Thursday, 30 May 2013

Stalker (1979)

Outside the Zone, everything is sepia and slow
I'm afraid I'm inevitably going to spoil the end of 'Stalker', not that it ends with a twist.  No, it's just that the things I expected all the way through, which I rather looked forward to, never came to pass.

This is a Russian SF movie, a horror, perhaps, though nothing especially horrific occurs, set in a mysterious Zone, which few dare visit.  The Zone, we hear, must be respected.  Those who disrespect this grassy locale will find themselves caught in horrific and unpredictable traps, twisted, killed, destroyed.  At the heart of The Zone is a room where your heart's desire will be granted, but the less direct route is always safer.  So, after a (deliberately boring) first half hour ending with a journey into The Zone (on a wonderful little railway cart), our three protagonists, The Writer, the Professor and the Stalker take the most rambling and indirect path possible, rather than just walking in a straight line for about a hundred yards and either dying horrifically or ending the film early.

Inside the Zone, everything is ostensibly deadly
This circuitous route through a capricious realm of sudden death makes for an extremely tense film.  It's drawn out even longer by lengthy pauses to rest, close eyes, to think, and talk philosophy.  In general this heightens the tension, and the great length of each camera-shot leaves open the constant and growing suggestion that any moment now the Zone will do its thing, and one of the travellers will be punished with death.  It's really extremely fraught.  Until, that is, the viewer realises that the horrible deaths are never going to come.  In the original novel, 'Roadside Picnic', characters perish in the meat-grinder and in many other grizzly ways.  Not so in the movie; they speak of the murderous traps, and the chance of our characters dying very suddenly and in ways that kinda serve them right always seems terrifyingly imminent, but it just doesn't happen.  The anticipation of blood and mysterious violence makes its non-appearance tremendously disappointing.

Now, there's an exciting film that could have been made here, though a rather shallower one.  Pump up the cast of characters with some trap-fodder, cut the rambling, improvised-sounding philosophy, and have the most folly-filled adventurers explode in showers of blood once in a while and you have a crowd-pleasing thriller - a charmless work, but such films do well enough at the box-office.  Perhaps I was raised in a more bloodthirsty generation?

The Stalker's daughter regards beverage conveyances.
Stalker, here, doesn't mean seedy deviant, but hunter.
After the difficult opening half-hour, I found most of the film quite satisfying, if low on incident.  I reassured myself that it was far better that 'Na Srebrnym Globie' (1977).  Both are two-and-a-half-hour ventures into the gritty and Wintery SF of the Eastern Bloc, and both films ran into political trouble for their miserable vision of the life as grey, dirty, bleak and awful.  In this, though, I knew who all the characters were, where they were going and what might happen to them.  Had the ending not undermined all that went before, or had the body of the film have been less gruelling, I might have come out of it all more positively.  For the last half-hour I waited for the film to end, and reflected on how this Penciltonian project prompts me to watch films I wouldn't otherwise have watched, and finish them so that you, dear viewer, need not.

Opai suggests that I've failed to see the film's merits, or have written it off unduly.  Perhaps I'll revisit it some day to see what more I can find in it, but it won't be soon.

I realised after I watched it that it's a film by Andrei Tarkovsky.  He's meant to be rather good, you know.  He did 'Solaris' (1972), didn't he?

Monday, 27 May 2013

The Longest Day (1962)

The British invasion
This is a film about D-Day.  In fact, this is the film about D-Day, and covers the day itself in great detail, and from all angles.  British and American stars (Sean Connery and Richard Burton and Roddy McDowall and Rod Steiger and John Wayne and many more) play the British and American forces, German notables (all famous, though Bond villain Gert Fröbe is the only one I knew) play the Germans, and French celebutantes (including Arletty and Jean-Louis Barrault From 1945's 'Les Enfants du Paradis') play the resistance.  It's like a war version of 'Love Actually' (2003), as myriad plot-lines are played out discretely; concise stories told economically, each with its international superstars, building into the larger story of the movie.

Watching this film, it became suddenly apparent to me that I didn't really know anything about D-Day at all. Indeed, I'd confused it in my mind with the Dunkirk evacuation, and couldn't have told you where or when it was, except that it involved British boats and continental Europe, and was a big deal for the second world war.  The film, then, was a revelation.

