Friday, July 30, 2010


Along with James Stewart and Anthony Mann, director Henry King and star Gregory Peck set the darker, more mature tone for 1950s westerns with The Gunfighter (1950). According to legend, the film failed at the box office, and 20th Century-Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck blamed the failure on Peck's insistence on wearing a moustache. Peck made no such error when he and King teamed up again eight years later for this widescreen revenge story. By 1958 the concept of the "adult western" was widely enough understood that Fox could promote The Bravados as such a film. For the studio's purposes, however, the term probably didn't denote the moral ambiguities and "psychological" tone the genre had developed so much as the fact that King's movie dealt with rape.

Peck first appears as a stranger riding towards a town where he's heard there'll be a hanging. A deputy is under instructions to allow no one into town but Mr. Sims, the hangman, but he decides to escort a disarmed Peck in so the sheriff can question him. That official finds Peck's interest in the hanging a bit ghoulish, -- he claims not to know the four condemned men -- but agrees to let him stay. In these early scenes Peck is almost menacingly taciturn and icily indifferent to what others think of him.

Beer is fine for socializing before a hanging, but both Gregory Peck and Joan Collins may want stronger stuff later in the picture.
Most people in town mistake Peck for the hangman and open up about the crimes for which the foursome will die; they robbed a bank and killed men doing it. One person knows him, however; Josefa Velarde (Joan Collins), a rancher's daughter who hasn't seen the man she knows as Jim Douglass in some time. For now, Douglass is more interested in meeting the four doomed criminals, the "bravados." The sheriff allows him to take a look, a privilege he'll only grant otherwise to the chubby, avuncular Sims, who's finally arrived in town. Peck gives the quartet a good looking over, but none of them seem to recognize him, and after he leaves, they wonder among themselves who he is and what he's about.
Ladies and gentlemen, The Bravados: Stephen Boyd and Albert Salmi on top, Lee Van Cleef and Henry Silva below.
But the bravados have more important business: breaking out. The profoundly unthreatening hangman is not Mr. Sims but their man ("Curly Joe" DeRita!), waiting for the right moment to stab the sheriff in the back. It comes while Douglass, Josefa and most of the town are attending Mass. In this sequence old-timer Henry King beats Francis Ford Coppola to the punch by 14 years in crosscutting between a religious service, complete with eerie sacred music, and sinister doings elsewhere. He also milks maximum suspense out of the bravados' desperate effort to reach the jail key that fell out of the sheriff's pocket. "Sims" was supposed to use it to unlock their cell, but the sheriff managed to shoot him down before succumbing. The four men reach for it with their arms, legs, a ladle and a blanket, missing several times.

They're still struggling for it when we cut back to the church and the early departure of a shopkeeper's daughter (Kathleen Gallant). She goes to Dad's store, only to get jumped by the head bravado (Stephen Boyd), the gang having made good on their breakout offscreen. Now they have a hostage and human shield, as well as a head start on any pursuers. A posse forms quickly, but Douglass won't join them until morning, assuming that they'll have little chance of gaining ground on the gang at night.

By the time he catches up with the posse they've been pinned down by sniper fire by Bravado No. 2 (Albert Salmi), who departs amid their confusion to rejoin his pals. The gang quickly makes out that they man they know only as "the hunter," the stranger who visited them in jail, is their main pursuer. Boyd delegates the weakest link of the foursome (Lee Van Cleef) to ambush the hunter. Being the weakest link, he is himself ambushed by the stealthy Douglass. He's less interested in finding the other three bravados than in showing Van Cleef a pocket watch. It has a photo of a woman and child inside. It doesn't play a tune, but the scene, including Van Cleef's presence, has to have influenced Sergio Leone a little in the making of For a Few Dollars More. In any event, Douglass wants to know if Van Cleef recognizes the woman. He doesn't, he says, but Douglass won't believe him. It becomes clear that Douglass believes that the bravados raped and murdered this woman -- his wife. That's why he wanted to see them die, and why he's out to make them die now....

