see the stiffness in the performance. But one can’t deny the power of her presence. She’s beautiful, insolent, free: like Dietrich in Shanghai Express but slangier, rangier, home-grown American. With the possible exception of The Big Sleep, also for Hawks, Bacall was never to be better on-screen.
To Have Have Not offer many pleasures. Bogart and Bacall of course; action in exotic locations; the witty way it’s imagined and executed. Some think Walter Brennan’s performance as Eddie, Harry Morgan’s (Humphrey Bogart) alcoholic sidekick, cutesy and overblown. I love it. His double-takes are still a source of wonder and enjoyment to me. I also admire how the depiction of the relationship between Eddie and Harry, which could just have remained at the level of cartoon, is lovingly built up as a loving relationship between men. The legendary Marcel Dalio also sparks up every scene he’s in as Frenchy, the nightclub owner. As if all this weren’t enough, there’s Hoagy Carmichael, one of the greatest American songwriters, playing piano for Bacall (ostensibly voiced voiced by Andy Williams though there’s some controversy about this) on some classic songs: his own (‘How Little We Know’) and those of others (‘Am I Blue?’ Music by Harry Akst and lyrics by Greg Clarke). I have a particular love for this one, which it seems to me would be better known but for its choice of language: ‘this is a story about a very unfortunate coloured man…’
A nun bribes some children to guide her to a doctor who she insists cannot be Russian or Polish. They ask for money but she has none so she gives them her rosary. They take her to the French Red Cross, find Dr. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) and ask for help. Dr. Beaulieu is a working-class communist but the Red Cross is only there to help their wounded and mop up their operation before moving to the French section of occupied Berlin. It is not within the remit of the French Red Cross to help locals, indeed it would be a danger to do so amidst Polish and Soviet forces, and thus she refuses. As she wakes up the next morning, she looks outside her window and finds that the nun is still there, knees on the snow, praying to God for help.
Moved by such faith and also probably made aware of need and desperation, the good doctor decides to help. When she arrives at the convent, she finds a nun in the process of giving birth. The child’s in breech, the nun refuses to be touched, but the good doctor nonetheless manages a caesarean and mother and child are saved. Despite the nuns’ resistance, the good doctor insists on returning to provide aftercare and soon discovers that seven of the sisters are pregnant and all due to give birth almost at the same time. It seems that they were all brutally raped, young and old, first by receding German forces, then by invading German ones. There’s also an attempted gang rape of the good doctor by Soviet Forces whilst returning from the convent to the Red Cross at dawn – a narrow escape.
Thus is set into a motion a film about the brutality of men and the strength of women, about a sisterhood that exceeds the narrow range of convent walls, about mothering and children, about faith and goodness that needs no faith to exist. The Innocents is a female-centred film, feminist too. It’s largely shot in close-up and mostly within convent walls and snowy landscapes. It at times feels slow but it is the type of slowness that embeds itself in one’s mind, makes one linger on images, ponder themes, think through what the film presents and how it presents it long after the film is over. It’s a film worth watching.
A Québécois action film? I had to see it! It turns out that there’s been a lot of action films made in Quebec since I last had a look in. As Brendan Kelly points out in The Montreal Gazette, this one’s a sequel to the very successful Nitro (2007) by the same director; a Fast and Furious knockoff about a man returning to his criminal past in order to get the heart transplant his wife so urgently needs. The sequel begins with the hero, Max (Guillaume Lemay-Thivièrge), in jail due to what happened in the original; with his now teenage son Théo (Antoine Desrochers) involved in a criminal gang as a hacker, and Max’s attempt to reconnect with and protect Théo, who blames his father for his mother’s death and wants nothing to do with him.
