Tag Archives: Charles Vanel

Incantesimo tragico/Oliva/ Hechizo Tragico/Tragic Spell (Mario Sequi, Italy/France, 1951)

A film sold under many names and not a real success under any of them. A Gothic melodrama from Italy. María Félix is the beautiful Oliva, from a well-to-do family. Her widowed mother has chosen an aristocrat for her to marry, old, ugly and very rich. But on the annual feast day in which women are allowed to choose who they dance with, thus announcing their intended, she goes for Pietro (Rossano Brazzi), the King of the pickaxe, a well to do tenant farmer, who dreams of finding a way to bring to life the dry and rocky hills around his land.  ‘Will you know how to forgive me,’ she asks him on their wedding day. The film will tell us at the end.

 

When Pietro takes Oliva to his grandmother to get her blessing for their wedding, she judges Oliva, pretty …but too pretty. On the night that Pietro’s father Bastiano (Charles Vanel) returns from the jewellers, where he’s gone to get Oliva her wedding pearls, thunder and lighting waylay him into a deserted castle (see clip above). The thunder opens up the earth and he there finds a disused Roman temple, full of cobwebs, with mice running around, and in a tomb he finds a legendary treasure, ‘Il Tesoro dei Guarcialupi’ . He goes to his mother for advice and she tells him that gold calls to gold, it’s the demon’s opera. One of the jewels has an image of a beautiful woman, it’s a cursed image, and he must go immediately to the Chapel on the Mount and offer all of it to the Virgin so that she may protect him and his family from the curse. But Bastiano is greedy and doesn’t listen.  The rest of the film is precisely about the unfolding of that curse.

Félix once more plays a woman who destroys everything she comes into contact with. Rosanno Brazzi, often so dull, here at least looks soulful and handsome. Charles Vanel is hard, menacing, sober – completely great – as the father who thinks his son is out to assassinate him and kills him first. The film is beautifully shot by Piero Portalupi, immaculately lit, and with some interesting imagery. But it never quite comes to life. The Gothic elements are well imaged (see clips above but also image below) and there’s an interesting dream sequence (see clip immediately above) which also announces the beginning of the curse taking action. But the film creates little tension or suspense. Massimo Serato is Berto, Pietro’s brother and also in love with Olivia, It’s a well-made film but rather lifeless and much less enjoyable than mediocre films from the height of her Mexican period like La Devoradora which are made with less skill but imbued with a pulp, lurid life that makes them great fun to watch.

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José Arroyo

 

 

La mort en ce jardin/ Death in the Garden (Luis Buñuel, France/ Mexico, 1956)

 

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La mort en ce jardin/ Death in the Garden is the second of what Raymond Durgnat has labelled Buñuel’s  “revolutionary triptych”, along with Cela s’appelle l’aurore (1956and La fièvre monte à El Pao (1959) : “Each of these films is, openly, or by implication, a study in the morality and tactics of armed revolution against a right-wing dictatorship.” Each is also a France-Mexico co-production with big stars. In this one Simone Signoret, Charles Vanel, Georges Marchal and, as Phillip Kemp tells us in the fine essay on the film accompanying the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, Michel Piccoli, in the first of seven films he would make with the director,  more than any other actor.

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Revolt and Death

The film is split in two halves. In the first, diamond prospectors in some Latin American country are arbitrarily revoked their rights to the claims they bought and given twenty-four hours to vacate the area with all their goods the risk of forfeiting them. The ruling powers are authoritarian: might is power; power is law; power is wielded capriciously and unjustly. The people rebel but don’t act cohesively and lives are lost without much ground being won. Both Tony Rayns and Victor Fuentes have written of how in the first half of the film Buñuel drew on his understanding and knowledge of the Miners’ Strike in Asturias in 1934 and also on some of the happening during the Civil War.

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The second part of the film is when the main stars have to escape and get stranded in the jungle: the criminal adventurer (Georges Marchal) the prostitute (Simone Signoret), the priest (Michel Piccoli), the rich prospector (Charles Vanel) and his daughter Michèle Girardon) all struggle to survive; and as they do social categories fall asunder, old dreams die, Paris gets torn to burn and illuminate, pen and paper can lead to freedom, The Garden becomes a jungle, prayer books can light fires, ants eat snakes before people do, diamonds get thrown into the sea, the jungle can bring forth jewels and champagne, some go mad, and some survive…at least for now.

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Prayer books do have their uses…

It’s a very great film, a complex one that dramatises Buñuel’s perennial themes of exile and entrapment but also deals with authoritarianism, colonialism, people’s natures and their capacity to change, religion as passive upholder of exploitation; and allegories on the Edens in the real world and those in our minds. Phillip Kemp mentions one can trace an attempt to replicate the success of Clouzot’s Le salaire de la peur (1953)/ The Wages of Fear: Charles Vanel is in both. Tony Raynes and Victor Fuentes both see Nazarín (1959) as Buñuel’s subsequent development of the character of the priest, here played by Michel Piccoli and then by Francisco Rabal in the later film.

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A priest in exile

In a very illuminating interview that is an extra in the Masters of Cinema edition, Tony Rayns says, ‘We can see his very fluent, very neutral, anonymous visual style. The film is filmed almost entirely in follow shots, pans following action. There are not attempts at expressiveness in the compositions. There are no particular emphasis or editing tropes that are there either in the film language or in the composition of individual shots. This is studiedly neutral from Buñuel’s point of view, and that became his trademark style….He didn’t look for emblematic compositions. He didn’t look for shots that would startle us. His version of Surrealism is that the uncanny, the inexplicable, the mysterious, should be integrated as much as possible within the flow of seeming naturalism so that it would be more effective as a startling device. He didn’t want the sudden shock. He wanted the underlying disquiet or the underlying wonderment. For him that’s what Surrealism meant.’

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Jewels in the jungle

La mort en ce jardin/ Death in the Garden deserves much more attention than I’m able to give it here. All I want to point to now is that Simone Signoret, beautiful and in a gorgeous Eastmancolour, gives a performance that must rank amongst her very greatest (though there’s so much to choose from). Phillip Kemp writes that Signoret proved particularly difficult, ‘because she didn’t want to do the film..She had to go through New York on her way to join us in Mexico so she slipped some Communist documents into her passport, hoping to be turned away by American immigration, but they let her through without a murmur. Once here and on the set, her behaviour was at best unruly, at worst very destructive to the rest of the cast’. If so, she was worth it. Her presence at the height of her beauty and in colour plus her performance are in themselves reasons enough to see the film today (though there are many others). Death in the Garden is now available on blu-ray in a very beautiful transfer as part of the Masters of Cinema series.

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José Arroyo

 

Le gorille vous salue bien/ The Mask of the Gorilla (Bernard Borderie, France, 1958)

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Ventura gets no billing until the end of the film

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.

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Lino completes an action

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.

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Le Gorille in Germany

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…

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lighting and placement favour Bella Darvi

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.

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the making of a star

José Arroyo