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711 Ocean Drive, USA 1950

Posted by keith1942 on May 20, 2018

I saw this film for the first time in the ‘Mary Pickford Theater’ at the Library of Congress. This is a small viewing room/cinema on the Third Floor of the Madison Memorial Building in Washington DC. James Madison was a ‘founding father’ and the 4th President of the United States. The building was erected in 1976 and is in the neo-classical style common on the National Mall. As you enter under imposing columns you pass engraved quotations by the President. The ‘Mary Pickford Theater’ is small, only seating 64 people. However it is fine for viewing though the rake is shallow. It has both digital and 35mm projection. This cinema was partly funded by a bequest by Mary Pickford herself. There are regular screenings of both film and television material held in the Library of Congress archives. I was fortunate on this occasion as this cycle of classic films is held only once  a month. Other recent screenings have included films directed by Robert Aldrich [Autumn Leaves, 1956], Lloyd Bacon [In Caliente, 1935], Jerry Lewis [The Ladies Man, 1961].

On this occasion we watched a 35mm print in good condition. It was copied by the Library in 1990 from a nitrate print held in the American Film Institute collection. The projection, including sound, was good. And whilst we waited, [doors opened at 6.30 for a 7.00 p.m. start] there were a series of PDF pages projected on the screen detailing the production company and the careers of the director and stars. In addition we had an introduction providing background on the making of the film.

It was produced by Frank N. Seltzer, an independent; a common feature in the period when the studios were declining. Like other independents Seltzer relied on a major company for distribution, in this case Columbia. Seltzer was also one of the producers of a script by Dalton Trumbo during the blacklist period, The Boss (1956).

711 Ocean Drive was notable for another reason, attempts by organised crime to stop the film. The plot-line involved organised crime operating in the illegal gambling. The law restricted gambling  in the case of horse racing to the race track. Illicit bookies operated in cities dependent on information provided by a wire service. This was similar in some ways to the ‘numbers racket’ which featured in a number of Hollywood films, notably Force of Evil (1948). In many cases this also involved organised crime syndicates. In the case of 711 Ocean Drive threats were made against the production. For one climatic scene it is possible that shots were fired at the cast. Certainly an attempt to film scenes in a Las Vegas location had to be halted due to intimidation. The producer appeared before the Kefauver Commission, a 1950  Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. The film had an introductory title page on-screen,

“Because of the disclosures made in this film, powerful underworld interests tried to halt production with threats of violence and reprisal. It was only through the armed protection provided by members of the Police Department in the locales where the picture was filmed, that this story was able to reach the screen. To these men, and to the U.S. Rangers at Boulder Dam, we are deeply grateful.”

Edmund O’Brien as Mal

The film is introduced by a voice-over, not the protagonist but a policeman, Lieutenant Pete Wright [Howard St. John]. He introduces us to the crime problem and the major criminal, Mal Granger (Edmund O’Brien]. Effectively the rest of the film is a flashback charting Mal’s criminal career. At the start of the film he is a telephone repair man who indulges in a gambling. His regular bookie, Chippie (Sammy White) notes his skills and ambition and introduces him to the Vince Walters (Barry Kelley) who runs a gambling network in Los Angles and California,. Walker’s gambling network uses a legal wire service to provide information illegally to bookies, also working illegally. May, skilled and intelligent, adapts new technology to Walter’s system and increases his turn-over and profits. Mal is affable but also ambitious; and as the plot develops it becomes apparent that he is also ruthless in pursuit of wealth and women. On joining Walters Mal dumps his current girlfriend and takes up with one of Walters’ staff, Trudi (Dorothy Patrick). Later he dumps Trudi when he meets Gail Mason (Joanne Dru). Equally ruthless is his response when Walters is shot by an embittered ex-bookie: he takes over the network and ups the charges made to his clients. But Mal’s success brings him to the attention of a larger East Coast operation headed by Carl Stevens (Otto Kruger). Stevens is smart and debonair and leaves the violence underlying the syndicate’s control to henchman.

His assistant is Larry Mason (Don Porter) who is married to Gail. Gail is used as part of an entrapment, a trope repeated in the later Heist (2001). But Mal and Gail fall in love, or at least develop a consuming passion. Mal does join the East Coast syndicate but discovers his take is not what he expected. ‘Killing two birds with one stone’ he arranges for Larry to be murdered by a paid assassin, Gizzi (Robert Osterloh). He then uses his technical know-how to construct an alibi. But this breaks down and he becomes the target of both police and gangsters.

Larry and Gail

The climax of the film is at the Boulder Dam [actually the Hoover Dam] sited on the border between California and Arizona. Mal believes if he crosses the state line he will be out of police jurisdiction. The couple attempt to flee over the dam and then down into the inner working, pass great turbines and up and down winding corridors and stairwells. This is exciting stuff and really well done. Predictably, in a film adhering to official moral codes, Mal is fated.

The film is a well executed Hollywood crime thriller. Some sources describe it as a film noir but, as the Introduction pointed out, it is actually a ‘crime syndicate film’. This is an early example of the cycle which includes a film like Underworld USA (1961). This film does have a fated protagonist, but the voice-over is not confessional, the flashback is just one narration, there is little in the way of chiaroscuro and there is not a fully formed femme fatale. It does have the organised crime syndicate, the rise and fall of a criminal, and an interesting focus on the role of modern technology.

The film is dominated by the performance of Edmund O’Brien as Mal. This is a bravura characterisation as we watch him develop from an apparently easy-going and affable guy to a ruthless crime boss. The passion that develops between him and Gail seems unlikely given their preceding behaviour, but both make it convincing. Otto Krueger is also very good as the slick syndicate boss. The police are not that developed in the script which rather undermines the moral project of the film: as so often is the case criminals seem more interesting.

The film’s style is conventional but well executed. There is a lot of location work, a development in Hollywood productions in this period. These include both Los Angeles [including Sunset Boulevard] and [briefly] Las Vegas; a baseball stadium and Malibu where Mal gets himself an up-market apartment. Apparently this address, number 711 in Ocean Drive, gives the film its title but I do not remember seeing the actual address in the film. Franz Planer’s cinematography and Bert Jordan’s editing are both excellent. The long sequence at the dam has a developing rhythm and some fine shots both above and inside the dam. The music by Sol Kaplan seems fine though I found it obtrusive at time but conventions have changed since the 1950s.

So this was an enjoyable evening with a rare treat in visiting the Library’s cinema. If you are in Washington be sure to check the programme and visit if you can.

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Room for Let / Kashima ari, 1959

Posted by keith1942 on March 28, 2018

This was a title in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme screened at the Sheffield Showroom. I think this was the only title screened from 35mm. a good quality black and white print in Toho-Scope with clear English sub-titles.  The film was directed by Kawashima Yūzō, a director whose work I had not seen before. He was born in 1918 so this is his centenary year.

Alexander Jacoby [‘A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors’, 2008) notes,

“Little known outside Japan, the wry, wild work of Yuzo Kawashima is the missing link between the classical Japanese cinema of the fifties ands the modernism of the sixties.”

Kwashima started out at Shochiku in the war years. He only achieved a reputation in the 1950s when he moved to Nikkatsu. On a number of his films his assistant and script-writer was Imamura Shōhei. Hi worked in a variety of genres but his most notable films were comedies, a mixture of satire and farce. ‘Room for Let’ is, apparently, his most characteristic.

The film certainly mixed comedy and farce and [I suspect] a certain amount of satire on 1950s society. The film is set in a multi-room single storey tenement on a hill overlooking the city of Osaka. There are some fine views of the cityscape. The film, to a degree; follows the actions of the various tenants living in the house.

