Pigs and Battleships (1961)

If you want to make some sense of the rise of Shohei Imamura, it’s convenient enough to fit him into the context of two of Japan’s foremost filmmakers. During his time as a university student at the prestigious Waseda University, he saw a screening of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which not only became a catalyst for Japanese film worldwide but also for young men like Imamura.

However, upon arriving in the film industry he found himself working with another acclaimed master, Yasujiro Ozu. The only problem is that Imamura’s own sentiments played in stark contrast to his elder’s fairly sedate albeit meticulous style. Imamura wanted to get into the issues and the conflicts of the times. He feels like both a  nonconformist with a bit of a rebellion in his blood and someone with an acute appreciation for humanity.

Here he positions himself as a Japanese New Wave iconoclast having some fun at the expense of his countrymen and their most prominent post-war ally: the United States. In his own words, he was an anthropologist using his films to analyze humanity in all its foibles and messier predilections.

This might be as good a place as any to provide a jumping-off point for Pigs and Battleships. It plays as the antithesis of his elder Ozu by readily showing Japan at its most pathetic with a host of men who might well be a circus of dim-witted ignoramuses in a comedy of errors.

In the opening frames, you get an instant impression of the backstreets and alleyways frequented by American sailors, bums, and pretty girls with their come-hither looks. Vagrants of all sizes can be found scampering around town messing with sailors — swiping their hats — and generally causing mischief. Some of this is organized.

This is the unruly underbelly of Japan as represented by the seaport of Yokosuka and those with a certain perception of civilized Japanese society, would do well to avert their eyes. Imamura has no intent to present some idealized or cloying sense of his homeland

Kinta is one of the ilk of street trash gaining our attention for whatever reason. He’s a lowly gangster yet to earn his stripes.  Hiroyuki Nagato plays him in such a way that his movements come off as those of a callow, entirely overgrown child. While he tries to make a name for himself among the local gangsters, he has an on-and-off fling with a local girl named Haruko.

She’s not a glamour queen, but there’s something good and decent about the naivete found in her eyes. However innocent she might be, she still chides Kinta to get out of the racket and take up a steady factory job out of town.

Whether he meant to or not, you begin to see how the Japanese New Wave was carried on the shoulders of filmmakers such as Imamura. He accentuates a certain world through a particular methodology.

Where hoodlums feel more like snickering hyenas in baggy clothing ready to pound the populous for a good laugh. These aren’t criminals given any amount of deference or import. It feels like we should scorn them even in their hijinks trying to make some money off a drove of pigs.

However, the movie is not without a shock factor. You know when a man’s head is dunked in a tank of gasoline and a thug waves a lighter in front of him ominously, he’s making the threat count. It’s easy to see the director pushing back against any post-war American tokenism. Because Kinta is found right in the crosshairs.

Where being American is king and if you can’t be white Anglo-Saxon — victors of WWII and wooer of Japanese women — at least with the gangs you get to do something cool with your life. You belong to something bigger than yourself. Anything honest and menial is frowned upon. There’s a self-contained scene when a little boy reads out loud how refined and highly cultivated Japan has been able to fluidly integrate aspects of other nations, the irony is not lost.

You only must watch what happens before and after to have a good laugh. The hiccups keep on coming. The mobsters have their hands full disposing of a body, and it feels like a bout derivative from The Trouble With Harry than any hardened crime drama. Try not to giggle with morbid glee when they find a false tooth inside the pig they’re chowing down on!

Even, the yakuza boss, that symbol of towering and lethal villainy is a sorry figure. He’s dying of cancer — looking pitiful when his little brother comes to visit him — the gang gathered around his bedside. He thinks he only has days to live and there are so many affairs to get in order. Namely, all the debts he still needs to collect!

We also meet the man known only as Sakiyama at a bar talking with a Chinese fellow. They’re involved in this pork deal between the Americans and the locals. Although the “Japanese-American” man speaks English, it’s easy enough to tell in a moment it’s not his native tongue. This actor is Japanese and so the illusion is broken, but given the carnivalesque bits of business we’ve already been privy to, it’s not completely out of place.

Because things just keep on falling apart in this ever-changing state of fateful narrative entropy. For most of the film, Imamura remains an observer, but in one specifically pointed setup, he inserts himself into the action. It happens in the aftermath of a row between Kinta and Haruko. They’re probably not getting back together, and she vows to get drunk and party with American seamen as an act of spite.

Instead, she ends up in an empty hotel room with three brawny men prepared to overpower her in their stupor. The overhead shot of Haruka and the three boisterous sailors might be the pinnacle of the film’s hysteria in this intersection of worlds and toxic schemes of life. It breaks the moment down to its most pointed elements as we spin toward oblivion and a horrible outcome that cannot be undone.

Going with its prevailing tone, Pigs and Battleships owns a final act built on total futility. However, there’s something about seeing pigs roaming in the streets that made this feel like Pamplona for porkers. It’s a hilarious image even as the film comes to terms with its own human tragedies. Ozu would never make this movie; not even Kurosawa with his more dynamic proclivities. No, this is something new.

Most important is the implicit message found in the title and much of the comedy. In the post-war landscape, Japan was very much subjugated to America, and they too became conduits of Capitalism.  However, in case it’s not already apparent, our way of life and systems come with their share of flaws. Pigs and Battleships begins to suss out the complexities of this relationship. We’d do well to consider it.

3.5/5 Stars

Tiger Bay (1959)

Horst Bucholtz has always held a soft spot in my heart. There are several very simple reasons. My father’s favorite movie might be The Magnificent Seven, and I grew up watching this young raffish upstart join forces with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen against the forces that be. Then, years later, there he was again as an old man in La Vita è Bella. Somehow it served the movie and my own history with him well, to see him this way. A mere 5 years later he would be gone.

Of course, Tiger Bay, if you’ve never been acquainted with it before, is the picture that really put him on the map, at least for English-speaking audiences. And it’s easy to see why. He was advertised once upon a time as Germany’s James Dean, and if the comparison makes a modicum of sense at all it has to do with how masculinity can be at one time violent and then sensitive. There would be no other way for him to hold the movie together with Hayley Mills so well. More on that in a moment.

