I was under the impression I’d knocked a few more off the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list recently, but apparently not. Two of the directors in this post I’m a fan of, and one of them I’m becoming a fan of…
I Want to Live!, Robert Wise (1958, USA). Not only was this film based on a real-life murder case, but the movie makes a right meal of its origin, opening with a screen of text that insists how true it is – it’s even signed by the journalist who broke the story in the first place. So it’s a little off-putting to then learn that the story takes some major liberties with the truth. Like presenting the central character as innocent when she was actually guilty. Bah, Hollywood. The story goes as follows: Barbara Graham is a habitual criminal, whose marriage to a drug addict proves the last straw… so she leaves him and joins up with his associates, only to be arrested for the murder they had committed of a rich old woman, Graham is sentenced to death and then executed. The film presents Graham as a pawn in the actual murderers’ plot to commute their death sentences to life. But in reality, she was just as guilty. Susan Hayward plays Graham in an Osar-winning turn, but when all’s said and done I Want to Live! is a boringly ordinary moral drama. Samuel Fuller did it much better in both Shock Corridor (see here) and The Naked Kiss (see here), on a lower budget and without an Oscar-bait star. Meh.
Sunset Song, Terence Davies (2015, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and having been impressed by Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives (although I thought the film much older than it was), I decided to give this one a go. It took several goes. It is grim. Majorly grim. Scottish grim. Beautifully shot, but as grim as the grimmest thing in a list of grim things. It looks beautiful – far too beautiful for Scotland, it seems, as part of it was shot in New Zealand. It’s based on a classic Scottish novel by Lewis Gibbon of the same title, and tells the story of a young woman, and farmer’s daughter, in the years up to and including the First World War. Peter Mullan plays family patriarch, and he’s a nasty piece of work. I’m tempted to say it’s like DH Lawrence but with the boinking taken out, but that’s the not the only thing missing. Lawrence was hardly an optimist but his novels are generally more cheerful than Sunset Song. When it wasn’t people growling at each other in Scottish accents, they were either shouting or wailing. It made for a gruelling viewing experience. I think this is a good film, and really quite beautifully shot at times, but its unremitting grimness made it difficult viewing, and some times your appetite for punishment is not quite as high as at other times. You need to be in the right mood to watch this. Recommended, but with caveats.
Kagaaz Ke Phool, Guru Dutt (1959, India). Exploring Bollywood films has been fun, but most of those I’ve seen have been pretty forgettable. A good night’s entertainment, but basically just a Hollywood family blockbuster turned up to eleven. With singing and dancing. So Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa came as something of a surprise… although now I’ve seen him described as “India’s Orson Welles”, his films begin to make more sense. They are clever and well-shot, and make excellent use of Bollywood conventions to tell a story that doesn’t really map onto Bollywood story templates. And this is just as true of Kagaaz Ke Phool, Dutt’s last film. Annoyingly, there don’t seem to be any good transfers of his films – you’d think he’d be a director ripe for a set of remastered editions by Criterion or the BFI (for one thing, he only directed eight films, between 1951 and 1959). Given the lovely job the BFI has done for Dreyer, I’d like to see them do the same for Dutt. And I say that having seen only two of his films. In Kagaaz Ke Phool, Dutt plays a Bollywood director whose career is declining. His wife and her family have always seen his career as beneath them, and he now has no access to his daughter. While secretly visiting his daughter at her boarding school, Dutt bumps into a young woman and gives her his coat to protect her from the rain. Later, she visits his studio to return the coat and he realises she has star quality. She becomes a big Bollywood star, and romantically attached to Dutt; but the daughter would sooner her mother and father got back together again, so the star gives up her career and becomes a teacher in a village. This is well-made stuff, and while it feels somewhat back-handed, and not a little insulting, to describe Dutt as “India’s Orson Welles”, it is a label that fits. After watching Pyaasa, I decided to buy this – and despite being disappointed at the quality of the transfer, I think I’ll be buying more of Dutt’s film. But can the BFI please step up and remaster them all, please?
Going My Way, Leo McCarey (1944, USA). This was the biggest grossing film of its year, and was nominated for ten Oscars, winning seven of them, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. And yet it’s not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. Strange. Or, at least, I thought so… But now that I’ve seen it… It’s, well, it’s sentimental tosh. Bing Crosby plays a young priest sent to the New York parish of St Dominic’s to get it sorted out. The incumbent is old, the church is mortgaged, and both need fresh new management. Which is what Bing does. And he sings too. He turns the local boys’ gang into a choir, sorts out a young woman who has left home, and generally spreads common sense and happiness with his trademark smile and “ba ba ba bum”. He also tries to raise money for the church by selling one of the songs he’s written – performed by an old friend who is now an opera diva. The music publisher doesn’t like the song, but when Bing and choir start singing ‘Swing on a Star’, he likes that one. There’s a relentless cheeriness to Going My Way that fails to offset the schamltzy plot and awful songs. I can perhaps see how in wartime it proved so popular, but its charm has long since dissipated. True, Oscar-winner Barry Fitzgerald isn’t bad as old Father Fitzgibbon, even if his character is a total stereotype. I’ve no idea why I stuck this on my rental list. Meh.
The Boss of It All, Lars von Trier (2006, Denmark). There’s nothing especially original about the plot of this film – it is, I guess, a variation on La cage aux folles. Or maybe something else. A man wants to sell his successful IT firm, but for the ten years it’s been in operation he’s pretended he’s not the actual boss. So he hires a friend actor to play “the boss of it all” in negotiations with the Icelandic buyers of the company. And, subsequently, with the employees. Of course, it gets very complicated, very quickly. It doesn’t help that the actor is a bit of a twit, and completely out of his depth. But von Trier does an excellent job of characterising his cast – in fact, in many respects The Boss of It All is a masterclass in small-cast drama. But that’s not good enough for von Trier, so he decides to present the movie explicitly as a piece of cinematic comedy, by introducing it in voice-over, explaining its aims, and even some of its story elements. The end-result is a post-modern cinematic approach to a post-modern story. I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to like it – but like most von Trier films, it ends up making you wonder: is this rubbish… or genius? And the fact he can elicit that response makes me tend toward the latter. Von Trier is experimenting with the medium, and that should be celebrated. If not every experiment is successful, that doesn’t invalidate the attempt… And it still makes him a damn sight more interesting a director than most of the other directors on this planet.
In the House, François Ozon (2012, France). The near-sociopathic inveigling of a person into another family in this film reminds me of another movie, but I’ve yet to figure out which. Probably because the details are different enough to make comparison difficult. Anyway, I like Ozon’s films – well, I’ve not liked or admired every film he’s made, but I admire him as a director and he’s built up an inpressive oeuvre. In the House is one of the better ones, if not an especially characteristically Ozon film – this is not 8 femmes or Angel or Ricky; but perhaps it’s not so far from 5 x 2 or Jeune et jolie. Perhaps that variety is as much an Ozon trademark as the sensibility which created 8 femmes, Potiche or Le refuge… Whatever; Ozon is certainly one of my favourite directors, so I’m always keen to see his latest. In the House is one of his domestic thrillers, played straight, but with that unsettling edge he does so well. A pupil at a school writes an essay about his weekend for an assignment, and in it describes how he befriended a fellow pupil, went to his house to tutor him in maths, and so ingratiated himself in to the family. The essay ends “à suivre”. The teacher is a failed writer (one novel twenty years ago, nothing since), and encourages the pupil to continue his “story”… And so the pupil becomes more and more involved with the family… until it all goes horribly wrong. A good and unsettling film, with some good performances. Worth seeing.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 773