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Posts Tagged ‘1950s’

As this long, hellish, The Day the Earth Caught Fire-esque summer has worn on, so the Kubrick season at the Phoenix has come to a conclusion, which is obviously cause for sadness. But looking on the bright side, in its place we are currently enjoying a season of Hitchcock revivals, which is always something to relish. Most recently on the screen was a movie from the start of the 1950s, the decade which arguably saw Hitchcock at the height of his powers and brought him his most sustained run of popular and critical successes. The film in question is Strangers on a Train, one of the great director’s most playfully ambiguous works. Is it a psychological thriller? A film noir? A pitch-black comedy? Or just a searing indictment of poor health and safety standards at American funfairs? Nearly seventy years on, the jury is still out.

Farley Granger plays Guy Haines, an amateur tennis player and aspiring politician, who is making a fairly routine train journey when – apparently by chance – he makes the acquaintance of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a wealthy, charming fellow who seems to be a fan of his. Somewhat reluctantly, Guy gets to know Bruno better, and it transpires that both men have their problems: Guy is stuck in a marriage to an unfaithful wife (Laura Elliott), while Bruno finds himself oppressed by his authoritarian father. Bruno takes the opportunity to unveil his ‘perfect murder’ scheme, whereby he will kill Guy’s wife, while Guy disposes of Bruno’s father – as each man apparently lacks a motive for these particular killings, they should get away with it, with no difficulty.

Guy is clearly just too well brought-up, for his attempts to extricate himself from the company of someone who is clearly slightly unhinged only serve to give Bruno the impression that he is enthusiastically on-board with this ‘criss-cross’ plan. Matters become somewhat more complicated when Guy’s wife proves to be not just unfaithful but rather manipulative, soaking him for money while refusing to give him a divorce, even though she is carrying another man’s child (hey, it was the Fifties). All this causes Guy to make some rather intemperate public utterances, which could well be seen as incriminating when his wife turns up dead in the middle of a funfair one night – Bruno has gone full speed ahead with his murder-swapping plan…

Guy is safe for the time being, but one piece of evidence away from being arrested (his alibi just isn’t quite watertight enough). This would be stressful enough, even without Bruno starting to haunt his footsteps, wondering why Guy is so reluctant to follow through on his side of the deal, and clearly quite capable of making Guy’s life extremely difficult if he reneges entirely…

Strangers on a Train is not quite at the very top of the list of Hitchcock movies everyone can name – it’s a step or two down from Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo, for instance – but it is still immediately recognisable as a product of the same creative sensibility. From the very first seconds you are aware of the playful way in which the director is presenting the two leads as doubles, or opposites – their arrival at the station opens the film, with Hitchcock choosing to show us their feet rather than their faces, saving this for the moment when they first see each other. There is also the same kind of moral ambiguity that shoots through so many later Hitchcock films – it’s made clear that Guy really does want to murder his wife, it’s only the social contract which is keeping this urge in check. There’s a sense in which Guy is a bad, er, guy.

In the same way, there’s a sense in which Bruno is, if not a good guy, then at least a charming, appealing presence whenever he appears. This is mostly due to a terrific performance from Robert Walker, whose final completed film this was: Walker pretty much walks away with the acting honours from Strangers on a Train, as the good guys are decent but wooden, and his only real competition (Elliott) is only in the film briefly. Elliott manages to be so objectionable that the set piece in which Walker stalks her through a funfair before eventually strangling her – the murder famously reflected in her fallen glasses – is essentially one in which the audience is complicit with the killer, or at least feeling no guilt at anticipating the murder.

Of course, there’s something else going on in this film, a subtext which is surprisingly clear given the time it was made. Guy is dashing but weak, led into immorality by a charming older man with a mother-fixation. The coding is quite obvious – Bruno is presented as a thinly-veiled predatory homosexual, aiming to seduce Guy – morally, if not physically. Robert Walker’s performance is very good, but it’s also kind of Liberace meets the Boston Strangler. Suffice to say that the love of a good woman (Ruth Roman) is essential to Guy’s clearing his name and resolving the crisis.

As the film goes on, it progressively deviates, if you’ll pardon the expression, from Patricia Highsmith’s original novel, which (to minimise spoilers) concludes with Guy being arrested, and this may be why the initially watertight plotting of the film begins to unravel somewhat. There’s something a little melodramatic, or at least rather improbable, about the way the climax is managed – Guy has to win his tennis match in double time, lose his police tail and then get to the scene of the crime before Bruno can plant the evidence that will see him arrested. You could poke half a dozen holes in the scenario, yet it is still thoroughly engaging, enjoyable stuff, and you do get the sense Hitchcock is having fun, not intending the audience to take it too seriously either . There are quite a few moments during the climax of the film which drew general laughter from the audience at my screening, and I’m sure some of this was intended. But all of it? I’m really not sure; Hitchcock remains as slippery a magician as ever.

