Time Without Pity (UK, 1957)

Failing father

Ben Barzman’s adaptation of Emlyn Williams’ play is a gripping thriller directed by Joseph Losey. It was the first film Losey could actually put his name to, after being blacklisted by McCarthyite America, despite working in Britain since the early ’50s. He brings his usual visual flourishes to this slightly frenzied tale of a dad trying to redeem himself after failing his adult son. The melodrama heightens his failure by giving him 24 hours to prevent his son’s execution for murder. One of the strands of the film is an anti-capital punishment theme added to the play’s narrative.

Despite Losey, the highlight of the film is Michael Redgrave’s performance as the dad, David Graham, who plays a recovering alcoholic and there’s no doubt his own alcoholism informed his tortured performance when he’s trying to resist having a drink. The titanic struggle is writ large across his features (see above) and I don’t think I’ve seen him better. It’s a strong supporting cast though Leo McKern’s Yorkshire accent is a moveable feast. He plays Robert Stanford the ‘upstart’ northern businessman; ‘upstart’ because in marrying Ann Todd’s character he is shown to be out of his social class. Such prejudice is disappointing from a left-wing filmmaker but it does give Todd a good moment when she excoriates her husband’s social climbing. Stanford’s type of character would be better served in ’60s cinema as the working class was often portrayed as authentic as Britain’s deferent ‘national character’ evolved for the better.

In Conversations with Losey (Methuen), the director states that he may have gone over the top in a scene where Graham’s questioning an embittered old woman whose room is full of loudly ticking clocks. As Losey says, he was often criticised for being ‘baroque’, that is ‘over the top’, and thinks that maybe here it was justified. I don’t agree because it adds to the growing hysteria that’s gripping Graham as he feels he’s failing in his task to prove his son innocent. Losey also notes that he didn’t direct the racetrack scene very well and it certainly feels an unnecessary adjunct to the narrative though it does help characterise the particularly male stupidity that informs McKern’s character.

The ending is particularly effective as a demonstration how far a parent will go to save their child. A very well-made film crowned by Redgrave’s brilliant performance.

A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 años, Uruguay-Spain-France-Argentina-Germany, 2018)

The fruits of tyranny

I’ve bashed Netflix a few times on this blog but am grateful to it for A Twelve-Year Night, an extraordinary biopic of three political prisoners who were tortured and kept mostly in solitary for 12 years up until 1985. Writer-director Álvaro Brechner does a brilliant job of conveying the hell the men lived by focusing on their experience firstly by laying out the restricted routine of their lives before opening out the narrative, mainly through flashbacks. Through this we get a sense of the claustrophobic lives they were forced to live having being imprisoned for opposing the military dictatorship. The ‘opening out’ is obviously a relief to the spectator and the contrast with the early part of the film gives us a sense of the mental torture of loneliness and depravation suffered by the men.

The prisoners were three of six who spent 12 years being taken from prison to prison (40 in all), presumably as a way of keeping them away from their families who were trying to use the courts to get access to them. Brechner never explains the machinations of the state as his focus is on the men, we (sort of) experience what they experience, so when a family suddenly are able to get a prison visit we are as surprised as the men. There is one scene that gives us a sense of what was happening on their behalf in the ‘outside world’ and this is when they are hauled in front of a committee from the International Red Cross but are only able to state their name before being taken away. This shows us the men had not been forgotten but effective help was not seriously forthcoming until the return of democracy.

If it all sounds gruelling, and the first hour is tough, the film is leavened with humour such as how one of the prisoners advises a guard on how to write love letters. The script is based on two of the prisoners’, Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, book about their experiences; the third prisoner was Jose “Pepe” Mujica. As is conventional at the end of a biopic we find out what happened after the end of the film; I was truly gobsmacked by what the men did afterwards. My astonishment was, in part, caused by my ignorance about Uruguay; I’ve only seen one other film from the country, 25 Watts and  Alfonso Tort (Huidobro) features in both. Antonio de la Torre (Mujica) may be familiar from the television series The Night Manager (UK-US, 2016); Argentinean Chino Darin completes the triumvirate as Rosencof.

