Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rififi (1955) Spine #115

For any film, there are two stories.  One is what we see when we watch.  The other is how the movie came to be.  The second, at times, can eclipse the first, like with The Firemen’s Ball.  But for others, both stories can be equally compelling.

Such is the case with Rififi (1955).  Finally I get a French picture on the list, given my blog title.  Rififi is the story of a thief just out from prison who immediately turns back to crime.  Tony (the Stephanois) doesn’t really take all that much convincing.  In the scene where Tony, Mario and Jo (the Swede) sit in a café (which really isn’t a café but some panes of glass blocking off part of the street) across from the jewelry store they intend to rob, Tony claims he is not interested.  The two want to do a brazen smash-and-grab.  Tony later hatches a much grander scheme, involving a great deal more risk for more reward.  They enlist the help of an Italian safecracker, Cesar (played by the director, Jules Dassin, who stepped in when the actor originally slated to play the role was not sent his contract in time), find a front in London, case the block meticulously, and after figuring out how to defeat the security alarm (with fire extinguisher foam), they break in by carefully (so as not to cause too much noise or cavitation to set off the alarm) through the ceiling, with an ingenious use of an umbrella, disable the alarm, cut a hole in the back of the safe (using a contraption that they invented for the film), steal the jewels, and exit out the way they came.  This is all done in a breathless 33-minute sequence that has no music (there was a score written, but it was wisely jettisoned) and very little sound.  This scene changed how heist movies were shot.

Of course, it is only after they successfully rob the place that thing turn awry.  The film, unfortunately, has a rather 1950s view of women and seems to implicate them.  Cesar cannot keep from seeing Viviane, and he gives her a ring that links the singer to the heist.  Mario is not willing to give up Tony to Grutter, even though he knows this will be a painful death, but his girlfriend Louise, who doesn’t know the score, uncovers Tony, and they are both killed.  The other woman in the movie, Tony’s girl Mado les Grands Bras (wow, really?), does help in the end, but his treatment of her after he finds that she is now with Grutter is so brutal that we as an audience are funneled to not liking her, given how Tony handles her.  The world of this movie is harsh and unforgiving, but that’s with good reason.

Now we switch to the other story of Rififi, Jules Dassin.  Dassin was a director who was integral to smithing what the French critics of the Cahiers du Cinéma would define as film noir.  He had four of note, back-to-back, from 1947-1950:  Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway and Night and the City.  Towards the end of production of the last, he was blacklisted.  He couldn’t oversee post-production of the movie.  The interview Criterion includes on the disk is insightful and painful.  All doors closed on him in Hollywood, and I don’t just mean domestic doors.  When he relocated to Europe and tried to make movies there, American distributors told European film companies that if they allowed Dassin to work on a film, it would never be distributed in America.  Not only that, but anyone working on a Dassin film would never get a job working on an American film or have their pictures distributed.  So, no one would give him work.  Rififi was the first movie he was allowed to make after being blacklisted.  The producer of the movie really wanted to do an adaptation of the novel Du rififi chez les hommes, but only the heist part.  According to the interview, there was a lot of “undesirable” content in the novel (including necrophilia and rampant racism).  It was really underworld / underbelly stuff.  So Dassin, needing money, wrote a screenplay adaptation.  The author of the novel, who Dassin said was a George Raft-like character (I just can’t escape George Raft!) with a hat, came to see Dassin and the producer, asking “where is my book?”  Dassin said he gave le Breton some song and dance about how things change in an adaptation.  le Breton said, “ok, but where is my book?”  Dassin tried to relay the same message, again, with slightly different words, and le Breton took a gun out and put it on the table in front of him.  Dassin, finding the whole situation ridiculous, laughed.  Because he showed no fear, le Breton liked him and allowed the film to go forward.  That description is enough for a movie of its own, in my opinion.

Some people talk back to their TVs when watching sports.  I do it with movies.  Of course, it has to be something that I don’t know what’s going to happen, and when I do it, it always signals for me the mark of something special.  I love not knowing what’s going to happen, and even with a film that is this old, I don’t want to look into researching it until after, just in case.  This is an intense movie.

The Hollywood blacklist threw a lot of great talent under the bus, some for so long they never recovered.  Others for so long they never came back.  Dassin did make Up Tight! (1968), and Promise at Dawn (1970) was a joint venture between the US and France, but he never lived in the US after 1952 and only came back rarely.  It makes me itchy and nauseous when the flag-waving democracy of the good ole US of A looks like just another puppet master.  But what it does present is something odd.  Critics point to Rififi as being one of the great, if not the greatest, examples of French noir.  But if the guy in charge is American, and had been making noir well before Rififi, is it really French?  The French definitely claim the movie as theirs.  The source material, locations, and language are all French.  But is it French?  No, it isn’t.  How complicated is it that Dassin, an American, is directing a French film as well as playing an Italian in the film?  Trés internationale.  But then again, maybe it is.  We don’t call Hitchcock’s films made in the United States British.  Someone more slippery would be Kubrick.  I’d feel that A Clockwork Orange is definitely British.  So’s Barry Lyndon.  But Full Metal Jacket?  Eyes Wide Shut?  The Shining?  Hrm…  I always like pointing to the movie The American (2010) on this.  The book is based on a British novel, shot in Italy with mostly Italian actors, post-production in London.  What makes it American?  George Clooney?