Possibly if this film were in colour, or had a more distinguished cast, it would perhaps have a slightly higher profile. Nevertheless, it is still a supremely accomplished movie – the plot holds together well enough, there is plenty of snappy dialogue to enjoy (‘I may be old-fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law’, ‘When an alibi is full of bourbon, it can’t stand up’, and so on), and the story has just enough darkness and ambiguity to it to deliver a pleasant frisson, rather than becoming too bleak or downbeat. A very fine film, and still only one of Hitchcock’s relatively minor works.

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It seems that, in the UK at least, Swedish culture is enjoying a moment in the sun right now: not only is a new series of the brilliant thriller The Bridge imminent, but there was also the recent news that melancholic power-pop royalty Abba have been back in the studio after 35 years, which may or may not have something to do with the imminent release of the sequel to Mamma Mia!. (Although I have to say that none of my Swedish friends actually seem to like Abba. This may be why they don’t actually live in Sweden any more, now I think on it.) Adding to this general sense of festen is a series of films celebrating the career of one of Sweden’s most renowned directors, Ingmar Bergman.

Most of these have been on at funny times or have clashed with meetings of my Dungeons and Dragons group (oh yes, I live the life), but I was able to make a showing of Bergman’s celebrated 1957 film Smultronstället, better known by its English title Wild Strawberries, and apparently known specifically to the ticketeer at Oxford’s Ultimate Picture Palace as Old Dude on a Road Trip – one wonders how he refers to The Seventh Seal (ticketeer in question also welcomed me into the cinema with a hearty cry of ‘It’s Bergman time!!!’).

Well, quibble one might, but Old Dude on a Road Trip is a fairly accurate description of Wild Strawberries, from a certain point of view at least. The story concerns Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), an elderly doctor about to celebrate fifty years in the profession. A ceremony in his honour has been laid on at his alma mater in Lund, and all the plans for his trip down from Stockholm have been made. However, as the ceremony draws close, Borg finds himself beset by unsettling dreams and decides to do something a bit different. Much to the displeasure of his housekeeper, he decides to drive down to Lund. Along for the ride is his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin, whom I suspect is everyone’s idea of what a Swedish movie star looks like).

They pause along the way at Borg’s old family home, and he finds himself lost in a reverie as he remembers – or fantasises about – his youth and cousins. The stop also results in Borg and Marianne picking up some hitch-hikers, who are practically beatniks by the standards of 1950s Sweden (they are still incredibly wholesome and well-mannered for the most part). Further stops along the way prompt the professor to reconsider his principles and the course his life has taken; some curious characters are encountered along the way. (The appearance of one of these, a petrol attendant played by Max von Sydow, was greeted with an audible sigh of appreciation by at least part of the audience, presumably because it was a relief, amongst all the subtitled Swedish and discussions of metaphysics, to see someone out of The Force Wakes Up.)

Well, I hope it doesn’t constitute a spoiler if I say that by the end of the film Professor Borg has come to a new and deeper understanding of himself and the course of his life, although quite how this has come to pass remains slightly obscure. The whole story is executed with an almost absurd lightness of touch, completely devoid of the big, histrionic Moments of Character Transformation you will likely find in an Anglophone treatment of a story of this kind. The initial dream sequence sums this up: nothing overtly unusual or disturbing occurs at first, but there is a tiny incremental accumulation of sound and image until suddenly you find yourself deeply unsettled by what is on the screen. Nothing much seems to be happening: but you do get the sense that Bergman is working the script and the screen for all they are worth in every moment of the film.

This may explain why Sjöström, who at first glance spends much of the film wandering about looking distracted, apparently found it such a gruelling experience that he was on occasion to be found beating his head against the wall between takes. Certainly the actor gives a brilliant, terrifically understated performance as the initially stubborn and misanthropic old man; you never notice him acting. He is also notably well-supported by Thulin, Bibi Andersson, and Gunnar Sjöberg.

Andersson and Sjöberg both play dual roles as the film progresses – one in the ‘reality’ of the story and the other in the fantasies which come increasingly to preoccupy Borg. There’s some symbolism going on here with the doubling: Andersson is playing Borg’s first love, who eventually forsakes him for his brother, and also a young hitch-hiker of whom he becomes perhaps just a bit too fond (both characters have the same name). Sjöberg, on the other hand, plays darker, more downbeat figures, symbols not of love but of cynicism and failure. It is he who presides over another disquieting dream sequence in which Borg must endure a nightmarish, unfair examination: watching the ominous mood Bergman evokes here you are definitely reminded that this is the man who eventually inspired Wes Craven to make Last House on the Left.

