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.

A Man in our House

You can tell that the director of “A Man in our House,” Henri Barakat, learned his trade in Paris.  Here’s the story:  during the period of British colonial rule, a student radical, Ibrahim Hamdy (played by Omar Sharif)Man in Our House assassinates the Egyptian prime minister.  Beaten by the authorities, he manages to escape with the help of his fellow radicals and takes refuge with an ordinary middle-class family.

The film has the feel of a classic French thriller.  Claustrophobic scenes inside the family’s Cairo apartment alternate with shots of the Egyptian police as they close in on Ibrahim.  The sleazy cousin finds out that the family is harboring a terrorist and threatens to reveal him to the authorities.  A romance blossoms between Ibrahim and Nawal, the youngest daughter.  Of course it ends tragically, with Ibrahim sacrificing himself for the cause.  But freedom is dearer than life, and Nawal understands this.

While the genre is French, the movie’s message is staunchly Egyptian.  Keep in mind that “A Man in our House” was made under Nasser, in response to the ruler’s call for a new nationalist cinema.  Who could resist an opportunity to use film not simply to entertain, but to educate and unite a population?  “The people judged him,” Ibrahim says, justifying the assassination as an act of political protest; “I carried out the execution.”

For all its polemics, Barakat’s attention to the details of daily life gives the film an authentic feel.  We see the family gathering around the dinner table to break their fast during Ramadan.  We observe the rules, spoken and unspoken, governing interactions between the sexes, witness the children’s respect for their parents, the responsibility the father feels for protecting his family even as his nascent patriotism is awakened.  All of this is conveyed so naturally that we forgive “A Man in our House” its melodramatic aspects.  And when the sleazy cousin regains his dignity by identifying with the cause of independence, he explains his sudden change of heart in terms that resonate with the events in Tahrir Square.  “The man I was turning in sacrificed his life for my pride.”

(20 February 2011)

Monsieur Ibrahim

It’s tempting to view the title character of this film as the last in a progression of Omar Sharifs. The young firebrand of “A Man in our House” makes way for the more reflective, but no less passionate Doctor Zhivago.Ibrahim And here we have the seventy-one-year-old Sharif making peace with his past and handing over the mantle of his successful international acting career to the next generation.

“Monsieur Ibrahim” is a sweet, insubstantial film suffused with nostalgia for a Paris that never was. Kind-hearted prostitutes solicit customers on the well-swept streets of a working-class neighborhood against a soundtrack of sixties rock ‘n roll. There’s a whiff (but just a whiff) of anti-Arab feeling, a backstory involving parental abandonment, a suicide that leaves barely a trace on the adolescent hero’s psyche. Momo’s too busy coming of age to drown in his sorrows, especially since he has Sharif’s Turkish shopkeeper character, Ibrahim, as a surrogate father.

The two go off on a jaunt in a red sports car, to visit Ibrahim’s native land. He shows Momo a couple of churches and a mosque. Then he takes him to watch a Sema ceremony in his own Sufi tradition, dervishes whirling around their hearts, as Ibrahim explains the dance. “They lose all their bearings, that burden we call balance.”

Intriguing notion, but nobody loses their balance in this film. We see Ibrahim absorbed in the dance, but as an observer. A close-up of Sharif’s beautiful face: “They become like torches. They burn in a blazing fire,” he tells Momo. That’s the young Omar Sharif talking. The firebrand, the poet, the lover. But this version renounces the dance, ending his journey in the village he left. ”I’ve arrived,” he says on his deathbed. ”I didn’t know.”

And Momo? He goes back to Paris and takes over the shop.

(26 February 2011)

The Blue Angel

I don’t want to neglect Marlene Dietrich’s performance, or the terrific Heinrich Mann story on which “The Blue Angel” is based, but let me begin with the style of this picture.

Josef von Sternberg had a painter’s eye.  Every scene he directed is composed like an Expressionist work of art.  Take a look at some of Max Beckmann’s etchings.  Dressing Room, for example,

or Café Musik.

Now watch this clip from the film.  There you go, a mini-course on Weimar art and you get to listen to Dietrich sing “Falling in Love Again” as an added bonus.