All the performances are convincing but it is Brechner’s script and direction that elevate this film to the truly special. As there is a danger of Latin America sliding back into American-backed authoritarianism at the moment (here’s an alternative view to MSM’s propaganda about what’s happening in Venezuela), we need reminding of the horrific consequences of rule without law. ‘Strong men’ only bring order through crushing dissent.

Incidentally the film ends with a fantastic version of Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence by Sílvia Pérez Cruz.

The Glass Key (US, 1942)

True sado-masochism

Simplistic histories state The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the first film noir and so The Glass Key, also adapted from a Dashiel Hammett novel, counts as an early entry. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) now tends to get the pioneering accolade though obviously the trends were lurking earlier as noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini’s new book, Film Noir Prototypes: Origins of the Movement, emphasises. The Glass Key doesn’t have an overtly noir look but then the celebrated The Big Sleep (1946) has zero (or near to zero) chiaroscuro lighting. There are a few scenes where shadows entrap characters but other traits of the genre are certainly present. There are also numerous low angle shots giving a quasi-expressionist feel to the mise en scene.

The plot’s convoluted and Veronica Lake seduces with a glance though she’s more femme than fatale. Apparently she was only 4 foot, 11 inches in height, so complimented Ladd who was only eight inches taller and they starred together in other films such as The Blue Dahlia (1946).

‘You’re looking at me kid’

The worldview is dark though political corruption is given a comic edge as if to say it is to be expected; America doesn’t seem very different now with the gerrymandering that went on in some southern states to suppress the black vote last November. The heavies are supremely psychotic and William Bendix is quite terrifying in the role as he almost cuddles Ladd’s Ed Beaumont as he anticipates the beating. Beaumont doesn’t seem too impartial to being battered either; there is sado-masochism in play. Beaumont’s escape from imprisonment is quite brilliantly done and the visceral violence in the film, though inherent in the genre, probably wasn’t matched until Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Bendix was in The Blue Dahlia too and I don’t think I’ve seen Brian Donlevy in a better role and he manages to convey honesty and corruption in one.

The director was Stuart Heisler and this is his best known film and although he does an excellent job it’s probable that cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl was also a big influence on the film as he started his career in Germany and worked during the Expressionist period.

It’s slightly depressing that one of the reasons film noir remains compelling today is its nastiness. There’s little sugar coating that can make early Hollywood sickly. For example, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is a superbly shot World War I drama and grips until the protagonist’s mother starts gushing in a way that was conventional at the time. Little in noir is dated as women are often as much a narrative agent as men though there appearance is paramount; that’s true today. The failure of the law to bring evil convincingly to justice, and at the time the Production Code’s ‘law of compensating values’ insisted that bad be punished, is an entirely modern viewpoint. It’s true The Glass Key does have a soft ending but that’s not what lingers. Rather it’s the scene when Bendix is dishing out a fatal beating and Ladd’s Beaumont is looking on admiringly.

Stan & Ollie (UK-Canada-US, 2018)

Steve & John

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are extraordinary as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the greatest comedy duo in cinema history. The 23 people that make up the makeup department also need to take a bow because great as Steve and John are, the preternatural likeness of their appearance is as crucial to the film’s success. Jon S. Baird’s direction and Jeff (Philomena) Pope’s script are also important ingredients in portraying the twilight years of the duo on tour in the UK.

I’m not a fan of biopics as they often cram key moments into a narrative making the film seem one set piece after another. So despite Marion Cotillard’s stunning performance as Edith Piaf, I was desperate for her to die so La Vie en Rose (France-UK-Czech Republic, 2007) would end. Through focusing on a few weeks, with a preface set 16 years earlier for context, Stan & Ollie successfully conveys the duo’s brilliance and their friendship. The film is encased in a deep melancholy about fading footlights and fading life; Ollie, in particular, is ill and Stan’s wife, in an effort to protect him, constantly downs his drinks: “It’s funny, the more I drink, the drunker my wife gets,” he says. Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson also excel as the duo’s duelling wives.

