Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) Spine #271

In the middle of being buried with Closely Watched Trains, Rear Window and The Third Man, I snuck in another movie (well, two in fact – we went to see Nosferatu at the AFI with a live accompaniment).  This will be quick, and for that, I apologize, because this film deserves more. 

Touchez pas au grisbi can be placed alongside Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, Shoot the Piano Player and (maybe) Breathless as great French noir (I haven’t seen Pepe le Moko but am moving it to the top of my queue).  More is going on in Breathless than that (the neo-realism just takes it to a different level).  But these films about crime and criminals are incredibly seductive.  The protagonists are assured and well-dressed, astute and experienced.  The cinematography is both pared down and lush at the same time.  And you cannot escape the time period.

I didn’t know anything about this film before seeing it, so when Jean Gabin came on, I was all like “Hey!  It’s the guy from Grand Illusion!”  I apparently have not seen enough Jean Gabin in my life and need to remedy that (moving Port of Shadows up and omg he’s in Renoir’s The Lower Depths?!).  He’s older in this film (17 years older than he was in GI).  The movie centers on Max, yet another criminal looking to get out of crime.  Even though he is known as Max “the Liar,” everyone he comes in contact with seems to have a respect, if not an affinity, for Max.  For a criminal to command that type of respect is curious.  We as an audience trust him right away, based on his treatment of and by other characters.

But, he’s tired of the racket.  He’s just plain tired.  In the beginning of the film, we see him wanting to duck a night on the town by breaking the evening down:  if we go out, we’re going to have to go drinking and dancing, then the girls will want to have sex, and I’m tired now, so let’s forget it.  His constant companion is Riton.  The two have been together pulling jobs for something like a quarter of a century.  Unfortunately, Riton seems a bit on the slow side, and we get the feeling that Max has had to save his friend on more than one occasion.

Ok, most of the things I’ve posted on this blog assume the reader has seen the film.  I haven’t had a spoiler alert – I just go.  I’m doing one this time.  If you haven’t seen this movie, stop reading and watch it and come back.  The blog isn’t going anywhere.

What is amazing about this film is the carefully constructed scene where Max takes Riton to his secret hideout.  We’ve had pieces of information fed to us, but don’t have a context.  We know someone stole some gold.  But that seems to be mentioned in passing.  We then see two thugs try to kill Max, and later Max calls Riton just as Angelo and another thug are trying to enlist Riton’s help for an evening job.  Max has Riton get rid of Angelo and come along to his place with some complicated instructions to follow.  When Riton gets there, we see that Max has the gold bars in little suitcases in a car locked away behind a screen in a garage, and Riton sees Max’s secret hideout.  We see Max trusting Riton to an enormous degree.  But we then see that Riton has supremely screwed up in a way that could have (if the plan had gone right) ended them both.  Riton, also getting older, is having trouble holding on to his young stripper girlfriend Josey, who now has eyes for the young Angelo.  In order to whet her appetite, Riton alludes to the big score he just made.  Josey tells Angelo, and Angelo plans to wipe out Max and Riton after he finds the grisbi (and I love how the “loot” is “grisbi” – sounds like frisbee).  Max works all this out and lays it on Riton, who realizes how stupid he was and how he has put both himself and his friend in danger.  But the way this scene comes together makes unconnected lines in the plot connect in an instant that had me exhaling “OH!”  They sit, eating paté and crackers and drinking wine, and their entire world caves in on us.  Max then gives his friend a set of pajamas and a toothbrush, because tomorrow Max has to go make things right.

Unfortunately for Max, Riton tries to remedy the situation himself and gets caught, and in another brilliant scene, Max (in voice over) thinks about maybe Riton has stepped in it one too many times. He’s got the gold.  He’s got transportation.  He can blow town with both shares of the loot and live like a king the rest of his life.  And when you do the math at the end of the movie (young Oscar, Angelo’s gang, Riton himself and all that gold), the amount that is lost on attempting to get Riton back is appalling.  But there is a sense of loyalty Max has that will not allow him to leave Riton behind, which may account for why so many people in the movie (even Angelo) have nothing but good things to say about Max.  The very end, once he returns to the table after the phone call learning of Riton’s death, his face is so pained and masked at the same time, it’s truly heartbreaking.

