Maigret in Montmartre (Georges Simenon, 1954)

I finished reading MAIGRET IN MONTMARTRE yesterday, first published in 1954. It’s about Arlette, a young runaway making a living from a nudie show with a bit of hooking on the side, who goes to the police station to report that she’s overheard a plan to murder a Countess. Arlette works in a club where all the girls are forced to sleep with the owner – a former pimp  — whose wife doesn’t mind because she’s twenty years older than he is and anxious to hold onto him. Arlette, sexually abused as a child in a convent, was forced to leave home when she became pregnant as a teenager. The Countess turns out to be a former showgirl who married an Austrian Count thirty years older than her, now with most of her money gone and living off her jewellry which is going fast because she’s become a morphine addict. Her doctor is her supplier; her best friend a gay man who is also an addict. All of this and more is presented in a very matter of fact way with understanding if not sympathy afforded to everyone but the gay addict. Arlette and the Countess get murdered. Maigret finds out why, what the connection is between the murders, and who did it. Montmartre and Place Pigalle come alive in all their seedy glory, depicted economically, but evoking great texture and detail. I can’t think of another writer of detective fiction who would have included that range of human experience, expressed so frankly and in such a matter-of-fact manner, in that period. If you can think of examples do let me know.

 

José Arroyo

Saddle Tramp (Hugo Fregonese, USA, 1950)

A Western that comes across as quite amiable and genial, funny and cheerful, in spite of dealing with quite dark material. Joel McCrea stars as a saddle tramp who in his own words, at the very start of the film, and in first-person narration, tells us, ‘Earth and sky and a horse…what more could a man want?’ Well that’s all he wants but that is precisely what the narrative will deprive him of.

At the start of the film, he goes visit an old friend of his, a widower with four children who instantly gets killed in an accident after borrowing McCrea’s horse – a rodeo horse who tends to buck at the sound of gunshot — and so our saddle tramp gets saddled with four young boys. In order to feed them, McCrea goes to work in a ranch. But the rancher won’t hire anyone with children so the kids have to hide out in a camp. They are soon joined by a young girl, an orphan who’s run away from her uncle’s because – and it’s as clear as Hollywood film of that era can show – he’s been sexually abusing her. There are other strands to the narrative, the rancher who MaCrea works for is involved in a dispute with his Mexican neighbouring rancher (played by Antonio Moreno, the silent film star) over the theft of cattle; the developing romance between the runaway orphan, who conveniently turns out to be nineteen, and McCrea; all get resolved in the end.

Ehsan Khoshbakht, in his write-up on the film for the Ritrovato catalogue offers several insights into the film: it’s a rare example of first-person voice-over in a Western; it belongs to a small cycle of westerns in which the cowboy’s time in the blissful presence of children chimes with the end of the frontier and the beginning of settlement (3 Godfathers); the way the McCrea’s horse functions in the film as a source of comedy and tragedy.

For me, what makes Saddle Tramp stand-out from a run-of-the mill B Western is  how a film full of so much darkness – a death that leaves four children orphaned, an orphan that has to run away from home due to sexual abuse, racial hatreds between whites and Mexicans that blame each other for something caused by someone else; and ultimately the hero’s choice of responsibility and resultant loss of freedom – can all result in something so cheerful, so likeable, so amiable. Therein lies Fregonese’s art.  And MaCrea’s, who must surely be amongst the most amiable and genial leading men of the Classic period. How the film’s ending finesses the loss of American culture’s most prized quality –Liberty – and how that’s contextualised with a continued longing for it that puts in tension with sex, education, home, civilisation, the past and the future – all aspects of a pursuit of happiness —  and this at the height of the McCarthy era, is worth an essay in itself.

