LE CERCLE ROUGE
(Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970).
Corey (Alain Delon), a thief just released from prison, encounters
an escaped killer named Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonté) by chance,
and they team up with an alcoholic ex-cop (Yves Montand) to pull off
a major jewel heist.
Melville was obsessed with the image of the cool, almost emotionless
criminal—a character type that he returned to repeatedly. In this
film the idea is taken almost to the point of parody, with an abundance
of long and medium shots and a focus on the wordless coordination of
the thieves. The heist sequence is a deliberately abstract version of
the robbery in Jules Dassin’s Rififi
(1955), a movie Melville regretted not being able to do himself. But
despite the stellar cast, and the fine color photography by Henri Decaë,
the picture seems somewhat negligible compared to Melville’s earlier
efforts in the crime genre, such as Le Doulos or Le
The viewer’s interest inevitably shifts to the police inspector
chasing the crooks, played with verve by the comic actor André
Bourvil. He provides what there is of a philosophical theme—the
notion that there is no such thing as an innocent man. This isn't as
weighty as it sounds, since the trio at the film’s center is so
indistinct in motive and character. Still, it’s a Melville film,
and as such displays something of that director’s bracing style.
LE PLAISIR (Max Ophüls, 1952).
After the huge popular success of La Ronde, Ophüls’
adaptation of the famous Arthur Schnitzler play, he turned to his screenwriter
Jacques Natanson for another literary effort, this time based on three
stories by Guy De Maupassant. As the title indicates, they all deal
with pleasure, from the worldly, paradoxical viewpoint of that great
author. In point of fact, the film is really one long story sandwiched
by two brief ones.
“Le Masque” which opens the film, tells of an old man who
goes out dancing every night wearing a mask that portrays a younger
face. A doctor brings the man home one night after he collapses during
the dance, and we see how, behind the scenes, the old man’s long-suffering
wife (Gaby Morlay) accepts her husband’s strange habit as part
of her fate. The camera practically whirls with the dancers in the nightclub
scene, contrasting with the death-in-life stasis at home.
We then move to the justly famous “Le Maison Tellier,” about
a brothel that provides the sole escape for bored provincial husbands
in a French town. In a stroke of genius, Ophüls never takes us
directly into the brothel, but peers through the windows with slow vertical
tracking shots, by which we catch glimpses of the talk and merriment
within. Then, on the occasion of her niece’s first communion,
the brothel’s madam (Madeleine Renaud) closes her house down for
a weekend so that her employees can accompany her to her niece’s
country town. Here a simple carpenter, played by Jean Gabin in his only
Ophüls film, feels drawn to Rosa (Danielle Darrieux), one of the
prostitutes. The excitement of preparation, and the beauty of the church
ceremony itself, brings up wistful emotions in the women, who mourn
their lost innocence and then return, apparently none the worse, to
the world they know. In the church scene, Ophüls creates a beautiful
mix of humor and tenderness, and also displays some of his virtuoso
camera movement, as we follow a shaft of light up to the church steeple
and back down again.
In the final tale, “Le Modele,” Simone Simon plays a young
woman who falls in love with the artist (Daniel Gélin) for whom
she models. He tires of her clinging ways, and plans to marry a wealthy
woman, which drives the poor model to despair. In the end, suffering
unites the two more effectively than love ever could.
The two short segments highlight the melancholy aspects of pleasure.
In the first case, a man prefers illusion to reality; in the last, regret
puts the seal on passion. In both cases, the unfortunate situations
of women produce a muted rebellion. The long middle section represents
a greater acceptance of life, despite unfulfilled possibilities, and
the undertone of sadness is counterbalanced by a gentle humor and tolerance
for human foibles. In this, Ophüls and Natanson considerably softened
the original Maupassant story. The Darrieux and Gabin characters are
not objects of pity—we feel for them even as we smile.
In Le Plaisir, as well as in other great films of his late
period, Ophüls seems to have created something new in narrative
technique. The editing isn’t used as a means to advance the plot.
Events unfold in longer takes that convey more of a feeling of natural
time. This new kind of rhythm seems more expansive and yet somewhat
hesitant, as if we weren’t exactly sure what will happen next,
as in real life. For those used to a classic style, this can take some
getting used to. One must settle in and adopt the attitude of the compassionate
THE FAR COUNTRY
(Anthony Mann, 1954).
