Cable and DVD


Fury

Fritz Lang’s first American film after fleeing the Hitler regime in Germany, Fury (1936) is a terrifying look at how good people can go bad when swayed by the darker instincts of a crowd. The incredible scenes where the mob tries to lynch an innocent man recall the workers frantically fleeing the city in Metropolis and the angry calls for justice against the child murderer in M.

David O. Selznick brought Lang to MGM in 1934. He languished at the studio for months and was nearly fired. Given one last chance, Lang was handed a four-page outline titled Mob Rule. MGM told Lang and writer Barlett Cormack they would need to develop it into a script for Lang to direct.

Lang didn’t speak English very well at the time, so he looked around for inspiration. He found that inspiration in the form of newspaper clippings, as he explains in a 1965 interview with Peter Bogdanovich:

I followed a habit I had in Europe (and still have) of collecting newspaper clippings — I have used them for a lot of my pictures. We found a lynching case that had happened in San Jose, California, a few years before I made the film, and we used many newspaper clippings for the script.

Spencer Tracy turns in a gripping performance as Joe Wheeler, a man jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Sylvia Sidney portrays his loyal girlfriend. The film also provides early roles for long-time character actors Walter Brennan and Ward Bond.

While it would be easy to dismiss Fury as a transitional film where Lang is learning how to deal with the restrictions of the Hollywood studio system, I find it has an unusual rawness and intensity. Lang must have seen something in it. Fury was his favorite film among the ones he directed in the U.S.

Fury
(1936; directed by Fritz Lang, cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Tuesday, December 5 at 10:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

As the follow-up to his most successful silent film (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler), Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) revives one of cinema’s most intriguing criminal masterminds. When we last saw Dr. Mabuse, he was driven insane by the collapse of his criminal empire. Eleven years later, he has progressed from a coma to only being able to write — first with unintelligible scribblings, then with arcane symbols and unrecognizable words, and finally with detailed instructions for carrying out devious crimes and acts of terror.

Meanwhile, we are reintroduced to Inspector Lohmann, the detective from M, Lang’s previous sound film. Lohmann has encountered the doctor’s name in connection with several puzzling investigations. Were these crimes perpetrated by the same group? And how could they involve a criminal mastermind who is physically incapacitated?

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a thrilling detective story, but also a not-so-subtle reproach of Hitler and the Nazis, who had just risen to power. It even foreshadows our own time with a diabolical character who commits terrorist acts — not for financial gain, but to create chaos and fear among the public.

In an interview with Mark Shivas, published in the September 1962 issue of Movie, Lang explains the origin of the project, and how the film was banned in Germany before it could be released:

In ’32, I guess, someone came to me and said, ‘Look, Mr. Lang, we have made so much money with Mabuse. . . ’ I said, ‘Yes, much more than I did. . . .’ He said, ‘Can’t you give us another Mabuse?’ So I started thinking about it and I said, ‘All right, what shall I do? This guy is insane and in an asylum — I cannot make him healthy again. It is impossible.’

So I invented, with the help of Mrs. Von Harbou, the next Mabuse — The Testament of Dr. Mabuse — and then said, ‘Now I am finished. Now I am killing him.’ I had been able to put into the mouth of an insane criminal all the Nazi slogans. When the picture was finished, some henchmen of Dr. Goebbels came to the office and threatened to forbid it. I was very short with them and said, ‘If you think you can forbid a picture of Fritz Lang in Germany, go ahead.’ They did so.

As Lang tells it, a few days after the ban was announced, he was summoned to meet with Goebbels, who told Lang that Hitler was a fan of Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927). Hitler wanted Lang to head up a group that would produce National-Socialistic films for the Nazi party. Lang feigned excitement over the offer, but fled to Paris that night. We have only Lang’s word for the meeting, which is at odds with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse having just been banned for its strong political content.