José Arroyo

Uncoupled (Darren Day, Jeffrey Richman, Netflix, 2022) yo

Binged on UNCOUPLED last night, which I found glamorous, funny and moving if not quite real. It all reminded me a bit of OLD AQUAINTANCE with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins; and even more so of RICH AND FAMOUS, the Cukor remake with Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen; not so much in terms of plot but in terms of tone, the world they present, and the films’ attitude to that world. The tag-line is ‘newly single, forgot how to mingle’; the drama and the comedy in the series will come from Neil Patrick Harris’ re-learning how to mingle but in a changed world of PREP and dating apps, and one where his sexual currency has been considerably diminished by his age. The innovation is partly that it’s a romantic comedy about gay men that doesn’t problematise sexuality and takes relationships and dating as its starting point; and partly that it focuses on middle-aged gay men. In the first episode we see Michael (Neil Patrick Harris) and Colin (Tuc Watkins) happily coupled for nineteen years, in good jobs, their friends and family meshed. Michael throws Colin a surprised 50th birthday party and just before the party begins Michael finds Colin has moved out of their shared apartment, without telling him, and even more importantly without telling him why. Finding out why and showing how  Michael tries to start a new life for himself is what the show is about. In terms of production, we benefit from the full Darren Day treatment. It’s a glossy and expensive-looking show. Fans of the old SEX IN THE CITY  will find a similar sensibility here – urban, sophisticated, romantic, sotto-voiced camp, low-key funny about outsized emotions and exceptional situations – and with similar attitudes to sex; a bit of a problem since what seemed transgressive in relation to women in the 90s seems rather conservative if not quite untruthful in relation to gay men in 2020 (do you know any gay men who’ve had sex only with their official partner from the age of 30-50?). Structurally, the show is interesting in that the role gay men occupy in heterosexual romantic comedies—think MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING — the witty best friend, wise and supportive, whose messy life is a counterpoint to the heroine’s is now played, expertly, by a black woman (the wonderful Tisha Campbell); so a tag relay, whose inclusion also structurally expresses degrees of subalternity. Friends of a certain age will enjoy seeing Marcia Gay Harden in the role of a middle-aged millionairess in the throes of divorce. A very bingeable show; and I’m curious to know what friends think once they see it.

José Arroyo

A note on the trailer for Man in the Attic (Hugo Fregonese, 1953)

I love watching trailers and sometimes find them more interesting than the films they promote:

I love the bombast in the trailer for Man in the Attic:

I like how trailers often contain the most interesting (and often the most expensive) shots in the film:

The promise trailers make of the pleasures audiences may expect (and which the films need not keep): here to be shocked and terrorised, thrilled and turned on, the combination of sex and death potently conveyed:

There is no mention that this is a story that has already been filmed several times and better (e.g. Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927).

In trailers one also finds historical records not only of what was but what might have been, what was hoped, wished for, desired …that didn’t quite pan out. In this case the expectation or the hope that Jack Palance, already prominent due to Shane (George Stevens, 1953) and his Oscar nominated performance in Sudden Fear (David Miller, 1952) would become the great new star of tomorrow, hopefully due to Man in the Attic, the trailer promoting that potential stardom as a way of promoting the film.:

Jack Palance continued to be a name in cinema until the day he died but he never quite became the big Hollywood star this trailer promised with such certainty and a decade later he was working mainly in Europe, often in films that became classics, such as Godard’s Contempt (1963)….but in supporting roles.

A fascinating trailer for a film that holds all kinds of interest, not the least Palance’s performance. Needless to say, the film sadly doesn’t quite live up to the promises of the trailer, which can be seen in full below:

José Arroyo

 

A brief note on ‘Humiliation’ by Wayne Koestenbaum. London: Notting Hill Press, 2011.

A very handsome book, from Notting Hill Editions, a pleasure to hold and a pleasure to read. I’m not sure I learned very much about Humiliation as a concept but Koestenbaum certainly offers a lot of different examples. The book is structured as a series of chapters broken down into a series of brief– observations, ruminations, recounting of incidents? — Koestenbaum calls them fugues so as to account for counterpoint and a certain disassociation. I’m not sure what they add up to. But I loved being in Koestenbaum’s company. I admire his courage; he’s not afraid of coming across as unlikeable or, more accurately, behaving badly (I like him). He’s also not embarrassed to recount the many ways he’s felt humiliated, and with an eye for detail that considers the social, psychological and physical. The learning on display is impressive as is the use of language and I found some sections (the ones on Shakespeare, for example) dazzling. A wonderful book to read on a train as its very structure lends itself marvellously to short bursts of reading and quick bursts of pleasure.

