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August 30, 2022

Symphony for a Massacre


Symphonie pour un Massacre
Jacques Deray - 1963
Cohen Media Group BD Region A

The basic set-up of Symphony for a Massacre is very familiar after more than sixty years of similar crime films. A group of five gangsters, all with legitimate business, pool their money to purchase a large amount of drugs for eventual sale. One of the five betrays the others by stealing the loot, and then tries to cover up his actions by murdering his partners. It is no surprise that everything ends badly for everyone involved.

Most of the film takes place in Paris. The youngest of the gangsters is forty years old. As one who has kept up where I can with French crime films, it struck me how the genre has shifted with the criminals often part of France's growing ethnic minorities, and the locations moved to the outer suburbs of islands of dingy, ill-repaired apartment towers. Some of violence that may have been shocking in 1963 will seem muted for contemporary viewers.

The lurid title, created shortly before the film's release, belies a relatively low-key tale. What we see is as methodical as the executions of the various crimes. The third film by Jacques Deray was also the first to gain enough attention to set a career primarily with crime thrillers. Deray's commercial peak was shortly before and after the 1970s, especially as Alain Delon's go-to guy with nine collaborations. The screenplay, adapted freely from a novel, was done by Deray with Claude Sautet and Jose Giovanni. In addition to writing the dialogue, Giovanni, a name associated with many classic French crime films, appears as the film as one of the gang members. Over the next two decades, Deray made films where the pace was quicker and the violence more explicit, but Symphony establishes his much of his style and themes.

While several cast members such as Charles Vanel and Michelle Mercier are familiar to cineastes, Symphony has been noted as being the film that boosted Jean Rochefort to being a major presence in French cinema. Rochefort's hang dog face is missing his usual mustache here. One person writing about the film thought that Rochefort was miscast because he does not look enough like someone who with evil intentions. That may well be why Deray had cast Rochefort, because of his ordinary looks which serve as a distraction from what may be going on in his mind. Rochefort's seemingly unlikely role as a hardened criminal here is in retrospect complimentary to his role almost forty years later as the retired teacher who dreams of changing places with a bank robber in Man on a Train.

In his New York Times review, A. H. Weiler connects Symphony with Rififi. Jules Dassin's film set a new standard for heist films, both in France and internationally. The word rififi is French slang for a violent show of force. Weiler was probably unaware that Deray's previous film was Rififi in Tokyo, like Dassin's film, based on a novel by Auguste Le Breton. Dassin was famous for his extended, wordless enactment of the burglary of a safe. Deray likewise as dialogue free scene with Rochefort committing his planned crime while on the night train from Paris to Lyon.

The blu-ray is sourced from the 2016 2K restoration. The supplement is composed of alternating interviews with French film journalists Francois Guerif and Jean Philippe Guerand, primarily covering the importance of Symphony for Deray and Rochefort, the artistic influence of Jose Giovanni, and the initial critical and commercial reception of the film in France.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:10 AM

August 23, 2022

When Tomorrow Comes

when tomorrow.jpg

John M. Stahl - 1939
KL Studio Classic BD Region A

To advertise their mini-retrospective of films by John Stahl, the New York City theater, the Metrograph, featured an excerpt from When Tomorrow Comes. Irene Dunne plays a waitress at a union meeting of other waitress, encouraging them to strike for better wages, well aware of the potential hardship it may cause to her co-workers. In her essay on Stahl's silent films, Imogen Sara Smith mentions, "a commitment to exploring women’s experience". If the scene mentioned is representative of a filmmaker primarily known for his films where his female characters have agency, the film itself defies the easy classifications of Stahl's best known films, Imitation of Life and Leave Her to Heaven.

The basic story is of a waitress who meets a French concert pianist at her restaurant, and their intense, but platonic love affair over a three day period. The film begins on a comic note with Irene Dunne's waitress helping out her flustered friend and co-worker with Charles Boyer's requests first for bouillabaisse (not on the menu), followed by apple pie with cheese - please hold the apple pie. Did Carole Eastman see When Tomorrow Comes prior to writing that scene of Jack Nicholson and the whole wheat toast in Five Easy Pieces? Dunne biographer Wes Gehring also saw a possible connection, especially as both Nicholson and Boyer playing concert pianists. Dunne and Boyer meet again at the union meeting where Dunne initially assumes Boyer is an out of work itinerant musician. A date for sailing in Long Island is extended when shelter from an oncoming storm is Boyer's mansion. Freshening up in a bedroom, Dunne notices a photograph of a woman, presumably Boyer's wife. It is as this point that there is a major tonal shift in the film. The storm turns out to be a hurricane. The two attempt to drive back to the city, the road blocked by a fallen tree. Dunne and Boyer go to a nearby church where they sleep in the organ loft, unaware that the church is flooded beneath them. Finally back in New York City, Dunne meets Boyer's wife, a woman psychologically traumatized by the death of her newborn child. Dunne knows Boyer will not leave his wife, but chooses not to be his mistress.