Whatever the truth, Lang left Germany and went on to have a productive career in Hollywood, directing such classics as Fury (1936), Man Hunt (1941), Ministry of Fear (1945), The Big Heat (1953), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). He returned to Germany to direct yet another Mabuse film, titled The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1961).

The digitally restored print on the Criterion DVD is ample proof that this is one of Lang’s best films. Originally 124 minutes, the restored version runs 121 minutes and is based on a German Film Institute print, with missing scenes supplied by prints from the Federal Film Archive (Germany) and the Munich Film Museum. In addition to the top-quality restored print, Criterion provides a second disc with the 94-minute French-language version of the film, which Lang directed simultaneously with the German-language version (Lang was fluent in French). Until 1951, it was the only version available for film historians. The second disc also features a 1964 interview with Lang, background on Mabuse’s creator (the character first appeared in print), and a comparison of the German, French, and American-dubbed versions.

If you’re a fan of Hollywood film noir, you’ll feel right at home with this film’s dark and menacing world. And if you’re a fan of detective and crime movies, you’ll enjoy Lohmann’s dogged determination and the intricate layering of the plot.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
(1933; directed by Fritz Lang; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (DVD)

Tuesday, December 5 at 8:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Winchester '73

Winchester ’73 (1950) is an important film for many reasons. It’s the first in a string of five top-notch westerns made over a five-year period that were directed by Anthony Mann and star James Stewart. The other four are Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1955), and The Man from Laramie (1955).

You could argue that Winchester ’73 is the first modern western. It brings the flawed protagonist from the film noirs over to the westerns. Mann had already made a name for himself with his skillful direction of tough-guy psychological dramas, including T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Side Street (1949). By 1950, he was well prepared to reinvigorate the western genre by giving it a darker, more anguished hero.

The success of Winchester ’73 is largely responsible for the rebirth of the genre in the 1950s, and its tone would lead to other revisionist westerns, such as John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). It isn’t fair, however, to say there were no dark westerns prior to 1950. Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) points in this direction, though the John Wayne character isn’t the protagonist of that film.

Winchester ’73 is also notable for its contribution to the break up of the studio system. Mann couldn’t afford to pay Stewart his usual salary, so Stewart agreed to take a percentage of the profits. That turned out to be a smart move, because Winchester ’73 went on to gross $4.5 million in the U.S. That encouraged similar deals between other actors and production companies, and this alternative method of compensation broke the studios’ control in determining which movies actors would appear in and how much they would be paid.

Stewart was a big star at the time (Harvey was released that same year), though he hadn’t appeared in a western since Destry Rides Again (1939). He was taking a risk, as was Mann, in making a moody western. The public may not have accepted the usually upbeat Stewart as having deep unresolved psychological issues. Obviously, the public was able to handle the complexity, and this type of role proved to be a creative shot in the arm for Stewart, who would go on to play brooding roles in the other Mann-Stewart westerns, as well as Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958).

Winchester ’73
(1950; directed by Anthony Mann; cable & dvd)
Universal Studios
List Price: $14.95

Wednesday, November 28 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Passion of Joan of Arc

If the historical figure at the center of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) could be said to embody uncompromised dedication, the same could be said of the film’s director, Carl Theodore Dreyer. Consisting entirely of close-ups and medium shots, with only the sparest of backgrounds, Dreyer relentlessly focuses in on the characters and conflicts. It may be the closest we’ve ever come to a pure narrative cinema. As you might expect, reactions to this pared-down style vary. Most film historians view this as one of the greatest silent films ever made. I wholeheartedly agree. Others see it as too extreme. You’ll have decide for yourself.

Much of the emotional appeal of this film can be attributed to the remarkable performance by Maria Falconetti as Jeanne d’Arc. It is often cited as the finest performance ever committed to celluloid. In a 1965 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Dreyer explains how he chose Falconetti for the part:

I went to see her one afternoon and we spoke together for an hour or two. I had seen her at the theatre. A little boulevard theatre whose name I have forgotten. She was playing there in a light, modern comedy and she was very elegant in it, a bit giddy, but charming. She didn’t conquer me at once and I didn’t have confidence in her immediately. I simply asked her if I could come to see her the next day. And during that visit, we talked. That is when I sensed that there was something in her to which one could make an appeal. Something that she could give; something, therefore that I could take.

