So I am putting up Buster Sign for a couple weeks.
I’ve been preparing to move apartments; Roommate Russ and I were kind of “encouraged” to give up our apartment by a new landlord who bought out the building in May. Fortunately Roommate Russ and I have a new space, and the end of July is my last day in my current place.
For Roommate Russ this was a hassle, but a manageable one – he had only been there a year and change and didn’t have THAT much stuff, so he is already in the new space. But for me…I’d been in our current space for fifteen years, and accumulated much more in the way of just….stuff. The new place is a little smaller than our old one, but has much less closet space, so I’m in an absolute orgy of sorting and purging of things before I can even properly begin packing.
And let’s not forget my broken knee, kids! Oh, and did I mention the old apartment is on the 4th floor, and there’s no elevator?
There are some signs of helpers and hope, though – a couple of co-workers have offered to help with some toting of stuff to donation centers, and are even claiming some furniture I need to give up; I have a few neighbors coming to help as well. But this is all going to be taking some priority for the next couple weeks, so I’m going to have to wait until I’m more settled in the new place to watch the next film. But just a couple weeks, fortunately.
At the time of its release, Anatomy Of A Murder was considered so scandalous and shocking that Chicago’s then-mayor Richard J. Daley banned it, and star Jimmy Stewart’s own father urged family and friends to skip it. Not because of anything we see anyone doing in the film – it’s a straightforward courtroom trial drama. But the trial concerns a man accused of shooting his wife’s rapist, and there are some fairly lengthy discussions of the wife’s actions and the exact nature of the various forms of evidence, including mention of the words “contraceptive” and “sexual climax”, which for 1959 was a lot. Happily, here in 2021, when your average Law and Order SVUscript goes even further, there’s still enough going on to surprise and shock.
The film focuses almost entirely on the trial proceedings and the efforts of Michigan defense attorney Paul Biegler (Stewart), his paralegal Maida (Eve Arden), and friend and co-counsel Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell). Things kick off shortly after Biegler has lost a re-election bid for his town’s district attorney seat, and has been consoling himself with a semi-retirement spent fly fishing and drinking with McCarthy. He doesn’t even have an opinion when local army Lieutenant Fred Manion (Ben Gazzara) is arrested for killing a local bartender. Only when Manion’s wife Laura (Lee Remick) calls to hire him to serve as Manion’s defense attorney does he take interest.
Biegler realizes quickly that this is going to be one messy case. Manion claims he shot the bartender after his wife Laura claimed she’d been raped; Manion assumes that that’s just cause. And then when Biegler meets Laura to hear her side of the story, she spends most of their conversation flirting with Biegler. But after some frank discussions with both Manions, and a bit more investigation into the crime, Biegler takes the case and mounts a defense of temporary insanity. In court he is matched by not just one, but two prosecuting attorneys – local DA Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) has brought in a ringer in Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), a suave, brilliant attorney who seems to enjoy knocking Biegler’s “humble country lawyer” schtick down several pegs. Although, Dancer seems to enjoy discrediting Laura’s rape claims even more.
The SVU comparison actually isn’t that far off the mark. There’s a lot of attention to the weird details of courtroom procedure – so much so that this film sometimes is used in law schools as a teaching tool. There are a good deal of twists and turns in the case, such that while the ending isn’t that much of a surprise, it’s still fun to see the route the film used to take us there. It also doesn’t depict Biegler as a wholly noble person either, nor Dancer as completely a snake; Biegler skates dangerously close to coaching his witnesses, and Dancer calls him on it – and on using his folksy-lawyer schtick to appeal to the jury. The judge doesn’t always buy it either – but he gets just as fed up with Dancer, and spends a good deal of time trying to keep both sets of lawyers reined in.
…In a fun twist, the judge is played by actual lawyer Joseph N. Welch – who is best known for serving as Chief Counsel for the Army during the Army-McCarthy hearings only five years prior, and for being the man to famously ask Joseph McCarthy “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” He claimed to have taken the role because “it looked like that’d be the only way I’d ever get to be a judge”. Most trial lawyers probably have a little bit of the orator in them, and a bit of a flair for the dramatic – but for a non-professional, Welch does surprisingly well in the part, and he probably could have enjoyed a decent second career after this role. Instead, he retired from both the law and the screen.
Another non-actor appearing in the film is Duke Ellington, who also wrote most of the film’s score alongside his brief appearance as a bar-room pianist named “Pie-Eye” playing a duet with Biegler. The film justifies the score by making Biegler a jazz fan. Ellington’s score grabs attention on its own – brassy and bawdy and ever-so-sleazy – so I didn’t necessarily need to have Biegler give a de facto stamp of approval; but it was more of a throwaway detail, so I wasn’t bothered by that either.
