Les Miserables (1935) and Candlesticks

les miserables 1935 march and laughton

There’s a biblical verse that warns against storing up treasures in heaven where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in a steal. Jean Valjean keeps two silver candlesticks with him always — they’re probably the nicest things he owns — but their true value signifies something more than worldly wealth.

While it cannot cope with the sheer scale and transcendent grandiloquence of Victor Hugo’s eponymous work, 20th Century Fox makes a valiant go at it using all the resources at its disposal to deliver the 1930s version of a prestige period piece.

Jean Valjean (Fredric March) is before the courts in the year 1800. The judge utters the purposefully grating words “guilty until proven innocent.” After all, the law is explicit. It makes no provisions for a man who stole out of desperation since he couldn’t get work with none to be found. His sister and nephew were starving. It makes no difference. Retribution is swift. 10 years in the galleys for his infraction.

Watching March in such abhorrent conditions is akin to any major movie star being forced to suffer so. Errol Flynn suffered a similar fate in Captain Blood. Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas being enslaved years later also springs to mind. There’s a fortitude they earn in conjunction with the audience. It makes us commiserate with their lot in life — especially when the world seems so unfair.

Stylistically, the direction is a bit clunky with nothing particularly appealing with how Richard Boleslawski handles the material but given who he’s taking from, perhaps it’s for the best there are not many undue flourishes. Although artistic license is taken with innumerable details, the general essence of the novel (from what little I know) is still present, and, if anything, it has been shaped into a social piece to speak to the times.

But we have yet to speak of the story’s other crucial figure. Javert (Charles Laughton) is a devoted lawman with a sordid family history hanging over him. He’s trying to do everything in his power to get out from under its legacy.

There’s a recalcitrant timidity to Laughton even as he plays another fellow with power (like Captain Bligh) who is wholly beholden to the law. It becomes more and more apparent how relentless he is in his line of work — to the point of obsession and steep paranoia.

But make no mistake. He is no Captain Bligh. Laughton brings something of a different sort to him going beyond convenient descriptors. He’s merciless in another way with a deceptive even evasive cunning. And again you can’t help but feel sorry for the compulsive way in which he adheres to his duties. There’s something behind his eyes crying out even as his posture is always uncomfortable.  Can we say he’s fragile? Somewhere in there is the little boy making amends for his parent’s failures. He’s part of the same legalistic system that put Jean Valjean into prison.

Here the candlesticks come back into play. The 10 years are up and after an escape attempt, our protagonist gets out of prison hardened and totally skeptical of the rehabilitation the government has in mind for him.

It’s not simply about there being no room; no one wants a scraggly social pariah like him in their establishment. He’s subsequently kicked out of every tavern and evey inn. It gets to the point that he sits in the pelting rain covering himself feebly against the elements. There’s one person he hasn’t tried and on some friendly advice, he seeks asylum with a local bishop (the quietly unperturbed Cedrick Hardwicke).

He soon is introduced to a kind of up-side-down radical generosity (involving the very same candlesticks), which feels so foolish by the world’s standards. And yet it makes people sit up and take note. For one, Valjean, who is a beneficiary, is blessed by charity in ways he’s never experienced in his life.  It changes him, even melts his jaundiced attitudes. Angelic choruses are sung over triumphant imagery as Valjean takes on a firm resolve to change his life.

The movie makes it obvious. He literally becomes a new man — more like the well-groomed, charismatic Fredric March we typically know. He’s robed with a new character and from henceforward March wears the role quite regally going from forlorn criminal to man of the people, held in the highest regard. It’s not an altogether straightforward transformation, and he still manages it with relative ease.

Javert is his obvious foil. The two of them are incongruous. Valjean at his new post as mayor is forever dogged by the inspector’s unyielding ways. Yet again, justice cannot be tempered by mercy. If it’s not already obvious within the dramatic situation, Valjean’s own past must collide with Javert’s hound-like instinct.

les miserables Rochelle Hudson and Fredric March

As a charming background detail informing the film, March gets the opportunity to play across from his real-life spouse of many years Florence Eldridge. However, it is her cinematic daughter who is the other most integral piece. Cosette is a charming girl and an even more effervescent young woman (Rochelle Hudson). She makes her adopted father all the happier and fast becomes his most cherished treasure in the world.

The final sequence in this Les Mis is the first great show of period hubbub with gunfire, swords, horsemen, and smoke all conjoining on the screen. The youth movements have stirred up against the authoritarian forces of the status quo. It’s their fearless leader, Marius (John Beal), who is smitten with Cosette and vice versa. However, it never feels like a purely political story. We never hear the gory details of Napoleon or any of the trials and tribulations besetting Hugo himself for his outgoing stances.

It’s all about giving Valjean a stake in this cultural moment even as he and Javert must have their inevitable faceoff. First and foremost, it must be understood as a broader tale of sacrifice, forgiveness, and redemption. These are big words but then again, there are few books more deserving of such consideration.

It’s no wonder Valjean and Javert are archetypes unto themselves. One of sacrifice, the other of tragedy. The weight of the debt he owes — one he cannot repay — is far too much for Javert to bear. He takes a leap into the realm of Judas Iscariot as the story’s great catastrophe. Is he a villain? Aren’t we all?

The conceit at the center of this adaptation might be simplified, but it gets the theme across. Namely, it takes someone showing us the depths of grace and mercy for us to truly experience what radical love looks like. The law in all its nobility, justice, and truth will crush us under its weight. We cannot stand up against its regulations or else we’ll die trying. It’s best to realize our shortcomings and lend a generous hand to others.

Also, it gives a striking new meaning to candlesticks. They are no longer a blunt instrument with which to murder someone in the parlor. Instead, they are tokens, even tools, of redemption. Though only for some.

4/5 Stars

 

Mutiny on The Bounty (1935) with Gable, Laughton, and Tone

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More recently I’ve found myself straying away from period pieces and epics and not necessarily because there is something fundamentally off-putting about them. Nor do I think it can solely be blamed on my admittedly short attention span in this increasingly inane and vapid social media-fueled society we live in.

