Two Old Friends

French Film Critic André Bazin

On Sunday, I was driving to San Pedro to see a friend; and I stopped at Michael R. Weinstein’s Collectible Books at Alpine Village. Sitting in the film section was a two-volume set of film criticism by André Bazin, the founder of Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951. I had owned hardbound copies of the set when I was a graduate student in the film department at UCLA. In fact, the two volumes of Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? (What Is Cinema?) had been translated into English by my favorite professor in the department, Hugh Gray.

Without any particular knowledge of the United States, Bazin was a marvelously intuitive critic who understood American film genres such as the Western almost as well as he did the French theatrical antecedents of his own country’s cinema. Re-reading his essays “The Western: Or the American Film Par Excellence” and “The Evolution of the Western,” I was taken back to my days as a film freak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was a devotee of Cahiers du Cinéma and of the politique des auteurs it espoused. And from there came my knowledge of and love for the American film, by way of France.

My classes with Hugh Gray were among the best I took at UCLA. The film department at UCLA had on its faculty both angels and demons, and Hugh was numbered among the angels.

Hugh Gray as a Technical Specialist for Ancient Greek and Roman Film Subjects

Hugh had been an ordained Dominican priest earlier in life, but then left the order and got married. In Hollywood, he was the go-to man for films set in ancient Greece or Rome because of his wide knowledge of the subject. That wide knowledge, combined with his friendliness to his students, made him a superb professor.

I plan to re-read the Bazin essays in the months to come, thinking of the good times I had studying film at UCLA.

Ten Classic British Film Comedies

George Cole as “Flash Harry” and Alastair Sim as Headmistress Millicent Fritton in The Belles of St. Trinian’s

In honour of the Royal Wedding—wait, belay that!—I would like to honour the British for what they made me do in my formative years, namely, to laugh my head off. I just watched one of Martine’s favorite films at her side, The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954). It starred the great Alastair Sim in two roles, as the Headmistress of St. Trinian’s School for Girls Millicent Fritton and as her scapegrace horse racing tout brother Clarence. You may recall Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in the best version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1951).

It suddenly hit me that I have never written about the British film comedies that help sustain me through high school and college, while I was suffering from a pituitary tumor that almost killed me in 1966. Consequently, I have put together a list of ten films that I loved and that made me laugh:

  • Passport to Pimlico (1949), directed by Henry Cornelius.
  • Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), directed by Robert Hamer. With Alec Guinness playing seven parts.
  • Whisky Galore! (1949), directed by Alexander Mackendrick. One of the very best.
  • The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), directed by Charles Crichton. Guinness again.
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), directed by Anthony Asquith. On the importance of Bunburying.
  • The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954), directed by Frank Launder. Alastair Sim x 2.
  • Father Brown (1954), directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Guinness as Chesterton’s priest/detective.
  • Hobson’s Choice (1954), directed by David Lean. Charles Laughton and John Mills.
  • The Ladykillers (1955), directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Peter Sellers’s first film.
  • School for Scoundrels (1960), directed by Robert Hamer. Based on Stephen Potter’s books.

So you can wake up in the middle of the night at watch the pre-game show for the Royal Wedding, or you can laugh your ass off. Guess what I would recommend!

 

Josef Von Sternberg Part 2

Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930)

As promised in my previous post, here is a list of my favorite Josef Von Sternberg, starting with the great films with Marlene Dietrich (all of which are great) and continuing with his other projects.

Films with Marlene Dietrich

  • The Blue Angel, or Der Blaue Engel in Germany (1930)
  • Morocco (1930), with the French Foreign Legion in North Africa
  • Dishonored (1931), about Mata Hari
  • Shanghai Express (1932), a train ride through China during a civil war
  • Blonde Venus (1932), with Dietrich’s famous “Hot Voodoo” dance number
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934), my favorite, with Dietrich as Catherine the Great of Russia
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935), Dietrich as a Spanish femme fatale a la Carmen

Silent Films

  • The Salvation Hunters (1924), a great beginning to Von Sternberg’s career
  • Underworld (1927), a superb gangster film
  • The Last Command (1928), Emil Jannings as a Czarist general who becomes an actor in Hollywood

Other Films

  • The Shanghai Gesture (1941), with Gene Tierney in a Chinese gambling casino
  • Duel in the Sun (1946), signed by King Vidor, co-directed with Von Sternberg

In closing, I want to recall a run-in I had at Dartmouth with an Anti-Semite who insisted that Von Sternberg was born in Brooklyn and that his real name was Jo Stern. As if that meant anything! It turns out that the “Von” in his name is a fantasy, but he was born in Europe and came to America as a child.