All told, I enjoyed it – I already have a soft spot for this kind of courtroom police procedural, and this had all the very elements which draw me in.
So, there are some works of art I just don’t get, and never will. Sometimes people discover I’m not a fan of thus-and-such a thing, and will go on an impassioned lecture, trying to Explain Everything – but the issue isn’t that I don’t understand it, the issue is that I don’t get it. Like, I may understand the thought process behind an artwork like that thing Damian Hirst did with the shark in formaldehyde; but I just can’t relate to it as art. To me, it still looks like nothing more than a half-finished natural history museum exhibit. And honestly, this is perfectly fine – I’m just not wired to get those things, that’s all, and I’ll just happily leave them to others and go hang around the things I do get.
This….was one of those things I don’t get.
This is not to say I didn’t see or respect the innovation and the novelty of the approach. Shadows was the directoral debut of John Casavetes, then toiling away as a character actor in formulaic TV and B-movies while desperately seeking something meatier. The problem was that his own taste was rather different from others’ in the industry; he was drawn to the work of the Beats, and wanted to make films about society’s outcasts and outsiders. Since he couldn’t find any such films to be in, he made one – using most of the salary from his own acting gigs to pay for the equipment and hire unknowns as the cast, filming without a permit and using improvisational games to cough up the script.
The script thus produced here, and the outsiders in question, are a family of three siblings – Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), an aspiring writer, Ben (Ben Carruthers), who calls himself a jazz trumpeter but really just hangs around clubs flirting, and responsible Hugh (Hugh Hurd), a singer who understands the need for artists to sometimes “sell out” in order to make money. That’s the biggest reason Hugh is able to find more work than Leila or Ben – like a night-club gig where he’s reduced to singing only a few bars of one of his own works before introducing a bunch of strippers. It’s demeaning work, but Hugh takes it; he’s the breadwinner in the family, and feels especially protective of his siblings, particularly the girlish Lelia.
Except Lelia may not be quite that innocent. She’s got a sort-of boyfriend in David (David Pokitillow), an older self-styled intellectual who spends most of his time trying to lecture to her – but at a party, her head is quickly turned by Tony (Anthony Ray), who’s just as intellectual but is younger and cuter and better at sweet-talking her. Tony talks Lelia into sleeping with him – for her it’s the first time – and seems to genuinely be falling for her after, so much so that he insists on seeing her home. And that’s when he meets her brothers Ben and Hugh. And freaks out a bit – because Ben, Lelia, and Hugh are actually all African-American, but Lelia was light-skinned enough that she appeared Caucasian. The naive Lelia doesn’t get why he’s shocked, but Hugh – recognizing Tony’s conflict for what it is – sends him away. Tony makes one more effort to see Lelia again, but by this time she’s moved on, begrudgingly going on a date with another black man (David Jones) at Hugh’s behest.
To be perfectly honest, I cribbed that plot description above from articles about the film – because the film itself actually gave me vanishingly little to go on. Cassavetes based the script on a series of improvised acting exercises with students in one of his acting classes, and even offers a title card at the end claiming that the whole film was an improv. It wasn’t, but Cassavetes strove to retain the feel of an improv exercise, with actors talking over each other, scenes just sort of randomly starting and stopping, and practically no transition from one scene to the next. There’s ostensibly a subplot about Hugh’s career challenges and Ben’s career aspirations, but what I saw on the screen dealt with that very little; there’s Hugh’s disastrous night club gig, there’s a scene with Ben and his bandmates blowing off a rehearsal to go hang around MoMA’s sculpture garden, but those scenes felt disconnected to any of the other scenes in the film, and didn’t tell me all that much. In fact, the only character who felt like they really had a sustainable through-line throughout the film was Lelia.
Honestly, I feel like a huge Philistine just saying that I didn’t get this. But – I’m sorry, I didn’t. Some of the individual scenes caught my eye – the MoMA sequence is kinda fun – but I was still left cold, wondering why I ultimately was being shown this stuff. I couldn’t quite follow the story through the murk of the “stuff” I was being shown and ended up confused. Intrigued in places – the slice-of-life glimpses I got made Lelia, Hugh, and Ben seem really interesting – but ultimately without as much insight into them as I wished I’d had.
