Monday, June 22, 2009

Que la Bete Meure (This Man Must Die)

A contribution to Ten Day’s Wonder – The Claude Chabrol Blogathon hosted by Flickhead.

A small boy in a yellow raincoat happily gathering clams on a foggy beach. A speeding black car with radio blasting. These two opening images, and the way they are intercut with each other create an uneasy feeling within the viewer. Something bad is going to happen here, and it doesn’t take long. The child wanders onto the street and is cut down by the car. The car contains a man and woman, and she reacts with horror. The man angrily tells her to shut up, and keeps driving. Claude Chabrol thus puts the pieces into play for his 1969 revenge-driven thriller This Man Must Die.

The story skips ahead 3 months, and we meet the boy’s father Charles Thenier (Michel Duchaussay). Thenier is on a train, returning to the site of his son’s death for the first time since the accident. Outwardly, he seems stoic, but a visit to his house reveals cracks in his facade. He tells his housekeeper that she is never to speak of his son, and if she must, then she is to use the present tense. A visit to the boy’s room reveals how much sorrow and anger this man is holding inside.

The police visit to discuss the investigation into the accident. They don’t know anything yet, but the striking thing about this meeting is how involved Charles is. He throws out scenarios about the killer, and it becomes plain that he has thought an awful lot about this man, and who he might be. His theory is that the car must be damaged, and since the killer would be taking a great chance in having it repaired, perhaps he has done the work himself. Charles thus reasons that the killer may own a garage. We start to get an idea of the obsession that he is carrying around. We repeatedly see him entering his thoughts into a diary, including his ideas of how the man’s death will play out.

The problem is, however, that there were no witnesses to the accident, so he has no idea where to start looking. He sits on hills and muses about how vast his search is. “I have all my life”, and says he needs chance to intercede. “Chance is wonderful. And it exists.” Chance does indeed exist, and it comes in the form of an innocent detour in the road that leads to his car being stuck, and a farmer with a tale of a previous stuck car. “The guy was angry because the car was damaged. I remember it well – It was January the 3rd”

This meeting leads him to the woman in the car, an actress named Helen Lanson (Caroline Cellier). Thenier begins an affair with her as a cover for getting more information about the driver. At this stage, Thenier’s obsession begins to take on darker overtones. We know that Helen was in the car, but is not the villain here. Thenier’s using her seems somewhat cruel and selfish. There’s a marvelous scene in Charles apartment where she finally confronts him about why he wants her, and he takes her to bed in order to continue the charade. The most visible item in the apartment is a large chess set, and the parallel is subtle. He is playing a chess game of his own, and using her as one of the pieces. It’s also notable that when they wake up, the chess pieces are scattered everywhere, as if to suggest that the “game” has been disrupted.

The identity of the driver has been discovered by now – It’s Helen’s brother-in-law Paul (Jean Yanne), and Charles arranges for he and Helen to go and visit them. Paul, however, isn’t home when Thenier arrives, and one of the joys of this film is watching Charles make forced small talk with Paul’s family as they wait for him to arrive. Charles must be jumping out of his skin for wanting to finally confront this man, but he has to pass the time talking about the weather and the pollution in Paris.

When we finally meet Paul Descourt, he is what we might have expected based on his reaction to the accident. He humiliates his wife at the dinner table and berates his son mercilessly – Simply put, the man is a monster. This dinner scene is perhaps taken too far over the top – Paul is such an ogre that it begs the question of why anyone would marry him or associate with him, but to Chabrol’s credit, he pulls back and makes the character a bit more realistic from then on.

Chabrol sets up an interesting dynamic between Charles and Pauls’ son Phillippe (Marc Di Napoli). The boy tells Charles straight away that he wishes his father were dead, and a bond begins to develop. Charles is a writer, and young Phillippe is a quiet, sensitive soul with artistic leanings, and during an informal tutoring session, Phillippe admits that he wished that Charles were his father. This adds other things to the mix – Does Charles also want to liberate Phillippe from his father’s tyranny? Is Phillippe is filling some of the void left by his own son’s death?

Thenier gets a good chance to kill Paul early on. As the two men walk along a seaside cliff, Paul loses his balance, and hangs from a precipice. Charles even goes so far as to get a big rock, ostensibly to smash his skull with, but changes his mind when Helen arrives on the scene.

The relationship between Charles and Helen is a little hard to get a real handle on. Although he hasn’t really said so, at some point his feelings for her have become real, and one night as they lay in bed together she asks him why he didn’t let Paul fall from the cliff when he had the chance. Chabrol and cinematographer Jean Rabier arrange this scene in a really interesting way. Her face is half hidden by his, and his is half hidden by something in the foreground. The resulting composition makes it look as if they have one pair of eyes – That they are one being. Even so, he doesn’t let Helen in on his plans for Paul.

The chance for the murder finally comes in the form of a sailing trip that Charles and Paul are to go on. Charles will sail out and cause Paul (who can’t swim) to fall overboard, drowning him. As the weather worsens, Charles clearly enjoys watching Paul’s unease at being in the boat. He gets satisfaction in seeing the fear from his son’s killer. Paul, however, throws a delicious little twist involving the diary into the story. Charles has to spare his life, but he is not deterred. He tells Paul “I want your bastard skin – And I’ll get it.”

