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Moving pictures 2016, #4

Yet more movies, some from the list, some not. I’m not entirely sure what criteria I use when picking non-list films, but it seems to work as often as not. I’ve got a bit behind with these posts, so there’ll be a several of these appearing on the blog in quick succession.

gambitGambit, Ronald Neame (1966, USA). A 1960s thriller with a twist in the tail, starring Michael Caine and Shirley Maclaine. Caine plays a shady type who plans to rob reclusive zillionaire Herbert Lom, and to do so he recruits Maclaine, a Hong Kong nightclub hostess who’s the spitting image of Lom’s dead wife. The plan is, the two travel to the Arab city of Dammuz, Lom’s home, as an English baronet and wife, Lom’s goons spot Maclaine’s resemblance, and so she and Caine are invited to dine with Lom in his private apartment… and then Caine steals Lom’s priceless Chinese statuette. Except things don’t go quite as smoothly as planned. Maclaine, for a start, proves more of a hindrance than a help, Lom quickly sees through Caine’s disguise, and the eventual robbery only succeeds more by luck than anything else. Not that any of it really matters, as that wasn’t the point of it all… Sadly, an interesting structure – a flawless run-through (ie, Caine’s explanation of the plan) followed by what actually happens – isn’t really enough to make this mostly charmless thriller stand out. There were a number of similar movies made in the 1960s and set in North Africa – Our Man in Marrakesh and Maroc 7 spring to mind – which also blithely trampled over local sensibilities in a bid for “local colour”, but they were more fun than this one. Caine’s po-face pretty much echoed my own as I watched this – but he at least was paid for his.

ten _commandmentsThe Ten Commandments*, Cecil B DeMille (1956, USA). You know the story of Moses from the Bible, right? As a baby sent down a river in a basket, rescued by Egyptian royals, who raised him as one of their own, but he sided with the Hebrew slaves (being Hebrew himself), and led them to safety by parting the Red Sea. and then there was something about a burning bush – WTF? I mean, I AM GOD AND I SHALL APPEAR IN A FORM WHICH WILL STRIKE AWE INTO MOSES, I SHALL APPEAR AS… A SHRUB ON FIRE! – and, of course, the Ten Commandments, zapped by God onto a giant piece of rock which proves handily portable. It’s a story so over-the-top it could only exist in a religious text or a Hollywood film. And here we have both. Super-entitled white man NRA spokesman Charlton Heston plays Moses, a Jew; Yul Brynner, a Russian, plays Rameses II, Moses’s Egyptian “brother” and later enemy. The story is blithering nonsense from start to finish and the characters are drawn with all the subtlety of a kids’ cartoon – but the sets are pretty impressive. Back when I was kid at school in Qatar, I was sent to Sunday School. It took place in the gym at the Doha English Speaking School, where I was a pupil. As far as I remember, all we did was colour in pictures depicting scenes from the Bible – my bright orange Jesus looked quite fetching. The Ten Commandments, well, it’s that. Pretty much.

la_roueLa roue*, Abel Gance (1923, France). Gance is perhaps best known for his 5½ hour epic movie about Napoleon – soon to be made available on DVD/Blu-ray by the BFI… and yes, it’s on my wants list. At 273 minutes, La roue is also an exercise in viewing endurance. The wheel of the title is that of a train, and while the story – told in a variety of silent movie presentations, with differently-shaped views, dissolves and even colour washes – is a fairly standard family melodrama set on and about the French railways, what’s most notable is the number of cinematic techniques Gance makes use of which subsequently became part of cinema’s common language. Like many of the more sophisticated silent movies of the period – the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, for example – La roue is very talky, or, rather, there are a lot of intertitles, and a lot of story to get across in narrative text. Hollywood, at least, knew to minimise the text and let the moving pictures tell as much of the story as possible – and if that led to films consisting of little more than crudely-linked sight gags, they were at least entertaining. Which is not to say La roue is not – but European silent cinema, from my somewhat limited viewing experience, seemed to focus on narratives rather than pictures (although European cinema also had a strong tradition of strikingly designed sets, unlike Hollywood). Perhaps that’s unfair, perhaps it was simply a different approach to film-making – certainly the visuals in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc are impressive and arresting; but watching La roue is very much like watching someone create a new cinematic language, much of which you know will become universal. I had to buy a US import of this as no UK edition exists. A shame. Mind you, the same could be said of many of the more interesting films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list…

black_bellyThe Black Belly of the Tarantula, Paolo Cavara (1971, Italy). A serial killer injects his victims with the venom of the tarantula, paralysing them before he cuts out their heart. The tarantula is indeed venomous, but its venom causes hallucinations or muscle spasms (hence the tarantella), not paralysis. But never mind. The film basically comprises a series of murders of beautiful young women (of course), all by the same man, while a harried detective tries to figure out what’s going on. Eventually he finds a suspect… which leads to a chase up onto the roof of a quite impressive Brutalist office block. It’s all tied into a blackmail conspiracy based around a massage parlour, and a murderer who so obviously can’t be the murderer that he has to be the murderer. If that makes sense. Italian giallo can be fun, but they’re also usually rampantly sexist.

redsReds*, Warren Beatty (1981, USA). When actors direct films they’re usually vanity projects. True, there are actors who have gone on to have distinguished directorial careers, such as Ida Lupino. But most actor-directed films are usually pretty bad. Except Reds isn’t. The film is a biopic of John Reed, the US author who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, about the Russian Revolution (adapted shortly afterwards by Sergei Eisenstein). Beatty plays Reed, and Diane Keaton is his long-suffering partner, Louise Bryant, who he charms away from her marriage, fails to encourag in her writing career, and then mostly neglects. Bryant ends up in an affair with Eugene O’Neill (played by Jack Nicholson at his most oleaginous), and then leaves for Europe to become a correspondent during WWI. Reed follows, the two rekindle their relationship and head to Russia, where they join in the revolution. After returning to the US, Reed writes his book and tries to build up the communist movement. But the various communists groups are all locked in internecine fighting – leading to a frankly bizarre party meeting which leads to a schism, and further inter-party fighting. Throughout the film, Beatty breaks away from his narrative to interview talking heads, real-life friends and acquaintances of Reed and Bryant, not all of whom thought highly of the pair or their relationship. I’ll admit I knew of the film prior to renting it, but had never seen it – it is, to be fair, 194 minutes long – and I wasn’t expecting much (see earlier comment re actors who direct). While the direction was efficient more than anything else, the story didn’t feel as though it were longer than it needed to be, and the use of the talking heads was inspired. I hadn’t expected Reds to be a movie that belonged on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, even though I knew it was generally well-regarded by critics. But, you know what, it does belong there. Worth seeing.

jeanne_dielmanJeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles*, Chantal Akerman (1975, France). This was my first Akerman. It was her first too. And, I have to admit, a hugely impressive debut. The film is three days in the life of Dielman and shows her, in unadorned detail, going about her daily activites. The camera remains mostly static, there is very little dialogue, and no incidental music. And yet it’s compelling viewing. There is a story there, but it comes out of Dielman’s actions, not from a narrative stringing together events or cause and effect. I bought the Criterion DVD of this, which is the only edition available. That’s surprising – you’d think it’d be available here. Admittedly, it took me a while before I got round to watching it… But I’ll be trying more of Akerman’s films, that’s for sure.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 713