Rififi: godfather of heist movies with a morality tale of redemption

Jules Dassin, “Rififi” (1955)

A film about a technically perfect crime, only for its participants to be totally undone by one small action by one of their number, “Rififi” is outstanding mainly for its 28-minute heist centrepiece during which there is absolutely no dialogue or music and the only sounds heard are those that are a natural consequence of the criminals’ actions. Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), a jewel thief, has just been released from jail and is contacted by his friends Jo (Carl Mohner) and Mario who are interested in stealing some baubles from a jewellery store in a Paris locality. At first Tony refuses but after looking up his old girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) and discovering that she has moved in with his old enemy Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), owner of “L’Age d”Or” night-club, he changes his mind after beating her and joins his friends on the condition they hire a safe-cracker. Mario suggests his friend César (director Jules Dassin under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) who’s happy to oblige.

Much of the first hour of the film is about the four men making their contacts and preparing for the crime. Tony and his men stare daggers at Grutter and his men at the night-club where singer Viviane (Magali Nol) performs the song that gives the movie its title. The heist, when it comes, is a great piece of film-making: taking place at night with the men trying to balance their use of light so as to avoid detection yet striving to finish the job and collect the jewels before daylight, the crime gives many opportunities for Dassin to play with contrasts of white, black and all shades of grey in-between, literally and figuratively. Cutaways from the thieves’ actions of drilling a hole in the floor to a clock-face or to the night-sky and back help to illustrate the arduous and time-consuming nature of the crime; the thieves drill the hole for two, three hours before they have a hole big enough to put a rope through and climb down to where the safe is kept. They collect all the debris in an umbrella. While Tony plugs up the security alarm with spray, César gets to work opening the safe and he needs another hour or so to do that. Close-ups of the men’s perspiring faces reveal strain and uncertainty. You find yourself hoping that the men can get the jewels, zip out through the hole again, pick up their tools and escape before daylight comes! Suspense and tension, unrelieved by music or dialogue, build and pile up to an almost unbearable level. A patrolling policeman passes by, stopping to examine a piece of litter, then he goes on his way – whew! When the first rays of the sun appear, the men are already scrambling to clear out; César pauses to take a ring for Viviane.

Sure enough, news of the theft is all over the papers the next day and not long after Grutter sees the injured Mado clearing out of his place and spots César giving the ring to Viviane. He now knows that Tony and César pulled off the heist and he puts his men onto them both. César is captured and forced to reveal the names of his co-conspirators. From then on it’s downhill for all the men who were involved in the heist. Suffice to say that pushing daisies, not pulling them, is the only thing all the men including Grutter are able to do when the dust clears for the last time. From this viewers can infer that crime pays only if people are total cold-blooded cerebral machines that can suppress their natural inclinations to rejoice and share their bounty.

A gangster code of loyalty complicates Tony’s life which leads to a second outstanding montage of scenes, also done without dialogue, in which he rescues Jo’s small son Tonio from Grutter’s men and despite being seriously wounded frantically drives the child back to his mother through countryside and Paris streets. Heroically if foolishly Tony battles city traffic, flagging consciousness and an unrestrained child (the last one not really) to race to Jo’s apartment and the camera sympathises with him, showing Paris landmarks and the bare branches of trees flashing by, street scenes zooming in and out of focus as Tony strives to avoid hitting people and cars. Multiple points of view are shown from inside the car, outside and front in a series of quick edits, emphasising the urgency, speed and delirium of Tony’s last quest to redeem himself by saving a life before his own blacks out. Some viewers may find this last sequence ludicrous (why would a gangster even think of saving a child’s life?) but after what we have seen of Tony before – a jaded, cynical man with self-interest as his only goal – the series of image shows Tony as he might have been once and becomes in the last moments of his life: a caring human being who sacrifices himself for others and who perhaps sees in Tonio (note the similarity of the name to Tony) the potential which in himself was wasted. Tony’s rescue and return of Tonio becomes the film’s true climax.

As Tony, Servais who had a history of alcoholism before making “Rififi” is suitably bleary-eyed and wears seen-it-all weariness as a second skin. The acting overall is more efficient than outstanding but it suits the structure of the film and its purpose as a heist flick hiding a moral tale. The women in the film serve to illustrate aspects of the thieves’ lives as caring husbands and family men; only Tony behaves as a stereotypical hard-man, hitting and scratching Mado for being unfaithful to him, and forcing Jo and Mario to change part of their plan to rob the jewellery shop.

The film’s pace can be uneven: it’s slow for much of the first hour with Viviane’s singing and the silhouettes of a man and woman dancing in the background the main items of interest; then it picks up during the heist scene and is very fast in the film’s last 45 minutes. Director Jules Dassin’s structuring and portrayal of the heist and Tonio’s rescue lift “Rififi” from being a run-of-the-mill film-noir movie into the realm of film art so in that respect the movie is worth watching, if for nothing else. The morality aspect can be heavy-handed as bullets fly and the body count piles up; no-one survives to learn any lessons, making the post-heist part of the plot superfluous in a way. What’s the point of the shoot-out if there’s no-one at the end to make sense of it all?

Downhill: Hitchcock comedy is early showcase of technical innovation and flair

Alfred Hitchcock, “Downhill” (1927)

Before he found his niche as Master of Suspense, the young Alfred Hitchcock made a few films in several genres that include comedy: this early effort, the fifth full-feature film of his career, is a comedy lampooning the customs and attitudes of British upper class society of the late 1920’s. The plot is structured in a way that it probably won’t hold most modern audiences’ attention to the end – it comes in chunks so there’s no flow and as a result tension building towards a climax isn’t possible – but students of history might find some value in the way the story unfolds that reveals people’s attitudes toward money, appearances and reputation at the time. The real worth of “Downhill” is in the techniques and methods Hitchcock used to film the story and emphasise aspects such as mood, atmosphere and the direction of the plot. Motifs that he would use in later films such as “Vertigo” and “Psycho” make an early showing here. We see a keen and eager eye, maybe too eager, for technical innovation and a flair for experimenting with different points of view: the use of the camera to draw in audiences and make them voyeurs and participants in the action that began in the previous film “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” is now coming into full flower.

The plot is a threadbare coming-of-age / downward-spiral story. Teenager Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello), in his last year at an exclusive boys’ school, is undone by an incident involving his best friend and a waitress for which he’s entirely blameless. He’s expelled by his school and disowned by his father. Berwick’s reluctance to rat on his friend (who needs to stay at school to get a university scholarship) forces him to accept the humiliation of expulsion and rejection so he leaves home to venture into the big bad world. He’s clearly out of his depth; each adventure he has plunges him lower and lower into social and financial misery until rescue and reconciliation arrive at the eleventh hour. In each mishap including the original incident that gets him expelled from school there’s a woman who exploits Berwick for his looks, his money or his youth.

At 34 years of age, Novello was old enough to play Berwick’s old man but as he was co-writer of the play on which “Downhill” is based, I’ll leave the criticism there. Hitchcock must have enjoyed throwing Novello into situations where women manipulate him; Novello’s homosexuality was an open secret in the British arts and culture scene, he was strikingly handsome and presumably well-off in a varied career that included writing songs and plays, and all these aspects of the real-life man are hinted at in his character’s encounters with women. A couple of very early scenes suggest Berwick is uncomfortable with women and may be homosexual which would give an extra frisson to the manipulation that follows. If we allow for overly expressionistic acting which was common in silent films of the period, the acting is not bad and in parts is even natural; Hitchcock allows the actors to talk normally on screen and audiences have to guess what it is they’re saying, there being very few dialogue or title cards. One side-effect is that it’s difficult to tell who or what characters some actors are playing, and even the MacGuffin incident that gets Berwick in trouble isn’t clear: the Internet Movie Database says it is theft, Wikipedia says it is making the waitress pregnant.

