Monday, February 28, 2011

Documentaries on French Film Directors

I saw two documentaries at the Roxie about French directors in February.

Two in the Wave; directed by Emmanuel Laurent; French with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno; directed by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea; French with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website

Two in the Wave documented the relationship between François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno told the story of the making of Clouzot's L'Enfer (Inferno). Clouzot was plagued with indecision (possibly the result of a nervous breakdown) during the filming and never completed the film despite shooting 15 hours of footage. calls it "The Greatest Film Never Made."


It was until recently that I learned that Truffaut, Godard and Claude Chabrol wrote for Cahiers du Cinema at the same time in the 1950s. It was during this period that Truffaut and Godard became friends. Truffaut's The 400 Blows was the hit of the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and made him world famous. Using his newfound influence, Truffaut helped to get Godard's Breathless made in 1960. Godard and Truffaut share screenwriting credits on Breathless. Throughout the 1960s, Godard and Truffaut were preeminent in French cinema.

The two remained friends and shared politcal causes until the late 1960s when Godard's politics and film took on more radical elements. A series of public letters between the men created a permanent break in their relationship. Truffaut and Godard did not speak for the last decade or so of Truffaut's life (he died in 1984).

Two in the Wave documented the men's relationship and their films. It didn't add too much insight but presented the known facts in a clear manner so that people unfamiliar with their shared history (like me) could get an introduction.


Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno was more provocative. Clouzot was best known for Diabolique (1955) but had a string of well received French films in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1964, Columbia Pictures gave him an unlimited budget to film his screenplay for Inferno. He cast popular German film star Romy Schneider as the female lead and Italian born Serge Reggiani as her jealous husband. The plot involved the husband's increasing jealous and ultimately madness.

Given Clouzot's unlimited budget and the discipline he showed on past films, much was expected from Inferno. Instead, Clouzot dithered during filming. He was unable to make decisions, argued with his actors and endlessly shot take after take of certain scenes. Clouzot had suffered from clinical depression earlier in his life. During the making of Inferno, Clouzot appeared to be suffering from some mental condition that made him obsessive about every aspect film to the point that nothing could get made. Reggiani walked off the set after several weeks of shooting and soon thereafter, Clouzot suffered a heart attack. The film was abandoned shortly afterwards.

Director Serge Bromberg was trapped in a elevator for two hours with Clouzot's widow. She told him about Inferno and the 185 reels of film she still had in storage. Bromberg decided to make a documentary on the film that never was. Bromberg used some of the original footage as well as interviews with surviving cast and crew (director Costa Gavras was part of the crew) and actors to enact scenes which weren't filmed.

Bromberg use of Clouzot's original footage is spectacular. Clouzot mixed tinted lenses and reverse motion photography to create stunning images. There are scenes of Schneider water skiing which a submlime as her hips sway when she makes a turn. In other scenes, she wears blue lipstick that give her an otherwordly appearance and must have been used to express her husband's descent into madness. Bromberg samples an array of Clouzot's footage and the effect on me was almost like an inferno. I longed to see the entire film which of course is impossible. Clouzot was clearly as master and Inferno could have been a masterpiece if he had held it together long enough to complete it. As for Schneider, I wonder if I can ever see a film with her without comparing it to her scenes in Inferno.

Romy Schneider in Inferno

Sunday, February 27, 2011

2011 San Francisco Independent Film Festival

I almost feel like a cheating spouse when it comes to Indiefest. The first festival I bought a pass to was Indiefest in 2003 or so. I have enjoyed many of the films there over the years. Like many marriages, perhaps I've become too complacent, too focused on the flaws and not appreciative enough, too curious if the grass is greener...

This year, I only saw six films at Indiefest; the least I've seen in a decade perhaps. I could protest that Indiefest conflicted with the Mostly British Film Festival, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's Winter Event, the Super Bowl and my tickets to Clybourne Park at ACT. All that would be true but I still made a choice to largely spurn Indiefest and overall, I'm not regretful. Several of the Mostly British films, L'Argent at the Silent Film Festival and Clybourne Park were worthwhile. Also, I only watched one half of the Super Bowl

I would have only watched five program at Indiefest except I didn't have enough cash on me to buy a five film discount pass at the first screening so I paid full admission price and bought the discount card at the next screening. All screening were at the Roxie.

