Talking Pictures

Just another weblog

Their Finest, Britain, Sweden 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 27, 2017

This was a BBC project which enjoyed Stephen Woolley as a key producer and recruited Lone Scherfig as director. It was adapted from the novel by Lissa Evans, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, by Gabby Chiape. Stephen Woolley has written on the background to the film in Sight & Sound (May 2017) and there is also an interview with Lone Scherfig in this issue. All of them bring their particular talents to the film. This bears the hall marks of the BBC, both in the reconstruction of wartime Britain and in its particular sense of British values, from the 1940s and the C21st. Stephen Woolley appears to have spearheaded the research into the British film industry of the 1940s, which is the setting for this comedy/drama. Lone Scherfig shows the skill with actors that she demonstrated in An Education (2009) and the combination of comedy and drama that graced the earlier Italian for Beginners (2000). Gabby Chiape has previously written for television, [including ‘East Enders’] and whilst this is a big-screen film the  interactions have a familiar tone found in a certain area of television. The production values are excellent, notably some fine cinematography.

Set in 1940 the film follows the career of Catrin Cole (Gemma Atherton) when she is recruited to provide ‘authentic’ dialogue for documentary shorts and to provide ‘women’s’ dialogue’ for a feature film. Catrin is actually cohabiting with painter Ellis Cole though she passes as married. She is recruited by the Ministry of Information and then placed in a commercial film company charged with producing ‘propaganda’ that offers ‘authenticity and optimism to inspire a nation’. The brief is also to feature stories about ordinary people including women. Catrin interviews two sisters whose exploit [exaggerated] provides the pitch for a drama around the Dunkirk Evacuation.

Catrin works with two experienced writers in a small office near Wardour Street. Their impresario, Gabriel baker (Henry Goodman) is clearly modeled on Alexander Korda. The lead writer, Tom Buckley (Sam Caflin), is worldly wise in the ways of the industry. Their narrative becomes a ‘film within a film’, The Nancy Starling.

Parfitt, Catrin, Tom

The cast are filled out with the members of the film production and Whitehall mandarins who are overseeing the project. There is a substantial role for Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard [‘Uncle Frank’ in the film within]. Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons both have sequences where they deliver the rhetoric of the period with aplomb. And the latter adds a ‘yank’ to the film, Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy) seconded from the RAF where he has volunteered as a fighter pilot. Carl has to be given acting lessons by ‘Uncle Frank’ but his presence means that the film will receive US distribution and is shot in Technicolor.

The pre-production sequences where the script emerges and the writers are embroiled in the departmental wartime politics work well. The productions sequences, with a film directed by a documentary filmmaker, capture the technical and conventional aspects of 1940s filming. And the ‘film within a film’ nicely parallels the developments in the actual feature.

The emphasis in the feature is on the writing aspects of film. The film production within this feature uses some settings with visual interest and also with humour. So there is a wry joke regarding ‘Uncle Frank’ and special effects: and a later one whilst shooting a scene in the studio water tank. As well as the ‘ham’ US actor there is [predictably] the rescue of a cute dog.

However, there is much less attention paid to the film crafts people than to the writers. Thus the film is supposed directed by someone from the documentary film movement, but we never get any sense of this character. And this applies to the technical people such as cinematographer or sound engineer. And there is no real focus on the editing of the film.

What we do see is a visit by Catrin to a cinema where she watches [in a series of brief clips] the finished and distributed film. The audience at the screening are clearly both involved and entertained by the feature. We watch, in particular, the climax and ending of the film. By this stage we know that finally Catrin has been able to write in a sequence in which one of the sister performs a ‘heroic’ act. And we know that she has written the ending for the film after US distributors thought the original ending to ‘tame’.

This is the one part of the film that we see that has a documentary flavour. With a voice over by one of the characters, intoning the message of continued struggle and US support, there is a long shot of a couple seated on the harbour wall in a small port in Devon; [actually shot in Pembrokeshire which means that the fictional harbour faces east and the location harbour faces west leading to a slight visual mismatch]. We have seen this shot earlier; it is in reality a test shot before the actual filming and is of two of the key characters in the feature itself. This precedes a final sequence where we see that Catrin has succeeded in becoming part of the established film writing team.

This ending takes on a special emotional feel because of development among the key characters in the feature’s story. Whilst the ending of a ‘film within a film’ provides a suitable war-time feel of ‘authenticity’, with ‘optimism’ in the commentary, the knowledge we have about this couple adds a real poignancy to the feature film’s ending.

The shooting of the film within a film in Technicolor is well done and enables the film to be predominantly in colour. Less happily we see extracts from 1940s films, [including the production in this feature] projected for viewers in Academy ratio and then [as clips] re-framed in the 2.35:1 ratio. I find this distracting and unnecessary; presumably the BBC was looking forward to television screenings.

But I was also undecided just how well presented is the supposed 1940 film. In his article Stephen Woolley lists a number of British productions from the period that he and colleagues studied in order to gauge style and content. Most of these are familiar titles such as The Foreman Went to France (1940) or ‘Pimpernel’ Smith (1941): but there are also lesser known features such as Tomorrow We Live’ (1944). This feature is placed in a period of transition from the 1930s style, frequently relying on conventional techniques and lacking authenticity, certainly in terms of working class characters, to the wartime ‘documentary influenced’ approach epitomized in a film like Love on the Dole (also 1941)..

The Technicolor films that spring to mind are those of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, later and a long way from either the feature or its film within. And there is an uneven tone, notably in the acting. Bill Nighy has been critically commended but I found his ‘Uncle Frank’ stagy for any sense of authenticity. This may be deliberate by the filmmakers,, but it left me unconvinced by the audience response in the cinema to this film within.

The ending/s

The feature has a very intriguing treatment of it’s two endings; one of the overall title and one of the ‘film within a film’.. Michael Walker authored a key study of ‘Endings in Cinema’ (Palgrave/Macmillan 2020), sadly he died in 2022. The subtitle of the book offers an idea of his treatment, ‘Thresholds, Water and the Beach’.

Thresholds’ is divided into categories and several apply to Their Finest: ‘Lovers Separation’: World War 2′: and ‘Wartime Homecoming’. ‘Water is also relevant, under ‘The Waterside’ we have,

In the first [category], the characters are beside water. Here harbours are a distinct category, …”

Michael mentions Tokyo Story and another relevant title would be On the Waterfront. The book focuses on ‘ship and boat departures’. However, here there is a harbour which is the site, indirectly, of ‘lovers’ separation’, set in World War 2 and which follows a wartime homecoming.

I need to summarise in greater detail both narratives for this discussion; Catrin’s career as a writer starts on documentaries and then is promoted to a feature film; for the latter she is to write the ‘slop’, which refers to women’s dialogue and roles in the narrative. The film within a film tells of the exploits of two sisters who set out to rescue stranded British soldiers at Dunkirk: part of a flotilla which is one of the most important myths for British representation of World War 2.

The transfer of the story to a script involves changes from the actual: the sisters never reached Dunkirk but Catrin keeps this secret: a US citizen, flying with the RAF, is added to the production in order to interest audiences in the USA: there are different versions of how a jammed propeller is fixed in the crossing: and there is a changed endings, partly to satisfy the US distributors, but partly because an accident disrupts the production before its completion.

We see the preparation and production of the film, titled ‘The Nancy Starling’. This is accompanied by a growing relationship between Catrin and the chief script writer Tom. But Tom is killed is a studio accident. The accident forces the production to change crucial scenes which were not already shot. Catrin has to work on these changes. However, the traumatised Catrin finishes her work but cannot bring herself to attend the film’s premiere.

One of the actors, Ambrose, persuades her to go to see the film. We accompany Catrin as she sits through a screening of the film, shot in academy and Technicolor and enjoyed by an appreciative audience. One aspect of ‘The Nancy Starling’ is that Rose (Angela Ralli-Thomas, i.e. Stephanie Hyam) is courted both by the American character, Brannigan {played by Carl Lundbeck) and a British Tommy, Johnnie (Wyndham Best i.e. Hubert Burton). The film ends with Rose saying goodbye to Brannigan, (who narrates in a voice-over dubbed for the character) and then she is seen in a two-shot with her Johnnie; resolving both relationships but satisfying the US distributor. The final sequence includes the harbour which featured in the film and a long shot of a couple sitting on the quayside. Only Catrin, (and we the audience) will know that this a test shot taken at the beginning of the shoot and the couple are actually Catrin and Sam.

This is a moment of real emotion; Catrin sees her lost love and, ironically, the couple’s situation is the reverse of that implicit in the shot’s position in the finished film. Thus the moment offers both ‘lovers’ separation’ alongside ‘wartime homecoming’. It is a rich and complex motif. It is also, as far as I can tell, a rare example of one of Michael Walkers endings in a film within a film. A parallel is Day for Night / La Nuit américaine, François Truffaut’s 1973 film about the making of a film: but the ‘film within a film’ does not resolve in one of Michael’s ending: though the ending of the actual film has crossovers with Their Finest.

However, in the part of the book devoted to beaches Michael does write about films that include home movies in their endings. Given the shot of the harbour is a test shot, only included in the film due to the studio accident, it acts like a home movie for Catrin.

Michael’s examples include the well-known Philadelphia (1993) and the less well-known Australian title Little Fish (2005). He comments:

” … in cases where the home movie is shown in retrospect, the effect is usually poignant – the image involves a past happiness or innocence which contrasts with the present. It is thus not surprising that many of these examples occur within the context of bereavement – one of the characters in the home movie is now dead.”

This is exactly how the sequence in Their Finest works. And the feature, in some ways paralleling Tokyo Story, uses a harbour more in line with those of Michael’s beaches rather than the harbours with arrivals and departures.

The main narrative in Their Finest has a much more upbeat ending. The final sequence shows Catrin, working alongside Parfitt (Paul Ritter, a colleague of Sam), on a new script involving air raid wardens. We already know that Ambrose will star in the film. As Phyl (Rachel Stirling – a Ministry of Information executive) calls to check on progress she advises Catrin to give the feature a ‘happy ending’.

Their Finest was released in 2016 and Michael, who was already ill from a rare blood disorder] does not appear to have seen this title. In other parts of the book, under ‘Tropes and Motifs’, and in the most substantial discussion of ‘beach endings’ the book traces a whole series of endings which work as recurring motifs about characters relationships and fates. There are also numerous discussions of films. One relevant is here is the ending of Titanic; there are parallels in the reuniting of the divided couple here: though Titanic has a reunion almost as an upbeat dream whilst Their Finest is both ironic and tragic.

As usual the transfer of a book to a movie led to an amount of the written story, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’ by Lissa Evans, 2009, being removed. This applies to both characters and plot. There is much more about the blitz and other characters living/working under it: a second couple in the book are not in the film: in the book Ambrose is a more central figure: Tom is younger than in the book: and we learn more about life in the location setting. The book ends with Catrin going to a cinema to see the feature, here titled ‘Forbidden Voyage’. In the book the final voice-over is by Hannigan, the US character in the book, who is dubbed here by Ambrose, and the wording is slightly different from the film,

you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m not leaving before the end. Because I know now that it has to be the right sort of ending, the sort of ending that’s worth fighting for.”

over panorama of the quayside

Catrin stays to watch the feature a second time.

She glanced round at her fellow picture-goers (also staying for a repeat performance) and felt a flicker of pride that they too wanted to stay.

It was a good film.

Some day she’d write one that was even better.”

