Saturday, September 30, 2006

L'Aine Des Ferchaux (Magnet of Doom)

Little by little, bit by bit, I have come to love the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. The adjective "cool" is grossly overused, but there's no other word to describe the world he creates on the screen. His stone-faced, bad-ass types KNOW that they're cool - You can tell by their poker faces, and their trenchcoats and fedoras. Melville is best known to North American audiences for his French crime dramas. There's the great casino-caper Bob Le Flambeur, and Le Samorai and Le Cercle Rouge, both with Alain Delon as the prototypical Melville leading man - Cool, calm, and dangerous.

Melville's film resume is of high quality right across the board, but there are a lot of these gems are pretty hard to find. The WW2 drama Army of Shadows has just had a re-release after many, many years of languishing unseen. Which brings me to today's topic, Melville's terrific 1963 film Magnet of Doom, based on a Georges Simenon novel. This one is also virtually unseen in anything but low-quality, washed out additions. More on that later.

The hero of MoD, for lack of a better word, is Michel Maudet, a down and out boxer played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. As the film opens , Maudet is fighting (and losing) his final match, later pondering just what he is going to do with the rest of his life. Maudet is a man who feels that scruples are just something that gets in the way. He coldly takes a pendant from his girl for the purpose of pawning it, and when the pawnbroker won't give him anything for it, he gives it back to her, telling her he couldn't go through with it. He's a louse, pure and simple.

While all this is going on, we meet the film's other main character, the powerful banker Dieudonne Ferchaux. (Charles Vanel) From a heated board meeting, we gather that Ferchaux is facing serious problems with the law, related to the murder of three black men years before in Africa. The details of the legal trouble are hard to follow, and in fact, they aren't important. This scene is mainly to establish Ferchaux as a man who is in trouble, but still expects things to be done his way. He makes it plain that he has no intention of going to jail, and is not above threatening any of his subordinates who might get in his way.

Needing to get out of the counrty quickly, Ferchaux has to hire a secretary on the fly, and that's how he and Maudet join forces. The two men escape on a flight to New York, and when we see Ferchaux recover a suitcase full of cash from his safe, another level of intrigue clicks into place. It would logical to assume that the film will be about the two unscupulous men competing over the money. That theory is basically correct, but it's not what the movie is really about.

It's only when the two men leave New York that MoD really hits its groove. During the New york scenes, Melville has wisely kept the mens relationship as strictly professional - Boss and secretary. In the car together, the two start to feel each other out a bit, and there's a pivitol early scene in a diner where Maudet fights (and beats) two American soldiers. The dymanic has changed a bit now, and as the two men drive on, Ferchaux looks at his young companion differently. The true heart of Magnet of Doom is the relationship between the two men. There are suggestions of a father-son dynamic, but there is also an unmistakable undercurrent of competition, as the two vie for dominance.

Maudet stops to pick up a young female hitch-hiker (against Ferchaux's wishes) ,and it's here that the dominance scales tip the other way. The younger man forces Ferchaux to move to the back seat, and makes him wait in the car while he makes love to the girl . Ferchaux has his own method of tipping things back, however. He goes and scatters the money down a hillside, and when asked by Maudet why he would do such an insane thing, he replies "Because I want to be in control of the situation."

The twosome eventually winds up in New Orleans, and it's here that the film settles down and gets to the business of the two men and the money (Which Maudet had to gather up). Ferchaux is by now feeling ill, and is confined to their rented house. Maudet, meanwhile, is openly defiant of the old man, and frequents a local bar instead of nursemaiding.

Throughout the car ride, there was one big obvious question that the viewer asks himself. Namely, "Why doesn't Maudet just take the money?" There isn't any indication that Maudet has ever thought that himself, but there's a bartender named Jeff who puts it on the table. This character (Todd Martin) is an interesting addition to the mix. He's clearly American, yet speaks flawless French. He seems inordinately interested in what the old man is doing, and whether or not Maudet is going to be with him. He is pretty transparent - even to Maudet, and eventually, he lays it out.

"Did you ever think of knocking him out and just taking it?"

"Taking what?"

"The money."

