Monday, 7 January 2013

Le Silence de la mer (1949)

"Can duty ever mean accepting the crime?"

Many films have a fairly straightforward production process, following well-trod paths ensuring things running smoothly from inception through to the film's final release. Some, however, can have a truly tumultuous time, and it's the sign of a great filmmaker that they can deal with all of the obstacles that are presented to them, and not only prevent them from ruining the film, but use it as motivation to ensure they completely dedicate themselves to try and produce the best possible film. Watching the great French Resistance film Le Silence de la mer it's not at all apparent that there were any production issues at all, but in reality director Jean-Pierre Melville had almost insurmountable problems to contend with. And that's before the cameras had even started rolling.

The film is an adaptation of an illegal novel written by Jean Bruller (under the pseudonym of Vercors) at the height of the German occupation of France in 1942. Its subject matter of dignified resistance against the Nazis ensured it quickly became an underground hit. After Germany's fall there was inevitably talk about bringing Bruller's book to the big screen to celebrate this resistance.

By 1946 Jean-Pierre Melville was a confident 29-year-old who had been a daring and dedicated member of the French Resistance throughout the occupation (including six months spent in a Spanish prison), and returned from the war eager to make films - a vocation he'd always intending on eventually pursuing. When he discovered there were plans to make a film about Bruller's novel, he did everything in his power to ensure that the work be entrusted to his own direction. Unfortunately for Melville, as a young, unknown director with no studio backing and just one short film to his name (1945's Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Clown), Bruller refused to allow him rights to make the film. Undeterred, Melville pledged to Bruller that so important was the film to him because of its Resistance theme, he would film it regardless. And if, when faced with the completed print, Bruller, or anyone else in attendance at the screening didn't approve of it, Melville would destroy the only copy of the film. Bruller eventually allowed Melville to adapt his work, even permitting him to film the interior scenes in the author's own house in Villiers-sur-Morin in east Paris, but in return he maintained a strong creative influence over filming, much to Melville's annoyance.

So Melville had overcome his biggest obstacle - but he still found himself confronted with numerous other issues. He was angered by the strong opposition to his making of Silence by the French film industry, and so endeavoured to make the film without their assistance. As he was not a member of the French film union, this meant he would have to do without the benefits that this attracted, such as subsidised production costs and access to film stock. This latter problem forced him to turn to the black market, as well as recycling offcuts of nitrate, running for less than a minute, which would be the reason for some of the short shots in the film. As he was also financing the film himself, this resulted in a protracted filming period which lasted only 27 days, but was drawn out over many months between 1947-48.

The story is set in 1941 in a small French village. A German officer, Werner von Ebrennac, (Howard Vernon) is assigned to live in the house of an old uncle (Jean-Marie Robain) and his young niece (Nicole Stephanie). Distressed at the notion that one of the invading force will be living under their roof the uncle and niece conclude that the most dignified form of protest will be to simply ignore their uninvited guest; to carry on as if he is not even there. The first glimpse we get of the German is as he knocks on the door, and as the niece opens it we are confronted by a tall, fearsome looking man, mirroring the famous introduction to the titular character in Hitchcock's The Lodger (1927). However, here the man confidently strides towards the camera, and the camera immediately retreats without taking its focus off the German, charging the moment with a mixture of terror and curiosity, the same emotions the uncle and his niece must have felt. Will von Ebrennac be in the mold of the typical sadistic Nazi we've come to expect from contemporary French cinema? Surprisingly, no. After a number of monologues that we hear from the German as he visits the couple every evening, we begin to discover this is no uncultured monster. He is a kind and intelligent man who has a deep adoration of French culture, music and arts. He reveals that he was a musician before the war - a profession he saw a far more suited to him but was happy to pause his career so he could help the effort and, in his eyes, play his role in uniting their two great nations who could then work together to rebuild Europe. In time, the uncle finds he is beginning to respect the man and his passion for French culture, whilst the niece begins to fall in love with him. The uncle resists his temptation to offer the German advice, while the niece resists the urge to confess her feelings towards him, and they both maintain their silence.

It's almost unprecedented for any French film based on the Second World War to portray a Nazi with anything but disdain, and certainly not as a compassionate and sympathetic character. The only other Nazi to be dealt with in such a way in a contemporary French film was Erich von Stroheim's aristocratic von Rauffenstein in Jean Renior's La Grande Illusion (1937); indeed he shares many characteristics with Silence's von Ebrennac. 
When von Ebrennac is called to a meeting in Paris he discovers that his notion of Germany and France combining their cultures is misplaced, and realises that it is Hitler's plan to subjugate France and exterminate their culture that von Ebrennac holds so dear. Devastated, he returns to the uncle and niece where he confesses what he has learned, but is conflicted as to whether he should carry out orders that go against everything he believes in. 