He got up so quickly that he put his boots on the wrong feet
I don't generally care for war-films, as too often they tend to be about our goodies against inherently evil foreigners, and play on the audience's xenophobia.  Now, I won't claim that the forces of Nazi Germany weren't the aggressors here, but the individuals in the German army probably didn't think of themselves as fighting for the cause of evil.  Indeed, one German officer, seeing the British progress rhetorically exclaims 'you know, sometimes I wonder which side God is on'.  Here, as in 'Das Boot' (1981) and 'Downfall' (2004), we get to see the German forces played as real characters, not as insane pantomime villains.

It helps, I think, that the four nationalities' stories - the French, British, German and American parts of the film - were all made separately, with each part assigned a director from the relevant country.  This, then, is four films, weaved into one.  Such a thing could be an appalling mess, but the style and flavour, the drama and humour, is consistent enough that it all comes together properly.  Among the film's advisors were the generals who plotted the invasion and those who masterminded the defence, meaning that the film has historical merit, and takes all the sides seriously.

John Wayne, who I usually can't abide, is actually very good in this.
The whole thing looks and sounds like a forties war-movie, albeit a very expensive one - in monochrome with dialogue spoken very clearly, and a big war song at the end - but is framed in the super-widescreen of the late fifties, the Cinemascope usually reserved for productions in extremely full colour.

It's an exciting and interesting film, as the large number of small storylines means we get all of the highlights and skip past the padding.  The ridiculous cast of the famous and the soon-to-be-famous is one that's rarely been matched, and all do what they do best.  There's a lot of fun had, with soldiers on all sides seen as plucky, good humoured and occasionally very eccentric.  It's all the more alarming, then, when they come to fight against one another, and we see vast numbers mown down with machine guns in almost every location.

Hey, it's that mime from 'Les Enfants du Paradis' (1945).  That was a great movie.
I'm very glad to have seen it, since it gave gave me a much clearer idea what D-Day was about, and what happened.  Frustratingly, despite a hefty duration, it seemed to end just as things were getting going.  Things had clearly swung in the allies' favour, but I'll need to do some further research to find out quite what happened next, and how we got from this great surge, with all its unlikely good fortune, to the ultimate victory in Europe and end of the war.  We won, or so I'm told, but I don't yet know how.  Thinking about it, that's a fairly substantial gap in my general knowledge.

P.S. Tune in next time for 'Stalker' (1979), a Russian film that I still don't really understand.

...and here it is, if you'd care to watch it.  You might well find it as excitingly educational as I did.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Living skellingtons are terrifying, and there's one inside you right now!
Since this Ray Harryhausen classic leaps from spectacle to spectacle to eye-boggling spectacle, it would seem wrong to give you a mass of text.  Rather, I present screen-shots and captions (as I once did for 1937's 'Way Out West').

I'm told the city has not changed at all in the last two-thousand years, except in its spelling.
The film is miscellaneously Eastern, meaning it's full of white people in exotic costumes who pepper their dialogue with Allah this, and Baghdad that, in just the way no modern film would or could.

Technicolor and Dynamation, the new miracle of the screen!  You'll believe a Cyclops can lumber.

Sinbad and his shrunken bride
Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) speaks with a Very American Accent, of the sort one now only hears from Britons doing poor-but-apparently-at-least-historically-accurate impressions.

Not quite as frighting as the real-live dragon in 'Die Nibelungen' (1924), but it seems churlish to complain.
The spectacles and effects are tremendous for their time.  Any earlier, and they'd have been mind-blowing, any later and they'd have been strange and embarrassing but nonetheless charming - like all things of true beauty.

This is how frightening the film is!  Exceedingly so.
'The Thief of Bagdad' did something very similar in 1940, but lacked Harryhausen's stop-motion creations.  The earlier film had a cooler genie, or perhaps just a balder, fatter, bluer one.

 A lovely, fluffy Roc.  I should like one for a pet
It isn't too long, and it's never dull, and when the villain perishes he does so with a satisfying squelch.  What more can one ask of a tale of high adventure?

P.S. The next update will be 1962's D-Day reënactment 'The Longest Day'.  And yes, I believe that's a valid use of a diaeresis.

...and hey, the DVD has all three classic Sinbad films on it.  The middle one has Tom Baker in it.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Double Indemnity (1944)

Neff hides in the back of the car
I was left rather worried for the fate of the talking picture after last week's 'The Lives of a Bengal Lancer' (1935), which made spoken dialogue seem so static, so much an interruption to the real business of incident and character and running around.  I'm glad to say my faith in non-silent movies has been restored by 'Double Indemnity', an excellent noir thriller, and a tremendously fraught and satisfying work of drama.