Von Sternberg cared more about the look of his pictures than about the feelings of his actors, whom he regarded as “marionettes, pieces of color on my canvas.”  But Dietrich was the perfect marionette, and the legendary affair they conducted during the filming of “The Blue Angel” contributed to her reputation as a femme fatale, enabling audiences to see her forever after as von Sternberg did:  sensuous, provocative, cruel, and utterly irresistible.  The type of woman who leads men to their doom — and they go willingly — and sings about it afterwards.

blaue angelEmil Jannings specialized in playing degraded men in German films.  As Professor Rath, the high school teacher who falls for Dietrich’s Lola Lola, his performance is so perfect it’s painful to watch.  But it rings true, the way his childlike infatuation with the cabaret singer turns into jealous rage as Lola tires of him and drifts to another man.  The original story had more of a message.  Von Sternberg chose to end with the image of the dying professor clutching his desk, as if trying to regain his lost dignity.  Meanwhile, back at the Cabaret, Lola straddles a chair and lures her next victim with a sly song.  “Watch out for blondes, they have a certain flair, for stripping you bare and then leaving you.”

Forewarned is not forearmed in this case, I’m afraid.

The Lion in Winter

If you’re into verbal abuse, you could do worse than memorize some of the insults from this film.  Here’s one, an exchange between Prince John and his brother, the future Richard the Lionheart.

Prince John: My God, if I went up in flames there’s not a living soul who’d pee on me to put the fire out!

Prince Richard: Let’s strike a flint and see.

Or how about this welcoming line, spoken by King Henry when he’s just let Eleanor of Aquitaine out of prison for Christmas:  “What shall we hang first? The holly or each other?”  Then there’s my favorite, spoken by Eleanor to Henry in their final showdown:  “I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice.”

Compared to this lot, the intrigues of the current royal family come off like a Disney movie.  None of them rages like Peter O’Toole’s Henry, or plots like Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor.  I ask you, where can you find the kind of stab-in-the-back diplomacy that took place between Richard’s sons and King Philip of France?  And knowing as much as we now do about George VI’s speech impediment, it’s difficult to believe he could have put anyone in their place through verbal attacks alone.

Gladiator dialogue just isn’t done these days.  It’s all internal now, even in films adapted from stage plays.  But in the early sixties, plays like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” proved that words were just as sharp as sticks and stones, and “The Lion in Winter” comes out of that era.

It’s well worth watching, not only for Hepburn and O’Toole’s performances, but you get to see a young Anthony Hopkins in the role of Richard and Timothy Dalton as Phillip II, the first motion picture appearances for both actors.  Hepburn won an Oscar for her portrayal of Eleanor, which makes up for the one she earned the previous year for the embarrassing “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

 (15 March 2011)

Seven Samurai

Seven characters make a story:  that’s the appeal of “Seven Samurai” in a nutshell.  Which is odd, because the point of the story—the lesson that Japanese director Akira Kurosawa intended the film to teach—is that individuals don’t count.  The community is everything.  In the words of the wisest character, Kambei, the Samurai leader, “This is the nature of war. By protecting others, you save yourselves.”

So you have Kambei, who cares nothing for status (we first see him shaving off his topknot, the symbol of warrior bravery).  He lives by the ancient samurai code, his every gesture embodies honor.  And yet it is he who recognizes the pointlessness of personal integrity.  His closing line is a lament:  “So.  Again we are defeated. The farmers have won.  Not us.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the film’s lovable buffoon, Kikuchiyo.  Crafty, vain, and impetuous, he possesses none of the samurai virtues.  But he understands the farmers because he’s one of them, and we’re even given a bit of his past.  In the scene where he rushes into a stream to rescue the baby of a woman who has been stabbed by the bandits, he confesses that he was that baby.  Next thing you know, he’s dead.

Skillful, stoic Kyuzo, who liberates a rifle from the bandits, killing two—acts for which he neither demands nor expects praise—also dies.  Same goes for the benevolent Gorobei  and the happy-go-lucky Hayashida.  We’re left with just three Samurai:  Kambei, the earnest adolescent Katsushiro, and Kambei’s former soldier Shichiroji, who has a bit of a death wish.  “We’ve survived once again,” says Shichiroji at the end of the film, his disappointment palpable.

The final sequence shows the farmers planting rice.  We see them working together, the women going about the chore with dance-like grace while the men play instruments; the rhythm of the villagers’ life has been restored.  Cut to a shot of the burial mount of the fallen Samurai.  Amid such harmony, Kurosawa feels, the nobility of a samurai has no place.