With most of Silence taking place inside the small house, it tends to feel claustrophobic at times, but a few scenes outside, such as when von Ebrennac and the niece meet outside in the snow, and more vitally when the German officer is summoned to Paris, give the film welcome space. Melville wished to shoot scenes of von Ebrennac in Paris, and indeed when he reports to the Kommandantur the location is precisely the same place which was used during the war. Filming a German in full Nazi uniform walking the streets of Paris in 1948 was more challenging, but through a combination of short shots (using those offcuts of film) and old newsreel footage Melville was able to convincingly depict the wartime capital without coming under attack from outraged Parisians. 
Jean-Pierre Melville would have later success with his decidedly film-noir style of filmmaking with Le Doulos (1962) and Le Samouraï (1967), and it's evident in Silence that he was heavily influenced by the genre and the films of Billy Wilder in particular. There was no other filmmaker in France at this time who was using natural lighting in his films, but Melville uses it to such effect at times that it's shocking to realise how little experience he had prior to making the film. 

One of the most surprising things about Le Silence de la mer is how little known it is today. It has aged remarkably well, and despite so much time devoted to von Ebrennac's one-sided conversations, it doesn't feel particularly slow. Seen as a snapshot of the active but dignified French resistance to the German invasion, there is no other film that portrays it half as well. Melville presented the film to Bruller and a number of Resistance fighters who unanimously agreed that it did justice to the subject matter. Despite the French film authorities trying to bury the film on release, it was well received critically, and the popularity of the source novel alone guaranteed solid returns. But over the intervening years it has certainly fallen out of favour somewhat - I was stunned to see it's never had a place in the popular 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book, and it's never seen in lists of the best French war films. This is one of my personal favourite films to deal with the Second World War and one I've returned to a number of times, always seeing something fresh. Hopefully as time goes on it will take its deserved place as not only one of Jean-Pierre Melville's greatest films, but as one of the very best French films of the 1940s.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

At the start of the 1950s, there were very few science-fiction films which dealt with the perceived threat to Earth from other planets and alien species. There were a few right at the birth of cinema, such as Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon (1902) and R.W. Paul's The '?' Motorist, and over the next few decades a few isolated films such as Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon (1929) appeared, but the subject wasn't particularly popular with the public until cinema was into its sixth decade. Part of the reason was that special effects weren't up to much, and usually if the effects simply weren't a distraction it was considered a success, even at the time it was too easy to accidentally create laughter rather than fear due to the limitations of effects. Also, with two devastating  world wars in the meantime, people had enough to be worrying about with Nazis and fascism, without adding aliens to the list.
But in the 50s there was a huge boom in these science-fiction films. Throughout the decade there would be countless films which took the basic premise of aliens on distant planets and ran with it. Some would be big-budget classics of the genre such as The War of the Worlds (1952) and Forbidden Planet (1956), but there also appeared a number of decidedly low-budget science fiction films - known as b-movies - catering to the large public appetite. The film that can be credited with beginning this craze in science-fiction is the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The film is set in Washington D.C. and begins when a U.F.O. lands on a baseball field, causing the military to be immediately mobilised, and the craft is soon surrounded by soldiers, tanks and heavy weapons, not to mention hundreds of members of the public who've come to satisfy their curiosity. A humanoid alien then emerges but is wounded as he approaches the men and an over-zealous solider shoots him. Then Gort, a larger, far more menacing figure comes out of the spaceship and destroys the soldiers' weapons by staring at them. Taken under the care of human doctors the humanoid alien is able to recover from his wounds, and announces himself as Klaatu (Michael Rennie). His demand to meet with all the nation's leaders is dismissed, and he escapes from the hospital to find someone more amenable to talk to. Keeping his true identity secret he rents a local room, meeting Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her young son Bobby (Billy Gray), whom he develops a friendship with, learning much about the planet's history and customs from the boy.  Realising the only person who can understand his reason for coming to Earth may be the world's leading scientist, Klaatu meets with Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe in a blatant nod to Albert Einstein) and reveals that the inhabitants of other planets are wary of the humans because they've now, with the dawn of the nuclear age, developed the ability to cause destruction on other planets, not just their own, and may eventually pose a threat to Klaatu's own world.  With the police now hunting Klaatu, Helen assists him and Klaatu tells her that if anything should happen to him, she is to recite the words "Klaatu barada nikto" to Gort. When Klaatu is then spotted and shot by two soldiers, Gort is reawakened...

The first thing that's noticeable about The Day the Earth Stood Still is how quickly it moves along. The term 'brisk' isn't one that can usually be levelled at films from the early 50s, but here director Robert Wise wastes no time in setting things up, and the whole film then zips along for the rest of its 93-minute duration. He doesn't include any tertiary plots or characters, and everyone that's in the film is here for a reason - to tell the story and nothing more, nothing less.  There's nothing showy here, but to do so would be to detract from the story itself. Though Wise had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Editing on Citizen Kane in 1941, and directed his first feature in 1944, it's really on The Day the Earth Stood Still that he comes into his own. He would go on to receive further Academy recognition with his musicals West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), before falling from favour somewhat in the 70s.

The script is similarly tight, and it never moves away from the main plot. It's obvious throughout why Klaatu has come to Earth - he's there to warn humans about the risks they're bringing upon themselves by continuing to develop nuclear weapons. A neat modern-day crossover is to consider Iran, developing nuclear energy for the best part of a decade, being warned by numerous countries; the UK, US, Israel, that if they continue to go down the route of enriching uranium, it will end in conflict. Though in The Day the Earth Stood Still Klaatu eschews some of the more flowery language of today's ultimatums ("Planet Earth will be eliminated"), it nicely demonstrates that the universal theme is still relevant over 60 years later.

