Three’s a Crowd: Daisy Kenyon (1947)

Daisy Kenyon (1947) Directed by Otto Preminger Shown: Joan Crawford

To view Daisy Kenyon click here.

Daisy Kenyon (1947) is a rarity. It’s a romantic Hollywood movie made for adults that refuses to sentimentalize its subject and treats all its characters respectfully despite their failings and their flaws. Joan Crawford stars as Daisy, an ambitious commercial artist who becomes involved in a complicated love triangle with two very different men. Her longtime paramour is a cocksure married lawyer (Dana Andrews) who has a moral compass that seems to ebb and flow with the changing tides. Her new lover (Henry Fonda) is a shell-shocked war veteran, bereaved widow and onetime naval architect trying to find his footing in postwar New York. Daisy must choose which man she wants to spend the rest of her life with but the decision is not an easy one and director Otto Preminger ratchets up the tension by shooting this somber melodrama as if it were a film noir. In Daisy Kenyon love is a mystery that the resilient heroine must solve but a clear-cut solution remains frustratingly out of reach.

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Wrapped Around Her Finger: Elena and Her Men (1956)

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To view Elena and Her Men click here.

In its time Elena and Her Men (1956) was something of a disaster for Jean Renoir, a succession of problems (contested rights, fevers, bad accents) for which he struggled to find solutions. It was a box office and critical dud, and ended any hope of Renoir returning to Hollywood. To read its production history in Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography is akin to attending a wake. And yet the film itself is an effervescent thing, an improbable farce about a coup d’etat that positively shimmers with invention. For years Renoir had tried to find a project for Ingrid Bergman, and attracted her with a chance to do light comedy, not something she’d had many opportunities to perform. But due to the stresses of filming both French and English versions of the film (in the U.S. it was titled Paris Does Strange Things), Renoir was miserable during its production and considered its box office failure the final word, dismissing it in interviews. But I would tend to agree with Jean-Luc Godard, one of the film’s only contemporaneous defenders (along with André Bazin), who wrote that Elena and Her Men is the “French film par excellence.”

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Guess Who Killed The Woman in Question (1950)

THE WOMAN IN QUESTION, from left: Jean Kent, Dirk Bogarde, 1950

To view The Woman in Question click here.

My mother loved mysteries. Loved them. It was her favorite genre (science fiction and adventure were a close second and third) and whenever I discover a new one, it makes me think of her. One of the pleasures of watching a good mystery is trying to figure out who did it – I’m sorry, I meant whodunit – before the detective, amateur or pro, reveals everything at the end. In many cases, there simply isn’t enough information because the writer is holding out so that the reader/viewer can’t figure out the ending. I’m sure there are many mystery fans that like that but I prefer being able to figure it out, if I can, and when I get it right, there’s a sense of satisfaction, not disappointment. I discovered a new mystery recently (new to me I mean, it was made in 1950), The Woman in Question (aka, Five Angles on Murder), directed by Anthony Asquith, and starring Jean Kent as the titular character, Agnes/Astra, a palm reader at the amusement park and, unfortunately for her, a murder victim. We get to know her and the situation surrounding her murder from five people who knew the victim. And, yes, I figured out whodunit. And, no, that didn’t ruin the movie for me.

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Hannah Arendt (2012)

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There’s a rather clunky scene early on in Hannah Arendt (2012), one whose purpose seems clearly to provide a quick bio of Hannah for the novice viewer. It takes place inside the office of William Shawn (Nicholas Woodsen), editor of The New Yorker. He has just received an offer from Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) to cover the Adolph Eichmann trial for them. Francis Wells (Megan Gay) scoffs, asking who she is. Another editor, Jonathan Schell (Tom Leick), scolds her. “She wrote The Origins of Totalinarianism!” Shawn adds, “It’s one of the most important books of the 20th century!” Aside from the fact that there is no way an editor of The New Yorker didn’t know who Hannah Arendt was in 1960, and trying desperately to ignore the forced New York accents of all three non-American actors in the scene, the main problem lies in the scene so clumsily listing Arendt’s creds for the audience. It is the main failing of the movie encapsulated into that one scene. Throughout the film, characters will constantly state and restate the obvious but at its core is the real life figure and trial of Eichmann, and the moral questions surrounding that trial, that make Hannah Arendt an arresting movie to watch. At other times, it is as prosaic a biopic as any ever made. And through it all, Barbara Sukowa’s masterful performance keeps the audience engaged.

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This Land is Your Land: The Southerner (1945)

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To view The Southerner click here.

