Hobson’s Choice (David Lean, 1954)
Approaching this film — one of two comedies Lean made in his career, the other being Blithe Spirit (1945) — you expect it to be a showcase for the gargantuan talents of top-billed Charles Laughton (right), then entering, at 55, the last phase of his career. Laughton was not one to dim his lights as a performer so that others may glow; his resume is heavily weighted in supporting roles, yet even in these, he could delight an audience to distraction with a minimal amount of screen time, as in his turn as Gracchus in Spartacus (1960). Twenty-five years earlier, the coupling of Laughton’s intense, psychologically acute performance as Inspector Javert in Les Miserables with that of star Fredric March as Jean Valjean, makes March’s efforts seem woefully uninspired.
In Hobson’s Choice, Laughton is the Hobson of the title, the owner of a prosperous boot shop in the industrialized England of the late Victorian era. While Hobson mostly hangs with his cronies in the local pub, the shop thrives on the backs of his three young daughters, the elder of whom, Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), supervises, with an iron will and an eye for good business practices, the entire dysfunctional lot of them, most emphatically her arrogant, drunken lout of a father.
For at least its first quarter, the film indeed belongs to Laughton. Hobson’s a mean old fuck, oblivious to the needs of his maiden daughters, and staunchly settled in a life of self-destructive alcoholism. Overweight, his face a rubbery tuber, Laughton mines comic depths of Shakespearean dimensions but never makes his besotted character the least bit likeable.
When Maggie declares her love for (and designs on) Hobson’s star bootmaker, Willie (John Mills), the action swings away from Laughton to accommodate two fine British actors, De Banzie and Mills (right), who may perform with less bravura than their headlining costar but who nonetheless give the film its soul.
Recognizing her life as an approaching no-exit, Maggie quits her father’s shop to open her own, stealing Hobson’s prize worker — and backbone of his success — by simply marrying him and thus securing freedom and connubial contentment in one fell swoop. De Banzie’s Maggie has a spine of steel and the posture and stern demeanor to go with it, but her seemingly calculated manipulations of the befuddled lower-class Willie are poignantly belied by her clearly expressed love for him. De Banzie gets across the steel and the love equally and with exquisite subtlety.
By film’s end the newlyweds are equals — “You’re the man I made you,” Maggie informs him, her eyes shining with gratitude at his newfound rectitude — and it’s Willie who gives Hobson the choice that’s really no choice at all, hence the irony of the title. We all know that John Mills was much more than Hayley Mills’ father — a splendid accomplishment on its own — but his performance here reminds us of just how wonderful an actor he was, making Willie’s transformation from Hobson’s homunculus to Maggie’s self-assured partner a quietly comic, yet warmly affecting, example of dramatic alchemy.
Lean’s hyper-driven and meticulously controlled visual sense, which could sometimes feel gratuitously overripe in the later color spectacles of the ’60s, finds a perfect balance in Hobson’s Choice‘s black-and-white photography, so well captured by Criterion’s transfer of a restoration by BFI National Archives. Lean could fill his frame like no other, composing a shot that would express the dramatic moment with absolute precision. In the scene where Maggie knows she’s got her man, Lean takes advantage of his brick-and-stone location, placing the couple under an alley’s arch, with a drainage gutter retreating from them in the middle distance (see above). Midst the dour industrialized environs of Victoria’s England (the gutter), Maggie and Willie will find joy in each other (the arch).
Alongside the film, Criterion offers a 1978 BBC documentary on Laughton (part of the series The Hollywood Greats) that finds itself focusing quite a bit on the actor’s struggles as a closeted gay man. Spouse Elsa Lanchester offers insights and details, some of them very sad, as when Laughton, during the filming the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, tried to suppress any physical “movements” that might give away his sexuality in front of Clark Gable. Old friend Christopher Isherwood, bristling with intelligence, is on hand to give an even-handed, affectionate account of the private Laughton.
UK/1954/108 minutes/B&W/Monaural/1.33:1 aspect ratio. Released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in 2009.
On the heels of Fox’s behemoth twelve-disc set Murnau, Borzage and Fox, which featured Murnau’s two extant American pictures, comes Kino’s six-disc collection that gathers nearly all of the director’s greatest surviving German films, plus a couple of surprises that show us another side of Murnau: industry journeyman.
