Archive for the ‘1950s’ Category

The Baron of Arizona (Samuel Fuller, 1950)

Vincent Price just rocks as James Reavis, an ambitious and motivated (to say beyond the least) forger and con-man willing to go to downright stupefying lengths to acquire the entire territory of Arizona through fraudulent land claims and lineages. The first portion of this film is a spectacle of deranged tenacity on Reavis’ part that would require an incredible suspension of disbelief if this weren’t, incredibly, based on a true story. Reavis finds an unassuming girl from the backwoods of Arizona and culture-fies her, in a kind of foul twist on My Fair Lady to groom his own unknowingly fake heiress to a vast Spanish legacy with whom he can marry into the rights to Arizona itself, creates fake messages in stones, and goes so far as to spend years – years! – at a Spanish convent going through all the rites of becoming a monk, just so he can eventually find a brief opportunity to alter a land grant in the library to further validate his fictitious family tree. It’s an impossibly complex and ambitious scheme, and most if not all of the fun of this film is derived from trying to get into the head of this man, as you can’t help but think, is acquiring Arizona worth this staggering amount of deceit and risk? He’s well-spoken, charming, obviously intelligent, and apparently a man of means, able to afford a years-long trip to Spain as if it’s a trip to the supermarket, surely that’s enough to build a respectable life? If anything, you can’t help but admire his ambition and drive, even if that ambition and drive are completely deceitful and self-serving. You get the feeling that he is simply reveling in the process, in putting his admittedly incredible skills of forgery and duplicity to work, rather than looking towards the end-game of essentially becoming the king of a vast desert, and indeed, Vincent Price excels at this, his combination of suavity and humility completely fooling both his fellow monks and his ward-turned-wife, while a certain degree of sliminess reminds us of the sheer immorality behind it all. We dare not root for this ruthless snake, all while we almost must root for him nonetheless, just to see whether this impossibly cruel, impossibly incredible scheme can actually come to fruition.

As in-his-element as Reavis seems while putting this ridiculous scheme together, he seems just as out-of-his-element, and utterly lost, once he’s gotten what he wanted. And so too does the film itself lose its way. I was having a blast watching Vincent Price act the snake, charming his way through forged documents and using rube-like monks as his playthings, but then as heavy became the head that wore the crown and stereotypically redneckish displaced landowners and the bland common girl-turned-baroness (whose undying devotion to her husband is both baffling and irritating…if we the anonymous viewers of a film can see the reptilian underside of this Baron of Arizona, surely his own wife can, after a while…) and the government powers-that-be who smell a rat replaced the fascinating James Reavis as the focal point of the narrative, things got more conventional, and interest is lost. To compound that, Fuller cheats and gets a bit lazy in his storytelling, using a bunch of wealthy old white guys sitting in a parlor to reflect on the life and times of James Reavis and narrate the proceedings and give us a rather needless guide to what we’re seeing with our own eyes (although, to be fair, their explaining Reavis’ backstory at the film’s outset was helpful). But, at the very least, most of the footage of these men is set at a fixed mid-angle shot, not all that close to these men and indeed with some of their backs turned to the camera, making these indistinguishable wealthy old white guys seem even more indistinguishable and wealthy and old and white – pretty much the polar opposite of Vincent Price’s Reavis, who literally emerges from the rain one night and works his degenerate ass off to get to the top, only to in all likelihood stick out like a sore thumb in the presence of men such as these – a dark mirror image of the American dream. His eventual shot at redemption feels like all kinds of false and unsuitable and reeks of Hollywood conventions at the time demanding a, if not happy then at least tidy, ending. But, at least his clear and somewhat amusing surprise at such an outcome leads to all kinds of opportunity for speculation about his character. He clearly knows he’s a shameless scoundrel, but whether he’s actually repentant or merely relieved is a fun question to ask during an otherwise disappointing conclusion to a film that started with great promise.

