I have just watched Rene' Clair's delightful musical comedy romp LES BELLES DE NUIT/NIGHT BEAUTIES (1952) for the first time. I had recorded it off an Italian TV channel a couple of weeks ago, but today, August 17th being my 26th birthday, I decided to treat myself to this little gem from one of the masters of French cinema.
It tells the story of a misunderstood and idealistic composer forced to teach music to unruly schoolchildren to scrape a living. His daily attempts at composing his opera are repeatedly disrupted by the cacophony of modern day appliances the trademark of an industrialized and progressive society: car horns, vacuum cleaners, radio transmissions, etc. He finally gives up his musical ambitions to retreat in a dream world in which he inhabits various historical epochs and where he, invariably, is the toast of the town: a leader of the French Revolution, a decorated hero of the Franco-Algerian War, an up-and-coming composer of La Belle Epoque who is conducting his first opera, etc.
But just when his dreams are reaching the climactic realization of his desires, the inevitable interruptions of his real surroundings bring him back resoundingly to the 20th Century. While for the most part the film concentrates on the three distinct ages mentioned above, towards the finale there is a hectic progression of time traveling in which our hero has to rush to Paris by car for a vital interview which may finally open the doors to his musical career which had up till now remained resolutely shut. This chase takes him all the way through the Prehistoric Age (complete with a couple of hilariously phoney dinosaurs), the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages (in which he also manages to get entangled in a duel against the Three Musketeers) and so on and so forth.
Despite the film's relatively short running time (89 minutes), there is such an abundance of incident and inventiveness in Clair's screenplay that my synopsis above fails to do the film justice. Visually, the film is extremely polished and it manages the improbable premise of having the characters jumping from one time-frame to the other (sometimes within the same sequence) with great skill and elegance. However, where the film really delivers is in its inventive use of sound which harks back to Clair's celebrated experiments at the very beginning of the Talkie era with SOUS LE TOIS DE Paris/UNDER THE ROOFS OF Paris (1930), A NOUS LA LIBERTE'(1931) and LE MILLION (1931). In one particular sequence, our hero, played with his usual graceful charm by Gerard Philipe, is so distraught at the continuous interruptions by clamoring neighbors, disgruntled creditors and concerned cronies that he imagines them in the orchestra playing his symphonic work on car horns, tins and kettles and their ilk instead of musical instruments.
The film, on first viewing, may seem merely an enjoyable piece of fluff to the uninitiated. But taken in the context of Clair's entire oeuvre it shows how consistent his cinematic ideals have remained, not the least being the way he has his characters (played by Martine Carol, Gina Lollobrigida and Paolo Stoppa amongst others) sing their dialogue, as they did in his deft musical comedies of the early Thirties which sealed his reputation, influenced other film-makers (including Chaplin) and proved that the Sound Revolution, rather than being detrimental to the art of cinema, could aid in effectively telling a story if used judiciously and imaginatively.
Regrettably, I have only managed to watch six other movies by Rene' Clair so far: LE MILLION (1931), THE GHOST GOES WEST (1935), IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944), AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945), LE SILENCE EST D' OR/MAN ABOUT TOWN (1947) and LES GRANDE MANOUVRES (1955). One of my earliest DVD acquisitions was in fact The Criterion Collection's DVD of LE MILLION. I also purchased Image Entertainment's AND THEN THERE WERE NONE as soon as it came out and I currently have Criterion's discs of UNDER THE ROOFS OF Paris (which also includes Paris QUI DORT/THE CRAZY RAY ) and A' NOUS LA LIBERTE' (coupled with ENTR'ACTE ) on pre-order. I also have THE GHOST GOES WEST, LES GRANDES MANOUVRES and PORTES DES LILAS (1957) which I have yet to watch - on PAL VHS. I say all this to illustrate my admiration for this undeniable master of the medium whose critical standing has unjustly diminished somewhat over the years.
