The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod clepsydra, Poland, 1973)

Mental mise en scene

Mental mise en scene

I was musing to a friend recently that I fancied watching an arthouse film where I had no idea what was going on. Perspicaciously The Hourglass Sanatorium appeared, Wojciech Has’ adaptation of Bruno Schulz short stories, which has some of the most mental mise en scene I’ve ever seen. I use ‘mental’ advisedly as the events probably take place in the protagonist’s, Józef (Jan Nowicki), mind.

The film starts with Józef on a bizarre train with a dreamlike landscape. He arrives at a sanatorium where, apparently, his father is staying, although in Józef’s world he is dead. You might be getting the picture of the bizarre narrative but what I can’t convey is the intricate detail of the settings which reminded me of Sebastian’s apartment in Blade Runnerthe whole film is crammed with clutter and paraphernalia.

The intricate detail of the mise en scene

The intricate detail of the mise en scene

But what is going on? The surrealist nature of the film suggests we shouldn’t try and make sense of the narrative; director Has often welds disparate scenes together with the logic of dream. On the other hand, if we are considering dreams then Freudian ideas are obviously present; Józef’s mother thinks he is still a child and the preponderance of women’s breasts, in some scenes, suggests infantilism. We are probably in Józef’s mind, maybe in the moments before death as he revisits his past, though not in any coherent order.  Jewish culture is clearly important but I don’t know why; this excellent article suggests it is a result of Schulz’s source material. However Has may have included Jewish iconography to upset the Polish authorities who were indulging in a bout of anti-semitism at the time of the film’s making. He succeeded and the film was banned; however it was smuggled to Cannes where it won a prize.

Jewish culture to the fore

Jewish culture to the fore

It’s difficult to sum up: it’s bonkers and brilliant.

Free Men (Les hommes libres, France, 2011)

Muslims and Nazis

Muslims and Nazis

French films revisiting the role of their north African colonies have become somewhat in vogue in recent years; such as Days of Glory (Indigenes, Algeria-France-Morocco-Belgium, 2006). Free Men focuses on the true story of how the Grand Mosque, run by Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (played with suitable gravitas by veteran Michael Lonsdale), helped protect Jews from the Nazis. That’s a great story in itself given the conflagration that is engulfing Israel and the Occupied Territories at the moment. ‘Muslims and Nazis’: I don’t think I’d ever put the two together before watching this film which emphasises  how the former are hidden from western history. The film, co-written and directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi, is to be welcomed on that basis but I also throughly enjoyed watching Tahar Rahim play Younes, a composite character, who finds his moral compass and joins the Resistance.

Rahim’s face is a wonderful tool, whether under questioning from the Petain police or wondering how to ‘chat up’ the woman he fancies, as its mobility dramatises the thoughts whirling around his head. There’s some great music too as Younes befriends a Jewish singer masquerading as a Muslim.

American Gangster (US-UK, 2007)

Mean streets

Mean streets

It was fortuitous that I caught up with American Gangster only a week after watching The French Connection as it covers some of the same time and territory. Indeed, the latter’s protagonists are name checked and the overhead railway of the car chase makes two appearances. Clearly scriptwriter Steve Zaillian is paying homage to the earlier classic and American Gangster doesn’t do too badly in comparison. Like much of the early ’70s ‘New Hollywood’ there’s a political angle, though safely ‘buried’ in the past, regarding the racism and corruption of NYPD. The mean streets of New York, where Denzil Washington’s Frank Lucas (the film’s based on a true story) imports heroin direct from Vietnam, look shabby despite Ridley Scott’s predilection for sumptuous images. If overlong, at two and a half hours, the climax is suitably satisfying, referencing another early ’70s classic, The Godfather (1972), by inter-cutting events with the protagonist in church; there’s  also shades of another cracking film of the era, Serpico (1973), with Russell Crowe taking the incorruptible cop role that Al Pacino inhabited.

Certainly the film pays homage to the ’70s, and you have to work to keep up with the narrative exposition too, but stands on its own as an intelligent high budget, star driven Hollywood (through Scott Free Prods) vehicle. Despite a budget of $100m, the film probably just about scraped into profit with its $267m worldwide gross; a testament to Washington and Crowe’s star power.

Women are mostly absent but that’s gangster films for you and the cliche-ridden broken marriage of Crowe’s Richie Roberts probably didn’t need to be so prominent; then again, women would have been even more absent if it wasn’t. The narrative device (presumably true too) that leads Roberts to realise the black Lucas was Mr Big (his ethnicity, in the racism of the times, meant he escaped suspicion) is brilliant.

