Death in Venice

You don’t watch this film for the story, you watch it to lose yourself in the sad beauty of decaying Venice, a metaphor for European grandeur just before World War I.  There’s the haute bourgeoisie, elegantly dressed men and women from all over Europe, vacationing with their families by the sea. They don’t seem to do much, other than sit and stare at one another in the hotel dining room or on the beach, making the occasional foray into the city to take in the sights. They seem like ghosts, moving through the scenes at a stately pace, leaving a vague impression of well-bred pleasure.

Into this tableau of hushed opulence arrives a German composer, Gustav von Aschenbach. He seems to be suffering from a case of nerves—a common fin-de-siècle affliction, particularly among artistic sorts—and is inclined to make a fuss about everything. But then he glimpses the beautiful adolescent son of an aristocratic Polish woman and everything changes. Obsessed, he follows the boy and convinces himself that his love is requited. Soon he is trying to reclaim his youth, a pathetic effort. Then he dies of cholera.

As I said, don’t worry about the plot. Visconti’s take on the Thomas Mann novella is a feast for the eyes, and the Mahler soundtrack enhances the lugubrious effect. When Venice has sunk into the Adriatic, we’ll still have this film to remember it by.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

Humor alternating with suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s trademark, are on display in his 1935 thriller, “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” The opening vaudeville act in the music hall, with Mr. Memory being heckled by the crowd:

Heckler: How old is Mae West?

Mr. Memory: I know, sir, but I never tell a lady’s age.

Man in audience: What causes pip in poultry?

His wife: Don’t make yourself so common.

Man in audience: Our fowls have it, haven’t they?

This delightful anarchy is disrupted by gunshots, and the next thing you know, our Canadian hero, played by the suave Robert Donat, is escorting a lady (Lucie Mannheim) from the theater. A woman of mystery with a foreign accent, this lady turns out to be a spy. She’s the very person who fired the gun, hoping to escape her pursuers by creating a diversion, and Donat’s character will soon discover her with a knife in her back. Serious stuff, but Hitchcock can’t resist playing with us in their first encounter outside the theater.

Mannheim: May I come home with you?

Donat: What’s the idea?

Mannheim: I’d like to.

Donat: It’s your funeral.

We see Donat on the run, evading both the police (who suspect him of Mannheim’s murder) and the true killers, hopping onto the train to Scotland, sharing a compartment with a pair of corset salesmen and a clergyman who can’t resist ogling their wares. Another tense moment as he is spotted in the Edinburgh station, this one ruptured by a stolen kiss as Donat foists himself on the unsuspecting Madeleine Carroll, pretending to be her lover. Carroll promptly turns him in, but we know she’ll end up as his romantic interest, although it takes awhile for the two to get together (handcuffs are involved).

But, hey, what’s the hurry? You wouldn’t want to miss Donat delivering a political address on behalf of some Scottish candidate for M.P., improvising madly to stay on stage because the police and the bad guys are in the wings, ready to nab him. He does such a good job of giving the audience what they want to hear that he gets a standing ovation.

Mixed in with the comedy is a bit of melodrama reminiscent of the silent movie era. Donat takes refuge with a Scottish farmer and his wife (played by the young Dame Peggy Ashcroft). Ashcroft’s character believes his story and helps him to escape, knowing full well that she will incur her jealous husband’s wrath. Donat suspects as much, but allows himself to be persuaded otherwise. It’s a poignant scene that deepens the story and raises the stakes, somehow. A moment of real communication between two fine actors, well worth watching again all on its own.

Far From the Madding Crowd

You’d think that a movie based on one of Thomas Hardy’s cheerier novels, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates in their prime, with Peter Finch and a surprisingly sexy Terrence Stamp, and directed by John Schlesinger, would be pretty great, but you’d be wrong.

