Indelible Film Images: T-Men

T-Men (1947) – dir. Anthony Mann

Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Mary Meade, Alfred Ryder, Wallace Ford, June Lockhart, Charles McGraw, Anton Kosta, William Malten, Jane Randolph, Art Smith

Cinematography: John Alton

Saturday Night Spotlight #10: Maya Deren

The work of Russian-American filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-1961) is small in quantity, but fascinating in terms of quality. Her short films, made over the course of fifteen years (between 1943 and 1958), focus more on images than on traditional narrative structure. Symbolism can be read into those images, but it seems to me that Deren was much more interested in being experimental and trying new things than in making sense. She was very much a member of the intellectual spheres in New York, studying journalism at Syracuse University, then earning a bachelor’s degree in literature from New York University and a master’s degree in English literature from Smith College, all at a time when it was not a guarantee that women would get a college education. Deren was part of a wide circle of artists, ranging from Marcel Duchamp to Katherine Dunham to Kenneth Anger. American avant-garde film owes a lot to Deren for being one of its most talented female voices. Unlike previous posts, in which I only included still photographs of films, here I will be using YouTube clips because the films are not feature-length and these short films need to be seen in order for you to even slightly comprehend what I’m talking about. Otherwise you may be confused by the mentions of dreams, knives and chess games.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) – Co-directed with Alexander Hammid, Deren’s most famous film is a staple of undergraduate and graduate students’ classes for a good reason. It is a fascinating exploration of identity, sexuality, violence and the border between reality and fantasy. We are never quite sure where the dream ends and real life begins for Deren’s unnamed character. (By the way, her look strikes me as unique. Hollywood actresses definitely did not wear their hair like she did.) What does the key signify? The knife? The man in the film (played by Hammid, who was married to Deren at the time)? The great thing about Deren’s films is that they are open to interpretation. There is no one “right” answer, despite what some critics might try to tell you. The only thing we can know for certain is that Deren put those images together in a particular way; in addition to all her functions as director, screenwriter and “star,” she was also the film’s editor.

At Land (1944) – Again Deren explores the possibility of multiple selves existing all at once. Disparate settings blend into one another; a beach scene suddenly turns into a nightclub or casino, which is simultaneously indoors and also a jungle. You just have to watch the film to see it because it’s the kind of thing that can’t be explained logically. Besides Deren and Alexander Hammid, the film’s cast also includes composer John Cage, writer Parker Tyler and a photographer named Hella Heyman, who served as the film’s co-cinematographer with Alexander Hammid and who married Hammid after he and Deren divorced in 1947. The film also features a surreal seaside chess match that predates Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) by thirteen years.

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) – Again Deren plays with notions of temporality and repetition. Freeze-frames are utilized and the incorporation of modern dance enhances the sense of artistic expression, all shot by cinematographer Hella Heyman. Famous writers Anaïs Nin and a young Gore Vidal make appearances in the film, while the two dancers who play the film’s leads are Rita Christiani and Frank Westbrook. Three years earlier the Trinidad-born Christiani played the title character in the musical number “Ice Cold Katie” in Thank Your Lucky Stars, performing alongside Hattie McDaniel and Willie Best.

Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951) – A collection of dancers drift around in dreamlike motions as Deren’s handheld camerawork captures their movements. Besides writing, producing and directing the scenario, Deren was one of the choreographers too, so her level of involvement goes beyond simply having the idea. The swaying, whirling figures that populate this six-minute world float as if they really were sleepwalking.

Saturday Night Spotlight #9: Jacqueline Audry

Jacqueline Audry (1908-1977) has been described as the first woman director to achieve success at the box office in post-WWII France. Audry began as a script girl on the Max Ophüls-directed film Yoshiwara (1937), soon graduating to assistant director for a number of films made in the late 1930s and early 40s including Le roman de Werther (1938, another Max Ophüls film) and Girls in Distress (1939, Georg Wilhelm Pabst). Audry made her directorial debut in 1946 with Les malheurs du Sophie, a dramedy starring Madeleine Rousset, who worked with Audry again in the role of Liane d’Exelmans in Gigi (1949). Audry’s directorial career ended in the late 1960s and she died as the result of a car accident in 1977 at age 68. Of her fifteen films, only Gigi (her best-remembered film), Minne (1950, another Colette adaptation), Olivia (1951) and Mitsou (1956, Colette again) received American theatrical releases, but Audry certainly made a mark for herself in France, serving as a member of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 1963.

