Sunday, 27 May 2012

Victor Sjöström, now… There Was a Man (1917)

Terje Vigen (There Was a Man) is widely seen as the start of the great period of Swedish cinema with its breath-taking cinematography, deft editing and performer intensity.

Directed by and starring Victor Sjöström, the film was based on the poem by Henrik Ibsen. It’s a harsh, uncompromising tale made in and around the rocky shore line not far from Stockholm, which had to pass for the unforgiving Grimstad coast where the poem was originally set.

The film is shot almost entirely on location and beautifully photographed by the great Swedish cinematographer, Julius Jaenzon, in conditions that can only be described as difficult and downright hazardous… His camera seems to be right inside the boat as Vigen rows away from the enemy, battles both them and the storm and finally comes close to a tragic resolution.

Considering it was filmed mostly in 1916, these shots are remarkable and echo Sjöström and Jaenzon’s later work in The Outlaw and His Wife (1918).

The story begins with the strange figure of Terje Vigen (played with trademark intensity by Sjöström himself), living alone in a darkened cottage at the sea’s edge. He is unkempt, wild-eyed and forever watchful of the sea as it rages outside.

We are then told how he came to be… Vigen had once been a very capable fisherman but he had retired from the sea upon the birth of his baby. His domestic peace was disturbed by the Napoleonic wars and in 1807 the British fleet blockaded the Swedish ports. Vigen’s family and whole community is under threat of starvation and he resolves to set off in search of food in a small skiff.

He is successful in evading the enemy on the way out but is spotted on return.

The scenes in which Vigen is pursued are exceptionally well filmed and show the desperation of Vigen’s plight. Even after his boat and it’s precious cargo are sunk he dives deep to escape the British bullets… after what seems like an age – during which we hope as much as any contemporary audience that he might escape – he fails and is held down by superior numbers.

On board the British man o’ war, he is ridiculed by the captain and his men… there is no pity in war. He is sentenced to long years in captivity and when peace finally comes five years later he has aged with long matted grey hair and is worn down. But he seeks solace in finally being able to return home to his loved ones.

Yet…tragically, he finds that both his wife and child were amongst those who died of starvation and that it was believed he had deserted them. This is too much for his mind to bear and he breaks down.

Years later we see the same man who began the film. He is gone mad and rails against the sea as it thunders down against the rocks. He is a pilot helping to steer ships into the harbour…the only semblance of his former self.

He sees a foreign yacht in trouble and is the only man foolish or brave enough to go to the rescue. Once on board though he discovers that the owner is none other than the British naval officer who not only humiliated him all those years ago but robbed him of his liberty and his life…

This is to be his revenge and he drives the ship onto the rocks and then steers the man, his wife and daughter onto the Goslings: the treacherous outcrop on which his own skiff ran aground.

Spoilers ahead: Vigen rams his oar through the base of the skiff and resolves to kill them all. The mother screams out for him to spare their daughter and he falters…then when he looks at the child he reels back… The veil has been lifted from his mind and he works to save all of them.

There is redemption, even from the darkest and most hopeless of situations and, as he tells the Lord and Lady later, he didn’t save them, their daughter did. He couldn’t take the life of an innocent like his own child.

Sjöström directs with real pace and a sure hand. This is a step up from Ingeborg Holm but then it is a simpler and more action oriented tale. As with the earlier film it’s another unflinching tale and one that his superbly well-acted, primarily by the man himself.

There Was a Man is available on the Kino DVD with the earlier film and is available from Amazon and all the usual places (got mine from those wonderful people in the BFI Filmstore who are gradually driving me towards bankruptcy... ).

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Hedy Lamarr "Mad Woman"... HM Pulham Esq (1941)

This is an ostensibly gentle mid-life crisis story in which Robert Young as the titular hero wonders whether he’s made the right choices in a life of privilege.  Yet it is also a story in which the more intelligent, decisive and decidedly atypical leading lady choses career over love, position and family… and you didn’t get that too much in 1941.

Hedy Lamarr plays Marvin Miles, two masculine names for a woman who knows her own mind and is definitely “in charge”: a signifier of all she will be through the course of this comedy/drama. I’m not sure if HM Pulham Esq is ahead of its time or not but it is bold in subtle ways. Even the ending, which must seemingly conform to the post-Hays Code rule book may even contain ambiguities.