I must take a moment to acknowledge my growing esteem for J. Lee Thompson in recent days because although I am a fan of Cape Fear and not so big an admirer of The Guns of Navarone, it was earlier in his career where he showed his capability with material like Yield to the Night and here in Tiger Bay. The world is easy to place, especially in England with a working-class port town acting as a window to the world. One of the men fresh off one of these ships is the youthful sailor Bronislav Korchinsky, who looks to be reunited with his lover.

Hayley Mills makes her screen debut moments later as a feisty tomboyish pipsqueak ready to roughhouse with all the other street rats. She gleams with a delightful impudence, those large searching eyes of her projecting curiosity and at times rebellion. Her aunt is always scolding her and she always scampers around bumping into neighbors on the stairs or eavesdropping on conversations she has no business in.

One of them is between Korchinsky and his girlfriend Anya. But the scene before us is hardly bliss. It comes seething with angst and vindictive daggers you feel like would hardly have been in vogue across the pond at the same time — at least in mainstream Hollywood. As the woman scoffs at the money he sent home and lets him have it in their native tongue, it becomes apparent this kind of gritty vitriol might only seep into an American noir picture.

In fact, if there is any immediate reference point, it’s possible to find Tiger Bay reminiscent of The Window. However, in this case, Gillie Evans (Mills) is not so much a “kid who’s cried wolf” as a serial annoyance no rational-minded adult looks to take seriously. Still, she’s an eyewitness to what looks to be a shooting. A woman’s dead and the man is on the lam. What’s more, in the moment of initial tumult they crossed paths as he streaked away, and she nicked the evidence to bring back to her aunt’s apartment. For her, this entire scene feels like a novel curiosity, but she thinks little of the consequences in the moment.

Instead, she dodges the inspector’s gentle interrogations (John Mills) before rushing off to drop into church service late, taking up her spot in the choir while still packing the purloined pistol.

It’s fitting that in one moment they seem to be singing a hymn out of Psalm 23 and suddenly the spiritual journey through the valley of the shadow of death becomes all too real. There stands a familiar face in the crowded pews and suddenly her self-assured nonchalance drops off in the middle of her solo. There’s the man!

It feels like a showdown set up for Hitchcockian dread as the church clears out and she’s left to fend for her own against the crazed young man. This can only end poorly. And yet Tiger Bay works because the villain in this equation is not a horrible human being. There are moments he could press his advantage, whether it’s pushing her to her death or doing away with her with the gun, but this is not his character.

In fact, in its best and brightest moments, Buckholtz and young Mills become the welcomed nucleus of the movie, at first as wary adversaries and then companions and finally friends capable of playacting in the morning light. For a few moments, they are able to shed all the worries of the world and enjoy being in one another’s company.

In the latter half, it takes on a different tilt altogether as a little girl, now beholden to her new friend, looks to buy him time as he looks to sneak off on a ship out to sea. We have ticking clocks and stakes, all those storytelling tricks of the trade, but the core of the entire story is the relational capital that we build. It becomes a new, far more compelling kind of movie. Because now a child must live in the ambiguity of the moment and how are they to decipher the difference between right and wrong and what those terms even mean?

The ending feels a bit prolonged and drawn out for its own good though it’s kept afloat by this underlying relational tension. A man’s life hangs in the balance as Mills drags his real-life daughter out to sea to identify the purported killer before he can get away for good.

John Mills feels generally flat and uninteresting if a mostly benevolent authority representing a prevailing moralism. Otherwise, this picture has much to offer and a colorful perspective on the world circa 1959.

Suddenly, British society, cinematography notwithstanding, doesn’t look quite so monochrome. Because of course, it wasn’t. It’s a world of Polish immigrants, vibrant Calypso music on the street corners, and foreign sailors who are not totally subservient to the British powers. It’s a reminder that ports really can be windows to the world even as they can also bring disparate people together.

3.5/5 Stars

Whistle Down The Wind (1961)

Whistle Down The Wind feels like it employs the “kitchen sink” aesthetic in step with British film of the day, bleak and tough around the corners with working-class folks coping with all kinds of toilsome drama. However, if the mantle of that zeitgeist was normally carried by the likes of Albert Finney and Richard Harris, then effectively we have the “angry young men” of the subgenre replaced by children.

It gives the picture a slightly different if altogether refreshing perspective on these same issues. At its center is young Kathy Bostock (Hayley Mills); she lives on a farm with her father (Bernard Lee), an aunt, and the aunt’s two children.

They are three rambunctious little farmhands but not altogether wicked, mind you. They come home with three discarded kittens in tow, looking to sneak past the prying eyes of their betters, so they might raise them in the barn. As such, it provides a safe haven and becomes an even more sacred space given what happens next.

Young Kathy is alone busying herself with their charges, and then she sees a stranger (Alan Bates), rather haggard and disoriented. Both man and child are shocked and as she inquires who he is, he utters the words, “Jesus Christ.”

Now many an adult could tell you lots of people exclaiming the Lord’s name are using it in vain, but this never crosses Kathy’s mind. Whatever you might think of her, whether foolish or otherwise, she takes the name very seriously.

This naive misunderstanding is what the entire movie turns on, and it’s a lovely bit of irony. It takes all our cynical assumptions about these people and their world and completely turns them on their heads. Suddenly, we have this glorious portrait of child-like faith set before us, and this only works because Bryan Forbes’ picture allows children to hold such a central place in the story from the outset.

They are funny and mischievous and yet so very sincere in spirit. A cat can be named Spider, and it’s completely honest to gripe and groan about everything little thing. There are these sublime closeups sprinkled through that, even momentarily, allow us to be in their place and empathize. I think of one where the little boy Charlie (Alan Barnes), always at odds with the girls nevertheless, peers over at the man in the hay, and his face lights up. Curiosity getting the better of him, he asks if it’s really Him? He too wants to believe this is the Christ.

This comparison might be tenuous, but rather like the internal logic of It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife, there’s something pleasant and powerful about the spiritual reaching into our human environments. We want to believe in their benevolence — that they are able to redeem our families and hardships, with a bit of divine intervention.

There’s still a sense that the spiritual world enters into our lives of its own accord. In fact, there is no true distinction between one and the other, whether they be kindly angels or guests in the haystack. They have the capacity to invade the everyday and breathe new life into it while still feeling almost mundane.