The plot is fleshed out by camera shots that use odd angles, unusual points of view, overlapping images and deep focus shooting to emphasise where the plot gets serious, to capture a mood or emotion, or to warn audiences of what’s ahead, among other things. Perhaps there’s too much story-telling rather than narrative at some points in the movie: the bird’s-eye view of the escalator scene, in which viewers see Berwick going down the mechanical steps from the top, is a heavy-handed portent of what’s to befall the youth (the scene takes place just after he leaves home). From a technical viewpoint, the film’s stand-out scenes come near the end where Berwick is packed off home from Marseilles on a ship by some kindly sailors and he suffers delirium and seasickness. The camera hovers from above, like a bird, to suggest dizzyness; and superimposed images in which circles and spirals – and even pumping pistons! (ooh, that’s phallic) – appear in Berwick’s dreams to suggest a disordered mind affected by sickness and starvation. Berwick’s old enemies come together in a dream to jeer at him. Once Berwick is back in London and trying to find his way home on foot, the camera adopts his point of view and staggers with him, with jerky, unfocussed, doubled-up or overlapped images – this is as close as Hitchcock gets to filming in a style modern audiences associate with handheld cameras. Personal points of view are prominent in “Downhill”: in an early scene, an actress leans far back on her chair to see things upside-down and the next camera shot, done from her point of view, is upside-down. Hitchcock also enjoys playing with particular points of view and subverting the assumptions that come with them: in one scene, Berwick appears to be working as a waiter at a restaurant, only for the camera to draw back and show that he is actually a stage actor in a musical revue!

Significantly the only people who treat Berwick kindly and don’t see him as a money-pot are poor and of black or foreign origins: a black woman feeds him soup and kicks a couple of sailors (one black, the other white but definitely not English) into action to help him to the ship. This was one of the rare times Hitchcock made a movie that featured black people sympathetically if stereotypically. There is no indication though that Berwick is thankful for the help or that they are repaid. Though the film is a comedy – and there are plenty of comic moments including the gag of Berwick’s young wife still retaining her ugly, middle-aged lover! – there are plenty of dark moments throughout the odyssey, all highlighted by contrasts of light and shadow that reflect German Expressionist influences.

Whether Berwick learns any lessons about the superficiality of the world that made him or the really important lesson that in his level of society money and appearances talk louder than moral integrity is never clear. Does he become wiser about how the world operates and how it eats up its own innocent children? The film’s resolution and ending suggest maybe not. It’s an interesting intellectual exercise to speculate on what Hitchcock would have done if he had decided to remake the film years later with the resources of Hollywood at his disposal: he would have changed the ending to something more ambiguous and very dark but Berwick might then achieve some kind of enlightenment, self-awareness, redemption and healing. A Freudian psychological subtext would be added to plump up the story and make it more credible.

In spite of a flimsy and out-of-date plot, “Downhill” is worth seeing for the flair and confidence Hitchcock brings to  making the story work. There are many motifs and symbols that appear here which the director would later use in “Vertigo”, especially in its psychedelic dream sequence, and the early film might be seen as a test-drive to that more famous Hollywood work.

The true Hitchcock universe begins with “The Lodger: a Story of the London Fog”

Alfred Hitchcock, “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” (1927)

Only the third film made by a young Alfred Hitchcock, “The Lodger …” already has many of the themes and motifs that would bring its director fame and fortune in a career that spanned nearly half a century. The central theme  revolves around a man who is suspected by police and society at large of being a serial killer: not only is he innocent but he has also resolved for personal reasons to find the killer himself. At the same time, the central character dresses and behaves in ways that encourage people around him to believe he is the criminal: the innocent man and the actual criminal become doppelgängers, another recurring motif in Hitchcock’s world. (Makes you wonder whether H had lost a twin brother  at birth.) There is a wilful blonde woman as well – there are blonde women a-plenty here! – and a love triangle that involves her, the innocent man and another man who is a police detective. The detective is portrayed as a boorish, unlikable character and the police as shown seem ineffective; any constructive work they do takes place off-screen.  A hostile attitude is expressed towards figures and institutions of authority, especially male authority such as the police; on the other hand, female figures of authority such as mothers have a greater psychological hold on men, especially if the men are their sons. A MacGuffin is needed in the film to set off the chain of events. As with other Hitchcock suspense films to follow, the love triangle and the emotions and tensions within take centre stage against a background of rising suspense and suspicion.

London is gripped by a series of murders of fair-haired young women committed by the self-styled Avenger who leaves his calling card of a triangle outlined around his monicker on the victims’ bodies. Just what he’s avenging himself against is never known but the print media goes into a frenzy of reporting the story of his latest outrage, printing it and distributing copies to news boys. Even the back of a paper delivery van is “all eyes” if not ears. Against this context which lasts nearly 20 minutes, viewers meet Daisy Bunting (June Tripp), a showgirl-cum-model reading the news backstage and chatting to her colleagues; she then goes home which is a boarding-house run by her parents. There we see her fiance, Joe (Malcolm Keen), a self-assured police detective who is given the case of searching for and arresting the Avenger, chatting to her folks. During the evening, Mrs Bunting (Marie Ault) takes in a new boarder (Ivor Novello) who is never named but is known only as the Lodger; he is dressed in mysterious dark clothes and carries a black bag. He behaves oddly: on seeing pictures of blonde women in his room, he turns them over and asks Mrs Bunting to take them away. Hearing the newsboy outside his window shouting about the Avenger’s exploits to sell papers, the Lodger shuts the window and closes the curtains.

Over time, the Lodger warms to Daisy and a romance develops between them. His routines arouse the suspicions of her parents and Joe; Joe in particular is jealous of Daisy’s closeness to the Lodger. He obtains a search warrant to search the Lodger’s room and sure enough finds a map, newspaper clippings and a photograph that appear to incriminate the Lodger as the Avenger. The Lodger is handcuffed but before he is led away, Daisy creates a distraction and the Lodger escapes police custody. The two lovers later meet at a pub but arouse the suspicions of the staff and customers. Daisy and the Lodger try to escape and they separate but a mob catches up with the man and beat him severely.

In those days of no dialogue, film-acting was often exaggerated and very mannered so that audiences could see characters’ emotions through their body language. “The Lodger …” is no different in this respect. The Lodger and Joe, as the two rivals for Daisy, contrast strongly in their behaviour and looks. Joe is macho, brusque and assumes proprietorial “rights” over Daisy, declaring that he’ll handcuff the Avenger and then put a ring on Daisy’s finger, as if she’s been colluding with the killer. The Lodger is gentlemanly and sensitive, even effete, and his appearance is refined and beautiful. In a memorable sequence of intense, almost overbearing romantic love scenes, Daisy grabs the Lodger almost savagely while draped over a lounge and a severe minimalist close-up scene shot against a black curtain highlights the lovers’ profiles as they kiss. The passion here is very raw in spite of the two keeping their winter-woollies on! Viewers wanting a more “modern” acting style should note the performances of the actors who play Daisy’s parents; they are outstanding in their ability to show a variety of emotions and thoughts by their facial expressions and body language, and move effortlessly from comedy to seriousness and back.

