The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


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The Third Man….Noir or Not?

A few months ago I rewatched The Third Man. Around the same time I was involved in a lot of discussions on the pros and cons of Film Noir. I started wondering if The Third Man was an example of the genre.

The argument for this is simply the look of the film. It’s hard to think of another movie that is so shadowy and ominous looking. Look at these two shots:

 

We could easily be in Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. The palette is gray and grayer. The look feeds the paranoia and confusion of the story. However as the story unravels and the mysteries are solved, we leave L.A. and move firmly into Greenland, the waggish name given to the landscape of the novels of Grahame Green. Great ruminations on morality and guilt ensue. In the end, it is very clear who is evil and who is good…..sort of. That distinction immediately takes it out of the running of being a classic noir.

One of the unfortunate hallmarks of noir is its flagrant misogyny. In The Third Man, however, the moral center, the figure of compassion and pity, the figure of love is Anna, beautifully played by Alida Valli. I read somewhere that the amazing long take at the end of the film when we see Anna approaching from a vanishing point in the distance and finally passing Holly Martins can be considered one of the great scenes of moral rejection in all of cinema. Having such a moral figure, as misguided as she might be, lifts The Third Man out of the morass of conventional film noir.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Another Part Of The Forest (Michael Gordon)
  2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (John Ford)
  3. Angst Essen Seele Aus (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  4. Night Nurse (William Wellman)
  5. Love is Colder Than Death (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  6. Fort Apache (John Ford)
  7. Conflagration (Enjo) (Kon Ichikawa)
  8. The Prowler (Joseph Losey)
  9. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann)
  10. Stormy Weather (Andrew L. Stone)

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1) Another Part Of The Forest was a prequel that Lillian Hellman wrote to her more famous and much, much better play The Little Foxes. The play tries to be ‘How the Hubbards got that way’, but after a while you feel that Hellman is revisiting these characters with no real intent.  The film version is minor indeed compared to the towering Bette Davis film version of The Little Foxes.

Question: The title seems to come from stage directions in either A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It.  Beats me why. Anyone have any thoughts on that?

2) What fun to see Stormy Weather.  It’s not much more an excuse to showcase a ton of great black musical performers. The numbers are strung together with the flimsiest of plots, but you get to see Fats Waller doing his stride-piano thing, you get to see a mind-blowing routine by the Nicholas Brothers, you get to see the gorgeous Lena Horne sing the title song, among other treasures.  You get to see the star, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, without Shirley Temple.  There is a very curious vaudeville comedy routine where Robinson and his costar put on blackface.  Black artists in blackface flips the whole controversy of the performing style on its head.  Or does it?

3) It is very illuminating to watch a first work by a great director, and then a later work from the period where that artist hits his stride.  Love Is Colder Than Death is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first feature and for me it was longer than death.  It seemed completely derivative of the worst posturing of the French New Wave with its disaffected heros and treacherous amoral heroines. However, Angst Essen Seele Aus is a masterpiece.  Derivative also from the works of Douglas Sirk, the film uses its sources merely as a starting point.  It is beautifully moving and very much a Fassbinder film. I give the title in German since it is hard to give an accurate rendition in English. It conveys the broken German of the hero in his most poignant moment of the film: he tells his love how fear is consuming his soul.  It is a heartbreaking scene and transcendent in the way the best of Sirk is.

4) Will you just watch Night Nurse already?!? It is the best example I know of the loose moral universe that Pre-Code Hollywood showed so well. It is scary and funny and sexy.  Clark Gable (without the moustache) is truly a monster.  Barbara Stanwyck is glorious as always.  Joan Blondell is on hand to provide the olive in this perfect gin-heavy martini.

5) Stay tuned for an upcoming post where I cogitate over the conflicting world views of the Western (including Fort ApacheThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Naked Spur) and Film Noir.

 

 

 


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The Last Ten Movies I’ve Seen

  1. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)
  2. Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen)
  3. Nashville (Robert Altman)
  4. I’m No Angel (Wesley Ruggles)
  5. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk)
  6. Charulata (Satyajit Ray)
  7. Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock)
  8. The Magician (Ingmar Bergman)
  9. Zero Focus (Yoshitaro Nomura)
  10. The Music Room (Satyajit Ray)

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1- I recently had a big, round birthday and I wanted to do nothing more than watch a few of my ‘birthday’ movies.  These are films that one watches over and over again throughout one’s life and that come to define one’s aesthetic. On my big day I got up at 5:30 in the morning and had the pleasure of once again taking that momentous car trip in Wild Strawberries.  I rounded the day out later in the evening with a viewing of the exceedingly kind and lovely Broadway Danny Rose and the, for me, epochal Nashville. I think I need to write a piece about ‘birthday’ movies.