Sometimes the films I see have been the subject of critical deep-dives or scholarly essays, either because of the subject matter or the artistic impact. I tend not to read any of these until after I’ve seen the film – after all, those essays didn’t exist when the film was first released, and it lets me react to a film on its own merits (for good or ill). So it wasn’t until after the fact that I realized that this was perhaps a truly unique film to watch in the days when Critical Race Theory is a going concern.
As the name suggests, this is an adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridyce set in the favelas of 1950s Rio de Janeiro. Orfeo (Breno Mello) is a trolley driver by day and musician by night, while Euridyce (Marpessa Dawn) is a new arrival from the country, come to stay with her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia) to flee a mysterious stalker (Adhemar da Silva). It’s a couple days before the Brazillian Carnaval, and Orfeo, Serafina and Orfeo’s fiancée Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira) are all representing their local samba school in the parade – Serafina drafts Euridyce into the fray as well, and Orfeo quickly has his head turned by the shy, pretty stranger. This upsets Mira, of course – and it also looks like Euridyce’s stalker has somehow followed her to Rio. So Serafina loans Eurydice her own costume, which conveniently has a heavy veil, so Euridyce can dance in her place and stay under Orfeo’s protection (and so Serafina can stay home and canoodle with her sailor boyfriend Chico [Waldemar De Souza], who’s in town on shore leave for a couple days).
But both Mira and the stalker find her out, and after a desperate chase into the trolley yard, Eurydice is killed. Orfeo doesn’t quite want to believe she’s gone, though, and makes a desperate visit to the local hospitals and the police station, searching for her. A janitor finds him wandering around the abandoned missing-persons section, and says he may know where Orfeo can find Euridyce – and leads him to a Macumba group meeting that night. If Orfeo is lucky, and follows the rules, he may just be able to get Euridyce back from the spirit world…
I mean, it’s Orpheus and Euridyce, you know the story.
When you’re seeing a retelling of such a familiar story, the fun is seeing how the various trappings deal with the different details – it’s a Macumba group instead of the underworld, Orfeo is a guitar player and composer with near-mythic status amongst the kids in the favela, Mira is crazy enough to be one of the Bacchantes towards the end…there are some details that felt a little too on-the-nose (the watchdog outside the Macumba church is literally named “Cerberus“, for instance), but these were few and far between. Director Marcel Camus seems to have leaned most heavily on the color and spectacle of Carnaval itself to carry the day – sometimes even giving the acting itself short shrift. Breno Mello wasn’t even an actor when he was cast as Orfeo – he was a soccer player who Camus felt looked sufficiently attractive. Fortunately his role is simple enough, and the costumes and color and music and action distracting enough. And other actors’ performances also bolster Mello’s work; Marpessa Dawn was an actress herself, and there are some lengthy bits of comic schtick with Serafina and Chico that amuse. But this really isn’t “about” Orfeo and Euridyce so much as it’s “about” seeing the dazzle and flash of Carnaval.
And that’s the bit that bothered many Brazilians at the time of the film’s release, and which has been the focus of many articles since. For many international filmgoers, this was their first real look at Brazil – and it certainly would have captured more attention than did the earlier Limite. But the Brazil it depicts is a fun and colorful and exotic one, with people dancing in the streets and saucy women and jovial merchants and weird spooky rituals. The actual favelas were a good deal dirtier, grittier and more cramped than in the film, which makes them look like a tiny-house development perched on a hillside with killer ocean views.
It was all a sort of fairy tale, in short; which very well have been Camus’ intent, to go a little fantastical with an adaptation of a myth. But many Brazilians, then and since, have bristled that that was what people thought Brazil looked like all the time, and it lead to a sort of exoticism white visitors would come to expect when they came to Brazil. Some non-Brazilians of color even point to Black Orpheus as the root of some fetishizing of non-whites in general; there’s a passage from Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father where he attends a screening of Black Orpheus with his mother, and realizes that her having seen it as a young woman left her with an exoticized image of non-white men – which in turn lead to her falling in love with his father. Which he admits left him pretty uneasy at the time.
And that’s something I’ve thought about a little since watching the film. I’d noticed that it was kind of flashy and pretty and colorful and fun – the Technicolor in this gets put to excellent use, I tell you what. And this is going to sound defensive – but I don’t believe I ever assumed that this was anything but a fairy tale in the first place, so I seem to have avoided that trap. I mean, all films about a place that depict that place go for the most eye-catching tropes; every film about New York City looks like certain blocks in Manhattan, and not like my own neighborhood at all. Every film about New Orleans focuses on Bourbon Street (especially if the film is set during Mardi Gras, but often even if it isn’t). Every film about Paris is set in a place where you can see the Eiffel Tower out the window, every film about London has Big Ben in it, and on and on. Film has always dealt in the fantastical and polished-up depiction of a place, and this is no different. If any viewers came away from Black Orpheus thinking that Brazilians were all happy residents of charming little houses and regularly danced at the drop of a hat, I would argue that this says more about the viewers themselves than it does about the film.