Influences from the German Expressionist art movement show up in the use of lighting and shadows to create suspense and mystery in several scenes, and in the title cards that indicate the passage of time or a change of scene. Mrs Bunting’s bedroom with the shadow of a window framed on her wall has an almost abstract air. A couple of scenes in which the Buntings and Joe look up at the chandeliers in the kitchen and “see” the Lodger walking on the floor above, and Joe looking at the Lodger’s footprint on the ground, in which a parade of images pass as though on an escalator, hint at Hitchcock’s interest in using film technologies available at the time to their maximum capabilities to express people’s thoughts. The film’s opening shot of a blonde woman screaming as she is being attacked, her hair around her face lit up like a halo, is worth noting: Hitchcock had the actor lie down on a sheet of glass which was lit from behind. Objects like chandeliers and that familiar Hitchcock fixture, the staircase, are given prominence: the staircase comes into its own in a bird’s-eye view shot of the Lodger quickly descending down the stairs, only his hand visible on the bannister as it slides down, and the centre of the staircase-framed shot a huge void.  For all this information, Hitchcock was still finding his way as a film director: there are some editing discontinuities, the sequence of scenes in which the Lodger is attacked by burgeoning crowds looks amateurish and unconvincing with some cringeworthy Christian symbolism, the film’s pacing is slow and the assured confidence of Hitchcock’s later films is yet to develop.

“The Lodger …” strongly suggests that the path to romance and marriage (and the proper conduct of sexual relations) is fraught with danger and violence, especially for women, and there is no surefire safe way of treading that path: both the Lodger and Joe are shown to have a dark side in their natures. If Daisy chooses wisely, she will be rewarded with riches; if not, she may become a prisoner. The film also comments on the role of media (and by implication, film itself) in influencing opinion and generating a particular community mood or emotion that could literally spell the difference between life and death for an individual. Worth watching mainly to see the evolution of a master film-maker and how he develops ideas and themes in a particular film format that would come to full flower in his later work; in particular, fans should watch out for a voyeuristic bathtub scene!

For once it’s a good thing that the ending of “The Lodger …” was changed from Hitchcock’s preferred ambiguous ending which would have made the film a run-of-the-mill thriller. Little did the studio executives who forced the change realise that they were doing Hitchcock a massive favour.

Profound themes of evolution, maturity, cycles of life and death, and Japan’s modern history in Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira”

Katsuhiro Otomo, “Akira” (1988)

In an alternative but parallel universe in 1988, a scientific experiment using young children as test subjects for research into superhuman mental abilities goes awry when a child loses control and causes a huge explosion in Tokyo that is taken for a nuclear bomb attack and leads to a global war. Cut to 30 years later and a new city, Neo-Tokyo, has arisen on an artifical island in Tokyo Bay, the old city having been completely annihilated. Neo-Tokyo has become a thriving, wealthy metropolis but it’s also plagued by political corruption, anti-government riots and terrorist activity, and a seedy underbelly of crime, drug addiction and violence; and the scientific experiments that led to old Tokyo’s demise continue apace. In this context, two motorcycle gangs fight a turf war racing down the city’s highways and a member of one gang, Tetsuo, comes to grief when he hits – or appears to hit – a small child with aged features. His fellow gang members led by his childhood friend Kaneda quickly come to his aid but before they can take him to hospital, several military helicopters arrive and take Tetsuo and the small child to a military hospital. Kaneda and his gang are arrested by soldiers for questioning over a recent anti-government demonstration that turned violent.

At the hospital, Tetsuo is found to possess psychic abilities similar to those of the children being used in the secret experiments, now conducted by Dr Onishi under the supervision of Colonel Shikishima. The boy is operated and experimented on and the tests awaken his psychic powers which begin to develop of their own accord. He escapes from hospital and is reunited briefly with his girlfriend Kaori and Kaneda’s gang but is captured again. As Tetsuo struggles with his hallucinations and headaches, and discover what they are leading him to, Kaneda sees a girl, Kei, he met while in army custody and follows her; she leads him into a secret plot to get Tetsuo out of the military hospital. While the plotters battle to infiltrate the hospital, various incidents there bring Tetsuo’s psychic powers into the open to his advantage and Tetsuo himself, flushed with and revelling his new powers and the authority they give him, commences on a quest that he believes will give him even more power.

The plot is straightforward and not too complex but runs at a brisk, energetic pace so for most people two viewings of “Akira” might be necessary to fully understand what happens. The movie is a commentary on the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, embodied in the development of Tokyo / Neo-Tokyo itself, and what that implies about the post-1945 history of Japan and forecasts for the country’s 21st-century future. The use of anime rather than a live-action feature to bring the original “Akira” comic to screen is appropriate: the exacting technical detail of backgrounds and machines against and on which the plot depends captures the close and complicated relationship modern Japanese culture has with technology, at once beneficial, malleable enough to seem harmless, cute even, yet also highly dangerous. Tetsuo’s transformation is a metaphor on several levels: on a grand scale, it mirrors the evolution of life itself; on a global scale, it’s a parallel to Japan’s development as a modern society dependent on technology; on a more mundane level, it represents growth and maturity in human beings; on the very personal level, it traces an individual’s adolescent development and adjustment (or not) to adult life. Tetsuo’s inability to handle his psychic powers and allowing them to take over his body can be interpreted as a warning of the potential for moral corruption that having too much power, in whatever form it takes, without having the understanding, experience and knowledge to use it responsibly can pose. Tetsuo’s upbringing, parts of which are seen in flashbacks, shows that he didn’t get much moral guidance or understanding from adults, and was bullied by adults and children alike so he harbours a deep resentment and hatred towards other people and sees his newfound abilities as giving him opportunities for payback. He goes out of his way to kill Yamagata, one of his gang-mates, for having derided him in the past. Tetsuo’s powers are too much for him to handle though and he ends up killing his faithful girlfriend Kaori.

Other characters reflect aspects of Tetsuo’s dilemma: Dr Onishi who oversees the experiment on the boy, is too swept up in his enthusiasm to see the destruction Tetsuo causes and he pays for his tunnel vision with his life; he’s a stock figure representing scientific and technological hubris. Likewise various people, representing a society trained to obey, who follow a New Age guru or trust in Tetsuo as a new messiah to replace the mysterious Akira figure, are destroyed in various ways as a result of their blind, unquestioning faith in an external power. Overall, character development in “Akira” is fairly weak and only two characters can be said to be significant in that respect: Tetsuo and Colonel Shikishima. The Colonel is the most complex figure: iniitally looking and acting like the most obvious choice for Head Villain in the film, he is a tough, stern soldier who dislikes the chaotic disorder and lack of direction characterising democracy and liberal society and seizes the first opportunity he can to impose his idea of good government on Neo-Tokyo. Yet he cares for the remaining original test subjects of Dr Onishi’s experiments and has no taste for grubby politics where money speaks louder than principles. In an ideal world he would be father figure to Tetsuo and would guide the boy to the wisdom and understanding required to use his psychic powers for the benefit of humankind; but the Colonel has adopted a narrow military frame of mind which prefers order, conformity and discipline over individualism and tolerance for a multiplicity of ideologies and cultures within the one society, and Tetsuo has grown up in an environment where power means being able to throw your weight around and kicking little people (like him once upon a time). Both Tetsuo and the Colonel can be seen as complementary figures in the use of power: Tetsuo needs some restrictions and the Colonel would impose too many, and both are oppressive in their own ways; and Japan as a society that has used political, social and military power to control people perhaps isn’t an ideal place for the two to meet in an imperfect world. As for Kaneda and Kei, the other major characters, they are flat compared to Tetsuo and the Colonel; they are best seen as stock teenage / young adult character types who are basically good and, while easily led astray, play expected heroic roles in a plot that has no need for heroes and doesn’t use them.