Nitro Rush is not so much a genre movie as a ‘genres’ movie, bringing together jailbreak film, heist film, chase film, and encasing it all within a father/son melodrama punctuated by lots of cleverly done action. It’s not quite good but I enjoyed seeing it very much. I loved seeing the city I grew up in as a space for action instead of merely the place where people in Québécois movies examine their troubled psyches; I liked seeing well-loved actors such as Micheline Lanctôt (as ‘La femme en noir’, the government operative who makes a deal with Max) and Antoine Olivier-Pilon (so alive and emotionally transparent as the protagonist of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy) get a chance to do their stuff and do it so well. I liked seeing what types of action can be achieved on a low budget (an extensive range, with the heroine, Daphne — Madelaine Péloquin — doing quite a lot of it); and I found it genuinely thrilling. I also liked seeing the dreams and aspirations of a culture revealed to us in these low budget-genre movies by choice of penthouse décor, costuming, ideal body-types, the gadgetry associated with particular types and and social-sexual-familial relations,
I find these genre films often more revealing ideologically than those auteurist ones through which an individual conscientiousness tries to find expression. Genre films from smaller national cinemas don’t just aim please the populace, they’re also a necessary training ground through which the filmmakers can get experience, try out things, take chances; play with action, time and desire. Nitro Rush is the product of a ‘national’ cinema in dialogue with its culture in a way that auteur films are so often not. It really is not very good. But I enjoyed it very much and it was worth my while.
Whilst waiting for a screening of Miklós Jancó’s The Round-up (Hungary, 1966) at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, I wondered onto an exhibition of photographs by Gabor Szilasi, a Hungarian photographer who emigrated to Montreal from Budapest after the popular uprising of ’56 and made a specialism of shooting Québécois filmmakers, often on set, always in context. The one on which my eye most lingered is the above, entitled, ‘Chambre de Louis-Philippe Yergea’ taken in Rollet, Témiscamingue, on July 1979.
At first glance I though, ‘this is what a gay man’s bedroom looked like in rural Quebec before the age of the internet’. I imagined Monsieur Yergea making annual trips to Montreal, buying the little porn then available and hanging it up on the walls and ceiling of his bedroom as object of veneration, worship, desire; fetish objects, wank material, make-do objets d’art; a bricolage of Yergea’s longings and desires. I can’t imagine anyone, rural or urban, having a bedroom like that now, with images proliferating in the internet and in the rest of our culture as they do.
A closer look reveals that it’s not only naked men on the walls; there are naked women also; we see a picture of the Virgin Mary, to the right of a naked man, above what might be Shirley Temple; below the naked man and to the left of Shirley Temple, is a glam shot of a couple, elegantly dressed, the woman bearing a striking resemblance to Faye Dunaway (an even closer look reveals that the couple is Johnny Halliday and Sylvie Vartan, French icons of the era). On the corner, above lots of spread-eagled young men is a holy portrait of Joseph and Child. The sacred and profane mingled together, mixed up with traces of pop-cultural icons; all surrounding the bed; a place for sex, dreaming, contemplation, rest and unrest, oblivion and wakefulness. What thoughts did those images and their placement give rise to? Why were they so meaningful that they necessitated nightly viewings instead of, say, being taken out from under the bed for easy arousal. Why the necessity of display, of having one’s mind fed by those images, nightly. Also, did anybody ever accompany Monsieur Yergea into that bedroom? Was it a private place, or was it occasionally open to others? Did he share the house with anybody; and if so, what did they make of the longings on display?
Simon Greenacre pointed out to me the similarity of Yergea’s room to Joe Orton’s: both are wall to wall cut-outs, imagery used as wallpaper, and both are in a bedroom (see Joe Orton’s below). One can feel the desire and inspiration both sets of images sought to evoke. But their differences are also very considerable. One is on the high-cultural side — roman statues, royal portraits, Van Gogh self-portraits. Some of Yeager’s are also icons of veneration and emulation but most of them are more low-rent and available: desirable men and women, offering themselves up to the camera, and presumably to Yergea’s gaze. The images of those anonymous bodies, coupled with the highly specific faces of the saints, brings out the play of the sacred and the profane, there to be worshipped but also as spur to defilement, a kind of ecstasy before death, or at least the ‘little death’ that is so concretised in Yergea’s bedroom.