A voice-over finally lets us inside Maudet's thoughts and we learn that yeah, he has thought about it. The Jeff character is clearly meant to represent a dark alter ego to Maudet. They seem to have a connection bourne out of the fact that they are the only two who speak French, and also their shared willingness to use others to profit themselves.

The final stages of the film are pretty much inevitable, as a play is made on Ferchaux and his money. I will stop short of giving away the ending, but will say that it is a bit of an anti-climax. (To me, anyway). The heart and soul of MoD is the relationship between the two men. Maudet wants what Ferchaux has - Power and wealth, and in that regard, wants the older man's favour. On the other hand, he resents Ferchaux's assumed superiority over him.

I thought of the great Henri Clouzot film The Wages of Fear while watching this. In that one an older gangster (Vanel again) crumbles while hauling nitro-glycerine though a treacherous mountain pass, while a potent younger man (Yves Montand) begins to dominate him. This film is not of that caliber, but it's very good, and if you're a Melville fan, try to seek it out.

Notes: I said at the top that Magnet of Doom wasn't really available in a quality addition. That would be obvious from my stills, which were taken from a DVD-R that I located.. What I watched was essentially a B&W film. Here's to hoping that we see a good quality DVD sometime soon.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On this Date / And Also Starring...

For people around my age, William Conrad was TV’s Cannon, first and foremost. In preparing this post for his birthday on September 27, I was amazed to see what a long and diverse career the man really had.

Trivia Nugget # 1 – Conrad was voice of Matt Dillon on the original Gunsmoke radio program.

That leads me to another bit of info gleaned from IMDb – Conrad appeared in more than 7500 radio programs, and is in the Radio Hall of Fame.

Trivia Nugget # 2 - He was the narrator of The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.

There is almost nothing that any man could do that would impress me more than that.

The Killers

When my cinematic education began to include a lot of Film Noir, it was a hoot to see Conrad popping up as heavies in various places, like The Killers, Sorry, Wrong Number, and Cry Danger. When Detective Frank Cannon appeared on the scene in 1971, Conrad was already a 25-year veteran of the TV, Radio, and Film industries.

He would have turned 85 today.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Marquee

The Phantom of the Opera, Rupert Julien, 1925

On Location

Fort Apache, 1948

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Moments of Distinction

The Film – The Bad Sleep Well, dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1960

The Set-Up – Yushiko (Kyoko Kagawa) has finally discovered that Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) has only married her as a means to getting close to her father, who has caused the death of Nishi’s father.

Nishi looks away in guilt as Yoshiko confronts him about his quest for revenge.

She turns away. Her disability is accentuated.

Nishi goes after her, feeling remorse for this woman who he has used. It's the first time that Mifune's Nichi has seen himself as anything but a righteous avenging angel.

They kiss. Note the bench between them.

They drop to seated positions.

Nishi now gets up; Yoshiko tells him that despite everything, she can’t hate her father.

Nishi sits, facing away from her now, and tells the story of his illegitimate father, and his suicide. During the course of this monologue, any possibility of pity dissolves.

Kurosawa was a master at placing his actors in the widescreen tableau for effect, and this is a classic example. In the shot above where the two kiss, it’s just a stroke of genius that the wooden bench divides them, even as they share this tender moment. There is not a single second during this sequence where the two of them, husband and wife, are standing together.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

"Poets of Filmlight"

Sven Nykvist, Stockholm, Sweden, 1995

copyright Piotr Jaxa - photo from the collection "Cinematographers - Poets of Filmlight"

Welcome to the first installment of a mini-series celebrating some of the world’s greatest cinematographers.

I was rooting around on the net a few weeks back when I discovered this website. It is with the kind permission of Piotr Jaxa that a few of his portraits will be presented here for your enjoyment. I have also included some selected stills highlighting the artistry of the men featured.

Fanny & Alexander, 1982

Cries and Whispers, 1972

Winter Light, 1962

Autumn Sonata, 1978

Through a Glass Darkly, 1961

Sunday, September 17, 2006

And Also Starring...

