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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Vertigo: An Introduction

I’ve just published a guide to Hitchcock’s Vertigo; one of his best films. Here’s the Introduction:

Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has made a long critical journey in the sixty years since it was first released. At the time critical reaction was cool and the box office for a Hitchcock movie was weak. However by 2012 it was regarded as the ‘best film ever made’ in the Sight & Sound magazine ‘once a decade’ poll of film critics. Some of the original reviews were positive; the New York Daily News called it ‘an artistic triumph for the master of mystery’ (Sandford, 2015). Others were lukewarm; Variety’s critic liked the film but she (identified only as ‘Stef’) also thought ‘the plain fact is that the film’s first half is too slow and too long’; she also committed the sin of revealing the key plot twist.

Vertigo was one of five films that were not legally available for over 10 years until 1983; the others were Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). After they had been on release for eight years the rights to these films became Hitchcock’s and it seems he kept them out of distribution to give his family a windfall after his death (Waymark, 1985). As Hitchcock had ordered all prints in distribution to be destroyed it was virtually impossible to watch them. Before videotapes became consumer items, in the 1970s, it was difficult to see films once they had completed their initial release unless they were screened on television. The inability to see Vertigo may go some way to explaining why it took so long for its greatness to be generally appreciated.

Another reason for the lack of appreciation was that during the 1950s it wasn’t usual to treat Hollywood films as art, they were seen simply as commodities designed to make money. It wasn’t until the intervention of enthusiastic critics during the 1950s, writing for the French magazine Cahiers du cinema, that it was widely understood that even commercial films could be regarded as art.

Francois Truffaut’s 1954 Cahiers article ‘Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Français’ suggested that the best directors (auteurs) could make films that transcended the limitations of the Hollywood studio system and include personal statements in their films. Regardless of the genre, the same themes were present in the films of auteurist directors like John Ford; Peter Wollen suggested that Ford was ‘concerned with the problem of heroism [and] meaningful action in life’ (1972: 81). Auteurs were also likely to have a characteristic visual style in their mise en scene (what’s ‘in the picture’ referring to the content and composition of the image), camera position and camera movement. Ford, for instance, in his black and white films at least, favoured deep focus cinematography. Because of these traits, their films could be regarded as works of art as they were the expressions of a personality rather than simply movies made to make money.

Truffaut’s idea became the ‘auteur theory’ and has had a lasting influence on film culture and there is a widespread belief that the director is the key influence in most films. The problem with this ‘theory’ is it loses sight of many other vital contributions such as the script, cinematography and performance. There is no doubt, however, that Hitchcock is a director for whom the auteurist approach is useful, as we shall see in chapter four. Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock in the early 1960s about his films and the resulting book, Hitchcock (Faber & Faber), was very influential on filmmakers.

For audiences in the era of Classical Hollywood (roughly the 1920s to the early 1960s) the director of the film was of little importance. However they, even before the intervention of Cahiers, did admire Hitchcock and his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62), short ‘tales of the unexpected’, made him a household name. Paramount liked him because he was profitable and a marketable name, much the same way as Christopher Nolan is now. Like Nolan, Hitchcock had a high degree of control over the films he made because he was commercially successful. Critics admired his technical finesse but because he made genre movies (thrillers apart from the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, 1941, and the 1949 melodrama Under Capricorn, UK), his movies weren’t regarded as the equal of those made by, say, Jean Renoir or Fritz Lang (his German films).

By 1972 Vertigo was 11th in the Sight & Sound poll so, despite its muted reception 14 years earlier, it was already considered to be a great film. Hitchcock died in 1980 and three years later, after a deal with Universal, it was re-released. In the first poll after this, in 1992, Vertigo had moved up to fourth. Such lists, while interesting, are only expressions of (albeit well-informed) opinion and the most important reaction is the one you have to a film. At the time of writing Vertigo is one of my favourite films. One thing for sure is that having spent months immersed in the film my admiration for it has increased. I hope that this book helps you enjoy this great film even more.

You can buy it here.

Gone Girl (US, 2014)

Feminist or not feminist? That is the question

Feminist or not feminist? That is the question

I enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s novel and she has adeptly written the screenplay, directed by David Fincher. I didn’t bother with the film in the cinema because Fincher’s movies have disappointed me since Fight Club (US, 1999) and I didn’t fancy two and a half hours of a narrative I knew. However, primarily through the power of Rosamund Pike’s femme fatale, this is an adaptation well worth watching. Fincher’s mise en scene, with his characteristic flat, antiseptic shooting of bourgeois modernity, is ideal for the film and Ben Affleck, as the slightly vacant hunk, is perfectly cast.