I saw it years ago, and remember being bored, but decided to give it a second chance the other night.  Halfway through the three-hour epic, I found myself nodding off, so it took me two nights to finish the thing.  I’m just glad that it’s been thirty years since I read Far From the Madding Crowd—which I loved—so I don’t feel betrayed on that score.  I’ll probably reread the novel now, to get the film out of my head.

As Roger Ebert said in his review at the time, “The spacious landscape of Dorset is photographed in stunning beauty, and we get panoramas of hillsides with heroic characters running up and down them.”  That’s about it, I’m afraid.  Excellent cinematography by Nicolas Roeg and a nice soundtrack with plenty of English folksongs.

Here’s Stamp’s character, mourning his dead lover:

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

checkpoint2We’re going through a period of nostalgia for the bad old days of the Cold War. Back then you knew who your enemies were and you all played by the same rules. Sure, it was a dirty game, but our core values were at stake:  justice, freedom, human decency. We’d gone to war with the Nazis to preserve these values; they were worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for. And sacrifice we did, we and our British allies especially.

Oh, yes. And the Russians. They were our allies in World War II, and they also suffered, but things changed. Practically overnight they became our enemies. We were still fighting for justice, freedom, and human decency but now we were fighting Them, the Communists, who represented everything we hated. They were deceitful, underhanded. They cared nothing for human life, betrayed loyal comrades at the drop of a hat. Only the worst characters survived under such a corrupt system. We, on the other hand, remained pure.

John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold shattered these certainties. Not only did it expose the cynical maneuvering of international espionage—which was nothing like the glamorous world James Bond traveled in. Morally speaking, We were no different from Them. Perhaps we were even worse, because we pretended to be decent whereas they admitted the truth. Nobody’s pure, the good don’t survive anywhere, and there’s no such thing as a noble cause.

Richard Burton’s burned-out spy, Alec Leamus, perfectly conveys the book’s message. Here was someone, as le Carré said, “who had cut throats in 39-45, who had done it all, been through the stuff, who had lived that secret crusader life.” He’s brought back to England, regains his humanity (he falls in love with the wonderful Claire Bloom, who had been Burton’s lover in real life some years earlier) and this is what allows his spook handlers to betray him.

Director Martin Ritt’s sympathies were with the Left, but he held no illusions about the Soviet Union and never joined the Communist party. Blacklisted for years, his own sense of having been betrayed, by Communism (his “lost love”) and by America is what gives the film its power. I’m not sure that the recent action-packed adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has the same bite.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Clint doesn’t wear the poncho until the end of the movie. Two hours in, he’s changed outfits several times, trading his dark patterned shirt and duster for a Confederate army uniform, then changing into a sheepskin vest and the trademark beaver hat, but he dons the poncho only as an afterthought.clint

He takes it off a dead Confederate soldier — he’d given the boy his own coat, as a blanket, then didn’t have the heart to take it back after the kid died. He’d given the boy a couple of puffs from his own cigar, too.  Held the thing between the kid’s lips, a surprisingly tender gesture.

Clint and his cigar. That’s how his character shows emotion. When he and the Eli Wallach character, Tuco, first meet and Clint gets the idea of selling the Mexican bandit for the bounty on his head, he seals the deal by putting his cigar in Tuco’s mouth. Later in the picture, the two are heading away from the Spanish Mission where Tuco has been rebuffed by his brother, a priest. Tuco’s trying to put a good face on it, telling Clint’s character that his brother gave him a bowl of soup and begged him not to leave, but Clint’s character knows the truth.

“After a meal, there’s nothing like a good cigar,” he says, handing Tuco his cheroot.

I wouldn’t change a thing about this movie. Not a single thing. Ennio Morricone’s score: can’t get it out of my head. Eli Wallach’s Brooklyn accent: there he is, taking a bubble bath in some half-destroyed hotel room, when a one-armed bad guy barges in, holding a loaded revolver in his left hand. The last time we saw this guy, Tuco had left him for dead after a shoot-out. He’s been out for vengeance ever since, he tells Tuco, and in the time it’s taken him to find the Mexican bandit, he’s learned to shoot left-handed.