Peck's Jim Douglass is the archetypal obsessive antihero of Fifties westerns. His motives are selfish and self-righteous at the same time, and the interest of society in seeing the bravados captured and punished are a secondary consideration at best. Douglass has been letting his grievance stew for an unhealthy period of time. That comes out during his interrogation of Van Cleef, as he regales the terrified man with his imagined version of his wife's pleas for mercy. It's like a man picking at a scab in order to see his own blood and feel familiar pain, and it has gruesome consequences for the men he catches. A lot is left of necessity to our imagination, probably due to Production Code requirements, but we seem to be meant to assume that Douglass tortures two of the bravados to death during his quest. I'm going to spoil the ending in the next paragraph, so some of you may want to skip it.

Fifties audiences may have decided that Stephen Boyd's character deserved death for raping women, but is his death just as deserved if he dies for the wrong reasons?...

In a lot of the Fifties Westerns the antihero relearns civilized values in time to back off from committing any real atrocity. The Bravados is one of the exceptional films that doesn't grant its protagonist that luxury, since he doesn't realize the error of his actions until after he's already done them. Douglass has reduced the foursome to a lone survivor (Henry Silva, portrayed as the brains if not the leader of the group) whom he tracks across the Mexican border. He follows Silva to his home, where his wife is tending a sick child. Douglass invades the home to ambush Silva, only to get KO'd with a ceramic pot by Mrs. Bravado. When he wakes, Silva wants to know what it's all been about. Douglass brings out the watch again and, like all the others, Silva denies knowing the woman. Before crossing the border, Silva and Boyd had killed an old miner who lived near Douglass's ranch, and Silva had pocketed a sack of gold the miner had tried to run off with. Douglass now recognizes the sack as his property, lost the day his wife died. As Silva explains how he got it (which we know to be the truth), and as Douglass explains that the miner had tipped him off in the first place to the four men who had passed through the territory that day, Douglass realizes at last that the miner had fingered the bravados in order to throw the trail off himself. The miner had murdered Mrs. Douglass and taken her gold. The realization devastates Douglass, as well it might. We've seen plainly that the bravados are not nice guys. Boyd, in particular, is a rapist, and when Josefa learns of his latest rape she hysterically urges Douglass to wipe out the gang. But if you go after men, and kill some of them, for something they didn't do rather than what they have done, you may as well have killed innocent men. That's the message of this screenplay by the ubiqitous Philip Yordan, at least, and the most it can offer Douglass at the end is the consolation of the Church and the promise of Josefa's healing love.

King gives The Bravados all the sweep you'd want in a widescreen western. The film looks like it was shot entirely on locations, and that seems to have compelled King to do a lot of day-for-night shooting. It almost works when the old hand uses filters to recreate the tinting effects he'd have used in silent days, but the effect is ruined whenever the camera catches bright white clouds in the sky. Peck gives a strong performance, minimalist at first to keep us wondering about Douglass, then more intense as his catharsis is repeatedly denied. The bravados are a fine ensemble and work well together. Especially good is a scene between Boyd and Salmi in which they commit to stick together after they lose the posse. Boyd explains that his one weakness is women, and Salmi admits that his is cards. We finally realize that this has been an elaborate exercise in outlaw etiquette enabling Salmi to gracefully leave Boyd alone with their female hostage. It's a classical male-bonding scene with a chilling effect at the end. While King can't invest the film with all the outdoor expressionism of Anthony Mann or the lean rigor of Budd Boetticher, The Bravados shares much of the mood of their movies and deserves inclusion among the better westerns from the decade when Americans did them best.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pre-Code Parade: THE MAN WITH TWO FACES (1934)

Adding strength to strength, the Albany Public Library is starting to add Warner Archive titles to its already-formidable DVD collection. Given widespread complaints about pricing and quibbling over picture quality, this looks like a great idea that other libraries should emulate. It gave me the chance to sample my first Archive disc, an Archie Mayo film for Warner Bros. (actually under its alt-brand First National) starring Edward G. Robinson that I'd never heard of before.

The Man With Two Faces, promoted with ballyhoo touting Robinson as a Lon Chaney-like character creator, was adapted from a play, The Dark Tower, by Algonquin Round Table stalwarts George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott. The original title survives in its original role, as a play within the play. The play's in tryouts, and will mark the comeback of famed actress Jessica Wells (Mary Astor), the sister of equally famed thespian Damon Wells (Robinson). Jessica had dropped out of the theater after a disastrous marriage to a creep named Stanley Vance who has been declared dead after a long disappearance. Damon, a likable fellow despite drinking and treating his actress girlfriend Daphne (Mae Clarke, used to it no doubt), has come out of semi-retirement to help promote the play, while producer Ben Weston (Ricardo Cortez) hopes that success will cement his romance with Jessica. Everything seems to be shaping up nicely (except maybe for Daphne) when Vance (Louis Calhern) abruptly reappears, having disappeared only to prison under an alias. He wants in on the anticipated hit of The Dark Tower and reasserts his control over Jessica as leverage over Weston.

