Archive for the ‘1950s’ Category

La ronde (Max Ophüls, 1950)

I wish I could have Anton Walbrook narrate my life and fuck with people so that my tryst with a beautiful woman could go as smoothly as possible

I had little use for the stories themselves – their interconnectedness made them SO convoluted after a while that I just stopped caring and didn’t bother to keep track of who everyone was and what was going on (although the one involving Simone Simon’s (  ) maid and the man she works for was charming and sultry enough…). All that mattered was Walbrook, acting like a Rod Serling with benefits in not just overseeing the stories and being something of a Greek chorus, but being a jokester-like participant in them as well. I mean, that first uncut tracking shot as Walbrook changes wardrobe to reflect the time period, and the sun appears instantaneously and dissipates the fog, is absolutely remarkable (the cinematography as a whole was outstanding, with all those smooth, effortless tracking shots, although there were a few too many Dutch angles here and there – always a major pet peeve of mine), as was the way he’d, as I said, fuck with people with all his disguises and what-not so that the stories go the way they’re supposed to, and even guide some characters from one story into the next. Such a great and innovative breaking of the fourth wall, and such an endearing and charming and goofy and entertaining God-like narrator he made, he turned what I’d otherwise call a worthless bore of a film into something really, really worth watching.

 

Pull the string!  Pull the string!

 

7.5/10

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Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann, 1950)

When he was a little, little kid, maybe 6 or 7 years old, all my grandpa wanted was a Tom Mix gun, and sure enough some cereal or something was letting kids send in boxtops, and once you collected enough boxtops and sent ’em in they’d send you the Tom Mix gun. For weeks – hell, MONTHS – my grandpa made it his life’s mission to collect as many boxtops as he could, and finally, FINALLY, he collected enough and sent ’em in. For 6 to 8 weeks after that, he remained ever-vigilant at his mailbox waiting and waiting and waiting for that Tom Mix gun, and it still hadn’t come. One morning, his mom, my great-grandma, had enough and basically ordered him to go to school. However, as he was leaving, the mailman came, and sure enough, SURE ENOUGH, there it was – the Tom Mix gun. But, mom still ordered him to go to school, but assured him that his precious gun would be there waiting for him when he came home. Dismayed, but happy that it came, he complied. Hours later, he basically ran home as fast as he could to play with that Tom Mix gun, the thought of that gun racing through his head as his feet raced home. He finally gets home, opens the door, and…

his baby brother, my uncle Jimmy, had gotten his grubby little hands on it and had broken it in half, beyond repair. All that time, all that work, and the Tom Mix gun was now just dust in the wind.

Why do I tell this story, despite it having nothing to do with Winchester ’73 and that it sounds exactly like A Christmas Story, except that it was a Tom Mix gun instead of an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, and baby Jimmy broke it instead of little Ralphie shooting his eye out? I dunno, I guess I’m just trying to comprehend how an inanimate object like a gun, whether toy or otherwise, can be so important that both a little boy and grown cowboys would go to the ends of the earth, devote every ounce of their time and strength, and risk life and limb for it

Or the Winchester was just a MacGuffin to catalyze the eventual showdown between Jimmy Stewart and Stephen McNally, in which case my retelling that whole Tom Mix story was a waste of time. My bad

Anyway, yeah, the Winchester pretty much is just a MacGuffin for that showdown (you can see the ‘plot twist’, the true nature of Stewart and McNally’s relationship, a million miles away, but it’s still poignant and a nice development once it is revealed), albeit a MacGuffin with very, very phallic implications, and ever since taking Lit Theory in college I’m all about phallic symbols and works of fiction subtly dealing with gender symbols and gender roles .  In other words, this was cool. It started off amazingly, with the awesome, awesome shooting contest as the camera glides down the line of contestants, and of course the awesome outcome of that contest (cannot believe that shit with the postage stamp was real, but lo and behold IMDB tells me it’s real, so  ), which segues into a cool parallel story structure. Unfortunately I started to get bored and lose interest at a certain point, but overall this was still a highly entertaining whole. And Shelley Winters was actually attractive! Who knew she was actually attractive at a certain phase in her life?!

**SPOILER?**

…After writing all that, I finally realize how much art imitated life and how the story of my grandpa and uncle jimmy mirrors the brothers’ tale in “Winchester ’73” to a T. I feel a special kinship with this movie now. Maybe I should give it a bigger score ‘cuz of that. Nah, fuck it.