But what does it all mean? Life, death, age, youth, guilt, sin, acceptance, denial, they are all in the mix which Bergman so deftly whips up. There is a touch of existential misery as the film goes on, but also perhaps some self-aware humour as well: at one point a debate over the existence or otherwise of God is resolved by a fistfight in a pub car park. One of the most obvious of Bergman’s disciples in English-language cinema is Woody Allen, and being rather more familiar with Allen’s canon than Bergman’s there are many weird pre-echoes here, in the bold internalism of this film, in the wise old man’s fascination with a much younger woman, in the sense that while nothing much seems to be happening, in fact everything is happening. In the end, though, while you could never call this film a comedy, it resolves itself with an enormous sense of compassion and warmth towards its characters – Borg is perhaps not quite redeemed, but certainly he finds a sense of contentment he is initially lacking. In this sense the film is indeed about a road trip, but it’s trip from a state of simple existence to one of genuine living, and one depicted with undeniable artistry and skill.

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What makes things happen? Every cause has its own cause, and sometimes events have many sources. So to talk about the origins of anything is arguable a slightly dubious proposition. But for some reason it seems particularly questionable when talking about the original Godzilla (J-title: Gojira), the 1954 movie, directed by Ishiro Honda, which unleashed the great beast on an unsuspecting world.

gojira_1954_japanese_poster

On the face of it, this is a monster movie in the classic style, albeit an unusually bleak and intense one. The story opens with a string of unexplained shipping losses in the Pacific, shortly after some H-bomb tests in the region. Fish stocks in the region also seem to have been devastated, causing some consternation to the villagers of Odo Island: one of the elders suggests that Godzilla, a legendary sea monster, is responsible. Then a powerful storm strikes the island one night, and something comes out of the sea and wreaks terrible havoc in the village, crushing buildings and their inhabitants.

Well, obviously the authorities in Japan can’t let that sort of thing go on, and they despatch top palaeontologist Dr Yamane (Takashi Shimura, who spends most of the movie looking haunted) to investigate – although, to be honest, given that Yamane is under the impression that the Jurassic Era was only two million years ago, his academic credentials seem a bit suspect. Fortunately (or perhaps not), the question of Yamane’s academic standing is soon, er, academic, as there is indeed a huge radioactive dinosaur running amok on Odo Island, although it soon takes to the sea…

Yamane is very depressed by the response of the Japanese government, whose sole aim is to kill Godzilla rather than do research on him, and almost completely ignores what’s going on in his daughter’s personal life: Emiko (Momoko Kochi) has decided to settle down with nice young sea captain Hideto (Akira Takarada), but is fully aware the anguish this will cause her former beau Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a brilliant scientist who was maimed in the war and has become a bitter recluse, and whose research has led to the development of a dreadful weapon, particularly effective against marine life…

The plotting of the bits with the human characters is always one of the special pleasures of the Godzilla series, and as you can see that was there right from the start: not only is there a melodramatic, soap operatic quality to all of this, but it’s also the most outrageous coincidence that nearly all the key human characters in the story should have this kind of pre-existing relationship. I suppose the film-makers would try to justify it by saying that a film as dark and fantastical as this one needs some kind of readily-accessible human story for audiences to connect to.

They would have a point, too, for the really memorable bits of Godzilla do not really concern the Yamanes and their friends, but Godzilla himself, particular the sequence in which the monster (initially referred to as ‘the Godzilla’, though this is quickly abandoned – the confusion may be due to the fact that there isn’t a definite article in Japanese) rises from Tokyo Bay and proceeds to lay waste to the city. Again, on paper this sounds like just another genre staple – the JSDF shoot at Godzilla a lot, which has absolutely no effect, and he goes on to tread on various buildings, set fire to others with his nuclear breath, and so on. However, on this occasion the realisation is very different: in subsequent films it’s extremely unusual for anyone to actually be shown dying in the course of a monster rampage, but on this occasion the death toll seems astronomical – Godzilla toasts fleeing civilians in the street, rips down towers and sends the onlookers in them plummeting to their doom, and so on. At one point we see a young woman, in the midst of the destruction, clutching her young children to her and telling them that they will all soon be together in heaven with their father. The aftermath of the main Godzilla attack is depicted like that of a major natural disaster, which is rather in line with how Godzilla is presented – an elemental force of devastation, like a tsunami or a typhoon, only much worse.