“a barbed hilarious portrait of the mostly disreputable characters inhabiting an Osaka boarding house .” [Japan Foundation Programme notes].

This sort of drama, showing the interactions of tenants in a multi-room establishment, is familiar in South Asian cinema, and there are a number of examples in Chinese and Japanese films.

The film does have key protagonists. One is Goro (Sakai Frankie), a jack-of-all-trades around whom the other characters revolve. Opposite him is Yumiko (Awashima, Chikage), a potter who rents the vacant room. She is an independent and strong-minded character, as are the majority of female characters in this film.

The ‘room for let’ provides a mechanism for the development in the plots But it is the interactions between the various tenants that provides the comedy. This is often unseemly and the sexual aspect if fairly explicit. The comedy develops slowly. Early on the film has a wry quality, but as the drama develops the tone becomes farcical. There is a splendid sequence as most of the tenants are involved in or observing Goro’s panic-stricken response to a forceful women tenant.

At the same time there are notes of disquiet. A young woman who services some older men in her room suffers the indignity of exposure to her family. Her suicide and the following mourning ritual is sombre.

The cast is excellent, striking just the right note this side of farce for much of the film. Their characters and idiosyncrasies are presented entirely convincingly. The cinematography by Okazaki Kôzô is finely done. He makes great use of the scope frame and there are some fine dollies in the interiors and some fine tracking shots in the exteriors. The music by Manabe    Riichirô for much of the time has a suitably jaunty quality which sets off the often racy visuals.

This is the first Japanese film farce that I have seen and it struck me as surprising but extremely funny. The set pieces are a real pleasure to watch. Unfortunately there were only about a dozen in the audience for this screening. I have travelled to Sheffield on several occasions for the Japan Foundation touring programme, the audiences have always been small. This is a shame. Their programmes are interesting. And the 35mm prints I have seen so far have been good quality. Britain seems to be a less friendly place for both ‘reel’ film and for Asian cinema. I am currently having to hunt round to find a screening of the new Kore-eda Hirokazu film, The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin.

 

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The Giant / Kyojinden, Japan 1938

Posted by keith1942 on January 23, 2018

This film was part of the programme of ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2017. The ‘Valley of Darkness’ was the period in the 1930s when Japan was under militaristic rule. So the films in this programme were examples of liberal and critical cinema. The notes by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström explained

here, he [the director Itami Mansaku] relocated ‘Les Misérables’ to Kyushi and the era of the Satsuma Rebellion. Victor Hugo’s novel was a totemic one for liberal Japanese intellectuals in the early twentieth century, and its anti-authoritarian and humanist sentiments were daring in the age of militarism.”

The ‘Satsuma Rebellion’ was a key event following the ‘Meiji restoration of 1868. This ushers in the period of modernisation in Japan. Wikipedia has a detailed article on the Rebellion:

“The Satsuma Rebellion (西南戦争 Seinan Sensō, “Southwestern War”) was a revolt of disaffected samurai against the new imperial government, nine years into the Meiji Era. Its name comes from Satsuma Domain, which had been influential in the Restoration and became home to unemployed samurai after military reforms rendered their status obsolete. The rebellion lasted from January 29, 1877, until September of that year, when it was decisively crushed and its leader, Saigō Takamori, committed seppuku after being mortally wounded.”

This was a key event in modern Japanese history. Intriguingly three of the films in the Ritrovato programme were set round this event. It would seem that it had particular relevance in a period dominated by the military and in which the military and right-wing grouping constantly referred to the values associated with the Samurai.

The film opens well into the story of the convict protagonist. In a small town we find crowds celebrating, food stalls and brass bands: the occasion is the unveiling of a bust of the Mayor. The Mayor, Onuma (Okochi Denjiro), arrived ‘from somewhere up north’ and has benefited the town. Onuma meets the ‘the new man’ with the police, Sogabe Yajiro (Maruyama Sadao), who feels that ‘we’ve met before’. The celebrations are interrupted by a fire and a man trapped in the flames. A barred window prevents his rescue but Onuma breaks in and carries shim to safety. The rescue causes Sogabe to comment that

“only one man could free him’ in that way.”

We now have one of the several flashback sin the film. Onuma was at one time imprisoned on Toro Island and made to work as forced labour in a mine. His original sentence had extended by attempted escapes to nineteen years. But he tries again, killing a guard in the process, Travelling on the road he is given food and shelter by a priest (Shiome Yo) in a small temple. Sanpei repays his hospitality by stealing a candlestick, but this one is gold rather than silver. Caught and bought back to the Temple by the police, Sanpei is saved when the priest provides his alibi. As Sanpei leaves with two candlesticks the priest essays

“Promise me, starting today, you won’t do anything wrong”.

Sanpei will be true to the promise he gives, we even have the scene where he is guilt-struck after purloining a young boy’s coin.

Years on Sanpei, now Onuma, has become the Mayor and is a wealthy and respected citizen. Sogabe’s investigations lead to Onuma attending a court hearing and clearing a man wrongly suspected of being the escaped convict Sanpei. Another flashback fills out events at this point.

Onuma has also encountered the case of Ofude (Hanbusa Yuriko), hospitalised after losing her job. Despite Onuma’s care she dies. When he flees because of the discovery of his past he goes to succour her daughter Chiyo (Katagiri Hinako), in the ‘care’ of exploitative foster parents. When they move on it is with a doll that he has bought Chiyo.

 

Years later the setting is the Southern Island off Kyushi. Onuma is older and now known as Sankichi. Chiyo is now a young woman, [played by the young Hara Setsuko, a treat for Ozu fans in the audience). Her romantic object is a young English teacher, Ryoma (Sayama Ryo), who provides language lessons, [a reference to the modernization process]. The various other characters from the original have their equivalents, including Okuni (Tsutsumi Masako) as the girl sweet on Ryoma, and Goro (Imaizumi Kei) as the urchin who dies on the barricades. These are part of the rebellion in which all the characters are caught up. Sankichi has to rescue Ryoma, thus enabling the union which he initially opposed. Sogabe continuous his relentless hunt, but finally is struck by Sankichi/Onuma/Sanpei’s humanity. These events take place in canal from which Sankichi and Ryoma emerge to Chiyo’s relief. The film closes on the young couple and Sankichi and Old Seike (Osamu Takizawa), Ryoma’s grandfather. The latter jokes that one should

“’Give your children the dolls they like’.

At which the two men laugh.

It will be clear that the film is fairly faithful to the Hugo novel. The opening, set at the point when Sogabe once more encounters Sanpei/Onuma, is very effective: as are the flashbacks that fill in the story. Where the film replaces French events and places with Japanese these are well chosen. Whilst the Rebellion may speak to 1930s Japan, in terms of the history it is the obvious conflict that is equivalent to the Paris insurrection in the novel.

The cast are good and Okochi Denjiro is splendid as the Japanese version of the immensely strong Jean Valjean. The script does not give Maruyama Sadao’s version of Javert the obsessive drive for what he considers justice, but he does effect the relentless pursuit of the convict.

The film ran for 127 minutes in a 35mm print with English subtitles. So, as with most screen versions, there is considerable compression. But, as will be clear, what many readers remember from the novel is there on screen.

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La Bête Humaine., France 1938

Posted by keith1942 on December 12, 2017

 

The novel is part of Émile Zola’s great fictional series, Les Rougon-Macquart. This chain of novels takes its title from the two families who are the subject of the stories. The Rougons are bourgeois in the French sense, what in the UK is colloquially refereed to as upper middle class. The Macquarts are rural poor and become urban working class. The stories are set in the second Empire; that fairly reactionary regime lorded over by Louis-Napoleon. Zola’s approach belongs to the new naturalism of the later nineteenth century, very detailed and realistic portrayals, which the author equated with the work of experimental scientists.  Zola’s political stance tended towards socialism, but he was also strongly influenced by recent environmental and hereditary studies.

