Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Music Room (Jalsaghar) (1958)



Jalsaghar
Sometimes acknowledgements are in place. This time it would be to the German co-traveler who helped fix the ridiculously defect power outlet here in the gate in Copenhagen airport enabling me to write this post in the first place. One should think I was not the first traveler who wished to use my computer in the gate…

Anyway, Jalsaghar…

Lately I have not had much luck with movies from exotic places, which is largely down to my general dislike for those places and thus not necessarily the fault of the movies themselves. Maybe I am just a grumpy old man. “Jalsaghar” in another Indian movie from Satyajit Ray and that is not really a good starting point. Add to that the dismal condition of the movie and the fights I had with the subtitles and this review can only really go one way.

To my own surprise it is not.

“Jalsaghar” is more a mental state than a movie. There is a dreamy quality to this movie that never really touch the ground. Part of that is the central role of the music, which take up maybe half or at least a third of the movie. It is Indian, yes, but instead of the painful discordant sounds I normally associate with Bollywood movies this sounds like an endless marijuana induced trance. This music is also perfectly aligned with the sleepwalking mood of the story itself and so becomes an integral part of the experience and not the artificial breaks normally associated with musicals. In other words, for what this movie is trying to do it is perfect.

I am not 100% sure I understand the particulars of the story. They do sort of slip by and with subtitles out of sync the sense of disconnect with reality is reinforced. What I do get is that we follow a landlord of the traditional feudal class, Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), who lives an aloof life in his old palace. He is of old money, but his penchant for devoting his time to music and dreaming rather than attending to his possessions means that these assets are slowly slipping away. His advisors and his wife are trying to pull him back, but when his wife and son dies at sea in a storm it only makes him retire even further into his lethargic dream state.

Roy’s standard posture is reclining on his couch smoking his nargila (waterpibe). I wonder if his tobacco is entirely legal, because he looks very relaxed even in the midst of disaster. Only the disastrous deaths around him and the flooding of his lands brings him momentarily up to the surface and that is not a pleasant place.

The counterpoint to Roy is Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose). He is a neighbor who starts out as a lowly vassal, but being thrifty and eager to embrace everything new he gains wealth and it is implied that eventually he far surpasses Roy in earthly might. But Ganguly is plebeian and Roy is patrician, in manner and thinking, and to Roy Ganguly represents a general decline. His music and culture around it is what he clings to and what makes him nobility, not his money and he is not shy to reiterate that argument. In fact it is the only thing he has left.

So, in that analyses “Jalsaghar” is the conflict between new money and old money, about culture versus earthly wealth and tradition versus modernity, issues that would resonate with post-colonial India. To me however it is all about the trance, its costs and its pleasure. Music is a pleasant drug, but Roy is using it as a refuge and as such it is as dangerous as any substance abuse.

The amazing thing here is that despite its aging and poor quality of preservation this movie works today as well as when it was made. I never thought I would hear myself saying it by I would love to be invited to Roy’s music sessions and simply embrace the music. That is the power it holds.

Don’t do drugs, kids, and careful with that music.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Defiant Ones (1958)



Lænken
I believe I have mentioned this before, so apologies for repeating myself, but I cannot stress too much how much I appreciate the wonderful surprises the List provides. Take this movie, “The Defiant Ones” by Stanley Kramer, I had absolutely no expectations going into it, but it has proven a most satisfying movie to watch with plenty of gems and food for plenty of thinking.

It is such a simple story and a trivial one to boot. Two convicts escape from a prisoner transport and are hunted throughout the movie by the police. And that is about it. I have watched my share on prison break movies, good ones and bad one and those really terrible, so you would think there is nothing much to it, but as is often the case with movies that are truly excellent the real story is actually something else altogether.

Joker Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) are two convicts who quite unexpected get a ticket to freedom when their prisoner transport crashes and they are able to walk away. Trouble is they are chained together by the wrists with heavy irons and they despise each other. Joker is white and Noah is black and though they both belong to the bottom of society they are filled with bigotry and prejudice against each other. They are hunted by the local sheriff who is convinced that they will not need their heavy artillery (state police and killer dogs) as the two convicts will probably kill each other first.