 

**END SPOILER?**

 

8/10

Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)

What a filmmaker this Nicholas Ray is!  What a gift he had for revealing, and inverting, society’s fallacies, gender roles, and prejudices through metaphor!  “Rebel Without a Cause” and “In a Lonely Place” so effortlessly depicted the oddities of gender roles and taboo as Ray really got under your skin, but “Johnny Guitar” may have bested those two, not just because it was an effective metaphor decrying McCarthyism, but because of its depiction of dominant, masculine women in a Western, perhaps the most masculine and male-driven of all genres traditionally.  True, Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, as saloon owner and cattle rancher respectively, and bitter enemies, really ham it up and ramp up the tell-tale signs of masculinity, to the point that McCambridge’s Emma completely emasculates her less than enthusiastic posse with her near-demonic vitriol of Crawford’s Vienna, but this is 1954, when Westerns still featured heroic gunmen and their damsels in distress, so maybe a bit of exaggeration was needed to get the role-reversal train rolling in the most difficult of genres with which to experiment with that type of thing. 

The film’s title refers to Sterling Hayden’s character (a sad and subtle Sterling Hayden!  Who knew?!), the guitar-strumming former gunslinger and former lover of Vienna hired to protect her and the saloon once she senses that Emma and her goons smell blood, but this isn’t his story.  Plenty of Westerns have dealt with feuds and the coming of the railroad (and thus modern society), but none that I can remember where that feud was between two women, but just as destined for violence and death as any other, and where the men, including the crack-shot Johnny Guitar, are more or less left on the sidelines.  The first big set-piece, a confrontation between Emma’s gang, Vienna, her lover the Dancin’ Kid who Emma accuses of robbing a stagecoach and killing her brother, and a spectating Johnny Guitar, is such a fascinating one, even if it’s nothing more than a bunch of men hurling corny Western-esque macho-isms at each other, basically comparing dick sizes (indeed, later on the Dancin’ Kid admits that he hopes the town finds out that he robbed the bank, just for the notoriety, like he needs that to be a man), while Vienna observes intently from her second-story perch.  They try to act tough, one of the Dancin’ Kid’s insulted goons basically telling Johnny to put up his dukes, but once Vienna speaks up and tells them to take it outside, everything stops and the men calmly walk through those swinging before slugging it out – they know who’s in charge (“I never met a woman who was more man,” the bartender tells Johnny). 

Johnny Guitar might have the résumé of a top-tier gunfighter and have a movie named after him, but once he enters Vienna’s Saloon, he’s basically her tool, her toy, the way the wimpy marshal and posse who dare to have a sliver of a conscience are the tools and toys of the viciously jealous and perpetually enraged Emma.  Later, when we finally learn of Johnny and Vienna’s tumultuous past together, when the cynical but amorous Johnny dares to try to show Vienna who has the pants in this relationship and to rekindle their romance, a fascinating back-and-forth ensues:

Johnny: Tell me something nice.


Vienna: Sure. What do you want to hear?


Johnny: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited …


Vienna: All these years I’ve waited.


Johnny: Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t come back.


Vienna: I would have died if you hadn’t come back.


Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.


Vienna: I still love you like you love me.


Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.

This puts a similar conversation in “Blade Runner,” in which the emasculated Deckard tries to exert the proverbial phallus upon the Replicant/non-woman Rachel by having her repeat ‘womanly’ phrases like “I want you” and “kiss me”, to shame.  Of course Vienna repeats these falsehoods halfheartedly, of course they aren’t true, and Johnny knows it – he just needed to hear her say it.  What a sad scene.  But Vienna just ain’t that kind of woman, even if she does love Johnny, which she does.  There are only two women in this film, and the last word you would ever use to describe either of them is ‘submissive.’

