NATHALIE GRANGER- (Marguerite Duras, 1972) it’s certainly an understatement that the filmography of Duras is as difficult to see as it is (or once was, anyway) relatively easy to pluck a substantial portion of her valuable bibliography from the shelves of a few well-stocked used book stores. I still pine for INDIA SONG to be released in an affordable edition available to this US-based cinephile, but I am truly happy to report that a prime example of her early work finally found its way into my film consciousness, and am even more pleased to share that the movie not only satisfied but far exceeded the burden of long-term expectations. NATHALIE GRANGER features slow pacing, an overflow of alienation, a creeping sense of foreboding, unexpected comedic elements and a deliberate lack of resolution, all in crisp, expertly photographed black and white. It’s sorta like a team up of Samuel Beckett and Val Lewton, thanks to the casting of an awesomely sleek black cat. Violence is a constant off-screen element in the story; evolving radio reports of thrill killers under siege in the woods nearby the house (which serves as the film’s only locale) in addition to the apparent anti-social behavior of the young girl who gives the movie its title. All the players are excellent, even the two children, but I’m particularly fond of the performances of Gerard Depardieu and Lucia Bosè; he manages the difficult task of injecting comedy, absurdity and a burst of language into a film that up to the point of his arrival had carried the aura of largely non-verbal weariness and worry, and Bosè is simply an amazing physical presence in front of the camera. The subtleties of her facial expressions alone add so much to the first scene with Depardieu that by the end of the film I was completely taken with her embodiment of the character. NATHALIE GRANGER is a beautiful, concise, somewhat demanding yet expertly crafted work of art. The two-disc set from Blaq Out/Facets has some informative documentary extras featuring producer Luc Moullet and assistant director Benoît Jacquot. I think this beautiful baby is out of print, and if so that’s a shame, but its release was recent enough that copies shouldn’t be that hard to obtain. It’s quite clear from NATHALIE GRANGER that Duras was more than just a front-rank woman of letters; she was also a director of distinction. Onward to INDIA SONG!!
NOBODY’S CHILDREN- (Raffaello Matarazzo, 1952) watched through the auspices of an excellent local-film club, this picture, the third disc in Criterion’s Eclipse series’ recent box-set uncovering and spotlighting of a heretofore basically unknown Italian genre cinema specialist titled RAFFAELLO MATARAZZO’S RUNAWAY MELODRAMAS, NOBODY’S CHILDREN was as captivating and revelatory as its caretakers intended. I found its vigorous soap-opera quality quite attractively conceived and in striking contrast to the supposed real-world documentarianism of the concurrent Neo-Realist movement (UMBERTO D was released the same year). If Rossellini and De Sica were prized exemplars of Italian art-making, then Matarazzo was an expert at giving the people what they want, which was a relentless pile-up of plot; suffering women, unwed mothers, petty bad guys, scheming old-ladies and suave, well-intentioned if fallible male leads. What’s interesting is how NOBODY’S CHILDREN, very possibly due to the advances of Neo-Realism, boldly integrates lower-class rock-quarry laborers into its story. And what’s markedly different is how the life-station of these workers isn’t the main focus of the narrative. The sympathetic quarry owner played by Amadeo Nazzari fully desires the best conditions possible for the workers under his employ, but there exists in the film a powerful sense of permanence; the poor will always exist and suffering will be their lot. I chalk it up as a melodramatic thing. Bad shit and suffering is gonna happen maaaannnn, and it’s all about how the characters deal with it. Escape one trauma and wait for the next one. Individuals can rise from poverty or can escape the dire straits of a twisted, hyperactive fate, but there is always a whole bunch of someones positioned to take their place, and a titanic fall from grace is always in the cards. Unsurprisingly, religion plays a big role. As does a dog. NOBODY’S CHILDREN’s no-nonsense direction might seem, for those weaned on bolder, more self-conscious contemporary auteurs anyway, to lack distinctive style, but no. Most contemporary directors could only hope to express so much narrative information with this much economy. It’s true that Matarazzo was assisted by the lack of realist requirements; he didn’t need to waste time trying to make his viewers believe since he was making films for a genre audience that was actively seeking to be swept up in the tale. Based on this sweetly tidy and effectual effort I can’t wait to see more. Not a masterpiece, but it wasn’t trying to be. Instead it’s something just as good; a slice of visual storytelling told with everyday excellence.