The film is bookended by insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), narrating a confession of sorts into a dictaphone, for his colleague Keyes to find.  He has committed a murder, and intends to get the story straight.  The body of the film, then, is told in flashback.  Despite the fact that we already know the murder will be committed successfully, the film is incredibly tense, the characters' plotting constantly frustrated or threatened with discovery.  We know the murder will happen, and we want it to happen, and fear for the two conspirators.

Phyllis and Neff, after the event.
So, Walter Neff falls into a plan to murder the husband of Phyllis Diedrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and reap the reward of a life-insurance policy.  Initially he wants nothing to do with it, but he's too clever to resist - he knows he could get away with it - and Phyllis is a truly beautiful woman, a femme fatale (is there such a thing as an homme fatale?), too beautiful to ignore.

The murder itself isn't shown.  The shot cuts away to Phyllis's reaction, and the death is left to the viewer's imagination.  Indeed, we never even see the body, though Phyllis and Neff manhandle it into position for discovery.  At the point of death, Mr Diedrichson disappears entirely from the film's pictures, and what could be schlocky or grizzly is allowed to be functional, tense and dramatic, the emphasis on the murderers, not on the body.

The magnificent Edward G. Robinson
The highlight of movie is the Edward G. Robinson's brilliant performance as Keyes, the head of Neff's office, with a legendary instinct for bogus claims and deceit of any sort.  If you watch as many Charlton Heston films as I do (though it seems unlikely) you'll know Robinson from 'The Ten Commandments' (1956) and 'Soylent Green' (1973).  If not, you'll likely know an impersonation of him, the basis for Police Chief Clancy Wiggum in 'The Simpsons' (1989-2089), whose look and vocal performance were based on the actor.

Robinson gives an excellent character performance - charismatic, energetic and contemplative, his whole body serving his dialogue.  The whole film is worth watching for his performance (though even without it the film would be worth watching, its direction exquisite, its dialogue fast, witty, American poetry).  Keyes is a very close friend to Neff, and matches or exceeds his intelligence, so the question soon becomes, not 'will they get away with the murder', but 'how can they hide the truth from Keyes'.  Eventually, of course, the question is why Neff ends up confessing into a dictaphone.

I think you should give this film your time and attention, so I've been careful not to spoil anything that isn't established in the first five minutes.  This was one of the most enjoyable viewing experiences of the project so far (which, by the way, is roughly half-way through), and I hope you find it as exciting as I did.

P.S. Since I'm currently going through decade by decade, I knew the next update had to be from the fifties.  It was nearly 'Touch of Evil' (1958), but that would give us two films noir in a row, so I instead went with something entirely different, 'The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad' (also 1958).

It's a very good film.  You should watch it some time.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

Gary Cooper, considered quite the dish of the day
I was recommended this film by my grandmother Mopsy, who saw it shortly after it came out.  It clearly had a fairly broad appeal, as it was also enjoyed by Adolf Hitler, who apparently saw it thrice, and who was in most important respects unlike Mopsy in character.  I fear its merits have fallen away somewhat as the years went by.  Moustaches and European domination of ostensibly lesser countries have both gone out of fashion, and talking pictures have increased their scope and flair.

It has the flavour of a war film, though I'm fairly sure we weren't actually at war with India in the 1930s.  Our handsome and moustached hero (the very famous Gary Cooper, who I always thought was a dancer, but apparently wasn't) and his comrades have to fight the handsome and moustached villain, Mohammed Khan, whose name alone will tell you why this film is unlikely to be remade.

The villainous Mohammed Khan
In my last update, 'Metropolis' (1927), the silent film reached its full extent, a vast, visual feast, a story told in pictures; it's rather distressing to find out the state of cinema these eight years later.  Now that money and time are poured into audio recording, the visuals seem to matter far less, and long, static dialogues take place in plain offices.  Perhaps it's just that 'Metropolis' was highly stylised, while this is much more naturalistic, but that too is probably a consequence of sound-recording, as something so extreme as 'Metropolis' with dialogue would seem bizarre, even comic.  Either way, on all fronts, 'The Lives of a Bengal Lancer' seems a far less impressive, less cinematic way of telling a story.

Oh, the talking scenes are intercut with charges and skirmishes, some high-quality explosions and an extremely dated scene in which the characters have great fun sticking pigs with spears, an effect achieved simply, by having the actors really go out and stab pigs with spears.  This all seemed rather uncharming.  The spectacle is there, but the story, and the drama, is all in the talking.