Nude Nuns With Big Guns; directed by Joseph Guzman; (2010) - Official Website
Food Stamped; documentary; (2010) - Official Website
The Sentimental Engine Slayer; (2010) - Official Website
The Trashmaster; (2010)

Nude Nuns With Big Guns was preceded by the short film Thy Kill Be Done (2010).

Food Stamped was preceded by the short film Inhuman Eating Machine.

I saw two short film programs.

The End of Love as We Know It consisted of:

First Kiss; (2010) - Official Website
Mr. X; Portuguese with subtitles; (2010)
Bathing and the Single Girl written, directed and starring Christine Elise McCarthy; (2010) - Official Website
A Face Fixed; (2011) - Official Website
The Tennessee Waltz; (2010)

Not Your Average Kids Show consisted of:

Birthday Circle; (2010)
Laugh and Die; (2010)
Indelible; (2010) - Official Website
De Lucha Boys; (2010) Official Website
Andy; Korean with subtitles; (2010)
Vento; Portuguese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
40 Years; (2010) - Official Website
Stranger Danger
Red Balloon; (2010) - Official Website


After seeing three films at Silent Film Winter Event at the Castro, I took the train back to get my car so I could drive to the midnight showing at the Roxie. Nude Nuns With Big Guns was an outstanding exploitation film by the director of Run! Bitch Run! which played at the 2009 Hole in the Head Film Festival.

As you can see, director Joseph Guzman isn't one for subtlety in his films or film titles. I guess to be accurate the title should have been Nude Nuns With Big Guns and Lesbian Tendencies Wreak Vengeance on Dirty Priests and a Motorcycle Gang. There is a strip club, multiple rapes, a large black character whose nickname is Kickstand and the obligatory severed penis scene thrown in there for good measure. Asun Ortega plays Sister Sarah who is beaten, raped and hooked on heroin within the first 10 minutes of the film. For the next 80 minutes, we discover she has no forgiveness in her, is a crack shot with a variety of firearms and has a particularly close relationship with another nun. I saw glimpses of Desperado, Taxi Driver and Bound in Nude Nuns.

Although ultimately derivative of several films and genres, Guzman goes about filming Nude Nun with a gusto. He plays it straight for most of the film but sometimes the situations are too preposterous to do anything but laugh. Grindhouse cinema is alive and well as long as Joseph Guzman continue making films.


Next was a documentary in the style of Super Size Me. In Food Stamped, Shira and Yoav Potash (filmmakers and married to each other) decide to live on the monetary equivalent of food stamps for one week. Inspired by a challenge that a handful of federal legislators accepted, the Potashes discover how difficult the task is. For one thing, Shira is nutritional educator. She insists that organic and nutritional foods be used as much as possible with the $50 they've allocated to feed themselves for one week. They also insist on hosting another couple over for dinner one night because afterall, poor people must have dinner parties as well.

Fortunately, Shira is quite adept in the kitchen and shows a natural talent for stretching her meager pantry. The menu for the aforementioned dinner party consists of frittata with sweet potato, kale & free sample cheese, Indian lentil soup, salad, baguette bread and fresh pears.

The film had a light touch to it. It was never too preachy. Much of the charm emanates from Shira and Yoav who are a little too stereotypical as Berkeley Jews but otherwise appear to be a delightful young couple. There were efforts to show external factors which push poor people to eat certain unhealthy foods. Ultimately, the story kept coming back to the Potashes' relentless struggle to quench their hunger and stay within their budget.

Prior to Food Stamped was a food documentary at the other end of the spectrum. Inhuman Eating Machine was the title of the film but also the name of Andrew Levy's blog. I'll quote from the blog to give an idea of what Levy does.

To complete a session, I must eat at least eight of a single food item at a minimum of eight establishments within a single day. (For the purposes of IEM, legal counsel has advised me to state that a “day” is defined as the period from when I wake in the morning until the time that I retire for the evening, not to exceed 24 hours.)

Maximum expenditure for each food item shall not exceed $10 per establishment.

Large nationwide chain restaurants will not be included in the sessions, but I may visit local and regional chains. (Exception: If conducting a special “traveling session” of IEM, I may consider eating at a larger chain if it is unavailable in the Bay Area.)

There you have it. Levy goes around eating eight items in a given day. Why eight? Because one item per hour is the equivalent of a standard work day. He is currently on BBQ Beef but past entries include pupusas, tortas, pizza, etc.