Advertisements

Decision at Sundown (Budd Boetticher, 1957)

I had a big, steaming pile of pre-ordered hate for this in anticipation of all the classical western clichés I’ve come to expect.  I hated how the lone hero rode into town for the 837042184732nd time (although this time around to murder his adversary on that adversary’s wedding day – a surprisingly morbid twist on the formula), I hated how the few female characters were personality-less bartering chips for the 870431497325th time, I hated how Bart insisting on paying for his own whiskey and Sheriff Swede insisting that Bart keep his money led to the same 10 minute dick size contest I’ve seen in so many classical westerns, I hated how the hero’s motivation was, what else, revenge.  I hated Bart, the prototypical anti-hero out for revenge.  But then I realized, where so many classical westerns have simply left me apathetic and I forget about them the morning after, Bart and Decision at Sundown inspired a real negative reaction from me, which alone had to be worth something.  And then when I thought harder, and Bart stubbornly stuck to his blind lust for revenge when the world was trying to convince him it wasn’t worth it for so many reasons, I realized that I didn’t hate Bart himself; I hated his desire for revenge, as if even he didn’t fully buy his incapacitating need to avenge his dead wife, but rather needed to fulfill that silly archetype of getting revenge, to prove his manhood to himself, and to his dead wife who we soon find out had every reason to disregard and be apathetic to that manhood.  Kimbrough, the tacit dictator of the little town of Sundown, and Sheriff Swede, the Darth Vader to Kimbrough’s Emperor, may be monstrous, but so too is Bart: his mindlessly destructive need for violent revenge, his embracing of every masculine stereotype that so infuriated me the cynical viewer, his (willful?) blindness to the true nature of she who is is to be avenge, his disregard for how his personal quest for an ultimately empty murder affects his friends and allies in Sundown, to the point where his noble intentions aren’t noble at all; they’re as greedy and egotistical as Kimbrough’s.  That hero and villain are essentially the same shade of gray from the outset, the only difference being that one hides behind the veneer of dignity and worthiness while the other doesn’t care what anyone thinks and is beyond (and not worth) saving, show that this here’s more than the typical cliché-ridden Western, where that villain not worth saving might just have to be for the hero to save himself.  And all that is played out in an economically tense standoff with Bart and his buddy holed up in the livery stable while the townspeople become increasingly disillusioned with what’s become of their town under Kimbrough.  The sermonizing of those townspeople at the bar while Bart is holed up across the street could’ve been lame, but wasn’t.  Hell, these people’s coming together and collective waking-up rivaled, dare I say, the similar townspeople’s collective awakening towards a common goal at the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  Both they, and their representative Bart, wake up to the fact that they don’t have put up with this insecure asshole Kimbrough, that a wrong doesn’t have to be righted with a bullet, that they’re in a movie that questions all those masculinity-driven Western stereotypes by putting them on display and leaving viewers like me to be disgusted with them and reflect why they’re so disgust-worthy.  Great movie!

9/10

Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner, 1958)

Scorsese included this in this article/list he compiled of his favorite gangster/crime movies, saying that it was one of his primary influences for “Taxi Driver,” and from the opening minutes, that’s more than obvious. The protagonist, Claude, spends all day every day in his room, working out, pacing about, and every other solitary motion, much like Travis Bickle years later. In this case, Claude is waiting for a call from a prospective employer, that particular employ being assassin. No explanation is really given as to why Claude wants to kill people professionally, as we first see him requesting an unannounced audience with his potential, surprised employer, claiming this is just a new career direction he’d like to take and nothing more. I liked that about Claude. He’s introduced as a nice little blank slate, a loner with a tunnel-vision for self-betterment, whose only real difference from Travis Bickle is that he actually has a career ambition. As the film progresses, there’s less of a downright fetishistic focus on the protagonist’s daily, isolated routine than in the likes of “Taxi Driver” or Melville’s “Le Samourai”, making much more use of dialogue than those two films, or rather, monologue. Claude sure likes to talk a lot, and in that talk, he sure does like to project how highly he sees himself as a killer and as god’s gift to the human race, much to the chagrin of his two exasperated handlers / colleagues overseeing the particular job that takes up the bulk of the film. Moments like this drag the film’s pacing some – more often than not I just wanted to see Claude put his money where his mouth is – and overall there’s a weirdly comic tone to the whole proceedings, from the lively music to Claude’s two bumbling companions to Claude’s unexpected and darkly humorous failures in accomplishing this job, that’s sometimes compellingly satirical and sometimes just plain strange and off-putting and inappropriate. Nevertheless, Claude’s an interesting character to observe, even if we’re not directly observing the moment he’s getting paid for, as director Irving Lerner wisely – and innovatively – hints here and there at the fate of Claude’s victims, so that the killings themselves are either just off-screen or right after a scene cuts. It’s all about the preparation and the motions and the lonely lifestyle itself – an emphasis that in my opinion is put to better use in films like the aforementioned “Le Samourai”, for instance, but nevertheless raises “Murder for Contract” slightly higher than the B-exploitation film it could have been. Instead, I won’t say that it’s a character study since Claude remains so distant and mysterious – playful and mischievous one minute, terrifyingly serious the next – despite showing off his gift of gab, but rather a study of a day or two in a life. He says he objects to killing a woman because they’re too unpredictable, and thus demands double pay…is he really that callous and resentful of women, or is he trying to hide some kind of moralistic chivalry from his two partners to try to project the laid-back tough guy persona he seems to hold so dear? We’ll probably never know, he’s that attentive to concentrating on the job and his craft alone and emotionally divorcing himself from his victims for the sake of business, despite leading his partners on a days-long goose chase of fun ‘n sun throughout the city (for a very important reason, as we eventually discover), so maybe he did put his money where his mouth was after all.