The playing of a pungi summons a snake, with hillarious consequences
The film isn't without merits, but at each level I find myself thinking it could be better.  The lively banter and camaraderie of the main characters could be even more fun, and the film would be more engaging if it was.  The slight tragedy of the ending could have been richer, less of a footnote.  Far more could have been wrung out of the central conflict: Lieutenant Stone tries in vain to gain some affection from his father, a Colonel, who doesn't wish to show favouritism - a thread with no real resolution.

All in all, a bit disappointing.  I was left a little concerned for the fate of the talking pictures, wondering whether the move toward dialogue would present a string of wordy disappointments.  Thankfully the three films I watched thereafter, from the forties, fifties and sixties respectively, were all excellent, and have together restored my faith in the talkies.  Unless calamity befalls me, they'll be the next three posts.

I can't truly recommend this film, but as a Briton neither can I fail to advertise a chance to spend your money with a multinational corporation.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Metropolis (1927)

The film looks better than this: I photographed my TV to get screen-caps
Still, what a wonderfully symmetrical city.
When I first told people about this hundred-films-from-a-hundred-years project, quite a lot of them told me I ought to watch this.  I almost didn't, so stubborn am I - but I remembered having liked it when I first saw it a few years ago, and didn't fancy my chances of finding a better or more interesting film to represent 1927 (though 'Napoleon' might have been exciting).  You probably all know about 'Metropolis', even if you haven't seen it, so I'm a mite concerned you will have heard it all before.  I'll try to be brief, though I may not succeed.

Freder sees somebody more beautiful
Freder, the wealthy, handsome and oblivious son of the master of Metropolis, accidentally discovers that his garden paradise is built over a vast dystopian undercity of oppressed, exhausted workers, whose whole grey lives are dedicated to their tedious labour.  The film is an allegory, by the way.  He falls in love with Maria, who offers a particularly Christian hope to the workers, persuading them not to despair or revolt, but to wait for the Mittler - the mediator, or Messiah.  As it happens, Freder is that Mittler, and pretty much gets to be Jesus and Moses at the same time, and defy the modern Tower of Babel.  It's a bit like 'The Matrix' (1999), if you can imagine the film without the computers.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who I'd so enjoyed as King Etzel (you know, Atilla the Hun) in 'Die Nibelungen' (1924) appears here as Rotwang, the archetypal mad scientist, whose science seems to made primarily of magic.  Rotwang has created a maschinenmensch, a mechanical version of Freder's dead mother, but chooses to model her face on Maria.  Thus, Brigitte Helm gives the film's most amazing performances, playing both the incarnation of charity and humility, and the sultry robotic succubus who makes the tuxedoed upper crust pant with uncontrollable lusts.

The Maschinenmensch and Rotwang.
His name, in German, denotes rosy cheeks, not a rotten wang, by the way.
So, it's an opulent sci-fi epic, of Biblical character, and it's set in a huge futurist city of extreme angles and stark lighting.  Fritz Lang pulls out all the stops to make the thing look magnificent, even filling the model-shots of the city with working cars, trains and aeroplanes.  Even the intertitles are bolder than usual, as they gleam with light, or drip with blood, or scroll up or down between shots of elevators.  The editing, too, is far more advanced than I've come to expect from the silent era.  Lang takes the montage technique we saw two years earlier in 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925) and does it faster, less literally and more psychedelically, if one can be psychedelic in monochrome.  Clue: one certainly can.

Silent films never looked better.  I don't think that's overstating matters: this film is the absolute peak of the silent era.  This is much more ambitious than anything made in the next decade, as the advent of sound, which began in earnest with the same year's 'The Jazz Singer', set back cinema's visuals significantly.  By the time studios and audiences had adjusted to the change, colour and widescreen had sent the movie in completely different directions. There could never again be anything like 'Metropolis', and it could never be challenged on its home ground.

The most exciting intertitle.

P.S. I seem to have failed to give you any screen-shots of the larger sets or more beautiful parts of the city, mainly because my photos all looked very terrible indeed.  Here's the trailer, then, which may knock your socks off.

P.P.S Since I've managed to post about a 1910s film followed by a 1920s film, I'll see if I can get through ten consecutive decades like this.  The next two films are from 1935 and 1944, and at least one of them is excellent.