James Stewart plays a cattleman named Jeff Webster, who travels to
the Klondike with his pal Ben (Walter Brennan) to seek a fortune in
gold. There he is confronted by a cheerfully dishonest judge (John McIntire)
who tries to steal his cattle and cheat all the miners out of their
The trek to Alaska has a nice expansive feel to it. Mann has a strong
sense of the passage of time, and the location shooting in the Canadian
Rockies (the great William Daniels was the d.p.) is gorgeous. Once we
arrive in the mining town, with its drab studio sets, the film becomes
more pedestrian. The plot is engaging enough to carry us through, but
the powerful element here is Stewart, playing a selfish, if laconically
charming, character. Jeff is basically out for himself; he’s not
interested at all in helping other people. At one point, after some
companions ignore warnings of a possible avalanche, he lets them go
with a shrug of indifference. Stewart really makes this an element of
a believable human being, rather than just a plot device. The tough,
going-it-alone aspect of the character is part of what makes him likable.
It’s a fascinating performance—Stewart stretching his star
persona to portray a difficult, conflicted man—and it sustains
the interest of the film, which otherwise is somewhat weak in parts.
There are two love interests. Ruth Roman plays a saloon owner who gets
along with Jeff but compromises herself by also allying with the crooked
judge. Corinne Calvet plays a spunky French Canadian girl who is in
love with Jeff—her childish mannerisms are annoying. The film
ends with a shootout that I found to be a disappointment. Nevertheless
this is an entertaining western with a lot of nice touches and compelling
work from James Stewart.
HIGH AND LOW
(Akira Kurosawa, 1963).
Gondo (Toshirô Mifune), an executive for a major shoe company,
has mortgaged all he owns in a bid to wrest control of the business
from his incompetent bosses. But on the eve of his impending triumph,
an unknown criminal, intending to snatch Gondo’s son, kidnaps
his chauffeur’s son instead. Gondo faces financial ruin if he
pays the ransom, or devastating shame if he allows his servant’s
child to be killed.
The script is based on a crime novel by Ed McBain, but Kurosawa’s
treatment is among the most experimental of his career. The film, shot
in widescreen black and white, begins inside Gondo’s spacious
American-style mansion on a hill overlooking the city of Yokohama. It
stays there for over an hour, with long takes and tracking shots moving
freely within the rooms, from the opening conversation between Gondo
and his co-shareholders, through the receiving of the phone calls from
the kidnapper, impassioned discussions with his wife and his trusted
secretary, and the arrival of the police followed by debates with them
about what to do. This entire first act seems almost like a filmed play,
and the viewer may wonder if we will ever break out of the confines
of Gondo’s house.
The film’s second act, however, concerns the search for the kidnapper,
when a huge police investigation, headed by Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya
Nakadai), methodically pursues its man. Not interested in the traditional
“whodunit” form, Kurosawa reveals the identity of the kidnapper
(Tsutomo Yamazaki), a drug-dealing medical student living in squalor
within sight of Gondo’s mansion, and this provides a clue to the
film’s underlying purpose and structure.
For the “high and low” of the title, which can also be translated
as “heaven and hell,” is the contrast between the wealthy
and privileged, epitomized by Gondo, and the urban underclass, struggling
every day just to survive. The first section in Gondo’s house
displays the relative isolation of the rich (and in a sense, their confinement),
while the theatrical style highlights the world of personal relationships
and dealings made possible by the characters’ social elevation.
In the “lower” world of the city, the realm of the kidnapper,
everything is fluid and uncertain, and the struggle for survival brings
out the more selfish and predatory aspects of the human character. The
police are the point of contact between the two worlds—at first
I marveled that such a huge team would be assembled to work on one case,
but it is soon evident that Gondo’s status as a person of consequence,
a public figure who has gained a certain amount of fame and sympathy
because of press coverage of the kidnapping, determines the level of
time and resources devoted to the manhunt.
