Kind Hearts and Coronets

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Starring Dennis Price and Alex Guinness, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is a black comedy of revenge. Louis Mazzini’s mother’s upper class family disowned her when she married an Italian musician. After she dies, Louis seeks revenge. Using a different weapon or means for each subject, Louis plots to kill all eight of the relatives ahead of him in line for the family fortune.

Louis falls in love with his childhood sweetheart, but she throws him over for a rich man, whom she finds as dull as dishwater. She’s clearly mercenary, but then so is Louis as he’s reptilian in his ability to murder relatives one after another without feeling any remorse.

One quirk of the film is that Alec Guinness plays each of the eight relatives that kills. He plays young and old, male and female. It’s a clever technique.

The Criterion Collection DVD includes the American ending. The Hays Code prohibited films from showing a situation where crime paid.

Before I saw it thought it would be a much weaker ending, but they just added a few seconds with an action that I imagined would follow the end of the film. The British version led me to expect that action to occur. Nonetheless it’s interesting to see how the Hays Code influenced filmmaking.

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Samurai Rebellion

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What a film! Starring Mifune, Toshiro* Samurai Rebellion (1967) blew me away. The Japanese really do know how to play on one’s emotions. Far from our stereotype of this culture, they’re capable of intense emotion, stubbornness and defiance.

Set in the early 18th century, Samurai Rebellion tells the story of a samurai family that’s more or less forced to make their son marry their Lord’s cast off mistress. Mifune plays the head of the family, Sasahara Isaburo, an older master swordsman, who had to marry his cold-hearted, domineering wife because he lacked social status. Sashara often jokes about how he’s just a hen-pecked husband. When the message comes that the regional warlord wants Sasahara’s son Yogoro to marry his troublesome mistress, Sasahara tactfully says, thanks but no thanks. He’d like a better marriage for his son. Sasahara’s wife thinks this is stupid. In this culture when the warlord asks you to do something you do it. she clearly has no respect for anyone but herself. This woman makes the farmer’s wife in Grant Wood’s American Gothic look cheerful.

This forced marriage is not kosher in this society. The warlord is abusing his power. Sasahara keeps politely refusing. In time the son, breaks in on a visit from the steward and agrees. No one expects much from this marriage.
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When Ichi, the mistress arrives with her daughter, she explains to her new husband that she was exiled because after bearing her child, she returned to the castle to see that the Lord has found her replacement, a cutie, who’s now making the Lord’s heart race. Ichi never wanted to be this guy’s wife or mistress, but is disgusted that after giving birth she’s been displaced. By speaking up, Ichi finds herself cast out.

Surprisingly, Yogoro and Ichi fall in love. Ichi is an ideal daughter-in-law who puts up with her grouchy mother in law and is a great asset to the family. But the course of true love never runs smoothly. When the Lord’s firstborn dies, Ichi is summoned back to the castle. She doesn’t want to go. Yogoro doesn’t want her to go and neither does Sasahara. In fact, the men are willing to defy the lord and fight to the death to keep Ichi.

The film kept me in suspense from start to finish. Mifune gives a powerful performance and the director Kobayashi Misaki provides a beautiful drama. There were some times when the cinematography was too much like when there’s an intense meeting at the castle during which lots of bold, distracting shadows come through the windows, but that’s a minor fault. Much of the cinematography is gorgeous as the filmmakers use the aesthetics of Japanese homes with little furniture, tatami mats, and dark beams against white walls to good effect.

Though there are only two female characters, they’re both strong women who hold their own in a man’s world.

I highly recommend Samurai Rebellion, which I bet you can get the DVD from your library as I did. (Thank God of inter-library loans.)

You can read the illustrious Donald Richie’s Samurai Rebellion article here.

*Note, I’ve used the Japanese practice of writing the family name first and the Western first name second.

The Living Magoroku

cdotaiofhyuttkgzilvy8q4mvei6tg_smallMade and set during WWII, Kinoshita’s The Living Magoroku didn’t wow me. Though the film begins with an action-packed sequence of a samurai, the rest of the film wasn’t on par with his Morning for the Osone Family or Port of Flowers. 