And here of course is where we come to the nub of the issue, namely what inspired Godzilla and what the film is really about. The film-makers themselves acknowledged The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms as an inspiration, a movie which was itself based on a Ray Bradbury short story, but that film doesn’t have remotely the same sense of utter trauma about it. The truth behind the central metaphor of Godzilla is of course well-known, and it isn’t as if the film itself isn’t dotted with clues: it opens with a terrible disaster befalling a Japanese fishing boat, but (tellingly) this isn’t a Godzilla attack, but being caught on the fringes of an H-bomb test – clearly an allusion to events befalling an actual vessel in 1954, the same year the film was made. Serizawa himself is a tormented, Oppenheimer-like figure, much given to musing on the responsibilities of scientists when it comes to their research being used as the basis of dreadful weapons.

It’s not quite so much that Godzilla himself is a metaphor for the atom bomb, than that his attacks on Japan are in some way representative of what befell the country in the closing stages of the Second World War – Tokyo burned, thousands were displaced or died, and so on. It took the Japanese people a long time to come to terms with how the war ended, and there’s clearly some sort of catharsis going on here, with the fantastical nature of the film making it possible to address these issues in a way that would not be possible in a more naturalistic story. And, once again tellingly, the story of Godzilla is very much in line with the official version of Japanese history, as far as the war is concerned – Godzilla himself is roused not by the Japanese but the Americans (or so it is implied). Japan is an innocent victim of incomprehensible outside aggression.

The original Godzilla is a dark and complex film, and in a way it’s quite surprising that so much of this hefty underpinning was abandoned so quickly in favour of knockabout monster battles. This first one isn’t nearly as much fun as many of the sequels, certainly, and it does have its own issues as a film – primarily, the climax is rather underwhelming and flat given how strong the earlier Godzilla rampage sequences were. But it does have a gravitas and power that the sequels just don’t, and it’s surely this that explains why people are still making films about Godzilla over sixty years later.

 

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Well, following a vague and unexpected stab at reviewing West Side Story last month, we may as well continue our meander through classic Hollywood musicals, in a new irregular feature entitled… you know, I really can’t think of a name for this strand. Gimme Some Jazz Hands? Once More With Feeling? Don’t Call Brosnan? Ladies and gentlemen of the NCJG readership, I throw it open to you.

Anyway, on this occasion the all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza in question is Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Guys and Dolls from 1955. Like West Side Story, this is a New York tale of lives of sometimes questionable virtue and the redemptive power of love, but while only a handful of years separate the two films, they seem to come from totally different worlds.

guys_and_dolls

A jolly opening sequence reveals we are in a world of gamblers and petty crooks, but not one which feels remotely threatening or grounded. Our attention is first drawn to Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra), whose living is the organisation of illegal gambling. Nathan is a man with problems – his long-term (and, one suspects, long-suffering) girlfriend Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) is growing increasingly insistent that he marry her, but more importantly, he doesn’t have a venue for the peripatetic dice game he has been running for several decades: the only option available requires a $1000 payment he simply doesn’t possess. To get the cash, he has the bright idea of making a bet with high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) that he will be unable to take strait-laced mission worker Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) out to dinner. Will Sky win the bet? If so, will Nathan be able to hold his game? And will the guys end up happily ever after with their girls?

No prizes for guessing the answers to any of the above. In the past I have praised the unique ability of the non-diegetic musical to combine the examination of serious social issues with the most uplifting, pure entertainment – but this is, of course, a best-case scenario, and Guys and Dolls is, I would suggest, not really a musical of the first rank. What does it speak of human nature? What is it fundamentally about? Well, er – sometimes you fall in love with someone you probably shouldn’t (rather more frequently than that, in my experience). Many men have commitment issues. And, er, that’s about it.

Guys and Dolls doesn’t attempt to be remotely serious or realistic in any way. Everyone talks in the most bizarrely mannered way, with byzantinely convoluted sentence construction and no contractions, as if to hammer home the unreality of the film’s milieu. Perhaps this is because a realistic film about New York low-lives would be tonally inappropriate for the fluffiness of the plot, but it does result in the film feeling even more detached from reality. Based on a couple of Damon Runyon stories, its status as a New York movie is compromised by the fact the whole thing has obviously been shot on soundstages. This is a musical with all potential rough edges filed down: not just a soft centre, but a soft exterior as well.

Even so, a musical setting out just to provide entertainment value isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the real problem with Guys and Dolls is that this is a two-and-a-half-hour musical, at the end of which you will probably only be able to whistle the tunes of two or three of the songs. Not that most of the rest are actually bad in their music or lyrics (the composer is Frank Loesser, by the way), it’s just they will most likely have slipped quietly from your memory by the film’s conclusion, leaving you with only the title song (sung by Sinatra, Stubby Kaye and Johnny Silver), ‘Luck be a Lady’ (by Brando), and ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’ (Kaye again). This is a notably low hit rate for a major musical, and I found my heart starting to sink whenever Vivian Blaine launched into another of her solo numbers: again, these aren’t actively bad songs, but they’re mostly just plot-stopping filler.

