1924’s The City Without Jews, an Austrian silent film adapted from Hugo Bettauer’s enormously successful novel of the same name, published two years earlier, imagines a European city undergoing hyperinflation and mass unemployment, blaming the Jews for its problems, and expelling them. Unthinkable! Needless to say, it both drew on and prefigured actual events, but some of the imagery is chillingly evocative of what was yet to occur, including the Chancellor’s proud address from a balcony to the ecstatic crowds below, and the entire depiction of the Jews’ eviction, from being kicked out of their homes to the trains that remove them from the city.
Despite its historical interest, the stories that surround it, including the murder of Bettauer by a Nazi less than a year after its release, and its obvious and depressing relevance 100 years on, The City Without Jews is not a great film, its story and world feeling somewhat poorly thought-out, and its ending rather pat, perhaps the result of the significant changes made in adaptation that led to Bettauer falling out with the director, Hans Karl Bresla1uer. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking film, and worth watching.
The winner of the 1971 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis tells an aching story of doomed love within a wealthy Jewish community in Fascist Italy. The 1938 racial laws, enforcing the segregation of Italian Jews, have just been introduced, but the titular family’s titular garden offers insulation from the rising tide of fascism – for a while.
Mike finds the film’s love triangle somewhat banal, but is impressed with the subtly observed way in which the central characters allow themselves to remain comfortably ignorant of the increasingly hostile and dangerous Italy beyond their walls; comparisons to frogs in saucepans abound, not to mention the present-day normalisation of absurd corruption and violence in the Greatest Country in the World™. José is more keen on the romance, but still, the film’s sociopolitical side remains our focus. We consider the film’s use of physical space, the ways in which the Jewish characters can navigate it without being suspected by the racist public, but find themselves eager to retreat to safety as the film develops. We note that The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was made 25 years after the end of the Second World War, but 50 years prior to today: it’s now conspicuously an historical artefact that speaks to the time in which it was made, and whose proximity to the horrors it dramatises is necessary to keep in mind. And Mike reflects on his relationship with his Jewishness in this day and age, and how the film demonstrates that whatever divisions we may find among ourselves, to those who hate us, there’s no distinction.
It’s also Bonfire Night – well, the day after, but it’s a Friday evening so the festivities continue – and we celebrate by closing the window and trying to ignore the fireworks going off outside.
A landmark noir with a superb opening sequence (see below): we see some men through their shadows reflected on a wall. They’re fighting. The only light source seems to be from a lamp and the light gets extinguished as it falls on the floor. For a moment we only hear sounds. Then the lamp gets turned on again but we only see a person below the waist. We follow that person’s feet and they reveal a body on the floor. The man searches its pockets. The first man grabs the other man, clearly drunk, and we see only their legs as they leave through the door. The camera then pans back to allow us to gaze on the body on the floor. There’s a dissolve and the body gets turned over to show us it’s now clearly a corpse with a man we will come to know as Captain Finley asking a woman, ‘Was Samuels drunk when you left him at the bar’?
It’s a great opening, all shadows, mystery, half-seen moments of violence. Who are these two men? What were they doing there? Which one is the killer? Why did he kill? These are questions the film sets up. They’ll be answered progressively and only fully at the end. In the meantime the world of the film is dramatically conveyed: darkness, violence, murder, mystery, murkyness. And it´s got a particular and particularly resonant context. These are all returning soldiers who have been demobbed but have yet to find their way home, in a liminal, transitory space, with many of them not yet adapted to a civilian context and some still processing trauma. The world created is a vivid one.
Crossfire is based on novel by Richard Brooks, The Brick Foxhole. In the novel the cause of the murder was homophobia. The film changes it to anti-Semitism, newly unacceptable after Auschwitz, and denunciations of which were then in vogue: Elia Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement, made the same year, won the Oscar for Best Picture.
According to Thomas Schatz in Boom or Bust:’ In 1947, Hollywood’s film noir output accelerated and took on a new complexity as the period style began to cross-fertilize with other emerging postwar strains. Sometimes noir only slightly shaded an established formula or recombined a bit with another genre. Crossfire, for example, is very much a hard-boiled crime thriller except for two elements which interject element of both the message picture and the police procedural:the killer (Robert Ryan) is an ex-GI motivated by rabid anti-semitism, and he is eventually brought to justice by a police detective (Robert Young) operating very much by the book (p.379)’.
