Flicks - Sept 1999
Claire's Knee
Don Juan (1926)
Six of a Kind
Maedchen in Uniform
Padre Padrone

Flicks
by Chris Dashiell



CROSSFIRE
(Edward Dmytryk, 1947).

This taut little murder mystery, shot on a tiny budget in twenty days, was the first Hollywood movie to broach the subject of antisemitism, and it was a surprising box-office smash. Watching it now, it seems too talky, and the already meager plot is stretched rather thin. But it has Robert Mitchum, an excellent scary performance by Robert Ryan, and an inventive use of darkness and shadow that has come to be identified with "film noir." The detective who sorts things out is played by Robert Young, and he has a toughness and virile charm here that is light-years away from his later TV image. All in all, a good illustration of "less is more," - one of the movies produced by Dore Schary at RKO that would bring a grittier style to postwar film. The antisemitic angle is approached subtly, up until the point where Young is required to make a big speech about prejudice which seems embarrassingly overdone nowadays. In fairness, the subject was so hush-hush in those days that they really had to spell things out for audiences. The film was adapted from a book in which the victim was not Jewish, but homosexual - well, there were some subjects Hollywood just couldn't touch. The success of Crossfire is ironic in the context of the anti-communist witch hunts going on at the time, with their strong antisemitic element, causing Dmytryk to be fired from RKO for refusing to answer questions about his politics shortly after the picture received five Oscar nominations.


THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
(Wallace Worsley, 1923).

The silent version of the Victor Hugo classic features a great performance by Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, an amazing backlot reproduction of the Notre Dame cathedral, lavish crowd scenes and spectacle galore. It also has melodramatic overacting by the other principals, and a banality of plot, character and pacing that is difficult to put up with nowadays, even making allowances for the less developed cinematic techniques of that era. The major portion of blame would have to go to the hack Worsley, who displays no visual flair whatsoever. It was a big hit at the time - the real auteur being Irving Thalberg, who went over-budget to create the biggest Universal production of the silent days. Chaney is fun to watch, but for real drama and pathos stick to the later RKO version with Charles Laughton. (However, when all is said and done I must temper my negative opinion until the day I see this film on a big screen as was intended, and in a better print.)

BY THE LAW
(Lev Kuleshov, 1926).

Kuleshov was one of the pioneers of Soviet cinema. Here he adapts a Jack London story about a group of gold prospectors in the Yukon. One of them explodes with rage and kills two others - an expertly done sequence which is truly shocking. The murderer is tied up by the remaining two prospectors, a man and a woman, who - instead of just killing him then and there - decide they must hold him so that he can be tried "by the law." For the rest of the film these three people are trapped with each other in a tiny cabin while the elements rage around them, preventing them from escaping to the outside world. They go stir crazy, of course - and I confess that watching it I went a little stir crazy myself. The whole thing goes on too long, and the bizarre facial expressions of the actress (Alexandra Khokhlova, Kuleshov's wife) were almost enough to make me want to kill someone. Despite that, the director pulls off some amazing visual effects, especially with the use of silhouettes at the end. The beautifully restored print is on a Kino video with a comedy short called CHESS FEVER (1925) directed by Vsevelod Pudovkin and Nilkolal Shiplkovsky. The words "laugh riot" don't normally come to mind when one thinks of Soviet film, but this unknown gem is a delight from start to finish. A woman breaks up with her lover because he cares more about chess than about her - but wherever she goes to escape her grief, she encounters the universal Russian mania for the game of chess. Each gag tops the one before it, and the film's breakneck pace shows the influence of Kuleshov. Featuring J.R. Capablanca in a bit role. (If you don't know who that was, you're probably not a chess player.)

LE PETIT SOLDAT
(Jean-Luc Godard, 1960).

A right-wing hit man (Michel Subor) who is assigned to kill a leader of the Algerian underground, becomes entangled with a left-wing activist (Anna Karina). To describe the film in this way makes it sound as if Godard is serious about plot, but this story is really a kind of reduction of the Algerian War, which was tearing France apart at the time, into the terms of a pulp espionage novel. Godard's second feature (after Breathless) has a brooding, ominous tone and a deft use of the clipped, abrupt editing style which was to be so influential in his challenge to conventional film technique. Watching it, I was struck by how all the things I admire in Godard are already there, as well as the things that bother me about him. The indirect and improvisatory feel of the dialogue, the sense of immediacy and urgency, the lack of traditional emotional cues - all this is compelling. There is a torture scene which is done in such a matter-of-fact style that it frightened me much more than a traditional dramatic treatment would have. On the other hand, Godard has such a careless attitude about the fictional dream that he indulges in pedantic pseudo-profound speeches and plot intricacies that are purposely ridiculous, more like childish pranks than narrative elements. This has always been intentional with him, but I find it a flaw when an artist draws more attention to his own intellectual stance than to the subject or content of said stance, and so far the only films of his I've seen that I think are completely free of this flaw are Breathless and My Life to Live, both of which merge style and content in just proportion while also communicating Godard's points of view, politically and artistically. Otherwise I find his parodistic techniques very hit-or-miss, and with a Godard film one has to take the elements of genuine insight along with much that is boring and self-indulgent. Le Petit Soldat at least has the playful quality of early Godard, and its political attitude was so incendiary at the time that the French government banned it from theaters. It was not shown until 1963, after the war was over.

SHADOWS (John Cassavetes, 1959).

A completely new kind of American film - financed and produced independently of Hollywood, shot on location with dialogue improvised by the actors, portraying characters from a social strata that had never been represented on screen before. A breakthrough in every way, it still has a power and poignance that transcends its extremely low budget and occasional amateurish feel. The story concerns a black singer fallen on hard times (Hugh Herd) who takes care of his tempestuous younger sister (Lelia Goldoni) and troublemaker younger brother (Ben Carruthers), both of whom pass for white. If one is used to conventional narrative structure, the casual, seemingly chaotic and off-hand action and dialogue comes as a shock. What Cassavetes and the actors did was create the illusion that these were actual events, occurring with all the arbitrary quality and texture of real time. The themes of family and clan, love and cruelty, the delusions and illusions of racism, thread through the film without becoming too overt. The grainy photography (blown up from 16mm) and the synchronized sound takes some getting used to. Some of the hipster, bohemian stuff has not aged well, and not all the actors are good. But slickness can too often be oppressive, putting a barrier between viewer and story - I like the rawness of Shadows because it is honest and is focused on the real feelings of human beings in the midst of everyday struggle, moment by moment.

Chris Dashiell




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