Strangers on a Train (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): film labours under director’s favourite themes and obsessions

Alfred Hitchcock, “Strangers on a Train” (1951)

As with many other films made by English-American director Alfred Hitchcock, “Strangers on a Train” plumbs the theme of two men twinned together by unusual circumstances, each man the other’s doppelgänger, and with one man blamed and pursued for the crimes of his dark twin. In “Strangers …”, the presumed hero Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is an all-American good guy: born into the working-class, through talent and hard work he becomes a successful and famous amateur tennis player who through his friendship with a senator’s family is destined for a career in politics; the villain Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) is a spoilt high society playboy who stalks Guy and tries to blackmail him through his murder of Guy’s wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers aka Laura Elliott). Had the film been directed by anyone else in the 1950’s, the roles of Guy and Bruno would be clear-cut: the naive Guy might make mistakes of judgement that would compromise him and draw him into Bruno’s web of blackmail and threats, but would learn from his errors and be a better, stronger person at the end, and Bruno might be a one-dimensional sinister criminal from the underworld. Under the Hitchcock blowtorch, these two men, their backgrounds and their relationship become a running commentary on American politics, culture and society of the time and turn conventional Hollywood movie notions of love, sexual attraction, good guys and bad guys on their head.

Guy and Bruno meet accidentally in the dining-room part of a fast train, sitting almost opposite each other casually, as we might do in a crowded food-court at a shopping mall for lunch, and Guy’s foot accidentally brushing against Bruno’s. A subtle homoerotic sub-text is set up immediately and it’s significant that Guy initiates the meeting unconsciously. Bruno already knows much about Guy from reading the newspapers and is aware of the athlete’s unhappy marriage; he proposes that he, Bruno, can get rid of Miriam if Guy can get rid of his (Bruno’s) brutal father. Guy wants no part of the arrangement but his resistance is weak and is interpreted by Bruno as agreement. After this meeting, the movie then explores the nature of Guy and Miriam’s marriage in some detail and viewers learn that Miriam refuses divorce because she wants to live off Guy’s earnings and stop him marrying Anna Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a senator (Leo G Carroll) whose patronage Guy might need. Already we see Guy will benefit from Miriam being out of the way; and a phone conversation between Guy and Anna, interrupted by background train noises, reveals Guy’s unconscious wish of strangling Miriam. Bruno soon carries out his part of the “deal” and starts pressuring Guy to complete his part or to reject it and have Bruno tailing him and reminding him of his “guilt”.

As portrayed by Granger, Guy is a conventional, well-meaning but rather naive bunny lacking in moral fibre and strength: Granger definitely isn’t leading-man material but his style and lack of charisma work for the role. Guy is obsessed with keeping up appearances, keeping his public image squeaky-clean and safeguarding his entry into politics, all of which make him vulnerable to Bruno’s suggestions. Walker all but walks off with the movie: he clearly revels in his role as spoilt, rich mummy’s boy Bruno who lives off his parents and dreams of remaking the world either through half-baked inventions or murder according to his particular pseudo-Nietzschean moral code. His mind works methodically, logically: in conversation with two society matrons at a ball, he deftly steers the talk to committing the perfect murder and demolishes the two crones’ suggestions of the best way to knock off people with persuasive yet obvious counter-arguments. Having killed Miriam, he kindly posts a gun, a key and instructions to Guy to help him murder his own dad; innocent that he is and conscious of his wish for Miriam’s death, Guy keeps the weapon and instructions instead of turning them over to the police. Bruno is both sinister and amusing: his murder of Miriam, viewed indirectly as a mirror image in the victim’s dropped spectacles in the grass, is cold-blooded and vicious enough but from then on, the memory of the killing starts to play on his conscience with darkly hilarious and gruesome results at the aforementioned party. He pops up in Guy’s life at unexpected moments: at the evening ball, at Guy’s home and at his tennis matches – in one memorable if fantastic scene, Bruno sits in the middle of a crowd watching the tennis and is the only person who stares straight ahead at Guy on the sidelines while others around him are following the flying ball with their heads; the scene is suggestive on different levels and on one level, Bruno could be said to be a free-thinking, independent individual in a herd of sheep who follow every political trend.

The film encourages audiences to sympathise with Bruno: who doesn’t feel like popping a child’s balloon when rudely accosted by its owner? if you drop an expensive cigarette lighter down a grate, wouldn’t you also bust an arm to get it out? and on watching someone’s wife flirt shamelessly with two strange men she’s picked up off the street and who expect sexual favours from her, wouldn’t you think you were doing the husband a favour (and maybe the hussy as well – she might get raped) by killing her?

The acting support shines in “Strangers …” by flavouring the backgrounds of Bruno and Guy, enriching their relationship and conflict. Bruno’s mother (Marion Lorne) seems dotty with more than one foot in the land of the fairies but this may be a mask for denying her husband and son’s natures; only the portrait she paints of Bruno’s dad hints at the man’s brutality and explains why Bruno is so keen for Guy to kill him. From Bruno’s viewpoint, both he and Guy are oppressed by the institution of Family and they should help free each other in ways that won’t attract the attention of the incompetent police force in the movie. Miriam and Anna’s characters together are a comment on Guy’s attempt to transit from one world to another: Miriam is a free spirit, uninhibited and independent while Anna, otherwise cluey and smart, is demure and knows her place in the Washington DC social set. Interestingly Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock – yes, Hitchcock gave his daughter a job) seems a lot like Miriam in looks, character and tendency to speak out so there’s a possibility that Guy might end up two-timing Anna with the young sister in a life beyond the movie’s confines. Though Miriam and Anna appear older than Guy – the contrast between their characters and Guy’s indecisive nature might be intentional – their actors achieve a good balance between delineating the women, playing up their contrasts which are as much due to social class differences as in individual outlook and psychology, on the one hand and overshadowing Guy’s passiveness on the other.

