The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

What a sweet comedy.

Alec Guinness plays a self-effacing clerk, Henry Holland, who oversees the manufacturing of gold ingots for a London bank. Fastidious to a fault, unambitious, he seems destined to remain in his underpaid position. We see him coming home at night to the boardinghouse where he rents a room, reading crime stories to an elderly spinster in the drawing room while she knits. But then a new lodger arrives, a rather flamboyant character, Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway): an artist who manufactures cheap souvenirs for the tourist trade.

Jot it down as a picture that you will find it best to see when your mood is mellow and your sense of righteousness is slightly askew. For here again is a frolic that, like “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” indulges a serene and casual tolerance for undisguised lawlessness in man.

Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review.

The chumminess between Holloway and Guinness as they plot to steal a truckload of gold from Holland’s employer and melt it down at Pendlebury’s foundry to produce miniature Eiffel Towers for export to Paris brought to mind the affectionate scheming of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers. The humor is gentler here, but there’s a similar zaniness to the plot, and the caper ends in much the same way.

The Lavender Hill Mob was shot on location in postwar London, and you can still see the damage. Rationing was still in effect in 1951, and the smog hung heavy over the city. Escapist romps like this one were a specialty of Ealing Studios. The humor is not as black as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), but the charm is impossible to resist.

Two Women (1960)

Two Women is not quite as dark as the Alberto Moravia novel, La Ciociara (1957), on which Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini based this film. Part of the problem, I think, is Belmondo.loren and belmondo He’s miscast in the role of Michele, the coddled  intellectual with vaguely left-wing politics who mouths Communist slogans, rhapsodizes about “the peasants,” how the future belongs to them, and complains about privilege—this despite the fact that his family members are fascists who hoard food and consort with the German occupiers. Michele falls for Sophia Loren’s character, the widowed Cesira. She’s aware of his feelings, but she’s too full of life for him, too earthy.  A true woman of the people, although much more beautiful than most people.

“With my own memories to draw upon, you would think I would have had an easy time of it [making the film]. But it was very hard for me to relive my girlhood terror and at the same time to transform the reality of my feelings into the role I was acting. In memory, I still looked at my experiences with the eyes and emotions of a girl, but the role demanded that I see them with the eyes of a tortured woman.”    Sophia Loren

Morally speaking, nobody comes off well in this picture. But that’s what makes it so powerful.  Cesira’s human weakness is apparent from the very beginning. War destroys the vulnerable, while pointing up the hollowness of ideals such as Michele’s. Death is random and undeserved; violence and brutality triumph, and who has sympathy to spare for his neighbor? Only grief unites those who have survived atrocities, and even so, the comfort of shared suffering is fleeting.

Moravia set his story in the countryside220px-TwoWomenPoster around Rome in the last months of World War II. He and his wife had fled there after the Germans occupied Rome, arriving in an impoverished village filled with widows (all the men had been drafted and sent to Russia, where they died). For nine months they lived among the peasant women, scavenging for food, watching dogfights in the sky and trying to avoid being strafed, while they waited for the Allies to liberate their country. But liberation arrived in the form of the Moroccan Goumiers, irregular colonial troops who were fighting with the Free French. In the aftermath of the Allied victory at Monte Cassino, thousands of Italian women and girls in the region were raped by the Goumiers. This is Moravia’s story, the central crisis of the novel, and De Sica shows it in brutal detail.

“Isn’t there some safe place in the world?” Cesira asked Michele at one point. Apparently not.

The Crime of Monsieur Lange

The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1935) was likeposter the holy grail, one of those films I’d heard about but never managed to see. Before its recent restoration, this Renoir gem was impossible to find. But I lucked out: they were screening it at Holyoke Community College for free as part of their annual French film series. There’s always one near-forgotten classic in the bunch, and this year it was Monsieur Lange. What a delightful surprise it turned out to be.

In the 1930s, before noir was noir (the term “film noir” was only coined—by the French—in 1946), Europeans were making gritty, downbeat films with adult subject matter, storylines involving adultery and crime that usually culminated in death. American gangster movies covered some of this territory, and there was a fair amount of cross-fertilization between this genre, the German Expressionism of the 1920s, and what the French were calling poetic realism. Renoir hung out with the poetic realist crowd and some of his early pictures were gritty, with the deep shadows we associate with the German Expressionist style, but even when they end in murder, Renoir’s films don’t leave you in despair. You come out of them smiling, your faith in humanity restored.

I don’t believe there are such things as absolute truth, but I do believe in absolute human qualities — generosity, for instance, which is one of the basic ones. 

– Jean Renoir

Renoir feels tenderly toward his characters, every last one of them.The villain of The Crime of Monsieur Lange is a rogue, no doubt about it. He impregnates one of his employees, cheats on his mistress, borrows money from the janitor, never intending to pay it back, exploits the film’s hero, bilks his creditors and then fakes his death when the police catch onto his schemes. When he reappears toward the end of the picture disguised as a priest, a twinkle in his eye, prepared to resume his malign activities, you can’t hate him.

As in his better known ensemble pictures, Grand Illusion (1937) and Rules of the Game (1939), the printing company where Monsieur Lange is set is a world unto itself,Lange workers “where all types of humanity mingle and clash: bosses and workers, misers and dreamers, innocents and scoundrels, the impassioned and the foolish.” Renoir directs all of these characters with such a light touch that their interactions appear fresh and spontaneous. Work, in this world, as in the best Marxist fantasy, is a source of joy and fulfillment, once the workers own the means of production and the evil boss gets his due.

Renoir claimed that he was not a director, he was a storyteller. This one is something of a fairytale, but I’m not complaining.