The preface, in 1937, is set during the filming of the classic Way Out West (1937) and explains how producer Hal Roach’s contract ensured they weren’t as well paid as, for example, Charlie Chaplin. Pope’s script, however, makes it clear that numerous divorces and gambling was also a reason they were on their uppers, touring smaller theatres and desperately trying to get a new film off the ground in 1953.

Their performances on the tour featured sketches from their films, such as the ‘hard boiled eggs and nuts’ from County Hospital (1932). Steve and John’s mimicry is such that during them, and I’ve seen Laurel and Hardy’s films countless times, it seems that Stan and Ollie have been transformed into high definition colour. It takes conscious thought to recalibrate and think ‘Coogan and Reilly’ to allow the actors’ appearance and voices’ timbre to filter through.

Matthew Sweet’s article in Sight & Sound (Jan-Feb) makes it clear that the rapturous reception the duo receive in Ireland, toward the end of the film, didn’t happen but we can forgive Pope for fantasising how they should have ended their career. There are clearly plenty of fans still around (the shorts are shown on Talking Pictures in the UK) as it’s already taken £6m after two weekends in Britain and was apparently budgeted at a mere $10m. In my youth Laurel & Hardy shorts were dotted about BBC1’s schedules but the younger generation (if my twentysomething nephew is an accurate indicator) have never heard of them. It is their loss but I wonder to what extent you have to know Laurel and Hardy to enjoy Coogan and Reilly and the film.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts (Germany-UK-Australia, 2018)

Too insubstantial for the tragedy?

Australian filmmaker Gabrielle Brady tells an important tale about the 21st century concentration camps where asylum seekers are processed in ways that dehumanise and are intended to act as a deterrent against others following. Her subject is Australia’s Christmas Island prison which represents the toxic attitude toward migration that many countries have; particularly Britain.

However she constructs the condemnation through metaphors: the millions of migrant crabs on the island and the Chinese folk who take part in ceremonies to guide the ‘hungry ghosts’ – that is those who weren’t buried properly – to peace. The amazing crabs, who migrate to the ocean to lay their eggs, are treated better by the authorities than people trying to find sanctuary in Australia. A ‘lollipop lady’ stops traffic to help them cross; roads are closed; sweepers escort cars to avoid squashing the crustaceans. In the other metaphor, Chinese residents create bonfires and chant to help the ghosts on their way; the asylum seekers are therefore characterised as hungry (for safety) ghosts (as they have no agency as they wait to be processed).

The key migrant narrative is shown through therapist sessions: Peter Bradshaw states these are recreations and as we hear a radio news broadcast stating that anyone talking to the media about detention centres could face up to two years imprisonment that is hardly surprising. It’s a symptom of growing authoritarianism in government that such draconian laws are passed; in the UK non disclosure agreements are increasingly used to avoid embarrassing information being given to the media. It’s a failure of democracy that those in power cannot be held to account.

Unsurprisingly the sessions are harrowing as Poh Lin Lee (playing herself) tries to help the traumatised migrants. Such therapy can only work long term and she is constantly frustrated by the authorities who refuse to give her information about the detainees and ignore her recommendations. She’s living on the island with her family and time is taken to observe their everyday life; I’m not sure what this adds to the documentary.

Brady is to be commended for the film but outrage is probably a more pertinent emotion and although it will manifest itself in audiences with compassion the film cannot work as a call to arms against the disgusting treatment of the most vulnerable in the world. I would have preferred more direct information but that is a light criticism as Brady has made the film she wants which is certainly worth seeing. MUBI.