Blam! Tuco blows him away.  “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk,” says the Brooklyn boy. Love it!

(2 January 2011)


This film hasn’t aged at all. The Paris exteriors, the cafésbelmondo along the Boulevard Saint-Germain: you feel as if you’re right there, having a drink at the next table. Or driving fast in a stolen cadillac, the young Jean-Paul Belmondo at the wheel. He’s doing that sexy thing where he runs a thumb over his lips, not looking at you or the road, looking at himself in the rearview mirror. Talking to himself, posturing like Humphrey Bogart, pointing a gun out the window and pretending to shoot.

How did Godard get that intimate feel, and sustain it over an entire picture? You’re in Jean Seberg’s rather cramped hotel room, in bed with Belmondo. It’s Saturday afternoon and you’re just hanging around, bored. One minute you’re watching him boxing in his underwear, the next he’s telling you his all-or-nothing philosophy of life, which is only half-cooked, or half-true—you don’t know which half—like everything he tells you.

But you keep watching anyhow, not because he’s Belmondo . . .  Okay, you keep watching because he’s Belmondo, but also because you’ve been let in on his character’s private thoughts. You and the rest of the audience, but it’s as if you alone are witnessing the day unfold as naturally as a day in your own life. That’s what makes Breathless so great. It feels fresh, original, even fifty years on, and after repeated viewings.

You’re watching Belmondo run from the cops. He’s been shot in the back and he’s zig-zagging down the street, clutching his wound.  He falls just as he reaches the crosswalk.  Jean Seberg’s trailing behind and she’s there in time to hear his last words:  “C’est vraiment dégueulasse.”

She didn’t catch them, or she doesn’t understand what he meant.  Isn’t life like that?

Pelle The Conqueror

Frozen epics have a certain charm when there’s two feet of snow outside and the temperature is below zero.  Sitting on the couch, wrapped in an afghan, you can watch Scandinavians battle the elements and their own demons while sipping a glass of red wine.

The chill penetrates, though.  Max von Sydow is the Swedish widower who travels to Denmark with his young son, Pelle, in search of work and a better life.  Luck is not on his side; the two end up at a farm run by a brutal overseer.  Beauty, love, innocence:  all are crushed in this harsh environment.  Pelle is hardened by the misery and cruelty he observes and yet somehow manages to stay open to life.  This is the miracle of the film:  the boy’s wonder and gentle spirit survives.

Along the way, you get some stark landscapes.  Snow-covered fields give way to bleak and rain-lashed vistas of early spring.  Scenes of the stormy ocean, a schooner tossed on the waves, breaking up in the North Sea.  A man dies.  The sunlit summer days pass by all too quickly.   Mostly it’s winter, but in the last scene we see Pelle turn his back on cold Denmark and make for America.  A boy can dream.

(4 February 2011)

Great Expectations

The characters are Charles Dickens’s, as is the story (mostly), but David Lean made Great Expectations memorable.  Ask anyone who was a kid in 1946, when the film came out.  They’ll tell you that the opening sequence where Pip is surprised by an escaped convict while visiting his mother’s grave still gives them nightmares.

And who can forget Miss Havisham, the strange, obsessed old lady, still dressed in her bridal gown?  She’s been living in her darkened mansion for decades, growing more bitter by the day.  Mice dart in and out of the crumbling wedding cake on the cobweb-covered banquet table.  She summons Pip to play with her adopted daughter, Estella.  Lovely, haughty Estella, still a girl when she and Pip are introduced, but already cruel, remote.

“You can break his heart,” Miss Havisham tells her, savoring the prospect.

And to Pip she gives this chilling order:  “If she favors you, love her.  If she tears your heart to pieces, love her.”  Sinister Miss Havisham lives long enough to see her hopes fulfilled, and experiences a pang of regret when Pip confronts her with the evidence of his unhappiness.  But the damage cannot be undone.