There are many another Rene' Clair film that I would love to watch: LE VOYAGE IMAGINAIRE (1926), UN CHAPEAU DE PAILLE D' ITALIE/AN ITALIAN STRAW HAT (1927), QUATORZE JUILLET (1932), LE DERNIER MILLIARDAIRE (1934), THE FLAME OF NEW ORLEANS (1941), I MARRIED A WITCH (1942), LA BEAUTE' DU DIABLE (1949) and TOUT L' OR DU MONDE (1961). Hopefully, Criterion will issue some of them on DVD in the not-so-distant future. The only other film of Clair's that is available on R1 DVD is Image's FOREVER AND A DAY (1943), but he was only one of seven directors working on this episodic saga made for the War effort. There is also a French R2 edition of LES GRANDES MANOUVRES but it has no English subtitles.
One reason why I think I like LES BELLES DE NUIT so much is because I felt an affinity with Gerard Philipe's reaction to the incomprehension of his artistic sensibilities by the people he meets in everyday life. As he retreats to his bed to dream of his exploits in the orchestra pit (and the bedroom), so do I shun the world outside for hours at a stretch and retreat to my darkened room to watch films on DVD; as he demands stillness and quiet while he is composing his symphonies, so do I crave it when I am reading a book or writing my screenplays (with my like-minded brother); as he dreams of being a successful composer and conductor, so do I envisage myself directing my own work for the screen! We have written two screenplays so far, both of which have gone through numerous drafts, and we have also managed to set out a shot-by-shot template (i.e. what is referred to in the industry as a shooting script) for the first of these, besides beginning preparatory work on two other subjects. Incidentally, we plan to go off on a two-week trip to London at the beginning of September and we intend to hustle our scripts around in search of a potential backer! Wish us luck!
By the way, my viewing experience of LES BELLES DE NUIT on Italian TV set me wondering if there were any of you who also have a habit of taping films off the TV just for a chance of watching them for the first time. Although I admit that dubbed versions are not the ideal way to watch movies, I'd rather watch them that way than wait for them to show up on DVD in their original language. At any rate, not all of them would actually make it into my DVD collection even if they were released!
For the sole purpose of taping and erasing such films, I keep two four-hour video tapes which have taken a lot of battering lately. Some recent examples of this practice give a fair indication of the eclectic bunch of movies which crop up on TV nearly every week: Fritz Lang's THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953), John Frankenheimer's I WALK THE LINE (1970), Peter Yates' THE DRESSER (1983) and Samuel Fuller's quirky swan song STREET OF NO RETURN (1989) which I never even heard of before I saw it announced as an upcoming DVD SE from Fantoma. On my 'To Watch' list, I currently have Anthony Mann's DESPERATE (1947) and Jacques Tati's TRAFFIC (1970) very ironic in view of my failure to secure copies of his films on DVD when they went out-of-print a couple of weeks ago! But I wasn't too keen on acquiring them in their present, mutilated condition anyway, even if they had the bonus short films to make up for it somewhat!
For this week, I plan to tape Carol Reed's adaptation of Graham Greene's OUR MAN IN HAVANA (1959) and Ronald Neame's HOPSCOTCH (1980). I usually wouldn't have given the latter a second thought but due to its recent and unexpected inclusion in the Criterion catalog, I'll give it a look. Most of the time, these films are shown in the dead of night making it impossible for me to watch when they are aired, but sometimes, like yesterday for instance I make an exception. I gave up on two-and-a-half hours of sleep to catch two delirious Anti-Red films of the Fifties: William Cameron Menzies' THE WHIP HAND (1951) and Robert Stevenson's I MARRIED A COMMUNIST/THE WOMAN ON PIER 13 (1949). They also showed Abraham Polonsky's FORCE OF EVIL (1948) and Martin Ritt's THE FRONT (1976) in the same line-up but since I had watched them before, I went to sleep at 03:30 a.m!