Josef Von Sternberg

German Poster for Der Blaue Engel (1930)

Now that Martine is out of my life for the time being, I am watching more television—though in an organized way. Last night, there was a Josef Von Sternberg festival on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). I had seen most of the films before, but wanted to see a couple of them again. First was The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel in German, 1930), which Von Sternberg filmed in Germany, working for the first time with Marlene Dietrich.  Next came The Shanghai Express (1932), set in China on a train ride through a civil war setting.

I visited the director at his house on Lindbrook in Westwood near the UCLA campus. At the time (the late 1960s), it was difficult to see old films unless they were screened on a 16mm or 35mm projector. I was looking to do my master’s thesis on Sternberg and hoped that somehow he had access to prints of his films that I could arrange to have screened for me. Although he did not, I was impressed by his graciousness. He had been considered to be one of Hollywood’s ogres, but he made some of the most beautiful films I had ever seen. Even his first picture, The Salvation Hunters (1924), was incredible, all the way through to his last The Saga of Anatahan (1952).

Along the way, he wrote an interesting autobiography called Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965) and a novel called Daughters of Vienna (1922), which I hunted down and read through an inter-library loan.

I even knew the director’s son, Nicholas, whom I met frequently at UCLA at film screenings. Today he is a cinematographer in his own right.

Josef Von Sternberg

Josef Von Sternberg died in 1969, leaving behind a body of work that will never be equaled, especially as he filmed almost exclusively in black and white. There was a crowded, almost claustrophobic quality to his work. In Morocco (1930), he has a company of French Foreign Legionnaires walking in chiaroscuro along a narrow street under a series of crisscrossed laths. The train in Shanghai Express leaves Peiping (now Beijing) along a narrow street crowded with Chinese and their animals. He was a master of the cucoloris, a kind of cut-out for casting interesting shadows.

My friend Peter, who is himself a cinematographer, tells me that a film director had to see how the shot was lit at every stage of the actors’ movements or the camera’s. No one was better at this than Von Sternberg.

I will follow up this post with a list of my favorite Von Sternberg films in a day or two.

 

Favorite Films: Grizzly Man (2005)

Timothy Treadwell in Alaska’s Katmai National Park

Over the last thirty years, some of my favorite movies were directed by Werner Herzog. So when I screened his Grizzly Man for myself, I was not surprised to find that it was nothing short of amazing. Its subject, Timothy Treadwell as to grizzly bears what Aussie Steve Irwin was to crocodiles and other dangerous denizens of the wild. In the end, both men died because they were exposed to one too many dangers. In the case of Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, they were eaten by a bear that Treadwell failed to charm.

There was always something strange about Treadwell with his Prince Valiant blonde mop. (He had failed to win the role of Woody Boyd in Cheers that was filled by Woody Harrelson.) He spent his summers in Alaska’s Katmai National Park trying to convince us that grizzlies were like warm and fuzzy Teddy Bears. He even camped with a favorite Teddy Bear, as well as a girlfriend.

After Treadwell and Huguenard’s death, German filmmaker Werner Herzog made Grizzly Man, but probably not as Treadwell would have liked. Much of the footage was actually from Treadwell himself, and showed him in his various moods—including defiance at the National Park Service. He did not like to be reminded by them that what he was doing was dangerous. Unlike Steve Irwin, he downplayed the dangers of closeness with the bears. What amazes me was not that he was eventually attacked and devoured by them than that he survived as long as he did.

Grizzly Bear

In his and his girlfriend’s last few minutes on earth, Treadwell was actually filming. Because of the circumstances, he did not have a chance to remove the lens cap, so all he had was an audio track. In Grizzly Man, we see Herzog listening to this track in the presence of one of his associates, Jewel Palovak. Upon finishing, he hands the tape to Palovak and recommends that she destroy it. She did the next best thing: Instead of listening to it, she had it placed in a bank vault. Nobody wants to have his or her dreams turn into nightmares from listening to the death of someone they had loved.