Fortunately, though, Brazilian irritation at Black Orpheus helped to fuel a new homegrown film scene in Brazil, one which drew inspiration from Italian neo-realism and which dealt with weightier topics. I’ll be seeing more of that work in the months ahead.
First, some apologies for the delay – Roommate Russ and I were contending with a hunt for a new apartment (I realized at one point that the last time I did a proper apartment hunt was back in 1994). But I think things have stabilized enough now to bring you a review. ….My bad luck that it’s a review of a nearly four-hour Bible epic starring Charlton Heston.
But it is a nearly four-hour Bible epic that left me pleasantly surprised. This time around Heston is “Judah Ben-Hur”, a wealthy Jewish merchant living in Judea during the days of Roman occupation. While other Jews are rebelling against the Romans, Ben-Hur is a little more chill – he’d like the Romans gone, sure, but he’s more into the diplomatic approach. In fact, one of his childhood best friends was a Roman – Messala (Stephen Boyd), who’s just been rewarded with a military command of a post in Jerusalem. The friends enjoy a warm reunion, but during their talk Messala tries to talk Ben-Hur into turning informant against his own people, giving Messala the names of any known Jewish Zealots. Ben-Hur is taken aback by the request and turns Messala down, driving a wedge between the friends. In fact, Messala is so hurt by what he feels to be a betrayal that he soon seizes on a flimsy excuse to punish Ben-Hur, when a loose ceiling tile falls off Ben-Hur’s house and nearly hits the Roman governor. It’s an accident, and Messala knows it is, but he still accuses Ben-Hur of deliberately throwing it, and sentences him to hard labor as a galley slave. And for good measure, Messala also sentences Ben-Hur’s mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) to life in prison.
Ben-Hur spends the next three years nursing one mighty grudge. But then a Roman naval captain, Arrius (Jack Hawkins), cuts Ben-Hur a little slack during a sea battle by not chaining him to his seat like the other slaves. This lets Ben-Hur save some of the other slaves when the boat takes a hit – and then go on to rescue Arrius as well. The grateful Arrius not only frees Ben-Hur, he adopts him, training him as a charioteer. But Ben-Hur has never forgotten his family, and soon returns to Judea, hoping to use his newfound prestige to free his mother and sister, and to get back at Messala. He is quickly enlisted as a charioteer for the wealthy Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), who suggests showing Messala up in a big chariot race is the best way to embarrass him, or even kill him (chariot races can get awfully dangerous, dont’cha know). But Esther (Haya Harrareet), a former flame of Ben-Hur’s, urges him to stand down; he could get killed, he might get arrested again, or something worse could happen. In fact, there’s a new Prophet she’s been listening to, some Guy out of Nazareth, who suggests that people should love their enemies.
…So, the book upon which this was based bills itself as “A Story Of The Christ”, but director William Wyler leaves Jesus out of most of the story; He appears as an incidental character only, either from a distance or shot from behind. He gives Ben-Hur some water as he is being marched off to the galleys, and Ben-Hur returns the favor when he stumbles upon Jesus’ walk to Golgotha; and except for a prologue showing the Nativity and a scene where Esther tries to drag Ben-Hur to come listen to The Sermon On The Mount, that’s pretty much it. The actor playing Jesus, an opera singer named Claude Heater, wasn’t even credited in the final film. Instead, we get action and spectacle – a big sea battle (even if you can tell they used toy ships in a tank in some places) and a brilliantly epic chariot race, with some surprisingly violent stunts. Far wiser film scholars than I have spoken of the chariot race sequence, and have spoken far better than I have; all I will add, therefore, is the affirmation that it lives up to its hype.
Heston also, thankfully, isn’t gravely intoning things the way he was as Moses; he’s got more of an emotional range (hell, he has an emotional range). Esther – on her way to becoming an early Christian – isn’t a preachy mouthpiece either; she is genuinely into Ben-Hur, and is genuinely concerned about him. And she’s gutsy – thinking nothing of doing charity work amongst the lepers near town. (Well, there’s a bit of a reason for that.) There are a couple moments where Esther speaks of something Jesus said with a bit of a starry-eyed awe, and Ben-Hur goes through a similar conversion towards the end after witnessing the Crucifixion, but in terms of preachiness, it’s pretty low-impact.
