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.
Released in 1966 Wings, a story of a Russian female heroic fighter pilot long after she’s been able to fly sounded like an intriguing film. As a Criterion Collection film I had not sky-high, but high hopes. It’s the story of an unmarried woman who’s isolated from those around her. Though she’s a mother (of a daughter who doesn’t know she’s adopted), a high school principal who’s dedicated to her school and students, and the lover of a museum director, the main character is emotionally distant from everyone around her.
Her life isn’t bad, but she’s very isolated. She talks with her lover about her estrangement with her daughter and she talks in passing with people at work about a boy who got in trouble and has now run away, but the conversation is superficial.
While I gave the movie a chance and wouldn’t call it bad, because the heroine was so removed from everyone else and we never saw the main problems like the boy’s flight from his dormitory, I never got caught up in the story. So the artistry escaped me.
I can’t recommend Wings, but perhaps I’ve missed something.
Truffaut offers a realistic look at infidelity in The Soft Skin (1964) where Pierre Lachenay, a publisher and scholar known from his TV appearances, gets obsessed with Nicole, a flight attendant, and starts an affair with her. Pierre has a sort of budding butterball look. He could be the Pillsbury Doughboy’s French father. He is smart, yet bland. He’s married to an attractive woman and they have a young daughter whom he dotes on. He doesn’t hate his life, but when he sees Nicole on a flight, he becomes smitten.
He later sees her at a hotel and follows her to find out her room. It’s a bit stalker-ish, but not quite. Nicole who’s probably half Pierre’s age is interested. She hasn’t experience romantic love and is in awe of Pierre’s success.
Throughout the film Pierre and Nicole have difficulty meeting up. Their rendezvous always go awry. Perhaps an old friend meets Pierre and asks to go for a drink. He’ll respond that he must drive back to Paris and the friend will say that’s where he wants to go and figures they can drive together. All the while Nicole’s twiddling her fingers back at the hotel where they’re staying. Such obstacles crop up again and again. Ever nervous, Pierre bungles along with his poor plans and lies. Yes, Nicole is young, beautiful and energetic, but having the affair is offset by the stress of lies and running around only to be thwarted.
Eventually Franca Pierre’s wife realizes something’s off. After awhile Franca gives up on the marriage and asks for a divorce. Freed, Pierre agrees, but he soon finds that breaking with Franca does not lead to bliss in a new posh apartment with Nicole.
The film is beautiful and Truffaut’s direction is sophisticated and engaging. He films intimacy in such a classy, real way. He shows affairs as they really are, not all romance, not all due to a horrible spouse. Infidelity certainly doesn’t lead to a blissful new romance and a break with past problems.
Based on John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold stars Richard Burton as a jaded, used, alcoholic spy, who’s seemingly put out to pasture then pulled back in when the blue bloods running MI-6 need him. It’s a trip back to the cold war. Michael Sragow’s essay for the Criterion Collection aptly captures the essence of the film:
Martin Ritt’s 1965 movie of John le Carré’s first great novel (and first best seller), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, declares “a plague on all your houses” to capitalists, Communists, and ruthless intelligence operatives. It’s one espionage movie that neither comes on like gangbusters nor sneaks up on you like a cat burglar. Instead, it creates an atmosphere of anguish, fear, and rage that intensifies each pause in the action and gesture of the actors, leaving viewers hanging on every word of the sometimes cryptic, sometimes eloquent dialogue.
Alec Leamas (Burton) is a middle-aged, run down spy. His boss called “Control” offers him a desk job, which he refuses leading to a scheme whereby Leamas is to take a boring, low paying clerk job at a library, where he meets the fetching Nan Perry (Claire Bloom, who at one time was romantically linked to Burton). The romance redeems Leamas, but that doesn’t matter to MI-6. They propose that Leamas return to the service posing as a double agent with East Germany.
He goes along with the plan to be taken by the East Germans and cosy up to Fiedler, an East German Jewish intelligence officer who seeks to convict Mundt, a double agent who’s leaked secrets to the west. The counterpoint of the tender relationship with Nan and the sordid world of espionage add a compelling tension. The plot twists and turns while engaging in incisive repartee. The unexpected ending chills to the bone.
The Criterion Collection extras include a candid interview with le Carré, who while he didn’t hate the film, didn’t think it was that great and a short documentary on le Carré’s biography focussing on the influence his duplicitous father had on his joining MI-6, illuminate the film.
