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A Very BFI coup.

Posted by keith1942 on September 29, 2015

Harry Perkins

Harry Perkins with Sir Percy behind him!

The reference to the title of a novel and television adaptation is deliberate: so I should offer apologies to the character of Sir Percy Browne, who is a consumate operator. The actual example below is less urbane and pays less attention to detail.

The Board of Governors for the British Film Institute has announced an election for a Members’ Governor on the Board.

“Help shape the future of film

Call for nominations for the Governor Election 2015

The BFI Governors are guardians of Britain’s moving image culture and heritage and also help shape the strategic direction of the Government’s lead agency for film.

One BFI Governor is elected to serve a four-year term in office by BFI Membership and Sight & Sound subscribers. Due to an upcoming vacancy, we’re seeking nominations for candidates for a Governor Election.”

However, the notification sent out to members and S&S subscribers is somewhat ‘economical’ with the facts. This election is overdue by at least a year and there should be for two Governors elected by Members, one of which posts has been vacant for a couple of years. And the current Member, designated as Regional, should have been up for re-election in 2014.

Mark Newell helpfully pointed out some information buried in the BFI Report 2014/15. I used the term ‘buried’ advisedly as this was only to be found on page 52. The Report records two changes to the Member Governor posts: though it does not actually admit they are changes. It appears two posts have been reduced to one; and the period of the post extended from 3 to 4 years.

The supposed rationale for this is the follow up to the Triennial review of the BFI. However, the recommendations in that Review state that ‘no changes’ are recommended to the Member Governor posts.

This would appear to be the Governors and managers ‘sneaking through’ changes. I use those terms advisedly because there as been no notification to the electorate regarding this. The BFI regularly issues Press Releases when some establishment figure joins the Board. There have been none on these changes. Presumably there is some detail of this in the Board Minutes, but the delay in making these available on the BFI website increases all the time. Currently we are waiting for those of February 2015 to be posted.

And there was a similar tactical silence on the extension that was agreed to the Regional Member Governor post: which should have been up for re-election in the autumn of 2014. Electors were left to discover this when there was no election. The person occupying that post seems to be at one with the other Governors, since he never took the trouble to either consult or inform electors about this extension.

The information available to people with voting rights has decreased year by year. There is little information on the member’s pages and the Members Board seems equally defunct. As noted in earlier postings the Board now appears to consist entirely of people who work in London and who reside no more than 40 or 50 miles from the capital. The Triennial Report recommended Regional Representation but none of the current Governors are described as such. This is what should be termed a democratic deficit.

Harry Perkins, who graces the head of this post, had a favorite mantra – ‘it’s the will of the people’. One can hardly imagine any member of the Current Board of Governors chanting that refrain!


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Michelangelo Antonioni – Poet of Alienation

Posted by keith1942 on September 18, 2015


L'eclliseThe BFI have released a digitally restored version of one of the most famous films by this filmmaker – L’ecclisse / The Eclipse (1962). This is a welcome return of one of the most important directors of art cinema in the 1960s. I hope that this film will be follows by re-issues of L’avventura (1959) and La Notte (1961) 


Antonioni was born in 1912. In the 1930s he experimented with 16-mm film and also contributed film criticism to a local newspaper. In 1940 he attended the Italian film school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. He then worked as a scriptwriter, including on one film for Roberto Rossellini. His first film as a director was a short documentary, Gente del Po, on which he worked from 1943 to 1947. In the 1950s he directed a number of features and continued as a scriptwriter, including contributing to Fellini’s The White Sheikh/Lo Sceicco Bianco (1952).

In 1960 L’avventura bought him international success. The film won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Festival. It formed a trilogy with his next two films La notte, winner of the Best Film Award at Berlin in 1961: and L’eclisse, which also won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, in 1962. All three films starred the actress Monica Vitti; almost as regular in Antonioni’s films as was Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s. Antonioni was clearly seen as an auteur. His dominant theme was the emotional barrenness of modern man – the futile search to assert him or herself in a technological world and their frustrating inability to communicate with others. Ephraim Katz comments “Long lingering shots follow his characters until their inner selves are revealed. By their leisurely immobility the shots suggest the overbearing pressure that times exerts upon human emotions. The surrounding physical world is also used to convey a state of mind and to express the strains of alienation and psychological agony. Antonioni’s films are almost plotless, their narrative vagueness almost bordering on mystery. “ [In the International Film Encyclopaedia, 1994].


Italian film context:

Antonioni grew up under Fascism and his early filmmaking career paralleled the development of Neo-realism. These films focussed on the lives of ordinary people. Neorealist used location shooting, non-professional actors and a somewhat unconventional style compared with mainstream studio films. In the 1950s Antonioni’s films moved away from the Neorealist aesthetic and began to display the visual and narrative ambiguities of his most famous films.

At the same time changes in cinema audiences and film exhibition impacted on Italian filmmakers. These were part of wider changes in international post-war cinema. Cinemas, especially in rural areas and small towns, frequently closed. City based cinemas survived but prices increased. Moreover there developed what we now call ‘niche’ audiences. There were the mainstream popular films, including imports from Hollywood, And there were ‘quality’ or art films. The latter often made a virtue of black and white cinematography, which generally cost less. But it also provided a distinctive style as colour became the norm in the mainstream . Antonioni only made a colour film, The Red Desert / Il Deserto Rosso in 1964. Along with the style went a distinctive approach to plot, character and the resolution of the film story.

Antonioni – The trilogy


L’avventura, La notte and L’ecclise form a thematic trilogy. Antonioni made them between 1960 and 1962. All won festival awards, and they established his reputation and his directorial persona. Monica Vitti appears in all the films. Antonioni together with Tonino Guerra wrote the scripts. Eraldo Da Roma was the editor on all three films; Gianni Da Venanzo was director of photography on La notte and L’eclisse; and Giovanni Fusco composed the music for both L’avventura and L’eclisse. In the same period, apart from Fellini’s La dolce vita, Igmar Bergman directed Winter Light; and Alain Resnais directed Last Year in Marienbad. All great modernist films.

