I’m not saying it’s dated. I just got the feeling director Roman Polanski read Beckett (I’m thinking here of Waiting for Godot) and watched a lot of Harold Pinter theatre pieces while co-writing the screenplay with Gerard Brach. (There were times when I felt I was back in my Film Studies class again. This film, by the way. was made prior to Mr. Polanski’s exposure to temptation and tragedy in Hollywood.
A brilliant cast of 1960s players navigate through the psychological mind games of the screenplay. Lionel Stander, a familiar face (and voice) in 1930s and 1940s movie and radio, was forced to flee to Europe after he ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He plays American gangster Dickey, who holes up in a castle after a botched robbery. The castle.on a bleak island, is inhabited by a retired English executive,George (Donald Pleasance) and his flirtatious (and much younger) French wife, Teresa (Francoise Dorleac). The cast also includes future star Jacqueline Bissett (billed here as Jackie Bissett) in one of her first film roles. (A pair of sunglasses hides those now famous eyes.) No one does humiliation better than Mr. Pleasance aided and abetted by the gorgeous Mlle. Dorleac (Catherine Deneuve’s sister, whose promising career was cut short by a fatal car accident at the age of 25). Mr. Stander, of course, is bullish and aggressive in the role of Dickey. Mix these personalities together, stir in Mr. Polanski’s caustic wit, and you have a combustible combination that is bound to blow up in your face at some point.
I signed out this 1966 film because I was intrigued by the cast of characters, I have always been a fan of Mr. Polanski’s world view (Brrr!) and c) it was chosen for restoration by the Criterion Collection. If you are not already familiar with the brand (and most serious film buffs – and filmmakers – are), the Criterion Collection a) always shows great taste in cinematic art and b) lovingly restores films of its choice and packages them with interviews, booklets and other background material. So even if I am unfamiliar with a work, I know that any film, no matter how old (or obscure, to me) chosen by the Criterion folks for their distinctive and caring touch will be viewing time spent well.
Even seasoned film critic Sean Axmaker doesn’t know quite what to make of Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) based filmmaker Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room.
All he knows is that on an instinctual and aesthetic (I’ve always wanted to use that word in a sentence) level, he likes it (I think): “Maddin makes no effort to make sense of any of it, or even worry about any kind of dramatic closure. It’s all about the texture, the weirdness, the quality of the cinematic moment. This is not for audiences who demand story and character and narrative logic.”
Predictably some of the audience critics at rottentomatoes.com did not share his, uh, enthusiasm. A “reviewer” who calls himself K Nife Churchkey wrote: “I feel I should review this simply to counteract the acclaim this film has received thus far. This film is an annoying mess …” (The film scored a 95% critical approval rating – 54 critics rated it Fresh, 3 critics went for Rotten)
Another audience reviewer (Kristi Moore, who gave the film two and a half stars) opined: ‘I’ve never done acid but Forbidden Room is what I think it would be like if I ever did”
The thought of viewing it on drugs crossed my mind. I haven’t taken anything stronger than Aspirin for several decades now but Ms. Moore’s comment does remind meof a friend of mine back in the day who claimed he would go to see a movie twice – once to see it stoned and again to see it straight. (He would have loved this film, although whether he would have to see it twice is debatable.)
There is something hallucinatory about the film – a series of unresolved stories flash across the screen – a submarine crew fights to stay alive; a lumberjack attempts to rescue a kidnapped woman; a man murders a servant because he forgot his wife’s birthday (Men! Do not try this at home) – over a dozen tales and all served up like a series of lost silent films so badly scratched and degraded that even the Criterion Collection wouldn’t touch them.
Shot in Montreal and Paris, the film features the cream of French-Canadian (Roy Dupuis, Sophie Desmarais, Caroline Dhavernas) and European talent (filmmaker/actor Mathieu Amalric, the terminally weird Udo Kier, the always intriguing Charlotte Rampling, the enigmatic Maria de Medeiros). all of whom enter the esoteric spirit of the project with freak flags flying.
David Lynch may be an auteur – they would have to think of a whole new five-dollar term to describe Guy Maddin.
I first saw Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour when I was a university sophomore light years ago after reading some tantalizing reviews and lured by the world class beauty and mystique of French goddess Catherine Deneuve (23 years old at the time.)
I recently watched Belle de Jour again, decades later, this time on a Criterion Collection DVD and realized I could remember every single scene. This from a guy that cannot remember plots of Midsomer Mysteries that he saw several years ago. Okay, sometimes I remember whodunit but not why they dun it. Nevertheless, the Brit TV show is one of my favorites.
Anyway, the peerless Mme. Deneuve plays the enigmatic Severine, the wife of a handsome, well-to-do doctor (Jean Sorel) who lives a comfortable existence in Paris. Too comfortable, as it turns out, since she has a rich fantasy life in which she inhabits various scenarios in which she is debased or defiled.
