Meet Me in St Louis (December 2011)


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On the surface, this is a slice of Hollywood small-town Americana and this is how the reference books generally present it.  It shows Mr Smith, a rather hen-pecked father of 5 children – at least one of whom shows disturbing tendencies – against a quasi-historical backdrop of St Louis in 1903 where the production detail is so lavish, the colours so saturated, that you are not sure whether you are looking at a museum case or having a kind of delirious dream.  The costumes are so elaborate, so richly adorned with frills, bows, buttons that they could almost be a set of theatrical costumes.  Whatever we are looking at, it has nothing to do with reality.  The youngest daughter is given to killing her dolls and staging elaborate funerals for them:  she plans to dig up the “dead” ones to take to new York when the family moves.  She throws a stuffed figure under the wheels of a streetcar in the hope of derailing it – in concert with her next-older sister.  She “kills” her snow figures so that no one else can enjoy them after the family’s move.  This strikes me as strange behaviour!

I found myself making comparisons with The Magnificent Ambersons.  Although that too was a highly stylised film, the décor is so much less neurotic that it seems realistic.  And, of course, for the snow scenes, Orson Welles shot inside a big freezer in order to get the visible breath, a precaution that Vincente Minnelli did not take, but then he was probably not so interested in appearing realistic.  And yes, snow is fairly frequent in St Louis, although you would expect someone to know that it is not exactly rare in New York.  Like so many MGM musicals, you question why this was a musical at all.  The cast includes one singer of note and no dancers and yet it had to contain musical spectacle, while Mary Astor plays perhaps the most anodyne part in her career.

Alongside a slew of old songs – such as “Skip To My Lou” and “Meet Me in St Louis, Louis” – Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane provided a few distinguished and off-beat numbers.  Their songs were really not like anything else being written at the time.  Perhaps the most widely known is the melancholic lament Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas“.  Quite why it has become a standard Christmas song, performed and recorded by so many singers, is a mystery.  Like “Send in the Clowns”, it really needs the context in which it was set for it to make any kind of sense.  Or at least, this is what common sense would say.  Without the context, to me it seems lachrymose and tedious whereas it is actually a statement of heartfelt regret and loss that rises to a lyrical peak in the repeat of the A section – a little gem of craftsmanship.  Perhaps almost as well-known is “The Boy Next Door”, which Alec Wilder admired so much for its technical subtleties.

You begin to sense that Hugh Martin was particularly gifted at writing melodies that suited Judy Garland’s voice.  He was not afraid to use long trains of repeated notes – as he does in the verse of this song – knowing that she would phrase them to perfection.  He also uses the time-honoured device of repeating fairly drab musical material and then suddenly varying it to allow her to reach out for a high note of throbbing intensity.   He spent a lot of his career as a rehearsal pianist – perhaps gave him an insight into what singers like.  His lyricist partner, Ralph Blane, is equally unsung.  Even more than Johnny Mercer, he is able to encapsulate the humdrum.  The words seem natural, no forced rhymes, no devices that draw attention to the lyric qua lyric.  It is fluent like the style of P.G. Wodehouse at his best.  They mould without any effort to the musical lines of Hugh Martin.

Perhaps the most famous song and sequence in the film is “The Trolley Song“.  This is another exquisitely constructed Martin-Blane concoction: 86 bars of controlled but ever-gathering enthusiasm, as counted by Alec Wilder.  And yet, does the actual sequence convey the meaning you hear in the words?  It is a riot of colour and movement.  I suppose that after making his name in the 20s for his subtle black and white photography, George Folsey might have enjoyed the garish spectacle but did St Louis girls really wear such astonishingly contrasted primary colours in 1903?  The song seems to talk about a romance that springs up on a tram journey.  Yet, at the outset, John Truett is not aboard the tram and Esther is anxiously looking out for him.  The chorus starts up without her.  She sees John racing behind the tram, trying to catch it up, and launches into her solo.  She sings the song without making any reference to him.  He makes his way to the bench on which she is sitting.  She makes room for him but ignores him:  so much for the “hand holding mine to the end of the line”.  It is quite curious, turning the sequence into a kind of fantasy for what is going through her mind.

