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Month: March 2022

Liaisons Dangereuses, Les (1959)

Liaisons Dangereuses, Les (1959)

“Which of us molded the other?”

Synopsis:
A French couple — Valmont (Gérard Philipe) and Juliette (Jeanne Moreau) — whose marriage revolves around seducing and then abandoning new “conquests” find their happiness compromised when Valmont beds a virginal teenager (Jeanne Valérie) whose fiance (Jean-Louis Trintignant) has been waiting patiently for her while pursuing his studies, then falls in love with a married woman (Annette Vadim) who sparks new feelings within him.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • French Films
  • Infidelity
  • Jeanne Moreau Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Roger Vadim Films
  • Sexuality

Review:
Roger Vadim’s adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel is an interesting entry in the cinematic annals of this scandalous story’s numerous iterations. Featuring a rich, jazzy soundtrack by Thelonius Monk, and upscale settings in snowy retreats:

… the action and settings have clearly been modernized, but the basic tenet of sociopaths using others for their own pleasure is as relevant as ever. Moreau and Philipe — in his final performance before dying at age 36 from liver cancer — are well cast in the lead roles as the master manipulators (here a married couple rather than friends, as in the novel) whose own sexual gratification revolves around their exploitation of others:

Vadim’s real-life wife Annette is appropriately tragic as Philipe’s most complex conquest:

… and Valérie and Trintignant are believable as a naive young couple whose lives are also changed forever by their involvement with Valmont and Juliette:

Fans of this harsh classic tale will want to check this version out — but/and should be prepared for a startling update to the story’s original ending.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Marcel Grignon’s cinematography
  • Thelonius Monk’s score

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.

Links:

French Cancan (1955)

French Cancan (1955)

“Yes, it’s true. I’m his mistress and I’m proud of it.”

Synopsis:
A nightclub manager (Jean Gabin) hires a talented young laundry worker (Françoise Arnoul) to dance the cancan in his new facility — but Arnoul’s boyfriend (Franco Pastorino) is upset when she falls for Gabin, and a wealthy prince (Giani Esposito) is equally disappointed that Arnoul won’t accept his offer of marriage.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Dancers
  • French Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Jean Renoir Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Musicals

Review:
One of Jean Renoir’s three post-Hollywood musical comedies — after The Golden Coach (1952) and before Elena and Her Men (1956) [not listed in GFTFF] — was this vibrant fictional homage to the founding of the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris. It’s pure fantasy all the way, filmed entirely on sets:

… and with a featherweight storyline designed simply to showcase that love of the stage tends to triumph over all other considerations (even the promise of wealth and royalty).

Gabin strolls leisurely through his role as an aging but still desirable impresario:

… but it’s the dancing one really keeps an eye out for, and to that end the film opens and closes with plenty of spectacle.


Fans of such fare will surely enjoy this, but it’s not must-see viewing.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine period sets and Technicolor cinematography

Must See?
No, though of course Renoir fans will want to check it out.

Links:

Purple Plain, The (1954)

Purple Plain, The (1954)

“I think he cracked up years ago.”

Synopsis:
A Canadian RAF pilot (Gregory Peck) struggling with flashbacks to his wife’s death is taken by a kind doctor (Bernard Lee) to visit the home of a missionary (Brenda de Banzie) in Burma, where he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young nurse’s aide (Win Min Than). Soon Peck’s trauma decreases enough that he’s able to help support his crew through a dangerous and unexpected crash landing.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Airplanes and Pilots
  • Character Arc
  • Gregory Peck Films
  • Mental Breakdown
  • Survival
  • World War II

Review:
Former child-actor-turned-editor Robert Parrish didn’t get a chance to direct many films, but this BAFTA-nominated feature remains among his best. Evoking memories of his starring turn in Twelve O’Clock High (1949), Peck once again plays a fighter pilot under pressure, with Parrish making good use of atmospheric flashbacks to give us context for why Peck has “cracked up”:

The storyline then shifts into two new directions: Peck’s budding romance with Than —

… and a gripping crash-survival scenario.

As DVD Savant notes, the overall storyline “hits an emotional chord” through a story (by Eric Ambler) whose “details have an unspoken feeling of faith and abiding inner peace.” Indeed, it’s refreshing seeing Peck (in yet another fine performance) being given a new chance at life after the grief he’s suffered.

Also of note is British character actress Brenda de Banzie in a memorable role as an earnest, hymn-belting missionary:

While The Purple Plain isn’t must-see viewing, it’s recommended as a “good show”.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Gregory Peck as Bill Forrester
  • Brenda de Banzie as Miss McNab
  • Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

Links:

Gervaise (1956)

Gervaise (1956)

“Someone had you before me, and I’m glad it was him.”

