Monday, June 18, 2007

Borde & Chaumeton

Way back in 1955, two Frenchmen, Raymonde Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, wrote A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953, the very first book on the genre. The first English translation of the book, by Paul Hammond, didn’t appear till 2002.

Being Surrealists, Borde and Chaumeton tirelessly hunt for a handful of qualities in these films: oneirism, strangeness, eroticism, moral ambivalence, cruelty, death, sensation. It makes for a delicious read; I thought I’d excerpt a few bits to give you an idea of its flavor.

All through the book, the word “exemplary” is reserved for the highest praise. On Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street:

Censorship has been at work and we haven't seen the best scene: the killer, perched on a post carrying electric cables, listening with delight to the buzzing of the current that's going to electrocute the innocent lover. We've been deprived of an exemplary sequence here.

Henry Hathaway’s Niagara:

A strangulation scene filmed in cast shadows recalls certain De Chiricos. And then the hysteria of Marilyn Monroe singing "Kiss Me" and her voluptuous tossing and turning in a hospital bed happily reenliven the erotic repertoire. “I once had occasion to write,” André Bazin said, “that since the war cinematic eroticism had shifted from the thigh to the breast. Marilyn Monroe makes it descend somewhere between the two.” [I wonder when and where Bazin said this?—g.]

Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep:

The sordid settings and their bizarre details, the brief but merciless fistfights, the furtive murders, the sudden reversal of roles, the “objects,” in the Surrealist sense of the word (such as the Khmer statue hiding a camera which takes pictures of the orgy scenes), the eroticism of blood and pain (Vivian kissing Marlowe’s bruised lips), the killer who lets himself be poisoned in order to go on concealing his accomplice’s name, the armed prowlers who watch over the nocturnal rendezvous and the environs of secret gambling joints, and lastly the wild dancing of the women: all this makes The Big Sleep a major event in the history of American cinema. Never will film noir go further in the description of a cynical, sensual, and ferocious world.

In the films of Josef von Sternberg:

[A]nguish is always accompanied by a certain sexual excitement. Baudelaire’s line could stand as an epigraph for his oeuvre as a whole: “The pain that fascinates and the pleasure that kills.” Sadomasochists will always be drawn to these mirage-memories of some new Gomorrah.

John Stahl’s Leave Her To Heaven:

This is the first time Technicolor has been used in a crime film. Up to this moment it had been reserved for exoticism, adventure films, and musicals. But then “the landscape is a state of the soul,” and John Stahl has contrived to accentuate the tragic aspect of the story by utilizing scenes of dawn and dusk, the rolling landscape, the color of dried blood, of the deserts of New Mexico, the oppressive solitude of a cabin lost in the verdure of the pine forests, and the glaucous waters of a high mountain lake.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur:

[A]n unjustly scorned chase film that contained, as well as the pursuit atop the Statue of Liberty, a very beautiful and strange sequence: a man on the run takes refuge in a cinema during the showing of a detective film. His derisory shadow glides along at the bottom of the screen at the instant the detectives in the film surround some gangsters. The voice of an actor, magnified by the sound system, invites someone to give himself up, and gunshots echo simultaneously on the screen and in the cinema.

True to Surrealism’s anti-religious spirit:

Elia Kazan has just botched a wonderful subject, the hold gangsters have on the unions, by giving in to religious imperatives (On The Waterfront, 1954). These commercial concessions are no longer tolerable. A Joris Ivens or a Georges Franju is needed here.

A call of discovery:

We finally arrive at one of the genre’s most indisputable successes. The Enforcer (1951) has revealed to the public the name of a director who will henceforth have to be contended with: Bretaigne Windust. His work has the documentary feel of Jules Dassin’s Naked City (1948) and the starkness of setting, the cruelty, and the sober tension of a world without hope of a Fritz Lang.

Well, Borde and Chaumeton didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out that the film was mostly directed by Raoul Walsh.

* * *

I watched The Enforcer, and another Walsh that is one of my favorites of lesser-known 40’s movies: The Man I Love (1947), with Ida Lupino. A strikingly modern film, open and upfront about sex, with characters choosing temporary liasions for economic or romantic expediency. Lupino is wonderful, playing a tough-headed, soft-hearted nightclub “canary.” The film makes uncommonly intelligent diegetic use of jazz, with Bruce Bennett playing a pianist with huge hands. (They cover the keyboard like a blanket.) At one point, he is doing Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” and tells Lupino that his arrangement of it never saw any commercial action. “That’s because it was ten years ahead of its time,” she replies, referring to its modern qualities. Chris Cagle makes interesting points about the film’s blending of genres (musical, gangster film and the social problem film) and the film's own modern aspects.