Directed by King Vidor from a script he co-wrote with wife Elizabeth Hill and based on the popular book by John P Marquand, HM Pulham Esq is nominally the tale of the main character summing up his life and deciding he’s alright. Or does he? And, do we agree?

The expected trajectory is undermined by Harry Pulham’s lack of spark and intelligence as he “easy-goes” his way through life from prep school through Harvard and, following an experimental career in New York advertising, ends up back home in Boston following on with his family traditions… and the path clearly laid for him.

The most likeable character is Lamarr’s who is a woman determined to make life on her own terms and to succeed. She’s also an immigrant whose accent marks her even further apart from Pulham’s snobby family and the New England upper class set she rejects.

Whilst Miles doesn’t end up with possibly the love of her life and maybe never gets over him – her husband even looks like Pulham – she has the satisfaction of having made herself a success. This is the real subversion and one it is difficult to gauge from a modern perspective when all is turned around and Jennifer Anniston always seems to get the guy… Hollywood’s been trying to balance the happiness for a long time.

Harry Moulton Pulham Jnr starts the film in comfortable routine at home and at work. He is shaken from this by two phone calls, one from an ex-Harvard classmate arranging their 25th anniversary reunion and another from a mysterious old flame.

He meets up with the Harvard old boys and is tasked with writing up his life history since graduation. At the same time, he hasn’t the courage to face his old love fearing she’ll still be too beautiful (she is!) and may complicate his otherwise near-dormant emotional life.

He begins to wander back through his life finding little of note to write about from formative years spent in the comfort of private schools, a huge family estate and the cloistered environs of Harvard.

He fights in the First World War showing decency, courage and leadership – a glimpse of what he is actually capable of. After this he ends up in New York with old college chum Bill King (Van Heflin) a man of more blue collar origins who, needless to say, has more drive and wit than most of his contemporaries.

Bill persuades Pulham to work at his ad agency and we slip into 40’s style Mad Men mode and, whilst in the latter show, Peggy exemplifies women struggling to make career headway even 20 years later, the Head of Women’s Copywriting, Marvin Miles, fights the same battles long before her.

Marvin is strong, very intelligent and, of course, very beautiful. She is more than a match for the men around her and seeing the decency and potential in Harry she allows him to get close. The two begin a relationship but even early on Harry is reluctant to mix NYC and Boston. On a return to see his family his father keeps asking him to come home, to “where he belongs” and where his father (the excellent Charles Coburn) wants him.

Harry resists, too excited by the challenges of advertising soap powder (hey, don’t knock it!) and wooing the extraordinary Marvin. But, disaster strikes and Harry’s father falls ill forcing him to return home where, post-mortem, he begins to start filling the vacuum. He meets old friends, has his ear bent by all and sundry and begins to weaken.

But things are sealed by Marvin’s arrival. She is arrogantly interrogated by Harry’s mother  (too upper class to grieve?) and feels smothered by the family, friends and the estate.

In many films - and in life – the prospect of marrying into such wealth and position would be the deal sealer but Marvin is made of sterner stuff. In a great scene, she and Harry talk it out and decide that whilst he must return to where he belongs, she doesn’t want to live a lie. Her career is validation and gives her the feeling of independent accomplishment that she could never have in Boston. Indeed, it’s a feeling Harry will never really have.

She tells Harry that she will always be waiting for him should he change his mind and he returns home to the inevitable. He marries one of his old Boston friends, Kay (Fay Holden) – deciding that they are in the “same boat”… their marriage is a blur as indeed is the next 20 years.

Which is where we find him alone in his office and deciding to meet with Marvin again… This being 1941 we don’t expect the two to run off together and their encounter is flat reminding both perhaps how much they’ve moved on. Marvin is a success though and, whilst we’re not sure how happy she is, it is what she wanted.

We’re no less convinced of Harry’s happiness even after Ruth wakes up and agrees to his “crazy” suggestion to spend a few days together away from the pressures of work, friends and children. The children are only mentioned towards the end and, in the morality of the times, are a clear signal from Vidor that the marriage will not be broken… not even for true love.

