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
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
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