An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases
Lewin’s ’51 feature, extravagantly photographed in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, is a supernatural love story that fits in well with a number of phantasmic/horror, obsessive/doomed romance pics that dotted the British post-war cinema landscape. Films like The Seventh Veil (1945), The Queen of Spades (1949), and several Powell/Pressberger titles, e.g., Stairway to Heaven (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948).
Powell/Pressberger, who also leaned on Cardiff’s talents, were the acknowledged masters of this sort of thing; Lewin, also responsible for concocting an original screenplay for Pandora, is less successful.
Lewin’s tale revolves around a clutch of well-educated, seemingly well-off British layabouts on endless holiday at a beach-rimmed Spanish village named Esperanza, easily translated by many in the audience as Hope, which gets us off in an allegorical frame of mind right away. The time period is modern day, although the film’s point of view and voice-over come from a scholar in antiquities, Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender), an avuncular, professorial type whose home and beach are populated with classical statuary missing a head here and an arm there. Several mythological figures are half-buried in the sand, as if Geoffrey was lucky enough to buy beachfront property situated over the ruins of a major Delphic temple. Geoffrey has his heart and mind set to the beat of timelessness, his eyes and ears open to the ever-possible re-emergence of archaic myth, which will arrive soon enough in the form of James Mason as The Flying Dutchman.
Within shouting distance of Geoffrey’s book-lined study — where he’s lackadaisically trying to assemble the shards of an ancient vase — is a scrappy bar offering live music: e.g., an indigenous fandango group, or the warblings of a supernaturally beautiful nightclub singer named Pandora (Ava Gardner). Geoffrey, his young niece, Janet (Sheila Sim), and at least a couple of young eligible bachelors like to hang out at the bar and take in its indigenousness; or, rather, the young men like to take in Pandora, in spite of her steady resistance to all of them and even though one of these, Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick), appears to be ambiguously attached to Geoffrey’s niece.
For a modicum of Pandora’s attention, men will do all sorts of silly things. In the first reel, one of the young men in attendance at the bar, Reggie (Marius Goring, from The Red Shoes), commits suicide right in front of her. No matter: with the body of her admirer still warm, Pandora and Stephen leave the bar in the latter’s hot little racing car. Stopping at a cliff’s edge, Stephen, on a dare from Pandora, pushes his beloved racing car off a cliff. Pandora’s response is to shrug and agree to marry him. From its start, the film has been explicit with its theme: “the measure of love is equal to what one is willing to give up for it.” Trashing his car is the least Stephen could do for an engagement gift.
But Pandora, we slowly discover, is unable to love any man, because she is fated to love the mythic Dutchman, who, as Stephen launches his racing car off the cliff, is painting Pandora’s portrait in the drawing room of his yacht, anchored out in the bay in full sight of her and Stephen. Suddenly feeling the Dutchman’s psychic pull, Pandora swiftly gets rid of Stephen, strips naked, and swims out to the yacht.
In by far the most erotic scene in the film — although she repeats the antic near the film’s end — Pandora reaches the yacht, sees that the Dutchman, Hendrik van der Zee, is mysteriously alone without a crew, wraps her nude self in sailcloth and introduces herself to Hendrik. This being 1951, the sight of various parts of Gardner’s naked body interacting with the rough linen is left to our imagination, although mine completed the task with alacrity. Only Pandora’s bare shoulders emerge from the cloth, along with her ecstatically wet hair and face, but these are enough to complete a tour de force of sexual imagery. Gardner’s limited range as an actress defeats many of her line readings here, but her intense physical beauty, caressed in close-ups by Cardiff’s rapturous lighting and color, are the reason to watch the film.