The climax of the film in which Tetsuo transmogrifies into a monster on contact with Akira and has to be absorbed, along with the remaining test subjects of Dr Onishi’s ongoing experiment, into an implosion that takes most of Neo-Tokyo with it to leave behind a gaping crater and the rest of the city in ruins, is a sheer mindfuck of animation knowledge and technique limited only by the technology available in 1988 to portray what virtually amounts to birth of a new universe in several dimensions and the animation crew’s own collective imagination to consider what such birth might look like. Indeed, the black-and-white montage of simple images looks like a jokey reference to the way films made in the past often begin, a series of encircled numbers counting down to zero. It’s arguably nowhere near as good as the surreal bedroom scene in which Tetsuo is attacked by giant toy animals that bleed milk – that scene qualifies as the standout for its combination of the cute and conventional notions of bedtime horror when things under the bed crawl out to menace children.

True, the detailed animation often threatens to usurp the plot, characters and action but the movie couldn’t have been made otherwise at the time without an astronomical budget or advanced CGI technology. Otomo’s aim is ambitious and the film’s scope is tremendous but perhaps the narrative as it pans out doesn’t quite justify the ambition, the philosophical concepts and what Otomo is trying to say about the nature of power. Is it possible to know if Tetsuo feels triumph when he unites with Akira and the other test subjects in a new universe? Is his final anaemic-sounding utterance “I am Tetsuo” an expression of self-affirmation or its opposite – or even both? If Tetsuo had changed his mind about pursuing power and gone back to the Colonel or to Kaneda, would that be a form of denial? It’s hard not to feel that the plot reaches an impasse beyond which the choice to be made will be an unsatisfactory explanation or substitute way for using power: either become God in your own universe (hmm … seems petty) or turn it over to others whose motives may be suspect. Is a third way at all possible?

As for other aspects of “Akira”, special mention should be made of the music used: a mixture of traditional and modern Japanese instruments and musical styles, it’s used sparingly to create and emphasise a scene’s mood or the action in it. Otomo also takes care to show parts of the city from different angles and points of view: the film appears to zoom from a very intimate point of view in some scenes to ones where people appear as ants scurrying around a vehicle on fire. The suggestion is that Neo-Tokyo itself is a major character though this idea is not fully realised in the narrative.

Western viewers might wonder at Japanese pop culture obsessions with the destruction of Tokyo, the grotesque body horror and the fetishism of technology and cuteness. There is present a sense of the Buddhist notion of non-permanence, tying in with the theme of evolution as a continuous, dynamic process in which humans are but a stepping-stone. There is something of the horror of ageing which is related to the body-horror aspect: the test subjects remain child-like but age to the point where they become corpse-like, and Tetsuo’s body merges with metal and runs riot as his powers, reaching maturity, overpower their human vessel. With so many themes flying under the radar in “Akira”, it’s a wonder the movie doesn’t collapse with the weightiness and profundity of them all; instead it flies determinedly with relentless energy with hardly any let-up all the way to the end and beyond. In spite of its being over 20 years old and the animators overlooking or unable to predict certain technologies – people are still driving cars and still using pen and paper to write – “Akira” appears to have dated very little though whether the same can be said by 2018 or 2019, the period in which the movie is set, is another thing.

Eyes without a Face: mad-scientist horror genre gets serious treatment with issues of control and identity

Georges Franju, “Eyes without a Face” / “Les yeux sans visage” (1959)

Lean and elegant in narrative style, this film treats a pulpy mad-scientist horror story in a credibly serious, in-your-face manner that extracts maximum horror from its subject. Shot in black-and-white, the presentation is crisp with some shots done from odd camera angles and features scenes emphasising contrasts in light and darkness that might recall German expressionist influences. The plot revolves around a triangle of Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a dedicated plastic surgeon who lost his wife years ago and nearly lost his daughter in separate accidents; Christiane (Edith Scob), the daughter, whose face is horribly disfigured in her accident which was caused by her father; and Louise (Alida Valli), the doctor’s loyal assistant, who procures young women for him so he can transplant their faces onto his daughter’s deformed face. Yep, folks, that’s the gruesome tale and in most other film-makers’ hands this would turn into a B-grade shock-horror mad-scientist flick complete with a hunchbacked assistant whose eyes don’t stop rolling in opposite directions; but under Franju’s direction, the story becomes minimal and the characters are readily recognisable people who become all the more horrifying by their thoughts, words and behaviour. In particular Louise is a chilling character as she combines a warm, caring manner, the presentation of a polished middle-class lady, a clinical attitude to the girls as they undergo surgery and a devotion to Dr Génessier that goes beyond unquestioning groupie worship.

The acting is exemplary: the actors playing the main characters portray them as complex people whose motives driving their extreme behaviour are understandable. Dr Génessier feels guilt for causing the accident that deformed his daughter’s face and most likely believes he must save her at all costs to preserve a living memory of his dead wife (so there’s a hint of necrophilia as well). His skill with the scalpel leads him to believe that he can repair his daughter’s face in spite of past transplants that have all failed as will the transplant of the face of Edna Grünberg (Juliette Mayniel) which is shown in the movie. There is a subtle message here about human pride and arrogance in one’s own abilities and skills, coupled with trust and belief in technology, to overcome and control nature; this is reinforced by Dr Génessier’s imprisonment of stray dogs in the basement of his country mansion, to be used as guinea pigs in his transplant experiments. As the deranged doctor, Brasseur gives a calm, controlled performance: in some scenes he is kind and reassuring to a small boy; in other scenes he is professional if abrupt in manner. As said before, Louise is chilling and creepy in her contradictions but we understand why: she received a face transplant from Dr Génessier previously and it was a success. Valli is more expressive in her role, giving just the slightest hint of malice and gushy-ness, yet it’s still a restrained perfomrance: viewers get a sense that she wants a committed relationship with Dr Génessier but is reluctant to pursue a romance while he is obsessed with fixing up his daughter Christiane.

Scob spends most of her onscreen time as Christiane peering through a blank white mask and her eyes do most of her acting: they’re usually sad but are sometimes terrified and, towards the end, angry. Viewers see she’s just as much a victim as Edna and all the other girls before her; not only is she under her father’s total control – he even blanks out her existence to her fiance Jacques (François Guérin) and the police authorities by pretending to identify a corpse as hers and staging her funeral – but she is forced to be an unwilling participant in his transplant experiments. You sense that Dr Génessier is using Christiane as a guinea pig for improving his technique and methods as he is with his dogs. An unexpected delay in Génessier’s next face-transplant operation after the failure of Edna’s transplanted face allows Christiane to set free the new victim and to release the dogs as well.

Much of the movie’s focus is on Christiane so in part it’s a psychological study of a woman who becomes troubled by her passive participation, however indirect, in other people’s murders and must decide if she wishes to stay complicit or do something and stop being a participant. Franju makes the decision easier for Christiane in a way: all her previous face transplants have been failures so future ones are likely to be failures too: and even Louise’s apparently successful transplant is no assurance. If anything, the successful transplant has chained Louise closely to Dr Génessier so she is no objective role model. An existentialist message can be said to exist here: a person’s identity and sense of being are as much dependent on action or non-action as they are on her background and endowments. By taking action, Christiane discovers freedom, at the cost perhaps of ever being able to rejoin normal society and seeing her fiance again. On another level that most people would understand, Christiane must choose between surface appearance and conventional notions of beauty on the one hand, and inner beauty or moral integrity on the other. Scob is ideal as the delicate Christiane: eerily resembling Mia Farrow in her “Rosemary’s Baby” days, and angelic with long, slim arms and wearing pale floaty dresses, she seems the perfectly ethereal and helpless victim.

