Who Has The Last Laugh (1924)?

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To view The Last Laugh click here.

Nowadays when I talk with my friends about F.W. Murnau (1888 – 1931) they are usually familiar with Nosferatu (1922) or Sunrise (1927). Between those two classics is another masterpiece released in 1924 that is usually overlooked, and one that Georges Sadoul, in his Dictionary of Film Makers claims “was hailed in the USA at the time as the best film in the world.” The German title puts the emphasis on the protagonist (Der Letzte Mann aka: The Last Man), whereas the English title emphasizes a rather shocking ending that highlights a forced Hollywood narrative, but does so with satirical aplomb that is hard to match to this day. You’ll see it all in: The Last Laugh, the story of a hotel doorman (played by Emil Jannings) who is demoted to a lavatory attendant. [...MORE]

Dinner with The Exterminating Angel (1962)

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To view The Exterminating Angel click here.

What does it all mean? Does it matter? There’s a dinner party but before the guests have even arrived, the servants start taking the night off. First it’s just one, then two more, then another two, until finally only the head butler is left. But we know something strange is taking place even before they all go. When two of the women working in the kitchen start to head out of the house, they stop because they see the guests coming in and so they go back and hide. Simple enough. But when they emerge from hiding they see the exact same guests entering again, just as they did before and, again, the women have to hide. Are we seeing an alternate reality the second time around or just history repeating itself? The elite just keep showing up and the servants keep leaving. Then, curiously, they all choose to stay instead of going home. The next day, they realize it’s no longer a choice. The music room off the dining room is where they are and leaving is no longer an option. The movie is Luis Buñuel’s 1962 classic The Exterminating Angel and what it means could be meaningless.

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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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Yes He Can: Jean Gabin and the French Cancan (1955)

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To view French Cancan click here.

Jean Gabin, the great French actor and star, had worked with Jean Renoir three times before called upon to play the role of impresario Henri Danglard in Renoir’s salute to the Belle Epoque, the Moulin Rouge and the theater at large in French Cancan (1955), so he was ready for anything, and seasoned enough to deliver. It’s a movie I’ve seen multiple times and written articles about elsewhere, including for TCM. Yes, it’s a favorite, obviously. But more than that, it’s a fascination. A fascination with the way its simple story, one that could have easily been a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show” movie, speaks to something much grander, and yet more intimate at the same time. Fascination with the way the film uses artifice and theatricality to tell a story, not so much about people or characters, but about art and history. And finally, a fascination with the way both Gabin and Renoir tell their own story in the process.

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Crime & Punishment: Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

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FilmStruck is currently streaming 11 films featuring Alain Delon as part of their “Icons: Alain Delon” theme and for the next 4 weeks I’ll be spotlighting a few of my favorite titles in this collection. To learn more about the French actor please see a previous post I wrote in 2010 to celebrate Delon’s 75th birthday titled, “The Ice-Cold Angel turns 75.” You might also enjoy perusing my modest collection of Delon memorabilia on display in Alain Delon: A Personal Passion.

To wrap up my month-long appreciation of Alain Delon I want to focus some attention on the films he made with director Jean-Pierre Melville (aka Jean-Pierre Grumbach). Melville, more than any filmmaker, was responsible for molding Delon’s onscreen persona as the “ice-cold angel” of French cinema. During a five-year period beginning in 1967 and ending in 1972, they made a series of exceptional neo-noirs together; Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and Un Flic (1972). All three titles are currently available on FilmStruck and they come with my highest recommendation, but today I’d like to focus my attention on Le Cercle Rouge (aka The Red Circle, 1970). Like Farewell, Friend (1968) which I spotlighted last week, Le Cercle Rouge is another caper in the tradition of Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) and Rififi (1955) but it is a more rewarding, somber and stylistic film thanks to Melville’s brilliant direction. It also contains one of the most accomplished performances in Delon’s impressive oeuvre.

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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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Dueling Delons: Spirits of the Dead (1968)

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To view Spirits of the Deadclick here.