Jean Renoir considered The Southerner (1945) to be his “only work of a personal nature carried out in Hollywood.” Adapted from the National Book Award winning novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry, it follows a year in the life of a struggling Texas tenant farmer and his family. A lyrical portrait of do-it-yourself Americanism, it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including one for Best Director (Billy Wilder would win for The Lost Weekend). Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) is passionately, almost irrationally obsessed with farming a plot of land, even if he’s working it for another owner. So he quits his cotton-picking job and enters into a tenant-farming agreement with his boss, tilling a plot left unworked for years. For him it’s a kind of freedom, though he is gambling that he can harvest enough crop to feed his family and begin to save for a better life. He’s a more responsible version of Boudu from Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), both seek a way off the grid and find it in rural sections of the country. But Sam has family responsibilities, while Boudu only answers to himself.

(Full Disclosure: I work for Kino Lorber, who released The Southerner on DVD and Blu-ray)

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A Far From Perfect Understanding (1933)

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To view Perfect Understanding click here.

In 1929, after a successful career in silent film and at the height of her popularity, Gloria Swanson was preparing for her transition to “talkies,” the earliest, raw experiments in bringing sound to motion pictures. Her sound debut was in the 1929 drama written and directed by Edmund Goulding, The Trespasser. Swanson earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance, the second of her career. Her first nomination was for Sadie Thompson (1928), one of her most popular films, and her third and final nod was for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), losing out to Judy Holliday for her performance in Born Yesterday (1950). (Swanson’s loss was a shock to many in Hollywood, and especially the actress herself, creating quite the controversy, and is still a hotly debated topic among fans of classic film almost seventy years later.) Despite her popularity during the 1920s, and like so many of her silent film contemporaries, Swanson’s career didn’t weather the transition to sound. After a handful of films in the early 1930s, including What a Widow! (1930); 1931’s Indiscreet (not to be confused with Stanley Donen’s 1958 film Indiscreet starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman); and Tonight or Never (1931) with Melvyn Douglas, Swanson’s career was floundering. In 1933, Swanson turned to Britain’s Ealing Studios, serving as producer on the romantic dramedy, Perfect Understanding.

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The Song Remains the Same: Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)

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To view Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance click here.

Last week we left our intrepid Lady Snowblood wounded and desperate, crawling towards an uncertain future. In Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), she is all healed up and hacking away at the gangrenous Japanese government. In the first Lady Snowblood (1973) she successfully tracked down and dispatched the four tormentors of her late mother, so all of her personal scores have been settled. In the more diffuse sequel, she is a katana-for-hire, a paid assassin pretty high up on the police’s most wanted list. Departing from the original manga, screenwriter Norio Osada throws Ms. Snowblood into the battle between a group of anarchists and the sociopathic head of the military’s secret police. It is less a commentary on the Meiji period in which it is set than the then-contemporary struggle of the United Red Army against the Japanese government. In this sequel, Lady Snowblood puts her loyalties squarely with the revolutionaries.

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Message or Muddle? Story of Women (1988)

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To view Story of Women click here.

The first thing we see is Marie Latour (Isabelle Huppert) playing with her children. She’s an attentive mother and, we soon find out, is surviving during wartime as best she can. There is not a lot of money for food and clothes, much less bills and upkeep. One morning, after waking up her children, she heads downstairs to retrieve her coffee mill from a neighbor only to find her sitting in a tub of mustard water. When Marie asks why, her neighbor tells her it’s because she is pregnant and with her husband soon shipping off, they don’t want the baby. Marie tells her mustard water won’t work and takes it upon herself to perform the abortion. Has Marie done this before? When asked, she indicates she hasn’t and simply wonders how hard can it be. That is how Story of Women, the movie based on the real life exploits of Marie-Louise Giraud, begins and by its end we are left without a clear statement from the film as to where her life stands. Were we given a message, or simply left in a muddle? The short answer for me is neither. The long answer to come is a bit more involved.

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All Hail Queen Margot (1994)

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To view Queen Margot click here.

Anyone who read my appraisal of The Brontë Sisters (1979) a little while ago shouldn’t be surprised that one of my favorite actresses of all time is Isabelle Adjani, who had a significant impact on my young moviegoing mind in the 1980s and early 1990s. Her list of towering French and English language performances is formidable, but the fact that she’s rarely been seen on American screens in recent years speaks more to the state of our foreign film scene than her work as an actress. The last Adjani star vehicle to make a significant splash here was Queen Margot (1994), which was released as an awards contender by Miramax in December of that year. In a familiar Miramax move, the film was drastically shortened (by 15 minutes) and given a somewhat puzzling romantic ad campaign, which ended up shocking moviegoers who instead got a bloody tale of regal and religious treachery and violence. Don’t worry; the version running now on FilmStruck as part of our “Regicide!” theme is the original 158-minute director’s cut! [...MORE]

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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