Here is Hugh Martin playing”The Girl Next Door” while Michael Feinstein sings.  Notice how, as the composer, he highlights the structural beauties of the melody rather than the emotional potential of the lyric.

The Phoenix of Madrid (December 2011)


One of those Calderón comedies in the vein of La dama duende. It is intriguing to pick up on just what distinguishes this play from, say a tragedy such as El médico de su honra. The similarities are many. This is a play all about honour – the aged head of the house is afraid he will lose honour if don Luis does not get betrothed to his daughter Beatriz, simply because it has been a matter of discussion with his relatives. It is full of elaborate rhetoric – both Beatriz and Luis take every chance to declaim elaborately with lots of trans-elemental imagery and Petrarchist paradoxes. It is given to don Alonso to deliver the most elaborate summation-schema – the whole “he is a fool who makes a fool of love” speech. The play is very clearly laid-out as a quasi-legal case – as prescribed by Lope: at the start, don Alonso even sets out to adjudicate between the views of his valet Moscatel and don Enrique.

But of course the differences are instructive. Beatriz is treated as a ridiculous, parodic figure because of her preciosity – was Calderón indulging in anti-Gongorism here? No noble in the “serious” plays is treated with such levity. No one in this play is unjustly killed, unlike the wives in the big three wife-murder tragedies. Although jealousy is often invoked, it never has quite the same “pasos de ladrones” intensity that it has for don Gutierre in El médico. Perhaps most interestingly, the sub-plot of the love of the servants Inés and Moscatel mirrors the confusions and deceptions of their masters. If their trials are ridiculous, then so are those of their social betters. And, at the end, Luis, the hidalgo who does not declare his real affections suffers. Because this is a Calderón play, Beatriz has never even noticed him, so it is a perfectly satisfactory resolution that she ends up with Alonso.

It was a good, lively production. The small cast lent itself to the very confined stage available. A resourceful set design allowed for changes in locale, and even permitted Alonso and Moscatel to do a balcony jump.

Dangerous When Wet (December 2011)


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This was not from the Freed unit at MGM but instead from the corner where people like Joe Pasternak and Charles Walters, the director of this picture, lurked. From a distance, this just seems a wildly improbable scenario: a musical when the only real singer in the cast is Barbara Whiting, who plays the younger sister of the real star, Esther Williams. The only real dancer is Charlotte Greenwood – an eccentric dancer in the manner of Ray Bolger- who plays her mother. Esther Williams is engaging but not much of a singer or dancer. Fernando Lamas can croon a bit but has the screen personality of a cod. And then round out the cast with Jack Carson and William Demarest….and this is a musical. And then add a story that has a family of Arkansas farmers setting out to swim the English Channel to win enough money to buy a prize bull. It is maybe far-fetched.

During the film, Esther Williams falls in love with and marries Fernando Lamas – a French(!) champagne magnate. No film with Jack Carson and William Demarest can ever be totally boring or worthless but here the odds are stacked against them. The songs are by Schwartz and Mercer. You wonder how they felt about the assignment! They contributed some engaging material but nothing that became a standard – although Joyce Breach has recorded “I got out of bed on the right side”. The music director for the film was Georgie Stoll, which makes you wonder whether his protégé Andre Previn was involved in this.

The highpoint of the film is an interlude where Esther Williams swims with Tom and Jerry. She has to fight off an amorous octopus – who sings in the voice of Fernando Lamas – gets chased by a swordfish and ends up amidst a herd of seahorses. In truth, the astonishing thing about this film is that it was a box office triumph. It is surprisingly watchable but that might just be because you cannot conceive where the plot is going next. It is not held together by any normal logic or dramatic necessity and nor is it studded with great songs or dances. You watch it in a state of disbelief: is this really happening in front of my eyes?