Joe Pantoliono has always been always one of those character actor types that you remember. For Joe, it’s that weasely voice that burrows into you gray matter and stays there. He usually plays the type of character, that after you shake hands, you count your fingers.

To me, Joey Pants will always be Caesar from Bound. God, I love this movie. The whole plot is predicated on what Caesar will do after the two lesbian heroes set him up. They have stolen two million dollars of mob money, and Caesar is supposed to run away, because he will be the one to get blamed. Well, Caesar doesn’t do what he is supposed to. He tries to think and bluff his way out of the mess, and in true Hitchcockian fashion, we end up rooting for him. The plot, once it sets in motion, moves at whiplash speed. The guy has no time to think, but he does quite a job of it.

There’s a scene where Caesar kills 3 mobsters in his living room, has the cops in the room within five minutes, and manages to get away with it. How does he do this? Big, brass ones, my friend.

If you haven’t, check it out.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Claim

Did you go to see The Claim when it was in theatres in 2000? Probably not, because very, very few people did. That's their loss, because this film is a flat-out masterpiece.

The setting is California in 1869, an era when the lure of gold had seized many. It's also an era where America was being opened up by rail, and the presence of the railroad could turn a little village into a boom town.

The film opens in the small town of Kingdom Come, and the arrival of 2 groups who will tear the fabric of the town apart. One of the groups is a group of railway surveyors, led by a young man named Dalglish (Wes Bentley). They are there to determine the route that the rail line will take. The other group is less conspicuous at first - A dying woman (Nastassia Kinski) and her young daughter Hope (Sarah Polley)

Very early on, the film makes reference to a Mister Dillon, and the implication is that he is a big wheel in town. Just how big is demonstrated when one miner is caught robbing another, and is sentenced to a public whipping. The charges are read to the onlooking crowd, and it's stated that the sentence is fifty lashes, but this is commuted to twenty-five by Dillon "Because he knows it will never happen again." Dillon himself carries out the punishment. This sequence alerts us that Kingdom Come is not a town like any other - That it is in fact owned and ruled by one man.

After the whipping has concluded, young Hope rushes up to Dillon and presses a rosary into his hand. Stunned, he blurts out "Hope?"..."Are you Hope?"

What's going on here? Well, we got a clue when the dying mother Elena pointed Dillon out to Hope from the hotel window prior to the whipping, but now we find Dillon going alone to an isolated old shack, and the film switches to a flashback sequence. We see a young couple with an infant struggling through a blizzard ,and coming upon a single shack in the snow. They are invited in, and discover that the occupant is a prospector, who has found gold but is desperately lonely. Fueled by too much alcohol, the young man makes a startling trade - His wife and child for the other man's claim.

If this plotline sounds familiar, it should. It's a re-working of Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge", where a man named Michael Henchard sells his family to a sailor for 5 guineas. The Claim is at it's best when it stays with Dillon, who is played by a terrific, but little-known actor named Peter Mullan. Despite the ghastly secret he carries around, Dillon is essentially a good man, and when he is confronted by his past, he tries to make restitution for it. He brings a house for the two women to live in and arranges for medical treatments for the mother. He even remarries Elena. Dillon also has a couple of conversations with the mother, where he discovers that Hope doesn't know the truth about her past.

In the meantime, there is the issue of the railway, and a parallel plot follows Dalglish and his men as they survey the surroundings. Dillon, of course, fully expects the the railroad to go through Kingdom Come, and makes ominous statements to that end. It eventually becomes evident to Dalglish that thay will have to choose another route, and there is a small scene with a railroad executive where he basically says that there could be bloodshed when Dillon finds out. He is told to "Do whatever you have to" , and he silently agrees.

It has long been a pet peeve with me for films to give me one dimensional characters. That is, Character X is a bad guy...and that's all he is. In this film, things are a bit fuzzy. We already know about Dillon, but we start to look at Dalglish a bit differently now, as well. He and his men come back into town brandishing guns, and a confrontation seems unavoidable. It is to the film's credit that it doesn't degenerate into a big gunfight. People do die, yes, but the violence is sudden and minimal, and then things move past it.