Now that Johnny’s failed at his attempt to come out on top and to pull the marionette strings, this is Vienna’s story through and through, namely her fight against the impossibly spiteful Emma.  There really is no rhyme or reason to how much hate Emma shows, despite the stock reason of the Dancin’ Kid possibly being responsible for her brother’s death and later a bank robbery, and thus Vienna being responsible-by-proxy, or her contempt for the coming railroad, for which Vienna stands to strike it rich and Emma uses fear tactics to try to convince the townspeople that they’ll be ruined (two words came to my mind as Emma made her frighteningly impassioned, xenophobic speech: Sarah Palin.  This movie wasn’t just a metaphor for 1954 society apparently, but a herald for 2009 as well…).  She’s just…evil, filled to her eyeballs with rage, and every ounce of that rage directed at Vienna.  On the surface, it’s because she wanted the Dancin’ Kid, who in turn wanted Vienna, so it’s all out of jealousy, but could Emma be in love with Vienna herself, and her inability to get what she wants because it’s societally unacceptable fuels her rage, causing her to despise that which she cannot have?  Stands to reason, considering how these two careen towards the Western-esque showdown so often reserved for the men while still retaining the romance-driven hopes and desires of women – the sexual ambiguity and dare I say, full-on bisexuality, bleeds from every pore of this film.  Just consider the astonishing scene in which Emma’s posse confronts Vienna in the saloon to demand that she give over the Dancin’ Kid, only to find her playing the piano, decked out in a regal white dress and calmly rebuking the fiery Emma.  Quite a difference from the no-bullshit Vienna we met earlier, dressed like a cowboy, overseeing her establishment from her high perch with that angry, scrunched up Joan Crawford face.  Who’s the real Vienna, the pants-wearing entrepreneur whose male employees obey her without a second thought, or the dress-wearing piano player who feigns ignorance, loves Johnny, and is easily overpowered by Emma’s mob, needing to be saved by Johnny in one of the film’s few moments of reliance on traditional Western gender conventions?  Maybe both.  Also helps that this scene is damned suspenseful and entertaining on its own as a great Western showdown, Vienna on one side, Emma and her posse, hands on holsters and slowly walking forward, on the other, with the sound of a piano punctuating the air as it would in any other saloon right before a potential shootout – just with typical conventions flipped, as it’s sexually ambiguous woman vs. insane and sexually jealous woman.  Vienna’s ambiguous, but boy, Emma ain’t.  You could criticize Mercedes McCambridge’s performance for being far too simplistic and overly-malevolent to the point of being hilarious, but I bought into it the way I bought into Walter Brennan’s performance as Old Man Clanton in “My Darling Clementine” – they’re like wild animals, with no shades of gray (at least in terms of Emma’s being a bitch; in terms of motivations, there are shades of gray up the wazoo), and in a metaphorical genre like a Western, that might be appropriate.  She’s so contemptible that I was fuming in that big showdown scene that she could cause so much bad to happen, as I’m sure many back then were fuming as people were mercilessly fingering others as Reds – the allegory isn’t exactly subtle here.  Vienna ain’t exactly a completely likable character in her own right, what with her obstinate stubbornness and Joan Crawford just being Joan Crawford, but compared to a woman like Emma, you can’t help but align yourself completely with Vienna and worry for her, one woman against an entire posse, a piano and sheer guts at her disposal instead of a gun. 

“Johnny Guitar” works as an entertaining as hell Western in its own right, with larger-than-life performances and gorgeous color and cinematography, even if the production skimped out with cheap-looking sets, but that doesn’t matter when a movie is as purely character-driven as this one is.  It’s also a political metaphor, and as a gender inverter, featuring an inevitable showdown between two uber-masculinized mega-bitches whose motivations are up in the air, and a mysterious guitar-strumming gunfighter who isn’t subservient to Vienna the way the woman would be subservient to the hero in another Western, but rather, her partner in crime.  He’s the supporting player (I guess “Vienna” just wasn’t a sexy enough movie title) while she takes center stage with more at stake for sure, but regardless, they need each other.  This film changed everything about gender roles and relations, and hardly anything at all.

9.5/10

In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

For the first 85 or so minutes of this film, I saw some great cinematography and captivating, eavesdropping-allowing sets (the prison-like bars in Bogart’s apartment, and then his and Gloria Grahame’s ability to spy each other from their respective windows across that wonderful courtyard, encapsulate this film’s themes in a nutshell), Bogart’s boozy failing screenwriter having testosterone pouring out of his ears and having a zinger for EVERYTHING (the Socratic Method was to answering a question with another question as the Bogartian Method was to answering a question with an impossibly clever comeback), the goofy little agent acting as the Gazoo to Bogart’s Fred Flinstone, a murder mystery, and Bogart striking up an unlikely romance with a beautiful woman amidst that mystery – the ingredients of a nice but not quite remarkable little noir that fit right with the others of its day.  I wanted to be Dixon Steele.

And in the final 10-15 minutes, the veil was lifted.  Even before this point, I was getting the sense that the murder mystery of the girl we think left Dix’s apartment before she was found dead the next morning was far from being at the forefront and was meant to be more of a psychological catalyst for the potential failure of Dix’s and Laurel’s romance and the return of Dix’s alcoholism and potentially violent nature, but not even that observation could prepare me for that agonizing and absolutely terrifying ending.  Suddenly, that ending turned a typical noirish film of its day was into a film YEARS ahead of its time in its depiction of an abusive relationship, and all the ingredients of such that we take for granted today from the testimonies of battered women on the Maury show (but he’s so sweet most of the time…).  The whole time it’s pretty obvious that Dix didn’t murder that girl, but despite all the evidence supporting his story, we still have that shred of doubt that Laurel has, and it’s all because behind that sudden zest to write again and the kisses and lovey-dovey words, he’s an insecure ticking time bomb, and any monkey can see that.  He’s still a good, likable person, but just has a deep and inexcusable flaw that it seems not even he can control, which is why we can still sympathize with him despite that temper that gets him in trouble more often than not, and why we can somewhat demonize Laurel for willingly putting herself in harm’s way by choosing to stay with him, despite clearly being the victim in this flawed relationship.  Both characters are sympathetic, and both are deplorable – don’t we all have our virtues and our vices.

