Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - January 2000
Sherlock Jr.
Sans Soleil
I Am a Fugitive from a
Chain Gang
Cavalcade
Tristana

Flicks - December 1999
Possessed (1931)
Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie
Wild Strawberries
The Cranes Are Flying

Flicks - November 1999
Crossfire
The Hunchback of
Notre Dame (1923)
By the Law
Le Petit Soldat
Shadows

 

THE TALES OF HOFFMANN
(Michael Powell, 1951)

Opera is perhaps the most difficult art form to convert to film. It is even more stationary than the drama - the real events take place in the ear, not the eye. "The Archers" - the production team of Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, gave it a try in this adaptation of the Offenbach operetta, based in turn on the uncanny short stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The approach was brilliant. The score was recorded first, and then everything - editing, camera placement and movement, even the camera speed - was precisely "composed" around the music, just the opposite of how a movie is usually made. The result is a technical tour de force in which the visual style has a conscious musical effect. There are three tales, each involving the poet Hoffmann's infatuation with a woman and ultimate defeat by an evil antagonist. In the first, the woman turns out to be a mechanical doll - played by the delightful Moira Shearer. In the second, she is a courtesan (Ludmilla Tcherina) and in the third, a Greek singer (Anne Ayers) who must choose between her life and her art. The tone is hyper-romantic, and there are two breathtaking ballet sequences. I wish I could say that I found the film a complete triumph, but after all I think there is something in the static nature of opera that makes Tales of Hoffmann fall short as cinema. The very artificiality of the colorful studio sets, the almost mechanical feeling of synchronization in the editing technique, makes the picture seem suffocating and over-rich. And it doesn't help that Robert Rounseville, the singer who plays Hoffmann, lacks charm. The Red Shoes remains Powell's most beautifully realized work, but I have to tip my hat to him for even attempting The Tales of Hoffmann. The art of movies advances far more through courageous follies than by timid successes.

STELLA MARIS (Marshall Neilan, 1918).

A Victorian melodrama in which Mary Pickford plays dual roles. The title character is a beautiful crippled girl, bedridden and totally protected from the harsher realities of life by her family. Then there is Unity Blake (the names are typical of this sort of fiction) - a scruffy, uneducated orphan who has been deprived and mistreated so long that her face has an almost permanent expression of fear and suffering. Stella is taken care of by a kind benefactor. Unknown to her, he is burdened with a vicious wife. The wife adopts Unity and abuses her. Unity falls in love with the husband. The husband loves Stella. Unity realizes she must sacrifice her hopes in order to save Stella and the man she loves. Well, you can see where this is going. Of course, allowances have to be made for the dramatic conventions in movies of that time. Nevertheless, it's remarkable what Pickford does with the material. When she plays Unity, it's hard to take your eyes off her - she is so utterly transformed into this cringing, tortured little soul. She always had a great deal of creative control in her films. Here you can see her once again stretching the possibilities and playing with her image, and the film manages to be dramatic and moving in spite of the old-fashioned material. This is part of a series of Mary Pickford films released by Milestone Video, with restored prints, new tinting, and completely new scores. The music for Stella Maris (by Philip Carli) is perfect for this movie, and underlines how important the right accompaniment is to the enjoyment of a silent film. A real labor of love, and a must for anyone curious about Pickford's work.

GOODFELLAS (Martin Scorsese, 1990).