The later sections include some fascinatingly lurid glimpses into the
underside of Japan’s urban economic boom, including a scene in
a seedy nightclub that almost seems like parody today. There’s
a wonderful moment in which the kidnapper unknowingly encounters Gondo
in the street and asks for a light. If you’re not paying attention,
you could miss it, which brings up another unusual feature of this movie.
Kurosawa doesn’t use fast editing to accentuate dramatic situations
here; everything is paced with an eye to naturalism, to an emphasis
on the space within which action occurs rather than the focus on time
which is more typically employed in crime or suspense pictures.
Kurosawa was a humanist through and through, so his depiction of class
is unsullied by hatred or caricature. Mifune’s character is gruff
and often self-centered, but he also follows principles and possesses
a good deal of integrity. In the long view, the kidnapper can be seen
as a victim of Japan’s caste system, and Kurosawa makes him a
fully-rounded character, but neither does he hesitate to show the man’s
impotent resentment and corruption, extending even to murder. With our
ingrained habits of choosing to identify with a hero, it is only natural
to root for Gondo and against the kidnapper, but in the film’s
brilliant final scene we are forced to confront a greater reality.
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
(Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1946).
David Niven plays Peter Carter, an English bomber pilot who wires
a distress call to headquarters and reaches a young American woman named
June (Kim Hunter). His parachute is torn to bits and his plane is going
down. Believing this to be his life’s last human contact, he says
a moving farewell to June before jumping out of the plane to what should
be certain death. But he wakes up alive on the ground, after which he
runs into June and they fall in love. Unfortunately it turns out that
heaven made a bureaucratic error, and that he should have died. The
heavenly administration sends an angel to bring Peter back, but he refuses,
while June tries to help Peter with what she believes are his hallucinations,
with the help of her friend, the brilliant doctor Frank Reeves (Roger
The story is a kind of Here Comes Mr. Jordan in reverse, but
with a less earnest, more tongue-in-cheek attitude to life after death.
Here the afterlife is in black-and-white, in serious contrast with the
beautiful Jack Cardiff color photography of the sequences on earth,
and appears to be a sort of parody of certain idealist notions about
a socialist utopia, with everything arranged like an efficient government
agency, the newly dead arriving in a receiving station where they give
their names to officials to be processed before they enter on their
afterlife proper. This is amusing as far as it goes, but eventually
the device wears thin, as I believe it’s bound to do in these
kinds of stories. I’m not a fan of this sub-genre, and not only
because I don’t believe in an afterlife. Even if I suspend my
disbelief, which I am more than willing to do, treatments of this theme
almost always trivialize the subject through various unexamined assumptions
that render the supposed drama of the situation absurd.
There are, however, rewards to be had from a Powell-Pressburger film.
The opening sequence, with Niven talking to Hunter on the wireless,
is superb. There is a general high-spirited energy to the acting, with
the underrated Livesey a standout in that regard. And for the most part,
the picture looks gorgeous. But the story takes a turn in its last third
or so that makes it fall flat. Without revealing too much, I will say
that there occurs in heaven a sort of trial to determine whether Peter
gets to stay on earth or not. Raymond Massey turns up as the prosecutor,
an American who was killed by the British in the Revolutionary War.
Since Peter wants to stay alive because of his love for an American
woman, the trial becomes a debate about the merits of England versus
the United States. This is very puzzling, unless one knows that the
film was produced on the request of the Ministry of Information, to
help repair declining Anglo-American relations. Well, perhaps the issue
was of some moment to audiences at the time. Judged on its own terms
as part of the dramatic structure, it stops the movie dead in its tracks.
In addition, I found all the high-flown talk about the power of love
overcoming death and so forth to clash with the film’s otherwise
witty and worldly wise tone. In fact the real problem may start earlier
in the film, when the script loses interest in the relationship between
Peter and June, spiraling off into a lot of cosmic theatrical machinery
that is never interesting enough to overcome one’s disbelief in
Nevertheless, this is not a bad film—not a film that you want
to walk out of before seeing the end, not a film that insults you. Powell
and Pressburger never made a film like that. It’s a serviceable,
polished, often entertaining piece of work. Many people adore it, in
fact, but I place it firmly in the lower tier of their accomplishments.
2010 Chris Dashiell