These conflicting factors can be seen at work in La Bête Humaine. The novel has very detailed and convincing passages on the industry and its workers. One fine chapter, which has not made it into any of the film adaptations that I have seen, recounts a hazardous and arduous train journey through snow and blizzards. Many of the motivations of the characters arise from the social relations in which they are trapped. Yet the central character, Jacques Lantier, [the offspring of the two main protagonists in L’Assommoir], is in the grip of a violent obsession, which the author attributes to genetic factors, ‘and bad blood’.

Film Adaptations.

As might be expected Zola has been a popular source for film versions. L’Assommoir appears to have provided the basis for a 1902 short film. And there were other early adaptations by filmmaker as prominent as D. W. Griffith [A Drunkard’s Reformation 1909] and Victor Sjöström [Germinal, 1913]. The 1913 French adaptation of the same novel by Albert Capellani runs for 147 minutes. It is distinguished by its use of actual locations and a strong identification with the striking miners. It struck me as more political than the Zola original.

In 1918 there was a silent version of La Bête Humaine. And in the 1920s another Germinal, and versions of Nana, Therese Raquin and L’Argent. With the arrival of sound further film versions of some of these novels were produced. And from the 1930s until the present day Zola remains a popular source, with a new Germinal in the 1990s and Nana in 2002. The most recent versions of La Bête Humaine appear to have been in the 1950s.

1930s.

Despite the International dominance of Hollywood French film was relatively successful in this period, [more so than British film]. In the late 1930s there were a series of films that were successful at the domestic box office and garnered high praise from critics. A key cycle of films was known as Poetic Realism. This cycle shared some characteristics with the later Hollywood film noir.  The settings were associated with criminality, and the use of light and shadow created a world of darkness and danger. Two key filmmakers in this cycle were the scriptwriter Jacques Prévert and the director Marcel Carné. One of their finest collaborations is Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938). An army deserter arrives in Le Havre. He is adopted by a stray dog, falls in love with an orphan girl, and crosses the leader of a local criminal gang. The tragic ending is clearly foreshadowed in the settings, all shadows and mist. The star is Jean Gabin. He provides a strong sense of romantic fatalism, which characterised this and the other poetic realist films. The endings are uniformly tragic, unlike the Hollywood film noir, where the films sometimes lead to death [e.g. Double Indemnity, 1944] but just as often the hero wins through [On Dangerous Ground, 1951].  In the Quai des Brumes the hero is led on by a fatal romance, but the heroine is romantic. In French noir there tends to be less emphasis on the heroine as duplicitous and dangerous, again different from the femme fatale in film noir.

‘Quai des brumes’

Jean Renoir

Renoir is one of the most renowned film directors in French Cinema, indeed across World Cinema. His father was the famous Impressionist painter. The young Jean entered French filmmaking in the 1920s, still the era of silent films. One of his early films was an adaptation of Zola’s novel Nana [1926]. A slum girl rises to become a demimondaine [a woman outside respectable society]. I feel that the film fails because Catherine Hessling [who plays Nana] does not bring the character alive or make her believable.

In the sound era Renoir directed a film version of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. It is far closer to the book than the Hollywood version, both in plot and in its view of Emma Bovary. However, it suffered because the producers did not allow Renoir to make the full versions that he desired. One important film of his in this period is Toni [1935]. A story set among Italian migrants, the film was an early example of location filming and the use of non-professionals. It was an important influence on the later Italian neo-realist movement.

Like many artists and intellectuals Renoir was extremely sympathetic to the Popular Front, which won the French elections in 1936. He directed La Marseillaise, a film about the original revolutionary volunteers from Marseilles in 1789. It was partly funded by trade unions and subscriptions. Prior to this he had also made Le Crime de Monsieur Lange [1935), partly a thriller, it is set in a workers print co-operative. This is one of his finest films and has a powerful sense of community and co-operation.

The overt class-conscious themes in these films weaken in the late 1930s. La Bête Humaine, whilst it has a strong sense of industry and the world of work has little evidence of co-operation. In fact it shares the pessimism that seemed so central to the poetic realist cycle. It is a pessimism that is one powerful strand in his later masterpiece, La Regle du Jeu (1939). That film so angered audiences that the prints were cut, then withdrawn and finally banned. The film was later restored in the 1950s and gained a reputation as one of the all-time great films. It is worth noting that both La Bête Humaine  and La Regle du Jeu were both banned under the German occupation.

La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast). France 1938.

Director Jean Renoir Scenario Jean Renoir based on the novel by Zola Photography Curt Courant Art Direction Eugène Lourié Music Joseph Kosma Editor Marguer­ite Renoir. Cast Jean Gabin, Julien Car­ette, Fernand Ledoux, Jean Renoir, Si­mone Simon, Jenny Hélia, Blanchette Brunoy. Production Paris Films. 99 minutes. Black and white.

“Lantier (Gabin), a railway mechanic and hereditary alcoholic, is pushed into crime. He becomes the lover of Séverine (Simon), who wants him to kill her hus­band, Roubaud (Ledoux), himself a criminal, but he ends by strangling her.

Renoir, after the unmerited failure of La Maseillaise (1937), agreed to make this film because Gabin very much wanted to play a railway worker. He had less than vague memories of the novel, which is far from being one of Zola’s best, and is one in which the three pro­tagonists are modern Atridae [classical Greek reference], whose heredity condemned them to worse crimes. With some hesitation he rejected an adaptation by Roger Martin Du Gard that concluded with the declaration of war in August 1914, and finally himself wrote a scenario that mainly retained “a love story of the railroads” from the ori­ginal novel.

The opening sequence showing, in a doc­umentary style, the Paris-Le Havre run seen from a train, is a masterpiece of editing and perfect simplicity. It is comparable to another sequence, less impressionistic but still very beautiful, showing the life of the migrant railway workers. In this way, Renoir depicted Lantier’s social milieu by showing him at work. His impulse to murder is power­fully but quietly expressed in the brief scene showing his desire to kill a woman (Brunoy) who had given herself to him while a train was passing. Later, the drama becomes more involved and three sequences are equally admirable: the killing committed by Roubaud in an ex­press; the attempt to kill him in the noc­turnal setting of the railway tracks; the final strangling of Séverine, intercut with a railway workers’ fair, while a voice on the soundtrack sings a turn-of-the-­century ballad.

“I try to discover the unity of action before considering the unity of place and time,” wrote Renoir. La Bête Humaine is far superior to La Grande Illusion and was far from being a commercial failure. [It apparently did well internationally including in the USA. There it was one important influence on the film noir cycle]. However, some critical attacks hampered its success. M. Vinel (Rebatet), though he did not deny the qualities of the film, set the pattern in L’Action Fran­çaise: “In politics, Renoir is out of the same Jewish-Democratic lineage as Zola. We hope we will not see him again in the miry rut of the class cinema.”

The acting is of exceptional quality. It is one of Gabin’s great roles and Carette responds intelligently to his performance. Simone Simon is a Séverine of tragic proportions, while Ledoux, as the callous Roubaud, is remarkable.” (Georges Sadoul in his Dictionary of Films, 1965, translated by Peter Morris).