Stand-out scenes in “Strangers …” include Bruno’s pursuit and murder of Miriam, filmed as a shadow play; the alternating scenes of Guy’s drawn-out tennis match and Bruno striving to retrieve Guy’s cigarette lighter from under the grate, each man pitted against the other in a cosmic joke duel which drags the tension out and bogs the movie down while it lasts; and the hysterically over-the-top climax in which a merry-go-round is accidentally set on overdrive as Bruno and Guy leap onto it and punch each other over the incriminating lighter. The sexual connotations of the whirring merry-go-round (complete with a little old guy crawling underneath it so he can get to the lever in the middle and turn it off, and all those wooden horses pumping up and down on the poles), who punches whose lights out first and the whole contraption crashing down and mortally crushing one of the two men, sending him off into something resembling a post-orgasmic dream reverie, are screamingly funny! Indeed the whole lead-up to and the carousel climax, starting with Anna’s report to Guy that Bruno has his lighter, plus the death scene, might be seen as an act of homoerotic consummation.

For a movie that initially looks and runs like a mainstream popcorn thriller, there’s a lot happening under the radar that comments on aspects of early 1950’s American society as Hitchcock found it. My impression is he went over the top himself and loaded too many themes and issues that took his fancy onto the film: in common with other Hitchcock movies, the plot comes over as implausible and the movie ends up a bit lightweight because of the heavy layering of symbolism. The merry-go-round climax does look like a jokey, self-indulgent afterthought and its slapstick nature doesn’t really fit in with the low-key suspense and subtle comedy in the rest of the film. In a way it’s a pity that “Strangers …” is a black-and-white film (technically speaking): colour would bring out a lot of the visual puns and the scenes relying on shadow play might even be creepier with layered shades of dark and black rather than just grey. The movie’s worth a look at least for Walker’s riveting performance as Bruno.

Downfall: masterly if flawed fictional account of Adolf Hitler’s last days

Oliver Hirschbiegel, “Downfall” (2004)

This is an incredible and masterly fictional dramatisation of the last 14 days in the life of Adolf Hitler over April – May, 1945, during the dying days of Nazi Germany and the Second World War in Europe. “Downfall” captures a whole world, an era, going down in flames, chaos and desperation as the Soviet army invades Berlin, leaving death and ruin in its wake, the German armed forces collapse for lack of manpower, supplies and coherent strategy, and civilians and soldiers alike scrabble and fight over food and shelter in the destroyed capital. While this is happening, the remnants of Hitler’s regime hide in an underground bunker where Hitler himself, aged and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, persists in his fantasies of leading Germany to victory and creating a new glorious Berlin, a citadel of (kitsch) art and culture, as the country burns around him.

History texts and documentaries can give us the blow-by-blow details of Nazi Germany’s death but what they can’t do is give a psychological portrait of Hitler and his closest supporters like Eva Braun, architect Albert Speer and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda. The film focusses on the characters of these people by structuring itself around the viewpoint (in part) of Hitler’s young personal secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) who appears as a passive observer doing her job and staying steadfast to Hitler to his dying day and beyond; any qualms she might have about her boss’s state of mind and his ways of thinking, she suppresses for the sake of duty and devotion to a man who has always treated her with fatherly kindness and gentleness. Skilfully woven into the drama is a parallel story of a fictional child soldier called Peter who represents both Germany’s manic desperation to fight the war to the very end, exemplified by the recruitment of himself and his young friends in the Hitler Youth as soldiers, and Germany’s hope for renewal as he survives the war and finds a companion in Junge herself after he discovers his parents have killed themselves in despair. Other parallel stories include those of the Goebbels, Braun, Speer, the army doctor Schenck and various military officers, all of whom are torn in some way between what they believe or think is right and wrong, what they know they should do and their loyalty to Hitler.

Students of psychology keen to know how people cope and behave in extreme situations in a virtual prison will find a feast here: Hitler (Bruno Ganz) zings constantly between denial and flights into fantasy – he imagines moving armies into positions to crush the Reds – on the one hand, and tirades about the supposed incompetence of advisors and officers he thought he could trust, and how the German people deserve to die for their weaknesses and inability to uphold and witness for Nazi ideals. He issues ever more eccentric orders to execute competent men and, as news of Soviet encroachment on the bunker comes, makes arrangements to marry Eva and to commit suicide with her. The retreat into fantasy as a way of coping with reality, staving off despair and covering up one’s own incompetence and responsibility for failures by blaming others and wishing evil on them becomes understandable. By doing this though, Hitler becomes a degraded and contemptible human being. We see, through Ganz’s intense and electrifying performance, the kind of “monster” Hitler is: egotistic, self-pitying, volatile and unstable, brutal, charming, kind and affectionate in an empty sort of way. His best friend is his dog Blondi yet he orders the dog killed in a pitiless manner.

Also as extreme and puzzling is the behaviour of people like the Goebbels and various minor characters who regard Hitler as a god and have such faith in his leadership and abilities that they’d rather die with him than live. Normally we’d admire people who place honour, integrity and devotion to ideals above personal interest and ambitions but what can we make of intelligent and capable people like Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) who has such a sincere and child-like if deluded faith in Hitler and Nazism that, unable to imagine a different Germany, kills all her children? What background and psychological history does she have, that on the one hand she idolises Hitler and clings to him in a way at once shocking and demeaning of herself, and on the other moulds her children into perfect little Nazi angels only to despatch of them in a steely and cold-blood manner?

The acting performances, particularly those of Ganz and Harfouch, are strong and riveting. The film loses some spark after Hitler and Braun’s deaths but the knowledge that the Goebbels plan to die and take their six children with them sustains tension to the end. My main gripe is the “happy” ending in which Junge and Peter cycle on a bike away from Berlin through a forest.  For me, this ending is a cop-out to cheer up audiences; the reality is that several of the women who left the bunker along with Junge were captured, raped and brutalised by Soviet Army soldiers. It’s possible Junge was raped and tortured as well though she did not mention if she was raped or not in her memoir, on which “Downfall” is partly based.