Synopsis:
In 19th century France, an unmarried laundry woman (Maria Schell) with two kids endures taunts from a neighbor (Suzy Delair), then marries a roofer (François Perier) who turns to alcoholism after a nasty accident. A kind blacksmith (Jacques Harden) offers solace and love to Gervaise (Schell), but when her former lover (Armand Mestral) comes to live in their house, she reaches her last straw.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Feminism and Women’s Issues
  • French Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Maria Schell Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Rene Clement Films
  • Strong Females

Review:
Rene Clement directed this adaptation of Emile Zola’s 1877 novel L’Assommoir, a prequel of sorts to Nana (1880) and part of the same series of 20 naturalist novels about the Rougon-Macquart family. Clement’s steady directorial hand — supported by DP Robert Juillard and fine historical sets — is in clear evidence throughout, and Schell is appealing in the title role:

However, the overall storyline — about women’s issues vis-à-vis poverty and single motherhood — is so bleak, one must be in the right space to handle it. We feel for Schell’s predicament: it’s hard enough for her to earn a rough living as a laundry woman while enduring teasing about her marital status:

… but when her new husband turns to drink and then invites her older children’s father (Mestral) to come live with them, she is really put into a pickle. Things stay rough and don’t get a whole lot better; be forewarned.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Maria Schell as Gervaise
  • Fine attention to period detail

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one time viewing if you can stomach it. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

House of Bamboo (1955)

House of Bamboo (1955)

“It’s hard for you to understand; no foreigner does.”

Synopsis:
An American military policeman (Robert Stack) posing as the friend of a dead gangster in Japan begins to work for the gang’s leader (Robert Ryan), whose current henchman (Cameron Mitchell) isn’t happy about his number-one spot being taken over by Stack. Meanwhile, Stack has a romance with his deceased friend’s widow (Shirley Yamaguchi), who is posing as his “kimono girl”.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cameron Mitchell Films
  • Gangsters
  • Hidden or Mistaken Identities
  • Robert Ryan Films
  • Robert Stack Films
  • Sam Fuller Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “taught low-budget action picture” is “one of Sam Fuller’s best films,” explaining that “Fuller believed that WWII didn’t end with the armistice — Japan was controlled by the U.S. military and exploited by American thugs and profiteers; loyalty among war vets was of utmost importance; [and] Americans still looked down on Japanese culture.” Indeed, many critics have noted the absurdity of the story on display here, with American gangsters creating a powerful syndicate in Japan despite not speaking the language, and despite the presence of the all-powerful Yakuza. With that enormous caveat aside, the film is indeed an impressive thriller with vibrant sets, gorgeous cinematography, and plenty of tension.

Peary points out that the “storyline involving Stack and Ryan greatly resembles that between police infiltrator Edmond O’Brien and gang leader James Cagney in White Heat” — and “as in Walsh’s film, we tend to sympathize with the trusting, insane gang leader” — Ryan’s “mad ex-GI” — “instead of the man who commits the unforgivable: betrayal.”

Critics have also pointed out potential homoerotic valences between Ryan, Mitchell, and Stack — especially given a disturbingly brutal but beautifully filmed bathtub sequence later in the film. After being so disappointed by Fuller’s first CinemaScope outing, Hell and High Water (1954), I was very pleasantly surprised to see Fuller back in true form here, showcasing masterful framing and peak storytelling skills. This one remains well worth a look.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Robert Ryan as Sandy Dawson
  • Excellent use of authentic locales
  • Fine sets
  • Strong direction

  • Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine crime flick by a master director.

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Important Director

Links:

Strada, La (1954)

Strada, La (1954)

“Are you really a woman? You look like an artichoke.”

Synopsis:
When a simple-minded young woman (Giuletta Masina) is purchased by a brutish strongman (Anthony Quinn) to be his assistant in his traveling act, she soon encounters a whole new world of people and places — including a silly Fool (Richard Basehart) who likes to goad Quinn to dangerous degrees. Will Masina stay by Quinn’s side through thick and thin, or strike out on her own?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Anthony Quinn Films
  • Carnivals and Circuses
  • Federico Fellini Films
  • Italian Films
  • Richard Basehart Films
  • Road Trip
  • Spousal Abuse

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “along with The Bicycle Thief, Federico Fellini’s classic is the most loved of Italy’s neorealist films of the post-WWII era.” It features Giuletta Masina as “a poor, innocent simpleton” who has “no sense of self-worth to begin with,” and “is made to feel even more inconsequential by [Quinn’s] insensitive brute who drinks heavily, sleeps with other women, insults her talents…, and beats her as if she were a dog.”

Masina’s Gelsomina gets numerous offers to leave her life and start anew — including to “join a circus, run off with a clown and tightrope walker… or stay in a convent” — but “she becomes convinced that Quinn really does need her,” and “perhaps he loves her.” Peary asserts that “Masina mugs too much,” but concedes “she’s captivating. With a round face, dimples, and large, expressive eyes, she has the look of a clown” and will “remind you of a cross between Harpo Marx, Charlie Chaplin, and a puppy.”