Gigi (1949) – Nine years before the MGM musical version, Audry directed a non-musical film of the same story which is a simple and quaint comedy starring Danièle Delorme in the title role. Based on Colette’s novella concerning a teenage girl being prepped by her family for a life as a courtesan in turn-of-the-century Paris, Gaby Morlay played Tante Alicia (later played by Isabel Jeans in the 1958 film), Jean Tissier played Honoré (later Maurice Chevalier), Yvonne de Bray played Mamita (later Hermione Gingold) and Frank Villard played Gaston (later Louis Jourdan). The film was cut by a female editor, Nathalie Petit-Roux, as well as having era-appropriate costumes designed by Marie-Louise Bataille.

Olivia (aka The Pit of Loneliness) (1951) – Jacqueline Audry’s older sister, Colette Audry, and Pierre Laroche (who was Jacqueline’s husband and had earlier adapted Gigi) wrote the screenplay for this drama, co-produced by the director and based on Dorothy Bussy’s novel Olivia (1949). The film bears some similarities to the Colette novel Claudine at School (1900) and to the German film Mädchen in Uniform (1931), which was co-directed by another female filmmaker, Leontine Sagan, and which is concerned with the same subject as Olivia: sexual attraction between female schoolteachers and their female students. In Audry’s film two of the teachers are played by Edwige Feuillère, who received a BAFTA nomination for her performance, and Simone Simon, who was an international sex symbol for her French films like La Bête Humaine (1938) and La Ronde (1950) and for American films like The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and Cat People (1942). Once more Audry worked with a female film editor, Marguerite Beaugé, whose career before then included notable films like La Roue (1923, Abel Gance), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer), Pépé le Moko (1937, Julien Duvivier) and Le Corbeau (1943, Henri-Georges Clouzot); Geneviève Falaschi was the assistant editor. More women played important roles behind the scenes: Marcelle Desvignes and Mireille Leydet designed the costumes, Jacqueline Loir was the script supervisor and Marguerite Théoule was the production secretary.

In Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review of Olivia (released stateside as The Pit of Loneliness) in 1954, he wrote that Although it skirts along the edges of an area of unnatural love confined within the delicate environment of a fashionable French finishing school, there is nothing indecorous or offensive in the picture as it is played. Mlle. Audry has handled a tragic subject with sensitivity and a wistful, fragile grace … withal, one must still praise Mlle. Audry for her capture of the atmosphere, for her fine taste in period costuming and genuine French décor. One shot of the yard of the chateau-school, with leaves burning and girls chasing about, is as flavorsome as chestnut blossoms. This sort of thing gives splendid character to the film.”

No Exit (1954) – Once again Pierre Laroche worked with Audry, this time adapting the famous existentialist play by Jean-Paul Sartre, an examination of troubled souls in Hell. Arletty, one of France’s best-known actresses, plays a character who is credited as “Inès – une lesbienne,” another example of Audry’s boundary-pushing tendencies in exploring female identity and sexuality. Marguerite Beaugé again worked as film editor for Audry, supported by Suzanne Cabon as the assistant editor.

Hitch-Hike (1962) – Audry brings many famous actors together for this comedic road movie: Arletty, Bernard Blier, Pierre Brasseur, Jean-Claude Brialy, Daniel Gélin, Fernand Gravey, Pierre Mondy, François Périer, Claude Rich and Lino Ventura all have roles. The lead is newcomer Agathe Aëms, who never made another film. Film editor Suzanne de Troeye, who had made a name for herself with French classics of the 1930s like Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932, Jean Renoir), Toni (1935, Renoir), César (1936, Marvel Pagnol), The Baker’s Wife (1938, Pagnol) and La Bête Humaine (1938, Renoir), as well as working on the Marc Allégret films Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1955) and Plucking the Daisy (1956), took the reigns on Hitch-Hike. Jacqueline Audry’s commitment to working with women both on and off the screen continued right until the end, her final film being Bitter Fruit (1967), based on a play by Colette Audry (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jacqueline and two others), starring Emmanuelle Riva, edited by Francine Grubert, costumes designed by Jelisaveta Gobecki and with Eva Ceresnjes as one of the two assistant directors.