For, behind the make-up, the pose, behind that modern and ravishing appearance, there was something. There was a soul behind that facade. If I could see her remove the facade it would suffice me. So I told her that I would very much like, starting the next day, to do a screen test with her. ‘But without make-up,’ I added, ‘with your face completely naked.’

She came, therefore, the next day ready and willing. She had taken off her make-up, we made the tests, and I found on her face exactly what I had been seeking for Joan of Arc: a rustic woman, very sincere, who was also a woman who had suffered. But even so, this discovery did not represent a total surprise for me, for, from our first meeting, this woman was very frank and, always, very surprising.

Dreyer based the script on the original trial transcripts from the year 1431, as well as a novel by Joseph Delteil. The film took a year and a half to complete, in part because Dreyer insisted that the costumes, church, courtyard, gestures, and other aspects of the production were as authentic as possible. The whole construction was painted pink, rather than white, to give it a gray tint against the sky.

According to Ebbe Neergaard’s book Carl Dreyer: A Film Director’s Work, Dreyer demanded absolute silence and banished anyone who wasn’t needed whenever Falconetti had an important scene. Neergaard writes, “She was, as it were, activated into expressing what Dreyer could not show her, for it was something that could only be expressed in action, not speech, and she alone could do it, so she had to help him. And she realized that this could only be done if she dropped all intellectual inhibitions and let her feelings have free access from her subconscious to her facial expression.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc
(1928; directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Saturday, November 18 at 4:45 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Scarface

Howard Hawks is the least appreciated of the great American directors. It took the critics from the Parisian magazine Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s to recognize the consistent style and world view behind such dissimilar films as Scarface (1932), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Air Force (1943), The Big Sleep (1946), Red River (1948), The Thing from Another World (1951), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Of Hawks’ many best-of-breed genre films, Scarface is the most underrated. Producer Howard Hughes withheld the film from circulation in the U.S. after its initial release, so it was almost impossible to see until the 1970s. You had a better chance of seeing the film if you lived in Paris than if you lived in New York or Los Angeles.

Scarface is far more complex thematically and visually than Little Caesar (1930) or The Public Enemy (1931), and much more satisfying. Tony and his henchmen attend a theatrical performance of Rain, another cautionary tale about a man who tries to impose his will on others. Tony has to leave the theater early, missing the downfall of the play’s tragic figure, in order to set in motion the events that will lead to his own downfall. Like the men in Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings and Air Force, Tony and his gang react to life-threatening situations by creating their own rules of conduct and honor. The group is fiercely loyal until someone deliberately crosses the line to threaten the cohesiveness of the group. In virtually all his films, Hawks explores the interplay between individual initiative and group co-operation. It’s the dynamic push-pull between these two forces that drives the characters’ actions and moves the story forward to its logical conclusion. With the Hawks comedies, that universe is turned completely upside down.

Hawks and scriptwriter Ben Hecht populate the sets in Scarface with symbolic Xs and crosses. Look closely, and you’ll see them throughout the film, particularly at critical junctures in the plot. During the production of the film, Hawks ran afoul of the studio censors, who were repelled by the large number of murders and cold-hearted glee with which the gangsters carry out their revenge. Hawks was forced to insert a high-minded introduction and clumsy moral-indignation scene to soften what was thought to be a dangerously immoral film. Hawks also had to tone down the ending. He had wanted Tony (played by Paul Muni) to end face down in a pile of horse manure.

This isn’t just the best gangster movie ever made. It’s a landmark film of the early 1930s, and the first mature work by one of Hollywood’s preeminent directors.

