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The Skin Game

Nobody wins
Hitchcock dismissed this early work, and critics seem to have followed his lead. We should know by now that artists are not the most reliable judges of their work. By this point in his career he was a precocious master, not an apprentice (movies like "The Ring" and "The Manxman" would ensure him a place in cinema history even if he had never gone on to become "the master of suspense"). He may have found the subject uncongenial but there is no sign that he gave it less than his full commitment. The structure is a kind of pyramid, with the virtuoso auction scene as the fulcrum: the first shot is echoed in the last, the second in the next to last, etc. (ABCDCBA). On a first viewing this may not be apparent, and some scenes that look clumsily staged and shot make sense on reflection: an early long dialogue scene dominated by Mr. Hornblower frames him with Mrs. Hillcrist rather than her husband, the intended audience for Hornblower's harangue; what seems a mistake is later revealed to be appropriate when we discover Mrs. Hillcrist's attitude to Hornblower.

The acting styles are an interesting mix: the rather stolid theatrical Hillchrists, florid Edmund Gwenn as Hornblower, tremulous Phyllis Konstam as the ill-fated Chloe, and Jill Esmond whose spontaneity is like a breath of fresh air that points to the film-acting future.

The final shot seems to come out of nowhere, but works once we are aware of the structure. The tree being cut down at the beginning falls at the end: in effect the whole movie takes place in that instant of time (see "The Incident at Owl Creek Bridge"). All the machinations and heartbreak we've been watching ultimately make no difference at all: the tree falls and nobody wins the skin game.

L'homme à l'imperméable

Comedy tout court
I have to defend this movie, oddly enough from one of Duvivier's great admirers, the indispensable dbdumonteil. It really isn't meant to be anything but a comedy - the convoluted murder plot is only an outline to hang the gags on (just because it's based on a pulp crime novel doesn't mean it has to be a film noir). And the tone is beautifully judged - we enjoy watching Fernandel squirm out of deadly situations knowing he will somehow remain unscathed. Another reviewer made an interesting reference to the Dick Powell tongue-in-cheek noirs, a good comparison to highlight the pitfalls of this kind of hybrid: a film noir doesn't work if you're winking at the audience; we lose all interest when nothing is at stake (even Hawks fell into this trap). But comedies have been playing with murder and mayhem since silent days. And the gags are not just there for fun, they're integrated into the structure. Example: an egg rolls off the kitchen table and Fernandel tries haplessly to clean it up, prefiguring the mess he will soon get into and find it even harder to extricate himself from. Then a second egg rolls to the edge of the table and he catches it (perfect timing!) cluing us that he has his wits about him when he needs them. Chalk up another winner from a great director and star!

L'uomo di paglia

the last word
This is a very fine drama from Pietro Germi who is better known for his later comedies. It starts as a low-key family story eventually involving (reluctant) adultery on the husband's part. When he tries to break it off his lover won't accept that it's over, but rather than turning into Fatal Attraction it reaches a tragic conclusion that, in the best Italian tradition, acknowledges the messiness of life without blaming anyone. It also avoids the trap of reducing a woman's death to a vehicle for the protagonist's character development (as in The Hustler) - nobody learns any life lessons, just the irreversible consequences of a wrong decision.

What is really extraordinary about the movie - something I don't recall seeing anywhere else - is the switch of narrators at the very end. The husband's voice-over has been telling the story throughout, until in the last scene the wife's voice takes over and gives her perspective on the outcome. I'm not sure if this is aesthetically "correct" but it seems to me a brilliant reversal of the usual privileging of the male point of view. Sometimes the rules just need to be broken.


the melodrama dilemma
Hmmmm... if the reviews and comments I've seen are any indication, melodrama is as divisive as ever. I found Ozon's approach admirable: intelligent and objective but not satirically distanced, like Fassbinder without the cruelty. It seems clear to me that he is showing us not a realistic depiction of Angel's life but a version colored by her imagination. The intention is not to mock her but to allow us to share her experience, and to make up our own minds about the value of her fantasies. The closest to an authorial statement comes from the character least sympathetic to Angel: Charlotte Rampling as the publisher's wife comments that in spite of Angel's lack of talent or self-knowledge, she has to admire her drive to succeed. Of course we're not compelled to agree, but it strikes me as a fair assessment.

The reactions to this movie remind me of the uncomprehending dismissal of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, another story of a shallow, self-involved woman that insists on looking through her eyes. This kind of scrupulous generosity is in line with a tradition going back to Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and both directors have the stylistic confidence to carry it off. It may just be that they don't have the critics they deserve.

The Deadly Companions

Essential Peckinpah
It's time this movie took its rightful place in Peckinpah's career. Some discussions of the director don't even mention it, and I suspect that's partly because of its relative unavailability. At least it needs to be seen before making generalizations about his treatment of women, as O'Hara's character is his only strong dramatic female character (echoed later by Stella Stevens' good-time gal in the whimsical Ballad of Cable Hogue). It also shows his gentle, lyrical side in a serious context, which is an important counterweight to the brutality he's famous for. And it might provide a point of entry for those who otherwise find his work off-putting.

I wonder if some of the negative comments here were based on poor video copies of the film. I just saw the new UK DVD release of a beautiful widescreen print, and it shows Peckinpah already a master of the 'scope frame (one example: the angles on Wills and Cochran on horseback following Keith and O'Hara pulling the coffin, casually insinuating the interplay of threat and vulnerability in the midst of the harsh landscape). His distinctively offbeat editing rhythms are evident from the first scene, but of course they would be mangled into gibberish in a pan-and-scan version.