Actor, Direct Thyself: Jean Renoir in The Rules of the Game

Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) is a film that I like much better when I am watching it on a big screen in a classroom than when I watch the DVD at home. It’s a film that benefits from being watched with a lot of other people. Gauging the reactions of your fellow viewers is part of what elevates the experience. After watching Rules again two nights ago – my third time overall – I was struck by just how good a performance Jean Renoir gave as the character Octave. Directors don’t always make good actors, especially when cast in their own projects, but I think there’s quite a lot of depth in Octave, which is one of the most sympathetic roles in the picture. (Spoilers ahead.)

Octave has a lengthy amount of expository dialogue in a scene right after his friend André Jurieux, a famed aviator, deliberately crashes his car while they drive in the countryside. Despite the verbosity, it’s a great scene, one which was not in the original theatrical release of the film since it was deemed extraneous. After the crash Octave explains to Andre why he (Octave) cares for Christine, whom Andre loves madly, displayed in a beautifully framed set of shots.

This shot in particular shows the predicaments that both characters face: André needs desperately to see Christine again and Octave realizes how serious his friend is about this love. Octave reassures André that he will see Christine again.

Octave visits Christine to try to convince her of the seriousness of André’s love for her. It is obvious that he has a tenderness for her that goes back to their time spent together in Austria, where her father, Stiller, conducted an orchestra that Octave played in. Christine ends up inviting both Octave and André to stay with her for a week at her countryside chateau, La Colinière.

It’s in this scene that you see even more of Octave’s adorable, childlike charm. You can see that the affection between these two characters is greater than what Christine feels for any of the other men in her life. In these shots I am reminded of some of the paintings that Renoir’s father, the artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, created of his young son at the turn-of-the-century, especially The Artist’s Son, Jean, Drawing (1901).

When Octave and André arrive at the chateau, La Colinière, it is Octave to whom Christine runs first. When the two men enter the frame, André is dressed in a light-colored coat and Octave is in a dark color, like Christine, so it is to Octave that the viewer’s eye is drawn.

Ah, the bear suit. After performing in a whimsical play put on by the residents of the country house, poor Octave can’t find anyone to get him out of the costume and wanders the estate for a while in search of a helping hand. It’s an endearing outfit, ridiculous as it is.

As I mentioned earlier, Octave (true to his name) is – or at least at some point, was – a musician. Out on the terrace he reenacts for Christine what it was like to work with her father in Salzburg. Critics have questioned who the one main character of the film is, and I think these scenes show a special importance for Octave. He has memories and dreams beyond what the other characters care about, which is primarily their romantic liaisons.

Afterwards, in the greenhouse, Octave tells Christine quite candidly that he considers himself a failure. It’s interesting to compare this discussion and Octave’s musing on being only a friend to the rich, not really one of the elite himself, to the Marquis (Christine’s husband Robert), who is not only wealthy but who also feels the pride of success for having acquired material possessions like mechanical birds and other toys. In this beautifully lit scene, creating a sense of the characters being bathed in moonlight, Christine tells Octave that it is “really him” that she loves.

There is something a little awkward about the kiss, but I would say that that is more because of Octave the character rather than Renoir the actor.

