THE BLUE BIRD (Maurice Tourneur, 1918).
Maurice Maeterlinck's 1908 fairy play has been filmed at least six times.
This was the second (Gaumont produced one in 1910) and the first one
of feature length. Since the silent film had to do without the sprightly
effect of Maeterlinck's dialogue, the contrived nature of the symbolism
tends to come off as rather heavy-handed. In brief, the plot concerns
two poor children, a boy and a girl (Robin Macdougall and Tula Belle)
who are visited in their sleep by a fairy (Lillian Cook) on Christmas
night. She gives the boy a magic hat that allows him to see the souls
inhabiting all things. They all go on a journey to find the blue bird
of happiness, accompanied by a dog, a cat, and the spirits of Milk,
Light, Fire, Bread, and Sugar.
The whole thing is a rather complicated allegory about the human soul,
and without prior knowledge of the play the film is actually a bit hard
to follow. However, Tourneur had a knack for depicting fantasy (as in
the Pickford vehicle Poor Little Rich Girl the previous year).
Here he uses actors in costumes to portray the animals and spirits,
some creative set design, and various visual effects, including backwards-motion,
to create a feeling of magic.
It seems to me that the movies have come closest to the fantasy worlds
of children when they employed the simplest and most naive methods.
The costumes and scenery in The Blue Bird have more charm,
and evoke more of a feeling of wonder, than any computer graphics could
do, precisely because they strike a balance between stage illusion and
our awareness of it.
The child actors are fine most of the time, although the story requires
them to be astonished so often that it becomes tiresome. The negative
has deteriorated here and there--thankfully the Eastman House has preserved
most of this little gem, and Kino has given it to us on DVD. When all
is said and done, it doesn't really capture the Maeterlinck play, but
in itself it represents a
certain kind of moviemaking that we'll never see again--a relic from
cinema's age of innocence.
RAW DEAL (Anthony Mann, 1948).
Dennis O'Keefe plays a career criminal named Joe Sullivan, in prison
after taking the rap for his boss, Rick (Raymond Burr), who then helps
Joe's girlfriend (Claire Trevor) break him out of jail. But it's a set-up:
Rick wants Joe killed while escaping, so he won't have to pay him the
fifty thousand he owes him. Joe avoids the trap, but he decides to go
to his case worker (Marsha Hunt), with whom he's secretly in love, for
help in getting out of the country. When she insists he turn himself
in, Joe and Pat kidnap her, and the three of them go on the run from
Rick and the police.
The film's fatalistic mood more than compensates for the implausible
story. Working at a Poverty Row studio called Reliance, Mann was cutting
his teeth on crime dramas, and his work here is taut and compelling.
The high contrast black and white photography (John Alton) couldn't
be better, with a lot of low angle shots, and some beautiful scenes
of fog, along with other signature "film noir" techniques.
O'Keefe was not a handsome leading-man type, and this actually works
in the film's favor--he's a taciturn antihero haunted by his own bad
luck, and it seems wholly credible that he would fall for the unattainable
"good" girl instead of sticking with his loyal moll, played
with self-lacerating intensity by the great Trevor. Burr is oily and
repellent as the sadistic villain, and John Ireland is also on hand
as a sneering wise guy hit man. Throw in an exciting climax with a shoot-out
in the middle of a fire, and you have a thoroughly enjoyable crime picture--one
of the best from the fertile postwar period.
EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Georges Franju, 1960).
A prominent surgeon (Pierre Brasseur), haunted with guilt over the car
accident that disfigured his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), has his
lover and assistant (Alida Valli) lure unsuspecting women to his mansion,
where he removes their faces and attempts to graft them onto his daughter.
This horror film has a special style and tone that sets it apart. Franju
is not very interested in fright effects or sudden shock. Rather, the
mood is creepy, unsettling in a way that gets under your skin. Brasseur's
doctor is determined and officious, not so much menacing as someone
who is just doing what he feels he has to. The scenes with Scob, who
wears a mask sculpted into an ethereal, haunted expression, convey the
sense of a completely isolated, hermetic form of personal madness. Whenever
Valli's character goes out in search of a new victim, we hear a jaunty
little music-hall theme (Maurice Jarre wrote the score) that is more
sinister than any of the usual dramatic horror music might be. And the
great veteran DP and visual effects man Eugen Schüfftan performs
wonders with the nighttime scenes.