It’s an excellent cast and Robert Young holds the main focus with ease – playing a man of upstanding moral quality if not, ultimately, moral courage. He is resigned to his course of least-worst option given the compromise he made between new life and the life he knew. It’s no bad thing to be… just the way it is.

But Lamarr is the surprise standout. She was a controversial casting from Vidor with many, including the author, feeling that there should have been an American in the role and that Hedy wasn’t technically skilled enough. Yet Vidor saw this as a chance for her to act something like herself: an intelligent outsider who wants to follow her own course. She is believable throughout and handles the dramatic moments with truth and the right kind of intensity.  Pulham is justifiably regarded as her best dramatic role and possibly her best film.

HM Pulham Esq is available on Warner Brother on-demand DVD-R through Amazon or direct from WB themselves. Watch it to see a Hedy Lamarr you may not expect and for confirmation that doing the right thing is never easy… both main characters never really get over their relationship but they adapt around the loss. And, maybe, that was as far as Vidor could take things in those times.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Falling in love with someone you shouldn't have fallen in love with... The Blue Angel (1930)

I came to this film having recently watched Josef von Sternberg’s silent classics and been through a string of Emil Jannings’ extraordinary performances from deposed doorman to despicable devil. Two genuine greats of silent cinema, these two made this film worth watching on their own but this is also obviously about “seeing” Marlene for the first time.

Forget the endlessly re-worked and parodied images of the cabaret star astride the chair and singing of “liebe” The Blue Angel is a tough and uncompromising tale. It features two outstanding perfomances from actors at opposite ends of their careers. It’s joyful in parts and harrowing in others – it's not easy.

Directed by von Sternberg and based on Heinrich Mann's novel Professor Unrat, Der Blaue Engel was filmed in Germany in 1930 and is one of the first sound films of the late Weimar period.

Even though they had not enjoyed the happiest of working relationships on The Last Command, von Sternberg enlisted Jannings to star as the professor knowing exactly what he was capable of. Jannings was Germany’s biggest movie star at that time and was the go-to guy for on-screen meltdowns of tremendous force…

His Professor Rath is a naïve middle-aged man who teaches at the town’s most prestigious school where he is derided and feared in equal measure by his teenage male students. He appears to reciprocate and to be more motivated by the sheer process of education rather than the enrichment and opportunity it can bring. His best pupil is the unlucky butt of his approbrium, being not canny enough to avoid getting the blame for his classmates’ pranks and yet the Professor gives him no credit and picks him as the obvious target.

The Professor does care about his pupils’ morality though and is disturbed to discover that some of them have been frequenting a nightclub in order to enjoy more adult entertainment. He determines to catch them in the act and travels that night to Der Blaue Engel. The boys are again too quick for him and make their escape before discovery leaving their teacher to meet the object of their interest: Lola Lola (Dietrich) nighclub singer, dancer and all round entertainer.

He is immediately disarmed by Lola’s easy charm and native intelligence. She is completely free - socially and sexually - the polar opposite of his own self-imposed repression. He wants to be were she is.

One of his pupils is hidden in the room and hides a pair of Lola’s panties in his pocket. He also hears his teacher’s innocent attempts to charm Lola… The balance of power has shifted between himself and his students. He will longer be able to hold them in in fear - his authority is undermined.

But other priorities are exerting themselves and finding Lola’s clothes, the professor has reason to return the next night… when things really begin to ramp up. I’ve noticed with von Sternberg that he trusts his audience to take the logical leaps with him. He doesn’t always set out each step of events and lets us fill in the missing pieces as the bigger picture races by.

So it is, that within the space of one evening, the Professor is set to change his life forever. He gets drunk, fights for Lola’s honour, hides from the police and then boldly accuses his accuser. He finds the pupils but cares less than the night before as this will be his first night with Lola and she quickly becomes all that matters.

He returns to school late the next day to face a vicious retaliation from the boys. His headmaster feels pity for him but it is too late as this is the woman he has decided he will marry.