All this makes me want to revisit High Sierra, White Heat, and They Drive By Night, the only other Walsh films I’ve seen. Care to recommend any other Raoul Walsh films? Tag Gallagher has a filmography (with star ratings) at the end of his Senses of Cinema profile of the director.

* * *

For those of you who are not aware of it, let me recommend for your RSS subscriptions, Dan Sallitt’s new blog, Thanks for the Use of the Hall. As a long-time lurker at a_film_by, I’ve admired Dan’s posts there, and it’s great to see him in the blogosphere. In addition, and I didn’t realize this until recently, Dan’s also made two films which I’m now eager to see. The Customflix site has high praise for them from Kent Jones and Arnaud Desplechin.

* * *

A few links:

-- Old but good, from last year: In The Nation, Gilberto Perez reviews Colin McGinn's book The Power of Movies.

-- David Bordwell's tribute to the recently deceased Rudolf Arnheim.

-- Dipanjan has a multi-part Ritwik Ghatak interview that he translated from Bengali.

-- Dave Kehr on Fox's 21-disc John Ford collection, expected later this year.

-- The Siren has a Father's Day John Ford post.

pic: Ida Lupino lights her pianist's cigarette at an after-hours rehearsal in Raoul Walsh's The Man I Love.


Blogger Campaspe said...

Oh, I loved this post. It must have been quite something to be French and suddenly, when the war was over, have all the movies the rest of the world has been watching explode on your screen at once. I am reading Simone Signoret's memoirs and she talks about that. Made the French, perhaps, more able than American critics to trace connections when noir really started flowering post-war.

As for Walsh, the Tag Gallagher ratings are at times quite puzzling to me, but therefore highly enjoyable. What good is a list you agree with in every particular? (And what does his "see if necessary" rating mean? like, you have insomnia, the prof is threatening to flunk you, Peter Bogdanovich is holding your dog hostage?) My biggest Walsh rec, which Gallagher gives his 4-star "masterpiece" rating: The Strawberry Blonde. Huge personal favorite of mine. Others on which I second Gallagher are The World in His Arms (though "masterpiece" is pushing it), Desperate Journey, They Died With Their Boots On, Gentleman Jim, The Roaring Twenties (that one is a must), and Objective, Burma! Unequivocal Siren thumbs-down on Band of Angels. I simply have no idea what Gallagher was seeing there. I didn't even like the color, although to be fair I probably saw a lousy print. And I also disagree with the "don't bother" on Battle Cry. As I remember (been a while) it is too long but visually it was certainly more interesting than the turgid Band of Angels. It is also interesting in that it is sort of an attempt to breed a women's picture with a war movie, rather like From Here to Eternity but not as good.

And from the same list, for my to-see queue: Pursued and Uncertain Glory.

Speaking of knocking things off the to-see list: THANK YOU!!!! You know for what. :)

June 18, 2007 12:52 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

The Borde and Chaumeton book sounds wonderful. What format does it take, I'm curious? Notes on films and filmmakers, or essays, or does it have overarching structure?

As for Walsh, I second campaspe's recommendation of OBJECTIVE, BURMA!, truly one of the best war films Hollywood has ever produced and one with a pioneering and intensive focus on the details of combat; a perhaps lesser known one I caught at Film Forum's Pre-Code Fox series, ME AND MY GAL, a charming rom-com detective film with a young Spencer Tracy seducing coffee-shop cashier Joan Bennett.

June 18, 2007 1:16 PM  
Blogger shahn said...

raoul walsh-
white heat is one of my favorite films, but i recommend regeneration. it was one of the first feature-length silents i saw and it blew me away.

i also recommend his autobiography, each man in his time. what a life!

June 18, 2007 1:17 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

I second the Siren's nod to The Roaring Twenties, which is a great summation of much of the gangster genre, with interesting links to the WWI experience.

June 18, 2007 1:28 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I have seen woefully few Walsh films but one of them is among my very favorites of all time. That would be the Big Trail, which Peter Nellhaus recently wrote up here.

The Enforcer really intrigues. The precise problem I had with Dassin's the Naked City, for all its documentary-esque virtues, was just that sort of Lang-ian pessimism that could have prevented it from being such a jarring glamorization of the police. I much prefer Thieves' Highway and Night and the City because they tap into that sense of gloom.

Great post!

June 18, 2007 2:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Siren, Daniel, Shahn, Gareth, Brian--Thank you for all the ideas and suggestions!

