A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #172: Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko.
The strange start of this film — all the time spent describing the cosmopolitan mélange of the Algerian casbah travelogue-style — is the key to understanding what’s happening inside the typically clever head of notorious jewel-thief Pépé le Moko. The man is an archetypal old-school gangster, and he is so secure in the riot of the casbah that even the Algerian inspector has a friendly rivalrous relationship with him.
For a man of his magnitude, however, even being lord of a microcosmic world is not enough. When he falls for a French kept woman, he is reminded of all the things he has chosen to leave behind. The inspector uses this knowledge to his benefit, bides his time, participates in some carefully planned misdirection, and ultimately nabs his man when he leaves the casbah in love-lorn-and-lost pursuit of what he has thrown away. In the end, he realizes that even a prison of his own choosing is still a prison. Too late.
Though this fits the style of noir, I don’t know that it fits the technical definition. There’s plenty of chiaroscuro, and the subject matter fits the bill as well, but thematically there’s less grit and grey-morality than most other examples of the genre.
Jean Gabin is a great rascal.
A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #48: Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus.
I tried watching this many years ago, but wasn’t in the right frame of mind to get through it. I’m glad I gave it another shot, because it’s a wonderful movie. The myth of Orpheus & Eurydice is my favorite, and it translates perfectly to Rio during Carnaval. Orpheus as the Babylon bus driver, good with the ladies, the man who makes the sun rise with his guitar playing. Eurydice, new to the city, seemingly innocent, but with something dark on her tail. Not only does the setting translate well, but the death-revenant-afterlife fits thematically with the Candomble religious practices as well.
Throughout the film, gestures and acts that would normally be passed off as simple superstition pack a bit more mythic punch, and, as it turns out, are just as efficacious diegetically. Promises and claims that, in the mundane world, would just appear to be bluster, are true tragedy as the myth unfolds. This mixing of natural and supernatural is made possible by the nearly incessant beat of music that permeates the film.
The film is so well put together, and the parallels with Brazilian culture so spot on that it would make more sense if the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice had actually originated from Brazil and not Greece. And it makes you want to dance.
A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #312: Masahiro Shinoda’s Samurai Spy.
Having read Shusaku Endo’s Silence many years ago, the persecution of Catholicism during the Tokugawa shogunate was something that immediately grabbed me here. It came as only a slight surprise to discover that Masahiro Shinoda directed an adaptation of the book six years after making Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke (this movie). Sarutobi Sasuke is an employed samurai in a clan who has yet to take sides in a brewing conflict between Tokugawa and Osaka. Additionally, he has his own ideas in regard to the usefulness of war in the first place. He gets roped in to some espionage and intrigue by being a badass do-gooder in the wrong place at the right time.
Lots of people die. Sasuke gets blamed for murders he doesn’t commit, and no one seems to care about the folks he actually does kill on his was to safety and a modicum of security. The joke here, if you want to call it that, is that Sasuke doesn’t have a goal apart from safely navigating the complicated currents he’s found himself in. Though he’s not explicitly Christian, (nor is he explicitly not Christian), the heavy involvement of a secretive Christian group, and it’s unlikely connection to an apostasized, leprous spymaster gave this samurai film a flavor unlike any other I’ve seen.
It’s also beautiful; shots with maximal depth of field, shifting fog and silences, abstract patterns of light and shadow, and uniquely appropriate camera shifts all evoke the uncertainty of things hidden in plain sight and in shadow.
A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #44: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.
I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy this movie, as I haven’t had much luck with Powell & Pressburger in the past, but it was good. The costuming, makeup and other production values were well situated to make the most of Technicolor. The plot was put together to deliberately parallel, in theme at least, that of the Hans Christian Andersen story that features so prominently throughout the film.
The only detractions were the frequently used special effects to highlight these parallels. They broke the suspension of disbelief that was watching a balletic performance, and beat the viewer over the head with dramatic irony. I can see that this might have been a glimpse into Vicki Page’s subjectivity, as well as an artistic decision, but the story & film itself was so well crafted up to that point, and any and all special effects so noticeably absent up to the first performance of The Red Shoes, that I think the film would have been stronger without their presence.