The process of devotion to Lola replaces his school routine and, after initially laughing at his proposal, Lola, her reasoning only hinted at, accepts his offer. The two begin married life and their reception is a joyous occasion – maybe this will all work out?

But all the while, there is the unspeaking presence of the clown who surveys events unsmiling and emotionless.

The troop heads off on tour and we seem time pass as the professor gradually runs out of purpose. Years later he is defeated and uncaring. The performers barely tolerate him and he must pay his way.

Finally he seems to have found a niche and they are invited to play again at the Blue Angel. It’s a break, an opportunity for better things but the professor does not want to return and he most certainly does not want to perform. We do not know what his act is but we feel his growing terror as it is made clear that he has to earn his keep and he must do what is necessary to help the troop and especially Lola. We see little overt emotion from Lola and we wonder what kind of feelings she has left for her husband...

They reach the club and Lola is quickly entangled with a strongman. We suspect that this is the latest of many flings but maybe the first that Rath allows himself to notice. His humiliation off stage mirrors that on-stage and he is made up as a clown and prepared for his warm welcome from old colleagues, pupils and friends…if he ever had any.

Spoilers ahead: Rath drags himself on stage where it becomes clear that he is the conjuror’s dopey assistant. This is truly horrible. He is humiliated from every direction and just as none of us can take any more, Rath snaps and runs to attack Lola as she carouses with the strongman. He attempts to strangle her but is restrained and then arrested. Lola protests that she has done “nothing wrong” which tells you all you need to know about their relationship and the person she always was... and that's not someone who can be easily judged.

Later that night Rath is released from prison and he returns back to the school to die, embracing the desk behind which he had last known something akin to peace. It’s a harrowing ending and has echoes of the fate that almost became Jannings character in The Last Laugh.

Jannings excels and acts with frightening intensity: this is a man who has wasted his love and his life. There is no way out and no way he can recover: he has reached the end.

Against him, Dietrich is open, energetic and very natural. She’s not quite the sophisticate of later films and is more playful than I expected. Her Lola is initially charming and it is only in the closing scenes that we begin to dislike her. After all, the Professor chose this path and had to find a means of existing within the troop. He’s the smart one with choices, Lola has already made just about the only one she could.

There’s also something wholesome about Dietrich’s sexuality that is again counter to her on-screen, man-eating legend... musn't confuse the actor with the roles! It's as if "Lola is good for you”…but not for ever, not if you take her too seriously.

The Blue Angel is available in a nifty two disc pack from Eureka with the English and German versions of which the latter is the best. It also includes Dietrich’s charming screen test which shows her impecable timing and sense of humour as she attempts to sing a sweet English song accompanied by an incompetent pianist - it's all there even in three minutes!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Clara Bow still has… It (1927)

If ever an actress has transcended the sum of her parts and if ever a star has been completely under-estimated then that must be Clara Bow.

In her relatively short career from a 17-year old in Down to the Sea in Ships in 1922 to a wise-cracking, talkie comedienne in Hoop-la in 1932… Clara made very few classic films. She never had something like The Crowd, Pandoras Box or The Wind, to show what she could do dramatically but, in every one of the films she did make, there is ample evidence that she was an actress of considerable ability.

But there was more than acting and there was something genuine and heartfelt about her that, coupled with her good looks and outstanding curves, earned her the love and respect of a large part of the cinema-going audience through these years.

Watching It years later, her eldest son Rex Bell Jnr, remarked that he could see all of the expressions and feeling he had seen from “mom” on a daily basis: she wasn’t just acting she was giving part of herself to the watcher. When called on to cry she would call on a childhood memory of one of her friends dying in her arms after being consumed in a house fire: those huge shining eyes would well up with genuine tears of sorrow.

Clara had had it tough and maybe that’s why she seemed to relish her time on screen so much.

is undoubtedly one of her best films and, whilst it doesn’t have a great depth of sophistication, it is a well-crafted comedy completely uplifted by the verve of Bow’s performance. You can’t take your eyes off her throughout the whole film and this is not just the compulsion of trying to find new angles on that prettiness but because she’s suffused with such joyful energy!

She is It and she’s supposed to be. A tough role when you think about it, no one ever had to live up to a billing founded on such an uncompromising premise: there’s no “it or miss” you have to be on target with the casting.