I am not American and as such is unfamiliar with the finer details of American history, but it is not difficult to guess that this movie is an analogy on the way the different races in America are tied together and will have to work it out. As such Joker and Noah are White and Black in symbolic terms. This becomes clear through the themes of the dialogue which must have resonated with it audience in its time (and judging by media coverage does even today). Joker and Noah are on a journey together, away from their pursuers, but just as much on a journey to discover each other as human beings. Telling their stories goes a long away, but it is more than that. It is the transformation of stereotypes to real persons and to find out that this person is not so terribly different from yourself. Even when the chain is removed they remain connected as is told in one of the most striking scenes of the move where Joker, shot in the shoulder is having trouble keeping up and Noah cries that he is dragging the chain, long after it has been removed.

Noah and Joker may be caught in the end, they had to, this is 1958, but in a real sense they have won their freedom as they have been set free from the shackles of racism and bigotry. Now they are together by choice, not by chains.

I find that incredibly beautiful and poetic.

This movie shines in its dialogues. Most poignantly between Noah and Joker as told above, but two other dialogue are remarkable. Pursuing the convicts is a mixed band of policemen, deputies and the local sheriff. While the deputies are mainly in it for the thrill the sheriff (Theodore Bikel) and the captain (Charles McGraw) has an interesting discussion going. The captain keep insisting on the iron fist. Killer dogs, state police, shooting to kill, whereas the sheriff, whom we learn is a former lawyer, represents a far more humane line. While his line may seem weak and insufficient it is certainly enough for the job at hand and as we learn to see the convicts as people we get to appreciate his approach. I cannot help thinking there is a political message here as well albeit not as poignant as the racial theme.

Racial is definitely the dialogue between Joker and the lonely woman (Cara Williams) they meet. She lives alone with her son in the middle of nowhere and Joker seems to be her ticket out. She completely disregard Noah and it does not even occur to her to consider him a person. It may well be that her overt racism is what is opening Jokers eyes, but I like to think that that happens even before this encounter. The woman seems sweet and charming, but there are a lot of things wrong here. Besides the racism she is willing to abandon her son and soon it is clear that Joker is nothing more than a ticket. What she represents is escape, a fantasy that is ultimately wrong, useless and cruel.

I am reading a lot into this movie and it is possible I am reading too much into it, but then again I get the feeling there is even more to find and that makes me excited. I have not stopped thinking about it since I finished it.

Back on the surface of the movie it is a great joy to see such great actors like Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis at their best. I know there will be a lot more of them coming up and that is an exciting thought.

Highly recommended.

 

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Cairo Station (Bab el Hadid) (1958)



Cairo Station
How much do you really know about Egypt? In my case it is not much and watching this entry on the List, Cairo Station, made me realize how little I actually know. That is sad, really. It is only two hour’s drive from where I live to Egypt, but I know absolutely nothing about what is going on there. “Cairo Station” is from 1958 so that means that this is the Nasser period and some sort of nationalistic post-colonial awakening is going on with the nationalization of the Suez Canal and a war where Israel kicked their butt, but France and Britain got humiliated.  But those are just headlines. What was the realities on the ground?

Frankly Egypt and Egyptian movies never really interested me and “Cairo Station” does little to chance that. The overall impression from this movie is an all-round bad taste in the mouth. This may well be intentional and it does not make it a bad movie, but if you are looking for an optimistic feel good movie you better look somewhere else.

Clearly “Cairo Station” is inspired at least in part by Italian neorealism. The attempt at filming life at the bottom of society is remarkably successful. It is gritty, dirty and crowded. And completely chaotic. In fact the first hour of this movie feels completely unstructured. I had an hour in no idea where this movie was going. That can be a good and modern way to tell a non-story, but in this case it was just plain confusing and messy.