The film’s narrow focus on Hitler’s last 14 days, while it demonstrates the mind-set of Hitler and his followers, doesn’t say anything about the kind of society or psychological culture of Germany that allowed Hitler and his National Socialist party to achieve power originally, maintain that power while junking democratic processes and crushing opposition, industrialise the country and restore its pride only to take it into a prolonged war that destroyed its manufacturing achievements. For all his charm and charisma, and his promises, there’s no way Hitler and the Nazis could have just taken over Germany the way they did without support from most major institutions, like the armed forces, industry, the churches and other prominent organisations and individuals. If “Downfall” had included a few flashbacks to Hitler’s early days as a campaigning politician, bidding for the position of Chancellor in the early 1930’s, viewers might have got some idea of how Germany was seduced into trading a failing democracy for a psychopathic dictatorship. It could be said though that we have history text-books and documentaries to give us that background!

As it is, “Downfall” is a significant cinematic achievement which humanises Hitler and his followers without glorifying them; if anything, the movie shows how degraded, pitiful and even stupid they make themselves. Though the film isn’t a completely accurate historical record – some characters like Fegelein and Schenk are shown sympathetically – it demonstrates effectively the horrors of war, the suffering of ordinary people and the indifference of politicians to that suffering. The psychology of individuals like Hitler, Eva Braun and the Goebbels shown provide some insight into the thinking and actions of people caught up in a situation that’s rapidly and chaotically spinning out of their control and beyond their understanding.

Members of the Funeral: interesting film about a dysfunctional family of self-absorbed isolates

Baek Seungbin, “Members of the Funeral” (2008)

An interesting little gem from South Korea that’s flown under the radar of many movie websites, this film probes the relationships within a dysfunctional family whose members have been brought together, as if for the first time, by the funeral of a teenage boy not related to any of them. The plot explores the psychological histories of the husband (Oh Kwangrok, playing a medical professional in denial about his homosexuality and his need for, and to be, a father figure), his estranged wife (Park Myeongsin, a teacher with frustrated ambitions of being a writer) and their remote daughter Ami (Kim Byeol, a schoolgirl with a fixation bordering on necrophilia), and their separate and parallel relationships with the boy, Noh Heejun (Lee Juseung), a fatherless youngster with a flair for writing and a liking for 19th century English Romantic literature. Through Heejun, the three family members find some fulfilment of their desires, to the extent that they try to control him in ways they have learnt from their birth families and early experiences. With his death, they find themselves flung together unexpectedly and discover that the novel he has been writing about a creepy gay man, a teacher and girl is about them!

The movie’s themes can be creepy and sinister for a comedy which might perhaps explain why the film isn’t better known. The characters are hardly attractive people – teacher Mum is a particularly nasty piece of work (but she’s unconsciously emulating her misogynist grandfather literature professor after all) and the daughter’s facial expressions go from one kind of blank to the next kind of blank and the next – and only Heejun might elicit any sympathy at all from the audience as he goes from one family member to the next. The under-acting is deliberate so as to draw viewers’ attention to the characters’ isolation from one another with only Heejun uniting them all. The notion that people in a family can be so self-absorbed and estranged from one another that none of them knows what the others get up to and can’t recognise themselves or their relatives in a schoolboy’s novel makes for a very dark comedy rich in its observation of alienated individuals and their secret hopes, desires, thwarted ambitions, friendships gone forever and lost opportunities.

Admittedly the film is low on tension and its pace can be slow. Viewers might wonder, particularly with the daughter who spends her spare time in the office of a pathologist (the father of a childhood pal who died young) looking at dead bodies, if the film’s going to turn into a B-grade K-horror flick with the girl and Heejun being chased by the childhood pal’s soul through dark streets and alley-ways. There is very little violence though and the film is more quietly gruesome than horrific. How the plot resolves itself in its weaving, side-stepping way, and what the family members will do when confronted with the truth about their secrets, is the thing that has to sustain viewers’ attention to the end; some viewers might find the jumping around from one character’s viewpoint to another’s a bit tiresome and pretentious. Personally I had no problem, perhaps because knowing the characters’ back-stories and how these fed into their obsessions and attempts to manipulate Heejun for their own gain was in itself intriguing.

From a technical point of view, the film can be a little annoying with parts filmed with a hand-held camera; close-ups of actors’ faces while conversation is going on are often jerky when they should be still. This jerkiness might be intended to add some tension to particular scenes, especially those scenes in which the teacher is criticising Heejun and his writing. The jerkiness seems to emphasise the woman’s enjoyment of unnecessarily tearing strips off the boy.

Quite a likeable film in spite of the often unpleasant issues touched on and well worth repeated viewings. “Members of the Funeral” features some excellent acting performances and first-time director Baek shows some flair for unusual narrative and inventive story-telling, if he can only keep the camera steady!

Princess Mononoke: flawed epic with ambition and good intentions

Hayao Miyazaki, “Princess Mononoke” (1997)

When I first saw this movie about a decade ago, like everyone else I was bowled over by the stunning animated backgrounds and the techniques used to create very life-like or 3D effects (even though nearly everything was hand-drawn), and the attention Studio Ghibli paid to details so much so that every character had his or her own individual look and hair-style, and even the cooking pots and bowls used had their own distinctive features. On second viewing, this time with the jarring English language soundtrack, “Princess Mononoke” still looks impressive but its defects are easier to pick out: significant characters remain one-dimensional or come into the movie at odd times, almost as an afterthought, and partly as a result the plot is over-stretched and ends up bogged down in its themes and story details. Most viewers shouldn’t have a problem with major battle scenes and plot developments occurring off-screen and being reported after they occur but younger viewers or those with no experience of movies, TV shows and PC games where several actions can occur simultaneously with players focussed on one action or being able to flick between parallel actions, might struggle to keep up with “Princess Mononoke” as it unfolds.