Point Blank (December 2011)



This film is an amazing blend of a violent thriller and a weird dreamlike construction.  The narrative circles back on itself in confusing ways and you get the impression that nothing is as it seems.  The narrative does not make literal sense at all.  Surely a man as badly wounded as Lee Marvin, even if he is as powerful as he is, cannot climb over the wire and escape from Alcatraz?  Why would Reese rob “The Organisation” in order to buy his way back in?  Is it all just a dream of revenge in a dying man’s brain?  That would explain the strange flashbacks that run through the film – is Lynne’s flat furnished or not?  Or why the seeming continuity lapses in the bottles in her bathroom exist.  For all the violence and mayhem – Marvin just seems to get into fight situations, the killings of Brewster, Carter, and Stegman are done by a hired gun, Lynne commits suicide, Reese tumbles off a sky-scraper – the film is very calm.  Marvin is a quiet force of nature, implacable in his search to recover the $93,000 that he is owed.  He rarely even raises his voice.


It is not a pretty film.  Marvin strides in his matter-of-fact way through parking lots under freeways, underground car parks, and around anonymous corporate buildings.   It is gripping, intense and strange.  It does not share its secrets with us and the ending is as enigmatic as anything in the rest of the film.  Yost, revealed to be the Fairfax at the head of The Organisation, leaves Alcatraz with the gunman, leaving the money behind.  Where is Walker?  Is this the end of the dying man’s dream?

Sonata for Hitler, and Moloch (December 2011)


Sonata For Hitler was a collection of clips from German Nazi-era newsreels edited together by Aleksandr Sokurov over a soundtrack of Bach played on a flute. So we had 10 minutes of Hitler orating, some shots of tanks, some shots of everyday life, a shot of a hanged man etc. The footage was not contextualised in any way: no commentary or explanation was provided. It seems that Sokurov often uses this approach in his documentaries but it is hard to see why unless the footage selected actually conveys some kind of meaning. Otherwise it is merely pointless and vacuous – fodder for the kind of critic who delights in seeing patterns and meanings where there is probably only random selection.

Moloch used a similar approach but over a span of 107 minutes. My main comment on the film is to wonder whether Sokurov could not afford lights – the entire film looked as if it had been shot in a dimly-lit cellar, even when the filming seems to have been done outdoors in the daytime. Was it a deliberate choice to achieve this dim, murky effect; was it technical incompetence; or was it due to lack of money for lights? The film starts with an apparently naked woman, who appears to be all alone in a hilltop lodge, stepping out onto her balcony and striking poses. She is at or above cloud-level. There are sounds of distant thunder, or it might perhaps be gunfire. She notices that someone is watching her through binoculars so she waves at him. Back inside, she goes into what seems to be a corporate board-room with a large table. She leafs casually through an album of water-colours of ruined buildings. Back in her bedroom, she empties out her handbag and we see a powder compact with a swastika engraved on its lid. And then some other people arrive so she goes downstairs to meet them. We hear dialogue for the first time. Needless to say, there was no title card to explain where and when this scene was set because that would go against Sokurov’s creed of not providing relevant information to understand what he is presenting. It emerges that Hitler, Mr and Mrs Goebbels and Martin Bormann have arrived with their entourage of SS people. Presumably this is Berchtesgaden and the “naked” woman was Eva Braun. This is just lazy film-making.

The staff line up to welcome Hitler and he asks them paternalistic questions before becoming queasy at the sight or smell of a litter of puppies. The Goebbels joke with Eva at the expense of Bormann, claiming that he smells of mustard gas. Bormann is the butt of all the “jokes”. He is clumsy, oafish and stupid. He topples backwards in an armchair at one point. His main function is to tell his aide when to start and when to stop recording the Führer’s conversations. Hitler himself oscillates between acting like a self-centred child and delivering insane rants. At mealtimes, he eats his vegetarian meal while haranguing the rest of the company about “corpse tea” – his name for food made from disgusting meat. He rants about how all Finns are crazy and why Czechs grow vertical facial hair. He chases Eva around the table at one point in some kind of reversion to childhood. A newsreel is projected showing the success of the German advance along the Don and then showing Furtwängler conducting (unacknowledged of course, given Sokurov’s aversion to providing useful information – or maybe he simply did not know who Furtwängler was)… at which Hitler stands up and starts to conduct. After it finishes, he denounces the newsreel and decides to abolish films. Eva tells him that, if he feels that way, he should send the camera crew to Auschwitz. He repeats the place name slowly, obviously not aware if it is a real place or just a made-up name. It is a key moment in the film, crystallising just how crass and devoid of insight it is. This is not the banality of evil that we are seeing. What is gained by depicting these people as idiots?