There are lots of other things, both good and bad, one could say about Guys and Dolls, concerning both the acting and the plot. You might expect Marlon Brando, the great exponent of the realistic performance, to be well outside his comfort zone in a musical as arch as this one, and it’s true that you get no sense that you’re watching One of the Greatest Actors of All Time from his performance. But he’s not bad; he passes the Brosnan Test comfortably, and even dances a bit without embarrassing himself. Jean Simmons is actually very good indeed as Sarah Brown, and their romance is genuinely touching in places, if a bit suspect in others (How to Handle a Woman the Sky Masterson Way consists of equal parts of moral blackmail and getting her smashed on Bacardi, apparently). On the other hand, the presentation of the Cuban characters in the movie borders on the racist (50s New York seems to be a whites-only city, too), and the climax seems to me to be badly mishandled: we don’t actually see the reconciliation of the two lovers, and the final double wedding is surely taking cheesiness too far.

Like I say, you could say all these things: but it’s really just refrigerator noise, given that this is a musical where most of the songs are not really that great. Perhaps I’ve just been spoilt, having seen West Side Story so recently, but I do think that a genuinely first-rate musical should have a killer-to-filler song ratio of at least 70%-30%. In Guys and Dolls that ratio is backwards, and this may be why it’s not better remembered. As it is, this is good-natured, mildly-involving, gently amusing entertainment, but nothing much more substantial than that.

 

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There is a class of film which is well-known and highly acclaimed, but not necessarily especially widely watched. The result of this is that it’s possible to become more-or-less familiar with the story and themes of the film, along with any other points of particular distinction about it, without having actually seen more than a handful of frames of it. One runs the risk of being spoiled, of course, but also completely wrong-footed when the realisation of the film turns out to be much subtler and more surprising than the study notes cut-down version has implied. I certainly found this to be the case with Kurosawa’s Ikiru (E-title: Living, or To Live), which is usually described as the story of a terminally-ill civil servant’s battle to construct a children’s playground. Saying ‘it’s actually nothing of the sort’ is probably overstating things, but there is a lot more going on here.

ikiru

The protagonist is Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a middle-ranking bureaucrat at the public works department in Tokyo. A dispassionate voiceover informs us that Watanabe is already dying of stomach cancer, but it is also scathing in assessing him as a man: he is not alive, he simply persists – he has done nothing, felt nothing, for the last thirty years. To his subordinates he is a grey nonentity, while to his son and daughter-in-law he is simply a source of an inheritance-to-come.

Then Watanabe discovers his disease – in a slightly startling scene, the doctors fob him off with claims that it’s just a small ulcer, despite the fact they know full well it’s terminal cancer (the reasons for this are never made entirely clear), but Watanabe works it out for himself – and, inevitably, everything changes. He reassesses his life, remembers his dead wife, realises the degree to which he does not connect with his son or daughter-in-law, and contemplates how to spend the short time remaining to him.

At this point, being aware of the plot synopsis for Ikiru, one of course expects the playground-building plotline to kick in – it is foreshadowed from the start of the film, when a group of housewives from the neighbourhood turn up at Watanabe’s office trying to launch the project – but it doesn’t. Instead, Watanabe, quite naturally, abandons his usual sobriety and embarks on a whistle-stop tour of the fleshpots of Tokyo with a novelist he has befriended, hoping to find some sort of hedonistic solace. And when that doesn’t work he finds himself drawn to Toyo, a vivacious young woman who used to work in his office (played by Miki Odagiri), simply for her sheer love of life. Their relationship is noted and misinterpreted by his family, amongst others.

Toyo’s new job is as a toymaker and she suggests that it’s from this she derives her sense of fulfilment and engagement with the world. It strikes Watanabe that perhaps he can achieve something similar, by using his remaining time to create something positive – and it’s only now, past the half-way point of the film, that he embarks on the playground-building mission.

And then the film abruptly jumps forward in time and the narrator announces that Watanabe died five months later. The final act of the film is Watanabe’s wake, a long, complex, and to be honest rather stagey scene in which various characters from his life gather in remembrance of him and try to come to some understanding of the odd behaviour which characterised his final months. As they recall him and his somewhat quixotic quest, we see flashbacks of Watanabe (there are distinct shades of Rashomon about this, not surprisingly as it was Kurosawa’s immediately previous film), but these scenes are disjointed and there’s no real sense of a narrative. But then this is as it should be, as it’s clear none of the mourners really understand the man they have gathered to remember.