The production values and food budget are higher on Man vs. Food but I like Levy's $10 limit as well as his decidely ethnic choice in food items. It gives a certain working class feel to his gluttony. No Kobe beef burgers or lobster rolls for Mr. Levy. His haunts are tacquerias, taco trucks and greasy spoons (many in East Oakland no less).

The lengths and physical discomfort Levy goes through for his art has inspired me to become a patron. If Mr. Levy contacts me, I will sponsor one his IEM sessions. In fact, to allow Mr. Levy to see how the other half lives, I will sponsor him up to $15 per establishment.


The Sentimental Engine Slayer caught my attention because it was filmed in El Paso where I grew up. I know where the Mesa Inn is. The name was also intriguing.

The film itself was a mixed bag. The plot involved a young man with violent thoughts. Are they fantasies, hallucinations or reality? In the end, it turns out that the man has more to fear from society than society has to fear from him.

I won't bother recounting the plot because the film is a series of vignettes about some odd people. His grown sister has no problem crawling into his bed...because her boyfriend wets their bed! The man also likes to build minature model cars. Beyond that, he has a lot of weird encounters with whores, women in general and a Puerto Rican he and his sister pick up.

The Sentimental Engine Slayer is semi-autobiographical and the directorial debut of Omar Rodríguez-López who founded the band Mars Volta (which provided the soundtrack to the film). The film is intriguing for a first effort but ultimately too confusing to be satisfying. I look forward to the next effort by Rodríguez-López.


The Trashmaster is machinima. To quote from Wikipedia, " the use of real-time 3D computer graphics rendering engines to create a cinematic production. Most often, games are used to generate the computer animation."

In the case of Trashmaster, all the animation is provided from Grand Theft Auto IV which I have never played. The choice is inspired because the animation dovetails nicely with the plot about Niko, a garbageman turned vigilante who has a penchant for strip clubs. When a stripper turns up murdered, Niko looks for the killer and the cops start looking at Niko.

With its dark outlook, Trashmaster almost achieves greatness which is enhanced by the fact that we are seeing images from a video game. Niko is like Travis Bickle mixed with Charles Bronson from Death Wish. However, the film's reach exceeds its grasp. The voiceover narration sounded like the guy that does the Monster Truck commercials...Sunday! Sunday!! Sunday!!!. Certain action scenes went on for too long. The film wasn't about action scenes but about Niko's internal struggle. How can you show that from Grand Theft Auto IV? Director Mathieu Weschler came surprisingly close by mashing up scenes from GTA4 which I guess is as much a compliment to the gamemakers as the filmmaker. Highly evocative of several films, I haven't decided if my opinion of Trashmaster is "graded on the curve" because of the limitations imposed by the machinima. Sadly, Trashmaster will never get a wide release. In addition to the copyright issues with GTA, the film uses Rolling Stone and Elton John songs which I think were from GTA4.


That leaves the short film programs.

Actually, I forgot to mention Thy Kill Be Done which preceded Nude Nuns. It was a nunsploitation film that had the best one-liner I've heard in some time. As the avenging nuns kick ass on some street thugs, they call for reinforcements. The thug says over the phone, "It's a cloisterfuck down here!" Also, actor Kevin Kate had the best Irish brogue I've heard on a priest in many years. His monsignor was the type of priest who probably boxed, smoked cigarettes and drank whiskey but always had time to do the Lord's work. Thy Kill Be Done is worth a look for anyone not easily offended by the sight of nuns killing gangsters.

The End of Love as We Know It was about love stories with a cynical twist. The best was Bathing and the Single Girl, Christine Elise McCarthy's spoken word treatise on her misadventures in Cougartown. McCarthy is quite attractive and articulate so I doubt she really had any trouble attracting men but as she recounts her encounters with younger men (the age gap and period of celibacy keep getting larger as the monologue continues), I couldn't help but laugh. First Kiss was also amusing as it told the story of a man and a woman who get stuck on a roof and their less than magical first kiss.

The theme of Not Your Average Kids Show was children in dysfunctional even dangerous situations. My favorites included Birthday Circle which shows how the elderly can be treated and looked upon as children, Andy which depicted a Korean or Korean American boy's suspicious encounter in a shopping mall bathroom and Indelible which followed a young boy whose mother runs a motel where a motley assortment of tennants live.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event

On February 12, I spent the day at the Castro Theater watching the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event. The main festival runs three and lately four days in July but they have produced a one-day winter event for the past several years.