Siren, I didn't realize just how many Walshes you had seen. And since you speak of Simone Signoret and the War years, I'm reminded of Army of Shadows. Wish I could lay my hands on The Strawberry Blonde.

Daniel, the book is divided as follows: After defining film noir (and this definition chapter is included all by itself in Silver/Ursini's Film Noir Reader) and tracing its sources (literature, psychoanalysis, social context, and other genres like gangster films and even cartoons), they delineate 4 stages:

(1) The War Years (1941-1945)
(2) The Glory Days (1946-1948)
(3) Decadence and Transformation (1949-1950)
(4) The Demise of a Series (1951-1953).

The book includes, towards the end, a half-hearted, disappointed chapter on French film noirs, in which the only film spoken of with admiration is Rififi.

Shahn, Gareth and Brian -- I have Regeneration, Roaring Twenties and Thieves Highway at home, ready to be seen soon...

June 18, 2007 2:43 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Cartoons? Ok, now I'm more than just intrigued. I've ordered a copy from the library (perhaps I should just "blind-buy" it though?)

June 18, 2007 3:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian, there's not much on cartoons; I wish there was more. They quote fellow Surrealist and Positif writer Robert Benayoun: "Fred Quimby succeeds in making wounds and swellings irresistible, along with bruises and blisters, a set of teeth stove in by a hammer, a stump a voracious maw tears to ribbons, flesh that burns, body hair that's singed." (Nice.)

The book also has a good & lengthy introduction by James Naremore. And it's a fairly quick read (160 pages).

June 18, 2007 4:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey, Darren's got a post about his trip to T.O. and our meeting up.

June 18, 2007 5:51 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Oh that's interesting. Fred Quimby must be code for Tex Avery, and/or Hanna-Barbera's Tom & Jerry 'toons, before the cartoon-director-as-auteur concept had sunk in. Quimby was the producer of the MGM cartoons in the forties and early fifties. And so, despite being far less of a creative contributer than Walt Disney, Quimby is, like Disney, getting the credit for his underlings' work.

When the Noir City film festival played at the Balboa in 2006, the theatre projected Avery cartoons like Thugs With Dirty Mugs and Who Killed Who? before the showings. I have to say I thought these crime spoofs didn't fit as well with the likes of Siodmak's the Killers as one would think they might. Maybe if they'd been on 35mm...

June 18, 2007 7:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for decoding that, Brian; I had no idea who Quimby was.

June 18, 2007 7:42 PM  
Blogger Ignatius Vishnevetsky said...

I see that they mention Niagra--do they have much to say about the few color noirs, or do they feel it's merely a difference of film stock? They're a subject I've been thinking about a lot lately.

June 18, 2007 10:24 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Second the love for Strawberry Blonde--because that's the kinda hairpin I am.

And what, no mention of Walsh's great Colorado Territory? A remake of High Sierra, and in my opinion superior. Interesting to compare Bogart and Mcrea in the same role...

June 18, 2007 10:55 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Thanks for the plug, Girish! I must admit that I have some problems with Walsh, so my recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt. But I'd put Gentleman Jim and White Heat at the top, with The Big Trail up there too, and maybe The Naked and the Dead as a sleeper.

June 18, 2007 11:58 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I seem to be writing about a Walsh film every few months or so, but among the ones I like that are only on tape, or the periodic showing on TCM are A King and Four Queens and Going Hollywood.

I was glad I picked up Borde and Chaumeton last year.

June 19, 2007 12:37 AM  
Blogger cineboy said...

“I once had occasion to write,” André Bazin said, “that since the war cinematic eroticism had shifted from the thigh to the breast. Marilyn Monroe makes it descend somewhere between the two.”

I wouldn't be surprised if that quote is either not from Bazin, or one heard in conversation only, but what a great quote!

These are great excerpts. Makes me want ot get the book and forget my homework.

June 19, 2007 7:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Ignatius, Noel, Dan, Peter, Tucker!

Ignatius, most of the films treated are B&W, and the book doesn't really examine how color noirs are different...Perhaps you'll post your thoughts on them...

June 19, 2007 7:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Weird: Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance is finally on DVD (yay) but for some reason credited to Robert Wise at Netflix; and Arzner herself is completely missing in the Netflix database...

June 19, 2007 8:24 AM  
Anonymous brian b said...

Second the mention of GOING HOLLYWOOD. I wouldn't say it's a wholly successful film, but the musical sequences are remarkable - particularly the exhilarating title number, which feels like a fully blended mix of Walsh, Berkeley, and Eisenstein. I wish it were on YouTube...

June 19, 2007 11:02 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lucas said...

