Julien Duvivier in the Thirties


“If I was an architect and I had to build a palace to the cinema, I would put at its entrance a statue of Duvivier.” – Jean Renoir

Julien Duvivier is a memorable name, phonetically speaking. It rolls lyrically off the tongue, sounding like a foppish count in a Lubitsch operetta. The memory of his career, though, has faded. Duvivier was a distinguished director for forty years, one who popularized the French poetic realist style in Pepe le Moko (1937), starring Jean Gabin. In his time he was admired by Jean Renoir, Orson Welles and Graham Greene, but was part of the old guard roundly rejected by the Cahiers du Cinema critics in the 1950s, and continued to be dismissed by the American brand of auteurism imported to the U.S. by Andrew Sarris. Outside of Pepe, he was rarely discussed in English until a 2009 retrospective mounted at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by Joshua Siegel. And now the Criterion Collection has released a fascinating DVD box set, in their no-frills Eclipse series, entitled Julien Duvivier in the Thirties, which includes David Golder (1930), Poil de Carotte (1932), La Tete d’un Homme (1933), and Un Carnet de Bal (1937). These films, unknown to me previously, approach four different genres with a dark romanticism expressed through a restless, roaming camera.


I Am Also A Fugitive From A Chain Gang: Hell’s Highway (1932)


In 1932 the treatment of prisoners on chain gangs became an issue of national import. In January Robert Elliott Burns published I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang!, which recounts two escapes, eight years apart, from brutal prison camps. Warner Brothers would rush to adapt it into I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang for a November release. In June Arthur Maillefert died inside a “sweat box” at the Sunbeam Prison Camp in Florida, a chain wrapped around his neck and wooden stocks nailed around his feet. The camp’s captain was charged with first degree murder and found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Calls for reform reverberated across the country, and the film studios were eager to capitalize on the nation’s interest. Universal was developing Laughter in Hell (which I wrote about here), adapted from a Jim Tully novel, while RKO was fast-tracking Hell’s Highway, which combines Burns and Maillefert’s stories into a narrative they hoped not to get sued over. Prizing speed above all else, RKO got Hell’s Highway into theaters first on September 23rd, beating Fugitive to screens by almost two months (Laughter in Hell didn’t arrive until January of 1933). Brought to the screen by the famously combative director Rowland Brown, Hell’s Highway is cynical and punchy, but compromised by studio meddling.  The Warner Archive has made Hell’s Highway available on DVD as part of “Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9″, the latest in their series of pre-code DVD sets (it also includes Big City Blues, The Cabin in the Cotton, When Ladies Meet, and I Sell Anything).


Bayou Breakout: Cry of the Hunted (1953)


After a career of making B-pictures for Columbia and Poverty Row, Joseph H. Lewis signed a contract with MGM in 1950. His calling card was Gun Crazy (1950), a daring crime film whose location photography and long-take heist sequence created a buzz in Hollywood, if not at the box office. MGM executive Dore Schary screened the film at his home, and brought Lewis into the fold. They sold him on the idea of making a documentary portrait of Cuban immigrants, “no actors, done with all portable equipment”, but this bold experiment never materialized. The idea was recycled into the Hedy Lamarr vehicle  A Lady Without Passport (1950), which was Lewis’ directorial debut for MGM. Their artsy hire became just another contract director. But Lewis was used to working miracles off of threadbare scripts – he earned the nickname “Wagon Wheel Joe” on B Westerns by continually bisecting his compositions with wheel spokes. One of the most delirious examples from this period is Cry of the Hunted (1953), about the manhunt of an escaped prisoner through the Louisiana bayou, that Warner Archive has just issued on DVD. Lewis takes every opportunity to ratchet up the intensity: he pushes into extreme close-ups to emphasize flop sweat, lenses a fog-choked hallucination brought on by swallowing swamp water, and captures intense on-location footraces up the Angels Flight funicular in Los Angeles and long take brawls through the Louisiana Bayou. The characters don’t have time to take breaths, and in its svelte 80 minutes, neither does the viewer.


Pulling the Strings: What Every Woman Knows (1934)


When Helen Hayes was cast in the 1926 Broadway production of What Every Woman Knows, she was not yet “The First Lady of the American Theater”. According to the show’s producer William A. Brady, she had previously been “deep in the high heels and lipstick business – flapper roles”. It was with the part of the pragmatic “Maggie” in J.A. Barrie’s 1908 play, a Scottish battle of the sexes, that she established the Hayes persona, her civilized veneer holding back a mischievous spirit. The show ran for 268 performances and rave reviews. After further Broadway successes in Coquette (’27) and The Good Fairy (’31), she signed with MGM in 1931 to extend her career into the movies. It seemed natural to have her return to her breakthrough role, and What Every Woman Knows was directed by Gregory La Cava in 1934 – available now on DVD from the Warner Archive. But it was a frustrating experience for all involved, hampered by poor test screenings and re-shoots. Hayes was so disappointed in the process she stopped acting in films for nearly two decades. Regardless of the off-screen dramas, the film itself is a charming comedy about a smart young spinster who manipulates the men in her life into prominence, becoming a behind-the-scenes power broker. It is a rare treat to see Hayes reprise her star-making role, and it is a layered performance built on hundreds of stage repetitions, in which every glance is like a conductor’s wand, controlling the men around her.