When Octave returns to the house to gather his coat and hat and leave with Christine, he is told by the maid, Lisette, that he will not be able to make Christine happy. It is probable that Lisette is only saying this because she knows she will be out of a job if her mistress runs off with a poor man, rather than out of real emotional conflict (it is implied in the film that Octave and Lisette have had an intimate relationship from time to time). Nevertheless, what Lisette says strikes a chord within Octave. In this brilliantly done shot, Octave looks up from his search for his hat to actually see his reflection in the mirror. In his eyes you can see that he is looking at himself physically and realizing that not only does he have no way to support Christine’s lifestyle, he’s also no typical Romeo. Earlier, in the greenhouse, Octave told Christine that he felt he was too old to become a success at anything, and in the mirror shot it seems as though he’s really seeing all the years and wrinkles that have gathered on his face.

It is therefore no surprise that Octave sends Andre out to the greenhouse in his place, thinking that perhaps it will make both Andre and Christine happy. Christine’s husband, Robert, sees what has happened and he tells Lisette to stop crying over the whole mess. What Robert does not see, however, is that Octave is crying too.

In the end, after Andre has been shot after being mistaken for Octave by Lisette’s husband and boyfriend (the paramour, Marceau, is seen left in the above shot) because they thought that it was Lisette who they had seen Octave kissing in the greenhouse (Christine had been wearing Lisette’s cape and with the hood up), Octave decides to leave the chateau. He cannot play the rules of the wealthy set’s game because he has real feelings. He thought he had a chance at love, not just another flirtation for fun. Octave bids Lisette farewell and tells her to give Christine a kiss for him. It is a bittersweet goodbye for such a wonderful character. I implore you to see The Rules of the Game not only for its social and political critiques but also for the actors, Jean Renoir included.

No, I Won’t Forget the Thrill of It All

If you’re a fan of the English “art rock” band Roxy Music, which was active from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, you may recognize the title as a lyric from the song “The Thrill of It All.” You probably also remember their most well-known single, “Love Is the Drug,” which actually only hit #30 on the Billboard charts but was still pretty popular. If you remember that hit, then you remember how important a role the bassline played in its catchy sound. John Gustafson, the performer of that distinctive bass part, passed away recently. His work on three consecutive Roxy Music albums – Stranded (1973), Country Life (1974) and Siren (1975) – helped create the sound that I grew to love so much when I discovered the band at age 17. After all, every member of a band has an essential, pivotal function, not only the lead singer or songwriter.

When you listen to “Love Is the Drug,” the opening track from Siren, it does more than the usual job of an earworm. The lyrics tell a story but the instrumental, especially the bass, enhances your sense of the scenario so that you really feel the mood of it, as though you were on the prowl in the singles bar right alongside Bryan Ferry’s song-narrator.

Gustafson also played on my all-time favorite Roxy song, “The Thrill of It All” from Country Life. It’s another unforgettable album-opener. No matter how many times I listen to “Thrill,” it’s always fresh and innovative. The style of it, the pure coolness, is like nothing else. It’s four decades old and yet it has not aged or grown dated. Like the song says, “it’s pure whiskey reeling ’round and around my brain.”

The bass line on “Both Ends Burning,” from Siren, is also memorable for me. It’s just a really good beat, a foot-tapping gem. This one’s a strong contender for all-time favorite, although I could easily say the same of the tracks from my favorite Roxy album, Avalon (1982), which was the group’s final studio album before they disbanded. By that point John Gustafson was no longer recording with Roxy Music, but I think that the influence of “Love Is the Drug” and other great songs from the three albums that he played on remained even in the more synthesizer-heavy music from the last albums in the early 80s.

Saturday Night Spotlight #8: Muriel Box

I spoke of the director Muriel Box (1905-1991) in last week’s Saturday Night Spotlight post when I mentioned that actress/director Mai Zetterling was in one of Box’s movies, The Truth About Women (1957). Now I am turning the Spotlight on Box. I consider her one of the most overlooked names in English cinema history as well as in the history of women directors. She has fourteen feature films to her credit, directed between 1949 and 1964. Box was also a distinguished screenwriter, winning an Academy Award for her original screenplay The Seventh Veil (1945, directed by Compton Bennett), a script co-written with her husband Sydney Box. Another of Muriel’s most famous screenwriting credits was when she collaborated with her husband and with Cyril Roberts to adapt Rafael Sabatini’s novel Christopher Columbus for the screen in 1949, a production which starred Fredric March and Florence Eldridge as Columbus and Queen Isabella. I don’t know if there has ever been a Muriel Box retrospective in any American museums or theaters, but I think it’s high time for one. Her interest in the day-to-day lives of the working-class woman ought to be better remembered.