Joe Orton’s bedroom
Mostly, the photograph (and indeed those of Joe Orton’s bedroom) once more underlined to me how powerful images of all kinds once where. I remember once entering a church in Seville, one which had previously been a mosque and before that a synagogue; going in from the grinding sun into the coolness of the church, and as one went into the darkness, the eye was entirely focused on an icon of the virgin, the only source of light descending as if from the heavens to illuminate it. The light brought out all the sparkles in the dress that costumed the icon so as to give it a glow, like an inner fire. It was like a mise-en-scène of religion and of desire, one that in this context, affected all senses, the smell of incense, the feeling of coolness, the removal of sound. I wondered then what it must have been like to grow up in medieval times and grow up with this being one of the few images one had access to seeing. The awe and wonder it must have inspired, the richness, the beauty, the desire, the sex, the heavenliness of it all. I felt we had lost that now that images of every kind are available everywhere. But it was still there for Louis Phillippe Yergea in his bedroom in 1976, if with the sexual element already clearly a dominant.
A cinephile’s dream movie. The sparse lettering of the opening credits begin, that 30s version of jazz standards start on the soundtrack, and one’s spirits lift. One knows one’s in safe hands. One knows one’s in a Woody Allen world. Café Society glows with a kind of nostalgia for how romance should be, how it used to be in classic movies. The great Vittorio Storaro bathes all the early scenes in a soft yellow light, as if this world is seen through a piece of amber. The palette will turn bluer, if never dark, as the film unfolds and the protagonists discover the glamorous lives they once dreamed of and now enjoy have come at a price.
Café Society is a film buff’s movie: we get to see the houses of Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy’s. All major movie stars are mentioned as within the radar and reach of agent Phil Stern (Steve Carrell). We get to see Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy and William Powell in Riffraff and Barbara Stanwyck in Red-Headed Woman. Characters tell anecdotes of how proper Irene Dunne is and of Robert Montgomery’s palazzo in Venice. Romance blossoms in Malibu frolicks. The air is thick with Ginger Rogers being unsatisfied and searching for new representation.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, Phil Stern’s nephew, sent by his mother (Jeannie Berlin) to Hollywood so that he could get a job and benefit from some nepotism. He is Woody Allen’s best ever alter-ego (and it seems that for several decades now every young star who could possibly pass for Jewish (Jason Biggs) and even those who can’t (Hugh Grant) has now had a go) Everything Eisenberg does does is interesting, and the self-criticism that comes across more as an assertive condence in Allen is more gentle and believable coming from Eisenberg. He and Kristen Stewart are a dream couple, both glamorous and gauche. She wears jewellery like she doesn’t care for it, as if Louise Beavers or one of those big saucy black maids of 30s movies plonked it on her head whilst lazily dropping cigarette ash into the soup. The setting, the music, the family, even the tone, recall Radio Days (though the family is not as sharply delineated here as there).
The film is structured as two triangles centred on Kristen Stewart (Vonnie). She’s Phil’s secretary and is having an affair with him when he asks her to show his nephew around Hollywood. Phil’s always promising to divorce his wife and marry her but they’ve been married for twenty-five years, they’re Jewish, and it looks like it’s never going to happen. As Vonnie shows Bobby around, they fall in love and Bobby proposes; and that’s what spurs Phil to tie the knot with Vonnie. The theme of the film is that timing is everything, and how when it comes to love these lovely people, who really are meant for each other, their romance is simply mis-timed. They’re out of step even though they’re longing to dance together.
The film gets its title from the group of aristocrats, celebrities, politicians and gangsters who are precursors to the jet set of the 60s and who met up in glamorous upscale bars in Manhattan. This is where Phil goes, backed by his gangster brother ,to make a success of himself, find another Veronica to be happily married to and start a family. And yet….If Phil-Vonnie-Bobby form one triangle, when the setting turns to New York, Bobby-Vonnie-Veronica becomes another.
Café Society asks you to keep in mind the differences between the two Veronicas, the differences between New York and Hollywood, London and New York, that it is all driven by a kind of gangsterism and that it is all imagined through a 30s lens (there’s even a Catholic conversion scene in jail that is a nod to Angels with Dirty Faces). It tells is story through a differentiation of knowledges, who knows what, when, though here played for suspense and farce rather than melodrama and tears. Though tears, or at least a welling of them, overhang the last part of the movie without fully being expressed.