If you’re like me, sometimes religious allegory can feel too on point and obvious. It’s not exactly subtle here, but there’s something about the context that still makes it delightful. After receiving further spiritual insight from their Sunday school teacher, we have the procession of three little kings returning into the presence of their visitor, complete with a musical cue to send them on their way.

The hypothetical question of what to do if Jesus came back takes on very concrete meaning for them because of course, he’s lying right there in their barn waiting for them. And so, with all sincerity, they bring their gifts to place before him. They want him to feel welcome. They want to find favor with him.

It’s a striking allegory — not quite to the degree of Flannery O’Connor’s gothic gallows as it were, but there’s something moving in this picture. Rich in content and meaning, but never in a way that makes one feel put upon or totally scandalized. We watch their visitor become the subject of ensuing pilgrimages of all the local children.

As we’re privy to both worlds, we know this man is actually wanted by the authorities. He’s no Christ; he’s not even a saint, and we must watch and wait for their expectations to be utterly crushed. Because there will always be persecution and unbelief in some form acting in constant opposition. Although they conveniently keep their secret from the grown-ups, it cannot last forever.

A local bully tries to intimidate them all back into the status quo. One small boy on the playground all but recants a visitation with “Jesus,” which in his mind is tantamount to Peter’s denial. There’s personified devastation on his youthful face as he gets a reprieve from earthly torment, but at what cost? It sounds almost silly to speak of these things in such weighty terms, but I’m only treating them with the same gravity as these little children.

If this is the case, we must always return to our protagonist. Hayley Mills shows off all her most extraordinary traits as a young performer, buoyant and yet defiant and determined in the face of naysayers. There’s an assurance she holds onto that guides much of the movie, and it must lead to the inevitable.

The final juxtaposition of Charlie’s boisterous birthday party full of hearty squeals and blind man’s bluff plays against the more ascetic sense of the outdoors as the wanted man tries to escape the local dragnet. He gets cornered in the barn with the police flying to the scene and the whole town hot on their heels. It looks like the children’s faith is bound to be dashed right before their eyes.

What a difference a point of view makes and the intention behind it. Instead of churning up the local rumor mill with clamoring gawkers and gossipers, it feels more like one final act of belief with all the masses set to pay their respects and catch a glimpse of the man. Certainly, the masses are mostly children and that says something in itself.

Because you can take its parable in two ways: either it’s a pragmatic lesson that children must learn how the real world works — with sin, moral ambiguity, and heartbreak. Still, maybe it’s actually a reflection of the Christ’s sacrifice, coming into the world for the humble and the downtrodden, those who would willingly put their trust in him. If we consider these children, their trust is such that they believe he will come back again someday. It’s similarly arresting.

The extraordinary nature of the ending comes with the revelation that this sense of reverence is never broken, keeping with the film’s guiding light from start to finish. This is far from the norm, and it’s rather refreshing that hope is never completely quelled. It’s up to the viewer to decide what to do with this.

4/5 Stars

Cesar et Rosalie (1972)

It occurs to me that the title Cesar et Rosalie is a rather peculiar choice for this movie. However, it’s also very pointed. If Jules et Jim was about two friends caught in a ceaselessly complicated love affair with one woman (Jeanne Moreau), then here is a story shifting the focus just slightly. This time it is Romy Schneider caught between two suitors.

It opens with two men who both were coupled with the unseen woman named Rosalie. Formerly she was with a handsome comic book artist, but before they could ever get around to marriage (what would have been her second), she ended up with a middle-aged scrap metal man (Yves Montand). He’s quite successful in his trade while maintaining a penchant for gambling.

Whether it’s solely because they are represented by creative types, it feels like there’s a kind of vacuity about the younger generation. Yves Montand, now there is a man with something interesting about him. After doing some digging, I found out he was actually Italian by birth though thanks to his music and acting, he became synonymous with French cinema. Films like Wages of Fear and Le Cercle Rouge work in a pinch. He’s one of France’s indelible faces, and here he is another character with a lumbering larger-than-life posture.

Both a bit of an overgrown baby and a gregarious teddy bear. He can be found smoking his cigars and establishing himself as the life of the party. He loves to vocalize, and in contrast to his rivals, there’s something refreshing about his blustering style. You know what you’re getting.

In comparison, I’m less inclined to be infatuated with any semblance of the bourgeoise milieu as embodied by David (Sami Frey). This might be a poor descriptor because he’s only a comic book artist, albeit a very successful one. But there’s a detached, casual air about him that feels far more refined. It lacks all of the volatile personality exhibited by Cesar. If I speak for myself, Cesar seems like one of the common men.

However, right about now it’s worthwhile to acknowledge a handful of his shortcomings. He’s quite petty and jealous for the affection of Rosalie. In one instance, his childish antics and brazen show of bravado leave them idling in the underbrush at the side of the road. In the aftermath of a convivial wedding party, a game of chicken ensues between him and David becoming a portent for future drama.

Although he and Rosalie have been together for some time, and they have a contentment between them, there is still this lingering sense of individuality. Rosalie is a mother. She has been married before and maintains her own independence. She remains with Cesar mostly because she wants to be, at least for now. That could easily change, and, eventually, it does. Her whims make her alight once more for David because his quiet charms have not atrophied with time. She feels the electricity between them still.

At the midpoint, the picture hits the skids. Cesar’s ugly underbelly comes alive as his transgressions and jealousy take over. He acts as if he owns Rosalie and in one harrowing scene practically throws her out the front door. He’s a wounded brute prone to violence. There’s no way to condone his behavior even as it reflects the toxic social mores of the era (or many eras).

But of course, he can never forget her. He feels lost without her and so he resolves to find her with David. He tracks them out to their beach getaway but instead of coming to have it out once and for all, Cesar returns sheepishly with his tails between his legs. He’s paid for the damages he inflicted, and Rosalie looks over his sorry figure and can hardly contain her amusement.

It’s moments such as these where it becomes apparent how the movie is mostly able to coast on the goodwill of its stars and their various romantic dalliances. Initially, it feels like Romy Schneider spends a great deal of time in the kitchen grabbing drinks and making coffee for her man. However, she’s also a keen observer of male anthropology.