This year's line up was:

The Pawn Shop starring and directed by Charlie Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1916)
The Rink starring and directed by Charlie Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1916)
The Adventurer starring and directed by Charlie Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1917)
L'Argent; directed by Marcel L'Herbier; silent with French intertitles; (1928)
La Bohème starring Lillian Gish & John Gilbert; directed by King Vidor; silent with intertitles; (1926)


The Chaplin films were part of a short film program featuring early Chaplin films when he was under contract with Mutual Film Company. His films at Mutual were his final under contract to another studio. After the Mutual contract ran out, he founded Charlie Chaplin Studios. It was at Chaplin Studios where the Little Tramp's greatest films were recorded. Films such as The Kid, City Lights and Modern Times were shot...and then distributed by United Artists which Chaplin partially owned at the time.

The shorts featured Chaplin's stock company of actors including Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell and Henry Bergman. The Chaplin films were accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano.

I thought films were entertainig but they lack the pathos which Chaplin's feature films have. The films felt more like slapstick which may be due to their nature. Each film was between 23 and 25 minutes so there wasn't a lot of time for character development.


L'Argent was based on an Emile Zola novel. It was accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. The film was screened with French intertitles. I'm not sure if the English intertitles were laser projected or added to the celluloid.

The production was spectacular with crowd scenes and lavish sets. Director Marcel L'Herbier employed experimental techniques that have since become standard such as overhead shots and vertical tracking shots. The net effect of the cinematography is awe inspiring. That's not to say that the performances were equally inspired. In the lead role as the villain is Pierre Alcover as financier Nicolas Saccard. The beefy actor plays the treacherous and sleazy Saccard as driven by two parts greed and one part lust.

Saccard is joined by two other immoral characters. Guant, cruel and almost cadaverous, Alfred Abel plays rival financier Alphonse Gunderman. Whereas Saccard is sweaty and excitable, Gunderman is always composed and impeccable. Abel must have specialized in these types of characters because he played a very similar role the year before in Metropolis. Finally, Brigitte Helm (fresh off her starmaking performance as Maria and the robot in Metropolis) plays Baroness Sandorf, a decadent courtesan who toys with Saccard. The Metropolis stars were cast as part of the financing deal for the expensive L'Argent.

The film clocked in at 2 hours and 50 minutes (not including intermission) so there was quite a bit of plot although much of the film served as a vehicle for Alcover, Helm and actress Mary Glory to chew up the scenery. The synopsis is that Saccard is ruined by Gunderman but sees an opportunity involving a solo airflight and subsequent mining operations in South America. Saccard finances Jacques Hamelin's venture for his financial gain as well as to become better acquainted with Hamelin's wife (Glory). After Hamelin's success which requires an extended stay in French Guiana, Saccard's maneuvers and machinations (both financially and romantically) are chronicled with gusto.

Although Alcover, Helm and Glory emote and slink around, the real stars of the film are the elaborate and enormous set pieces as well as location scenes at the Paris Bourse and Paris Opera House. L'Herbier exhibits impressive skill in staging large crowd scenes involving hundreds to thousands of extras.

Ironically, L'Argent which is nominally a cautionary tale of greed and excess wallows in the excess of its own production and length. Both could have been trimmed to the film's benefit but it would have lessened the grandeur of the film. The line between grand and excessive is hard to distinguish. Whichever side L'Argent falls on is largely moot because the film conveys its message perfectly by matching production standards and the director's ambition with the plot. L'Argent is spectacular and a spectacle.


The final film of the day was La Bohème accompanied by Dennis James on the Wurlitzer. During the introduction, it was mentioned that the film could not use Puccini opera music for the film. It was until the 1970s that a young Dennis James incorporated Puccini's score during a film screening with Lillian Gish in attendance. Gish was reported moved to tears.

That sets expectation quite high going into the film. I wasn't quite as moved by the film and James' score as Ms. Gish was. James' score was very good; better than I can recall from his previous performances.