I’m getting off-topic.  It’s a beautiful film and indeed a great example of film noir.  I didn’t know this before, but the sets were designed by Alexandre Trauner, who did the sets for Children of Paradise.  I can see its echoes in the scene where Cesar gets shot.  Dassin won the Best Director Award at Cannes for the film.  That is vindication, but when he talks about how the Americans had to invite him to a party they were hosting at Cannes when they clearly did not want to, and how everyone on the receiving line hid their faces, I don’t see an overall win.  Dassin said that someone actually hid under a table to avoid being seen with him.  He made the film on a shoestring, $200,000.  Ridiculous.  To produce so much from so little is amazing in and of itself.  Like Some Like It Hot, this film was also condemned by the Catholic League of Decency, but then some editing was done so that it passed.  I wonder what they took out?  When considering the MPAA, no one gets away with anything by the end of the movie.  That it was banned momentarily in some places (and outright in Mexico) because crimes copycatting the robbery in the movie started popping up is an eye-opener.  And incidentally, “rififi,” according to the song purred by Viviane, means “rough and tough.”  To get through what he did, I think that is more akin to Dassin than all of the characters in the movie combined.

Addendum (10/1/12):  The end of the film, which is amazing, would not happen today because of cell phones.  Kim and I started thinking about how true that would be of a lot of things.  I was just reading an interview in Paris Review of Bret Easton Ellis where he notes that Less Than Zero, if written today, would only be about 20 pages long because most of the novel is people driving around looking for each other, stopping off at people's houses and other places in order to use the phone.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Bad Sleep Well (1960) Spine #319

I have heard of this movie also being called The Worse You Are, the Better You Sleep but had not heard of The Rose in the Mud.  We are covering this film this week in my 218 (Introduction to Literature and Film) class in conjunction with Hamlet.

There has been plenty of argument on the side that TBSW is not in fact an adaptation of Hamlet.  But when I sandwich it between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Hamlet (2000), I firmly believe that my case is made.  I don’t remember everything about The Lion King, but that is cited as a Hamlet adaptation.  I think it brings up some great points about adaptation.  The way the characters get split (Claudius becomes three characters), removed (no Gertrude), and remade (Nishi’s identity obfuscation with Itakura).  That the plot is in medias res with that absolutely exquisite 20 minute no-holds-barred wedding sequence.  Kurosawa knitting an intricate plot about government corruption into his version would I think have made Shakespeare salivate a bit.  I think of the requisite pride imposed by the Master of Revels on plays of Shakespeare’s time.  You can’t set a plot about bad governance in England.  You need to set it elsewhere:  Vienna, Venice, Verona, Denmark, Scotland.  Because bad governance doesn’t happen in England.  Kurosawa doesn’t shy away from where he sees the problem.

Shakespeare tries to get at the issue of a court in disarray.  Hamlet bemoans the drinking in the court (“This heavy-headed revel east and west / Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations:  They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase / Soil our addition; and indeed it takes / From our achievements, though perform'd at height, / The pith and marrow of our attribute.”), but his dad’s only been dead four months.  They are “tax’d of other nations.”  While Hamlet Sr. may have been a fighter in his younger days, “smot[ing] the sledded Polack” and combating Norway, Denmark’s been on the decline since then.  How else can Fortinbras pose such a serious threat?  I know it’s a lot of text to wade through, but Hamlet gives so many clues about what is actually going on versus what we see going on.  It’s like the inside digs taken in Henry V.  The narrator is boasting, but what we see is different.

And that was the reality for Kurosawa.  He was sick and tired of compromising to please Toho.  Or Toho was sick and tired of him going over schedule and over budget.  Probably a combination of the two.  Read Something Like an Autobiography (if you like Kurosawa, you should do this anyway).  He started his own company for a bit more autonomy.  Just like Pickford, Chaplin, Griffith and others who founded United Artists back in 1919.  It was a significant shift to go from popular samurai movies to TBSW.  He purposefully chose this movie because he didn’t want people to think this new company was just about making more money.  If Kurosawa really formed the company for monetary purposes, this first film was not a step in that direction.