It's not strictly true that LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN was the first Technicolor crime film. In the early 1930s, DOCTOR X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM were both shot in two-strip Technicolor. Both are commonly regarded as horror films, but the actual plots have no supernatural content and are about investigations into various murders and disappearances. LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN is more specifically the first color noir, to my thinking anyway.

June 19, 2007 5:56 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Such a great line from the excerpts you posted, Girish: "A Joris Ivens or a Georges Franju is needed here." I'd love to come out of a Hollywood prestige movie and adamantly declare, "A Frederick Wiseman is needed here." Ivens did an excellent Australian propaganda film on unions (probably more than one, I'm sure), Indonesia Calling, from '46.

And hey Girish, since your place is the film blog hangout joint, I just wanted to mention a blog by a longtime cyber-acquaintance of mine, Daniel Smith, who's recently been blogging on Eastwood ...

June 19, 2007 11:00 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

re: Bazin.
Apparently it's from his review of Niagara, in the original 4 volumes edition of Qu'est-ce que le Cinéma (Out of print) I don't see this sentence in the En marge de "L'Erotisme au Cinéma" article that can be found in the new french edition. Which might be translated in English in Bert Cardullo's "Bazin at Work: Major Essays & Reviews from the Forties and Fifties" (any comfirmation?).

From the Unofficial Bazin Tribute site:

"Chutes de reins et autres: Niagara", "L’Observateur" (September 17, 1953), in "Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?", vol. 3, "Cinéma et sociologie; Deuxième Partie: Érotisme" (Éditions Cerf 1961), pp. 60-64. Bazin discusses the Henry Hathaway film starring Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten. Bazin notes, among other things, that Howard Hughes had made eroticism in film pass from the thighs to the breasts, but Marilyn Monroe was now making it fall somewhere in between.

June 20, 2007 3:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian B., Tim, Zach and Harry--Thanks, guys!

Brian, I should check among my scads of TCM videotapes to see if Going Hollywood is hidden in there. I found a half dozen Walshes in my musty old videotape closet yesterday.

Tim, that sweeping claim did strike me as a bit surprising, so thank you for clarifying!

Zach, that's a line I gotta remember...And I'm glad you posted that link. I'm always looking for good new filmblogs to feed my hungry RSS reader.

Harry, thanks for looking that up. It is indeed in Bazin at Work in Bazin's review of Niagara, which also includes the following line:

"We know that in America the characteristic feature of an actress who has a sufficiently marked sex appeal is nicely designated by a generic label. Thus Lauren Bacall is "the look," Jane Russell "the breath." A single word would characterize Marilyn Monroe but doesn't exist in English."

To which the editor Bert Cardullo adds this note of his own:

"It does exist in French, however, except not in one word: "chutes de reins," which means "small of the back" and suggests the curvaceousness of the areas surrounding this spot. The original title of Bazin's review was "Chutes des reins et autres Niagara," which is untranslatable because it plays on the words "chutes," which mean "falls" (as in Niagara Falls), and "reins" ("kidneys," a euphemism for "bottom" or "back")."

June 20, 2007 6:54 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- David Bordwell on painting and film.
-- Dave Kehr's DVD column in the NYT (36th Chamber of Shaolin and Allan Dwan).
-- Acquarello has been filing film reviews from the Human Rights Watch festival in New York.

June 20, 2007 7:16 AM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

Girish, your remark on the breadth of my Walsh viewings made me reflect on just how many movies the man made, and in how many different genres. Which in turn made me remember this quote from Patrick McGilligan's interview with Walsh, in "Film Crazy": "Oh, I would have tried anything. I would have put on 'Red Riding Hood' if they would have asked me."

June 20, 2007 12:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah thanks, Siren. "Film Crazy": I forgot I had that one. I should look up that Walsh interview...

I just checked out the interesting "The Hollywood Professionals" vol. 1, which is devoted to essays and filmographies for three directors, Walsh, Curtiz and Hathaway, written by Kingsley Canham (1973). It's part of a fairly large series of cinema books edited by Peter Cowie for Tantivy Press, London.

And, let me excerpt Dave Kehr from the NYT link I posted above:

"“36th Chamber” (1978) belongs to the second wave of the golden age of Hong Kong action filmmaking. It was released when the ground rules laid down in the mid-1960s by the genre’s pioneers, King Hu and Chang Cheh, were giving way to the harsher vision of a younger generation of directors, much as the epic westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks led to the tighter, nervier work of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher.

"But the western analogy goes only so far: structurally, the Hollywood genre the martial arts films most resemble is the musical. The trick in both genres is to find a plausible, unobtrusive and emotionally satisfying way to arrange a series of disconnected performance pieces."