The substantial amount of character and plot in the movie are more or less the same as in the book. What is added is more cover of the production of the feature. And we see rather than read of the finished film. One clip is of the rescue of a dog by Johnnie, near Dunkirk.

This applies especially to the end of the film within a film. This includes a sequence where Rose untangles the propeller.

In the book, the boat, named ‘Redoubtable’in the book.,reaches home to applause from the audience. And whilst the quayside appears there is nothing resembling the significance of a shot containing any of the characters. Like several successful additions in the movie version the harbour shot of Catrin and Sam has been added, presumably at the script stage. It is a genuine cinematic trope and brings in the resonances which Michael describes in his book.

Their Finest is a finely produced feature. Shot in colour and widescreen 2.35:1, running 117 minutes; it was co-produced by BBC Films with (among others) Welsh Screen where some location filming was done, and distributed in Britain by Lionsgate. Screenings were from a 2K DCP and it seems (difficult to find information these days) it was shot digitally. One irritation was the variations in aspect ratios for the 1940s film sequences. Those seen in production are also in 2.35:1: clips seen in the cinema, those in cinemas, studio viewings and on a moviola are in academy: however, there are also full screen clips which have been re-framed to 2.35:1. This is another example of the baleful influence of television and one such clip is running under the opening credits. Unfortunately audiences, and many critics, do not seem to notice.

Posted in British films, Films by women, Literature on Film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, Belgium, France 1975

Posted by keith1942 on April 14, 2016

Son and mother

Son and mother

Sight & Sound‘s ten yearly poll of movies has chosen this film at the top of the list. Some 1200 critics were involved. This year’s poll marks a break with previous decades: a European film: a film by a woman: a film that really fits in counter cinema. I can think of few other major films whose elevation would give me as much pleasure. Whether or not it fits the ‘greatest film’ is open for discussion; who has seen all the potential candidates?  But it does mean that people who have never seen this masterwork may now seek it out. Let us hope British exhibitors rise to the challenge. And the few remaining cinemas with 35mm should follow the example at the Leeds Festival and screen it in its original format. I, for one, will rush to see it again.


Over the last year, [2016], A Nos Amours have made available several films by Chantal Ackerman who died in 2015. None of these reached Leeds unfortunately. However, in 2013 this film was screened at the Leeds International Film Festival on a 35mm print. It is an almost flawless masterpiece. I write flawless because it seemed to me that the film perfectly captures the intent of its writer and director Chantal Ackerman. It is a film where the distinction that we usually make between form and content is almost redundant, because they are in complete synchrony.

The film charts almost three days in the life of the widow Jeanne and her son Sylvain. That she is a widow is important: a photograph of her wedding day, with her husband, stands on her dressing room table. The critics quoted in the Catalogue uses the term ‘single mother’, but certainly in English ‘widow’ and ‘single mother’ have very different connotations.

On the first day, Wednesday, we join the routine of Jeanne as housewife and mother. Her day includes looking after a neighbour’s baby, shopping, domestic duties and preparing meals: and of a different order, servicing regular male clients whilst her son is out at school. Her activities are all performed with methodical care. And this is also true of the evenings when her son Sylvain returns home. There is a simple meal. Reading to help retain his French accent as he is attending a Flemish school: reading a letter from a married sister in Canada. And there is a constitutional walk before bedtime. Of a slightly different character is the bedtime exchange when the son probes his mother’s past emotional life.

Thursday the second day seems very similar. But we notice small discords that intrude on Jeanne’s routines. Another male client attends, but the transaction seems little different from the preceding day. The son’s bedtime questions are more probing and personal, including emotional comments on the dead father.

On Friday, day three, the discords become much more apparent and Jeanne’s growing disquiet moves from subtle expression to clear disruptions. It is on day three that a dramatic event occurs. This completely breaks down Jeanne’s life of orderly routine but also shines a strong illumination on all that has gone before. The ending of the film leaves a number of conventional plot questions unresolved, but exposes the contradictions under which Jeanne has laboured.

Domestic labour

Domestic labour

The film is shot predominantly in mid-shot with occasional long shots. The rhythm of the film is slow; whole sequences are often filmed in one take. And the sound track on the film is natural and diegetic. The audience is asked to watch and consider. Since the film runs for 201 minutes this is quite an ask. But I found, and other audience members concurred, that the film did not seem anywhere as long as that.

As the title suggests Jeanne’s labour as a prostitute is presented as an example of commodity exchange. And the routines that she follows when preparing for her clients emphasises this aspect. In fact we do not see the actual acts of intercourse on the Wednesday or Thursday. However we do enter the bedroom for the coitus on the Friday. This act is clearly of a different order from those of the preceding days. Essentially the use value and exchange value of Jeanne’s sexuality come into conflict at this point.

Whilst the events on the Friday are likely to take the audience by surprise, the film is careful to prepare the ground, though this is done in a low-key and fairly subtle manner. But the methodical behaviour that Jeanne follows, and the increasing discrepancies that become apparent, both lead up to the climax. Seeing the film again I noted the neon sign in the street creates a flashing reflection which is seen on the sitting room wall in the evenings Jeanne spends with her son. Now this seems like a premonition with a strong film noir flavour.

The LIFF Catalogue refers to the influence of two of the USA avant-garde filmmakers, Michael Snow and Andy Warhol. This is noticeable in the importance of space and time in the film. Ackerman herself has acknowledged the influence of Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard. The latter possibly influenced the way that the film uses repetition and ellipsis to present the routines of Jeanne. What struck me was the way that the film uses props in the mise en scène, also relying on the depth of field, and recalling the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, another acknowledged influence. I found the similarity especially pronounced in the long shots along corridors.

If the film’s direction is beautifully modulated then this is also true of the central performance by Delphine Seyrig. Her Jeanne is some way removed from her character in Last Year in Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961). Indeed that film’s director Alain Resnais is another obvious influence. Whilst the two films are very different, what they share is a formal rigour.

The screening used a fairly good 35mm print, with only a few noticeably worn sections. So it showed off the production skills of Babette Mangolte’s cinematography, Patricia Canino’s editing and Alain Marchall’s sound editing.

Along with the films A Nos Amours arranged an exhibition of Ackerman’s Installations.

Posted in European film, Film Directors, Films by women | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The representation of women’s hair

Posted by keith1942 on October 28, 2022

The Accused (1988)

A familiar comment on women is poetically but succinctly written in the King James Bible:

“But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.” St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians.

Appropriately Paul always struck me as a typical  male chauvinist and the Catholic Church, which prizes his writings, has remained a bastion of male dominance. But the pre-occupation with women’s hair and what it may represent runs through many cultures and innumerable art works. And this is as true of cinemas as it is of other mediums. What first set me thinking of this as a motif was a double screening on a Sunday afternoon at the old ‘little bit Ritzy’ in Brixton. This consisted of Nuts (Warner Bros. 1987) and Mortal Thoughts (Columbia Pictures 1991). In both films a woman suffers a rape: in parallel in Nuts this is followed by Claudia Draper (Barbra Streisand) and in Mortal Thoughts by Cynthia Kellogg (Demi Moore) cutting her hair. Another example would in The Accused (Paramount Pictures 1988) where Sarah Tobias (Jody Foster) also cuts her hair after she has been raped.

There are many tropes representing women’s hair on film but a number recur very often and would seem to have a metaphoric sense. The cutting of a woman’s hair is found in other art forms, some of which presumably had an influence of cinema. in ‘Le Rouge et le Noir’ (1830) a young woman cuts her hair as a sign of defiance.  A famous example in a novel adapted a number of times on film is ‘Jane Eyre’ (1847) where cutting hair is a punishment and accompanies the covering of girl’s hair in the name of religious morals. A later example is  ‘For Whom the Bells Toll’ (1940) where a young woman is imprisoned, brutalised and raped by the fascist military and also has her head shaved.

Haircuts – trauma

For Whom the Bells Toll, USA 1943

A studio production that broadly follows the novel but which was cut on release. Robert (Gary Cooper) is an irregular with the Spanish Republican army during the 1930s Civil War. He is sent on a mission behind enemy lines to liaise with a guerrilla group. There he meets María who was the victim of a fascist rape and who has cut her hair extremely short.

Hiroshima Mon Amour, France 1959

Emmanuelle Riva as Elle (“Her”) has a brief affair with Eiji Okada as Lui (“Him”) whilst working on a film in Hiroshima. The film recreates events marking the bombing of the city by the USA [with British assistance] with a nuclear device and the subsequent horrific devastation. Elle recounts in flashback a wartime romance with a German soldier, part of the occupation forces in her native France. She also recounts how, when the war ended, she was punished by the local people, including having her hair brutally cut. Here the actual hair cut is the trauma.

Handgun, Britain 1983 [filmed in USA]

Kathleen (Karen Young) is raped at gunpoint by Larry (Clayton Day). She cuts her hair but also takes lessons in gun skills to exact revenge. The film was cut under orders from the Production Company, EMI.

Nuts 1987

Streisand plays Claudia Draper who is on trial for the murder of a client. In the investigation Claudia’s back ground emerges including molestation by her father, Arthur Draper (Karl Malden).

The Accused, 1988

Jodie Foster plays Sarah who is gang-raped by three men in a bar, cheered on by other men. Her response is to cut her hair very short. The film details how she attempts to obtain justice; this includes a fictional US law used in court

Mortal Thoughts, 1991

Demi Moore plays Cynthia Kellog who works at a hairdressing salon run by her friend Joyce Urbanski (Glenne Headley). She kills Joyce’s husband “Jimmy” when he attempts to rape her. What actually happened only becomes clear in flashbacks as the police investigate.

Anna Karenina 1997   USA

An adaptation of the novel by Tolstoy. Anna (Sophie Marceau) has her  hair is cut during the fever that follows her miscarriage of  the child fathered by Count Vronsky (Sean Bean).              

Water   Canada / India            2005

Set in 1938 under British colonial rule Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam) is only eight and married. When her husband dies she is forced to enter a widows’ ashram; and her hair is cut and her head shaved. Later she is a victim  of prostitution. Another inmate Kalyani (Lisa Ray) has also been prostituted. When she attempts to marry she is locked up and her head is shaved. Later, she commits suicide.        

Esme’s secret / Esma’s secret  Bosnia-Herzogovina   2006   

Set following  the Balkan war Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) and her teenage daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic). Late in the film Sara discovers that her father was not a dead ‘shaheed’, [Bosnian mujahideen fighter]; and that she was conceived  after her mother suffered multiple rapes by Serbian soldiers. Sara shaves her hair when she discovers this. The original title ‘Grbavica’ means ‘woman with a hump’.                 

Four Minutes   / Vier Minuten  Germany, 2006

Jenny (Hannah Herzsprung) is a convict in a prison who receives piano lessons from an elderly music teacher, Gertrud (Monica Bleibtreu).  We learn via flashbacks that Jenny suffered abuse as a child and that Gertrud was tortured during  the war by an SS Officer, who cut her hair before a planned execution which was not carried out.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Irreland / Britain 2006

Set during the Ireland’s War of Independence. Sinéad Ní Shúilleabháin (Orla Fitzgerald) is a member of the nationalist Cumann na mBan  [The Women’s Council]. In retaliation for an ambush of British military the family home irs raided and burnt by Black and Tans [British military auxilaries) and Sinéad’s hair is brutally cut with what looks like a pair of garden shears.