Street Corner (aka Both Sides of the Law) (1953) – Tackling a subject centered on the female experience in a male-dominated field, much like her own identity as a female director, Box directed a story about women police officers. The leading ladies in the film were all mainstays of English cinema at the time: Anne Crawford (who would pass away from leukemia just a few years later), Peggy Cummins (best known as the “bad girl” from the 1950 noir Gun Crazy) and Rosamund John (whose husband was John Silkin, a Labour MP and Cabinet Minister in the 1960s-80s). Many other notable actors appear in the film as well, including Barbara Murray, Ronald Howard (son of Leslie Howard), Michael Medwin, Dora Bryan, Michael Hordern, Maurice Denham and Thora Hird. As was the case with a number of Box’s other films, Street Corner was edited by a woman, Jean Barker.

To Dorothy a Son (aka Cash on Delivery) (1954) – Box’s comedy of inheritance, a sort of a twist on Seven Chances by needing a person to stay unmarried in order to earn the dough, stars one of Hollywood’s most popular and versatile actresses, Shelley Winters. Based on a play by Roger MacDougall, Winters’ character stands to get millions of dollars from her uncle so long as her ex-husband doesn’t have any offspring. The fly in the ointment is that her former spouse has remarried and his new wife is on the brink of giving birth. Winters must decide whether to steal her ex away from his new family or to somehow convince a judge that the new marriage is not legal. The film co-stars John Gregson as the ex-husband, Peggy Cummins as the new wife (the “Dorothy” of the title), Wilfrid Hyde-White and Mona Washbourne.

Simon and Laura (1955) – This charming comedy stars two notable figures from British cinema at that time, Peter Finch and Kay Kendall (the latter soon to be Mrs. Rex Harrison, although the marriage would be cut short by Kendall’s death in 1959). The duo plays the title characters, whose marriage serves as the inspiration for a television drama that they agree to star in, a kind of precursor to modern-day reality TV. The show presents them as a happy couple but of course there are complications in their lives off the set. Muriel Pavlow, Maurice Denham, Ian Carmichael, Thora Hird and a young Jill Ireland also appear in the film and once again Jean Barker worked for Box as the film editor.

Rattle of a Simple Man (1964) – Here Box directed one of the most beautiful actresses of her day, Diane Cilento, who had just gotten married to Sean Connery in December 1962 and was already an Oscar nominee for her supporting role in Tom Jones (1963). Cilento plays a prostitute, but unlike usual movie conventions, the film is not a tragedy nor is the character a cliché. The story is quite a sweet little romance between Cilento and her shy suitor, played by Harry H. Corbett (later the son in the British sitcom “Steptoe and Son”). As in some of Box’s earlier films, Thora Hird and Michael Medwin have supporting roles, as well as Charles Dyer, who wrote Rattle’s screenplay. This was Box’s swan song when she was not yet 60 years old, but as swan songs go, the film is a beloved one.

Thanks to the Warner Archive, the Pre-Code Era Continues to Shine

In recent years, Warner Bros. has made hundreds (maybe over a thousand, for all I know) of films available on DVD through their Warner Archive Collection. The collection spans many decades, but what’s most exciting to me is that so many Pre-Code films, especially talkies from between the late 1920s and 1934, are now obtainable. Titles starring such beloved stars as Lon Chaney (in his only sound film, 1930’s The Unholy Three), Helen Hayes, Norma Shearer, John Barrymore, John Gilbert, Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo, films which may never have been available on DVD – or even years ago on VHS – can now be purchased. I highly recommend the 1929 version of Maugham’s classic story The Letter, starring Jeanne Eagels in an unforgettable performance, as well as Christopher Strong (1933), the Dorothy Arzner-directed drama that has Katharine Hepburn in her first starring role. You can search the DVD collection at http://shop.warnerarchive.com/. Have fun!