Tag Archives: Spencer Tracy

Voici le temps des assassins/ Deadlier than the Male (Julien Duvivier, France, 1956)

 

Catherine (Danièle Delorme), a young woman recently arrived from Marseilles, gets out of the metro before dawn. She wonders through the Les Halles market in the dark, parks herself in front of the ´Au Rendez-vous des innocents´ café and stalks her prey: its middle-aged and prosperous owner, Henri Chatelet (Jean Gabin)

Voici le temps des assassins is as bleak a view of post-war Paris as I´ve seen. In its presentation of a young woman, outwardly innocent and vulnerable but inwardly capable of calculating the most dastardly deeds, it bears comparison to Otto Preminger´s great noir, Angel Face (1953), where Diane Tremayne Jessup, the character played by Jean Simmons, is conceptually not that different from the character Danièle Delorme plays here, though there are important distinctions: Simmons plays rich, Delorme poor, etc.

After the film came out, François Truffaut wrote, ´Julien Duvivier has made fifty-seven films. I´ve seen twenty-three, and liked eight. Of them all, Voici le temps des assassins seems to me the best, where one can sense the control over every aspect (script, mise-en-scène, acting, image, music, etc.) _ control by a filmmaker who has arrived at total confidence in himself and his vocation. The script of Voici le temps des assassins (….) is practically flawless in its construction as in its design. (cited in Ben McCamn, Julien Duvivier, French Film Directors, MUP, Manchester, 2017 p. 183

There is much to admire in the film, and it deserves more time and thought than I can give it here. But I want to first start with Gabin. Has any star ever aged more gracefully on screen? I suppose one could make a case for Spencer Tracy, who seemed to get more handsome as he arrived in middle-aged and always played his age. When Gary Cooper was trying to make it with stars who were 20-40 years younger than he, such as Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon, Tracy was the father of Elizabeth Taylor in the Father of the Bride films or the father of Jean Simmons in The Actress (George Cukor, 1953), in romantic comedies opposite contemporaries (Katharine Hepburn in Desk Set,) or as middle-aged men on a mission or at work, films that weren´t love stories, Bad Day At Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955), Inherit the Wind (Stanley Kramer, 1960) , etc

Like Tracey, Gabin was considered the premier film actor of his day by his peers. Big as Tracy was in American cinema,– and he was a Top-Ten box-office attraction from the late thirties to the early 50s; and top-billed in prestige pictures right to the end — Gabin was bigger: a level above and apart from any other actor in France, completely central to French cinema and, by extension,  20th-century French culture.

The role of André Chatelin was a departure for Gabin. Though he memorably played the owner of a restaurant and cinema in Carne´s La Marie de Port and before that a well-to-do contractor in Martin RoumagnacGabin was always associated with the working class (La Grande Illusion, La Belle equipe) or being a criminal from a working class background (La Bandera, Pépé le Moko, Au dela des grilles, or the film that with French Can-Can re-established him in the 50s, Touchez-pas au grisbi. 

I love how Duvivier introduces him in Voici (see clip below)through a fogged up glass that names him. Note the expression on his face: glum, resigned, middle-aged but raising up the energy for the job. Note the lined mouth, the heavy lower lips, the downturned mouth as he peeks outside. Then, the shoulders up, the rubbing of hands as he confronts the cold outside. He does not yet know that the young woman who will raise his hopes only to dash them, is eyeing him up outside.

 

Gabin´s performance here, as in so many other films, is wondrous. Being low key and minimalist throughout most of his films, then gives a context and a power to the explosions he was so famous for, as in the clip below. Note how he handles the old lady, how dangerous and out of control that move seems, particularly when considering its someone he loves. Look also at how he handles props below. Watching how he handles food –how he salts a bird, how he flips a pan — is one of the film´s more minor but nonetheless intense pleasures. Lastly, look at the design of the scene, how the kitchen allows for entrances, and makes of the restaurant itself a stage, something framed outside of where real life and pain lie, backstage, in the kitchen. Note too Duvivier´s elegant mobile camera, and the way Gabin plays in, with and against it. It´s like a tour-de-force of a great team, Duvivier-Gabin, unobstrusive until you notice it and are then thrilled by the results of a partnership that was even then into its fourth decade.