A girl at my door / Dohee-ya  South Korea    2014   

Young-nam (Bae Doona) is a police officer transferred to the command of a small seaside village; her misconduct is an affair with a fellow woman officer. She comes across Do Hee (Kim Sae-ron) a young girl who has suffered abuse from her step father. Do Hee at one point cuts her hair.

An Impossible Love  /  Un amour impossible, France 2018

Rachel (Virginie Efira) has a brief affair with Philippe (Niels Schneider). Rachel becomes pregnant but Philippe refuses to marry her and |Rachel raises the daughter Chantal (Ambre Hasaj as Chantal at 3–5 years old: Sasha Alessandri-Torrès Garcia as Chantal at 6–8 years old: Estelle Lescure as Chantal in adolescence). Philippe, who marries, continues to see Chantal. Later, with Chantal an adult (Jenny Beth) Rachel and we learn that she was sodomized from when she was a  young girl by Philippe and in her teens cut her shoulder length hair.

The Rhythm Section, USA 2020

Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) is  a traumatised young woman working as a prostitute. Her hair is short, likely cut by herself. Flashbacks reveal her family of five were killed in a plane accident; also that prior to this Stephanie had long hair. Learning that the plane crash was due to terrorists Stephanie sets out on a trail of vengeance.

Lynn and Lucy, Britain 2020

School hood friends who are both married with a child. Lucy’s child dies in suspicious circumstances. Her husband is arrested. The neighbours blame Lucy and she is ostracised. Insults are painted on her car and the house. Lynn gradually comes to believe Lucy is responsible. Lucy calls in at the hair salon where Lynn works and demands she cuts her hair. Lynn cuts it short [similar to The Accused] including most of her hair dyed purple. Lucy leaves and later commits suicide.

La Civil, Belgium, Romania, Mexico 2021

La Civil is an international production set in Mexico; now notorious for gang violence and kidnapping. In the feature  Cielo (Arcelia Ramirez), a single mother, is shocked when her daughter Laura (Claudia  Goytia) is kidnapped by cartel members.  Laura has long and luxurious hair. Cielo’s is usually tied back but when loose hangs past her shoulders. Her husband, Gustavo (Álvaro Guerrero), who has left her for a younger woman, is initially not very helpful; and the same is true of the police and authorities. The cartel members demand and receive a ransom but do not release Laura. Cielo sets outs on a dangerous search for her daughter. Well into what is a long drama Gustavo has retunred to the family home when his young mistress left him. At night Cielo retunrs home, now fairly certain that Laura is dead. She cuts her hair shorter rather than short. Gustavo says he likes it and that it is the shortest it has ever been. Cielo tells him it was shorter before she met him. By the end of the story Laura’s DNA has been identified among the remains in a mass grave.

Haircuts – change and/or defiance

His Majesty the Barber / Hans Kingl, Höghet Shinglar / Majestät Scheidet Bubiköpfe, 1928  Sweden / Denmark

This is a ‘Ruritarian’ romantic comedy. The barber is André Gregory (Hans Junkermann) in a small Swedish town. His supposed grandson is Nickolo (Enrique Rivero), possibly the heir to throne of Tirania. He is attracted to Astrid (Brita Appelgren), granddaughter of wealthy Sophie (Karin Swanström). Nickolo is an expert in the shingle and the bob; both fashionable styles for women in the period. At one point Nickolo visits Sophie’s castle to cut hair, but Sophie interrupts his hair styling of Astrid. Annoyed and resistant Astrid cuts a lock of her own hair. Intriguingly whilst we see three different women having haircuts there is only one male customer to the barber shop; he is being shaved and walks out before this is completed.

The Nun’s Story, USA 1959

Gabrielle (Audrey Hepburn) leaves the secular world, [and a young suitor], to enter an order of nursing sisters and life in a Catholic convent. When she takes her vows as Sister Luke she is required to have her hair cut and to henceforth wear the restrictive and veiled nun’s attire. This is both a sign of renuinciation but also of commitment.

Jane Eyre (1996) Helen Burns (Leanne Rowe) poses for a drawing by Jane (Anna Paquin) who loosens her hair. Spotted by Mr Brocklehurst (John Wood). Helen is stood in the centre and Jane is sent for scissors. Standing alongside Helen Jane loosens her hair and both girls bow in a flamboyant gesture that sends their hair flailing. Earlier versions also feature the cutting of hair as found in the original novel.

Enfants du Siécle / Children of the Century    1999    France / Britain

The film records the affair between George Sand (Juliet Binoche) and Alfred de Musset (Benoit Magimel). Sands cuts her hair after the parting with Musset.

Coco before Chanel / Coco avant Chanel      2009    France            

This biopic follows Coco’s career before she becomes Chanel, the famous fashion designer. Played by Audrey Tatou Coco has a varied and at time difficult career in various jobs and also a number of sexual liaisons. Her early design work is for her friend the actress Émilienne d’Alençon played by Emanuelle Devos. When she opens her first salon we also see that she has cut her hair short; “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.”

Sarah’s Key / Elle s’appelait Sarah, France 2010

Julia (Kristen Scott Thomas) investigates the tragic story of Jewish children who suffered in the round-up of Jews by the French police and French Secret Service. The key is for the door were a child is hidden who subsequently dies. His sister Sarah (Mélusine Mayance as young Sarah: Charlotte Poutrel as adult Sarah) is stricken with guilt. Unravelling the story is complex but finally Julia has it complete. She also finds, unexpectedly, that she is pregnant. Her husband involved in an affair with another women, leaves her and their existing daughter. After the divorce  is complete Julia cuts her hair.

Wonderstruck, 2017 USA

Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is one of two children and stories. hers is set in 1927. Living in her father’s home in New Jersey she sets of to find her mother, an actress. Before doing so she cuts her hair.

Little Women, USA 2019

In this adaptation of the Civil War story  Jo (Saoirse Ronan) cuts her hair to sell for 25 dollars so that her mother can afford a train ticket to travel to Washington to see her husband and the father of the sisters. Whilst Jo dismisses the cut as not important later we see her crying on stairs with sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen). The father is absent for nearly the whole film, told in flashback. The story is one of female emancipation, mainly in the character of Jo.

Hair up and down– sexuality

Inspector Calls, An Britain 1954

Inspector [Alistair Sims] calls on a family to seek out reason for death of young woman. In flashbacks we see her with [among others] the fiancée who set her up as a mistress; her hair is up? Then the son who picks her up in the street; shot of girl by window with hair down, ringlets.

Anatomy of a Muirder, USA 1959

Lawyer Paul Biegler (james Stewart) defends Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) on a murder charge. Frederick claims the killing was in response to the rape of his wife Laura (Lee Remick). During the trial the prosecution lawyer Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) tries to suggest that Laura was flirtatious and provocative to other men. When Laura appears on the witness stand Paul has her dressed decorously and with her hair up under a hat. Challenged by Claude Paul invites Laura to display her hair which she does with aplomb, full hair of ‘glory’,

The Virgin Spring, Sweden 1960

A revenge movie. Töre (Max Von Sydow) has a daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) who is raped and he kills the perpetrators’. Karin rides to church on Sunday; when her mother tries to tie her hair back with a ribbon Karin objects and wears her hair pinned in two locks. The rape is observed by serving girl Ingen (Gunnel  Lindblom) who carries an illegitimate child and wears her hair loose throughout.

Deer Hunter, the USA 1978  

Returning from Vietnam Michael (Robert de Niro) has a liaison with Linda (Meryl Streep) who lets her hair down before joining Michael in bed at the motel.

The Midwife (Sage Femme, Curiosa Films, France 3 Cinéma, 2017) centres on Claire (Catherine Frot) as the midwife of the title and her relationship with terminally ill Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve). Béatrice was once the mistress of Claire’s father and when she left him he committed suicide. Her function in the relationship is to motivate Claire’s freeing-up from her repressed and irritable persona. In the course of this Claire develops a relationship with Paul (Olivier Gourmet),  truck driver who also works a plot  in the local allotment. However, the changes in her hair style from its usual pony tail are mainly occasioned by Béatrice. At her behests she visits am acquaintance to borrow money and accepts a drink of liqueur: normally she eschews alcohol. Later in Béatrice’s apartment she tries on her lipstick and perfume and then lets her hair hang loose. A little later she loosens it again as she meets up with Paul, a meeting that leads to sex in the allotment shed. Claire again lets her hair down in further sexual scenes with Oliver, but also, and more notable, as she lies with Béatrice on the bed in her apartment watching slides of her father, Antoine. Thus in this film the loosening of the hair signals a liberation occasioned by a friendship with another woman.

Only You Britain 2019

On New Year’s Eve, Elena (Laia Costa), 35, meets Jake (Josh O’Connor), 26, on the way home. They return to her flat where both talk avoiding and the obvious attraction . Sitting on couch Elena unpicks her hair from top-knot. Then, embarrassed, she goes to the toilet where she pins he hair back up. Later during sex her hair is loose again.

Men’s hair cut – related to religious rituals but alos homophobia.

The Ancient Law, Germany 1920

Baruch (Ernst Deutsch) is the son of an orthodox rabbi in a small shteli [Yiddish term for the small towns with predominantly Ashkenazi Jewish populations in late C9th Eastern Europe]. Against family opposition he goes to Vienna to become an actor. After seeing the director of the theatre and realising the prejudice that exists he returns to his room and cuts off his traditional locks.

The Bridge on the River Kwai, Britain / USA 1957

At the climax, as the characters prepare for the opening of the bridge, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) prepares to commit hara-kiri [seppuku – ritual suicide). He cuts a tuft of hair and wraps it in a letter; presumably to his family.

Summer of Sam, USA 1999

Set in 1977 when the ’44 caliber [serial] killer’ caused a panic in new York. The main characters live in an Italian-American neighbourhood. One of these is Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who is gay and affects a punk style of hair and dress. At the film’s climax he is attacked by a macho gang led by Joey T (Michael Rispoli) including having his punk hair style shorn.

Manusangada, 2017 India [Tamil]

Kolapan (Rajeev Anand) returns home when his father dies. The family struggle to arrange a burial due to Brahmin prejudice against Dalits. Finally when the funeral is arranged, Kolapan’s hair is shaved as part of the funeral rites.


An interesting example occurs in the USA/Canadian title Arrival ((2016). Louise (Amy Adams) is a linguist, is recruited by the US military to help in establishing communications with aliens who have appeared in a futuristic spaceship; the question of language is central to the story. The complexities of the plot includes flashbacks and flashfowards, though it takes time to identify how these work. In what is the present for most of the narrative Louise has her hair tied back. In some future sequences, with a husband and a daughter, it hangs loose. But the most intriguing sequence is in what we think is the present; as the climax approaches, [different from the source short story], Louise enter the space ship alone, for the first time. We see her in a cloud of mist wheeling and tumbling as if in a linguistic orgasm; and her is loose and also tumbling. The sequence is reminsicent of the sexual scene in the earlier The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).

Posted in Film motifs | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Jean-Luc Godard, December 3rd 1930 to September 13th September 2022

Posted by keith1942 on September 15, 2022

This seems like the end of an era. From À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) until Le Livre d’image (The Image Book, 2018) my cinema experience has been enriched, challenged and enlarged by the features of Godard. And there were numerous short films which generally I was only able to see some time after their release.