To prove my reasoning, I only need to express a couple of repurposed lines, “To whom much is given, much is required.” It’s not from Spider-Man, no, but it does suggest a movie like Mutiny on the Bounty already has a mountain to climb. It needs to do more to wow me than one of its shorter more economical brethren. Therein lies the issue at hand: greater expectations.

The year is 1787 and the Royal Navy is on a mission to acquire breadfruit trees as sustenance for slaves in the West Indies. This is implied to be a tale about how a mutiny led by a man named Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) laid the groundwork for modern British sea law still ruling the seas to the present day (that is, 1935).

Thankfully, it never feels quite like we are being taught a moral or a lesson of social significance. It’s nothing more than entertainment, though it’s still one of the great seafaring epics (not starring Errol Flynn).

A handful of hapless men are pulled out of a tavern away from their wives and loved ones and conscripted into a two years voyage with a Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton). Another man of privileged stock takes his post gladly (Franchot Tone).

When his crew is finally aboard and assembled, Bligh sets the precedent of unyielding discipline with a flogging of some poor unfortunate chap. His men look on gravely, no doubt questioning what they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s true the sea is a fierce adversary with gales whipped up and immersive wave-drenched decks swaying madly under their legs. However, if there is a touch of man vs nature in the drama, it’s even more vehemently about bouts of human conflict and insurrection.

Director Frank Lloyd makes liberal use of claustrophobic close-ups played in sharp juxtaposition to the more grandiose naval imagery. It signals the tone of the world even as this grand scale is made tactile through the onscreen relationships. Namely, that of a tyrannical captain and his hapless crew as he ceaselessly dishes out lashes and other sordid punishments indiscriminately even unto the point of death. There must be a breaking point. For now, we wait as they grin and bear their taskmaster.

One of the few sources of jocularity is the ship’s surgeon (Dudley Digges) a blustering old sea dog who dubiously lost his leg — the story of how it happened is the source of many of his largest yarns. Still, he too is in danger of being a casualty. No one is safe on a boat where the most precious cargo is botanical and not human. It’s these plants that are given preferential treatment when rations are concerned.

The crew is half-raving, stir-crazy as they finally weigh anchor on the shores of Tahiti — taken by the country’s beauty, coconut milk, and native girls. Our voyage has reached its midpoint and dipped its toes into what feels like paradise. Is it a coincidence that Bligh seems to all but disappear? Instead,  Tone busies himself picking up as much of the dialect as possible, and then Gable is taken by the pretty woman making eyes at him; they don’t need language to communicate.

mutiny on the bounty Gable and Tone

It’s the interim period of leisure and romance. But this respite must come to an end and with it, we arrive at the beginning of the end. After all, the whole story has been mounting to this precise point as we’ve all but avoided the inevitable.

If I’m to engage with my boyhood proclivities, Mutiny is not much of an actioner or at least not in the sense of a rip-roaring swashbuckler. It’s a war between titans, men of differing ideals, only to be interrupted by the unpredictable ferocity of the sea. So in this way, it’s more of a character piece injected with action. Still, this is not the bottom line.

The conflict is in staying the voyage (and the film) to see whose will is enacted in the end: Bligh’s or Christians with Byam forced to navigate the turbulent waters of ambiguity in-between. One positive of the picture is how none of the three men seem to entirely steal the show; they seem to be on surprisingly equal footing.

Yes, Laughton is an impudent, bull-headed taskmaster but hardly one of the most nefarious villains of all time. This is a tribute to the actor. He sculpts Bligh into a wretched, small-time human being who’s too big for his britches.  A paranoid weasel blinded by his devotion to duty and the sound of his own voice. He doesn’t forget those who revolt and his retribution is swift.

However, he is all but cast aside and forgotten, an insignificant little man, who knows how to make his way amid the rules and regulations of the Navy. It’s a more galling ending than if he had been lost at sea or most preferably eaten by a shark. But Laughton is a credit to the role showcasing his mind-boggling dexterity and range among actors of his day and age.

Gable is ultimately made into a kind of mythical figure out there on the ocean somewhere, but he is not destined to wander aimlessly — he and his rag-tag crew find a place to rest and call home. He wears the fierce, proud masculinity of Fletcher Christian just as you would expect him to (with our without his trademark pencil-thin mustache).

But if they are the two behemoths doing war against one another with the ship and the sea as their arena of battle, it is Tone who actually gets the final word as our initial in to the story. He is the every man, and therefore, the voice of reason for all of us. While I wouldn’t go out on the plank to say The Mutiny on The Bounty is a so-called “great film,” it does a service to its genre as one of MGM’s most prominent period pieces of the decade and a fine showcase for some of their most acclaimed stars.

4/5 Stars

Pride and Prejudice (1940): Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson

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When you grow up with a sister, I imagine most people are aware of books like Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Anne of Greene Gables, and Little House on The Prairie. However, especially when you’re young, you rarely appreciate them fully or comprehend how notable they are as cultural artifacts.

It’s my ever-growing esteem for Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice that makes me hold any adaptation to a higher standard. Otherwise, it would be easy enough to settle. But the coloring of the characters, their tete-a-tetes, the comic orchestrations, and the explorations of themes inherent in British society, make the material that much more sacrosanct. As time grows older, her works seem to draw more audiences, not less.

Thus, I’ve found myself not so much a stickler for out and out faithfulness to the source, although if it’s not broke, why fix it? Still, I desire these adaptations to stay true to the essence of what the author created.

It’s true Hollywood has always had an affection for its literary adaptations, and it was little different in the olden days of the studio system. Because what any book or intellectual property essentially guarantees is some kind of preformed fanbase to pull from. However, these attempts to capitalize always come with widely varied results. This MGM version, helmed by the all but forgotten Robert Z. Leonard, falls somewhere in the middle. It’s hardly forgettable and yet it lacks the required magic to send it in to the pantheon of Austen cinematic transcendence.