 

Part of the scene above´s power comes from the way that it rhymes with the earlier one below, where Chatelin and Catherine first meet. It´s a scene that it establishes Chatelin´s prosperity. He´s just received raves for his cooking in the newspaper, he´s turning people away.- Chatelin  is wonderful with the locals but the restaurant is also where duchessess, show-biz people, the rich and the louche feel at hone. We´re told he´s been previously married, that his ex-wife is dead, and that Catherine is her daughter and has moved into the city and needs help. It´s a scene full of brio and fun, the way the camera moves, the orders, the cooking, the way the elderly man grabs the young woman´s breast, as he introduces her as the new young hope of French Cinema. And all of this information begins to fix itself to a nexus of what we know and what is planted as seeds of doubt. Chatelin has arranged a lovely life for himself that includes the patronage of a young man he loves like a son, Gérard (Gérard Blain). But is Catherine his daughter? That she will marry him later doesn´t quite erase the seed planted here. That she gets  Gabin´s surrogate son killed becomes tragic in view of our knowledge of his earlier feelings for him. And all, and again, in and through that wondrous camera work. This is the busy, inclusive, communal, ritual that will be destroyed in as systematic and calculated a fashion as Catherine can muster.

Is Voici le temps des assasins misogynist? I do think so, Catherine is a murderess without conscience who walks by nonchalantly as a friend gets killed by a car; her mother, Chatelin´s ex, is no better, a manipulative drug addict, Chatelin´s house-keeper is a spy, and his mother at least as monstrous as those of late Francoist cinema. It seems only the relationship between old Chatelin and young Gérard is non instrumental, based on pure feeling, and that´s what Catherine gets most pleasure in destroying.

That said I want to direct you to our brief glimpse of the elegant lesbian couple in the restaurant, so unusual in the cinema of the period, and thus to be prized (see below)

 

 

I also want to draw your attention to the scene below. We´ve just seen Chatelin´s mother kill a chicken with that whip. But it´s Catherine who instigates the violence: ´my mother used to call you cow-hide9. But it´s the older lady who gets the last word, for now: ‘I´ll tame you yet my girl? It´s spectacle, a bit gothic, pulsing with excitement but bleak, and shrouded in sadness, a bit like the film as a whole.

José Arroyo

Ritrovato re-cap: Quick Millions.

Richard Layne, Nicky Smith, Helen Vincent and I discuss Quick Millions, part of the early sound Fox films programmed at this year´s Ritrovato. We discuss it in relation to other gangster films of the era such as Public Enemy and Scarface, the passage of time montages, the iconography of the suit, Newsies, and the presence of both Spencer Tracy and George Raft, who makes quite an impression dancing. As we wrap up, Bertrand Tavernier walks past.

The film is on youtube and can be seen below: the difference in image and sound quality between this and what we saw in Bologna is reason enough to go to Ritrovato. George Raft´s dance can also be seen below just under the film itself,

 

José Arroyo

 

The Acting Equivalent of An Aria

 

The acting equivalent of an aria, performed by one of the very greatest actors, Spencer Tracy. at the peak of his powers in one sublime long take beautifully staged by George Cukor for The Actress. Look closely and gurgle with delight at the skill involved in conveying so much so simply.

José Arroyo

Garland’s Acting in Meet Me in St. Louis

 

Seeing Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1944) again yesterday brought to mind a half-remembered anecdote from some long-forgotten biography where, in the mid forties, L.B. Mayer fired a writer in a fit of pique for giving the wrong answer to the question: ‘who are the greatest actors on the MGM lot’? ‘Spencer Tracy and Judy Garland’ seemed to Mayer a wiseass answer when Greer Garson was the reigning queen of the lot. But who wouldn’t side with the writer now? By then, Garson was doing ‘great lady parts’ in a way so ripe for satire that Garland did just that in the ‘The Great Lady Has an Interview/aka Madame Crematon’ sequence of Ziegfield Follies (various directors but Minnelli is credited with this Garland sequence, USA, 1945). Garbo was long gone; Katharine Hepburn was on the lot but the only good material she got was the material she brought to the studio earlier (The Philadelphia Story in 1940, Woman of the Year in 1942) and later (Adam’s Rib in 1949, Pat and Mike in 1951); the mid-forties is one of the low-points in Hepburn’s career: Dragon Seed (Harold S. Bouquet and Jack Conway, 1944), Undercurrent (Vincente Minnelli, 1946),  The Sea of Grass (Elia Kazan, 1947), Song of Love (Clarence Brown, 1947), etc.