This was not a film I could watch lightly. It was meaty and complex, and I had to figure a good deal out; most of the film is nothing but conversations between our leads, a pair of unnamed lovers who’ve met by chance in the city of Hiroshima, and several sequences illustrating some of the woman’s thoughts or memories, and that’s it. I was captivated enough to want to figure things out, however.
And some of the imagery is just plain gorgeous regardless. The opening sequence features shots of our leads embracing (lovemaking is implied, but not graphically depicted) as ash falls on their bodies, interspersed with recreations or still shots of newsreel footage from the aftermath of the U.S. nuclear attack on Hiroshima. All we hear is the couple’s voices – “She” (Emmanuelle Riva) speaks of all the things she saw in the attack on Hiroshima, or in the museum about the attacks, claiming she saw “Iron, burned and twisted…. a bouquet of bottle caps…photographs and reconstructions, for lack of anything else…” But “He” (Eiji Okada) keeps interrupting Her: “you didn’t see that.” “You never saw that.” “You saw nothing, you weren’t there.” And all the while, we flip from clips showing exactly what She is describing, to clips of their bare skin, Her fingers gripping His back and both sparkling with either sweat or radioactive ash.
Things do settle down and get a bit more linear after this, and gradually we learn that they’ve effectively just met for a hookup; She is a French actress in town shooting a film, which She only describes as “an international movie about peace”, while He is an architect who’d met Her in a bar the previous night. He wants to see Her again; but She is flying home to Paris the next day. Still, something about their encounter hit them both hard, so when He surprises Her on set that afternoon, after She’s wrapped, She leaves to spend Her final hours in Hiroshima with Him. And as their conversation grows more intimate, we learn just how impossible any future romance might be between them – both are married to other people, for one thing, but She is also carrying a very heavy burden of memory, the ghost of another romance from even earlier in Her past, during the Second World War. And Her tale, when we finally get the whole story – told painfully and piecemeal in several separate anecdotes throughout – is tragic and heartbreaking, but even more heartbreaking is how She has clearly been ruminating over it for several years, how it has shackled Her and kept Her from another genuine connection before this – and how that is partly Her own fault.
My biggest complaint, however, is that we don’t do as much of a deep dive into His past. He also suffered loss from the war, just as She did (I mean, He’s from Hiroshima, so that doesn’t come as that much of a surprise) – but He has made His peace with that pain. He is strong enough to consider fostering some kind of ongoing connection with Her, but ultimately realizes that She isn’t going to be able to do that. That’s a perfectly valid disconnect – hell, I can probably chalk a couple of my own breakups up to a similar dynamic. But the problem is that as far as the film goes, He is so at peace with His past that it barely comes up. The revelation of His own wartime tragedy is such a fleeting thing that I actually missed it; I even went back and re-watched a couple scenes after I read about that after the fact, in search of the moment where He told Her His story, but couldn’t find it. And I felt cheated, and I felt a bit like He was cheated as well – especially since this then means that this film, which ostensibly uses Hiroshima as a framing device, becomes the tale of a tragic love story from rural France instead.
It’s always possible He may not really be recovered after all. At the time of this film, it would have been about 14 years after the attack – He might very well be deliberately Not Thinking About Things as a coping mechanism because He’s not ready. I was an eyewitness to the 9/11 attacks, and there are some memories from that day which I know that I have deliberately pushed to the back of my mind all “nope, not gonna go there” – and His own losses in the Hiroshima attacks were several orders of magnitude more personal than what I faced that day. However, this is all speculation – there is simply not enough to go on in the film to suggest whether this might be the case, and that in itself is my complaint.
But like Him, I still want to dig down and know more about the both of them, and the strong connection They both enjoyed and the mammoth obstacles which are ultimately tearing them apart again.
This was a little Western that snuck up and surprised me. It’s short, and I hadn’t heard of any of the actors save for James Coburn (making his debut in a smaller supporting role). But it’s a lean story that cuts to the chase, and doesn’t get bogged down in any of the tropes about Westerns I’ve disliked in the past.