Although I’ve tagged the film ‘feminist’ I’m not sure it is; the debates are well summarised on Bitchflicks. I think the film is an exceptionally ‘open’ (or writerly in Barthes’ terms) text and so what follows is my reading although I’m conscious that this is exceptionally personal (by that I mean, although all readings we make are ‘personal’, with open texts our understanding of the world is likely to have a greater impact on the reading).

As Megan Kearns points out, on the Bitchflicks site, the ‘cool girl’ speech that Amy makes is key:

“The cool girl. The cool girl is hot. Cool girl doesn’t get angry. … And she presents her mouth for fucking.”

This is accompanied by shots of women (chosen by Fincher) and so suggests women are complicit (which they are) in allowing the ‘cool girl’ trope to be exploited by men. However, men are more complicit because of patriarchy, and Fincher should at least have included men within the mise en scene for this speech. Spoiler alert: also, the use of rape by Amy (Pike) to frame a man is contentious however I read her psychopathology as being the result of being pressured to be the ‘perfect woman’ (which began with her parents cannibalising her life as Amazing Amy). So although her murder of controlling millionaire Desi Collins isn’t justifiable in moral terms, I felt it was the right thing for Amy to do in her circumstances (that is, in the plot of a film and not reality). Amy does what it takes to take control of her life in a patriarchal world and, as such, is a feminist character.

This is a femme fatale that destroys the man who falls for her without destroying herself; although that was her original intention.

Flynn’s work is also a brilliant takedown of the romance of marriage; the roles and games we play that are not sustainable. This brings us back to Fight Club (which was a very faithful adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel) which similarly excoriated 21st century, bourgeois existence and Gone Girl is Fincher’s best film since then. His ‘cool’ visual style is a perfect accompaniment for the soullessness of modern existence.

Blade Runner (US, 1982, 1991, 2007)

Getting better all the time?

Getting better all the time?

The rerelease of ‘the final cut’ of Blade Runner charted in the UK top ten last weekend; not many 33 year old films do that; although this cut is only eight years old. I’ve extracted the introduction to the Film Note I wrote before the final version was released:

Blade Runner, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick and directed by Ridley Scott, was originally released in 1982 to general critical derision and was a box office failure. However it became a cult movie (see Part Four: Contexts – Audience) and was eventually re-released as Blade Runner – the Director’s Cut in 1992. Critical reception was again mixed but the box office, on a restricted release, was relatively good. In 1982 most viewers were impressed by the astounding vision of the future presented by the film but many were confused by the narrative and assumed it to be incoherent.

Now the film is ‘canonised’ by York Film Notes and the British Film Institute’s ‘modern classics’ series, it is seen to be an endlessly fascinating movie and one of the few great science fiction films of the twentieth century.

In Britain at least, science fiction (SF) remains in the literary ghetto inhabited by pulp fiction. In bookshops the genre is corralled on its own – like Crime – and the glaring, lurid, Day-Glo colours of the books seem to ‘warn off’ non-anoraks. In North America, however, the genre thrives in academic journals and is recognised as one of the most vibrant areas of literature.

It is probably the ‘fantasy’ element of SF that puts many off the genre: the belief that it has nothing to say about contemporary life and that its narrative worlds are unbelievable. Certainly much of SF, like all genres, is essentially escapist and, as such, performs an important function. However we must distinguish between these SF texts which are ‘non-genre’, or ‘soft’, SF, and those which deal with issues concerning what it means to be human which are ‘genre’, or ‘hard’, SF. Far from escaping everyday life, these texts often lead us into the mire of contemporary existence. Genre SF is never about the future, it is about now.

Blade Runner is ‘genre’ SF and deals with questions of humanity through a comparison between the replicants – particularly Roy Batty – and their hunter, Deckard. Although the replicants are machines the film suggests that, in the characters of Batty and Rachel, they have much to teach us about acting like a human being. Although Deckard appears to be the central character, he verges on being an anti-hero in his attitude and actions.

Fans of ‘genre’ SF are used to considering such issues, just as they are used to creating – through their reading – alien worlds. The critics who complained that they could not make sense of the world of L.A. 2019 were simply not working hard enough. For example, it is quite easy to infer the answers to the following questions:

  • Question: Why is it always dark? Answer: There has been an ecological disaster that has polluted the atmosphere, virtually obliterating the sun.
  • Why is the city full of ‘foreigners’? A. Everyone who can has gone Off-world and the races left behind are those who have been economically discriminated against.
  • Why is the language spoken on the street unlike our own? A. Language is constantly changing and the cityspeak of LA 2019 is a melange of Japanese, German and Spanish. This evokes the future by combining languages to make the familiar different.
  • Why are some parts of the city overcrowded and others deserted? A. The over-crowding is seen in the market sector; Sebastian’s apartment is deserted but who would want to live there?

