Monday, August 31, 2009

The Wide Blue Road (La Grande Strada Azzurra)

Squarcio is a good man. He’s a fisherman in a small Italian village, and he loves his wife and three children very much. He’s made a comfortable life for them. As he says when the film opens, nobody knows the sea like he does. The problem is, his way of catching fish could land him in jail. Where others use a net, he uses dynamite. The peculiar genius of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Wide Blue Road is that it gives us a hero who is an unrepentant lawbreaker and who sees no reason to change his ways.

In the monologue that opens TWBR, Squarcio talks about two other men who he grew up with: Salvatore, who stills fishes, albeit legally; and Gaspare, who went on to join the Coast Guard. These two are integral to the story. Salvatore is a legit fisherman who barely makes enough to feed his family. He’s also a man of some principle, as he is estranged from his father, a dynamite fisherman like Squarcio. As the commander of the local Coast Guard, Gaspare is charged with catching cheats like Squarcio. Gaspare is a good cop, but derives no joy from the thought of arresting his friend.

From the start, Yves Montand presents Squarcio as a man whose morals are hard to pin down. He’s aware that he is breaking the law, but knows that he would be in poverty if he fished with a net. The other fishermen and the Coast Guard know what he does, but choose to turn a blind eye to it. For his part, Squarcio is sympathetic to the plights of the others. An early scene shows them trying to get a decent price for their meager catch from the local merchant. He coldly low-balls them, but then along comes Squarcio with his big catch. He forces the merchant to give the others their price in order to get his as well.

Despite it’s stunning scenery and color, The Wide Blue Road belongs to the great tradition of post-war Italian realism films like The Bicycle Thief and Roma: Open City. These people live from day to day, and poverty is just a way of life. If the weather doesn’t co-operate, they can’t go out and fish. If they can’t fish, they make no money.

Squarcio’s home life gives us a little glimpse into why he lives the way he does. He’s tender and loving with his wife Rosetta (Alida Valli) and daughter Diana (Federica Ranchi). His young sons Donino and Bore fish with him. Squarcio doesn’t seem to have the same money issues as the others, and this is why he refuses to go “legit”. The film flashes back to his courtship of Rosetta, and shows him promising to give her everything. His hard-headedness therefore isn’t just greed – He wants what’s best for his family.

One recurring theme that runs through TWBR is the idea of different generations butting up against each other. Squarcios’ sons work with him every day, and they both love him, but they are different. Bore, the youngest, believes that his Papa can do no wrong. The older one, Donino, is starting to give off signals that he doesn’t approve of his father breaking the law. The acrimony that Salvatore feels towards his father is due to the fact that the old man doesn’t fish honestly. There’s also a sub-plot about a romance between Diana and Salvatore’s son Renato (Terence Hill).

Then one day, everything gets turned upside down. Squarico’s old buddy Gaspare gets transferred and is replaced by a new man who is not inclined to look the other way. What’s worse, he brings with him a new patrol boat that can outrun Squaricos’. The new man Riva is friendly, but there is no mistaking his intent. Squarcio is cocky and brazenly lies about his operation, but deep down, he knows that the game has changed now.

A new motor temporarily restores the balance of power to Squarcio, but he can’t resist showing it off in an informal little race with Riva. If anything, this exchange hardens the resolve of the cop. Why does Squarcio throw this in the face of the one man who can ruin him, rather than just sitting on his advantage? My thought is that while Squarcio is far from dumb, he is also foolishly proud and has a false sense of security. Nothing has ever happened to me before, has it?

Then one day, the patrol boat manages to sneak up on Squarcio and his sons as they fish in a sheltered cove. Trapped, there is no choice but to sink the boat, sending his moneymaker to the bottom of the sea. With no boat to fish with, and a new motor to pay for, he now faces bankruptcy.

It’s not hard to watch TWBR and discern what its politics are. In the early scene with the fish merchant, Pontecorvo makes no effort to portray him as anything but a ruthless capitalist. The other fishermen (led by Salvatore) talk about the “co-op” they are putting together, where the men will pool their resources to buy a new fridge, which will eliminate the need for the merchant. Squarcio is openly dismissive of the co-op – He does just fine as is. In his own way, he’s like the evil merchant.

With his back against the wall financially, Squarico now begins to test the goodwill he has amongst the other fishermen. He buys the impounded boat of Salvatore’s father, out bidding Salvatore in the process, and it’s telling to see how the others disdainfully flow past him as they leave the auction.