Scarface
(1932; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
United Artists
List Price: $14.98

Wednesday, November 15 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Sergeant York

Sergeant York (1941) poses a problem for film scholars. Immensely popular at the time of its release, the movie doesn’t quite fit into director Howard Hawks’ canon. Hawks didn’t have much leeway with the story, which was based on the true-life events of the best known and highest decorated hero of World War I. Released less than six months before the Pearl Harbor attack, Sergeant York addresses the mixed feelings in the U.S. about entering World War II.

One issue for some film scholars, who sometimes cite this as one of Hawks’ least successful efforts, is the fact that its themes are so clearly telegraphed to the audience. Even if you accept the notion that it isn’t a true-blue Hawks film, there was little else Hawks could do, given that his audience already knew York’s story so well. The element of surprise is gone, and any drama that might arise from York’s momentous decision is muted by the inevitable outcome. As a result, the film feels more conventional than Hawks’ other films, which delight us in their unexpected twists and turns, as the characters and story move in and out of Hollywood norms.

While we gain a better understanding of Hawks by seeing the common threads woven throughout his films, it can be equally instructive to see how he handles material that’s somewhat at odds with his usual style of working. Sergeant York isn’t an archetypal Hawks film. It is, however, richly rewarding when judged on its own merits.

The first part of the movie shows an economy of words and gestures that speak volumes about the inner lives of the isolated mountain community. The disparity between the rural and battlefield portions of the film was noted in contemporary reviews. Here’s what Bosley Crowther had to say in his July 3, 1941 review from The New York Times:

That is all there is to the story, but in the telling of it — of the first part, anyhow — the picture has all the flavor of true Americana, the blunt and homely humor of backwoodsmen and the raw integrity peculiar to simple folk. This phase of the picture is rich. The manner in which York is persuaded to join the fighting forces and the scenes of actual combat betray an unfortunate artificiality, however — in the battle scenes, especially; and the overly glamorized ending, in which York returns to a spotless little farm, jars sharply with the naturalness which has gone before. The suggestion of deliberate propaganda is readily detected here.

Even though Hawks was constrained by the characters and plot (Alvin York was still alive at the time), this is very much a Hawks film. York’s Tennessee mountain community parallels the isolated groups in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), and The Thing from Another World (1951). Religious principle versus patriotic duty becomes the Hawksian conflict that potentially separates York from his community and ultimately allows him to re-assert his individuality within the group.

Sergeant York
(1941; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $26.98 (two-disc special edition)

Sunday, November 12 at 12:15 a.m. eastern (late Sat. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Dodsworth

In the 1930s, just about everyone went to the movies. That didn’t mean every movie was targeted to the widest possible audience. In fact, many films were aimed at mature audiences seeking intelligent and restrained drama. Few films, however, dealt with the complexities of middle age and the day-to-day difficulties of maintaining a marriage.

Dodsworth (1936) is an unusually frank film about a couple who are growing apart amid concerns about growing older. Based on a 1929 novel by Sinclair Lewis, the story was adapted in 1934 by Sidney Howard into a popular Broadway play starring Walter Huston and Fay Bainter. Two years later, Howard teamed with director William Wyler to bring the story to film. Huston reprised his role as industrialist Sam Dodsworth and Ruth Chatterton replaced Bainter in the role of Fran Dodsworth, his wife. Mary Astor played the other woman, Mrs. Edith Cortright, though clichés about the other woman fall by the wayside as the movie progresses. Several minor parts were filled by actors who played the same roles on Broadway.

The movie version doesn’t feel like a staged play, even though there is plenty of dialogue. Here are some of the more memorable lines from the film:

Sam Dodsworth: Love has got to stop some place short of suicide.

Fran Dodsworth: Oh, you’re hopeless — you haven’t the mistiest notion of civilization.
Sam Dodsworth: Yeah, well maybe I don’t think so much of it, though. Maybe clean hospitals, concrete highways, and no soldiers along the Canadian border come near my idea of civilization.