Herzog believes that Treadwell was a disturbed individual with a death wish. Treadwell’s own footage, much of which appears in the Herzog film, bears this out. In fact, I was so disturbed that I had disturbing nightmares the night after I saw the film.\

 

The Death of Stalin

Poster for The Death of Stalin (2018)

In my retirement, I have been seeing more current films than I usually do. Today, I went in the rain to see Armando Iannucci’s dark comedy of the transfer of power in the Soviet Union when Stalin suddenly died in 1953. Predictably, the movie was banned in Russia and several other of the former Soviet Socialist Republics. In fact, I think that in many instances the truth was stretched a bit to make a better film.

Steve Buscemi plays an ambitious Nikita Khrushchev; Jeffrey Tambor, a delightfully cowardly Georgy Malenkov; Simon Russell Beale, an incredibly evil State Security chief Lavrenti Beria; and Michael Palin, an indecisive Vyacheslav Molotov. The actor who practically runs away with the show is Jason Isaacs, playing Marshal Zhukov, who is the only member of the government who is willing to take on Beria.

Jason Isaacs as Marshal Zhukov

One of the weaknesses of the Soviet Union was that the fearless leaders were too fearful to arrange for a peaceful transition of power after their deaths. In fact, according to Simon Sebag Montefiore in his book The Court of the Red Tsar (2003), Stalin’s sudden death caused a such a crisis, so that the staff in his dacha were afraid to confront the body for fear that it meant some sort of trick that would lead them to execution or a gulag.

Georgy Malenkov is initially selected to rule because of his rank in the Politburo, but his cowardice is such that, by the end, Khrushchev is holding the reins of power.

This film is loaded with violence. Beria’s NKVD carry out executions using their sidearms with alarming regularity. There are at least several score of these executions taking place during the film.

So far, this is the best film I have seen this year.

 

 

Letters of Transit

Prop from the Film Casablanca: The Letter of Transit

I have just finished reading a magnificent novel by Anna Seghers entitled Transit (1944). At the time it was being written—around 1942—a film entitled Casablanca was being made starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The film’s “maguffin,” as Alfred Hitchcock would have called it, are certain letters of transit that have been stolen from Nazi authorities allowing the bearer to leave Morocco for any desired destination.

Such was the film’s premise. Above is the prop used as the Letter of Transit, duly filled out in the name of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and wife. Note, however, that the issuer is the “State of France.” At the end of the film, the Laszlos fly to Lisbon from Casablanca, en route to the United States. Strictly speaking, the so-called Letter of Transit is only an exit visa and does not bear the stamp of the Portuguese consul, let alone the American one.

Transit by Anna Seghers

Anna Segher’s novel tells the tale of refugees from the approaching Nazi terror gathered in Marseilles, trying vainly to collect the series of official papers that would:

  1. Allow them to leave Marseilles legally. The document above appears to be an exit visa rather than a letter of transit.
  2. Pass through other countries en route to their final destination. These are the actual letters of transit, and must be stamped by the consular authorities for each country along the way.
  3. A visa allowing entry to their final destination.
  4. Tickets for transportation along each leg of the journey.

Transit follows various Europeans frantically trying to collect the necessary paperwork before any of the stamped legal papers in their possession expire, which would require them to re-start the process.

Quoted in Segher’s novel is this passage from 2 Corinthians 11:25-26:

Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often; in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils of the city, in perils of the wilderness, in perils of the sea, in perils among false brethren.

More Props: The Passports of Victor Laszlo (Here Misspelled) and Ilsa Lund

The hero of Transit is a German worker and prison camp escapee named Seidler who has assumed the identity of a writer named Weidel who, despairing, had committed suicide in Paris. Curiously, he has no desire to leave Marseilles, finding the city to be a destination in its own right. (It wasn’t: The Germans eventually occupied it.) He runs into Weidel’s wife, is attracted to her, and finally merely helps her to leave, deciding to stay behind:

It’s true, I realized. Everything just passes through me. And that’s why I was still roving about unharmed in a world in which I didn’t know my way well at all. Indeed, even the fit of anger that had decided my life back then in my own country was only temporary. I didn’t stay angry; I wandered around afterward, my anger gone. What I really like is what endures, that which is different from me.

I was so blown away by this book that I regard Seghers as the peer of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, and behind only Franz Kafka (who wrote in German). She is probably best known for The Seventh Cross, which was filmed in 1944 by director Fred Zinnemann starring Spencer Tracy and Signe Hasso. During the Second World War, she lived in Mexico, having escaped Marseilles like some of her characters in Transit. She ended up after the war living in East Germany.