(15 April 2011)


Costa Gavras’s political thriller has lost nothing in the forty-two years since its release.  Watching it today, with popular uprisings against military rule taking place across North Africa and the Middle East, you marvel at the film’s astuteness.  Of course, Costa Gavras was the son of a Greek Resistance fighter who was jailed after the war for his Communist politics.  And Jorge Semprún, who co-wrote the screenplay, was also a man of the Left whose father had been a governor under the Spanish Republic until its defeat by General Franco.  Both understood the inner workings of military dictatorships all too well.

The film resonates on multiple levels, and this was intentional.  Though faithful to the Vassilis Vassilikos novel about the 1963 assassination of an idealistic and charismatic Greek senator, Grigoris Lambrakis, by paid agents of the right-wing government (backed by the United States), “Z” goes well beyond those events.  Yves Montand, who plays Lambrakis, saw his character as representing not only the assassinated Greek senator, but other assassinated leaders of the time, including JFK, Martin Luther King, and the Moroccan reformer, Mehdi Ben Barka.  These figures inspired people to hope for a better world.  The violent manner in which they died, and the unresolved questions surrounding their deaths, led many to suspect an official cover-up.

“Unmask the Killers!” chant protesters in the movie—a call that galvanizes the photo-journalist character, played by Jacques Perrin, into a serious investigation of the murder.  The real-life journalists upon whom Perrin’s character (a composite) was based wound up in prison, and we are informed that this was the photojournalist’s fate at the end of “Z.”  Similarly, the honest magistrate played by Jean-Louis Trintignant is taken off the case.  His real-life counterpart was imprisoned; in a satisfying turn of fate, however, he was elected President of Greece when the Junta fell. (Vassilikos was placed under house arrest, as was the composer of the film’s score, Mikis Theodorakis, best known for “Zorba the Greek.”  Theodorakis also served in the Greek government after the end of military rule.)

Some of the most memorable scenes in the film involve minor characters—all based on actual people whose stories were unearthed by Costa Gavras and Semprún.  A fireman witnesses a thug beating up one of the senator’s supporters and shames a policeman into arresting the man, who is discovered to be in the pay of the government.  A simple sort of guy who varnishes coffins for a living adds a critical piece of evidence to the magistrate’s case, and refuses to budge from his account even when threatened by the generals.  Their stubborn commitment to the truth demonstrates that action is possible.  ”We can’t not be involved; we’re not an island,” as the director once said.  ”By not taking a position, you take a position.”

And in the end, “Z” makes the authorities look ridiculous.  To the refrains of a mocking dance version of a military march, complete with Zorba-esque bouzoukis, the generals march, one by one, into the magistrate’s office and are forced to sign confessions.  Watching how fear could be dissolved by laughter, I couldn’t help but recall the Kentucky Fried Chicken jokes shared among the protesters in Tahrir Square.

(4 May 2011)

King of Hearts

Fizzy and effervescent, like a glass of champagne.  Who isn’t charmed by the story of a group of lunatics taking over a French town during World War I and crowning the sweet Scottish soldier played by Alan Bates their king?  But don’t be fooled by the light touch of director Philippe De Brocca.  “King of Hearts” was not a cult film on college campuses during the Nixon years for nothing.

Start with Bates’s character, a lowly enlisted man who reads Shakespeare to his unit’s carrier pigeons.  Sent to defuse a German bomb single-handed, he arrives in the town just as the enemy is leaving, unsure how to carry out his orders but terribly well-intentioned.  It takes him a little time to catch on to the fact that the inmates he first encountered in the asylum are now at large, strolling the streets in fancy clothes, having assumed the occupations of the town’s inhabitants, who have fled.  A few things clue him in:  circus animals freely roaming the streets, the sight of a “general” playing chess with a chimp.  But really, it’s the joyfulness that tips him off.  These people aren’t normal.  They’re too happy, too much in love with life, too indifferent to real-world concerns like waging war or making money.

The vibrant colors of this film, along with the surrealist scenes, give “King of Hearts” a trippy feel.  Watch the trailer and you’ll see what I mean.

Yes, the movie came out in 1966, but it’s still relevant.  Watching the allies liberate their town from the enemy—a scene which results in the death of both armies–one lunatic turns to another and comments, “This farce has lasted long enough.”  If only it were true.

(17 May 2011)