As TWBR nears its conclusion, a sad inevitability sets in. Squarcio is too much in love with his way of life to entertain thoughts of going legit. There’s a scene near the end where he learns he is going to be a father again, and he is immediately swept away by thoughts of how he can expand his operation with his 3 sons. He doesn’t even notice Rosetta quietly weeping at the realization that this man of hers isn’t ever going to change. The finale is really the only one that would have been just for this story, as a man who put making money ahead of everything realizes what he has wrought, and a new generation steps up to do what needs to be done.



Friday, August 28, 2009


Ramon Navarro

Thursday, August 27, 2009

My Week of Movie Watching

On the Town – Hadn’t seen this one. Three sailors (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munchin) are loose in New York on a 24-hour leave. That’s about it, story-wise. I wished this one had a bit more music going on. There’s the terrific “New York, New York” at the start, and “Prehistoric Man”, featuring Ann Miller, but other than that, the musical numbers don’t leave much of an impression. Kelly dances in an extended dream sequence, much like in An American in Paris, and it’s wonderfully choreographed, but it left me wanting more. Still, recommended.

The Facts of Life – Bob Hope and Lucille Ball embarking on an extramarital affair. I knew nothing about this one going in, and it surprised me somewhat. With the two leads, you would expect a wacky comedy, but there’s more heft to this film than you might imagine. The film predictably pulls back from its juicy storyline at the end, but overall, it’s still an okay watch.

The Human Condition (Part 3) – I haven’t seen parts 1 and 2 of Masaki Kobayashi’s trilogy, and sent me the final chapter first. Oh, well. This one tells the story of a Japanese soldier determined to return home at the end of WWII. I mean really, REALLY determined. The imagery is stark and beautiful, and the film has some truly astounding moments, especially the finale. All that being said, it is 3 hours long, and there are no chuckles in it, which can make it a bit of a struggle to sit through. I recommend it, but be forewarned that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

Alvarez Kelly – Uneven 1966 Western with cattleman William Holden helping Confederate colonel Richard Widwark steal a herd of Union cattle. Holdens’ character is much like his role in Stalag 17 – A guy whose morals are guided by who’s paying for them. The script is the real culprit here – There are too many times that you hear a scriptwriter in the background. A rousing finale (pictured), and some good Joe McDonald cinematography can’t quite save this one.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Location

Hal Ashby with a Bud Cort-esque severed head. From Harold and Maude (1971)

Monday, August 24, 2009

On Location

George Stevens huddles with the star of Giant (1956)

Friday, August 21, 2009

My Week of Movie Watching

Attack! – Strong Robert Aldrich WWII flick from 1956. The film chronicles the tension between two soldiers: One heroic (Jack Palance), and one an opportunistic coward (Eddie Albert). The film was disavowed by the US military, and it’s easy to see why, based on how it ends. Buddy Ebsen is here as a soldier, and also Lee Marvin as a tough, but slightly shady colonel. Highly recommended.

Crossfire - Noirish police procedural from 1947, with Robert Young trying to trap the killer of a Jewish veteran. Crossfire was notable for touching on the topic of anti-Semetism, which hadn’t really been addressed. Despite the presence of Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan as the killer, I always remember Young’s ultra-cool cop in this one. He has a great monologue comparing the murder of the Jewish man to the long-ago murder of his Irish Catholic grandfather, and his method of trapping Ryan at the end is so clever and simple that I want to applaud. Also highly recommended.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


James Coburn

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Marquee

a.k.a. Barnacle Bill - 1957

Monday, August 17, 2009

Moments of Distinction

The Film – I Am Cuba – dir. Mikhail Kalatozov

The Set-Up – The funeral procession of murdered student martyr Enrique.

I have written about I Am Cuba before, and I mentioned this sequence back then. In many ways, IAC is a comically naïve film, but its technical artistry is unquestioned. This portion of the film stands out over all others for me, because the filmmakers achieved a shot that should be impossible. Watch the clip, and think of the person who is holding the camera.

Friday, August 14, 2009

My Week of Movie Watching

Smile – Darkly hilarious little gem from 1975 that brilliantly skewers the beauty pageant industry. On the periphery are Bruce Dern as a car salesman/judge, and Barbara Feldon as a former beauty queen who works as a consultant for the girls. The movie does a great job of peeling back the chipper veneer that everyone puts up. Dern has to deal with his son taking clandestine nudie photos, and Feldon with a suicidal husband. But hey, the show must go on. Recommended.