If this account gives the impression that it is a knock-about farce, nothing could be further from the truth. It is played at a funereal pace. So not only is it crass, it is actually crushes the spirit as you watch it.

Singin’ In The Rain (December 2011)


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Never one to ignore an opportunity to wring more royalties out of his back catalogue of songs, Arthur Freed got Comden and Green to write a film to showcase some of them. If it were not for the relentless plugging of MGM, would anyone even know these days that Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown wrote songs? As a song, “Singin’ in The Rain” has little of any merit about it. It could have been written by Kalmar and Ruby, De Sylva, Brown and Henderson, or any of the Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths. “Beautiful Girl”, “You Are My Lucky Star”, “All I Do Is Dream Of You” are so generic that you have to concentrate very hard to prevent yourself from drifting off into some nostalgic haze: they are so generic that they could almost be parodies.

The programme notes were an excerpt from a biography of Gene Kelly written by Clive Hirschhorn – a PR man’s biography, if this excerpt is representative. “Though the rest of Singin’ In The Rain never quite equals the magic of those five minutes of Gene dancing into the night, every number is still light years ahead of what was being seen in other screen musicals of the time.” Of course, he does not try to back up this claim, because it is a peculiarly idiotic and clumsy version of the puff direct. It also, unfortunately, misses what is genuinely good about this film.

It was comparatively rare for Gene Kelly to find himself with dance partners attuned to his style. The liveliness and vitality of Debbie Reynolds, the athleticism and boisterous enthusiasm of Donald O’Connor suited him so much better than, say, the elfin grace of Leslie Caron in American in Paris, which made him seem elephantine and lumbering. The sleek sophistication of Cyd Charisse as the gangster’s moll in the “Broadway Rhythm” ballet was much more interesting than the coolly academic stepping and posing of Vera-Ellen in On The Town. In Singin’ in The Rain, his tendency to get pretentious was halted by the fact that he had to work hard to outdo his partners on his natural territory.

In “Make ‘Em Laugh”, Freed and Brown got so close to the melodic line of “Be A Clown” from the Freed unit’s film The Pirate that you wonder why Cole Porter never insisted on a co-writing credit. The sheer exuberance of Donald O’Connor’s routine is probably the high spot of the film – sorry Mr Hirschhorn. Because he was working so hard, Kelly did not fall back on his lazy devices – the teetering skittle only crops up for a split-second in “Good Morning, Good Morning”, itself a strange echo of a number with Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth and Phil Silvers (sic) from Cover Girl (“A New Day Tomorrow”). “Fit As A Fiddle” was an especially arduous number, which Kelly could never have performed with, say, Frank Sinatra, and the testimony is that both of them only went through with it for fear of losing face with the other.

“You Were Meant For Me” is a clear example of why this film stands out in Kelly’s career. The routine is almost identical with “Our Love Is Here To Stay” from American in Paris and yet Kelly is transformed – no longer massive and lumbering. Maybe Stanley Donen was a better director than Minnelli – heresy – or at least more sympathetic to Kelly’s aims. He keeps the camera moving and uses a lot of long-shots which lend grace to the dance rather than emphasise Kelly’s power. Also, Reynolds’s style of dancing just works better with Kelly: she is not striving for poise and line at all times. It is less self-conscious, more natural. Kelly does not start the routine by self-consciously taking up a stylised posture to invoke the Muses.