There was the beguiling insouciance of Michel Poiccard/Laszlo Kovacs (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in the opening sequence of À bout de souffle: the bleak and tragic final moment of  Nana Kleinfrankenheim (Anna Karina) in Vivre sa vie: a crumpled red sports car in Le Mépris: the never-ending traffic jam in Week-end: Sympathy for the Devil in One Plus One: the factory set in Tout Va Bien: the very funny ménage à quatre in Sauve qui peut (la vie): the back-to-front world of Éloge de l’amour: the provocative children in Film Socialisme: and many, many more.

Who has seen enough movies to identify the ‘greatest’ filmmaker? What I am sure of is that Godard has made the most notable contribution to cinema in the last part of the C20th, at least, in the industries of the advanced capitalist states in North America and Europe. We can no longer wait and wonder what will be next; what delight, amazement, frustration and cinematic pleasure Jean-Luc will regale us with. Cinema has changed radically over the last decade; even so, this is a seminal point in the world of moving images.

Posted in European film, Film Directors, Obituary | Leave a Comment »

The Magnificent Ambersons USA 1942

Posted by keith1942 on July 15, 2022

Produced at the RKO Studio and scripted and directed by Orson Welles; this film is a flawed classic, missing about forty minutes of the original version. It screened on BBC 4 as one of the titles accompanying the six part documentary, The RKO Story Tales from Hollywood [Hollywood the Golden Years: The RKO Story]. This is a six part series, each episode an hour long, originally produced and transmitted in 1987. It made a welcome return to terrestrial television and was accompanied by a number of classic titles from the RKO Studio. The series was jointly produced by the BBC and RKO Pictures. The RKO studio closed in 1957 but had a reinvention in the 1980s as RKO Pictures Inc. This company controlled the archive of studio records and titles. These offer a wealth of information on RKO presented by Edward Asner. But what makes the series stands out are the interviews with surviving stars and production personnel from the studio era. This provides an impressive and fascinating account of the studio; something that is rarely offered in contemporary cinema programmes.

Part four of the series deals with the period in which Orson Welles worked at RKO. Following the seminal Citizen Kane Welles then made an adaptation of the novel ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ [Ambersons] by Booth Tarkington. Not that well known now in the early decades of the C20th Tarkington was a popular and highly respected writer; he won Pulitzer Prizes for two of his novels, ‘Ambersons’ and Alice Adams. The latter was filmed at RKO in 1935. In fact both ‘Ambersons’ and ‘Alice Adams’ were also filmed in silent versions in the 1920s.

Tarkington was the chronicler of ‘mid-western USA’; in another sense that central cultural artefact in US Americana, ‘small-town America’. As well as the two award-winning novels Tarkington also wrote a series of  ‘Penrod’ stories; following young boys growing up in a Midwestern town. Welles read these and other Tarkington works in his youth. He remained an admirer. Welles himself and his biographers frequently drew attention to the parallels between his childhood and characters and settings in the Tarkington novels. Simon Callow, in his biopic of the years leading up to Welles’ Hollywood ventures , ‘Orson Welles The Road to Xanadu’. quotes a description of a mansion in ‘Ambersons’ which was very similar to Welles’ first home.

In fact, Welles adapted the novel in his long-running series of radio adaptations; in October 1939 in the Campbell Playhouse on CBS. In this version Welles played the key protagonist, George Amberson Minafer. However, when it came to a film, with a character seen and heard, Welles settled for the narrative voice. In one of those innovations of which Welles was so fond, even the credits were voiced by Welles as narrator.

The story in the novel and the film follows the declining fortunes of the Amberson clan.

“Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1878, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. Magnificence, like the size of a fortune, is always comparative, as even Magnificent Lorenzo may now perceive, if he has happened to haunt New York in 1916; and the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place. Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog.”

Times moved on and the family fortunes declined as new social movements and new technologies arose. The Ambersons’ decline was symbolised in both novel and film by the arrival and rise of the motor car. The Major’s daughter Isabel was courted by a host of ‘ineligible’ young men. Finally she chose and married Wilbur Minafer,

“a steady young man and a good churchgoer…”

The marriage dashed the hopes of another young romantic, Eugene Morgan, who left town. The Minafer marriage was passionless and Isabel devoted her love and attention to the child George Amberson Minafer. He was bought up a spoilt and arrogant child and young man; one whose behaviours caused many townspeople to wait for his ‘comeuppance’. Meanwhile Eugene returned to town, a widower and with a daughter. He became a pioneer in the new motor-car business and grew wealthy. Young George disliked Eugene and his business but found Eugene’s daughter Lucy very attractive. Minafer suffered from bad investments and died. Eugene renewed his romantic interest in Isabel but George prevented the potential union. Later Lucy turned down George’s proposal of marriage, partly because of his behaviour, partly because of his arrogance.

After Isabel’s death it was discovered that family fortune has evaporated. The great Amberson mansion was sold. George and his Aunt Fanny, who for years has carried a passion for Eugene, were forced into lowly lodgings. George, for the first time in his life, was forced to work in manual labour at Eugene’s factory; ‘comeuppance!” Then George was injured in an accident and he was visited in hospital by Eugene,; but there the resolution in his relationship with Lucy changes from novel to film.

The older generation

The film of Ambersons was shot at the RKO Studio and around Los Angeles. When production finished Welles had directed a rough cut of approximately 132 minutes. Welles, in characteristic fashion, was already involved in a new film, It’s All True; to be shot in Latin America, mainly Brazil, and a film supporting the US war effort and its ‘Good Neighbour policy’ in Latin America. Welles accepted the full-length Ambersons needed cuts and entrusted this to the editor Robert Wise. After some editing and two previews the film was seen as a likely box office failure. Welles, who had the unusual option of a ‘final cut’ on Citizen Kane, had lost this option after changes in his contract. RKO bosses took over and Wise’s editing finally produced a version running only 88 minutes. There were reshot and additional scenes, [some by Wise, some by Fred Fleck]; moreover the finale of the film was reshot to produce a clear resolution.

Welles was appalled by the cuts and changes in the release version. Film critics and later audiences have tended to see the result as an example of Hollywood ‘commercial butchery’. What remains and what is known of Welles’ original version suggest a film that would have offered an equivalence to Citizen Kane though with a very different tone and some rather different stylistic achievements. The Studio later destroyed the original negatives so that a ‘director’s cut’ was not possible. In the 1970s Welles toyed with the idea of completing the film in some way but nothing came of this. There was a rough cut with sound sent for inspection by Welles as he worked in Brazil. This has never been found, though fresh searches are regularly organised, it remains  a lost ‘holy grail’ rather like Erich von Stroheim’s earlier butchered masterpiece, Greed (1924).

Welles wrote a number of letters and memos suggesting ways of reducing the film’s length; these were mainly ignored. Peter Bogdanovich in his ‘This is Orson Welles’ (1993, a series of interviews and supporting materials) provides a lot of detail and extracts. At one point Welles suggested a ‘happy ending’ which differs from that imposed on the film. Bogdanovich also includes records from the preview screenings and it is apparent that the audience responses were not as bad as suggested; a minority of comments were positive. However, there was new studio management, and as with Von Stroheim and M-G-M, there seems to have been a basic antagonism to Welles and his project.

Yet the surviving film is still a fine example of Welles’ film-making. The overall elegiac tone of the film is maintained until the changed ending; Welles reckoned the first sixty minutes were a reasonable approximation of his intent. Cinematically it has many bravura qualities reminiscent of Citizen Kane. There are great set pieces like an Amberson grandiose entertainment in the impressive mansion: a sleigh ride in the snow: the gloom of the decline as family members die and the fortune melts away: and the settings in the changed circumstances of George and Fanny. As with Kane the sets that Welles required to be designed and constructed are really impressive and innovatory; some of the ceiling effects late in the film are impressive. Many of the craft people are not credited in the film version. This includes the production design by Albert S. Agostino. Mark Lee Kirk gets a credit as Set Designer, which presumably included the Amberson mansion built with moveable walls to allow long tracking shots in the interiors. The cinematography by Stanley Cortez is excellent, there are Welles typical use of chiaroscuro and long takes: fine tracking shots: and the use of blocking and reflections in windows and mirrors.  But Welles found him too slow compared with Gregg Toland who filmed Citizen Kane and he was dismissed before the end of principal cinematography; a couple of personnel worked on late shots uncredited. The sound team are likewise only partially credited though their work is as impressive as the cinematography; both contributing to the powerful ambience created in the Amberson mansion and the later lodging house.  Wise’s editing is good, allowing for the studio imposed cuts: but the latter replaced a lengthy camera movement for the ball sequence with a number of cuts: and there was some more uncredited editing work. There is no music credit though the surviving music overall is fine: the score was by Bernard Hermann but his music was also cut down by the studio and replaced in places so he had his name removed from the credits.

The studio version  has material removed: added shots and sequences moved from their original place. In ‘This is Orson Welles’ the editor, Jonathan Rosenbaum, helpfully provides ‘The Oriignal Ambersons’ which  records the changes, deletions and insertions from Welles’ cut to the release version. So the magificently conceived Amberson ball suffers both cuts and the removal of dilaogue.  The less mauled snow ride still suffers cuts.  Reel nine has inserted close-ups in a meeting of George and Lucy which really does not fit the sequence. And in reel ten a later meeting betwen them has redubbed dialogue over one shot from the sequence. After George’s come-uppance three short scenes were moved from their original place in the narrative; this includes a discussion in a garden between Eugene and Lucy which seems oddly out of place. And the final sequnce of the film, especially a vist by Eugene to see Fanny in the lodging house, in reel fourteen is almost entirely replaced. Like earlier insertions the camera work, and to a lesser degree the sound, lack the quality of much of the earlier film. And the tone of this sequence is seriously different from Welles’ conception. Rosenbaum provides a description with dialogue of Welles original; the difference shows.

The cast are very good. Dolores del Rio really achieves Isabel and Tim Holt makes an excellent George. Richard Bennett is the Major and patriarch. Both Joseph Cotten as Eugene and Anne Baxter as Lucy make fine contributions. And there is an outstanding performance from Agnes Moorehead as Fanny; her late scene after the family collapse is memorable. Another Welles regular, Ray Collins, as Isabel’s brother Jack, brings a slightly caustic note in the decline. But dominating the whole film is the narration of Orson Welles. Unseen but with one of the memorable voices in Hollywood cinema, much of the tone of the film is down to this audio aspect.

The parallels between Welles himself and the Tarkington character are found in his childhood and subsequently as an adult film-maker. Ambersons seemed to many a ‘comeuppance’ for this young, thrusting and egoistical artist; this was especially true in the Hollywood studios. Welles never again enjoyed the control he exercised on Citizen Kane or during the actual production of Ambersons. In the 1970s Welles appeared in a lengthy interview on BBC television. At one point he commented,

“I always liked Hollywood but they never reciprocated.”

One can see this, not just in Ambersons, but in later projects made in Hollywood studios. The best of these was Touch of Evil (1957) but that film was re-cut and changed. Welles produced a long letter setting out how he had envisaged and filmed the original. In 1998 this was the basis for a restored version which approximates to the vision of Welles. But to date material for a likewise restoration of Ambersons is wanting. Charles Higham in his biography comments finally,

“some streak of anti commercialism drove him…”

I t is true that Welles was more interested in art than in commerce but recognising him as an iconoclast is better, as does Bogdanovich. He was iconoclastic about the studios: many features of genre movies: styles of management: and the dominant political discourse. Successful directors in Hollywood needed to love, or at least fit in with, the box-office, Alfred Hitchcock is a prime example. The ironies in the making of Ambersons in many ways parallel the ironies in the Tarkington original novel and in the film itself.