A gangster (Ray Liotta) tells the story of his rise and fall, providing a glimpse of how life was in the New York mob. This is a movie of flamboyant style. Scorsese's mastery of the elements - the use of editing and close-up to establish wildly contrasting effects, the dynamic combination of image with pop soundtrack, and most of all, the ever-moving camera - seduces the viewer into his vision. What's more, the vision is not one of high drama or even of the crime thriller, but of a strangely horrifying comedy. It is tempting to see Goodfellas as a masterful riposte to The Godfather saga. Coppola painted a picture of evil that had tragic dimensions. It was a beautiful achievement, but in so doing the films lent a romantic stature to the Mafia which was out of keeping with reality. Goodfellas remedies this. There is nothing romantic about Jimmy Conway, the murderous oaf played by Robert De Niro. There is no tragic dimension to the vicious little sadist Tommy, played by Joe Pesci. They are punks. Mean, stupid greedy criminals. That's the comedy. And the horror is how successful and powerful they really are. Scorsese lets us see it, hear it, feel it, in all its sordid reality. He lures us, just like Henry (Liotta) was lured, with money, excitement, violence. And then he gives us the result, like a cold bucket of water. It's one of those works where a director is just in a "zone," and everything seems to click. Even the use of voice-over narration, which can sometimes sink a film, works to this movie's advantage. Liotta's dumb admiration for the wiseguy life gives the film the comic edge it wouldn't have if, say, De Niro or Pesci were narrating. (Fans of Casino take note.) Every time I see this film I'm afraid that this time I might be tired of it, but it keeps hooking me. I think Scorsese took the gangster film as far as it could go here, and therefore he has had to explore new territory and ideas in the 90s, and to my way of thinking, with great success.

ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS
(Louis Malle, 1957).

A young man (Maurice Ronet) conspires to murder his boss, with the help of his lover (Jeanne Moreau), the boss's wife. But the plan goes incredibly wrong. This was Malle's first feature, made when he was 27. If you think about the complicated plot too much, the improbabilities might dampen your fun. (The title refers to an accident which fouls the murderer's plan in a way that is so perfectly frustrating that it will make you laugh.) The fact is, Malle turns what could have been just another crime story into an interesting study in tension and atmosphere. It is moody, sometimes wryly amusing, and the photography by Henri Decae beautifully evokes the Paris of that time, as Moreau wanders the streets looking for her lover. All this and a Miles Davis score too. Not bad, not bad at all.

THE LEOPARD (Luchino Visconti, 1963).

A 19th century Italian prince (Burt Lancaster) presides over the transition from his old world to a modern one where his class will no longer rule. Alain Delon plays an idealist, a favorite of the prince, who fights for freedom under Garibaldi. The prince arranges for his marriage with the daughter of a rich merchant, and the Delon character begins an ironic transformation from rebel to a symbol of the new order. Visconti's direction is serene and objective. He presents the details of upper-class life in that era with great care and patience. His use of long-shot, his exquisite scenic compositions within the widescreen format, the color and sweep and subtle movement, all justify the film's reputation. At the end of the picture is a ball held at the prince's palace. The sequence is about forty minutes long, it ends the prince's story and ties up all the themes and characters, and it is a justly renowned masterpiece in itself. This is a very ambiguous film, implying a lot of hard, weary truths about class and war and politics, without getting on a soapbox but also without softening its story or trying to make the characters more sympathetic. In this respect it's one of the most adult pictures ever made. Some of it is uneven. The romantic angle with Claudia Cardinale has a tentative quality. But although Visconti only agreed to use a Hollywood star in the lead because it was a condition for American financing, I think Lancaster is very fine in the role. He portrays the prince with equanimity and a bearing that seems truly noble. Visconti's epic, based on the Lampedusa novel, achieved legendary status when its American release was butchered by Twentieth Century Fox, cutting important scenes and dubbing it badly. The video I saw was the original, uncut version - unfortunately the print was of inferior quality - the color muddy, the image not crisp, the sound not too great either. This video looks like it might even have been made from a TV broadcast. I had heard of the film for years and wanted to see it, so naturally I grabbed it when I saw it on the shelf. A note on the back says, "We're sorry this is not a very good print. But it's the best one available." OK, fine. So can someone please do an official video restoration of this classic? (Like maybe Scorsese.) In any case I think one should see this on a big screen to get a true idea of it. Even in this inferior form, though, I find much to admire. Visconti was one of the greatest directors, well-known enough by enthusiasts but, I think, generally underappreciated. He was a contradictory character - an aristocrat with Marxist leanings, a realist whose films were tinged with romanticism. The Leopard doesn't have the brash feel of most epics - it is brooding and thoughtful and full of quirks and ironies. It deserves a major revival.

Chris Dashiell