There was something about a retarded man called Qinawa (Youssef Chahine), who has a disturbing obsession with pin-up girls. He sells newspapers on Cairo Station. There are a group of girls who, illegally, sell soft drinks to passengers while dodging the law. The most notable of these women is Hannuma (Hind Rostom). Then there are the porters who are in the middle of a labor conflict with Abu Siri (Farid Shawqi) trying to organize the porters into a union to the chagrin of the local boss and his henchmen. There is a story about a girl who is saying goodbye to her lover, but secretly, as his family is not supposed to know.

Throughout this montage of life on Caíro Station there is an undercurrent of youth culture trying to embrace modernity symbolized by Coca Cola. In fact those Coca Cola bottles play so central a role in this first hour of the movie that it feels like one, extended Coca Cola commercial. I do hope the producers got a lot of money from product placement, because this movie must have boosted sales in Egypt and wherever else this movie was shown. The youth culture is a far cry from the typical view of veiled women and bearded religious men and very guarded socialization that we are used to in the west from Middle Eastern countries and goes to show how little I knew about life in Egypt. While this strikes an optimistic note in the movie the Indian class level of crowded poverty is a decidedly pessimistic note. Especially when you consider that population pressure in Egypt in 58 was nothing compared to what it is today. As an advertisement for Egypt this movie does a very poor job.

Then about an hour into the movie a storyline coalesces from the many threads. Hannuma and Abu Siri are supposed to get married and Qinawi develops a crush on Hannuma who may be reminding him of his pinups. When Qinawa proposes to Hannuma and she brushes him off with a laugh he develops a cunning plan to kill her and blame Abu Siri, based on a story in the newspaper about a murdered body found in a crate. This storyline actually gains momentum and so the film moves from a drag to a decent level of tension up to a last minute resolution.

I mentioned the multiple levels of bad taste I get from this movie. Besides the abject poverty and dismal lives of these people there is the very sad story of Qinawa. Yes, he is dangerous, but he is also a mentally ill person left to rot and somehow his retardedness makes okay to betray him multiple times. But then again, everybody deserves a better life than what they a living on Cairo Station and that may well be the message of the movie.

I did not like this movie very much and I do not consider it a particularly good movie. It did show me a world I knew nothing about, but it is not a world that has much attraction for me. Sadly the only feeling the movie got from me was one of general pity for these people and that may be as much a matter of cultural difference as a fault of the movie.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Gigi (1958)



Gigi
You know how it is when the description of a movie makes you groan and you just know watching it is going to be utter misery. That utter lack of enthusiasm that makes you wonder why you do this to yourself.

“Gigi” was such a movie for me. Up front everything screamed misery and I could not wait to get this one behind me. With such dismal anticipation I could only be positively surprised. And I was. Almost.

“Gigi” is not that intolerable, though it does manage to hit a lot of horror buttons for me, but there are redeeming elements enough that I managed to get through this without too much pain.

Button number one is the setting itself. A musical set in a fin de siècle Paris that only exists in the head on a 1950’ies Hollywood set designers imagination (and presumably in the heads of any number of teenage girls) with big, useless gowns, idle rich and gallantry in droves. Nobody works except for servants and all anybody thinks of is how to pass the time and how they look to the public. That is just such a strange world, like a permanent vacation, which I suppose is why Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) is bored sick.

Such a setting is also the ideal environment for some very old school gender politics, which is the second button for me. I am not on some crusade for women’s rights, but one thing is watching women endure the infamy of being a commodity, it is something else to celebrate it as the most desirable state of affairs. The good old days where the best prospect of a woman was to find a rich man, serve him well and maybe even make a career out of it.

This is exactly such a story we are fed here. Gigi (Leslie Caron) is an adolescent girl in Paris being raised by her grandmother Mamita Alvarez (Hermoine Gingold) and great aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans). Both Mamita and Alicia were courtesans in their days and they are grooming Gigi to be a courtesan as well. Gigi is a wonderful girl full of energy and spark, but the two old women are busy stamping that out to replace it with mannerism, gossip, useless skills and servitude to men. Man, I could kick their butts!