So most of the actual playground-building quest happens off-screen. What, then, is Ikiru actually concerned with? It seems to me that there are a number of things going on here – not least of them being Kurosawa’s intention to put something of then-contemporary Japan on screen. To this day, it’s probably the case that it’s Kurosawa’s samurai movies which are best-known and best-loved (and rightly so: they’re wonderful), with his present-day movies more obscure. Of these, Ikiru is almost certainly the best-known, and it does feel like it’s showing something of the birth of modern Japan, with a deeply traditional society beginning to be obscured under layers of American-influenced culture. Kurosawa identifies a sense of urban alienation – a lack of empathy and communication between the generations – which also features in similar films from this period like Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

But then again it is also a personal story, built around the question of what makes life worth living. Asking the question is of course Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura, perhaps Kurosawa’s most brilliantly versatile collaborator. Arrestingly sagacious and invincibly capable as the leader in Seven Samurai, here he is equally persuasive as a man undergoing a profound existential crisis, teetering on the edge of ultimate despair. Shimura wrings every ounce of pathos from Watanabe’s plight without ever becoming too sentimental. Watanabe has allowed himself to be obliterated by his job, in the belief it was the best thing for his son – but his son has grown to be selfish and materialistic. Was it worth it? Either way, the first two thirds of Ikiru are about Watanabe’s attempts to realise himself as a person again.

The third act, though, raises different, but equally profound questions. The playground has been built, true, but swarms of bureaucrats and minor politicians are jockeying to take the credit for it: Watanabe seems to have been written out of the official history, and it’s clear that his colleagues have only the faintest glimmer of understanding as to what actually motivated him (much time is spent pondering whether or not he even knew he was ill). But to suggest that Kurosawa is saying that Watanabe devoted his last days to a folly seems to me to be mistaken. Watanabe’s colleagues’ declaration that they will honour his memory by following his example may come to nothing, but the people using the playground still hold him in high regard, the playground itself still exists, and Watanabe himself appears to have died in contentment. Perhaps here we can see Kurosawa’s prizing of the individual above wider society most clearly: a very un-Japanese sentiment, but this may explain his popularity in other countries.

There’s clearly a lot of depth to Ikiru, with many big universal themes touched upon. It’s certainly not Kurosawa’s most accessible film – the oddness of the structure sees to that – and it may not have the energy and pace of most of his period films from around this period of time. But it is a deeply thoughtful and quite moving piece of work, and quite probably Takashi Shimura’s best showcase.

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I am so used to finding myself completely out of step with the rest of the world that it comes as a bit of a shock on those occasions when it turns out my reactions and opinions are squarely in line with those of the majority. Then again, I suppose one of the definitions of a truly great film (or an utterly worthless one) is that it can produce the same response in everyone who watches it.

I was in my late teens and just in the process of becoming a film and TV bore when I made the acquaintance of a guy who was several steps further along than me. The rooms of his house were lined with tapes (this was over twenty years ago); tapes of The New Avengers and Doctor Who (he also had virtually a complete set of matches from Italia ’90 recorded, which just shows you never can tell), but also – and more pertinently for our current line of thought – most of the Hitchcock centenary tribute season one of the major UK TV channels had broadcast a while earlier. I was getting to the point where I thought I knew my Hitchcock, and ever-mindful of gaps in my education I borrowed the 1958 movie Vertigo off him.

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By this point I had already seen Psycho, Rear Window, and The Birds, and I thought I knew what I was getting into. The film has, somewhat atypically for Hitchcock, an in media res opening, with detective John Ferguson (James Stewart) in hot pursuit of a bad guy over the rooftops of San Francisco. But Ferguson slips and is left hanging by his fingertips over a multi-storey drop, and a fellow cop is killed trying to rescue him.

This event understandably leads to Ferguson developing a crippling fear of heights and quitting the police force. Finding himself at a loose end, he is retained by old college buddy Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who has an odd and slightly delicate problem. His wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) has been acting very strangely, visiting the former home of one of her ancestors and spending hours staring at her portrait. Elster is concerned about all this, half-fearing some kind of malevolent possession is in progress, and wants Ferguson to follow her and find out exactly what’s going on.

Initially dubious, Ferguson takes the job and almost at once finds himself struck by the beauty of his old friend’s wife, not to mention how strangely enigmatic she is. Can she really be genuinely haunted by a ghost which is driving her to take her own life? Averting an attempted suicide forces him to make her acquaintance, and now he finds himself becoming deeply emotionally involved with this troubled woman. But is there any hope for her? Or, come to that, him…?