In L’avventura “A young woman, Anna [Lea Massari], disappears while cruising near Sicily in the company of a group of rich Italians. Her lover, Sandro Gabriele Ferzetti], and her friend, Claudia [Monica Vitti], search unsuccessfully for her, developing a tenuous relationship in the process. There is no resolution of the conventional type. Anna’s disappearance is never explained and ceases to be of nay interest. At the end of the film Claudia and Sandro achieve a bleak sympathy, but hardly a consummation. Nor are we permitted any semblance of orthodox narrative involvement. The film is paced very slowly, much of its action is seen in real time. Its characters communicate little dialogue, and more often than not, are to be found looking away from each other into the bleak and arid Sicilian landscape.” [Andrew Tutor]. 

La notte “is about an artist’s life at the height of Italy’s economic miracle; it depicts several hours, including the whole night, in the life of Giovanni Pontano [Marcello Mastroianni], a novelist, on the day of the publication of his latest book. Jeanne Moreau plays his wife. And Monica Vitti plays the daughter of an industrialist whom Giovanni attempts but fails to seduce.

Antonioni manipulates entrances and exits and ambiguous shifts of scale, in order to shift regularly between his principal characters while maintaining the impression that their independent actions are linked together, almost as if they see each other in their privacy.” [P. Adam Sitney].


L’ECLISSE [The Eclipse].


L’ecclisse is set in Rome and the central relationship involves Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero (Alain Delon). The plot involves the city’s Stock Exchange whilst the settings are mainly in the upmarket and fashionable EUR area of Rome. The film is [for my money] the most abstract of the trilogy.

The film is set in two areas of Rome, though there is also a light aeroplane flight to Verona aerodrome. The prime focus is in the EUR district where Vittoria lives in a modern, smart apartment. EUR was a project of the 1930s Fascist regime. It was to be an architectural and planning monument constructed round a great expo Exhibition. The exhibition never took place and the area was developed post-war as both a residential and business area. So the district has a mixture of styles from pre-war and post-war. And, as is so often the case in Italian films, architecture caries a particular resonance from the past.

The film opens in the nearby apartment of Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) whose relationship with Vittoria is coming to an end. Later Vittoria returns to her own apartment. Riccardo vainly calls there. Later in the film Piero will call, more successfully. There is also a sequence in the flat of a neighbour visited by Vittoria and a friend. This is a somewhat oddball sequence. The hostess has lived in Kenya for a period and she is quietly racist about the black people there. The women actually play and dress up in her collection of African costumes. I find this sequence dates the film in a way that does not happen with L’avventura.

The second area is the old centre of the city. Here is sited the Stock Exchange, the apartment of Piero’s parents, and the office from which he works. Vittoria and Piero meet at the Stock Exchange, where Vittoria’s mother goes to check investments. This offers a bedlam of noise and frenetic activity. And in the first sequence there this is emphasised by a minute’s silence held for a departed stock broker. The Exchange is a centre of gambling fever, for me it recalled the shorter and stylistic different sequence in Fritz Lang’ Doctor Mabuse (1922). Piero is as afflicted as every other member of the exchange, at one point Vittoria says to him:

“you never stand still”.

The events at the Exchange feature a bubble and crash, reflecting actual economic events in Italy in 1961.

There is also a sequence at the Tiber. Piero’s sports car was stolen and the driven into the river. We see the car, and the dead driver, hauled from the river. But it is followed a by a sequence when Piero and Vittoria walk across a park together.

It is an exterior and a junction that dominates the last reels of the film. This is in the EUR district at a cross roads. There is an unfinished building with scaffolding and coverings: even a water running to a tank and leaking onto the road. We see this junction on several occasions. We see passerby, including a nurse pushing a pram. And at one point in the twilight a bus stops, passengers disembark and it drives on. It is here that we return at the end of the film. We see some of the passerby, including a man with a newspaper. Then the junction becomes deserted. We are waiting but never see what may happen. Visually this is a stunning sequence, with a series of shots of the junction, the building, and close-ups of detail. It also seems to be the most abstract sequence in an Antonioni film.

The film is constructed round dolly shots. The camera cuts frequently, often to oblique angles. They very much service the mise en scène. Characters are placed against objects, walls and buildings. There is a shot of Vittoria in Riccardo’s flat, on the extreme left of the frame, facing into the room and a mirror. Riccardo is separated by space, walls and furniture. When Vittoria and Piero first talk at the Exchange, they converse round a large pillar as the minute’s silence proceeds. Some of the shots, especially of Vitti, reminded me of those in La Notte. The shots are not especially long. There are a number of tracks in the film and they seemed mainly to occur when there is some sort of ending occurring.

We have both daytime and night-time sequences and a range of interiors and exteriors. What I had forgotten from a previous screenings was that a night-time sequence features a number of dogs. Vittoria chases these, in particular the pet of her neighbour. I cannot remember other dogs in Antonioni films?

Apart from dialogue and noise the soundtrack is sparse. There are two diegetic songs and a diegetic singer. Non-diegetic brief musical phrases occur early in the film. There are more of them in a sequence where Piero shows Vittoria his parent’s apartment. But the greatest amount of accompanying music is in the final lengthy, and also most empty of people, sequence.

Elclissee still

There is no doubt that Antonioni is an auteur in themes and style. However, this is a work [as his others] that relies on the team of filmmakers involved. The cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo is especially fine. And the production design and editing are also excellent. Whilst the sparse music by Giovanni Fusco is atmospheric.

