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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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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Mad Men & Women: Good Neighbor Sam (1964)

GOOD NEIGHBOR SAM (1964)

To view Good Neighbor Sam click here.

In case you haven’t noticed, FilmStruck is spotlighting the lovely Romy Schneider with their Icons: Romy Schneider theme that brings together 17 of her films made between 1955 and 1980. A few of the highlights include Sissi (1955), which rocketed the Austrian actress to stardom, Boccaccio ’70 (1962), The Trial (1963) and That Most Important Thing: Love (1975) discussed by my fellow Streamline contributor Nathaniel Thompson last week. Today, I would like to draw your attention to Good Neighbor Sam (1964), a light-hearted 1960s sex farce that satirizes the wacky world of advertising. Good Neighbor Sam is notable for providing Schneider with her first starring role in Hollywood and it was also one of many films that inspired the critically acclaimed Mad Men (2007-2015) series.

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Singing the Last Song: Dancer in the Dark (2000)

DANCER IN THE DARK (2000)

To view Dancer in the Dark click here.

Long before he was famously excoriated by the press for his remarks at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, director and reliable provocateur Lars von Trier was already a familiar face at the annual event with a string of awards under his belt including the Cannes Grand Prix for Breaking the Waves (1996) and the Prix du Jury for Europa (1991). Anticipation was riding high in May of 2000 when the film he dubbed the third in his “Golden Heart” trilogy appeared in public for the first time (following Breaking and his explicit, button-pushing The Idiots in 1998): Dancer in the Dark, his first musical. Publicity at the time centered on the use of over a hundred digital cameras to capture the elaborate musical sequences, but in retrospect it would be other factors that contributed to the film’s legacy after it went home with the Palme d’Or that year. Now streaming here as part of a series of Cannes-winning films, it’s still a dazzling and troubling film that sinks its teeth into you and won’t let go for days. [...MORE]

Desire: A Day in the Country (1936)

DAY IN THE COUNTRY, A (1936)

To view A Day in the Country click here.

One of Jean Renoir’s most beloved films is one he wasn’t interested in finishing. While making A Day in the Country, Renoir was in pre-production on both The Lower Depths (1936) and Grand Illusion (1937). Once A Day in the Country ran into money problems he put it to the side, leaving it to be finished by his producer Pierre Braunberger. Shot in 1936, it wasn’t released until 1946 as a 40-minute short, whereupon it swiftly entered the pantheon. A suggestive slip of a movie, adapted from a Maupassant short story, it portrays the dueling desires of a bourgeois Parisian family and two country layabouts out for a bit of flirtatious sport. What transpires is beyond their respective imaginings, a transformative lust that lingers well beyond that afternoon under the summer sun.

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Counter-Revolutionaries: Knight Without Armour (1937)

KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR (1937)

To view Knight Without Armour click here.

The year 1937 witnessed a milestone for author James Hilton, as two of his books got the big screen treatment on both sides of the Atlantic. One, Lost Horizon, needs no introduction. Produced by Harry Cohn and directed by Frank Capra, the movie was a smash with critics and audiences alike. In Britain, the other movie adapted from Hilton’s work, Knight Without Armour, produced by Alexander Korda and directed by Jacques Feyder, met with a troubled production and a lukewarm reception from critics and audiences upon its release. Ultimately, the film lost money and faded away. But it stars Robert Donat and Marlene Dietrich and provides one of the more interesting takes on the Russian aristocracy during the revolution, especially coming only two decades after the fact and a mere two years before the USSR would work with Nazi Germany before switching horses midstream to work with the Allied Forces in World War II. [...MORE]

All You Need Is the Importance of Love

THAT MOST IMPORTANT THING: LOVE (1975)

To view That Most Important Thing: Love click here.