In contrast to the sharp presentation which often emphasises the shadows under otherwise bland exteriors, the film’s mood is almost dream-like. The mansion where Christiane lives looks sinister and even features a dungeon of barking dogs, not to mention the room where the operations take place. Scenes of the face transplantation and the transformations of Edna’s face on Christiane as her body rejects the face can be very graphic and upsetting in their clinical nature though the shots are short and the edits quick. The music score by Maurice Jarre plays a significant role: jaunty, carnivalesque yet hard, the harpsichord tones trill a repeated riff constantly and maddeningly whenever Louise turns up in her car to prey on unsuspecting young women; the music changes at the end of the film to something softer. The support cast exists mainly to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the police and doctors as authority figures and saviours. The film appears sympathetic towards women as victims of men and patriarchial structures and instutions. It would be too much to read into the film a message that victims should try to empower themselves; Christiane seizes her chance only because her father is called away by a fortuitous police visit. I don’t see her as a champion for feminism as the decision she makes to free herself may be purely personal or existential but people are free to see her however they wish. However Christiane and Louise are interesting contrasts as women: the younger woman as passive yet ultimately self-directing, the older woman as an active agent in thrall to a male authority figure whose desires she anticipates.

The film is worth a look for its streamlined, almost artistic presentation and its examination of control, identity and existence in its skeletal plot and considered characterisations. Some viewers may find the pace very slow, at least until near the end where it picks up quickly with Christiane’s release of the dogs. The screenplay was adapted from a Jean Redon novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, those writers of the novel “D’Entre les Morts” on which the Alfred Hitchock movie “Vertigo” which deals with similar themes (control of women’s bodies by men, necrophilia, identity and existence) is based.

Little Shop of Horrors: dark horror and farce in trashy 1960 cheapie

Roger Corman, “Little Shop of Horrors” (1960)

Here’s a cute comedy horror piece made on the cheap in just two days in 1960 that speaks to anyone and everyone afraid of demanding pets and children with ravenous appetites, rejection in love, overbearing hypochondriac mothers and dentists who go out of their way to inflict maximum pain on your gums! The film’s production values may have dated badly but its tale is as plaintive today as it was then. Nerdy and none-too-bright Seymour (Jonathan Haze) works in a florist shop in a poor section of Los Angeles or some other town in southern California. The shop is owned and run by Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles) who bosses Seymour about. There is another employee, Audrey (Jackie Joseph), for whom Seymour carries a torch, so one day when Mushnick threatens to sack the young fellow for messing up a client’s floral arrangement, Seymour, afraid of losing Audrey, lets slip that he’s been caring for a tiny, frail hybrid plant that he bred. Mushnick allows him to bring the plant to work the next day. The poor little thing isn’t thriving despite the loving care Seymour has lavished on it.

By accident, Seymour discovers the pet plant partakes rather too much of its combined butterwort / Venus fly-trap inheritance and after several days feeding on salty protein liquid the wicked weed’s tremendous growth to gargantuan proportions with the appetite for, uh, more fertiliser to match forces the now borderline-anaemic Seymour to go farther afield and commit manslaughter. Two police detectives, so hard-boiled that when one of them suffers a family tragedy, he merely shrugs his shoulders and says, “Them’s the breaks”, turn up at Mushnick’s shop to enquire about the disappearances of a railway employee and Mushnick’s dentist. Mushnick himself is suspicious of the hybrid’s amazing growth and is aware of its secret (and even finds it useful for getting rid of a robber) but because the herbaceous horror is bringing his shop attention, business and money, he hesitates to tell the police what he knows and believes. In the meantime Seymour and Audrey start going steady but the plant’s demands – the freak can speak and can hypnotise people – soon drive the couple apart. When the monster finally comes into bloom and reveals to a crowd what Seymour has been feeding it, the put-upon young fellow, who had hoped to profit from the plant financially and win Audrey’s hand in marriage but now finds himself wanted and pursued for multiple murders, resolves to kill the flowering Frankenstein.

The acting and film-editing are nothing special – the editing’s just enough to eliminate obvious gore while still suggesting that various people help keep the plant well-fed – and the plot has many holes. If the plant can force Seymour to hunt for victims by mesmerising him, why can’t it stop him from killing it? Lashings of humour, in particular from Mushnick who exchanges droll repartee with the plant and from Seymour’s mother, and an array of hilarious characters that include a regular customer (Dick Miller) who eats flowers and a dental patient (Jack Nicholson in his debut acting role) who finds pleasure in pain and walks off with capped teeth (that’s capped as in knee-capped) enliven the basic narrative of the little plant that becomes a flesh-eating monster. Although Nicholson has only 5 minutes in the movie, his creepy-campy performance steals the show from nearly everyone else except the plant and maybe Mushnick’s Yiddish humour. The romance sub-plot provides further comedy and suspense which could have been milked a lot more for laughs and thrills: imagine if the plant had got jealous of Audrey and tried to lure her with hypnotism to its maw!

Somewhere in this schlocky horror picture show there’s a stab at how greed can get the better of what you know is right and how a person can be driven to derangement by accidental murder, love found and lost, and the bizarre results of home-based DIY genetic engineering that’s best left to Monsanto and its ilk. (Maybe not even that.) For a trashy cheapie made over half a century ago there’s a lot of energy in it and the dark horror aspects of family life, eating and symbiotic relationships between plants and animals are treated for laughs. How else to explain the enduring fascination this black comedy tale holds for people to the extent that it was remade as a stage musical in 1982 (on which the 1986 film musical and the 1990’s children’s cartoon series are based) and was slated for remake as a pure feature film in 2009? The dreaded dicotyledon continues to exercise its mesmeric abilities across the spatio-temporal divide long after its final bloom droops.

Recipe for Murder: an entertaining look at thallium poisoning craze in society traumatised by post-war social changes

Sonia Bible, “Recipe for Murder” (2010)

Contrary to what most people think about the 1950’s, the decade or the early part of it at least wasn’t a halycon period of peace, stability and prosperity for people in most Western societies. The Communists had come to power in China in 1949 and were soon fighting a proxy war against the US and its allies in Korea. The Soviet Union had tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949 and there were fears worldwide that that country and the US would soon fight a war with nuclear bombs which would result in deadly radiation spreading over the planet. In the US itself, Senator Joseph McCarthy and others had tapped into fears about Communist subversion to pursue an agenda of finding and eliminating opinions and points of view that dissented from or were deemed dangerous to a narrow conservative political agenda that privileged corporate business interests over others.

In Australia there were fears of invasion from China or the newly independent Indonesia, headed by President Sukarno who then was considered in much the same way as Libya’s Colonel Gadhafi is now: a maverick, crazy despot with suspect loyalties and ambitions. In such a jittery, nervous context, the mood was ripe for a scare, however laughable it might look today, and in 1953 Sydney was caught up in a thallium-poisoning frenzy which is the focus of Sonia Bible’s droll and entertaining documentary “Recipe for Murder”. This hour-long feature mixes dramatisations, old newsreel films, a terse narrative by Dan Wyllie and a talking-head style of interviewing (in which viewers see historians, crime writer Peter Doyle, witnesses and retired police talking to an offscreen interviewer asking unknown questions) into an informative mix that captures something of the panic of the time and flavours it with a hard-boiled detective crime fiction feel. Several social issues such as the position of women generally, society’s attitudes to marriage and domestic violence, and stereotypes of how women should behave and the public reaction to news of women who didn’t behave demurely, in a period in which women had worked in factories during World War II and were expected to give up their jobs and independence and retire quietly back into domesticity when the fighting was done, are briefly investigated.