DANGER ROUTE (Seth Holt, 1967) in Andrew Sarris’ THE AMERICAN CIMEMA, Holt lands in the delectable category Expressive Esoterica, though it’s kind of hard to see why, since the entry devoted to him is largely negative. Basically due to his inclusion in Sarris’ guide/bible, I’d always kept an eye open for rental opportunities of the director’s work, but sadly never stumbled onto any. Holt started as an editor in Ealing comedies before graduating to the rank of director in the prolific Hammer horror scene. He’s got some prime credits in his slim filmography (TASTE OF FEAR, THE NANNY with Bette Davis), but DANGER ROUTE, viewed via Netflix streaming, serves as my introduction to Holt’s work, and it’s a small-scale doozy. A spy film produced by Hammer’s competitor Amicus Studios, the movie obviously wouldn’t have been possible without the precedent of the early-Bond thrillers, though DANGER ROUTE is distinctive in its approach. No gadgets, no guns in fact, a lack of nationalism and an eschewal of shallow glamour in favor of a put-upon protagonist excellently played by the smooth Richard Johnson. He’s an expert killer who achieves his deeds with his bare hands, but he’s done with spying and wants out. Tough thing; his Secret Service superiors have other ideas. One last job to kill a defector gets him in quite a tangle and twist. Holt’s direction is brisk as per the demands of action cinema, but he’s invested enough in the material to give the movie a distinct flavor; to start, DANGER ROUTE seems to sit in deliberate contrast to the unblinking hero worship of the Bond franchise. Johnson’s character experiences a series of raw deals that make his life not a bit enviable. And where in my recollection Bond films started out great and generally devolved into unexceptional attempts at grandiose finales, this film limits its uncommonly smart conclusion to one set, specifically a small boat, and it is here that Holt passes the test with flying colors. Spying is ultimately revealed to be a rather shitty, double-crossing plagued way to plow through existence, although there’s certainly a high ratio of gorgeous women involved. In particular, it’s great to see Carol Lynley (of Preminger’s masterpiece BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING) as Johnson’s live-in girlfriend (yes, much different than Bond, I’ll say), and I’ll give special mention to the plump and striking Diana Dors who plays a maid that gets taken for an emotional ride by our protagonist. Holt’s film is methodically colorful, with a fine sense of pacing (even in the talky parts) and it ends on a satisfyingly downbeat note. This appealingly minor effort has essentially slipped through the cracks of history only to be resurrected through the new streaming platform, and I’m glad to see it. Chalk up one for Holt. If Expressive Esoterica is yr bag (or one of ‘em, anyway) DANGER ROUTE is available and more than worthy of checking out at the earliest opportunity.
IN THE LOOP (Armando Iannucci, 2009) there was a substantial amount of fanfare for this movie during the year of its release, but I missed out on it until a recent viewing at the aforementioned film club. Bluntly, I found myself disappointed by its squandered potential, specifically in relation to its unimaginative direction. To elaborate, IN THE LOOP has an excellent core script given a very fine workout by a quite talented ensemble cast, but for me it’s hampered by a reliance on a faux-documentary “realist” approach that smacks of television (see THE OFFICE) and left me wishing the film had been helmed by a director with more inventive (or just appealing) visual inclinations; Soderbergh, Coens, Mike Leigh or David Fincher for just a few examples. Iannucci spun this movie out of his TV program THE THICK OF IT, a show that seems to have potential from within the context of the old cliché that TV’s a writer’s medium, but with that said I doubt I’ll ever watch it. Why? Dunno. Because TV’s a writer’s medium? Maybe. I don’t have the answer for everything and get off my back, ‘kay? The film satirizes the run-up and spin-doctoring of the last Iraq War, specifically the relationship between the English and American politicians involved and it gets good mileage out of lampooning the bureaucratic friction between “hawks” and “doves”. I’ll be clear that IN THE LOOP is by no means a bad film. Its zooms, swishes and attempts at fly-on-the-wall perspective just really took me out of the proceedings. Now, I’m perfectly willing to admit that the faux-documentary style (or fake-vérité, if you will) is a perfectly valid convention that can be used to good effect. And it has surely been used to worse ends than IN THE LOOP. But it comes on pretty strong straight out of the gate to this largely non-fan of the style, and by the time I had adjusted to it I was then bothered by the misuse of a sub-plot concerning a local crumbling wall (featuring Steve Coogan, who’s rarely been better) and how it relates to the perceived waffling of the Cabinet Minister played (again, quite well) by Tom Hollander. I still recommend the movie to those that enjoy watching strong casts giving it their best; Mimi Kennedy, Anna Chlumsky and James Gandolfini are all superb, and Peter Capaldi is just brilliant in the way he elevates a seemingly endless stream of vulgarity to the level of agitated poetics. IN THE LOOP isn’t a waste of any movie fan’s time, but for myself, a primarily directorial-focused viewer, it was a case of “what could have been”. With a more sure artistic hand at the helm, it could’ve been one for the ages. As it stands, it’s only slightly above average.