The song list, all from the great American Songbook and most (all except those from the nightclub scenes) heard in their original versions by the likes of Count Basie and Benny Goodman tells the story (and what a songlist!): Jeepers Creepers, My Romance, The Lady is a Tramp, Zing, Went the Strings of My Love, Out of Nowhere, This Can’t be Love. It’s glorious, as is the end, which seems adult, realistic and romantic at the same, achieving the same rueful tone, a wise loving in an acknowledgment of what cannot be, that echoes so many of the songs. Do you have to be conversant with 30s and 40s culture to appreciate it fully? Maybe, but if so, get cracking. I loved it.
Woody Allen’s first film on digital.
I just love the way Lino Ventura says ‘he la, he la, industrielle’ here, just after he’s thrown his gun on the floor and under the chair, and whilst the cops begin to raid Jean Gabin’s nightclub.
Watching so many French gangster films recently has made me aware of how many of these films one thinks of as ‘French’ were actually European co-productions, often with Italy — Maigret tend un piège, Maigret voit rouge, Le tueur — sometimes even with the US: e.g. Le clan des Siciliens. I’d not given it much thought until seeing Llanto por un bandido (Carlos Saura, Spain/France/Italy, 1964) which is known as La charge des rebelles in French. I’d bought it as a Lino Ventura film — a mistake, as he’s only in the first twenty minutes or so – and not realising that it was the French version of the celebrated Spanish film Llanto por un bandido.
Seeing it made me realise that the price of hearing Lino Ventura in French was not hearing co-star Lea Massari in Italian, and worst of all, not hearing one of the most glorious and expressive voices in the cinema, the sound of Francoist Spain, not just in its pejorative and critical aspect, but as expressed in that deep hoarse voice, a sound produced by smoke, wine, sun, and the punishment of a lifetime of pronouncing a j with a Castilian accent, the sound of clearing your throat after a cold, the sound of cleansing your respiratory system so you can breathe through all the bullshit of Francoist culture, the sound of pain, and feeling and love too. All of that is missing from the French version. All of that is the sound of Paco Rabal’s voice.
Llanto por un bandido in French makes one weigh aspects of filmmaking. On the one hand, we must be grateful, because without the financing made possible by co-productions, these films might not have been able to be made. On the other hand, the loss of actors’ voices, particularly great actors with great voices, is not negligible.
To make you aware of the price we pay when these voices are erased by co-production agreements, I wanted to show you four distinctive instances of Rabal’s voice, the first in a landmark film of the era, where Rabal plays a radio announcer and sounds like the archetypal one (I’m afraid I could not get sub-titles but listen to the sound); then half a decade later as an embodiment of changes in Spain for Buñuel in Viridiana; much later, in the late 80s, for Almodóvar in Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, his voice having deepened and made more expressive with age, and the director making full use of it and also what Rabal then represented for Spanish audiences; in the middle of this period, in 1967, again for Buñuel, this time in Belle du jour but in with Rabal speaking his own broken French, mixing it in with Spanish phrases and adding to the general seedyness of his character, Hyppolite de Murcia. Finally, an exchange with Lino Ventura, where Ventura speaks with his own voice and we realise all that is lost when instead of the sounds we know so well, that voice comes out of Rabal’s mouth, in French. It’s a sadness.
Historias de la radio (José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, Spain, 1955)
end of Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, Spain/Mexico, 1961)
Rabal and Abril in Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (Pedro Almodóvar, 1989)
Rabal speaking French with his own voice in Buñuel’s Belle de jour (France/ Italy, 1967)
Ventura, Rabal and others in La charge des rebelles (Carlos Saura, Spain/Italy/ France, 1964)
After writing this post, Melanie Selfe directed me to a superb piece in Camera Obscura entitled ‘The Name above the (Sub)title: Internationalism, Co-production, and Polyglot European Art Cinema’ (Issue 1.46 pp. 1-44). There, Mark Betz begins by citing Jean-Marie Straub arguing in 1970 that ‘
Dubbing is not only a technique, it’s also an ideology. In a
dubbed film, there is not the least rapport between what you
see and what you hear. The dubbed cinema is the cinema of
lies, mental laziness and violence, because it gives no space
to the viewer and makes him still more deaf and insensitive.