The documentary is structured around the cases of three Sydney women who were arrested in 1953 and charged with murder or attempted murder by thallium poisoning. At the time, a rat plague had broken out and there were fears that the bubonic plague scare which erupted in 1900 would do so again. Rat poison in which thallium – a soft white metal toxin banned elsewhere in Australia at the time – was the main ingredient was commonly used, being slow-acting and having no smell or taste that would warn wily rats. The first murder case was that of Yvonne Fletcher who was charged with murdering two husbands; her trial was followed closely by the tabloids and the Sydney Morning Herald which diligently (though perhaps inadvisedly) printed details of how the poisoning was carried out and what the symptoms of thallium poisoning were. Next up was Caroline Grills, a kindly aunt who made tea, cakes and biscuits for relatives and in-laws, and inherited some of their properties whenever they died. Grills was charged with murdering four people, all of them related to her in some way, and of attempted murder of a fifth person. The third and most sensational case was of Veronica Monty, charged with the attempted murder of her son-in-law, local celebrity football-player Bob Lulham, with whom she was having an affair; she admitted she had tried to kill herself but had accidentally given her laced cup of tea to Lulham.

Stylish and minimal re-enactments of the three women’s lives in the manner of film noir, emphasising the circumstances that led to their actions and arrests, combined with old photographs and recreations of newspaper headlines, illustrate the gritty tenor of life in Sydney and the severely limited range of options available to women in trouble. Fletcher’s two husbands had been alcoholics prone to violence; Monty likely suffered from depression as, two years after being acquitted of attempted murder, she took her own life; as for Grills, nothing is known of her motives for killing her stepmother or her in-laws, but probably she harboured repressed feelings of rage and revenge under a warm and smiling mother-hen facade. Fletcher and Monty are tragic figures, victims of a set of beliefs that decreed married women must put up and shut up and bear their burdens stoically; in addition, Fletcher had a reputation as a floozy and no doubt many people saw her conviction and death sentence as fit justice for previous bad behaviour. As for Grills, her case could well be the stuff of genteel whodunnit mystery fiction if it hadn’t been real; indeed, in the manner of whodunnits, the first person to suspect her of poisoning her victims isn’t a trained detective but her son-in-law. The case is very disquieting and, if we knew of Grills’s motives for dispatching her relatives with poisoned tea and cakes, could be blackly hilarious, sinister and malevolent, depressing or even all of these. Serial killers don’t usually come in the form of middle-aged grandmothers offering warm scones and biscuits and cups of tea!

The whole program is very tight and breathlessly packed with information and memorable images that mimic the sensational reporting of the time. It seems much shorter than its hour-long length and the individual stories and their social and cultural context, not to mention the dark mirror they hold up to society and its assumptions about women and family life, perhaps deserve a deeper treatment than what the documentary is able to give. The publicity the three trials attracted encouraged other people to use thallium either as a murder weapon or a method of suicide until eventually its sale as rat poison was banned. The two detectives Ferguson and Krabe who worked on the three cases are intriguing characters in their own right: feted as celebrities and heroes in the press, they later came to be known as two of the most corrupt police in New South Wales. You wonder what it was about Sydney, its people and culture, and the nature of crime there, that made these men’s star fall so low.

Heavenly Creatures: a rich and dark dramatisation of a real-life matricide

Peter Jackson, “Heavenly Creatures” (1994)

Having made his reputation as purveyor of gory splatter horror comedy flicks to amuse teenagers and kidults, New Zealand director Peter Jackson made his jump to the mainstream film world with the drama “Heavenly Creatures”. The film is based on a notorious and sensational New Zealand murder trial that took place in 1954, in which two young teenage girls were charged with the murder of the mother of one of the girls themselves, and were sentenced to 5-year jail terms in prison, after which they were to change their names and never see each other again. Rather than focus on the actual trial itself, in which various psychiatric experts were brought in to ascertain if the girls were lesbian or insane, “Heavenly Creatures” details the friendship of the girls, how it developed and the intense fantasy world they wove together as their way of coping with social restrictions and pressures in the provincial conservative society of 1950s Christchurch in southern New Zealand.

Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey) is a surly outcast at her girls-only high school until new student Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) arrives from the UK. Both girls discover they have much in common: they suffered from serious illnesses as children and spent time in hospital; they are highly intelligent and imaginative and share the same interests in music, watching movies, reading books and making up their own stories. As the friendship grows, Juliet invites Pauline to her home and Pauline is amazed to discover that Juliet’s family is wealthy and cultured in contrast to her own working class folks. Together the girls create a fantasy kingdom called Borovnia, populated with clay figures the girls make; the youngsters also dress up and act out the adventures of the Borovnian royals which they then chronicle in novels they eventually plan to publish in the US. Perhaps a film director will even make movies out of the books! Meanwhile Pauline’s mother Honora (Sarah Peirse) and Juliet’s father (Clive Merrison) start to worry over the girls’ intense friendship; Pauline’s mum drags her offspring to see a psychiatrist who can hardly bring himself to mention the dreaded “L” word. Eventually the parents meet and agree that the girls should be separated. Juliet’s mother (Diana Kent), having an affair with another man and sympathetic to Juliet and Pauline, suggests the girls can spend a fortnight together before Juliet is dispatched to a relative in South Africa indefinitely. During this time the girls plan to run away and plot to kill Pauline’s mother whom they believe is the instigator of their separation.

As the two girls, Lynskey and Winslet are excellent: initially Winslet looks too old (she was 18 or 19 years old at the time) to play a girl in her mid-teens but she quickly sweeps away any misgivings about her suitability as Hulme. Her acting seems florid for modern audiences unused to the way upper class English teenagers might have behaved in the 1950’s but in moments requiring real emotion, Winslet is realistic enough. As Rieper, Lynskey nails the girl’s complex nature as she goes from resentment at her lower class background to exhilaration in Juliet’s company to a kind of puzzled alienation at losing her virginity. The emotion in Lynskey’s face, depending on changes in her character’s circumstances as she interacts with Peirse and other actors, is one of the most memorable aspects of the movie; the girl’s not a beauty but her face, often framed in close-up, is a real study of changes in feeling and mood. There is an electrifying chemistry to Lynskey and Winslet’s interactions that apparently continued beyond the film itself; in a weird case of life imitating art, the two continued to call each other Pauline and Juliet after filming ended! The acting support is top-notch as well, bringing out a strong impression of the social gulf that exists between the Riepers and Hulmes and which leads Pauline to despise her background, particularly her mother who’s the disciplinarian in the family in contrast to Juliet’s easy-going and rebellious mother.

The film’s approach is strictly narrative and realist: told from Pauline’s point of view, using the girl’s actual diary extracts as the source for Lynskey’s voice-over monologues, “Heavenly Creatures” presents the events leading up to the murder without taking either the girls’ side or their parents’ side. The social and economic context in which the girls meet and create their imaginary world, itself both a witty and cheeky commentary on the culture they’ve grown up with and a place to express their rebellious tendencies and frustration at social expectations of them, emerges as the elephant in the room that informs the girls’ fantasies and breeds the resentment Pauline feels for her family and mother. The fantasy world of clay figures, mediaeval castles, Italian operatic arias and English gardens, sometimes laid over the real New Zealand landscape of green fern forests in which the original Maori culture has perhaps been extinguished, is presented as appearing more real than real life itself and often intrudes with bloodthirsty relish in Pauline and Juliet’s day-dreams. Jackson’s attention to replicating details of New Zealand life in the 1950s looks accurate and captures the flavour of both the warm if claustrophobic working class life of Pauline’s family and the languid, free-wheeling life of Juliet’s family. Fantasy sequences featuring adult-sized clay figures and recreations of scenes with US actor Orson Welles from Carol Reed’s famous 1950s film “The Third Man” are often droll, wickedly funny and slightly sinister at the same time.