By the end of this film, that murder mystery that would’ve been front and center in a lesser noir or lesser film altogether becomes completely irrelevant – Laurel even says so.  Against all odds, especially given its harmless and damn near jolly beginning with the miserable yet very likable Dix, this turned into a deep character study and a deep study of gender roles five years before Ray would further analyze and even subvert those roles in “Rebel Without a Cause,” featuring what might be one of the most passionate romances I’ve seen in a film – so passionate, in conjunction with who these two people are and more importantly who they’re capable of becoming, that it’s doomed.  And suddenly, I was sickened with myself for having wanted to be Dixon Steele.  He fooled me the way he fooled Laurel, and himself.

9/10

Street of Shame (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1956)

I suppose you know what you’re in for with “Street of Shame” right from the opening credits, which features a camera pan of a slummy part of the city set to some very bizarre music (I think I even heard a theremin in there…), as we’re getting set up for the uneasy and uncannily disconcerting lives of a group of prostitutes occupying a whorehouse.  That music, and later some of the ominous lighting and settings and cinematography further the notion that the lives of these women are completely outside the normal world, and are strange and unnatural ones.  Hell, at one point a scene in which the women bid farewell and present gifts to one of their own who’s making the transition to married life, in which pretty much nothing out of the ordinary happens, is presented with that same ominous, surreal music, and all of a sudden a scene of a seemingly normal farewell takes on a nearly supernatural tone.  You’ll see scenes like this one dispersed throughout “Street of Shame,” and yet, those scenes, and those eerie opening credits, are kinda misleading, because when all was said and done I was surprised at how realistic and filled with genuine human emotion this film was, especially after the orgy of tragic melodrama known as “The Life of Oharu.”  Mizoguchi’s final film may have been the most grounded in reality of any of his that I’ve seen thus far.

Sure, Dreamland is a somewhat grim place and sorta has that air of surreal hopelessness, emphasized by this crooked angle or that low angle, but otherwise, the women in this place are far from the sex objects a place like Dreamland would advertise them as: they’re fully realized people with real problems and real desires both inside and outside of Dreamland.  For sure, they’re more fully realized than any character I ever figured a filmmaker like Mizoguchi could come up with.  There’s the woman who proves to be incredibly savvy as a moneylender, the one trying to conceal her occupation from her teenage son, the one who has to prostitute herself to support her depressed husband and infant child, the spoiled and debt-ridden newcomer Mickey, and other women who all weave a seamless tapestry within and without the confines of Dreamland.  Yeah, I might sound insensitive or careless at not having been able to remember any of these characters by name other than Mickey, but frankly that might actually be one of this film’s strengths, that they all come together and are one character in and of themselves.  Otherwise, they’d be separate, and they’d be stereotypes, and character clichés.  Sure the film is somewhat episodic in nature giving each of these women’s stories plenty of separate screen time, but I found that they all came together into a unified whole of general unhappiness and unfulfilled dreams, so that that universal theme was more important than plot or plots alone. 

Also, despite each woman getting plenty of screen time so that they’re all pretty well fleshed out, we only get snippets and hints of their individual stories, so that no one woman’s story outdoes the other – they feel incomplete to us, as we meet them right in the midst of this crisis or that moral quandary with really no light at the end of the tunnel in sight, which makes them all the more real and sympathetic.  Sure there’s cliché and hammy performances and melodrama – this is a Mizoguchi film, after all – but the way these arcs are just so fitting for each woman and the way they come together makes you look past that.  Mickey, for example, seems like the least realistic of all the girls and more like comic relief than anything in just how spoiled she is, throwing money at clothes and jewelry galore and blowing off the more experienced women of Dreamland, but even her story comes full-circle when she encounters her father and, in a rage after hearing news about her mother, tries to seduce him.  It’s a horrifying and sad moment, made even more horrifying because you can almost read it as being funny, seeing as how it involves the film’s by-default comic relief.  Other scenes, like a character’s descent into madness and another’s suicide attempt, probably do go overboard with the melodrama and veer from the roots of realism that the film had sown to this point, but work because of, of all things, the technical qualities – the dreary sets and even drearier lighting and the static camera that, other than a few expressionistic angles here and there, remains unobtrusive and lets the actors and their performances take center stage, for instance.  It may not be the height of realism, but boy is there an air of despair that’s absolutely palpable. 

Despair, but also a hint of hope in just how dynamic these women are, and how determined they are to survive and to even thrive within the station that life’s given them.  A big subplot in this film that’s never really addressed directly but rather talked and whispered about abundantly as it lies in the background is the ongoing government debate on a potential law outlawing prostitution, which of course would leave these women in quite a predicament.  Despite this, “Street of Shame” never really takes a side in the debate over the benefits and detriments of prostitution – we’re shown how these women are often treated like dirt and like meat by their lascivious customers, yet it’s the only way they know of to support themselves and their families.  I’ve always liked those kinds of films in which those with out-of-the-ordinary professions or stations in life band together and form a strange kind of solidarity and family structure – the wrestlers in “The Wrestler,” the boxers in “The Set-Up”, the, umm, freaks in “Freaks”  … “Street of Shame”’s women often only look out for themselves (and in fact there is a good amount of backstabbing), but that sense of camaraderie and having to band together is there at least to a certain extent.  That’s where the sense of hope comes from in this film, in celebrating the will of these women to endure and to keep going…and yet the final image involving the previous new girl Mickey and the NEW new girl is quite haunting (albeit a bit too much on the overly-melodramatic and melo-ominous side) and does seem to condemn the life of a prostitute and lament what appears to be an endless cycle of misery and degradation.  This film takes both sides, and neither side in the debate, but ultimately, the debate over that heady issue proves irrelevant – the more or less three-dimensional lives of these women who just happen to share this particular profession are what matter.  They don’t live happily ever after, or very happily period, but they survive, so there’s that inkling of hope in the world’s oldest profession after all.

