Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Starring Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten.
In a Nutshell: A girl suspects that her uncle may be a serial killer.

The commercial and critical success of Rebecca and Suspicion aside, Hitchcock may have produced his first quintessential "American" film with Shadow of a Doubt. Not merely due to strength in technical elements (though there is that) but for its attention to the angst of upper-middle class suburbia (which would become increasingly heightened after the war). Being a Hitchcock film, this sets the stage for murder. Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) is such a man disgusted with the decedent lives of the wealthy, specifically widows. He returns to his sister’s house to hide from the authorities, reestablishing his bond with his niece Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright). Their shared namesake had evolved into what Young Charlie describes as telepathy. But Uncle Charlie’s secret life gradually comes into focus, a terror only Young Charlie can grasp.

This is the sort of suspense film not set in darkened alleyways but sunny, welcoming neighborhoods. The Newton household is gloomy, seemingly lit with just dappled sun streaks, a contrast to the bitterness seeping through Cotten’s benign façade. Though he would argue, it is dark world. Even odder peculiarities are burrowed under this all American-family, including Mr. Newton’s (Henry Travers) obsession with murder mysteries or the youngest Newton girl’s aggressively precocious (and ignored) social commentary. The progression from second act to third act keeps this worldview only as an intriguing layer to the suspense plot. But even then, a broken step or billowing car possesses an unnerving familiarity.

Young Charlie becomes the only Newton capable of exposing Uncle Charlie to the feds. Her decision is not so much a question of morals, but whether Young Charlie can bring herself to stir the calm. The ending seems dismissive of such status quo fury, but a closing shot of well-dressed ladies swaying around a ballroom (also the opening shot) demonstrates Hitchcock’s cheekiness. No matter what the script says, once you “rip the fronts off houses,” Hitchcock cannot let you unsee the swine within. It makes for a wicked coda and another fine example of this film’s dark charms.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.
Starring Brahim Hagiag and Jean Martin.
In a Nutshell: A recreation of the revolutionary battle within the Algerian War.

In 1954, native Algerians began to strike back against French colonists through urban guerilla warfare. French counter insurgency assassinated or captured the leaders of the National Liberation Front (FLN), sometimes acquiring crucial information through torture. While this culminated in a victory for the French in the city of Algiers, the countrywide uprising would help the French lose the Algerian War. Now we come to Gillo Pontecorvo’s film, a frank account of the struggle on both sides of the opposition. Pontecorvo idealizes the FLN, but the French are allowed sympathy, portrayed as dutiful men tasked with an invisible threat. Still a starkly political film, it renders its ideas without sensation thanks to its unvarnished documentary-style of filmmaking.

The film does not weigh on the struggles on any one person, but does obtain the perspectives of two peripheral characters. One is Ali la Pointe (Braham Haggiag) a petty criminal who rides the revolution wave to become one of the FLN’s most prominent figures. The second is fictional French commander Mathieu (Jean Martin) who accepts his job with taciturn resourcefulness. Ali contrasts with his callow and radical ways, ready to give plenty of malevolence to the French. Both have the necessary pathos to extend to their troops waging their own horror. Pontecorvo’s impartiality leads to extremities in Algerians’ depiction. Close-ups of innocent café patrons are shown seconds before an Algerian woman’s bomb blows them up. However, when the French detonate a terrorist’s house, the soundtrack mourns the bodies being pulled from the wreckage.

With its use of actual Algerian streets and untrained cast members, Pontecorvo is plainly looking for aesthetic realism to support its political honesty. It works, even partisan viewers can value the film’s deconstruction of the French’s strategic errors. Since its release it has been screened before military experts (including a publicized 2003 Pentagon screening) to question the efficiency of brute force and torture. Alternatively, revolutionary parties have used the film as a blueprint. Either appropriation circles back to its historical honesty, offering new answers for the next generation at war.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Raging Bull (1980)

Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Robert De Niro and Cathy Moriarty.
In a Nutshell: The life of self-destructive boxer Jake La Motta.

Like the real Jake La Motta, Raging Bull has been prized for its unforgiving, brutal nature. For a biographical film with a firm pulse on the emotions that constituted Taxi Driver’s forlorn soul (inadequacy, jealousy, hatred) it is a far more effective portrayal than a study. Much has been written about the process, and it deserves no less than the accolades previously bestowed. Perhaps its insight can only rise from the technique that Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader and Robert De Niro bring to their recreation. Even the real-life La Motta’s work as a technical advisor does not yield a picture that burrows into his mind. The insecurities portrayed are vast, complex. Could La Motta have answered these questions? Without being privy to that knowledge, one can only draw their conclusions from the screen’s output. It would be foolish to praise this film for its objectivity, but it succeeds without the need to comment or blame.