Like all of Antonioni’s films there is a high degree of ambiguity, both in regard to the characters and the plot, but also in terms of the themes it expresses. But this is certainly a modernist and alienating environment. But whilst the old centre has far more life and action it also is fairly vacuous, when it is not merely exploitative. The visual quality of the film offers great pleasure, and the sound and music add to this. It is also stimulating because whilst some viewers may be bored, [I have heard this said] if the film involves one it seems very difficult not to ponder and question after the final ‘Fine’.

Italy / France 1962. Produced by Robert and Raymond Hakim.

Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, with Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri; cinematography: Gianni Di Venanzo; editor: Eraldo Da Roma; sound: Claudio Mailed and Mario Bramonti; production design: Piero Poletto; music: Giovanni Fusco.

Cast: Alain Delon (Piero); Monica Vitti (Vittoria); Francisco Rabal [Riccardo]; with Lilla Brignone, Rosanna Rory, Mirella Ricciardi, Louis Seignier.

Screening in a DCP, black and white with English subtitles: running 126 minutes.

Synopses from the Macmillan International Dictionary of Film.

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Black Coal, Thin Ice, Bai ri yan huo, China / Hong Kong 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on August 29, 2015


I saw this film at the same time as two friends and we had rather different responses. One liked it, one disliked it: I think I was the most impressed. That is along with the Berlin Film Festival where the film won the Golden Bear. So I have spent a little time considering what it is about the film that impressed me.

The film was written and directed by Yi’nan Diao and it is his third feature released internationally. Black Coal, Thin Ice shares some concerns and plot issues with his previous film Night Train (Ye Che, 2007).It is sited in classic film noir territory, though for much of the film it is not clear whether the protagonist is a seeker or victim hero. Likewise it takes time to get a sense of the murder plot and to identify the femme fatale.

The cinematography of Dong Jinsong and the Art Direction of Liu Qiang provide an excellent noir world. There are the shadowy and sometimes neon-lit visuals. There are the enclosing settings and the wintry landscapes. This is the environment where criminality and chaos abound: and the ambiguity is heightened by the many times that a view or a setting is not clearly placed with the developing plot. There is some very effective editing: in particular a cut in a long travelling shot that transports character and viewers across five years. This also caries across the angst and uncertainties that plague the protagonist.

I found the performances very effective. Zhang Zili plays the investigator Fan Liao, whilst Wu Zhizhen plays the woman, Gwei Lun Mei, who comes to obsess him. Both remain partly undeveloped characters, which makes the climax and resolution the more effective.

The film is the more ambiguous because it is full of scenes whose function in the plot is unclear. I think this was the aspect of the film that most annoyed my less enthusiastic friend. I think I am probably less concerned with linear plots than some audience members. I actually enjoyed the digressions and seemingly unmotivated sequences that occurred regularly in the film. But I also thought that they contributed to the themes of the film. Noir constantly explores the problems of the world of the [usually male] hero: but great noirs [say Force of Evil, 1948) equally explore the problems of the world of the audience that is watching the film. This is how I read Diao’s film: the investigation and relationships of the plot are set against the a contemporary China full of dislocations and contradictions.

Diao’s two previous films explored family dislocation and the pressures of internal migration: and there is a sense of these issues in this film. I suppose the challenge for the audience was to keep tabs on what related to the film’s official plot and what related to the world in which that is supposed to occur. Just to offer a prime example: apparently the film’s original title translates as Daylight Firework Club. But we only encounter this late in the film and the closing sequence deals much more with this event than it does with the official noir mystery of the film.

So I enjoyed it immensely, but if you go to see it [preferably at the cinema – it looks and sounds great] be prepared for a less than straightforward 110 minutes.

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The Third Man, UK 1949

Posted by keith1942 on July 29, 2015

Third man ferris wheel

This classic film is being re-issued as part of the Orson Welles Centenary celebrations. Certainly Welles, oozing both his onscreen charm but also his shadowy otherness, dominates the film as Harry Lime. It contains some of his most memorable dialogue: his aside on the cuckoo clock is one of the most oft-quoted lines in English-language cinema.

But the film is also a tribute to the talents of a number of fine, mainly British, filmmakers. The director was Carol Reed is often dismissed by the appellation ‘metteur en scène’: a phrase that stresses reliance on collaborators as opposed to the supposed dominating talent of the ‘auteur’. In fact many of the great films depend exactly on such a constellation of talents, and this is especially true of British cinema where many a final film is much more than just the sum of its parts.

The film has a fine script by Graham Greene, adapted from his own short story. Certainly Reed’s direction benefits from the magisterial black and white cinematography of Robert Krasker. And his work depends to a degree on Vincent Korda’s atmospheric art direction. Both are ably served by the editing of Oswald Haffenrichter. And there is the inspired choice of Anton Karas’ music: his zither is as famous as dialogue of Orson Welles.

The cast, both leading and supporting players, is ‘pitch perfect’. Alongside Welles Joseph Cotton turns in one of his finest performances as Holly Martin. And Alida Valli is hauntingly beautiful and tragic as Anna Then there are Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee with brief but memorable appearances from Ernst Deutsch and Paul Hoerbiger among others. It is the combination of all these talents that makes the occupied and divided post-war Vienna so believable. This is a perfect gem of a movie.

the-third-man holly and anna

Reviewing it I enjoyed the witty and ironic early sequences in the film. This is very much down to Greene’s skilful script. But the players give just the right emphasis to the lines or placement: as with the recurring comments on Holly Martin’s literary output. I assume that the seminar with the Cultural Re-education Section’s ‘little meeting’ allowed Greene to air a few prejudices.

The noir landscape of the city is brilliant. Light and shadow not only advance the plot: as with the first appearance of Harry Lime. They create this world of chaos, corruption and criminality, which threaten the nominal hero and heroine.