Based on Elinor Glyn’s story, they paid the English writer some $50,000 to appear in one scene in order to clarify just what “it” meant and, needless to say, this was considerably more than the vastly underpaid main star had accumulated from her previous half dozen features...

Things start off in the large family-run Waltham’s department store (I love 20’s stores!) where the heir to the business is about to take over following his father’s departure to spend more time with his gun. Junior’s best friend is reading an excerpt form “It” in Cosmopolitan and trying to interest his friend in the concept.

Whilst Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno) focuses on his new responsibilities, his pal Monty (William Austin), scans the store looking for an assistant with “it”. His eyes alight on Clara’s character, Betty Lou, and he knows he’s found “it”. But, try as he might, he cannot get Cyrus’ attention even though Betty already has him in her sights.

Monty agrees to take Betty to the Ritz and returns to her apartment where she has been helping a sick, widowed, friend look after her baby. The two make an evening dress out of Betty’s work clothes and she sets off in pursuit of her boss.

Cyrus is with his intended at the restaurant and, after his conversation with Madame Glyn and some near misses, finally spies Betty. His eyes light up and it seems that things are going to resolve themselves far too easily.

But no. Betty pretends to be the mother of her friend’s baby in order to keep the social services from taking it away. This story makes the press and gets to Cyrus…relayed by a shocked Monty. Even though he is now smitten, Cyrus can’t overlook Betty’s status as a fallen woman and offers her only the role of a mistress.

She is appalled by this and resolves to have nothing more to do with him. Only Monty’s discovery of the baby’s real mother enables the truth to come out but by now Betty is hurt by Cyrus’ inability to see beyond to convention and resolves to humiliate him herself.

All the players gather on Cyrus’ yacht as the final act is played out. Betty plays the banjo, Monty crashes the ship and the lovers go overboard in a sequence that reveals Bow to be a strong swimmer.

It’s fun throughout and Clara is well-supported by William Austin, nostrils flared like Kenneth Williams and Antonio Moreno who just about convinces as her love interest even though there’s no way he had the same amount of “it”!

I watched the Kino DVD which has a decent print (the Milestone Collection DVD is supposed to be even better) making the absence of good quality Clara all the more frustrating. Aside from Wings and a few others, there’s very little officially released - hopefully the success of the former will enable more reconstruction and help recover the reputation of one of the true greats of this period.

There’s a documentary on the DVD which is provides a good summary of Bow’s life and career. David Stenn, author of the excellent Bow biography “Running Wild” is an executive on the project and it shows in the balanced view of this talented but troubled woman. I’d recommend Stenn’s book though for more in-depth detail.

Clara Bow lit up our living room for a few hours last night – she’s still got It!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Hal Hartley & Isabelle Huppert… Amateur (1994)

Sometimes you come back to a film and it’s not quite what you remember. I saw Amateur in the cinema on its original release being a fan of Hal Hartley’s earlier work and, of course, eager to see how Isabelle Huppert fared in another American feature (I'm one of those that like Heaven’s Gate…but not so much Bedroom Window…).

was possibly too delicate to leave a strong impression or maybe I was wrong-footed by its subtle subversions… either way, I feel it is a more defined and rounded work than I did before viewing it again, two decades and two children later. Funny how memory can change...

Martin Donovan is lying on a side street motionless, a young woman runs out, looks at him and quickly moves off. She thinks he’s dead and so do we but with a start, he wakes up. Staggering to a café, numbed and free of memory he encounters a French woman who has been sitting, eeking her coffee out and writing on a portable word processor (a proto-laptop… ).

The woman is Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) who, it transpires, is that rarest of creatures, a nymphomaniacal nun who writes pornography for a living and has yet to have sex… Thomas has only dutch money in his pockets but Isabelle has enough to buy him food which he promptly gives to her recognising that food is another habit she hasn’t really got into.

There’s a kindness between them in spite of their strangeness and Isabelle, who is searching in her own Christian way for a direction and purpose in life, decides that Thomas will be it.