Meanwhile Gaston Lachaille is super rich and super bored. His uncle Honoré (Maurice Chevalier) is having a great time picking up young girls and taking them to Maxim’s and for a time he is trying to entertain Gaston with such pastimes. What Gaston actually prefers is to visit Mamita and play cards with Gigi. His relationship with Gigi is something like a child with a rich uncle and it is kind of sweet. Until the point where Gigi turns into a woman.

Here is another set of issues for me. Gigi is as a young woman being setup as a courtesan for Gaston, but a courtesan is simply a glorified prostitute and instinctively Gigi realizes that. That means we are supposed to realize that as well, but still think it is kind of sweet, which it is definitely not. Okay, Gigi and Gaston resolves this little problem by getting married and everything is happy happy. Ehhrr… is it just me who thinks it is ultra creepy that Gaston is marrying a girl he only weeks before considered a child? Or that Gigi is marrying her “uncle”?

Despite these inherent problems the producers of “Gigi” actually managed to pull it off pretty well. First off there are plenty of real shots from Paris which beats the crap out of a sound stage. Secondly all the principal actors are actually French, which means we do not have to be tortured by fake French accents. These actors are also pretty good at what they are doing. Particularly Maurice Chevalier is perfectly cast as the charming pedophile. The same can be said of Leslie Caron who manages to be both a juvenile and a young lady, but particularly for bring a breath of fresh air into a stale and revolting environment.

The music is good too, not intrusive and serves well to give the movie an air of frivolity. Often the music element of a musical can feel like a stone in the shoe, but here it was mostly painless which may be because of the lack of dancing. Choreography here is really at a minimum.

“Gigi” is not the worst musical around. It is a big and glorious production and at times even funny. But listen to this: “Gigi” won nine, saying and writing nine, Academy awards including Best Picture!

I will just let that stand a moment.

 

This does not bode well for 1958.

Finally, close your eyes, imagine an old man with a lusty smile going around in a park singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”.

Creepy, no?

    

Friday, 22 July 2016

Touch of Evil (1958)



Politiets blinde øje
Question: What happens when you combine the style and darkness of a film noir with the brutality and intensity of a modern thriller?

Answer: You get something like “Touch of Evil”.

 “Touch of Evil” is one of those movies I race through because it is engaging on a very elementary level. Danger is looming everywhere and the ambience tells us that it is not a given thing that the good guys will survive in the end. Come to think of it, who exactly is the good guys?

In fact this was such an exciting watch that it was easy to miss the many elements and layers that makes this an even more interesting watch. I am sure it is one of those movies that will benefit greatly from a re-watch.

Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and is wife Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh) are on their honeymoon at the border of Mexico and the US when a car is blown up and two people die. This means that the honeymoon is put pause since Vargas is a something like a police detective and a prosecutor for the Mexican government and this border town has lately been his hunting ground. At least on the Mexican side. Now he finds himself involved in this bombing incident that took place on the US side of the border, but originated on the Mexican side and that means that he gets to meet his opposite number on the US side.

The American law enforcement is headed by the impressive Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). He is big. Physically, in the eyes of his subordinates and not least in his own mind. He is the law. If he says people are guilty then goddammit they are guilty and he will get them. When Vargas challenges this authority Quinlan turns real nasty and soon Vargas and his wife are in a pincher between Quinlan and the local gangster with his henchmen.

I always (at least since I started this project) thought that Orson Welles was a better director than actor, a sort of opposite von Stroheim, but here his acting is magnificent. Not that there is anything wrong with his direction here, but Welles has this pig face that always look as if there is something unsavory about him. As Hank Quinlan that unsavoriness is enhanced into something truly monstrous. A hateful, all-powerful bigot, sweating and fat and menacing. In other words, your perfect villain. And then, just as you would think it could not get worse, Welles adds a humanity to him as well, something that gives us a glimpse of understanding for this man and certainly adds complexity.