I see that this is sometimes categorized as film noir, which I think is an odd distinction that I don’t agree with.  Yes, it involves a crime.  But Nishi has agency.  Indeed, he is trying to control everything.  He isn’t always successful, but he is the main agent provocateur in the film.  Characters in film noir have no control.  They are being controlled and overridden.  There are scenes at night and a dark tone, but no femme fatale.  It just doesn’t ring true to me.

I just keep thinking about how ballsy it was for Kurosawa to make this movie.  Often he is cited as being more popular outside of Japan than inside, because he was such the nail sticking out.  That doesn’t fly well in Japan, where a uniform conformity is the mindset.  But the beginning of the 1960s was a weird time for Japan, with the student riots against treaties with America, the rightist movement for rearmament.  I had to give a quick look to see what my hero, Yukio Mishima, was writing in 1960:  After the Banquet.  That was the one that Mishima got sued for because it smacked too closely of politician Hachiro Arita’s real life, and Arita won (but, in effect, given all the publicity the case got, winning was losing).  Mishima was ballsy too, but that goes without saying.

I think Nishi kind of looks like Clark Kent in the movie, which matches well given that Kent was Superman’s alter ego / identity.  Nishi has one, too, but he’s no super hero.  However, what he is doing is highly heroic:  exposure of government and private fixed contracts, taxpayer money being appropriated, and people being silenced (in a truly Japanese way – don’t besmirch the higher-ups, fall on your sword for the greater glory).  That is why the ending to TBSW is infinitely more galling than Hamlet.  Yes, a king was murdered by his brother.  But you know what?  Hamlet was next in line.  He was of age.  He had legal cause to be king, no matter who Claudius married.  WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T HAMLET CLAIM WHAT WAS HIS???  Too busy sulking in a corner?  Pathetic.  Nishi’s plan, while elaborate and full of places to go awry, is noble.  That the bad guys get away with it and Nishi is murdered is gut-wrenching.  And more realistic.  This film is depressing.

I’m always a bit wary when I show this film to students.  It is black and white.  It is 2 ½ hours long.  It is in Japanese.  It’s sort of cruel in a way (“What, you can’t understand Shakespearian English?  Ok, how about Japanese?”).  But the film is EXCELLENT.  It is a bit of culture shock – Japanese actors have a much different delivery of acting on film than American actors.  Ebert does a good job of articulating this in his review of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, where the combination of the two regions of actors is in much starker contrast.  And it is haunting.  I thought the internet was powerful, but it let me down today.  I have been trying to find out what tune Nishi whistles.  Was it a song that was part of popular culture at the time in Japan?  All I can find on soundtrack listings is “Nishi’s Whistle 1” and “Nishi’s Whistle 2.”  There’s a post on IMDb asking the question back in 2007, which no one replied to.  Perhaps it was dreamed up by the film’s composer Masaru Satô or a creation by Mifune, but for days after I see the film, I have that tune stuck in my head.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Some Like It Hot (1959) Laserdisc Spine #074

Joe:  Synchopaters – does that mean you play that really fast music – jazz?
Sugar:  Yaaah, real hot!
Joe:  Oh, well, some like it hot.  I personally prefer classical music.

I know, it’s overdone to introduce a movie by where its title shows up in the dialogue, but what’s so great about this exchange is that it is at a critical moment where these two characters, Sugar and Joe, are playing out their constructed fantasies on each other, hoping to get a hit on the line.  Joe is almost guaranteed one, as Sugar has already confessed to his alter ego Josephine what she is looking for on this paid gig to Florida.  His ploy is to play hard-to-get, even though every part of him (some more than others) is already hungry for Sugar.  And pretty much everything in this movie is overdone anyway.

Because you’ve got Tony Curtis with his pretty boy looks, Jack Lemmon with his exaggerated expressions (usually exasperation) and eye twinkle, and Marilyn Monroe, with her … attributes.  You’ve also got Billy Wilder in the driver’s seat, writing with I.A.L. Diamond.

In my American Cinema class, this is the one that pretty much everyone hands down likes and is usually surprised they like because “black and white movies are boring” (I urge you to please never say this to my face unless you want me to consider you a moron – nothing polarizes me quicker against you except saying George W. Bush was a good president.).  The wit is sharp, the pacing overall is quick, and the characters are loveable, for the most part.

Except Joe.  Joe’s an unmitigated asshole.  And he seems to know this.  Jerry knows but still puts up with Joe, because we need someone with a conscience for Joe to play off of.  Sugar ending up with Joe at the end, the “fuzzy end of the lollipop,” is a rather odd (if predictable) resolution.  He’s even told her he’s no good, and she has evidence at this point to prove it.  All the guy has ever done is lie to her, and he’s done it in two different guises.  So, Sugar’s right.  She’s not bright at all.

