The Little Stranger (Ireland-UK-France, 2018)

Decline and fall

The film version of Sarah Waters’ novel seems to me to be a rare example of Todorov’s ‘fantastic’, a ‘genre’ in which the supernatural happenings may have natural causes. This is in contrast to the novel where the ghostly goings on are more obviously really ghostly. Set in the post-war era the Ayres’ stately home is falling into dilapidation symbolising the shift from the old deferent order to the Labour government of the Welfare State. Domhnall Gleeson’s socially mobile doctor inveigles himself into the Ayres’ household having become entranced by the house when visiting once as a child. Ruth Wilson plays the sister hauled back to nurse her brother, injured during the war.

Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is solid and I liked the way the Gothic horror elements slowly infiltrated the movie; even the house, at first, seemed to me to be innocuous. The scene where Charlotte Rampling’s mother gets trapped in her room is genuinely scary and Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography is suitably atmospheric.

Spoiler alert: ‘who is the little stranger?’ remains a question in the book but the film is more direct in the final scene where the doctor, as a child, remains in the house. In addition, the death of the sister is more directly dramatised, more than hinting at the perpetrator. Otherwise the film is a faithful adaptation of a good novel but it is good there are divergences otherwise what would be the (artistic) point?

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Violent Playground (UK, 1958)

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Young people today!

Basil Dearden is renowned as a director of ‘social problem’ films (see his Sapphire); though I remember the late Victor Perkins complaining about his abilities as a director. Violent Playground focuses on juvenile delinquents (what’s happened to them?) and draws upon Liverpool police force’s pioneering use of a ‘juvenile liaison officer’. That’s the reluctant Stanley Baker who, of course, falls for the sister of prime delinquent (David McCallum).

The location shooting is effective but it’s striking that there’s only one Scouse accent on show (a very young Freddie Starr) though the focus is on an Irish family. The staging of the siege at a primary school at the film’s climax, though, is farcical. The high drama of the scene is constantly undermined by PC Plod behaviour and John Slater’s weatherworn face, for example, never changes expression whether he’s facing a crazed gunman or asking for a cup of tea. Peter Cushing appears as a priest casting reassurance about him even as he’s been pushed off a ladder.

Baker’s his usual intense self but his modernity, as a male role model of the era, is strikingly compromised in a scene where the youngsters are driven into a trance like state by the ‘moronic’ rock ‘n’ roll music of the time. Rarely has a scene encapsulated the older generation’s inability to understand the zeitgeist; the transformation of youth into zombies, complete with violent tendencies, dramatises the filmmakers’ incomprehension of what we now to be one of the most significant cultural influences of the 20th century. Baker’s as dumbfounded as the filmmakers but his desire for the sister makes him an understanding character.

As in Sapphire, the film is an excellent example of the mores of the time. It includes named ‘Chinese’ characters and black faces are purposely included to show the multicultural basis of the community. This shows Dearden and his filmmakers to be more in tune with the zeitgeist than the current Conservative candidate for the major of London who thinks multiculturalism is a bad thing. Fancy being more outdated than a middle-aged ’50s filmmaker!

Summertime (UK-US, 1955)

When the living is uneasy

The opening scenes of this melodrama look like a travelogue graced by Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. I guess tourism was becoming more popular in the post-War era and the shots of Venice would no doubt have tempted many to visit. All these scenes lack is a complacent voice over selling us the place’s charms in a twee way. Fortunately the film stars Katharine Hepburn.

The slight ‘holiday romance’ story was adapted, from Arthur Laurent’s play, by director David Lean and H.E. Bates (and the uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart). Hepburn’s ‘independent woman’ persona is to the fore at the start as she’s touring on her own but finds the ‘romance’ of Venice casts her loneliness into the foreground: cue Rossano Brazzi’s Italian charmer, Renato di Rossi. What makes the film distinctive is the way Jane Hudson’s (Hepburn) loneliness is portrayed as it isn’t just something that is presented as a ‘narrative lack’ to be fulfilled ‘happily ever after’ at the film’s conclusion. There’s real pathos in Hepburn’s performance as she hesitates to go for the ‘holiday fling’. Her ‘middle aged spinster’ characterisation takes up a fair proportion of the film and the scriptwriters don’t compromise with their ending.

