At least two of the films in this half-dozen I thought were on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but aren’t. And I’m not sure why Bondarchuk’s War and Peace – at least one, if not all four, of the films – never made the grade.
Conversation Piece, Luchino Visconti (1974, Italy). Visconti seems to have a thing about veils, as at least one woman in his films appears wearing one. In this film it’s a flashback to the mother of the character played by Burt Lancaster, as the movie itself is set in the 1970s. You can tell from the fashions. Boy, can you tell. Lancaster plays a wealthy professor who lives in a Roman palazzo with large collection of books and “conversation pieces” (a type of informal group portrait, typically British and typically eighteenth-century). He is pressured into renting the top floor of is palazzo to an overbearing jet-setting marchesa, ostensibly for her daughter and her daughter’s fiancé, but actually for her own lover. Things go wrong from the start. The lover, under the impression the apartment has been purchased for him, starts knocking down walls… But despite getting off to a bad start, he and the professor become unlikely friends. The professor tries to hide the shady things going on in the lover’s life – at one point even hiding him from the marchesa, at another providing him with an alibi for the police. As he does, so he becomes less of a recluse and, surprisingly, less attached to his books and conversation pieces. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the film, given it didn’t have much in the way of a plot, or indeed a cast, which was small but high-powered. Lancaster was especially good, better I think than in The Leopard, and Helmut Berger managed a remarkable transition from dislikable to sympathetic. But the film suffered somewhat from having too small a story – evident in the fact it was shot entirely indoors.
Cold Skin, Xavier Gens (2017, France). Not sure what prompted me to add this to my rental list. Perhaps it was something in the description. Certainly neither the director nor any member of the cast was known to me. And while I’ve identified the film as French – although these days few films are the product of a single nation – Cold Skin is actually a French-Spanish production, adapted from a 2002 Spanish novel, but filmed as English language. An Irishman during WWI hitches a ride to a remote South Atlantic island to work as its meteorologist. There is only one other person on the island: a lighthouse keeper. And he doesn’t seem all there. The reason for that the Irishman discovers during his first night on the island when his hut is attacked by a horde of fish-people. He manages to survive and moves into the fortified lighthouse. Where he discovers the keeper has a fish-people woman as a sex slave. And, er, that’s about it. The Irishman learns the fish-people are not monsters (but the keeper is), even though the lighthouse is attacked nightly by swarms of them. It felt a bit like a less-commercial del Toro film, to be honest, and I’m not a del Toro fan. The fish-people were done well, and the two actors were of the type where you know their faces but you can’t think of their names and you can’t remember what you’ve seen them in before. Meh.
The Scarlet Empress, Josef von Sternberg (1934, USA). The empress in question is Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg (a principality in Prussia), but she is better known as Catherine the Great. She’s played by Marlene Dietrich in what is pretty much a straight-up Hollywood biopic. She’s taken to Russia to marry the Imperial heir, Peter, but he turns out to be a half-wit, so she finds her pleasures elsewhere, all the while trying not to offend the actual Empress of Russia, and eventually seizes power six months after Peter is crowned. And goes on to rule Russia for thirty-four years. Despite not being Russian. Neither was Peter. He was born in Kiel, in Schleswig-Holstein, was at one point declared the King of Finland and at another the heir presumptive to the Swedish throne. His mother, however, was Russian, as was his aunt, the Empress of Russia was his aunt. However, despite the manglings and mischaracterisations, The Scarlet Empress proved surprisingly entertaining because of the production design. I don’t know who was responsible – von Sternberg obviously, in some part – but the sets were completely bonkers. Giant doors with Lovecraftian marquetry on them. All the walls designed to resemble the logs of a wooden fort. And the chairs! All designed to look like gargoyles from some deranged hell. It’s a shame it was in black and white. It must have looked like Hope Hodgson on acid in colour. Perhaps one day someone will colourise it. I hope so: it would certainly rival Mughal-E-Azam (see here) for eye-curdling visuals.