The story takes place from the perspective of a young teenage warrior, Ashitaka, who defends his isolated village clan in a remote part of Japan from a giant boar which wounds him as he brings it down with arrows. The boar is a demon made so by hatred and anger of humans and Ashitaka must find out how the boar was transformed into raging hate and fury if he is to find a cure for his poisoned wound which the village wise woman warns will spread through his body and kill him. He travels to the forests west of his home territory and soon is embroiled in a bitter, ongoing conflict between an industrial and mining settlement called Irontown, led by the aristocratic Lady Eboshi, and the animal guardians of the forests, led by the feral teenage girl San aka Princess Mononoke and her adoptive wolf family. The Irontown inhabitants are clearing the forests on a mountain so they can mine and use the iron ore there but their actions are destroying the animals’ habitat and enraging the boars of whom one became the demon that attacked Ashitaka’s people and wounded him.

Ashitaka gets the answers he needs quickly but getting the actual cure for his infection is a much more complicated problem than he realises, and requires his being able to see the conflict between the humans and the forest creatures from both Lady Eboshi and San’s points of view. He discovers that both sides are under pressure from and are being manipulated by unseen others. He falls in love with San, he has to tolerate others’ decisions and actions even when they bring disaster instead of success, he discovers that even when all seems lost there is always the possibility of renewal and regrowth, and with that possibility, there is hope. As a rite-of-passage / coming-of-age movie, “Princess Mononoke” doesn’t quite succeed as both Ashitaka and San undergo no very significant character development even as those near and dear to them suffer and die. Their romance is lop-sided and San’s rejection of Ashitaka and of humans generally cuts out all but a very slim chance of future reconciliation. Ashitaka accepts change but San is uncomfortable with it and the possibility of their ever meeting again, in spite of promises from them both, is uncertain.

The plot itself runs out of steam coming towards the halfway point of the film and wallows in earnestness over its theme of human transformation of the natural environment through technology, industrialisation and sheer material greed, and the consequences of such a transformation and the forces it may unleash. To the film’s credit, the characters representing the opposing sides of the conflict the theme generates are complex and ambivalent: Lady Eboshi, the “villain”, is a humanitarian who takes the poor and disadvantaged under her wing and puts them to work in her iron forges (though that could be said generally of rapacious corporations that continually move operations from one Third World country to another to take advantage of naive local workers, low wages and political and social conditions that suppress human rights) and the animal guardians of the forests, the “good guys”, think of their own self-interest, refuse to listen to good advice when it comes from a human and fail to co-operate for the benefit of the forests and the Forest Spirit. The Forest Spirit itself is a passive and gentle giant that offers no resistance to the various indignities which include decapitation and death that the humans hurl at it. In addition there are other forces that attempt to pull Lady Eboshi’s strings, notably Jigo and his hunters who plan to make Lady Eboshi do all the work of killing the Forest Spirit and suffer the wrath of the animals while they themselves make off with the deity’s head; and the never-seen Lord Asano whose army attacks and nearly destroys Irontown while Lady Eboshi and Jigo lead her forces into the forest.

It turns out that the Forest Spirit’s death is necessary to effect a cure for Ashitaka’s wound and this suggests also that death as well as life is necessary to sustain Nature. Ashitaka and Lady Eboshi come to their own conclusions about humans and nature living in harmony and significantly Ashitaka elects to remain with Lady Eboshi and the Irontown survivors rather than return to his home village.

With so many characters populating the movie yet having no impact on the workings of the plot – the human-eating apes in particular providing no more than a sinister potential rival to the equally malevolent boars – and the twists of fate that deny Ashitaka’s efforts to find a cure for his infection, there’s enough potential in “Princess Mononoke” for a two-part or even three-part animated mini-series. An origin story for San and some way of reuniting Ashitaka with his clan could be included; and there would be room for both Ashitaka and San to grow and mature psychologically and become true leaders. As it is, “Princess Mononoke”, with all its imperfections and loose ends, is still a complex and ambitious epic with good intentions, and viewers should watch it a few times at least to absorb the visual details and beauty.

The 39 Steps (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): the movie with the secret code that cracked success for Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” (1935)

Very loosely based on John Buchan’s novel “The Thirty-Nine Steps” – it’s best if you don’t read the novel first – this movie is an early example, if not the first, of a typical Hitchcock movie. An ordinary, innocent man called Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) accidentally gets caught up in events in which a murder occurs and he finds himself accused of the crime so he must go on the run to prove his innocence and at the same time find the real killer and the reason for the killing. Going on the run means chases through a train with a narrow escape on a bridge and running through the Scottish moors with their famously moody and unpredictable weather and picturesque sheep farms inhabited by cantankerous loner crofter characters. There are the usual plot twists: a local helpful aristocrat turns out to be the head villainous honcho for the spy plot that led to the initial murder and Hannay becoming a fugitive, and the dastardly fellow shoots Hannay at close range; fortunately a Bible in Hannay’s coat chest pocket stops the bullet and Hannay is on his way again. Entanglement with a cool blonde chick called Pamela (Madelaine Carroll) – hey, women were definitely not in the novel except as extras! – and some fleeting encounters with women call attention to Hitchcock’s interest in detailing romantic attachments and the status of marriage as it plays out in individual couples’ lives. The film becomes a combination of romance comedy and a light crime caper with some violence and several scenes of slapstick and coincidence on one level, and on another level an interrogation into love and human relationships and their often fearful and deadly consequences.