The Black Panther (UK, 1977)

The bad old days

The bad old days

I’d never heard of this film, a reconstruction of ‘black panther’ serial killer Dennis Nielsen’s grim crimes, despite the fact it apparently stimulated a mini moral panic on its release. John Patterson’s excellent article fills in the background so I’ll limit my comments to a few observations.

The first thing that surprised me was the credits that announced this was ‘A film by Ian Merrick’; I thought that habit started later – perhaps a reader could comment. Merrick had some justification, unlike most of today’s director’s, for this ownership as he also produced. The film recreates, it says as accurately as possible and I have no reason to disbelief, how Nielsen moved from petty theft to murder and finally kidnapping. I certainly remember Lesley Whittle, his victim, 40 years later; no doubt due to the coverage the case received at the time. The film shows that the press, in search of a story, interfered with the ransom pay-off, possibly with fatal consequences. Of course the press wouldn’t do that now… News of the World hacked the abducted Milly Dowler’s phone not so long ago so they probably would.

The film has the authentic drabness of the ’70s, though it only seems like that in retrospect, at the time (as a teenager) it seemed fine to me. They were turbulent times in the UK: the electricity cuts caused by the 3-Day working week; IMF bail out; numerous strikes; the enthronement of Thatcher as PM. The last event, of course, was the worst as it has had a lasting effect through the neoliberal policies that have become the received wisdom of economics. Donald Sumpter is good in the role of Nielsen and Debbie Farrington is affectingly ‘innocent’ as his final victim. The ending, presumably based on fact, is truly bonkers: Nielsen is finally apprehended in a fight in front of a bemused group of people outside a chippy. It’s good that the BFI have brought this film out of the wilderness.

The French Connection (US, 1971)

Hackman brilliantly matches Friedkin's febrile direction

Hackman brilliantly matches Friedkin’s febrile direction

In the posting about The Sugarland Express I mentioned how, in the early ’70s, the Hollywood studios were not afraid to back innovative films (though this was more through desperation than a love of art); The French Connection is another example of what happens when talented directors get to call the shots. In this case, William Friedkin, who won a Oscar (not necessarily a sign of brilliance) for this film which was a box office hit. He followed up, two years later, with The Exorcist; he was on a roll.

I hadn’t seen the film for some time and am delighted to report it stands up well 44 years after its release. It’s justly famous chase sequence is still absolutely gripping. The use of sound is very striking, there’s no music and although we can see Hackman’s Popeye Doyle screaming ‘Get out of the way!’, or some such, through the windscreen we can only hear the car’s horn and squealing tyres. The tension of the chase, intercut with the train on which his quarry is seeking to escape, does not need music to boost the audience’s feelings.

The use of locations also stands out: a wintry and grotty New York. Clearly they’d chosen the shittiest places to film: these certainly weren’t ‘good old days’. I suspect the TV series Kojak (1973-8) took its cue from the film; at the time it seemed the epitome of realism.

The cast is excellent but the film is driven by Gene Hackman, possibly his greatest role in a great career (also awarded an Oscar). He is a total scumbag but wedded to getting the ‘bad guy’.  I hope I can catch the sequel again; a film that, when I saw it in the early ’80s, I thought to be even better than the original.

It’s dangerous to say that Hollywood doesn’t make films like this anymore because fogeyism is never a good form of criticism but I suspect it’s true. I recently saw the well regarded (independently produced) Nightcrawler (US, 2014), where Jake Gyllenhaal puts in a great performance as an ambulance chasing cameraman, but I was unimpressed. Maybe it is my cynicism, I wasn’t surprised by the film’s satire as it’s obvious ‘if it bleeds it leads’ is the tabloid TV philosophy, as I didn’t think the film was showing me anything I didn’t know (Riz Ahmed’s also great in it by the way). I’m not knocking it, at least it was trying to say something and it is worth seeing.

Bright Days Ahead (Les beaux jours, France, 2013)

Does age matter?

Does age matter?

It’s rare for any medium to deal with a sexual relationship between an old woman and a younger man (The Mother, UK, 2003, springs to mind) and Bright Days Ahead would be welcomed if only on the basis that it breaks the rule that old woman are not sexy. Of course it helps that it is Fanny Ardant in the role of the older seducer but the film doesn’t skimp upon the travails of extra-marital affairs where age is an issue. The film relies upon performances to keep it afloat and all the principals are excellent but it is Ardant the sticks in the mind.