The last stages of the film are more sombre but have even greater resonance. The underground sewer system provides the labyrinth, which is a recurring metaphor in film noir. Here Holly [the prince] hunts down the monster [Lime]. But as so often in the noir world, the death of the monster provides little relief or release.

Third Man lime

Then we have the cemetery. In the original Cretan version the princess [Anna] provides the means for the hero’s safe entry and exit from the labyrinth. But here Anna resolutely refuses to aid Holly. Thus the long take as she passes by the passive Holly leaving the audience to speculate on the fate or either character. This makes Holly a passive character in comparison to Lime. Another aspect of the irony that suffuses this film.

I revisited the film on a 2k DCP screening; both the dynamic contrast and the definition, especially in longer shots for the latter, seemed inferior to 35mm prints. There is a useful article on this version at:



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Amy, UK 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on July 18, 2015


This documentary has been compiled by Asif Kapadia from ‘found footage’, found photographs, found audio including mobile phones, and runs for 128 minutes [possibly slightly over-long]. At times it is quite hard viewing, partly because of the grim downward spiral of its protagonist Amy Winehouse: but also because much of the amateur or video footage is extremely grainy and there are several sequences of rapid flash photography by the paparazzi. However, it is an extremely involving film and likely will grip audiences in the way that Kapadia’s earlier Senna (2010) succeeded.

Both films rely on the compiled visual and aural material. The editing by Chris King is impressive as is the work of the Sound Department supervised by Stephen Griffiths. There is no overarching commentary and the tapestry of image and sound works to provide a portrait. This has the feel of a subjective portrait, but by implication and counterpoint rather than by direct statement, the film does ‘point the finger’ at the situations and the people that fed into the singer’s tragic demise. Cumulatively the film builds up a strong case against the mainstream music industry, the media and what is known as the paparazzi. And the film emphasises these points with long, large close-ups of Amy, as she deteriorates physically and psychologically.

For me there is also a less emphasised irony in the film. For Amy Winehouse’s writing and singing appear strongest early in her career. The later songs, when she became a musical icon, did not seem to have the power and intensity of her first two albums. In fact, the film relies on much informal recording of her singing and performances. Her main output remains under copyright and presumably will surface in a biopic which is likely to be rather bland by comparison.

The film works more or less chronologically, with a few well-chosen flashbacks. It is more a biopic than a musical study. This means that the film does not really address Winehouse’s espousal of a particular strand in US Blues and Jazz singing, [represented by her idols Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan]. Other British singers with parallel vocal talent seem to me to have a distinctive UK take on blues and jazz: [Cleo Lane or Julie Driscoll would be good examples]. This seems to be to offer a interesting area of study. Of course, the trajectory presented in the film reminds one irresistibly of Billie Holiday, another wonderful singer fated by demonic muses.


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Polanski’s Ghosts

Posted by keith1942 on June 30, 2015

Polanski directing The Ghost.

Polanski directing The Ghost.


There is an off-quoted line in the Black Audio Film Collective’s documentary Handsworth Songs (1986):

“There are no stories [in the riots] only the ghosts of other stories.”

I remembered the line when I was mulling over Roman Polanski’s film The Ghost (2010). As with other directors honoured as auteurs his films often stimulate recollections of his own earlier films: ghostly traces or memories from the previous works. Thanks to Channel 4 (who screened the film more or less in the original aspect ratio) when I watched The Ghost again some of these ghostly references reminded me strongly of his classic Chinatown (1974) The S & S review also rightly suggested ‘ghosts’ from Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), Cul-de-sac (1966) and Frantic (1988) among others. The reviewer (Michael Brooke) makes the point that the film closely follows the original book by Robert Harris (who scripted the film with Polanski) but suggests that the plot and story world are in part what attracted Polanski to the property. Of course, both the book and the film use familiar generic elements, but the parallels seem to be to be stronger than that. Much of the film does adhere closely to the plot found in the book, as indeed does the dialogue. However, there are two significant changes, which I comment on below.

Filming Chinatown

Filming Chinatown

In Chinatown a private eye investigates first an affair with and then the death of a prominent Los Angeles citizen Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Swerling). The private eye becomes involved with the widow and her father, a corporate baron. His investigations lead him to discover fraud and corruption in the L.A. Water and Power Company. In The Ghost a writer who polishes and re-writes autobiographies for prominent people is hired to  ‘ghost-write’ the memoirs of ex-British prime minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). His predecessor, Mike McAra, has died in a drowning at sea. When Adam Lang is publicly pilloried for aiding secret CIA rendition of suspects, political secrets surface and become threatening.

The parallels with Chinatown are there most obviously in the two male protagonists of these films. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), the private eye in Chinatown, thinks he knows his trade, but by the film’s finale he is clearly out in depth in the world of criminality symbolised by the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. Ewan McGregor’s Ghost appears to be a smart member of a little-publicised authorial profession; but he also is soon out of his depth in the murky world of power politics. Both men appear in a scene where they look at evidence but fail to unravel the meaning of a word at the time. Jake talks to the Japanese gardener by the Mulwray pool, and only later realises the possible meaning of ‘glass’. The ghostwriter reads the opening chapter of Adam Lang’s memoir without realising the significance of ‘beginnings’. In the end Jake survives, unlike the ghostwriter, but he is equally destroyed by a world that is far more sinister and complex than any he has previously experienced.

Both men are victims of a woman who is essentially a femme fatale, alluring but dangerous. The women are deceptive and it is unclear to what degree they are responding to the hero or merely manipulating him. Ruth Lang [Olivia Williams] of The Ghost survives unlike Evelyn Mulwray née Cross (Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown, but both are equally the puppets of powerful men: men whose public persona is far removed from their actual ruthless real selves. John Huston’s corporate baron Noah Cross is prepared to go to any lengths to profit from the exploitation of L.A.’s dependence on water: and he is equally determined in pursuing his personal power. Tom Wilkinson’s Professor Paul Emmett pursues political power and profit with an equivalent ruthlessness, though we learn far less about his personal pursuits. Noah Cross is an actual father who literally embodies a classic myth of incest and the sexual exploitation of the child: Paul Emmett is a father figure rather than literal parent: but indirectly he controls Ruth’s sexuality through the arranged marriage to Adam Lang.