A WOMAN WITHOUT LOVE (Luis Buñuel, 1952) an extremely hard to see film from one of my favorite filmmakers, this adaptation of a short story from Guy de Maupassant is one of the least talked about entries in this master’s oeuvre except when it’s detailed that the director considered it to be his “worst film”. Well, he might’ve thought so, but I (and others) find the movie to be of great interest. A melodrama not very far in content from the ‘50s work of Douglas Sirk (though the sense of scale and form is quite different), LOVE is basically devoid of the surrealistic touches that essentially define Buñuel’s work. Honestly, if I’d stumbled upon the film without knowing who made it I’d’ve never guessed the auteur. Some will claim that as a detracting mark, but not me. It’s clear that Buñuel had a job to do and saw that the project didn’t afford him the opportunity to invest it with personal touches that would help it to stand out and grow into a movie more in keeping with his unimpeachable tradition. This might be why he disliked it so. But the man tells this story with palpable emotional investment and the sure-footedness of a true veteran, displaying just the right amount of old-school flair. He does right by his cast, which includes fine performances from Rosario Granados in the female lead and Julio Villareal, who plays her husband as the kind of bourgeois knucklehead that Buñuel often carried to the cleaners in his later, more prestigious films. Granados’ character experiences just as much suffering as does the female character in the above Matarazzo film, but the pacing is notably more measured, not languid but perhaps more relaxed in how it deals the dish. The story concerns a loveless marriage, infidelity, a child born of that affair, and the unavoidable complications of secrecy. Unlike NOBODY’S CHILDREN, A WOMAN WITHOUT LOVE culminates in something approximating a happy ending, but that’s just how these things were often wrapped up. If yr main interest in Buñuel relates to “weirdness” then this just might be one to skip. However, if you find that this incomparable director’s authorial stamp extends far beyond the surrealist touches that continue to define him in truncated surveys of cinema history, then I’ll recommend A WOMAN WITHOUT LOVE as essential viewing, both for encouraging understanding into how this creative survivor handled even the most uncompromisingly commercial of assignments, and also for the pure enjoyment this finished film provides. It’s a good one, a very good one even, and ultimately shows that Buñuel could deliver art in the guise of quality product when playing it straight. This movie has in the past been notoriously rare and the only place I’ve found that currently stocks it on disc is Netflix, so if you’re a true acolyte of this cornerstone director then jump on this one before it surely returns to the land of unavailable titles.