As for the title song, I have probably seen it too often to be objective and singing in the rain to express your joy is almost a cliché, if you have seen enough Hollywood musicals. I suppose it bounces along happily enough. The real joy, though, is the perfection of the camerawork. Donen and Kelly used complex tracking shots in just about all the big numbers, the camera whirling around in a manner that would make Max Ophuls swoon. Often, the camera ends up in odd places – such as the floor-level shots in “Good Morning” or the extreme high angles of “You Were Meant For Me”, the zooms in “Broadway Rhythm”. But in the title track, the camera movement is an extreme case. You have to wonder what the grips were saying as they laid down and took up tracks, moving the boom up and down and sideways, while the complicated dance was going on and the set was sluiced with water. It is hard enough in a dialogue scene to coordinate everything so that the camera and actors hit their marks at the right times; just how much more difficult does this get to manage it for a dance routine!  As an unexpected bonus, the man to whom Kelly gives his umbrella at the end of the dance turns out to have been played by Snub Pollard.

For the moments when the screen is not occupied by a number by Freed and Brown, there is some witty dialogue and some fine character acting. Millard Mitchell as the studio boss and Douglas Fowley as the harassed director stand out. Yes, it is a fine film but is it really so much better than 42nd Street, Love me Tonight, Top Hat, The Band Wagon…?

The Barkleys of Broadway (November 2011)


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The final act in the story of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  Life at the Freed unit at MGM was no picnic.  For this film, Roger Edens was the producer and the script was by Comden and Green: at least they did not have to write the score as well.  Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin produced that and adjusted it when Judy Garland got fired from the production – which entailed replacing three songs.  Neither writer was pleased when “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” was brought in – a song that Astaire and Rogers had previously sung in Shall We Dance. They also had to write a number to a title suggested by Astaire – “Swing Trot”.  In truth, despite its dire title, “Swing Trot” was probably the best, most sparkling number in the film.  It is a lively tap-dance routine that emphatically signals that Astaire and Rogers are back in town.  They look as if they are having a ball.  Unfortunately, the opening titles are projected over this sequence, which is a little distracting.

“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is so obviously the best song in the picture that you can see why the writers were irritated.  Warren was writing ballads with long, serpentine melodies at this time and, in this film, Astaire gets to sing “You’d Be So Hard to Replace”.  It is a graceful melody, although rather reminiscent of Cole Porter’s  ”Easy To Love”, but it is not really conceived vocally.  You can almost imagine Warren coaxing it out of a piano.  It does not fit well with Astaire’s casual but very rhythmic style of delivery:  as with “Wait and See” from The Harvey Girls, a crooner could make it sound gorgeous but it is not particularly memorable a song.  On the other hand, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” fits Astaire’s voice and style like a glove.  And the routine shows the special magic of Astaire and Rogers.  Perhaps she was not as gifted a dancer as Eleanor Powell, Rita Hayworth or Ann Miller but she had much more acting ability than them.  In all her films with Astaire, it is clear that she was a gifted comedienne and this tends to come through in their dance routines.  Projected out of context, this routine can seem cold and tentative and it is easy to leap to the conclusion that the film does not belong with their nine films for RKO, that it is a mere after-thought.  However, the context is that they have been fighting.  You can see distrust and wariness on her face and in the way that Rogers dances.  And then it gradually melts into a comfortable acceptance of the music and dance.  For once, Astaire is out-acted in a dance scene.

As for the rest of the film, there is a mix of the usual Freed unit devices.  It seems as if was Freed’s own idea to include a Scottish number, which is surely enough to destroy any reputation he might enjoy as a man of taste.  “My One and Only Highland Fling” is toe-curlingly awful – it makes you shudder to watch Fred Astaire strutting around like a second-rate Harry Lauder and both he and Rogers wear very forced smiles during the grisly routine.  Maybe Gene Kelly would have enjoyed it more.  Oscar levant plays Oscar Levant – wise-cracking, surrounded by statuesque blondes, chain-smoking, singing like a rusty gate.  He gets to play the Sabre Dance and a massively truncated account of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto as well.  “Shoes With Wings On” is a good novelty solo number for Astaire.  There is also a throw-away tap routine that Astaire and Rogers rehearse for no real reason at one point, unless it was that the management thought there had been too much dialogue.