Well, I sat down to watch Vertigo all those years ago, really expecting another smart, sharp, clever entertainment of the kind Hitchcock is renowned for, and ended up feeling… well, really rather baffled. This is not your typical Alfred Hitchcock movie. To be honest, it’s a difficult film to describe, especially if you don’t want to totally deconstruct (and thus spoil) the plot.

For one thing, the principal cast – certainly in terms of the characters who appear in more than two or three scenes – is tiny: just Stewart, Novak, Helmore, and Barbara Bel Geddes as Stewart’s pal. Even then, most of the film is composed of scenes between Stewart and Novak. This isn’t to say that the plot is simple – well, maybe it is simple; it’s certainly not complex or fast-paced, but if so it is fiendishly simple, containing multiple layers of subtlety and sophistication, some of which aren’t readily apparent on first viewing. There is arguably a sense in which the story makes some pretty big asks of the audience, and there are certainly a few more loose ends than you’d expect from a Hitchcock film, but then it seems to me that this is not a plot-driven film but a character piece.

If so, then it’s a character piece masquerading as a psychological thriller pretending to be a Gothic melodrama. Hitchcock’s intention to make the audience identify with Stewart’s character works on numerous levels – there’s the simple technical sense, in which Stewart’s in nearly every scene and we frequently see events from his point of view, but also on a wider narrative level: just as Ferguson is ultimately the victim of a put-up job, so to some extent is the audience, because the film we think we’re watching isn’t the film we think it is.

Hitchcock famously messed with audience expectations in Psycho, but it’s hard not to see that same intention in the structure of Vertigo, too. There’s a major plot reversal in the middle of the film that appears to go against every tenet of conventional storytelling, and it’s completely wrong-footing: you have no idea how the story is going to proceed from this point on. Any pretence at being a conventional thriller is certainly abandoned and the film becomes a rather bleak drama about all-consuming obsession and the horrible things that love can drive people to do to their lovers.

Here is where the real sophistication of the plotting comes in: quite naturally, as the film shows it, what entails is a situation where – on a thematic level – the ‘fake’ plot of the first part of the film, with a living person consumed by a shade from the past, is replayed for real. The brilliance of the script comes from the fact that the living person and the shade are both in fact the same individual. Vertigo poses some serious questions about identity, certainly when it comes to relationships – is it even possible for someone to impersonate him or herself? To what extent do we actually fall in love with with real people, rather than just our idealised images of them? Can love survive complete truth and honesty?

Pretty heavy stuff, and not leavened by any laughs, either. One of the many remarkable feats of the third act of Vertigo is that a scene which should feel clunky and melodramatic, and rather intrusive, is actually the turning point of the entire movie. Stewart departs the movie for a few minutes, leaving the stage clear for another character to actually deliver a monologue explaining the plot and how Ferguson (and the audience) have been misled by the villain, such as he is. It really shouldn’t work, but not only does it generate the suspense and pathos leading up to the climax, it effectively shifts the audience’s sympathies: Stewart actually becomes rather creepy and unsettling in his pursuit of his lost love (or at least her image), while a character who should have no call on the audience’s affection becomes engagingly vulnerable and sympathetic. It’s consummate storytelling sleight of hand, and I’ve no idea quite how Hitchcock managed it.

That said, most of the time in Vertigo one gets a sense of stuff going on that one isn’t entirely aware of. Hitchcock and the cinematographer are clearly doing something with Novak and the colours red and green: she’s frequently dressed in one or other of them or surrounded by it in the set dressing, but if there’s some kind of code going on here I haven’t been able to decipher it. All those scenes in the first half of the film of, basically, Stewart following Novak around San Francisco, too: they seem rather repetitive and slow but presumably the director is slowly and incrementally building our association with Stewart, and the idea of his obsession with Novak.

Vertigo is quite a long film, and not really a conventionally entertaining one: no-one in it ever seems particularly happy, not for more than a few seconds, at least. But it really does have that mesmerising, dreamlike quality so often ascribed to it: or perhaps, in the circumstances, not dreamlike but nightmarish. The opening titles of the film do a good job of conveying what’s to follow – Bernard Herrmann’s remarkable score plays over Saul Bass’s spinning, multicoloured vortices, which we initially access through Kim Novak’s eye. The message is that this is going to be an internal, psychological film, about loss of perspective and loss of control. And it is.

Vertigo baffled the critics in 1958 just as much as it did me thirty-something years later, but its critical reputation has recovered now to the point where it has displaced Citizen Kane as Best Movie Ever (Ever) on at least one list. I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t go that far, and I’m still not sure I would chose it over one of Hitchcock’s more conventional entertainments, but this is an extraordinary film in many ways: it confounds expectations at every turn while still being completely magnetic to watch, if never entirely comfortable.