José Arroyo

Cinema Rediscovered 2022, Bristol Watershed 2022, Final Round-up

We discuss the last two days of the Cinema Rediscovered 2022 program at Bristol’s Watershed; and then take a step back to discuss the event as a whole. We praise the variety of programming, the extraordinarily efficient organisation and the very welcoming community feel to the whole event. I’m very jealous we don’t have anything like this in Birmingham, and it really is made possible by the contributions of so many committed individuals. So many thanks to all of them for making this such an intellectually stimulating and socially welcoming event. We highlight the workshops and talks (the one on film criticism led by MUBI; the 40th anniversary discussion of Twentieth Century Flicks, Mark Fuller’s Sunday Cinema Walk)and then evaluate the many different strands that constituted a superb programme. We discuss Fury, Paris Blues, Chess of the Wind , Baby Face; Spencer Tracy and Barbara Stanwyck, Josephine Baker and Sidney Poitier; …and much else, not the least Richard and his pals winning the film quiz!

The podcast can also be listened to on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2zWZ7Egdy6xPCwHPHlOOaT

and on itunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/first-impressions-thinking-aloud-about-film/id1548559546

José Arroyo and Richard Layne.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 367 – Elvis

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is here: a colourful, expressive telling of the story of Elvis Presley, through the eyes of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who opens the film by claiming that he’s not the villain he’s renowned to have been. But the film flattens any complexities in the history it tells so thoroughly that we have no option but to continue to see him as one.

Still, it starts vibrantly and excitingly, understands and loves the sexual allure of Elvis – the lengthy introduction to him leads up to a fabulous scene of crotch-gyration – and Austin Butler is fantastic in the starring role. But once it settles down, is it anything more than a filmed Wikipedia page? Does it offer insight into the story it tells? José will have to tell you, because Mike fell asleep.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Cinema Rediscovered 2022, Day Three — Round-up 2

We discuss the second of our full day of viewing at Cinema Rediscovered, and name-check a wonderful introduction to The Joker by Matthew Sweet. We discuss The Laws of Love/ Gesetze Der Liebe, Jewel Robbery, The Afterlight, Queen Christina, Harold and Maud…. and much else.

Developing thoughts and questions include: are they showing enough great films? We’ve had a very enjoyable time so far, and each film has been interesting, but could they have been better? Or did we simply miss the great ones? Today, in fact we did mis the obvious choice which was Killer of Sheep. There are other strands of the festival we still have to explore more fully — Black Paris: Josephine Baker and Beyond & When Europe Made Hollywood being the most obvious

Questions will inevitably unfurl as the festival continues.

 

Matthew Sweet giving a superb introduction to The Joker. The podcast may be listened to here:

The podcast can also be listened to on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2zWZ7Egdy6xPCwHPHlOOaT

and on itunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/first-impressions-thinking-aloud-about-film/id1548559546

Those of you interested in an extended discussion of The Afterlight, may want to click on here:

José Arroyo

Thinking Aloud About Film: Cinema Rediscovered Round-up Day 1, 2022

We continue our discussion of Cinema Rediscovered 2022 with a round-up of the first full day of programming and two of the events that kicked off the program yesterday: The Philip French Memorial Lecture with Samira Ahmed and the UK premiere of the restored version of Lost Highway. We touch on two key strands of the program. The first is  Pre-Code Hollywood: Rules are Made to be Broken, curated by Pamela Hutchinson and Christina Newland, with  two of the five films that kickstart that strand: Blonde Crazy with James Cagney and Joan Blondell, one of the great couples of classic cinema, shown at their characteristic AND best as hotel workers turned wisecracking swindlers: urban, beautiful, loose of limb and tongue, a joy to watch at every turn. We also take in A Free Soul,  an emblem of a 1931 version of female sexual emancipation and modernity, a full-blown courtroom melodrama with Norma Shearer at her chicest and sexiest, if not always at her acting best. We also discuss two films by Sarah Maldoror, Sambizanga, and also A Dessert for Constance, part of the other strand of the program under discussion today:  Karen Alexander’s Black Paris: Josephine and Beyond Programme. A day full of films and discussion on films in which the Rewriting Film History (With the Women in It) and Pre-Code Hollywood: Rules Are Made to Be Broken are particular standouts. A fantastic start to the festival.