8/10

The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)

…is a very, very lonely and tough one.  We see that from the very opening moments of the film, as an old, haggard Oharu makes her way through a dark, expressionistic collection of alleys and side streets via some rather extraordinary tracking shots before coming to rest in a temple, looking up at a statue, and in an impressive feat of special effects, sees the face of a man (a former lover? Friend? Enemy?) transposed onto the statue’s face, before remembering back to her youth in a flashback that will dominate most of the film.  This is what we’re in for in “The Life of Oharu,” as much of it, like that elegantly tracking camera in the opening scene, will regard Oharu from a distance as she goes through a Herculean series of emotional challenges and traumas, and get the proverbial shit poured on her the way no human being should have to endure.  As we delve into the youth of Oharu, we witness the chronicle of the upper class girl-turned-societal outcast-turned-concubine-turned-prostitute-turned-servant-turned-happily devoted wife-turned-widow-turned-nun-turned-street urchin-turned-prostitute again-turned-mother-turned-street beggar in all its melodramatic glory.  I mean my fucking god, this girl goes through more professions and life stages (all ending badly) than Homer Simpson…which is why plight after sad plight of Oharu starts to lose its emotional potency after a while (in a movie that’s a good 30-45 minutes too long to begin with, it gets damn near agonizing in its repetitiousness).  We’re bombarded with negativity and instance after instance of Murphy’s Law, just as Oharu is, to the point that it almost becomes morbidly funny to see SO much bad stuff happening to one person.  Obviously melodrama isn’t supposed to represent the height of realism, but this is just ridiculous. 

Still, though, at least Mizoguchi depicts hopelessness really, really well.  From that first series of tracking shots on, the cinematography and framing and staging of characters and objects in relation to their surroundings is absolutely wonderful.  Are scenes like that first one heavy-handed?  Sure, but they’re also as effective as you can get at depicting emotion without dialogue without completely going over the tipping point of overbearing melodrama.  The camera will often remain static, regarding two or more characters talking from a distance, and then glide along very elegantly as it follows Oharu or other characters.  We never get too physically close to Oharu, as the camera usually regards her either from medium range or farther away, and often from a high angle, or from behind a screen for instance, perhaps reflecting her own emotional distancing from the world around her – an uncaring father who’s perfectly content with selling off his own daughter as a concubine, a cruelly jealous woman who Oharu’s a servant for, a stingy pimp who demands her own kimono as a debt repayment, even nondescript bystanders who shrug off the nearly-insane Oharu as she pathetically propositions herself in back alleys.  The lack of love in this girl’s life is simply staggering, and Mizoguchi, despite the rather unforgivable cacophony of misfortune in the screenplay, depicts Oharu’s misery with elegance and relative restraint, keeping his and our distance from her physically, as conversations are often filmed in a single shot (you could say that Mizoguchi was the anti-Ozu here – constant cutting back and forth between people as they say something would’ve been jarring and inappropriate).  And Kinuyo Tanaka as Oharu does a nice job despite the near-comically Christ-like martyrdom the material calls for from her character (the other performances, not so much.  I’ve actually defended the showy over-acting of Japanese samurai-era period pieces in other instances, but even I found it to be too much here when everybody but Oharu does the old routine of looking at the ground and speaking earnestly enough for their necks to bulge.  For god’s sake, eye contact, please!).  Initially conceited, then in love, then over her head and sad, Oharu quickly descends into despair and near-catatonia and lustful ravenousness, with barely a moment to lift her head above water when she marries a nice fan salesman for about a minute and a half.  You could say that she grows from an ignorant girl into a wise woman, but sadly, she gains that world-weary wisdom through all the wrong channels, as by the end she’s been through the ringer so much that she’s as emotionally exhausted as we are just watching this obstacle course of emotional mistreatment – a late scene in which her outward madness (more despair than madness, really) amuses a group of men who’ve propositioned her is downright heartbreaking, and a perfectly downbeat coda to the downward evolution of this character.  Filling a full 2 ¼ hours with such a slow pace and such a saturation of hardship for one person defeats the purpose of garnering sympathy from the audience, but hey, at least Mizoguchi frames hardship and misery well, am I right?