Once more, the film looks nicer than my screen-caps suggest.  Screen-capping a blu-ray is a tricky thing, so I ended up photographing my CRT's screen with a cell-phone camera.  The real film looks beautiful - except the recently recovered scenes, of course, which can only be properly described using the Bristol Stool Scale.  Discover for yourself!

Monday, 13 May 2013

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

Captain Nemo, telescoping
I recently read Jules Verne's '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea', and enjoyed it very much.  Now, I'd probably recommend you read 'Around the World in 80 Days' instead, as its educational content is more colourful and readable, less scientific and statistical.  Nonetheless, Verne's submarinal thriller is a fine tale of high adventure, and well-written, to boot.  As I did with Dickens, I assumed I knew Verne without reading him, and was surprised to learn that his prose style is very entertaining, and his characters well-drawn and very human.

Perhaps it was a mistake, then, to go straight from the book to the film, especially to this very early adaptation, made shortly after Verne's death.  After all, films are often (though not always) less satisfying than the original books.  And, indeed, the best films tend not to have been books at all.  This 1916 work is a technical marvel.  Proudly it proclaims itself 'the first submarine teleplay ever filmed', as it has the first ever underwater shots.  These were achieved, not through invention and use of an underwater camera, but by filming through a periscope of sorts, meaning that any shot with a fish in it is rather blearier and somehow less deliberate-looking than the above-water shots.

I could have shown you a shot of sharks, but they were blurry and awful,
and reading this caption is more likely to thrill you to terror.
This movie was less a story told in pictures and supported by words (which, to my mind, is the aim of film storytelling), more an illustrated synopsis.  The whole plot can be found in the intertitles, and almost nothing is revealed visually.  This is a relief in some ways, as the shots and editing are relatively crude.  Partly, this is down to the age of the film, but partly, too, a lack of flair and innovation.

I can't condemn the film for lack of ambition, as it not only adapts that great submarine work '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea', but throws in its sequel 'The Mysterious Island', which, somebody has clearly decided, happened exactly simultaneously.  One affect of this is that the real story of the original book, and its emotional core - Ned Land and Monsieur Arronax trying to escape - is cut entirely.  Another unfortunate impact is that there are too many characters.  The lack of any close-ups at all, and the fact that everybody dresses the same (except Nemo, who dresses like Father Christmas) means the myriad characters are indistinguishable.

All in all, it's a bit of a mess.  In its time, a fabulously expensive mess, and one which did at least give audiences their first view of real live fish under the sea, a spectacle entirely lost on more fish-savvy modern viewers.

Seriously?  He probably left it out on purpose.
P.S. In about fifty films, I've somehow managed to watch three set in submarines.  The others, if you're curious, were 'Das Boot' (1981) and 'Yellow Submarine' (1968), and they're about as diverse a trio as you could find in the blog, or in the century.

P.P.S. The next update is from eleven years later, and will put this film to shame.  Since I've got a '20s film following a '10s one, I might see if I can post one from the 30s after that, and give you ten consecutive posts from consecutive decades, if that makes any sense.

I bet, after my descriptions, you don't want to watch the film.  But in case you do, here it is.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)

Not sure if this is a romantic or a cynical statement.  Maybe both?
This film was made in German-occupied Paris in 1945, at a time when the authorities forbade the production of films any longer than ninety minutes.  Consequently, 'Les Enfants du Paradis' masquerades as two films, or as a film and its sequel, which are always to be shown as a double bill, thus giving us one long story which just happens to have credits before and after its intermission.  Premiere Epoque: 'Le Boulevard du Crime', Deuxieme Epoque: 'L'Homme Blanc'.  I knew I was onto a winner as soon as the words 'The Boulevard of Crime' came onto the screen.  It stirred something within me.  This is one of the most excellent films I've ever met, and I count it a great pity that it's not more widely watched and celebrated.

The story is set in the Paris of the 19th Century, at a time when there were two types of theatre: the classy sort with dialogue and wealthy audiences; and the Pantomime - not the Panto of modern Britain, but a mute sort of melodrama, somewhere between mime, ballet and cartoon, to which the poor flock for their entertainment, and, on a good day, get to see unplanned physical fights break out among the cast on stage.  The 'paradis' of the title, by the way, is the uppermost circle of audience seating, which in the UK is called 'the gods'.

Shakespearian charmer Frédérick Lemaître, and the elusive Garance
Much of the film is set in and around these two sorts of theatre, especially The Funambules, which can only afford a licence to stage pantomime.  Rising to prominence is the truly brilliant Baptiste, who when we first see him witnesses a robbery on the boulevard and reports what he saw to a policeman, communicating only through the medium of excellently enjoyable mime.  Baptiste is a clown of the truest and best kind, like a 19th Century Chaplin: hilarious, but tragic, sentimental and beautiful.

