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June 08, 2021

Cartouche

cartouche.jpg

Philippe de Broca - 1962
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I had seen Cartouche twice previously, but also decided to revisit some other films by de Broca made around the same time. A small sequence that particularly struck me is when Cartouche, dodging the law in Paris, joins the army. The film takes place during the early 18th Century period in France known as the Regence. Cartouche and his two friends are caught in a battle, hiding from the the slaughter, and being declared heroes after staggering back to the fort. The reward for the men's supposed gallantry is to be on the front line of the next battle. The battle scene and the treatment of the soldiers portray the absurdity of war, and anticipate de Broca's best known film, King of Hearts.

Cartouche was inspired by the real life highwayman, Louis Dominique Garthausen, also known as Cartouche. As played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, Cartouche is introduced as a very talented pickpocket. The various criminals of Paris are under the control of Malichot, who takes most of the loot for himself. Returning from the army, after stealing the army cashbox, Cartouche takes on Malichot. The underworld gang is transformed into an army that shares the ill-gotten gains, but also has a code of honor of only stealing from the rich. In the course of his adventures, Cartouche rescues Venus, a young woman arrested for the theft of a silk kerchief.

One of de Broca's other themes, also in other films, is the question of spiritual loss with material gain. Cartouche has wealth and the adoration of Venus. In spite of declaring himself married to Venus, Cartouche is seen flirting with another woman. His seduction of an aristocrat's wife almost brings about his end. For some of the men in de Broca's films, it takes the loss of everything to recognize the value of what they have.

Cartouche was the first of five films de Broca made with Jean-Paul Belmondo. Each film was a comic adventure pairing the star with a top actress. This may well be the best of the five in part because of it being a period film, unlike the other four which were in contemporary settings, with certain aspects aging badly. Cartouche set the pace for Belmondo not only doing very physically demanding slapstick comedy, but also horse riding, sword fighting, shooting and assorted fisticuffs. Claudia Cardinale has the star-making role as Venus, whose biggest weapon may be her broad smile flashing both rows of teeth. While Cardinale is mainly associated with Italian films, French is her first language, so I am assuming that is her voice on the soundtrack.

The blu-ray comes with a documentary on de Broca that alternates between wife Alexandra de Broca and French journalist Thomas Morales. Mme. de Broca discusses how Cartouche came about when plans to film a new version of The Three Musketeers were cancelled, and how the film was a leap for the the still relatively new director. Morales makes the point of positioning de Broca as a link between the Nouvelle Vague and the more classic style of filmmaking. I do think his dismissal of Claudia Cardinale as a serious actress is nonsensical in light of her work with Fellini, Visconti, among others. One of the more interesting points in Simon Abrams' commentary is how the reception for Cartouche in the U.S. was muted by its belated release following The Man from Rio (1964) by one month, with critics expecting another totally comic film.

Georges Delerue's music for Cartouche quite appropriately evokes music of the era, Handel comes to mind. There is one scene when Cartouche is waiting for an expected liaison with the aristocrat's wife, the woman he flirts with at the beginning of the film. The music struck me as an initial attempt at what would be more fully developed as the romantic theme for Godard's Contempt.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:51 AM

June 03, 2021

The Woman One Longs For

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Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt / Three Loves
Kurt Bernhardt - 1929
Kino Classics BD Region A

The emphasis on the blu-ray release of The Woman One Longs For is that it is a German silent film starring Marlene Dietrich made prior to her "discovery" by Josef von Sternberg. Dietrich does play the titular character, though her actual billing is below that of top-billed Fritz Kortner. Dietrich is not exactly a femme fatale here, although knowing her proves to be the undoing of two men in this story. While Dietrich has yet to be molded into the glamorous icon as established in the von Sternberg films, it is the artistry of the filmmaking that caught me off guard.

The source novel is from Max Brod, a name more familiar as the friend and biographer of Franz Kafka. The son of an industrialist, Henri, goes on a honeymoon trip by train with his wife, Angela. Henry spots Stascha looking out through the frosted window of the train he and his wife are about to board. Stascha is accompanied by an older man, heavy, with a monocle. Later on the train, Stascha implores Henri to help her as she says she is traveling with the man against her will. Henri ditches his wife to follow Stascha and the man identified as Mr. Karoff to the Grand Hotel. Bernhardt and screenwriter Ladislaus Vajda had sense enough not to pad out the film which runs at a tidy 77 minutes.