When I started teaching the class, I needed to get my hands on the movies.  Some I duped (hi, FBI!), and some I bought.  I bought SLIH because I liked it.  What was cool was when it arrived and I popped it open, sandwiched in with the already two discs of the Collector’s Edition was a third disk, with the handwritten pen of “Criterion Laserdisc Commentary Tracks.”  Aw!  Really?  For me?  The guy should have charged me more.  I wrote him a glowing review on Amazon.  And it’s so cute, because you can see when he was duping it when he had to change sides.  Laserdiscs were cool.  People are cool, too.

The Criterion commentary is provided by Howard Suber, who taught film and screenwriting at UCLA for decades.  Two things come across in his commentary.  One is exercising his theory about comedy (especially this one) being about three stages for its characters:  desire, deception, and discovery.  He primarily charts Sugar and Joe for this.  Both had the initial desire for something specific.  Sugar wants a rich millionaire, and Joe wants yet another unattached fling (what Sugar is expressly trying to avoid by finding a rich, sight-impaired bachelor).  It would seem Sugar has set her goals higher than Joe, but then again, Joe is trying to bed Marilyn Monroe (because really, even if she’s playing a character, she’s still pretty much a version of herself).  The irony here is that Curtis and Monroe were already “acquainted” before working together in this movie, Curtis dating Monroe when she was 19, before she became famous.  So in order to work towards gaining this desire, both characters engage in deception.  Joe swipes Beanstalk’s clothes and Sugar feeds back Shell Oil Jr., in a brilliant twist, Josephine and Geraldine’s Sheboygan Conservatory of Music (“Good school.”).  The way lines are delivered in this movie slays me.  Wilder and Diamond are at their very best.  Yet they discover at the end that what they really wanted was something different.  Sugar wants Joe (again, I don’t know why – the heart is such an oddball organ) and Joe still wants Sugar, just for longer than one night.  I don’t necessarily buy Suber’s theory, and when I went hunting online on whether this was something established or just cooked up and served, hoping for takers, I didn’t see it mentioned anywhere other than Suber, so I guess either no one wanted a slice, or perhaps I’m missing something.

The other thing Suber gets across, intentional or otherwise, is that he LOVES Marilyn Monroe.  He is very sympathetic towards her and gives a lot of biographical anecdotes along the way.  I’m not really sure how I feel about Monroe.  Yes, she had a horrible childhood, yes she was physically and emotionally abused, she had more abortions than the population of some small towns, but everyone is always so gooey-sad and bumble-tragic about her.  These things happen to women around the world, every day, and to a much worse degree.    Elton John doesn’t sing them songsThey don’t get the cover of Time magazine fifty years later (and how morbid is it to have anniversaries on someone’s death?).  Because she was pretty?  I mean, yeah, she was pretty.  And she was a quasi-ok actress (truly, if you spend time researching this film, reading about her botched lines, her temper tantrums, her anxiety attacks, and being drunk and / or drugged up the majority of the time she was on set, then she really was more of a problem than anyone cares to own up to).  I think it’s a generational thing.  I’m sure the people who fawn all over her now were masturbating to pictures of her or cutting their hair to get that Marilyn look back in the 50s and turned up their noses at Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.  Or maybe it’s because she died relatively young.  But then again, you can throw out Montgomery Clift and James Dean, and they don’t hold nearly the sway today (in fact, they rarely create a blip in pop culture anymore).

This sounds too much like a trash MM-fest.  She is intoxicating in SLIH, no matter how impaired.  But there are three performances that I really like in the film:  Joe E. Brown as Osgood Fielding the III, George Raft as Spats Colombo, and Al Breneman who plays the bellhop that brings Osgood’s flowers to Geraldine and tries to make time with Josephine.  Brown is hilarious with his exhales and “Zowie!”s and expression.  When he’s dancing with Lemmon, I never stop giggling.  And, he gets the best line of the movie.  He was in nearly 70 movies stretching all the way back to 1927.  He ran away to join the circus when he was 10 years old.  Interesting guy.  George Raft is a weird case, because in the class, we first see him as Tony’s sidekick Guino in Scarface (1932), flipping his coin.  He never really had a big movie, but he was offered the parts of Rick Blaine in Casablanca and Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (two other films we watch in the class), both of which he turned down.  Both movies were HUGE for Humphrey Bogart and Fred MacMurray. His appearance in this movie is film equivalent of Wilder throwing a dog a bone.  In the scene where he confronts the gunsel flipping a coin (“Where’d you pick up that cheap trick?”), you get a great smack of comic and tragic.  It’s inspired.  And, I just like the way Breneman’s character carries himself – totally self-confident without an ounce to back it up.  I love how he pulls his bow tie on an elastic band out and lets it pop back into his throat while he whistles and points to his target, winking.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


I'm fairly certain that when Scorsese and Dickerson are talking about Powell and Pressburger films, they aren't talking about Powell and Pressburger.  They are talking about Jack Cardiff.