Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - November 2003
Down By Law
Safety Last!
Salesman (1969)
Jonah Who Will Be 25
in the Year 2000
The Cloud-Capped Star

Taking Sides
plus Elephant

Flicks - October 2003
A Taste of Hone
y
Through a Glass Darkly
Picture Snatcher
The Naked Spur (1953)
Equinox Flower

 

 

THE SEARCH (Fred Zinnemann, 1948).

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, a homeless Czech boy (Ivan Jandl) escapes from an Allied war orphans camp in Germany and is found wandering through the rubble by an American GI (Montgomery Clift).

This was Zinnemann's breakthrough picture, a heartfelt attempt to convey the devastation and suffering of postwar Europe. As is the case with similar films of the period, time has made the depiction of horror seem tame compared to the knowledge we have since gained concerning the Holocaust's full extent. The film is marred by a portentous narration in the beginning, far too much screen time for a kindly relief worker played by Aline MacMahon, and by an occasional sentimentality that, although more restrained than the average movie of the time, seems more out of place in relation to the grave subject matter. Nonetheless, the picture holds one's attention with its honesty and the modest simplicity of its approach.

This was also Montgomery Clift's screen debut, and the picture works largely due to his performance. He seems utterly natural and appealing, avoiding the blandness and cliche that was typical of Hollywood GI roles. His rapport with the boy is touching and believable. Jandl, who was picked out by the director from a school in Prague, is very much a genuine boy rather than a child actor facsimile. Despite its limitations, The Search succeeds for the most part in evoking the tragedy of children's lives blighted by war.

LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN
(Max Ophüls, 1948).

In Vienna, a dissipated pianist (Louis Jourdan) is about to flee the city to avoid fighting a duel the next morning. That night, he receives a letter from a woman named Lisa (Joan Fontaine) telling the story (in flashback) of how she loved him from afar, eventually had one night of romance with him, and then was abandoned and forgotten like all of his other conquests.

Adapted (and a good deal softened) by Howard Koch from a story by Stefan Zweig, this was Ophüls' best film from his decade-long stay in America. The lyrical camera movement which was his trademark is here used to emphasize Lisa's approach to life as romantic yearning and revery. On a limited budget (John Houseman produced for Universal) the film manages to create a lovely feeling for turn-of-the-century Vienna, with a production design that deftly mixes a sense of the "shabby genteel" with striking visual touches.

Fontaine is more expressive than usual - this is arguably her finest work. Jourdan is perfect as the charming but narcissistic object of her obsession. For all its trappings as a traditional melodrama of lost love, the film presents an interesting variation on romantic convention. Lisa, whom we are inclined to take as a victim, chooses her path from the beginning. Her self-deprecating way of staying in the background of life matches her approach to love as adoration from afar. This blinds her to the limitations of her beloved, and prevents her from pursuing happiness in a forthright way. The portrayal of the pianist is sensitive and bittersweet - this is not a heartless villain, but a man whose self-regard, and lack of attention to the higher possibilities in his nature, robs him of his chances for real happiness.

Inevitably there's something too confined about Letter From an Unknown Woman, as if its status as a "weepie" limits its emotional scope. Ophüls would go much further in his later work, but this is a beautiful little gem, rich with ironic undertones, and ending on a note of devastating clarity.

HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMAN
(Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1971).

In the midst of 16th century trade wars between the Portuguese and French in Brazil, a French mutineer (Arduíno Colassanti) escapes into the jungle, only to be captured by a tribe of Indians who think that he's one of their Portuguese enemies. He's scheduled to be killed and ceremonially eaten in eight months. In the meantime he's allowed to participate in tribal affairs, and is even given a wife, while he desperately tries to find a way to escape his fate.

Pereira dos Santos was part of the Cinema Novo movement that revitalized Brazilian film in the 60s and 70s. In this movie, by means of an actual incident from colonial records, he presents a sly, disturbing commentary on Brazil's legacy of racism, internecine struggle, and genocide. The cannibalistic tribe is a mirror, in elemental form, of the brutal realities of European invasion. They take the Frenchman for a Portuguese on circumstantial evidence, despite his protests, and stick to their opinion because all white men look alike to them. The chief becomes fixated on getting gunpowder so that he can use some captured cannonry on a rival tribe, but the Frenchman's services in this regard don't change the chief's basic contempt for him. In every conceivable way, Pereira dos Santos avoids a sentimental portrayal of the Indians. They are as human in their vices as in their virtues, and the gap between "alien" races seems unbridgable, a strategy that is powerfully highlighted by the director's realistic depiction of them (and their French captive) as, for the most part, completely naked.

