Once Upon a Time in the West

Ordinarily I steer clear of films that were intended as allegories. They go down like medicine and, let’s face it, most directors take themselves way too seriously when they embark on a mission. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is an allegory in the form of a Western, too, a genre freighted with moral purpose. I confess, I was a little nervous going in, but I saddled up anyhow, put on my spurs, and set off for Sweetwater.

Henry Fonda disarmed me, right off the bat. Those baby blue eyes on the face of a cold-blooded killer. It took awhile to regain my bearings, after he blew away the McBain family, but when the dust settled, I saw that I needn’t have worried. There’s a message here, to be sure, but Sergio Leone has a light touch, an approach to lesson-giving that I can only describe as fatherly.

Affectionately, he drapes an arm around our shoulders. Us, the Americans: he loves us, we must understand that he is speaking as a friend. More than a friend, an admirer. As a boy growing up under fascism, watching Westerns (this was before World War II, when they would be banned), he believed all the clichés. Epic heroes, taming the frontier, armed not only with rifles but with integrity. Such a contrast, those virtuous cowboys and their G.I. brothers, the ones who liberated Italians from the Nazis, versus his defeated countrymen, who had embraced Mussolini’s nationalism and stood by while their leader formed a shameful alliance with Hitler.

Ah, but in the decades since the war ended, we lost our way. It pains him to say this, but he must be honest. First came the witch hunts of the McCarthy era (Mickey Knox, a blacklisted actor living in Italy, worked with Leone on the English dialogue for the picture), followed by the violence of the civil rights battle and capped off by the Vietnam war. No longer proud, our values tarnished, we turned away from our own epic myths. Sure, Bonanza was still running on TV, but the motion picture Western was languishing in America.

Once Upon the Time in the West revived the industry, which was already flourishing in Italy. Like Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), this picture features characters of dubious integrity and marvelous Western vistas (mostly shot in Spain), a score by Ennio Morricone. In addition to Fonda, there are fine performances by Charles Bronson and Jason Robards.

But here’s the big difference: Once Upon a Time in the West OUTITW_Jill1has a woman at its center, a prostitute, Jill (played by the lovely Claudia Cardinale). She brings hope at the end of the picture. Redemption, even. John Boorman saw this film as “Leone’s gift to America of its lost fairy stories.”  I think he’s right.

Yojimbo

I’ve heard Yojimbo described as Japanese nihilism and that’s true up to a point. Morally speaking, there are no uplifting lessons here; it’s dog-eat-dog in Akira Kurosawa’s pioneering noir Western. The story revolves around an impoverished samurai, Sanjuro, who stumbles into a village terrorized by warring criminal gangs. Once admired for their warrior skills and aristocratic code of honor, the samurai had become swords-for-hire following the Western penetration of Japan in the mid-nineteenth century.

Sanjuro sells himself to the highest bidder, and has no qualms about double-crossing his employers. He appears unscrupulous, a casual killer who sponges off his hosts, lies and cheats, loyal to nobody. And yet he grows on us. Well before Sanjuro reveals his compassionate side, I found myself rooting for him.

For one thing, the bad guys were so much worse than he was, and let’s face it, the village was a mess. Who could blame him for wanting to get the heck out of there? Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda: I don’t care who you pick, nobody could have cleaned up that town.

Kurosawa was a fan of Russian literature. Ten years before he made Yojimbo, he adapted a Dostoevsky novel for the screen. The Idiot was his least successful project, but it was important to him, and very personal, a bleak commentary on postwar Japanese society.

Yojimbo covers the same territory, but it turns out to be less bleak in the end. The hero of The Idiot is too pure, too fragile, for the corrupt world in which he finds himself. Sanjuro, on the other hand, is well-suited for the modern era. In the Darwinian struggle for survival that characterized the evolution of the Western genre, his type would be selected for.

The Rules of the Game

We had a French exchange student staying with us for a couple of weeks, Sophie. Turns out she’s applying to film schools, wants to learn the ropes, start as a cameraperson and work her way up to directing. She’s well-versed in American film, a great admirer of Wes Anderson (and took advantage of the opportunity to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is still playing at the local art house), but arrived knowing next to nothing about the classics of her own country’s cinematic tradition.

I had my work cut out for me. She’d heard of the New Wave, of course, but had never seen Breathless or The 400 Blows. We remedied that—and Jean-Paul Belmondo gained another admirer. She’d never heard of Chris Marker, but I’ll bet she’s going to knock the socks off the interview committee with her insights into La jetée and Si j’avais quatre dromadaires, which we happened to catch at the Massachusetts Multicultural Film Festival before she left.