Mason’s another reason. With Pandora, he was well on his way to becoming the industry’s favorite pick for tortured, obsessive males, and as Hendrik he looks and sounds wonderful, making the most of the often overloaded dialog and causing some of it to ring musically, as if it were Shakespeare. But neither Mason, Gardner, nor even Cardiff can save the film’s tragic denouement from bathos. Before the sands of time run out for them, Lewin allows the lovers a brief interchange that indeed begs to be sung, as it seems inspired, not so much by the doings in Wagner’s own Der Fliegende Holländer, but by the love duet in act 2 of his Tristan und Isolde: when Pandora agrees to end her life for the Dutchman, Hendrik declares their love “unending,” just as Tristan and Isolde do — but this ain’t opera, folks. Like undercooked pasta thrown to the ceiling, this love/death concoction doesn’t stick and ends up a gooey tangle on your face.
UK/1951/Technicolor/123 min./1.33:1 OAR. Released on Blu-ray disc and DVD by Kino International in 2010.
Adelheid (František Vláčil, 1969)
With this release, close on the heels of their DVD edition of Vláčil’s Valley of the Bees (1968), Second Run deepens considerably our appreciation of this Czech master. In Adelheid, the director’s first color film, we are no longer in the black and white medieval landscapes of Marketa Lazarová and Valley of the Bees, but find ourselves in the rural desolation of an autumnal, post WWII Sudentenland. Here a decommissioned Czech RAF officer, Viktor Chotovický (Petr Čepek), travels to assume management of a large estate formerly held by the town’s biggest Nazi henchman, who, imprisoned nearby, faces imminent execution.
Viktor is something of an odd duck. Chronically ill with ulcers and carrying an air of having seen too much and forgotten too little, he’s spent the last part of the war stationed in Aberdeen, returning to this part of his homeland to find an intense, if understandable, hostility against the native German nationals. Getting off the train at his destination, he’s mistaken for a German officer and beaten by a small mob. Once cleared by the local police chief, Hejna (Jan Vostrčil), Viktor shrugs off the incident as if it were a minor inconvenience and proceeds to take up residence in the mansion held by the Nazi official — once the elegant homestead of a rich Jew.
The place is a mess, but so is Viktor, who admits to Hejna that he wants the estate’s seclusion to aid in his recuperation from what the war’s done to him. But instead of healing isolation, Viktor comes face to face with Adelheid (Emma Černá), the daughter of the aforementioned Nazi, who, imprisoned herself, has a daily work release to go clean the house in which she grew up.
Viktor is instantly intrigued by and attracted to the young woman, whose mask of angry passivity only further fuels his physical desire for her. Rather shamelessly he asks permission from Hejna to have Adelheid live at the house to act as a servant for him, but there’s a language barrier: she speaks only German, he only Czech. Viktor goes about learning her language, but it appears he’s seeking to master only one sentence: “Go to my room and get in my bed.”
When one evening Henja and his deputy arrive with no warning ostensibly to get drunk with Viktor — who’s already asserted he can’t drink much because of his ulcers — Viktor insists that Adelheid join them, and the mood turns sour and dangerous. Treating a German prisoner as an equal — and a female German who is the daughter of the town’s leading Nazi at that — is a serious disjoint for these guys. Possibly to compensate, a drunken Henja thinks it a good joke to play some records of German marches, and is offended when Adelheid’s reaction is to simply glare at him. Violence and possibly rape are in the air, but Viktor defuses the situation by using his single German sentence, telling Adelheid to go get in his bed. “Ah, so that’s how it is,” says Henja, now no longer incensed, seeing that the woman is Viktor’s whore and thereby appropriately under the victor’s boot.
Adelheid obeys Viktor’s order; and, for a time, sleeping together, eating and sitting in front of the fire together, the two slip into a routine that, for Viktor, is a fragile domestic illusion, something he desperately yearns for. Adelheid, however, remains strangely impassive, and Černá ably projects powerful but indecipherable emotions roiling just beneath her stony, and regally beautiful, features. Her mostly mute presence gives rise to an unsettling Hitchcockian ambiguity: given her Nazi background and his status as victorious keeper, Viktor realizes that she might be planning to kill him.