Occasional intertitles quoting various Portuguese priests and officials on the savagery and demonic nature of the natives offset the action ironically. The director uses a handheld camera much of the time, giving the picture a loose, spontaneous feel. It's a strange, provocative work that deliberately upsets narrative expectations. The Brazilian government refused to allow its release for a year - because of its nudity, not its politics. When it was finally shown, it became a critical and popular success. This is one subversive flick that made it in under the radar.

THE BLOOD OF A POET (Jean Cocteau, 1930).

In his dreamlike debut film, Cocteau, already famous for his provocative, experimental work in the drama, ballet, and visual arts, explores his lifelong theme - the struggle of the artist to realize his calling.

We see a young man (his powdered wig indicates the 18th century) cover the mouth on a portrait he is painting when someone comes into the room. After the visitor leaves, the artist discovers, to his dismay, that the mouth of the portrait has transferred itself to his hand, and no amount of shaking or washing of the hand will get rid of it. The next day he manages to wipe the mouth onto a statue, which then says to him, "Do you think it's that simple to close the mouth of a wound?" The only way to get out of the room, at this point, is to jump through a mirror, after which he finds himself in a hallway where he peeks through the keyholes of doors to witness a series of enigmatic scenes.

A second episode concerns a group of schoolboys having a snowball fight, in which one of them is felled and lies bleeding from the mouth. The theme is cruelty. A third episode expands this idea into the social realm, with a rich couple playing cards on a table that is standing on the boy's body. They are indifferent to the suffering around them, and the spectacle is applauded by other aristocratic figures watching from a balcony. After a sequence in which a black angel comes to rescue the soul of the fallen boy, the woman card player wins, slaying her opponent, and turning into a kind of Muse figure. The film ends with a series of tableaux in which the Muse takes on an increasingly abstract and mystical character. The framing device for the picture is the collapse of a huge factory chimney. We are to understand that the entire process outlined in the film took place during the few moments in which this chimney falls to the ground.

Many critics and viewers, then and now, have considered the film surrealistic because of its lack of conventional narrative coherence and its strange imagery. But properly speaking, the film is symbolist, not surrealist. Every sequence has a meaning, and a place within the larger symbolic sequence of the film. It's clear that the theme of the mouth, for instance, has to do with a man's discovery of his own artistic impulses, and the resistance and conflict he feels about this discovery, which is experienced almost as an imposition by an unknown higher force. Although the imagery is meant to be experienced intuitively, with an eye towards the unconscious, Cocteau's position is more that of the classic artist shaping the primal material, as opposed to the more direct and deliberately irrational methods of the surrealists.

The picture is essentially silent, with music and occasional voice-over. Cocteau hadn't yet fully grasped the dynamic nature of the medium, so the film sometimes seems static, as in the snowball fight sequence and some of the later parts, which drag a bit. Still, it's a remarkable achievement -- one of the most successful attempts to employ modernist ideas and techniques in a film. Watching this movie, you can sense the untapped potential for a cinema of poetic symbolism. With the advent of sound, it seemed as if dramatic narrative was the only acceptable form for a film to take, and that situation has remained unchanged to this day, with the poetry film surviving only in the marginal realm of the avant-garde. Cocteau was one of the few who kept trying, with Orpheus being the triumphant culmination of the movement begun with this picture. The Blood of a Poet, in all its rawness and imperfection, remains fascinating. An artist could still learn a great deal about the creative process, and how to challenge himself to think differently, just by studying this one work.

DANGEROUS (Alfred E. Green, 1935).

Bette Davis plays a once-great actress named Joyce Heath who, after suffering a series of personal setbacks, hits the skids when she gets the reputation for being a jinx. A kindly architect (Franchot Tone) whose life was changed by one of her performances, sees her drunk in a tavern and decides to take her home to dry out. He's happily engaged to another woman, and foolishly thinks that he can help Joyce without becoming emotionally involved, but she has different ideas.

Laird Doyle's script is a cut above the usual melodrama, but it's Davis who turns the film into something special. She brings passion and intensity to the role, and pulls off the considerable feat of gradually changing our view of the character from that of a contemptible egotist into a complex and sympathetic person, without making the transition seem abrupt or mitigating her faults. This is basically a two-hander between her and Tone, who is his usual stolid and affable self, but the ups and downs of the relationship are interesting and believable enough to carry the viewer along.

Davis won her first Academy Award for this picture, and it was generally thought to be compensation for not getting nominated the previous year for Of Human Bondage. In fact, she shows a wider range here, albeit in a smaller film. It's a good example of why she was a different kind of movie star - her ability to be fierce, and to convincingly play characters who were conflicted, made her stand out, and even lent her a unique sort of glamour.


©2003 Chris Dashiell
CineScene