The character of Vance as interpreted by Calhern is the most interesting part of the story. As for the actor, here Calhern is like a prophecy of Vincent Price; he has the younger man's height and many of the physical and vocal mannerisms Price would acquire. I don't know if Price ever cited Calhern as an influence, but perhaps he should have. As for the character, Stanley Vance emerges as another manifestation of the popular Svengali archetype of the period, alongside Bela Lugosi's Dracula and, of course, John Barrymore's Svengali. At least that's how I read the character -- only, the nature of his mesmeric power, and its origins, are damned unclear. We never see him do anything to Jessica except give her orders. We never get a close-up of his mesmeric gaze, and Calhern, for all his eccentricities, has none of the burning intensity that Lugosi and Barrymore brought to their roles. Yet he clearly has a power like theirs, because in his presence Jessica becomes like a thrall, a Trilby, a zombie -- though, unlike Svengali, Vance's power dampens rather than enhances her talents. Where does this power come from? The film's refusal to explain leads one to infer that it's sexual at root. Yet I've read online a Time Magazine review of The Dark Tower from 1933 in which Stanley Vance is described as a "homosexual masochist." You could have fooled me from the evidence on screen in The Man With Two Faces, but that tidbit forces us in another direction, to conclude that Vance's power over Jessica is a matter of pure domination, of brainwashing before the word was coined. Time says that Vance broke Jessica's spirit, and my friend Wendigo (who watched this with me) said it could be just that simple; Vance broke her simply by taking over her life and giving her orders all the time. But an explanation that simple doesn't take into account what happens later.

In the play, Kaufman and Woollcott teased the audience by introducing a new character, Jules Chautard, who claims to be a fan of Jessica Wells and wants to buy shares in The Dark Tower. As Time explains, the Broadway producers went so far as to credit the role of Chautard to an entirely fictional actor, to save for later the surprise when Chautard, having killed Vance, removes his makeup. Warner Bros. was absolutely uninterested in such a tease. In every way from changing the title of The Dark Tower to The Man With Two Faces to announcing Robinson in "his two greatest roles" the studio wanted everyone to understand beforehand that the actor was going to show off his skills in a double role. The Man With Two Faces is less a mystery than a star turn for Robinson, of which he makes the most, though without going over the top in Master Thespian fashion. In fact, everyone in this ensemble cast is quite good, blessed presumably with plenty of grand dialogue from the original play. In any event, in the film the real suspense isn't about Chautard's real identity but about whether Damon Wells will get away with the crime, especially given that the more anyone learns about Stanley Vance, including police investigators, the more they appreciate his demise.

About that. Before Chautard kills him (first with poison, then by stabbing), Vance sends Jessica away from the hotel in a cab. When Vance succumbs to the poison, Chautard drags him into a closet, presumably to peform the coup de grace. Mayo cuts to Jessica in the cab. We see a sudden change of expression on her face, a relaxation and awakening at once. We know from this that Vance has been killed, but why do we know that? On the model of Svengali and Trilby, I suppose, people (writers, at least) in the Thirties presumed that a mesmerist maintained control over his victim by some sort of psychic bond that death would obviously sever. Of course, many viewers would be reminded less readily of Svengali and Trilby and more of Dracula and Mina and her very similar reawakening after Van Helsing destroys the vampire. Did Stanley Vance have a supernatural power over Jessica? Could he fairly be called a "psychic vampire?" Mesmerism in the collective imagination of the time probably straddled a flimsy borderline separating superstition from pseudoscience. At the same time, Hollywood was still only fitfully assimilating the "reality" of the supernatural into movies in these years. Vance's vague power seems out of place in this sort of story, but phenomena like that hadn't yet been segregated into a "genre" category. Whether Hollywood actually enhanced this aspect of the story will stay unclear until I decide to track down The Dark Tower and read it. But it's a wild enough element to arguably make The Man With Two Faces eligible for inclusion in the genre canon of Thirties cinema, and worthy of recommendation here. Those Archive discs aren't the cheapest, though, so ask your local library to keep up with the times.