Like Moreau before her, she really does play the deciding part in this film. As much as it seems framed by the male perspective, though our title subjects have shifted slightly, Rosalie does hold a great deal of sway in the story. It does feel like these men need her more than she needs them or, at the very least, she is not willing to settle into this kind of relaxed equilibrium where they exist in a menage a trois without the intimacy.

Is it wrong to consider this the most French of romantic setups? It becomes plainly apparent that this is never just a film about Cesar and Rosalie. There must be parentheses or ampersand including David tacked on the end (or any other love interest for that matter). The film is far more crowded and complicated than a mere romance actuated by two solitary human beings with Sautet crowding the canvas and relational networks of the film with so many ancillary swatches of life.

Although it feels like it’s not about very much, Sautet is able to hone in on this core relationship and tease out both the comedic eccentricities found therein while still leaving us with this kind of wistful resolution. It’s not a tragedy in the same way Truffaut managed when he detonated Jules et Jim, but it leaves us with that sense of regret that love often conjures up in the human heart.

All these characters could have done things differently to patch things up, to stay together, and earn the Hollywoodesque ending. However, what leaves an impression is this kind of pensive anticlimax. It’s a lighter touch than The Things of Life or Max and The Junkman, even as it might owe something to Lubitsch.

3.5/5 Stars

Les Choses de la Vie (1970)

I’m not sure if director Claude Sautet was just never esteemed enough by the cineastes of his day to receive his due, but the string of pictures he made with the likes of Michel Piccoli and Romy Schneider feel worthy of further, more stringent consideration.

What becomes evident is this kind of prevailing melancholy about his films with fated lovers or destined tragedies all but ready to be searched out. Les Choses de la Vie opens with a scenario that would be quick to tap into the minds of any filmgoer wary of the Nouvelle Vague’s most prominent iconoclast. By that, I mean the living legend, Jean-Luc Godard.

Here a rolling tire sets the stage for a Weekend-like pileup. This one was caused by a collision: a man blazing down the country road doing everything in his power to miss a stalling truck. While this event might provide what feels like an excuse for a dramatic movie, the core of The Things of Life is far more intimate. Some might say it’s stereotypically French: a movie concerned with amour. So be it.

We get a sense of Pierre’s life, past and present, without everything being conveniently spelled out for us. It’s made plain by how people look at one another — how they fill up the space with a shared familiarity. He is now with Helene Haltig (Romy Schneider). You can see the affection with which he gazes at her as she taps away at her typewriter after getting out of bed.

All the allure of Schneider is right there on her face, tucked behind her glasses, as if an instant reminder of why she’s remained such a lasting icon in cinema the world over. A premature end often has a way of canonizing people for posterity, but we cannot sell her short. This has little relevance here. Her vibrance is undeniable on its own merit.

Pierre loves Helene even as he maintains an amicable, if aloof, relationship with Catherine, his former wife. Over a lifetime, they have shared and shared alike in business, with their kids, and through a vacation getaway on Re Island. There’s still a sense that they are fond of one another. Perhaps time has moved on or maybe they regret their choices. For now, it is what it is.

If Pierre is the protagonist, one would be remiss not to mention the palpable distances between father and sons, be it real or imagined. He grapples with his own father, a spirited fellow who hardly seems like the paternal type, and then there’s his own boy who’s growing up fast into a man with his own ambitions. As much as he wants to rekindle their relationship, it does feel like he hardly knows him now.

It’s this very same inkling, a longing for connection that causes him to agree to a trip to the family isle. Of course, it conflicts with his business arrangements in Tunis and the future plans he already worked out with Helene. Their romantic dinner together becomes deflated having lost all the life that was there before. The wine is spilled.

What’s next can only be a wordless car ride. He rolls down the window to toss out his latest cigarette and to keep from suffocating in the silence. Then, he clicks on the radio to fill the void between them. That too gets thwarted. They look to be doomed.

If it’s not evident already, time is allowed a level of fluidity rather reminiscent of Stanley Donen’s Two For The Road even as we motor toward the inevitable — a car wreck and what feels like romantic dissolution. Like its predecessor, the musical accents accentuate the mood. This time it’s not Henry Mancini but Philippe Sarde’s languishing score that is always available, softly plinking away in the background

In fact, it has its own wedding scene — Piccoli observes the giddy guests as they scramble toward a white banquet table set for a feast. He’s a man who’s been all but consigned to his car, smoking cigarettes, and this one exuberant display, far from earning his contempt, provides a seedling of hope…

Then it happens. I need not systematically go through all the gory details. However, in the end, there Pierre is lying on the ground thrown from his decimated automobile at the side of the road in the grass somewhere. It’s an almost out-of-body experience as the world swirls by him, and he exists in his thoughts and his memories.

The motion of the world around him carries on, whether it’s onlookers coming to see the wreckage or the body, then an ambulance comes to rush him to the hospital as the rain starts pouring down. Catherine gets the news and Helene comes rushing to his side too…

The Things of Life is constructed in such an inevitable way, but somehow it’s still entrancing, this sense of moroseness and the elasticity of time in the service of one man’s romantic memories. It’s built around melodrama, yes, but with a very specific bent, totally mechanized, and stylized in such a way as to supply the desired effect. And rather than the Sirkian school of high camp, it seems to hewn closer to the path of John Stahl.

In other words, Sautet, in some ways sucks much of the typical theatrics out of the storyline, or at least they do not seem to be his primary concern. What we are left with is this pervasive sense of lasting melancholy, and it’s a powerful emotive force that would hold over to his next picture together with the same primary players: Max and The Junkmen.

4/5 Stars

Scaramouche (1952)

Like many of the archetypal tales of literature or film, Scaramouche is a story of the aristocrats warring against the common man or closer still the common man throwing off the shackles placed upon him by his oppressor.

The dynamic is spelled out in an early scene as that ill-fated debutante (Nina Foch) enlists the help from behind parlor room doors of her dear cousin, the Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), to find the infernal insubordinate “Marcus Brutus.” The vagrant had the unthinkable gall to litter her very own palace with his pamphlets.

It’s easy to get distracted by the period elegance leftover from the MGM of the late 30s and 40s. The movie wears its opulence well and thankfully there’s a worthy story to prop it up and give it the heartbeat of humor and substance. Although we are on the eve of The French Revolution, this acts as merely a backdrop. As is usually the case, the story is made far more personal.