THE BED SITTING ROOM (Richard Lester, 1969) Lester is a director that I admire very much, though sorta quietly. There are still a few key works in his filmography that I need to catch up with, mostly from the ‘70s (ROYAL FLASH, THE RITZ and CUBA for example), but I’m methodically closing ground. I recently watched JUGGERNAUT, Lester’s entry in the grandiose ‘70s disaster genre for the first time and found it excellent, in big part due to how he took the job seriously; not condescending to the material has always been one of numerous qualities in his favor. Of course Lester is often at his best when dealing with inspired source material. HOW I WON THE WAR and PETULIA are notable in this regard, as is THE BED SITTING ROOM, which I’ve just caught up with again after a too long absence. A truly strange absurdist comedy that’s British to the deepest marrow, it’s also an anti-war film, specifically of the WWIII variety, and because it takes place in a future devastated by nuclear hostilities, it’s also occasionally has a very tweaked sci-fi vibe. BED SITTING has been described as surreal, and it certainly does hold plenty of moments that display this quality to its advantage, but what makes it such a profound film (and one fully deserving of its cult status) lies in how it mixes this surrealist imagery with such intense and well written (and acted) levels of pointed absurdist humor. The story concerns a group of survivors and how they keep on keepin’ on in a world of post-bomb desolation. Not surprisingly, nearly every character continues to cling to specifically meaningful traditions of the past, with three of the players most caught-up in rituals of pre-holocaust activities undergoing intense changes of physical character; one turns into a house, one into a cabinet of drawers and one into a parrot. Yup. Rita Tushingham is also seventeen months pregnant. Based on a play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus and featuring Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, THE BED SITTING ROOM possesses a definite cutting, Swinging edge. Folks that cozy up to the more irreverent side of Brit humor from this era should definitely give this movie a whirl, for it can be hilarious and audacious and bewildering all at once. And as is the case with any seriously humorous artwork, BED SITTING is more than just pratfalls and punch lines. On top of the rather obvious (though very nicely handled) idea that nuclear war is bad, the film engages in a quite deft rumination on class and being British. It’s telling that the stuffy, aristocratic character played by Ralph Richardson (namely, Lord Fortnum of Alamein) turns into the building of the film’s title, which in the US would be called a boarding house or efficiency, basically a hovel for poor people, and after the change he provides the film with one of its funniest and most memorable passages of dialogue. My favorite line of deadpan hilarity however is uttered by Tushingham, the actress who proved so problematic for the great critic Manny Farber that he wrote a caustic piece specifically on her screen presence; I’m pleased to say that she acquits herself quite well throughout. It’s also a gas to see Roy Kinnear and Marty Feldman. Lester’s cinematic portraiture of an outlandish landscape unfolds superbly, the strangeness never overwhelming the momentum of the story, which is ultimately a bunch of bits and sketches weaved around a very basic narrative. The color palate in the night scenes is especially worthy of mention. Works of art made (or issued) in the final year of a decade often hold a simultaneous sense of closure and fresh possibility and from my perspective THE BED SITTING ROOM possesses this duality. Lester, like his American cohort Arthur Penn, started working at the tail end of the studio-era (his short with Peter Sellers THE RUNNING JUMPING & STANDING STILL FILM won an Academy Award in 1960) and flourished through the transition years and into the eclipse of the New Hollywood, but to his advantage he was never really part of any movement, not even the Swinging London scene that often claims him. THE BED SITTING ROOM’s fate at the box office was dismal (Lester didn’t work again for four years), and its subsequent cult canonization happened rather quietly. Tons of people still have no idea it exists. It’s a major work that’s still in need of reappraisal.
CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP (Rodman Flender, 2011) as documentaries increasingly follow the path of pseudo-clever meta-shallowness (this isn’t really a documentary, it’s actually an examination of the culpability of spectatorship and a rumination on the responsibility and motivations of a filmmaker toward his subject as it’s slowly revealed that his subject isn’t really his subject at all but is in fact a…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ) or lazy opportunism (“…dude, You’re friends with the bass player in [insert mildly noteworthy band name here] and I own a [insert camera bought at Best Buy here], let’s make a movie about them! It’ll be our calling card as filmmakers! The point? Who cares? Something about the pressures and difficulties of making it in the contemporary music scene and about how their songs are awesome, even though I don’t really think their songs are all that awesome. This is going to be great….”) it’s nice to see a doc that’s both ambitious and unafraid to be exactly what it is. For me the most important part of CAN’T STOP’s success is that it’s well directed; crisply paced but not overly edited and with a disinterest in drawing attention to itself as a film through gimmicks, trickery or intrusive formal tropes. This certainly isn’t at the docu-auteur level of Wiseman, the Maysles Brothers, or even Scorsese, but in quality it’s not far behind such pleasing recent examples of the form as Jeff Malmberg’s MARWENCOL (2009) and Marc Singer’s DARK DAYS (2000). Flender released a couple of Hollywood features back in the ‘90s that haven’t developed any sort of following and he’s also directed some episodic TV along with doing a fair amount of acting. But if he can invest the strengths of CAN’T STOP into less personal projects (Flender has known O’Brien since college) then future work as a non-fiction filmmaker seems more than promising. He easily avoids the trap of CAN’T STOP becoming a puffy piece of advertizing for its subject. Those who dislike O’Brien should be advised to skip this, but viewers simply indifferent to Late Night-style comedy could easily find the film of interest as a portrait of the compulsive behavior exhibited by people afflicted with a insatiable desire to perform. O’Brien is presented warts and all as an often controlling, obnoxious and occasionally even mean person to those closest to him (often those in his employ) while being overly accommodating to fans and others that interact with him from a distance. One scene in particular recalls a moment from Pennebaker’s Dylan doc DON’T LOOK BACK. Or maybe it doesn’t. Surely, there is the question of how much of what we see is truly natural, but that’s been a big factor in documentary filmmaking since its very inception, and in this case the movie’s success is not especially reliant upon whether O’Brien’s guard is completely down or if he is to some extent still performing for the camera. In the end it feels “really” “real”, again not an exercise in self-promotion but instead a strong snapshot of a guy going about his daily business while leading a large portion of his life (intentionally, ‘tis true) in public. As such it’s not a big deal, but it is a good watch.
JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY (Bert Stern, Aram Avakian, 1960) Jonathan Rosenbaum has described this film as “probably the best feature-length jazz concert movie ever made”, and he’s dead on the money. He’s also right about Stern not having any idea how to tell great jazz from mediocre jazz, but ultimately this doesn’t hurt the film. About the only thing that does hurt the film is the footage of a nearby Americas Cup boat race and the narration concerning it that inexplicably drowns out Thelonious Monk’s solo on “Blue Monk”. I wouldn’t have a problem with this (well, I would, but I’d keep it to myself) if the movie were called JAZZ AND A YACHT RACE ON A SUMMER’S DAY. But it wasn’t called that. Sheesh. Fashion photographer Stern’s greatest strength herein is how he captured such a range of vital footage; of the musicians, of the listeners, of the milieu, and then presented it with the essence of the moment so near to completely intact. The movie works as pure documentation of a bunch of music fans gathering with varying levels of seriousness to hear some bands of varying levels of quality; casual listeners chat and laugh and attend to their acquaintances and dates while more intense devotees lend their ears with undivided attention. Young and old, Black and White mingle and relax and take it all in. As day turns to night the crowd gets bigger and the music turns from strictly jazz. Big Maybelle and Chuck Berry represent the attempt to widen the appeal of the festival (some would say pander to the youth market) with R&B/R&R. Maybelle growls up a storm but the music falls far short of gutbucket, and Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” finds some swing guys attempting to join in and floundering profoundly. As such it’s quite fascinating in its failure. Berry was the only true rock ‘n’ roller on the bill but Gerry Mulligan certainly played the role of “rock-star” with ease. Wearing a bright red suit jacket, paying his respects to the crowd by standing (and dancing) face forward (contrast this with Miles “back to the audience” Davis a decade or so later) and playing nearly constantly, even under trumpeter Art Farmer’s solo, he was surely (like Chet Baker) a good-looking sophisticated icon for the many young people (the intellectual set, ya’ dig?) not then under the sway of R&R. Too bad his tune wasn’t hotter stuff, since Mulligan really had the goods, though Farmer sounds