Crossfire (US, 1947)

Glorious Grahame

I was prompted to watch Crossfire after seeing Mudbound because I thought it too dealt with the, at the time unacknowledged, PTSD of veterans. Though some of the vets in the film are obviously psychologically scarred by their experience, the social problem it’s dealing with is anti-semitism. Although the film is cast, at first, as a police investigation into a murder as soon as Robert Ryan appears it’s clear who’s guilty; I’m assuming this is true for audiences at the time too. Hence the film is more interested in motivation which, although clear to modern audiences as soon as Ryan says “Jew boy”, may not have been in 1947 (my assumption that racism is obvious today is probably too optimistic actually).

From the opening murder scene Dmytryk’s direction uses shadows expressively placing us directly in film noir territory, and there are some great compositions. It’s a talky film but the dynamism with which he frames the characters is gripping in itself. The great cast also is enough reason to watch; in addition to Ryan there’s Robert Mitchum and Gloria Grahame. Grahame, whose story is featured in the just-released Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK), plays her moll with typical bruised tenderness. Although she was typecast as a ‘tart with a heart’ there’s no doubt that her heart is, by necessity, hard. Another great performance is given by Paul Kelly (as The Man) who might be her husband. His slightly demented delivery is almost as disturbing as Ryan’s psychosis.

Noir for a dark world

These performances give the film a modern edge only ameliorated by George Montgomery’s slightly complacent detective; he even smokes a pipe. Montgomery does the character’s world weariness well but he’s too controlled. Mitchum breezes through the film with his usual commanding charm.

I saw the film on the Movies4Men channel; it was sub categorised as Military4Men. I’m not sure who the audience for this channel is (okay obviously men) but they will be better for watching Crossfire.

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Mudbound (US, 2017)

Bound in pain

Mudbound is one of the best films of the year but you’ll be lucky (from a UK perspective) if you can see it in cinemas even though it was only released yesterday; it’s a ‘Netflix original’. I wish I could see it in the cinema if only for Rachel Morrison’s beautiful cinematography. I’m not just referring to the sunsets but also the mud-sodden fields where much of the action takes place. I’m not having a go at Netflix,  at least they supported a black, female director – Dee Rees – in making an uncompromising film about racial hatred in 1940s America.

With high quality television sets, high definition streaming and sound bars, watching films at home has never been better. I remember watching Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR 1972) on a black and white portable television, I still enjoyed it but… One thing we’re likely to never know, however, is how popular Mudbound is with audiences as Netflix doesn’t release figures. That’s commercially sensitive information allowing it to know what types of film to make so anyone with a Netflix subscription watch it! The film’s won festival awards and is being linked to the Oscars but ‘box office’ figures will forever be absent.

I struggled slightly at the start of the film to orientate myself as the film sprawls somewhat in setting up the backgrounds of the two families; I also struggled with the accents of the characters but I could have put on the subtitles. However, the early scenes are important and once the McAllans arrive in Mississippi the narrative grips. Part of my struggle may have been because a number of characters have their own voiceovers which made it uncertain who were the main protagonists. I’m indifferent to voiceovers usually, unless it’s film noir, as they seem to be a failure of cinematic narration; however in Mudbound they work superbly to offer a multiplicity of viewpoints.

All the performances are extraordinary from Carey Mulligan to Mary J. Blige, unrecognisable (she’s in the image above) without her make up. Rees’ direction is subtle: I particularly liked a shot on V.E. Day with Ronsel, a member of General Patton’s Black Panthers, with his German lover looking out of the window at the celebrations in the street. He’s in the background and, despite the joyous scene, it’s clear he’s unhappy because it means his relationship is now over. Rees is equally confident in the battle scenes conveying the visceral horror and fully setting up the relationship between two veterans when they return from war.

As a chunk of Southern Gothic melodrama, Mudbound delivers brilliantly and hopefully Netflix finds it worth while to finance more of Rees’ films.

 

Z (France-Algeria, 1969)

Doing the right thing

Z‘s one of those increasingly rare films that I’ve wanted to see for years. I first heard about it around 35 years ago and I’m sure my reaction to it then would have been different to now. Z follows the investigation into a politically motivated murder of an opposition senator in an unnamed country. Costa-Gavras is Greek but as Greece was controlled by a military junta at the time, he made the film in Algeria. Not that the country is meant to be Greece as one of the police chiefs says, we live in a democracy. Costa-Gavras’ film shows democracy is a sham in this place.

I imagine my twentysomething self would have been gripped by the juge‘s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) investigation as he doggedly resists pressure to arrive at the truth. Challenging ‘authoritative’ voices was the zeitgeist for the young, in particular, in the ’60s but now we are far less likely to believe the official story. Indeed, for some anything that doesn’t follow their ideological preference becomes lies. Trump didn’t create that trend, though he would probably take credit for it, but he is riding the wave of disinformation and propaganda. So now the film doesn’t seem as exciting as I would have (probably) felt if I’d seen in my twenties.

I’m not sure what I would have made of the way the film slides increasingly into farce after Z’s (Yves Montand) death. The serious tone gradually gives way to absurdity that, from 2017, seems perfectly valid. In fact, farce and satire are what constitutes much of political discourse today; a potentially dangerous situation.

Z is (unsurprisingly) also dated in its visual style. The then fashionable use of the telephoto lens is distracting but it remains, nevertheless, a film well worth seeing. Another retro aspect of seeing the film was the sound in Leeds Town Hall, where it was screened as part of the Leeds Film Festival. It’s a long time since I’ve experienced that mono echoey effect of old cinemas; a long way from the focused soundscape we here today.