The secret in Chinatown is the manipulation of water whilst in The Ghost it is the identity of a CIA agent. However, in both films it is the search to crack the secret than impels the narrative. Moreover, that basic element water is key in the mise en scène of both films. We see water in Chinatown in the reservoirs, in the ocean, in a boating lake and in the pool of the Mulwray mansion. In The Ghost it surrounds the main action, on Martha’s Vineyard Island on the US eastern seaboard, and characters constantly cross over it or walk alongside it. And in both films the action that starts to crack open the secret is the drowning of an innocent man, Evelyn Mulwray’s husband in Chinatown, previous ghostwriter Mike McAra in The Ghost. Both are made to look like suicides but in reality they are the victims of a secret conspiracy. Moreover, a female witness in the case also dies, literally in Chinatown, comatosed in The Ghost. The first significant change from the plot of the book is related to the death in The Ghost. Late in the book the writer, fearing the close attentions of the CIA, meets an ex-colleague of Adam Lang, the politician Robert Rycart (Robert Pugh). He travels to New York City for the meeting. In the film they meet at the motel alongside the mainland ferry terminus for the Island. The sequence includes the writer joining and leaving the ferry, as he fears a repeat of the death of his predecessor Mike McAra. The change immediately conjures up both the plot and the symbolism of the earlier Chinatown.

There are crossovers elsewhere in the mise en scène. Both protagonists wander in desolate places like beaches and dried-up riverbeds. The framing and blocking in particular scenes offers hints as to the way the mystery will unravel. This is particularly true of the Asian servants in both households. One intriguing plot piece is that in Chinatown it is the Japanese gardener (Jerry Fujikawa) who inadvertently reveals to Gittes the key information around a man’s death by the pool in the Mulwray garden. In The Ghost, as in Chinatown, house servants are Asian, Dep and Duc. And it is the Vietnamese gardener (Hong Thay Lee) who offers the use of the car to our ghostwriter, and it is the car, which leads him to Paul Emmett and the secret behind the death of Mike McAra.

In both films photographs provide key evidence for the investigation. In particular a photograph of long ago that reveals an important but unknown relationship: Adam Lang with Paul Emmett in The Ghost and Noah Cross with Hollis Mulwray in Chinatown. The more recent film also uses technologies not available when Chinatown was produced or set. But in both cases the investigation depends partly on information provided by individuals and partly by commercial or state institutions: public records in Chinatown and the Internet in The Ghost. Both the L.A. Water and Power Company and the Central Intelligence Agency appear as large, secretive and corrupt institutions, balefully exploiting rather than protecting the citizenry they are supposed to serve.



In particular it is the final scenes of the films that have so many common elements. Both Jake Gittes and the ghostwriter are bought down by hubris. Jake meets the chief villain Noah Cross to expose his crimes, only to be overpowered by his henchman. The ghostwriter presents his discovery of the secret to Rachel Lang, who tells Emmett and death follows. In the final sequence of Chinatown shots are fired as a car drives away, the car halts, horn sounds and a girl screams. A crowd gathers, and then we see the dead woman. As Jake is led away into the darkened and emptying street, newspapers blow across the desolate space. In The Ghost a car speeds towards the writer and us. We hear a car bump, and see concerned or shocked pedestrians run towards an ‘accident’. As the light fades the pages of a manuscript blow across the desolate space. The latter is the second major change from Harris’ book and is similar to the way that Polanski altered the original script for Chinatown by Robert Towne.

The Ghost

The Ghost

Viewers are likely to take away a similar feeling from both movies, a tragic end in failure. The powerful remain unscathed and unexposed: the innocent have died: and the well-meaning but ineffectual hero has failed in his quest. There is a telling line in Chinatown spoken by Lieutenant Escobar (Perry Lopez) to Jake Gittes, “it takes a while for a man to find himself’. The tragedy of both of these films is that the man in question fails to find himself, or at least finds himself too late.

Originally posted on ITP World.

Posted in auteurs, Film noir, Hollywood, Literature on Film | Leave a Comment »


Posted by keith1942 on June 19, 2015


The House of Representative Committee on Un-American Activities was most prominent in the late 1940s and early 19150s, at the same time as the genre of classic  film noir was at its peak. Whilst HUAC or its members or agents rarely get literal representation in these films, the subtexts seem to be full of them. The one notable example is not a film noir:  the pro-Committee Big Jim McLain (1952) has John Wayne  hunting down communists and includes actual film of the Committee hearings with studio inserts. Both the actual Committee and the fictional film world of noir have common qualities, notably a strong sense of paranoia.


The discussions of the Committee are primarily of the 1940s and the 1950s but the roots of what has become known as ‘McCarthyism’ goes back several decades. There was anti-working class USA state action in the years prior to World War I, primarily directed against the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World). 1917 saw the Socialist Revolution in Russia and 1918 the official end of the W. W. I. However, a joint military expedition by the UK, USA, France and Japan involved an invasion of the new socialist state in an attempt to suppress the revolution.

The 1920s saw heavy oppression and repression in the USA against working class militancy and the young socialist movement. Edgar Hoover’s new Federal Bureau of Investigation was in the front line here. Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil gives a dramatic representation of these events; [representations completely excised from the film adaptation There Will be Blood, USA 2007].