In a striking scene, when di Rossi first sees Hudson we get that rare beast: the male gaze directed at an ‘older’ woman (Hepburn was 48 at the time). We see him appreciatively look at her body, particularly her exposed calf. Even the ‘cute’ kid isn’t too irritating though Lean’s tendency to shoot a lot of the conversations in long takes and an immobile character tends to drain the drama. However, the numerous shots of Hudson wandering around a crowded Venice are skilfully executed.

Apparently the adultery fell foul of the Production Code and scenes were cut: the film leaves us with a firework display. Hepburn received one of her numerous Oscar nominations; Lean, too, was nominated.

Shockproof (US, 1949)

Good-bad girl played by Patricia Knight

After yesterday‘s peculiar mixing of styles I immediately stumbled across another example with this melonoir. The reasons for the strange combination are easy to trace in Shockproof through the scriptwriters: Sam Fuller’s noir script, good guy brought down by bad woman (who is really good), was rewritten by Helen Deutsch of National Velvet (1944) fame. In its widest sense most films are melodrama as they require a contrived narrative and character types to function as mainstream texts but in this context the melodrama refers to the way, as Slant magazine has it, Deutsch ‘lobotomized’ the noir intentions.

Whilst the enigma of Patricia Knight’s femme fatale is interesting – is she as bad as she appears? – the schmaltzy home environment of the schmuck (Cornel Wilde), complete with ‘cute’ kid brother and smiling blind mother, suffocates the nihilism that John Baragrey’s bad guy struggles to sell (the ending is terrible).

Sirk’s expressionist visual style, that is celebrated in the melodramas that were to follow in the ’50s, is directly wedded to the look of noir. As can be seen in the publicity photo above, chiaroscuro lighting is present but my overall impression when watching the film was it is not one that relishes the noir visual style. Knight’s femme fatale, however, could be the cousin of Gilda who did go wrong. Sirk seems most interested in the interiors of the home, the key setting for melodrama.

Cornel Wilde has the thankless task of the parole officer who is unbelievably ‘good’. One thing noir movies reeked of was sex but Wilde’s far too anodyne here (not blaming him specifically – could be the script). It’s as if the Production Code had been swallowed when noir movies tended to push it as far as they could.

Apparently Sirk was so disillusioned with Hollywood after making the film he  returned to Europe. Fortunately he came back to make some of the greatest Hollywood films of the decade that followed.

Puzzle (US, 2018)

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A puzzle as why Kelly MacDonald isn’t a bigger star

I had my doubts as to where this melodrama was going near the start of the film. I wasn’t fussed by the unusual milieux (jigsaw puzzle contests) just worried I’d seen it all before: mousy, downtrodden woman finds her voice. It’s not that that’s not an important narrative arc but it is well weathered so needs freshening up and this remake of the Argentinean Rompecabezas (2009) does just that.

Even if it hadn’t the performances are enough to make the film worthwhile. MacDonald is sensational as Agnes and Irrfan Khan’s charisma carries him a long way. David Denman, as Louie Agnes’ husband, is also very good and his character never becomes a simple sign of patriarchal repression. Cinematography (Christopher Norr) is great too: light floods into Agnes’ home which, nevertheless, remains gloomy. The film is about a darkness of the American Dream.

Spoilers ahead: but what makes the film stand out is Agnes who doesn’t take long to develop into an independent woman. Instead of a slow burn of realisation she gets it quickly and acts accordingly. MacDonald’s brilliance is that she convinces us of the fairly rapid transformation.

Superbly made, director Marc Turtletaub produced Little Miss Sunshine (US, 2009), this made me almost want to do a jigsaw.

Bitter Harvest (UK, 1963)

Janet Munro: a talent who came to a bitter end

Talking Pictures synopsis, along with the title, suggests a cautionary tale:

‘A young Welsh girl leaves her home with the intention to seek a glamorous life in London.’

