Monday, 29 August 2011

Ecstasy (1933) Hedy good!

Even 80 years down the line, you still feel that watching Ecstasy is a tad risqué... the very definition of a euro "art house" movie which some, misguided, individuals might see as an excuse for titillation. It is renowned of course for the opportunity it provides to view the legendary Hedy Lamarr in the nude and that's certainly something that attracted my younger self as I browsed the movie textbooks in my formative years...

But, is it any good? And, watching it with my wife and mother-in-law... is the nudity justified by the plot (that old excuse)? Did the 18-year old Hedy Kiesler (17 when she was cast) make the right decision in making the film and exposing herself in a way that was daring for 1930's middle Europe and explosive for 1940's middle America?

Directed by the Czech art film maker, Gustav Machatý, Ecstasy is the story of emotional and physical awakening. Its message is to trust to instinct and to seize the moment but to do so responsibly.Hedy plays Eva, a young woman just married to a much older man (Zwonimir Rogoz) who turns out to be incapable of matching her passion and energy. She is unleashed in nature as she rides her horse into the country and skinny dips in the famous lake sequence. Her horse runs off with her clothes (drawn supernaturally to it's mate) and she encounters a handsome young engineer (played by Albert Mog, Hedy's boyfriend at the time).

Eva and the engineer are drawn to each other and like Cathy compelled to visit her Heathcliffe across the moors, she goes to him in the late evening and they consummate their love in a rush of intercut shots: Eva's head thrown back, her arms falling limp to her side ... the beads falling to the floor...

It's hard to view this particular scene without thinking of the many, many times more modern films have depicted the act of love (including those with Leslie Nielsen and Pricilla Presley) but its well done and you can only imagine the impact this would have had on contemporary audiences. Some were shocked and others wanted a lot more (there were loud complaints from some more... hardcore elements) whilst Henry Miller, who saw the film a number of times, said: "their meeting is that of pure bodies, their union is poetic, sensual, mystical. They do not question themselves - they obey their instincts... (they) represent the life force blindly struggling to assert itself."

Machaty coached Hedy's performance and, painfully so, using a safety pin to help her emoting..."when I prick you a little on your backside, you will bring your elbows together and you will react!"

The two lovers decide to begin a new life together in Berlin but, as her makes his way to meeting Eva, the engineer is given a lift by her husband. Spotting his wife's discarded beads in the man's hand, her husband realises what has happened. After almost crashing his car the elder man is taken ill and helped by the engineer to the same hotel where the latter is to meet his wife... The two meet in passionate embrace but the sound of a single fateful gunshot breaks them up as the husband takes his own life.

The ending of the film is enigmatic. Eva leaves her lover at the station as she takes the train alone to a new future. Whether this is a decision based on guilt is unclear. Then there is a soviet-styled sequence showing railway workers in the field, their wives and young children as a stirring song is sung about the merits of hard work. The engineer is seen overlooking this industro-pastoral scene and imagining Eva at home with his baby... a bitter turn in his expression indicating this to be fantasy.

Ecstasy has the look and feel of a silent movie with only 15 lines of dialogue. It has many striking sequences and not just the obvious ones with a heavily symbolic approach echoing DH Lawrence and Freudian thought. Hedy and her lover's relationship is mirrored by the two thoroughbred horses at the two pivotal moments of their relationship: this is nature, validating their decision to submit to impulse over rational thought.

Hedy's performance is good and maybe one of her best. She is the visual fulcrum of the film and Machaty makes great use of her beauty. This is not the finely honed goddess of 1939-49 Hollywood but a teenager with limited experience and without the glamour-backup of the big machine. Yet she's well cast and the enigmatic almost over-powering nature of her looks works well - it's as if, here and throughout her career, her looks got in the way of her acting. We see Hedy Lamarr first and her characters second...there's a sensory delay that knocks things off kilter; stuck in the gap between "wow!" and her words...

Hedy's acting ability was always questioned and she seems to have been better suited to comedy. Watching her in Comrade X (1940) she pretty much matches Gable in the quick-fire one liners and you can sense her formidable intelligence, but, the great Algiers (1938) and a few others aside, she seems to have been less adept at drama; always cast for visual impact more than anything else.

Ruth Barton's excellent recent biography, Hedy Lamarr:The Most Beautiful Woman in Film tells her story well and I love the fact that Hedy co-invented the basis for spread spectrum broadcast technology in one of the most bizarre side-lines in film history.

In Ecstacy, Hedy is more remarkable as an actress than in many of her fully-clothed roles. And that is testament to her intelligence and ability to function in a role that wasn't always instinctive or natural. Hence the pin-prick and her preference for the light-hearted: how else could she take acting seriously?

In Ecstacy, she is believable, honest and true as much as she is beautiful.