And this nice observation about Allan Dwan:

"Mr. Dwan’s great gift, which he discovered early on, was for opening up practically any shot into a complex, three-dimensional space that pulled in the viewer by strategically placed fore- and midground objects, a gift that gives his work a weight and presence equaled by few other filmmakers."

June 20, 2007 3:51 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

You like Liu Chia LIang, girish?

June 20, 2007 8:12 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Noel, that's the only film I've seen by him. When I was growing up in Calcutta, very few 'foreign' films would come to town (Hollywood or otherwise) and 36th Chamber became a legendary hit. Every boy of my age in the city, poor or rich, no matter what his native tongue, had seen it at least twice. It became like a common currency that all teenage boys of Caluctta shared that year. I haven't seen the film since. Are there other films by him you'd like to suggest?

June 21, 2007 8:21 AM  
Blogger girish said...

David Byrne's new post: "I have been riding a bicycle in New York City for almost 30 years! For transport, not for sport."

June 21, 2007 8:31 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

If you're looking for prime Liu, you can't do much better than Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. Someone needs to release a DVD of that film that isn't dubbed & pan-and-scanned as soon as possible.

June 21, 2007 1:04 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I will second the recommndation of Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. I own two copies myself: one on Region 3 DVD and the other on VCD. Both are currently loaned out to friends, however.

June 21, 2007 5:06 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Steve and Brian--The math geek in me loves that title!

June 21, 2007 5:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

At Michael Sicinski's place: solid capsule reviews of Election 2, Knocked Up, Ocean's Thirteen, I'm A Cyborg But That's O.K.

June 21, 2007 6:09 PM  
Blogger cineboy said...

I like that journal entry from David Byrne. I would love to see him riding his bike in New York. That would be a kick.

June 22, 2007 2:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Tucker, I enjoy David Byrne's blogging. He covers a broad range of topics, is well-informed and -read, and is totally lacking in rockstar ego. I suspect he'd be a really cool guy to hang out with!

June 22, 2007 9:15 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh wow, check it out, all ye Joni-heads: Jim Emerson at Scanners has a post called "The films of Joni Mitchell: A brief retrospective".

June 22, 2007 9:17 AM  
Blogger Marina said...

Don't know if you've seen this, but scrow down to the second and third post upside-down and you'll find a bunch of Fellini cartoons!!

June 22, 2007 4:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Marina. Those are neat; didn't realize that Fellini had done a graphic novel.

June 23, 2007 12:44 PM  
Blogger girish said...

New releases at Netflix this morning:
Chris Marker's Sans Soleil/La Jetee; Kazuo Hara's A Dedicated Life; Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates; and John Cromwell's Caged.

June 24, 2007 7:14 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

While you're getting films from Netflix, Girish, check out Attack of the 50 Foot Woman - it's hilarious, and the DVD has a commentary from star Yvette Vickers. The Giant Behemoth has a wonderfully redundant title, and was directed by an associate of Jean Renoir, Eugene Lourie. And Hotrods to Hell is a great title, and was directed by John Brahm, famous for Hangover Square. Also, Hawks' Land of the Pharoahs with a screenplay co-written by Faulkner.

I did order the Marker DVD from Amazon.

June 24, 2007 8:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter--Always glad to hear your recommendations. I've been curious about Brahm for a while but haven't seen anything by him. And numero uno on my gluttonous, 500-strong Netflix queue is Hawks's Land of the Pharaohs...

June 24, 2007 10:27 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

girish, Drunken Master 2 is at least partly directed by him (the massive assault by axe wielders is his), and I recommend (other than those already mentioend) Legendary Weapons of China.

June 26, 2007 3:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was on GreenCine Daily today and noticed the similarity of the posters for two "serious" movies:

Exhibit A
Exhibit B

What the hell? Attack of the Floating Heads! lol! Seriously, every big serious movie has to show its line-up striking across the poster.

As for my cinephilia awakening, it all happened when scoping through Metaphilm (link) I came across an excerpt from a new book about Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue, which I now own. Being interested in a movie about the ten commandments, I rented the whole series, was mesmerized and became hungry for more "profound" stuff. Before, my movie love was just like anybody's movie love--clean of European BS.

I found another awakening with the discovery of Werner Herzog, and with enough convincing, got a boxset and it was, as Flickhead put it, "all downhill from there." It's because of blogs like these and sites like the Senses of Cinema that I became more interested, I have to say I read far more than I watch though. My wallet and my time can only handle so much.

October 17, 2007 2:08 PM  

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