7.5/10

Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959)

The spectacularly-choreographed and shot pickpocketing sequences in the likes of subways and train cars and such, and Michel’s spoken beliefs concerning theoretical supermen who should be free from the constraints of laws and society-induced morals, make you think that this is like “Pickup on South Street” or “Rope”, respectively, if those two films took themselves much more seriously than they actually do, but “Pickpocket” is so much more than a more depressing, less fun version of “Pickup” or “Rope”, and to arbitrarily group it with those films, or any other type of film for that matter, is unfair.  For one thing, even though the opening message informs us that the film is not meant to be a thriller, it certainly has outstanding thriller elements – quite a few times I was at the edge of my seat and unable to swallow my saliva as a nervous Michel’s hand moved ever-so-slowly towards his mark’s wallet-filled pocket (oh, and the train station sequence, in which Michel and his accomplices go to town, using the station and its patrons as their own personal playground, was absolutely ludicrous and farfetched, but absolutely, absolutely incredible and fun to watch, the way Bresson focuses so much more on hands and fluid closeups of those hands in action than on faces or bodies in motion.  This is how to film a cinematic set-piece…of any kind).  And the sign of a pretty great film, and a pretty greatly-realized protagonist?  Even though he’s pretty much scum – refuses to see his dying mother, rebuffs the attention and advice of the kindly and beautiful Jeanne (at least for the most part…it’s the evolving relationship between Michel and Jeanne that I couldn’t get into, leading to the ending that turned out to be one of my few gripes about the film), makes philosophical excuse after excuse for his crimes and egotistical claim after claim for why he, this petty rat of a thief living in a dusty shithole, is superior to those around him – I was hoping and praying he’d succeed in his crime and getting away scott-free without his victim finding out.  Perhaps that was merely because I knew the movie would be much less interesting if he was caught in the first five minutes, but regardless, Michel’s clear talents and even clearer flaws are oddly endearing, and whether his superman theories and claims of moral and intellectual superiority are genuine, or merely a way to hide his immense insecurities, he’s a great, flawed anti-hero.  In this short, 75-minute film about this insignificant nobody who steals chump change and wristwatches, it’s remarkable how telling it is of the concept of addiction and vices in general.  The relatively emotionless, outwardly arrogant, inwardly insecure, unable-to-stop Michel could be any one of us, revolving his or her life around a compulsion – alcohol, drugs, pornography, food, stealing, lying, or what have you – a compulsion he or she may not even enjoy, and in fact may loathe, but is so ingrained in their daily routine that they’ll make every excuse and every justification to continue doing that thing, to the point that that action defines them more than anything else.  With that in mind, Bresson’s well-known technique of wiping recognizable emotion from his actors arguably serves an added purpose here, as Michel, who’s ordinary and unassuming enough to be an ordinary and unassuming contributor to society, allows the act of opening jacket buttons and grabbing some spare change to define who he is.  His Bressonian blank face, then, is not just a means of acting natural as he commits his crimes so as to not get caught, but is also, like his Nietzschean Superman description of himself, a mask indicative of the dehumanized husk that he’s allowed himself to become.  I felt no sympathy for Michel when considering how he willingly allows himself to become this kind of person, and yet at the same time, I couldn’t help but sympathize, and identify, and attach a piece of myself to him.  Bresson nailed it.