For those left unawares, Pride and Prejudice is a story of the Bennett family, consisting of five sisters, their benevolent father, and a hyperbolic mother looking for every opportunity to marry her daughters off to the man with the largest inheritance.

When two eligible young men, a kind-faced Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester) and the rather more curt and severe Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier), rent the grand estate of Netherfield, along with a haughty sister, Ms. Bingley (Frieda Inescourt), it causes quite the stir in town.

The matriarch, Mrs. Bennet (Mary Boland), is the epitome of a fussy busybody who, nevertheless, has draped about her a certain maternal charm. Edmund Gwenn calmly uses his bright-eyed wit to upstage his wife’s blustering. They make a formidable pair of comics.

Among their children, Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) is the perfectly docile beauty with the richest prospects of marriage. Elizabeth (Greer Garson) is proud and passionate. Mary (Marsha Hunt) is bespectacled and depicted as a bit of an oddball. The two youngest, Lydia (Ann Rutherford) and Kitty (Heather Angel) are tittering adolescents swayed by a dashing manner and a handsome uniform.

The story is conveniently recontextualized for the Victorian-era and the main purpose served is in the costuming department. Not only could the studio save money by repurposing some of their wardrobes, but they could also lean into a greater level of opulence that would not have been available in the actual day of the Bennetts. Except for absolute purists, I see no way in which this historical inaccuracy harms the success of the picture.

It is also the opening ball reinforcing the ensuing conflict by introducing Elizabeth’s genuine distaste that she harbors for Mr. Darcy, perceiving him to be a total supercilious snob. What’s more, her feelings are not entirely unwarranted. This dissension is borne in the title itself: The pride of Elizabeth and the prejudice of someone bearing the breeding of Mr. Darcy. For that matter, it could be the other way around, Elizabeth’s prejudice toward the upper echelon and his own inbred pride.

Every successive encounter between them, Elizabeth does everything to confirm her assumptions about him. It means they are never on amicable terms with one another, no matter the words that might leave their lips. She is hardly reticent about airing her contempt for the man.

Every slight dispensed by those purported to be above her in status is further internationalized and often finds its way out in a barbed attack on Mr. Darcy since he proves to be the easiest target of ridicule. Even as Darcy’s romantic advances continue in earnest, Elizabeth has great relish in embarrassing him over a bout of archery. The consequence is understood, but somehow it feels a bit foreign to the propriety of Austen’s universe.

In parallel and, ultimately, intertwined romances, Jane and Mr. Bingley incur and off and on relationship defined not so much by grating behavior between the two of them but the forces of inertia working around them.

Following her own flight of fancy, Kitty winds up running off with a soldier named Mr. Wickham, who seems charming enough. However, it conveniently shrouds a past of ill-repute that Darcy holds against the man while Elizabeth gives Wickham the benefit of the doubt. It’s yet another grievance she can hold against the stuffy aristocrat.

These paces are all Austen, but similar to the numerous versions of Little Women, it’s the performers who really mold it into their own. I love Greer Garson to death, and she does an amiable job but it’s hard to dismiss her predetermined disposition. She is always one of the most vivacious screen personalities and though she gets to shine in the final act, up to that point, she’s meant to be proud and brazenly foreright in the mode of her literary counterpart. It doesn’t feel quite like her temperament.

On his part, Olivier does well enough as Darcy; he certainly has a presence about him and the repute to make it seem viable. However, the romance is not as vibrant as it might have been. It feels a bit stunted, and it cannot be conveniently attributed to the social context.

Like its successor Jane Eyre (1943), it’s also rather jolting to see Aldous Huxley’s name in the screen credits. My high school days of reading A Brave New World make any period piece feel like a blatant anachronism on his repertoire. Still, this alone can hardly stand as a substantive piece of criticism.

It does feel some of the best and most well-regarded lines are not emphasized enough within the structure of the scenes and while there are certainly considerable elements of the original story, they are never done too many favors.

Mr. Collins feels like a miserable sot and a bore of a man and with the screwball caricature of Melville Cooper, it feels all the more like miscasting. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bingely has a lacerating post to maintain as the picture’s snide gossip. It appears her only function in the plot is to be churlish, making Darcy incrementally more tolerable.

Edna May Oliver for one is always prepared to play a no-nonsense patroness, in this case, Lady Catherine, who orchestrates events so her dear nephew might test the waters of romance.  Because Mr. Darcy and Ms. Bennett are meant to be together and they are both able to cast aside their own issues to recognize just how much they care for one another.

Finally watching Olivier and Garson in a passionate embrace is a dream come true but, as for myself, I couldn’t help but get distracted by fond memories of Wuthering Heights and Random Harvest. How I wish I could same the same of this movie. Still, I’m clouded by my own blind spots and personal hangups. You must make your own judgment.

3.5/5 Stars

The Story of Adele H. (1975): Starring Isabelle Adjani

L'histoire_d'Adèle_H.I didn’t think about it until the movie began, but the only person I’ve ever known to only go by the initial of their last name was for the sake of keeping their anonymity. If you’re a nobody, it doesn’t matter who knows your name.

In this case, if you’re the great Victor Hugo’s daughter, they stand up and take notice. Especially if you run off to Halifax Nova Scotia to pursue a British soldier named Albert Pinson of some dubious repute. Hence Adele H.

This is her story based on the diaries she left behind. It’s during the American Civil War. It’s still left to be seen if the Confederacy will be able to succeed. Adele’s father is currently exiled from his homeland, and she is intent on receiving the invitation of marriage from the man she once rebuffed.

When she lands in the new environment, there’s a timidity furled about her to go with her obvious affluence. She picks up a coach and converses in impeccable English with the driver looking for adequate lodging for someone like herself.

The place settled upon is a boarding house run by a Mrs. Saunders, and there she finds a welcoming albeit humble abode, the perfect home base to begin her inquiries. It seems a noble mission in the service of love.