Renoir on La Bête Humaine

“Those first-hand railway shots were in any case highly dangerous. The State Railways had lent us ten kilometres of track on which we could run and stop the train as we pleased. We hitched a platform truck, carrying the lighting generator, to the locomotive, and behind this an ordinary coach which served as a make-up and rest-room for the actors between scenes. When I decided to shoot with these hindrances I encountered lively opposition. It was pointed out to me that mock-ups had been perfected to the point where it was impossible to tell them from first-hand shooting. But I was unshakable in my belief in the influence of the setting on the actors, and fortunately I won the day. Gabin and Carette could never have played so realistically in front of an artificial background, if only because the very noise forced them to communicate by means of ges­tures.

The cameramen were Curt Courant and my nephew, Claude Renoir. Curt Courant was a skinny little man, a real featherweight. He was always in danger of being carried off by the wind which blew like the devil through that rushing studio and more than once I had to grab hold of him to prevent him being swept away. Claude had attached a small platform to the side of the locomotive which he occupied with his camera. The camera stuck out a little too far and was knocked off at the entrance to a tunnel; but Claude hung on and came through unscathed.

La Bête Humaine strengthened my longing to achieve poetic realism. The steel mass of the locomotive became in my imagination the flying carpet of oriental fable. Zola, from the depths of the grave, gave me powerful assistance. His novels are filled with wonderful passages of popular poetry. For example, Séverine and Jacques Lentier [Lantier] have arranged to meet in the Square des Batignolles. It is their first meeting. Jacques Lentier is so moved that he cannot utter a word. Séverine says with a faint smile, `Don’t look it me like that, you’ll wear your eyes out.’ A trifle, but it had to be thought of. The setting of locomotives, railroad sidings and puffs of steam had furnished me with that poetry or rather had supplied it to the actors and enabled them to get into the skin of their parts better than any amount.”  (My Life and My Films by Jean Renoir, translated by Norman Denny. Da Capo, 1974).

There is a Hollywood version of the Zola novel, Human Desire [1954}. The film was produced at the Columbia Studio, and directed by German émigré Fritz Lang. The stars are Glen Ford, Gloria Grahame and Broderick Crawford. Given this was the 1940s and the period of the Hays Code, it is unsurprising that the adaptation diverges in important ways from the novel.

Notes for a course on European literature on Film.

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Two Post-Franco Political Thrillers From Spain

Posted by keith1942 on December 5, 2017

These films were part of a programme of ‘States of danger and deceit’ produced by the Manchester HOME together with the British Film Institute. Much of the programme was screened at the recent Leeds International Film Festival. Most of the titles were on digital but these two were shown in their original film formats. Both films were interesting because they were produced in the period between the death of General Franco in 1975 and the attempted military coup by fascist elements in the army in 1981. In this period there was a gradual move towards a western capitalist style democratic government, [‘La Transición’]. Because of the competing social movements the progress was slow. It was only in 1977 that the Communist Party of Spain [Partido Comunista de España] was legalized and Trade Union laws liberalised.

El diputado / The Deputy  (1978),  was written and directed by Eloy de la Iglesia  from a story by Gonzalo Goicoechea. The main character, Roberto Orbea (José Sacristán), is an elected Congressman in the Spanish Cortes. He is a member of the opposition party, though in the film this is unclear if it is meant to be the Socialist Party of Spain [Partido Socialista Obrero Español] or the Communist Party of Spain: the dialogue frequently references ‘communist’ but the organisation looks closer to socialist,.

Roberto is either homosexual or bi-sexual. He is married but becomes involved with a ‘rent boy’ and then with an underage gigolo, Juanito (José Luis Alonso). Same-sex relationships were only legalised in 1979 with the age of consent set at sixteen. The film  presents a series of flashbacks, most of which are ‘remembered’ by Roberto as he is driven to the Party Congress where he is expected to be elected Secretary. The earliest occurs during the Franco regime when Roberto, involved in underground activities, is caught and interrogated by the secret police. His interrogation leads to him being hospitalised where he meets Nes (Ángel Pardo). After his release he commences homosexual acts with him: and then is introduced to Juanito. Over this period ‘La Transición’ commences so Roberto’s affair, which is passionate and obsessive on his part, offers the opportunity for blackmail by a shadowy right-wing group.

The film struck me as more interested in the homoerotic aspects of the story than in the political. In fact, the director, is a ‘gay socialist’. The film spends much of its time on the homosexual relationships with a number of explicit sequences. It would appear to have taken advantage of the liberalisation of the period.

Roberto’s character is well played but I found his actions somewhat unconvincing. He seems incredibly naïve for a man who had worked in an underground organisation and is set to become a national political leader. My colleague Roy Stafford suggested that

” I think we have to accept that Roberto genuinely loves Juanito and can’t let him go…”.

He also included a reference to the British film Victim (1961) which offers an interesting comparison.

I remain sceptical. Apart from Roberto’s naivety the dialogue relating to politics, and especially to Marxism, are fairly simplistic. I think this is part of the film’s predominant interest in sexuality rather than political.

Another limitation of the film is Roberto’s wife Carmen, who is aware of his homosexual activities and goes along with them. Carmen (María Luisa San José) is a seriously underdeveloped character. The film does not really explore her situation or motivation. Later in the film and the relationships Juanito becomes a regular participant of the family, i.e. Roberto and Carmen. He is treated almost like an adopted son and we are told is introduced to friends as a relative.

Junaito’s feelings for Roberto are ambiguous but there does seem to be a growing affection on his part. Together with Roberto and Carmen he indulges into their more affluent life style and, interestingly, attends rallies and demonstration by the Party. He does co-operate with the group attempting to black mail Roberto. But late in the film he turns and refuses co-operation which leads to the climactic sequence.

As the film progresses the motivation for the flashbacks becomes ambiguous. At least one involving the ‘family’ appears to come from Carmen. And one involving the blackmailers would seem to come from Juanito. There are other flashback to the blackmailers which Roberto would not seem to know about, but it is likely these are conjectures by him. As far as the sexual activity goes there is one sequence where we start to see a ménage á trois between Carmen, Juanito and Roberto. The scene is cut just as it becomes risqué, indicative of the film’s primary focus on the homoerotic.

There is an interesting class dimension to the film. Roberto and Carmen are probably best described as petty-bourgeois. Juanito is from a working class background whilst Nez would seem to be part of the lumpen-proletariat. And the blackmailers are from the bourgeoisie proper. Juanito is inducted into the higher social class. This crosses over with Victim where the protagonist, Melville Farr  (Dirk Bogarde) is also a lawyer and of a similar class to Roberto whilst his homosexual lover, Barrett (Peter McEnery) seems to be working class. However, in the British film the two class worlds are kept strictly separate. Moreover, Barrett is an adult. The Spanish film comes later in the period but it is also the case that the British film wants present homosexuality in a supportive light, an under-age lover would have militated against this. In fact in the film one of the gay character specifically rules out affairs with the ‘normal’ and by implication with the under-aged. In The Deputy the issue of age assists the blackmail.

The 35mm print was a little odd: the projectionist had problems with the aspect ratio from reel to reel. IMDB lists the film as 1.85:1 and shot on Kodak Eastmancolor. Films on the continent were still frequently shot on 1.66:1. It seemed that the ratio was not consistent across the reels, I thought it might have been a composite print and the sources were not uniform? The definition and colour palette were pretty good though stylistically the film is very conventional.

Seven Days in January / 7 días de enero (1979) was co-written, produced and directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, a long standing director/writer in the Industry whose career runs from 1948. The film dramatises an actual event from 1977, ‘the Massacre of Atocha’. This occurred in ‘La Transición’. A secret group of fascists murdered a group of left-wing lawyers at offices in Atocha Street in Madrid. The public response, including large demonstrations for the funerals. added to the pressures to legalise the Communist Party. Some of the assassins were caught, tried and imprisoned but the suspicion remained that shadowy figures high up escaped justice.