The screenplay very loosely is based on an unpublished short story by James M. Cain, "A Modern Cinderella". Cain's short story eventually evolved into the novel, The Root of His Evil. What is kept of Cain in the film was some of the waitress' back story and her working as a union organizer. Cain was upset that the church scene was apparently taken from his novel, Serenade, without his permission. Cain sued Stahl, screenwriter Dwight Taylor and Universal Pictures, unsuccessfully.

Stahl throws in some humor where it is unexpected. While Boyer and Dunne are trying to say goodbye in front of Dunne's apartment, they are interrupted by a neighbor rolling a garbage can, a first floor neighbor peering out on the window sill, and a woman in need of directions to the subway. And where did that man with the two sheep come from in the scene with survivors of the Long Island hurricane which somehow never touched Manhattan?

There are also a couple of sub-plots that are dispensed with quickly. The waitresses' strike is over in a day. The romantic overtures of a union organizer in love with Dunne is ignored once Dunne goes to Long Island. The other bit of sleight-of-hand is how Boyer's wife gets out of a locked room to confront Dunne.

Stahl makes interesting use of dolly shots. The film opens with a full shot of the interior of a restaurant, facing the main entrance. Charles Boyer enters in the general direction towards the camera. From behind, Irene Dunne crosses the pathway, carrying a tray, walking to the viewer's left. The camera follows Dunne towards the kitchen. Within the single traveling shot, Dunne and Boyer are briefly united. With his dolly shots, Stahl simultaneously provides enough information of where a scene is set while simultaneously isolating in full or in part his lovers. Stahl primarily films the couple in two-shots during most of their conversations. Only a few times does Stahl employ the shot-counter shot, alternating close-ups of his stars.

The blu-ray is sourced from a 2K restoration. The commentary track by film historian Lee Gambin and costume historian Elissa Rose provides some general information on the stars, the director, and the making of the film with an emphasis on how When Tomorrow Comes fits in with what were designated as women's films of the time as well as the political climate of the late 1930s.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:32 AM

August 16, 2022

The Burned Barns

brned barns.jpg

Les Granges brûlées
Jean Chapot - 1973
Cohen Media Group BD Region A

The Burned Barns is one of those French films that never got a stateside release in spite of having two of France's biggest stars. Not directed by anyone even tangentially connected with the Nouvelle Vague, nor fitting in with more easily exportable broad comedies or policiers, it is easy to see why this film has been relatively unknown until its recent 4K restoration.

The film takes place in a small town near the eastern border of France, near Switzerland. The men operating an early morning snowplow discover a woman's murdered body on the road near an abandoned car. A young judge, Larcher, on his first case, is assigned to go to the village to investigate. The available clues point to one of the sons of a farming family that lives the closest to the scene of the crime. Larcher has to work with, and around, Rose, the matriarch of the family.

Larcher takes a longer than usual time in his investigation in his search for the identity of the murderer and any conclusive pieces of evidence. The town is the kind of tight knit community where everyone knows everyone else. The film shifts into being how the presence of the outsider, Larcher, disrupts both Rose's family as well as this remote village where everyone is described as honest and hard-working. This is more of a deliberately paced character study than a standard mystery. The whodunit aspect is resolved, although there is no sense of catharsis for the viewer. The French title both refers to the brown farmhouses of the area where the film takes place and also is slang for people who are metaphorically burned.

Jean Chapot is better known for working in television films. The Burned Barns was his second and last theatrical film. The supplement with this blu-ray, from 2004, is the recounting of a troubled production. As told by Chapot's production assistants, the director felt intimidated by his two stars as well as by the logistics of making a film on a larger scale than his previous work. While it is is not detailed how much of the film was actually directed by Alain Delon, it is established that Chapot did temporarily abandon the film, only to return to the set when Delon left to work on another production. Judging from his career and credits, Chapot was stronger as a writer than director, and may have been more comfortable with the lesser demands of directing television movies.

Of interest is that the cast includes Miou-Miou in one of her early roles, Signoret's daughter, Catherine Allegret, as Rose's daughter, and Renato Salvatori, an Italian actor whose face is familiar if you have seen enough French or Italian films from the '60s and '70s. The Burned Barns also features the first film score by Jean-Michel Jarre composed expressly for the film, mostly synth music, with abstract vocals in the opening and closing credits.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:25 AM

August 12, 2022

Emergency Declaration


Bisang Seoneon
Han Jae-rim - 2022
Well Go USA

Emergency Declaration might be best described as an updating of Airport and the series of films that followed fifty years ago. The title refers to the mandate that allows a pilot preferential treatment for landing in any airport when there no other safety options. The difference here is not only in making the cause for potential disaster more topical but also in taking advantage of current special effects technology that did not exist in the early 1970s.

For those familiar with South Korean film, this is a big budget film with several big name stars. By big, the film is shown on IMAX screens locally. Stateside viewers will have to settle for a very limited theatrical release and PVOD. Even casual viewers will probably recognize Song Kang-ho, the scheming patriarch of Parasite. Here Song has the equivalent of the George Kennedy role. Kennedy, for those unfamiliar with the Airport series, was the everyman airplane mechanic who saved the endangered flight in the first film, and appeared in the three sequels. Song appears as a tenacious police detective who uncovers the plot to kill all the passengers on a flight to Honolulu from Inchon.

There is also the sub-plot of the former pilot who reluctantly is called to action and is coincidentally on the same flight as his nemesis, the co-pilot. Also on board is the cop's wife. With those couple of exceptions there is little characterization of the passengers other than being subject to increasing panic as the film progresses. The villain, a very youthful scientist, is introduced early on. Seen at the airport first asking questions of a ticket agent followed by acting even more creepy with the former pilot and his young daughter, I had to wonder why no one bothered to call airport security. Real life is also avoided as no one is ever seen wearing a face mask, although a major plot point would suggest that is exactly what people would do in this situation.

The most impressive scene is when the plane is out of control. The set, part of a jet assembled on a rotating gimbal is used to advantage with unbuckled passengers flying out of their seats. Unlike its Hollywood antecedents, Emergency Declaration has a bittersweet resolution. The running time is 140 minutes which seems long, but answers the question, "With a flight that is being denied any place to land, what else can go wrong?"

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:47 AM

August 02, 2022

Little Man, What Now?

little man.jpg

Frank Borzage - 1934
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Little Man, What Now? was based on a German novel published in 1932, a topical best seller both in Germany and internationally. The basic story is about a young man attempting to establish stability for himself and his wife in the increasingly unstable post World War I Germany with its high unemployment, inflated cost of living and polarized politics. The German film version released in 1933 is reportedly significantly changed from the novel with the Nazification of the film industry. Frank Borzage's version is closer to the novel although the political aspects are deliberately vague. Although there are protests by the marginalized poor, there is no labeling. We only see the gatherings broken up by the police from a distance. Borzage would be politically clearer in later films, Three Comrades and The Mortal Storm, here the emphasis is on love as overcoming all obstacles.

While the title character is meant to evoke a random person often affected by things beyond his control, Hans, as personified by second-tier lead Douglass Montgomery, is not always sympathetic. He is first seen showing lack of empathy. Walking by one of the scenes of protest, Hans and a well-to-do older man agree that it is best to be happy in one's place. Hans soon learns that his assumed place is tenuous , based on various circumstances determined by others. Hans nickname for his wife is Lammchen, German for "Little Lamb". More often than not, it is Hans who the sheep, led by his wife.

Margaret Sullavan is unmistakably the star of Little Man, What Now? and Frank Borzage makes sure the audience knows it. She first appears, back against the corner of a building, facing the camera with her megawatt smile. It is Lammchen who constantly believes in Hans even when the viewer might remain dubious. She is the one who determines to see her pregnancy through, even with Hans' meager salary, and she is also the one who finds an affordable attic apartment when facing homelessness in Berlin. As pointed out by Allen Arkush and Daniel Kremer in their commentary track, Sullavan is lit and positioned in her favor, often at the expense of Montgomery.

There are also two comic sequences here worth mentioning. One scene introduces the clingy, whiny daughter of Hans' first employer, a grain merchant. His marriage a secret, Hans is one of three employees the merchant hopes will marry his daughter and take over the business. Breakfast is a scene of domestic turmoil as father grills daughter about her matrimonial prospects and bratty teenage brother finds everything amusing. A later scene is of Montgomery and Sullavan together in bed, trying to sleep in their apartment bedroom while a party is taking place. A drunk Alan Hale stumbles in on the couple, trying to engage the couple in conversation before falling asleep on the floor. With the exception of His Butler's Sister, Borzage's abilities with comedy were underused but do provide some bright spots is what is presented as a serious minded drama.

Little Man, What Now? is recognizably a pre-Code film, and according to Arkush and Kremer, the last film before the Code was strictly enforced. The couple is introduced with the confirmation of pregnancy without marriage. I can not even think of any other Hollywood film where there is a sign indicating that the doctor being visited is a gynecologist. There is the previously mentioned scene of Sullavan and Montgomery together in bed, under the sheets. Something of a stretch in plausibility is that Hans and Lammchen are unaware that Hans' stepmother operates an exclusive bordello. A scene that might have been cut and/or re-shot later is of a picnic, with the camera moving from a record player to Margaret Sullavan with her dress hiked high enough to display her shapely legs. Would code enforcer Joseph Breen allowed for the shot with a brief flash of Sullavan's panties?

Kremer and Arkush's commentary begins with Arkush reading from Martin Scorsese's notes on Borzage. Also referred to is Andrew Sarris' brief analysis of Borzage from The American Cinema which is where much of the scholarly interest in Frank Borzage began. While there is discussion on Borzage as a romantic director with an emphasis on female characters, overlooked is that Borzage did occasionally worked in other genres where he was still able to integrate to greater or less degree his theme of the spiritual and emotional ties between people. Flight Command, released almost a full year before Pearl Harbor, both anticipated a need for military preparedness and was essentially a story about male camaraderie. Where the commentary excels is in examining Borzage's visual style and repetition of certain motifs, such as having his lovers on the top of a building. There is also a review of Margaret Sullavan's difficult life and inconsistent career after 1943. Little Man, What Now? is notable as Sullivan's second film after appearing on stage, and the first of four classics under the direction of Borzage.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:53 AM