Director Luis Bunuel, working from longtime collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere’s adaptation of a novel by French author Joseph Kessel, blurs the line between what is really happening on screen and what is only happening in Severine’s mind. (After all, this is the same director who filmed two different actresses in the same role in That Obscure Object of Desire and collaborated with surrealist madman Salvador Dali in the notorious Un Chien d’Andalou.)
In an interview with film critics (and close friends) Jose de la Colina and Tomas Perez Turrent (included in a booklet along with the Criterion DVD) Bunuel insists that the scenes in which Severine works part-time in an upscale Parisian brothel really happen but in the same interview the famed film-maker also says (and I quote) “I myself cannot tell you what’s real and what’s imaginary in the film. For me they form the same thing.” He also tells his friends in the same interview: “When I make a film, I set it free. If you two see it differently from how I made it, that’s all right. I would even accept that your version is better.”
At any rate, Mme. Deneuve, with her porcelain features and detached air, represents perfect casting. Or, as frequent Village Voice contributor Melissa Anderson puts it, in an essay included in the Criterion booklet, Mme. Deneuve’s facial features are an “exquisite blank slate …. onto whom all sorts of perversions could be projected.” I should note here that Bunuel merely introduces the various brothel scenarios and leaves the viewer to fill in the blanks. (A year later, Frank Zappa would ask, “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?” in the song of the same name and reply, “I think it’s your mind.” Hmmm, I wonder if he saw Belle de Jour.)
And, no, I never did find out what is in the box proffered by the Japanese businessman. Ms. Anderson quotes Bunuel in her essay as saying that the contents of the box is “whatever you want it to be.”
The same quote could apply to this film.
PS The Criterion disc also inclueds a video discussion of the film featuring writer and sexual-politics activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams.
It was while I was watching a blurry print of 1935’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (I know. I don’t get out much) that I realized how accustomed I have become to the impeccably restored versions of vintage black & white films in the Criterion Collection. (No, this is not a paid endorsement.) In addition to pristine prints of classic b&w (and color) films the Criterion DVDs usually offer interviews with key players and/or film critics and authors. (There is often a booklet inside the DVD with an essay and/or other material relating to the production. I don’t know what was included in The Killing DVD cuz the booklet was missing when I checked out the DVD from the library. Put Rex Libris on the case. Oh, sorry, that’s another post.)
I was thinking of this while watching the Criterion DVD of Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 classic The Killing (which comes complete with 1955’s Killer’s Kiss on a separate disc.)
Being a film nerd I couldn’t help but admire Kubrick’s eye for casting. I wasn’t the only one. TIME magazine likens a group shot of the cast (which includes Elisha Cook Jr. Timothy Carey, Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia and Joe Sawyer) to ” a class photograph from San Quentin.”
Sterling Hayden plays Johnny Clay,the leader of this gang of mugs. His elaborate scheme to rip off a racetrack ticks along like the proverbial Swiss watch but there is one thing Clay hasn’t included in his plan – the human factor (and, of course, that always messes everything up.)
Although confident in his cinematic skills, Kubrick realized his original story for his previous film (Killer’s Kiss)was weak. Kubrick’s producer, James B. Harris, found the source material for their first collaboration together, a paperback thriller called Clean Break by Lionel White.
It was Kubrick’s idea to hire the dark prince of pulp noir, Jim Thompson, to write additional dialogue in his own distinctive style and his fingerprints are all over this film. For example, the bittersweet dialogue between Cook and iconic B-noir femme fatale Marie Windsor (she’s bitter, he’s sweet) is pure Thompson (at least, to my ears).
Let the film scholars dissect the work for Kubrick’s innovative camera style, his attention to detail and his eye for composition and framing.
I liked the film for Kubrick’s purposeful sense of pacing, the gritty dialogue, the artful use of lighting to add atmosphere and heat to the proceedings and, of course, the fabled cast of character actors assembled by the young master. (Yes, Cook is the snub-nosed “gunsel” in The Maltese Falcon.)
The Criterion edition of The Killing comes with some informative extras, including an interview with Mr. Hayden lensed by a French film crew in the last few years of his life. The DVD also comes with soundbites from producer Harris and a featurette with Robert Polito, author of the Jim Thompson biography Savage Art. (Both the Harris and Polito featurettes were shot expressly for the Criterion folks.)
In the Harris featurette, the veteran producer/director/screenwriter recalls working with Kubrick (“One thing I learned from Stanley is ‘You do not let the actors accommodate the camera, you let the camera accommodate the actors … you stage the scene, the actors rehearse and, then, you bring in the camera and decide how you’re going to cover it … preserves the naturalness of the actor.”) Mr. Harris also reveals that in his role of producer he contributed $130,000 of the film’s $330,000 budget (chipping in 8o grand of his own money and borrowing some cash from his father.) Apparently, Frank Sinatra was also interested in the White novel but Harris snapped up the rights before Ol’ Blue Eyes could make his move.