I’ve come to like Francois Truffaut’s brand of economical period piece. Because usually we come to equate them with ballooning budgets and grand narratives, but Truffaut seems more interested in the character studies. If The Wild Child and now The Story of Adele H. are any indication, it’s the personal relationships he’s invested in and this allows the director to step into the cultural moment and still somehow make them highly resonate with us in an altogether different era.

Isabelle Adjani is the portrait of youthful innocence and she is so young, so beautiful, and full of emotional fervor. It’s hard not to be carried away by the passion of her performance.

Her first meeting with her beloved Lt. Pinson (Bruce Robinson looking like a British incarnation of Alain Delon) blooms with this candor even as it becomes obvious he’s moved on — he no longer has feelings for her, if he ever did — and what’s even more heartbreaking is how madly she still desires to be with him.

Even as the film cuts back and forth between French and English, one is reminded how French really is a romance or romantic language. English sounds so blunt and harsh, at times, in comparison. Maybe as a native French-speaker Truffaut’s not attuned to his actor’s tones in English. Maybe he’s playing off these very elements. No matter, the French is quiet, melodious, and even rapturous in the most passionate declarations.

I don’t understand the literal translation (without subtitles) but the underlying feelings are crystal clear and devastatingly powerful. Her zealousness, the pleading professions of love, met by a soldier whose stoic aloofness only draws out her urgency even more.

One is reminded of a scene where she enters a party — dressed in the hat and tails of a gentleman — but she doesn’t seem to bother hiding the fact she’s incognito, and she gets inside. We see in through the glass as someone goes to fetch Pinot, and he’s forced to make a show of the whole thing by pulling Adele outside and trying to make her listen to reason. Through Nestor Almendros’ fluid cinematography and Truffaut’s intentionality, we understand the whole dynamic without hearing the words spoken.

Or there’s another instance where Adele is presented with a couple volumes of her father’s works by a bookkeeper who is more than a bit smitten with her. But her eyelashes flutter in the most mesmerizing manner, and she proceeds to lash out at him. She doesn’t want to be reminded of who she is and where she comes from.

By now Adele has crossed over to the point of desperation, tears, and, ultimately, obsession. The story begins to sink and devolve into something else entirely. For the first time, we realize what might really be going on.

This might be the most propitious time to insert a morsel about the real Adele Hugo. She most certainly would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Truffaut doesn’t actually make his film about mental illness per se, and that is problematic if we are clamoring for a wholly authentic biopic.

Instead, we must watch Adele’s descent without much explanation. At night she’s overtaken by terrors and during the day she doggedly pursues any means to bring her eternal back to her. First its vague thoughts of hypnotism, then deceit, and character assassination, effectively besmirching her lover’s reputation with anyone else who tries to wed him.

It’s these interludes which somehow evoke the possessiveness of Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven and yet far from being vindictive, Francois Truffaut casts them in the most pitiful of lights. The film is spellbinding for much of the outset, and Adjani remains steadfast through it all. She carries it along based on her immense graces alone.

However, as the dirge-like rhythms drag on, it can hardly maintain its running-time, following Adele through events that feel like foregone conclusions as she becomes more dismal and delusional. It feels like most of the ideas have been expressed to their full potential, and now we must wallow in her trail of unrequited love.

Finally, she follows her man to Barbados only to be left as a shell of her former self escalated by her complete and utter deterioration. When the film ends it feels like a courtesy to all parties. To Adele because she needn’t suffer anymore and for the audience because we could hardly be more woebegone.

If anything, The Story of Adele H. touches on the darker caverns of Truffaut’s creativity, and yet maybe it’s simply because we always remember the youthful giddiness in his pictures instead of the forlorn aspects. More than anything it makes one appreciate how eclectic his body of work is and the through-line connecting every picture is authentic humanity — even humanity unhinged — in some way, shape, or form.

It just so happens Adele Hugo’s humanity was a bit more depressing. The sad thing is, probably few people actually know her name or, frankly, care about it. In spite of this, Truffaut manages to cast her as a creature of unwavering love on the scale of Wuthering Heights or other comparable works.

At 20 years of age Adjani already had completed a role for a lifetime. If you didn’t get the impression already, she has a magnificent aura about her, half spectral beauty, half tragic heroine.

4/5 Stars

The Wild Child (1970) and Truffaut’s Empathy

Wild_child23.jpgThe Wild Child (L’Enfant Sauvage in French) is based on “authentic events,” as it says because Francois Truffaut became fascinated by a historical case from the 1700s. A feral boy was discovered out in the forests and then taken under the tutelage of a benevolent doctor.

Although he had initially wanted to adapt The Miracle Worker, Arthur Penn got to it first and released the rendition of Helen Keller’s story to much acclaim. Instead, Truffaut pored over the medical observations of one Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard relating to the curious case of the aforementioned Victor of Aveyron. Somehow this effort follows in the same vein of The Miracle Worker but feels entirely organic and indigenous to Truffaut’s roots.

There are several immediately striking elements about The Wild Child that become immediately apparent. At first, I wasn’t expecting the black & white cinematography, but somehow it makes so much sense. It’s an intuitive expression of the world and frequent Truffaut collaborator, Néstor Almendros, shoots the world with a stark, no-frills tintype aesthetic proving quite extraordinary.  The pictorial simplicity is impeccable. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is equally spare, all but scoreless, aside from interludes of Vivaldi when appropriate.

The second notable aspect was the opening dedication to Jean-Pierre Leaud. This only makes sense if you consider the lineage of Truffaut and where he has come from. Certainly his first and greatest achievement was The 400 Blows, which starred Leaud as a wayward youth — not far removed from Truffaut’s childhood or Leaud’s own.

Their relationship remained closely intertwined even as it charted the course of the Nouvelle Vague with the works of Jean-Luc Godard and the resurgence of the Antoine Doinel character in Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, and the still forthcoming Bed and Board.

Of course, in following the historical discovery of a feral boy in the woods of 18th century France, the environment and context could not be farther removed. The opening moments are a striking wilderness chase scene with the naked boy living off the land and fleeing from a pack of hunting dogs, looking to smoke him out and earn the good graces of their masters.