1929 saw the great financial crash and in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated the National Recovery Programmes with radical economic policies. The conservative elements in the political establishment, notably in the Republican Party, regarded this as ‘socialist’: their common language reflected what can be described as ‘political illiteracy’. It in this period that the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities [also known as the Dies Committee, from its chair Martin Dies Jr.] was set up, to expose ‘communists and subversives’. One of their targets was the Federal Theatre Programme, which provided employment for theatre professionals and theatrical presentations for ordinary people across the states. It included many radical elements, among them members of the Communist Party USA. It is worth noting that many of the people who joined the Party in this period were motivated by anti-fascism; their grasp of the analysis of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was often limited.

One important factor in the conflicts were strikes by Hollywood workers, notably by members of the Screenwriters’ Guild. Walt Disney, whose autocratic style occasioned one strike, blamed it on ‘communist subversives’. In 1938 Dies conducted an early investigation of Hollywood including questioning actors and film crafts people. One actor, Lionel Stander, was fired from the Republic Studio: in No Time to Marry (USA, 1938) the film, [scripted by John Howard Lawson, another blacklisted writer]  has him whistling the Internationale.


Cradle Will Rock (USA, 1999) presents a picture of some of the work of the Dies Committee in relation to the Federal Theatre Programme. John Houseman and Orson Welles produced the show of the title, which was a sort of Brechtian musical exposing the exploitation and oppression rife in the USA. The play’s opening night coincided with the shutting down of the Federal Theatre funding. In the film [written and directed by Tim Robbins] there are several sequences that show the Dies Committee in action  One sequence [80 minutes into the film] has the Committee grilling a Federal Employee re this ‘subversion’: humorous but frightening. The exchanges with the Committee in the film are based on actual records.

The agitation around left politics continued at the end of the Second World War. This period was characterised by Winston Churchill [and George Orwell] as the ‘cold war’: with the Soviet Union and its allies. It is worth noting that there was wholesale repression of National Liberation Movements in the colonised countries and a rapid expansion of US neo-colonialism. Racism, including what is termed anti-Semitism, and homophobia were also rife. And there was a strong strand of misogyny in the culture. In this atmosphere HUAC pursued the phantom of communist infiltration across a host of US institutions, including the media.

Between March and September 1947 HUAC, under the chairmanship of Parnell Thomas, launched an investigation of Hollywood. It is clear that this was partly motivated by the desire for publicity: at the later hearings Arthur Miller was advised he could be excused a hearing if his wife, then Marilyn Monroe, would agree to have her photograph taken with members of the Committee. The initial response of the Industry was strong resistance. But as the investigations continued, with public hearings, the producers buckled. When the Committee cited ten ‘unfriendly witnesses’ for ‘contempt of Congress’, with subsequent jail terms, the Motion Picture Producers Association of America responded with the ‘blacklist’.

The Hollywood Ten – Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole, Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz.  Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott.

The ‘Ten’ can be seen in the film produced to defend them in 1950 when they were fighting their sentences for ‘contempt of Congress’ in The Supreme Court, The Hollywood Ten written and directed by John Berry.

Red Hollywood (1995) is a documentary that studies the influence of radical filmmakers on Hollywood’s output in the period: a contentious area. It uses an opening clip from Johnny Guitar (1954) as an example: there are numerous references to ‘naming names’ in Hollywood films of this time. But the opening of this documentary also briefly displays the operation of the Committee with clips from films of the period. The film does not really address of the post-war politics of ‘the left’ and the Communist Party USA. The subservience of  the CPUSA to the interests of the Soviet Union meant that revolution in the USA was no longer on its agenda.

When HUAC returned with a fresh investigation between 1951 and 1953 the industry and its members generally collapsed before this attack. Actors and craftspeople who had been friends and/or colleagues of the ‘Ten’ now confessed their activities and even named names. Apart from The Ten many other people in the industry suffered blacklisting and there were similar purges in Television, the media and institutions like the State Department. One result was refugees working in the UK and Europe – Joseph Losey’s career in British film was a direct result of HUAC.

Ten demo

The Way We Were (1973) has a sequence from 1947 presenting a fictionalised version of one attempt by Hollywood stars and filmmakers to support the ‘Ten’. This is followed by a sequence with a conversation between Hubble (Robert Redford) and Katie (Barbara Streisand) that shows some of the attitudes and arguments circulating in Hollywood at the time. Some of the filmmakers involved in the project [like writer Arthur Laurents] had suffered during the blacklist:  it is worth noting that the film was cut of several important scenes for general release.

Film Noir

This Hollywood genre has its roots in German expressionism and many of the filmmakers involved were either émigrés or refugees from Europe, especially Germany. It was also influenced by the French poetic realism of the 1930s. The genre’s title was only applied in retrospect: at the time most of the films fell into crime genres or similar.

The most common and basic plot involved a hero [nearly always male] who is drawn by an attraction, commonly a femme fatale or dangerous woman, into a world of criminality and chaos. The main focus of the plot is whether the hero wills survive – the seeker hero; or whether he will perish – the victim hero.

Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1944) has a victim hero: Murder My Sweet / Farewell My Lovely (RKO, 1944) has a seeker hero. The latter film also has filmmakers involved who suffered under HUAC and the blacklist: Adrian Scot and Edward Dmytryk. A number of the radical and noir films were made at the RKO Studio: Orson Welles worked there. When Howard Hughes acquired the studio in 1948 he closed it down for six months whilst he carried out a check [witch-hunt] of the studio personnel; followed by a number of sackings.

Both of the above  films above demonstrate the stylistic tropes of the genre, which make it rather distinctive for the time. Extensive use of chiaroscuro or light and shadow: notable camera angles: the voice-over and confessional mode. And overall the films frequently project an atmosphere, of cynicism, fear and paranoia.