The film now swings back to Dillon and the two women. Elena finally succumbs to her illness, and Dillon faces the prospect of losing his daughter once again. Up until this point, Hope has been lukewarm towards Dillon. She doesn't understand why her mother married this guy so hastily. Finally Dillon takes her to the small shack and shows her an old photo of the three of them. When she still doesn't get it, he asks her who is in the photo.

She replies: "It's you"

Mullan is simply marvelous here, as Dillon finally delivers the truth in his blunt Irish brogue.

"The baby is you. The woman is your mother"...."I sold you"......"I sold you both for gold"......"Right here in this hut."

The final passenges of The Claim are simply put, beautiful. Dillon goes back to the town that he built up from nothing and torches the whole thing. The film lingers as the flames lick up and over the wood frame buildings and they eventually crash into soot. The same is true of the man. Dillon sold his family for a dream of wealth and achieved wealth beyond his wildest dreams. All of his riches turned to ash, however as Hope ran out of that little hut.

The cinematographer on the film is a man named Alwin Kuchler, and it would be criminal not to mention his name in a discussion of the film. The snowy outdoor sequences were filmed near Calgary, Alberta, and they are breathtaking.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

On Location

Jean-Pierre Melville (in white hat) at work on the great cops-and-robbers saga, Un Flic.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

And Also Starring...

Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is a film filled with pleasures, and one of the biggies is the twin supporting performances of Elisha Cook and Marie Windsor, as George and Sherry Peatty. This is a film couple like no other, and their combination of distain (her), and insecurity (him) starts the dominoes falling which will destroy the racetrack robbery caper that the film centers on.

Windsor’s Sherry is a bored housewife who seems to live in lingerie and has a stud on the side. She’s just biding time until she can blow the joint. George is another one of Cook’s nebbish types, who can’t really believe that this babe stays with him. They are marvelous in their screen time together, as she barely looks up from her magazine as he talks to her, and he is just chomping at the bit to tell her about his big score.

“Do you want me to call you Papa? Do you want to call me Mama?”

“It would make a difference, wouldn’t it? If I had money?”

Sherry twists him like a Gumby doll in this film, and sure enough, he ends up telling her more than he should.

“I’m gonna have money. Maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“Of course you are, darling. Did you put the right address on the letter before you sent it to the North Pole?”

And George basically spills the whole thing to her.

George gets cold feet at one point, but watch how easily she guides him back on course.

“Think of how disappointed I’d be if you didn’t get that money, George! I’d feel like you didn’t really love me."

Uh-Huh. He buys it, however.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Monday, September 04, 2006

Moments of Distinction

The Film – L’Avventura, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960

The Set-Up – Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and Claudia (Monica Vitti) have by now pretty well forgotten their quest for Sandro’s missing fiancĂ©e Anna. Sandro has just left their hotel and gone down to the courtyard. He notices a young man drawing. He’ll be back in a few seconds.

The artist has left his drawing unattended.

Sandro looks to see if the guy is watching.

He checks out the drawing again – a sketch of an architectural detail.

Sandro swings his keys and upsets the bottle of ink on the drawing, ruining it.

The young guy confronts Sandro. “You did it intentionally!” They jostle a bit.

Sandro pulls himself up and asks the young guy how old he is. Told that he is 23, Sandro relies “I was once 23, too. I was in so many fights, you couldn’t imagine.” Translation - “Your art is not worth fighting for.”

Antonioni has been gradually letting Sandro reveal himself to be spiritually and morally bankrupt, and it’s crystallized in this moment. Sandro is an architect who has long ago lost any passion that he ever felt for his art, and seeing this drawing, done just for fun, reminds him of how jaded and corrupt he is. That’s why he has to destroy it.

An aside: It will be interesting to see how often this feature reveals stuff that I didn’t notice before. Case in point – The guy who confronts Sandro is not the guy doing the drawing when he first sees it (1st frame). The actual artist appears to be the guy in the light jacket that breaks up the tussle.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Marquee (Eisenstein Division)

Thanks to Squish at The Film Vituperatem for this image. Go have a look around his blog. You'll like.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

In a Year of 13 Moons

The story of In a Year of 13 Moons begins with another story – That of Armin Meier. Meier was an actor who appeared in several of the early films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He was also Fassbinder’s lover, and their breakup resulted in Meier’s suicide in 1978. Fassbinder reacted to this in the same way that he reacted to all the other turmoil in his life. – He made a movie. The resulting film is a searing personal statement of loss and loneliness.