With a small cast, fortunately all of the acting is top notch  - for the lead role of Klaatu it was never going to be easy to portray an alien, but Michael Rennie is very effective. He is calm, collected and politely insistent at all times, and never comes near losing control, even when he's gunned down. This serves only to make the character more chilling. The mute robot Gort must be the most recognisable android of the cinema since the robot Maria in Metropolis (1927) and is certainly the iconic image from this film; though his screen time is comparatively little, it only serves to make the scenes in which he appears more memorable. The music is also particularly distinctive. It was scored by Bernard Herrmann, who became synonymous with Alfred Hitchcock after numerous collaborations with the director including North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960), but his work on The Day the Earth Stood Still is some of his most experimental. His use of the theremin instrument, which had been used sparingly in films since 1931, and memorably in Spellbound (1945) and The Lost Weekend (1945) , gives the film an eerie, otherworldly feel. Compare the moment when Klaatu first emerges from the ship; there is no music, and the mood is curious rather than menacing. Then, moments later when Gort steps out, the theramin music bursts out and it suddenly sounds like the end of the world. In that scene the music is everything.

If The Day the Earth Stood Still hadn't been such a success, it's unlikely there would have been the mass of science-fiction films that followed it. But because it had been made so well it would take a lot of effort to make a film that actually surpassed it, as well as being responsible for inspiring countless clones, not to mention the awful 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves as Klaatu.

After the popularity of such films throughout the 1950s, and with the atomic threat of the Cold War receding, there were almost no alien science-fiction films in the 60s, and the few quality ones that surfaced in the 70s were more concerned with environmental issues than alien invasion (Silent Running, The Planet of the Apes). Not until the mid 1990s would the genre have a brief resurgence, with big-budget films such as Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997) and Starship Troopers (1997), before fading again from the big screen. As long as the film studios continue to produce half-hearted remakes, this is unlikely to change, leaving great films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still as markers of a more innovative period in science fiction cinema. 

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)


"You laugh at my big belly but you don't know how I got it! You laugh at my mustache but you don't know why I grew it!"
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was the first true classic that came out of the fruitful partnership of Michael Powell, who took up directing responsibilities, and Emeric Pressburger who wrote and produced the film. After cutting their teeth on war-films such as The Spy in Black (1939) and 46th Parallel (1941) by 1943 they were keen to take on something more substantial than a typical World War II British propaganda film. Here they managed to fit in two world wars, the Boer War, and along the way called into question the generals whose dated tactics had caused Britain to become embroiled in so much devastation, as well as demonstrate just how outdated and ultimately futile the English gentlemen's code of conduct was. Unsurprisingly, Winston Churchill was furious at the film's barely-concealed message, but looking back on it now from a detached point-of-view it really is one of the greatest British films ever made.
Oddly, despite the title of the film, the main character is not dead by the time the credits roll. Neither is he a Colonel. Neither is his name Blimp. Slightly misleading that. The title comes from the cartoon-strip character David Low created in the 1930s to satirise the stereotypical jingoistic British army officers. However, rather than just show Colonel Blimp as a one-dimensional character set in his ways, Powell and Pressburger decided to go back to the character's early career and show how he became  the narrow-minded officer, starting with the Boer War in 1902. In doing this, they jettisoned the 'Colonel Blimp' moniker (though confusingly it remained for the film's title) and re-christened the character Clive Candy. By doing this and seeing where the Colonel's ideals and motives had come from a far more sympathetic character is revealed - indeed by the end of the film it's impossible not to like Candy. 

The story begins in present-day 1943, and Candy (Roger Livesey), in charge of the Home Guard, has arranged a large-scale exercise to begin at midnight. A fresh young officer, Lieutenant "Spud" Wilson decides to circumvent the usual 'rules of engagement' and takes his unit to strike pre-emptively, taking General Wynne-Candy and his staff prisoner whilst they are in the Turkish baths. In the midst of the General's protestations that "war begins at midnight!" the young officer insults Wynne-Candy's staff and the two officers scuffle, falling into the bath. At this point Candy is every bit the Colonel Blimp of the cartoon-strips: he's not used to having his authority questioned, and he simply can't comprehend why the young  officers aren't obeying the usual rules. As the story then flashbacks 40 years we begin to see that there's far more to Candy than meets the eye.

In 1903 Clive "Sugar" Candy was a dashing young officer serving with a Victoria Cross for gallant service, and it's obvious that the world was a very different place. With the British Empire at its height, there was no one else in the world to challenge Britain, so they could make their own rules, and everyone else would have to play by them. As it happened, the rules the British made were those of honour, decency, and always doing the "gentlemanly thing". This noble philosophy worked fine until the Empire began to decline, and then as the film shows, there's no point having rules if you're the only one playing by them.