7.5/10

Ballad of a Soldier (Grigori Chukhrai, 1959)

A more or less unexceptional war/love story that nonetheless got me involved and drew me in.  It’s the remarkably, and maybe unfortunately, simple story of a young Russian soldier who singlehandedly takes out two enemy tanks and is rewarded with a six-day leave to go home and fix the roof of his mother’s house, and the various adventures and misadventures he encounters as he makes his way home.  It’s so simple that it allows the love story that follows to take center stage, at least for a (sadly) little while, but also so simple that the attempts by Chukhrai to build Alyosha up to some kind of mythic level is simply ludicrous.  The opening narration that basically makes our little Alyosha out to be a metaphor for the plight of all armed servicemen and the emotional pain that they cause their loved ones was really, really cringe-worthy, the set-up of the premise is really nothing more than a scene where Alyosha asks his superior if he can go home and his superior says OK – no dramatic or even practical build-up whatsoever, really just plain lazy storytelling – and Alyosha himself practically defines youthful, aww-shucks innocence (or whatever the Russian equivalent for ‘aww-shucks’ is), to the point that that unrealistic playing up of youthful vigor and innocence compromises both the realism AND the mythic qualities that the film is trying to depict. 

But fuck it, I was moved by this story regardless.  Are there unfortunate clichés?  Sure there are (“Where will you go now?”, Alyosha asks a despondent fellow soldier who feels ashamed to reunite with his wife after he’s lost his leg.  The soldier shrugs, looks off towards the heavens and thoughtfully says “Russia is a big country.”  Good god…).  And some moments of humor, like a collection of scenes involving canned beef, and “Mamaaaa!!!!” (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it) are just plain awkward.  But otherwise, I thought it was all handled with class and dignity and even with a kind of graceful poetry.  There are some genuinely beautiful shots, like the ones above that combine vast, open spaces with the mournful image of a person standing by his or her self, practically swallowed up by the open space and in their own loneliness, and on the flipside, some incredibly intimate shots, mostly low-angle, that demonstrate both the close quarters of men in combat and, say, an awkward discomfort felt between Alyosha and Shura as they stow away together in that train car (a scene on a crowded train car in which a group of soldiers lovingly tease Alyosha in disbelief that he actually took out two tanks, is wonderful.  These men are hot and sweaty and have no room to move their arms, but are still able to joke around with each other and revel in each other’s company.).  And for the most part, that sometimes-poetic, sometimes-intimate, always eye-grabbing cinematography works (except for that upside-down shot as Alyosha is being chased by the tank.  What the fuck was that…). 

The real selling point of this film, though, is the relationship between Alyosha and the just as innocent and naïve Shura, as they meet as fellow stowaways in that train car and develop a relationship from there.  Both characters are almost cartoonishly innocent, but apparently two wrongs make a right, because two embodiments of cartoonish innocence and a predictable progression where they get off to the wrong foot with a misunderstanding and develop a deep bond from there apparently combines into incredible chemistry, because that’s exactly what they have.  There’re never any clichéd proclamations of love (except in an ill-advised late-film montage in which Alyosha has quick glimpses of Shura’s past exploits, complete with the sappy music, that DEFINES cliché), only awkward but sensual moments of holding one another as they hide from a soldier, or harmless small talk, or jokes and genuine smiles.  It’s a very convincing and sweet and touching relationship between the two, and I hoped and prayed their collective story would end well (which is a long shot given the bleak premise, which probably contributes to why I responded to this film as strongly as I did, the whole hope in vain trick…).  If Chukhrai wanted to make “Ballad of a Soldier” into some grand meditation on the human condition and the ability of love to develop and grow despite the harshest of times, then for god’s sake, focus more on that positive part.  This was one of the more believable and tender relationships (I hesitate to use the word ‘romance’ because the story doesn’t feel the need to automatically go down that road a la a more predictable romantic drama, and the two even discuss whether platonic friendship is possible between a man and a woman) I’ve seen in a film in quite some time, and despite the images of blown-up buildings and trenches and limbless soldiers, it was a relationship that really put a smile on my face.

Obviously we have to be presented with the contrast between hopeful romance and the bleak world around it, but in this film, what that translates to is a bad imitation of Italian Neorealism, in scenes like the one where Alyosha and Shura present the father of a fellow soldier with a gift of a couple of bars of rare and treasured soap.  This scene, in a makeshift refugee shelter where everyone crowds around our heroes with dirt on their faces and looks of wonderment at the wide-eyed boy in the impressive-looking uniform, and the previous scene in the war-ruined street, screams ultra-realism that just isn’t there.  The relationship between Alyosha and Shura that develops from a rocky start to friendship to partnership to love easily could’ve been more of a primary focus in this film, and instead it pretty much comes off a step or two above just another subplot among the many misadventures of Alyosha as he makes his way home.  That so-called subplot deserved better, and as a result this movie would’ve been much, much better.  As it stands, though, it’s an uneven, but ultimately a good-hearted and heartfelt film, with a genuinely emotional, albeit somewhat histrionic and melodramatic, climax and resolution.  And if you’re not moved by those looks of absolute longing between Alyosha and Shura, you’re a communist.