The podcast may be listened to here:

 

The podcast can also be listened to on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2zWZ7Egdy6xPCwHPHlOOaT

and on itunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/first-impressions-thinking-aloud-about-film/id1548559546

Those of you who are interested in African and Caribbean emigré cinema might want to follow up on our discussions of the films Richard mentions in the discussion:

Pressure (Horace Ové, 1976): https://notesonfilm1.com/2022/07/21/thinking-aloud-about-film-cinema-rediscovered-round-up-day-1-2022/

Soleil Ô/ Oh Sun (Med Hondo, France, 1970): https://notesonfilm1.com/2022/06/03/thinking-aloud-about-film-soleil-o-oh-sun-med-hondo-france-1970/

Ali In Wonderland/ Ali aux pays des merveilles (Djouhra Abouda, Alain Bonnamy, France/Algeria, 1975): https://notesonfilm1.com/2022/01/03/ali-in-wonderland-ali-aux-pays-des-merveilles-rachid-boudjedra-achmed-rachedi-france-algeria-1975/

….and others, through the search function.

aJosé Arroyo

Thinking Aloud About Film: Cinema Rediscovered 2022 — In Conversation with Mark Fuller on Cinema History in Bristol.

We talk to Bristol Film Historian Mark Fuller about the history of cinemas, film and filmgoing in Bristol, touching on the different processes, periods and personalities that stand out in this fascinating local history. The talk ranges from Mirroramas, Magic Lanterns and Kinetoscopes; to Muybridge and local chemists; to invidual cinemas, those lost and those that  remain.

The podcast may be listened to here:

The podcast can also be listened to on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2zWZ7Egdy6xPCwHPHlOOaT

and on itunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/first-impressions-thinking-aloud-about-film/id1548559546

Mark will flesh this out in two gentle walks through Bristol as part of the Cinema Rediscovered Program. The first one is on Saturday July 23rd. It will start opposite Everyman Bristol (aka the former Whiteladies Picture House) at 9:00, near Clifton Down Shopping Centre (Buses 1, 2 and 4 from the Centre) and finish near The Galleries at approximately 10:30. Walk Two on Sunday July 24th will start at 9:00 by the College Green bus stop, and end around 10:30 at Castle Park.

Weather permitting, there will be visual aids with archive photographs and clips to help illustrate the talks at each stop.

You can book here:
www.watershed.co.uk/whatson/11294/cinema-walk-1
www.watershed.co.uk/whatson/11317/cinema-walk-2

Those of you interested in the Wonderland exhibition discussed in the podcast, may wish to see this:

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 359 – Wonderland: Birmingham’s Cinema Stories

..and it certainly might be worth linking Mark Fuller’s Bristol Cinema Stories to those currently on display in Birmingham’s Museum and Art Galleries.

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 366 – Thor: Love and Thunder

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

We’re into the land of diminishing returns with Marvel, it seems, with the novelty of a shared cinematic universe having worn off and the big storyline everything was building to for ten years now over. Of course, another big event is sure to be on its way in another decade, but will we care by then?

Not if Thor: Love and Thunder is anything to go by. Between the thinning appeal of Taika Waititi’s self-satisfied comedy and the uninvolving and lazy plot, characters, and imagery, it’s an unmemorable failure of Marvel’s action comedy formula. Admittedly, Christian Bale makes his Voldemort-esque villain, Gorr the God Butcher, more threatening than you might expect, given his simplicity and lack of screen time, and there’s some fairly charming comic business between Thor and his semi-sentient weaponry. Tough to recommend just for those, though.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

A (quick) note on Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There no Alernative? (Zero Books, 2009)

Picked this up at the ICA yesterday — missed it when it first appeared over a decade ago — and read it almost in one gulp (it’s very short). I recognise almost everything Fisher says on managerialism, bureaucracy, and higher education. It’s genuinely learned in a way one dreams of reading, familiar with Kafka and Spinoza but also Big Brother and Public Service Broadcasting, THE PARALLAX VIEW and the Bourne films, NEUROMANCER and the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, speaking down to none and drawing intelligently on all in a way that makes sense and advances a sophisticated argument clearly. The call centre as metaphor for life under capitalism is inspired….and resonates. It’s over ten years old but fresh as paint and feels more urgent than ever.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 365 – The Afterlight