It’s the story of civilization impinging on the natural world even if it is under unusual circumstances. The narrative isn’t an altogether novel one if you remember any historical examples of Native Americans who were shamelessly paraded through so-called “enlightened” western society, like sideshow attractions, only to be decimated by their diseases.

Still, Truffaut films are nothing if not personal, and The Wild Child fits into this personal collage. Each one of his films, individually and together, is sculpted by his ideas into vessels of art and creativity — ways in which to see the world and make sense of it.

If nothing else, somehow he seems to empathize with the circumstances. First, from the child’s perspective, to be left for dead, without parents until the age of 1,1 and then thrown into a world you cannot comprehend. But he has also evolved into the adult — in this case Dr. Itard — who, in a show of sympathy, makes the boy his charge, if not a pet project.

Truffaut is so invested in this role he throws off all pretense of merely being behind the camera and takes on a role in front of it. Both cinematically and practically, he is the boy’s mentor and guide without an intermediary of any kind.

You can see how deeply he empathizes with other human beings and somehow the good doctor seems like a fitting stand-in for Truffaut himself, on multiple accounts. In a society that looks down at this boy, seeing him merely as an outcast, an idiot, a pariah, Truffaut/Dr. Itard sees someone worth salvaging. He won’t give up on the creature’s intelligence nor his primal urge toward morality  — some latent iteration of the noble savage.

And yet he can still be an exacting, obsessive taskmaster. All for the creature’s own good mind you, but there you are. Whether it be the acquisition of language, intelligence, or cinema, you can easily see how any of the three could overlap. He has the end goal in mind, and he’s so unswervingly devoted to the success of his pupil, even to the point of feeling callous at times.

Was this the way it would have been with a wayward, youthful Leaud? Was this Truffaut with his mentor and father-figure Andre Bazin? All seem to be hinted at and as an audience, we can only surmise. Because you have this complicated tie between teacher, antagonist, and friend underlying this film, regardless of its period context.

Someone who opens up the world to you in their infinite wisdom, but no doubt causes you to want to rebel at other times. This is integral to our nature, not only as children but when we grow up too. Only when we’re older are we granted the full lucidity to see everything clearly with the benefit of hindsight. To see the motives behind discipline, tough love, and the implementation of rules.

If I’m to search my own heart, it is not always noble. It is not inclined toward good and has a predilection toward selfish and petty ideas. It takes some framework, some discipline to rein in, but not with the dismissiveness of the civilized elite from Paris and the learned academics. The honest to goodness humanity of Dr. Izard/Truffaut and the maternal affections of Madame Guerin are a fine place to start for reference.

Victor isn’t a miraculous case study during his time in their home by any means. He’s a work in progress. But isn’t he a far cry from where they found him — naked, wild, and living in a hole — self-sufficient though he may have been? As children, we are often content making mud pies in the sand when he could have something far better.

As someone who has dabbled often unsuccessfully in the field of education, you realize it’s the little victories that feel like moving mountains. Thus, when Victor begins to retain information, return home of his own accord, and spell at the word “LAIT” when he wants milk, these are miraculous in themselves.

Still, it takes the adult to have the foresight to know what will be in the child’s best interest. Things get more convoluted when the dynamics change. That, folks, is what we call the teenage years. Because it’s true sometimes, what people think is in their best interest differs greatly.

4/5 Stars

 

The Tall Target (1951)

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To set the scene our storytellers enlist an opening crawl that runs over the unmistakable strains of train noise. The year is 1861. The event being dramatized is the alleged Baltimore Plot and our hero is New York policeman John Kennedy (Dick Powell).

Despite being common and coincidental I can’t but help to acknowledge the bitter irony of our protagonist’s name. But he is not here to thwart a plot against his own life but a man with a much longer shadow.

His in-depth report warning against an impending threat to Abraham Lincoln on the road to his inauguration in Baltimore is dismissed by his superior as alarmist drivel. Nevertheless, the man finagles a way onto the Baltimore-bound steam engine finding an agreeable ally in Colonel Caleb Jeffers (Adolph Menjou). Kennedy once guarded Lincoln for 48 hours and yet in this perilous hour, he will go great lengths for the same man. However, we will soon find out that not everyone feels that way. He’s a very polarizing figure.

I’ve come to the not so startling conclusion that anything Mann touches turns into noir which I readily agree too. Much like Reign of Terror (1948) before it, the director transforms this antebellum train thriller into a reconstruction of history painted in tight angles, smoke & shadows, and coiled with taut action. We grow embroiled in his composed world of greasy close-quartered combat with grimacing faces and flying fists. Far from being constricting these elements are where the story thrives, trapped in corridors and hidden away in side-compartments with the characters that dwell therein.

Because moving through such a space forces Kennedy to brush up against so many individuals. A conductor (soon-to-be blacklisted Will Geer) who is trying to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible only to be inundated by troublemakers and drama. A young mother (Barbara Billingsley) who tries to control her antsy son. An incessant windbag constantly worrying about her prized “jottings” and all she’s going to inquire to Mr. Lincoln about. A southern gentleman sounding off in his dismay with the countries future. You get the idea.

Despite the vague difference in context, it’s quite understandable to place The Tall Target up against another film from the following year The Narrow Margin (1952). Rather than try and decide which one is superior, it’s safe to say that both excel far beyond what their budgets might have you suppose and they utilize the continual motion of a train to an immense degree because in that way the narrative is almost always chugging along to a certain end.

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Ruby Dee has a meager but crucial part in The Tall Target that I deeply wish could have been more substantial. In fact, in an early version, the established star Lena Horne was supposed to play the part of the slave girl Rachel.

Though the movie doesn’t have too much time to tackle the issues at hand, with its limited runtime it does attempt some discussion in terms of African-American freedoms and the southern relationship to such an ideal as asserted in the 13th amendment. The dichotomy I’ve always heard repeated is that “the North loved the race but hated the individual. Southerners hated the race, but love the individual.” It’s a vexing sentiment that we somehow can see playing out here.

Ginny Beaufort (Paula Raymond) a proper southern belle notes that she grew up so close to Rachel treating her like a sister. So close in fact that she never even thought about giving the young woman her freedom. Meanwhile, her younger brother Lance is involved in more than he is letting on. The mystery is not in his objective — he’s made his sentiments fairly clear — he despises Lincoln. Rather what matters is who his compatriots are and how they plan to go after the future president.

For me, the illusion was broken in the final moments because up until that time the picture has kept its eponymous hero masked. He is the Tall Target and nothing else. When we see him somehow the mythos around him is broken and he becomes another actor more than the idea of the man we know as our 16th president.

Regardless, Anthony Mann’s effort, while not well received in its day, is another picture packed with exuberance. It gives us grit and intrigue aboard a train and like the best thrillers, it uses every restriction to keep the tension palpable while throwing around enough diversions to keep us in our seats.

3.5/5 Stars

Roma (2018)

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Alfonso Cuaron is always a director whom I’ve admired from afar whether it be Harry Potter or Gravity (2013), but I would stop short of saying I’ve felt a connection to any of his work. Not that it is not there, I simply have not been affected in a specific way.

Roma, right from the outset, is vastly different from those other titles. Here is a man who has carved out success for himself in Hollywood along with his fellow countrymen like Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Inarritu, and Emmanuel Lubezki. Still, by taking stock of his life, stepping back, and returning to his roots, instantly I have a more profound understanding and subsequent appreciation of Cuaron.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for monochrome and Roma is by far the most gorgeous movie that I’ve seen from 2018 in this regard. Also, the world being documented intrigues me. The only film I recollect existing in a comparable space is Machuca (2004) and even that story was very pointed in putting the social and racial elements front and center.

Roma somehow manages to work wonders by bringing those normally existing outiside of the spotlight into the forefront, while nudging usual focal points to the periphery and yet they are no less a part of this world. It’s a deeply admirable endeavor to try and pull off and it generally succeeds.

Because this is a story of a family living in the Mexican quarter of Roma but if it is about children, a grandmother; a husband and wife, then it is more specifically about their in-house maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). It’s made plain she is the glue to hold everything together in this story and within this splintering family.

The camera itself follows suit, with Cuaron making a concerted effort to keep his visions broad and encompassing (He served as cinematographer as well as director and screenwriter). We still know we’re being guided albeit by someone coaxing us to observe and take in scenes at a certain distance. It’s the overall impressions and a sense of the gestalt that is more important than mercilessly driving our focus. Soft pans at times turning a full 360 degrees make all the space fair game. I’m not always a fan but they generally work.

The freedom is exhilarating and at the same time pensive because it allows space to really sit back and relish scenes unfolding at their own pace. I can’t help but be reminded of Tati’s Playtime (1967) where so many things might be going on in the frame and you are given license to enjoy all or none of them at any given time.

Beyond these shots, the most gratifying are the tracking ones moving right to left along street corners. Maybe it’s a pair of young women running to their favorite lunch shop to get a torta for or little kids scampering ahead to get to the movie theater to see the new movie Marooned (a Gravity inspiration perhaps). It’s not simply a technical appeal but a complete immersion in the landscape that we can appreciate.

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But the drama is also evident, especially following a tumultuous one-two punch instigated by rioting and blood in the streets, an outcome of the notorious Corpus Christi Massacre. The historical moment gets personal and the sheer volatility of it all feels palpable. I cannot help but remember the rumblings of unrest and chaos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. For Mexico’s people, it was far more than a pair of black power salutes.

This is augmented by a moment that proves equally bleak. It feels like a dream out of 8 1/2 (1963). Stuck in a traffic jam — not moving an inch — except this is very real and disconcerting. There are some real issues with not only the social and economic unrest but the very infrastructure of the nation.

Cleo is on the verge of pregnancy and yet they are not moving anywhere. The hospital seems desperately out of reach. When they do finally arrive it too is full of tumult. Pulling strings, they manage to get Cleo to the doctor. However, nothing can prepare us for the devastating drama with the birth of Cleo’s child.

The news finally drops that father is not gone away in Canada. He’s simply not coming back. In the aftermath of all this excitement and the family vacation, life settles into a new equilibrium. Cleo tries to get over her heartbreak as the family accepts that dad is not coming back and they must be brave and move forward with life.

These encompass many of the moments already mentioned but it seems just as necessary to mention hail storms, barking dogs, hanging up the washing, nights in front of the television, and the complete decimation of automobiles simply in an attempt to park them in the narrow family garage.

A story like this thrives on these moments just as much as the overt drama because Cuaron has pulled from his own memories — the personal recollections of his childhood — and so when we see these very mundane sequences there is an appreciation for the details.

The only caveat that should come with Roma is the necessity to be aware of the social structure in place within the context of our story. If we were taking an anthropology course we would probably call it hegemony. Because our central family is part of the middle class, the social elite, and their background shows connections to higher education and the world at large.

The first tip-off Cleo is different is simply how she looks and her occupation as the family maid. Even the fact she speaks both Spanish and her indigenous Mixtec. These are elements we would do well not to gloss over.

Then, we see the community she was raised in and it becomes obvious the poverty present. Everyone does not live like her employers because they are part of the privileged few who can manage with multiple cars, many vacations, a fridge full of Twinkies, and money for frequent trips to the movies.

Again, these stark contrasts cannot be taken for granted. We have this strange process of dealing with these complex relationships deeply rooted in the country itself. Cuaron is attempting to acknowledge an unsung hero in his life while coming to terms with his own past. It’s imperfect but I have difficulty finding fault in it because this is essentially his existence with the curtains pulled back.

It is not for me to pass judgment on the merit of his life or his upbringing. What I can hold onto and feel drawn to are the moments of pain and suffering that feel human. We have instances of quiet strength and dignity, affection and bravery. Cleo is a beautiful figure. That doesn’t make her station in life right or the world around her okay but she gleams with something powerful. There are deep reservoirs of emotion evident here but they are not of the conventional sort.

In my estimation, pulchritude will always hold precedence over ugliness. It’s not about being complacent or ignorant towards the dark tendencies of this world but it hinges on a resolute hopefulness. Roma is a meaningful ode even as it reminds us both the past and our current reality are deeply flawed.

4.5/5 Stars

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

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The opening shots of The Strawberry Blonde are not unlike Easter gatherings at my family’s house. Croquet in the backyard…well, that’s about it. But that’s precisely the distinction that’s being made as Raoul Walsh develops a dichotomy between two societies on either side of a brick wall.

On one side the Yale college boys play guitar as their gals all gussied up sing “Meet Me in St. Louis” after a rousing game of croquet. They are eye-catching and the frivolously well-off members of the elite. We think of them and their gayly prim and proper ways when we conjure up archetypal mental pictures of the so-called “Naughty Nineties.”

On the other end, two working men play a good old-fashioned game of horseshoes. They’re a different type of folk. A Greek barber (George Tobias hidden behind an accent and a mustache) and our pugnacious protagonist Biff Grimes. It’s not a typical Cagney picture but it’s still a typical hard-nosed Cagney and that’s the joy of it.

To use his vernacular, he’s a real hairpin. The kind of guy who never takes nothin’ from nobody but has made a habit of getting stepped on his entire life. Whether it’s the girls he’s missed out on or the fights he’s lost or any number of other footfalls. A 5-year stint in prison springs to mind.

Still, he can’t believe he missed out on the flirtatious, bodacious strawberry blonde Virginia Bush (Rita Hayworth), what seems like so many years ago now. But as was his habit, Biff’s friendly rival Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) ended up the lucky man.

Following their fateful first encounter, Biff gets continually saddled with Amy Lind (Olivia De Havilland) which obviously would be far from a disappointment with any sensible man. That doesn’t stop Biff from being sore. He needs a house call to get it through his thick skull that he really has a life to be grateful for.

This is the Epstein Brothers’ glorious revamping of a failed Gary Cooper vehicle from 1933, in this case, made to tailor fit James Cagney. The actor returned to his old studio, Warner Bros., looking for a change of pace to get him as far away from gangster fare as possible. Likewise, director Raoul Walsh was looking for a change after the riveting but tragic drama High Sierra (1941).

Given the results, it’s little surprise that the director considered it one of his personal favorites among the many pictures he helmed over the years. The quality cast starts with Cagney but we really have four superb talents at its core rounded out by Olivia De Havilland, a vivacious Rita Hayworth, and that old happy-go-lucky jokester Jack Carson. Alan Hale fills in as Cagney’s derelict father who’s always finding himself getting thrown out of the local saloon by the ear.

By now I all but take James Wong Howe’s photography for granted but as per usual, The Strawberry Blonde looks two-tone drop dead gorgeous as it lights a world with nostalgic hues of turn-of-the-century New York. Whether moonlight, streetlights, or candlelight, it is a film that is totally evocative of a bygone era.

Where men removed their coats to partake in fisticuffs. The same men humored their best girls with Sunday walks in the afternoon while local bands paraded through the park their brassy tunes wafting through the air. The barbershop subculture was in full bloom, quartets and all. Likewise, modernity was coming into its own with nitrous oxide, horseless carriages, electric lights, women’s suffrage, and the art of spaghetti imported from Italy.

In some paradoxical way while being nostalgic it still finds a way to feel surprisingly progressive particularly through the character of Olivia De Havilland with all her so-called improprieties. A nurse who winks, smokes, and whose mother was a bloomer girl and her aunt was an actress. At least on the surface. Maybe she’s not quite like that.

Meanwhile, Biff is always trying to save face his entire life and as a married man, he’s trying to save face with his concerned wife. He lives with discontentedness instead of satisfaction but just as the times keep on changing, Biff does too, realizing how lucky he is.

What makes the film itself a charming change of pace is the fact that it’s not concerned so much with one singular defining moment of drama but an entire life and it elicits a connection with a time and place even as we feel a sense of pity for Biff. It’s not a bleak film, more of a wistful one, and with wistfulness, a lighter more nostalgic tone can still be evoked.

Even to the end when Cagney takes on the masses it’s great sporting fun and he gets in his licks like any of his gangster pictures but he does it with a loving wife and a life to be wholly satiated by.

4/5 Stars

“Don’t be a hypocrite Virginia. Spiritually you winked.” ~ Olivia De Havilland as Amy Lind

Reign of Terror/The Black Book (1949)

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Depending on where you look Anthony Mann’s 1949 film comes under two different titles that are both equally apt. Reign of Terror denotes its roots in the French Revolution of the 1790s that saw the ousting of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette while putting Maximilien Robespierre at the helm of one of the most ghastly mobs known to man.

Any lover of history can call most everything in this picture into question but that’s almost beyond the point. This is not a tale that claims historical accuracy but a story of claustrophobic intensity that takes an era and builds an intriguing and gritty little drama out of all the sordid, twisted details. Perhaps more importantly than that it begins to draw parallels to the contemporary moment and that’s where the second title comes in.

The black book is the object that causes men to kill and lie and deceive one another because within its pages dwells great power to dictate the outcome of this kingdom on the precipice of something new. Whether or not that proves to be an optimistic direction very much depends on who gains access to said book. Robespierre (Richard Basehart) has lost it, the chief of the secret police Fouche (Arnold Moss) is intent on acquiring it for his own, as is a ring of staunch patriots looking to pilot their beloved nation back toward stability. That is only the main narrative thread. It seems like little coincidence that a black book shares great similarity to a blacklist.

In the 1950s, whether a concrete document existed hardly mattered because having your name added to this industry list was enough. Though not the same as being sent to the guillotine, for an actor or director it was tantamount to the death of a career as many found themselves out of work for years afterward.