strong as always. George Shearing’s unexceptional excursion into Brazilian rhythms contrasts sharply with Chico Hamilton’s (with Dolphy in tow) Exotica-laden but musically strong entry from later in the evening. Anita O’Day simply kills it like the talent drenched diva that she was, Dinah Washington sings wonderfully, plays some vibes and works the crowd, and Louis Armstrong, well ensconced in his “Goodwill Ambassador” phase, sings (and talks) a whole lot and plays very little and is a magnificent presence anyway. His bantering bit with the vital early trombonist Jack Teagarden moved my young ass not a bit when I first saw it twenty (or so) years ago. Now it registers as two great men holding court and having an extended moment as much for their own pleasure as for anybody else’s within hearing distance, and as such it’s an emotionally resonant high point. Mahalia Jackson closes the fest with her powerful gospel vocalizing, holding the crowd in the palm of her hand through her amazing transformation of “The Lord’s Prayer”. Undeniably, there are parts of JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY that major jazz heads like me will quibble with; Sonny Stitt and Sal Salvador are presented well over midway through a tune, picking up in the midst of Stitt’s particularly hot solo, for just one example. But the footage of Hamilton’s band rehearsing (some shirtless!) in a nearby homestead, the sublime sound of the Jimmy Giuffre 3 (the Hall, Brookmeyer, Guiffre line-up) opening the film, Eli’s Chosen Six (featuring future free-jazz trombone ripsnorter Roswell Rudd) wailing Dixieland through the byways of Newport in a jalopy, a particularly lively suds-drenched house-party (Rheingold!) and so many other little touches transform this document into one of the great intersections of music and life ever filmed. Stern and Avakian’s massive achievement points with gusto toward Pennebaker’s MONTEREY POP, and any music lover, jazz buff or not, that hasn’t watched this true classic should remedy that problem toot sweet.
THE SOUND OF FURY aka TRY AND GET ME! (Cy Endfield, 1950) a mixture of socially conscious “message picture” and the bleak hopelessness of deep noir, with the latter winning out due to the film’s point getting the pile-driver treatment, unfolding in an unexpectedly nasty conclusion; this is a movie that still packs a heavyweight punch. Those familiar with Fritz Lang’s outstanding FURY from ’36 will have some idea of the story, which is a condemnation of mob violence. Only in this film the victims are guilty, and that’s where the noir comes floating in like an inky black fog of despair and futility. Lloyd Bridges is excellent as a vain psychopath that hooks into a desperate, down on his luck family man played by Frank Lovejoy; Bridges is shrewd, volatile and so blatantly narcissistic that his self-admiration blurs into homoerotic come-on while he’s getting to know/putting the make on Lovejoy. As powerful as Bridges’ performance is, Lovejoy ultimately gives the film’s strongest showing as a man spinning down a whirlpool of criminal culpability, despondency, heavy drinking and an eventual mental breakdown that leads to his (and Bridges’) undoing. First the pair pull off some hold-up jobs (Lovejoy being the driver), then they attempt a kidnapping that (inevitably) ends in murder due to Bridges blowing a mental gasket. The performances by the whole cast are generally raw in delivery, suitably lacking subtlety; THE SOUND OF FURY isn’t trying to impress the viewer with finesse or shading of its position. A major part of the story concerns “yellow journalism” and the rights of the guilty in a free society. Suffice to say that sensational newspaper coverage contributes to whipping an angry, frightened populace into a murderous frenzy. A generally decent but misguided newspaper reporter played by Richard Carlson is strong-armed by his boss (Art Smith) into writing fear-mongering falsehoods, and the dynamic of their relationship nicely parallels that of Bridges and Lovejoy. Perhaps the weakest part of the film concerns Carlson’s moralistically lecturing intellectual/scientist friend (Renzo Cesana) who’s visiting from Europe. His speeches on violence and humanity can easily be derided as classic well-intentioned liberal oversimplification (even if I agree with some of it), which might disappoint certain viewers, but that I found pretty easy to swallow in the context of the whole film, a movie that again eschews subtlety in favor of sheer boldness in both caricature and action. By far the nicest surprises here are the roles played by Adele Jergens and Katherine Locke, both bringing much depth to the yin-yang of a Brassy Broad and Miss Mousy. Endfield’s direction is rugged and kinetic, with superb pacing and the impressive self-discipline that flourished on the low-budget level in the ‘50s. Right from the unusual bum’s rush of the film’s opening, where a blind street preacher desperately questions oblivious passerby, to the brute force sucker punch of its finale, the power of the movie lies in expert directorial skill. Endfield was a victim of the Blacklist and ended up working in England, though his career there lacked the prolificacy of his fellow blacklisté Joseph Losey. This is a stone drag, since by the evidence of SOUND/TRY Endfield could’ve easily helmed some Hollywood B-division productions to excellent results. This film was the subject of a recent internet fund drive for much needed restoration, though the Netflix stream currently on offer is adequate enough until the job gets done. In summation, THE SOUND OF FURY/TRY AND GET ME! is a modest classic that deserves much higher status.