‘Sixties British cinema regularly dealt with the dangers of London for provincial girls; as in The Pleasure Girls though in Smashing Time (1967) the girls do have fun. The opening sequence, with some excellent handheld camerawork, shows Jennie Jones (Janet Munro) trashing a place; she’s drunk and very unhappy. Most of the film is a flashback showing how she came to be in that predicament.

The early scenes, in ‘the valleys’ near Cardiff make it quite clear why Jennie has to escape so on one level she comes across as strong because leaving is the only option. However once in London she is economically dependent (upon ‘nice guy’ Bob – John Stride). She’s also shown to be overly-influenced by the glamour marketed by advertising; thought to be a female weakness at the time. That Jennie seems at once a protagonist and a victim must be, in large part, due to Munro’s marvellous performance. She’s given top billing and later became familiar in Disney films; she also appeared in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). She died in 1972, apparently from an alcohol related illness.

Strikingly the film is shot in colour, a rarity in cinema at the time. It was produced by the prolific Independent Artists (their fêted This Sporting Life was also released in 1963) and marketed as an exploitation movie as can be seen from the poster below.

Peter Graham Smith’s direction is good and some of the editing, where an extreme close up of a character’s face appears for a very short amount to time, is highly distinctive.

Ted Willis adapted Patrick Hamilton’s novel 20,000 Streets Under the Sky and suffers from the poor pacing of Jennie’s downfall. We know from the start it’s going to end badly but the ‘fall’ is too precipitous giving the film an abrupt ending. That said, it’s worth watching for Munro alone.

Cold War (Zimna wojna, Poland-France-UK, 2018)

Love in a divided climate

My response to Pawlikowski’s films has been mixed, I positively disliked The Woman in the Fifth (FrancePoland-UK, 2011) but can’t remember why. However both Ida and Cold War are undoubtedly excellent. Stylistically the new film is more self-consciously ‘arty’ than Ida and both feature beautiful cinematography by Lukasz Zal. Cold War‘s also narratively elliptical with the audience left to fill in missing bits; such as how Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) establishes himself in Paris. The focus in on his relationship with the luminescent Zula (Joanna Kulig, remarkably only five years younger than Kot when she seems much younger in the film), that is not so much caught up in the Cold War as in fighting their own temperaments.

The film spans 1949 to the early ’60s and so the borders created by the Cold War do act as barriers between them but their relationship would have probably been as fractured, though intense, in other times.

As in Ida, Pawlikowski uses the Academy Ratio that, with the startling black and white cinematography, gives the film an old fashioned look. The scenes in the ruined church reminded me of Ashes and Diamonds and the scenes in Paris, particularly, evoke the nouvelle vague. However, there’s no doubt that this is a 21st century film possibly because it is not particularly concerned with the politics of the time.

There are numerous bravura compositions: in one scene, where a Party conformist praises Wiktor for his ethnographic work in Polish folk tradition, the use of a mirror is disorientating; it looks as though he is standing behind them but is in front. The camerawork that captures Zula’s joie de vivre when she dances to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is brilliant.  The way the music, song and dance, is shot also suggests a modern aesthetic; they are allowed to run without being constantly ‘sutured’ into the narrative by eyeline matches from characters (in other words: the shots of the audience reaction to the performance are few).

A review in the right-wing Daily Telegraph unsurprisingly thinks the film equates the east with repression and the west with freedom; Wiktor, for instance, plays jazz in Paris. It’s certainly not that straightforward. The focus on the folk music suggests where authentic experience lies, the Polish Communist party wants to use it for political purposes, and the authorities are not keeping Zula and Wiktor apart. Pawlikowski has said he based the protagonists’ relationship loosely upon his parents’ and the ‘cold war’ is as much enacted between them as in the social context.

Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are brilliant in the lead roles and the music is sensational: a proper melodrama where it (almost) takes centre stage.  Marcin Masecki’s arrangements of the Polish folk song into different idioms ‘Dwa Serduszka’ (‘Two Hearts’) signifies the emotional development of the characters. There isn’t a soundtrack album but someone has put together a Spotify playlist.

Is one of the best films of the year so far.