Here's the trailer from TCM:

Monday, July 26, 2010

TONY MANERO (2008): The Disco Duck of Death

Chile in the early years of the Pinochet dictatorship is a desolate land. Dissidents are still being rounded up on the streets, while the common people seek hours of escape on television in the form of Festival, a sabadogigantic variety program with game-show elements and the cheery slogan, "A little money is better than none." One of its gimmicks is a weekly celebrity-impersonation contest in which the audience picks the Chilean counterpart of some famous foreigner. One week, it's the Chilean Chuck Norris; the next, it might be Julio Iglesias. But in the week we're interested in, Festival is looking for the Chilean Tony Manero, a native incarnation of the character played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

One Manero-wannabe is Raul Peralta Paredes O, who at age 52 is perhaps the most unlikely candidate. His case seems the more hopeless when he shows up at the TV studio a week ahead of time. He gets to register for the Manero contest, at least, and when asked his occupation he simply says "This," meaning "show business." He does a Manero impersonation and serves as a sort of director of a Fever-inspired floor show at a local bar with bigger aspirations. In his free time he watches the movie obsessively, memorizing Travolta's English dialogue during the Spanish-subtitled film, and he dreams of installing a glass dance floor like that in the movie in the bar. As far as his Manero mannerisms go, the spirit is willing, but the legs are weak. But he has no higher ambition than to become Tony Manero -- though he does have some lower ambitions.

Idol and idolator: Alfredo Castro (below) looks up to John Travolta (above) in Tony Manero.

So far, so Scorsesean. Raul is one of those obsessive, monomaniacal losers who manage to make big breaks for themselves in moments of insane inspiration or pure violent passion. But director Pablo Larrain and his co-writers take the Scorsese formula to a fresh extreme. In Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy there's a slow burn before the madman's desperate outburst. In Tony Manero it's established early that Raul is a madman and a murderer. We see him witness a mugging from his window and rush downstairs to aid the victim. He helps her home and notices her color TV set, while she offers him some expired cat food as a reward. Then he beats her to death with his bare hands.

He'll later trade the TV to pay a shady junkman for the increasingly expensive glass tiles he'll need for his dance floor. Everything is a means to the end of his hoped-for transfiguration into Tony Manero. Saturday Night Fever becomes a religious experience for him, if not something more pleasurable. Raul may be having some midlife crisis of sexuality that he doesn't comprehend. His girlfriend complains that he can't get it up anymore, except when he thinks of his new dance floor. He's traumatized when Fever is replaced at the local bijou with another film starring "the same gentleman," called Brilliantina. It just isn't the same. In his grief he sneaks into the projection booth and beats the projectionist and manager to death. He then finds the precious reels of Saturday Night Fever and takes them home to inspect frame-by-frame.

You should be dancin'. Yeah.

You get the idea by now. There might be some suspense over whether Raul will be caught before the Festival show, except that Larrain establishes fairly early that law enforcement is more interested in tracking down dissidents than in catching real criminals. You get no sense that anyone's even aware of a murder spree going on. The only pressing questions are whether Raul will win the Manero contest and how many more people he'll have to destroy before then.

There's no point in analyzing why Raul responds to Saturday Night Fever the way he does. You either accept that he's barking mad or that his situation is somehow symbolic of Chile's plight under Pinochet. There's nothing wrong with a film about a madman, of course, and as Raul co-writer Alfredo Castro convincingly portrays a person who isn't flamboyantly or whimsically mad but selfishly compulsive to the point of complete ruthlessness. Larrain finds the right milieu for him in the drab, seedy locations, and contrasts those effectively with the tacky fantasia of the Festival studio set. I think Larrain's intent is ultimately satiric; otherwise he might have made the killings more gory and the film itself more of a horror movie. It's horrific enough as is, as a portrait of the kind of monsters a society like Pinochet's Chile might create.