While High Noon is often noted as one of the most high-profile blacklist allegories, The Black Book might be one of the most striking since it dares to find a point of reference between volatile and bloody history many years prior and the current reality. There’s nothing subtle about it.

Thus, whatever you want to label it, Reign of Terror or The Black Book, it proves to be a fascinating amalgamation of historical drama, film noir, and political allegory. Somehow it manages to be a low budget epic combining some wonderful talents that go beyond just Anthony Mann but to producer Walter Wanger, legendary cinematographer John Alton, and set designer William Cameron Menzies.

On the whole, it’s an unsentimental portrait comprised of severe low angle close-ups and shadows that spell film noir forwards and backward. It’s deliciously atmospheric, brooding with darkness and matched by ferocious stylized violence that sizzles in every moment of conflict. The sequences in front of the guillotine against the backdrop of the masses even conjure up the frames of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and it’s true that this picture ironically recycled sets from Joan of Arc from the year prior.

Looking at film from the perspective of a historian, one of the greatest enjoyments comes when I am able to view content that has a similar theme running through it whether a specific director, actor, genre, or subject. In a flurry of activity, I’ve been able to derive a greater appreciation for the talents of Robert Cummings in particular.

Though this might sound reductive, much in the way that Joel McCrea is called the poor man’s Gary Cooper, Cummings just might be the poor man’s Jimmy Stewart and I say that because he has the same type of everyman quality that’s easy to latch onto.

Although I could never see Stewart pulling off a period role like this and though not entirely authentic, Cummings is a fine protagonist navigating the back alleyways and roads of deception and treachery that dictate the life of a citizen of the New Republic. Even when he does something that might be suspect there’s inherent trust the audience attributes to him.

Meanwhile, stunning Arlene Dahl looks ravishing in period costume but she also becomes a multifaceted companion of Charles D’Aubigny (Cummings) and one of his only points of contact who proves reliable and resourceful. Otherwise, the picture is crammed full of all sorts of characters with varying allegiances and intentions, not to mention cameos from such figures as the Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon.

If it’s not quite like the blacklist then you figure out how very easily it could be. The film takes so many about faces and turns by the denouement it’s hard to know who is in the right or wrong or more important yet who ended up on the right side of history — the ones who wrote the victor’s narrative — because oftentimes they are the ones who go down as the heroes. Whether that is true or not is up for considerable debate.

4/5 Stars

Park Row (1952)

Park_Row_FilmPoster.jpegIt’s no secret that Sam Fuller cut his teeth in the journalism trade at the ripe young age of 18 (give or take a year) and so Park Row is not just another delicious B picture from one of the best, it’s a passion project memorializing the trade that he revered so dearly.

It’s also his typical style of economical filmmaking, shot in only two weeks and clocking in at just over 80 minutes and also funded on his own dime. To show just how much this movie meant to him he wrote, directed, and produced it. It was, of course, a monumental flop at the box office (despite an opening at Grauman’s Chinese). Still, that type of result could never quell a maverick like Fuller always prone to be a bit of a loose cannon who nevertheless perennially released a string of enduringly interesting projects. Consider a lineup of pictures including Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, Park Row, and Pickup on South Street from 1951 to 1953 and you get the idea.

In some ways, Park Row seems like an invariably different film than its compatriots, very unlike Fuller, and yet it still gives off glimpses of Fuller’s style and sentiments.

The year is 1886. An industry has been developed and honed out of the invention and tradition of the likes of Johannes Gutenberg and Ben Franklin. The names of Horace Greeley and Joseph Pulitzer are as good as gold and the hub of that honorable profession, known to the masses as journalism, is based in Park Row.

Phineas Mitchell portrayed by Gene Evans–Fuller’s favorite brawny everyman–is a reporter at The Star, the publication that has a bit of a monopoly run by the icy empress Charity Hackett (Mary Welch). As he badmouths the very same newspaper at the local watering hole, he subsequently finds himself relieved of his position along with a couple of his colleagues.

But together, with the help of an eager benefactor they set out to craft their own newspaper. As envisioned by Mitchell, The Globe will be a paper for the people, devoted to honest to goodness journalism beholden to the facts. And in the subsequent days they take an abandoned office space, build a ragtag team, fix up a printing press, and scrounge around for any type of paper they can get their hands on. What they lack in resources they make up for with grit and determination. Because they have something Charity never had–verve and ingenuity. It sets their little paper apart and the public takes note.

Thus, the film’s entire narrative captures the ensuing journalistic feud between the established paper The Star and their rising rival The Globe. The main conflict coming from the very fact that their business models and mission statements are diametrically opposed.

Led by Mitchell, The Globe finds compelling cover stories to reel in the public. First, it’s a rallying cry for a man sent to prison for illegally jumping 120 stories off the Brooklyn Bridge and living to tell about it. They become his voice, interceding on his behalf and people listen. Next, it’s a public fund to help pay for the base of The Statue of Liberty–that symbol of goodwill, friendship, and ultimately, American liberty and idealism. Every member of the community, no matter the contribution, gets their name printed in the paper out of gratitude.

Still, Ms. Hackett is not about to be outplayed and while she admires her competitor’s tenacity, she is ready to resort to any means necessary to sink them for good. She tries all number of tactics, some more destructive than she ever anticipated. And while she might not be the most virtuous individual she’s hardly a killer. Mitchell hates her guts, rightfully so but that’s not how she wants to be known. There’s some nuance in their relationship, in fact, there’s a great deal of appeal to many of these relationships because they’re brimming with life.

Some noticeable hallmarks of Park Row include Sam Fuller’s typically dynamic camera that moves rapidly into close-ups and tracking shots gliding down the long avenues of Park Row with its horse-drawn carriages, train tracks, and the general hubbub of humanity. There are the accustomary fistfights and explosions, but the film stands out among Fuller’s other narratives for its championing of virtue, honor, and integrity especially in relation to a profession like journalism. It would have been so easy for this to be another expose of lurid sleaze and corruption and yet it’s surprisingly laudatory to the very end.

3.5/5 Stars