2- Ah, Mae West! Subversive, hilarious and, more than anything else, powerful. Too bad that there aren’t more films.  I’m No Angel is brilliant. I keep hearing her as she saunters past the jury box while she is acting as her own defense attorney and saying to the folks in the box ‘How am I doin’?’  Mae! The best.

3- Both Stage Fright and The Magician I had regarded as lesser works of towering masters. I was kind of right with Stage Fright, but it is still a hugely entertaining movie – just without the subtexts that make Hitchcock a master.  The Magician, on the other hand, is up there with Bergman’s best. Fascinating.

4- As time goes on, I realize that film noir isn’t a genre, it’s a posture. The very messy Japanese film Zero Focus really brought this point home to me. Plus, it made me realize that I find the whole film noir cult a little tedious.  It is all too operatic without the great music.

5- I am belatedly going through Satyajit Ray’s oeuvre.  You don’t need me to tell you that he is one of the absolute masters. You do need me to tell you to watch more Satyajit Ray. Good news: Criterion will be releasing the restored Apu Trilogy in the fall. Rejoice!


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Suitor (Pierre Étaix)
  2. Good Health (Pierre Étaix)
  3. Sitting Pretty (Walter Lang)
  4. Satan Met A Lady (William Dieterle)
  5. Mr. Thank You (Hiroshi Shimizu)
  6. The V.I.P.s (Anthony Asquith)
  7. Days Of Being Wild (Wong Kar Wai)
  8. Out Of The Past (Jacques Tourneur)
  9. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston)
  10. The School of Babel (Julie Bertuccelli)

 

1- What fun to have the opportunity to watch two versions of Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon so soon after one another. Made by Warner Brothers, the studio that made the more famous and undeniably greater John Huston version, Satan Met A Lady stars Bette Davis ostensibly in the Brigid O’Shaughnessy role and Warren Williams not at all reminiscent of Bogart’s Sam Spade. I can’t speak with authority as I have not read the novel, but my guess is the John Huston classic is probably closer to the feel of the book.  Satan Met A Lady seems to be a rush-job, B-picture, something that would fill out the bottom half of a double-bill.  The story is somewhat confused (as, I guess, the story of The Maltese Falcon should be), but the tone is what’s off.  Is this a light-hearted murder mystery romp? A proto-noir affair?  Hard to tell what the intentions were.  The results are not satisfactory.  The John Huston film remains sublime and gets sublimer and sublimer with each viewing.  The humor is there, but so is the great themes of greed, trust and integrity – something Satan Met A Lady was not very interested in.

2- I need to write a little piece on Pierre Étaix and his brilliant use of what I would term ‘slow comedy’.  Much of comedy, either verbal or physical, comes at you in a torrent, and part of the thrill of it is the sheer sensory overload.  Not here. The situations cook slowly and boil over into an inevitable climax.  Wonderful stuff.

3- Does anyone read what I write here?

4- Watching Mr. Thank You (Arigato-san) made me realize how rare and difficult it is to portray a truly good person without the whole thing becoming cloying and self righteous.  A lovely and very innovative film, with what must have been a pioneering use of location filming.

5- Film Noir is one of those things that people feel they are supposed to revere out of all proportion.  I’ve always found the nihilism and cynicism to have an air of posturing about it. Nowadays, all you need is dark lighting, a betraying woman and death of the hero and voila! you have yourself a noir film.  These films have as little to do with the films originally identified by the French critics as noir, as most films labeled ‘Hitchcockian’ have to do with an actual Hitchcock film. Even Hitchcock didn’t always make a successfully ‘Hitchcockian’ film. That said, I was happy to review Out Of The Past, the noir that nowadays is viewed as the noirest of noirs. The relentlessly downbeat tone gets to me. I know that it is strictly a matter of taste and there are those that revel in this film and the genre itself, but I remain skeptical.