 

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I am, all things considered, reasonably happy with this here blog which you happen to be reading – it’s not brilliant, but it gives me an outlet and it’s not like I’m charging anyone for the privilege of reading it. One thing it does occur to me that it is short of is Hitchcock, whose name is checked far more often than his films actually appear. Luckily, a welcome revival of Rear Window at the Phoenix has given me the opportunity to start fixing that.

Rear Window was released in 1954 and was Alfred Hitchcock’s seventeenth Hollywood movie: by this point he was already famous enough to get his name above the title of his own films. This is one of his most celebrated works, and watching it again it isn’t difficult to see why.

rear window

James Stewart plays L.B. Jefferies, an ace photo-journalist coming to the end of a seven-week stretch laid up with a broken leg received in the line of duty. New York is sweltering in a heatwave and the heat and inactivity are driving him up the wall – he is also having committment issues with respect to his lovely girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly, long before she turned into Nicole Kidman). Jefferies’ only diversion from this is to look out of the titular window of his apartment and observe the minutiae of the lives of his various neighbours.

At first this seems harmless enough, but then one of them, a bedridden woman, mysteriously disappears, and her husband (Raymond Burr) begins to act a little oddly – trips out of the apartment in the dead of night with a heavy case, strange behaviour with knives and saws, and so on. A suspicion begins to grow in Jefferies’ mind, but how can he find evidence either way, confined to his apartment as he is?

I first saw Rear Window nearly thirty years ago – it must have been my first Hitchcock – and I was initially rather unenthusiastic about the prospect. I wanted to watch the other side, truth be told, and it was only my father’s insistence that we watch it just for a bit, together with the tiny size of the static caravan we were holidaying in at the time, that resulted in me giving the film any of my time.

Probably this is because, even back then, Rear Window looks and sounds extremely dated – the colour stock is unlike anything used today, it’s primarily just people talking in one room, and it’s obviously studio-bound. These days I am wise enough to understand that increasing age doesn’t necessarily equate with declining quality, and that many of the things that appear to count against Rear Window are actually at the heart of what makes it such a great movie.

To dismiss it as studio-bound is to completely overlook the merits of the vast, elaborate set on which the story takes place – it may not be completely naturalistic, but then this is a fairly tall story in the first place. And it’s the limitations of the story which make it special: for most of the film the only real speaking parts are Stewart, Kelly, Thelma Ritter as Stewart’s nurse, and Wendell Corey as his detective buddy: everyone else only appears as characters observed from a distance by Stewart.

You can see the appeal of this story for Hitchcock, even if only as a simple formal challenge – there’s the limited roll of characters, the fact it’s all grounded in a single room, and so on. But above it was surely the potential for directorial sorcery that lured him to this tale – the audience is practically compelled to identify with Jefferies, viewing his neighbours as he does, and reliant on the nuances of Stewart’s performance for clues as to how to respond to them. It is a masterclass in the principles of direction and editing and you can’t help but be drawn in. This is even with a surprisingly slow start: most of the first act is preoccupied with setting up the story and characters in an extremely leisurely way, most of the scenes concerned with Jefferies’ situation and his inability to make up his mind about Lisa.

But the tension slowly ratchets up, until the climax, when – well, look, I still clearly recall being absolutely speared into my seat, frantic with alarm, during the climax of this film, all those years ago: Jefferies is trapped in his apartment, seemingly helpless, with a killer on his way to try and silence him. It’s the biggest of several electrifying moments throughout the film, and Hitch springs them on you seemingly out of nowhere.

Rear Window works so well as a smart, witty thriller – like many Hitchcock films, it’s much funnier than you might expect – that it almost seems superfluous to try and mine it for any deeper concerns – we’re dealing with a master entertainer above all else here. However, there are perhaps the faintest glimmers of subtext about the nature of urban living. When you live on top of dozens of other people – quite literally so in some cases – your natural instinct is to mind your own business and close yourself off, overlooking what could be quite obvious signs of things going amiss. It’s only Stewart, the spy, the voyeur, who picks up on the clues, and even he seems unsure of the morality of his actions – is it justifiable to intrude on someone’s privacy, even in the name of justice? The film seems to suggest that it is, and also that people look out for one another more – but this remains a complex issue that has become perhaps even more important in the sixty years since this film was made.

It is first and foremost a supremely entertaining thriller, though, winningly played by Stewart, Kelly, and the others, and flawlessly directed. They don’t make them like this any more – but then again, you could probably argue that they only ever made one like this at all.

 

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