The Woman in the Window (1944)

23 07 2009

Another nice, solid noir from Fritz Lang’s American period. Unlike most of his films from the 50s, this one is loaded with his trademark (shadow-filled) visual sensibility. This is, at least from a cinematography standpoint, quintessential film noir. The cast is ideal too, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea all deliver riveting performance. This is essential to as the story itself is rather unremarkable, not to mention hard to believe in the first place. Once one gets past the melodramatic turns, it’s pretty smooth sailing.

Edward G. Robinson plays Professor Richard Wanley, a teacher of criminology studies at Gotham College. For reasons left unknown, he lives away from his family, who he sends off back “home” in the very beginning. His life is filled with fascinating conversations with his colleagues, and well, nothing much else. Leaving his apartment, he passes by a painting of a woman. He finds it fascinating, and his interest only becomes deeper when a woman (Joan Bennet) who bears a striking resemblance to the woman in the painting, approaches him. The woman is Alice Reed and, despite the implied age difference, they hit it off. They wind up back at Alice’s apartment, but their good time is ruined when one of Alice’s recent flings come crashing into her apartment. He attacks Wanley, who stabs the man with a pair of scissors in self-defense.

At this point, the audience is required to use their imagination a little bit. Being a criminology expert, Wanley should call the police and admit to murdering in self-defense. Curiously, he doesn’t and decides to dump the body in a nearby forest. The film’s finale (which I’ll try not to give away) does offer something of an explanation to Wanley’s poor judgment, but it doesn’t make his decision any easier to accept. Despite his profession, Wanley makes a couple of key areas when disposing of the body, as well as when he returns to the crime scene as a guest to one of his colleagues.

The not so logical narrative does not overwhelm the rest of the film’s strength. As expected, the cinematography is stunning, and as I already mentioned, the performances are all pretty decent. There’s nothing particularly unique about this picture, especially since Lang would collaborate with a majority of the same cast two years later with Scarlet Street, which is better remembered. It’s a nice stylistic exercise for Lang, but it isn’t entirely remarkable on its own. Not a bad film from any stretch of the imagination, but not really a great one either.

La Cina è vicina (1967)

22 07 2009

Another fine effort from Marco Bellocchio, but in all honesty, I think there’s a very good reason why this film isn’t as famous as Fists in the Pockets: it’s not nearly as good. Sure, Bellocchio’s previous effort walks a rather sketchy line between goofy horror and “art film” but there’s nothing exactly irritating about his attempts to scare the audience. Here, his intentions are to preach to the audience and boy does he ever preach! I can see how some of this stuff is suppose to be funny, but it ultimately comes up as being silly near-slapstick humor placed in a political context rather than actual political humor.

One could argue that this Bellocchio’s own Before the Revolution but doing so would, in my opinion, be selling Bertolucci’s masterpiece short. His film has plenty of political and philosophical exercises as well, but they are all done within the background of a interesting and complicated relationship. The opposite is being done here, a tumultuous relationship is providing the background for a “serious” political statement. While I guess it is good that Bellocchio doesn’t try to take himself too seriously with his convictions, I also wish I wouldn’t have to sit through his blabbering on the state of modern politics. This is more of a personal preference, in all actuality this isn’t an overwhelmingly political film, but it still is a political film.

Don’t get me wrong, though, there are plenty of good things here. The cinematography, courtesy of the prolific Tonino Delli Colli (who collaborated with everyone from Leone to Pasolini) is absolutely stunning. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Bellocchio filled his movie with plenty of beautiful women. On that note, the careers of the entire cast (save maybe Glauco Mauri who would go to star in Argento’s Deep Red) would be almost exclusively downhill from this point on. Considering the wordiness of the script (another fault in Bellocchio’s corner) all of the performances are handled rather well with a very naturalistic tone. I certainly wouldn’t advise anyone against seeing this picture, but maybe that’s because I have a soft spot for black-and-white Italian films from the 1960s. Approach with caution, I suppose.

Quatorze Juillet (1933)

20 07 2009

Not quite as innovative as Á nous la liberté (which actually came two years earlier) but it certainly is just as funny. Also, instead of a rather heavy-handed rant against industrialism and everything it entails, this is a very sweet and tender ode to a young romance. In its own cutesy (not a fault in this case) and very French way, it reminds me of a Frank Borzage film. It is perhaps one-dimensional and unrealistic in its depiction of love, but it feels right and looks wonderful.

Jean, a taxi cab driver and Anna, a flower girl, are very much in love during the celebration of Bastille Day in Paris, France. They quarrel, but they fail back into eachothers’ arms before the night is over. Jean returns back to his apartment with a not so pleasant surprise, his ex-lover Paula. It only takes a few minutes to realize that she is a manipulator, the antithesis of Anna, and she talks Jean into letting her spend the night. With her arrival comes the departure of Jean and Anna’s relationship. She pushes Jean into the shady lifestyle of gangster, a life where his closest friends are missing. More importantly, Anna is nowhere to be seen as well.

Taking the Borzage comparison into account, it is pretty easy to see where the narrative turns from here. Needless to say, the conclusion is not just touching, it is life-affirming, assuming the viewer is in the right state of mind and isn’t a completely hopeless cynic. The depiction of love here (and in a majority of Borzage’s pictures) is naive, almost fairytale-esque, but there’s a grain of truth to it all, and this tiny truthful fragment is what makes Clair’s picture work.