Randolph Scott stars as “Ben Brigade”, a bounty hunter we first meet just as he is catching up with his latest quarry, Billy John (James Best), who’s wanted for murder in Santa Cruz. Billy isn’t too keen on turning himself in, but ultimately comes quietly, asking one of his companions to alert his brother Frank before they set off. The pair stop in at a stagecoach station en route and meet outlaw Sam Boone (Pernell Robert) and his partner Whit (James Coburn), both of whom seem friendly enough until a woman bursts out with a gun drawn on them both. This is Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) – the wife of the station master who’s been trying to hold down the station while her husband is away on an errand. And no, she doesn’t know Boone or Whit, they just showed up and she wants them gone. Brigade quickly figures out that Boone and Whit have turned up to try to rob the next coach – just as Boone and Whit are figuring out that Brigade is traveling with Billy John, and they are also interested in the bounty. Good thing, too, since the next coach had been attacked by warriors from the Mescalero tribe and contained only dead passengers when it arrived. Carrie Lane soon learns the Mescaleros have killed her husband as well; so when Brigade sets off with Billy John the next day, she joins in with Boone and Whit and tags along.
As they travel, Boone repeatedly tells Brigade that he’s playing nice for now, since it looks like Brigade can help the party get safely to Santa Cruz – but he also has every intention of fighting Brigade for Billy once they arrive and claiming the bounty himself. Brigade doesn’t seem too bothered by this. ….In fact, Brigade seems to be a little too chill. Almost like he’s taking his time and drawing out the trip. Even when Whit spots that Billy’s brother Frank is on their tale, Brigade doesn’t speed up. Why, it’s almost like Brigade wants Frank to catch up….what’s going on with that?
You do learn what’s going on with that, and it’s best that I not share. You also learn who gets custody of Billy by the end – and it’s a satisfying ending, with everyone getting what they really wanted all along. Well – almost everyone; Carrie is kind of a new widow adrift, but in her (unfortunately brief) role we’ve learned she’s a pretty tough cookie and we’re confident she’ll be okay. Carrie’s characterization is possibly the biggest complaint I had about that – director Budd Boetticher relegates her to eye candy in several shots, showing her in profile so as to emphasize her…physique. Boone and Whit both indulge in long lingering studies of her form. But – they keep their distance and keep their hands to themselves, fortunately, and usually a glare from Carrie is enough to make the boys back off and turn away.
The movie also never really forgets she is a recent widow – there is no scene where she falls into anyone’s arms asking for comfort or breaks down into a crying jag. She’s holding everyone at arms’ length – at one point she learns Brigade is a widower himself, and seems to recognize him as a kindred spirit rather than a potential new husband. She’s also not that interested in Boone or Whit either. And rather than being the helpless damsel in the film’s various chase scenes or shootouts, she’s joining in the fray with her own rifle and manages to take down a couple of the team’s attackers herself. Brigade also comes across as a stereotypical “taciturn lone gunman”, kind of like Shane – but unlike with Shane, you do learn his backstory, and you learn that his silence is strategic (if Boone or Whit don’t know about what his plan is, they can’t try to stop him, after all).
So it’s a Western which avoids a lot of the tropes I didn’t like, the characters all have motivations that make sense, and it’s a neat quick little story. I was pleasantly surprised.
Set in 1929, this farce stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as “Joe” and “Jerry” respectively, a pair of struggling Chicago musicians. They’re managing to scrape by with a regular gig at a speakeasy, but just barely – so when the speakeasy is raided, they’re in desperate straits, willing to accept any work – even a gig where they would have to drive an hour outside the city. However, the garage where they’re retrieving the car they’ve borrowed for the occasion is owned by a mob boss, “Toothpick Charlie” (George E. Stone), and currently in conflict with another mob boss named “Spats Columbo” (George Raft) – and while Joe and Jerry are loading the car, Spats and his men drop by to shoot down Toothpick Charlie. Joe and Jerry just manage to escape, but not without Spats noticing – which means Joe and Jerry are now mob targets, and Spats’ men will be hunting for them. …However, Joe remembered that there’s another gig he heard about, where an all-woman band was looking for a pair of musicians for a three-week gig in Florida, and they’re leaving town that night….
And thus Joe and Jerry turn themselves into “Josephine” and “Daphne” (Jerry doesn’t like “Geraldine”, he says) and report for duty just as “Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators” are boarding the train. Jerry struggles mightily to resist the temptation of the other comely women in the band – particularly “Sugar Kane” (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s ukulele player and singer. Joe issues Jerry many warnings en route to “just keep telling yourself, ‘I’m a girl’!”, but soon his head is also turned by Ms. Kane, especially when she confesses to “Josephine” that tenor sax players (like Joe) are her weak spot.