7.5/10

The Desperate Hours (William Wyler, 1955)

Maybe I was just spoiled watching “In Cold Blood” the other night, ‘cuz frankly nothing could compete with that movie’s portrayal of a home invasion, so maybe I just instinctually compared “The Desperate Hours” to that movie, but even then, this pretty much failed in every way that even the relatively short home invasion scene from “In Cold Blood” succeeded.  Bogart hammed it up to no end, and not even enjoyably a la Sierra Madre, and by this point was way, way too old for this kind of brutal tough guy role.  Otherwise, the acting stunk, and the character types were predictable (Bogart the no-nonsense lead tough guy, holding the family hostage with the stock ‘fat idiot one’ and ‘young sympathetic one’, and the family that might as well be the Cleavers’ neighbors, right down to the precocious kid whose inquisitiveness causes trouble).  At least the story went in a bit of an unexpected direction late, as the father or the daughter were actually allowed to leave the house to avoid suspicion and get a critical package for the thugs (although are we really supposed to believe that the father felt obligated to still have the specter of a geriatric Humphrey Bogart hanging over his head even when he’s feigning his everyday lives outside of the house, safely out of harm’s way, even when the rest of the family’s still trapped in the house?  GO TO THE FUCKING POLICE ALREADY), a lot of the story unexpectedly took place away from the house so that it wasn’t a complete hostage-taking cliché-fest, and the fate of the crooks at least strayed a little from what you’d expect from these stock character types, but otherwise, nothing to write home about.  This movie was a shade under two hours long but felt like four, and even with the somewhat unexpected direction the story takes (and to its credit, it did get a bit tense as it approached the climax), it felt incredibly circuitous and repetitive (Bogart snarls, wife cowers, little kid says something bold and adorable, dad tells his family to do what the thugs say, fat thug does something stupid, young thug tells Bogart that he’s taking things too far, repeat), and the fate of everyone in this Norman Rockwell painting was rarely in doubt.  Had its moments, but other captive movies a la “In Cold Blood” and even “Key Largo” just had many, many more moments.

6/10

Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

Well, now I know where Woody Allen got his idea for the present-meets-flashback dinner scene in “Crimes and Misdemeanors”…and the general premise of an older man going on a roadtrip to receive an award and reliving his past along the way from “Deconstructing Harry.”  But other than noticing how much inspiration Woody Allen got from his famed idol Bergman, “Wild Strawberries” did nothing for me.  That flashback structure, in which Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) literally steps into and observes his past involving a former love (the IMPOSSIBLY beautiful Bibi Andersson) as if it were the holodeck from Star Trek or something, is kinda nifty, but those flashbacks, as well as Isak’s dreams, are also filled with obvious, heavy-handed imagery and symbolism (stuff like handless clocks and a man with a scrunched-up dummy face are unsettling, sure, but c’mon Bergman, some subtlety, please!) that took me right out of the relative verisimilitude of Isak’s physical and spiritual journey.  I was actually surprised at how ‘realistic’ the journey from Stockholm to Lund University, and the film’s dialogue overall, was, especially compared to the unfathomably verbose and overly-philosophical dialogue of films like “The Seventh Seal” and “Cries and Whispers.”  Realistic, but dull.  I had little emotional involvement in watching Isak watch his younger self and family eat dinner and discuss…stuff, I had little emotional involvement watching Isak connect with his daughter-in-law and the young girl and her boyfriends who accompany him on the long car ride (the young girl reminding him of his youth), and I had little emotional involvement in what should’ve been the emotional crux of the entire film, as a now somewhat-enlightened Isak tries to connect with his son, just as cold and aloof as Isak’s been all these years.  It should’ve been wonderful to watch Isak slowly learn to love life, and then tragic to find out that his son is exactly the man that Isak was at the beginning of the film, but frankly, I can’t remember a word of what they said to each other.  Something just got lost in translation, whether it’s uninteresting dialogue or uneven story structure or what have you.  I can’t really put a finger on it, but for some reason I just wasn’t really interested.  I gotta admit, it’s only been 12 or so hours since I watched this film, but I’m having a damn hard time remembering how it ended.