And unfortunately for me, while this is an adaptation, the original work is in French with no English translation.  But perhaps that isn’t a bad thing after all.

The Third Man (1949) Spine #064

Oooooook, how to unpack this one…  I mean, geez.  Talk about ground covered.  Here’s what Criterion has (all of which I’ve read):

…and I don’t know how many critical articles.  Go to JSTOR.  You’ll see.

A couple of things to dispense with:

  • Orson Welles did not have anything to do with the directing of the movie.
  • The only thing Orson Welles contributed to the screenplay (since the screenplay is derived directly from the novella [more on that later]) was the “Cuckoo Clock” speech (the Germans invented the cuckoo clock, not the Swiss) and the part about his indigestion (which Welles actually had), but not the speech on the Ferris wheel (the dots stopping moving is in the novella).
  • Anton Karas’s score does get on my nerves.  I realize that people loved it at the time (makes me think of how excited people got about Indian music and Bollywood because of Slumdog Millionaire, and yes, I bought the soundtrack).  But after a while, it’s like “couldn’t you do a different part of the score with a different instrument?”
  • Some critics claim this is the best British film ever made.  That may be true.
  • Yes, Jimmy Stewart was originally considered to be Martins, and Noel Coward and Cary Grant were considered for Lime.
  • Yes, Lime’s name is derived from Greene’s name:  Henry (Harry) Graham Green (Lime is a color of green).
  • Yes, Greene based the character of Lime on a double agent named Kim Philby.
  • Yes, because of the use of (copious) Dutch angles in the film, William Wyler (best known for Ben Hur) sent Carol Reed a spirit level to put on the top of his camera for future films.
  • The reason why Karas’s score is everywhere in this movie is because Reed and Greene were at a restaurant where Karas was performing, and Reed was so taken by the sound, he asked Karas to come up to his hotel room and play more, recording some of the score and hiring Karas on the spot to score the film.

There’s four stages to talking about this film.  One is Graham Greene.  Two is Vienna.  Three is Reed / Selznik.  Four is Orson Welles.  Graham Greene is an interesting twentieth century author.  His father was in charge of a boarding school, so Greene was enrolled.  His father was replaced, but Greene remained and was so bullied and depressed that he attempted suicide several times as a child.  His conversion to Catholicism in his mid-twenties greatly impacted his life as well as his writing.  I remember reading The Power and the Glory in high school and how impressed I was by it.  If I get time, I’d like to revisit it.  Greene was the first to give favorable reviews to Reed, and they collaborated on two movies together, this and The Fallen Idol (1948), which is also a Criterion movie.  Greene was decorated twice by the British government (Order of Merit and CH [Order of the Champions of Honour]).  He had a TV show in America for a while, many of his works were adapted for the screen, and he wrote screenplays as well as novels.  He was originally involved in TTM because Alexander Korda, British film producer, had some “extra” money lying around post-WWII and needed to invest it, so he hired Greene to go to Vienna and come up with something.

Which leads to stage two, Vienna.  Vienna in the wake of WWII, like many places, was awash with problems and possibilities.  The opening of the film explains how the city was divided up into five sectors (British, French, American, Russian and International).  Soldiers became policemen, and policemen reported in much the way soldiers did.  The problem was that no one understood each other.  It was a bureaucratic nightmare.  Since the four zones were operating under the law of whoever controlled the zone, but the international zone was patrolled by a shared international police force, you can imagine how hard it was to keep any form of similitude.  The line where the police are (again) taking Anna off to jail and telling her it’s policy, when she says “I don’t know what policy is” and the British officer whispers back “Neither do I, Miss,” you really couldn’t explain the situation much better.  And even while sections of the city are bombed-out rubble, Vienna is so photogenic that you can watch the movie just for Vienna’s sake.  The cobblestone streets, wetted-down to better pick up the light, gleam with a dream-like softness.  On the extras disk, they show the actual arc lights that Reed brought down to use on location in Vienna, and they are MAMMOTH things.  And the studio still has them, which I found curious.  Since at least half of the movie took place at night, and the effect they produced was outstanding, then their transport was warranted, but I’m sure several people pitched fits about it.  But Vienna is gorgeous, even in its broken way.  And yes, there are Third Man tours if you go to Vienna (which I hope to do in 2014, and yes, I will totally nerd up and go on the tour).  And as far as broken, where Greene derives his plot is that in fact, tainted penicillin was a huge problem at the time and did affect a large number of children.  At one of the first screenings of the movie, two of Greene’s (or was it Reed’s?) friends he had invited were silent through most of the movie.  After, they said that they had sold penicillin after the war, along with other black market items, but didn’t know about how it was affecting people (especially children).