And the crowning touch, my favorite French film of all time: Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece, The Rules of the Game. Yes, I know it’s everybody’s favorite. Long before Downton Abbey, here was an upstairs/downstairs-y story, complete with frocks and motorcars, that didn’t indulge in nostalgia for a lifestyle that was soon to be destroyed.

Renoir couldn’t wait to see this world end. It was dead already, as he shows us hererenoir in bear suitThat’s him in the bear suit, by the way. When he asks the amorous couple to help him out of it, the gentleman responds, “On n’a pas de temps.” We have no time. Renoir’s character repeats the line, just to make sure we get it.

War is coming, but you wouldn’t know it from the goings-on at the Château de la Colinière. A weak-willed aristocrat, played by the inimitable Marcel Dalio (in what was really his last great role) has arranged a shooting party. Such a time-honored pastime of the leisure class! Only it’s not so charming, when you see bunny rabbits getting shot. As the late Alexander Sesonske noted in the essay he wrote for the 2004 Criterion edition:

In a film whose shots often run for a minute or more, here fifty-one shots appear in less than four minutes, in a mounting rhythm of cutting and movement that culminates in an awesome barrage of gunfire as, in twenty-two shots—fifty-three seconds—twelve animals die.

This makes The Rules of the Game sound gruesome, but it’s actually an enchanting film. Renoir’s affection for his characters comes through in every scene. Flawed human beings dancing on the edge of a volcano (as he put it). You feel sorry for each and every one of them.

And Sophie? I came home the next day and found her watching it again, along with all the supplemental materials on the Criterion disc.

Mission accomplished.

La jetée

I’m not going to talk about the plot of La jetée, or the eerie beauty of its composition. If you’ve never seen the film, I don’t want to give it away. I want you to approach it cold, as I did, some thirty seven years ago.

Watching it again, I found my younger self. Selves. The twenty-year-old me was transported to Paris, where the fifteen-year-old me spent a lonely summer in 1972, living with a French family on a language immersion program. Images of Paris—its parks, museums, and grand boulevards—took me back to my own rather random wanderings about the city. la-jetee-1962Visits to the Tuileries Gardens, the Jeu de Paume, the sculpture garden of the Rodin Museum. The Sainte Chapelle, the jeweled light streaming through the stained glass windows of its upper chapel, a truly otherworldly experience. Mastering the Métro. Climbing the steps of the Eiffel Tower. Ordering a citron pressé at a café along the Boulevard St. Germain or grabbing a crêpe at a sidewalk kiosk.

The fifteen-year-old me was captivated by Paris, which I was encountering without much of a context. I took it in without really knowing what I was seeing. One day I ducked into a movie theater to escape an unwelcome companion, one of the pesky boys who’d trail along after me on the street, inviting me to go dancing. The Gold Rush was showing: my first Charlie Chaplin film, and still my favorite.

That Paris returned to me as I watched La jetée at twenty. I was already nostalgic for my earlier self, the girl who’d plunged fearlessly into her adventures in an unknown city, fumbling along in her inadequate French. But the hero’s nostalgia for the vanished Paris of his own childhood, a more innocent time, brought me back further still. The film is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, a constant preoccupation in 1962, when the five-year-old me started school.

It’s something of a joke now, the Duck and Cover drills. Practicing hiding under our desks in case of a nuclear attack. They used to have us practice sitting in the dark school corridors, too, away from the windows at the far end, or on the floor in the cafeteria. And one day we were sent home early, in some kind of emergency practice run. The school bus dropped us off blocks away from our usual stop, but our mothers were there, waiting to reassure us that we were safe.

My parents were still talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis at Chanukah that year. I remember this because while they were distracted at the dinner table, arguing about Khrushchev and President Kennedy, I experimented with lighting a lollipop wrapper on one of the menorah candles and nearly set the dining room on fire. The wrapper was waxed paper and ignited in a flash. Whoosh! The flames singed my fingertips and I must have dropped the wrapper, because I remember my father’s quick action, stamping it out on the floor.

Cascading memories, and a remarkable film that awakens them all.

Rome Open City

Director Roberto Rossellini saw his 1945 masterpiece as an antidote to the escapism that had characterized Italian cinema under the Fascists. After everything Italians had lived through during the war, he said, “we couldn’t afford the luxury of these made-up stories.”