This could very easily be the story of a rebellious pamphleteer and his loyal compatriot sticking it to the bourgeoisie. However, the young upstart Philippe (Richard Anderson) is killed by the sword at the hands of the lethal Marquis, and now his companion Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger) vows to seek revenge. In fact, his story from thenceforward is driven by an all-consuming personal vendetta.

Janet Leigh, on her part, is a virginal beauty brimming with a poised elegance. She’s crucial to this story as the queen’s ward and a chosen companion for the Marquis. However, kismet means she also shares a fondness for Andre after a chance encounter by the roadside. Suddenly our two men are tied perilously close together.  Still, there must be time for amusement.

Stewart Granger takes to the part with ease, and it plays to his finest attributes as a leading man. But he’s also able to have a bit of fun donning the visage of Scaramouche the masked jester, a perfect disguise and also a way to cast himself in the likeness of all the great vagabond heroes of Hollywood lore, whether they be Robin Hood or Francois Villon.

Eleanor Parker is vivid and fierce with fiery red hair and passionate jealousies befitting a person of her ilk. She bursts on the screen with an untameable beauty trampling after her love on stage, with all manner of blunt instruments, and malice in her heart. However, he’s the one who plucks her out of the arms of matrimony only to receive her continual ire and consternation in return. It’s only one of the fires lit under the movie.

The bursting palette of the picture and its sense of comic pageantry onstage cannot help but elicit comparisons to Kiss Me Kate. The adaptation of Taming of the Shrew was a musical, yes, but also directed by the very same George Sidney.

Sidney himself felt this material was ready-made for musical treatment. I’m not too familiar with Granger’s singing prowess, but I’m rather partial to how the story develops and part of that might be the dearth of modern swashbucklers. There’s something so invigorating about them even to this day, and the spectacle of the film fails to disappoint. And if Sidney was at all disappointed by the results, he only had to wait a year to get his musical.

What becomes apparent about Scaramouche is how it ably fluctuates between two tones to fit its two divergent worlds. At one time, Andre finds himself dabbling in the royal courts as a traitor and wanted man, sharing covert rendezvous with the pure-hearted Aline de Gavrillac (Leigh). Then, in subsequent moments, he’s the larger-than-life theater vagabond caught up in a perpetual game of stagebound slapstick and ferocious cat and mouse with his most favored acting partner.

However, he also has time to take on a new hobby as he endeavors to become a master swordsman, man enough to take on the Marquis. When the time comes, he takes the troupe to the big stage and bright lights of Paris though he maintains his ulterior motives.

In the name of his good friend, he takes up the mantle of the common man in the national assembly. He handily whittles down the list of deputies who all insult his character for the chance at a duel. Of course, there’s only one name he waits to cross swords against — and it’s the one name he has yet to face.

You see, the two women in his life conspire to keep them apart and, for the time being, keep Andre safe. Alas, they cannot stave off the confrontation forever; it’s an inevitable development. They meet at the theater of all places.

The final rousing show of swordplay has to be one of the finest displays I’ve witnessed in some time. Between Granger’s moderate background and Ferrer’s grace as a dancer, they make the choreography pulse-pounding and totally enthralling while their venue brings in a novel element.

All the spectators rush around as haphazard collateral damage as they thrust and parry their way across the balcony, down the steps, into the first-floor theater seats, and then finally up on the stage. It’s not just a sword fight; it feels like a whole movement with a beginning, middle, and end that plays out in front of us.

It ends with almost an anticlimax and a twist that initially seems to take away from the story, although it just might add one more feather in the movie’s cap. The only matter left to parse through is probably the most important or at least the most troubling. Which leading lady shall our leading man choose? Although they come from two different strata of society, they both boast an embarrassment of riches. In the end, he takes Janet Leigh.

It’s easily forgivable and Eleanor Parker gets the last laugh on him, not to mention a new man on her arm, all but waiting in the wings to tear France a new one. Who needs a strapping vagabond swordsman, when she winds up with one of the greatest military minds of all time? This touch of conclusive irony summarizes Scaramouche at its very best. It manages to harness the drama while never losing its romantic sense of adventure and unadulterated good humor.

4/5 Stars

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

The Royal Tenenbaums maintains Anderson’s very literary style with narrative sensibilities that would crop up again in many of his movies including Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest Hotel. It gives us a storybook reality firmly planted in the real world. Though he’s never seen onscreen, Alec Baldwin becomes an integral part of the story providing the voice of our narrator.

Gene Hackman is perfect for the role of Royal Tenenbaum, and it’s not surprising Anderson had him earmarked for the part. There’s an irascibility, even a callousness, to him that cannot totally quell his unquestionable charisma. By all accounts, Hackman was tough to deal with on set, but surely I’m not the only one who can think of countless movies where the actor was blustering or difficult; still, I could not stop watching him. It feels the same here. Because there is something genuine about his abrasiveness and his lying; we know people to be this way.

By now we are spoiled (or Anderson is spoiled) by amazing casts every time he makes a movie. However, this is the first time where it feels like he has assembled something special, from start to finish, and it really does feel like a cinematic family put together.

Although they spend most of their time in front of us as adults, the Tenenbaum children have core wounds and facades that prove easily identifiable. Anderson utilizes the voiceover as well as insert shots to reveal character early on. Most of their savant-like triumphs of childhood have given way to the mediocrity of adulthood. 

Richie (Luke Wilson) is still licking his wounds after a failed tennis career and looking to sort out complicated romantic feelings as he traipses around doing his best brown-haired Bjorn Borg impersonation. Margot’s (Gweneth Paltrow) dark eyeliner and secret smoking habit feel like outcroppings of her own personal angst. She’s now married to a much older man (Bill Murray), one of many romantic partners in her fairly short life as a playwright of minor acclaim. 

Ben Stiller gives what initially feels like an uncharacteristic performance simply for the fact it’s not very charitable. He’s dealing with the death of his wife, the raising of two young sons, and bitterness toward a father who was always absent. Anjelica Huston and Danny Glover seem the most contented. She is the matriarch of the Tenenbaum household and he is her faithful accountant though they must both deal with the old bear, Royal himself after Henry proposes marriage.  It’s not an easy road to navigate for anyone. 