Danger - Love at Work

Unsung screwball classic
Thirties comedy tends to zanier-than-thou smugness, even in official classics like It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby. So it's a pleasant surprise to find Preminger already applying his lawyerly objectivity to a boilerplate screwball script, giving the zanies and the normals their due but not endorsing either. When Jack Haley asks Ann Sothern to elope and she protests, "If I don't have a wedding my family will never speak to me again" he shoots back, "That settles it!" and whisks her off - in effect a shotgun wedding between the two camps. A delightful tidbit that deserves reconsideration for the canon. (And the title song will have your toes tapping for days.)

A Kiss Before Dying

Upscale Ed Wood?
Robert Wagner as a psychopathic killer, Jeffrey Hunter as a math teacher/cop, Joanne Woodward as a clinging dishrag, Virginia Leith as a sexy prospective victim and Mary Astor as a dowdy mom? It's so strange I began to wonder if it was some kind of demented masterpiece. It starts with perky titles promising a silly romantic comedy, then has a long dialogue scene between Bob and Joanne all in one take, a tumble by a pregnant woman that *doesn't* result in a miscarriage (surely a movie first), and indescribably odd moments like a sixtyish woman in a see-through blouse sashaying through an intense dialogue scene that pauses to honor her passing, and a postal clerk whose delicate cough serves as a Pinteresque interruption to an otherwise inconsequential line. It was Gerd Oswald's first movie and as far as I can tell he never did anything of note after-wards, but he might have been an Ed Wood buried under a studio budget. It's on DVD and should be seen in its original Cinemascope glory.

Ruby Gentry

melodrama straight up
King Vidor's head-on approach to melodrama seems to be out of fashion these days when critics are more comfortable with the self-conscious ironies of Douglas Sirk. Ruby Gentry is the last and, along with Stella Dallas, the best of his "women's pictures", a taut, almost abstract depiction of a woman's ultimately self-destructive attempt to live without restraints. The object of all men's desire, she tries to turn the tables on Charlton Heston by becoming the aggressor (in their first scene together shining her flashlight on him while she remains invisible, making him the passive object of her teasing erotic gaze). Caught between the fire-and-brimstone brother out of Flannery O'Connor and the discreet condemnation of the bourgeoisie she marries into, Ruby lashes out, taking them all (even Heston) down with her and ends up cast adrift on the sea, as inscrutable as Dreyer's Gertrud.


This is one of those pathetic attempts at "daring" theater that I hoped had died with the 80s, where every line has to be a barbed zinger and all the characters have their masks ripped off to reveal the ruthless/contemptible reality underneath. It's the kind of thing that people see so they can go to the next cocktail party and preen themselves on being tres sophistique' as they talk about how searing it all was. Surprisingly, the actor who comes off best is Julia Roberts - she doesn't have to throw any tantrums, and she just gets through it with professional aplomb. All the others are blubberingly sincere, when the only way to deal with such crap is either with cool irony a la Kingsley and Irons in "Betrayal" or honest, unsentimental romantic passion like Bardem in "Segunda piel". And the dead hand of Mike Nichols turns it into an excruciatingly tasteful TV movie (ah, that chic classical music - Rossini for the oohlala email exchange and Cosi fan tutte wafting through Julia's apartment like the latest fragrance from Guerlain).

La truite

Doesn't this movie have any defenders? Even Losey's biographers don't seem to be able to find a kind word for it. What I see is the work of a serene master who has left behind the trappings of drama and psychology to contemplate a world of pure cinema. Unfortunately the late masterworks of great directors are often misunderstood (see Griffith's "The Struggle", Lang's "1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse", Zinnemann's "Five Days One Summer") - maybe because there isn't a critical middle ground between workaday reviewers who are unable to see beyond story and acting and academic critics who are busy applying their pet theories. In any case, it's available on a beautiful DVD and ripe for (re)discovery.

The Company

Grace and precision
Maybe this movie is a test case for appreciating what movies are all about. If your main interest is the story this isn't going to do it for you. There are plenty of movies that offer nothing but story, but there are precious few that can give you the serene mastery of the medium that Altman achieves here. Look at the way he composes wide-screen shots of Neve Campbell playing pool and cuts between James Franco's appreciative glances and her amused not-quite acknowledgment of his interest, all set to Elvis Costello's version "My Funny Valentine". Would you really rather spend the time listening to inane getting-to-know-you dialogue? This is film-making, guys, and if it doesn't thrill you you're in the wrong game.

Tender Is the Night

best Fitzgerald adaptation
Fitzgerald's works have suffered almost as badly as Faulkner's in movie and TV adaptations, but this miniseries captures the inconsolable sadness of his most moving book. Mary Steenburgen's extraordinary performance not only makes Nicole comprehensible (which she wasn't always in the novel, where we see her through her husband's eyes) but lends her a warmth and sweetness that make her fate almost unbearable. It's a pity this isn't better known.

Exorcist II: The Heretic

Misunderstood brilliance
John Boorman's astonishing "sequel" to the monster hit of 1973 was accused of all the faults the original had been guilty of. In fact it redeems the whole concept, chucking out the obscene pseudo-religiosity of the first movie (which it used to justify indulging in sadistic fantasies about little girls that would have made De Sade blush) and creating instead a hypnotic nightmare-fantasy that makes Regan a sympathetic and courageous heroine. If the plot is incomprehensible it is no more so than that of most horror films, and Boorman's masterful direction gives it a gravity and emotional resonance that bring it close to the level of Dreyer's "Vampyr".

Let's hope the DVD release will bring new converts to this amazing work.

The Exile

This is probably the least appreciated of the series of masterpieces Max Ophüls made in his too-short stay in Hollywood. Superficially it is a fairly silly, light-hearted historical romp, and it is enjoyable enough on that level. But this only throws into sharper relief the expressive mastery of Ophüls' style - by the end of the movie a single elegant camera move is enough to turn the mood to high tragedy. This is sublime filmmaking.

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