And so on.

The film’s fascination does not simply reside in its philosophy; the extraordinary nature of its visual conception provides virtually endless visual pleasure and presents a well rounded, convincing view of our future.

Because the film became a cult, obsessive fans have analysed the film frame by frame and shared their conclusions on the internet. In addition, the ‘false’ ending in the original version provided fuel for much debate during the 1980s which the release of the ‘director’s cut’ in 1991 only partially dampened. Discussion of Blade Runner is encouraged because it is an open text that allows a wide range of interpretation to be justified from a close reading.

To enjoy Blade Runner you do not have to be a fan of SF you simply have to be interested in what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.

If that whetted your appetite you can buy the kindle edition: Film Notes: Blade Runner

Klute (US, 1971)

Typically misogynist noir

Typically misogynist noir

Klute is one of the feted films from New, or Renaissance, Hollywood; the fews years at the start of the ’70s when the studios backed films ‘with something to say’ as well as making entertainment. I recently watched the same director’s, Alan J. Pakula, The Parallax View (US, 1974), and found it had dated badly though its paranoia about large corporations is extremely sane now. Klute stands up far better with brilliant cinematography from Gordon Willis and Jane Fonda’s exceptional performance in the lead. Fonda plays Bree Daniels, a would-be actor and part-time prostitute, who is investigated by Donald Sutherland’s (exceptionally wooden) John Klute who’s looking for a missing friend. To be fair Klute is meant to be ‘a straight’, hippy for ‘boring’, but Sutherland’s usual charisma is severely lacking. Fonda’s high powered performance, however, is sufficient to make the film to be worth watching. Klute was an important film for feminists at the time, Diane Giddis, for example, in ‘The Divided Woman: Bree Daniels in Klute’, argued that it that it foregrounded women in a way that was new to Hollywood. Others, such as Christine Gledhill in ‘Klute 2: Feminism and Klute‘, pointed out that the film wasn’t quite as progressive as feminists hoped. Gledhill is right. For a start the film isn’t called Daniels, making Klute the supposed centre of the narrative suggests the primacy of the male experience and he does get to play the usual Hollywood knight rescuing the damsel. However, I think it is better to think of Daniels as the true protagonist, in a way that Giddis meant even if she misread the film, because it makes the film far more interesting. It is a psychological portrait of a ‘liberated’ woman of the time who is anything but liberated as she has to sell her body to get control over her life and requires a ‘good’ man to save her. Although the film seems to think it is being progressive it is mired in the misogyny of the time and does not free itself of patriarchy. There’s an excellent Senses of Cinema article here. Pakula offers us striking widescreen compositions and the dark heart of 1970s  America  is caustically exposed.

Bastards (Les salauds, France-Germany, 2013)

Tortured, and torturing, men

Tortured, and torturing, men

It’s 40 years since Chinatown reinvigorated film noir with more explicit representations of violence and cynicism. Claire Denis’ contribution to neo noir, based in part on William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, foregrounds male complicity with the darkness of the genre. If, in classic noir, the femme was the ‘mame to blame’, here men are – in the main – scumbags of the highest order. This is even mostly true of our protagonist, moodily played by Vincent Lindon who, at least, seems to be motivated by goodness.

I found the plot typically noirish, it had me peering into the dark to fathom what was going on; my viewing partner, however, had no such problem. But then maybe her gender, female, meant it made sense to her. I’ll try not to ‘spoil’ but my first reaction was the the depraved coda was unnecessary as we already knew what had happened. In retrospect I think Denis was right to include it; it was more, I think, I just didn’t want to see it at the time having been mired in the darkness of Bastards for 100-odd minutes. Now, it makes sense to have done so.

Denis’ films are always worth seeing and can be one of the view directors that can be considered an auteur; a point made by Roy Stafford in his introduction to the film. Roy was launching his excellent The Global Film Book which I can recommend to anyone interested in cinema.

For cineastes

For cineastes

Se7en (US, 1995) – kindle extract: film noir

Classic neo noir

Classic neo noir

The below is extracted from Film Note: Se7en, available for the next six days for less than half price here!

