Archive for the 'International' Category

03
Dec
14

The 39 Steps

39 steps

This week’s old movie was Hitchcock’s 39 Steps (1935), which reminded me a lot of Ministry of Fear and North by Northwest, another Hitchcock film. Still 39 Steps is compelling and moves quickly as it shows a man who mistakenly gets caught up in spy intrigue and is innocent of a murder for which the police suspect him. I’d never seen the leading man, Robert Donat, but liked him in the role of Mr. Hanney. Dona’s charming and attractive, but not an Adonis so he can come off as an everyman.

After a strange, beautiful woman asks to go back with him to his apartment. Once inside she hides in the shadows, fearful of being seen. Men are following her. She claims to be a spy who must protect military secrets. She’s a mercenary and her tale is hard to believe. Hanney really doesn’t put much faith into her story, but he doesn’t kick her out either. When she comes to him in the middle of the night with a map and a knife stuck in her back, Hanney’s convinced. Knowing he’ll be suspected of murder he flees all the while having to elude the men who killed the beautiful spy.

Like many Hitchcock films it’s the tale of an innocent man, wrongly accused. Roger Ebert told a film class I took with him that as a boy, Hitchcock’s father wrongly suspected the young genius of some childish misdemeanor and punished him by sending him to the local police where an officer locked him up saying, “This is what we do with naughty boys.” Hitchcock believed he was 4 or 5 at the time.

The 39 Steps moves briskly in part to keep the audience from pondering unexplained questions like how did the killers get into Hanney’s apartment so quietly and why didn’t they do something to Hanney since they saw the pair enter the building.  The film delights with wit and light comedy sprinkled in with the suspense and danger.

As usual, the Criterion Collection offers a trenchant essay on the film. Well worth reading.

15
Oct
14

Ministry of Fear

Poster

Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) gets released from a mental institution where he’s lived since he was charged with euthanasia of his sickly wife. His train makes a stop in a country town and at the urging of a kind conductor he steps out and goes over to the nearby country fair. He sees a fortune teller and wins a cake. This leads him to getting in trouble with Nazi’s who chase him and frame him with murder. He can’t trust anyone as everyone he meets — even a pretty, warm-hearted woman who runs a charity for widows and orphans with her brother — seems ready to turn him in.

Set during WWII Franz Lang’s Ministry of Fear (1944) is brimming with tension and suspense. The plot moves quickly and takes Neal to one creepy, yet sophisticated experience after another. Nothing is what it seems. While I read that Lang wanted to make an overtly anti-Nazi movie, the script writer didn’t provide him with the sort of horrible Nazi he could rail against. Based on a Graham Green novel, I found the film compelling. Green wouldn’t agree, I’ve learned. He thought it was awful, but then Green’s a perfectionist and master.

06
Oct
14

Désiré

Released in 1937 starring Sacha Guitry, Désiré is a comedy about a French woman and her household staff. Odette is a former actress who’s beau is a government Minister. Her staff includes a cook, a maid, a chauffeur we never see, but lacks a valet. The night before Odette, played by Guitry’s wife at the time, and her beau are to leave for the countryside, a chatty, meticulous valet comes to interview for the job. His references are impeccable and he’s hired. God forbid the couple goes to the country without a valet.

In the kitchen Désiré gets to know the maid and the cook. He’s very professional about his job and the hardest worker of the group, but also shares lots of observations about employers e.g. in a couple days a servant knows his employer well. In a year the servant can predict the employer’s every move and thought, yet after employing a servant for 5 years the employer probably doesn’t even know the servant’s last name. Touché.

Désiré’s previous employer intimates that while he was impeccable at his job, he made sexual overtures and therefore was let go. Odette is ready to send him packing but he persuades her to trust that it’ll never happen again.

All goes well until madam starts having dreams of Désiré making overtures. Her beau hears her calling out his name. Meanwhile Désiré also has dreams and the maid hears him calling out. Both don’t know what to do and try to hide the problem as best they can.

Désiré is a farce done with wit and intelligence. It makes some good points and is something of a counterpoint to Downton Abbey. Here the characters smoke and joke and toy with each other.  Guitry is a fine comic actor who held my interest from start to finish.

23
Sep
14

Brief Encounter

brief encounter
Written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean, Brief Encounter tells the story of a man and woman whose paths cross in a train station tea room and then again in town. Both married, contentedly, they are drawn to each other. Laura Jesson (played by Celia Johnson) comes to the town of Milford every Thursday for a day away from housekeeping. On one excursion Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) helps her remove some grit from her eye. Every time he bumps into her he pours on the charm.

The movie is narrated by Johnson who’s thinking about this four week relationship while sitting in front of her husband who’s working on his crossword puzzle. The plot is compelling and Laura especially because there’s so much danger of bumping into people they know and the main characters carefully weigh the cost of the lying and secrecy demanded by their affair. I’ve never seen such thoughtful characters on the precipice of starting an affair.