Isabelle is confused on many things… she wants to write poetry and is employed by a pornographic publisher to write erotica for his magazines. But she doesn’t really know what to write or how to make the stuff she really wants to write, sexy. She’s almost blank and, of course, Huppert is just perfect for this. Nobody does “almost there” as well and I can understand why she was so keen to work with Hartley.

Isabelle has to go on a date she met through a phone dating service and does not know how to respond when her companion for that evening starts to make advances in the cinema. Before she exits we see the girl from the start of the film… off the wall moments abound. The film is funny but in that only one-small-blip-away-from-reality way that Hartley specialises in.

The other woman, Sofia (an enigmatic Elina Löwensohn - hair a marvellous Brooksian bob) is revealed to be Thomas’ wife and a star of adult movies. Thomas’s back story is revealed a little as we find out that she thinks she has killed him and that she is also in possession of certain “floppy discs” (ah, 90’s IT nostaligia…) that will incriminate their employer back in Holland – Mr Jaques.

She calls Mr Jaques and tries to blackmail him in exchange for the discs. Meeting up with her friend and colleague Edward, (Damian Young) she explains the plan and is horrified as he is caught at their drop point.

Edward is one of Mr Jaque’s accountants and he is tortured by two former colleagues who have obviously progressed onto the next stage of their financial careers by becoming assassins… “What happened to you, you were such a good accountant, “ Edward says to Jan (Chuck Montgomerie), the more intelligent of the two. “I saw the light”, he replies.

Jan leaves Kurt (Dave Simmons) to do the dirty work and both believe Edward, who has been electrocuted, to be dead. But, as with Thomas, he revives, Amateur is about confusion, accident and the hap-hazard at this point and it’s also quite funny about torture and porn...

Meanwhile, Thomas has rented one of Sofia’s films and watches it with Isabelle. It stirs something... but he has no idea what. Isabelle senses this too and decides her mission needs to include the girl in the video as well whom she recognises from the cinema.

Like a Paul Auster novel, much is driven by co-incidence and that New York probability of bumping into the same kinds of people in the same kinds of places…

Isabelle and Thomas break into Sofia’s flat and Isabelle instinctively puts on Sofia’s clothes (is she is replacing her in the unconscious mind of Thomas?). The two almost make love but are disturbed by the door opening. Kurt and Jan have found the flat as well and begin to search.
Sofia returns and is captured.

Jan leaves Kurt to torture her whilst he goes to see what is on the discs. Kurt is fascinated by Sofia’s role as a sexual commodity, his financial training momentarily getting the better of him.

Isabelle surprises him by provocatively holding a power drill…Thomas circles round and pulls a gun and shocks Kurt into falling through the window…

The three escape to a safe house Sofia knows. But they are not safe for long as Edward, by now in a crazed and murderous frenzy, calls the number and recognises Thomas’ voice as he picks up the phone. Jan is also on the way having found the address in Sofia’s disguarded handbag…

Everything comes together as (almost) everyone hates Thomas although we never really find out why. Sofia eventually tells Isabelle everything but she has seen a different man and believes in him not who he was. Thomas can still not remember himself but he too is seemingly sure of his new love.

I won’t spoil the ending but it comes with a powerful moment from Isabelle Huppert who has controlled the emotional story all the way through.

The idea of a criminal/assassin figure with memory loss was recently “explored” in a Liam Neeson (excellent actor, Liverpool supporter… maker of lucrative films) vehicle, Unknown in which his memory loss leads to an – unexplained - change of character. Here we’re not sure that Thomas has been “reborn” as a goody; Hartley doesn’t want to push things too far towards the definitive.

There are plenty of blurred edges around the central message that it’s never too late to find your way even if you must travel alone. It’s Isabelle’s journey and she has been changed in a way that is as equally unconscious as Thomas' shift. Perhaps you need to forget yourself to keep moving forward?

Amateur is a film of its time – big phones and big suits – but from this distance it has stood the test of time remaining amusing and shocking in equal measure.

The DVD is available from Amazon, though it’s quite pricey now - time for a re-release! Also worth checking out is Possible Films for details of Mr Hal Hartley’s current work, whilst Martin Donovan also keeps himself busy having recently written and directed Collaborator (2011).

Isabelle Huppert remains the leading actress of her generation.