When Candy embarks on an ill-advised trip to Germany to settle a minor dispute, he meets Edith Hunter, played by Deborah Kerr (An Affair to Remember), an English governess living in Berlin,  and slowly becomes  infatuated by her. Whilst sorting out business, he accidentally offends the entire German Imperial Army and at the Germany's insistence has to fight a duel with a German officer drawn by lot. Candy shows no remorse for his actions, nor does he try to avoid the saber duel; in the great English way he takes his fate with a stiff upper lip, keeps calm and carries on. Both he and his German opponent, Theodore Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) are wounded in the duel (we never find out who won), and whilst in recuperation the two end up becoming great friends, despite Theo's limited English. When Theo tells Candy that he is in love with Edith and plans to ask her to marry him, Candy is delighted for his friend but later realises that he had feelings for her himself and regrets the lost opportunity.
We next meet Candy, now a Brigadier, at the end of the First World War. As he hears the guns stop firing he proudly tells his Corporal: "the Germans have shelled hospitals, bombed open towns, sunk neutral ships, used poison gas, and we won. Clean fighting, honest soldiering have won." It plays on one of the recurring themes in Colonel Blimp - that as long as you fight cleanly, you can't lose.
While in France Candy spots a familiar looking woman working as a nurse. She bears a striking resemblance to Edith, and when he returns to England Candy tracks the woman down, now identified as Barbara Wynne (played by Deborah Kerr again), courts her and marries her - despite her being twenty years his junior.
By the time we next catch up with Candy (via some of the most amusing and original 'passing-of-time' scenes ever committed to film) it's 1939 and World War II is looming large. General Wynne-Candy is in full bloom in his Colonel Blimp guise, being an overweight,  old-fashioned patrician. He offers to join the army, but is 'retired'. He records an interview for broadcast on the radio but he is informed it is cancelled because in it  he suggests that fair play will win against Germany, and that it's better to lose with honour than win without, an opinion at odds with the government's line that everyone must fight by any means necessary against the Nazis. To put his experience to good use he settles for being leader of the newly-established Home Guard, Britain's last line of defence. This brings the film full circle as we return to the very beginning.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is expertly paced. Its 163-minute running never feels bloated, but it also gives the story the space it needs to breathe. Even the flash-back format works perfectly: by returning to the pompous General at the end of the film, after following the experiences of his life we look at him with a completely different and more sympathetic opinion. The length of the film also allows other characters to be fully explored, and the most intriguing is Theodore Kretschmar-Schuldorff. After their initial meeting after the saber duel, Candy next seeks his old friend out at following the First World War where he discovers Theo is now a German prisoner. Though Theo at first ignores Candy, when he is due to be repatriated back to Germany he accepts an invitation to the General's house and the two reminisce, though Theo is sceptical about Germany's future. Powell and Pressburger make Theo an intelligent and measured man, far more so than Candy himself, and when he seeks asylum in Britain at the dawn of the Second World War, it's easy to relate to him and the shame and bitterness he feels about his two sons being "good Nazis". In an era where the fashion was to portray all Germans as faceless Nazi monsters, it's refreshing to have such a three-dimensional character as Theo, and his friendship with Candy is never less than believable. It also helps that he is played to perfection by Austrian actor Anton Walbrook - his ability wasn't lost on Michael Powell who would often draw on his skills to portray sympathetic Germans. 
Deborah Kerr, in her breakthrough role, and still only 21 at the time of filming, is similarly excellent, imbuing each of the three roles she plays in Colonel Blimp with their own individual, infectious character. In a lovely turn at the end of the film Theo realises that the Candy has employed the young girl Angela "Johnny" Cannon as his personal driver because of her similarity to his own late wife. It's also touching that Johnny has affection for the old General, and does her best to stop the young officers from carrying out their scheme. 
But the most impressive turn here is undoubtedly Roger Livesey. He seems perfectly suited to the role, whether it's playing the caddish young Imperial officer, or the hoarse, old-fashioned leader of the Home Guard.  I've never seen a biography-style of film where the actor so ably portrays such a wide range of ages with such authenticity. 
Unusually for the time, Colonel Blimp was filmed in Technicolor, with their huge, unwieldy cameras as big as telephone boxes. The upside of this though is due to its recording onto three strips of film, the colour hasn't faded and the image really does pop off the screen. In 2011 the film underwent a comprehensive restoration, and I was blown away by how amazing it looks. I've never seen a film from the 1940s look so good - it really does look like a recent film set during the 40s; a fact helped by how fresh the story itself feels. 

If it wasn't for the fact that they'd made so many other great films, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp would surely have been The Archers' masterpiece. As it is, it can quite rightly sit proud alongside A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes, but also alongside the very greatest cinema ever to come out of Britain. 

Monday, 31 December 2012

Dial M for Murder (1954)

By 1954 Alfred Hitchcock's reputation was still growing. He was accustomed to receiving generally positive reviews and was one of the most successful directors working in Hollywood at the time. However his next film, Dial M for Murder, would ignite what was to be the golden age of the veteran filmmaker's career, and over the next decade he would create films like Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho and influence cinema like no other director before or since.
But in 1954 Hitchcock was short on ideas. He'd intended for his follow-up to the previous year's I Confess to be based on a 1948  novel, The Bramble Bush, by David Duncan. The story, which Hitchcock had been working on adapting since before starting production on I Confess, was the same basic thread he'd used before, a 'wrong-man' tale in which a fugitive is forced to assume the identity of a murder suspect. After Warner Bros. had taken exception to the left-wing politics of the story and forced Hitchcock to remove the offending scenes from his adaption, he lost interest in the project and it was ultimately abandoned. Under pressure from the studio to produce a film quickly, it was suggested that he adapt Frederick Knott's London-based stage play, Dial M for Murder. Reluctantly, Hitchcock agreed.