Fran Dodsworth: Remember, I did make a home for you once, and I’ll do it again, only you’ve got to let me have my fling now! Because you’re simply rushing at old age, Sam, and I’m not ready for that yet.

Baroness Von Obersdorf: [to Fran] Have you thought how little happiness there can be for the old wife of a young husband?

Apart from the writing, much of the credit has to go to Walter Huston, in one of the best roles of his career, and to William Wyler, whose assured direction makes the characters’ progression feel like an entirely natural development. Dodsworth doesn’t come across as a message picture — you’re not beat over the head with gold-encrusted truths simplified to the point where a 10-year-old child could quote them verbatim. Instead, the audience steadily accumulates knowledge about the characters and their predicaments. By the end, the characters’ decisions make perfect sense based on who we know them to be as individuals, rather than as stereotypes.

Dodsworth
(1936; directed by William Wyler; cable & dvd)
MGM
List Price: $14.95

Sunday, November 5 at 8:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Camille

Eighty-one years after its release, how do we sort out the merits of a movie like Camille (1936)? Strictly in terms of Garbo’s performance, it may be her finest sound film. Yet with all her films (with the exception of Lubitsch’s atypical Ninotchka), there was always something that kept the whole from being better than the sum of the parts. In this case, the flaw is Robert Taylor. Granted, the part calls for an actor who can appear young and inexperienced, but that doesn’t mean the part should actually be played by a young and inexperienced actor.

George Cukor, who Clark Gable is supposed to have ejected from Gone with the Wind (1939) because he was a “woman’s director,” was the ideal choice from the stable of MGM directors. His previous adaptations of Little Women (1933) and David Copperfield (1935) show a remarkable talent for transforming classic novels into flesh-and-blood movies with enough warmth and intelligence to balance out the overt sentimentality.

What makes Camille fascinating isn’t Cukor’s transformational directing style but Garbo’s transformational persona. Back in the 1970s, TV-host Dick Cavett would often ask his guests who knew Garbo in her prime, whether the magic was there when you encountered her in person. The answer was just as elusive as Garbo’s personality. Some said you did see the magic; others said it was reserved exclusively for the silver screen.

There is no other actor or actress who rises above the craft in the same way that Garbo does. She appears not to be acting, but simply to be truly alive. If you’ve never seen a Garbo film, this all may sound rather strange, but she was able to achieve something — whatever you might to call it — that actors and actresses are continually striving for. She was unable to sustain it for long, similar to how a jazz musician or athlete might be in the zone for a fleeting second or two. Camille has more than its share of these kinds of moments and is well worth watching just to see Garbo sparkle and shine.

Camille
(1936; directed by George Cukor; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Tuesday, October 3 at 3:00 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Random Harvest

No matter how many classic films you’ve seen, there will always be films that escape your notice. They may no longer exist (most silent films, for example). There may be rights issues (the long version of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, for example). Or you didn’t know enough about them to actively seek them out (hence this site’s tagline: so many movies, so little time).

I hadn’t seen Random Harvest (1942) until about six years ago. I had forgotten what a competent director Mervyn LeRoy was and had neglected to look for his other films. Admittedly, his output is uneven, but any director responsible for the likes of Little Caesar (1930), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Hard to Handle (1933), They Won’t Forget (1937), Waterloo Bridge (1940), and Mister Roberts (1955; co-directed with John Ford) is worth further study.

As a sentimental romantic drama, Random Harvest is surprisingly restrained. This is a film that tugs on the heartstrings without treating the audience as though it has a collective IQ of 50. The various twists and turns are laid out carefully, and even when you know where it’s heading, the movie remains intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The plotline is important, so do refrain from reading too much about this one until you’ve had a chance to see it. Above all, don’t read the back of the DVD case, which gives away half the plot (what were they thinking?). The story is based on the novel by James Hilton, who is best known as the original author of two other Hollywood adaptations: Lost Horizon (1937) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). That these three creatively successful films were directed by three different directors speaks well of the narrative strength of the novels.

The casting of the two leads is another plus. Ronald Colman and Greer Garson were highly regarded by their contemporary audiences. Today, they’re barely known by the general public. If you’ve ever wondered just how talented Colman and Garson were, this film should answer that question in spades. Bottom line: If you tend to avoid sentimental Hollywood dramas, give this one a chance. The performances, script, and direction place it firmly in the don’t-miss category.

Random Harvest
(1942; directed by Mervyn LeRoy; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Thursday, September 14 at 10:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Ball of Fire

Ask any Howard Hawks fan to name Hawks’ best comedies, and you’ll likely be stuck in a twenty-minute conversation. Almost everyone agrees Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) are top notch, but after that, the choices begin to differ. I would place Twentieth Century (1934) right up there, as well as Ball of Fire (1941). Far superior to Hawk’s own remake (A Song is Born), Ball of Fire sparkles with intelligent wordplay and shines with immediately likable characters.

Written by Charles Brackett, Thomas Monroe, and Billy Wilder, Ball of Fire is the story of seven encyclopedia writers who venture out into the world after nine years of cloistered research. Having just completed their entries on Saltpeter and Sex, they discover their books aren’t up-to-date enough for their entry on Slang. Led by Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), they encounter Sugarpuss’ O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a fast-talking compendium of street idioms. They learn “shove in your clutch” means “get lost” and a “crabapple annie” is a stuffy, prudish person.

Sugarpuss O’Shea: Do you know what this means – ‘I’ll get you on the Ameche?’
Professor Bertram Potts: No.
Sugarpuss O’Shea: ‘Course you don’t. An Ameche is the telephone, on account of he invented it.
Professor Bertram Potts: Oh, no, he didn’t.
Sugarpuss O’Shea: Like, you know, in the movies.
Professor Bertram Potts: Well, I see what you mean. Very interesting. Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.

Though Wilder denies it was done consciously, the script plays out as a twisted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Here, Snow White isn’t so innocent, the prince is one of the seven dwarfs, and the dwarfs are called on to save the day. Much of the humor derives from how sheltered the encyclopedists have become in their quest to study life from a distance. Almost all Hawks films explore the dynamics of a closed group, and how it handles threats from the outside world. Ball of Fire fits squarely into that canon, though it’s more gentle than the other top Hawks comedies (the seven men are almost the antithesis of the reporters in His Girl Friday).

Ball of Fire
(1941; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
MGM
List Price: $14.98

Sunday, August 13 at 2:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Vampyr

A typical horror movie has few surprises, so it isn’t very horrifying. A truly frightening movie would have to throw you off-kilter, so you don’t have a chance to relax or become too comfortable with the made-up world. That’s what Carl Dryer’s Vampyr (1932) does. To intensify the sense of foreboding, it continually shifts the ground out from under your feet. It may be the most unusual horror film you’ll ever see.

According to The Cinema of Carl Dryer by Tom Milne, Dryer described his stylistic approach to his crew with these words:

Imagine that we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant the room we are sitting in is completely altered; everything in it has taken on another look; the light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed and the objects are as we conceive them. That is the effect I want to get in my film.

Released a year after Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi, Vampyr’s vampire isn’t identified until late in the story. Yet Dryer conveys the vampire’s influence right from the beginning using a variety of disorienting cinematic techniques. These techniques include seeing the effect of an action well before its cause, especially through Allan Grey’s (the main character’s) dreams and visions. Dryer often moves the camera independently of the action as though it anticipates something the characters are only vaguely aware of. Similarly, the point of view sometimes shifts oddly. For example, at the beginning of the story, we bounce back and forth between interior and exterior views of the inn. That suggests Grey’s perspective may be too limited to comprehend all that will transpire.