Passing Fashion: Kay Francis at Warner Brothers


In 1935 Kay Francis was one of the highest paid women in Hollywood, a glamorous star who set fashion trends based on the gowns Orry-Kelly designed for her. In 1939 Warner Brothers terminated her contract. This rapid fall from corporate favor is documented in three films the Warner Archive recently released on DVD:  I Found Stella Parish (’35), The White Angel (’36), and Confession (’37). All feature Francis as the suffering center, absorbing the sins of the world in sacrifice for the virtues of motherhood and mercy, expressed in extreme close-ups where Francis radiates a divine glow. Stella Parish and Confession are urban melodramas that offer Francis the opportunity for multiple hair and costume changes, one of the main pleasures of any Francis film, whereas The White Angel, a Florence Nightingale biopic, keeps her in heavy woolen nursing gear. It was the latter that disappointed Warners. It was perceived as a flop (though it actually turned a profit), and started the downshift in her career. None of these movies are masterpieces (see Trouble in Paradise for that), but the compensatory pleasures of any Francis film – gorgeous gowns, a dizzying array of haircuts, and a heart-tugging melodrama of female self-sacrifice.


Death Watch: Josef von Sternberg Adapts An American Tragedy (1931)


In 1931 the Paramount Publix Corporation was eager to film an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel  An American Tragedy, having failed to do so since acquiring the rights soon after its publication in 1925. They got close in 1930, when the visiting Sergei Eisenstein wrote an experimental script that was eventually rejected for being too long and uncommercial.  So instead they assigned Josef von Sternberg, who was coming off three hits starring Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel, Morocco, and Dishonored), and seemed to have the box office touch for artier, offbeat material. The resulting film, now out on DVD from the Universal Vault (the transfer is likely from an old VHS master, soft but watchable), is an oneiric oddity, using dreamlike visuals to illustrate a story of true crime barbarism – murder by drowning. Water imagery abounds, in lap dissolves and superimpositions – it even breaks up Von Sternberg’s name in the opening credits. Von Sternberg turns Dreiser’s indictment of American society, one that created the conditions for murder, into something more subjective and opaque.  Dreiser claimed that Paramount had turned his novel into an “ordinary murder story”, and sued to have the movie’s release halted. The New York Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of Paramount, and the film was released. Motion Picture Herald claimed the decision was, “likely to become an important part of legal tradition and precedent in the relation of the art of literature and the art of the motion picture.” So whenever Hollywood takes creative liberties with a novel, for better or worse, it has Paramount’s An American Tragedy to thank.


Dreamlife: Shattered Image (1998)


It has been four years since the Chilean director/mesmerist Raul Ruiz left this mortal coil, but it will take eternities to assess his work, comprising over one hundred features and shorts of labyrinthine, shape-shifting narratives. Of all of his oddball projects Shattered Image (1998) might be the oddest. It was his first film made with American producers, a dreamlike erotic thriller starring William Baldwin and Anne Parillaud (playing off her La Femme Nikita image). The production, which shot in Vancouver and Jamaica, was reportedly fraught, with Ruiz and DP Robby Muller clashing with the rest of the crew, who were used to the formula of TV movie productions. The resulting film is a curious mix of Ruiz-ian reverie and the gauzy softcore sleaze you’d find on late night Cinemax. Though not a movie with the same oneiric pull as Ruiz’s City of Pirates (1983), it remains stubbornly representative of his work, combining as it does the pulp narratives he loved as a child with the dream logic central to all of his films. As J. Hoberman wrote upon its opening in the prestige picture season of 1998 (against A Bug’s Life and the Psycho remake), “part of the movie’s pleasure is imagining an entire multiplex audience looking around at each other and wondering, “What the f**k?”


Ugly American: Run of the Arrow (1957)


In the summer of 1956, Sam Fuller took a 50% stake in Globe Enterprises, an independent production company that would strike deals with RKO, Twentieth-Century Fox, and Columbia for financing and distribution. He received creative control over his projects, and though this setup only lasted through 1961, he made six strong films with Globe: Run of the Arrow, China Gate, Forty Guns, Verboten!, The Crimson Kimono, and Underworld U.S.A. His first Globe production, Run of the Arrow (’57), is now available on a long-overdue DVD from the Warner Archive, and reflects the unusual freedom Fuller secured himself in this period. It is a prickly, jumpy Western in which a post-Civil War Confederate loyalist named O’Meara (Rod Steiger) joins the Sioux in order to fight against the United States. It depicts America as a land of perpetual warfare, one in which race and cultural hatreds are reconfigured to justify the current battle, whether without or within. It is a film of jagged rhythms, its chase scenes broken into extreme long shots and close-ups, which are then followed by minutes-long takes of two-shot conversations. At no point does one feel settled or comfortable regarding a character’s motivations or their position in space, and that is how Fuller wanted it.


Postwar Amnesiac Blues: The Clay Pigeon (1949)



After the conclusion of WWII, the subject of the returning soldier became a popular one in B-movies, with the image of a dazed G-man wandering desolate back alleys becoming cinematic shorthand for post-traumatic stress. While the prestige pics explored how the soldiers’ physical toll left psychological scars (The Best Years of Our Lives, Pride of the Marines), the Bs were blunter in opting for amnesiac narratives, in which the veterans have lost all memory of their war efforts, and have to piece it back together, usually in a labyrinthine urban environment (Somewhere in the NightThe Crooked Way). These stories usually find a way to reconstitute these broken men and integrate them back into America. The Clay Pigeon (1949) is a particularly effective film noir of this type, directed by Richard Fleischer from a Carl Foreman script for RKO, soon after Howard Hughes took over. Released by the Warner Archive on DVD this month, its post-war America is one of paranoia and betrayal, where one is guilty until proven innocent.


Unusual Commentary Tracks


Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]

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