So for Hitchcock this wasn't a project in which he felt any particular motivation for, and even whilst producing it he was at work on his next film, Rear Window, which he had far more of a personal interest in.  It says a lot about Hitchcock's vast talent that even if this was a film he could bring little more than acquiescence to, the casting is so inspired and his direction so flawless that it soon became a classic of the thriller genre.

The story had begun as a BBC television programme before taking to the stage in the West End and, in late 1952, Broadway, had drawn critical acclaim; but with the entire story set in one apartment its claustrophobic nature seemed at odds with the grander scale of recent Hitchcock productions. Though by this period filmmakers adapting stage plays were content to remain true to their roots; a trend started by Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944), and refrain from opening the story up to multiple locations, it's still surprising that Hitchcock decided to keep the story focussed on one set, with his only concessions to the big screen being to add a number of brief shots; in a gentleman's club, looking out onto the street outside the apartment, and the memorable yet surreal courtroom montage (which I won't discuss here for fear of spoilers).
In the story Ray Milland plays Tony Wendice, an ex-tennis professional who lives in a London apartment with his wealthy wife Margot (Grace Kelly). After Tony discovers a letter showing that his wife has been having an affair with American writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) he becomes seized by jealously, anger and greed and plots to have her murdered, allowing him to inherit her considerable wealth. Under the pretence of buying a car, he lures an old acquaintance from Cambridge to his flat, the petty criminal C.A. Swann (Anthony Dawson). Tony then reveals that he has been following Swann for some time and cunningly blackmails the man into murdering his wife Margot. With little choice, Swann accepts, and Tony reveals his meticulously-crafted plan. Later, Swann sneaks into the apartment where Margot is alone while Tony is at a club with Mark - the perfect alibi. Things begin to go wrong for Tony when he is delayed in making the phone call that is the signal for Swann, hiding in the apartment, to carry out his crime.

Throughout his career, it was unusual for Hitchcock to make films with such a small cast, and confined to just a couple of sets. The only film on a similar scale at this time was Lifeboat from 1944 (though Rope would  be confined for much of its duration), and apart from Rear Window which immediately followed Dial M for Murder, it's not a style he would return to. Because of this, it was imperative that he had a good cast. Ray Milland was chosen for the central role of Tony Wendice. Milland had won an Oscar in 1946 for his defining performance as an alcoholic in Billy Wilder's film-noir classic The Lost Weekend, a role in which he was required to portray a man close to the edge. It's fitting that his second most famous role to The Lost Weekend couldn't be further removed from the character of Don Birnam. Here he is calm, charming and restrained throughout, even maintaining the facade when it seems all hope has been lost. Based on the strength of his performance here, it's a mystery why Hitchcock never worked with him again.
An equally pivotal role was that of Tony Wendice's wife, Margot. Hitchcock's eye for a good blonde ensured that it wouldn't be long before Grace Kelly came to his attention, and following her performance here she quickly became one of his favourite leading ladies. Kelly was far from an unknown actress when she was cast in Dial M for Murder, her first collaboration with Hitchcock. She began acting in 1950 and her television work bought her to the attention of John Ford who cast her in his 1953 film Mogambo. Her performance in the film and classic Hollywood looks quickly cemented her movie-star status, and she received an Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her work on Mogambo. Her performance on Dial M is one of her best, conveying sheer terror at the events happening to her, but never allowing herself to go too extreme.

The great thing about Dial M for Murder is that it's a mystery, but as we already know who the perpetrator is the second half of the film is a question of whether Wendice can get away with the crime or not. His quick thinking and unflappable nature at times when his back is truly against the wall is almost shocking in its audacity, yet it's down to the charm and personality Milland gives the character that the audience are almost on his side at times, too easily forgetting the fact that he is plotting to have his wife murdered. Conversely, the would-be hero Mark Halliday whom Margot is having an affair with is fundamentally dull and unlikable and we almost want him to come unstuck. The detective, played by Hitchcock favourite and typical English gentleman John Williams, is both honest and likable, traits very rare in Hitchcockian policemen. His careful, meticulous attention to tiny details on Wendice's apparently perfectly-arranged crime almost act as a blueprint for Peter Falk's detective Columbo whose television mystery murder films would become hugely popular twenty years later.

Dial M for Murder was also one of the first films Hitchcock made in colour (though this time using the single-strip Eastmancolor as opposed to the more vivid three strip Technicolor). This concession was made after Warner Bros. had decided that the film should be shot in the new format of 3-D, following a recent craze begun in 1952 with Bwana Devil, but which was a process only made possible by the use of Eastmancolor. The use of the large 3-D camera caused the crew problems on set (notably needing a huge telephone to be built in order to film the opening close-up shot of a finger dialling numbers), and ironically by the time of the film's release had gone out of fashion and was seldom shown in its intended 3-D. I haven't seen the film in 3-D (though the new Blu-ray release includes both 2-D and 3-D options), but a restored re-release in 1979 received a large theatrical distribution.