Kino’s much improved 2007 transfer of Nosferatu is here in a single disc, which happily contains the excellent 52-minute excerpt from The Language of Shadows from the two-disc “ultimate” edition. The Last Laugh’s single disc retains the sparkling restoration of the German version but leaves off the unrestored export version included on the “deluxe” edition. The biggest concession made for the current set affects Faust (1926); the stand-alone “deluxe” edition also contains a longer cut made for U.S. export on its second disc — a ten-minute difference that could easily been detailed as an extra feature.
Still, the original German cut of Faust, retained here, is the one to see, and the recent restoration — by the F. W. Murnau Stiftung — allows Murnau’s visuals a chance to bloom. Like Fritz Lang’s UFA spectacles (Metropolis, 1927, and the Die Nibelungen, 1924), Faust was a massive, go-for-broke production, allowing its director the kind of creative control he’d enjoy over his next film, Sunrise (1927), the first of his three Hollywood films and the last before Murnau learned the fate of auteurs who attempt to operate in denial of the American marketplace.1
Faust begins and ends with images of religious kitsch. A prologue has Satan — Emil Jannings in blackface — casting a bet with a blond, white-winged Aryan archangel who’s leapt straight out of an illustrated German bible. Wielding a gleaming broadsword, the angel accepts the bet: if Satan can capture Faust’s soul, God must in exchange give Satan dominion over the earth. But when you next see Jannings, the kitsch merges with the magnificent as his Satan towers hundreds of feet over Faust’s village, opening massive black wings to blot out the sun.2
From there on, with the brilliant Jannings taking center stage with his porcine Mephistopheles, Murnau scales back his special effects — but doesn’t relinquish control over his image-making, which becomes a triumph of art and lighting design. Murnau shoots the entire film in the studio and bases shot after shot on graphic sources, most notably certain Rembrandt etchings (e.g., The Hundred Guilder Print) and paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. Each frame feels designed, yet the effect is far from static tableaux, especially as Murnau pulls vivid performances from his cast, photographed by Carl Hoffman in dynamic compositions on magically conceived medievalist sets.
The then unknown Camilla Horn (right) provides the film its emotional fulcrum. Horn is devastating in her final scenes as the grief-stricken Gretchen shamed and tormented into dementia.3 As the young, reconstituted Faust, Gösta Ekman cuts a strange figure, being red of lips and rosy cheeked, and topped with a jaunty student cap that completes his devil-may-care Heidelbergian regalia like a cherry on an ice cream sundae. It’s an archaic, pictorial image of a young sensualist, barely a character at all, whereas, as the aged alchemist, under a pile of white hair and sporting the beard of a prophet, Ekman projects a highly evolved, then terrified, intelligence. For the director’s purposes, however, it’s a deliberate stylistic split, these two Fausts, and it pays off dramatically in the film’s penultimate scene.
Gretchen is not merely saved while rotting in prison, as in Goethe’s poem/drama, but needs burning at the stake like a true martyr. At this point Faust makes his final demand of Mephistopheles — to be reunited with his beloved. Entering the crowd lining Gretchen’s via dolorosa, he returns to the form of the old man philosopher, and, as the girl passes, Faust falls to his knees and begs forgiveness of his sins. Gretchen is now Christ, more or less, and we may assume that Faust has found his moment of redemption, but what’s most moving in the scene is that Gretchen doesn’t recognize her lover in this aged penitent and moves on to her pyre, unaware of Faust’s spiritual shift.
Bound at the stake, Gretchen hears Faust cry out her name and, startled out of semi-consciousness, seeks its source in the crowd. Better the film had ended here, with Gretchen’s last-minute confusion before swooning into death: we know she’s already redeemed by her martyrdom. If Faust, transformed back to his decrepit mortal coil, was able to fully feel Gretchen’s suffering and thereby love her, it’s a disappointment to see the old guy answer Gretchen’s yearning gaze by climbing up her burning pyre only to be changed once again to the young, destructive youth with the powder puff face. In the film’s worst optical effect, lover boy Faust unites with the soul of Gretchen, and the two of them shoot up to heaven like a memo sent to the front office by pneumatic tube.4
This qualm aside, Murnau’s Faust is an overwhelming emotional experience, forming, with Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, a trilogy of densely designed visual expressions using narratives that behave like legends (Nosferatu, Faust) or parables (The Last Laugh) and strike chords in the heart. The other three films in Kino’s set are something else again, with Tartuffe being a streamlined adaptation of Moliere’s play (featuring another stupendous Janning performance); The Finances of the Grand Duke a deft romantic comedy/thriller (a better example, says David Kalat in his commentary, of a typical Weimar night at the movies than the extravaganzas from Lang and Murnau); and The Haunted Castle, an eccentric whodunit set in a country estate, the sort of thing Altman would affectionately lampoon with his Gosford Park (2001).