The Salt of the Earth (France-Brazil-Italy, 2014)

Through a glass darkly

New German Cinema director made his first feature documentary, Lightning Over Water (Sweden-France-Germany, 1980), about American film director Nick Ray. Although he still makes fiction films, documentaries have been increasingly important to Wenders and this one, co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, won ‘Un Certain Regard – Special Jury Prize’ at Cannes. His co-director is the son of the subject of the documentary, the extraordinary photographer Sebastião Salgado.

Although Wenders occasionally speaks on the voiceover, and appears in a few ‘reverse shots’ of him filming Salgado, he lets chronology structure this ‘sort of’ biopic. That works perfectly because it brings us full circle back to Brazil, which Salgado had to leave because of the fascist government in the 1960s, to see the results of the ecological project Salgado had instituted at the suggestion of his wife, Lélia. Throughout we get to see the extraordinary images that constitute the photographer’s career, often from extreme places such as the gold mines of Brazil and the genocide in Rwanda. It is after the latter that Salgado loses his will to document the evils of men and turned toward the environment; he has lived an incredible life.

What’s missing from the documentary is the cost to his family. He’d spend months, maybe years, away from his wife and children; they seemed to have stoically accepted his absence though the cost to them must have been high. I would also be fascinated to hear about Salgado’s technique in creating his incredible shots. All we get is a brief interjection about how it is important to frame shots against the background.

It’s a small quibble as that was clearly not the sort of documentary that Wenders and Salgado (jr.) wanted to make. Similarly the economics of the gold mine are barely explained and so reveals the limitations of photojournalism. If all we get is the image then we will not understand the world better. Particularly when they are as great as Salgado’s as the ‘breathtaking moment’ works against intellectual consideration of the social context. This isn’t to criticise Salgado and, as we see at the end of the film, he is trying and succeeding in ‘doing good’. The fact that his books cost an ‘arm and a leg’ further restrict his impact: a coffee table book for the bourgeoisie to show how much they care is not going to change the world.

Enough grousing, this is a brilliant film.

The Official Story (La historia oficial , Argentina, 1985)

Officially captivating

Many ‘subversives’ disappeared during the fascist dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s/early 1980s. From 1977 The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ensured the missing were not forgotten and I was surprised to learn they are (at least two years ago) still having to protestThe Official Story, apparently based on a true story, is a gripping political melodrama focusing on bourgeoise wife, Alicia (a Cannes winning performance by Norma Aleandro), who suspects that her adopted five-year old daughter may have been taken from one of the ‘disappeared’.

Aida Bortnik’s and director Luis Puenzo’s script brilliantly draws together numerous strands: Alicia is a history teacher whose class is far more clued up to the way ‘assassins’ are the ones who write history; her husband, Roberto (Héctor Alterio), has close ties to the military but whose brother and dad all but disown him as he berates them as ‘losers’. Central is the relationship between Alicia and her daughter which is suddenly thrown into doubt when an old friend, Ana, returns from exile. The scene when the friends are drunkenly reminiscing and Ana tells Alicia the truth about why she went away without saying anything is extraordinary. At first Alicia is chuckling along but the significance of what Ana is saying clearly doesn’t immediately sink in but then she realises Ana is describing how she was tortured; Aleandro’s performance in this scene is enough to justify watching the film.

Alicia’s cosy, bourgeois is punctured and she then seeks the truth in the face of her husband’s cynicism and worse. In such a male dominated society as Argentina was at the time, it’s not surprising that it required women to join together to seek justice and how brave they were (and are) to do so in the face of male oppression.

In the UK we keep hearing from politicians that we shouldn’t upset the extreme right wing or their violence will get worse. While this may be simple (in more ways than one) politicking because they want PM’s May’s mess of a deal to leave the EU to be voted through today, such appeasement is obviously dangerous. With the new president of Brazil threatening a return to the bad old days of fascist governments in Latin America (usually propped up by America), The Official Story is important in reminding us of the evil perpetrated against ‘the people’ in the region. The film won best foreign film Oscar and whilst those awards are often poor arbiters of taste I suspect they got it right in 1985, only two years after the dictatorship had fallen.