Clair’s formal experimentation from his previous films is pretty much absent here, but instead his aesthetic represents a well-formed, albeit more conventional cinematic presentation. The sound here is natural, not ambient abstraction, which kind of helps the comedic relief flow much better, but I suppose it calls less attention to itself. Depending on your outlook, this is either a good thing or a bad thing. Watching Clair’s work for its technical accomplishments is a just thing to do, he was (or is) a master, but his art goes beyond its form. There’s something profoundly moving about this love story, no matter how predictable and old-fashioned it seems.

Track of the Cat (1954)

18 07 2009

This is not one of Wellman’s very best efforts, but easily one of his most curious. It’s some sort of weird Dreyer-Bigger Than Life hybrid oozing with a style that attempts to overcome its rather one-dimensionally “profound” narrative regarding Robert Mitchum hunting a black panther. It is undeniably a striking film, especially from a visual standpoint and even though it doesn’t amount to a masterpiece, it is one of the most fascinating Hollywood pictures of the 1950s. If nothing else, I can admire this film for its cynical characters and Wellman’s own uncompromising visual experiment.

For a good twenty minutes or so, Wellman dwells in the brutal atmosphere of the Bridges family. Ma Bridges (Beulah Bondi) is, to say the least, not afraid of voicing her opinion. She is quick to criticize her youngest son, Harold (Tab Hunter) for his plans to marry Gwen Williams, played by Diana Lynn. Meanwhile, Harold’s two older brothers, Curt (Mitchum) and Arthur (William Hopper) are suiting up for the outdoors. Curt plans to dispose of the black panther that has been troubling the Bridges’ livestock.

Right from the get go, Mitchum makes it obvious that he is extremely dedicated to catching and killing the panther that has been terrorizing his family. His dedication is met with indifference from Harold and skepticism from his mother. His father has already drunk himself into stupor (despite the fact that it is early in the morning) but his other brother, Arthur, tags along. Mitchum’s performance does cross the line into the absurd at times, but if anything, it only enhances the already unique and bizarre tone of a picture. It plays out like a more hammy (and more American) depiction of a Carl Dreyer drama.

Wellman’s usual formal brilliance doesn’t hurt in this particular case. The backstory of this particular film is that he designed the sets for black and white, but shot the film itself in color. There’s a few shades of bright colors – the red of Mitchum’s coat is the most significant (and the one most often discussed) but that once again, makes the film that much more fascinating. It parades itself around as some sort of novelty experiment, but it really is a joy to watch. The drama that unfolds is completely overdone, but it seems so irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. It doesn’t seem like a conscious decision on Wellman (or anybody else’s) part but again, it just makes the film so bizarre.

Wellman is, in my mind, the most technically advanced director of Hollywood’s best era so it should come as no surprise that one of the most technically innovative features in the history of mainstream cinema bears his name. It is a very Wellman-esque picture even though the man himself never became bogged down by a set of themes, or even a particular aesthetic. He is often described as versatile, and it is films like this one that provide the basis of that statement. I feel I’ve made it clear that I don’t think as highly of this film as say, Yellow Sky or Wild Boys of the Road, but I think it is both very cool and very impressive that it was made.

Shane (1953)

16 07 2009

Well, this has the unfortunate disadvantage of having to live up to a pretty great reputation. As I expected, it doesn’t really, but it is a pretty decent picture anyway, not to mention a very curious western from the genre’s golden period. It’s very obviously directed by someone who isn’t exactly a western specialist. George Stevens never made another western and it kind of shows as nearly every idea he wants to express about the genre is front and center. This, of course, is the antithesis of my favorite westerns from the 50s, the work of Mann and Boetticher and so on. That said, this is a very interesting picture and no western fan should ignore it.

Like a great deal of “arty” westerns from this period, Shane concerns the loneliness, the isolation of its otherwise heroic and ideal character. In this case, the titular character is seen as heroic and ideal and rightfully so, as the film unfolds through the eyes of a young boy. This young boy, Joey, craves the action found in Shane’s life but obviously, he has no means of understanding the personal, deeper, and more complex necessities absent in Shane’s lifestyle. Joey wants the wandering, adventurous life of Shane, while Shane himself longs for a simple family life, something that Joey has.

I’d hate to oversimplify the relationships Stevens documents, but I can’t help but find this longing for normality (really just a family) is something that has been handled much better by the great Anthony Mann in Man of the West. Mann’s film is concise and to the point, where Stevens’ is paced more deliberately. If there’s anything especially unique about this film, it is Stevens’ technique. He seems to hold his shots longer than any full-time western director that I know of, and even though he is stuck in the dull combination of color + academy ratio, he does manage to create some powerful visuals. The low-angle cinematography in the final shootout actually reminds me of Ozu more than anything else.

Another noteworthy factor here is Jean Arthur, in her final performance as Van Heflin’s wife. She’s excellent here, in what is perhaps the first performance in which she has to show a range outside of her usual witty self present in her earlier comedy roles. There’s a hint that Alan Ladd is fostering some romantic feelings to her, but nothing more than a handshake becomes of this. It’s not unlike Ford’s original ending for My Darling Clementine actually, and Ladd’s yearning is right on par with Fonda’s in terms of subtlety and complexity. This isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a damn fine film.