All films: Germany/1921-1926/Silent/B&W and tinted/OAR 1:33. Released on DVD by Kino International in 2009.
Second Run’s release of these two documentaries — one of them shot on the cusp of 9/11 — come as President Obama attempts dialogue with the current Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But for thirty years, through crises and into wars, our blanket judgment of the Iranian people has been one of fearful contempt. They are the Other, a horde of evil intent, lumped under the billboard of Islamic extremism, and, ultimately of course charged with terrorism, with every Iranian son wanting the martyrdom that every Iranian mom has prepared for him.
Kim Longinotto means her films (co-directed by Mir-Hosseini) to be a corrective to this mindset. Focusing on the plight of women in Iran, the British filmmaker zooms in on two junctures where Islamic law meets the everyday lives of its citizens. In Divorce Iranian Style, a clerical magistrate, Judge Deldar, presides over a family court in central Tehran, where Deldar attempts, within the strictures of law, to settle marital disputes, and then, failing that and if he sees fit, grant divorces.
The court is nothing more than a barren office where the female plaintiffs argue their cases standing in front of Deldar, who struggles mightily to keep families together. Longinotto weaves her film around several women who want to buck the legislative odds, which solidly favor the men and the retention of the family unit at whatever cost to the scant freedoms of the women.
No voiceovers or musical underscore guide the viewer through the proceedings, but Longinotto’s editing and use of intimate close-ups certainly do. As the director herself observes in a recent interview on the disc, the women in each case come off as much more self-aware and articulate than the men, who all seem befuddled and put upon at having to defend any of their actions, whether it be physical abuse or extra-marital sex.
But multiple wives are tolerated and so are child brides. A girl of 16 wanting a divorce and the return of the “marriage gift” wonders if her marriage at age 14 was legal, but an aged cleric tells her a girl may be married as early as 9, if “she has reached puberty.” Puberty at nine years old?
Other women are told to make themselves more attractive at home, or, that one’s husband’s not such a bad man: after all, he could be an addict. In the face of beatings and/or severe mental anguish, the judge’s advice feels like a parental, “eat your potatoes” attempt at couples therapy. Still, we’re witnessing real negotiation here, with Islamic women refusing to back down in the face of dire concern and gaining some purchase on empowerment.
In terms of personality and temperament, the women featured are a diverse bunch: some are shy or shrill in their demands; others exhibit a sense of humor and even a grasp of theatre in front of the camera. These are fully individuated human beings, not ciphers stripped of personality and dignity by religious extremism, and Longinotto’s films are not merely a shout of outrage at human rights abuses. For those who take them in, they provide a shock of recognition and empathy.
The girls and young women in Runaway not only have fewer rights than married women (i.e., none) but, as they attempt to sever ties with their families and find themselves living on the street, face actual physical danger. Once homeless, prostitution is a natural recourse for them, if they aren’t abducted first, then killed for their hearts and kidneys to satisfy a black market demand for organs. But there is peril at home, too: beatings and rape by fathers and brothers with little intervention offered by emotionally disabled mothers.
Longinotto allows us a glimpse of a shelter for runaway girls that functions as a tiny island of survival in a sea of male entitlement. The women who run the shelter are compassionate but pragmatic; when they intuit real abuse, they fight for the girl with what little legal backing they have. Sometimes the only answer is to hold the girl indefinitely in the shelter, perhaps even until she reaches adulthood. More often, promises are brokered with the men to halt the abuse, and the girl goes home. As in Divorce, the men appear confused and childlike. And single-minded: the first thing one father says on being reunited with his is daughter is, “Thank God she’s reached us intact.” In another case, the brother of a sheltered girl, who’s suffered beatings at his hand, sobs helplessly in the arms of his sister when it becomes unclear whether she’ll return home. “I need you,” he says. Indeed, he does — but for what?
UK/1997; 2001/76 min.; 85 min./Color/OAR: 1:33/PAL Released on DVD by Second Run in 2009.
Poil de Carotte (Julien Duvivier, 1925)
French director Julien Duvivier best known for his 1937 film with Jean Gabin, Pépé le Moko, had a decade-long career in silent films, out of which Facets, by importing Lobster Films’ restoration of Poil de Carotte, has given us a shining example.