The film left me mild. I can't point to specific performance but it seems that La Bohème has been told in a more engaging manner than this version. At 96 minutes, too much of the story may have been excised to achieve its abridged length. Part of the problem is Gish herself. Whereas performances in silent films always seem anachronistic when judged by modern standards, I found Gish's Mimi to be particularly out of touch with my sensibilities. Gish's screen persona was a chaste young woman and she applied it to Mimi. Of course, Mimi remain true to Rudolph until death but Gish kind of prances around as Mimi in some strange costumes and looks and behaves like anything but Bohemian. In a nutshell, Gish distracted me from the film.


It was nice to see Stephen Salmons (festival co-founder) introduce the Chaplin shorts. The crowd was smaller than they draw at the July festival. Speaking of which the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival will be held from July 14 to 17 at the Castro Theater.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

2011 Mostly British FIlm Festival Recap

The Mostly British Film Festival ran from February 3 to 10 at the Vogue Theater. It also screened at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael although I didn't attend any of those screenings.

I watched nine films at the festival.

West is West starring Om Puri; (2010)
Crying with Laughter starring Stephen McCole; (2009) - Official Website
Get Carter starring Michael Caine; (1971)
Beneath Hill 60 starring Brendan Cowell; (2010) - Official Website
Heartless starring Jim Sturgess; (2009) - Official Website
I Love You Too starring Brendan Cowell and Peter Dinklage; (2010) - Official Website
Dorian Gray starring Ben Barnes & Colin Firth; (2009)
The Infidel starring Omid Djalili & Richard Schiff; with Archie Punjabi; (2010) - Official Website
Boy starring James Rolleston & Taika Waititi; directed by Taika Waititi; (2010) - Official Website

I should note a few things. First, the relatively unheralded Mostly British Film Festival trumped the mighty San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival by programming West is West as the opening night film. On March 10, SFIAAFF will open their festival with West is West.

I attended this festival at the expense of the first week of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival. I did not watch any films during the first week of IndieFest. I guess that is becoming a habit as I passed on the 2010 DocFest to see the Mill Valley Film Festival and Berlin and Beyond.

However, I have no regrets as the lineup at Most British was very strong this year. During its innaugural year (2009), I saw two films. Last year, I skipped the festival to see a full slate at IndieFest. This year, I swapped festivals to see nine films at Mostly British. The crowds were healthy for most of the screenings I saw. The Infidel sold out the Vogue.

Breaking the films by country, West is West, Get Carter, Heartless, Dorian Gray and The Infidel were British productions. Crying with Laughter was Scottish, Beneath Hill 60 and I Love You Too were Australian and Boy was Kiwi.

The Mostly British is closely associated with the Vogue Theater. The Vogue is operated by Peerless Entertainment but owned by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation which is a non-profit whose mission is "to preserve and maintain neighborhood movie theaters in San Francisco." Several Board members of SFNTF are also on the Board of Mostly British. The festival is programmed primarily by Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle. The SFNTF Board President (whose name I have forgotten) referred to the film festival as essentially a fundraiser for the Vogue.


Getting on to the favorite film was Beneath Hill 60. The film was set during WWI in the trenches or more precisely, under the trenches. Both sides employed miners and mining engineers to tunnel under No Man's Land to detonate mines under the enemy's positions. Based on a true story, Beneath Hill 60 follows Oliver Woodward (Brendan Cowell), a mining engineer from Australia whose is put in charge of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company
on the front lines. While there, he experiences the horrors of war and the difficulties of mining. Woodward's group is assigned the task of blowing up Hill 60 in Belgium. I'll give away the ending since is it historical; approximately 1,000,000 pounds were used to destroy the hill which resulted in the largest man-made explosion up to that time.

Beneath Hill 60 reminded me of The Hurt Locker in that how could anything but a riveting drama emerge from a war story about guys blowing things up and/or getting blown up during war. Both sides would use listening devices to detect mining underground and would use explosives to kill the enemy miners. So in addition to the deprivations of soldiers at the front and concomitant dangers, the miners had to work in dark, dank and claustrophobic conditions and make as little noise as possible lest they be detected by the enemy.

I was engrossed by the film although the flashback scenes where Woodward romanced a 16 year old girl dragged down the film's pace. Didn't statutory rape laws exist in 1915? Actually, when did it become wrong (as well as illegal) for a man (Cowell was 33 when they filmed) to "romance" a 16 year old girl (Bella Heathcote)? Anyway, the flashbacks show a carefree (and frankly, childish) Woodward whose demeanor would mature quickly on the front lines. Cowell captured the transformation in Woodward but Steve Le Marquand as battle weary Sergeant Fraser delivered the signature performance of the film.