Bardem films follows the record fairly closely though there are some odd differences. The main one that I noticed was during the actual murder, committed in the film with automatic handguns. The Wikipedia record gives sub-machine guns/ And in the film the individual shots were not really convincing given the number killed [five] and wounded [four].

The film does include the main aspects of the infamous killings. This included a strike organised by the Sindicato Vertical, a trade union for transport workers; the lawyers relationship with the Communist Party; meetings and preparations by the assassins and their secret ‘masters’, this presumably deduction rather than the record. And, accentuating the conflict and the sense of crisis, incidents organised by a militant left-wing group, GRAPO (Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero de Octubre).

The events are presented in a flashback structure so that whilst we see events following the murders, notably the massive demonstration that accompanied the funeral, we only see the actual killings in full close to the end of the film. The flashbacks show us the workers involved in the strike whom the lawyers are supporting; the activities of the lawyers and their offices; and meetings between the assassins and between them and their secret backers.

I found that this structure enabled the viewer to note and relate the different characters and their activities in the narrative. However, it did seem to diminish the drama of the story and did not fully clarify different aspects which seemed less central than others. IMDB gives the film a running time of 124 minutes but some other listings give 180 minutes. I wondered if the English language release was shorter than the original film. This would have affected the flashback structure which could work better in a longer version: it might also affect issues like the strike which in this print needs developing.

The print was screened in 1.185:1 and was shot in colour. There was a flaw on the audience left-hand side of the frame which the projectionist had to make adjustments for. The definition and colour were both reasonable: but the film does use noir lighting and I wondered if the tones of this were accurate.

Both these films suffered from weaknesses in their scripting and delivery. I found in both that the political dimension was not fully developed. They were certainly interesting in terms of the conflicted values of ‘La Transición’. Both use artefacts from the period, film, stills, publications and illustrative art. Some of this comments on the characters and actions but its function seems mainly to help a sense of authenticity. There were a series of films addressing both the political conflicts and the sexual contradictions of the period. It would be interesting to view these and compare other dramas with these two thrillers.

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October 1917 on film.

Posted by keith1942 on October 25, 2017

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre:…”

The famous s opening line by Marx and Engels of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ of 1848 appears to be as true today. Certainly the same spectre haunts the contemporary European bourgeoisie; hence the sad lack of celebrations to mark the Centenary of The Great October Socialist Revolution; 25th October old-style calendar, 7th November new-style calendar. The same silence and absence characterises cinematic celebrations [at least in my film circles] despite the fact that the Revolution was the inspiration for the most challenging and influential film movement in the C20th world cinema – Soviet montage.

It is not a total absence. Kino Klassica have organised a number of screenings in London including a performance of the 1928 October (October 1917 Ten Days That Shook the World / Oktyabr) at the Barbican on October 26th. Like the screenings earlier in the year this was a weekday evening, not viable for people far from the Metropolis. It seems that the organisation did apply to the British Film Institute for a grant to organise screenings outside the Metropolis, but were turned down. Unsurprisingly the BFI London Film Festival offered no screenings of any of the Soviet classics.

Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna did better, featuring several films of relevance in the programme ‘A Hundred Years Ago: 50 films of 1917 in 35mm’. This included an attractive Danish animation, Petrograd in the Sign of Revolution and a film from Jakov Protozanov, Stop Shedding Blood (Ne nado krovii). Hopefully future programmes will see films from the succeeding years of the Revolution.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto did worse. The Soviet Programme was ‘Soviet Travelogues’ which were interesting but rather low on political content. There was a 35mm print of Aelita (1924), more interested in Science Fiction than the Revolution. And there was An Unprecedented Campaign / Nebuvalyi Pokhid (UkrSSr, 1931) directed by Mikhail Kaufman. The film celebrated the first five year plan: my friend who watched the whole film was impressed. I had problems with the digital copy, not good visual quality and running too fast. However, I had even more problems with the musical accompaniment by a Ukrainian collective. Anton Baibakov. This has more to do with Ukrainian petit–bourgeois nationalism than Socialist Construction and effectively sabotaged the film.

The Leeds International Film Festival [like that in London] was notable only for the complete absence of any Soviet Titles. This was despite the Leeds Festival including the date of the Revolution [new style Calendar]. HOME in Manchester went better with a number of Soviet titles in a programme of films. However, the title of the programme, ‘A Revolution Betrayed?’, denigrated rather than celebrated the Revolution. The title appeared to be a reference to the writings of Leon Trotsky. He was probably justified in feeling personally betrayed but given that in 1917 he was one of the leaders of the Revolution, this sectarian treatment seemed misconceived.

West Yorkshire did have screenings of The End of St Petersburg / Konets Sankt-Peterburga (1927) in September [HPPH] and October [[Sheffield Showroom] on 35mm: and Man With a Movie Camera / Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929) in September [HBPH] on digital. The former had an excellent musical accompaniment from the Harmonie Band though unfortunately the print was a copy of a sound transfer in 1969 with cropping of the image. Still to come in Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potemkin (1925) at Hebden Bridge Picture House on December 2nd, with live piano accompaniment.

There is always the account written by John Reed, ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ (1921). The BBC Radio 4 offered a ten-part dramatisation of the book which is still available on the Webpages [definitely at least until November 7th]. It is much shorter than the book and is not a real substitute for reading this account recommended by Lenin himself. But it does give a taste of Reed’s fine writing and coverage of the Revolution. Interestingly it also includes occasional additions by Louise Bryant who produced her own account, ‘Six Red Months in Russia’ (1918).

*********************************************

Postscript:

I should add something on the new British release The Death of Stalin , written and directed by Armando Iannucci. I always found his television work distinctly unfunny and the trailer for the film seemed to be much of the same: heavy-handed satire. Like, he never uses a mallet when there is a sledge-hammer to hand.

So I have not seen it. Friends and colleagues opine:

‘funny but in bad taste’ – unfunny and in bad taste’ ‘much funnier than the trailer and totally reprehensible’.

It has a lot of good reviews but I do not have a high regard for much of the critical discourse.

Worse though is the release of the film as we approach the Centenary of the Great October Revolution: which I take to be a deliberate tactic. One exhibitor offered,

” CITIZENS! PATRIOTS! PICTUREHOUSE MEMBERS!

Your country needs you to celebrate the October Revolution (in comedy filmmaking)!

The Death Of Stalin, the greatest movie this nation has ever produced, is in cinemas now.

The leadership calls on all true comrades not to let the counter-revolutionary forces of nihilism and unpatriotic not-going-to-the-cinema triumph! Instead, make your way to your local Picturehouse to celebrate our nation’s greatest filmic achievement and maybe also buy some popcorn.

Death to mediocre films! Death to comedies that only raise the odd titter! They are traitor films, the product of saboteurs and imperialists and bad writing and stuff. Instead, join all Picturehouse comrades in saluting Comrade Director Armando Iannucci, Father of Alan Partridge and The Thick Of It, mighty excavator of major LOLs; praise Comrade Actors Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin and the other supreme talents of the Central Committee in their selfless devotion to doing acting and saying their lines.

We call on you to join the appropriate throng of comrades heading to the Picturehouse, to revel in the patriotic triumph of this great movie, and then tell all your comrade followers on social(ist) media.

Though not during the film.

LONG LIVE THE DEATH OF STALIN! LONG LIVE CINEMA!”