Charlton Heston’s Vargas on the other hand is a much more straight forward type. Yes, he is Mexican with an American wife, but we know his type very well. He is the honorable, heroic type who stands up for those who are being wronged, a crusader for justice. We as viewers can relate to him and it is very obvious that we are supposed to. It is only when his wife is being threatened that the knight’s façade cracks up. That unlocks a beast inside him who is not out for justice, but vengeance.

In this way it becomes a real contest of personalities. Not only good versus bad, but one badass guy against the next.

The cinematography is huge asset for this movie. It has all the Welles trademarks of viewing angles and clipping, but it also has an apocalyptic darkness to it. Dirty, sweaty, industrial and indulgent. This is the 1958 version of the “Bladerunner” environment and it completely works. We know Susan Vargas is not safe from the moment the movie starts and when she is dumped off at the motel it is not a question of if but how she will be assaulted. It pretty much freaked me up, so much that I was actually a bit relieved when they only doped her and used her to set up her husband.

Another small but noteworthy detail is how many famous actors had small cameos. There are Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Cotton and Mercedes McCambridge just to mention a few. I think it great when people show up like that, especially when they do not steal the picture, but blend in almost unnoticed. 

I will watch “Touch of Evil” soon again so I can dwell on all the small details, enjoy the music and just soak in the ambience of this movie. It may be Welles best picture since “Citizen Kane”.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Man of the West (1958)



Manden fra vesten
There are a lot of westerns on the List. So many in fact that I have started to get a bit bored by them. Or at least the idea of them. By now a western needs to bring something new to the table or it will get a negative rating from me.

This was what I was thinking watching “Man of the West”. Why is this movie on the List? What does this movie do that I have not seen a million times before? It is okay, well-acted and beautifully shot, but it was only when I watched the bonus material on the DVD, a commentary by scholar Douglas Pye, that I discovered what made this movie special. With that in mind I am okay having this movie on the List, but please, please give me a break with the westerns.

Gary Cooper, the old western legend, is this time a country bumpkin going on what appears to be his voyage of a lifetime, from his homesteader hamlet to Fort Worth to hire a school teacher for the village. His ride is cut short when the train is held up by bandits. The raid fails, but Cooper’s Link Jones, a gambler named Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) and Saloon singer (whatever that implies) Billie Ellis (Julie London) are cut off from the train and have to continue on foot.

Link finds an old shack they can stay in, but when he opens the door it turns out the place is occupied by the very bandits who raided the train. The movie now takes a turn when we find out that this is Link’s old gang, one he left years ago to start a new life with wife and children. The gang is led by Link’s old father figure, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), a man who practically raised Link, and he is mighty pleased that Link is back. The rest of the gang is a brutal and not too smart a bunch and they are less pleased at having Link back. He is challenged at every turn and in an early climax he has to protect Billie from being raped without being killed himself.

Dock wants to bring Link along for the raid of his life, a rich bank in the township of Lassoo, while the rest the gang is poised to kill Link. This balancing is made even odder when it turns out that Lassoo is a ghost town and Dock is raving mad.

While the apparent story here is that Link has to extricate himself from this pinch and hopefully save the girl in the process, a story involving gun smoke, horses and a lot of shouting (and a pair of breast almost falling out of a corsage), there is a far more interesting story beneath.

When Link opens that door to the shack we get a true David Lynch moment. The door is the door to Link’s past and the gang members are all ghosts from back then. What Link is fighting is his past guilt that he has to come to terms with. There is no bank in Lassoo and Dock Tobin is ultimately an impotent ghost, but Link has to fight off all those temptations to fall back into his old pattern if he is to deserve his new life. That somehow includes Billie, who must resemble some woman of his past.

So this is actually a movie about redemption, that at some point you have to face your skeletons in the closet. This is a plotline I have seen before, but dressed as a western this comes about new and refreshing and as all good movies it gives you something to think about. It took that commentary on the DVD to make me realize that this is the true story of the movie and that might explain why “Man of the West” originally panned at the box office. This is not a plotline that would be appreciated or even recognized by the average western fan who is probably almost as dense as I am.

