Random Thoughts on The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

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To view The Testament of Dr. Mabuse click here.

Watching The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) again recently, I was struck by many things. So many, in fact, that coming up with just one angle from which to approach the subject seemed like a cheat as there were numerous angles available. Sometimes you watch a movie and a rush of thoughts, memories and ideas keep crashing into you from the screen, never letting you focus in on just one element of the film at any given time. That’s not a bad thing either and I think it’s one of the primary reasons that the best movies reward multiple viewings. A great and complex movie makes you think of different things while it’s going on, so you can’t possibly take it all in with only a single viewing. You must watch it again, and again, and again. And even then, you might not know exactly how to put it all together. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is one such movie and I have no single theme to tackle here. Rather, I’d like to take a kind of epistolary approach, a cataloging of mental diary entries and newspaper clippings that swirled around my head as I watched.

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The Politics of Singing: Une Chambre en Ville (1982)

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To view Une Chambre en Ville click here.

Jacques Demy’s reputation has long suffered from an inferiority complex among the French New Wave filmmakers. Fans and critics find movies like The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless (1960) challenging and daring while movies like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) are beloved all time classics, certainly adored but not considered the kind of serious art that the others were doing. If you’ve read my pieces on Demy before, you already know I think this is rubbish. But as Demy’s career grew, it expanded outwards and allowed for far more risk-taking and innovation than his earlier work. By the time he got to Une Chambre en Ville, he was making movies that were as innovative and daring as anything coming out of the early days of the New Wave. Une Chambre en Ville, not nearly as famous as many of Demy’s earlier works, is riskier and more challenging than almost anything he ever did.

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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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Birdshead Revisited: Judex (1963)

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To view Judex click here.

The first time we see the magician, he is standing alone, legs spread slightly apart, a lifelike bird mask covering his head. Next to him, on a stone block, lies a lifeless white dove. He picks it up in one hand and holds it gently as he walks through the hallways of the mansion on his way to the ballroom where the gala is being held. Once there, among the other masked revelers, the dove comes to life and flies away. He has brought it back from the dead, or so it seems, and produces one after another to the delight of the guests. The  man in the mask, we suspect, is Judex, an avenger who has set out to get a rich banker, Favraux (Michel Vitold), to pay back his victims or else. The actual magician portraying Judex is Channing Pollock and he didn’t speak a word of French. That didn’t matter to director Georges Franju, he just wanted a look. Besides, Judex wasn’t the lead anyway. [...MORE]

The Bank Job: Perfect Friday (1970)

PERFECT FRIDAY, Ursula Andress (front), 1970

To view Perfect Friday, click here.

There is a blessed simplicity to a heist film, with its basic elements of planning and execution. Last week I looked at an elaborate cat-and-mouse variation of this trope, The Silent Partner (1978), while today I’ll discuss a streamlined version, the lighthearted British heist film Perfect Friday (1970). They are two of the six films FilmStruck is streaming in its “How to Rob a Bank” theme (alongside The League of Gentlemen[1960], Max and the Junkmen [1971], Revanche [2008], and The Robber[2010]). Perfect Friday is shorn of any backstory or subplot, focused entirely on the robbery at hand. Stanley Baker stars as a mild mannered bank clerk looking to retire on one big score. He recruits a money hungry Lord (David Warner) and his wife (Ursula Andress) to pull off the job. But every word they speak is a lie, from promises of an equal split to the husband telling his wife he loves her. The scene is set for multiple betrayals, it is only a matter of who is holding the money-stuffed suitcase last.

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The Original Castaway: Robinson Crusoe (1954)

ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE, THE (1954)

To view Robinson Crusoe click here.

Luis Buñuel, the controversial and much banned filmmaking genius, has become so associated with the surreal cinema that the idea of him directing a straightforward adventure seems, well, surreal. But in 1952, gaining funding for a joint Spanish and English language production of Robinson Crusoe (it wouldn’t be released until 1954), based on the 18th century novel by Daniel Defoe, Buñuel did just that, although Buñuel the iconoclast was never far out of sight. Starring Dan O’Herlihy in the title role, the movie invents just about every deserted island trope you’ve probably ever heard of (from the novel of course), but along the way, touches on some very controversial subject matter, both reflecting the time the novel was written, the time the movie was made and bigoted notions of the white man’s dominion over the earth.

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What’s it all about, Monte? The Shooting (1966)

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His horse rears up his head and looks around, as if something is amiss. The horse’s rider, Willet Gashade, looks around too and as the first notes of a flute make their way into the viewer’s ears, a wave of disquiet has already inundated the surroundings. Something’s not right. Things seem… off kilter. Uneasy. Unsure. The rider makes his way to his destination but soon enough will realize it’s only a starting point to a journey that may or may not end with any sense of meaning or purpose whatsoever. Thus begins Monte Hellman’s extraordinary 1966 film, The Shooting, one of the best films of the 1960s, or any decade, really.

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Crammed Full of Genre: While the City Sleeps (1956)

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell, Ida Lupino, 1956

I just did a Fritz Lang movie last week (The Big Heat from 1953) and there have been other posts on the director around these parts lately as well so forgive me if I dive into familiar waters one more time. You see, I tend to focus on the ethical dilemmas of Lang’s work, in movies like M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and, of course, The Big Heat*, where the good guys and the bad guys tend to overlap. But before I take a break from writing about Lang, I’d like to throw in one more post on what may be my biggest Lang surprise in all my years of watching him. It’s a movie that throws so many genre tropes together into one big pot, it’s a miracle any of it works at all. But it does, magnificently so. It’s one of those movies that came and went and despite having plenty of big names in the cast, it feels like a low budget movie shot on the run. This amazing little piece of work called While the City Sleeps (1956) may be Lang’s most purely enjoyable film.

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Venomous Snakes & Poison Ants: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

“What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.” – Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock (a variation of A Dream Within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe)

In Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), viewers are reminded again and again of the “venomous snakes and poison ants” that populate the Australian outback. Despite these repeated warnings, the reptiles and insects we see are never an actual threat and cause no harm besides pilfering some leftovers from an unobserved picnic basket. The real danger is unspoken and invisible. It lurks unseen in the shadowy cracks and crevices of Hanging Rock, waiting to ensnare a group of innocent schoolgirls and their unsuspecting math teacher. As is often the case in real life, the horrors that eventually befall the characters in Weir’s film arrive without warning or reason but they leave the victims devastated as they try to make sense of a nemesis that has no fixed name and no discernible face.

This puzzling pastoral horror picture is currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of their Cinema Passport: Australia series, a curated selection of films from the land down under that also includes Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980). Watched together these films provide a thought-provoking introduction to the Australian New Wave that emerged in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s. Unlike many other international New Wave film movements that launched in the 1960s, Australia’s got a late start but the results are equally compelling.

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Adventure in Istanbul: Topkapi (1964)

TOPKAPI (1964)

Today (Dec. 8) is Maximilian Schell’s birthday. The handsome Swiss actor is one of my favorite screen performers and he would have been 85 today if he hadn’t passed away in 2014 after abruptly contracting pneumonia. To celebrate the occasion, I thought I’d take a look at one of my favorite Maximilian Schell films; the stylish and highly entertaining caper, Topkapi (1964) directed by Jules Dassin (Brute Force [1947], The Naked City [1948]). If you’re searching for an enjoyable way to pass a few hours, this playful, frothy cocktail of a film is sure to warm your spirits. Topkapi is currently streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. You can also occasionally catch it playing on TCM.

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