Charles and Helen are on the road the next day when the story takes another twist – Paul has been poisoned in his home. We have a pretty good idea what has happened, and Chabrol slyly confirms it for us in a little scene where Charles talks to a police captain back at the house. Just check out how Charles and the cop are standing and who is framed in the space between them.

The cops have the diary in their possession, and in it Charles’ plans to kill Paul. Charles points out that he would have to be pretty foolish to write down a plot to kill and then go ahead and do it when he knew the cops had the diary. The cop – no fool – acknowledges this, but also adds that he may have allowed the diary to be discovered for this very reason. It all becomes moot when someone else comes forward to confess to Paul’s murder.

This Man Must Die is a parable about revenge and its destructive consequences for the human soul. Charles, bathed in sorrow and hatred, dedicates his life to finding and destroying the person who killed his son. When the man actually dies, it comes at a huge price – The destruction of the life of someone who Charles has grown to love, and who has become a surrogate son. It likely occurs to Charles that he has it in his power to save this second “son”, but it will take an enormous sacrifice on his part. In a farewell letter to Helen, Charles quotes a verse from Ecclesiastes:

“The beast must die, but the man, too”

When the film started, we were at the ocean and one young man was about to have his life taken away. At its conclusion, we’re back there and another young man has gotten his life back. And a small white sailboat quietly becomes a speck on the sea.



Saturday, June 20, 2009

My Week of Movie Watching

Barfly – I saw this again after quite a few years, and my reaction is very much like it was the first time. Although I have to acknowledge that Mickey Rourke does a fine job in this role, he just goes SO far into the role that it’s off-putting. Does that make any sense? I’m no fan of the way drunks are normally portrayed, but the way he slurs the end of his sentences, the way he walks like he’s going down a steep hill made me realize I was watching a performance. I also wish I’d heard a bit more of Bukowski’s poetry. I heard bit of him in the screenplay (“Surrendering to you would be like swallowing piss forever!”), but I really didn’t get a sense of his art.

The Black Stallion – Just a beautiful, beautiful film. It’s true that this one touches on all the clich├ęs, but I loved it anyway. Mickey Rooney does a good little turn here, and the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is astounding. If you have children at home, this is a good rental for them.

Key Largo – It had been years since I’ve seen John Huston’s great statement on heroism and personal responsibility. Edward G Robinson is terrific, as always, as the heavy. In truth, Key Largo is really HIS movie – He makes a far greater impression than does Bogarts’ slow-to-act ex army man. I also need to mention Lionel Barrymore’s turn as the wise old hotel owner. Recommended.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Location

Anna Magnani and Sidney Lumet confer on the set of The Fugitive Kind. (1960)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Soundtrack

Two clips featuring the music of Booker T and the MGs: The final drag race from American Graffiti featuring "Green Onions", and the trailer for Barfly, featuring "Hip-Hug Her".

Monday, June 15, 2009

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Marquee

Attack! - 1956
(Note the spelling - Lee MARTIN)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Week of Movie Watching

A slow week.

Diary of a Country Priest – Robert Bresson’s 1950 examination of a dying priest who tries to maintain his faith in the face of scorn and mistrust amongst his parishioners. Bresson’s films are never easy to get inside of, and this one is more difficult than most. The priest, like all of Bresson’s characters says little, and the viewer has to meet him more than halfway. I liked this one, but I can’t quite put it in the same class as my favorite Bresson films, A Man Escaped and L’Argent.

Ned Kelly – This is the Mick Jagger one from 1970, directed by Tony Richardson. I liked this overall, my main quibble being Jagger’s obvious discomfort with an Irish accent. It’s wonderfully photographed, and Kelly’s Robin Hood-esque story is interesting. Waylon Jennings does the soundtrack.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Soundtrack

The film is Pete Kelly's Blues, and the performer is the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

My Week of Movie Watching

The Taking of Pelham 123 – If this movie is on, I’ll watch it every time. Pelham creates great tension not with gunplay and explosions, but rather with plot and great supporting performances, from the likes of Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and the great Robert Shaw. When Walter Matthau has been dead for 100 years, they will still use this film’s closing image when they talk about him. Kinda interested to see the remake, too.

Raise the Red Lantern – Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s majestic tale of the experiences of a girl (Gong Li) who becomes the concubine of a wealthy man and butts heads with the other mistresses. I love how the master is not really ever seen here – He’s just a symbol. I also love how there isn't a firm sense of time period. That is by design, as Lantern is really about how mindless practices are passed down from generation to generation simply because they are "tradition." The cinematography is top-notch from start to finish - Rarely has color been used so effectively to add to the mood of a film. Very highly recommended.

The Scalphunters – Hard-to-pin-down Sydney Pollack film from 1968. Burt Lancaster is a trapper, and Ossie Davis is a runaway slave, and they band together to battle a gang of marauding scalphunters. That sentence makes this sound like a grim movie, and it is pretty violent in a couple of spots, but it’s really a comedy more than anything. Lancaster and Davis have some funny scenes together, and Shelly Winters gets some laughs as the girl of head scalphunter Telly Savalas. Still, it’s just a so-so watch.