Here's an English-subtitled trailer, uploaded to YouTube by NetworkReleasing.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Buster Keaton's 'Lost' Educational Films (1934-7)

From the epic spectacle of The General and the storm scenes of Steamboat Bill Jr. it was a long way down for Buster Keaton until he ended up at Educational Pictures, a longtime purveyor of comedy shorts ("The Spice of the Program") distributed by Fox. Mishandling by M-G-M producers, alcoholism and the collapse of his marriage, along with a sense of obsolescence that clung to nearly all the silent comedy stars, left the man once and later considered Charlie Chaplin's greatest rival near the bottom of the movie ladder. For more than 70 years after he made them, the sixteen Educational shorts have been more talked about, or simply dismissed, than seen. Just this year, Kino International finally gave them an official DVD release as the Lost Keaton collection. Are they as bad as legend alleged, or are they neglected gems? The final scorecard, predictably enough, is mixed.

A characteristic Keaton pose from Mixed Magic (1936)

The Educationals were films made in a hurry, and sometimes leave the impression that Keaton, his usual director Charles Lamont, and their writers didn't have enough time to think through the comic prospects of their stories. The most glaring such case is the third short in the series, Palooka From Paducah. A bearded Buster plays alongside his father, mother and sister as a family of hillbillies who decide to make money by putting Buster's big brother to work as a professional wrestler. The first half of the film has some good physical humor as Buster attempts to train his far stronger brother. You figure you see what's coming: Buster will somehow have to do the rasslin' instead. You'd be wrong, though; someone thought it'd be funnier if Buster played the referee. That someone, too, was wrong. It can't help but look anticlimactic, and since the big brother is given Buster's generic character name, "Elmer," while Buster himself plays "Jim," I wonder whether there was a last-minute role switch for some reason.

There's an even bigger disparity between set-up and final execution in the next short, One Run Elmer. This is considered one of Keaton's best Educationals, and it was one of his own favorites of the group. Their feelings are justified by the first half, which establishes the rivalry of two gas station owners on either side of a road through the desert. The desolate location and Buster's flimsy shack of a station simply feel right; this is where he should be in the sound era. He has a spectacular fall while trying to yank his gas pump a foot too far, but there are also stronger, less violent gags. Buster and his rival get into a price war, constantly erasing and rewriting their rates on chalkboard signs until Buster elegantly transforms his "31" into an "18." He learns that he's gone too far when potential customers presume that his cheap gas is no good. Later, Buster and his rival, both ballplayers, "warm up" by giving each other batting practice across that road, the rivals solid hits and wild pitches practically destroying Buster's station. After that build-up, the climax disappoints by relying too much on the gimmicks Buster used for live comedy baseball games. Worse, plot threads are lost. Much is made of the fact that the umpire is the man whose car window Buster broke earlier, but nothing's really made of it and the ump calls the game more or less straight.

David McLeod's liner notes often indict the Educationals for failing to follow through on or live up to potentially strong comic ideas. In one case, time seems to have left him out of the joke. Keaton's penultimate short, Ditto, is apparently considered one of the worst of the group, but it proves to be a fairly amusing little film with a satirical bent bordering on the surreal. Buster is an iceman with time on his hands and romantic dreams -- he's just started Gone With the Wind -- who gets himself farcically entangled with identical twins without realizing the duplication. Finally learning that both women are already married, he denounces them for making a plaything of him and renounces civilization. Fifteen years later (1952), he's a bearded hermit living in an isolated pocket of wilderness while civilization advances above him, family airplanes pulling trailers en route to vacations abroad.

Hermit Buster eventually encounters a woman who reminds him of his lost love(s?), and he promptly renounces his hermitage. Shaven and groomed, he reverts to the Buster of yore for his tryst. The final gag is deemed disappointing because Educational couldn't spring for a process shot turning the two girls into five. Instead, we see five girls from behind, each sitting in a director's chair, as Buster faces them (and us) staring in bewilderment. But the gag is set us exactly as the filmmakers wanted. They want you to notice the names on the chairs, because they tell you that Buster has encountered the Dionne Quintuplets, who would be 18 in 1952, and whom many Americans knew on a first-name basis as early mass-media celebrities. Ditto should probably get a demerit for dated humor, but sometimes it requires a sense of history to understand how the original audience would have seen (and gotten) the gag.