The central character is Elvira, a lonely transsexual who is cruising for gay men when the film opens. A potential john makes the first advances, but when he discovers that it’s a woman he’s feeling up, he responds violently and calls a few buddies to assist. This establishes a pattern that we will see repeatedly throughout the film. Elvira tries to connect with someone, and everyone she approaches rejects her.

Take for instance, her lover Christoph. He shares her apartment, and when she returns home from the beating, he turns on her. When I first saw this film at Cinematheque Ontario a couple of years ago, I nearly walked out during this scene. That’s the level of the emotional cruelty that is directed at Elvira here. Incredibly, she absorbs it, and in fact apologizes and promises to do better.

A kindly whore named Zora befriends Elvira, and she becomes her companion for the balance of the film. The presence of this second person gives Elvira a sounding board, and enables us to learn some of Elvira’s back-story. Elmira talks of her previous life as an abattoir worker named Erwin, and this leads to a grisly sequence in an actual slaughterhouse. As Elvira talks of her transformation and her life with the abusive Christoph, we watch cattle having their throats slit and their hides pulled off. This scene is a real gut-slammer, and it serves a couple of purposes. First, it mirrors the mutilation that Elvira herself has undergone – her quickie sex change. Additionally, it’s an effective metaphor for the world in which she resides. To the people around her, Elvira has about the same status as the cattle do to the slaughterhouse workers.

The centerpiece of the film is a visit by Elvira and Zora to the orphanage where Elvira grew up. They encounter Sister Gudrun, who remembers the young Erwin, and goes into a lengthy monologue about how Erwin was abandoned as a baby, how a young couple wanted to adopt him, and how his biological mother nixed the adoption rather that have the father know of Erwin’s existence. This scene is heartbreaking; as it indicates how close Erwin came to having a loving family, only to have it snatched away from him.

Why did Erwin become Elvira? That’s the question that the film revolves around, and early on, the name Anton Saitz comes into play. Saitz is a wealthy industrialist and concentration camp survivor who has some hidden connection to Elvira, which she has alluded to in a newspaper interview. Elvira sets out to track Saitz down, in order to persuade him from taking revenge on her, or worse yet, on her estranged daughter.

Elvira eventually makes her way to Saitz’ office tower, and if you watched this film, and were able to anticipate what the meeting would be like, you are a far better man than me. The first thing that is noticeable is how the office seems to be virtually deserted. Elvira encounters a security guard and when asked for the password, is able to dig it up out of her memory banks - “Bergen-Belsen”. The scene in Saitz’ office is bizarre, to say the least. When Elvira arrives, Saitz and his associates are re-enacting an absurd dance number from an old Jerry Lewis film.

Saitz is the one who finally fills out the blanks in Elvira’s past. Ervin was in love with Saitz once, and told him so. Saitz’ response was a flippant “That’s nice – Too bad you’re not a woman.”, and Erwin took it to heart and ran off to Casablanca for a sex change operation.

This astonishing lack of judgment is in fact consistent with what we have already seen with Elvira. She is desperate to connect with someone, whether it is her ex-wife or a john in a park. Time and time again in his films, Fassbinder gives us people who need love badly, don’t have a clue about how to get it, and are destroyed as a result of it. There’s the needy actress in Veronika Voss, the designer in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, or the lottery winner Fox in Fox and His Friends, just to name a few.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this movie is connected to the story of Armin Meier, and his relationship with Fassbinder. It’s no stretch to say that Meier informs the character of Elvira – Someone who loves the wrong people, and suffers because of it.

This might be the most personal and painful of the films Fassbinder made. Just how personal can be guessed at when you look at the credits. This is essentially a one-man film. Fassbinder wrote, produced, directed, shot and edited 13 Moons. It almost seems like this film was his penance, and he had to suffer it alone.