Backstroke

Kick it off with Roy Ward Baker’s 1953 Inferno. Robert Ryan is a tycoon who breaks his leg in the California desert; his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and a business associate, who are having an affair, decide to leave him for dead; Ryan, who inherited his wealth and is thus “untested”, decides to prove his scrappiness by crawling out of the desert and taking his revenge. It’s not an easy movie to categorize. It’s definitely noir-spiced, but it’s also a modern Western, it has a concentrated Bressonian quality during Ryan’s efforts to fashion a rope, and it was shot in dazzling Technicolor and 3-D—the latter most obvious during a fistfight in which the combatants make a point of tossing lanterns and chairs directly at the camera. Most striking is the tone of Ryan’s stream-of-consciousness narration during his ordeal: it’s quiet and good-humored, not at all the rage-fueled monologue you’d expect from Robert Ryan in that situation. (Ryan would have had a lock on The Hulk if they’d been making Avengers pictures in his time.) Fleming and her swain are also down to earth—not caricatures of lecherous evil—and the ending ties things up is a satisfying way, with a zinger for a closing line.

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James Benning’s Landscape Suicide is split up into separate but equal looks at two murder cases, one which is draped in infamy (Ed Gein), the other (a high-school student’s status-envy knifing of a classmate) only relatively famous. The two parts structurally mirror each other, with meditative shots of the locales of the killings and their environs (the snow-sludgy Wisconsin prairies, the malls and suburbs of California) sprinkled between re-creations of the killers’ police house confessions and staged material that provides a tonal commentary on the events. (In the section about the teenager, a young woman is seen talking on a phone in her bedroom while “Memory” from Cats plays—in its entirety—just loud enough to drown out her words, but we see her going through a gamut of emotions, including one bit of speed-acting in which she completely loses her shit one moment only to start laughing merrily the next.) There’s a lot of remarkable acting here, but I was really floored by Rhonda Bell, who, though barely moving a muscle in the 15 or 20 minutes she’s onscreen, expresses so many shades of apprehensiveness, regret and cluelessness that it’s mind-boggling.

Gervaise is Rene Clement’s adaptation of Zola’s novel L’Assommoir about the mother of the character Jean Gabin played in Renoir’s La Bete Humaine. Humaine’s web is woven around the idea that both of Gabin’s parents were drunks (and depressives), and that people’s inherent inability to grow past their parents’ shortcomings seals their fate. I read ahead of time that Gervaise made a splash because of its direct approach to poverty and alcoholism, but I still wasn’t prepared for it. From the opening scene on it’s just the most doom-laden thing imaginable. Gervaise (the character) doesn’t really go off the deep end until the very end—she keeps fighting her fate, and fighting it, but it’s all working against her. How fucked up is it? Well, in one scene Gervaise’s husband comes home drunk and passes out on the bed, and when we see him he’s clearly vomited all over himself and the pillow next to him; their little girl Nana runs into the shot and instinctively touches her father, then recoils—and wipes her hand on a dry patch on his pants, before running out of the room. (Nana will grow up to be a prostitute; Renoir also filmed her story.)

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Essential Killing maintains its dream-like tone even during its fairly convincing imagining of the rendition process (including waterboarding). Neither of the two name stars—Vincent Gallo and Emmanuelle Seigner—has so much as a single line of dialog in the entire picture (without it ever feeling mannered or monotonous), and Gallo must’ve gone through some real hell running barefoot through Norwegian forests at 30 below zero. It’s a political movie only to the extent that it’s impossible not to notice that the occupying forces, although unnamed, all speak English in American accents, or that the country Gallo’s originally captured in looks just like Afghanistan, or that with his long beard he looks just like a Taliban; mostly it’s just a Rogue Male type narrative about a man on the run in the face of increasingly distressing circumstances. In any case it’s a wonder that a 72-year old director could come up with this much energy, but it’s also only Skolimowski’s second movie since he took a 17-year break from filmmaking to devote to painting. I’m happy for him and everything—he’s always said painting was his first love—but it hurts to think what we missed out on in the meantime.

Essential Killing is intelligently tasteful, as Skolimowski’s movies always are. (He’s particularly strong on endings, and this one’s no exception.) He co-wrote the script with a fellow Pole yet the chatter among the GIs is fluid and believable—a lot more so than the cartoony bluster the characters spout in Platoon or The Hurt Locker.

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Red Beard has some nice qualities but Kurosawa lays on the humanist stuff so thickly that it’s all congealed by the end. Most critics call this film the end of his middle period because, among other things, it was his last movie with Mifune, but it feels more like the beginning of the Dodeskaden/Dersu Uzulu period—everything’s a little more schematic and blunter. Mifune got top billing because of who he was, but it feels like he’s barely onscreen, and it’s a 3-hour movie. A long 3-hour movie.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Two Men in Manhattan is clunky, unmotivated and chockful of bad acting, but a fun 84-minute ride nevertheless. Melville made it in between Bob le Flambeur and Leon Morin, Priest, and if you don’t count Un Flic it’s the only one of his movies that’s undeniably worse than the one that came before. When the French delegate to the U.N. misses a vote and can’t be found anywhere, a French reporter and an unscrupulous alcoholic photographer start scouring Manhattan over one night looking for him. There’s no great mystery, the guy just croaked at his mistress’ apartment, so the movie is really an excuse for Melville to indulge his love for America—and for NY in particular. The hunt takes the pair to the Mercury Theater (in mid-play), Capitol Records (a jazz song played in full), a strip-club “in darkest Brooklyn” (the African-American dancer obligingly strips on camera) and, again and again, Times Square. (Flower Drum Song was on Broadway; Separate Tables was in the theaters.) The city looks great in both natural lighting and high contrast B&W; in places it looks as good as it does in Manhattan or Sweet Smell of Success. Melville himself, droll as all hell, does a creditable job as the reporter. (The bad acting I mentioned above is courtesy of the female secondary players, who compensate by with their fabulous looks. Melville’s eye for the female form was sharper than Kubrick’s.) The best work comes from Pierre Grasset as the shitheel shutterbug who’s cashing in on other people’s misery. You can smell how jaded he is.