Another Criterion Collection DVD, it’s enriched by a documentary on David Lean and mini-documentary on the film. Both were worthwhile.

10
Sep
14

Belle et Sébastien

BELLE+ET+SEBASTIEN+PHOTO1

Because six year old Sébastien is himself abandoned, he’s the only person in the village to give Belle, a mangy dog a chance. Sebastian lives with an old, often drunk man and his family in the mountains of France. He doesn’t go to school, but learns about life and nature from the man. Belle is a dirty gray dog everyone fears. Only Sebastian gives the dog a chance and a good bath. After the bath, the dog is snow white and comes to the aid of Sebastian.

Later when Sebastian’s unofficial adoptive family helps Jews escape the Nazi’s everyone sees that Belle is a wonderful dog. The film is suspenseful and the characters real. Their plight rings true and the story compels. It’s fitting for older kids, who can understand the history and read the subtitles, and adults.

10
Aug
14

apart from you

apart from you

Directed by Mikio Naruse, Apart from You (1933)  shows two geishas who’re stuck in an ignoble profession they wish they could escape. The film starts with an amusing scene in a geisha house run by an old woman who smokes and gambles. She studies the racing statistics in the paper like a scientist.

While Western books and films Orientalize geishas accenting their musical skill and gorgeous clothes, I’m finding films and books created by Japanese people portray this life as hard and soul killing.

I can’t improve upon Michael Koresky‘s synopsis so I’ll simply quote it:

Apart from You also gives us our first glimpse of Naruse’s careful way of dramatizing geisha life. The film concerns two melancholy working women: the long-suffering Kikue (seen in an early shot plucking out telltale gray hairs) and the younger Terugiku, whose beauty and seeming optimism mask growing disillusionment. Their internal wounds slowly become apparent: Kikue is having difficulty with her teenage son, Yoshio, who, bitterly embarrassed by his mother’s profession, has stopped attending school and fallen in with a pack of delinquents. Terugiku harbors deep resentment toward her family, especially her alcoholic father, for forcing her to become a geisha to help support them. An attraction develops between Terugiku and Yoshio—in the film’s most moving segment, she takes him on a trip to her family’s impoverished village; there, she instructs him that it’s wrong to be ashamed of and mistreat his mother, who works in her profession only to provide for him and his education. The verisimilitude with which Naruse depicts the geisha existence reaches its apex in the film’s frenetic party scenes, startlingly physical, decadent displays based on the director’s observations of a geisha house near Shochiku Studios.

Apart from You is a moving film though there were a few shots that were awkward as if the director was trying to figure out the medium. These were rare, but glaring errors, which given the power of the whole film, are easily overlooked. Similarly, the hoodlums Yoshio joins seemed like caricatures, but they’re not on screen that much. Both actresses who play geishas were quietly compelling and sympathetic.

04
Aug
14

À Nous la Liberté

jail

Directed by René Clair, À Nous la Liberté (1931) follows the attempt of two convicts to escape. One man succeeds, but his friend is captured. The man who escapes starts a new life selling phonographs on the street. Soon he’s prospered and owns a store. Not much later he owns a huge factory making thousands of phonographs. One memorable scene shows his workers marching in to work, punching in, taking their seats on an assembly line and working like machines, just as the factory owner had when he was in prison. The striking similarity is not accidental.

Later the factory owner’s friend is freed and by chance meets his rich pal. The film is full of such coincidences but they made me smile rather than roll my eyes. At first the prosperous man is leery. Does his old chum want to black mail him?

No. His old friend Emile is far more sincere, more innocent. Despite the soul-killing monotony, Emile wants to continue working at the factory so he can woo a woman he’s infatuated with. As the rich men’s high society friends talk about him behind his back and are stuffy bores, the factory owner opens his life and his wallet to his old pal to help him win this woman’s heart. Then the wheel of fortune turns against this pair of friends.

a-nous-la-liberte-1931-06-g-720x563

The film does use sound, though sparingly. For much of the beginning I thought it was a silent film. It’s a fun, clever film that has an uplifting feel to it. I agree with critic Michael Atkinson who describes as “bouncy with melody, soaked in spring light, wistful about the conflicted relationship between serendipity and love.”

Clair was the first to film a scene where all hell breaks loose when workers can’t keep up with the assembly line. His studio and some critics believe that Chaplin plagiarized À Nous la Liberté when he made Modern Times. Clair didn’t get involved and said since he appreciates so much of what Chaplin’s done, if he did borrow from this film, that’s fine. His studio disagreed and took legal action which dragged on for 10 years. They lost.

À Nous la Liberté has a surprising, positive (or perhaps naive) ending. I can see why the film was on a list of “Most Influential Films” I received at Act One. So glad my library had it.




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