Higham also recognises Welles artistic talents, his biography is sub-titled ‘The rise and fall of an American Genius’; more accurate would be a ‘US genius’, but Welles achievement in theatre, radio and film do stand out in these arts. But he was a wayward genius. His ego interfered with his work with supporting artists. He often did not give due credit where due credit was due. Stanley Cortez was taken off Ambersons because Welles found his work to slow. But the many of the replacement shots after his exit were poorly executed.

Orson Welles with Stanley Cortez

And Welles was overly ambitious. He was always juggling a number of artistic projects; often too many even for his talent Thus in the later stages of the Amberson production Welles was involved in producing, scripting and acting in Journey into Fear (1943): He was producing an unfinished segment [Bonito the Bull] for a planned film It’s All True: preparing for his trip to South America for what was eventually the proposed but unfinished film, It’s All True: a CBS radio series The Lady Esther Show: and politically, with the Pacific war beginning, involved with the Roosevelt government in ideas for the war effort: and in addition a campaign to save Soviet diplomats in danger from the Nazis. This also was typical of Welles’ career.

Even so, Welles’ career, and this particular film, stand out in the world of film, radio and theatre. The story of the vicissitudes of The Magnificent Ambersons, told many times in various biographies and studies, is a depressing one. Yet the film that remains is still a fine experience and well worth watching many times. It is some years since I saw a screening on 35mm, its original format. However, the digital facsimile on the BBC was good video quality. And the impressive soundtrack of the movie was good. A flawed Orson Welles film is still a greater experience than much of the alternative product produced in Hollywood.

The RKO Story: Tales from Hollywood.

  1. Birth of a Titan

The funding of the Studio as sound arrived and its early days and films.

  1. Let’s Face the Music and Dance

The 1930s musicals, mainly Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

  1. A Woman’s Lot

The woman stars, Lucille ball, Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers

  1. It’s All True

RKO and Orson Welles

  1. Dark Victory

RKO and film noir [including HUAC] and Robert Mitchum

  1. Howard’s Way

Howard Hughes and the studio; and its demise.

Each episode had two classic RKO title accompanying it.

Episode 1 King Kong (1933) and The Thing From Another World (1951)

Episode 2 Top Hat (1935) and The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Episode 3 Bringing Up Baby  (1938) and My Favourite Wife (1940)

Episode 4  Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Episode 5 Suspicion  (1941) and Angel Face (1953)

Episode 6 The BBC had already screened Hughes’ The Outlaw (1943) between episodes; now thte provided Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Unbforetunately not any of the anti-communist titles that Hughes insisted on producing.

‘This Is Orson Welles Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich’ (1993), edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum has much interesting material on Welles and this particular film; including details about the different versions and some of the changes that Welles introduced to Tarkington’s novel.

Posted in Film Directors, Hollywood | Leave a Comment »

Servants / Sluzobníci, Slovakia, Romania, Czech, Republic Ireland, 2020

Posted by keith1942 on June 25, 2022

This very fine drama was screened on Film 4 recently. It appears that this is the only release that the title has received in Britain. And it is available on All Four for the coming two and a bit weeks.

The movie is set in the 1980s in Bratislava: once part of the kingdom of Hungary: incorporated into Czechoslovakia after World War I: and part of the newly independent Slovakia in 1993. The action takes place in a seminary in the years of the suppression of a liberal regime in Czechoslovakia which has been replaced by a so-called communist regime subservient to The Soviet centre of Moscow.

Two young students enter the seminary and we follow their careers as they are caught between elements in the Roman Catholic Church that are attempting to co-exist with the regime: and dissident elements who favour resistance, represented in the film by Radio Free Europe.

Predictably this is a dark and gloomy story; the opening sequence is set at night, and opens with only audio and then the disposal of a corpse near a railway underpass. In fact, this action occurs somewhere in the middle of the narrative. Such Brechtian techniques occur several times and add to the ambiguity of the movie. It is not always easy to identify characters; their talk and actions are frequently unclear without revealed motivation. And the face they present to other characters and the audience can be deceptive.

This makes for a fascinating exploration, not just of the religious world of catholic clergy, but the wider cultures of conformism and resistance. One review made a comparison with the earlier Ida (1913). There are parallels, especially since both titles address the world of religion, though the earlier film is set in Poland and in the 1960s. One of the three writers for Servants also worked on Ida, Rebecca Lenkiewicz. And, like Ida, Servants is shot in excellent black and white cinematography and in academy ratio. The accompanying soundtrack uses Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, BMV: 1041 Allegro; its recurring passages are ideal for this tale.

The director, Ivan Ostrochovský, the other two writers, Marek Lescák, Ivan Ostrochovský, and the cinematographer Juraj Chlpik, are all new to me. But I will certainly look out for future work as all make fine contributions, as do the supporting craft people.

What catches a viewer from the opening sequence is the quality of the mise en scène and the cinematography. There is lustrous low-key lighting and chiaroscuro: distinctive camera work and excellent locations and sets: some of which offer recurring images that take on their own relevance. Everyday and ordinary actions become significant through repetition. The editing by Jan Danhel, Martin Malo and Maros Slapeta is sharp and frequently draws links through the cutting. All helping to create a grim, repressive and low-key sense of threat and doom.

The title is being distributed by Film Movement; available in some format in Europe, North America, China and Japan.. This page gives the aspect ratio as 1.33:1. For my money the title is in academy ratio; that is 1.37:1. There seems to be a lot of confusion about these ratios. 1.33:1 was the standard ratio for silent cinema; when sound cinema came in the addition of a sound track led to the adjusted ratio of 1.37:1. With digital cinema there is no longer a print and, therefore, neither the addition on the print of a sound track. I have come across some modern titles that are actually 1.33:1 but, by and large, titles using the older ratio seem to be 1.37:1. Film journals do not help; it is only recently that Sight and Sound finally dropped reviews which described these sound title videos as 1.33:1; if actually in that ratio the image frame was undoubtedly cropped. To complicate viewers investigations the stills on the Film Movement pages actually seem to be 1.50:1.

The title runs 74 minutes, [81 minutes in theatrical format]. The sub-titles are clearly legible. How accurate they are is, for me, a matter of conjecture. Currently the only way to see this title in Britain is on All Four; a sad reflection on the distribution of movies here. Note, it is only available for another eighteen days.

Posted in East European Film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

On Raymond Williams and on Karl Marx

Posted by keith1942 on March 12, 2022

Raymond Williams was an important and influential writer, commentator and political activist in the 1960s and 1970s. He paid particular attention to the press, media and the printed word. He was not strictly a Marxist though he was clearly influenced by the ideas of Marx and Engels and contributed to Marxist oriented journals such as ‘New Left Review’. He wrote little on cinema, the primary focus of this blog, but his writings on culture are an important aid in studying the moving image medians.

I am also a subscriber to ‘Media North’, the newsletter of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (North) whose content is very much influenced by Williams’ ideas. So I was pleased to read the article by Paul Richards celebrating the contribution of Raymond Williams. The article, in the December 2021 issue, was a ‘lightly edited’ version of an article originally written for and published on the Raymond Williams Foundation Website; ‘Raymond Williams and the popular Press’. I checked out the original article and I found it was more than ‘lightly edited’, being shorter and missing some important comment. However I thought that both versions seem to have simplified Williams’ writings and to misunderstand what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote about Capitalism, culture, the media and economic life.

It is worth picking out the sentences that I found seriously in error and making some comments;

“Williams developed his thinking beyond the traditional Marxist perspective that the mass media was a crude tool of the ruling class, designed to create a ‘false consciousness’ amongst the masses.” [Missing from the shorter version].

Neither Marx nor Engels thought that the dominance of the ruling class was crude. As for ‘false consciousness’, I refer to this in Concepts and The Political Economy of the Olympics;

“I personally avoid the term. Karl Marx never used it. Engels did use it but in a letter discussing a book by Franz Mehring. It seems the term came into more general use in the 1920s, i.e. after the failure of any revolutions outside Russia. One problem for me is the patronising tone implied by the term: intellectuals chiding the working class because they have not yet got the message. But it also suggests a different sense to the term ideology than that found in the substantial works of Marx and Engels.”

If one reads the example of Marx’s discussion of ‘a fair days labour for a fair day’s pay’ in ‘Capital’, Volume 1 it is clear that dominance is a very sophisticated operation.

“Crucially, Williams came to view communications, including the media, as a productive force in its own right, rather than just a reflection or product of society, in a process he coined as ‘cultural materialism’. He contested the orthodox Marxist idea that culture was merely a flimsy ‘superstructure’ built on the sound foundations of the ‘substructure’ of the means of production.”

The error here appears to be that the writer thinks that Marx and Engels use ‘force of production’ to describe technology; in fact it is clear in Capital that the social relations between people are also a force of production.  And Marx and Engels write about base and superstructure, not ‘flimsy superstructure’ and  ‘substructure’. Engels in his speech at Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery gave a summation of their analysis:

” Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.”

If the article offers serious misreading of the ideas of Marx and Engels it also offers a simplistic description of Williams’ ideas on the famous duo.  In ‘Culture and Society, 1780 to 1950’ Williams devotes a whole chapter to ‘Marxism and Culture’, In this he quotes the famous passage by Marx in the ‘Preface to the ‘Critique of Political Economy’, (1859), which  includes;

‘The mode of production in material life determines the general character of social, political and spiritual processes of life.”

Williams spends five pages discussing Marx’s ideas and analysis. He then offers ten pages on more recent followers of Marx, mainly writings in the 1930s. Many of these are long forgotten. And he ends with five pages with his comments on these Marxist ideas; this includes the contribution of Vladimir Lenin. Note that Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders reinterpreted some of Marx’s ideas; ways  in which I think Marx would have critically reviewed . In all three sections Williams is careful to point out that the object of Marx’s study, capitalism, and the study itself, is far too complex for simple conclusions. Indeed he also quotes from Frederick Engels ‘Selected Correspondence’  which opens;

“According to the materialist conception of history, the determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction in real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted.”

Quite a few of the writers referenced by Williams in this chapter clearly paid no heed to Engels’ statement. And it is one to which Paul Richards should have paid careful attention. It is not clear in the article what he means by culture? In ‘Keywords’ (1976) Williams spends four pages on the various meanings of this term. One meaning is ‘all possible life’ which includes production and its means.

Marx’s argument is that under capitalism  human being produce communications as commodities, that is for their exchange value and consequently surplus value and profits;  this is what  determines what they embody, the interests of that mode production; and indeed of the class that controls that mode of production.

In fact, at the end of his article, Richards point out Rupert Murdock; a regular target of Media North. Murdoch is just one of the most successful capitalists owning and controlling the means of production for newspapers, television and film.  What determines the problem with his media empire is not his personality but his role as a member of the capitalist class.  Marx and Engels, if writing today, would have no problem in examining and propounding how Murdoch is an exemplar of the capitalist production of communications.

It is worth adding that ‘Media North’ not only regularly criticise Murdoch and his outlets but also defend the BBC from his and others attacks. This is fair comment. The BBC offers, especially in its new coverage, content and presentations not found in much of the other media. I would add though that Al Jazeera in recent years has provided a higher quality than the BBC. What needs to be stated about both of them are that they are part of the capitalist media. The BBC depends on Government regulation and finance; whilst it has some independence it is not an autonomous body. There is a  recent article in the February edition of US-based ‘Monthly Review’ by Florian Zollman & T, J. Coles, ‘Anatomy of a Propaganda Campaign Jeremy Corbyn’s Political Assassination’. The article concentrates of the mainstream press. However, the authors make the point that television, including the BBC, tended to follow and amplify the press coverage. This was notably true of the fraudulent campaign around ‘supposed anti-Semitism’. The only exceptions were Al Jazeera and, occasionally, RT; the latter is ‘currently not available’.