9/10

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

It’s obvious why J.J. Hunsecker is such a famous film character, nearly as much because of when he isn’t on screen as when he is. He’s not officially introduced until forever into the film, spoken about until then like this sexually ambiguous/incestuous/nonexistent gossip columnist is a fucking god or something, and then when he is introduced there’s a severe hard-lighting on his face so that he’s like Two-Face or something, and then for every scene he’s in after that every word that comes out of his mouth is like shit-flavored candy…and Burt Lancaster has top billing even though Tony Curtis might have twice as much screen time. In fact, pretty much all of the screenplay was like shit-flavored candy: sounded awfully pretty, but completely and utterly ridiculous and like nothing you would ever hear in the real world, even in 1957, I’m presuming, which is why I just wasn’t buying J.J. Hunsecker, and this movie in general. I guess some of the dynamics between Burt Lancaster’s Hunsecker and Tony Curtis’ Sidney Falco were kind of interesting in a sense of dueling degrees of depravity – Hunsecker the ice-cold monster, the Lucifer who thinks he’s able to manipulate the world around him and everyone in it just by twitching his finger, and Falco as Hunsecker’s lapdog, willing to do anything to please the man, a step below William Holden’s full-on jigolo-ing for Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. But that relationship was pretty much the only interesting part here (that, and the lovely visuals of bustling New York at night) – otherwise Lancaster is so ice-cold and emotionally sterile that it defeats the purpose of having an ice-cold and emotionally sterile anti-hero / villain, Susan Harrison is worthless and boring as Hunsecker’s sister, in what pretty much amounts to a poor man’s Scarface-esque brother/sister relationship, as is whoever played her boy-toy who’s the victim of Hunsecker’s jealous mudslinging. Speaking of, that whole scheme that Hunsecker hatches and Falco puts into motion like a hyperactive yes-man is convoluted to the point of being boring when you just lose all interest in following what the hell’s going on. Hunsecker and Falco had the potential to be great movie characters, but the only semblance of that potential that I could see was a skeletal philosophical framework of their bizarre master/servant, greed/greed-lite relationship, buried in a disappointing narrative that had me awfully tempted to check my e-mail and shit while I was watching (I resisted the urge).

6/10

Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957)

Really awesome, and the dynamic between Richard Burton and Curd Jürgens (even if Jürgens totally fails as an actor…) is like a non-shitty version of the Berenger/Dafoe dynamic in Platoon, only this time the murderous tendencies arise because one doesn’t want to be labeled a coward, and such a seemingly trivial label makes the dynamic that much more disturbing. Even though the film’s last image made me roll my eyes a little, and overall the film can’t compare to far-superior Men-trapped-in-the-desert movies like Yellow Sky and The Lost Patrol, it’s still a solid, exciting effort from Ray, more of a straight genre film than I’ve been used to from him, but still instilled with those themes of the importance placed on being manly/dominant in the eyes of others, and all that good stuff.

8/10

The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952)

I wish I had known beforehand that this was actually about Selznick and Lewton and all those weird-ass early Hollywood people (and, for that matter, that I could’ve figured it out without reading a review or two just now, at which point the lightbulb finally went off in my head. Shame on me for not being more receptive to that and just figuring it out on my own, especially since “THIS IS MEANT TO SHOW HOW LEWTON TURNED CAT PEOPLE FROM NOTHING INTO SOMETHING” was practically flashing in lights ), then I probably would’ve gotten something more out of this, like a clever history lesson or something. As it stands, though, this was quite good. Some images/moments were unexpectedly fascinating, like Kirk Douglas paying strangers $11 to attend his unliked father’s funeral, or Lana Turner’s creepy yet sad legs-only introduction in that dilapidated house. After that I gradually started losing interest and getting bored, but even then I can’t deny that this was a clever, insightful look at the film industry and how it seemingly has more backstabbing and scheming than the Caesars of ancient Rome. Even though the why-we-hate-him flashback structure wasn’t exactly original, nor were the occasional cut-backs to the present so the head of the studio could give his flashback de-briefings of sorts explaining how Shields made these people in terms of money and fame but ruined them emotionally, it was a nice little way to ironically explain how fame and fortune aren’t everything in this world. Like Citizen Kane, this movie shows Jonathan Shields solely in flashback, from scorned others’ completely subjective points of view, making him an unknowable enigma (another instance where an unreliable narrator proves to be an effective storytelling tactic), and perhaps for that reason, the writer, the director, the star, and the candlestick maker know all too well that fame-and-fortune-ain’t-everything message, while the only one who’s still out of the loop is the guy pathetically trying to make that phone call from Paris.