I’d heard the term “cinema verite” and like many wrongly thought that referred to a film that’s extremely realistic. It turns out that’s not exactly right. For my classic movie resolution, I watched Chronicle of a Summer by the inventors of cinema verite, two French sociologists. Cinema verite is a sociological film that forces people to come to the truth. Released in 1961, captured on black and white film, which adds a filter of reality that color couldn’t strangely enough, Chronicle of a Summer sets out to prompt real people to come in contact with truth through interviews and discussions that begin with the simple question: Are you happy? The directors behind the film are Jean Rouch, an engineer turned ethnological filmmaker who mainly worked in Africa and Edgar Morin, a sociologist based in Paris.
With two directors, the film does have two distinct moods. Viewers can feel when the somber, analytical Morin is in charge or when the more playful Rouch has the reins. The film begins with a woman agreeing to interview people on the street asking subjects whether they’re happy. It turns out that in Paris in 1960 few were. Still the film gets under your skin. Though neither director has gone to film school, the creative shots grabbed me and did feel very real. At times the film just shows people, working in a factory, eating lunch, walking down a street. They’re shown in their individualism in a way that’s compelling and fresh. I liked some of the subjects more than others. For the most part, the subjects came off as sincere and they presented a snapshot of life in 1960. I found the ending simple and powerful. Rouch and Morin gather their subjects for a screening of the film followed by a discussion. We hear their reactions whether they thought some people were exhibitionists or authentic, whether the whole endeavor was true to life or indecent. People were honest and through this scene were elevated beyond just being “performers” or “subjects” to being co-creators. Chronicle of a Summer is a Criterion Collection film and as usual features some worthwhile bonuses. The best was an insightful interview with Faye Ginsberg, who worked with Jean Rouch after he made this film.
Until I saw The Inheritance I knew nothing of director Misaki Kobayashi . Until I started my movie New Years resolutions, I only knew of Kurosawa and Ozu. Japan has manymore directors whose films still have power.
The Inheritance shows the materialism of post-WWII Japan. It’s set in the 1960s and the Japanese have prospered. They aren’t trying stretch 35 yen to last all day as the characters in the ironically titled One Wonderful Sunday did. With a jazzy soundtrack, The Inheritance tells the story of a company president who’s learned he’s dying of cancer. He decides to track down his three illegitimate children so his materialistic young wife doesn’t get all of his 300,000,000 yen fortune.
We see the story through the eyes of Yasuko, his aloof secretary, who could pass for a Japanese Audrey Hepburn. the employees who’re supposed to hunt down the children, all get yen signs in their eyes and make deals with the wife. The man’s son leads a life of desolation and his youngest daughter has died, but his wife and employee try to pass off their secret daughter as the heir. (They had a fling behind the man’s back.)
As the man’s health deteriorates Yasuko moves into his house. His wife is not welcoming in the least. The boss does make a play for Yasuko, who lacks the power to push him away or leave the house. Since she’s living in an apartment she describes as a concrete box, the idea of getting more money appeals to her.
I thoroughly enjoyed this look at Japan. It’s a story of conniving and greed done in a way I wouldn’t expect. If you’re looking for a different sort of drama, see if you can find The Inheritance. My library had the Criterion Collection DVD. I wish they had an audio commentary or more extras as it’s a film I’d like to learn more about.
The story of an American who defected to North Korea in the 1960s, Crossing the Line is yet another good documentary that I’ve discovered this winter. James Joseph Dresnok tells the story of his life with added interviews with a friend from his youth and men in the army who worked with him. An orphan with little success in school, Dresnok joined the army when he turned 17. He married before he left for Germany. Upon his return from Germany, he discovered his wife was unfaithful and wanted a divorce.
The disappointment stung and compelled him to re-enlist. Then he was sent to South Korea to patrol the DMZ in the 1960s. After forging a pass for a night out, Dresnok ran across the DMZ into North Korea to avoid disciplinary action. This impetuous move was in character with a man who ran away from foster homes and bad situations time after time.
The North Koreans capitalized on this defection and three others that soon followed by using Dresnok and other American soldiers in propoganda. They appeared on the covers of magazines and eventually starred in films playing American villians.
We hear so little about North Korea and these defections were hushed by the U.S. army that was embarrassed that American soldiers would find life in the backward hermit kingdom an option at all. I wouldn’t trade places with Dresnok, but I do see that he and his family have had a unique life. He’s been well taken care of even after attempting to defect to Russia when life in North Korea got burdensome. He and his fellow Americans all married and it seemed the government arranged for that. Dresnok first married a woman who refused to tell him her nationality for decades. (It’s believed she was kidnapped from Romania.) After his first wife’s death, he married a woman whose mother was North Korean and whose father was an African diplomat.
Dresnok’s learned Korean and has adapted to life in Pyongyang quite well. It’s a strange life, but has worked out for him. Without much education and with a penchant for flouting American rules, he would have struggled in the US. In North Korea he has a decent apartment, a seemingly nice family life, and the regard of North Koreans around him.