In a nutshell, generations ago the Magoroku family’s field was the site of a bloodbath. They believe a legend that says they shouldn’t plow or cultivate this land. Moreover, the living Magoroku’s believe that their eldest male child will die early. This belief has currently haunted the oldest son, who’s coughs a lot and has some psychosomatic condition. The widowed mother won’t let her daughter marry just in case the son does die. This curse or legend is still strong.

One of the villagers believes that the 72 acre field should be cultivated for food. Japan is in the midst of a war and would benefit from using fertile land.

Keeping this land fallow and the efforts to get the Magoroku’s to change their mind, leads to a a couple engagements getting put on hold.

I would say the film does show how films were used in the war effort, how they tried to persuade the audience to sacrifice. Yet the oldest son’s acting as rather stiff and the story wasn’t as engaging as what I’ve seen from Kurosawa or Ozu. There are better Japanese films to invest your time in.

Beauty and the Beast

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From the library, I received a Fall Movie Challenge recommendation of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). It’s a terrific movie that portrays a dream world better than any film I’ve ever seen. This live-action film offers an atmosphere that surpasses most animated films, which are easier to make other-worldly.

Cocteau follows the original fairytale’s plot more closely than the Disney version. He shows a father with financial troubles, two complaining, selfish daughters, one filial, hardworking daughter and a lazy, wastrel of a son. The dynamics of the siblings was key to the drama, I think. From the start we see the brother’s ne’er’do-well pal wooing Belle, with no luck.

After some financial ups and downs, the father on a journey through the forest and stay at a bizarre castle where the statues seem alive as do the arms holding the candles along the wall, mistakenly picks a rose for Belle unleashing the Beast’s anger. Soon Belle agrees to return with the Beast to his castle in lieu of his taking her father’s life.

The castle is one of the best parts of the film. The plants that grow wildly throughout the home and the living statues and lights are freaky and enchanting.

This film is intriguing because in large part to how wild the environment and Beast seem.. Thus while the story is a fairytale, it will appeal to adults with imagination. It would scare young children, but they can enjoy the Disney film. Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is a wild, imaginative trip for classic film buffs.

Yojimbo

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I didn’t expect to like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) as I knew it was a samurai film and fighting’s not my thing, but since I’m on a Kurosawa roll, I figured I should see it anyway. Boy, am I glad I did. The film offers unexpected wit and an unforgettable, surly hero, named Sanjuro.

Sanjuro wanders about the country after his master and retinue have lost. He comes to a town caught in the crossfire of two gangs. The townspeople live cowering in fear. After Sanjuro displays his swordsmanship with finesse the gang leaders try to lure him with money so he’ll play for their side. Ever cagey, Sanjuro’s wise to their game and trickery and double-crossing follow. There is no good side to join.

Sanjuro’s irascible but not evil. He does save a family knowing that’ll cost him. He gives them his gold coins to flee, but when they try to thank him he shouts that he hates anyone who’s pathetic and if they cry he’ll kill them. It’s all tongue in cheek and such humor in the context is a poke at the Western or samurai genre movies.

Also, the soundtrack is pure 1960s Western music, which adds a layer of fun as it winks at Hollywood and films in general. Another aspect of humor is the buffoonery of the other characters one gang’s nincompoops are just as inept as the other’s. Sanjuro operates on a whole different plane.

Toshio Mifune plays Sanjuro masterfully. He shows more with a glance or flick of a toothpick than most award-winning actors of any era. If he can convince a Western/fighting movie anti-fan like me to eagerly desire to watch the three other films, his performance must be stellar. Kurosawa made a lot of movies with Mifune and once said that:

Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities. – Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography.

Tatsuya Nakadai, who starred in Human Condition, Ran, and several other classics, appears as a loyal member of one of the gangs. He’s set apart as the one gangster with a gun, which he shoots with precision as a counter to Sanjuro’s very traditional swordsmanship. His character is threatening and probably the sharpest of the bunch though no match for Sanjuro.

This film inspired Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, in fact it’s said to be almost a carbon copy. I may just watch that too, but I’ve become such a Mifune fan, I doubt anyone can fill his shoes.