This is truly reprehensible and banal but worth quoting in full so one can remember the depths to which the contemporary cinema industry can plunge. It is not actually accurate in reproducing the personality cult in the USSR. I suppose the one tenuous  connection is that, just as Stalin and the Party leadership did not have a full and proper grasp of Marx’s analysis, the writers of this poppycock have zero grasp of socialism.

 

 

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Under the Bridge / Unter Brücken, Germany 1945 – 1949.

Posted by keith1942 on July 31, 2017

This film, on 35mm and in black and white, was part of a programme ‘Watchful Dreamer: The Subversive Melancholia of Helmut Käutner’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. He started out as an actor in the German film industry in 1932 and progressed to writing and directing in 1939. He made nine films during the war years and continued filmmaking into the 1960s and work for television into the 1970s. This film, like two others, only received a proper release after the end of the war, hence the release years indicated. The Catalogue entry by Olaf Möller comments on one of the other titles, the 1944/45 Great Freedom No. 7 / Grosse Freieit Nr.7,  that

“Kautner created a world-weary melodrama whose doom-laden mood and non-conformist spirit were too much for the reigning powers…”

The problems with that film may have affected Under the Bridge, Helmut directed and  co-scripted both films. This later film eschews reference to the war, at a time when the Allies’ bombing campaigns were starting to devastate the German homeland. Möller notes that this film was,

“a timeless tale about river barge sailors inside the city as well as the surrounding areas…”

Despite being filmed in Berlin and its environs this is not the recognisable Germany of this late war period:

“for one thing, Käutner shot places in the capital (among others the old Jannowitzbrücke and the Schlütersteg-Brücke) that were bombed soon after … creating documents of a Berlin now gone. Also, he registered a few ruins from the first bombing in ’44. i.e. some of the earliest signs of the city’s coming annihilation.”

The film seems as unaware of the war as the German population appeared to be of the Nazi death camps.

Recalling earlier films set on barges and canals we meet the two owners-cum-sailors of a barge ‘Liselotte’, Hendrik Feldkamp (Carl Raddatz) and Willy (Gustav Knuth). Hendrik is the successful womaniser on their trips ashore, as we see in the opening sequence of the film. Whilst Willy is shyer and lacking the same confidence. For much of the time the pair work the barge, usually part of a convoy pulled along canals and rivers by a tug. Their port visits provide the opportunity for pleasure, drinking and women. Hendrik and Willy also discuss buying a diesel engine for the barge which would widen their scope and their income. But it would also involve a substantial loan and eight years of paying this off. [The film, of course, is unaware of the irony involved in taking on this debt and the repayment period].

The events that disrupt this steady and relatively pleasant and harmonious life is fairly conventional. One night, passing under one of the many bridges that line the route and give the film its title, Hendrik spies a lone woman apparently planning to leap from a bridge into the river. This is Anna Altmann (Hannelore Schroth). Anna has come from Silesia to work in Berlin and is all alone in the world.

Hendrik and Anna

Predictably both men are taken with this young and attractive woman. We see the development on the barge, later in Berlin when she returns to her flat in the city. This meeting leads to disruption in the working friendship of Hendrik and Willy. As the audience expect, Hendrik is the more successful initially, assisted by his skilful accordion playing and singing. But he is also an apparently a less reliable prospect, with his ever roaming eye for woman. Matters come to partial head when the pair take a longer trip to Rotterdam and on they return to the capital city. Anna’s final choice is predictable but deftly handled.

There are some effective e sequences on the barge. The barge guard is Vera, a goose, who [unfortunately] suffers the fate of providing a celebratory dinner. Later Anna provides curtain for the cabin portholes, which also provide a cover for the home-made pin-ups on the walls. The barge also possesses living quarters in the main cabin and [on a lesser scale] in the bows. Where either of the friends is housed reflects on the progress of the ménage a trois.

There are also equally effective treatments during the land based courtships. Hendrik and Willy discover, to the chagrin’ that at one point Anna resorted to nude modelling for painter. Both surreptitiously visit an art gallery to observe nude paintings , a sequence of humour and delight.

Willy and Anna

Käutner scripted the film with Walter Ulbrich from a manuscript by Leo de Laforgue. The characters are well drawn and the three main actors, who occupy most of the screen time, are excellent. And the visual presentation of their story is finely done. The cinematography by Igor Oberberg has some fine location filming in Berlin. What also stands out are the shots of the rivers, canals and surrounding countryside as the barge wends its way. And the editing by Wolfgang Wehrum is precise and includes some notable montages, especially of the bridges that the barge passes under as it enters the cities of Potsdam and Berlin.

Möller refers to Neo-realism in his comments. Whilst the film does have some of the poetry of the earlier film by Jean Vigo it does, at the same time, capture the actual workings of the bargees life and work.

Il Cinema Ritrovato programme had seven titles directed by Käutner. I saw two of the other, also on 35mm prints. There was Ludwig 1. Glanz und ende eines Königs (Mad Emperor: Ludwig 11, 1955), in colour. The film treated Ludwig’s life and career in segments, with only a hint of a gay subtest: this treatment is overshadowed by the later version by Luchino Visconti. And there was A Glass of Water (Das Glas Wasser, 1960), also in colour and set in the England of Queen Anne. This was a very 1960s film and reminded me  a little of Moll Flanders (1975). However, I heard good reports of other titles and Käutner would look like a filmmaker who would repay seeking out.

 

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Divine, France 1935.

Posted by keith1942 on July 19, 2017

Screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2017 as part of a programme constructed around the work of the French writer Collette. The Festival Catalogue introduced the film:

“According to the opening credits, Divine, directed by Max Ophūls, is the “first screenplay written specifically for the cinema with dialogue by … Colette  [of the sound era],” The film is based  on one of her literary works. ‘L’Envers du music-hall’ (1913), a moving choral fresco about the music hall comprised of sequences detailing numerous individual stories provides the frame. The novella ‘Divine’ supplied the film with its protagonist who has the body of both a Goddess and a peasant and who is played by Simone Barriau [as Ludivine ‘Divine’ Jaris] (who also acted as producer and who made her country estate available for the exteriors).” (Paolo Palme).

The film opens in the country [on this estate] where young Ludivine is persuaded to move to Paris and work in the music hall by her friend Roberte (Yvette Lebon). Once working at the Paris music-hall in the chorus Ludivine is soon christened ‘Divine’. She starts to ascent the stairway to stardom: an early lead role involves her being draped with a live snake in a exotic and orientalist number.

‘Divine’ is the centre of the narrative. We see her pursued and fending off the various offensives by male admirers. She also acquires a non- music hall boyfriend, the local milkman, Antonin (Georges Rigaud).. With him she shares the love of the rural world from which she comes. Other stories are also followed, including the use of drugs by the performers. Much of the film displays with great detail and a sense of the authentic, the world of the backstage, with which both Colette and Ophüls were familiar.

Whilst the theatrical world and the characters are very much Colette the presentation is very much Ophüls. As a filmmaker he was noted for the mobility of the camerawork and the smooth but complex style of editing. By this stage of his career Ophüls had already directed Liebelei (1933 in Germany)  and La Signora Di Tutti (1934 in Italy). Both display the skills that grace his cinema, they also reflect the peripatetic nature of his filmmaking life. In this French film he is ably served by the craftsmen: set design by Jacques Gotko and Robert Gys, cinematography by Roger Hubert, editing by Léonide Moguy.

The distinctive and effective style of the film is demonstrated in the opening sequence where Roberte comes to visit her childhood friend in her expensive motor car. Ludivine is helping her mother (Catherine Fonteney) plough a field on their farm. The trio of women return to the farmhouse where, over the evening, Roberte explains to Ludivine the attractions of music hall stardom.