It's in films like Ditto where we're most likely to salvage something of the authentic Keaton sensibility in the necessary absence of Buster's signature large-scale stunts. His classic silents aren't mere stunt-fests, but often have a strong absurd or satiric sensibility, as in his brutal genre parody The Frozen North or the aging-and-death denouement of his feature College. Keaton distinguishes himself from Chaplin, for instance, in rarely taking seriously the dramatic situations that frame his comedy. For Chaplin, romance is all too real; for Keaton, it's often simply ridiculous. His parodic instinct comes through most strongly during the Educational period in the one short for which he claimed a story credit, and the one long assumed to be the best of the series, Grand Slam Opera. It's also the most cinematically imaginative film in the group, a fact for which Keaton most likely deserves the credit.

Buster proposes to juggle an empty whiskey bottle on the radio. "Is it empty?" the bandleader asks. "Yeah," Keaton mutters, "I made sure of that." Arguably uncomfortable alcoholic humor in Grand Slam Opera.

Grand Slam Opera is a send-up of the Major Bowes Amateur Hour and other talent shows that predated The Gong Show or American Idol. It also gives Keaton a chance to parody Fred Astaire by wrecking a hotel room while attempting to dance on the furniture and mantelpiece. Buster hopes to win a prize by juggling on the radio, only to get into a fight with the studio bandleader. As a whole, the short is a mockery of rags-to-riches, star-is-born type success stories. Buster gets a musical sendoff from his local supporters and the usual montage of train wheels and so forth takes him to New York. After his defeat, there's another montage of futile motion, culminating with Buster trying to hitch a ride from an Indian woman carrying her baby papoose-style. He tries to ride the bumper of a stationary car, and that gives him a chance to learn from the radio that he'd won the radio contest and has a prize waiting for him in New York. There follows one more dazzling montage of wheels, propellers, stop and go signs, all superimposed over Buster running at breakneck speed, as if it only took him exactly that long to get back east. It leaves you with the stunned feeling that THIS is what Keaton should have been doing all along once sound arrived.

None of the Educationals are without features of interest, except arguably for a lame service comedy, Tars and Stripes, that seems to exist only because Keaton and Lamont got permission to film at a naval base. Many of them have a historical interest, Palooka From Paducah and Love Nest on Wheels showing both the Keaton family and pop culture's growing fascination with hillbillies at the time the Li'l Abner comic strip was breaking big across the country. It's interesting seeing Keaton's team assimilating recent phenomena like the success of It Happened One Night. In The E-Flat Man Buster encourages his reticent girl to emulate the famous hitchhiking scene; "I saw this once, and it worked!" he says. The setup has a nice payoff when the car that pulls over proves to be a police car.

Mack Sennett feels the same influence in the short he directed for Keaton, The Timid Young Man. That one finishes with a runaway bride hitchhiking in her swimsuit. Naturally several cars pull over at once, with Buster (as a runaway groom) in the rear. In classic Sennett style, yet with Keaton elegance, Buster's car slowly pushes all the other cars forward until he can pick up the girl. Other shorts work more timelessly: the battle royale before a justice of the peace in Three On A Limb; Buster beaten down in succession by prison guards and escapees despite changes in uniform in Jail Bait; the sci-fi buncombe of The Chemist that leaves mortarboard-wearing gangsters terrified of rain. And every Educational short has at least one thing going for it: it's not a Columbia Keaton short (though I intend to do justice to those at another time).

Despite many inspired moments, there's no denying a diminishment of Keaton's powers in these shorts, especially when you compare them to Laurel & Hardy's work in this period, or even the earliest Three Stooges shorts for Columbia. I don't think I could honestly call any of the Educationals a classic, but as a set I found them fascinating, if also sometimes sad. I wouldn't recommend Lost Keaton to anyone simply looking for laughs, but for fans of Keaton and the slapstick tradition, the set is definitely worth seeing if not worth having.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


The "nouvelle vague," the French New Wave of cinema, reached across the Atlantic and made quite a splash on American shores in the 1960s, but Americans didn't really feel its full force. Dozens of young directors got the chance to make their first films following the success of Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows in 1959, but not all of them travelled as well. The first feature of Alain Cavalier, for instance, didn't have an American premiere until last year, 47 years after its French release. You'll notice that it doesn't even have an English title, though it's known as "Fire and Ice" in some quarters. Since it has some stars who were already known in U.S. art-house circles, my guess is that the French political context made it seem too obscure to potential distributors, or else the novelty of the New Wave was already wearing off by the time "The battle on the island" was available for export.