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 14.29.35.png
‘If she only knew what we had in store for *her*!’

What tends to be regarded as great acting is often extremes of emotion in extreme situations (Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot [Jim Sheridan, UK, 1989); Charleze Therzon as Aileen Wuornos in Monster [Patty Jenkins, USA, 2003]) and more subtle, more complex, more humane, mundane but no less affecting realms of emotion – the kind Garland so beautifully depicts — are often ignored. But look at what she’s able to accomplish in a few shots of the Christmas Ball sequence of Meet Me in St. Louis extracted above.

Esther Smith (Garland) and her sister Rose (Lucille Bremmer) have planned an evil tease on Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart) because their brother Lon (Henry H. Daniels Jr.) had planned to attend the ball with her but she instead came with the boy Rose had set her eyes on, Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully). As revenge, they’ve filled her dance-card with the least desirable men at the ball. But it turns out that Lucille really wants to be with Lon and Warren Sheffield wants to be with Rose. The plans have been changed, Esther is left holding the bag, her grandfather discovers what they’ve been up to, and Esther chooses to take over Lucille’s dance-card and suffer the punishment they’d planned for her so as not to impede the other couplings and so that the social niceties may be maintained. Their last Christmas in St. Louis, planned as a triumph has derailed into self-sacrificial torture.

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 14.30.18.png
Trying to deflect the situation

Ignore if you can Minnelli’s gorgeous and complex mise-en-scene, the compositions, the way the couples are paired off or enter the frame (though I have in the past written here, and on this film in particular, as to why you shouldn’t); ignore if you can how purposefully and beautifully staged it all is. But let’s not bypass every element. When evaluating acting, the long take is a consideration. Not all actors can do them and it has become a test of a film actor’s skill. George Cukor famously observed that whilst Joan Crawford could act any emotion, she was incapable of showing transitions from one to another; she could only do one at a time; but then her whole face would scrunch up like Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde when transitioning. Thus there always had to be a cut between one emotion and another. She couldn’t do it in long take. But see what Garland does here.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 14.31.31.png
She accepts her punishment

We first see her enthusiastic entrance into the group, kind of gleeful at the plans afoot, ‘I’ve been very anxious to meet you’. Then there’s a cut to the three girls where she explains that they’ve taken the liberty of filling out her dance card. Note the look Esther gives her sister and note the laugh Garland achieves in that look as if indicating ‘Ha, she doesn’t know what’s in store!’ Then note the change in Garland’s expression, all within the same take, as Lucille responds with extraordinary kindness, offering to give them a party when they arrive in New York. Garland’s face is transparent, first we see a hint of guilt, her mouth opens, she’s bewildered. Her sister nudges her, ‘The plans have been changed’. Then the couples pair off, leave the shot, Garland still slack-jawed with bewilderment and then her grandfather enters the shot. She’s been caught, she hides the dance-card, attempts to laugh away the situation and flee. Then look at her expression as her grandfather reads out the names. ‘Clinton Badger’? She nods, it’s brutal and she’s been caught. She doesn’t respond to the next one, it’s unbearable. Then see what she does with her face when Sidney Gorsey’s mentioned. We see shame, embarrassment, the sense she now deserves everything that’s coming to her.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 14.35.56.png
Great physical gags in the dance sequences

 

Garland is extraordinarily transparent through a range of emotions, often conflicting or contradictory, and often played for laughs, she seems to pluck them out of thin air and achieve effects few actors are capable of. It’s quite remarkeable in quite a low key way. Then in the next shot, when Lucille goes to get her dance card and Garland says she’s made a mistake, note her reading of the line ‘This is mine’. She’s achieving laughs facially, vocally, and in the series of dances that follow she proves herself a superb physical comedienne; all whilst simultaneously evoking a range of feeling, sometimes complex and contradictory, that is emotionally recognisable as truthful.

It’s great acting.

 

José Arroyo