In Italy, every day the people are becoming more deaf at
an alarming rate.
Betz then roundly refutes that argument and goes on to explore how :
European art films have thus been left free to carry on as
signifiers of stable national cinemas and identities or as gleaming
expressions of their auteur’s vision, somehow not blurred by
the quite specific determinants of cross-national cooperation that
leave their marks everywhere on the film, from its budget to its
shooting locations to its cast to its sound track.
My viewing over the last month highlights all of those marks and substantiates Betz’s arguments and the underlying multi-layered and complex relations that underpin co-productions in general and the art cinema variant in particular.
I’d add also the more personal understanding that, whatever the pleasures of what is gained, here that of the work itself, one always yearns and desires that which one loves and seems lost. For me, in this specific instance, the aspect that relates to sound, and specifically the sound of Paco Rabal’s voice.
Superb flamenco soundtrack in an extraordinary sequence of Carlos Sura’s Llanto por un bandido/ La charge des rebelles, with Francisco Rabal and Lea Massari. Carolo Rustichelli designed the score; the songs, flamenco and traditional folklore, were adapted by Pedro del Valle, sung by Rafael Romero and Luisa Romera; on guitar and speaking to the times in the billing ,Pedro del Valle (hijo/son)
In his autobiography, Si yo te contara, Paco Rabal (Madrid, El Pais/ Aguilar, p. 257) Rabal recounts, how Saura’s brother, Antonio, one of the most distinguished late20th-century painters in Spain, helped dress the sets, something that may account for the traces of a history of Spanish painting the film everywhere evident in the film.
Jose de Ribera’s ‘Boy with a Flower-pot, top left; Velazquez’s portrait of Sebastian de Morro; Goya’s etching of Velazquez painting, top left. On the bottom an image from Saura in Llanto para un bandido; on the left de Ribera’s El patizambo. It’s clear the extent to which the images in the film — stark, elegant, striving for a realism that highlights character and conditions — are indebted to Spanish painting, particular Goya and Jose de Ribera. The image from the film below, for example, conveys the chiaroscuro lighting of the era, the relative simplicity and starkness, the evocation of a way of life through details of food and clothing; the demonstration of of ordinary, daily tasks, and of course the central focus on working people:
In his biography and autobiography, both wonderful, we’re told how the film was a multi-lingual co-production and how Ventura, Massari and Rabal would speak to each other in Italian on the set. I’ve written more extensively on dubbing Rabal in another post, but as if working in various languages and dubbing different actors for different markets wasn’t distancing enough, Rabal speaks of how the film itself aimed for a Brechtian distanciation.
Various posters, under various titles, for a film that ended up a flop.
Image Posted on Updated on
I was amused to see that in the opening menu of the French DVD for Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan, we’re invited to click on ‘Lecture du film’, instead of ‘Main Film’ or merely ‘Film’, thus inviting us to read, or engage in a reading. Of course, viewing always involves making sense of things, but ‘a reading’ also implies that there are depths, interpretations that need to be unearthed, complexities that need to be unravelled.
I found it rather funny because all of the pleasures that Le clan des Siciliens offers are shallow ones, which is not to say that they are not worth experiencing, or that they are so shallow as to not constitute pleasure at all. Indeed the film offers many pleasures, all superficial, and each a joy, beginning with the stars: The publicity for Le clan des Siciliens advertised ‘Ensembles les trois grands du cinéma français’, ‘pour la première fois réunis à l’écran/ ‘French cinema’s three greats, together onscreen for the first time,’ a slogan which must have at least annoyed Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo and all the other French male stars who weren’t Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura.
Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan is very rewarding to look at as a genre piece; it is to a degree inspired by the jewellery heist genre, and the modish way of filming it, that made The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, USA, 1968) such a big hit the year previously. It also contains the hijacking of of an airplane that would feature so prominently in the Airport films and help turn them into some of the biggest blockbuster hits of the 70s. The film also foreshadows the interest in the Mafia that would find such extraordinary expression in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films in the years to follow. And last but not least, in France it would revive popular interest in the ‘polar’, the French crime thriller, an interest that has yet to wane.
The plot revolves around Roger Sartet (Alain Delon), a lifelong thief who Commissaire Le Goff (Lino Ventura) has finally brought to justice after many years. Sartet gets indicted but on his way to jail, he manages to escape the armoured and guarded vehicle transporting him there with the help of Vittorio Manalese (Jean Gabin), the head of a Sicilian clan with international connections operating from Paris. Manalese is just about to retire to his land in Sicily when Sartet comes to him with the perfect crime. Sex, double-crossings, money, jewels and the survival of the family itself will be at stake; all with Le Goff chasing Sartet’s tail and finding in the Manalese clan much more than even he bargained for. But though the plot is serviceable, it’s not what makes Le clan Sicilien such an exhilirating, if superficial watch. Here are some illustrations of the aspects of the film I loved most:
a) A mise-en-scène of various kinds of stardom, carefully deployed, and designed to be put to meaningful use, visually, narratively, and taking into account audience expectations to maximise the pleasures on offer.
b) Every shot is interesting to look at (far left), expressively lit (middle) and artfully composed (far right)
c) The shots, pretty, artful and beautifully lit as they are, are also composed to allow for plot and narration. Here, for example, director Verneuil and cinematographer Decaë — one of the very greatest — create a composition that allows for the whole Sicilian clan to be seen. You see the grandmother, off-screen but relflected in the mirror knitting in the upper left hand corner, his children and son-in-law at table discussing the heist, Gabin centre and the recipient of all light, engrossed in the tv, a source of light, that will spur his grandchild, seen coming through the door-way with his mother, to reveal something he saw that will transform the narrative, that will twist the preceding events into the tailspin that will follow to the end. Significantly, the only one in the room but not onscreen will be the source of the trouble that will follow, the cause of the decimation of this ‘happy family’. It’s the work of at least very highly-skilled craftsmen
d) The kind of film that makes you want to find out where one can buy the accessories
e) The security system is what’s being discussed, the grand jewellery, by some of the greatest design houses of the century — Chaumet, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and others — is what’s being shown
f) A hint of the perverse within the clan, at least homophile if not homosexual
g) a truly great score by Ennio Morricone. I’ve put extracts below with and without images so you can hear the sound itself, and how dialogue is then interwoven with it. But later also the sound accompanied by images so you can see how expressively put together it is. Who cares that Gabin is the least convincing Sicilian ever? He’s clearly head of the food chain in every other department, rightly head of the clan, and the flute and that ‘Boing Boing’ sound — so distinctive but one I can’t name the source of — will so memorably accompany, announce and dramatise his fate and that of the other protagonists.
Lino and Gabin filming the last scene with Verneuil
– what Verneuil and Decae manage to achieve with the help of Gabin, Ventura and the other filmmakers in terms of sound and image
Le clan des Siciliens was a blockbuster success, with 4.8 million spectators in France alone. The film probably benefitted from the publicity generated by Alain Delon being involved in the Marković affair, where Delon was questioned for the murder of his bodyguard ,Stevan Marković. As you can see in the wiki page for it, it’s a scandal that implicated the highest levels of government, not only murder but also a soupçon of sex, and threats that nude pictures of the wife of the future president of the republic would be exposed. Alain Delon was often suspected of having connections with the Corsican mafia, and that extra-textual knowledge, along with the recent scandal, undoubtedly helped make Delon believable as a mafioso. He’s a pleasure to look at but it is Lino Ventura and Gabin (even with his accent) that give the performances worth watching. They ,the set-pieces and the way the film looks and move are what made the film a blockbuster hit and continue to be the source of the many pleasures the film offers, shallow as they might be.
Why would anyone want to see an unpretentious genre film – not particularly stylish; by no means the best example of its kind – like Le gorille vous salue bien?