But what Sugar really wants is to marry a millionaire, she tells “Josephine” and “Daphne”. And luckily the resort where they’re heading should be host to scores of them, so she’ll be doing a little manhunting while they’re on location. Joe takes careful note of the things Sugar tells “Josephine” about what her dream man would be like – so he can later disguise himself as “Junior”, heir to the Shell Oil fortune, and “accidentally” meet her at the resort. Jerry, meanwhile, has caught the eye of another millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), who proves to be a very ardent suitor – luring “Daphne” with a ride on his yacht, sending “Daphne” huge sprays of flowers and sending her gifts, goosing her in the elevator. Joe asks Jerry to keep egging Osgood on – the gifts for “Daphne” can get regifted to Sugar as part of Joe’s charade as “Junior”. But then things come to something of a startling head when Osgood proposes to Daphne one night – and Jerry seriously considers it, as even a hour-long sham marriage would give him some financial security. And just as Joe and Jerry are discussing that – they discover that Spats has come to that same resort, on a convention for “The Friends Of Italian Opera”.
So there are parts of this which reminded me of the 1930s screwball comedies and a couple bits that felt straight out of the Marx Brothers. Joe and Jerry’s portrayal of “Josephine” and “Daphne” also reminded me of the 1970s sitcom Bosom Buddies; but not in a good way, I’m afraid. Joe and Jerry (or Curtis and Lemmon) play Josephine and Daphne as kind of snooty old maids with slightly dowdy dresses and overly-genteel manners. It’s definitely for laughs, and I get that – but just like when I was a kid and grumbled that “how could anyone not tell that that’s Tom Hanks in a dress”, I also didn’t buy that no one spotted Joe and Jerry for being the men they were. Some Like It Hot goes a little further, even, with a bell boy who keeps trying to hit on “Josephine”; and again, I have no idea how he didn’t know.
But that is the only nit I could pick, really, and it’s the kind of thing that’s so nit-picky it’s unfair. Most of the comedy comes not from playing with gender stereotypes, but rather from the increasingly-complicated deception Joe and Jerry are keeping up. Many scenes see Joe dressed as “Junior” taking his leave of Sugar – and then sprinting to “Josephine’s” hotel room so he can be dragged up enough for when Sugar comes to dish about her date. There’s also a sequence with “Daphne” out on the town with Osgood – so “Junior” can borrow his yacht and pass it off as his own to Sugar – where Jerry gradually goes from dancing a rather unenthusiastic and stiff tango with Osgood to really, really getting into it as the night goes on.
It’s also nice to note that a lot of the jokes have aged well, probably because the movie avoid the whole “women are like this and men are like that” kind of joking it could have gone for, and focuses instead on the fallout of the unique situation Joe and Jerry have put themselves into. And it doesn’t make fun of Joe and Jerry – there are almost no “haha men dressed as women isn’t that silly” jokes, instead it’s all about various complications like “can I get into the wig on time” or “oh crap I forgot to take the heels off” or such. It also has one of the single best last lines of any movie – a line which director Billy Wilder was just using as a placeholder at first because he thought they could come up with something better. But that line can’t be topped.
So, I admit up front – I didn’t like this. And as is my wont, it’s because of the story it told. However, I thought at first that the reason I didn’t like it was that it had somehow taken all the things I’d liked about The 400 Blowsand then done the opposite; upon reflection, though, I think something a little different.
As is probably no surprise, our lead is a pickpocket. Michel (Martin LaSalle) is a young Parisian man, living in a cramped attic garret and finding his own pocket money by helping himself to others’. His buddy Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) keeps urging him to get a normal job – going so far as to set Michel up on interviews – and the local Chief Police Inspector (Jean Pélégri) keeps sniffing around, suspicious of Michel but never able to find enough evidence. Michel’s ailing mother (Dolly Scal) thinks the sun rises and sets on him, but Michel is too reluctant to visit, leaving money for her instead with her pretty neighbor Jeanne (Marika Green). Michel has tried to break the habit several times, but is compelled to keep stealing – and soon catches the eye of two other pickpocketers, who teach him some of their own techniques and suggest the three of them team up.
One of the things I liked about The 400 Blows is the matter-of-fact tone it took; here, we have instead a near-constant narration track, either a confession or an apologia from Michel, and it kept bothering me – because I bought none of it. Michel ultimately is one of those people who believe that they’re too smart or too unique or to “special” for ordinary work – he says as much to the Chief Inspector at one point – and believes that this gives him free rein to help himself to others’ money. Don’t blame Michel for his crimes – blame God for making Michel such a good pickpocket!
I wrestled with how to write this review for a while – I came away from it not liking Michel on a gut level, and that kept me from getting into the film, no matter how well-shot it was. And there are some beautifully-choreographed shots – there’s a whole sequence where Michel and his two pickpocket accomplices wander amidst the crowds at a train station, meticulously and methodically picking other people’s pockets and clandestinely handing the spoils off to each other. With one victim, they even put the now-empty wallet back in the dude’s pocket.