Take Me Out To The Ball Game (November 2011)


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Just before On The Town, the Freed unit at MGM seemed to have settled on the trio of Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin but they only had Betty Garrett of their female counterparts.  Her plot strand is almost identical to the other film.  She makes a forceful play for Frank Sinatra, who eventually gives in although the routine to “It’s Fate, Baby, It’s Fate” in which she pursues him around the bleachers of a baseball stadium is considerably more taxing than the taxi scene in the other film.  Gene Kelly is without a dancing partner, which is no bad thing as we are spared one of his ballets.  Having Sinatra as his main partner limits the number of times he can do his teetering skittle dance too.  He is, however, allowed to do an Oirish routine: “The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St Patrick’s Day” – as if we cared greatly – and, in the action, is allowed to be a rather objectionable person.  However, because he was seemingly unable to construct a dance routine around Esther Williams, he is firmly overshadowed by Sinatra, who serenades her with comfortably the best song in the score – “The Right Girl For Me”.  Jules Munshin is there for his incomparable ability to irritate, which he manages as only he can.   Buster Keaton seems to have worked on the gags in the film without receiving a credit but it is very hard to see where he might have made any input.  Jules Munshin and Gene Kelly shared an approach to comedy that was very different.

As with On The Town, Betty Comden and Adolph Green teamed up with the hard-worked Roger Edens to do the score.  Baseball in 1906 does not really play to their strengths.  They had to do a number in praise of small-town America – “Strictly USA” – where the strain really shows.  They put in a line about a four-door Chevrolet, in a film where the only cars on view have no doors at all, and Betty Garrett drives a horse-drawn buggy onto the pavement to trap Sinatra.   Seeing this film on a big screen does make a difference.  That number about “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg” for once did not make me want to throw a brick at the screen:  it actually expressed enthusiasm and bonhomie.   The only real Comden and Green song came right at the start when Kelly and Sinatra tell their team-mates about some of the women they met in their last vaudeville tour – completely undercut by the fact that Sinatra’s screen character never even looks at women.

So it has a weak score which does not integrate very well with the script; it does not play to Gene Kelly’s strengths; it contains Jules Munshin and an Oirish routine but it is enjoyable enough.   You just do not need to see it very often.

Les Enfants du paradis (November 2011)


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I believe that this is the third, widely-spaced, time I have seen this film and each time I have come away with a totally different impression of it. The first time I was bowled over by the teeming vitality with which Marcel Carné depicts the Boulevard du Crime, the mass of production detail, Trauner’s set designs, the romanticism of the story of the production – using Jewish technicians and actors under the noses of the Nazis. This was all new to me at the time, in the days before I had read Balzac. Frédérick Lemaître seemed a likeable ham but it was obvious that the true hero was Baptiste Debureau with his striving for romantic ideals and his tragi-comic poetry of movement.

I saw it again about ten years later. This time I found Debureau’s whining self-pity rather tiresome. His vain pursuit of Garance through the swarming carnival crowds at the end instead of being a heroic act crushed by brute reality was mere self-indulgence. My sympathy was more with Frédérick this time – a good-hearted, generous, more likeable figure.

Now there has been a gap of over twenty years. The flaws of the film are more apparent but I am also aware of how much the film has altered in my mind, how much of it I had forgotten. For example, Lacenaire is much more central to the action than I had remembered. In previous viewings, the poeticising orotundity of Prévert’s script had not bothered me. All the main characters – and some of the minor ones, eg Jericho the old clothes’ man – are given to flights of rhetorical speechifying, with the exception of Garance. It gets a little wearying to hear all these flowery speeches about love and about the intense emotions each character is feeling. Lacenaire is a partial exception: he tends to be more coldly analytical and there is an edge of laconic, understated menace and savagery in what he says. This time, he jumped off the screen as by far the most intriguing character. Baptiste is still rather irritating. Frédérick is still the most likeable but even his flights of oratorical fancy began to grate. Maybe next time, I will be drawn to Comte Edouard – Garance’s priggish snob of a protector. I hope not. Even he, though, is partial to declaring his love at extraordinary length.