La Bataille du Rail (The Battle of the Rails) – Rene Clement’s salute to the French resistance workers who helped sabotage the Germans during the lead-up to the Normandy invasion. Shot with non-actors, the film feels utterly authentic, and it’s a great snapshot of the works of the French underground. Recommended.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia – This Sam Peckinpah number from 1974 inspires more widely divergent opinions that almost anything else I can think of. Ya either love it or hate it. Me, I love it. Peckinpah liked stories about men who felt obligated to follow a personal code, no matter how nonsensical and destructive. This one, with Warren Oates delivering a severed head to a Mexican gangster, is Peckinpah distilled down to his grimy best.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On This Date

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock - Born August 13,1899.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

House by the River

Fritz Lang must have loved guilt. In his films, we are confronted by someone who does something and is tortured by guilt (Scarlet Street, for example), or someone who is falsely accused of a crime (like Spencer Tracy in Fury). The Blue Gardenia features a character that mistakenly believes she has committed a murder. In M, Peter Lorre knows he is a child murderer, but is unable to stop himself. It goes on and on.

Lang’s terrific but little seen House by the River is another variation on the guilt thing. In it, two brothers get involved in a murder – One directly, the other as an accessory and this sets into play an elaborate dance of guilt between the two.

Steven Byrne (Louis Hayward) is an unsuccessful writer who has designs on his attractive young maid. An early scene has her releasing the water from her bath, while he stands outside and lewdly listens to the water going down the drain. We’ve already learned that his wife is in town, so this is a smart little way of establishing Steven as a louse.

Lang was one of the major figures who carried the German expressionist style of filmmaking to America and wedded it to Film Noir. The Byrne house is a prime example of expressionism’s use of set architecture to create a nightmarish mood. The house is full of large, gothic windows, high doorways, and a magnificent, shadowy staircase. The murder makes full use of all these elements. The maid slowly comes down the stairs, shot from the waist down. Steven waits for her in the darkness below. Byrne’s planned sexual advance is met with resistance, and in a struggle to silence her he accidentally strangles her.

That’s where the second part of the puzzle gets introduced. Steven’s brother John (Lee Bowman) comes to the door in the aftermath of the murder, and his first instinct is to go to the police. Steven begs him off of that idea, telling him that his wife is pregnant. John’s demeanor changes perceptively when the wife Marjorie is mentioned, and he agrees to go along with the cover-up. The two dispose of the body on the river, but we’ve already had a hint that it won’t be quite that easy.

Upon his return home, Steven encounters Marjorie, and this scene effectively affirms Steven’s guilt. Steven is at the foot of the stairs, checking himself in the mirror when Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) comes out of her bedroom. Lang shoots the scene identically to the earlier scene with the maid, as Marjorie slowly comes down the stairs, her face hidden by shadow. Steven is awash in panic as her relives the earlier encounter.

I mentioned that we already had been given a hint that there would be complications to the disposal of the body. One of the very first images in the film is of a dead cow floating back up the river, and sure enough the body comes back, bringing a damning clue. The maid was found in a sack with John Byrnes’ name on it.

An inquest into the murder (overseen by a judge wearing a Lang-esque monocle) is held, and John, nervous and torn with guilt, comes across as surly and challenging. In short, he looks very guilty. Steven is happy with the presumption that John will be suspected as the killer, although he outwardly announces that HE thinks his brother is innocent. There is the suggestion that the investigating officer thinks that Steven has something to hide, and there’s a mysterious little bit where he intentionally rolls a pencil off his table in the middle of Steven’s testimony. This plot point goes nowhere, however.

The two brothers are polar opposites, and the film takes a bit of time to flesh out the relationship between them. Steven is a failed writer, but lives in smug opulence. John has an accounting business, but is a lonely cripple. It turns out that Stevens’ wealth comes from an inheritance, which John acceded so his brother could work towards becoming a writer. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, John states “I’ll help you, like I have so often before!” There’s a history there: The vain, selfish brother gets into trouble, and the quiet, decent one gets him out of it.

Then there’s the matter of the two men’s relationship with Marjorie. Steven is her husband, but it’s apparent that John is more of a soul mate to her. It’s with her that his hard edges disappear, and she is the one who realizes how lonely he really is. When we remember back to the aftermath of the murder, it was the evoking of her name that got John to go along with his brother’s deceit. And Steven knew that it would.

There’s another element to this as, well, one that tends to stretch the limits of incredulity. As the case progresses, Stevens writing career begins to take off, owing to the publicity the case is receiving. It’s not unnoticed by his wife that he has no qualms about benefiting from a murder. There’s more: He is secretly writing a new novel called “Death on the River”, which is a retelling of his murder, with the names changed. Why he would plan on publishing a novel that would essentially be a confession is beyond me, but it serves an essential purpose to the plot – Marjorie finds it and discovers the truth.

Lang’s filmography is intriguing. He is best known for his masterpieces M and Metropolis, and his Dr. Mabuse films, all made in Germany. His resume, however, is filled with excellent lesser-known work, primarily his Film Noirs from the 40’s and 50’s. Virtually everything the man did is worth a look.