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

A one-off experience visits Birmingham’s Electric Cinema: The Afterlight, an 82-minute collage assembled from footage in which every person in frame is now dead. Director Charlie Shackleton accompanies the film on its tour, not only to give post-screening Q&A sessions, but also because he is in possession of the only copy of the film in existence – a single 35mm print that gradually degrades with each successive screening, picking up scratches and other wear and tear, and when it’s finally too damaged to watch any longer, it’s gone for good.

It’s a compelling idea, invoking questions of film preservation, the ways in which film captures and preserves moments in time, and the peculiar cinematic magic (and particularly magic of celluloid) that brings ghosts to life through illumination. And Shackleton is a charming, intelligent and witty speaker, the best advertisement for his own film, although his style and confidence activate José’s cynicism circuits – do we really believe that he hasn’t kept a copy of the film for himself?

But as for the film? It’s an enjoyable experience, the footage assembled into a rough narrative of sorts that takes us through similar actions and settings seen across countless cinematic sources, and both the choices of source material and the editing’s sense of rhythm create an appealing mood throughout, but much of the specific choices feel too vaguely motivated. Why has this shot in particular been included? Why the focus on one setting or action instead of some other? These questions are never satisfactorily answered, and the film meanders with too little intention.

One point of comparison in particular comes up in our discussion: The Clock, Christian Marclay’s 24-hour installation film that we saw large segments of both together and separately when it visited the Tate Modern three years ago. It’s similarly constructed of clips from films, its rubric to find shots that show clocks and other timepieces so that the film itself can function as a clock. We think about the difference in how often Shackleton and Marclay take creative liberties with their source material and build something new and expressive with it, and the different ranges of that source material to begin with (one of our biggest criticisms of The Clock being the unimaginative Anglo-American cinephile context from which most, if not all, of its sources came).

Criticisms notwithstanding, The Afterlight is an interesting and enjoyable one-off experience that literally – and we do mean literally – has to be seen in person, and if it screens near you it’s worth the evening. It won’t look as good as it did for us, admittedly, but at least you’ll be helping it look even worse for the next audience.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Thinking Aloud About Film on Hugo Fregonese from Ritrovato 2022

Thinking Aloud About Film explores the work of Hugo Fregonese, a director who worked mainly in Hollywood B-movies or international genre films, a choice of films excellently curated and programmed by Ehsan Khoshbacht, and a major discovery at this year’s Cinema Ritrovato. Films discussed include APENAS UN DELINCUENTE, BLOWING WILD, THE RAID, APACHE DRUMS, THE MAN IN THE ATTIC, BLACK TUESDAY…and others. The video includes images, trailers and clips from some of the films to illustrate the discussion.

Films discussed include:

The video, including images, trailers and clips may be seen here:

José has written on:

Savage Pampas

Apache Drums

and Apenas un Delincuenteand if you are interested in reading more, just click on the link:

The video may also be listened to as a podcast (with the sound of all film clips removed) here below:

The podcast can also be listened to on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2zWZ7Egdy6xPCwHPHlOOaT

and on itunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/first-impressions-thinking-aloud-about-film/id1548559546

Martin Stollery has written very interestingly on the British Prisoner of War Film, with (brief) reference to Seven Thunders, in a way that relates it to Adorno and Auschwitz here: The Hideous Difficulty of Recreating Nazism at War escaping from Europe in The Wooden Horse 1950 and the British Prisoner of War Film

José Arroyo

 

Apenas un delincuente (Hugo Fregonese, Argentina 1949)

A superb noir, fast-moving, by someone who’s seen and loved all the 30s Warners gangster films; and knows and can deploy every stylistic device:

chase scenes that turn into newspaper headlines:

voice-over montages that focus on the hero and instigate the rationale for a crime:

dream montages that show the sexy lure of what the culture deprives ordinary people of:

 

We also get flashbacks to childhood, prison escapes, etc. It’s all here but now set in Buenos Aires and the surrounding countryside in Argentina. And much as I love Hollywood, the underside of its imperialism is that it deprived us of many sights and sounds seen here, many films such as this one.

