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August 29, 2023

The Spanish Dancer

The Spanish Dancer (1923).jpeg

Herbert Brenon - 1923
Milestone BD Regions ABC

My first time watching The Spanish Dancer and I am thinking this is another fanciful silent film about an exotic time and place, and yes, Pola Negri is attractive, but this looks like just another period piece taking place in early 17th Century Spain. And then the action moves from the countryside to Madrid, with a huge citywide celebration. The set itself is huge, with a colossal cathedral in the back, with rows of multistory buildings. And literally hundreds of extras either in period dress or costumes, clogging the streets, many doing their own dances if not watching Negri perform in the middle of the square. There is also the constant shower of confetti in every shot. One guy is wrestling an actual bear. Another guy is wearing a skeleton costume. I had to wonder how Herbert Brenon and cinematographer James Wong Howe coordinated everything. I was awestruck by the spectacle.

The Spanish Dancer begins with a prologue stating that the film takes place three hundred years before the film was made, and indeed, 1623 was the year when King Philip IV of Spain (Wallace Beery) posed for a painting by Diego Velazquez. That event is reenacted in the film. Negri plays Maritana, a gypsy fortune teller also famed for her dancing. Through a series of circumstances, Maritana encounters Don Caesar, a recently disgraced nobleman, and later rescues the King Philip's son from a runaway horse. Maritana is invited by the Queen to perform for the court during the celebration. In Madrid, Maritana is pursued by Don Salluste (Adolphe Menjou), and has her honor defended by Don Caesar. Goaded into having a public sword fight by Salluste, Caesar is arrested for breaking the law. Add to that palace intrigue between the king and queen.

Fortunately, not all of this is done as a serious enterprise. Much of the credit should probably go to Antonio Moreno as Don Caesar. He brings out the sense of humor of a man who does not take himself too seriously. In a latter scene, Caesar arranges to die by firing squad rather than hanging, but not before having a celebratory dinner in which he gets his executioners drunk. There is even one visual gag with Negri wearing a formal dress for the first time, one with a very wide hoop underneath as was the style, requiring her to walk sideways through a door.

Although Pola Negri and Herbert Brenon reportedly did not get along, Negri's performance shares some similarities with other Brenon actresses. Especially in the introductory scenes of her skipping through the countryside, Negri seems to anticipate Betty Bronson in Peter Pan (1924) and Clara Bow in Dancing Mothers (1926).

The commentary track is unusual as it has been split between film historian Scott Eyeman and dance historian Naima Prevots. While the history of choreographer Ernest Belcher is of interest, both specifically to The Spanish Dancer and as part of early Hollywood, there is a conflict in listening to Prevot discuss Belcher's work on the silent Phantom of the Opera while watching Brenon's film. I suspect Scott Eyeman could have easily filled the full running time himself, but packs a lot of information within the hour that he has with history of the making of The Spanish Dancer. There is also an interview with composer Bill Ware, best known as a jazz vibraphonist. Ware's score straddles traditional movie music with jazz and avant-garde improvisation, performed by a small band.

The blu-ray itself is sourced from a 2012 restoration by the Dutch Eye Filmmuseum from four different surviving prints. Based on the film script, the restored version is 95% complete. Some portions still are damaged, but still watchable. A very brief extra shows excerpts to compare the surviving prints with the restored version.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:29 AM

August 25, 2023

Strangers in the House


Les Inconnus dans la maison
Henri Decoin - 1942
KL Sudio Classics BD Region A

It has been four years since Henri Decoin's Razzia sur la Chnouf was made available on home video in the U.S. With this new release only the second from a lengthy filmography, Decoin remains very much a subject for further research as Andrew Sarris might have put it. Even though Decoin is not named among his French director peers as being part of "cinema de papa", Strangers in the House comes close to being part of the so-called tradition of quality. The film is a combination murder mystery/courthouse drama from a novel by Georges Simenon. The screenplay was by Henri-Georges Clouzot, still relatively early in his career. Even though the film was produced during the Nazi occupation of France, there appears to be what might be read as subversive moments in what otherwise appears to be an apolitical thriller interjected with some comic moments.