Characteristically, Vláčil uses minimal dialog, and keeps a tight rein on the film’s pulse, which is further enhanced by the music on the soundtrack. Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz plays here and there, but then might be suddenly silenced by a scene shift and a jump aurally to an ambient noise, such as Adelheid scrubbing her floors. One might think the Strauss is meant to underline Viktor’s newly awakened sexual drive, but Vláčil’s persistent use of J. S. Bach in other scenes is puzzling, albeit effective, especially as the film turns tragic for the would-be lovers and dryly accusatory of the Czechs’ postwar treatment of its German citizens.
Czechoslovakia/1969/98 min./Color/1.33:1/PAL/Region 2. Released by Second Run on DVD in 2010.
The War Lord (Franklin Schaffner, 1965)
Like Vlacil’s Adelheid, The War Lord features a combat-weary veteran traveling to assume management of a large structure dominating a small village where he too meets a young woman with whom he falls in love — with life-altering results. And like Vlacil’s medieval films, Schaffner’s takes place in an 11th-century Europe where individual freedom struggles against the strictures imposed on it by society or religion.
Here the similarities end. The War Lord was released two years before Vlacil’s Marketa Lazarová, and, to an unusual degree for a Hollywood product of this vintage, strains for an authenticity that came more naturally to the Czech filmmaker’s austere intentions. Yet Schaffner’s film is refreshingly eccentric, and, in its seriously intended themes, more thought-engaging than a typical sword/sandal. When it ended, I was surprised to find the extent to which I was moved.
Charlton Heston plays Chrysagon, a high-ranking knight who’s seen twenty years of action in the field, much of it defending the Holy Land.1 Accompanied by his loyal retainer, Bors (Richard Boone), and a small retinue that includes the knight’s brother, Draco (Guy Stockwell), Chrysagon’s been ordered by the Duke of Ghent to, one, occupy the castle keep that overlooks a coastal peasant village and, two, defend populace and property from the chronic raids of Frisian pirates.
In taking up residence in the lowlands, Chrysagon encounters a series of challenges. Within minutes of his arrival, those pesky Frisian pirates, headed by an unnamed “Frisian prince” (De Mille stalwart Henry Wilcoxon), raid the village. That menace staunched for the time being, the knight meets cute, at least by medieval standards, with a local goose girl, Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth), who, standing naked and vulnerable in a pond, has narrowly escaped rape by Chrysagon’s own henchmen.
Chrysagon’s feudal sense of entitlement to Bronwyn’s charms is disarmed for a time by his awe of her beauty (which leads to fears that she may be witch), but that old bugaboo, Le Droit du Seigneur (The Right of the Lord), by which the Seigneur may claim sexual dibs on a virgin’s wedding night, rears its head. As Chrysagon becomes thoroughly distracted from leadership by his lust for Bronwyn, Draco attempts to chill out his brother, or perhaps undercut his authority, by arranging for the law to be implemented the night of the girl’s wedding to her boyfriend, Marc (James Farentino).
Chrysagon goes along with the ceremony — and so does Bronwyn under duress — but it’s their eventual defiance toward this outmoded law, founded out of superstition and fear, that fuels the violence and retribution of the rest of the film and allows for an unusual, open-ended cadence at its close.
Although Heston, with customary intensity, chews on his dialog as a Bordeaux Mastiff would a mutton bone, his innate physicality holds the show together and gives the love scenes with Forsyth real heat. The rest of the cast is mongrel, with Maurice Evans overplaying as an obsequious priest and TV regular Stockwell giving a surprisingly taut, effective performance. But Farentino, a decade from his omnipresence on television in the ’70s and beyond, is just plain lousy.