PETER IBBETSON (Henry Hathaway, 1935) here’s one I passed on numerous times through the years, and boy do I feel like a stupe, for this film’s disparate elements fit together to form a satisfyingly and languidly (the pace has been called “glacial”) strange whole. Watching it, a person could surely be tempted to say “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”, and this would certainly be true, but in reality they never really made ‘em like this back then; IBBETSON, based on a 1891 book by the intriguing cartoonist/novelist George du Maurier, featured at its very core the unflinching belief that “love transcendeth all”, a sentiment that was likely already considered old fashioned, at least to some extent, by the standards of the mid ‘30s. Combine this romantic sensibility with a story line that focuses upon a non-macabre psychic bond/spiritual union between the title character (Gary Cooper) and Mary (Ann Harding). You see, Peter and Mary were childhood loves that were tragically separated, only to be brought back together in adulthood with the complication that she is married to the Duke of Towers. When Peter and Mary rediscover their old bond and that they can inhabit each other’s dream state, they exude a closeness that eventually becomes too much for the Duke, who attempts to shoot Peter; he misses and is clobbered to death with a chair. After being sentenced to life in prison and getting a broken back from a nogoodnik guard, it appears that Peter’s ready to call it a life, but just when things are darkest Mary appears in his dreams. They continue to connect psychically in their dream states, Peter slipping easily from the confines if his cell and entering a lush paradise with Mary; they both remain young while together and grow old while apart. Eventually Mary dies but returns to Peter one last time to assure him that after a short period apart they will be together forever. PETER IBBETSON has many things working in its favor that adds up to a powerful viewing experience. The film unreservedly believes in its subject matter which makes the sentimentality easy to swallow (not only that, but sort of refreshing in the current mode of filmic cynicism). It’s impeccably shot (courtesy of Charles Lang) and directed with confidence and vigor by Hathaway; again, the film is a strange one, but it never strains for its unusual qualities and the whole experience registers as being under the director’s secure control. The slow pace of the film works in the favor of believability; we spend appropriate time with Peter and Mary as children, get a good glimpse of Peter as an adult bachelor afflicted with a deeply morose disposition that distances him form nearly everyone in his sphere, and see enough of Mary’s empty marriage to understand the transformation the pair undergo when their past is uncovered, so that when the spiritual union stuff begins in earnest it comes not as an obstacle of plausibility but as a real sense of relief that these two wayward souls are finally getting to spend some quality time together. PETER IBBETSON was a beloved film of the Surrealists, Breton and Buñuel in particular, but it’s also straight enough in narrative sensibility to appeal to folks with a big sweet spot for old fashioned melodrama. Pictorially it goes down smooth, but the lushness of the cinematography, specifically the deep attention to sunlight beaming through (often barred) windows and the integrity of vastness and claustrophobia in proper geographical spaces (big manors, jail cells) helps IBBETSON feel unlike any other movie I know (formally, there is diagonal detail here that recalls nothing else in my experience except possibly Laughton’s NIGHT OF THE HUNTER), and it’s quite different from the other Hathaway films to make my experience. Cooper does a great job of inhabiting the deep melancholia of his role; this means far more to the film than does the British accent that he smartly never bothers with. Harding also does fine work at being the less willful but more emotionally anchored of the two. PETER IBBETSON ultimately feels like some kind of masterpiece and definitely an uncelebrated one in the landscape of Hollywood’s first decade of talking pictures. Its reputation as a curiosity is fair, but it has a whole lot more going for it than that.