The film is based on two separate real-life events dramatised together:  An employee bilking his workplace of half a million pesos and a prison escape. José Moran (Jorge Salcedo) likes the good things in life, nice suits, nightclubs, things and places he can’t afford. He’s in love with a young student who loves him back;  they once went around shopping for bedroom sets they’d buy after they got married. But he’s given up now. He’s got a bit of gambling problem, is only receiving 150 of his 250 monthly salary because he’s already paying off advances; money lenders are after him; he can barely afford to support his mother and his younger brother on what he takes home. He’s already seeing his illusions ground down they after day – it’s what killed his father – and once he realises that the maximum sentence for stealing is sixty years and that legally there’s no difference whether you take 1000 pesos are 500, 000, he does the math. It would take him 166 years to earn 500, 000. So what if he has to sacrifice 6 years of prison in order to get it? It’s less than the life the job is robbing him of.

It’s a brilliant logic in the film. But since the film starts with an unsuccessful escape, we also know that our hero’s every attempt to save himself will end in failure. It’s another brilliant element of the film; how the beginning sets up failure in every attempt at escape or survival. Apenas un delincuente is about a non-conformist, a man at odds with the culture around him, who schemes, resists, fails; his life a feverish dreams of a life the culture won’t permit him to have.

 

The film dynamically sets up its themes. Life in the big city which has everything but not for everybody. Male pride versus family shame. A workplace whose regimentation is filmed not too differently than the prison. The hero sees himself as no better than a slave and is driven by a kind of rage which the film suggests is also a kind of sexual frustration; the good university lawyer who loves him but whom he can’t afford to marry; the provocative dancing girls on display that he doesn’t have money to have. The film gets its title from the last line of the film, José wasn’t a criminal, he was barely a delinquent, an ordinary young man, maybe a bit selfish and impatient, someone who wanted too much too fast. But the implication here is also that the problem is a system that promises much more than it can deliver to so many young men like José. All of this is brilliantly visualised, in angles and shapes that cage and enclose, with tantalising images of the high life, rendered even more alive by being shaped via Jose’s bitter gaze. Though the film does not have a documentary feel — it’s too fast moving for that – it was ostensibly all filmed in real locations; and it does represent and evoke what Buenos Aires was like in that period; and also through the neighbourhoods, rooms, décor; a document of the ways of life available to people then. It’s the intersection of document and exciting noir elements that help make the film great. And great it undeniably is.

Ehsan Khoshbakht writes tellingly in the Ritrovato catalogue: ‘Though American-style gangster films had existed in Argentine cinema as early as 1937, this was not a pastiche but an attack on the idea of economic progress under President Juan Perón….. Apenas un delincuente could only be realised at all because of the interventionist politics of the Perón government. Ironically it was the US that contributed to the end of cinema’s golden age by imposing a politically motivated film-stock embargo, forcing Fregonese back to drift back to the place where he had failed before; this time, in a double irony, to make a film called One Way Street.(pp.262-263)

Part of the cycle of Hugo Fregonese films shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2022

José Arroyo

 

 

If you speak Spanish, this is a very informative review of the film, linking it to Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and Nueve reinas (Fabián Bielinsky, 2000)

and two discussions from the Filmoteca in Argentina that may also be of interest:

…this one focussing on how the film was restored:

The film itself can be seen on youtube here in a not too bad copy:

José Arroyo

A Very Brief Note on Harry Black and the Tiger (Hugo Fregonese, 1958)

Stewart Granger’s handsomeness in his 1940s Gainsborough films is so blinding that one pays attention to little else. As he got older, his looks dazzled less and a certain arrogance, inflexibility and stiffness became more apparent. He seems the type of person whose idea of a sense of humour is to laugh heartily at the misfortune of others. In Harry Black and the Tiger he’s meant to have a metal leg, which he throws around theatrically and which is only a little less expressive than his face. Half-way through the film I began wishing the tiger would stop eating all the Indian villagers, focus its attention on him and bring the film to a close. Not Hugo Fregonese’s best, though there is a superb dialogue-free opening sequence in which a tiger appears in the village and snacks on a mother and child.