As for historical accuracy, this comes basically in just two forms. First, inspired most likely by the one Laurence Olivier sports in his Henry V (1944), the haircuts of Chrysagon and his entourage are a variety of bowl cut accompanied by a generously shaved nape. Since the action of Henry V takes place in the 15th century, whether this haircut is an anachronism for the 11th is for others to determine. Like Olivier’s, Heston’s chiseled features survive this hairdo better than does Richard Boone’s swollen face, but, still, it gives these guys an archaic look that vibrates compellingly with the more generic aspect given a motley peasant group and the familiar Viking costuming allowed the hirsute Frisian pirates.
Secondly, and most convincingly in the art direction/set design department, we have a grandly conjured stone tower, with a crenelated battlement and an elaborately imagined interior. In a series of extremely well-staged action sequences, a number of nifty war machines lay siege to the tower, from which Heston at one point, having just emerged from nuzzling Bronwyn in his chambre d’amour and thereby minimally swaddled in some kind of medieval underwear, grabs a rope and launches himself over the edge, Fairbanks style, to neatly smack a few pirates off the drawbridge. You just don’t see this kind of thing in the movies anymore, at least not with this amount of panache and — given that Heston appears nearly naked and not using a double — risk to the safety of a headlining actor pushing middle age.
Schaffner, who would direct Heston in Planet of the Apes three years later, does an overall terrific job with some difficult material and his variegated cast. In one strange but powerful scene, Bronwyn is ordered to hold Chrysagon’s hands down tightly as a festering wound on his back is cauterized. When the hulking Boone applies a red-hot sword and Heston grimaces and his naked torso arches, he could just as well be experiencing a sexual climax along with Forsyth, who simultaneously swoons in exquisite empathy with her lord’s agony. Ah, the eros of pain.
USA/1965/116 min./Color/2.35:1 OAR/PAL, Region 2. Released on DVD by Eureka in 2010.
Oscilloscope Laboratories’ last two releases (as of this writing) are about as disparate as you can get: the 2009 American independent film, The Exploding Girl and a 1959 French film, directed by Jules Dassin, Le Loi (The Law).
Remarkably modest in scope, The Exploding Girl, written and directed by Bradley Rust Gray, can initially seem a mere character study, shot documentary-style, of young college student Ivy, until the actress playing her, Zoe Kazan, locks you quite intimately into her predicament: how to navigate the normal stresses of late adolescence when those very stresses may set off socially inconvenient, but also physically dangerous, grand mal epileptic seizures. Thus, the volatility of Ivy’s chronic illness is linked like a fuse to a bomb to one of the most universal of all teenage, girlhood trials: as you enter summer vacation apart from him, your college boyfriend decides to break up with you.
This is not your TV movie of the week, featuring whatever disease or disability on which it must stamp a redemptive happy face. There is redemption of a sort in Gray’s film, but it’s realistically open-ended, and it’s not so much in the face of disease as it is in the vicissitudes of everyday life. Zoe Kazan, playing perky, pretty, and blonde in the recent plastic confection It’s Complicated (2009), is a messy brunette here, a real live girl who has trouble getting out of bed in the morning, her luminous eyes dimming with borderline despair over her limitations.
A short lifetime of dealing with her infirmity seems to have given Ivy a moral backbone and an advanced ability to empathize, along with a large reserve of patience, which she needs not only to manage her illness, but also to deal with the young men in her life, who lack the emotional maturity she’s gained. Circumstances conspire to have a college acquaintance, Al (Mark Rendall), room for a few weeks with her and her mother, just as the boyfriend decides to drop the bomb.
Al is as self-absorbed and pleasure-bound as any male his age would be, but he does have a fledgling ability to get outside his skin, especially when Ivy’s around. As Gray carefully modulates the growth of feelings between the two, the film becomes a paean to the simple power of friendship. Rendall does fine work as the kind-hearted Al, but this is Kazan’s show all the way.
