Oh The Humanity: Dirigible (1931)

DIRIGIBLE (1931)

To view Dirigible click here.

Summer movie season is already upon us, with superheroes saving the world from various varieties of destruction. I’m turning back the clock to 1931 to look at a disaster film that uses the same playbook, Frank Capra’s blimp inferno Dirigible. (For the throngs of readers who have been following my Jean Renoir series, it is taking a month-long break, returning on July 18th.) Dirigible‘s thrills are premised on scale, on framing the enormity of these cruising zeppelins against the sky, and realistically rendering the chaos of such a behemoth coming apart at the seams. This was a million dollar production, with a lot of effort at authenticity, and much of the flying footage was shot on real Navy blimps with the compact Eyemo camera (cinematographer Joseph A. Walker says only two insert shots – of a train station and a sealing ship – were stock).  The movie alternates between these awe-inspiring feats of technological wonder and a rote love triangle that barely gets off the ground. This is a movie about the machines, not the people, which makes for dulling drama but stunning spectacle.

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Shattered Glass: The Tin Drum (1979)

TIN DRUM, THE (1979)

To view The Tin Drum click here.

There’s a scene in the novel, The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass, that portrays a place called The Onion Cellar Club. It’s a place where Germans can go to listen to music, cut open onions and weep. The onions provide the tears. It’s a harsh symbol, implying that the emotions that would naturally bring the tears are nonexistent. It also implies they’ve got a lot to cry about and much soul-cleansing to do. The movie does not contain such a scene but goes a different path, taking the seemingly unfilmable novel and narrowing it down to a little under three hours. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but many readers of the book were disappointed. I was not. I am never disappointed because a movie isn’t like the book. Two different mediums require two different routes to the same destination. I’m not even disappointed when a movie seems to project an entirely different attitude or tone than the novel, as long as it succeeds and stands on its own merits.  But does the 1979 adaptation do so? I’m not convinced.

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Behind Closed Doors: 12 Angry Men (1957)

12 ANGRY MEN (1957)

To view 12 Angry Men click here.

Reginald Rose wrote for television, film and the theater, coming into his own in 1954 with a work that would be his masterpiece, 12 Angry Men. On television, it starred Franchot Tone as the angry and bitter juror #3 and Robert Cummings as the thoughtful, patient and argumentative juror #8, two men battling each other for the life of a young man standing trial for murder. If that duo doesn’t set you on fire, it may have more to do with who followed them than the actors themselves. Tone and Cummings were terrific, of course, but once you see the 1957 Sidney Lumet directed film adaptation, you’ll never think of anyone else but Lee J. Cobb and Henry Fonda in those roles again.  And I say that having seen the 1997 television remake with the formidable George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon taking on the roles. They were great, too, but Cobb and Fonda take the prize, as does the film itself.

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The Beast In Me: Le Bête Humaine (1938)

LA BETE HUMAINE (1938)

To view La Bête Humaine click here.

Following the transformative success of Grand Illusion (1937), Jean Renoir suddenly had an overwhelming number of opportunities. There was an offer on the table from Samuel Goldwyn to come to Hollywood, though he delayed his route there, at least temporarily. Instead he would direct the panoramic French Revolution drama La Marseillaise ([1938],which I will write about later in my Renoir series) and our subject today, La Bête Humaine (1938). The latter is a moody death-haunted drama adapted from the Emile Zola novel, returning to the author’s work for the first time since Nana (1926). A grimly fatalistic tale about a train engineer’s inbred compulsion to murder, and his desperate attempts to restrain it, it is graced by an iconic Jean Gabin performance that attempts to go beyond good and evil.

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Ireland in the Movies

ODD MAN OUT (1947)

The following is a guest post by writer Gareth Higgins:

Many of us have had the experience of seeing a news story covering events of which we have first hand knowledge, and saying, Huh? That doesn’t sound like what I know. It’s even more pronounced in fiction – Italian American organizations protested The Godfather (1972), weekend sailors I know blanched when they saw Robert Redford fail to carry out apparently basic seafaring tasks in All is Lost (2013), and don’t get my Baptist pastor husband started on the portrayal of Southern clergy in the movies.

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Revisiting Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996)

HAMLET (1996)

To view Hamlet click here.

Late last year I had the great pleasure of seeing Derek Jacobi perform MEASURE + DIDO (directed by Jacobi’s partner of 38-years, Richard Clifford), a modern update of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure that includes excerpts from Henry Purcell’s chamber opera Dido and Aeneas. Jacobi was marvelous as Angelo, the lusty, scheming and very funny deputy to the Duke of Vienna. With apologies to the other players, Jacobi owned the stage and effortlessly commanded Shakespeare’s ornate language. I was in awe of his powerful performance and in the process, I gained a new appreciation for Shakespeare’s comedy. But if truth be told, I prefer the Bard’s tragedies to his comedies so with the experience of seeing MEASURE + DIDO still somewhat fresh in my mind, I decided to revisit Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) now streaming on FilmStruck.