The patterning of Prévert’s script was more apparent to me this time. One after the other, Frédérick, Baptiste, Edouard come forward to tell Garance how intensely they love her. She seems to drift through life unscathed. Yes, she does declare at the end that she has never stopped loving or thinking of Baptiste but she, alone of all the major characters is able to control her emotions and walk away. It is like a text-book example of Surrealism – the amour fou and the unattainable object of desire. Amongst the men, a partial exception is Lacenaire. At the start, he coldly and dispassionately tells her that he does not love her. Yet his desire to kill the Comte is at least partially motivated by jealousy – the other part by a need to kill a man who has been offensive to him – and he was motivated to try to kill Frédérick too, except that Frédérick disarmed him by sharing his money and food with him. The script sets these two up as mirror-images of each other. One is cold, the other warm. One is histrionic, the other polished and refined. One is charming, the other charming only in his perversity. One plays a ridiculous bandit escaped from prison; the other actually is a bandit who has been in prison.

Of course, this is not the only reflective pattern in the film. Frédérick cannot play Othello until he experiences jealousy in his own right, watching what Garance feels for Baptiste. Baptiste’s plays reflect his emotional life, his longing for the unattainable beauty. Jericho is echoed in the onstage clothes’ seller in the play. Othello kills Desdemona in a state of heightened emotion; Lacenaire, equally theatrically but in a perversely cool way, kills the Comte and awaits his fate.

The verbal mannerisms of Jericho pall – he always introduces himself in a string of three newly-coined nicknames. The depiction of the people in the balcony – les enfants themselves – is rather patronising: Baptiste assures us that they have dreams too. But there is sufficient humour to make you almost forget the flaws. The authors of L’Auberge des Adrets are very amusing as is Frédérick’s demolition job on their play – it seems that something similar really happened. The play was played straight on the first night and flopped. On the second night, they played it as burlesque and it became a success. The way the director of the Funambules is constantly dishing out fines to people is amusing too. It is a film with a lot of life but it does get bogged down at times in its own seriousness.

Once Upon a Time in the West (November 2011)


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This is the spaghetti western taken to the ultimate. The pacing is even slower than normal, the use of musical motifs even more insistent, the close-ups held for longer lengths of time – it has an operatic quality to it. It is also an anthology of western tropes – the buttes of Monument Valley, the construction of a railway, the lone guy seeking revenge, the enigmatic gunman who turns out to have a heart of gold, the “reception committee” at a station, the girl in a bath in a plush hotel who gets intruded upon….. The masterstroke is the casting of Henry Fonda as the ultra-baddy. He brings his intelligence to bear on the role and, because there are echoes of the OK Corral shoot-out and hence My Darling Clementine, he seems even worse than he really is. Because of the baggage he brings with him as the hero in all those westerns, it is difficult for the audience not to dislike him more than they would any normal villain. His brutality affects you more than it otherwise would.

The title gives away the fact that this is a fable, a harking back to the “good old days”. The railway is bringing civilisation in its wake – much the same theme as The Harvey Girls. Once Cheyenne and Harmonica realise what McBain’s grand idea was, an orgy of construction begins. At the close of the film, the camera lingers on a panorama of railway construction activity matched by similar work on the new town of Sweetwater. The era of the Wild West is about to end. The crooked businessman is dead, as is his enforcer. The good bad man – Jason Robards as Cheyenne – is dead. The golden-hearted whore owns the new town. The loner heads out into an unknown future.

At the same time, the film has the dynamics of a fairy-tale: good does triumph, evil does suffer and, along the way, we meet a multitude of unlikely characters. The ease with which Harmonica repeatedly kills baddies is almost supernatural.

You could probably fill a book spotting the quotations from Duel in the Sun, Destry Rides Again, Shane, High Noon, various OK Corral films, 3.10 to Yuma, but that is part of the point of the film. It is a homage to the western, an extremely stylised homage – perhaps it is saying that this is positively the last time that these clichés can ever be shown on screen. For the final shootout, Fonda even dresses in black.