The Buchan novel is in the vein of a Fleming / James Bond adventure in which the hero, who happens to have technical expertise and some military experience, cracks part of a code and engages help from a friendly politician while on the lam to discover and foil a German spy plot against the British empire. Hitchcock took the general premise of an innocent lone man on the run plus some other plot details from the book and dressed them with his own particular obsessions and cinematic devices to create something very different and original. The plot is lightweight against the novel but Hitchcock compensates for the flimsy and often implausible story-line with memorable and witty characters played by adept actors, a pace that is constant and which builds up the tension across locations in London and Scotland, and the use of comedy to stir up murky and unpleasant aspects of love, romance and marriage. Things, customs and people are never what they seem and Hitchcock delights in showing us the dark mirror twins of institutions we take for granted: characters who supposedly represent forces of law and order are in cahoots with the crooks; and a stranger who impulsively kisses ladies may be a lady-killer, figuratively rather than literally. The sudden and swift changes in the surface appearance of objects and people, and in the plot itself – for example, up to a certain point action that had occurred on-screen so far might switch to off-screen action recounted by a character – keep the film lively and flowing with continual and teasing suspense and tension.

By necessity, Donat carries the film for at least half its running time until Hannay meets Pamela a second time by chance. Hannay as presented by Donat is smooth and unflappable with an unexpected resourcefulness and bravado, especially in the scene where he blunders into a political meeting and is mistaken for a speaker. Once Hannay and Pamela are thrown together by the fake police, they literally stay together, handcuffs or no handcuffs, to the end of the movie as Pamela learns from eavesdropping on a conversation that Hannay has been framed for murder and she decides to help him. As played by Carroll, Pamela is a feisty and daring young miss used to getting her own way though sometimes it backfires on her. At least Hannay is gentleman enough not to take advantage of her when she pulls her stockings down in the bedroom while his hand is attached to hers with the handcuffs! The film’s coda suggests Hannay and Pamela decide of their own free will to stay linked and the handcuffs, which in the 1930’s might not yet have acquired all its dubious sexual connotations, dangle and glitter suggestively from beneath Hannay’s sleeve. Images and ideas of wedding rings, control, closeness and violence dance before your eyes.

Not surprisingly the film opened doors for its lead stars Donat and Carroll in Hollywood: Carroll’s career subsequently thrived while Donat, due to chronic ill health and general dislike of Hollywood razz-matazz, ended up with a more modest acting career that did include winning a Best Actor Oscar in 1939 for his role in “Goodbye Mr Chips”. As for Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps”, appropriately enough considering its subject matter and the nature of The 39 Steps (different from the novel’s 39 Steps), became his code that cracked access to Hollywood’s resources and actors to make bigger and better movies. How indebted Hitchcock was to this film as his breakthrough to Hollywood can be gleaned from other later films he made which in part could pass as remakes of “The 39 Steps”, revisiting and reinterpreting themes and concepts from that movie.

Milestone of 100 Films reviewed – and thanks to everyone for comments

Hi all,

Wow, I’ve racked up reviews of over 100 films on this little blog site already!

I’ve been fortunate enough to find a lot of great films to watch on free-to-air and digital TV and on DVD! Not all of them have been classic, unmissable films and frankly some of them I watched because I’d heard so much about how good or worthy they were, only to find their reputation as worthy films were blown out beyond over-hype.

Thanks again to everyone who took the time to comment on my reviews. Due to work and other commitments, I can’t reply to you all but I appreciate all your remarks and criticisms. Don’t be afraid to say if a review is inaccurate or misses the point of the film – as long as the criticism is constructive, then good or bad, it’s welcome here. Writing reviews is always a learning experience and the more I know, the better the reviews will be!

By now, most of you have a fair idea of what I like to see. I’d like to get hold of more experimental and abstract films to watch as well as the movies that straddle the mainstream and the art-house. I missed seeing “Taxidermia” on TV some weeks ago and I’m trying to get a DVD copies of Sergei Paradjanov’s “The Color of Pomegranates” and Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo: the Iron Man” to see again. Some Bunuel and Jodorowsky would be welcome too!

Thanks again,

Nausika.

Band of Outsiders (dir. Jean-Luc Godard): pop culture, the art of film and existential philosophy in one pulp crime film

Jean-Luc Godard, “Bande à part” aka “Band of Outsiders” (1964)

Once upon a time, the French had a knack for making gangster and pulpy crime movies in which they could hang philosophical concepts, especially those of existential philosophy, onto the plot. Such a movie is Jean-Luc Godard’s famous “Bande à part”, often cited as the most outstanding example of the French New Wave of films that came out in the late 1950’s / early 1960’s. The main distinguishing features of the French New Wave are present: the use of natural sets or real locations as opposed to fixed studio sets; the use of natural lighting or lighting found in the locations where filming took place; free-flowing action aided by a straightforward plot; and a naturalistic style of acting. Voice-over narration by Godard himself, which forecasts the action to come or describes what a character is thinking, defies conventional linear “show, don’t tell” narratives; a character appears to address the audience directly with a song about modern life; and the movie inserts several playful (though sometimes melancholy or tragic) scenes that reference film-making, popular culture of the time, social and economic change, and the place of the individual in modern society.

The film basically is about three young people in a love triangle who impulsively decide to steal money from a rich couple with whom one of the youngsters live. They talk more or less continuously about how much money there is to steal, and how they are going to do it, and use up a lot of energy and petrol racing around Paris and the banks of the Seine river while planning the heist, but the actual robbery itself takes place late in the film. Along the way, Odile (Anna Karina) dithers between whether she prefers Arthur (Claude Brasseur), a hardened, macho fellow who acts before he thinks, or Franz (Sami Frey) who is more sensitive and less certain of himself. The challenge for Godard is to keep the viewers interested in the doings, comings and goings of these people in a very simple plot, to which a sub-plot, involving Arthur’s uncle who decides he wants some of that money the youngsters plan to steal, has been tacked on almost as an after-thought; and Godard does this successfully by throwing Odile and her would-be lovers into situations that have no connection to the plot but simply rope in whatever ideas and concerns the director has about French culture and society. The plot and sub-plot become secondary to the movie’s themes which themselves enrich the characters and their relationships to one another and their wider world.