To say Anderson has watched The Gathering and constructed his plot is too dismissive. It’s true it follows this similar arc — a father reconciling with his children over his terminal cancer — but what’s important is how he’s able to express it in his own cinematic terms. Because it blends the sprawling family drama of something like The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) with the haunting depression of The Fire Within (1963) alongside countless other references. Still, there’s a specificity to his style and vision allowing it to grow and false start until it’s something else entirely.

There’s also always a matter-of-fact idiosyncrasy to his characters and, therefore, his plot developments. It’s what makes them interesting, mining these bits and pieces that at one time seem like one-note, throwaway gags and exposition, and yet they color his characters so distinctly.

There are BBs lodged in hands, lost fingers, people get shivved on the street corner, and we meet pet mice and a falcon named Mordecai. Even some characters like Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), Pagoda (Kumar Pallada), and Dudley (Stephen Lea Sheppard) feel like sidebars and afterthoughts who still manage to add something palpably absurd to the ensemble.

Although Anderson could not get the rights to some Beatles tunes, it would be remiss not to mention some of the impressive needle drops throughout from Charlie Brown and Nico to The Stones and Van Morrison. He uses the raucous fun of Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” to encapsulate Hackman’s finest set of interactions with his grandsons. He lets them run wild, goof off, and really experience life like little boys are meant to.

However, the one choice that will remain the most impactful comes when Margot steps off The Green Line Bus to the sounds of “These Days.” It’s like a moment captured for us as Ritchie watches her come towards him, her hair perfectly fluttering in the breeze. Time all but stands still, and then we realize his feelings. He’s in love with her. It was an instant revelation for me. Because we see her through his eyes. 

There’s this immediate dissonance playing out in the background. She’s his adopted sister, right? This isn’t what’s normally supposed to happen between siblings, but that doesn’t stop his feelings from being genuine. It says so much in a single moment about both of them. We don’t need more. This one interaction informs the entire film going forward. 

For the rest of the movie, they must toil with these confusing pangs of love complicated by Margot’s uninhibited past and one of the most gutting suicide attempts ever captured on film. Despite this turmoil and even as Royal is outed and then castigated as a fraud, we are shown some form of restoration. It’s in the face of recurring and in some cases pent-up trauma leftover from an entire life thus far.

I won’t say everything is resolved. That wouldn’t be true. Royal is broke and becomes a doorman at a nearby hotel; there’s a car crash, and later a funeral. But there’s also a wedding and the family feels tighter and more together than they have been in years past. It’s not perfection and yet they have a newfound stasis, and since this is like a storybook, it only makes sense. We require an ending befitting the Tenenbaums. Thankfully we get it.

4/5 Stars

Rushmore (1998)

Through his quintessential use of camera, space, and symmetry, we already see the formation of Wes Anderson’s now easily attributed style incarnated in Rushmore. It makes us aware we are watching a movie just as it makes us keenly aware of the filmmaker. There is a meticulous storyboarded quality to it with telling POV and overhead shots laying the groundwork for his unmistakable aesthetic.

For some, this is a turn-off. It totally ruins the so-called suspension of disbelief. You don’t want to be reminded you are watching a  movie. You want to disappear into it. But Anderson’s style is so particular it’s hard not to marvel especially because it’s not simply a case of form over substance. This movie is about something meaningful.

Jason Schwartzmann proves himself an exquisite choice to play our lead. Max Fischer is a young teenager with such an impressive array of extracurriculars and side hobbies, he has no recourse to fail all his classes at Rushmore prep school. He’s too much of a driven, daydreamy kind of person to get stuck with his textbooks for hours on end. His aspirations seem to be focused on something more. 

One of those might be romantic love as the ancients would come to understand it. I think of the scene where he first makes the acquaintance of the pretty literature teacher, Ms. Cross (Olivia Williams) on the bleachers. Anderson frames them in individual shots, but then Max keeps on sliding out and back into the frame. It’s not in a continuous camera movement. Instead, these orchestrated moments add together to give us a sense of what’s going on – both good-humored and slightly awkward. 

But we must also talk about Bill Murray. I’m no Murray historian, but Rushmore and with it, the actor’s continuous collaboration with Anderson, seems to mark a distinct shift in his career. It may not be a Reinnaissance, but it effectively took an SNL phenomenon known for comedy films like Caddyshack and Ghostbuster, only to provide him a fresh dimension.

Perhaps it was always there before, but whether it was Anderson seeing it in Murray or Murray finding inspiration in Anderson’s material, I don’t see his work in movies like Lost in Translation or Broken Flowers coming to fruition without a spark.

It’s not that Murray is unfunny in any of these roles. Instead, like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and the like, he’s able to somehow take those comic eccentricities with his own core humanity, and make it deeply impactful.

In Rushmore, Murray gets his Dustin Hoffman “Graduate” moment submerged in the pool at his son’s birthday party. The allusion is straightforward enough. Meanwhile, Max goes and falls in love with his teacher — resurrects Latin class and tries to procure her some new aquarium tanks all as devoted acts of affection. He has other passions too.

He directs his own stage version of Serpico and the lifelike train noise and walkie-talkie sound effects mimic the attention to detail Anderson would have admired. But these are not all the stage elements. Because there’s a recurring sensibility that brings attention to the performance nature of the movie, whether it’s the curtains being pulled away with the changing of the months or Max’s neverending thespian endeavors.

I’ve never known Luke Wilson’s filmography well, but I found his cameo almost endearing as he becomes the target of Max’s jealous and impudent ire. He’s not willing to relinquish Ms. Cross to any man even if he has no hold on her either as her junior.

This and other shenanigans get him expelled from Rushmore. Being caught smoking or failing his classes is far too mundane. He tears up the baseball field for the ground-breaking of his new aquarium. Thereafter he’s off to public school with a wounded heart, though he encounters several sympathetic spirits including Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka).

Still, the movie becomes a love triangle with a 15-year-old and Murray’s grown man(child) going at it in their attempts to hurt one another like vengeful kids in the schoolyard. It proves how fickle they can be. But that’s not to say unlikeable. Because Herman and Max became friends and then turned into rivals. 