Peary argues that her “serious scenes don’t really work because her temporary switch from gamine to disgruntled adult is too swift,” and “the result is that her performance seems inconsistent, although the real problem is with the character.” He further adds that “Quinn’s character is also a bit hard to figure out — it’s true that the bigger they are, the harder they fall, but when the mighty Quinn lies in a drunken heap, what is he thinking?”

I don’t share Peary’s concerns about either character. While it’s true that Gelsomina undergoes significant changes, this is because she’s been thrown out into the world for the first time and is finally meeting a wide range of people. She’s learning that she doesn’t have to simply comply and fit in and “act dumb”. Meanwhile, Quinn’s character (as Martin Scorsese — a huge fan of the film — has pointed out), is representative of so many violent men who simply can’t see farther than their next carnal need, which eventually leads to self-destruction; kind and/or lusty, fun-loving women may be waiting in the wings for awhile, but not indefinitely.

Basehart’s character, however, is perhaps the most intriguing in the entire film. This “fool” — first seen walking on a highwire (though surely this is a double…):

— becomes a pivotal character in the storyline, given that he can’t help telling the truth and calling out hypocrisy, at risk of his own safety.

Finally, as Peary points out, the film provides “memorable glimpses of [the] Italian countryside, crowded villages, [and] excitement over rituals (weddings, religious parades, circus acts).” Indeed, we see an entire world on display here — one that has left an indelible mark on cinematic history.

Note: Richard Basehart has been an interesting actor to get to know through watching him in a wide range of titles and roles — from Maximilian Robespierre in Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949), to a fearful corporal in Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets! (1951), to an alcoholic priest in Jean Negulesco’s Titanic (1953), to his role as Ishmael in John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956), to this Italian film with Fellini (he was living in Rome at the time he was cast). What an unusual and varied career.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Giuletta Masina as Gelsomina
  • Anthony Quinn as Zampano
  • Richard Basehart as the Fool
  • Otello Martelli’s cinematography
  • Nino Rota’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a foreign classic.

Categories

  • Foreign Gem
  • Important Director

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Floating Clouds (1955)

Floating Clouds (1955)

“You said that you would do anything for me; now you only want to get rid of me!”

Synopsis:
A woman (Hideko Takamine) seeks out the man (Masayuki Mori) she had an affair with in French Indochina during the war, only to find him still married to his sickly wife (Chieko Nakakita) and flirting with a much younger married woman (Mariko Okada). Will Takamine, who eventually turns to prostitution to survive, be able to forget about Mori and leave him behind — or are they destined to somehow live a life together?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Feminism and Women’s Issues
  • Japanese Films
  • Star-Crossed Lovers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “most famous film in the 37-year career of Mikio Naruse” features the star of 17 of his movies — “beautiful Hideko Takamine,” who “gives a sympathetic performance as a young woman” who “will suffer great indignities” because of her enduring love for a married man.

He argues that “Naruse wanted the misery of Takamine and the women who are exploited by insensitive men to reflect the depressed, defeated country,” and asserts that Naruse “believed that the widespread ill-treatment of women was the reason postwar Japan was such a miserable place.” He points out that the “direction by Naruse is typically unobtrusive,” with the camera rarely moving “away from the actors” — but he notes that rather than “being static,” this “unusual film” has “a distinct romantic flow,” and we “feel deeply about what happens to these interesting people.”

I agree with Peary’s points. These flawed characters — who often don’t make “smart” decisions, instead basing their responses on passion or familiarity — feel very real. To that end, however, viewers should be forewarned that the storyline is almost relentlessly bleak; there are no easy solutions or outcomes for these protagonists.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Hideko Takamine as Yukiko
  • Masayuki Mori as Kengo
  • Fine cinematography and sets

Must See?
Yes, to see Naruse’s most celebrated film — but be sure to check out When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) as well.

Categories

  • Important Director

Links:

Red and the Black, The (1954)

Red and the Black, The (1954)

“Never has sin been committed with less joy.”

Synopsis:
After seducing the mother (Danielle Darrieux) of the children he’s tutoring, an upwardly mobile aspiring priest named Julien Sorel (Gérard Philipe) takes a new position in the household of a lawyer (Jean Mercure) whose virginal daughter (Antonella Lualdi) falls for and seduces him — but how will Darrieux react when she learns her former lover has not gone into the priesthood after all?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Courtroom Drama
  • Cross-Class Romance
  • Flashback Films
  • French Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Infidelity
  • Social Climbers

Review:
French director Claude Autant-Lara helmed this adaptation — named Best Film of the Year by the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics — of Stendhal’s 1830 two-volume novel. The book is known as the first “psychological novel”, given Stendhal’s use of interior monologues for the main character — a rhetorical structure retained here to surprisingly good effect (i.e., they help us to better understand the thoughts and motivations of this complex character, but aren’t overused).