It Happened One Night – I’m not sure how a self-confessed film snob gets to his 48th year without seeing this film. This one was fun – A lot of fun. Clark Gable is just terrific as a down-on-his-luck reporter who accidentally hooks up with heiress-on-the-run Claudette Colbert. I loved the impish way that the film bats around the topic of sex, especially in it’s final moments. I’m not a fan of a lot of the stuff in the “screwball comedy” genre, but I heartily recommend this one.

The Marquee

a.k.a. The Mummy, 1959

Monday, June 01, 2009


Dear Mr. Hitchcock,

Hi, sorry to bug you, but I just wanted to drop you a note. I thought of you the other night while I was watching this movie. It’s called Bound, and it’s pretty clever in the way that it borrows some little touches from you. The directors are a couple of brothers named Andy and Larry Wachowski, and they’ve crafted a brilliant twisty thriller here. I know you never got around to making a movie about a pair of larcenous lesbians, so consider that to have been rectified.

The thieving pair meets in the first seconds of the movie. Corky (Gina Gershon) is an ex-con just out of prison and working as a handyman. Violet (Jennifer Tilly) is a gangster’s moll, and they first lay eyes on each other as they enter an elevator together. Violet strikes you immediately as a woman who has always used sex to get what she wants, and there’s no mistaking the fact that she fixates on Corky right away.

And wouldn’t you know it – They are next-door neighbors! It doesn’t take long for Violet to come over with a cup of coffee, and again, she’s on the prowl. Her body language is unmistakable – She stands as close as she can to Corky while making flirty small talk. Y’know what? It was a bit like Tippy Hedren hitting on Rod Taylor at the start of The Birds. For her part, Corky is not unreceptive, but she is more guarded.

The second visit is where things really get moving. Violet comes over ostensibly to get help retrieving an earring from a drain. The fact that she is wearing lingerie tells Corky that she is there for more than just plumbing, and the two fall into each others arms.

There’s a third major character that we haven’t really met yet. That would be Violets’ gangster boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). Caesar was in that elevator, too, but there was nothing about him to draw attention. When we meet him for the second time, it’s when he almost walks in on Violet and Corky in a clinch. He initially mistakes Corky for a man. This scene is funny, but it also reveals him as being quick-tempered and dangerous, as we will soon see.

I thought of you during the scene when Caesar and a couple of others torture a gang accountant. It all happens in the bathroom of Caesar’s apartment, and Corky hears the whole thing through the wall. First, she hears the muffled sounds of a struggle, then we see the water jiggle in her toilet. Then we see a splash of blood, as the action switches to the other bathroom. It’s a beautifully set up scene, one of many in this film.

The accountant, it turns out, has stolen 2 million dollars from the mob, that’s why he was getting worked over in that bathroom. Violet goes to Corky one night with the idea to steal the money. Corky thinks that this is suicidal, and says so, but as Violet talks, the idea starts to become more possible. They hatch a plan where they will steal the money, and frame one of the gangsters for it. Caesar will have to run, since the mob will believe HE stole it. It sounds perfect.

This, Mr. Hitchcock, is where I really start to love Bound. As Corky explains the mechanics of the robbery, we see the actual event play out for us, and it all goes according to plan. Up to a point. The problem is that instead of running, Caesar thinks he can work his way out of it. This culminates in an astonishing sequence where Caesar has three dead men in his apartment and the cops in the elevator on the way up, and he somehow manages to bluff his way through it.

Do you remember that great sequence in Strangers on a Train where Robert Walker drops the lighter down the sewer grate, and although he’s the bad guy, we end up WANTING him to recover it? It’s part of what you once said about transferring our sympathy to the bad guy. – Playing the audience like a fiddle. Well, the Wachowskis do it here, too. After Caesar hastily re-arranges the apartment and hides the three bodies in the shower, he seems to be home free. Then, one of the cops asks to use the bathroom, and as he relieves himself, we (but not him) see blood dripping on the floor. Again, we suddenly realize that we want him to get away with it.

Watching Pantolione as Caesar try to frantically worm his way out of this mess is an absolute delight. It would have been easier for him to just run like the women wanted, but he’s smart, stubborn, and nervy. Hell, he even meets the cops with a gun tucked into the back of his pants. No damn way is he taking the fall for this, and his mind never stops working. It’s a brilliant performance.

This whole drama, of course, is being listened to by Corky from the next apartment, and Caesar exposes the plot in a brilliant little set piece. I’m not going to give you any details, just to tell you that it involves a redial button. I could have easily seen you coming up with that one, Mr. Hitch. I could have also seen you dreaming up the sequence with Caesar and the white paint at the film’s climax.

So, as you can see, you were a pretty good teacher. Bound uses a lot of the methods that you used, but it doesn’t rely on them. The movie just emerges naturally as a taut thriller – It never feels like a gimmicky homage.

Well, I guess I’ve kept you long enough. I got some other stuff I should do, and then I might just sit down and watch Strangers on a Train again. Take care. We miss you down here.