House by the River was released in 1950, flopped at the box office, and promptly sank from sight. It was actually believed to be lost until French filmmaker Pierre Rissient rediscovered it in the mid 1970’s. The Kino DVD includes an interview with Rissient detailing how this masterpiece came back from the dead.




The Marquee

a.k.a. The Blue Gardenia

Sunday, August 09, 2009


William Holden

Friday, August 07, 2009


Jean Seberg

Thursday, August 06, 2009

My Week of Movie Watching

Walkabout – I think I wanted to see this one again in order to wash the taste of Australia out of my mouth. It’s an amazingly imaginative film from a technical standpoint. I saw techniques like freeze-frames, startling jump-cuts (such as cutting from a kill in the outback to a shot of a city butcher cleavering meat), and inserting a piece of newspaper into a wipe-cut. Great film.

Every Man’s Woman – Lightweight Italian number from 1967 – Claudia Cardinale stars as a Brazilan beauty who dedicates her life to pleasing men – MANY men. There are some nice visuals of Rio here, and Claudia is beautiful, but there’s not too much going on. The title pretty much sums it up.

Straight Time – Dustin Hoffman as an ex-con who trys (although not very hard) to go straight. This one is surprisingly good. Hoffman is grittier than you might reasonably expect, and there are some good supporting performances by Harry Dean Stanton and especially M. Emmet Walsh. The screenplay is based on a novel by ex-con Eddie Bunker (who has a small role), and it has an authentic, close-to-the-street feel to it. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Movies of my Life

When Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights opened in 1997, I loved it immediately, but not for all the right reasons. I was at that time (and still am) a great admirer of the work of Robert Altman, and Anderson’s paean to the porn industry was a great Altman film not done by Altman. I think my thought process might have been “This is good – Altman is getting up in years – Here is someone who can make “his” films after he is dead.” That attitude, it turned out, was unfair to Anderson. His subsequent work revealed an artist who was much more than just a junior version of someone else.

To my mind, BN is the second-best film of the 1990’s, and it has more in it that I love that just about anything else I can name.

The music – I swear to God, whoever came up with the soundtrack for this film must have been tuned into the circuitry in my head. I am about the age that the Dirk Diggler character would be, so the tunes that keep popping up were a real blast from the past for me. Songs like “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff’n the Tears and “Magnet and Steel” by Walter Egan were staples of my teen years. I never get tired of watching the pool party sequence with War’s “Spill the Wine” and Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” as the backdrop.

Have a look (and listen) at this great sequence, where Dirk (Mark Wahlberg) and Reed (John C Reilly) find themselves in a situation that is plainly heading for violence. There are a lot of great factors at work here. Notice how tense Dirk and Reed are, and how strung-out Todd (Thomas Jane) is, and how the firecrackers help both illustrate this and amp up the tension. Notice Alfred Molina’s out-of-it drug dealer, who doesn’t pick up on his guests’ signals. And finally, the music. Playing pop music like “Sister Christian” and “Jesse’s Girl” over this shouldn’t be this effective, but it is.

BN is like a summer camp for great character actors. Think of the best ones of the last 20 years and then realize how many of them turn up here. This was the first time I laid eyes on Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has a great little bit as the gay Scottie. There’s Don Cheadle. William H. Macy has a small bit as a man whose porn-star wife is unfaithful in a comically up-front manner. The Molina drug dealer from the clip is a great, great character compressed into one ten-minute sequence.

Strange to say, I often think of The Godfather when I watch this film. The two films are pretty dissimilar, except for one point. Both portray closed societies, where everyone you see and interact with is like you. The porn industry world of BN is normal for the people within it, but when the film allows the outside world in, it’s illuminating. There’s a moment when Dirk is introduced to Amber (Julianne Moore), and her husband Jack (Burt Reynolds) states “She’s a wonderful mother…She’s a mother to all those who need love.” That line doesn’t really grab until a later scene when Amber appears at a custody hearing for her children, and she is completely destroyed when her lifestyle becomes the topic. For all her motherly qualities, in reality, she’s an abject failure with her own children. It’s truly a heartbreaking scene.

Watch Heather Graham’s Rollergirl in the scene near the end when she encounters someone from her past life. She’s clearly uncomfortable being reminded that she is really someone else, and when the guy finally angrily says to her “You’ve made a fine life for yourself!” she snaps. She can’t bear someone else saying what she may secretly believe about herself.

That’s the thing about this group – They’re a family. An abnormal, poorly adjusted one, to be sure but they are a family nonetheless.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Newsstand

December 1966 - Ah, Claudia