[The following is from my notes at the screening so I may have not noted all the shots].

Opening on a close up of a plough, a mid-shot shows the two women with the plough and the farm horse. A dissolve leads to close ups of  the plough, a wheel, a mirror and then a mid-shot of the motor car to which they belong. A track follows a young blonde woman (Roberte) as she runs to greet mother and daughter. A further reverse track shows the three women, with the horse, returning to the farmhouse.

A dissolve shows us the interior and soup on the stove. A reverse track fills out the room and the family dog. A skilful pan shows Roberte with Ludivine as they remove their wet stockings. There is a cut to a long shot of the room and the women framed through the old fashioned fire place. Another dissolve takes us to Ludivine’s bedroom where the girls change in shadows. A dolly follows as both girls sit together on the bed. A pan follows Roberte as she demonstrates a theatrical walk moving from the bed to the window. A further pan moves us back to Ludivine as he then copies Roberte’s walk. [A tolling bell sounds in the distance]. The camera tilts up the wall to a picture of Angels. A cut moves from Roberte [to the accompaniment of music including drums on the soundtrack) to the exterior of Folie Bergeres. A further cuts takes us backs stage to where a dance troupe is preparing for an act. A combined track and crane shot travels around backstage as we see various theatrical individuals and then climb up towards the back stage dressing rooms. Thus Ludivine arrives in the world of the music hall.

There are several equally stylish sequences in the film, mainly set in the back state of the theatre as we see the working lives of the thespians. At one point a complete 360% camera movement presents the whole of the set of one of the revue numbers. And there are a number of beautifully executed track and crane shots. The style embellishes the film beyond its often conventional narrative.

The characters are familiar from other dramas set in music halls and back stage. Barriau as ‘Divine’ is impressive and provides a strong centre to the film. The plotting exhibits the qualities often associated with the writings of Collette. Much time is spent in the dressing rooms of the chorus where there are frequently scantily clad females. There are explicit suggestions of the sexual merry-go-round back stage. And there is a central theme about drug taking in the theatre. In contrast the film’s closure is marked by the wedding of ‘Ludivine and Antonin, however, as is noted in the Catalogue;

Divine concludes with an extremely ambiguous happy-ending that highlights the understanding that existed between screenwriter and director. Collette and Ophūls both conceive of the union of man and woman as a loss. Neither see marriage as a real solution. The director underlines this visually by placing the final nuptials behind a grate, …”

All together it makes for a memorable 74 minutes. The original release ran at 82 minutes, but whatever is missing did not seem noticeable. The 35mm print was reasonably good: the film was restored from the original nitrate in 1997.  The soundtrack, from the mid-1930s,  was tinny at times but pretty good for the period. .

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Humanity and Paper Balloons/Ninjo Kamifusen, Japan 1937

Posted by keith1942 on July 15, 2017

This was a title that I had frequently heard or read about with recommendation but this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato offered me the first chance to actually watch and enjoy the film. It was the first screening in a retrospective ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’. The ‘valley of darkness’ was the 1930s when Japan became increasingly dominated by the Military and embarked on wars in China, Korea and right across the Pacific. The programme was curated by Alexander Jacoby and John Nordström, who have already provided several excellent retrospectives of Japanese cinema.

They explained in their introduction that the selection offered films from the 1930s when

“Under the militarist regime of the late 1930s, the Japanese period film (jidai-geki), became a refuge for liberal filmmakers. The Narutaki-gumi, an informal group of filmmakers pledged to modernise Japanese cinema, were at the heart of a new breed of jidai-geki which opted for realism instead of stylization and for ironic pessimism rather than heroic optimism.” (Festival Catalogue).

This group usually worked the Zenshin-za progressive theatre troupe.

Alex explained that the films were to a degree subversive, exploring

“how to present the past'”

In the late 1930s

“the past was a set of contested values… “

and these films contested Samurai values, central to the value system of the militarist regime.

This film, directed by Yamanaka Sadao set the tone. Yamanaka was an important and creative filmmaker in the period. However, the majority of his films, both silent and sound, are lost. Only three full-length features and a number of extracts survive. As a director Yamanaka was noted for his style and his ability to work with complex plots and numerous characters. He died young when conscripted to the army for the war against China.

“Yamanaka produces a disenchanted study of a society in which the values of bushido celebrated in the more traditional jidai-geki are abandoned or betrayed , and in which people cannot progress.” (Festival catalogue).

In this film space was an important element of style and metaphor.

” Film offers a ‘safe space’ in a poor district, opposed to the lack of humanity and rigidity in the social structure.”

The film opens and closes with suicides. That at the beginning is of a Samurai/Ronin, i.e. a master less samurai, in this case reduced to poverty. This event takes place in a tightly packed tenement in C18th Edo. We hear the tenants discussing the suicide and learn that the Samurai hanged himself. It transpires that he did not, in traditional fashion, commit seppuku [the ritual suicide] as he no longer had a proper samurai sword but a bamboo replica. This has become a frequent trope in Japanese samurai films with characters selling their metal swords because of poverty and hard times. I do not know if this is the earliest example but it is likely that this is an influential device.

The suicide results in a squad of Samurai visiting the tenement to investigate. This sets up the division in the film between the traditional authorities and the poor and relatively powerless people who live in the tenement.

This tenement is controlled by the landlord Chobei (Suketakaya Sukezo) , a unsympathetic character who only visits to the tenement to collect rent or when the authorities take an interest. There are a number of tenants who we see and hear. A key character is Shinza the barber (Nakamura Kan’emon). We hardly ever see him practising his trade and he is involved in a petty gambling ring. The original property for the film was a Kabuki play ‘Kamiyui Shinza’ (Shinza the Barber} adapted by Mimura Shintaro. It seems the film is more downbeat than the play. In the film Shinza is a trickster, rather like the monkey in some Japanese tales, equivalent of Reynard the Fox in European tales.

Hi neighbour is Unno Matajuro (Kawarasaki Chojuro), another master less Ronin. Unno’s wife Otaki (Yamagishi Shizue) raises income by making the paper balloons of the film title. Unno spends much of the film trying to gain an interview with a local pawnbroker who rebuffs his efforts. Unno’s father, another Samurai, had done service for the house of the pawnbroker and Unno wishes to present a letter setting this out.

Two other important characters in the tenement are a blind masseur who, despite his disability, has a keen sense of what transpires. He also keeps a ‘close eye’ on Genko (Nakamura Tsuruzo) who lives by selling gold fish but also by petty pilfering: in a couple of sequences this involves the blind man’s pipe. The pawnbroker’s house also houses his daughter Okoma for whom he is trying to arrange in marriage to a Samurai, a proposal that needs to assistance to bridge the class divide. However, the film subtly suggests that there is an attraction between Okoma and one of the house servants, Chushichi (Segawa Kukunojo).

Acting in some ways as a connections between the tenements and the business sector is Yatagoro, who heads a gang involved in gambling but also acting as enforcers for businesses such as the pawnbroker. The Samurai, who are the city authorities, only appear when they leave their privileged space to police the tenement or to collaborate with businessmen like the pawnbroker.

The drama comes to a climax when Shinza and Unno are involved in a kidnap plot to raise money. At first apparently successful the repercussions are fatal for both men. Whilst the tenement occupants celebrate at a party where the sake is provided by Shinza the two men meet their fates. Shinza is summoned to a local bridge where he is confronted by Yatagoro and his men. Meanwhile Otaki, bought to her wits ends by their situation, first murders Unno and then commits suicide. The film ends bleakly in the aftermath of this tragedy.