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Christian Carion’s Farewell is one good spy flick. Great characters, acting, writing, the whole shmear; it even made me tense and I never get tense in movies anymore. Despite the prominence of his mug in the ads, Dafoe is barely in it—the real star is director Emir Kusturica, who resembles John C. Reilly’s face screwed onto Brendan Gleeson’s body. Farewell offers a credible take on what Moscow streetlife and social gatherings must’ve been like during the Cold War, and scenes that usually drive me nuts—wives nagging their husbands about their dangerous work, guys telling their bosses “I’m the one taking the heat so you have to back me up here!”—are done just right. It’s “based on a true story” and it was based on some French book, but this thing alleges that the Kremlin had the drawings for the space shuttle, our nuclear codes, and even the White House’s digicodes and food delivery schedule. Bonus:  Fred Ward doing a good-enough Ronald Reagan imitation. There’s even a scene of him and David Soul discussing the shift in perspective at the end of Liberty Valance.

Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! is so good—and smart—and funny—that it hurts. It’s about a woman in East Berlin who goes into a coma a month before the Wall fell. She was an ardent German socialist and party member, and when, after reunification, she comes out of her coma, the doctors warn her son that any shock might kill her. So begins an extremely funny masquerade, as the son goes to increasingly elaborate pains to explain such capitalist intrusions as the giant Coca-Cola banner across the street, and recruits his Gareth Keenan-like buddy to help him create nightly “newscasts” reporting on the fictional tidal waves of unemployment and drug addiction sweeping through West Germany. Through all this the movie keeps quietly churning toward its real subject, which has to do with a long-buried family secret. But, man, it’s just so rich. In one scene the mother, feeling her oats, sneaks out of the house and onto the street, only to be greeted by strange, un-Communist graffiti—a swastika, a penis—and other alien sights. Becker hasn’t made another feature since then (2003) but supposedly has something in the works now. In the meantime, though…wow.

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Alessandro Blasetti’s Four Steps in the Clouds – A traveling salesman meets a young pregnant woman who’s on her way home despite knowing that her family is going to disown her when they find out the news. The baby’s father has fled to god knows where, so the girl convinces the salesman to make a quick appearance, posing as her husband, so her family will take her in. This leads to a Hail the Conquering Hero-type escalation of lies, mostly comic in nature, but the mood changes radically in the final 15 minutes, when you realize how much the experience has meant to the salesman. The final scene is shot through with the same kind of life-wrecking regret that Peter Riegert finds at the end of Local Hero. All this is especially surprising considering the movie came out in ’42—I’m quite sure the values on display here won’t be found in any German films from that year. (Four Steps was remade in ’95 as A Walk in the Clouds, with Keanu Reeves and Anthony Quinn. I’m passing on that version, though.)

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Guy Debord’s last movie, the palindromically titled In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (or We Spin Around the Night Consumed by the Fire), is an essay about a society making war on itself, equal parts spleen, egotism, egalitarianism, and pessimistic cultural history. It’s a collage of photos and film scraps, with a great many aerial views of Paris, advertisements, water-level views of Venice (which Debord, like Pound, seemed to see as a cultural utopia), photos of himself and unidentified friends, and long quotations from French and American commercial films. (The only two I recognized were Children of Paradise and The Longest Day.) In a long opening passage (which he begins by labeling his audience idiots, sheep, zombies, etc.) he goes after the young professional class leading comfy, empty lives (it came out in ’78)–obvious-sounding stuff but in his hands both damning and fascinating. The narration—I’m  not sure if it was Debord himself reading it—struck some surprisingly emotional notes for the author of The Society of the Spectacle. It’s something I’d be careful about recommending to people, but I sure am glad I saw it.

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And finally, two good noirs—strike that. Make that, one good one, and one that’s really good. They Won’t Believe Me has the big-name stars—Jane Greer, Susan Hayward, and Robert Young (at his very best) as a guy who keeps tripping over the dick he can’t keep in his pants. Great women characters, especially Hayward’s greedy slut who gains some substance as the picture goes on.

City That Never Sleeps was a little Republic picture with such an unwieldy plot that it’s virtually indescribable. A Chicago cop, played by Gig Young, wants to quit both his job and his wife so he can take up with a burlesque dancer. He falls in with a shady lawyer and an increasingly crazed gangster–Edward Arnold and William Talman respectively. (Talman played the perpetual chump Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason, but only after turning in a bunch of wonderfully psycho performances in various noirs, including my beloved Crashout.) Lots of location shooting around Chicago, including a gripping nighttime foot-chase down the El and two men going to Fist City alongside the third rail. The best scene, though, focuses on a secondary character, a washed-up actor who’s been reduced to dancing around as a “mechanical man” in the burlesque house’s show-window. The scene where, while still wearing the Tin Man’s makeup, he tries to entice the stripper with his pathetic fantasies of the far-off places he’d take her to approaches Touch of Evil-levels of insanity, and the movie’s denouement is set in motion when he sheds a single telltale tear.

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