I just wish this was a little more attention-grabbing and didn’t peter out towards the end, especially since the story of the writer, his starstruck wife, Gaucho and that plane had the potential to be the most interesting and tragic of the three and to really put Shields at the point of no return of losing the last shreds of his soul, but overall I have few complaints

7.5/10

The Lower Depths (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

Unexpectedly, I kinda, sorta loved this.  At the very least, it was a hell of a lot better than Renoir’s version (and I liked Renoir’s version), primarily because SO much more of Kurosawa’s was devoted to fleshing out the so-called side characters, rather than sticking to one plot.  Toshiro Mifune may have top billing (and as you’d expect, he’s in full-on lowered chin, bulging eyes, restrained yelling, retracting-his-arm-into-his-shirt-sleeve-so-he-can-scratch-his-chest Mifune mode as the thief and de-facto leader of the poor tenants of that shitty little tenement), but to my extreme surprise, especially after watching Renoir’s film, his ‘main’ story, of the thief having an affair with the malicious landlord’s even more malicious wife while pining for her kindly yet physically abused sister, is only touched upon briefly, at best.  Sure it’s the catalyst for the film’s raucous climax, as all the tenants come together for a common goal with a kind of sloppy camaraderie that reminded me of the climax from, of all films, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” two decades later, but regardless, Kurosawa makes this film not about a beginning-to-end plot, but about a certain day or two in the life of a tenement, and those who live in it.

The entire film takes place in either the filthy shared living space or the not-much-better courtyard, and hell, you go at least the first 30 minutes before even seeing Mifune.  It’s all about character development, allowing characters like the actor in the last stages of alcoholism, the whore, the cynically apathetic man and his dying wife, the degenerate who claims to be from a line of regal samurai, the pudgy, humorless dick of the group, and others to just go about their miserable lives and make do with the only thing they can honestly say they have: their own company.  Obviously they’re all clichéd character types, made even more clichéd when you consider the behavior of some, like the dying wife’s moans of agony that made me laugh more than cry, but somehow Kurosawa makes it work.  Renoir’s film had similar characters that more or less went through the same story arc, both films being based on Maxim Gorky’s play, but the difference is that these characters in Renoir’s film were the window dressing, the supporting players, the background for the main emphasis on the story of the thief, his love, and his lover.  In Kurosawa’s film, they are the emphasis, as the first 30 minutes, at least, throw us into a day in their life.  As far as I remember, there was very little by way of exposition – just these grimy yet optimistic people talking about random shit, endearingly and playfully mocking each other’s shortcomings, and gravitating into and out of the set, much like a stage play.  Only rarely do they truly bemoan their situation, and even then with a twinge of optimism and playfulness.  After all, they’re all in the same boat, so what complaint could any one of them lodge that could just as easily go unsaid yet completely understood?  As a result of that, giving us that unusually long amount of time to soak in that set and the characters, this place feels much more lived in, much more alive, much more real than Renoir’s tenement, to the point that the men’s sudden breaking out into a full-on song and dance number, about as perfectly choreographed as that scene of the native men doing their chant in “Baraka,” feels, against all odds, like a fresh slice of life.  Even in the monstrously over-theatrical world of a Kurosawa film, a moment like this would be considered beyond the realm of reasonable possibility, but I had no reason to complain.  It was a welcome distraction from the misery of that tenement and its sickly conditions, for me and for the men doing the dance.  Whatever it was, it definitely put a smile on my face.

And it’s funny, perhaps the most clichéd of all the characters, the mysterious old man who arrives at the tenement one day and becomes the makeshift wise grandfatherly figure for everyone there, the character who arguably drives the ‘plot’ forward even more than Mifune’s thief, is a welcome breath of fresh air, a kind of greek chorus and voice of reason and stand-in for the viewer – he, like we, are arriving in this tiny place and meeting its people not knowing what to expect.  And that’s quite an accomplishment considering the actor playing this mysterious yet sagely and admirable old man (at least until the climax and denouement, when his behavior becomes both suspect and morally disappointing), Bokuzen Hidari, played the long-faced, pathetic (and wonderful) embodiment of comic relief Yohei in “Seven Samurai.”  I’d say that this old man is the so-called main character, the driving force that unites the men and women in the tenement simply by sitting there and observing the random goings-on and occasionally offering a word or two of advice or wisdom (more like straight-up logic…), and yet Bokuzen Hidari gets 13th billing according to IMDB.  Guess his wrinkly, horse-like face isn’t enough to take down the handsome, athletic, screen-commanding presence of arguably Japan’s most famous screen actor ever, so what’re you gonna do?