DESIGN FOR LIVING (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933) included in the same set as IBBETSON (a five-film two-disc Gary Cooper collection), I couldn’t resist watching this even though Criterion has it on their slate for DVD/Blu release in December, where it will doubtlessly look superior to the not at all bad transfer presented here. My last viewing of this sublime bit of Pre-Code shenanigans was either via VHS in the late ‘90s or in the early ‘00s through Turner Classic Movies, so I was primed to be surprised all over again. And I was. Lubitsch was a master director, simply one of the greatest of the classical period, but in my experience DESIGN FOR LIVING doesn’t get talked about as much or as passionately as many of his other films. Hopefully the Criterion release will change this, for DESIGN is as essential a piece of American Cinema as has ever met my acquaintance. For a start it proves with ease the frustratingly persistent fallacy regarding contemporary film’s edge over early cinema in regard to sophistication, wit and open-mindedness. DESIGN FOR LIVING is a movie about a love triangle; the characters played by Cooper and Fredric March are struggling boho artists, the former a painter the latter a playwright, and when they collide with the force of being that is Miriam Hopkins, all sorts of lovely hell breaks loose. She loves them both, loves them both all the way, and the film makes no bones about that fact; that DESIGN handles this with a sense of decorum is refreshing and by no means a cop-out. Lubitsch was in no way slipping one past the goalie. Any attentive viewer will understand that Hopkins has been naughty with both Coop and March. When she decides that she can’t choose between them and instigates a monogamous threesome for the betterment of all involved, Hopkins states in no uncertain terms: “No sex”. Problem is, when March hits the big time and gets his play produced in London his absence inspires Hopkins to succumb to physical relations with Cooper. When informed by letter, March takes it in stride like a champ. But when he goes to Paris to pay them a visit and finds Cooper on a trip painting portraits for rich patrons, he and Hopkins fall into a liaison of their own. After Cooper returns and everything is out in the open, she impulsively decides to marry an über-square, played to absolute perfection by Edward Everett Horton, and from there we are set up for a delicious conclusion. One aspect of DESIGN that I love without reservation is how Hopkins is never for a millisecond set up for derision as a loose floozy for being unable or unwilling to choose between these two guys. Actually, the movie implicitly states that a mental and physical powerhouse like Hopkins was simply too much of a thriving human specimen to be satisfied even by a pair of cats as cool as Cooper and March. Her eventual misery with Horton makes this clear. When a woman is placed in a quandary between two dudes in contempo flicks, she is almost always resolved to choose at film’s end; not to be a spoiler, but no such choice it presented in DESIGN, and that’s to the film’s ultimate thematic distinction. What’s so impressive about Hopkins’ grand flouting of expectations is how Lubitsch, while certainly sophisticated, played the story, unlike say Von Sternberg, to the appetite of the masses. DESIGN is based loosely on a hit play by Noel Coward. Ben Hecht basically rewrote all the dialogue and Lubitsch directed this piece of high-comedy to perfection. Quite simply, this movie flows like oil from a freshly tapped rig. The laughs provoked by DESIGN still ring true and I find it to be substantially funnier than any recent movie in my memory because it never strains for laughs. Sometimes it’s subtle, other times obvious. But it’s always natural. The storyline is delivered via tightly constructed scenes that build a narrative momentum that plays out as joyous. One example: early in the film it is established without dialogue that Hopkins is a successful working woman who uses artistic ability to commercial ends as a sketch artist, and all the while oozing the flair and sexiness of the zeitgeist (most characters in today's mainstream films can only hope to be this liberated and naturally glamorous); Lubitsch shows instead of tells in this instance, but like a master he knew just how to tell when it was appropriate, and not a frame of this movie feels awkward. It’s said that Coward’s play was more open about the bisexuality of the characters played by Cooper and March, but the film’s restraint in the matter is in no way a cop-out. Rather it points to the attitudes of the times and the difference between theater as an erudite medium and film as a far more populist one. The bisexuality issue is very implicit here; in fact it’s debatable if it’s even there at all. One of the strongest remarks I can make in favor of DESIGN FOR LIVING is that it is a movie for adults, and its success shows up so many more recent film's efforts to be edgy or risqué as simply the work of children. DESIGN remains a resonant, perhaps perfect achievement and I can hardly wait to see what Criterion does with it in December.