In The Law, she plays Marietta, the feisty housekeeper for the town’s patriarch, Don Cesare, who presides over a small sun-baked coastal town in Southern Italy. Dassin’s not always successful tone throughout is semi-farcical, and Lollobrigida is certainly good enough playing, with unabashed carnality, a thieving rapscallion who won’t take shit from anybody, except maybe from the padrone. Her physical beauty, and how the camera adores it, is really quite astonishing in this picture. And, as in her turn as Esmeralda in the 1956 Hunchback of Notre Dame, she knows how to wield a knife, confirming, if indeed it needs to be, that dangerous is sexy.
A young man from the North, Enrico (Mastroianni), calling himself an agronomist, has come to introduce newfangled ideas to the region’s agricultural economy, but finds his mission diverted both by amorous advances from Marietta and thinly veiled threats from the local small-time gangster Matteo (Montand), who is under the illusion that everything and everybody in the town are under his thumb.
Matteo is mostly a comic figure, but Dassin’s mood can darken, as it does when Matteo gathers some villagers and Enrico to play the game that gives the novel and film their title. The Law, still played in Southern Italy apparently, is a strange drinking game that mirrors the town’s power hierarchy, its main strategy being humiliation midst the ingesting of a lot of red wine.
The show is amiable and very charming rather than great, but it’s several heads taller than most films released that year, and of course there’s Ms. Lollobrigida . . .
The Exploding Girl: USA/2009/80 min./Color/1.78:1 OAR. The Law: France, Italy/1959/121 min./B&W/In French with optional English subtitles. Released on DVD by Oscilloscope Laboratories in 2010.
L’Enfance Nue (Maurice Pialat, 1968)
A first encounter with Pialat’s film brings several surprises, the initial one being how visually beautiful it is, especially in Criterion’s loving transfer. Translated as Naked Childhood, L’Enfance Nue is a bleak portrait of a foster child shunted between working-class families somewhere in Northern France, possibly near the Belgian border. Pialat shoots it documentary-style, and along with the gritty location settings and the use of non-actors in most of the major roles, you might expect — especially back in ’68 — the choice of black and white film to support its verité underpinnings, as Truffaut had for his own study of a troubled boy, The 400 Blows (1959).
The film stock is grainy enough, but it’s color nonetheless and particularly vibrant, even as it’s darkly cast, say, in the opening scenes where a family meanders through a small mining town with the day’s light dwindling to dusk. Here, and often through the film, the color has a green/yellow cast, and as the boy, François (Michel Terrazon), is caught under the lowering skies of town or country, the light has a specificity that feels like Northern France.2
François, we come to learn, is not an orphan up for adoption, but an abandoned child made ward of the state, who must adapt to transient foster arrangements with families compensated monetarily with monthly stipends. If it doesn’t work out — as often happens, since abandoned children are likely emotionally unbalanced and act out in ways like the aforementioned cat abuse — the family has the option to simply end the relationship and send the kid packing.
Initially, the plight of François may seem a natural inducement for moist eyes, but then Pialat sucker-punches the audience with the cat episode and allows nary a Father Flanagan-type among the caseworkers to convince us or the families that there’s no such thing as a bad boy. When François is placed with an older couple, the Thierrys, who also care for an aged great-grandmother and another foster child, we cringe in anticipation for the Thierrys rather than feel concern for the boy. But improvising their own lines as they follow Pialat’s scenario, the Thierrys turn out to be non-actors, real foster parents who are playing themselves. They know the ground their characters are made to tread upon and react to François’ misbehaving realistically.
“He has a good heart,” says Mrs. Thierry about their new charge, and as much as they are tender and patient with François, the old married couple is overtly tender toward each other. The camera picks up a fleeting reaction to this in François’ face in a wonderfully modulated scene in the Thierrys’ yellow kitchen of cozy familial warmth.
Nana, the invalid mother of Mrs. Thierry played by professional actress Marie Marc, allows the boy plenty of space as she ladles out wise, grandmotherly affection. You can see François bonding with her, yet when his thievery and mischief escalates, you wonder if he’s not beating acceptance and love to the punch because he thinks love is transient anyway. His real mother gave him away; these people will, too — he might as well get the show on the road.