Sadly, Stein or whoever introduced the film, mentioned that the film will not be released theatrically in the US although it is already out on DVD.


Brendan Cowell also starred in I Love You Too about a immature man who cannot commit to his girlfriend. The film seemed oddly derivative. Cowell's wingman in the film is Peter Helliar but it seemed like a role tailor made for Jack Black or Philip Seymour Hoffman in Along Came Polly. Cowell runs the kiddie train at an amusement park and in those scenes, he looked like Russell Brand in Get Him to the Greek.

Despite these nagging similarities, the film was entertaining on its own merit. It certainly wasn't insightful and covered ground which has been well trodden. Cowell, the always solid Peter Dinklage and Yvonne Strahovski as the love interest carry the film admirably. Their performance made an otherwise predictable film amusing.


The Infidel has had a very successful festival run over the past year. Only the most cursory of synopses is necessary. A Muslim man in Britain learns that he is adopted. Not only that but he learns that his birth parents are Jewish and his original name was Solly Shimshillewitz. In addition to the identity crisis this provokes, the man's son is engaged to the step-daughter of a radical Muslim cleric and the man, who is politically moderately and not religiously observant, is urged by his son to adopt a lifestyle more in suit with the potential in-laws.

That should be enough to induce a smile and the film delivers laughs. Omid Djalili plays the lead, West Wing alumnus Richard Schiff plays his only Jewish friend and the always fantastic Archie Punjabi plays the wife.


Get Carter is a classic which I had never seen. Noir City's Eddie Muller introduced the film along with mystery writer Tony Broadbent. Michael Caine had charisma and always will.

West is West had a few laughs but I much preferred the original East is East. Like Michael Caine, actor Om Puri is one of those types that command attention on the big screen.

Dorian Gray could have benefited from some editing but Colin Firth and Ben Barnes acquit themselves well. Unlike I Love You Too, the actors' performances were not enough to lift the film beyond melodrama with a few scenes of debauchery.

Boy was a heartfelt dramedy based on the life of director Taika Waititi. It was a little too whimsical for my tastes.

Stephen McCole delivered an outstanding performance in Crying with Laughter. Set in the world of stand-up comedy, McCole's character ranges from funny to pathetic to sympathetic.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Two by The Master of Suspense

In early January, the Castro Theater had a Hitchcock series which featured some of his less celebrated works. In other words, Psycho, North by Northwest, Rear Window, The Birds and other famous titles were not on the program.

I would like to have seen more of the films but I was out of town for most of the series. I made it there one night to see a double feature.

Lifeboat starring Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix & Hume Cronyn; (1944)
The Wrong Man starring Henry Fonda & Vera Miles; (1956)

Both films were directed by Hitchcock. John Steinbeck wrote the novella upon which Lifeboat was based.

Lifeboat is a well known film. As I watched the film, it reminded me of a "locked room" suspense film - one of those film where people are confined (usually in a large and ominous house) and one-by-one, they keep turning up dead. I always though Hitchcock made good use of locations and sets (Mt. Rushmore in North by Northwest or San Francisco in Vertigo) so setting an entire film in a small lifeboat on the ocean seems limiting to the story.

Hitchcock handled the confined space with skill. I was more distracted by the jingoistic propaganda which is not surprising since the film is about American and British civilians sunk by a Nazi U-boat. Given there was only one Nazi in the lifeboat, the opportunity for twists and turns are limited. Willy the Nazi (Walter Slezak) commits his shameful acts (not sharing his water) and crimes (murder) on screen for the audience to see. That the other survivors don't suspect him until the end is a form of suspense I suppose. It also seemed to be pointed jabs to those who favored appeasement or tried to humanize the enemy. Indeed, Willy is portrayed as a wily and cunning villain more in line with stereotypes of Japanese treachery than Nazi barbarism. Willy is able to get a half-hearted, anti-Semitic comment before pushing William Bendix overboard.

Viewed 67 years after it was released, I found the depiction of the civilians to be ludicrous. Meaty Willy comes onboard, convinces them that the only chance for survival is to head for Nazi shipping lanes and starts to row the boat to the while singing makeshift sea shanties. All smiles (Sig Ruman must have studied Slezak's performance prior to Stalag 17), the devious Willy soft sells his nefarious plans on the 10 or so civilians in the boat. Simply put, I couldn't suspend disbelief.