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Justifiable Homicide: Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936)

LE CRIME DE MONSIEUR LANGE (1936)

To view Le crime de Monsieur Lange click here.

Jean Renoir considered  Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936) to be a turning point in his career, a film that opened “the door to some projects that are more completely personal.” He would go on to make A Day in the Country (1936) and The Lower Depths (1936) immediately after (I have written about both in previous weeks), on which he had significantly more control. Lange was originally proposed and conceived by Jacques Becker, and its script was later revised by Jacques Prévert. Renoir invited Prévert on set to collaborate in its production. The film is a provocative blend of performance styles, with the radical Popular Front aligned October Group (Florelle, Maurice Baquet, Sylvia Bataille, Jacques-Bernard Brunius) meeting the old-fashioned theatrical boulevardiers, the latter exemplified by Jules Berry’s craven, charismatic depiction of the womanizer Batala, owner and operator of a struggling publishing house. His incompetence and greed take advantage of mild-mannered Western writer Lange (René Lefèvre) until Batala disappears and the company is run cooperatively by its employees. It is a both a joyous vision of a worker-run business and finely tuned character study of what could drive a man to murder.

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Sequel or Stand Alone? Stolen Kisses (1968)

STOLEN KISSES (1968)

To view Stolen Kisses click here.

Sequels and continuing series installments have no obligation to adhere to the original tone of the work from which they derive. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), a half-hour sitcom, had a spinoff, Lou Grant (1977-1982), that was an hour long drama. It worked because the characters were presented in a realistic light (well, not counting Ted Baxter) and so the shift was easy to achieve. But if the spinoff was a drama about a newspaper editor, and not a sitcom about a television news producer, why say it’s a spinoff at all? To leverage the character’s name, obviously. Moving in the opposite direction, François Truffaut thrust The 400 Blows upon the cinematic world in 1959, presenting a tough and passionate look at a troubled and confused youth, Antoine Doinel, as he makes his way through an uneasy childhood. Then, after a short film showing Doinel at twenty, gave the world Stolen Kisses, a lighthearted and at times utterly silly comedy about the same character now somehow transformed into Harold Lloyd, bumbling Jack-of-all-Trades. But if all of it is autobiographical of Truffaut himself, does it even matter?

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For Richer, For Poorer: The Lower Depths (1936)

LowerDepths_1936_TLD36_239 image 6

To view The Lower Depths click here.

“That man who makes films where people spit on the ground.” – Jacques Schwob d’Héricourt (producer) on Jean Renoir

When the funding ran out on A Day in the Country (1936), Jean Renoir left that film unfinished to start casting on The Lower Depths (1936). An adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play starring Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet, it was a major step up in budget from the independent operation he was leaving. The Lower Depths captures the changing fortunes of Gabin’s flophouse thief and Jouvet’s gambling Baron, their lives intersecting up and (mostly) down the social ladder. Production started on September 5, four months after a coalition of leftist groups known as the Popular Front swept into office in France. Renoir was becoming one of the public faces of the movement, writing articles for the Communist paper L’Humanite and attending meetings and screenings at the Ciné-Liberté, a self-described “worker’s cooperative for variable-capital production” that would battle “against the ill fate with which film is saddled.” The political Renoir was not the artist Renoir, however, who took his production money wherever he could get it. The Lower Depths, for example, was produced by Films Albatros, which was founded by White Russians who fled the country before the 1917 revolution. While restricted somewhat by its stagebound material The Lower Depths still contains remarkable scenes of downward mobility, highlighted by Louis Jouvet’s smirkingly disgraced Baron, who finds a home dozing in the grass.

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Cagney Fills the Screen in Shake Hands with the Devil (’59)

SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL (1959)

To view Shake Hands with the Devil click here.

During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich conducted a series of interviews with one of his idols: the larger-than-life, enigmatic director, Orson Welles. During their conversations, which Bogdanovich released as a book in 1992, Welles discussed his favorite actors and directors, citing the ones he drew inspiration from during his own career. One of the actors that Welles considered the best to ever appear in front of a camera was James Cagney. Of Cagney, the director said, “[He] has just got to be called the number-one screen-filler in movie history. A displacer of air.” What Welles meant by this is that Cagney was the epitome of “star quality,” and used his experience as a stage actor to bring the biggest, most focused performance that could be captured on camera. Welles is right; with his 5-foot-5 body, Cagney used every bit of the camera. And not in a way that would be considered overcompensation because of his size. Cagney was a natural. His voice, depending on the role, could seamlessly transition from soft and lilting, to terrifying. He had the physical range of a dancer—even in the gangster roles he was most known for, Cagney’s movements were almost balletic.

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