Redemption arrives from an unexpected source.  Magwitch, the escaped convict whom Pip tried to help, if only out of fear, has been the boy’s secret benefactor for years.  He arranged to have Pip educated, to make him a gentleman.  Now he turns up in London to see the results with his own eyes.  Here is a bad man transformed by love.  Naturally, this being Dickens, he must pay the price for the crimes he committed, but he dies content, with Pip at his bedside in the prison infirmary.  And Pip is the better for having known him—although here the film and the novel part company.

Watch the movie, then do what I’m doing.  Reread the book.  You’ll enjoy it more than you did in high school.

 (7 February 2011)

To Sir with Love

I was eleven in 1967 when this film came out and I can’t say I remember much of the story.  The title song, though.  We used to slow dance to it at parties and my graduating sixth grade class sang it to our teachers, none of whom were anywhere near as cool as Sidney Poitier.

So, how does “To Sir With Love” stand up today?  Not very well, I’m afraid.  British theater was dealing with “serious” issues of class and, to a lesser extent, race.  Poitier had already acted in the first production of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, then starred in the film version.  In that play, he had a much angrier role; even Virgil Tibbs,  his character in the award-winning “In the Heat of the Night,” had his edgy side.

But this film largely side-steps the issues, indulging in the kind of reverse-psychology approach to dealing with “troubled youth” that was common among guidance counselors and social workers of the era.  Poitier teaches the inner-city London hoodlums to treat him and one another with respect.  “No man likes a slut for long,” he tells the girls.  “Only the worst type will marry them.”  Straight talk from a straight guy.  sidney-poitier-judy-geeson-to-sir-with-loveHe takes them to a couple of museums and shows sensitivity for their personal problems.  Once or twice he loses his temper — these are probably the most genuine moments in the film — but there are plenty of embarrassing scenes.

I don’t blame Poitier, mind you.  A grown man in a suit, doing The Frug, is not a pretty sight.  But that title song’s a keeper.  When they sang it on the first-season “Glee” finale, even coach Sue Sylvester teared up.

(13 February 2011)

Doctor Zhivago

Omar Sharif plays a Russian and Doctor Zhivago was shot mostly in Spain by a British director, produced by an Italian. “Lara’s Theme,” the schmaltzy leitmotif that evokes the Julie Christie character, can still be heard in elevators today. Aspects of this picture seem dated, but there’s an awful lot to like, especially in these troubled times.


Let’s start with an early scene:  it is 1912 and a group of workers are demonstrating in the streets of Moscow, led by the idealistic Pasha Antipov, a young social democrat.  An equally young and idealistic Yuri Zhivago watches the scene from a balcony, and witnesses the violence as the workers are mowed down by Cossaks on horseback.  Pasha is radicalized by the event and becomes a revolutionary, lashing out against the regime responsible for such brutality, but growing more ruthless as the story progresses.

Yuri turns away, turns inward.  Each new upheaval in Russia, each act of violence, reaffirms his determination to live, to love, and to create.  Sharif registers pain in those soulful brown eyes.  Unlike Pasha or the commander of the partisan unit that conscripts him later in the picture, his character never loses his humanity, never sacrifices his concern for individuals, their lives, their hopes, their needs in the name of “justice” or some other abstract good.

Doctor_Zhivago_Image4_756_426_81_sAnd so we come to another key scene.  Yuri and Lara have taken refuge in the frozen dacha that belonged to Yuri’s wife’s family.  In the early morning, Yuri sits at his desk writing poems.  Wolves howl at the edge of the property, but inside the frost-starred window, we see the warm glow of Yuri’s candle.  A mere moment of safety, of peace; we know it cannot last.  But the beauty of that moment sustains us. May we all find hope in the glow of Yuri’s humanity.