Where Paul Richards is more accurate on Williams is in his comment regarding Williams’ alternative to the Marxist position;

” He saw it in more complex and nuanced terms, and believed it could be regulated, reformed and democratised within his own lifetime, rather than in some future post-revolutionary utopia. As such, Raymond Williams informed and inspired activists in his own times, and bequeaths his ideas and frameworks to subsequent generations.”

Marx and Engels were quite clear that the people could not reform capitalism; that it need to be abolished and replaced by a superior social system. Defensive action to protect and assist working class activism was one thing; but to argue that this was a solution misled the working class. At one point Richards uses the word ‘utopia’ in relation to Marx’s analysis. He should read ‘Capital’, at least volume one; it is not about utopias but the rigorous analysis of the current mode of production and the social relations immanent within it that provide a base for a better society.



Posted in Book reviews | Leave a Comment »

My Teenage Daughter [Bad Teenage Girl], Britain 1956.

Posted by keith1942 on February 2, 2022

This is a ‘generation clash’ drama made by Herbert Wilcox and Anna Neagle with their production company Wilcox-Neagle. Herbert Wilcox had started out in the British cinema in the 1920s; interestingly distributing popular US titles in Yorkshire. He progressed to production and direction and in the 1930s was a major force in British cinema. It was in the 1930s that he began his association with Anna Neagle and they went on to make some thirty films together. Neagle was an actor and dancer from the stage and she became a major and popular star in British films. Generally Neagle played independent forthright women; some of her most popular characterisations include ‘Nell Gwyn’, Queen Victoria, Amy Mollison, Florence Nightingale and ‘Odette’ Samson, [a war-time heroine in the French resistance]. Wilcox’s films were always conservative, with predominantly courteous and restrained middle class characters. And Neagle fitted into this template; she also had a cut-glass accent, which I suspect is one reason why she has not received the attention she deserves. Sarah Street in ‘British National Cinema’ (Rutledge, 1997) does give her an intelligent and deserved discussion. One important aspect of her performances is her independence in a male dominated world. This can be seen in her dramatic roles as Victoria or Nightingale; but it is also apparent in her very popular lighter musical dramas; in one instance [Piccadilly Incident, 1946) her male companion is reduced to leaning on a walking stick. And she achieved popularity, including in various film star polls, through the late 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s.

I saw this film on its release in 1956; and I have seen it since on 35mm. Now, recently, I revisited the film in a 16mm copy. This was version released in the USA; probably not the original release but a later versions, possibly for television. It was retitled ‘Teenage Bad Girl’. The film  is complete but the opening credits, which in the British release are large white print against a grey background, have been replaced with credit titles over a sequence from later in the film. This is a sequence set on a river bank where the ‘teenage girl’ is fondling with her boyfriend whilst rock music plays in the background. The change was clearly meant to suggest sexual scenes which in fact the film does not offer.

By the time of this production Neagle was in her fifties. She and Wilcox were obviously casting round for contemporary dramatic themes. In her autobiography, ‘Anna Neagle Says ‘There’s Always Tomorrow”‘ (W. H. Allen 1974). recalls:

“It was Hugh Cudlipp, now Sir Hugh, the brilliant editor of the Daily Mirror, who suggested over dinner one night that it was time I did a ‘contemporary’ film, if possible one with a problem theme which would find an echo in the minds and hearts of a large number of young-to-middle-age people. What about, say, ‘The Generation Gap’ – a phrase which was to become more and more familiar as the ‘fifties progressed. And so My Teenage Daughter was written for us by Felicity Douglas.”

Felicity Douglas had one play already to her credit; ‘It’s Never Too Late’, adapted by the BBC for television. The plot concerns a successful woman novelist who is taken for granted by her family. The parallels are clear and there is a sense in ‘My Teenage Daughter’ as to how the mother’s role as breadwinner is taken for granted.

The film does retain some of the Anna Neagle persona. Playing Valerie Carr, she  is a extremely competent employee at a large firm publishing magazines. Working as a secretary to the Editor, early in the film Valerie is promoted  to fiction editor in a new magazine aimed at teenagers; ‘teenage’. She is a widow; noted visually in a photograph of her dead husband with one of their children. She has two daughters: Janet/Jan (Sylvia Sims) a 17 years old teenager: Poppet (Julia Lockwood) aged thirteen who tends the family dog, ‘Dog’, an engaging and lively border collie and a bitch. The household also includes Aunt Bella (Josephine Fitzgerald) who looks after the house and, to an extent, the sisters. Valerie is an independent woman managing work and home. The film introduces a romantic interest in the shape of Hugh Manning (Norman Wooland), a writer for the magazine who takes a shine to Valerie.

Jan also has a prospective beau: Mark (Michael Meacham): he lives in the country running a farm after the death of his father; he drives an old van and when he calls to take Janet out he is dressed in an evening suit, which fits his conservative image. However, at the social gathering, held at the Savoy Hotel Janet meets Tony Ward-Black (Kenneth Haigh). He is there in an evening suit, but only for the occasion. Soon we see him in very informal leisure wear: driving a open-top-Bentley; and taking Janet to a basement jazz club, ‘Paradis’. We have here a familiar trope; Mark is the domesticated male, Tony is the lover figure. He clearly does not fit into the traditional social attitudes of Valerie and her circle. He turns up with Janet at the publishing firm’s party launch of ‘teenage’ and Valerie’s boss, Sir Joseph (Wilfred Hyde-White), notes him as an ‘accomplished gate-crasher’. A little later Hugh makes the point that Tony’s surname is ‘Ward’ rather than ‘Ward-Black’, with a nick name of ‘debs delight’. ‘Deb’ or Debutante’ was still a common term in the 1950s.

“A debutante  “female beginner”) or deb is a young woman of aristocratic or upper-class family background who has reached maturity and, as a new adult, comes out into society at a formal “debut” or possibly debutante ball. Originally, the term meant that the woman was old enough to be married, and part of the purpose of her coming out was to display her to eligible bachelors and their families, with a view to marriage within a select circle.” (Wikipedia)

It is likely that the Savoy party was a debutante ball. This is an old-fashioned term, part of a culture that is being superseded in the 1950s. Tony, and several friends of his that we see, inhabit a different world. There musical tastes, for the period, are lively and a little unconventional. Their tastes in clothes are extremely casual and they have their own fashion mores and their own language/slang. Their culture carries a sense of rebellion and a hint of looser morals for the period.

Their favourite social venue, ‘Paradis’, is a basement club with alcohol and  a dance  band; not yet the full-blooded rock roll of youth culture. The basement features an intriguing trope; this is the only occasion in the film when we see Afro-Caribbean men, socialising and dancing. Commonly in the period when we see black men in social venues they are such basements. Hammer’s The Last Page (1952) features the trope briefly. The most extreme example is the later film Sapphire (1959), whose racialism is analysed in some detail in ‘Sex, Class and Realism British Cinema 1956 – 1963 by John Hill (BFI publishing, 1986). There is an interaction in films of the period between black men, unbridled sexuality and underground spaces; as well as examples in British cinema this can be seen in a French title of the same year, And God Created Woman (Et Dieu… créa la femme), where at the climax Brigitte Bardot dances in an erotic fashion below ground and in front of both black musicians.

Predictably Jan is led astray by Tony. There are increasing tensions between Janet and Valerie; with the mother unavailingly attempting to restrain her daughters infatuation with Tony and his life style. It is clear in the film that Valerie’s work is interfering with her control of Janet. Following her new promotion Valerie enjoys a business trip to New York to study teenage fashion. Whilst she is away Janet and Tony becoming increasingly close. The sequence on the river bank is found here. The rock music appears to come from the car radio; Tony tries to kiss and fondle Jan who is nervous but finally lets him. There is a cut here but it does not suggest an ellipsis with coitus. Jan also adopts the fashion of Tony’s circle and its language with words like ‘hip’. Aunt Bella is merely an onlooker to this and Poppet is bemused by her elder sister’s behaviour and describes her sitter as ‘a crazy mixed-up kid’; Dog is equally bemused.

Matters come to a head at the club when Tony is menaced by shady looking characters over an unpaid debt; £40. Janet offers to cash in her savings to help him; she already seems to have been  giving him money including a pound she borrowed from her mother ‘to pay a taxi’. However, at home Valerie refuses to let Janet have her Post Office Savings book. Janet, almost hysterical, storms out the house.

Tony, distraught , attempts to borrow money from his aunt Louisa (Helen Haye). When she refuses he grabs at her purse and she has a fatal stroke. Tony and Janet now flee in his Bentley but are soon apprehended by the police. When Valerie visits Janet in a police cell her daughter accuses her of causing the tragedy. Later, during a prison visit at Holloway Jail Jan apologises. Tony and Janet now appear at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court: he is sent for trial at the old Bailey for causing the death of his Aunt Louisa: Janet is not to be prosecuted but the Judge offers a stern lecture. This includes calling on Valerie to stand in court and be sermonised on failings as  a parent.

He claims “serious moral delinquency” and “a lack of parental control”.

This clearly upsets Janet who cries out;

‘Oh No ….”

Both the magistrate’s comments were common in the period as a moral panic set in about youth; especially in the media.

Leaving the court mother and daughter are shepherded pass the crowd and the media by Hugh, who puts them in a taxi to take them home. We do not see Hugh again but he does promise to ring Valerie later. Poppet meanwhile has been sent away from the scandal to stay with Tony on the farm. She nether less finds a newspaper with the story; and soon Mark brings her and Dog home. Like Hugh, Mark leaves but there is a hint that he will see Janet again; Valerie suggests going away to ‘the country’. Mother and daughter are now re-united and promise to stay together; the last shot is of the embrace of mother and daughter.

“We must never lose each other again’.

Intriguingly the character of Valerie does retain some of Anna Neagle’s traditional persona; but this is limited by the typical values of the 1950s. The lecture by the judge does point up the film’s underlying sub-text; that Valerie’s career is hindering her parenting. And this aspect is reinforced by the development of the relationship with Hugh and his expressed attitudes. He does ask Valerie to marry him; and other characters assume this will happen, including Poppet, who is a fan of Hugh’s novels. But earlier Valerie had pronounced that ‘she would not marry again’. As the family crisis deepens she implies to Hugh that this will be the case whilst she attempts to sort out Jan. In the course of the film Valerie is presented as a successful career woman. There are only brief scenes of her at work, [typical of popular film at this time], but she is clearly both competent and in charge. The end of the film has a certain ambiguity; how will the reborn relationship of mother and daughter fit with Valerie’s career? And if Hugh and Mark do return, will mother and daughter become domesticated women? But the final shot of the two women has a strong proto-feminist feeling.

Contemporary critics often picked up on the critical standpoint on Valerie:

“It’s the British answer to those American movies about children who go wrong because of the shro5tvcomings of their Mums and Dads. In a typically British way it takes place in a nice home in London’s semi-swish Hampstead Garden Suburb. In a typically British was ‘Mum’ is a respectable widow with a respectable job in a respectable publishing firm. All ever so nice!. Anna [the actress] refuses to marry again … But that leaves Sylvia [actress] without a dad to spank her when she’s naughty. So Sylvia goes to the bad … in a typically British respectable way.” (F. Jackson, Reynold’s News, 24 June 1956 – quoted by John Hill).