There are several scenes in “Bande à part” that stand out, in particular the cafe scenes of which one consists of a minute’s silence, during which time (actually just over half a minute) all sound in the film completely cuts out; the second scene in which the trio play musical chairs at their table and Arthur spikes Odile’s drink while her attention is elsewhere; and the third is the celebrated Madison dance scene in which Odile, Franz and Arthur dance together in line, all three more or less keeping in time and dancing together yet not really together as the music dips in and out and Godard’s voice-over tells viewers what each dancer is thinking. Odile dancing between the two buddies highlights the potential conflict the love triangle poses for all three of them. There is a strange sense of isolation in the scene: the dancers are self-absorbed and not looking at one another, demonstrated in Franz and Arthur gradually dropping out and Odile continuing the dance; the waiters come and go, oblivious to the dancing; and no-one else in the cafe joins in the dance or even watches it. The scene itself is a comment on changes in social relations in French society: most dancing before the 1960’s either involved large groups of people dancing or couples (each couple consisting of a man and a woman) dancing with more or less constant eye contact. Another very significant scene in the movie is the train scene in which Odile sings a poem about modern life in Paris and the cares and burdens ordinary people have to carry: this scene includes a montage of fixed scenes of Parisians in their day-to-day activities.

Other scenes that reference social change and the impact of American culture on French culture include Franz and Arthur’s playful re-enactment of a gunfight death scene from a popular Western movie which one of them will re-enact for real in a hysterically funny and exaggerated if tragic way near the end of the film. There is one very good scene where Franz and Arthur read aloud tabloid headlines about various murders and massacres around the world while lounging on a Seine embankment not far from a busy and noisy factory; the scene looks peaceful and serene but distant sounds of pounding machinery can be heard. The boys and Odile together also run through the Louvre museum in an attempt to break the world record, held by an American; the scene and its playfulness might be a laugh at the respect people have for cultural institutions simply out of conformity to tradition. Then of course the fact the boys imagine themselves the equal of their movie gangster and Western outlaw heroes to the extent that they dare to rob Odile’s adoptive relatives with Odile playing the gangster moll role, and none of them considering the dangers or the consequences that might follow, says something about how much of a hold American pop culture has on their imaginations and what that says about their alienation from the world around them.

As might be expected, the heist doesn’t go to plan and the love triangle resolves in a way viewers least expect with none of the main characters learning any lessons from what they experience. Two of them flee Paris without having to answer for their part in the robbery or feeling any pangs of conscience over three deaths. Some folks may see in the plot’s resolution a lesson in how dangerous second-hand fantasy derived from pop culture may be when applied literally to real life. Even if viewers don’t agree with the way the plot works out or the characters’ interactions with one another – Arthur behaves cruelly towards Odile who all too often is overly submissive and passive – they will find something in the movie that’s fun, clever, playful and enjoyable, something that reminds them of the carefree and innocent nature of childhood. Before it all collapses into tragedy and the reality of being responsible for one’s actions and future life. A movie that’s good to look at, enjoy and make you think about its issues on different levels: that’s “Bande à part”.

M (dir. Fritz Lang): an ordinary film with sharp social comment

Fritz Lang, “M” (1931)

During the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Germany played unfortunate host to some extremely vicious serial killers, one of whom, Peter Kürten, inspired this psychological thriller drama by Fritz Lang. Kürten terrorised the city of Düsseldorf with his hideous murders of men, women and children that sometimes included drinking their blood; he was convicted of nine murders and was executed for his crimes in 1931. The reality that was Kürten is considerably toned down in “M”: the serial killer Beckert, played by Peter Lorre, preys on young schoolgirls in the city of Berlin and most of his crimes have already occurred when the film opens and he is seen buying a balloon and sweets for his latest victim. The movie concentrates on the search for Beckert by both police and organised crime gangs: the police believe Beckert is hiding among underworld criminals and put pressure on them to yield him; the criminals, feeling the heat and concerned for their reputation(!), try to find him and mete out their own justice.

The film does drag out during the search for Beckert who is captured by the criminals about 80 minutes into the movie: the pace is slow and leisurely and there’s no sense of rising tension as Beckert becomes aware of the pursuit and hides in an abandoned office building with both police and crooks on his trail. At least viewers can see how police in the 1920’s conducted their investigations into serial murders: finger-printing was still a new science then and forensic methods based on the use of DNA were in another universe altogether; all the police could do in those days was comb through known criminal networks and perhaps find out from psychiatric hospitals or prisons if they had released anyone or reported any escapes before the killings began. Naturally the police search is hardly scientific; indeed, it’s not even well co-ordinated as two police officers argue and fight over the case, and the inspector himself is sloppy in the way he oversees it. The criminals are faster and more efficient if more violent and thuggish in the way they find Beckert and promptly haul him before a kangaroo court baying for his blood.

Visually the film is a treat: the influence of 1920’s German Expressionism is strong in the use of shadows to suggest menace and suspense, and in one bizarre shot of the inspector talking on the telephone that forces audiences to look up his trouser legs at his face! There is one very good montage sequence of scenes in the disused office building where the criminals have rampaged looking for Beckert, with a voice-over of a police officer exclaiming at the destruction left behind. Another excellent montage sequence indirectly shows a victim’s assault: the montages show the empty place at a dining-table and a play area where the victim should have been had Beckert not attacked her. The mood throughout the film as suggested by the images is one of paranoia as Berlin is gripped in fear by the vicious murders and the police resort to intrusive searches through flop-houses and other places where underworld elements and society’s various down-and-outs and other outsiders frequent.