Kurosawa’s “The Lower Depths” goes above and beyond Renoir’s in so many ways, and not just in terms of quality.  Its downs, its feelings of physical filth and emotional despair, are stifling at times, while at the same time making full use of a surprising abundance of comic relief – highs and lows both present, but in a much more diluted way in Renoir’s film.  That surprising abundance of both anguish and humor tell me one thing – that Kurosawa is indeed trying full well to depict the tough life of the lower class, how even with an infusion of optimism it’s often an inescapable road to nowhere, but with a much more cynical and darkly humorous worldview than Renoir’s.  After considering what feels like a tacked on and frankly ridiculous overly-happy ending to Renoir’s film, you wanna know how Kurosawa isn’t taking this material too seriously, how his understanding of the plight of those in the lower depths is tinged with biting, fresh cynicism and his vaguely sarcastic combination of optimism and pessimism doesn’t feel artificial or contrived like Renoir’s?  The very last line of this film, and the way it’s delivered before a sudden and jarring cut to “The End”, says it all.

8.5/10

Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955)


My erection was THIS big last night.  Thanks, Cialis!

In his Great Movies article, Ebert says that it’s at the point where Morten and Peter, the two old Hatfield/McCoy, Montague/Capulet-like patriarchs of their respective families of differing dogmatic sects of Christianity in a small farming community, sit down to air out their differences in the wake of Peter turning down Morten’s son Anders’ request for Peter’s daughter’s hand in marriage, that “the film has taken its grip.  We will not be able to look away again until the end, and we will think of nothing else.”  Having wisely waited to read this article until after watching the film after I made the mistake of reading first with another film, resulting in my high expectations being dashed, I was stunned at how Ebert’s reaction matched my own to a T, for at this scene, where Peter quite literally wishes death upon Morten’s in-labor and gravely ill daughter-in-law so that Morten can see the light of fundamentalist Christianity and Morten proceeds to tell Peter to go to hell, a lightbulb went on in my head, and where I was bored before, at this point I was riveted. Before this point, I was bored to death. Nothing but people walking slower than the mad son Johannes speaks (I was particularly amused when the doctor was adamant that they must act quickly to save the pregnant Inger’s life, and then proceeds to walk slower than molasses to go get a tool for that life-saving procedure 😆 ) (and Johannes speaking his prophecies believing himself to be Jesus = ), people discussing theological issues all philosophical-like as if they’ve never actually discussed such things before even though they’ve lived under the same roof their entire lives, and these people speaking such things while staring off into space, like…

eye contact, people!   Seriously, they might as well be drooling with how catatonic they look while discussing such lofty issues as how prayer can only work when true faith is attached, or whether miracles are possible, or anything else God-related. In other words, God, God, God, God, God. Bored the hell out of me, like a poor man’s Bergman.

But then, once the two patriarchs take off the gloves and do the ultimate no-no, insulting each other’s religious beliefs, shit gets real. The movie’s no longer a series of plotless, mindnumbing philosphical/theological lectures that you’d hear in a seminary or a college course, but a real place with real people rather than Dreyer’s personal religious mouthpieces, with a very real, very serious issue at stake, as the life of the Borgen family’s beloved Inger hangs in the balance. The long night as the doctor works on Inger and the family waits is long and drawn out in agonizing detail and suspense, and the dread of the family is completely palpable. As Inger’s husband Mikkel stays by her side, Morten paces and wrings his hands, and the mad Johannes laments that nobody will listen to his prophecy of Inger’s death and resurrection as his little niece believes him and tries to comfort him (depicted in an impressive shot as the camera does almost a full 360 around the two, the little girl holding Johannes with warmth but also nearly sexual and incestuous implications. Very breathtaking, very sweet, somewhat disturbing scene). Suddenly, these peoples’ lives aren’t an aimless series of religious arguments, but entirely centered on this one important event, so that all the boring, lifeless discussions before now have a context and a specific event to attach all those implications to. Even if my non-religious ass considered the ending complete hogwash and ‘what-the-fuck’-esque (Dreyer may’ve used the G-word as often as Bergman did, but that’s where the similarities end.  Dreyer’s film is to faith as any one of Bergman’s is to atheism), the combination of a lack of any type of musical score, amazingly low-key and unobtrusive cinematography, and real smiles and real tears where once there was stiff acting on par with a medieval morality play, made the second half of this film equally joyous and devastating. Every conceivable human emotion is in these 45 or so minutes of cinema…and that’s just after a first viewing where I was zoning out like crazy for the duration of the film’s first half.  I can’t begin to imagine how much more rewarding a rewatch will be, and it just goes to show that I’m probably not giving the first half the credit it deserves…after all, how could I be so riveted in the second half and care so much about what happens to these people if the first half didn’t somehow do its job perfectly?