Fair enough, but was this opening salvo in the neorealist campaign any less of a myth?

The film was dark and gritty—such a contrast to the clean aesthetic of Fascism! The style was no-style. Much of it was shot on the street, as opposed to in a studio, using non-actors to play most of the parts. The German soldiers in the film were real POWs. Instead of a glamorous movie star, Rossellini’s leading lady, Anna Magnani, was earthy, a woman of the people. The character she plays was based on a real woman killed in the streets by the Germans. The priest in the film, Don Pietro, who works with the Resistance, was also based on a real person.

But for all of the picture’s authentic, documentary feel, despite the deaths and betrayals, and notwithstanding the brutal scene of torture that we, along with Don Pietro, are made to witness, “Rome Open City” is a surprisingly uplifting film. Its message, in Rossellini’s own words, was that the German Occupation brought out the best in Italians, purifying them of the taint of collaboration with an evil regime:

If we go back to that period in our minds, it was perhaps the loveliest most thrilling period that we lived through, and the most extraordinary thing is that at that moment when everything seemed destroyed, when our lives seemed completely shattered, it’s precisely out of those ruins and debris, all that destruction, that there suddenly and miraculously arose in Italy, in every field of life an activity, a pugnacity, a consciousness and a human warmth that were absolutely astonishing.

Certainly Italian audiences were proud to recognize themselves in the ordinary heroes of this martyred Rome, and felt vindicated in the eyes of the world when “Rome Open City” won the Grand Prix at Cannes. A new Italy was rising from the ashes, one that was no longer passive. An Italy in which Catholics and the Left could find common cause in the quest to behave decently.

 

“It’s not that hard to die a good death,” says Don Pietro, “what’s hard is to live a good life.”

Let’s call it a necessary myth.

The Battle of Algiers

Franco Solinas, who wrote the screenplay for “The Battle of Algiers,” set out to demystify colonial war. Honor, glory, maintaining peace, bringing freedom and the advantages of civilization, guaranteeing human rights—whatever the occupier’s stated motivation for fighting—all of this was sentimental drivel. Solinas felt compelled, he said, to present the events in a harsh light because he was against “a hypocritical, phony, romantic, fictionalized idea of war.”

It’s true that the French do not come off well in this film. The colonists seem spiteful, their young people spoiled, their policemen immoral and underhanded. Apart from the paratrooper commander, Colonel Mathieu, who upholds his warrior code, the French army appears callous at best, sadistic at worst. In one brutal sequence, we see Algerians being tortured in graphic detail, Ennio Morricone’s mournful score heightening our revulsion. Not only must we endure the men’s agony as they are beaten, burned, waterboarded, and subjected to electric shocks, we are also shown the faces of their wives and mothers, tears running down their cheeks, as they too are made to witness the torture.

But none of this would have surprised audiences in the mid-1950s, when the events marked by the film took place. The fact that torture was routinely used in France’s “Dirty War” in Algeria was widely known and hotly debated. Exposés were written by prominent figures, from decorated army generals to Catholic theologians. Soul-searching was the order of the day, particularly among Left-Bank intellectuals. Former members of the French Resistance routinely denounced the “Gestapo methods” of the French army. And efforts by the authorities to censor this literature only increased the demand for it.

The European-born editor of a left-wing Algerian newspaper critical of the colonial regime was tortured for a month at the height of the Battle of Algiers. His account, smuggled page by page out of prison, sold 168,000 copies in a clandestine Swiss edition published in 1958, after the original version was confiscated in France. His ordeal became a cause célèbre.

The shock value of “The Battle of Algiers” did not reside in its revelation of French brutality, difficult as the scenes of torture are to view. I think it was the film’s glorification of revolution, its endorsement of the argument found in Frantz Fanon’s radical manifesto, The Wretched of the Earth, that violence could be a cleansing force, enabling an oppressed people to overcome their fears and reclaim their dignity, that earned the film its acclaim, and its notoriety (depending on the viewer’s politics).

In a famous sequence, three Algerian women prepare to bomb civilian targets in the European area of Algiers. Who doesn’t root for them to get through the checkpoints?

Battle of the Algiers

Pretty shocking, I’d say, even today.

Les Enfants du paradis

The screenwriter of “Enfants du paradis,” poet Jacques Prévert, claimed that cinema and poetry were the same thing. After last night’s Oscar ceremony, that may seem hard to believe. Movie writing nowadays is more like advertising: simple, clear messages designed to elicit a particular response in audiences too impatient for nuances. Poetry it’s not.