The film begins with off-screen narrator, Pierre Fresnay, and an overly poetic description of a small town during one very rainy night. The former lawyer, Loursat, and his daughter, are eating dinner. The narrator points out that the dour looking Loursat has let his legal practice slide along with care for his large house, ever since his wife left him eighteen years earlier. It is not stated, but implied that the wife left soon after the daughter, Nicole, was born. Loursat has settled into a life of indifference, remaining in the house, chain smoking and drinking whole bottles of wine. An unknown single cracking sound causes Loursat and Nicole to explore the dilapidated upper floor of the house where the body of a dead man is found. The biggest mystery is who killed the local gangster known as Big Louis. The suspects are a group of young men in their late teens, a quartet that also counts Nicole as part of their gang. The title refers not only to the various people, known and unknown, that made their way into the Loursat house, but also the strained relationship between Loursat and Nicole.

What unfolds is a series of connections between cousins and various in-laws that ties everyone in the trial that makes up the final third of the film. The gang members petty criminality is more of an act of rebellion against filial piety. Loursat is sufficiently roused from his state of constant inebriation to act as the defense lawyer for the young man railroaded into being convicted for the murder of Big Louis. Loursat's socially conscious speech to the jury seems shoehorned in as a way to justify the film's existence, but is only a slight detour to the resolution of the mystery and Loursat's return to his dissolute self.

Strangers in the House stars Raimu, the French actor best known for his role as Cesar in the 1930s film version of Marcel Pagnol's "Marseilles" trilogy. Howard Berger and Nathaniel Thompson provide a commentary track that discusses French films during the occupation and courtroom dramas. The blu-ray was sourced from Gaumont's 2K restoration made in 2018.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:16 AM

August 22, 2023

The Day and the Hour

day & the hour.jpeg

Le jour et l'heure
Rene Clement - 1963
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The Day and the Hour combines two recurring themes for Rene Clement, the French resistance of World War II, and relationships of characters who may hiding their true agendas. The film was made at a time when wartime thrillers were still very much part of the cinematic mainstream. With dialogue in both French and English, plus some German, produced by MGM, this was the kind of international film made to appeal to an audience beyond the art house. The Oscar winning French actress, Simone Signoret, alternated between French and English language productions. Stuart Whitman, mostly known for starring in action films, was at his career peak. Having received an Oscar nomination as a reformed pedophile in The Mark (1961), Whitman probably saw working with Rene Clement as another chance to expand artistically. Reggie Nalder, with his skull-like face, shows up in a mostly dialogue free performance as a Gestapo agent. The elements are all here, yet it does not always gel.

Taking place primarily in Paris, Whitman plays an officer whose plane has been shot down. On the run with two other Allied soldiers, he is trusting of a network of resistance members and sympathizers. Due to circumstances, he is reluctantly taken in by Signoret, staying in her house for a couple of days until he can make a trip to the southern countryside and eventually Spain. In the meantime, Reggie Nalder auspiciously appears, casting his eyes on everyone. For a guy being pursued by Nazis, Whitman is hardly discrete, speaking English aloud in public and even going on a bender one night. The day soon comes when he is to take a train from Paris. Signoret, feeling protective, but also concerned about her own safety, goes along on the journey.

The best moments are saved for the train. Sardines have more standing room than these train passengers. Whitman has to push his way through to reach Signoret at the other end of one of the cars. Nalder squeezes through in pursuit of the two. Clement and cinematographer Henri Decae manage to film a series of traveling shots, the camera moving backwards as the characters face the screen. The passengers are all seen tightly within the Scope screen. The sense of claustrophobia, the lack of empty space, is almost overwhelming. And knowing how bulky those cameras were makes the scene a technical marvel. That scene is representative of how critic Dudley Andrew has assessed Clement's work: ". . . Clement's experiments are always limited. Technical problems continue to interest him, but he has never relinquished his belief that a film must be well-crafted in the traditional sense of that term. This is what must always distinguish him from the New Wave filmmakers with whom he otherwise has something in common."