As a study in childhood emotional trauma, Poil de Carotte is reminiscent of Jacques Feyder’s Visages d’Enfants (1923), in which a young boy’s grief over his dead mother pushes him further into isolation from his newly constituted family until, at the film’s climax, he attempts suicide. Feyder, in fact, was slated to direct Poil de Carotte, but the job went to Duvivier, who, discarding Feyder’s scenario, wrote his own treatment of Jean Renard’s 1894 autobiographical novel.
Duvivier’s “Carrot Top,” played with uncommon grace by a 12-year-old André Huezé, is an intensely freckled young boy who’s orphaned in the midst of his own family by a vengeful, Dickensian monster of a mother, a diffident father, and a pair of mean-spirited siblings. Filmed high in the Alps (as was Feyder’s film), red-haired François is a bundle of life-affirming energy who gambols joyfully in the sunshine while his mustachioed mother schemes of ways to trap him in behavior he can then be punished for.
As Madame Lepic, Charlotte Barbier-Krauss, looking here like a douanier in drag, is so grotesquely spiteful toward her youngest child that the first portion of the film seems to play child abuse for laughs. While his wife rules the household with an iron fist and egregiously favors her eldest son (who turns out to be a philanderer and a thief), Monsieur Lepic (a superb Henry Krauss) takes naps in his darkened study or goes out hunting; in a final attempt to distance himself from his dysfunctional bourgeois family, he runs for mayor of his provincial village.
Meanwhile, the Lepics take on a maid, Annette (Suzanne Talba), a simple peasant girl who quickly catches on to the malicious stream of entrapment enacted on poor François. A key episode occurs when Carrot Top, waking in the middle of the night with intestinal distress, finds himself without a chamber pot. Evidently locked in his tiny garret room each night, his only recourse in extremis is to defecate in the fireplace, after which, relieved, he falls back to sleep. Mother Lepic, entering the room the next morning to wake her son, smells the mess and then notices the reason: no chamber pot. With stealth, and in order to punish François for regressive mischief, she places an empty pot under the bed and startles the boy awake. As he gets brutalized once again, François hasn’t a clue as to what’s happened, but the maid does and seeks to educate the father.
Huezé’s performance is so moving because it shows a battered kid taking it all in stride until he learns what he’s been missing. When Annette wonders out loud why his family doesn’t seem to like him, Carrot Top just grins broadly with the answer: “My mother says it’s because I’m so ugly.” From Annette, Françoise realizes what nurturing mother-love might be like, but the first time the girl attempts to hold him in an embrace, he reacts as if she’s about to hit him, then runs away laughing like an emotionally damaged Puck. A subplot has the elder brother, Felix, in dalliance with a gold-digging cabaret singer, push a triangle of events to a crisis, in the midst of which, Carrot Top, like the young hero of Visages d’Enfants, entertains thoughts of suicide.
In a filmed introduction, Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg explains that their print of Poil de Carotte is mostly gleaned from a camera negative, and it shows in the DVD’s range of detail and wonderful gray scale. Like his confrères, Able Gance and Marcel L’Herbier, Duvivier is full of beans as a filmmaker, utilizing lots of superimposition and a few split screens, but what’s most notable in this transfer is how gorgeously the film was photographed.
My only caveat here is the accompanying music track, composed by Gabriel Thibaudeau and played by a small ensemble, l’Octuor de France. The music, some of it swathed in dissonance, is cleverly constructed, well played, and nicely recorded, but Mr. Thibaudeau seems to want the film to accompany his music rather than the other way around. Music for silent film is a delicate matter, and this score comes on like gangbusters, threatening to topple the mood of more than one scene. Duvivier’s visuals can take it, though, and I can’t recommend this disc highly enough.
France/1925/B&W/Fullscreen/108 mins./Silent with optional English, French, or Dutch intertitles. All-Zone NTSC. Released on DVD by Facets in 2009.
Celia (Ann Turner, 1988)
In Ann Turner’s debut feature, we encounter another isolated child. This time the terrain is 1957 suburban Australia, where the adults are frantic with real and imagined threats, such as a rampant wild rabbit infestation, conspiring communists, and marital infidelity. Turner’s POV is from that of 9-year-old Celia Carmichael (Rebecca Smart), a lonely girl whose intelligence and perception are portrayed here with unusual psychological realism. As neither a magic child, nor a precocious, emotionally mature one — both fantastical constructs of fiction and film — Celia’s intuitive smarts are limited and filtered by extreme youth. Turner makes it clear that however hyper-aware the girl is of the adult world surrounding her, she can only half-grasp its scary array of intention and effect.