It's actually a pretty simple story. Anne (Romy Schneider) loves Clement (Jean-Louis Trintignant) despite his jealousy, his controlling ways, and his activities as a terrorist. He belongs to the faction that opposed French withdrawal from Algeria, and his group leader Serge assigns him to take out a pro-independence politician. Serge accompanies him on the mission, which is meant to make a statement. The way to do that is to fire a bazooka from across the street and blow up the man's apartment. Clement has the weapon stored in his apartment for a time before the attack. When Anne stumbles upon it, she's troubled by it but not exactly outraged. She's an emotional needy person, perhaps because Clement has curtailed her social life and her career as an aspiring actress. She's willing to share his perils, but Clement's not having that when he can help it. He wants her around when he feels needy but often can't be bothered when the roles are reversed.

Whatever would one do with a bazooka in the middle of Paris? Anne (Romy Schneider) wonders while Clement (Jean-Louis Trintignant, with Pierre Asso below) demonstrates.

The mission seems to be accomplished, but soon Serge tells Clement that he's got to leave Paris; someone has exposed their cell so everyone has to lie low. Clement decides to head for the countryside, with Anne along for the ride, to stay with his childhood pal Paul (Henri Serre), who runs a print shop. While in hiding, they learn that his target not only survived the attack, but wasn't even in the building. He'd been tipped off in advance and advised to plant a dummy in his apartment to be blown up in his place. Clement figures only one person could have tipped the target off: Serge. He abandons a distraught Anne to get his marching orders from the remaining group, and is soon off to Argentina in pursuit of his erstwhile mentor.

Anne sinks into a depression, but recovers under the good influence of Paul and his sister. She learns to enjoy life again, and Paul encourages her to take up acting again. The rustic idyll soon results in romance -- and that's Clement's cue to reappear. Having settled accounts with Serge, he wants to reclaim what's his, but Anne says she isn't his anymore. Clement feels that Paul has betrayed him as much as Serge has, but for whatever reason having to do with honor Clement doesn't want to kill his old friend in cold blood. He wants to kill Paul, all right, but honor in this case demands a duel. "How old are you, twelve?" Paul asks understandably, but Clement won't be dissuaded. Paul eventually understands that he has no choice, despite his own pacifist nature, to confront his former friend and destroy him if necessary....

Clement is a trained killer and Paul is a trained civilian, but the terrorist thinks it'll be a fair fight if they use unfamiliar weapons (German pistols) and have equal time to practice.

I have to admit that Le Combat didn't strike me as anything historically special. The acting is strong and the black-and-white cinematography by Pierre Lhomme is sharp, but the direction looks ordinary now and Cavalier burdens the story with omniscient voiceover narration that didn't seem necessary, though it does help viewers of today understand issues that 1962 French audiences probably took for granted. It's really a fairly melodramatic if not pulpy story told pretty much with a straight face, with a clear bad guy and good guy, though Schneider got the top billing. You probably have to have a sense of cinema history to appreciate Le Combat's place in it, if you can imagine what the same story might have looked like filmed ten years earlier. Without that, I think you could still appreciate Cavalier's feature debut as a modest drama with nice views of urban and rural France and a window into real history and its impact on cinema.

Before I saw this new DVD from Zeitgeist at the Albany Public Library I hadn't even heard of Alain Cavalier, much less any of his films. The disc comes with some behind-the-scenes photos, a booklet including a new essay by the cinematographer (unfortunately, the library doesn't include booklets like that with its loaner discs) and a new short film by Cavalier which consists of his camera moving across a set of photos and him reminiscing about making the film nearly fifty years ago. One thing I've noticed about the New Wave is that, with the great exception of Truffaut they've mostly been a long-lived bunch, with many, including Cavalier, more or less active today. I guess DVDs guarantee them a little immortality, and for free I was happy to do my part to keep his place in history alive.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Nagisa Oshima's film is an adaptation of a novel called Pleasures In the Coffin, which probably gets closer to the truth of the story. In the film, the protagonist Atsushi identifies his "coffin" as a suitcase filled with 30,000,000 yen. It's been entrusted to him by a bureaucrat from the Agriculture Ministry, who embezzled it. He expects to be caught and expects to do time. Like the heroine of Hugo Haas's One Girl's Confession, he figures that any money he's kept after he does his time is his to keep. He leaves his loot with Atsushi, whom he trusts because he has something on him. He saw Atsushi kill a man on a train.