Third is Reed / Selznick.  The extras discuss how wacked out Selznick was on Dexedrine and whatever else and would not leave the production alone (as a side note, the only director Selznick trusted with a movie was Hitchcock).  Reed was making a British movie with a British writer, but Korda and Selznick had made an agreement to do three films together.  Selznick would provide some American actors to give the picture greater profitability for American audiences.  In Selznick’s eyes, the picture was supposed to be a vehicle for Alida Valli, promoting her as the next Ingrid Bergman.  So the focus was supposed to be more on her and not so much on Martins.  Joseph Cotten as Martins was bankable.  But Selznick was adamant about the movie portraying Martins as not so bumbling and inept.  Some lines were taken out (most notably the German gin line Calloway says when they find that Lime has taken refuge in the sewers).  He even made them change Martins name from Rollo in the novella to Holly, because Rollo was too “silly” (but Holly wasn’t?).  But even so, if you listen to the commentary track with Dana Polan, Polan calls Martins a “loser” every chance he gets and is always pointing out how Martins is completely oblivious to everything around him (which to a certain extent is true, but Polan goes beyond that extent).  Reading Greene’s novella, Anna is not that big of a deal.  But in the film, we spend time with her alone quite a bit, even though it does little to further the Lime plot.  For a film that many people say is so tight that it never shows us something unnecessary, I’d disagree.  I really don’t care about Anna.  I care about Lime.  And as to who would play Lime, Selznick did not want Welles, who he felt was box office poison.

Which brings us to Welles.  Why was Welles considered poison?  Citizen Kane (1941) has been touted by many film scholars as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, film of all time.  I disagree, but for that to be someone’s first go at making a movie, it’s impressive.  Is it because his films lost money?  All that stuff about Hearst had to be expensive.  He was popular enough to have CBS give him a radio deal and the US government to tap him for a documentary in South America as part of the Good Neighbor Policy during WWII.  Yes, he went over budget in Brazil, but RKO was having money problems anyway.  So, the money problem was there.  But more than that was the notion that Welles was the enfant terrible, that he was a troublemaker.  He had high standards, and when they weren’t met, he complained.  Publically.  Bosses don’t like to hear things like that.  He also had a few movies that were stylistically left field (the complexity of the plot of The Lady from Shanghai and his version of Macbeth).  It was Cotten that got him involved in TTM.  Three things:  contract, contact and germs.  Welles signed a straight contract rather than asking for a percentage of the box office, which later really hurt his chance at making much better money than he did get.  Two was contact.  Welles did actually become Lime.  He would not show up on the set.  He was bouncing around Europe, would check himself in to various hotels under the production’s dime, but never quite get to Vienna.  This caused ENORMOUS problems for the production.  They got the assistant director, Guy Hamilton, to stand in for Welles to be his shadow (that scene after the big reveal where Lime is running away is Hamilton’s shadow).  They left the hanger in the overcoat, as Hamilton’s shoulders weren’t as broad as Welles'.  They had pretty much everything shot except for the Welles parts when he finally materialized.  Now granted, Welles isn’t in the picture all that much, but it does fuck with continuity if you constantly have to plan around shots that you have to then go back and do later.  There’s this great pictures of Cotten sitting on set next to a chair labeled for Welles with Kurtz’s dog in the chair.  But if that wasn’t bad enough, when Welles was brought down into the sewers for the final sequence, he emphatically stated that he could not work down there due to the conditions.  Um, it’s a sewer.  What was he expecting?  He read the script.  So Reed then had to have a set built in London the replicated the sewers, and fly actors up from Vienna to shoot part of the final sequence.  Gee, do you think that impacted the budget at all?  I bet Selznick was tearing the walls down in Hollywood when he got reports from Reed and Korda.