Key to this method is Jake’s many relationships with the supporting characters that play off of his intensity. To them, Jake is an angry, paranoid, dangerous brute (a very deserving view, mind you) to be engaged gingerly, then rejected after reaching rock bottom. Schrader’s script gives the surest definition of La Motta by utilizing his repeated motif of character study through solitude. La Motta’s anguished cries curse the burden of his inexplicable self-destruction. Violence and his unbearable sexual anxiety have consumed him; La Motta’s redemption does not triumph over these primeval emotions nor does it render them dormant (as the end of Taxi Driver suggests). Raging Bull’s catharsis champions our self-forgiveness, knowing that men like La Motta can never escape such feelings. It is material Scorsese never has to explain beyond the bare authenticity. The result is visceral, devastating.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi.
Starring Kinuyo Tanaka and Yoshiaki Hanayagi.
In a Nutshell: A family is cruelly separated, each member on their own journey back.

Based on Mori Ogai’s writing, Sansho the Bailiff is a tale of grand tragedy, blessed by the compassionate nature it extols. Social tyranny and divine sacrifice strike an aristocratic family, united through their redemption and love, if not on this earth. The plot unfolds simply, with its characters at odds with their own parallel suffering and catharsis. A bullying military force exiles a deputy governor for defying the draft. The governor’s wife (Kinuyo Tanaka) is sent to live elsewhere with her two children, but while en route, she loses them to kidnappers and is sold into prostitution. Under the rule of the cruel slave master Sansho (Eitarō Shindō), elder son Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) evolves into an obedient torturer while Anju (Kyōko Kagawa) continues to practice her father’s teachings, never losing hope for freedom. As she labors, Anju continually hears her mother’s voice calling for her children. The children plan for escape, setting the stage for Zushio’s salvation.

Mizoguchi opens with the quote; “This tale is set during the late Heian period an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings.” There is a simple directive to the characters’ portrayals; power aligns with cruelty as Zushio and Anju’s father demonstrates the foolishness of kindness within the hierarchy. True to this mythical structure, it boxes its characters into firm definitions. The titular Sansho exemplifies this. Not just as a villain who wields his influence the way his minions wield branding irons. But in his static characterization, firmly couched in his role, existing in the past, remembered only for the destruction he has caused for the present. It is a storytelling technique used throughout. Mizoguchi traps his characters within a variety of framing devices. Each sweeping camera movement defines their fate, tracking every ascension, retreat, descent or progression as a careful notation for the future. The camera also acts as storyteller, cherishing intimacy and shielding pain.

But for this entry, an excess of technical deconstruction pales behind the sheer emotive power of this film (pardon the hyperbole). Tragedy comes not just from its characters’ physical separation, but the separation from their own compassion. Its resolution may be bitter, but it celebrates our humanity and our ability to discover our compassion and find redemption. Mizoguchi has constructed a film of passion and understated delicacy, a film that can be touted as a purely emotional experience. Such cinematic beauty is almost impossible to further scrutinize. Perhaps one can justly sum it up by quoting Gilbert Adair’s proclamation, “Sansho the Bailiff is one of those films for whose sake the cinema exists…”.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Le Cercle rouge (1970)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.
Starring Alain Delon and Bourvil.
In a Nutshell: A thief enlists a murderer in a heist while pursued by the police.

Cigarettes, trench coats, fedoras, deception. Le Cercle rouge is heaven for noir fetishes, and a refreshing example of conduct for film’s sake. Its characters seem to act in spontaneous harmony like jazz musicians, all within the unspoken code of criminals. But it is fate’s will that noir’s fatalism shall bury them in the end, their fate orchestrated by its master Jean-Pierre Melville. Le Cercle rouge could be a case study of the actions of men, if such actions existed outside of the hard-boiled universe that only novels and films can entertain. Alain Delon stars as Corey, a thief who in true Alain Delon fashion, broods intensely behind a guarded blue gaze. Upon prison release, he encounters a man named Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) who escaped from the grasp of police captain Mattei (Bourvil). Corey enlists Vogel and ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand) for a heist while Mattei pressures nightclub owner Santi (François Périer) for information.

Everything unfolds and collapses for the men with Melville stripping down any frills and redundancies. Sparse mise-en-scène and clipped dialogue complements the men’s bare characterization. Even with such austere “cool” assigned to the players, Bourvil and Montand skillfully play up their respective character’s pathos, while Delon, Volonté and Périer squirm and bluff under the heat. The mannered tough-guy aesthetic makes every plot twist and coincidence feel fated, but understated enough that its artifice does not feel self-aware. It is the most advantageous stylistic move by Melville, and the folly of each man rolls out with unforced precision offering a complete view of this gangster world. Undeniably studied, but fewer films hold its internal laws to such rigor.