Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - June 2000
I Was Born, But...
The Old Dark House
The Outlaw and His Wife
Under the Roofs of Paris

Leila / The Terrorist

There's No Place Like Exile
The Cup
Beautiful People
Such a Long Journey
Wonder Boys

 


'

 

PRIX DE BEAUTÉ (Augusto Genina, 1930).

A young typist (Louise Brooks) decides, on a whim, to enter the "Miss Europe" beauty pageant. Much to the displeasure of her possessive boyfriend, she is selected as Miss France and goes off to the pageant in Spain, where men begin falling at her feet.

This was Brooks' last notable film, made in France after her break with Paramount. Begun as a silent, the dialogue was dubbed in later, which often gives the picture an awkward, stunted feeling. The story is mildly charming, somewhat absurd at times (the screenwriter was René Clair, but little of the wit from his films is evident), and the idea of a woman's sole worth lying in beauty and romance is a bit painful to contemplate. However, none of this criticism matters very much because Louise Brooks is such a luminous presence - her intense charisma blows everyone else off the screen. She expresses such vulnerability with her face and movements, combined with the sense of a real intelligent presence, that it seems a tragedy that her career in films was so brief.

It is interesting how Prix de Beauté takes the opposite approach to the heroine's dilemma than you would find in an American movie. In Hollywood the simple, working-class boyfriend would represent all that is good, in opposition to corrupt continental decadence. But this picture clearly takes the side of the girl's desire for a more glamorous life, and hurrah for that, I say.

There is one more curious thing about this movie. The story just limps along for most of its length, with director Genina showing a light-hearted, essentially undistinguished style. But then, in the final sequence, as if to make up for everything mediocre about the picture, he achieves a stunning, unforgettable climax, as near perfect a dramatic flourish, in terms of visual style, timing, and emotional effect, as anything ever done on film. A direct hit.


BABY FACE (Alfred E. Green, 1933).

Warner Brothers movies from the early 30s, before the Production Code clamped down, were often marvels of sexual frankness. Here we have Lilly (Barbara Stanwyck), a waitress in a crummy small town speakeasy, escaping to New York City after an accident kills her abusive father. As tough and jaded as they come, she literally sleeps her way to the top of a major business, using her good looks to seduce an ascending series of executives, culminating with a young company president played by George Brent. The crackling, perversely enjoyable script by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola (production chief Daryl Zanuck even helped with some of the dialogue) has Lilly topping each of her lies and schemes with a more outrageous one, and the picture is a total hoot without becoming really bad or campy. It's not even close to a masterpiece, but the young Stanwyck is so marvelous and full of energy that I was completely entertained from start to finish. The transparency of the film's moral point of view is quite evident - a movie like Baby Face allowed audiences to enjoy misbehavior while ostensibly punishing it. Nowadays, thankfully, we can just revel in the fun.

BEFORE THE RAIN (Milcho Manchevski, 1994).

This ambitious film, by a first-time writer/director, presents a vision of the modern world in which notions of safety and security are illusory, and the only hope lies in desperate, selfless acts. The story is divided into three parts, the first and third taking place in a Macedonia riven by hatred and violence between the Macedonian Christians and Albanian Muslims. The second part is set in London, seemingly (but deceptively) distant from the conflict. The person linking the sections together is Aleksander (Rade Serbedzija) a photojournalist who is sick of taking pictures of atrocities and decides to return to his village in Macedonia. His English lover (Katrin Cartlidge), despite her passion for him, can't relate to his experience until a tragedy brings it home to her and she finally knows that she must follow him.

The film is blessed with spectacular photography (Darius Khondji and Manuel Teran), a fine sense of place, and a mood of fatefulness and foreboding that held my interest. The movie's major weakness is its central character - an image of potent silence, vitality and conviction without much of the sense of a real human being to lend it credibility. Manchevski's tone of urgency is fitting, but his strangely circular narrative scheme (which seems merely tricky rather than insightful in any way) and his romanticism, interfere with the film's dramatic impact. Before the Rain is not the profound statement it pretends to be, but it's a stirring and often interesting first effort.

SHOW BOAT (James Whale, 1936).

It is difficult for us, after the Civil Rights movement, to recognize how daring the Jerome Kern - Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat really was. Here was a Broadway musical actually broaching the subject of race, and the so-called "mixing" of races - and coming out against bigotry. That the treatment is mild, relegated to a subplot of a more conventional love story, and contained by cultural contexts that seem patronizing today, does not diminish the fact that in the 1920s its very existence was an act of bravery.