The movie has some stretches that border on tedium. Franju's treatment
is at times so drily clinical that he creates a distancing effect, which
works against the thrust of the film. The scenes with the police seem
a bit "off" (and surely their use of a girl shoplifter as
bait is absurdly risky and inept). But when the picture is working,
it's unforgettable, a vision of evil as a kind of self-centered indifference
to suffering, as opposed to conscious malevolence. The unexpectedly
poignant, poetic ending is a visual stunner.
CRANE WORLD (Pablo Trapero, 1999).
Rulo (Luis Margani), a middle-aged Buenos Aires construction worker,
lives in a tiny apartment and often falls asleep in front of the TV.
Although he's overweight and a heavy smoker, he's a generally cheerful
and resourceful guy, and even takes the risk of asking a local sandwich-shop
owner (Adriana Aizemberg) on a date. He also helps support his mother
and his twenty-something son, who parties a lot, sleeps late, and doesn't
have a clue what we wants to do with his life. Rulo looks forward to
his training on the huge crane at his construction site, but when he
fails a health test, he ends up having to seek employment a thousand
miles south, in Patagonia.
Trapero's slice-of-life approach pays careful attention to the little
details of working class life. The day-by-day struggles, with occasional
breaks of humble recreation, are the story here. The film's naturalism
admits of no dramatic crescendos. For instance, when Rulo, who saw brief
fame in his youth as a musician in a band with a hit single, finally
lets his son borrow his precious bass guitar for a gig with dire warnings
not to lose it, you can bet that nothing will come of it.
Crane World is remarkable for its focus on work as a central
part of people's lives. It is also, I must say, refreshing to see an
unglamorous, ordinary central character--a pot-bellied chain-smoker
in a hard hat (and Margani's performance is utterly convincing). The
writer-director's gentle respect for his subject is expressed in a style
of open-ended observation. We do understand, eventually, without an
explanatory word, that Argentina has become a place of vanishing opportunity.
The film is shot in black-and-white with mostly non-professional actors,
on authentic locations, and it conveys a sense both of hard-working
determination and diminished hopes.
TUMBLEWEEDS (King Baggot, 1925).
When the Cherokee Strip is opened to settlement by the government, cattle
ranchers like Don Carver (William S. Hart) are faced with the end of
their way of life. As people stream in to prepare for the Oklahoma land
rush, Carver meets and falls in love with a beautiful homesteader (Barbara
Bedford), but her brother is a "sooner," someone who plans
to sneak in to grab land prior to the rush, and he's teamed up with
a villain who has his eye on the girl and plans to frame Don in order
to get him out of the way before the gun sounds for the rush.
The pleasure of the western, for most of its history, lay in the reiteration
of familiar stories and themes, or at most in the trying out of variations
within the tried-and-true. Tumbleweeds follows a classic pattern:
the noble hero, tough as nails but shy with women, aiding the defenseless
and standing up for decency. He has a goofy sidekick, here played by
Lucien Littlefield, who is practically a blueprint for Walter Brennan,
Gabby Hayes, and every other sidekick that would follow. The comedy
is broad (and not that funny) but at least not painful. There's riding,
drinking, fighting, and outlaws. The only thing missing are Indians,
although there's a brief scene where Don is helped out by a couple of
chieftans (he's their best friend, of course).
Hart was the greatest of the early screen cowboys, dedicated to an accurate
depiction of the West, and a performer of staid dignity, in contrast
to the antics of other cowboy stars such as his chief rival Tom Mix.
This was his last movie--his popularity was declining, and he decided
to go out on top. The veteran Baggot (who'd been in the movie business
on both sides of the camera since the days of the Trust) moves the story
along briskly. The land rush sequence, with hundreds of horses, wagons
and riders tearing across the plain and Hart racing past them on his
horse, is a splendid feat. The romance is less credible--the 60-year
old Hart needed plenty of help with make-up and lighting to seem like
a fit match for the gorgeous Bedford, four decades his junior (some
things in Hollywood never change). But it's an excellent western overall,
and it's rightly considered one of Hart's best films.
©2006 Chris Dashiell