The film won best cinematography (even with all those skewed angles) and was nominated for best director and editing at the 1951 Academy Awards.  It won the Grand Prize of the Festival at Cannes in 1949.  It won Best British Film and was nominated for Best Film from any Source by BAFTA (although that’s a rather odd category – can it get vaguer?).  But why it wins for me is its truth.  I don’t know, but everything in reality right now seems more a fabrication than movies.  The election’s next week, and if one is dopey enough to turn in a television, the inundation of political ads saying a question or candidate is right one second and wrong the other is overwhelming.  Hurricane Sandy just rolled through, and narratives are already being constructed.  We’re headed into the last third of the semester, where every student’s relatives get terminal.  Nothing seems real and true and tangible.  But Martins and Lime, in that Ferris wheel cart, discussing the relative value of a human and the nature of motive, rings more true to me than any other dogma.  The film itself represents the best and worst of humanity.  It’s pessimistic and dark and cynical.  And at the same time, it’s so beautiful.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

King Kong (1933) Laserdisc Spine #002

This is going to come off sounding dismissive, and I apologize, but I didn’t really care for King Kong.  That is not to underestimate its importance as one of the first uses of stop motion animation and rear projection with live action.  I mean, we’ve got a big-budget movie (Frankenweenie) coming out this week that is stop-motion, so the technology hasn’t gone away, and how many other things from 1933 can you say that about?

There have been two notable remakes of King Kong, in 1976 and 2005 (sorry, that one was called Peter Jackson’s King Kong).  I haven’t seen the 1976 version, and the 2005 version was so forgettable that all I can come up with from my memory is that I was wondering why Adrian Brody was in it (answer:  getting paid, because independent film pays squat) and being inundated with lots and lots of post-Gandalf CGI.  Fuck CGI.  Get some puppets and entertain me, Peter Jackson.

Anyway, the one thing that sticks out in my mind from the 1933 version is Robert Armstrong.  A few weeks after watching King Kong, I watched a movie called The Mystery Man (1935), which was a strange bird of a movie where he plays a newpaper reporter named Larry Doyle.  He breaks a big story and then sort of runs away from the paper after getting a raise and lots of praise but then insulting his boss after getting drunk.  He ends up in St. Louis and meets this girl, Anne.  They are both broke at a coffee shop at the train station, and he devises this really kooky (there’s a word I don’t get to use often) scheme for the two of them to pretend they are newlyweds so they can get the honeymoon suite at a ritzy hotel (recall this is in the middle of the Great Depression).  On the story he broke, the police had given him, as a show of appreciation, a gun.  Doyle hocks the gun in order to try to get money to buy food, and the gun is used in a crime.  Implicated, he tries to solve the crime and break the story.  It was such a far-out, weird-assed, implausible plot with awkwardly-contrived twists and turns that I kept watching (and it was only an hour and two minutes) just to see what sort of lunacy would come next.  Just weirdness after weirdness, like listening to a five-year-old make up a story as he goes along.

There’s also the intrinsic racism that exists in early cinema where white man goes to Africa or thereabouts and deals with the Unga-Bungas.  Really makes me appreciate Paul Robeson and the fact that he starred in a movie two years earlier.  And of course the sexism of the era where woman equals stupid and/or sex object and/or victim, which makes me appreciate Joan Crawford a little bit more (but not much).  Denham’s assertion at the end that it was “beauty killed the beast” is an awkward one to unpack.  So Kong was attracted to Ann?  Er … that’s all kinds of wrong.  Kong eats people.  He didn’t eat or kill her, and protected her when all the other dinosaurs were out to get her.  So what was Kong’s end game?  Oh, boy.

But what is fun is some crackerjack lines, the kind that are pretty much every line of The Thin Man.  No one writes like that anymore.  That is a redeeming quality of a lot of these early movies – intelligent writing.  Critics are all stuck on the decline of the romantic comedy (not that King Kong is one), but that’s because it’s either too bawdy or low-brow.  You don’t have to make fart jokes to be funny, and I don’t know anyone who makes them to be romantic.  It’s the writing, the mental sparring and tango before the two people get together.  You need writers for that.