As much as the film may sound like a shout of despair at a government’s fumbling treatment of abandoned children, it’s not a poster film demanding change. As Kent Jones explains in his acute visual essay on the disc, L’Enfance Nue is not about a foster child; it’s about this boy, and as such, it neither pleads nor answers questions, but merely presents his struggle with no comfortable resolution in sight. It’s a brave strategy for a film and one that apparently doomed its success at the box office. In a vintage TV interview included by Criterion, we see Pialat berating himself on the one hand for not making a more palatable film, and on the other, for not going far enough, for not introducing some kind of emotional nihilism that would alienate audiences even further. Interviewed, Pialat comes across as a conflicted individual who’d like to please as well as disturb, but L’Enfance Nue dares to do the latter while somehow allowing the former.
Along with the aforementioned interview and visual essay, Criterion includes the short film L’Amour Existe (1960), a documentary decrying the quality of life in the modern suburbs of Paris, which inspired François Truffaut to produce Pialat’s first feature, L’Enfance Nue.
France/1968/83 minutes/color/in French with English subtitles/1.66:1 OAR. Released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in 2010.
Chaplin at Keystone (Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin, 1914)
Here, filmed at an actual go-cart race, the tramp’s physical appearance and accoutrements are already in place, but as we watch his exploits over the next 30+ films, we encounter a rather nasty persona, especially in the first several shorts, where Charlie is nothing but a mean little drunk with frustrated carnal ambitions. The cruel, bumbling grifter of Tillie’s Punctured Romance, a feature-length comedy and the last of his work for Keystone, has little in common with the noble, self-effacing tramp of City Lights, made some 17 years later.
I was never much for the Keystone comedies, nor was Chaplin, reportedly. How many times can anyone laugh at Mack Swain falling on his ass? Chaplin falls down and goes boom better than any of them, but the chief spectacle of the set is watching Chaplin introduce and sustain more inventive and less repetitive bits of business into the hectic, sometimes unpleasant slapstick mix, not to mention, as he came to direct them, better structure and rhythm to the films’ story lines and continuity.
Another thrill is watching Chaplin team up with two other mega-talents: Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. Sadly, Chaplin’s appearances with Arbuckle were rare, but one film, The Rounders, not only featured the two of them, but was co-directed by them. As can be gleaned from its title, the one-reeler is just one drunk routine after another, but this shtick has never been done better, with Arbuckle and Chaplin in perfect synch with each other’s timing until, deliriously besotted, they find themselves in a rowboat sinking lyrically into the pond at LA’s Echo Park, the location for so many of the comedies. Arbuckle seems every bit Chaplin’s equal here, matching his colleague’s inventive moves with virtuosic, controlled abandon.
Already a star when Chaplin showed up, diminutive, puckish Mabel Normand is everywhere on this set. A fresh-faced 21 in 1914 — and Sennett’s lover — Mabel uses her large lamp-like eyes and rubbery features to great comedic effect.
The reconstruction of Tillie’s Punctured Romance is a major coup for the Chaplin Keystone Project, the three agencies — BFI, Cineteca di Bologna, and Lobster Films — rummaging the universe for scraps of footage to make the 83-minute film complete for the first time in many decades. But it’s a task they performed for each of the shorts, too, aided by a long list of musicians who perform the underscores. The stalwart Mont Alto Orchestra, headed by Rodney Sauer, is here with an unmatched suavity that never second-guesses the action, and I adore Ken Winokur’s ad hoc grouping, Tillie’s Nightmare Ensemble, which channels the ghost of Joe Oliver for an early jazz accompaniment to Marie Dressler’s lollapalooza. In addition there are seven keyboard artists, among them Robert Israel and Neil Brand, making, in toto, a mass of musical excellence run amok.
As special features, there are two short documentaries, one on the process of reconstructing the films, and the other on the various LA locations used by Keystone back in the days when the nascent megalopolis still smelled like orange groves.