There are no sparks between Signoret and Whitman. Even as she settled into middle age, Signoret was still able to charm Oskar Werner and the audience in Ship of Fools (1965). The closest Whitman came to being a romantic lead was with Maria Schell in The Mark, which having been filmed independently in Ireland feature a code busting scene of the two sharing a bed. In The Day and the Hour, declarations of love fall flat.

If The Day and the Hour does not rank among Rene Clement's better films, the train sequence assures that it is not a total misfire. Of interest also are brief appearances by Michel Piccoli and Marcel Bozzuffi in small roles. Future directors C;laude Pinoteau and Costa-Gavras served as Assistant Directors. Costa-Gavras would soon make his own thriller set on a train, The Sleeping Car Murders. While the music score is mostly traditional, it was composed by jazz musician Claude Bolling.

Samm Deighan's commentary track mostly places The Day and the Hour within the context of World War II films, touching on the history of the French resistance. The blu-ray is sourced from a 2020 4K restoration commissioned by the French studio Gaumont.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:02 AM

August 01, 2023

So Sweet, So Dead


Rivelazioni di un maniaco sessuale al capo della squadra mobile / The Slasher is the Sex Maniac
Roberto Montero - 1972

Every once in a while, someone makes a post about watching the cinematic equivalent to comfort food. For myself, this means checking on Tubi. The brief commercial breaks do not disturb me, especially as the film returns to a couple of seconds prior to the break so no part of the film is lost. While it is often surprising how many good and even great films pop up on Tubi, what I like to seek out are previously unseen or unknown gialli or Italian westerns. I can not explain my attraction to Italian genre films from the 1970s. Both genres were considered critically disreputable at the time with the possible exceptions of Sergio Leone and Dario Argento. Both genres have gone under considerable critical reevaluation in the past fifty years. In the intervening years, the trashiness of the Italian thrillers has become a feature and not a bug.

I have not read Farley Granger's autobiography, but I would not be surprised if he never mentioned this film. After starring in films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray and Luchino Visconti, why bother? Not only was Granger's stardom quite diminished even though he was only 47 years old, but the U.S. distribution was by William Mishkin, a specialist in grindhouse releases. Granger appears to have a ragged hair cut or a bad toop, plus a mustache in his role as a police inspector. A man dressed in black, his face obscured by a black stocking, is murdering the unfaithful wives of the elite in an unnamed city. The women have their throats cut. The killer leaves photographs of the women, nude with their respective lovers. The men in the photographs have their faces scratched out. As these things go, So Sweet, So Dead is relatively restrained with the violence save for close-ups of slashed throats, but generous on the nudity with actresses Sylva Koscina, Susan Scott and Femi Benussi.

There are the expected red herrings, misdirection and J & B Scotch product placement. There are also a couple of scenes involving the daughter of one of the victims where it seemed like no one noticed that they made no sense. In one scene, the daughter has returned from school at the same morning time as her father is leaving the house to go work. The followup to the scene of the daughter witnessing her mother's murder made me wonder how no one on the set noticed its incongruity. The clues all seem to point to a man whose job is to reconstruct and repair the bodies of the victims. He is played by Luciano Rossi, a supporting player in many genre films. Rossi physically looks somewhat like the guy you would hire if you wanted Klaus Kinski but had to hire a cheaper actor. Rossi's English dubbed voice sounds at times like the cartoon version of Peter Lorre. Rossi is so creepy and deranged that only someone who has never seen a movie would peg him as the mad slasher. A surprising aside, Luciano Rossi is the subject of a book written by horror film specialist Kier-La Janisse.

What little I know about director Roberto Montero is found in Wikipedia and IMDb. Like many Italian directors, his career was largely dictated by whatever genre was in favor at the time. The only bit of artistic flash here is some color tinting in a flashback. Montero may not be in the same league as Sergio Martino or Umberto Lenzi, but that should not be held against him. Not all comfort food is of nutritional value. Neither should all movies need to have any significance beyond their existence.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:00 AM