I did find one technical point that bothered me – the sound design seemed to emphasize people’s footsteps to an unusually noticeable level, to the point that I could tell they were all faked. For a while I thought that this was what bothered me about the film, more so than Michel – but I kept coming back to just plain not liking Michel. And I finally realized why – for four years, we were living with a president who was an even bigger narcissist, and I think I may simply have had my fill of people who think that they are Too Special To Follow The Rules or are More Important Than Anyone Else.
I grant that 1959 is not 2021, and director Robert Bresson couldn’t have forseen Trumpism. But there it is.
When this film ended, I made a confused noise. Roommate Russ asked me about it, and when I explained myself, he just chuckled and said “Welcome to the French New Wave.”
He explained a bit. The 400 Blows is an early example of this French film movement – one that sought to shake up the French film industry through innovation in techniques as well as subject matter. Changing editing and narrative conventions were a particular focus, Roommate Russ said – the filmmakers made no bones about the fact that film was make-believe, and would think nothing of using jump cuts, super-long tracking shots, random scenes with the extras that just seemed cool at the time, or actors addressing the camera, or just wordlessly staring into it. The bit that confused me was that the story I’d been following throughout seemed to suddenly and arbitrarily stop, as opposed to giving me a more conventional ending.
Mind you, I mightn’t have noticed – or cared – that this story just sort of ended if everything that preceded that ending hadn’t captivated me as much. It’s the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a rough-around-the-edges Parisian boy of about twelve or thirteen. Antoine is something of a lackluster student who frequently locks horns with a particularly mean teacher (Guy Delcombe), and then scolded by his less-than-supportive parents (Albert Rémy and Claire Maurier). His behavior degrades from school pranks to playing hooky to outright theft, and by the end he’s sent off to a reform school, where his mother visits him only once to tell him that she and his stepfather are washing their hands of him.
I know that sounds like a Teen Melodrama, but on the contrary – what captivated me is how realistic and nuanced the story was. Antoine isn’t the only kid catching flak from their teacher, and he’s not even the only kid acting up – there’s an amusing scene where an entire classroom of bored students all clown around and act up when their teacher turns to write on the board, all of them stopping instantly when he turns back to them. Or another whole sequence where the gym teacher is leading the whole class out on a job through the surrounding Paris streets; and in a long overhead tracking shot, we watch as at every streetcorner or street crossing, two or three kids each slip away from the pack to go cavort on their own. By the end of the sequence our gym teacher’s pack of about 30 kids has dwindled down to a little group of six.
Antoine’s parents are also presented as less-than-ideal – but aren’t abusive or cruel. Just…frustrated with him, and with their lives. They live in a cramped apartment – but it’s clean. Stepfather Julien is trying to do good, he’s trying to bond with Antoine, and mother Gilberte is also trying to help things out with a part-time job – but Julien’s job is an entry-level grind, and Gilberte is a former teen mother who’s getting bitter. Even so, there’s a sweet scene where the whole family goes to a movie together and has a fantastic time, the ongoing family squabbles temporarily forgotten. No one in this family is an outright monster; they’re just ordinary people who’ve been dealt bad hands and who are finding they aren’t able to work with them as well as they’d hoped.
The performances are also nuanced and realistic – especially Léaud as Antoine. There’s a sequence where he’s in the reform school and his counselor has asked him to tell his story – and we get a whole lot of Antoine’s backstory in a sequence of clipped-together monologues, where we finally learn that Gilberte has been borderline neglectful and that Antoine’s also been misbehaving for a good while prior to our tale. And Léaud delivers it all in a matter-of-fact, almost bored fashion; he’d rather lie to his parents because that’s what they expect, school’s boring so he skips, it is what it is, meh. The only time we see Antoine look really upset is when his best friend René (Patrick Auffay) tries to visit him in the reform school – the security guard won’t let René in, so they’re stuck forlornly looking at each other through the glass doors before the guard shoos René off.
So I was invested in Antoine and his story, and that’s why the abrupt ending felt all the more jarring.
(Incidentally, a fun fact – the title The 400 Blows is an overly-literal translation of the actual French title Les Quatre Cents Coups, which refers to a French expression (“faire les quatre cents coups“) which roughly translates into “Raising Hell”. The original “English” name chosen for the film was Wild Oats, but the distributor insisted on that more literal, if baffling, translation instead.)