But Prévert was onto something. On the surface, “Enfants du paradis” is a costume drama, exquisitely detailed in its rendering of French society during the restored monarchy of Charles X and Louis-Philippe. This was the period when France attempted to put the upheavals of the Revolution of 1789 and the Napoleonic era behind. Order and stability were regained, by force if necessary; the main action of Les Misérables takes place during this period as well.

In the upper balcony of the theater, the “paradise” level (so named because it is high up, close to heaven), the lower classes watch the performances with childlike pleasure. How charming, this faithful recreation of a world when everyone knew their place in the social hierarchy! Petty thieves bring a soupçon of danger to the idyllic scene. We glimpse the low-life in a seedy bar and are introduced to one genuine criminal. But all of this is just a backdrop for the real story, which centers around the loves and betrayals of a courtesan, Garance.

Here’s where poetry enters the film. Garance plays with men, allowing herself to be kept by an aristocrat while flirting with the criminal, encouraging the attentions of a famous actor while rejecting the earnest mime who truly loves her. All of the acting is superb. And to think, Marcel Carné made “Enfants du paradis” during the German Occupation, in the midst of wartime shortages and power failures and the rounding-up of Jews and other foreign or dangerous elements — not that you’d know it, of course.

“A cathedral erected to the glory of French art during France’s darkest hour.” That’s how French critics regard this film. No less a luminary than François Truffaut said, “I made twenty-three films but would give them all up for this one.” That’s quite some tribute.

French scholar Jeffrey Mehlman takes a different view. “Murderous nostalgia” is his term for such productions, which partook of the Vichy regime’s yearning to turn back the clock, its effort to restore France to herself.

And yet, the image of France that “Enfants du paradis” presents is morally complex. We empathize with Garance, even when she is cruel and fickle. Arletty, the actress who plays her, was the mistress of a German Luftwaffe officer during the war, a betrayal for which she was tried and imprisoned during the purges. Not long after her death in 1992, the French government issued a 100 franc coin with her face on it.

If the beauty of poetry lies not only in its artistry, but also in its ambiguity, “Enfants du paradis” is the poetic film par excellence.

Love (Szerelem)

Love is such a quiet, private film, you’d never guess it was a political statement — and a dangerous one at that. So dangerous that the Hungarian government would not allow the director, Károly Makk, to make it for eight years. And it would be two years after it won the Jury Prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival before Hungarian audiences would be allowed to see it.

The story is deceptively simple. Luca’s husband Janos is in prison, one of the thousands of political prisoners in Stalinist Hungary. We do not know his crime and nor does she; we do not learn until the end of the film that he is alive. In the meantime, Luca must somehow get through the days without him.

Janos’s ninety-six-year-old mother does not know her son is in prison. Bedridden, she awaits the daily visit of her daughter-in-law, who conspires with the old woman’s housekeeper to make her believe that Janos is in America making a film. Luca goes so far as to invent letters purporting to be from Janos, which the housekeeper dutifully fetches from the mailbox to keep up the ruse.

Janos’s mother appears to go along with the charade. Born in Vienna, she harbors the lost culture of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its refined tastes and romantic illusions. She is removed from the harsh realities of life in postwar Hungary, and yet we sense that she knows more than she chooses to reveal.szerelem-1971-b-muller-magda_gyujtemenyebol

In the film, we see flashbacks to the war in which her older son died. She asks Luca to tell Janos not to be so obstinate.

“Why don’t you say it to him, Mother?”

The old lady lifted a hand, and let it fall wearily. “It will be a very long time before he comes home again,” she said, staring fixedly into space again.

In “Two Women,” one of the two short stories by Tibor Déry upon which Love is based, the message is more pointed:

“But why, Mother?” asked Luca again.

Again the old woman made no reply. She lifted her head a little, tried to include in her vision the wasp droning above the pansies, observed it a little while, and then let her head fall back onto her lilac pillow.

“Once I was watching such a wasp,” she said in a muffled voice, “that was buzzing, too, like this one above such yellow pansies, then sat down on one and because it was very heavy the pansy quickly turned her head and bent down deep to the ground. You know, if it had not bent down then perhaps its … what you call it — stem would have broke.”

“Is that what I am to tell Janos?” asked Luca.

“Yes,” said the old lady.

“It’s too late,” muttered Luca.

It was advice that Déry himself did not follow. Always an outspoken opponent of repressive regimes in his native Hungary, whether these were on the right or the left, he spent much of his life in prison or in exile. In fact, “Two Women” was based on the letters Déry’s wife wrote to his mother during his imprisonment following the failed 1956 revolution in Hungary.