The review is correct about the class-bound nature of the setting and story. But Jan actually gives her address as Highgate Village. The other interesting aspect of the plot and characters is the depiction of the new teenage culture. Hill is one of several writers who think that the property was suggested by the impact of Rebel Without a Cause; released in Britain in January 1956 and which I remember having a real success. However, this title came out in June 1956 so one would think that the British film’s gestation was earlier; one news report suggests the commission for a screenplay was made in August 1955.  Other Hollywood films such as The Blackboard Jungle only appeared in Britain in September 1955 whilst the earlier The Wild One (1953) was banned in Britain at that time. I suspect that Anna Neagle’s phrase ‘generation gap’ means that the film was in response to a growing awareness of a distinct teenage culture and also to concerns about the mores and values of that culture.

There is an interesting distinction between Hollywood ‘teen’ movies and those made in Britain. Generally the Hollywood movies have a more dynamic character and their class divisions are far less obvious. The earliest films, such as those above, do not have a strong register of the new rock and roll culture. The key film here is Rock Around the Clock, released in Britain in august 1956. It had  a major and disruptive influence on younger audiences. As well as focussing on the new youth music the film has a greater integration of white and black characters; an aspect where the US was also in advance of Britain.

In regards to the music of the new youth culture it seems that traditional jazz had a presence in Britain distinct from that in the USA. The key film is Mama Don’t Allow, released in January 1956, but which as an independent documentary short did not enjoy popular distribution. The jazz band as a aspect of British youth culture remains around through the 1950s. In this film there is a song composed by Stanley Black and sung by the Ken-Tones, ‘Get With It. The song is rock inflected dance music rather than a rock and roll song proper. And at other times the music in Paradis is very jazz influenced. The dancing, ‘jive’ could accompany both types of music. As well  as the music club we get as coffee bar; another regular setting in youth movies.

Some reviews commented that both Anna Eagle and Sylvia Syms were too old for the characters they play; Neagle was now 52 and Syms in her second film was 22; but both play their parts extremely well. Syms in particular runs through the gamut of teenage emotions found on-screen. Her enthusiasm and her tantrums ring very true. It is also worth noting that appropriate age plotting and casting was very fluid in this period. In particular we frequently find young females scripted opposite much older men, and apparently not that noteworthy. A year later Gary Cooper [56 years] is romantically cast opposite Audrey Hepburn [28 years] in Love in the Afternoon. Along with this some of the 1950s British films [and to a degree Hollywood] were about a ‘youth culture’ rather than specifically teenagers. . In Britain films like Cosh Boy (1953) have teenage protagonists; others, like The Blue Lamp (1950) present concerns about ‘young criminals’, and Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) is clearly over 20. This would certainly apply to ‘The Wild One’ and the very popular Elvis Presley vehicles

The production is fairly conventional, as is mainly the case with Wilcox films. The technical aspects are well done but follow the mainstream conventions. When Aunt Louisa has her stroke the shot of Tony as he realises is a low angle and emphatic camera shot. There is a sequence set in Holloway Jail where Jan in her cell has a flashback of her relationship with Tony; a series of clips superimposed over her lying in the cell. The cinematography is  by Max Greene / Max Greenbaum in black and white and a ratio of 1.66:1. Green worked as a cinematographer in German silent and sound films. He moved to England in the 1930s; in the 1940s and early 1950s he was a regular on Wilcox productions. The editing was by Basil Warren with music composed and directed by Stanley Black; the latter a popular band leader in the 1950s. Wikipedia records an academic study giving the Box office as £181,467; another youth movie from the same year, It’s Great to Be Young is listed by the same source as taking £282,838[ at the Box Office. The latter film was shot in Technicolor and had John Mills in the lead; its values are similar to My Teenage Daughter. The plot involves teenage school students who rebel when the Head bans their school orchestra playing rock and roll.

Anna Neagle and Herbert Wilcox made a couple more films together; he also produced several titles and she later worked on television. Wilcox directed and Neagle starred in The Lady is a Square (1959) which used the popular singer and performer, Frankie Vaughan as an attraction. This was followed by These Dangerous Years (1957) and The Heart of a Man (1959), both Vaughan vehicles directed by Wilcox and produced by Neagle. These  last films do not really do justice to a long ands successful career for both. This was a problem for experienced actresses in the 1950s. Googie Withers was another star who played strong independent women; in the Wilcox title Derby Day (1952) she effectively reprises her relationship with John McCallum from It Always Rains on a Sunday (1947 ), but this is a pale imitation. And by this time Margaret Lockwood was under contract to Wilcox; Julia/Poppet was her daughter. She was cast in the Technicolor Trouble in the Glen (1954) , a piece of whimsy whose sole virtue is a characteristic appearance by Orson Welles. It is not until 1959 and Expresso Bongo that Sylvia Syms a part with sexual allure.

In many ways this film is emblematic of the 1950s; a decade when contradictions summering under the surface only really burst forth at its end. So the really interesting films about teenagers, parents, family conflict and dated social mores only appear in Britain in the 1960s: especially with A Taste of Honey (1961), though the play premiered in 1958: and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), from a story published in 1959. The director Tony Richardson was one name behind Momma Don’t Allow. However, the later films have had much more attention than the Wilcox/Neagle production. John Hill has only a line on the film: the same is true of Raymond Durgnat in ‘A Mirror for England’ (1970), though he does suggest “If the jazz club isn’t the ante-chamber to Hell (vide Herbert Wilcox’s My Teenage Daughter…)”: Sarah Street sees her character as ‘the familiar persona’ and the film ‘class-bound’: curiously Marcia Landy’s excellent ‘British Genres’ does not mention the film.

Posted in British films | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Happy End (France-Austria-Germany 2017)

Posted by keith1942 on October 8, 2021

I first saw this title at the Leeds International Film Festival and then on its British release in December 2017. I waited to post on the film as I tried to resolve a puzzle. The title failed to achieve an entry in the Sight & Sound ‘Top 40 Films of 2017’. This despite the ludicrous Mother achieving equal 19: several productions that were not actually theatrical releases: and the beautifully undramatic Call Me By Your Name included. I did wonder if the oddity of the S&S list coming out at the beginning of December was the reason? Solving the conundrum proved difficult. The complete lists of voters and votes is actually on the S&S web pages but it was beyond my limited computer skills to crack it. After some delays I managed to get the information from the S&S editorial office. It appears that Michael Haneke’s new film received only one vote, by Geoff Andrews. I shall include him in my top five film critics of the year. I did check the later 2018 list; no sign of Happy End.

Now the title is available on the BBC. Allowing for the limitations of terrestrial digital the film looks and sounds nearly as good as in a theatre. So I wonder, as I did with the theatrical release, what was the problem with the film for so many critics. Adam Nayman’s review in S&S noted,

“In what has to be considered a minor upset by Cannes standards, Happy End was the first Michael Haneke joint to leave the festival without a major prize since 2003 …” [this use of ‘joint’ is new to me].

It is a typical Haneke film. Perhaps critics felt a sense of déjà vu as they watch the familiar characters, situations and events. I did think it is not in the same class as Amour (2012) or Caché / Hidden (2005). But it is very witty, more so than the recent Haneke productions; certainly as effectively as the 1997 Funny Games. This is a sardonic and satirical examination of the French bourgeoisie whilst at the same time drawing attention to the exploitation and oppression that their wealth and success entails.
The setting for most of the film is the area around Calais where the central family live and have their business. The plot presents aspects of that but most of the running time is concerned with the interaction within the family. However, at key points in the narrative there are important scenes involving members of the working class, members of the servant class and the unemployed migrants in the area. The latter are presumable waiting to try and cross the channel to join the British audiences of the film.
The central characters are the family and their circle are as follows;

To these can be added Nathalie (Aurélia Petit ), Thomas’ ex-wife and mother of Eve: a young woman cellist, also a mistress: a site workers and his family: and four or five migrants/refugees, apparently based in the well publicised ‘jungle’. None of the main characters are presented sympathetically; even the family dog bites a small child. We have the well-heeled self-centred bourgeoisie and the hard-pressed people who depend on them, at least financially. The only sympathetic relationship is that between the young Eve and the elderly Georges. The latter’s situation appears to have confused at least one reviewer. Adam Nayman writes:

“It’s strongly implied, as Happy End goes on, that Trintignant is playing the same Georges Laurent he did in Amour; a bit of continuity that is (intentionally) undermined by the fact that the daughter figure played by Hubert in that film was named Eva, not Anne.”

Actually Amour does not provide the surname of Georges, so what occasioned this error?. Though the death of the wives are similar the point is that in Amour the character is a retired piano teacher, miles away from the bourgeois owner of a substantial construction company in Happy End.
The film opens with a series of shots taken on a mobile phone, first of a woman washing and toileting, then of the family pet. These are accompanied by text messages which seem inconsequential but require close attention. These shots set up one strand in the film dealing with modern electronic gadgets. Later we see a series of what I take to be texts messages on a laptop. Some of these are extremely funny. Then at the end of the film we return to the mobile phone; this sequence is noted for provoking audible responses in the audiences; I found it exhilarating.

The opening is followed by a long shot/long take, in typical Haneke fashion, of a Laurent construction site. The event here will create repercussion right throughout the film.
Between these very personal and these very public sequences we see the family politely destroying each other. These interactions fall between expensive rituals like parties and meals. And both types are disrupted by the people from ‘across the tracks’ . Thus whilst Haneke’s representation of the family is sardonic the film also presents the critical alternative worlds as was the case in Caché.
The film is scripted and directed by Michael Haneke. As usual it has a beautifully realised style with fine production design and cinematography by Oliver Radot and Christian Berger respectively. And the editing by Monika Willi is unshowy but very effective; and equally so is the sound.
Adam Nayman does recognize the quality of the film,
“Cut to several months later (from the Cannes Festival in May to the December S&S), and it looks as if Happy End is Haneke’s most interesting film since Hidden (2005) . . . “

Now the title is available on on Blu-ray, streamed and British terrestrial television. The original title was produced on 4K digital though most cinema screening were only at 2K. Some of this quality will be lost on video, streams and television. Still, the narrative, characters and treatment make this genuinely interesting and entertaining viewing.

Posted in European film, Polls and listings | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Sean Connery

Posted by keith1942 on September 20, 2021

Connery was another film star whose career ended in 2020.  One whose films I mainly enjoyed and whose gravitas, with the Scottish accent, was frequently a memorable experience. Whilst he was a very different character, both in culture and values, his career reminded me of his friend Michael Caine. There were the early years of minor movies and minor roles. Then the breakthrough and a screen image that was sexy and charismatic. This was followed by a long career as a major star with an increasing screen presence, partly due to the longevity and the impressiveness of his roles. Whilst their politics were rather different both generally represented conservative values but also made films which intentionally or not subverted those values. However Connery certainly essayed a wider range of roles and worked more extensively beyond the mainstream. He also often exuded a greater sense of irony whilst Caine often seemed to send himself up.

I saw several of Connery’s early films though I did not mark him out at the time, this included the gripping Hell Drivers (1957). The first time I remember being taken by him was in The Frightened City (1961) which had my favourite black and white cinematography format.

Then came the James Bond titles. I was never that impressed with the cycle. However, he was the most convincing Bond and only Daniel Craig has come close since then. I remember standing outside the ABC cinema in Bournemouth with friends and being entertained as the young men with female companions came out of the cinema clearly trying to emulate the Bond persona.

There was Marnie (1964) from Alfred Hitchcock. I never really liked the film and I have been irritated by the attempts by some Hitchcock fans to explain away the rape sequence. But Connery was ideal as the misogynistic protagonist. The Hill (1965) was a far more interesting film directed by Sydney Lumet. This brought out some of the interesting facets of the on-screen characteristics, including the rebellious streak and the stubborn determination. The Molly Maguires (1970), set in the Pennsylvania coal  mines in the 19th century was excellent, well scripted by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt. This was a powerful trade union story and one that the mainstream US industry has tended to avoid and downplay.

‘The Hill’

The Offence (1972) was again directed by Sidney Lumet and adapted from his own play by John Hopkins. Connery’s regular characteristics were here employed in a vicious and violent interrogation of Ian Bannen’s suspected rapist. Both actors were impressive and the film deserves wider recognition.

Zardoz (1974 was written, produced and directed by John Boorman. Connery played a ‘brutal’, a group dominated by ‘the Eternals’ in a future society. In a complex and sometime complicated plot Zed breaks into the world of the Eternals and disrupts it in numerous ways. Audiences at the time found the film confusing and it was panned by the critics. I was fascinated by the quirky SF story from Boorman and the film looked great with cinematography by Godfrey Unsworth. There was the added bonus of Charlotte Rampling.

In 1975 he appeared in two interesting films. The Wind and the Lion set in early 20th century Morocco as the USA flexes its imperial muscle. But the focus was the contrasting characters of Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni (Connery) and Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith). The director John Milius was not really equipped to handle such a colonial episode but Connery, in no way Arabic, is engaging. I however prefer The Man Who Would be King. Taken from a Kipling story; the writer is an imperialist but also has an understanding and sympathy for the great sub-continent. Connery, as Daniel Draviot, is part of a duo with Michael Caine as Peachy Camehan. This is the sort of adventure story in which both actors excel. The director John Huston, with co-writer Gladys Hill, gives the story drama, emotion but also humour. And the landscape looks fine in Oswald Morris’ fine cinematography. The indigenous peoples are merely props for these adventurers but Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish is also memorable.

‘The Man Who Would be King’

1976 saw Richard Lester’s film Robin and Marion. This was an ensemble of talents. James Goldman wrote the screenplay, David Watkins provided the cinematography and John Barry the music. Connery was ably supported by an excellent cast including Audrey Hepburn, Robert Shaw and Nicol Williamson. This is the best version on film of the Robin Hood Legend. The plot develops with real interest and both drama and humour. And the elegiac tone is impressive.

There was a gap of six years before a film that seems equivalent, Five Days One Summer (1982). Fred Zinnemann ably directed this mountaineering film set in the 1930s Alps. Despite poor reviews this was a film for the climbing buff. The accuracy of the representation of mountaineering was no doubt due to the presence of Hamish MacInnes as an advisor and able stand-in on the mountains. The film also has the longest parting between lovers that I can remember.

The Name of the Rose was a credible adaptation of Umberto Eco’s novel and a feast of semiotics. Connery’s William of Somerville provided a rational centre in a monastery full of hysterical fundamentalist and misguided believers. The young Christian Slater as Adso provided a youthful foil to Connery.

Then there is the Oscar-winning performance in The Untouchables (1987). This is classic Brian de Palma film with the happy addition of an Ennio Morricone score. Connery’s Irish-American cop is not that Irish but he does have one of the great death scenes in Hollywood films.

The Russia House (1990) is from a John Le Carré novel and it is hard to go wrong with that, especially when Tom Stoppard does the adaptation . It [as usual] lacks the complexity of the original but the unwinding of the jigsaw is fascinating. Michelle Pfeiffer is good as the romantic interest and James Fox is really fine as the British spy master.

Sean Connery’s last film outing that I really rate is Finding Forrester, a fascinating study directed by Gus Van Sant. Connery is the titular writer and recluse. Rob Brown is a young aspiring Afro-American writer. Both are convincing in their very different characters. The treatment of a black artist in a white-dominated culture needs greater depth but the film holds the attention and has a satisfactory finale.

‘Finding Forrester’

Connery had a few films that bombed at the box office but in most cases they were successful. Much of his career was spent in Hollywood productions like The Hunt for Red October (1990). Whilst this and others were very well produced the narratives tended to the conventional. I think his most interesting work was in independent and European films. And the best of these resurface regularly and I am sure that they will continue to do so. There is no doubt about either his star quality or his position in the top film/actor lists.

Posted in Hollywood stars, Obituary | Leave a Comment »

Out of Blue, Britain, USA 2018

Posted by keith1942 on July 2, 2021

This movie received mixed reviews on release,however Mark Kermode in his television preview was really positive. I saw it on release and I was very impressed. Now it has been aired on BBC2 and is available on the BBC I-player until mid-July. The drama presented in this title is rather unconventional. The narrative mixes objective scenes [the audience assume we are watching a record of realistic events] and subjective scenes [a character’s internal memories and musings] and it is likely to take time for viewers to be able to clearly distinguish them. The plot also mixes actions by characters with philosophical musings by them.

The latter aspect is exemplified by the opening sequence which commences with the night sky and an astronomer speculating on the cosmos. This would appear to be a homage to the British film masterpiece, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It also sets up a treatment of the characters and their experiences which suggest issues of existential consideration.

‘We are all stardust’.

On the surface this is a story of a murder investigation shot in a noir manner, with a world of chaos, a ‘seeker’ hero, flashbacks, triangles of relationships, dark nights paralleled by talk of ‘dark matter’ and ‘black holes’, and visually chiaroscuro. The setting is New Orleans and the production makes good use of the varied character of this city, which at times has an exotic tinge. It is though a symbolic city and despite location filming it is not the city seen in contemporary news. Visually the film is treat. The colours are evocative and suggestive, not just the ‘blue’ of the title but a range of tones which match the different facets of the city. The cinematography, in colour and a ratio of 2.35:1, by Conrad Hall is excellent and the title is well served in all production departments. The editing is deft and precise with cuts at a particular micro-second.

The other compelling aspect of the film is the performance of Patricia Clarkson as detective Houlihan, the investigator. This is a tour de force. I actually pay little attention to the Academy Awards but this performance deserves a Best Actor trophy. It is also a still rare pleasure to see an older actress with a lead role in a thriller. The supporting cast are also excellent.

Detective Mike Houlihan investigates a death with her two assistants; the violent death of Jennifer Rockwell. Her father is a war hero: her brothers run the family business in electronics:her mother is at home with a pet dog [Tibetan Lhasa] and a large portrait of Rockwell senior’s mother.

In one of the edits which make the narrative cryptic and ambiguous it seems that Houlihan and a young local reporter, Stella, both attend an Alcoholics Anonymous therapy session. Her problems with drink provide an important plot turn but they also reveal the tortured psyche of Houlihan; stemming back to her youth, obscure parentage and a problematic sojourn in an institution. Clearly police work provides order for Houlihan life. At one point she states that life only started for her

‘when I joined the Academy’.

Film noir is often as much about an investigation of a woman as it is about a hero. In this title Houlihan is the women investigated; investigated by herself as she gradually trawls up suppressed events from her childhood. These are associated with a selection bric-a-brac. Jennifer apartment is full of them; and a warehouse at Rockwell Electronic is also full of them. Houlihan herself carries at least one example on her person.

The philosophy in the film is important to the development of the plot. It also offers some moment of delicious irony. Morley and her team use visual clues to assist in the investigation but also to draw out the parallels with characters’ intellectual forays. One recurring such foray is talk of ‘Schrodinger’s cat’. Houlihan shares her apartment with a Siamese cat who also has cryptic moments. At one point she jokingly offers the cat in a box, [just like Schrodinger] to Daniel, one time lover of the dead Jennifer.

As well as scientific references the film seems to offer homages to key movies. I have mentioned the Powell and Pressburger title. At other points I detected some sort of trope connected to The Birds (1963): Blade Runner (1982): Chinatown (1974), Citizen Kane (1941): and Pursued (1947).

These fit into a dramatisation and play with the noir discourse; critically revisiting some of the key aspects that so fascinate viewers and critics.

This is the latest movie by Carol Morley. Her Dreams of a Life (2011) stood out amongst recent British documentaries. Mark Kermode commented that she was ‘born a film-maker’. I actually think that quality film-makers develop by commitment and hard work, attention to detail and a serious study of cinematic form. Carol Morley seems to have done all of this. And, uncommon among the ‘new auteurs’, she has mastered both the direction of film and script-writing for film.

The plot is challenging as viewers have to distinguish actual and mental worlds. The film does bring these together in its resolution. Even here though there is an ambiguity with the colour blue pointing to the outcome; ambiguity that runs right through the film. The editing is elliptical and it takes seconds sometime to recognise which character and setting we are viewing. The mise en scene is full of meanings; characters and props seem to disappear as very slight ellipsis lead the plotting on.

The film is adapted from a novel by Martin Amis, ‘Night Train’ (1997), changing the tone and the plot. Amis’ novel aimed to be a parody, this is a fairly bleak film noir. Morley’s version changes the character of the detective, the plotting of both the deaths and the investigation and, finally, the resolution. It was mainly funded by the BBC and the BFI. This may be part of the reason that it stands out in productions by British directors working on US-based stories. Frequently such films are a disappointment and less satisfying than earlier British-based stories by the same film-maker. Here Carol Morley succeeds with a really effective treatment which also develops some of the themes found in her earlier works.

Definitely a film to see. Mark Kermode suggests it repays seeing more than once; I fully agree. If you do enjoy it there is an article, ‘Under Investigation’, privileging the female protagonist as detective in the April 2019 edition of Sight & Sound, and followed by an interview with Carol Morley.

Posted in British noir | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Saudha International Satyajit Ray Congress

Posted by keith1942 on June 7, 2021

The centenary year of this outstanding film-maker started on May 2nd. Happily the day was marked by the opening of this Congress which was operated via zoom. It is now available on You Tube. The Sunday session ran for three hours and a second session on Monday ran for two and half hours. The sessions were chaired by Ahmed Kaysher and  a series of speakers from India and from Britain talked about their experiences and study of Ray himself and of his film work; and some speakers also talked about his literary and musical output. The speaker included people who knew Ray personally, fellow film-makers in India and academics and archivists familiar with his films.

This was a fascinating and varied series of comment and portraits. Nearly all of the Ray titles received a mention, though unsurprisingly the trilogy that established his status was central. We also enjoyed the singing of songs connected with his films.

One got a sense both of Ray’s own views and values and the importance of the tradition of a ‘Bengali renaissance’ for this art. This provided a stimulating commentary for people revisiting or discovering his master-works.

There was mention of a complete retrospective of his films that is being planned by the British Film Institute. There will be celebrations with screenings in other territories as well so fans can anticipate a feast of fine cinema.

Sight & Sound have helpfully re-printed an interview with Ray from the 1950s. There is also a published edition edited by Bert Cardulla (20027) of interviews over the years with Ray. And one would hope that for people who will find such cinema screenings difficult to access that at least the BBC will transmit some titles; two, Mahanagar (1963) and Charulata (1964), screened on Film 4 and are still available on ALL 4. I should say that whilst waiting for cinemas to reopen I have watched the Criterion Blu-ray set of the Apu trilogy and it is very well done.

Posted in Film Directors, Indian film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »