#58a: M - British version (1931/1932) December 7, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Thriller, Crime, 3 stars, 1930s, British films, alternate & director's cuts, 2012 , add a comment
The 100 Films Advent Calendar 2012 reaches the end of its first week with this modified version of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece…
George Sanders as The Saint, Part I August 18, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, Thriller, Crime, adaptations, 3 stars, 1930s, Adventure, Mystery, 2012 , add a comment
In the ’30s and ’40s, RKO adapted Leslie Charteris’ series of novels about a modern-day Robin Hood called the Saint into a series of eight films — you may recall I reviewed the first last month. Five of these films starred “Russian-born English film and television actor, singer-songwriter, music composer, and author” (and, later, voice of Shere Khan in Disney’s Jungle Book), George Sanders.
Being the kind of completist I am, I’ve naturally watched all of these films (also because they’re entertaining and were all on TV at once); and, being massively behind on posting reviews as I am, I thought I’d share my thoughts on them in two or three clumps. The five Sanders films were produced in a period of under two years (from March 1939’s The Saint Strikes Back to January 1941’s The Saint in Palm Springs), so it doesn’t feel wholly inappropriate.
As ever, my thoughts lie behind these pretty pictures…
#59: The Saint in New York (1938) July 26, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Thriller, Crime, adaptations, 3 stars, 1930s, Mystery, 2012 , add a comment
The Saint in New York is available on iPlayer until 31st July.
#44: La Règle du jeu (1939) April 17, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Drama, 4 stars, 1930s, world cinema, 2011 , add a comment
I watched La Règle du jeu a year ago today, possibly the longest time I’ve ever waited before posting a review. I actually wrote this months and months ago, but sort of intended to re-watch it (especially as it’s been on Film4 plenty) to try to craft something better. But I still haven’t, and with a whole 12 months gone by — and plenty of new films needing to be watched — I’ve decided just to post this and be done with.
And it’s halfway through April and there’s still three more reviews from last year to post, never mind the nearly-40 from this year.
Sometimes you watch one of the most acclaimed films of all time and find yourself with very little to say about it. La Règle du jeu — or, as it’s commonly known in America thanks to Criterion’s incessant title translation (in fairness, that’s probably the most sensible way to combat the mass attitude of “argh! it’s in Foreign!”), The Rules of the Game* — is certainly one of those films. Regularly voted into the top three on Greatest Films Ever Made lists, it sits at exactly #3 on the last iterations of both They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s 1000 Greatest Films and Sight & Sound’s decennial Top 10 (one of only two films to have appeared in all six to date; the new one’s later this year).
RULES OF THE GAME, the mutant, French cousin of DOWNTON ABBEY
What little I can say is that it’s a farce, but also a drama, which clearly has Something To Say — I believe I read that Renoir said it’s intended to be more about the lifestyle and the time it’s set than it is about a story. That kind of idea can often lead to pretension, but here it works. The story is simple yet complicated — it’s all about people having various affairs, basically, but there’s a lot of them and they’re constantly shifting. I’m not sure how Proper Film Critics would feel about this link, but I felt a certain affinity for Gosford Park while watching. Either I’m being plebby and there’s nothing substantial there, or that’s something that merits a more considered comparison. There’s some great camerawork — not flashy, not drawing attention to itself, but a lovely use of long takes, fluid movement and deep focus to keep the action flowing seamlessly.
And I agree, it is very good, but unlike Citizen Kane (which I instantly admired, though really need to see again to shake off the shackles of its Importance and just appreciate by itself — hello, Blu-ray!), I didn’t really see why it’s often rated so highly. I imagine there’s something I’m missing; possibly some historical significance. There’s a lot packed in, and I can see how multiple viewings could reveal even more going on. Perhaps a better researched awareness of the period (beyond the obvious Eve Of War, though that’s important) and of French class structure at the time is necessary to get the full richness of Renoir’s vision. The fact it was banned by the French government due to being bad for morale, then also banned by the occupying Nazis, suggests it did have a lot of social relevance.
Not one of my favourites, then, but a definite “must try again”.
* OK, this ‘criticism’ doesn’t stand-up to much scrutiny — it’s not like every UK DVD/Blu-ray release of a foreign film has the original language title on it. But I was inspired by the fact the BFI DVD does call La Règle du jeu by its original title, and numerous other foreign films retain their original titles on UK releases too, whereas you rarely see a Criterion release without a translated title. I also appreciate there’s some kind of cultural snobbery involved in this comment even coming to mind. For these reasons I was going to delete the comment, only I liked part of it too much. So much for kill your babies.
Um, anyway… ^
#79: Holiday (1938) November 22, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Drama, Romance, 5 stars, adaptations, 1930s, remakes, 2011 , add a comment
Holiday stars Cary Grant as an everyday chap who falls in love with a girl who, it turns out, is a wealthy heiress type… but who it also turns out may not share his views on the future. Her kooky sister, played by Katherine Hepburn, on the other hand…
You already know how Holiday ends, don’t you? You may not even have heard of the film, but having read those two sentences, you know. I knew. We all know. Unless there’s a twist, of course. Sometimes there is, especially in older films where they weren’t as slavishly concerned with hitting demographics and all that. So I won’t say if there’s a twist or not.