The cinematography which takes in panoramic and bird’s-eye views of the wide plains of Canterbury province in southern New Zealand is often very beautiful; the plains and the lush green forests could be symbolic of the girls’ desire for freedom and self-expression. By contrast, old newsreel scenes of mid-20th century Christchurch before the movie’s opening credits show a city that could have existed anywhere in Australia or New Zealand of the same period, apart perhaps from a shot of the Anglican church that was damaged in February 2011 by an earthquake.

It’s a pity that the film doesn’t go beyond the murder and show the voyeuristic and prurient aspects of the trial which would have demonstrated the sexually repressed and hypocritical side of 1950s Christchurch society in dismissing the girls as “evil” while salivating over the trial’s details through the newspapers of the time. Hints that the girls may have lesbian tendencies are explored tastefully: Pauline finds her first sexual experience with a man an alienating non-event and the scene in which the girls embrace and kiss in their underwear in bed could be construed as acting out parts for their novel – after all, someone has to play the prince! – as well as suggesting a sexual aspect to the friendship. Juliet plays a dominating role and Pauline is her adoring acolyte in the relationship. The film doesn’t dwell much on the family dynamics that encourage the girls to retreat deeper into their shared fantasy: there is no hint of the conflict in the Hulmes’ marriage (though there must have been as the mother has a lover and the parents are as alike as the proverbial chalk and cheese) or in the Riepers’ relationship even though the movie clearly shows Honora as a dominant character and her husband as a bit child-like.

Although “Heavenly Creatures” on the surface is a straightforward fictional retelling of a real-life drama with no apparent agenda, its themes of sensitive, intelligent individuals who try in their own way to cope with the restrictions their society places on them and the frustrations these cause, of how the fantasy worlds people create reflect their culture and help them cope (or not cope) with their reality as it changes, and the psychology of teenage girls together give the film a richness that informs the acting and fleshes out the drama with dark Gothic imagery. There is a gentle suspense that with the moderately fast pace builds quietly and inexorably to the horrific climax.

Les Diaboliques aka The Devils: psychological horror film thin on plot but thick with suspense, claustrophobia, tension and twisted endings

Henri-Georges Clouzot, “Les Diaboliques” aka “The Devils” (1955)

At first “Les Diaboliques” doesn’t seem anything like director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s previous film “Wages of Fear”: one is an action thriller about four truck drivers who undertake a dangerous journey and the other movie is a psychological horror study of two murderers. Look closely though and the similarities are there: there is a great deal of unnerving tension extended through most of the two movies that culminates in more than one climax, with a twist at the end; and the action takes place in an unsympathetic universe where people are exploited by other people in particular social, political and economic environments. The exploited characters may be driven to take whatever action they can, no matter how morally questionable that is, to free themselves from exploitation and to restore meaning and purpose to their lives. “Les Diaboliques” follows two such people who take what is clearly unlawful action to free themselves. One of the two experiences a new kind of prison, a psychological one, that threatens her health and her life as well.

Christina Delasalle and her husband (Vera Clouzot and Paul Meurisse) run a boys’ boarding school in Paris. She teaches several subjects and he as principal attends to the administration and paperwork. Michel is also having an affair with a teacher, Miss Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) and moreover flaunts the romance openly so even the children giggle about it behind Christina’s back. He abuses both women physically and mentally but though she is unhappy and despondent, Christina refuses to divorce her husband due to her strong religious beliefs. Nicole, also unhappy, suggests to the wife that they work together to kill Michel. Christina hesitates at first but agrees. The women lure Michel to Nicole’s apartment in a small village during a public holiday when the school is closed and the boys have gone home; they get the tyrant drunk and drown him in a bath-tub full of water. They drive his body back to the school and dump it in the muddy, leaf-covered swimming pool. A few days later, the women find an excuse to drain the pool, only to discover the corpse has disappeared.

Bizarre incidents occur that suggest that Michel could be alive or his ghost is haunting the school, leaving Christina and Nicole seriously rattled. Christina starts searching for Michel’s corpse and meets retired police detective Fichet (Charles Vanel) who is personally interested in the case and begins to snoop around the school for clues in spite of her protests. While Fichet conducts his investigation, the women argue and bitch about who is more guilty of murder, and end up falling out. Nicole packs her bag and departs the school, and Christina is left alone and vulnerable to strange goings-on at night that hint that Michel is not only not dead but has come to harass her.

The tension and unease that extend throughout the movie are sustained by a combination of various filming methods and tricks such as the use of close-ups of objects or actions, odd camera angles and particular rotations of the camera as it follows an action or takes in an image; and clearly defined characters in Christina and Nicole whose differing personalities and views on morality highlight their susceptibility to pangs of conscience while the murder remains undiscovered and unsolved. Viewers know their alliance will be very short-lived. At the same time the teachers seem to have more than Michel in common and there are hints of a developing lesbian relationship with Nicole the bossy leader and Christina the passive, girlish partner. Signoret plays the forceful Nicole well. Vera Clouzot, wife of the film’s director, has a tougher job playing a resigned, submissive woman burdened by despair initially and then by guilt and self-abasement after the murder, but she holds up her part adequately enough. In the climactic bath-tub scene, Clouzot’s reaction to what she sees coming out of the water seems wooden and a little overplaying of fright and terror wouldn’t have gone amiss. (Slightly hammy acting in this scene would also support this writer’s idea that Christina might be playing Nicole and the other school staff for fools as suggested by the film’s coda that involves a boy and his slingshot.)

The film is at its strongest in scenes where Christina, though physically weak from nervous stress and guilt, leaves her bed at night to investigate an intrusion into Michel’s quarters at the school and walks through dark corridors towards a lit room; here the camera’s roaming, the snappy editing, the odd shots of moving legs or gloved hands sliding up bannisters, the unusual points of view emphasising the length of corridors or door angles illuminated by flashes of light from behind, and close-ups of Christina’s wide-eyed terror, all increase and prolong the tension to the movie’s climax. The voyeuristic style of filming which forces the viewers to follow and share Christina’s fright recalls the methods favoured by Clouzot’s more famous contemporary Alfred Hitchcock. “Les Diaboliques” also shares with many of Hitchcock’s films a black humour, especially in scenes between Christina and Fichet, who insists on offering his investigative services for free, and in scenes involving Nicole’s apartment neighbours who complain about the noise of the running bath-water above them.

Though the world where “Les Diaboliques” takes place is a depressingly mean-spirited and restricted one where characters exploit one another for selfish personal gain and freedom can be gained only by transgressing social and moral rules set up by equally selfish others, the whole movie seems thin compared to Hitchcock’s more layered, psychoanalytically influenced thrillers like “Vertigo” and “Psycho”.  Plot discrepancies are very noticeable in “Les Diaboliques” and the audience needs to fill in blanks such as: how does Fichet work out what Nicole is doing with Michel’s corpse? what’s going on with Christina after two people are taken into police custody? could Fichet and Christina have been working together? – as director Clouzot, perhaps deliberately, leaves much unexplained about Christina’s fate after the end credits start to roll. Also if Clouzot had given a bit more back-story to both Christina and Nicole and allowed Michel a more rounded personality than simply making him a petty dictator, viewers might have felt more sympathy for the women as they struggle with their guilt, bad consciences and trying to justify to themselves and to each other that what they did to Michel was what he deserved. As it is, the characters are one-dimensional and stereotyped: Christina as the passive, submissive good-girl wife who finds it difficult not to do as she’s told, Nicole as the icy bossy-boots schemer and Michel as all-out misogynist who marries only for money and dumps women when he sees fit.