It's an interestingly stylised work, perhaps drawing inspiration from the theatres it describes.  When I first watched it, I wondered whether this was a melodrama of sorts, with everything 'writ large', since some characters seemed at first to be types: the optimistic charmer with theatrical ambitions, the villainous cad with the moustache and the murderous manner, and so on.  As it goes on, though, the characters show themselves to be far more interesting, and far more real, making intelligent decisions at odds with my expectations, and showing themselves to be much more nuanced than they first appeared.  Though told very colourfully, even joyfully, this is a world of real human mistakes and rectifications, passionate but destructively asymmetrical love-affairs.

Lacenaire is kinda the villain I've always wanted to be, except...
Much of the story revolves around Baptiste, who is the first truly great mime performer, the first to compare with the greatest of actors, whose performances are convincingly heartbreaking or cruel.  He falls passionately, too passionately, in love with Garance, a courtesan who matches him for beauty, and who stands out as an unusually interesting and independent female character for this era of films, not at all cold, but never dependent on the male characters, nor ever under their power except for a dark period between the two films.  I'm often surprised by the merits of female characters in the older films I've viewed, especially compared to the stereotypes that come up in more recent, more popular works.  I ought to praise the script here, which is uniformly excellent in dialogue and in the engaging, entrancing story that unfolds in a manner fresh, amusing but ultimately terrible.  I must also add Jean-Louis Barrault and the mononymous Arletty to my list of actors worth watching in anything, though of course there are, of course, many more excellent performances in this double film, but these two deserve special attention.

The film also follows Lacenaire, who somehow manages to be the film's villain without ever really opposing the film's heroes, and Lemaître, a chancer who leaps into acting on a whim, and finds himself excellently popular.  Lemaître has a dream of acting some Shakespeare (oh, you know, that British guy who wrote all those brutal and vulgar melodramas), and tears apart lesser writers, memorably ad libbing a new ending to a disappointing play, refusing to die on cue, and taking the whole audience with him into a magnificent condemnation of the playwrights.

Baptiste and Garance
The four characters all prosper, in some way or another, whether growing in fame or in notoriety, or getting married and having children, but with the wrong person.  None of them seem to find any great security, though Baptiste and Lemaître seem to draw a lot of their skill at performance from their volatility - though this leads to the odd duel or cancelled performance.  Many fine and upsetting things ensue, and twists I yearned for refused to arrive, or are terribly undermined by more complicated, more painful answers.  In the end, in the midst of the bustling carnival, Garance slips away forever into the crowd, and Baptiste, in desperate pursuit of his true and obsessive love, finds himself fighting helplessly through a sea of revellers, all dressed as his famous stage persona.  It's a desperate scene, and a distressing end to a character.  I don't like to spoil endings, but this moment is just a small fraction of the conclusion to the film, and the many stories of the two theatres.

Despite having seen this only twice, I'd happily claim it as one of my favourite films, and even in translation one of my favourite scripts to anything.  Despite its tragic turns and complications, few films make me so happy as this, and very few are so suited to my tastes.  Said François Truffaut, "I would give up all my films to have directed Children of Paradise".  As a writer of sorts, I'd happily say something very similar of the screenplay.  Off-hand, I'd be hard-pressed to find something I'd more happily be responsible for than this.  Its lightness of touch, its sense of freedom, beauty and delight is all the more notable for the fact it was filmed in an occupied country in the midst of a war.

P.S. It turns out the actors I praised are both in 'The Longest Day' (1962), which I accidentally bought from a charity shop last year, so I imagine I'll be slipping that in somewhere later in the project.  Is it any good?

I'd urge you to watch this film some day.  It's extremely good, and it saddens me to think something so good, so well-made, so enjoyable, with these performances and this dialogue, is as good as unknown in the UK.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

Cigarettes aren't cool, except this one.
For some reason, I always imagined this would be in monochrome.  It's a title I've often heard, and I know the famous poster, and I've been coasting on certain assumptions from that, it seems.  What did I know about this film before I saw it?  I had a notion it was a classic, probably a romance or romantic comedy, and that it was exceptionally classy.