The film picks up during the mock trial scene in which Beckert confesses his guilt and admits to deep, primal instincts that drive him to kill even as he is revolted by them. Lorre delivers an incredible if hysterical and screechy performance of a man compelled by an inner sickness to carry out gruesome acts. Beckert is not entirely insane; he is lucid enough to remind his accusers that they exercise free will in carrying out their crimes while he is beholden to forces he can’t understand or fight.  His “defence lawyer” pleads on his behalf, arguing that Beckert can’t be held fully responsible for his crimes on the basis of his psychology. The mob, swept up in its hysteria and triumph at capturing Beckert, and not at all pleased at being told the plain truth about itself, proclaims the death sentence on him and prepares to carry it out. Astonishingly, viewers will find themselves in sympathy with Beckert, creepy and abhorrent he might be, having to face the fury of an emotional crowd locked in groupthink. Lorre’s acting virtually carries “M” from just another so-so cat-and-mouse chase to a movie that’s worth watching: there can’t be very many other films made since motion pictures began whose reputations rely so much on one actor’s performance in one scene. Unfortunately Lorre’s role as Beckert was to typecast the actor permanently as a sinister or creepy villain for the rest of his career.

As cinema, “M” doesn’t rate well in telling its story: the plot is self-explanatory yet surprisingly threadbare and so for most of its running time, the movie lacks direction, tension and pace. As a medium for social comment, the film makes pointed barbs about how the less privileged strata of society are targeted by the police for investigation and punishment whenever something out of the ordinary occurs, and how easy it is for the rights of individuals to be crushed totally, whether by institutions of law and order or by vigilante groups, especially in situations they can take advantage of and benefit from. The society as portrayed in “M” is one easily swayed by emotional frenzy and irrationality in a context of chronic stress, insecurity and fear for the future, and as a result is a society whose sympathies could be exploited and directed by an individual, an organisation and an ideology for more murderous gain than even Beckert and his demons can achieve. The parallels with the situation in the United States after the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001 are not at all hard to see.

Not long after making “M”, both director Lang and lead actor Lorre fled Germany for Paris (Lang in 1934, Lorre in 1933) when the society so portrayed in the movie became reality.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring: lovely to look at but hollow

Kim Kiduk, “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring” (2003)

Presented in five episodes that mimic the yearly cycle of the seasons, this film follows a man’s path from his early childhood through adolescence and youth into middle age. Adopted by a hermit monk who lives at a Buddhist shrine on a tiny island in a lake in remote mountainous country, the man grows up close to nature and learns Buddhist doctrine and contemplation; his upbringing, worthy though it is, fails him when as a teenager he is confronted with sexual and other desires when a girl his age stays at the shrine temporarily to recover from an unknown illness. He elects to leave the srhine to follow the girl into the wider world. He marries her but she later deserts him for another man and he kills her. Returning to the shrine, he attempts suicide but is thwarted by the monk who forces him to repent of his sin. Detectives come to take the man to justice and prison and the monk himself then commits suicide.

The story is beguilingly simple and straightforward with very little dialogue and almost no conversation: nearly every utterance is a statement that underlines some aspect of the action on screen. The cinematography makes great use of fixed shots set at some distance from the actors to show their interactions with objects or the natural environment together with some close-ups, as though to show that, no matter how much humans isolate themselves, their environment and by extension the wider world of human society and relationships will encroach on them. By killing himself, the monk acknowledges perhaps that he has done as much for his disciple as he can and from now on the disciple must be his own teacher and learn from his experiences as well as remember his lessons. The world of the shrine and its surrounds, beautiful though it is – the cinematography emphasises the beauty, colour and vivids moods of nature throughout the year – can’t encapsulate all the man needs to know about life in order that he might more fully appreciate what the monk has tried to teach him.

The cyclical nature of life which  renews itself is emphasised in frequent shots of snakes (an age-old symbol of renewal) and fish, and in an unexpected twist towards the end of the movie when the man has returned to the shrine after serving time in prison: a woman visits him and leaves her baby son behind. She has an accident that is partly the man’s fault and the man is left alone to bring up the child. We can presume that the child as he grows up will repeat the man’s experiences; the challenge is whether the man might be a different teacher, perhaps more forgiving or less forgiving, more inclined to punish or less inclined, based on his experiences, than his teacher was.

Director Kim Kiduk’s narrow focus on the story, with all the action centred in the shrine and its surrounds, leaves out a great deal about the hermit monk and his disciple which audiences have to assume for themselves. The two actually have some interaction with the outside world: they acquire a rooster and a cat during the course of the film and the monk does get supplies from the outside world. During one such shopping trip, he learns about his disciple’s crime from the newspaper wrapping around some food. This narrowed focus, while intended to relay a story of change and renewal (and with it, faith, hope and the possibility of reincarnation), gives very little insight into the motivations and behaviour of the monk, disciple and other characters; in particular, we have no idea why the old monk commits suicide and we are left to speculate on possible reasons ranging from despair to resignation at the disciple’s behaviour.

As a result, there is something empty and unsatisfying about this film and there is an underlying misogyny that is disturbing as well. Though the film offers hope in the form of a new acolyte, it also suggests that the youngster might well follow the man a little too closely in his ways and the man may offer much the same advice to the young ‘un about love, lust and life as his mentor did. The same mistakes may be repeated, the cycle of life and renewal may continue but do humans, can humans, learn from others’ mistakes so as not to repeat them, or not to repeat them the same way?