Sorel is an intriguing protagonist — someone we don’t especially like, but are curious to learn more about as we see the various moves he makes, especially knowing he’ll end up in court defending himself (the film is structured as a lengthy flashback occurring during his trial for shooting a woman). We wonder why he wants to be a priest, for instance — but a key scene when he observes a bishop genuflecting in front of the mirror helps us understand that he’s eager to climb the heights of this profession and be adored in precisely this way:

Meanwhile, his predatory seduction of Darrieux’s Mme. de Rénal feels loathesome, yet he does seem to eventually love her in his own way:

As the story progresses, we continue to learn more about Sorel’s ambitions and how calculated he is about every single decision in his life. While he’s temporarily foiled time and again, he eventually “succeeds” in landing a higher spot in society — only to have it all unravel due to jealousy and passion. C’est la vie.

Note: This film has existed in a variety of lengths over the years, ranging from 113 minutes to 194 minutes; the latter is the version I saw, and it never seemed to drag (though I did watch it over several different sittings).

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine sets, costumes, and cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look if it sounds of interest.

Links:

Hell and High Water (1954)

Hell and High Water (1954)

“Each man has his own reason for living — and his own price for dying.”

Synopsis:
When the Chinese are suspected of building a secret atomic base on a Pacific island, a former Navy captain (Richard Widmark) is hired to man a submarine taking a famous French scientist (Victor Francen) and his beautiful young protege (Bella Darvi) to investigate the situation.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • At Sea
  • Cameron Mitchell Films
  • Cold War
  • Richard Widmark Films
  • Sam Fuller Films
  • Scientists
  • Submarines

Review:
Writer-director Sam Fuller’s seventh feature-length film was this Cold War-era submarine flick described by DVD Savant as “the damndest, most adolescent expression of confused anti-war, pro-war, peacenik, gung-ho insanity to come from a major studio.” Having recently rewatched Fuller’s excellent The Steel Helmet (1950) and Fixed Bayonets! (1951), I’ll admit I was disappointed to see what a mess of cliches is on display here; it seems Fuller was much better off leaving women out of his wartime flicks, given that Darvi is simply relegated to a standard 1950s role as a woman so sexy she can’t possibly be a smart, multi-lingual scientist — can she?

Naturally, she’s instantly coveted by boorish Cameron Mitchell:

… but (spoiler) she only has eyes for Widmark (because of course, she has to be interested in someone on board, right?). The action scenes are beautifully filmed but otherwise standard submarine-drama, anti-Commie fare. I find it challenging to know what else to say about this film, which Fuller completists will be curious to check out but others can simply skip.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Joseph MacDonald’s CinemaScope cinematography

Must See?
Nope; you can skip this one unless you’re a Sam Fuller completist.

Links:

Late Chrysanthemums (1954)

Late Chrysanthemums (1954)

“All men are vampires, feeding on women.”

Synopsis:
Four former geishas navigate life in middle age: moneylender Kin (Haruko Sugimura) tries to get her friends to pay back their loans, while also hoping that her married former client (Ken Uehara) might rekindle their affair; Tamae (Chikako Hosokawa) mourns the fact that her grown son (Hiroshi Koizumi) will be leaving soon for Hokkaido; gambling-addicted Tomi (Yuko Mochizuki) is frustrated to hear that her daughter Sachiko (Ineko Arima) has chosen to get married to an older man; and Nobu (Sadako Sawamura) runs a restaurant with her husband.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Feminism and Women’s Issues
  • Has-Beens
  • Japanese Films
  • Survival

Review:
Peary lists only two films by prolific Japanese director Mikio Naruse in his GFTFF: this title and Floating Clouds (1955) (though I consider his When a Woman Ascends the Stairs [1960] to be a Missing Title, and have reviewed it here). Late Chrysanthemums offers a simple yet stark look at the realities of survival for women who have spent their lives relying on the “generosity” of men, and are too old to ply their trade any longer.

Not a lot happens in this film other than watching the women interact with one another:

… with their grown children:

… and with former clients — one of whom (Bontarô Miake) tried unsuccessfully to kill Sugimura and commit suicide, yet has the temerity to come asking her for a loan upon his release from prison!

Late Chrysanthemums — presumably so-named because the chrysanthemum “represents longevity, rejuvenation and nobility in Japan” — would make a good (albeit depressing) triple bill with Mizoguchi’s A Geisha (1953) and Street of Shame (1956), also about the challenges of survival for women in patriarchal post-WWII Japan.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the leads

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links: