La Bete Humaine

I pop this DVD in the machine, expecting to see a warm, humanist Renoir comedy/drama like Boudu Saved From Drowning, The Rules of the Game or Grand Illusion.  Turns out it’s practically a freakin’ Hitchcock movie.

This is a good thing.

A noir before it had a name (1938), La Bete Humaine is a dark tale of lust and murder set amid the railyards of 1930s Paris.  Noir, hell: the plot is practically a chapter from Sin City: there’s a good-looking working-class lug who worries that he might actually be a psychotic killer, a mild-mannered middle-management type who is driven to murder by jealousy and a femme fatale who lures men into murdering each other for her, all the while playing the weak, innocent victim.

Because it’s Renoir, of course, things are more complicated than that.  As the guy says in Rules of the Game, “Everyone has their reasons.”  You never look at the psycho as anything remotely like a monster, the jealous husband is never belittled or scorned and the femme is both plainly manipulative and sadly victimized.

It’s a real pleasure to watch an artist so effortlessly and confidently in command of his tools.  The movie is endlessly suspenseful and surprising while never becoming sensational or italicized.  It’s Hitchcock without the devices and the remote coldness.

I’m not overly familiar with Zola, but I’m surprised at how pulpy his sense of plot is.  I worked on an adaptation of Therese Raquin a while back, and that book not only has lust and murder and intrigue, but also ghosts and hallucinations and an operatic level of dread.  I have no idea what the novel of Bete is like but it sounds like it’s just a notch more highbrow than, say, Jim Thompson.

The notes refer to the plot as a “triangle” (between the lug, the femme and the husband), but I detect a fourth player: Lison, the locomotive that the lug (Jean Gabin) works on.  Renoir gives the train a full 7-minute wordless introduction as Gabin guides it thundering down the track, through tunnels and into the station.  We see that Gabin has an intimate relationship with the engine, which he underscores later on when someone asks him why he doesn’t have a girlfriend.  “Oh, I do have a girlfriend,” he says, “Lison.”  (Just the fact that he’s given his locomotive a name, much less a woman’s name, says plenty right there.)  Later, when he, without preamble, almost strangles a girlfriend to death on an embankment, the only thing that stops him is a train going by: it’s almost as though he’s in a carnal embrace and interrupted by his “wife” entering the room.  He breaks off the strangulation and stomps off, guilty and disgusted with himself.  Not that he almost killed a woman but because he feels weak and out of control.  (Strangest of all, the woman sympathises with him and they walk off together, finishing their date as though nothing had happened [apparently they’d come to that impasse before].)  We get the sense that Lison is a stabilizing force in Gabin’s life, that he lavishes all his affection and labor over this locomotive because if he ever stops working, he’ll have no choice but to murder someone.  And indeed, once he does finally murder someone, he turns himself in not to the police but to Lison, as though the locomotive is the only one who can judge him.

Late Spring

A young woman takes care of her widowed father. Everyone thinks that the daughter should get married. But the daughter is happy just taking care of her father. That is, until the father announces that he intends to remarry and the daughter is forced to make a decision.

And that’s it, that’s the plot of Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring. Oh, there’s a third-act “surprise,” but plot isn’t really the point of Ozu’s films.

The polar opposite of Kurosawa’s operatic dramas and the popular samurai epics of the time, Ozu’s domestic dramas are minimalist, realist, quiet and reserved. In fact, they are in many ways about being reserved. Observational and behavioral in the extreme, they don’t feel like any other Japanese movies I know of. Instead they remind me of Austen and Chekhov, Raymond Carver and Jim Jarmusch.

Like Jarmusch, Ozu’s dramatic strategy sometimes takes a little getting used to. His films may appear to be “boring” for the first half-hour or so as you watch people in mid-20th-century Japan go about their daily lives, cooking and working and eating and gossiping. You’re waiting for the movie to start. Then, as the first act edges into the second and patterns start to repeat themselves, you begin to realize that you weren’t just watching random behavior, you were watching very specific, emblematic behavior, tiny little actions as simple as folding a napkin or raising a drinking glass that, if you had been paying attention, would have told you all you need to know about the characters you’ve been watching. Ozu’s dramas are, in fact, about the way tiny little actions become habit, habit becomes identity, and identity is threatened by change. And as you start to become aware of the “plot,” these tiny little actions start to take on more and more significance. So suddenly, the way someone walks or talks or eats a piece of cake becomes terribly important, as it may contain a vital clue to the character’s inner life, and by the middle half-hour you’re on tenterhooks trying to figure out if people are really saying what they mean, if they’re hiding some terrible secret, if they’re ever going to give their domineering parents what for, if they’re ever going to be happy. Then, by the third act, the accumulated drama, during which no one ever speaks above a conversational tone, invariably becomes almost unbearably moving. Then, typically, a character must face some sort of universal human truth, like, say, everyone has to grow up, or everyone has to pursue their own happiness, or everyone has to die. “That’s just the way human life is,” a character will often sigh near the end of an Ozu picture. And those ideas aren’t new or revelatory, but in the context of Ozu’s pictures they take on the weight of heartbreaking profundity.

Ozu, in addition to being a hugely skilled dramatist, has an utterly unique shooting style as well. He has, essentially, one setup: the camera at the eye-level of a person sitting cross-legged on the floor. This setup remains essentially unchanged whether it’s an interior, exterior, dialogue scene, action scene (well, “action” having a very tiny definition here — a stack of magazines sliding off a chair constitutes an “action” beat in Late Spring), even establishing shots will be shot from the same angle. He also rarely moves the camera at all. I can’t remember a single tilt, pan or dolly in one of his movies, or even a zoom. There are a total of four tracking shots in Late Spring, all of which are used for “walk and talk” scenes, and all keeping the “Ozu angle” intact, as though we are watching the shots from the POV of a man sitting in a Radio Flyer wagon being pulled by a slowly moving car. In addition, he will sometimes have entire dialogue scenes covered in POV shots, with characters delivering their lines directly to camera. It creates an almost unnerving intensity; as actors zero in on you, you want to look away from their gaze in embarrassment. Jonathan Demme used the same technique for an important scene in Silence of the Lambs.

Ozu also used the same actors throughout his entire career. The two leads here, Chisu Ryu and Setsuko Hara are in most of the Ozu pictures I’ve seen, and they never fail to astound.  They use an acting vocabulary so different from what I’m used to as an American that I can’t even think of American equivalents to compare them to.  Ryu’s permanent little twisted smile and Hara’s ever-heartbreaking hope and despair get under your skin in ways that even great stars like Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai do not.  Those guys are movie stars, but Ryu and Hara seem like real people.

My love affair with Ozu began with Tokyo Story, which is him at his heaviest for him.  For lighter fare, there is the comedy Good Morning.  But my personal favorite is Floating Weeds, which is about a traveling actor who swing by a seaside town for the first time in fifteen years and finds that he long ago fathered a child by a woman he had slept with for a night.

One more thing I should say is that the Criterion Collection has changed my life.  I have something in my brain that does not allow me to pay proper attention to bad prints of old movies with corrupted soundtracks.  Classics like Dracula and His Girl Friday and It Happened One Night went unwatched by me because I couldn’t watch the terrible murky prints they showed on television.  But give me a restored print and a fine, crackling soundtrack and I can watch just about anything, I don’t know why but it really makes a difference to me.  So I owe my interest in Ozu, Kurosawa, Bergman, Renoir and countless other great directors to the work done by Criterion.

Oh, and the projector is fixed, obviously.  Hurray!

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Spoiler alert.

There is a guy. He has a friend. They both like the same girl.

There is a man who calls himself Dr. Caligari. He has a carnival act, what he calls a “somnambulist.”

Dr. C is mistreated by an impatient clerk.

The clerk is found stabbed to death in his bed. This upsets the citizenry.

The guy and his friend go to the carnival and see Dr. C and his somnambulist, whose name is Cesare.

Cesare, played by Conrad Veidt, has a thin, weird, unsettling, urbaniak-style creepiness about him. He sleeps in a coffin, the “cabinet” of the title.  (For unrivalled creepiness, check him out in The Man Who Laughs, where he inspired the Batman folks to create The Joker.)

Dr. C says that Cesare can tell the future. The guy’s friend steps forward and says, with a laugh, “How long will I live?” Cesare stares at him with his Urbaniak glare and says “’til break of day.”

That night, Dr. C sends the sleepwalking Cesare out into the night to murder the guy’s friend in his bed. He does so. This upsets the citizenry.

The guy now has the girl, but she’s upset because the friend has been stabbed to death in his bed. Her father, sensitive to this type of thing, goes to investigate the doctor and his somnambulist. The father goes out to the fairgrounds and finds that a dummy rests in Cesare’s coffin.

Cesare, at that moment, has gone to the girl’s house to kill her. He is startled in his efforts by some local citizenry, who chase him through town (shades of Fritz Lang’s M).*

The guy goes chasing after Dr. C and follows him to an insane asylum. The staff of the asylum grab the guy, who is hysterical. He insists that the man responsible for the death of his friend and the abduction of his fiancee is in their asylum. The orderlies take the guy to the head doctor, who turns out to be — yes, Dr. Caligari.

The guy waits until the doctor is out of his office, then ransacks his files until he finds the proof that he is behind the mysterious murders in town. It seems that this doctor, inspired by an Italian man named Dr. Caligari, decided to perform an experiment on a cataleptic, to see if he could get a sleeping man to do things he would not do when awake. Once he had done so, it appears that the doctor got a little carried away, getting poor Cesare to kill just about anyone who inconvenienced the doctor.

The guy, burning with righteous fury, accuses the doctor, who denies everything until the body of the dead Cesare, who has apparently collapsed in a field outside of town, is brought in. At this point, the doctor also collapses, in grief, and spills the beans about his psychiactric misdeeds. He is bound in a strait-jacket and carted off to one of his own cells.

All well and good. But then, in a Donald Kaufman-esque twist ending, we PULL BACK TO REVEAL that this tale is being told to us by the guy, who, for some reason, STILL LIVES AT THE INSANE ASYLUM. We come to find that his fiancee is there, and Cesare too, and that they’re all quite stark raving mad. So apparently none of this involving tale is true.

In addition to the twist ending (or as M. Night Shamalyan calls them the “paradigm shift”), there’s the matter of the sets.

They are deliberately weird, fake, flat, hand-made, crazy, unsettling and bizarre. Unlike anything that’s been done before or since, I don’t know why. And at first you’re like “What’s with the sets?” But then, when the twist ending comes, you say “Oh, I see, because the narrator is crazy.” Frankly, I don’t know why this experiment has never been repeated. Only recently, with movies like Sin City and A Scanner Darkly has this kind of heavily stylized, deliberate artificiality found its way into a mainstream feature.  Correct me if I’m wrong.

And, of course, I’m thinking about a remake.

The thing I like best about the movie, aside from the visionary sets and the ahead-of-its-time narrative, is the film’s ideas about guilt.  Dr. C has found a way to commit evil acts with a clean conscience — he’s not the one killing people, Cesare is.  Cesare, on the other hand, also feels no guilt because he doesn’t even know that he’s killing anyone.  People die, citizenry is hysterical, and no one has to pay a penalty.  No one is guilty.  No wonder the protagonist has gone insane.

*smarty-pant film students will recall that Lang was first asked to direct Caligari.
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Big Deal on Madonna Street

1958. Directed by Mario Monicelli.

THE SHOT: A ragtag group of lovable screwups plots a less-than-ingenious heist of a pawnbroker’s safe.

TONE: Charming, roguish humor, humming with a wise and witty stance on human life.

Heat it is not.  The gang is unprofessional in the extreme.  On the one hand, they don’t have a clue as to what they’re doing.  On the other hand, it does not turn out that one of the gang is a trigger-happy psychopath.  The love stories woven into the plot seem natural and revealing of character, instead of being shoehorned in.  The comedy is easy, organic and human in scale.

The back of the box says that this is a satire of Rififi and its ilk.  Satire it’s not.  It’s warm, affectionate and bittersweet and requires no special knowledge of those films to enjoy.

DOES CRIME PAY?  Well….no.

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Faites Sauter La Banque!, Rrrrrrr!

Two French comedies with exclamation points in their titles.

Faites Sauter La Banque!, or Let’s Break the Bank!, is a Louis de Funes vehicle from 1963. I had been promised (warned?) that de Funes was “The French Jerry Lewis” (whatever THAT means), so I was expecting something quite broad, if not unwatchably garish and shrill.

Luckily, de Funes is nothing like that. Born in 1914, he made over 100 movies in France. In Banque! he comes off not so much like Jerry Lewis but Jackie Gleason. He doesn’t have Gleason’s weight or immense presence (he is, in fact, rather slight and unassuming in appearance, more Joe Pesci than Jackie Gleason), but he plays a similar character: the long suffering, easily frustrated, put-upon paterfamilias, who’s just trying to keep his head above water and will resort to crazy schemes to do so.

American audiences will recognize this character not just from Gleason but Fred Flintstone (I know, I know), Fred’s futuristic cousin George Jetson, Fred MacMurray from My Three Sons, and Dagwood Bumstead (all of which more or less overlap in time; what was going on in world culture that these put-upon dads all showed up at the same time?)

The crazy scheme this time around is: de Funes has been defrauded of his life savings by the unscrupulous banker whose bank is across the street from de Funes’s sporting-goods shop. de Funes hatches a harebrained scheme to tunnel under his store and into the bank vault, and enlists the aid of his foggy, scatterbrained family to complete the task.

Complications ensue, as they inevitably must.

It’s fleet, it’s funny, it’s only a little dated, it has no ending, and it zips by in an hour and twenty-three minutes.

de Funes’s comedy is only a wee bit broad, based in stage performance but not distractingly so, very quick and very detailed.

Woody Allen fans will note that Allen lifted the basic concept and an entire scene from Faites Sauter La Banque! for use in Small Time Crooks, where the bank robbers hit a water main, then rush upstairs to the store to get repairing supplies and find the last person who they want to know about the tunnel. Even a couple of lines of dialogue made it into Allen’s film.

Rrrrrrr! is a much later comedy (2004) written and directed by Alain Chabat, who has made a name for himself in France as a creator of solidly, unapologetically commercial comedies.

Rrrrrrr! is what I would call a “prehistoric procedural,” the story of the world’s first homicide investigation, in fact the story of the world’s first homicide. There is serial killer loose in caveman days, and a pair of slackers are assigned the task of finding the culprit.

The movie is very funny, succeeding most when it sends up conventions of policiers (“don’t worry, they can’t see you through this two-way rock” says one of the detectives to a wary witness). The humor is rather Pythonesque, and Americans can be assured that this is a genuine cultural artifact by the presence of Gerard Depardieu and Jean Rochefort in supporting roles.

Sight gags and linguistic jokes abound. Everyone in the tribe is named Pierre (or “Stan” in the English translation), due apparently to a lack of imagination on the part of the tribal chieftain. All animals in the movie have mammoth-like tusks, including ducks, chickens and frogs. A babysitter is paid “half a boarmoth” for watching the kids.

The murderer is revealed early on. The characters, and indeed the movie, are in no hurry. There is no mystery to speak of, and the stakes remain low throughout the movie, the better for the gags to flow.

I have no idea if either of these movies are available in any form in the US.
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