Gary Cooper is surprisingly good as Link Jones. He may appear a bit old and stiff, but as the movie carries on he actually fit his role. He is never supposed to match Billie Ellis, but he probably would in his youth and that is the point. She is a flame of his youth and he is an old man remembering her. Elegant and delicate.

I did not recognize Lee J.Cobb at first. Man, they got him to look old! He usually played some sort of a bastard, but here he is a particularly old and dirty one. That was a man with some talent!

The conclusion is that I liked the movie much better on after thought than while I watched it. It is okay as a straight western, but exquisite as a dive into the subconscious. Oh, and Julie London is quite a dish.

 

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)



Magtens sødme
There is a sub-genre of film where the protagonist(s) are actually the bad guys and we, the audience, follow them to their ultimate fall. It is small sub-genre. You will inevitably come to root or at least care for the protagonist and it is never pleasant to care for a person doing villainous things and certainly not nice to watch a person we root for meet their doom. Somehow this is not a blockbuster recipe and the mighty dollar often ends up deciding that this sort of movies are not worth making.

However there is definitely a fascination to watch crooks do their thing and meet their end and by making them the protagonists we get front seat to their escapades. That is a delicious perversion, but only if you are able to avoid rooting for them too much.

That sound awfully complicated and for me it is a balancing act. I never know exactly if I enjoy or despise this kind of movie and “Sweet Smell of Success” is exactly such a film.

Let me say right away that both Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster are awesome as crooks. Who would have known they had it in them. Curtis I know mostly from comedies such as “Some Like it Hot” and Burt Lancaster is usually cast as the boy-scout knight in white armor like in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”. The transformation into insidious bastards is so complete that I believe these two actors just got reinvented.

Curtis’ Sidney Falco is a man of few moral inhibitions if it can further his success as a press agent. Lying, conniving and conning clients, opponents or friends is the order of the day for him, but his licking ass to the despicable J.J. Hunsecker, who writes the gossip column in the newspaper, leaves such a bad taste that even Falco can taste it. You can say he is a small time crook who has consciousness enough to eventually getting it challenged.

Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker on the other hand is way beyond that. He is downright scary. Hunsecker is a cold fish who has the power to make or break people through his writing and he enjoys wielding this power. He is a manipulator who plays people against each other because he knows he can do it and because he considers himself far superior to mortal men as kings and emperors of old. I am totally in awe that Lancaster could pull this one off. Hunsecker is cold, ruthless power.

J.J. Hunsecker’s only weakness is his sister, Susie (Susan Harrison), a girl of 19 years, whom Hunsecker feels almost incestuously protective about. He does not like her boyfriend, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), and uses Falco as his agent to break them up.  

The essence of the film is that J.J. Hunsecker can get all he wants, he can manipulate everybody, but it will make nobody love him. That is okay, Hunsecker cares for no-one, but “nobody” includes his sister and that is hitting him where it hurts.

Falco is not much better off. His access to power and wealth costs him his last vestiges of self-respect and he learns how fickle and unreliable that power is. And without that power or self-respect there is not much left.

“Sweet Smell of Success” has a lot of noir vibe and a jazz score that combines to paint a perfectly dirty and lurid underbelly of the entertainment industry. It is corrupt through and through with everybody prostituting themselves for power and wealth or simply to get by in a tough world. The sunrise of the ending that lifts this pervasive darkness is very symbolic and I love this cinematography. However the reason to watch this movie remains the outstanding transformation of two of Hollywood’s boy-scouts. It is just mind-blowing.

The story itself I am more so-so about. I never really caught on to it and it is difficult to get really into a movie when you just wish the protagonists into the deepest hell. Disentangle yourself from that though and there is a lot to enjoy here.

The picture that remains in my head is that of Lancaster turning his head towards me and with his stare makes me feel like a very small person.