The film opens with blond, blue-eyed Celia discovering the dead body of her beloved grandmother, who happens to have been a feminist/socialist intellectual back in the good old days. But her son — Celia’s father — is a nut that’s fallen far from the tree, having been posted in the Korean War, and thereby, as he climbs the rungs of the middle class, harboring a defensive, paranoid hatred of communism. After his mother’s death, her bedroom — its shelves bulging with leftist literature and icons of a lively, cultured mind — is declared forbidden territory to Celia.
Meanwhile, new neighbors arrive. The Tanner family, a comparatively motley crew, includes a pretty, young mom, Alice (Victoria Longley), who has no trouble connecting emotionally with kids, her own, or others’. She’s especially sensitive to Celia’s isolation, a sensitivity clearly meant to resonate, for Celia and the audience, with that of the dead leftie grandmother. Turns out, the Tanners are communists, always arguing politics and preparing leaflets, and Celia is happy to be initiated into their presence by the loving Alice.
Celia’s parents enter it more awkwardly, with Ray Carmichael flirting earnestly with Alice and Pat Carmichael picking up the scent of their incipient affair. When Ray discovers the Tanners’ political affiliation, the relationship between the two families grows stone cold, with Ray actually being instrumental in getting Steve Tanner fired from his job merely because of his membership in the communist party. Ray then summarily bans the bewildered Celia from any further contact with the Tanners. As a bargaining chip, he offers to buy Celia a long-desired pet rabbit, but only if she stays clear of the Tanners. She rejects the deal but gets the rabbit anyway.
Observing the adults acting on their anxieties in seemingly haphazard or evil fashion, Celia, with bunny in tow, seeks solace in totemic objects and, to counterbalance the incomprehensible deceits and hurts emanating from the adults, reenacts or avenges them in ritualistic games with her playmates. Events come to a head when, in a misguided tactic to avert “the deadly rabbit march,” the government bans all pet rabbits, leading to a jolting act of violence that twists the tale toward an unexpected conclusion.
Celia can remind the viewer of Lord of the Flies (1963), but other films come to mind, too, like René Clément’s Forbidden Games (1952), The Company of Wolves (1984), Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), and even To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). But Celia has a style and emotional depth all its own. Paramount to its unique qualities is Smart’s performance in the title role. Actually 12 years old at the time, Smart effectively underplays the girl’s mercurial feelings: dismay, confusion, anger — and perhaps what’s most moving — a sudden surge of love for her father after the two of them have been on tenterhooks for most of the film. But as a brooding child capable of unsavory, even criminal, acts, Celia is a disturbing reminder of the two-pronged nature of prepubescent “innocence.”
The actors playing the adults are across the board excellent, but Victoria Longley stands out, as indeed she’s meant to. Tall and regally beautiful, Longley makes Alice a beacon of inner strength who nevertheless is fed up with the petty ugliness she must face every time her family relocates. While disgust at the fear-based machinations of the Carmichaels gathers at the corners of her eyes, Alice recognizes the glow of something special in Celia, but is abruptly cut off from her attempt to nurture it. Turner, in a brief, newly filmed interview on the disc, states that her intention was to show children “corrupted into adulthood,” and Celia’s last staged ritual with her young friends is a chilling rendition of that metamorphosis.
Celia remains a provocative yet soulful film, and it’s received a very film-like transfer to disc. In a lengthening line of trenchant, gutsy releases, this is one of Second Run’s very best.
Australia/1988/99 minutes/Color/OAR 16:9/1.78:1/PAL format. Released on DVD by Second Run in 2009.
- In spite of critical huzzahs and an Academy Award for Sunrise, its failure at the box office meant slashed budgets for his next two films, The Four Devils (1928) and The City Girl (1930), and both films would be taken from him to be recut for final release and, ultimately, have some of their scenes reshot, without Murnau’s participation, in preparation for partial sound versions. [↩]
- It’s a safe bet that this image inspired the giant winged demon in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Disney’s Fantasia (1940). [↩]
- Reportedly Murnau wanted Lillian Gish for the part of Gretchen, but the actress declined, suddenly behaving like a post-Von Sternberg Marlene Dietrich when she was told the production wouldn’t use “her” cameraman. [↩]
- Cocteau, in his Beauty and the Beast, managed a much better aerial transfiguration for his lovers, but that’s a different fairy tale. [↩]