How to be a French Gangster

First off, you need the fedora. The gangster accessory de rigueur, Muni Scarfaceit was already iconic by the time Paul Muni popularized the look in Scarface (1932). Al Capone, Clyde Barrow, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly were all photographed wearing one. Baby Face Nelson was astute enough to recognize the souvenir value of his trademark fedora, bartering it for food and a place to hide after a botched bank job.

By the time Bogey donned one to play‘Bugs’ Fenner alongside Edward G. Robinson in Bullets or Ballots (1936), it was a bit passé. Robinson, you will note, sports a derby, signaling his authority over his fedora-wearing lackeys. (That’s Bogey on the right, with the gun.) Bullets Fedoras

Leave it to the French to reinvent the gangster look and give it panache. In Pépé le Moko (1937), Jean Gabin wears the hat, but he adds a gallic touch: a silk scarf. Le Moko 2Gabin’s character has style—something his American counterparts lacked—but more importantly, he’s got heart. Love will be his undoing, and we’re not talking about a fling with some cheap, two-timing dame. We’re talking epic love, the kind of love that inspires poetry and songs. Ah, l’amour.

Director Julien Duvivier gives us a tragic hero in the classical tradition who is the victim of fate. Pépé is wanted in France for various crimes. He’s been hiding out in the Casbah of Algiers for two years, sheltered by the local inhabitants who will take any opportunity to defy the colonial authorities. He may be king of the Algerian underworld, but exile has turned bitter for Pépé, whose longing for Paris recalls Ovid’s lament in the Tristia: “Say that I died when I lost my native land.”

After Pépé, Gabin would go on to play his greatest role, the working-class Lieutenant Maréchal, in Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937). gabin and dalioHe got to wear a fedora in that picture too, alongside Marcel Dalio. In much the same way that John Wayne seemed to embody the fiercely independent American spirit, Gabin “epitomized the values French people like to think of as their own: cool intelligence, open-hearted love of life, courage, moral rectitude,” as one critic put it after the actor’s death.

The martyred Resistance leader Jean Moulin (below, right) favored the scarf-and-fedora style of the French gangster. Perhaps he was fashioning himself as a romantic outlaw. Moulin photoOver time, Moulin’s image became even more Pépé-like. Here (below, left) is how Claude Berri imagined him in Lucie Aubrac, his 1997 picture about the Lyon Resistance heroine.Aubrac Moulin

Alas, something happened to the French gangster after World War II. You notice it right away in Bob le flambeur (1956). The gambler played by Roger Duchesne is a natty dresser. He’s got the fedora and a trench coat, opting for the full American look (i.e., no scarf) in keeping with his American nickname. He’s got a classy apartment too, complete with his own personal slot machine in the closet, drives a big American convertible, and lives by a code of honor that sets him apart from the riffraff he consorts with in Montmartre. So why the jaded expression?

Bob’s on a losing streak. It’s more than bad luck; bobthe malaise seems existential, maybe not full-blown angst, but Bob is listless, out of sorts. We watch him wandering the city streets, proceeding aimlessly from one back-room card game to another, catching a few hours of sleep before heading off to the races where he actually wins, only to gamble it away in a matter of hours. He doesn’t care, either way, and nor do we.

Don’t get me wrong. Bob le flambeur is a delightful movie. You’ve got Paris, enchantingly shot with a hand-held camera in the rough-edged, documentary manner that would become the hallmark of New Wave cinema. You’ve got your low-life criminals, a heist, and a couple of double-crossing dames. Then there’s the pleasure in hearing the French pronounce the name Bob, which comes out sounding more like “Bub” than “Bahb,” which is how we Americans say it. Try it: purse your lips first, so the word forms in the front of your mouth, then say “Bob” very fast, allowing the syllable to resonate inside your nose.

Jean-Pierre Melville, who directedMelville Bob le flambeur, loved all things American. “Melville” was his nom de guerre in the French Resistance, which he continued to use professionally for the rest of his life. He drove a convertible like Bob’s, although sartorially speaking, he went for the Western look—cowboy boots and a Stetson—and liked cruising around Paris late at night with the top down.

The tough-guy persona was more than a pose. Melville was a man of few words. He didn’t speak of his time in the Resistance, for example, but his film of Joseph Kessel’s wartime novel, Army of Shadows (1943), punctured the myths that the French still cherished in 1969, when the film was released. Not many people resisted the nazis, and those who joined the underground did so out of a variety of motives, not all of them admirable. Yes, there was courage, and sacrifice for the sake of others, but the small, quiet acts of decency were no less stunning than the grandiose gestures. Melville’s heroes were complicated people, as befits a time when choices were not black and white, but gray.

Which brings us back to Bob. There’s no place for him in postwar France, and he knows it. The style, the conventions, are all that’s left of a vanished world, and yet Bob takes perverse satisfaction in playing by the old rules, keeping up appearances. Coolness has its consolations. He can’t pull off the heist, but he can pull off the look.

By the time we get to Breathless (1959), even the lookBelmondo bogart is degraded. Here’s Belmondo practicing his cool in the mirror, posing with a gun, trying to convince everybody he’s a gangster, starting with himself. We see him imitating Bogey. He’s got the gesture down, has trained himself to talk with a cigarette dangling from his lips. And check out that fedora!

Jean-Luc Godard layers on the clichés. Soon the cops are on Belmondo’s tail. He’s a wanted man, forced to go underground. He even gets himself tangled up with a double-crossing dame, an American, no less.

Pépé gave the American gangster a dash of French flair. Bob (Bub) wore his American name, along with his fedora, like a true Frenchman. Belmondo’s character is just a punk, but he’s a French punk and, wouldn’t you know it, the guy’s style has endured.

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 charactersOUTITW_Jill1 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 has 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.dog eat dog 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 yojimbo_aboveterritory, 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. roma-citta-aperta1-890x395The 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

FRENCH posterFranco 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.