In fact, there’s a precociousness to Anderson’s adolescent subjects even as his adults have flaws and insecurities. It’s as if all his characters are on the same plane of existence. This is not Peanuts. There’s no chasm between the relatable kids and the unknowable adults. I’m not sure this makes it more realistic; Anderson does not strive for realism, but it reminds us that we all are not too dissimilar as people.

Dirk, Max’s most faithful friend, and Herman share a conversation near his car that in any other film would probably feel ludicrous; here they are able to speak to each other as equals, and they are not the only ones given this luxury.

It’s easy to feel sympathy for Rosemary because she has lost her husband, and she did not ask for Max to fall in love with her. She tries to navigate their interactions with warmth, but his boyish impulses and irrepressible spirit mean he’s never going to let her be. He can’t comprehend how one does that.  For a teenager, she must feel like Mrs. Robinson. In her own world, she’s just another confused and lonely person trying to make sense of things. 

At first, I was trying to figure out the purpose of the soundtrack: It’s full of agreeable British Invasion tracks from the likes of Chad & Jeremy or The Faces. The easiest answer is how it comes to represent nostalgia but also the prep school malaise. It’s Anderson’s version of the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack for Dustin Hoffman — compiled for a slightly different segment of society and an emerging generation. It exudes a contemplative melancholy not without its quirks and humor.

From my vantage point, I can only watch Rushmore retroactively, having seen much of Anderson’s career unfold, but it does give me a different way in which to appreciate it. Here we see him coming into his own; he has a Truffaut-like eagerness for the cinema, and money hardly seems to be the signifier or measure of his film’s success.

Now he commands larger budgets and even more intricate and sprawling productions, but Rushmore shows what he is able to do as a filmmaker with his own sense of inventiveness, flair, and surprising resonance no matter the restraints put upon him.

For me, this is often the measure of a sublime director, and Anderson signaled his ambitions to the world with this movie. I found myself instantly fond of the film, and I can see this affinity only growing with time. Again, I appreciate the allusiveness of his films — how they are steeped in movie tradition and what feels like technical virtuosity — but even more so I feel compelled by these particular characters. What’s more, I want the best for them.

4.5/5 Stars

A Star is Born (1937) and Another Star Burns Out

 

A Star is Born is a Hollywood archetype and it’s a prevalent one at that. Why else would we have so many remakes — one as recently as 2018 — because the Hollywood success story is something that captivates us all. If we haven’t ever dreamed of being in the movies, then we’ve at least been taken with their magic. I never was in a hurry to watch any of the adaptations, probably because there was a sense I already knew them.

One of the shards of inspiration that gave me a greater interest in this story had to be the early relationship between Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay. For those unfamiliar, Fay was the father of modern standup comics on the vaudeville circuit and was also wildly popular in his day. Stanwyck married him when she was still an up-and-comer, but soon her blooming talent outpaced his as they headed in opposite directions. 

Although there’s something inherently tragic in this trajectory — perfect for a moving cinematic drama — it should be noted that fact wasn’t completely aligned with fiction. Because Fay was also an abusive alcoholic with a mercurial temper and fascist tendencies. If he didn’t exactly deserve his destitution in later years, then Fay wasn’t doing himself any favors. Some people are lost to time for good reason. 

William A. Wellman doesn’t immediately pop out as being a splendid match for the material but you could easily suggest this is a Selznick picture first and foremost as he showcases the latest Technicolor processes still being optimized in preparation for Gone with the Wind only a couple years later. 

As alluded to already, the picture is pregnant with the prototypical Hollywood fairy tale. Esther Blodgett is bitten by the Hollywood bug like many an impressionable young woman. It’s rather curious seeing Janet Gaynor in the part since she is a talent held over from Hollywood’s earliest days. I’m thinking of the likes of Sunrise and Seventh Heaven, but there’s also something apropos in this. Gaynor is such a sweet incandescent face and hearing her talk in the pictures makes her even more endearing. She’s robed in sweetness. We want her to succeed. 

In this way, we share the sentiments of her grandmother (May Robson), who reminds her of the differences between dreaming and doing, given her own upbringing as a pioneer. Going out west is a new frontier — a new wilderness to be conquered and many folks have been trying to cow it ever since. Screen acting feels positively twee compared to the furies of the pioneers, but the feeling remains true. 

Hollywood is introduced with the musical motif “California Here We Come” and the visuals are just as important: namely, Grauman Chinese. The footprints of Jean Harlow, Joe E. Brown, Harold Lloyd, Shirley Temple, and Eddie Cantor all canonized out front for the doting public. For now, Esther is one of them though she aspires to something more. For now, she is content following their footsteps and walking on the same hallowed ground where they tread. The chances are 1 in 100,000, but she’s the kind of idealistic girl not listening to her family, not listening to industry naysayers, and believing she is the one. 

Maybe she could be like the great Norman Maine (Frederic March); she spots him one evening out with her newfound beau (Andy Devine), and the acclaimed star is soused and belligerent at the Hollywood Bowl. The initial impression of the world is that there’s a spareness to it. In her boarding house, you never see any other tenants, only the skeptical desk clerk (Edgar Kennedy); this isn’t Stage Door, and when she gets a gig as a waitress for the Hollywood Elite, the party feels relaxed, hardly bustling as one might imagine.

Eventually, the break does come. She meets Maine at the very same party. She strikes up a relationship. Not in an opportunistic way. She never loses her sincerity, and she gets a screen test. In the aftermath, Esther is reimagined as Vicky Lester. 

The preview screening forecasts her as the next big talent, and for Maine, the writing is already on the wall. A star is born before our eyes and Norman is on the way out. Her ascension as media darling continues as he continues to slide into has-been territory.

Lionel Stander is their PR man bloated with every colossal idea in the book from padding starlets’ backstories, writing big news spreads about their private lives, and making a big to-do so everyone and their mother knows about them. It’s all Maine and Lester can do to keep him out of their business so they can live their personal life in peace, together.

For a time they are happy. Her talents continue to proliferate until the day that she takes home the Academy Award, but it’s too late. Norman is already finished. It’s sad really as he’s stashed away in a sanitarium to steady himself and beat his drinking habit. The industry has a convenient habit of burying those things it doesn’t want anymore.

When he comes out of rehabilitation, he’s at Santa Anita drinking ginger ale and walking around like a stale star of yesteryear. Not a smidgeon of respect from anyone. His old publicity man Libby gets ugly, exhibiting a great amount of relish dressing down the former heavyweight. He’s not simply dismissive. He’s incisive and cruel (even if Maine did bring most of it upon himself).

One of the few times it feels crowded is at the racetrack now that he’s a walking social pariah. It’s a pointed bit of staging as crowds all but materialize to emphasize his public ignominy. The irony isn’t lost on us because the biggest crowd he’ll draw comes only when he’s gone for good.

Personally, I’m partial to the comic proclivities of What Price Hollywood? but there’s something quintessential and iconic about this narrative even as it was remade countless times and was a loose reworking itself. It speaks to all the dreams and devastations of the Hollywood industry, highlighting them in all their complexities, while still managing to revel in them, in part, due to the coloring of the world. There’s something beautiful about this picture totally overwhelming any of the ugliness.

When we talk about beauty it’s not simply about a palette or elegance; this has to do with people and themes. Janet Gaynor for one and her love played out on the screen for her husband. It’s a continual reminder that the Hollywood mythos was not a new phenomenon and the industry was very well aware of the aura and the narrative it was projecting. It’s movies like A Star is Born putting Hollywood in dialogue with itself. Over 80 years later and we’re still engaging in much the same dialogue.

Although George Cukor may have passed on directing A Star is Born after having done What Price Hollywood?, there is something fitting in him taking the reins on Judy Garland’s musical version in 1954. It’s like the story continually reinvents itself for ensuing generations. Because if All About Eve feels more like our jaded reality, I think all of us want to believe in our heart of hearts that we can be that one star shining brightly. Then, we must ask, what star must die to make way for us?

4/5 Stars

Ladies They Talk About (1933): Starring Barbara Stanwyck

Ladies_They_Talk_About

“Too much deaconing took all the sweetness out of me” – Barbara Stanwyck as Nan Taylor

From its opening moments, the movie feels like a  fine prelude to Baby Face for Barbara Stanwyck, who flaunts her feminine wiles and indecent levels of charisma as a gangster’s moll.

After sending the police on a wild goose chase with an erroneous tip, she runs interference, schmoozing her way past the bank security guard. He obviously ignores protocol and normal operating hours in deference to a pretty face. 

Soon the thugs in the idling getaway car burst in and get down to business raiding the establishment and their inside man — actually their inside woman — plays the damsel in distress. She plays her part quite well fainting on the spot. But when a police detective comes onto the scene, her resourcefulness runs out. He’s familiar with her rap sheet and all of sudden she’s left holding the bag. Stanwyck’s made her M.O. quite clear. 

In stark contrast, the film introduces pious David Slade (Preston Foster), a young man on a righteous tirade against dirty politics, and he takes to the radio waves to mobilize the votes of the public with an “Old Fashioned Revival.” He’s the kind of principled, tough-on-crime type of person, who becomes a thorn in the backside of miscreants and city officials alike. Because he’s more than prepared to shake up the status quo. 

The narrative strands are tied together by our two leads because they have a shared past — from the same town no less — although they’ve followed starkly different paths. Nan rebelled against her father’s religiosity, and it led to a life in reform school. There are still fragments of goodness in her, and they make Slade fall in love with her. He sees only her innocence, all but ignorant of her past sins. 

One of the best sequences in the movie is understated — completely focused on Stanwycks’s emotive face as she finally levels with him about her past sins. Here she is being real for the first time and her savior takes offense. He thinks he’s been used. All we see are her eyes cast upwards before she senses the movement as he huffs away to his desk. It’s such a tiny moment within the film but how it’s articulated exemplifies such a lovely bit of nuance.

Because it’s imperative Stanwyck treads this line between vice and virtue as she gets caught between a man who wants her and a district attorney who wants to keep his job. However, she feels betrayed and castigated for finally laying herself bare. The window for them is closing. 

After opening up, she hardens again, closing up like a steel trap; this is what she knows. It’s a defense mechanism, and she’s not going to let the world hurt her anymore. Even if it means a prison sentence.

San Quentin Penitentiary feels a bit like the playground with everyone eyeing and feeling out the fresh meat. Nan throws her weight around not taking any flack from the “Daffodils” especially when it’s Slade speaking on the other end of the tube. Everything she loathes in life is exemplified in Sister Susie (Dorothy Burgess) a former sinner who now is hopelessly devoted to Slade’s righteous war. 

Nan is far more chummy with Linda, a fellow inmate who obliges by showing her the ropes. This is hardly what I was expecting from Ladies They Talk About; it becomes a bona fide story about incarcerated women. It has all the beats. A highlight is watching Stawnyck give a massive wallop to her rival even as she acclimates to life and earns a rapport with such chipper lifers as Aunt Maggie (Maude Eburne). 

Lillian Roth plays her streetwise yet amiable second banana with a casual charm. Doing some quick tabulation, my mind went to Susan Hayward and her role in I Want to Live. A few years after that she would actually play Roth in the biopic treatment of her life I’ll Cry Tomorrow. It’s nothing more than a trifle of an observation.

But a movie that started with a brazen bank robbery, must include an Alcatraz-level escape attempt. Once more Nan finds herself being the inside woman joining up with her old cronies. It looks like the movie can only have a tragic fall for Nan Taylor. She bides her time in the clink just to get another chance at the outside — an opportunity to face her old rival — and give him the business. 

Sure enough, she’s back at “The Old-Fashioned Revival,” runs into an old friend, and enters the reverent proceedings with a gun. There’s only one place this drama is going. That is until it gets maudlin. Although perhaps this is too harsh because, for once, the story relinquishes puritan religiosity for agape love — a sacrificial love that holds no record of wrongs. Given what it is in terms of genre, mixing a wayward woman picture with crime and prison drama, Ladies They Talk About is a hardy recommend if only for Stanwyck’s talents. 

There are some actresses you could watch in just about anything because they take on all sorts of roles and no matter the breadth or the make-up of the characters, they seem to intuit and then embody the humanity found therein. If the moral dichotomy of the movie is obvious and the tropes easy enough to guess, then Stanwyck elevates the material to a degree and actually makes us care for a moment, long enough to enjoy the thrills. It’s a solid Warner Bros. picture thanks in part to her. 

3.5/5 Stars