The pitfall that a lot of single-stage film productions can fall into is they feel too claustrophobic and the story can feel slow due to no changes of location. Hitchcock never falls into this trap, and each shot feels fresh. He uses a huge variety of camera angles, and even unusually opens up the fourth wall, as well as shooting from high up as Wendice reveals his plan for his wife's murder to Swann. There's always a lot going on, and at no point does the story feel slow, even by modern standards. Hitchcock of course knows exactly how and when to use suspense, and the scenes as Wendice, realising his watch has broken and he has got the time wrong, tries to call his apartment to initiate his wife's murder are absolutely compelling. Dial M for Murder represents the culmination of 30 years filmmaking experience, and was one of Hitchcock's finest films to date. By the age of 54 most directors begin to slow down or settle into mediocrity. Alfred Hitchcock was just warming up.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

La Grande Illusion (1937)

By 1937 French filmmaker Jean Renoir was 43 years old and had made 21 films (a number of which were short films), going right back to the halcyon silent days of 1924. Despite moderate success in his homeland with films such as La Chienne (1931) and Toni (1935), his name was still virtually unknown outside of France. In 1937 all that changed with the release of La Grande Illusion, winning the director numerous accolades, including the distinction of being the first foreign film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. As the years have gone on its reputation has only grown and it is now widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, and has been the subject of countless articles, reviews and books.

The film is set during the First World War (then still known as the Great War), and begins when two French aviators, Captain de Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) are shot down and captured by the respected German aviator Captain von Rauffenstein (played by the celebrated silent director Eric von Stroheim, providing one of the film's best performances). Boieldieu and Maréchal are commended by Rauffenstein for their bravery, and he invites them to join him and the other officers for lunch. Despite being enemies Boieldieu and Rauffenstein find they get on well due to their shared aristocratic heritage. The French prisoners are then transferred to a POW camp populated with French, British and Russian officers from a wide variety of different backgrounds and social classes. There they meet the likable Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and his friends, who reveal to the Frenchmen that they have been secretly digging a tunnel out of the camp which they expect to complete within a few weeks.
The prisoners are treated well by the Germans, and during a vaudeville-style performance by the French POWs at the camp, news reaches them that the French have managed to retake Fort Douamont in the Battle of Verdun. Maréchal interrupts the show and encourages the troops to join him in a rendition of the French national anthem. His actions lead him to spending time in solitary confinement, though as he is eventually released he learns that the escape tunnel is almost finished.
Just as the prisoners are preparing their escape they learn that they are to be immediately transferred to Wintersborn, a camp high in the mountains which is coincidentally run by Major von Rauffenstein, who has been badly injured in battle but promoted to oversee the camp, a role he sees a little more than that of a "policeman". Though Rauffenstein assures the men that escape from the remote, heavily guarded castle is impossible, Boieldieu, Maréchal and Rosenthal eventually work out an ingenious plan to escape - though it requires one of the men to stay behind and act as a decoy - a role Boieldieu selflessly accepts.

In the hands of another filmmaker, La Grande Illusion could easily have become just another wartime prisoner-escape film. But in Renoir's hands he gives the film so many different dimensions that you could watch it a dozen times and see something in a different way on each viewing. To Renoir this was a personal film, with the director even going so far as to lend Jean Gabin his own personal uniform from the war to wear during filming, and his involvement in the 1958 re-release suggests that this was a film he was very satisfied with. Renoir had served as a reconnaissance pilot in World War I, and this first-hand experience certainly seems to have tainted his opinion of war as an ultimately futile exercise. Indeed part of the reason for the film's title comes from his opinion that the idea that war can actually make things better is all just a "grand illusion".

La Grande Illusion was also produced at a pivotal point in history. The First World War had come to an end nineteen years earlier, and though there had been the occasional anti-war film showing the Germans in a humane light (most famously in 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front), the harsh memory was still too fresh for many filmmakers to wish to tackle the controversial subject. But more importantly is that this was released just two years before Germany invaded Poland and ignited World War II. Germany was frantically re-arming and, though few in Europe understandably wanted to believe it, the storm clouds were gathering on the horizon. So Renoir's film occupies a unique vantage point where it carries the weight of the past, but is also on the precipice of another global war. Notably, where All Quiet on the Western Front depicts the horrific human cost of the war by showing trench warfare and large-scale battle on no-man's land, La Grande Illusion depicts no on-camera fighting or combat scenes at all. At the time of its release, there was some criticism over this, but it would not have helped the storyline at all to include any such scenes - this is a story about a small group of men and how they refuse to let the fact that the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against them dampen their spirits at all. Even when Maréchal is put in solitary confinement and finds the experience almost unbearable, he doesn't let it subdue him, and emerges ready to attempt an escape.