So why, if it's clearly a good, cool, and well-regarded film, had it never been placed before me?  I couldn't think of anyone who claimed it as their favourite, or had enthused to me about it, as they do about other famous romances of the forties and fifties (decades to which I'd hitherto tied this work of the early sixties).  I believe the answer may be this: Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi.

Mickey Rooney as I.Y. Yunioshi
In the midst of a highly entertaining romantic comedy, Mr Yunioshi is a grotesque Japanese stereotype played outrageously and with great gusto by a yellowed-up Caucasian.  This, as we have learnt in more recent decades, is just not on.  Indeed, by the sixties, they really ought to have known better.  He's not in much of the film, but when he's on-screen he's certainly noticeable, and he's the second character to appear, so his outlandish role and performance are some of the first things to meet the unprepared viewer.

I'm tempted to go on saying 'if we ignore this unfortunate blemish, the film is great fun,' and so on, but I'm not sure casual racism is something we ought to ignore.  Now, I'm more liberal than some on the issue of blacking up, yellowing up and such, and will offer an attempt at defence of Laurence Olivier's Othello in 1965, or John Bennett's Li H'sen Chang in 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' (1977), as it's just feasible that they were the best of the available actors for those dramatic roles at the time, but Mickey Rooney's performance here just takes the biscuit: histrionic, clumsy, myopic and perpetually outraged, with the gigantic teeth that one can likewise find in inherently horrible Japanese characters in Hergé's Tintin.

Seized by a compulsion, Holly and Paul shoplift some animal masks.
The rest of the film is good, is funny, and touching.  It's a fine romance and a successful comedy, and the characters are likable and complex enough to be genuinely interesting.  Audrey Hepburn plays the lead, Holly Golightly, a role written for Marilyn Monroe, an eccentric young socialite who meets a handsome writer (George Peppard, later known for 'The A-Team' in the 80s).  The two get on well, cavort most merrily, and in general have a highly-charged friendship that is probably romantic, though the two seem reluctant to make that overt.  It's a format that I particularly enjoy, so I found myself somewhat anguished when, inevitably, complications of history, money and future arise in the film's midst and pretty much destroy the relationship's merits and prospects.  They'd been so innocently happy together (and in a brief moment of petty shoplifting, guiltily happy) that it seems everything is rather irreparably spoilt.

There's hope, on and off, though I shan't say any more about what ensues.  It's a well-written film, adapting a novella by Truman Capote, which seems to be enough of a selling-point that I ought at least to mention it.  As I intimated above, I can't quite come to recommend it, as Mr. Yunioshi is a small but significant sour point in something that ought to be sweet.  On the basis of his appearance, planned screenings of the film are on occasion cancelled or boycotted, and the reputation of the whole is marred.

Nonetheless, here's your chance to exercise your rights as a materialist.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Train to Hell (maybe 1993, but let's say 1998)

...featuring Malcolm McDowell as 'STRANGER'
First things first.  This is a 98-minute film called 'Night Train to Venice', except that the version I saw was only about 70 minutes long, and was entitled 'Train to Hell', and seems to be a shortened, retitled version of the original.  Wikipedia claims it came out in 1996, or possibly 1992, and Amazon says 1993, and the laserdisc thinks it was 1994, while IMDB suggests its original German release was 1995, and its appearance at Cannes was 1996.  Given the nature of my blog's project, I'd be very glad of any pointers on this.  Anyway It's an English-language German film with an Italian director, set in Venice.

It stars Malcolm McDowell and a young, not-yet-famous Hugh Grant, and is beneath their dignity.  It also prominently features Rachel Rice, a child actress of average quality who went on to win Big Brother in 2008.  It's an attempt at gothic horror, and it sees Hugh Grant play a writer taking the Orient Express to Venice, carrying with him the manuscript of his exposé of neo-Nazism.  However, the train also harbours a number of skinheads, and a nameless slow-motion man of malignity, the frowning STRANGER.

It looks to be a doomed romance, but turns out just to be a romance.
How disappointing.
There's the germ of a good and frightening story here: a writer smuggling his book on neo-nazis on a train full of 'em, and arriving in Venice to find that they own the publishing house he's travelled to visit.  Unfortunately, the skinheads are played rather extraordinarily, and not in a good way.  The STRANGER, that malign Englishman who spends the film looking at people and causing them to hallucinate flashbacks and flash-forwards, is the film's real villain.  Or is he?  He's hardly hands-on, and while he clearly has some influence over minds, and comes across as habitually sinister, he never actually does anything.  Nothing at all.  He seems to have some influence on a crash late in the film, but since it hinders the skinheads far more than the heroes, perhaps The STRANGER is not a satanic being, but a force for good, albeit one with the manners of a pervert.