The commentary in the Catalogue notes

“The film highlights Yamanaka’s skill at pictorial composition and deep focus, and his use of editing.”

These qualities are also due to the excellent cinematography by Mimura Akira, editing by Iwashita Koichi and the art direction by Kubo Kazuo. The tenement set is a tightly packed warren of rooms that open onto a central street. The camera explores these as the plot develops. When we move to the main street and to the house of the pawnbroker the settings open up, providing an expansive space that contrasts to the repressive and enclosing tenement. The deeps staging and deep focus is especially noticeable in the tenement sequences, drawing attention not just to the main action but to the teeming aspects of life that carry on.

The editing emphasises the parallels and contrasts in the story and between characters. Especially impressive is the final sequence where the camera shots cut between the tenement party, Shinza at the bridge and Unno and his wife, and her increasing despair. Then in what is one of the finest ending in cinema an exterior shot follows a bouncing and rolling paper balloon as it rolls into a drainage channel alongside the tenement. The sound, full of effective noises throughout, here offers the off-screen voices of children playing.

If the ending offers a visual symbol that operates as a striking metaphor then the film continually offers motifs that reflect on the characters. There is the letter that Unno carries back and forth as he vainly seeks an audience with the pawnbroker. Finally it is drop in the mud [following heavy rain] where it lies unnoticed. Paralleling this is a flowered hairpin that is dropped by Okoma, [apparently at the same spot]. It lies there, is picked up but then dropped back in the m mud by Shinza.

The print quality was not great. In particular the contrast was limited so the full effect of deep focus was not always that apparent. But the 35mm print was sufficient to demonstrate just why this is one of the most celebrated of Japanese films. The film clearly subverts the Samurai code of the bushido, values central to the militaristic regime of the period and which had for nearly a century offered resistance to the modernisation process in Japan.

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The Edge of the World Britain 1937

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2017

The film was screened from a 35mm print at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the AGM for the Friends of the Hyde Park Picture.

The 1930s is often seen as a ‘low decade’ for British films. But, apart from many of the ‘Quota Quickies’ [made on the cheap to take advantage of state subsidies] there were some fine and well made movies. This title is one of those. It was directed by Michael Powell, shortly before he began his famous partnership with Emeric Pressburger.

The film is a melodrama set in a traditional community where modern influences are threatening the established way of life. Tensions within communities are accentuated by conflicts over tradition versus the new. The central problem is the impact of modern life and new technologies on a traditional community in decline. One example in the film is that the Islands fishing work has been taken over by trawlers operating from the Scottish mainland. This conflict is personified in the persons of the sons of the Manson and Gray families. Ironically the conflict is played out in a traditional ritual: a contest on the steep Island cliffs.

Powell’s story was inspired by reports in 1930 of the evacuation of St. Kilda [in the Hebrides]. In fact he had to shoot the film on Foula in the Shetlands. Given the story that was the source the film’s resolution is pre-ordained. The drama is developed by the conflict, which to a degree is a generational conflict. But there is also a romance, itself tragically affected by the larger conflict.

The film makes impressive use of Island rituals. Early on we see the Sabbath morning and the inhabitants gathering at the Kirk for a service and a traditional sermon running over an hour. Later we see the Islanders herding sheep for traditional hand-picking of the wool. There is an open-air ceilidh. A major event is a funeral and wake for a victim. And finally, we watch as the Inhabitants file onto a trawler, leaving their home for the mainland.

These characters are well played by familiar actors like John Laurie (Peter Manson), Finlay Currie (James Gray) and Niall MacGinnis (Andrew Gray) with lesser known performers like Belle Chrystall (Ruth Manson) and Kitty Kirwan (Jean Manson – seen in other classic films like I Know

Where I’m Going (1945) and Odd Man Out (1947)]. They were supported by actual islanders living on the location, the Isle of Fulva: and [rather Hitchcockian] Michael Powell as a Yachtsman.

The film opens as the yacht, with Andrew Gray, on-board as it sails into the small harbour. On a tour of the Island the trio come on a stone slab, marked ‘Gone Over’; marking the spot where Peter Manson fell. Then as Andrew wanders pass a croft and then the Kirk we enter a flashback to ten years earlier. Finally the film returns to the trio after detailing the mains story.

Three cinematographers worked on the film but the key lighting cameraman was Ernest Palmer [H.E.]who captured the beauty of the wild terrains and massive cliffs of the island. Nearly the whole of the film was shot on location with a few linking shots added at the studio. There is extensive use of superimpositions and these tie together the present and the past in the film. Presumably the experience of location filming stood him in good stead on a later film,  San Demetrio London (1943). The soundtrack was  by W. H. Sweeney and L. K. Tregellas, also excellent and combining actual sounds and music. The music includes three songs by the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. Music is mostly used for sequences that offer drama and heightened emotion.

The production team had to live on the island for several months from June till October, a long way from the studios which were the normal home of film crews. The latter stages saw them battling wind and rain. Michael Powell wrote the story: the script seems to have developed during the shoot, taking in rituals that were part of the actual Island life. The film was produced by a US émigré, Joe Rock, who ran a small independent studio near Elstree. Most of the technical crew had worked with Powell before. He had established himself with a number of ‘quota quickies’, including a recent success for the Rock Production Company The Man Behind the Mask (1936). The film’s pre-release was in the summer of 1937. Michael Powell recalled [in his autobiographical ‘A Life in the Movies’  (1986)]:

“The film opened at the New Gallery Cinema in Regent Street, now the London headquarters of the Seventh day Adventists, but then a rather classy movie theatre. [It is now a Burberry store, but the auditorium and its screen can still be seen and are used for promotional videos]. The critics gave it a cautious reviews. But my old admirer, C. A. Lejeune, writing in The Observer knew the difference between a lyric drama and a documentary, and said: “I hope everyone who can will make a point of seeing The Edge of the World. In some obscure judgement day, when these things are measured, I have a feeling it will come up somewhere near the top of English classics.”

And Basil Wright [of the British Documentary Movement] trumpeted in the Cinema: “If The Edge of the World achieves the success it so well deserves, it will be yet another reminder that vast production costs, exotic casts, and cosmopolitan scenarios are perhaps not the ultimate plan for the British Cinema.”

The film opened at the New Gallery Cinema in Regent Street, now the London headquarters of the Seventh day Adventists, but then a rather classy movie theatre. [It is now a Burberry store, but the auditorium and its screen can still be seen and are used for promotional videos]. The critics gave it a cautious reviews. But my old admirer, C. A. Lejeune, writing in The Observer knew the difference between a lyric drama and a documentary, and said: “I hope everyone who can will make a point of seeing The Edge of the World. In some obscure judgement day, when these things are measured, I have a feeling it will come up somewhere near the top of English classics.”

[Later] Joe Rock, who was fighting for the film, had sent a copy to New York to a small distributor, who submitted it to the National Board of Review film critics, and they chose it as one of the best foreign films of the year, which gave me a wonderful lift.”

This was well before British films won the occasional Academy Award. It was also seen and liked by film impresario Alexander Korda, And it was at his Denham Studio that Powell and Pressburger commenced the most memorable partnership in British Cinema.

The film was restored by the National Film Archive in 1990, though the present 35mm print is slightly shorter than the original release. The film was re-issued in cut version in 1940, running 62 minutes. The restoration runs 74 minutes. The print is good, though the is some variation on the  image, presumably due to different source material. And since 1990 it has suffered a few minor cuts, so we get what seem like ‘jump cuts’.

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