In the Thompson featurette, Polito says the way the Thompson family tell it, (Jim)Thompson worked very closely with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay and “was either expecting a sole screenwriting credit or a dual screenwriting credit”. When he saw the film at a screening room in Manhattan and saw he was only credited with “additional dialogue” he went ballistic. Polito says Thompson saw this as “a slap in the face”. Nevertheless, he worked with Kubrick again on 1957’s Paths of Glory.
(With all of his novels out of print in North America , Thompson remarked grimly to his wife that he would probably become famous ten years after his death. In a twist right out of one of his bleak novels, Thompson’s work was “rediscovered” in the 1980s. Several of his books were turned into films including the Oscar-nominated The Grifters and 1976’s The Killer Inside Me (remade in 2010). Today Thompson (who died in 1977) is considered a modern master of so-called Noir fiction.
Stuff I Learned from the Extras on the Criterion Collection 5 Disc Set of “Fanny and Alexander”:
….. This film was Ingmar Bergman’s first experience working with children. Up until then he had thought kids would be too hard to control on set and would not take direction well. However, as the behind-the-scenes doc shows, the master filmmaker loved working with his two leads (and with all the children on the set, for that matter. )
.… Bergman had to borrow money for plane fare from live-in actress girlfriend Harriet Andersson to fly to Cannes where studio execs had entered his 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer Night without asking him first. The director said he first found out about his film’s success at the Cannes festival while sitting on the toilet at his home and reading the newspaper.
…. The scene in which Death plays chess with a Knight in 1957’s The Seventh Seal is one of the most iconic images in the history of film. However, in his own words, Bergman tells us the scene was inspired by a painting he saw in a church. “Albertus Pictor’s painting, he was the famous medieval church painter. There’s a painting, Death playing chess with a Knight. So it all came naturally.”
… Bergman tells an interviewer he can’t stand to watch his own films. “I get nervous and I start to cry. I need to pee and I feel miserable.” (Come to think of it, that was my reaction while watching Cries and Whispers.)
Fanny and Alexander was Ingmar Bergman’s last theatrical release and the Criterion folks decided to mark the occasion in style with a 5 – count ’em – five disc boxed set.
Originally made for Swedish television the Fanny and Alexander box set includes the complete 5 hour Swedish TV version. That version was later whittled down to a three hour opus for theatrical release (included in the set.)
Among the extra features is a disc devoted to the lensing of the film. This kind of behind-the-scenes look may be almost obligatory today. However, it was not a standard feature in the early 1980s. And it is still a rarity for the filmmaker himself to produce it. That’s why The Making of Fanny and Alexander is must viewing for Bergman buffs and, for that matter, any serious student of filmmaking because the featurette is edited by the famed director himself and contains some fascinating footage of the master at work. Especially interesting is the collaboration between Bergman and fabled cinematographer Sven Nyqvist.
The 5 disc set also contains an hour long interview which Bergman gave for Swedish TV shortly after the film was released internationally.
The crowning touch is a disc with a series of introductions to Bergman’s early films excerpted from a Swedish television series conducted at the filmmaker’s private cinema on Faro Island when Bergman was in his 80s. (The North American equivalent -for me- would be watching Martin Scorsese discussing Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and other modern classics he has given to the world over the period of his remarkable career. )
When legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was asked to make another movie like Yojimbo , following the enormous box office success of his 1961 “samurai western”, he initially resisted. The story goes that Kurosawa didn’t want to repeat himself, a sentiment today’s multiplex moguls would find hard to relate to. ( Yes, I know, I’m not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition but, hey, it’s a blog, not a master’s thesis.)
Instead, the Japanese master made what is probably the closest he ever came to a comedy.
The mighty Toshiro Mifune actually plays a parody of the character he created in Yojimbo.
In this 1962 release his sword slinging samurai is like a scruffy housecat. All he wants to do is eat, drink and lie around. And judging from the way he keeps scratching himself it’s been awhile since he had a bath.
He may be lazy but he still has wicked skills with a blade and he is still a sucker for the underdog. So when he wanders into an internecine struggle between warring factions in a small village he turns down big bucks from the bad guys to reluctantly help a group of idealistic but inexperienced samurai rescue an abducted village elder and restore him to his rightful place as the head of the clan.
Even though the tone of the overall film is light there is still plenty of swordplay including a climactic duel in which the blood literally spurts out of actor Tatsuya Nakadai (who plays the heavy of the piece, just as he did in Yojimbo).The scene may seem tame by modern standards but it was fairly shocking back in the day.
To find out what really happened during the filming of the controversial scene you will have to check out the extras on the Criterion Collection.
In addition to a lovingly restored hi def version of the film the Criterion DVD includes a minidoc on the making of Sanjuro, including interview clips with Nakadai, production designer Yoshiro Muraki and longtime Kurosawa collaborator Teruyo Nogami. There’s even a vintage interview clip from Kurosawa himself. (You’ll also find an essay on the film from esteemed movie critic Michael Sragow in a booklet tucked inside the DVD.)
PS Yojimbo was previously written up in this blog.