Well, for one, it’s interesting to see what the French conceived of as their ‘no. 1 secret agent’; makes an interesting change in comparison to James Bond – friendly and street-smart gorilla instead of charming know-it-all gentleman with sardonic sense of humour and sadistic tendencies ; it’s interesting to see the care that the film takes with its beginning and ending, the one responding to the other as in classic cinema; it’s interesting also to see how the film carefully structures its narrative, balancing it with spectacle, leavening it with humour: its constantly engaged with a popular audience and might be part of the reason the film remains engaging: it’s interesting to compare the fight scenes (see below) to the ones we see now, how they seem slow and inexpert, with blows clearly faked, yet often shot in a combination of long-shot and with lengthier takes than we get now — Le gorille lets us see actions completed.
It’s interesting to remember that this type of popular genre film (it was a considerable box office success) co-existed with New Wave Cinema and the previous kind, what François Truffaut would call the ‘cinéma de papa’, straddled both, would supersede them all and would make inroads into all Western European markets.
Fans of Hollywood gossip will be interested in seeing Bella Darvi, named by Darryl Zanuck in a burst of megamoguldom after himself and his wife (Darryl and Virgina, thus Darvi); its interesting to see how in their scenes together, the camera always favours her and leaves the gorilla in shadows. But to no avail; attractive as she is, she’s no star: Lino on the other hand…
The main reason to see the film today is that Le gorille vous salue bien is the film that would make a star of Lino Ventura. The year of its release, he’d already appeared in three films in supporting roles, high profile ones such as in Maigret tend un piège, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud/ Lift to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958), Montparnasse 19/ Modigliani of Montparnasse (Jacques Becker, 1958) for top directors such as Delannoy, Malle, Becker. Here it’s only Borderie. But ‘Le gorille’ is star-making role. In the opening credits we’re teased by billing merely listing ‘Le gorille’; by the end of the movie, we know the gorilla is Lino Ventura and we want to see more of him. The success of this film would lead to many more Gorilla films but they’d have to settle for Roger Hanin in the title role: Ventura would go onto bigger and better things and would become one of the most popular and durable stars of French cinema.
Disco music mixed with salsa and opera, a lead character that spouts poetry, a teenage romance with a showbiz background, lots of disco dancing, Jimmy Smits in good form and a slightly camp look at a late 70s setting: The Get Down could have been made for me.
I loved the first episode (directed by Baz Luhrmann) and was intrigued by Ben Travers’s argument in IndieWire that TV series aren’t movies or novels, that they’re tv shows and constructed that way. But that the Get Down might be an exception in that the series, ‘isn’t constructed like a string of small arcs cut together to form a greater one. Instead, it really is put together like a film: one big arc made up of stunning, stand-out moments in between. Some of those moments function as satisfactory end points, while other episodes conclude seemingly at random — almost as though they were dictated by time’.
I’ll have to wait and see for myself. What I can say on the evidence of having seen only up to the second episode is that there are indeed stunning, stand-out moments – visually, musically, dramatically and in terms of performance – that are so far keeping me watching.
In the second episode, ‘Seek Those Who Fan Your Flames,’ directed by Ed Bianchi, I loved Grandmaster Flash teaching the kids how to spin a groove, Cadillac discoing his way to child murder and the beautifully visualised moment where all of the young characters’ dreams go up in flames.
I am particularly smitten by what Jimmy Smits is doing as Francisco ‘Papa Fuerte’ Cruz: he conveys the man’s ambition, the carnie tent barker qualities that make him a politician, the steel that makes him dangerous. He’s taking considerable chances in his acting choices: each can potentially cross a line and become too much. But they haven’t yet. He’s been consistently entertaining – he’s performing with an audience in mind; each gesture is done for effect– without yet being embarrassing. Quite the opposite. For me, his slightly florid performance is enough of a reason to see the show: in the clip below for example, I love the way he says the ‘not prohibited’ bit in the line ‘Violence is discouraged but not prohibited’ and the way he uses his hands and his eyes to accent the word ‘spiritual’ at the end of the clip. It’s marvellous. But marvellous as Smits is, The Get Down is as of yet offering so much more.