So, I'd recommend Ecstacy, for most of the family - it's still available at Amazon. Comrade X is here and Ruth Barton's great book is here.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Remake, Remodel...Rank? Wages of Fear (1953) vs Sorcerer (1977)

Does anyone else get fed up with "best of" lists and the ceaseless ranking of modern culture? This week The Guardian music writer, Alexis Petridis listed Saturday Night Fever as his all time greatest album...yes, that'll be ahead of Kind of Blue, Revolver, Unknown Pleasures, Endtroducing and the rest. He may have a point (it is his personal choice after all) but it's like comparing apples with sausages or Tories with caring goes to the heart of classification and qualitative analysis.

So...I'm not really going to compare these two versions of George Arnaud's novel. I watched them back to back and they're both worthwhile: similar tales but vastly different in the telling.

Wages of Fear ( Le Salarie de la Pleur) is a major film from Henri-Georges Clouzot. It is split broadly into halves with the first section setting the scene as a variety of characters waste away in a small latin american town; miles from more structured civilisation and from the unknown consequences of the actions that drove them there. They are all trapped without the means or the funds to escape and perhaps they have no choice anyway.

The men include Yves Montand as Mario, all tense and taught in his first major feature, Charles Vanel as the villainous Jo on his uppers after a no doubt slightly superior life of crime, Peter van Eyck as Bimba and Folco Lulli as Luigi, the most likable of the crew. Véra Clouzot is the only prominent female character as Linda, almost chained to the bar they all frequent and seeing Mario as her only salvation.

The men are offered a highly risky chance to escape following an explosion and fire at the oil well. They are to drive two trucks of lethally unstable nitroglycerine through the jungle to blow the fire out. The nitro is too dangerous for the unionised drivers to take on and only the most desparate of men would take on the risk. How frightened would you have to be to take this chance?

The second half of the film shows the journey as the men attempt to forge their way to the well and to the big pay-off that will give them all a second chance.

It is almost unbearably tense and Clouzot expertly sets the tone through a series of obstacles and uncomfortable set pieces: there is no margin for error and, quite literally, the teams could be blown to bits in a split second at the slightest drop, bump or spark.
This was one of the first french movies I saw as a child and I vividly remember the trucks and the tension. I was also fascinated by the nitro, a strange liquid more explosive than dynamite.

Watching Wages of Fear 20 years down the line was similarly intriguing. A strange highly-combustible mixture of, largely unlikeable, characters all of whom want to return to the normality we take for granted. Clouzot piles on the pressure and with savage twists and turns we reach the journey's end reeling from the pace and with the nagging feeling that the choices made through fear drive us all.

I also go back a long way with Sorcerer but it's the soundtrack and not the film that I know. If Tangerine Dream's music for L'Inferno (covered elsewhere on this blog) is inappropriate, it works very well here. Written at the tail end of their most creatively successful period (just after Ricochet), Sorcerer is atmospheric and packed full of original, inventive, music. It's as if the discipline of writing 3-4 minute tracks let Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Peter Baumann express themselves more than their side-long soundscapes (LP fans!). It's a last gasp of Krautrock experimentation for the group before the vocals started and it became a Froese solo project.

The music is used sparingly in the film but it plays a major part in evoking the strange atmosphere director William Friedkin specialised in. The soundtrack is key to the best parts of the journey as Friedkin's drivers forge ahead with their deadly cargo.
Friedkin's film is similar in structure to Clouzot's but his first half gives us more specific details of the men's backgrounds. They are all different from in the earlier films but they are the same in terms of being in the only place they could be and incapable of escape. The always excellent Roy Scheider is Jackie Scanlon a small time New Jersey crook on the run from mob retribution whilst the brooding Bruno Cremer is Victor Manzon, a parisian businessman running from the consequences of bad deals gone horribly wrong. Francisco Rabal plays the hit man Nilo, whilst Amidou is Kassem a middle eastern terrorist (reminding us also how long the techniques of fear have stayed the same...).

The explosion this time is sabotage and the cargo dynamite that has degraded seeping nitroglycerine into boxes no less deadly than Wages of Fear's containers. The trucks set off to a different set of challenges from Clouzot's but the tension is maintained in similar fashion. There is a particularly memorable sequence when the trucks have to cross a wooden bridge as the rains pounds down. This is the image used for the soundtrack cover and it's the best bit of the action.
Sorcerer is the name of one of the trucks and Friedkin has argued that it also refers to the "evil wizard" of uncaring fate. We are none of us the masters of our own destiny and all make our choices based on circumstance and primeval reactions.

This is the consistent tone and message from both films. If I had to plump for a winner it'd be the french film but Sorcerer has an uncomfortable charm of its own and a cracking soundtrack to boot.

Wages of Fear is easier to find but you can also get both the Sorcerer DVD and the soundtrack from Amazon.