Tallulah Bankhead was praised for her performance. From my perspective, she was caricaturizing herself or at least, her public persona. I just think much of Lifeboat or perhaps expected more from Hitchcock. Slezak nails his part but Willy was a man among children in that boat so seeing him manipulate the other characters was not very entertaining.


The Wrong Man was a film I was not familiar with. It didn't feel like a Hitchcock film. It was based on a true story but the detached method Hitchcock used made the film seem like a cross between a documentary and an episode of Law and Order.

Henry Fonda, playing the everyman again, is Manny Balestrero, a jazz musician falsely accused of a series of robberies. Aside: Does Henry Fonda look like a Manny Balestrero? Balestrero believes his innocence will trump everything but film audiences know better. Some by-the-book police detectives and earnest but inaccurate witness statements put Fonda on the brink of prison. If that's not enough, Balestrero's wife (Vera Miles) begins to crack under the strain of the police investigation.

The film isn't about intrigue and plots. Balestrero's predicament is presented as something that could happen to any of us...if we happen to have a criminal doppelgänger. Hitchcock takes more time and effort into chronicling the criminal justice system. We see the line-up, the booking process and Balestrero being processed into jail (was that the Tombs?). Balestrero holds up as well as any innocent man could which means he is one or two steps from breaking down. The process is impersonal and dehumanizing and doubly so if you are innocent.

The film could only end one way in 1954. In 2010, we get Conviction which shows a man wrongly convicted and spending years in jail. In 1954, the production code probably forbid such a plotline so we get a man wrongly tried but never exonerated because the systems caught its error before it got to that point.

The "innocent man" story is old as time but can still be compelling when told with skill which Hitchcock undoubtedly has. As I said though, Hitchcock's documentary style overshadows the plot. That's not necessarily a bad thing because I think the scenes are as powerful as any of the scripted dialog scenes.

I was disappointed with Lifeboat but The Wrong Man was compelling drama and a little different from Hitchcock's standard fare.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Forgotten Roles

Occasionally, I see lists of past Oscar winners and nominees. I'm frequently surprised by the films I don't recall or have never heard of. So it was at this year's Noir City which I forgot to mention in my last post.

Ronald Coleman won an Academy Award for Best Actor in A Double Life (1947). I am most familiar with Coleman's work in Lost Horizon and had never heard of A Double Life. In A Double Life, Coleman plays a successful Broadway actor who takes method acting to extremes. He brings Shakespeare's Othello to stage and stars in the play-within-a-film as the Moor of Venice. The play becomes a smash and Coleman is left to stew in his toxic creativity over the extended run. Eventually he murders waitress Shelley Winters in the same manner which Othello murders Desdemona.

I tip my hat to Coleman as he essentially plays three roles - Othello, the actor and the actor descending into madness. So his Oscar was well deserved although the only performance that I can recall from among the other 1947 nominees is John Garfield in Body and Soul. Despite Coleman award-winning turn, I was largely bored by A Double Life. The film was well staged and photographed but I found the plot to have major holes and it dragged at times. A Double Life did not distinguish itself among this year's features at Noir City. I noted that although Ronald Coleman was nominated for his performance, the film was not nominated for Best Picture.


I also compared the two versions of True Grit in a previous post.

This weekend, I was able to catch almost an hour of the 1969 version on AMC. It's been several years since I saw the film. AMC doesn't play it with all the other John Wayne films they show on various holidays. Perhaps they were restricted by producers of the version currently in release.

Anyway, the 2010 version closely follows the plot of the 1969 version including LeBouef's dialogue which I don't remember as being so stilted as Campbell and Matt Damon delivered.

The 1969 version had the courtroom scene which I didn't recall. It even used the same joke where the lawyer asks Rooster to restrict himself to the number of people killed in the line of duty so that they may work with "a manageable figure." As I was watching the scene, I realized that Morgan Freeman played the bailiff or court clerk. His voice was aa distinct and well enunciated in 1969 as today. Freeman didn't receive a credit for the role and it isn't listed on IMDB but I am positive that was him.

As I was watching True Grit (1969), the score reminded me of The Magnificent Seven. Looking on IMDB, I see that Elmer Bernstein wrote the score for True Grit which I must have forgotten or never knew.