José Arroyo

Apache Drums (Hugo Fregonese, 1951)

An unusual Western, about tolerance and community, spare and beautiful, with gorgeous direction by Hugo Fregonese that makes each of its elements signify in ways that seem visually striking and thematically subtle. It was the last film produced by the legendary Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, The Leopard Man, etc.), one he was pleased with.

A title card at the beginning informs us that it’s 1880 and the Mecalero Apaches are starving. The creation of a border between Mexico and the US in what until then had been their lands have driven them hungry and with nowhere to go. They’re ready to attack. The good citizens of Spanish Boot know nothing of this yet. Miners from Wales now working a local silver mine, they’re prosperous, want to build up the town, bring in schools and infrastructure and are keen to drive out the prostitutes, gamblers and other riff-raff out so they can get to building their idea of community. As the film unfolds that sense of community will alter, become more inclusive.

This is all beautifully and economically expressed in the clip above. But what I want to direct your attention to there is the direction, the initial shot, simple and economical but creating a dynamism by having the citizens walk one way and the horses in the other, with the dog initially cutting half way through, the camera following the citizens until it rests on the sign ‘Betty Careless Dance Hall: Partners for All’. The purpose of the dance hall couldn’t be clearer.  But what really caught my eye was the cut on Jehu (Clarence Muse) with the door opening throwing a shaft of light around his figure that quickly envelop him in shadows, as if these good citizens will be the destruction of this particular man, which will indeed be the case. This shot foreshadows the scene where he refuses to take his hat off because the dance hall girls have been killed on their way out of town and he’s been scalped; yet he nonetheless urges bad gambler Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally) to be good and return to the town he’s just been kicked out of to warn its citizens of the Apaches.

The film has beautiful, spare compositions, often rhymed. See the two below: first the tranquil sweeping in of the outside of the church, then the running to it from safety, then the church gates itself becoming like the gates of hell.

The action scenes are superbly done. Note below, how we are made aware of the Apache charge before the characters are, then the rhythm of the cuts; and lastly, how the action, exciting as it is, is not an end in itself but a means of dramatising the conflict between churchman and gambler, and setting the grounds for the beginnings of an understanding that will only develop later on.

Note the dramatic use of lighting in the clip below.

…and the beautiful coming together of the community in a song from the homeland below;

 

As the Apaches surround the Church, the Church becomes a furnace and hell-hole, death strikingly visualised as potentially appearing from any window (see below… and note the spare and striking compositions and use of colour). We see very few Apaches, it’s the drums and the open, too-high windows they can’t see out of, that create the sense of entrapment and danger:

Fregonese is brilliant at making use of colour and indeed he uses the green of the dress Sally (Coleen Gray)  wears as the visual anchor for most of the final scenes inside the church (see below):

..and invoking light and symbolism in the compositions (see the light dissolving into the pieta like pose on the woman and child on the left below).

…and the exceptional use of pyramid compositions in 4:3:

There is much more to admire but here I only want  to add that light, framing, and composition do not just make things pretty but symbolise and signifies so that near the end, when the Reverend recognises that the Apaches also have their own Gods, as valuable as his, it becomes a powerful dramatic moment, visualised as below:

The film could easily have become simply a tale of a woman who loves a bad man (Stephen McNally), sees the value of a good one (Willard Parker as Mayor Joe Madden) and the rest of the film is then about how to get rid of her bad love object. But Apache Drums is surprising in all kinds of ways. Fregonese tends to make relationships complicated, people are redeemable, and surprising. And certainly Fregonese surprises. The cliche of the cavalry to the rescue is only seen through a fiery blaze of a ruined church door. The ending image is not the couple embracing, or the town reconstructed, but a donkey feeding on its mother in a church watched over by a Mexican peasant. A gorgeous film.

Jose Arroyo

Savage Pampas (Hugo Fregonese, 1966)

The Argentine army is trying to conquer the Pampas away from indigenous people. But their soldiers keep deserting because the other side, including not only indigenous peoples but deserters, misfits and criminals of all kinds, will provide a woman for every soldier that joins them; and that in a nutshell is why I imagine this film will be of great interest to feminists.