FilmStruck is currently streaming 11 films featuring Alain Delon as part of their “Icons: Alain Delon” theme and for the next 4 weeks I’ll be spotlighting a few of my favorite titles in this collection. To learn more about the French actor please see a previous post I wrote in 2010 to celebrate Delon’s 75th birthday titled, “The Ice-Cold Angel turns 75.” You might also enjoy perusing my modest collection of Delon memorabilia on display in Alain Delon: A Personal Passion

In the 1960s anthology (also known as omnibus or portmanteau) films became extremely popular and were attractive to producers who wanted to appeal to a broad range of viewers. The segmented format also encouraged audiences to make multiple trips to the concession stand, which pleased theater owners. Sex comedies were particularly trendy but the most successful anthologies appealed to horror fans.

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The Living and the Dead: L’Eclisse (1962)

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To view L’Eclisse click here.

FilmStruck is currently streaming 11 films featuring Alain Delon as part of their “Icons: Alain Delon” theme and for the next 4 weeks I’ll be spotlighting a few of my favorite titles in this collection. To learn more about the French actor please see a previous post I wrote in 2010 to celebrate Delon’s 75th birthday titled, “The Ice-Cold Angel turns 75.” You might also enjoy perusing my modest collection of Delon memorabilia on display in Alain Delon: A Personal Passion.

While recently rewatching Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (aka The Eclipse, 1962) I received the sad news that George Romero had died. The celebrated Italian art house auteur and the American director behind the hugely popular Living Dead franchise aren’t typically associated with one another but I suspect that Antonioni’s work may have inspired Romero early in his career. In The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead, author and film studies professor Tony Williams asserts that the frustrated married couple holed up in a shopping mall surrounded by hordes of zombies in Dawn of the Dead (1978) resembles the dissatisfied bourgeois couples that listlessly maneuver through Antonioni’s early films. Williams explains that these survivors of Romero’s zombie apocalypse “exist in a world of boredom as a result of their access to a world of conspicuous consumption.” It is an astute observation and one that I can appreciate. In their own unique ways, Antonioni and Romero both addressed the capital driven corrosion of modern society through alienated characters facing an existential crisis. Their means and methods may have been different but underneath Antonioni’s slick surfaces and carefully coiffed characters, there is an element of mystery along with heightened anxiety and a sense of profound dread. These are qualities found in many horror films, including the best work of George Romero, and they are at the forefront of L’Eclisse.

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The French Revolution: La Marseillaise (1938)

LA MARSEILLAISE, left: Maurice Toussaint on French poster art, 1938.

To view La Marseillaise, click here.

“It took me some time to understand that, for him, ideas had little meaning in themselves, and that all that mattered in his eyes was the personality of the individual expressing them.” – Alain Renoir on his father

La Marseillaise (1938) was made under intense political pressure, both from the censorious right and the Popular Front left, who partially funded this depiction of the French Revolution. Jean Renoir ended up making a film that pleased neither, depicting not the broad strokes of history but the idiosyncrasies of its individual actors. As Andre Bazin put it, Renoir “demythologizes history by restoring it to man.” It obscures the larger political movements but pauses for details like how the soldiers pad their boots or what Louis XVI thinks of tomatoes (he’s pro). After the supernova success of Grand Illusion (1937) Renoir had big plans to capture a larger panorama of the revolution, but kept whittling it down to a few engaging personalities, until we are left with a couple of hotheaded revolutionary Marseilles comrades and the aloofly charming Louis XVI (Pierre Renoir), who seems oblivious to the power shift happening right outside his doors. And yes, this marks the triumphant (?) return of my Jean Renoir series, which will run through August.

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Whatever Lola (1961) Wants, She Has To Wait For

Lola (1961 France) Directed by Jacques Demy Shown: Anouk Aimée

To view Lola click here.

Jacques Demy came up right along with the rest of the French New Wave but his reputation didn’t have the same edge. While Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Resnais acquired a rep for groundbreaking work, Demy was too in love with both the Hollywood musical form and the sweeping camera of Max Ophüls to gain the same overseas cachet as the rest of the gang. Even being as close as he was to one of the most pioneering and acclaimed members of that group, the great Agnès Varda (his wife), Demy preferred the romantic and sentimental breeziness of the 1950s musical. His first feature film, Lola(1961), achieves a beautiful balance between the musical and the new wave with the sweeping camera of Ophüls thrown in for good measure. And all of it done without being a musical at all. Almost.

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