Rififi, Jules Dassin (1955, France). There’s a famous scene in Rififi, where the thieves have taken over the flat above a jewellery shop and cut a hole in the floor and lower themselves into the shop. While this was playing, I was convinced I’d seen it before. But in colour. I’m thinking maybe it was pastiche of the scene in something by Buñuel but I’m not sure. Rififi is a well-known film, and highly-regarded in French cinema, so it’s likely it inspired a similar scene in another movie. Dassin, despite the name, was American, and after being outed as a Communist and blacklisted in the USA (Land of the Free kof kof), fled to France, where he continued to direct movies. Rififi was apparently a rush-job, based on a novel that no one thought any good – Truffaut said of it, “Out of the worst crime novel I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I’ve ever seen”. The plot is pretty basic. A jewel thief finishes a five-year sentence, recruits a gang, and robs a jewellery store under cover of night. Then it all falls apart. Because one of the gang gives a stolen diamond ring to his girlfriend, a singer at a gangster’s club, and the gangster subsequently figures out who was responsible for the robbery. Cue shoot outs. Rififi is straight-up American noir, but set in France and with a French cast. But then the French were quick to adopt film noir – the Cahiers du Cinéma were big fans of the genre, and Godard, for one, pastiched it several times during his career. And that, I think, is one of the problems with Rififi. It’s film noir, and the French made better film noir when they were making knowing take-offs of it. The fact the only thing that stands out about Rififi is its inventive robbery probably tells you all you need to know. Worth seeing, but fans of film noir will appreciate it more than others.
Kin, Jonathan & Josh Baker (2018, USA). A young adopted black boy with a white father is helping a gang he was fallen in with steal old wiring from a derelict factory when he gets caught in the middle of a firefight between two groups of armoured aliens who appear through some sort of portal. As you do. He manages to escape, but returns later and discovers one of the high-tech blasters carried by one of the aliens. Meanwhile, his stepbrother has returned home having finished his sentence. But his dad doesn’t want him around. And with good reason. It turns out he owes money to a gangster who protected him in prison, and the only way he can arrange to pay it off is to help the gangster rob his father’s construction office. But they’re caught in the act, the father is shot and killed, as is the gangster’s brother. So the step-brothers go on the run. Along with the alien blaster. Kin suffers because it doesn’t know if it’s a science fiction film or a gangster film. The latter are ten a penny, and need to be really special to stand out. Kin isn’t. The former, well… there isn’t enough there for the film to get a good grip on its science-fictional ideas, not even given the film’s final twist. For all that, it’s a reasonably accomplished piece of movie-making. The cast are generally good, although James Franco’s gangster joins a long line of clichéd psycho movie gangsters, Dennis Quaid’s blue-collar honest Joe dad is no less a stereotype, and and as for Zoë Kravitz’s kind-hearted lapdancer… Meh.
War and Peace, Part 2: Natasha Rostova, Sergei Bondarchuk (1966, Russia). Two films in and I think these are actually quite brilliant. They were massive technical achievements for Soviet cinema at the time, and every rouble spent, every technical ambition realised, is up there plain to see on the screen. Not to mention the cast of thousands. I believe Ilya Muromets holds the records for the most number of extras – I’ve heard figures ranging from 100,000 to 250,000 – although a lot of sources claim Gandhi had 300,000 extras. But the Ilya Muromets extras were costumed, which makes it a more impressive achievement. Some of these War and Peace movies must have casts numbering tens of thousands, again all in period costume (well, uniform). Anyway, this second film focuses on the eponymous heroine, and her burgeoning relationship with Prince Bolkonski. There are lavish balls – and they are lavish. But we see much of its from Rostova’s point of view, although the POV does jump about a bit, with swathes of cloth sweeping across the screen, which is odd. Also odd is the inclusion of occasional scenes where the dialogue is in Russian, since the rest of the film has been dubbed into English (well, except for the French and German dialogue, which isn’t dubbed at all. This is apparently because the original 70mm masters have degraded beyond restoration, so an edited version was used for the DVD release, but with some scenes – the ones that aren’t dubbed – added from other surviving copies. It’s plain the full film, all 431 minutes, in 70mm – albeit on apparently awful Soviet film stock – must have been amazing. And there isn’t a single copy in good enough condition remaining to capture that – although some DVD editions are apparently better than others. That’s a shame. Perhaps we’ll be lucky and someone will find a well-preserved copy in some fleapit in a former SSR. Something similar happened to Metropolis. And to Limite. Although both are still incomplete. But they’re also much older films. Anyway, War and Peace, Part 2: Natasha Rostova finishes with the opening shots in the Battle of Borodino, and it lokos fantastic. I can’t wait to watch War and Peace, Part 3: 1812.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933