My favorite scene in the film, lasting no more than a minute or two, involves a bishop and the doctor sitting on a couch, amiably and intelligently discussing what contributed more to a minor miracle that has just occurred, the bishop’s prayer or the doctor’s skill as a physician (asking Morten to settle the debate, the old man pridefully sides with the bishop and asserts that faith and prayer did it. Although I myself am not at all religious and therefore couldn’t completely buy into this film’s subject matter, seeing the previously despair-ridden and shellshocked Morten have his faith reaffirmed in this moment was incredibly rewarding). As far as I can remember, of all the moments of religious debate and discussion in this film, this was the only one in which the participants actually made eye contact and were actually speaking, you know, normally, and it really made me think about the role of faith, if any, in an increasingly secular and science-driven world.  My only disappointment when this film was over was that the ending seemed to try to put a single, authoritative answer to this question, when moments like the thought-provoking yet satirical and darkly funny argument between Morten and Peter, two sides of a dogmatic coin, as well as Morten’s later embracing of faith after a seeming miracle, argue both against and for organized religion respectively.  Hell, the proclamations of Johannes alone can be read either way, as his insistence that prayer must be infused with faith to be effective rings true by film’s end, while the humorous way he speaks can be read as an easy criticism of religion.  This film was rife for a deep consideration of organized religion and faith, and really does seem to weigh both sides of the argument, but I would’ve at least wanted some ambiguity by the time it was over.  Still, it’s pretty ironic that when similar discussions about the use or lack thereof of faith between, say, an old man and his daughter-in-law, or a father and son, or a mad uncle and his inquisitive niece, were stilted and artificial, the one between a bishop and a doctor, quite literally the archetypes of faith and science, turned out to be the most believable and grounded in reality.

8.5/10

Los olvidados (Luis Buñuel, 1950)

So, I guess Buñuel tries his hand at Neorealism…that is, until a a really trippy dream involving chickens and a bully rising up from beneath the bed reminds us that this is, indeed, a Buñuel film. Other than that and other faintly off-kilter Buñuel touches like the blind man rubbing a pidgeon across a woman’s bare back, this was probably the most grounded-in-reality film of Buñuel’s that I’ve seen, which is both something of a breath of fresh air, as well as a disappointment in that with this guy at the helm, this could’ve been something a lot more, shall we say, interesting. Oh well, can’t have it both ways, obviously. As it stands, this was pretty good, I guess. I’ve certainly seen significantly better kids-in-the-shithouse-and-having-to-fend-for-themselves-and-develop-a-rugged-street-mentality movies – The 400 Blows, Salaam Bombay, and City of God to name a few – and I was surprised how preachy this got in certain spots, especially with those idealistic speeches by the rather saintly school principal (Buñuel’s certainly been preachy in other films about the hypocrisy of a class system, but usually that message has been inherent in the satirical material of films like The Exterminating Angel or Belle de jour, not spoken outright here, all Hawks’ “Scarface”-esque). Also, the dichotomy and feud between the troubled young protagonist Pedro and the vicious Jaibo was a little too much – in other words, the grungy, rugged nature of these kids was played up a little too obviously for my taste. But, Buñuel was never one for complete and utter realism or subtlety, so overall this film’s mix of (neo)realism and little oddities here and there, albeit in a rather derivative and predictable setting and story (although many of the plot elements, like Pedro being sent away to a juvie-like school, was used by films like The 400 Blows after Los olvidados, so maybe I should be criticizing those later films for being unoriginal, but eh, I think they did ’em better, so…), is pretty interesting. Good, could’ve been better.

7.5/10