What anti-semitism brings as motive and cause to a crime film and police procedural like Crossfire is that it´s particularly difficult to prove. Robert Young, nice, steady Robert Young — to my generation forever Marcus Welby MD– is top-billed but burdened with the thankless task of delivering the film´s message, offered in the most cringey and condescending way possible. According to Pauline Kael, ‘There are condescending little messages on the evils of race prejudice that make you squirm; this is the patina of 40s melodrama’. It´s difficult to disagree with the former but I´m not sure about the latter.
In many ways, the film is an archetypal noir: flashbacks that offer different perspectives on the action; unreliable narration, subjective camera on scenes evoking drunkenness that are all canted angles out of focus, and marvellous to see,;low-key lighting often deploying one source (see above). It´s got a great look from cinematographer J. Roy Hunt; and Dmytrik is wonderful at creating interesting compositions (see below):
…and at choosing just the right angles for maximum expressiveness, such as the way the film suggests the very real threat and power that Montgomery (Robert Ryan) represents (see below):
According to J.R. Jones in The Lives of Robert Ryan:´Dmytryk also chose his lenses to make Monty look increasingly crazed: at first his close-ups were shot with a fifty-millimeter lens, but this was reduced to forty, thirty-five, and ultimately twnty-five millimeter. ¨When the 25mm lens was used, Ryan´s face was also greased with cocoa butter,¨Dmytryk recalled, ¨the shiny skin, with every pore delineated, gave him a truly menacing appearance¨(p.59).
Crossfire is exciting to watch. But it´s also blunt and capable of great crudity — not just thematically, as in the homilies offered by Robert Young´s Finlay but also through it´s mise-en-scène. Note below how Ginny, the hooker marvellously played by Gloria Grahame is introduced via a dissolve of a trash can (see gif below)
Robert Ryan nominated for Best Supporting Actor; Gloria Grahame won for Best Supporting Actress. Sam Levene is the victim. George Cooper is Mitchell, the fall-guy. Robert Mitchum was clearly used just for box-office and is completely wasted.
The film was a B produced by Adrian Scott, later one of the Hollywood Ten. It´s box office success would launch Dore Schary from producing B´s at RKO into his running of MGM, still for while, the ‘Tiffany´s’ of the studio. It´s the product of progressive filmmakers then at RKO who wanted to make a difference (Schary, Scott, Dmytryk) and was praised for it´s worthyness. But it was also , one of a series of films that led to the famous saying, ‘if you want to send a message, use Western Union.’
To say that it´s a landmark is not to say that it´s great.
A lively debate on BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s comic drama based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. With limited time, we dig right in. We discuss the film’s point of view on culture and cinema; John David Washington’s performance, the influences we can see in it, and whether a more charismatic star might have made the film even more powerful; our attitudes to Lee’s pamphleteering and the pros and cons of propagandistic cinema; the film’s direct address of Trump’s America and its tragic, somewhat surprising ending; and more.
We question whether the film’s comic treatment of David Duke, head of the KKK, carefully undercuts our delight in mocking him or dangerously indulges it. Duke is rendered a figure of fun in some notable and hilarious scenes, but the film ensures we recognise that he has never gone away. And Mike is particularly affected by Adam Driver’s character, a Jew in name only who, through being threatened by the KKK and confronted by Ron, is forced to reckon with his identity and the fact that it’s been easy for him to ignore it for most of his life. (The Howard Jacobson article he references is linked here: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/07/howard-jacobson-jews-know-what-antisemitism-is-and-what-it-isnt-to-invent-it-would-be-a-sacrilege)
As we acknowledge in the podcast, we unfortunately missed the first few minutes of the film, which is only one reason we want to see it again. Mike is bursting with thoughts and can’t get them all out; Jose vacillates on the film’s artistic value, though not its cultural value. There’s much, much more to consider in BlacKkKlansman than we were able to in this podcast and we shall return to it.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.