FILM NOIR

It was during the summer of 1946 that French moviegoers discovered a new type of American film … movies which shared a strange and violent tone, tinged with a unique kind of eroticism: … The Maltese Falcon, … Laura, … Murder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity, and … The Woman in the Window. (Borde and Chaumeton, 1999, p. 17; first published in 1955)

Deprived of Hollywood movies during the German occupation of the Second World War, French critics had the opportunity, after the war’s end, to view a glut of movies made during the war years. They saw a group of films that had a visual style in common and narratives that shared the mood of serie noire novels. They dubbed these film noir and a new genre was born.

The fact that the makers of these movies were not aware of the existence of film noir is not important. The zeitgeist (‘spirit of the times’) of 1940s America, plus changing conditions of film production and of many German emigres, laid the foundation for the new genre. Although there are disputes as to which film qualifies as the first film noir critics cite the John Huston-directed The Maltese Falcon (1941) as the ground-breaking movie. Based on Dashiel Hammett’s novel, featuring private detective Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon had the hard-boiled detective narrative that was characteristic of pulp fiction thrived, in the 1920s, as serials in magazines such as Black Mask. It was not until three years later, with the arrival of the other films cited by Borde and Chaumeton, that the classic film noir cycle got into ‘full-flow, culminating with Touch of Evil in 1958. The hiatus, between and 1944, was probably a result of Hollywood responding to the War effort.

Unsurprisingly, the Second World War caused massive social upheaval, possibly most lastingly felt in the changing role of women. As men fought on the front line, women were drafted into factories to take on ‘men’s’ work. This gave women a sense of independence and helped fuel their husbands’/boyfriends’ fantasies about what ‘their’ women might be up to. In addition, at the war’s end, men wanted ‘their’ jobs back and women were forced back into the home or the menial employment they had ‘enjoyed’ before the war. This eruption of gender identity was expressed in the film noir character of the femme fatale.

In addition, many soldiers were traumatised by their wartime experiences. They had spent up to five years fighting in the company of men and killing in terrifying conditions, so the return to civilian life was anything but easy. Many suffered from the then largely unrecognised post-traumatic stress syndrome. Hence many film noir characters are veterans, suspicious of women, psychologically scarred by their experiences and capable of psychotic violence.

Also during the 1940s, the theories of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud became fashionable in North America. His belief that human beings’ civilised nature was barely skin deep and our ‘animal side’, the id, was never far away can be seen in film noir‘s narratives that investigate the dark side of humanity.

Paul Kerr (1999) has suggested that industrial constraints helped fuel the film noir genre. These films were made as B pictures (as distinct from the prestigious and expensive A pictures) and were made on tight schedules with little interference from the studio producer. This relative independence meant experimentation was possible in both visual style and narrative. With the time constraints (Edgar Ulmer’s classic Detour, 1945, was made in six days), night and location shooting were required, which helped in the development of filmnoir‘s look.

The influx of German directors, who were fleeing the Nazis, was probably most influential. During the early 1920s, a number of German films drew upon the Expressionist visual style that emphasised characters’ state of mind by exaggerating and distorting the exterior world. In film noir, this mutated into lighting patterns that used shadows to distort people and objects, and camera angles that made the ‘normal’ grotesque. This visual style can be considered to be the iconography of film noir; indeed some critics argue that film noir is not a genre at all but a film movement characterised by its visual style (see Place, 1980). Westerns, such as Rancho Notorious (1952), have been shot as film noir. Rancho Notorious was directed by Fritz Lang, who made his name in Germany with films like Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). Lang made many classic films noir, including Woman in the Window and The Big Heat (1953). As we saw in Background: Director as auteur, Lang has influenced David Fincher.

Although critics suggest the classic film noir cycle ended in 1958, films noir continued to be made: Odds Against Tomorrow was released in 1959 and Cape Fear three years later. However, it was not until the 1980s that there appeared a large number of films that shared film noir characteristics and these have been dubbed neo noir. Body Heat (1981) possibly heralded this return to favour of the convoluted narrative dealing with corrupt individuals. As a 1980s’ remake of Double Indemnity, the sex scenes in Body Heat could be as explicit as those in the earlier films noir had been implicit.

A number of neo-noirs, including Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997), can be considered as pastiches that knowingly, and lovingly, recreate the style of earlier films, albeit in colour and with a modern sensibility. Other neo noirs, such as Se7en, move the genre forward and so avoid pastiche. Se7en‘s unmitigated tale of woe (most classic films noir did at least gesture toward a happy ending), suggests there is little, or no hope for modern society (see Critical Responses).

There is not enough space here to do justice to the variations and complexity of film noir; for a more in-depth, though still relatively brief survey, see Lacey (2000) or any of the following books dedicated to the genre: Cameron (1992), Hirsch (1999), Kaplan (1980) or Krutnik (1991).