Critics have offered many suggestions for the rise and influence of this genre in the 1940s particularly. There were the dislocations and uncertainties in the post-war world. An air of cynicism was common. The changing roles of women with changes in the mores of sexuality produced a reaction and often misogyny. Despite the horror at the excesses of the Third Reich there was frequent public anti-Semitism, racism especially directed at Negroes or Afro-Americans, and pronounced though not usually explicitly articulated homophobia. But undoubtedly the activities directed at so-called Un-Americanism also had a powerful effect, especially on the workforce in Hollywood.


Lady from Shanghai (Columbia, 1947, written and directed by Orson Welles) offers an example of coded language which could be seen as anti-capitalist [the dominant value system in the USA] or anti-USA  values, with subtle allusion to US racism. The scenes with an argument between Michael (Orson Welles) and Arthur (Everett Sloan), with Elsa (Rita Hayworth) and George  (Glenn Anders ) looking on, is a good example.

Red Menace (Republic, 1949) shows some of the attributes of noir being used to attack ‘anti-Americanism’ and communist ‘subversion’ with a portrayal of a villainous Communist Party USA akin to the mafia.

Another critical example  is Body and Soul (Enterprise, 1947) which was written by Abraham Polonsky, later one of the Hollywood Ten. The film demonstrates how crime organised crime is effectively ‘business’ and capitalist business.  The film stars John Garfield, whose treatment by HUAC was possibly a factor in his early death. Both men were involved in a number of film noirs or films with liberal values and both had Jewish heritage. Polonsky would go on to write and direct Force of Evil (MGM, 1948).  This is the great ‘political’ film noir. The drama is set in the numbers racket, [organised gambling controlled by a criminal ‘mob’]. During the story a take-over is organised by a larger combine: the parallels with a critical observation of the operation of capitalism run throughout the film. The film includes wire-taps, surveillance, the ‘naming of names’, betrayal and tragedy. And in the personal dramas, interweaved with this corporate action, there is a frequently a strong sense of paranoia.


The above is taken from the notes for a Study Day at the Swarthmore Centre in Leeds.

Wikipedia has detailed pages on ‘The Hollywood Blacklist’ with links to other Webpages.

The Inquisition in Hollywood Politics in the film community, 1930 – 1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, University of California Press, 1983 is the best study of HUAC in Hollywood that I have read.

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Obituaries, June 2015

Posted by keith1942 on June 13, 2015

There is an old saying, ‘deaths come in threes’. It certainly seems o this week, with three important names in the world of cinema.


As Mycroft Holmes

As Mycroft Holmes

Christopher Lee; I was amazed at how long was the list of his screen appearances on IMDB. He played not only in many films but also in several film industries. The newspapers are already ‘identifying’ his key roles. Mine are all early in his career. There affine later performances but in the early days he appeared in key and fine films.

There are the great Hammer horrors:

The Curse of Frankenstein 1957.

The Hounds of the Baskervilles 1959,

Dracula: Prince of Darkness 1966.

I saw all of them in the cinema whilst reviewers worried over my moral corruption. My taste in horror was settled in those films and their performances.

The Wicker Man (1973) sort of subverted hammer though I always thought the film was overrated, but Lee was its best feature along with the cinematography in the final sequence; by Harry Waxman.

And then there was The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). This is the finest portrayal of the great detective on film: but then it was written by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond and directed by Wilder.

Ron Moody with Oliver Reed.

Ron Moody with Oliver Reed.

Ron Moody: he also made a number of films but, for me, it is one performance that stands out: his Fagin in Oliver! (1968). The character is problematic in terms of prejudicial representation of Jewish people, (also true in the book). The BBC played an interview clips with Moody this morning. He said when the film came out he was most nervous about review that would appear in ‘The Jewish Chronicle’. To his relief the review stated that the film was ‘suitable family viewing’. He opined that this was the apogee of critical terms in the Chronicle.

Ornette Coleman.

Ornette Coleman.

Finally Ornette Coleman, a jazz rather than film performer. In fact he was one of the truly great innovators and performers in Jazz. Surely one of his recordings should be included in a desert island ten. However he scored one very appropriate film, The Naked Lunch (1991). And along with the recordings there is a film portrait, Ornette Coleman: Made in America (1985).

All will be missed. And I shall watch or listen to all three over the coming week. Especially Coleman who was the most active in recent years.


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Where I End & You Begin, UK 2014

Posted by keith1942 on May 31, 2015


Lyall's film

This film is in the form of a Cine-Roman: the most famous example being Chris Marker’s La Jetee (1962). The impression is given of a series of stills, thus exposing the basic form of what we call moving pictures. I love this form, both because of its subversive function but also because, when well done, it is poetic, atmospheric and can be immensely stimulating. In some ways it seems to me the cinematic equivalent of the Japanese Haiku, a form of brief poem with a highly conventionalised form.

So this particular example is by a friend of mine, Lyall. It does include a couple of sequences with traditional ‘moving’ images: something that occurs just for a few frames in the Marker film. This film also has a very effective voice-over and sparse but potent music. Lyall is studying music and sound on film.

Definitely worth a visit. If you type the term ‘Cine-riman’ into a search engine, once you get pass the advertising, you can find other examples. One of my other favourites is Despondent Divorcee.

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Far From the Madding Crowd, UK 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on May 11, 2015


When I saw the trailer for this film I was afraid that this was going to be an extremely conventional and clichéd heritage film. In fact, it is better than that, though given that there is already an excellent earlier version – from 1967 – at times it feels redundant. I have not yet been able to revisit John Schlesinger adaptation, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp. Since it is available I wait in hope that some adventurous exhibitor will screen it. I don’t really want to attempt it on video, for [like the new version] it is in colour and wide screen., I did feel that someone involved in the new version had watched the earlier, likely several times. This film is full of sequences which remind one of the former. This does not just apply to the opening sequence that introduces the characters of Gabriel and Bathsheba. There are later scenes that look so familiar: Troy’s furtive meeting with Fanny at the Fair: the announcement to Bathsheba of her husband’s suicide; and Boldwood’s final fateful scene in prison.