What I will say is, I loved Holiday. I’d never even heard of it before it turned up on BBC Two in a week of similar stuff, like His Girl Friday (which I’d seen, and reviewed), Bringing Up Baby (which I saw, and reviewed) and It Happened One Night (which is still sat on my V+ box). I’d heard of all of those, but not this, but I’m glad I watched it by association.
It doesn’t have quite the hilarity of His Girl Friday, but I thought it had more substance than Bringing Up Baby (as much as I enjoyed that too). I suppose you would say it “spoke to me”, what with Grant’s character’s desire to go off and do something he wanted to do instead of get locked in to the dull corporate world, and the family’s insistence that a sensible city job where he’d earn a fortune is more appropriate. I can’t say I’m in the same situation — I wouldn’t mind the chance of a highly-paid job, if you’ve got one going spare — but I could relate well enough.
Holiday is not the funniest of comedies — though I did think it was funny — instead hitting a level of dramatic/character interest that I didn’t predict. I think it’s more a personal favourite than an objective Great Film (but then, one might argue, what is?), so the best I can do is encourage you to seek it out if this kind of film from this kind of era is your kind of thing.
#78: Bringing Up Baby (1938) November 7, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Romance, 4 stars, 1930s, 2011 , add a comment
A box office flop on release (which directly led to Hawks being fired from his next film and co-star Katharine Hepburn being bought out of her contract & named “box office poison”), screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby has grown massively in stature since. And deservedly so, because — aside from a first act where Hepburn is no less than irritating, and an occasionally slow middle — it has some real comic high points and can be riotously funny.
Cary Grant plays a museum curator / palaeontologist / something like that who is due to get married to his controlling co-worker, but ends up embroiled with Hepburn’s carefree rich girl and her new pet leopard (the titular Baby). If it sounds a little mad, it’s not as mad as the film itself. As noted, it’s a little awkward to start with while one warms to Hepburn’s anarchic character, and it drags its heels a little through the middle, but by the time we reach the final act — when an array of characters and situations collide in a manic run-about too intricate to describe here — it all pays off marvellously.
Also worth noting is that it is, perhaps, the first work of fiction to use the word “gay” to mean homosexual. The term originated in the homosexual community in the ’20s (possibly earlier) but would not become widely known until the late ’60s. Its use here was ad-libbed by Grant, though whether that makes it more or less likely to have meant “homosexual” I don’t know.
#20: M (1931) February 20, 2010Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Thriller, Crime, 5 stars, 1930s, world cinema, 2010, Film Noir: Pre/Post/Neo/etc. , add a comment
M is a film of immense significance, not least because of its place on numerous Best Ever lists (even if it is a nightmare to find quickly on any list or website thanks to its single-letter title), and not to mention it being director Fritz Lang’s favourite among his own work (consequently he definitively moved away from his fantastical work on the likes of Die Nibelungen, Frau im Mond and (of course) Metropolis, choosing to largely direct crime pictures, including a significant contribution to film noir). As with any film of such acclaim, where near-endless essays and articles and whole books have been penned discussing every notable aspect, it’s unlikely I’m going to have much either new or significant to say after one viewing (never mind “ever”). Just so you know.
But I can sing some of its praises. Like Peter Lorre’s extraordinary performance as child killer Hans Beckert. He could have survived on his naturally unusual looks, which fit the role perfectly, but he also skillfully conveys the realistic complexities of such a character. Beckert’s psychology feels completely accurate, something you might not expect of from 80-year-old film. To show such care in making a conceivable human being out of a villain who has committed some of the most horrendous crimes imaginable, and not just going for the easy approach of showing an incomprehensible monster, is a vital step in creating a realistic crime movie — a step that’s often been ignored, and still can be today.
And Lang did set out with the express aim of making a realistic factual film, albeit still a fictional one — it’s ‘inspired by’ real cases, not specifically ‘based on’ them as some have claimed. Along with his writer (and wife) Thea von Harbou, Lang drew on innumerable press reports about murders and their investigations, spoke to police officers and psychoanalysts about their jobs and what they had learnt about such criminals, and generally researched every area he aimed to cover on screen. His intention was for the film to constantly shift its focus, examining every aspect of a high-profile serial killer case, and so it does: we see the victims and their families (before and during the crime, though not after it to any significant degree); the public reaction and hysteria; the police’s flailing investigations and their increasing exasperation; the criminal underworld, who begin their own manhunt because police inquiries are “bad for business” (despite its sounding like a filmic conceit, this element was directly inspired by a newspaper article); and, naturally, the criminal himself — trying to lay low, but constantly having to fight his urges… and ultimately giving in to them again.
Such a diffuse set of perspectives could lead to a messy structure that revealed each facet in only half-hearted broad strokes, but Lang never allows this to happen. The opening sequence, depicting the latest in a long line of kidnap/murders, is exemplary: every shot and edit contributes to a growing sense that Something Horrible Is About To Happen… and when it does, not a glimpse is shown on screen. An empty place setting, a balloon caught in overhead wires, a ball bouncing to a stop… They, along with each viewer’s imagination of the worst possible fate for little Elsie Beckmann, convey all the terror — and a palpable and heartbreaking sense of absence — that’s required.
And then Lang shifts focus: public fury, paranoia. A series of scenes that each typify broader social reactions. People are accused for nothing more than following a girl up some stairs, attacked because they’ve been arrested, the crowd simply assuming they’re the killer. Such scenes remain disturbingly relevant and plausible — the bit where a surly bloke confronts a man who was merely giving a girl the time feels like something one might see occur on our streets today.
And then it’s the police: a distinctly procedural style as a long sequence describes the police’s investigative efforts — how they follow up leads and how they lead nowhere; how they search crime scenes with a fine-tooth comb; another sequence shows their methodology for staging a raid; and so on. Such precise and clinical methods ultimately pay off: it’s a pair of tiny clues, carefully reasoned and sought out. that reveal the killer’s identity — and if it weren’t for the criminals getting there first, they’d've surely caught him too. Indeed, were it not for this breakthrough then the film might hold a Life On Mars-esque observation that only the criminals and their, shall we say, alternative methods can finally catch Beckert when the police have failed.
One of Lang’s aims in being factual — or, responsibilities he felt by being factual — was to present a debate on the morality of capital punishment. So Beckert murders children because that was the worst crime imaginable to Lang and von Harbou, and still when he’s dragged before a court (albeit an impromptu one made up of the criminal underworld) a debate is had on the merits of the death penalty — disguised, of course, in the decision of Beckert’s fate. The baying mob of criminals want him killed; his sole defence representative cites the law to show why such a punishment is wrong. Lang’s point — the one he wanted to make, even if he tried to present it as a debate — is that even in this instance the death penalty is wrong. Some what distressingly, the moral and legal points raised throughout the film remain highly relevant today.
Even leaving these aside, M is packed with beautiful moments of pure cinema: the shadow on the wanted poster; the intercutting of the police and criminals’ meetings; Inspector Lohmann dropping his cigar at the news the criminals were looking for the child killer (on his audio commentary, Peter Bogdanovich wonders how this would play to a modern audience, implying it wouldn’t really work — well, it did for me); the roving camera in the beggars’ market — a decade before Citizen Kane, Lang employs his camera in ways Welles seems to get all the credit for (I’m sure Welles pushed boundaries too, but some of his ‘innovative’ ideas — like tracking from outside to inside through a window within a single shot — are present here.) M’s individual moments of sining brilliance go on — perhaps my favourite is when the police arrive just after the criminals have finally apprehended Beckert. We don’t even see an officer on screen, but the burglar’s reactions lets us know who’s there. Its a funny moment (even if we’ve seen it dozens of times since) and a lovely shot too.
M was Lang’s first sound film, made at a time when the technology was still very new. So he uses — indeed, establishes — a variety of techniques: voiceover; selective hearing (e.g. the audio cutting out when a beggar covers his ears); silence (or only selected sound), used to represent how a space appears to sound rather than the genuine noise one would/could hear; conversations continuing across scenes (such as when a criminal begins a sentence and a police officer finishes it, in completely different rooms at different times); not to mention that the killer’s whistling is a vital clue, both in terms of the plot (it’s how the criminals first identify him) and for the viewer (indicating when he’s about his sorry business).
This is the longest existing version of M, restored from multiple negatives and prints held in several countries, which stands about seven minutes shorter than Lang’s original cut. IMDb’s alternate versions section claims the film originally showed the full trial at the end, implying this is among the lost minutes. In Masters of Cinema’s booklet, Anton Kaes instead details a scene early in the film pertaining to false confessors. Kaes has evidence that his scene existed, IMDb doesn’t present any; and in one of the audio commentaries Lang and others discuss the ending as-is — even if there was another ending at some point, it certainly wasn’t Lang’s intended one.
This definitive one, then, is suitably downbeat: Frau Beckmann — the mother from the opening sequence, her first appearance on screen for over an hour and a half bringing the tale full circle — bemoans that dispensing justice to the murderer won’t bring the children back, and warns viewers to watch out for their own. It’s not the triumphant “we got him!” that concludes most serial killer films, but a blunt warning that, though Beckert has been caught, there are always more out there, waiting to strike. History has sadly proven her right; but while the world has produced many men and women like M’s villain, it hasn’t produced many films quite like M.
Masters of Cinema’s new edition of M is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday. One of the special features is Zum Beispiel: Fritz Lang, which I’ve briefly reviewed here.