Winchester 73 (1950)

17 08 2008

If wasn’t for the sentimental bias I attribute to Mann’s The Tin Star, this would probably be my favorite western of his. While most of his work during this period is classified as being personal and centered on a single protagonist’s psychology, this film shows his abilities to depict a large cast of complex and fleshed-out characters. Indeed, this will remind one of those multiple connecting storylines narratives that are so popular in modern cinema, but Mann handles it in manner that is far more gentle than Paul Thomas Anderson, or whoever else specializes in such pictures.

Lin McAdam has been trying to track down his brother for some time now. He is not on friendly terms with his brother, though, because it is he who killed his father. Finally, the two catch up with one another at a shooting contest. Both participate, but Lin emerges victorious and his prize is a Winchester ’73, a one-of-a-kind rifle. His brother, who now goes by the name of Dutch Henry Brown, steals the rifle and quickly escapes out of town. Lin’s interest lies more in capturing his brother than it does in retrieving in the gun, which is passed through multiple characters, all of whom are in close contact with Lin.

There is certain type of dramatic predictability that goes hand-in-hand with these connecting storylines sort of films, but whatever it is, Mann stays clear of it. It is astonishing to think that this was marketed as a conventional action movie in 1950, especially when modern audiences would most likely give in as soon as the camera strayed from Jimmy Stewart, who, by the way, delivers a great performance here. Between this and The Naked Spur, I’d go as far to say that he was really a great performer with an ability to imply a certain depth not present in the scripts of these films. Of course, much credit goes to Mann as well, who labored over most of these stock scripts and transformed them into the cinematic masterpieces they are.

The way in which Mann implies that something much more important and emotional is going on underneath the obvious drama definitely reminds one of Hiroshi Shimizu’s Arigato-san, in which the upbeat attitudes clashes with a rather tragic tale. In Mann’s case, the condition of these characters compliments the dramatic arc, which makes them all the more difficult to notice. This is what Mann has always done, though, and it is what makes his films so great. The cinematography here doesn’t have the benefit of being widescreen or being in color, but it is absolutely gorgeous. The visuals have the same sort of clarity and beauty found in many of Mikio Naruse’s films of the same time. In a way, Mann is somewhat of America’s answer to Naruse. Both filmmakers create something underneath the simple surface drama, and it is what makes their work so appealing.

El Cid (1961)

17 08 2008

So for some strange reason, Anthony Mann transitioned from being the single best Western director of the 1950s to a maker of extravagant epic period-pieces such as this film in the 1960s. The “Mann sensibility” is still undeniably present here; in spite of the formalistic attitudes of many characters, the film is just as gritty and sweaty as Mann’s best work. The main problem here doesn’t even lie in the over-the-top performance of Charlton Heston, or anyone else, but just in the film’s overall pacing. Oddly enough, the story breezes by rather quickly for the first two and a half hours, but the last thirty minutes seem painfully drawn out. The way in which the film drags to its finale is all the more disappointing since it is coming from Anthony Mann, perhaps the single most “no-bullshit” director of all-time.

The title character, El Cid, is the central focus and we are introduced to him while he is in the middle of capturing two prisoners. While the government expects the death of these prisoners, Cid, being the compassionate person he is, lets them go. Once the Kingdom gets word of this, Cid is put on trial for treason. In the middle of this mix-up, he ends up murdering Gomez, the father of his lover, Chimene. To compensate for the loss of Gomez, Cid volunteers to be the King’s fighter. He is victorious in the following duel, but Chimene is still angry and she hatches a plot to kill Cid, which fails. The result is that Cid marries Chimene.

While it is easy to get tied up and distracted by all the surface-level appearance of El Cid, Mann manages to work his way around the “epic-ness” of the picture and make it come off fairly straightforward and intimately. The film’s scope covers a long period of time but it, for lack of a better description, makes sense in the long run. Cid’s relationship with Chimene is initially confusing, what with all the extreme changes in attitudes, but it begins to make sense once the audience begins to realize the repetitious nature of their loving and hating patterns. Unfortunately, that’s not to say that there is some deep character study brewing underneath the story (like there is in Mann’s westerns) but the relationships and the characters are well drawn for what they are. This is quite a lot, though, especially considering how prestigious and “serious” such content is intended to be.

On the more positive side, Mann’s visual eye is at its best here, with some of the most gorgeous compositions in his entire career on display. While one can argue that it is difficult not to make such a large-scale production look beautiful, Mann still does it in his usual intimate and greasy way. His attention to textures is always a wonderful thing to watch unfold, especially when said textures are captured as gorgeously as they are here. There are plenty of things wrong with this movie, but it is worthwhile experience to just sit back and appreciate on a purely visual level.

M Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

17 08 2008

I was actually expecting this to be a lot more old-fashioned than the subsequent films in the “M. Hulot” series. Even at the very beginning of his career, Tati had a knack for long, uninterrupted takes with very little dialogue. Actually, I found this to be a bit more contemplative and relaxed than Trafic, which felt a little over-edited at certain points. Here, the cuts are much more gentle but still precise, not unlike Ozu’s famed “pillow-shots.” In fact, M Hulot’s Holiday does play out a bit like a full-length feature of pillow-shots, which indicates its best qualities as well as its worst.

Monsieur Hulot goes on holiday at a seaside resort, but his presence leads to anything but rest and relaxation for those around him. No matter what he’s doing, he always seems to bring out the worst of a situation. Even when he first enters the resort, he produces an unpleasant experience for the other residence of the resorts. His unintentional clown act invites the attention of a young woman named Martine. She finds Hulot extremely charming, though probably for reasons that Hulot himself is not aware of. As expected, there relationship never quite gets going due to all the comedic problems that come with Hulot.

Like all of Tati’s films, this one is a bit limited by the fact that it is a series of visual slapstick comedy gags spread out for a full feature. Many of the bits are wonderful, funny, and sometimes even truthful but others go on for too long. There is something limiting about all of Tati’s films, in the sense that they are confined to the same sort of emotional level. That isn’t to say that all of Tati’s films are empty, but that they never go beyond the poignancy that comes with Monsieur Hulot’s hijinks. Yes, there is a somewhat sad story underneath all of the laughs, but it feels too unimportant overall. As it stands, Play Time is the most perfect representation of Tati reaching something emotionally substantial while still being completely entertaining. This comes close, but it still seems like Tati is trying to figure himself out, in a cinematic sense.