Thin plot and unsympathetic characters invite contempt for “Contempt”

Jean-Luc Godard, “Contempt” (1963)

Partly set among some stunningly postcard-perfect islands rising out of the Mediterranean Sea, “Contempt” is a great-looking film that showcases the young Brigitte Bardot as a serious actor but that’s about all it has going for it. It struggles under the weight of being at once a psychological portrait of a marriage breaking down, a commentary on film-making and film culture, a re-interpretation of ancient Greek myth and an investigation of the position of artists and intellectuals torn between devotion to their art and living in a society that doesn’t share their beliefs but values art as a mere commodity. The movie’s major focus centres on the married couple Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Bardot) in their apartment misunderstanding each other and bickering, and then escalating their fight to the point of separation without ever really understanding why and making themselves miserable. This follows earlier scenes in which Paul, a struggling playwright, is employed by a rich playboy American movie producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite a script for a movie based on the ancient Greek epic “The Odyssey”, with Fritz Lang (Lang as himself) directing, into something more racy and juicy. Paul agrees and takes the money, and Prokosch invites him and Camille to his estate for afternoon drinks. There, the American brazenly flirts with Camille yet Paul barely flickers an eyelid in reaction.

In their arguments, Camille and Paul expose their insecurities and prejudices that suggest their marriage had always been doomed from the start: Camille is sensitive about her lack of education and culture and believes that Paul thinks she’s stupid; Paul persists in arguing in an intellectual way, failing to see Camille might be testing him and setting little traps for him, ignoring her little gestures of conciliation, and bullying her by calling her jealous; she accuses him of selling out to a “film crowd” (which he has done, by taking Prokosch’s cheque); he, for all his belief in his intellectual superiority over Camille, misinterprets her statements, lashes out at her emotionally and never acknowledges that she might be right in some of what she says and that he might be wrong or have done her an injustice. The contempt that Camille develops for Paul is the result of a head-on collision between two mismatched people, one insecure about her new place in a self-absorbed world and feeling unwanted, the other having dragged her into it with no thought for how they can both cope individually and together in that world with its contradictory demands. The tragedy for them both is that, having fought and fallen apart, they become vulnerable to the desires of that world which separates them, forever as it turns out.

A parallel sub-plot in which various characters re-interpret “The Odyssey” as a story in which Odysseus has left his wife Penelope to fight in the Trojan war and then to travel for several years because they no longer love each other, or Penelope has been unfaithful, or Odysseus simply wishes to avoid Penelope, as a counter-weight to Paul and Camille’s marital problems, runs through the movie. The “Odyssey” movie production serves as a convenient coat-hanger for Prokosch, Paul and Camille to offload their feelings and opinions about human relationships without admitting them directly to one another. At the same time they appear to have no great enthusiasm for the movie and only Lang seems to care, even to the extent of continuing and finishing filming after Prokosch and Camille become decidedly “off-screen”. Paul is left alone without any anchor after filming finishes and silence is called for.

The artist having to choose between self-integrity and self-betrayal; people who should be united tearing themselves apart and becoming easy victims of a rapacious world; the idea of a film within a film that mirrors and comments on thoughts, feelings and behaviour expressed outside it; the film world as a meat market where script-writers and directors prostitute themselves before producers: these are hardly original ideas though the easy and subtle way in which they have been combined is original. Bardot and Piccoli are good in the way they bring out their characters’ fears, beliefs, prejudices and misunderstandings of each other and their relationship without over-acting or emotional histrionics. It could be said though that by letting one person (Prokosch) upset their relationship so much, Camille and Paul already aren’t sure of each other’s loyalty: the movie’s opening bedroom scene in which Camille demands total love from Paul and he replies glibly suggests as much.

Palance does a fine turn as the brash, crass American producer Prokosch, throwing his weight around and seducing Camille; he may be evil in the sense of preying on and exploiting Camille’s weaknesses to pull her away from Paul though there is just a suggestion in the petrol station scene that he might be more sensitive and sympathetic to her than her husband has been so far. Had Godard played up this aspect of Prokosch putting on an “ugly American” act to cover up his own fears about being an uncultured outsider in a supposedly more cultured and artistic environment, and shown him to be a potentially better person than Paul, the movie’s themes would have had an emotional fillip that would intrigue audiences, and Camille’s choice might have said something about Camille’s own values. Is Camille as much a sell-out on her integrity as she accuses Paul of being on his?

The structure of “Contempt”, divided in the main between the suffocating insular reality of the married couple’s apartment and the open natural spaces of Capri island, promising freedom and opportunties that Camille grabs, seems lopsided between the minutiae of the couple’s private lives which they pick over like scabs and the real dangers that face them once they are on the film set. On Capri, Paul sees Prokosch and Camille kissing each other but seems not to care; his reaction and behaviour will appear inexplicable to most viewers as at the same time he seems smug or resigned about having sold out on his artistic ideals and isn’t losing sleep over the harm he’s done to them and Camille’s view of him as a sell-out. While Camille, who originally hadn’t wanted to go to Capri, spends time sunbathing and swimming, Paul does nothing. By the end of the film, Paul may still be unaware of what’s happened to Camille and Prokosch but even if he did know, he may not care anyway. Like Odysseus in “The Odyssey”, trying to find his home, Paul is doomed to find a “home” in the film world without values or someone who can provide an anchor.

Colourful with some great visual scenery in both the apartment, adorned in a modern style at the time (early 1960’s), and in the scenes set on the islands, the film is worth seeing once but perhaps no more. The plot is thin and scrappy and doesn’t allow much character development in Camille, Paul and Prokosch who remain archetypes representing aspects of the film’s themes. Viewers won’t feel much connection with the male characters but might feel sympathy and pity for Camille who on the whole is treated badly by the men. As Paul does very little apart from mouthing off at Camille, the theme of the artist’s place in a society not sympathetic to ideals such as artistic integrity is superficially explored. If the film’s opinion is that the values of Hollywood aren’t to be trusted compared to those of art, then Paul is a poor choice of champion for art and the possibility that the film world can be reformed or improved in any way remains remote.

Come to think of it, with all due respect for Godard’s ideals, if Hollywood had made “Contempt”, the story might push a stronger line on the artist’s place in society: it might not reflect the reality in the Hollywood film industry itself but it would put more backbone and integrity into Paul. For a start, he’d tell Prokosch to shove his cheque up his butt …