The film has distinctive aspects, one of the best being Carey Mulligan’s characterisation of Bathsheba; it is different from that offered by Christie and seemed to me closer to the heroine in Hardy’s original novel. Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel is passable, Michael Sheen as Farmer Boldwood is good, but I think neither characterisation matches that of Bates or Finch. Some of the minor characters are excellent; I especially liked Liddy (Jessica Barden). However, Tom Sturridge is not up to the Troy presented by Stamp,

The direction is fair, but seems inhibited by the script. Some sequences, both between the film’s Gabriel and Bathsheba and Bathsheba and Troy, are well done. The use of landscape is excellent. The sequence where Troy demonstrates his swordsmanship to Bathsheba is now set in woodland and looks splendid. And the change from the towering cliff line to the arable farmland is effective. But there are also odd close-ups of props and shots of vacant sets – in one case flowers, in another the Everdene mansion – that suggest rather than deliver some intended metaphor.

My sense is that part of the problem is in the script.  It seems to be attempting to be faithful to the novel, frequently quoting dialogue from the book.  But it strains at transferring to the more literal medium of mainstream film. There are several sequences where Gabriel is added to a scene involving Bathsheba and one or other of her suitors. Early in the film the separate meetings of Gabriel with Fanny and Fanny with Troy are combined, presumably to tie the plot together. And then there are odd ellipses which actually hinder one’s sense of characterisation. Gabriel’s flute, an important prop and skill, is also missing.

The initial accident that besets Gabriel’s farm and Bathsheba’s good fortune are reversed in the chronology. It would appear that the writer could not envisage a visual means of imparting Gabriel’s discovery. The important scene in terms of Bathsheba’s fortitude, when she rescues Gabriel from a smoke filled cabin, is missing. The sequence when Fanny calls to Troy in the barracks is gone: a scene that fills out his character. The swordplay display by Troy looks good, but again the 1967 version captures the description in the book: this does not. There is an important scene with a meeting between Troy and Boldwood missing and weakening the characterisation of both men. Towards the climax of the story Troy’s whereabouts becomes important. The 1967 version had a variation on that in the book, to good effect. This version settles for fleeting shots of Troy, again odd rather than effective.

The film opens with Bathsheba’s voice-over sketching in her life: and there is a single voice-over by her later in the film. However, there is little sense otherwise of Bathsheba’s subjectivity. We get one shot as she responds to the presence of Troy and later there is a shot of her view of Boldwood with different emotional tone. But for most of the film we share the point-of-view of the narrator, exemplified by the conventional shot/reverse shot technique. Similar conventional shots and moments occur frequently in the film. When Bathsheba leaves her aunt to take up the farm she has been left she is wearing a bright red coat. Fanny arrives at the wrong church for her wedding to Troy, opening the door on someone else’s wedding. Preparing to slip out and meet Troy, Bathsheba unwinds the plait in her hair. And the film is very fond of sequences where Bathsheba bestrides a galloping horse: thus when her sheep are stricken rather than sending a note to Gabriel she rides there herself.


The other inhibitor is the score for the film: I assume that royalties are being paid to Vaughan Williams executors. It is frequently over the top and swamps some of the subtleties that the script does offer. There is a key example in the opening and closing of the film. The opening sequence, as in the book, shows Bathsheba out riding in a leather jacket and trousers [the latter seems anachronistic]. As she lies back on her horse to pass under hanging branches she is observed by Gabriel, standing in a field. Then at the end of the film Gabriel has announced his intentions to emigrate to the Americas. After agonising over this Bathsheba sets out after him on horseback wearing the leather jacket but this time a skirt rather than trousers. . Catching Gabriel on a track Bathsheba dismounts: the dialogue is very close to the penultimate chapter in the novel. Prompted by Bathsheba Gabriel kisses her passionately and she responds [miles away from Hardy’s description]. The couple then turn and start to walk home with Gabriel leading the horse.  This sequence inverts the opening in a subtle comment on the relationship: but it is accompanied by a full orchestral score and rim lighting of the couple in close-up provided by the sun. The subtlety seems completely lost.

In fact the Hardy narrative offers a strong proviso on the apparently happy ending. And the 1967 film managed to suggest his with a scene of the couple sitting in the parlour, followed by a close-up of a model soldier on the mantelpiece. A touch of irony missing in the remake.

One improvement in the new film is the treatment of dogs. Both old George and young George [unnamed in the novel] are here. However, the film still treats this conventionally. young George’s presence is cut short. And instead of arriving at Everdene farm with Gabriel old George re-appears near the end. In fact, he is an important presence as Bathsheba wrestles with the choices that have arisen over the story. However, what we have here is another conventional trope, this time regarding endings.

Part of the pleasure of Hardy’s novel is the description of the background and the story’s community. Neither film really attempts to include this, though I felt that the earlier version did have a better sense of its ambience. At one point a schoolboy passes rehearsing a lesson to himself; Schlesinger’s team capture this moment, the new team miss it out. Both films fail to include the fact that both the Everdene and Boldwood farms are tenancies: an important class and economic aspect. The films are clearly intended as adaptations of the novel, rather than transformations or inspirations for a new style work. The credits of this new film include Fox Searchlight and the BBC. Clearly the producers wanted a recognisable genre film for audiences. If one has never read the novel the film could work fairly well, though even here I think the characters motivations will appear undeveloped.

Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd doe offer a series of pleasures that neither film essays and it is well worth reading and re-reading. If you do, then it is worth looking at Amy Jenkins; ‘Bathsheba and Me’ in The Guardian Review (11 October 2014).


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