So yes, since the villains hardly bother him on the train journey (thus making the film's first half less exciting than it might have been), Hugh Grant has ample time to fall into a fairly nineties romance with Vera (Tahnee Welch).  It has all the hallmarks of a doomed romance, and a tragedy all-round, with omens erroneously portending the death of Vera's simpering daughter and a great number of allusions to 'Romeo and Juliet' (1595).  The film seems, up to this point, keen to ape 'Don't Look Now' (a credible horror film from 1973, which I've always preferred to call 'Don't Look Now, Vicar!' as if it was instead a mildly saucy farce) - but doesn't deliver on the promise of its horror.  It's rather disappointing, in fact, that the film doesn't end with the promised bloodbath, but with a long being-in-love montage of an amnesiac Grant smiling, and Vera smiling, and her daughter smiling, and everyone being generally glad, and a pigeon flying over Venice, and some sex-having, and then some more smiling.  All this for two or three minutes over a not-wholly-tuneful love-song.  It's my hope, though research has not yet backed it up, that there exists a version of this film with a more gruesome conclusion.

Will the child fall off the balcony?  I guess so.
'Train to Hell' is one of a trio of DVDs which made an unexpected appearance through my letter-box on Monday.  I'd heard it spoken of, and Andrew, who had done the speaking, realised that the best way to make me watch it (and I watched it immediately) was to get it into my house.

So, why do I suppose he thought I should watch 'Train to Hell'?  Well, we both help out on a young people's holiday-camp each August where, among other things, we help the young people shoot and edit videos.  He knows my penchant for either saving or ruining un-extraordinary scenes with alarming editing techniques: slowing down reaction shots to 10% of their proper speed, say, or cutting in fragments of footage from the wrong scene to give the audience something unexpected.  Both of these techniques, which I had never dared to expect in a professional work, are used with tremendous frequency throughout 'Train to Hell', with McDowell's ominously-looking-at-things shots, which make up the large portion of his action, routinely stretched to two or four times their original length, and intercut with shots of dogs and low-budget Nazi rallies.

The STRANGER, again.  Looking on in slow motion, again.
Ought we to boo him, do you think?
I'm especially glad that some people are willing to recommend me films which are unusual and bad, or at least not conventionally good.  Quite a lot of ordinarily imaginative people have recommended me 'Metropolis' (1927), as if it really needs any recommendations at all, and I'm sure that when I get to it I'll find it easy to watch and easy to enjoy, but almost impossible to write about in a new or interesting way, since everybody knows it's epic, beautiful and magnificent.  But the mysterious 'Train to Hell'?  There's far more meat here for The Penciltonian.  Andrew has recommended the similarly questionable-looking 'Ninja Terminator' (1985), and I'm reminded of Opai's distressing recommendation of 'Na Srebrnym Globie' (1977).  Wouldn't this blog be tedious if I only looked at the stone-cold classics?

On the subject of tedium, let's return briefly to the issue of what year I'm attaching to 'Train to Hell'?  A great deal of googling has revealed no real authority on the issue, but I have a theory, which I've backed up with another look at the closing credits.  Here's my idea: 'Night Train to Venice' was made in 1993, as any later and Hugh Grant would have been too famous.  That's presumably the 98-minute version, and was released some time between 1993 and 1996.  However, since this retitled version, 'Train to Hell', is rather shorter, I reasoned it must have been a significant re-edit (to make it shorter, better or simply different), put out a few years later.  There is indeed a small credit for 'Reedited Version by Toni Hirtreiter and Heinrich Richter', and a copyright date of 1998.  So let's go with that, shall we?  'Night Train to Venus' from 1993ish, and this snappily-titled cut-down released 5 years later, in '98.

P.S. Perhaps the closest amateur work I've seen to the tone of 'Train to Hell' is a short horror movie of dubious merit, made by my old housemate Chris Bambling, and entitled 'Retail II' (2009ish).  He gave up part-way through shooting, and eventually gave me the footage to edit, so I cut out all the punchlines to jokes, and made as much of a meal of the edit as I could.  The similarity between the two works is concerning for 'Train to Hell', but I feel 'Retail II' is somehow vindicated.  Watch its eight terrifying minutes here on Youtube, if you dare.

Should you have the urge to check my findings, here's the thing on DVD.  Enjoy, but beware!