Gilda

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What a great introduction to a character! Rita Hayworth who plays the title character in Gilda wows with her hair when she first appears. Her hair is just terrific and is probably one of the best things about the noir film. Her hair is used to great effect at least twice in the film so I’m in no way putting down the film.

Gilda is a classic film that’s mainly plot and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it has so much style, that it’s easy to forgive. Set in Argentina, the story begins with Johnny Farrell (Glen Ford) wins big in a dice game, but is cornered by some sore losers. Fortunately, a mysterious stranger, Ballin Mundson arrives with his trusty cane with a hidden blade. He intimidates the thugs and saves Farrell. Later he again crosses paths and hires Johnny Farrell.

Johnny’s life becomes far better as he goes from gambling in dives to managing Mundson’s high end casino. His life is humming along till Mundson returns with his new wife: Gilda. Wouldn’t you know it, Gilda and Johnny were once a couple. Add to that Mundson is a controlling husband. He charges Johnny with keeping tabs on Gilda, who’ll take up with any handsome, young man from the hundreds who’re smitten with her. (So I suppose Mundson has some reason to appoint someone as her keeper.)

On top of the love triangle, Mundson’s trailed by mysterious Germans who’re chasing him and want to seize control of Mundson’s cartel so his work keeps him too busy to spend much quality time with his wife.

We never learn why Gilda and Johnny broke up but it’s clear their love-hate relationship will live on. Mundson fakes his death and so Johnny marries Gilda. At first we think they’ll finally work through their past and find love, but Johnny actually just married Gilda to get punish her for cheating on Mundson.

Another part of the story that nagged me was the unlikelihood that Mundson would meet and also marry Gilda, Johnny’s ex-girlfriend. Really? She was stunning, but not the only fish in the sea. The odds of being in the same room, let alone her agreeing to marry him were astronomical. But the film had style and moved along so I forgive the filmmakers.

Another coincidence that nagged me was the unlikelihood of Mundson meeting and marrying Johnny’s ex-girlfriend. The film needed a line like Bogart’s “Of all the gin joints . . . ” from Casablanca.

Some view Gilda as her husbands’ pawn, but while Johnny does trick her and hurt her, she was able to quite a degree to defy both of them. It’s a complicated film and none of the characters are meant to resemble real people so it’s easy to enjoy the film despite its plot failings.

Hayworth is a compelling actress, not just for her hair, but for her stage presence and voice.

If you’re interested in film noir, you should see Gilda.

Shoot the Piano Player

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Charlie & Léna, the waitress

Inspired by American B movies, Shoot the Piano Player begins with Chico, a ne’er-do-well tracking down Charlie, his brother who’s a classic concert pianist turned bar room piano player. Two thugs are chasing Chico who’s run off with the whole pot that they ripped off in some heist. Charlie wants no part of Chico and his other brother’s two bit crimes. Along the way Charlie recalls his first marriage and early fame as a concert pianist, woos a beautiful, young waitress, evades the two thugs, murders his boss in self-defense, and runs off to the woods to join his brothers.

An adaptation of a novel by David Goodis, whom I’d never heard of, Shoot the Piano Player is a noir story, which beautiful and often clever cinematography. Though it was made in 1960, it seem fresher than many films made today. The love scenes are so beautifully done in a way that is totally lost with modern filmmakers. I wonder whether the black and white film of that day are part of the reason. There is plenty of visual wit and intelligent repartee.

Shoot the Piano Player was not a success when it first came out, but later was rediscovered and loved. People who know Charles Aznavour, the star, think of him as a singer, but actually his first goal was to act. When he couldn’t get acting roles, he’d sing.

This film, Truffaut’s second after the successful The 400 Blows, features a couple actors from his first film. Charlie’s impish little brother and Chico were both in The 400 Blows.

Shoot the Piano Player has plenty of surprises and twists and turns, that it’s sure to delight with its sensitivity, innovation and humor. I know I’ll watch this again and again.

I watched with the commentary on so I could hear all about the filmmaking. Get the Criterion Collection edition with interviews with Truffaut and Aznavour.