Initially, women in Savage Pampas are merely a mode of exchange amongst men; they have no say; and their bodies are offered up by men for men to rape in exchange for men providing military service. As the film unfolds, this becomes more subtle as the army proper also brings in women to service these soldiers. But these are professional prostitutes who expect to make a fortune before returning back to Buenos Aires in a few years. These ‘bad’ girls, given some – not too much – depth by being depicted as having smarts, warmth, and humour, stereotypical traits in movie prostitutes, are also in turn contrasted with two  ‘good’ girls; one who has also been sent to the Pampas for not revealing the whereabouts of her brother, a political dissident; and the other an indigenous woman, distinguished by her loyalty, freedom and honour. There’s even, in a brief role, a nun. To paraphrase Laura Mulvey, women in the Western matter not in themselves but in what they structurally represent and symbolise. In American Westerns, ‘civilisation’; the coming of church and schools to the West; here, merely money and sexual release. Even when the old madam is found a husband it’s purely as a form of exchange.

What really distinguishes this film, particularly in this beautiful restoration from Busch Media group, is how it looks and moves; and this is due to Hugo Fregonese’s superb direction. There is terrific use of landscape, in elegant compositions, that permit, people, horses, groups to move fluidly.

There’s something both contained and explosive in the way that Fregonese films a chase. The run is charged, but the composition keeps everything contained, elegant, with the geography of the action always knowable.

The camera set-ups are varied, there are gorgeous shots with the camera on the ground and with Robert Taylor laid out across the 70mm frame; and in a lovely restoration that brings out the deep blues and reds of the uniforms. This is a film directed by someone with a great feel and knowledge of how visuals can mean, how rhythm is created both by what is shown within the frame and by the cutting between shots.

It would be hard to find a better example of what is valuable in a B film: thematically crude, with a cast led by a waning star and a cast of proficient relative unknowns, that nonetheless is gorgeous to look at, exciting to experience, with a fluid purposeful camera that is knowingly placed to create depth and to offer up space itself as a source of drama. Robert Taylor, is very interesting to see, still handsome, giving a professional performance in terms of body and voice but with something dead behind the eyes that seems more to do with the actor than with the character. A great watch in spite of its many faults.

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 364 – Men

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Alex Garland’s Men is as blunt as its title, with nothing of the profundity it would like to think it possesses. It’s slow and boring, too. Very pretty though. Well done to the cinematographer.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Thinking Aloud About Film talks to Pamela Hutchinson about Ritrovato 2022

Ritrovato returns, in situ, live….and it was great to be back. Bologna itself, the food, the weather…all were heaven. But the reason we go to Bologna at this time of of the year is the films, the quality of the prints, the restorations, the way they are programmed and projected, and the conversations that take place around the screenings. In this episode, offered as vodcast and podcast, we discuss  the new booking system and the different strands of the programme: 100 Years Ago, Peter Lorre, Sophia Loren, Hugo Fregonese, Weimar Musicals , some of the restorations (El, Ludwig, La Maman et la Putain, ShoeshineNosferatu etc) and — in less detail — Yugoslavian Cinema and Cinema Libero. We couldn’t do it all. We wish we could have. The wonderful Pamela Hutchinson heroically resurfaced from her COVID sickbed to lend us her intelligence, knowledge and good humour and to helps us make sense of a cinephile experience that can easily overwhelm. This is the first of four podcast on Ritrovato. We will return with more extended discussions on Hugo Fregonese, Sophia Loren, Peter Lorre and an extended discussion of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives.

 

The vodcast can be seen here:

 

The podcast can be listened to here:

 

The podcast can also be listened to on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2zWZ7Egdy6xPCwHPHlOOaT

and on itunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/first-impressions-thinking-aloud-about-film/id1548559546

 

Very pleased to have made Ritrovato’s website here: https://festival.ilcinemaritrovato.it/en/thinking-aloud-about-film-talks-to-pamela-hutchinson-about-ritrovato-2022/

Readers might also be interested Pam’s excellent Bologna overview from a few years ago to give some context for those who’ve never been:

José Arroyo