At first glance, these techniques might seem random or amateurish. They are, in fact, quite deliberate. They’re designed to make us question what we see on the screen, just as Grey will need to question the reality around him in order to uncover the evil that has taken hold there. As a counter balance, Dryer uses explanatory intertitles and quotes from Grey’s book on vampires to center the story.

The result is a journey through a supernatural world defined by its own logic and rules that are revealed only as the story progresses. While not entirely successful, Vampyr would be my pick for the most ambitious horror film ever made. It creates both an eerie atmosphere and a parallel sense of psychological dislocation.

Keep in mind that Vampyr was the film Dryer chose to direct following The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). In both films, the main character is challenged to stand by a set of beliefs that can’t be proved.

Vampyr
(1932; directed by Carl Dryer; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Tuesday, July 16 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Boudu Saved from Drowning

We talk about directors who are open, either to the spontaneity of their actors (Robert Altman) or to chance events (David Lynch). No director has been as open as Jean Renoir. Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) is not only an early sound film for Renoir, it’s an early sound film for the French cinema. Like Rene Clair, Renoir freely experiments with various sound and camera techniques. Yet Renoir’s experimentations are always firmly grounded in the story and characters.

Boudu is the story of a tramp who wants to end his life because he can’t find the dog who has befriended him. Most critics have viewed the film as an indictment of petty bourgeois behavior, but Renoir’s approach isn’t so simple. He also pokes fun at the well-intentioned left, who want to help the unprivileged — as long as they’re kept at a distance. Michel Simon turns in a masterful comic performance as Boudu. He’s simultaneously lovable and irritating, and true to form, Renoir remains impartial. Renoir’s world is large enough to encompass the good and bad aspects of contradictory sides — left versus right, instinct versus convention, self consciousness versus naiveté, and civilization versus nature.

Truffaut and the other New Wave directors were heavily influenced by Renoir’s relaxed and inventive style (Renoir was Truffaut’s favorite filmmaker). They also adopted his realistic approach to filming, which Renoir had picked up from silent director Erich von Stroheim. (Renoir’s films, particularly Toni, also strongly influenced the Italian Neo-Realists.) Not surprisingly, the New Wave was more excited by Renoir’s early free spirited films, such as Boudu and The Crime of Monsieur Lange, than by his later masterpieces, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game.

With Renoir and the early New Wave directors, it’s easy to fall into the trap of confusing an easy and liberated style with technical incompetence. André Bazin writes in his book, Jean Renoir:

One of the best scenes in Boudu Saved from Drowning, the suicide attempt from the Pont des Arts, was made in total defiance of the logic of the scene. The crowd of unpaid extras gathered on the bridge and the river banks was not there to witness a tragedy. They came to watch a movie being made, and they were in good humor. Far from asking them to feign the emotion which verisimilitude would demand, Renoir seems to have encouraged them in their light-hearted curiosity. . . For Renoir, what is important is not the dramatic value of a scene. Drama, action — in the theatrical or novelistic sense of the terms — are for him only pretexts for the essential, and the essential is everywhere in what is visible, everywhere in the very substance of the cinema.

By all means, see Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, which are truly two of the greatest films ever made. But don’t deny yourself the pleasure of watching Boudu Saved from Drowning.

Boudu Saved from Drowning
(1932; directed by Jean Renoir; dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price $29.95

Thursday, March 30 at 4:30 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Informer

You wouldn’t normally think of John Ford as directing a low-budget art film, but that’s the best way to think of The Informer (1935). According to Joseph McBride’s excellent book Searching for John Ford, the project was rejected by Columbia, Fox, MGM, Paramount, and Warner Bros. before RKO agreed to let Ford make it on a shoestring budget (the final production costs were $242,756). That meant almost no money for sets and only 18 days for shooting.

Rather than fret about the restrictions, Ford, screenwriter Dudley Nichols, and cinematographer Joseph August crafted a visual story that’s defined primarily through shadows, fog, and backlighting. The style is reminiscent of the great silent German expressionist films, especially those of F. W. Murnau, whose work Ford admired.