Renoir also uses the film to comment on what he believed was another "grand illusion" - that of social class. There are clear divides in La Grande Illusion, as shown by the kinship struck up by the German Rauffenstein and his prisoner the French Boieldieu, both of whom are upper class and able to converse efficiently in French, German and English. They switch language often in order to speak discretely to each other, and discuss their shared belief that after the war the social structure would be returned to the state it was before 1914 and that their kind would once again triumph. To Renoir, this was again a "grand illusion." Things would never be as they were.  To effectively show the changes in language Renoir utilised a method that, though simple, had not really been done before in cinema - he had the actors speak in the language in which they were scripted to speak, and simply subtitled the non-French dialogue. This means the audience doesn't get confused, it's always clear what's going on, as well as giving the film an authenticity that couldn't have been achieved any other way.

I could go on about numerous other inflections that Renoir has filled La Grande Illusion with (the Jewish character countering Hitler's anti-Semitism; the black French officer) but as this is fundamentally a war film, I've concentrated on the points pertinent to that. This really is a formidable film, one which should be watched multiple times to appreciate just how proficient Renoir was. It would have been too easy to try and cram so much social commentary into the film that it just collapsed under its own weight, but its testament to his ability as a master filmmaker that he was able to infuse the film with so many dimensions - but the impressive thing is they are only there if you want to look for them. If you want to view La Grande Illusion as a simple film of prisoners trying to escape from the Germans, it's all here and it's a great story. Enjoy it. But there's so much more going on here that it seems almost wrong to not consider the wider notions at work. The "grand illusion" indeed.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

The Red Balloon (1956)

The best "children's films" should be accessible to both children and adults, and certainly in recent cinema the Pixar films have been a great example of this cross-generational appeal. Children love them because they can relate to the characters in the film and they tell a good story, but the best children's films are equally adored by adults because it takes them back to a more innocent time, and they can often relate on a different level to the story. When I was a kid I loved Don Bluth's animation An American Tail (1986) because it told a great adventure story, and also looked amazing. I didn't watch it again for years, but now I can appreciate that it's basically telling a story about Russian-Jewish immigrants starting a new life in the USA, only to discover that it's not quite the land of opportunity that they were expecting. Obviously when I was seven years old, this went right over my head: I was far too busy singing the catchy songs to concern myself with the sociological issues raised by the films' subtext.
So when, at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, The Red Balloon (Le Ballon rouge) won the short film Palme d'Or at Cannes, and then at the 1957 Academy Awards won the films' writer/director/producer Albert Lamorisse an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, it had to be far more than just a "children's film".

Set in the Belleville neighbourhood of Paris, the 34-minute film tells the story of Pascal, a young boy who finds a large helium-filled red balloon on his way to school one morning, tied to a lamppost. We see him sweetly looking after the balloon as he walks around the Parisian streets, taking care to cover it under pedestrians' umbrellas when it rains. He then begins to realise that the balloon has a mind of its own, and it has become attached to Pascal, even floating outside his bedroom window, as his mother forbids him from bringing it into their apartment. He wanders around the streets of Belleville, but his unusual companion soon draws envious eyes from the other boys on the neighbourhood who try to steal the balloon from him, and who are stunned to see that whenever Pascal releases it, the balloon floats up into the air, but always returns back to Pascal. They eventually trap Pascal and his balloon, destroying it, but all of the other balloons in the area then are drawn towards the boy, and as they cluster together, they lift him off the ground, to float high over the rooftops of Paris.

The French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse had received some attention when his 1953 short film White Mane won the short film Palme d'Or, a success The Red Balloon would repeat. Though he would continue making films until his untimely death in a helicopter crash in Iran in 1970, it is for The Red Balloon that he is best known (oddly, he also invented the board game Risk in 1957). The boy who plays Pascal is his son, called Pascal in real life, and his daughter Sabine also appears in the film holding a blue balloon. Pascal had also appeared in White Mane, but after this film would never be heard of again.

This also provides an interesting document of the Belleville area - most of the buildings that are seen in The Red Balloon were later torn down by the French government in an (ultimately futile) effort to remove the slum-like areas that had appeared in the area following the influx of immigrants after World War II. Indeed all of the buildings in the opening shot (see above) have been long destroyed, as have the stairs below which lead to the spot where Pascal first discovers the balloon.

What's most striking about The Red Balloon is that there is virtually no dialogue in the entire film, lending it an almost fable-like spirit. It's testament to the strength of the story and writing that despite this, the film still won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Similarly, it's only on looking back that you notice that very little is revealed about Pascal himself. We see him on the daily walk to school, but we never see any of his friends, and the only possible family we meet are an old lady dressed in black who seems to look after him. Whether she's his grandmother, mother, or someone else entirely, is left for the audience to decide.

The Red Balloon is a film about the innocence of childhood, about believing that an item as unlikely as a balloon can have a mind of its own, but it's also a lesson that nothing lasts forever and that as much as good things happen, there's always enough bad people around to ruin the good stuff. Precisely because of the lack of dialogue it's got a universal appeal, and there's enough ambiguity to let the audience make their own mind up without falling into abstractism. I haven't got any children, but if I did I'd make them watch this film. Then I'd give them their own red balloon.