Though you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream press, one of the biggest losses to the film community last year was the death of filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski, a dazzling Polish filmmaker who stirred up attention both positive and negative from critics and his government in the early 1970s with The Devil (1972). He wound up relocating to France where he made the lion’s share of his later work, the first of which was L’important c’est d’aimer (1975). Translating that title elegantly into English is a tricky feat; American distributor Seaberg Film Distribution tried its best with its dubbed 1977 version called The Most Important Thing: Love, while others try to smooth it out as The Main Thing Is to Love or The Importance of Love. However, none of those Baz Luhrmann-style monikers really give you an idea of what’s really in store in this deeply affecting and wildly flamboyant portrait of passion and artistry that’s unlike anything else you’ll ever see.

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An Unusual Friendship: Tiger Bay (1959)

TIGER BAY

To view Tiger Bay click here.

Tiger Bay is one of my all-time favorite films that I made. I still can’t get over the thrill I got when I first saw Hayley on the screen, with those wonderful big eyes … She was an ideal little person to work with because you knew … when you just looked through the lens at her that the camera loved her … You just knew that she had such a rapport with the camera and that’s what filmmaking is about – the rapport between the camera and the artist. It’s that magic that you can not explain. You either have it or you don’t. The very best actor or actress in the world, if the camera doesn’t love her, half the performance has gone.” – J. Lee Thompson

Twelve-year-old Hayley Mills made her screen debut in Tiger Bay (1959) playing Gillie, a rambunctious doe-eyed orphan living with her aunt in the British working-class neighborhood of Tiger Bay. When Gillie unwittingly witnesses a Polish sailor (Horst Buchholz) shoot his girlfriend (Yvonne Mitchell), she steals the gun to impress her young playmates and protect the charismatic killer. Over the course of the film Gillie and the murderer develop an unusual bond while trying to evade a determined police superintendent (John Mills) and escape prosecution.

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Party Girl: Nana (1926)

Nana (1926) Directed by Jean Renoir Shown: Catherine Hessling

To view Nana click here.

Jean Renoir considered Nana (1926) to be “my first film worth talking about.” An ambitious adaptation of the Emile Zola novel, Nana (Catherine Hessling) is an actress of limited means adept at manipulating men’s hearts, failing as a stage star but lavishly succeeding as an actor in her own life (a theme Renoir would return to throughout his career). After his scrappy independent production The Whirlpool of Fate (1925) failed to get much distribution, Renoir went big, making Nana a million franc French-German co-production.  It is an enormous step up in scale, going from shooting around his childhood haunts in Whirlpool to juggling multiple locations around Europe, as well as the egos of his international cast. Still experimenting stylistically, Nana, like Whirlpool, has expressionist touches at the edges of a realist drama. This tension is centered in the performance of Hessling (Renoir’s wife, real name Andrée Heuschling). A devotee of Gloria Swanson, she is elaborately made up and gives a performance of grand gestures and herky jerky movement. Renoir admiringly compared her to a “marionette.” It works for the character – a woman not in charge of her own life – but for audiences used to more naturalistic acting, it faced ridicule. But Nana is no joke, but a bold experiment in which Renoir toys with performance and camera movement to convey the unsaid.

 This is the second part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. You can find the first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate here.

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Sudden Fear (1952): Joan Crawford’s Shock to the System

SUDDEN FEAR (1952)

To view Sudden Fear click here.

As the first season of water cooler sensation Feud has recently finished airing, it’s funny to reflect how certain movie stars tend to surge in public interest at random intervals. Case in point: Joan Crawford, whose films have been TCM and home video favorites among younger viewers and who is now enjoying her biggest pop culture awareness since Faye Dunaway turned her into a domineering camp icon in Mommie Dearest (1981). It’s become common for movie fans to pigeonhole much of Crawford’s work as campy or, more commonly, as “women’s pictures,” which tends to fence them off into some kind of minor category apart from all those war films and biblical epics.

Well, the joke’s on those critics considering how little Crawford’s films have dated and how many people still watch them. You can certainly be amused by Joan’s more outrageous ventures into the surreal, e.g. Torch Song (1953), but she was a woman who could grab that camera and hold your gaze stronger than just about any other movie star out there. Fortunately she had a work ethic that wouldn’t quit and made loads of films both within and outside the studio system, which means you can spend much of your love stumbling on a Crawford film that doesn’t get regular play. [...MORE]

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