In his 1943 essay “The Writer and the Film,” Nichols explained how this approach was an excellent match for the storyline:

I had an able mentor as well as a collaborator in the person of John Ford and I had begun to catch his instinctive feeling about the film. I can see now that I sought and found a series of symbols to make visual the tragic psychology of the informer, in this case a primitive man of powerful hungers. The whole action was to be played out in one foggy night, for the fog was symbolic of the groping primitive mind; it really is a mental fog in which he moves. . . .

Though often shy and reserved in real life, Ford could be a hard taskmaster when directing. He had to fight RKO to cast former boxer Victor McLaglen as Gypo, the central character. As McBride explains in his book:

Ford directed McLaglen with cunning calculation, bullying and tricking him into giving a great performance. Since he wanted McLaglen to grope for his lines to convey Gypo’s slow-witted, half-drunken condition, Ford continually changed the schedule to keep McLaglen unfamiliar with his scenes and surreptitiously filmed what the actor thought were rehearsals. He would send McLaglen off to run his lines with cast member J. M. Kerrigan at the nearby Melrose Grotto bar, and then would abruptly call a tipsy McLaglen back to the set to shoot his scenes.

The result is paradoxically realistic and expressionistic. The Informer was a popular success and widely praised by the critics. Though it came in second to Mutiny on the Bounty for the Oscar for Best Picture, Ford took home the Best Director award. In addition, McLaglen won Best Actor, Nichols won Best Screenplay, and Max Steiner won Best Musical Score. Though some of the symbolism may seem heavy handed, and the ending a bit forced, everything else works terrifically. And it doesn’t appear to be made under severe financial restraints. All the choices seem to be natural extensions of the plot.

The Informer
(1935; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $59.95 (as part of The John Ford Film Collection)

Friday, March 17 at 6:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

My Man Godfrey

While the screwball comedy is a byproduct of the Great Depression, not every screwball comedy reflects the era head-on. My Man Godfrey (1936) is both a spoof of — and a commentary on — the financial inequities at the time. The movie-going public was well aware the Depression was hitting the poor much harder than the wealthy, so poking fun at the idle rich was a staple of the genre. The prevailing attitude? We’re all in this together, so don’t get snooty or high-hat just because you’re well off.

Unlike the previous year’s Ruggles of Red Gap, where a real butler finds himself in the wild west, My Man Godfrey’s butler may not be what he appears to be. Both films poke fun at rich Americans who have plenty of dollars, but no sense. Godfrey is more direct in its satire, and like Sullivan’s Travels (1941), its message for social equality (in the midst of economic inequality) is front and center.

William Powell is perfectly cast as Godfrey the butler, who knows more about money and manners than his employers (echoing Charles Laughton’s role in Ruggles of Red Gap). Carole Lombard plays Irene, a spoiled heiress who is bored with her frivolous life — though she doesn’t know it yet. Here’s an example of the interplay between Powell and Lombard:

Godfrey: Do you mind telling me just what a scavenger hunt is?
Irene: Well, a scavenger hunt is exactly like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you try to find something you want, and in a scavenger hunt you try to find something that nobody wants.
Godfrey: Hmm, like a forgotten man?
Irene: That’s right, and the one who wins gets a prize, only there really isn’t a prize. It’s just the honor of winning, because all the money goes to charity, that is, if there is any money left over, but there never is.
Godfrey: Well, that clears the whole matter up beautifully.

This was the first film to be nominated for all four acting Oscars: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. Coincidentally, it was the very first year for the two supporting awards. My Man Godfrey was also nominated for the writing and directing Oscars. To this day, it’s the only film to be nominated for all six awards and not be nominated for Best Picture. And to this day, it’s the only film to be nominated for all six awards and not win any of them.

My Man Godfrey
(1936; directed by Gregory La Cava; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $29.95

Tuesday, September 6 at 1:45 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

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