Monday, 24 December 2012

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Carl Laemmle's 1925 silent horror film The Phantom of the Opera was one of the early high points for Universal Studios. As a silent film, it is still very accessible today, with a fast-paced 77 minute running time. It stars one of the best actors of silent cinema, Lon Chaney. And it benefits from a high level of production with, as the original advertising proudly boats: "a cast of 5000 others", a well as a number of memorable sequences. If I was to show a silent film to someone for the first time, I'd probably choose this as one of the most accessible introductions to the period.

After the success of Laemmle's 1923 horror film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which had gone on to become the studios' most commercially successful silent film, it was only a matter of time before a followup was produced. The Hunchback had starred Lon Chaney in the title role, and so successful was the film that he was instantly elevated from being a reliable character actor to one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Consequently, he was by far the most popular choice to play the titular character in The Phantom of the Opera. Though nowadays the story has become synonymous with Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, at the time that this film was being produced the story was only 15 years old, being based on a novel written by Gaston Leroux in 1910 which quickly fell into obscurity. Apart from a possible 1916 production of which very little is know, this was the first adaptation of Leroux's story and contributed to a resurgence in the popularity of the original novel.

After the praise that had been given to Lon Chaney for his own self-applied makeup in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Laemmle was more than happy to let him do the same for The Phantom of the Opera (there's a reason he was known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces"), and in this case he determined to make himself look as horrific as possible. Universal had cleverly refrained from giving any indication of what the Phantom himself looked like behind his mask in trailers and advertising materials - this was to provide the film with excellent publicity when it was said that audiences had been so horrified his appearance in the scene in which the monster is revealed that they screamed or fainted in shock at the sight. It's a well built scene, as Christine, who the Phantom has taken into his lair in the catacombs deep beneath the Paris Opera House, suddenly unmasks the Phantom, despite his expressly forbidding her to do so. There's no suspense as she approaches him, as might be expected, but it's so sudden that the audience can't help but be shocked. Even watching it for the first time, and knowing full well what the unmasked Phantom looks like, it's a surprising moment, precisely because there's none of the expected tension. Immediately after the reveal, as the Phantom shows his anger towards Christine and begins to approach her, the camera switches to Christine's point-of-view, but the image continues to drift in and out of focus, as if to suggest the Phantom's appearance is so ghastly that even the camera is unable to fully process the vision.

Another standout scene comes earlier in the film. The Phantom threatens the opera houses' owners with ruining their performance should they continue forbidding Christine to take the starring role. When they continue to ignore his threats, another truly shocking moment occurs as the huge chandelier crashes down from the ceiling straight onto the unsuspecting audience members. Though this time we are aware that something is going to happen, it's the scale of the event that is shocking. One of the great things about such stunts in early cinema is that there were no CGI shortcuts - the massive chandelier really did fall, it really was smashed up on the ground, to lie scattered over the audiences' seats.

More revolutionary than any of this though, is that The Phantom of the Opera is almost unique in its use of colour for a silent film of this period. Tinting was very popular in silent films (though a tendency to ignore tinting in favour of black and white for VHS and DVD releases of silents has slightly distorted this opinion - a preference thankfully being rectified in more recent restorations), but there were very few films that would use more than one colour in a frame. Tinting was easy for a producer to create, he just had to have the film negative stained with dye of an appropriate colour - so many scenes set at night would be tinted blue, for example.
But to have more than one colour on the same image was far more complicated. As early as the turn of the century filmmakers like George Méliès were hand-colouring the actual nitrate film itself to give the effect of colour, but as each frame had to be coloured individually this was a very labour intensive task, and almost impossible for a full-length film. However, since the early 20s Technicolor had been experimenting with allowing different light filters to allow different colours to be exposed, and by 1925 this technique had been developed sufficiently to enable short sequences to be featured in The Phantom of the Opera. Of the two Technicolor scenes filmed for The Phantom, only one still survives, but it's still remarkable to see colour in a silent film. It's also one of the most memorable scenes in the film, as the Phantom turns up at the annual masked ball dressed as the 'Red Death' from Edgar Allen-Poe's novel. As he later spies on Christine and her lover on the roof, still in his Red Death disguise, a more rudimentary method, the Handschiegl colour process, was used to make the Phantom's clothes appear red.

The Phantom of the Opera is a great example of a classic silent film, and it's fully deserving of the praise it's been given. If it hadn't been for this film and the success it bought Universal, they would never have seen the potential for more horror films, and would never have started the Universal Monsters franchise, beginning with Dracula in 1931. It contains probably the best existing performance by Lon Chaney, who tragically died in 1930 (his acclaimed  role in 1927's London After Midnight is sadly now the stuff of legend as no prints are known to exist, but I'm still hoping one day I can write about it after some miraculous rediscovery), and never feels like any scene is unnecessary. The sudden and dramatic ending is still shocking in its finality, though apparently in the original cut there was an epilogue which has now been lost. This isn't as deep or emotive as many silent classics, but as an example of pure entertainment from 1920s cinema, there are few better. And it still says something that all these years later, after countless adaptations no Phantom looks quite as terrifying as Lon Chaney's portrayal.