This journey between Stockholm and Lund, between past and present is supposed to be an enlightening one for Isak, but why should I buy into that?  Alright, so there’s parallels between young Sara and the girl Isak loved so many years before; is that supposed to be profound?  It’s a Bergman film, and any given Bergman film pretty much thinks it has a god-given right to be the profoundest thing on the face of the earth, but…eh.  Even with some semi-goofy goings-on on the road trip like a near collision with a bizarre couple, and Sara’s boyfriends arguing about – what else – the existence of God, both that road trip and the flashbacks were just boring, and banal.  I didn’t feel like there was anything at stake.  I guess Victor Sjöström gives a very good performance, but he’s an interesting-looking old man.  All he has to do is frown and mope and look at the camera with puppy-dog eyes and he’s a lock for a ‘good performance.’  Its technical qualities and deliberate and unhurried pace are more or less excellent, even though Sven Nykvist wasn’t around yet.  However, you can try disguising the rancidness of rotting meat with A-1 Sauce, but rotting meat is still rotting meat. 

Funny that I criticized a film like “Cries and Whispers” for being too wordy and philosophical, shoving Bergman’s favorite theme, the silence of God, down your throat, while this film is very nearly the polar opposite, focusing much more on the psychological issues of one man rather than the all-encompassing issues of faith and what-not, with more natural dialogue (though still with that Bergman-esque knack of wordiness), and I thought it was too dull, with not enough at stake.  Guess Bergman just needs to find the middle ground.

6.5/10

The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)

Well now, this was a breath of French New Wave fresh air 🙂 .  After stuffing myself with Godard films whose stylistic eccentricities told you was “French New Wave” and that more often than not irritated me while I searched in vain for something resembling substance, Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” his first feature and the film that arguably launched the French New Wave, was a welcome surprise.  There wasn’t any of that goofy editing or fourth-wall-breaking commentary or nonsensically verbose monologues set to a very noticeably stationary camera or other nonsense a la Godard; “The 400 Blows” is light on stylistic touches or frills (that famous still shot that ends the film wasn’t nearly as pretentious as I thought it’d be when I finally saw it in context), instead really letting the acting dictate the proceedings for the most part, and I gotta say, I’m a fan.  Young Jean-Pierre Léaud is wonderful as Antoine Doinel, the character he and Truffaut would revisit again in the following years and a boy in the midst of an early-life crisis.  In a film like “Mouchette”, the miserable existence and point of view of the young title character was absolutely stifling, as visual cues and mannerisms and facial expressions and occurrences both unlikely and impossibly bleak were so over the top that Mouchette’s misery hardly felt real in how overly-wrought it was.  But Antoine’s predicament?  Well, that did feel genuine, because his misery is downplayed, rather than exaggerated to the nth degree.  Actually, it isn’t really misery at all, more like…discontent.  Antoine’s such a compelling young protagonist because he pretty much just has an awful life in his mind – he’s blowing it up, so we identify with his angsty mindset; we were all unhappy teenagers at one time, after all.  Come to think of it, he really doesn’t have it that bad.  Sure his mother and stepfather are kinda neglectful, and she can really be a greedy shrew sometimes, but it’s not like they’re abusive or anything, and his stepfather’s a nice enough guy – stern, but pleasant enough.  Hell, there’re even moments when Antoine likes them, and they like Antoine, as when they go to the movies and laugh their way home.  Really, he’s more misunderstood than anything, and this stigma of being something resembling the spawn of Satan is the result of bad luck more than anything – that pinup that’s being passed around the classroom just happens to be in his hands when the teacher turns around, the candle he lights beneath his little shrine to Balzac in his room catches fire, he’s caught returning the typewriter he stole earlier – punished after he tries to rectify a mistake.  Pity.

There’s no real reason for Antoine to run away from home with his biggest problem being how everyone misunderstands him as much as they do, but that’s what sets this film apart from so many other cliché-fests about kids running away from home.  He really does think that he needs to set out on his own despite his age, and it’s ironic that he’s so youthfully ignorant in that regard despite an incredible maturity in the performance of Jean-Pierre Léaud.  Obviously the extent to which Antoine keeps running away from home and becomes a perpetual victim of Murphy’s Law is outrageous, but Léaud sold Antoine’s discontent completely, so that this movie was damn close to being a seminal metaphor for teenage angst, right down to a looooong tracking shot towards the end of Antoine running, and nothing else – a type of long tracking shot that should’ve infuriated me as stylistic excess, but I ended up loving, as Antoine runs and runs from an unknown problem, to an unknown fate.  When he runs away, and the stationary camera quietly regards him as he steals a bottle of milk and cautiously drinks it on a dark street corner, eyes darting about and hunched over like Nosferatu or something, or when he tries to sleep in an abandoned factory or plots his escape from a juvenile detention center, my heart just about sank.  What a pathetic, pitiable sight.  This kid doesn’t have a plan…how could he?  This is a simple story where a kid tries to find himself and just ends up wandering: a unique outsider who’ll have none of the hand he’s been dealt, yet not so different from any other unhappy teenager.  That’s a weird combo, but it goes along well with what I found to be an abundance of extremely high-angle shots, looking down on Antoine or his classmates from high above, as if God himself is monitoring the kid but not interfering in his quest through purgatory.  In those shots and in that final shot, Antoine feels far away, like an enigma, to us and I’m sure to himself.

8.5/10