While dancing kills protagonists in both the literal and meta-literal stories, Powell and Pressburger efficiently and poignantly turn the fairy tale into something more contemporary and complex. The interlocking love triangles and tough choices that the main characters make (not always wise, but always passionate) make a much deeper point about what it means to die for what you love than any fairy tale could tell.
A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #427: Juan Antonio Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist.
I can’t recall the last time I saw a film where the scene transitions were handled so masterfully. One character blows cigarette smoke to end a scene, a cut, and in a different time and place another character gets smoke blown into hers. Fire flickers on María’s face when she’s with her husband, a cut, and in a different time and place, fire flickers on her face while she’s with her lover.
The care with which those shots were planned carries throughout this film; frequent cuts, a preponderance of close quarter intimate conversations, and strong sight lines do an excellent job of tuning the tension, but at times it becomes almost melodramatic, soap operatic. The wealthy mistress and her professor fling run over a cyclist and leave him to die alone. Meanwhile, another fellow is on to their infidelity and tries to blackmail them over it. They’re not initially guilt-ridden over the death, but are intent on hiding it, and they assume that is what the blackmail is about. What follows is quite a bit of excellent innuendo, verbal fencing that never quite strikes a mortal blow.
Things do get tense enough that María runs over her lover, and in an ending that’s just a tad too ironically pat, she runs off the road and dies trying to avoid hitting another cyclist.
A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #45: Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry.
Apparently, the entirety of Iran is a giant gravel-pile construction site. That’s the impression given in this film, and considering how little I know of the country due to my own nation’s sanctions against it, I’m going to choose to assume that Iran is a beautiful country and Kiarostami made a stylistic and thematic choice to film most of this in locations where just about everything is dead and dying, and dry earth cascades on all sides in crumbling ruin.
Few thematic choices could fit better for a plot revolving around a man who wants to commit suicide and have someone bury him, or haul him out of his own grave if he fails to do a proper job of it. Godfrey Cheshire’s Criterion essay accompanying this film makes a point to discuss this film in terms of life and death, but I interpret it in slightly more general terms. I don’t think this is a story about man versus himself; I think it’s a film about man versus nature. Mr. Badii, for some unstated reason, feels disconnected with life. He tries, time and again, to get someone to show him some modicum of attention. Everyone he talks to is so busy living their lives, innocently in the case of the young soldier; studiously, in the case of the seminarist; and fully, in the case of the old man, that none of them can be bothered with Badii’s existential crisis.
A man doing whatever he can to get even the smallest part of the world to notice him, even through suicide, is a man full of pride and misguided. His crisis would not occur to someone fully engaged in living life, or to someone who knows their insignificance in the grand scheme of things. I’d argue that Kiarostami is making a distinction between living life with indifference to your insignificance and being unable to accept that fact and being filled with despair instead. This doesn’t sound particularly positive, but it is. At least as far as I’m concerned, engagement with life is much more positive than despair at living in the first place.
A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #565: Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
Not Chaplin’s greatest work, but certainly a strong propaganda film. What struck me most is the ignorance with which the prison camps and Jewish ghettos are betrayed. There are some obvious instances early in the film where it seems as if Chaplin hasn’t quite figured out that he’s making a talkie, but once he gets that under control the film ping-pongs back and forth between Chaplin iconography and effeminate Hitler-mocking. Chaplin had great fun with names. Tomania (Ptomaine) for Allemania and Bacteria for Italia. Herrs Herring & Garbage, Phooey Adenoid Hynkel and Benzino Napaloni.
Chaplin did well to emulate the Riefenstyle of Triumph of the Will when Hynkel/Hitler is onstage and balances it with a more recognizably Chaplin style in the Ghetto scenes, but it remains hard to watch this film and take it seriously knowing what we know now about Nazi atrocity. Chaplin-style comedy is well-suited to making buffoons of the Nazis, and in 1940 it still made sense to treat them as a laughable enemy rather than a vicious one. Despite these difficulties with hindsight, the final speech, where a Jewish barber inverts the message of the Double Cross party, is more triumphantly inspiring than a thousand Riefenstahl films. Yet for all its cleverness, the film seems now most notable for its appalling innocence.