“Les Diaboliques” is still worth a look though for the two trick endings and the way in which Clouzot builds up and maintains unease, suspense, and a sense of claustrophobia in the lead-up to the climax. Apart from this, the movie isn’t otherwise remarkable in the way it unfurls the narrative and yours truly has the feeling it sticks fairly closely to the original source material.

The film was based on a pulp crime fiction novel “Celle qui n’était plus” (known in English as “The Woman who was no more”) by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud aka Thomas Narcejac. According to legend and depending on which version of the legend you hear, Clouzot beat Alfred Hitchcock to the film rights to this novel by half an hour to several hours after finishing “Wages of Fear”. Boileau and Narcejac later offered Hitchcock the film rights to their next novel “D’entre les morts” (“The Living and the Dead”) which the British-American director made into “Vertigo”. Hitchcock must still have been a bit sore at losing the film rights to the earlier book as he set out to beat Clouzot at his own game and the result was the famous “Psycho”. Between “Les Diaboliques” and “Psycho”, viewers certainly will think twice about taking long baths or hot showers!

Wages of Fear: mesmerising film about character, motivation and meaning of existence in an uncaring universe

Henri-Georges Clouzot, “Wages of Fear” (1953)

On paper, this movie’s plot looks so simple, even kindergartners would yawn at it: an American oil company offers to pay “big” money to four truck drivers to transport two loads of explosive chemicals from a remote town somewhere in Central America to an oilfield. The route they must take winds through rough country over often unpaved roads, there may be obstacles in the way and the loads themselves are so volatile that the slightest vibration in the engine or the smallest bump in the road could set them off. How then could Clouzot make a movie lasting nearly 2 1/2 hours out of this scenario? How can anyone make a long truck journey interesting and tense for an audience to watch for over an hour? The answer is that Clouzot made this particular trip more than just an adventure thriller flick: “Wages of Fear” is as much a study of character and motivation, a test of courage, loyalty and morality under extreme circumstances, and an indictment of a society in which people hold life and nature in low regard and readily exploit other people who allow themselves to be debased to the extent that their own lives become expendable.

The movie divides into two unequal halves: the second half contains the actual trip itself and has all the action and suspense but the first half, about an hour, gives viewers the backgrounds of the four men and their motives for wanting to carry out such a suicidal job for measly pay in conditions that in part were deliberately created or neglected by their employer. The setting is in a poor town, Las Piedras: hot, dusty, rainy, isolated with no work for the various European expatriate refugees who have come here for various reasons. They sleep, drink, laze about and make nuisances of themselves with the locals. Four such men are Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and Luigi (Folco Lulli) who waste their days away in their own fashion: Mario is having an affair with a local girl, Linda (Vera Clouzot), and both plan to get away from Las Piedras if Linda can save up enough money. Jo, an ex-gangster, has a mean streak and is prepared to kill for selfish and petty reasons. Luigi is a warm-hearted if perhaps simple-minded baker. Bimba is a quiet type who was once imprisoned by Nazis and forced by them to work in a salt mine.

They are among several men answering the call of the local branch of the Southern Oil Company (SOC) for drivers to carry explosives to an oilfield some hundreds of kilometres away. A fire has broken out and nitroglycerine is urgently needed to put out the flames; the company is forced to load cans of the stuff onto two old trucks and recruit drivers at short notice with little safety preparation. Understandable of course but we’re not supposed to ask why safety precautions at the oilfield weren’t carried out in the first place. (And using explosives to extinguish fires? … uh, hmmm …) Assume that, like the real-life BP, the oil company here has little regard for safety in the workplace and environmental concerns, and cuts corners if it can with impunity. Anyway, applicants have to travel to the company compound – the company managers and their staff live in their own town in comfort – to undergo driving and medical tests: Luigi has a condition, caused by previous employment with SOC, that shortens his life-span and for that reason is hired as one of the four lucky driver duckies. Mario and Bimba, being young and fit, are also picked as is Smerloff (?) with Jo an alternative driver should any of the four fail to turn up for the job. Jo waylays Smerloff and gets the job.

As we expect, the trip itself isn’t a smooth ride: the truckers have to negotiate at least two obstacles which involve backing and turning the vehicles around on a damaged bridge with rotting wood planks overlooking an abyss and removing a boulder blocking the road. Bimba and Luigi, driving on ahead after Jo weakens early during the trip, meet with an accident that leaves a crater filling up with oil from a damaged pipeline which becomes a third obstacle for Mario and Jo. The suspense is extended across the entire time the trip takes place: the pace is leisurely but increases steadily and so does the tension; the cinematography is lean with close-ups taken at critical moments – truck-tyres scrabbling on slippery boards, a wick being ignited, Jo looking exhausted and perhaps inwardly beating himself up for his moral and physical weakness – and featuring an incredible montage sequence at film’s end that alternates between dancing couples and a truck swerving from side to side on a dangerous mountain road to the tune of Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube”. There is also a mesmerising sequence of images of huge fires billowing and sweeping across the screen like hell brought to reality at the oilfield where Mario delivers the explosives. Indeed a number of scenes near the film’s end, beginning with Jo’s death, could be construed as climaxes in the film’s narrative. The acting is sparing and efficient, enough for the movie’s plot and purpose, though Vanel as Jo puts in a great performance playing a man forced to admit to himself if not to others that he is a coward, that his physical and mental strength are fading and failing him, and that the other drivers despise him for his greed and lack of support. But as the quartet overcomes each obstacle, the strain on their endurance becomes obvious: Luigi coughs more, Bimba reminds himself of his experiences in the salt mines, Jo becomes ill or tries to run away and Mario ends up losing his temper and behaves callously in a way that will cost Jo his life.

Superficially the film is a test of four men’s courage and ability to withstand pressures placed partly by themselves and by others: at stake is their self-esteem and sense of masculinity as well as their lives. Mario, initially presented as a self-centred layabout who treats Linda badly, ends up loyal to the undeserving Jo and mourns his death. Jo discovers that with each new ordeal he encounters, his fear increases, demonstrating that whether you face one or 100 frightening situations, you never get used to fear; on the contrary, you become more fearful and less brave. His fatal accident merely manifests the inner broken man he has become. On another level, the film doesn’t celebrate Mario and his fellow truckers as heroes: they were greedy and foolish enough to accept a job without proper safety measures from a firm they know to be unscrupulous and slapdash in its treatment of its employees. Even so, they are heroic in the way they cope with whatever is thrown at them. Jo with all his fear doesn’t come off too badly, facing agonising death and nothingness with relative calm, though this is dependent on Mario offering comfort.

There’s a strong existential aspect to “Wages of Fear”, a philosophical point of view that suggests the universe is indifferent to the fate of humans and capricious to boot; under such conditions, individuals must make meaning out of their lives, however cheap and ignoble the means are. The tragic coda in which circumstances and human arrogance collide illustrates this notion though some viewers may find this part of the film as a heavy-handed and unnecessary addition to the narrative.

The political aspect of “Wages of Fear” is all but ignored: viewers may well wonder what kind of government ruling the country allows towns like Las Piedras to exist and permits foreign, especially US, corporations to trash the environment with impunity and to use the local people as slave labour to extract oil and other resources, the income from which won’t benefit the true owners at all. Also we never find out why people like Mario, Bimba, Jo and Luigi came to Las Piedras in the first place, though viewers who know something of the post-1945 history of the world and of Europe and Latin America in particular may be well aware of the political turmoil and that erupted after World War II and the large-scale movements of refugees displaced by war and poverty that occurred as a result.

Highly recommended watching, preferably in a fixed spot such as inside a building, and not in a truck or semi-trailer carrying dangerous chemical loads or equipment.