Atsushi works in an ad agency and as a private tutor. His favorite student, the object of his romantic fantasies, is Shoko. As a girl, she was molested. The man Atsushi killed was the molester. Shoko's parents put him up to it as a matter of the girl's honor. Atsushi dreams of marrying Shoko, but she marries a corporate executive instead. Frustrated, and with one year left on the embezzler's jail term, Atsushi boldly decides to spend the 30 million in order to stick it to everybody. Once the suitcase is empty, it'll become his metaphorical coffin; he plans to kill himself when the money's gone, before the embezzler can do worse to him.

Atsushi is as free as a man could possibly be -- isn't he?

Oshima has set us up for a fantasy of freedom and sensuality, and the case copy for this first film in Criterion Eclipse's Oshima's Outlaw Sixties collection only encourages the expectation. What we actually get is a grimly feverish satire that destroys and rebuilds the fantasy several times over. The most hopeless fantasy, it turns out, is the idea of cutting loose from all ties to the past and sharing that freedom with others. Atsushi seeks out loose women to spite Shoko, but none of them are as loose or free as he hopes. Hitomi uses his money to bribe a yakuza boyfriend who still demands sex and threatens her with a bottle of acid. Shizuko hands his money over to her husband and children and later hints at blackmail after Atsushi has told her too much about his past. After beating up her husband and paying his hospital bill, Atsushi instantly tries to hook up with Keiko, a virginal young doctor first seen slapping an older male colleague who was groping her. Keiko has issues and anxieties of her own that make her a hopeless partner for our hero. He finally falls for Mari, a prostitute described as "mute and a little crazy," but she also has a gangster boyfriend who beats up Atsushi until he realizes how much the man will pay for Mari. This goon is ultimately impressed by Atsushi's cool manner and easy way with money, and thinks that Atsushi may be just the guy to help him nab a 30,000,000 yen stash that he heard about in prison....

Scenes from the Hitomi episode, with Mariko Naga as Hitomi

On top of all this, Atsushi can't let go of his yearning for Shoko. We first see him fantasizing about her playing runaway bride with him, only to see the fantasy dissolve before our eyes. He hallucinates Shoko throughout the picture; sometimes she's a ghostlike figure lurking near the action, and sometimes he mistakes his other paramours for her. The embezzler also haunts him increasingly as his release date nears. Atsushi's resolution to die doesn't leave him unafraid of the old guy's vengeance, and that's his trouble in a nutshell. Sure, he does get to experience some pleasures of the flesh (but not so many as you'd think) but for someone with money to burn and nothing, presumably, to lose, he hardly ever seems to have a good time. The moral of the story may be that he's ultimately incapable of doing so -- psychologically or emotionally, at least. Whether he survives or not, the film leaves you wondering whether he's ever known how to live.

Katsuo Nakamura and Toshiko Higuchi before and after their ordeal in the surf.

Etsuraku, as Oshima calls it, get the Outlaw Sixties collection to a strong start. The direction the story takes took me by surprise and made the film more than the genre exercise it's advertised to be. Katsuo Nakamura's brooding performance as Atsushi really sells the concept, and he's supported by an impressive and attractive group of actresses. The film's low budget sometimes sticks out, but Oshima, cinematographer Akira Takada and art director Taro Imayasu do some fine work with sets and locations, from a white-on-white hotel suite to a turbulent beach where Nakamura and Toshiku Higuchi as Keiko take a grueling walk through the waves. The film goes by in a brisk, jump cut-assisted 91 minutes that makes poor Atsushi's year go by all too quickly but feels just right to this viewer. It makes me feel like I made the right move getting Outlaw Sixties, which means four more Oshima films to review in the coming weeks. Of course, the fact that you couldn't help but get it at a discount from Barnes & Noble this month didn't hurt, either, but for those still wondering or wavering about this set, Pleasures of the Flesh is a strong sign that it'll prove a good investment for wild-world-of-cinema tourists.