The Witness (A tanú)

Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Cold War dissident, explored the writer’s dilemma under Stalinism in The Captive Mind.

In the field of literature [socialist realism] forbids what has in every age been the writer’s essential task — to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.

Telling the truth could land you in jail if you were an Eastern European artist in the 1950s. Many compromised with the regime, betraying their ideals, along with their friends and associates. Worse still, acting the part of a loyal servant of the regime became natural. As Milosz warned, “After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans.”

Honesty was impossible if you wished to survive. Your vision, the meaning you found in the world, could only be conveyed if it conformed to the party line. But in Péter Bacsó’s brilliant satire, The Witness, released in 1969 but banned in Hungary for ten years, the truth surfaces through black humor.

Kallai Ferenc plays a poor schlemiel, József Pelikán, a dike keeper 090318-witness who is promoted by the Communist authorities into a series of positions for which he is totally unqualified. Here he is, being arrested by the standard-issue secret police agents in their leather trench coats following the disastrous opening of his Great Socialist Fun Park.

One disaster leads to the next. The orange grove he oversees produces a single orange, which one of his children eats before it can be presented to the leader. Pelikán hastily substitutes a lemon at the ceremony, daring the assembled dignitaries to show him up in front of the crowd: “The new Hungarian orange. It’s slightly yellower, it’s slightly sharper, but our own.”

After each failure, Pelikán is thrown into prison, but others are persuaded to confess to his mistakes and he is given another chance to mess up. Eventually he learns why the authorities have taken such a kindly interest in his case. He is now complicit with the regime, and must show his gratitude by serving as a witness at the show trial of a former colleague from the Resistance.

The man has been accused of espionage, a charge that Pelikán has difficulty believing. There’s nothing suspicious about him, he protests.

“The suspicious thing about spies is that they are not suspicious,” his handler assures him.

“I’m not suspicious and I’m not a spy,” says Pelikán.

“How do you know?”

The hapless Pelikán stubbornly maintains his friend’s innocence. “Show me one man in this country whom I won’t be able to turn into a guilty person in five minutes,” his handler retorts.

Persuaded at last, Pelikán is given the script of his testimony to critique. Several aspects strike him as implausible, including the part where the so-called traitor jumped into the Danube and started to converse with some enemy frogmen. His objections are overruled, however (the scriptwriter claims artistic license). Pelikán is taken to a drama coach, who trains him to understand his character’s motivations so he can perform with genuine feeling. He is dressed for the part — “I’ve got it! Worker circa 1950,” the costumer exclaims — but cannot go through with it at the actual trial. Even with the judge prompting him, he refuses to stick to the script.

Meanwhile, the entire town is under water because nobody is manning the dike. People are floating by in boats loaded with their household possessions, including livestock. Pelikán and his family are in a tree, surrounded by rising floodwaters, and he is still spouting his testimony, the lies and slogans, oblivious to the reality that he is about to drown.

Kind of amazing, that Bacsó was allowed to make this picture in the first place.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Gosh, is there any role Alec Guinness couldn’t play? From the highly-principled (but tragically misguided) Colonel Nicholson in “Bridge on the River Kwai” to George Smiley in the 1970s TV serializations of John le Carré’s novels, to his delightful turn as Professor Godbole in “Passage to India,” the man was a cameleon. And that’s without mentioning his memorable performances in “Great Expectations,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Doctor Zhivago.” (He preferred not to be remembered for his recurring role in a certain George Lucas science fiction trilogy, so I will not name it here…)

In “Kind Hearts and Coronets” he plays eight members of the eccentric D’Ascoyne family, most of whom are dispatched by the last in line to the family title, the young Louis Mazzini (played by the superb Dennis Price).  First to go was the snooty playboy, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, followed by the daft-but-likable Henry D’Ascoyne. Then we meet the tedious Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne — and here is where Guinness really hits his stride.

 

Next we have him as Lady Agatha and Admiral Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne:

 

Followed by General Lord Rutherford, who is felled by an exploding jar of Beluga caviar. “Used to get a lot of this stuff in the crimea. One thing the Russkies do really well.”

 

One thing the Brits used to do VERY well was black humor, dry with a twist. Criterion released a remastered version of “Kind Hearts” in 2006, but it’s gone out-of-print. Rent it at your local library or DVD store, and be sure to watch the interview with Sir Alec.