I admittedly have only seen a handful of films directed by the future Curtis Bernhardt, as he was renamed moving from Germany to Hollywood. My own initial impression of Bernhardt was that of a second-stringer, the guy Jack Warner tapped for the "women's pictures" when Michael Curtiz and Anatole Litvak were to busy, or the project was less than prestigious. There is precious little written about Bernhardt that makes it easy to dismiss him as primarily a journeyman director. It was actually an online piece on Conrad Veidt by Fiona Watson that suggested Bernhardt has another filmmaker in need of further research. Watson has written about The Man who was Murdered, and Bernhardt's use of tracking shots and dissolves. Further searching took me to a Bright Lights essay by Marc Svetov grouping Bernhardt with Robert Siodmak and Max Ophuls work in the early 1930s in Germany and France. It would appear that Curtis Bernhardt's pre-Hollywood work needs to be better known.

There is a traveling shot near the beginning, inside a cafe, that traverses the length of the cafe and back. Within the sequences that take place on the train are a couple of shots going either forward or back through the corridor of a train car. The scene taking place in the hotel on New Year's Eve begins with the close-up of a giant clock, that backing decoration for the house band, with an extended tracking shot away from the clock to reveal the celebrants in the ballroom. Bernhardt may have also been under the influence of Eisenstein with the use of quick cutting montage. A series of shots establishing a steel factory could well have been taken from Soviet propaganda, with the parts of the plant seen as a series of almost abstract images. The fist fight between Henry and Karoff is a succession of quick close- ups - a slap to the jaw, a monocle dropping to the floor, fists against chests, fists against jaws, and some tentative grappling. Dietrich is first introduced visually in the frame of the train window within the camera frame.

In her commentary track, Gaylyn Studlar points out that Marlene Dietrich was not quite a star at the time of production. She was chosen over studio objections by Bernhardt following a series of supporting roles in films made earlier in the decade. Stardom was still not quite in the grasp of the 28 year old actress, even with prominent roles here and under the direction of Maurice Tourneur. Studlar goes deepest in discussing the career of Fritz Kortner, as well as touching on the careers of Bernhardt in Hollywood, and cinematographer Curt Courant. The blu-ray also includes a score by jazz/classical musician Pascal Schumacher showing the influence of the composers of the 1920s. The blu-ray is sourced from a print restored in 2012 by the F. W. Murnau Foundation. I usually refrain from hyperbole, but The Woman One Longs For could well be one of the best classic releases of this year.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:12 AM

June 01, 2021

The Green Man

Green Man.jpg

Robert Day - 1956
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Often critical and commercial successes at the time of release, I sometimes take a look at British comedies from the 1950s up to the period before A Hard Day's Night and "Swinging London", and wonder what the fuss was about. What seemed funny at the time of production might evoke a small chuckle but most likely falls flat. The exception would be those comedies from the production/writing team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. As a team, they may be best known for the series of St. Trinian's films, about anarchic school girls running amuck, with Alastair Sim as both the headmistress and her twin brother in the first of those films. Sim would star in several films from Launder and Gilliat. The Green Man had directorial duties handed over to Robert Day and an uncredited Basil Dearden, but still has more in common with the other films of the production team.

Sim appears here as a paid assassin, Hawkins, known for his bomb making skills. His plot to murder the statesman, Sir Gregory, is interrupted initially by the secretary who suspects that her would-be fiance may be up to no good. This is followed by an ernest door-to-door salesman. William Blake (yes, really) who shows up at the wrong house, getting that home's owner, Ann, involved. What follow is a comedy of errors that involves Hawkins trying to hide his activities, and his inept assistant trying to hide a dead body. There is frenetic activity with several people running between the two houses and up and down staircases, followed by a clue that leads Blake and Ann to an out of the way seaside inn called The Green Man.

What I think makes the difference is that Launder and Gilliat do not simply put their characters into funny situations, but there is a sympathy for their respective foibles. Even in an extreme case like Hawkins, Launder and Gilliat delight in characters that upend the social order. Hawkins makes a point of only assassinating the bullies on the world stage, dictators and self-serving captains of industry. Even the minor characters are affectionately presented, including a chamber trio of middle-aged women who energetically attack Brahms' "Hungarian Dance", and Sir Gregory's secretary, nervous about what's suppose to be a secret rendezvous with her boss. Although prominently billed, Terry-Thomas appears when the action shifts to the Green Man. T-T has been having an affair with the hotel desk clerk. And while it really has nothing to do with the main narrative, it is that inimitable enunciation and cheerful shamelessness, prime T-T, that adds to the humor. Even British life gets a couple poking with jokes at the expense of the BBC and what passes for British cuisine.

David Del Valle's commentary primarily stresses the career of Alastair Sims and Sims' work with Launder and Gilliat. There is also a brief overview of British cinema in the 1950s, especially the comedies of the time. Del Valle also explains the somewhat convoluted history of how Robert Day, previously a cinematographer, made his directorial debut under the supervision of Basil Dearden. While Day had a prolific career in film and television, very little has been of critical note. Basil Dearden has had the more noteworthy filmography, but his own comedies are more low-key. In a roundabout way, The Green Man is revisited in Dearden's penultimate The Assassination Bureau.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:06 AM