Universal owned the rights to this valuable property, and assigned their second version (a part-talkie in 1929 had not been a success) to the studio's top director James Whale, whose previous work had been mainly with horror films. The result was a major hit - stylish, romantic, full of visual poetry, professional in every way. The high points feature Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan, reprising their stage roles. The great Robeson, one of the most imposing musical figures in our history, performs a moving rendition of "Ol' Man River" near the beginning of the picture, which is helped by some of Whale's fine imagery. He also has an amusing duet with Hattie McDaniel called "Ah Still Suits Me." Morgan shows why she was a Broadway star with "Can't Help Loving That Man" (with help from Robeson and McDaniel) and especially the show-stopper "Bill" which Whale wisely films without distracting cuts.

The low points involve the main story line, something to do with a romance between the show-boat captain's singing daughter (Irene Dunne) and a ne'er-do-well gambler (Allan Jones). Dunne clenches her teeth, doing her best to be charming, and she's not too bad, although the spectacle of seeing her do a blackface number is a horror I won't soon forget. Jones is just insipid, and that's putting it kindly. The real problem is that the subplot concerning the mixed-race past of Julie (Morgan) is so startling, that I wanted more of it. Yet it is quickly disposed of in favor of the creaky saga of the star-crossed lovers, which has dated badly. Still, taken as it is, Show Boat has its attractions - the beautiful music, stylish direction, and good performances by the supporting cast make this one of the better Hollywood adaptations from Broadway.

A WOMAN OF PARIS (Charles Chaplin, 1923).

At the height of his success (after making The Kid and The Pilgrim), the most famous entertainer in the world wanted to direct a different kind of picture. He left First National and helped form United Artists. The first film he made for the new company was this off-beat portrait of a Paris courtesan, part romantic tragedy, part comedy of manners. It is only one of two Chaplin films in which he does not star.

Marie (Edna Purviance), a simple, trusting girl from the country, is tyrannized by her father. She is about to elope with her sweetheart - whose family disapproves - when unbeknownst to her, his father dies suddenly and he is unable to join her at the train station. Thinking that she's been abandoned, she goes to Paris by herself. Cut to several years later - Marie has become a famous courtesan, "kept" by a wealthy and sophisticated bachelor played by Adolphe Menjou. When he arranges a marriage of convenience with an heiress, she feels her position threatened. At the same time her old lover, a struggling artist, appears on the scene.

The story is simple, and not very interesting, if truth be told. But what Chaplin did with it makes the film important. The acting is understated, much more than so than most American films of the period. The pacing flows naturally - Chaplin allows scenes to develop their inner logic without trying to force effects. He manipulates light and space in novel ways - the scene in the train station, for instance, uses light to suggest a passing train without showing the train, while at the same fully expressing the young woman's anguish, with no need for any melodramatic acting on her part, just a simple gaze offscreen. This was a new kind of artistry in American films, and disproves the old idea that Chaplin was not a "cinematic" director. Also new was the amusing, slightly jaded air of continental gaiety. Menjou's performance is a model of wit in this regard. The story turns soggy towards the end, and Purviance (at the end of her relationship with Chaplin) seems too old for the part, but it's one of the more inventive experiments from the early 20s. Most critics praised it. Its style also made an impression on other directors - Lubitsch cited it as a major influence - but it failed with the public. It seems they wouldn't accept a Chaplin film without The Tramp. He withdrew it from circulation for fifty years, after which he finally released it again, to critical acclaim.

AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD
(Werner Herzog, 1972).

An expedition of Spanish conquistadors, exploring the Amazon jungles in search of the golden city of El Dorado, is overthrown in a mutiny by the power-hungry Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), who drives the soldiers ever deeper into the jungle on his mad quest to establish a private kingdom.

Herzog, one of the boldest experimenters in modern film, here subverts the adventure genre in the service of his metaphysical and political obsessions. For him, the Spanish Conquest, so blithely related in our history books, is a symbol of insane self-destruction. The subjugation of the Indians, the maintenance of the trappings of European royalty in the midst of the most threatening wilderness, Aguirre's gradual equation of his own will with the wrath of the Divine will - all these combine to create a mood of strangeness, terror, and helplessness in the face of evil. In contrast to the more conventional idea of civilization freeing us from "the jungle," Herzog's savage parable portrays the quest of such civilization as cruelty and madness, and the jungle as an impersonal and immortal force that will swallow all who pretend to conquer it.

Filmed in Peru, the picture has astonishing photography (Thomas Mauch) and a compelling performance by Kinski, whose hunched, brooding presence emanates a sense of delusional power over his surroundings. Herzog does not make it easy for the audience - his visual perspectives are unfailingly confrontational and disturbing, his point of view eerily detached, like an over-aware observer who is powerless to intervene in disaster. The shoot was so difficult that Kinski is said to have threatened to leave, only staying after a physical altercation with the director.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is one of Werner Herzog's most brilliant achievements. Although it lacks the intriguing spiritual dimensions of some of his later films (the sense of confinement within the hell of the ego is almost stifling), it manages to overwhelm the viewer with a vision of the utter futility of the power principle in human affairs.

 

Chris Dashiell