Friday, 30 December 2016

A Home in the Meadow

I decided to restrain myself from writing a full post today, what with the holidays and New Year's Eve and whatnot. But in memory of the death this week of both Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher (mother and daughter), here is Reynolds in a sequence from How the West Was Won (John Ford, George Marshall, Henry Hathaway 1962). It is not her best film by any means, but she is the best thing about it, and this song is beautiful.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Billy Wilder - a reassessment

Billy Wilder, writer, director and producer, has been a major part of my life in film, from my late teens. The Apartment (1960) is one of my most treasured films, and has always been included in the top ten, however else that list might have twisted and turned. I have seen almost all of his films many times, and now I have done yet another retrospective. And this time I also, finally, watched the two American films he directed that, for one reason or another, I had never seen before: The Emperor Waltz (1948) and The Spirit of St. Louis (1957).

Up until this session I had had the idea that there were two phases to Wilder's career. One harsh and haunted, when he was co-writing with Charles Brackett, and one more mellow and romantic, and that the second phase coincided with his partnership with I.A.L. Diamond. I now think this is a mistake. His most romantic film, Sabrina (1954), came several years before he and Diamond become a duo. A Foreign Affair (1948), which is both mellow and romantic, came during his Brackett phase, between two of his darkest and most tragic, The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). One reason why The Apartment is my favourite is perhaps because the bitter and the sweet are most perfectly blended there. (Which reminds me of Wilder once quoting Samuel Goldwyn in an award speech, "You got to take the bitter with the sour.")

Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille in Sunset Boulevard.

In my earlier days I was a bigger fan of Wilder than I am today. There are more films that are flawed than there should be and where the blame cannot be put elsewhere, such as studio interference, but on Wilder. For example, the only good thing about Witness for the Prosecution (1957) is Charles Laughton's performance, otherwise it is a staid and unimaginative work. The first half of One, Two, Three (1961) is surprisingly dull and obvious, although the second half is on the other hand thrilling and relentless. Irma la Douce (1963) has fine moments but it looks awkward, colourwise, and the plot is too contrived. And neither of these films breathe. Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) is often unpleasant and feels forced, slightly desperate, and the casting does not feel right. The Seven Year Itch (1955) feels more theatrical than I imagine the actual play it is based on might have felt. And most of Wilder's films have the problem that too many scenes feel written rather than directed, there is a lack of fluency and ease in the visual storytelling, or things feel a bit too neat, and we are told things, things are spelled out to us, that might have been shown instead, and thus become more elegant, and even more moving. I cannot give an exact example now, I would have had to take down notes while watching, but I get this feeling often.

But that is not to belittle the writing, which is frequently very good, of course. That includes such things as structure, pacing and dialogue. There are also several recurring things he does which I like, such as have a word or a line of dialogue used several times in the same film, but with slight alterations, so that they accumulate meaning each time they are used, and either becomes more funny or becomes more poignant. A person might often repeat something he or she has heard before, making the words sound as if they were theirs, only we know that they do not really mean them, they were at a loss of what to say and therefore just repeated what first came to mind. The wide-ranging uses of pocket mirrors is another thing I like, and especially so in The Apartment.

"It makes me look the way I feel."

The frequent self-referencing (like Hawks, Wilder sometimes have his characters, or props, refer back to earlier films he has made or other films with the same actors), and aligning his fictional characters to real persons, like with Dino, played by Dean Martin in Kiss Me Stupid, or Sunset Boulevard, are two other things I like.

But what is less noticed perhaps, and a correction to my complaint of the "writtenness" of his films, is the rich texture of his interiors. The apartments in his films, whether Dietrichson's in Double Indemnity (1944), Don Birnam's in The Lost Weekend, C.C. Baxter's in The Apartment, Harry Hinkle's in The Fortune Cookie (1966), Irma's in Irma la Douce, Spooner's in Kiss Me, Stupid feel real, they breathe (unlike some of the films), you can almost smell them, and after having watched the films you might be able to do a drawing of their apartments. Norma Desmond's house in Sunset Boulevard is a bigger example. The opening sequence in Kiss Me, Stupid, with Dean Martin in Las Vegas, looks spectacular. (But unfortunately when the film comes to Climax, Nevada, it looks cheap and unconvincing, outside of Spooner's apartment.) 


After Germany had been defeated in 1945 and the concentration camps liberated Wilder was assigned to supervise footage from the camps, which led to the documentary Death Mills (Die Todesmühlen). This was obviously a horrendous experience (and he lost family members, including his mother, in the camps). When he came back to the US he did not want to make another dark and depressing film like his previous ones but instead do a colourful fantasy with songs, and set in the Vienna of the past, during the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which Wilder was born, long before Nazism descended upon it. That film would be The Emperor Waltz. It is an unusual film in Wilder's oeuvre, and it is rarely talked about or seen. But it is not a bad film. It has many good jokes and fine scenes, and some scenes have a special poignancy. There is even a scene where a veterinarian takes three newborn puppies and attempt to kill them by drowning because they are not pure poodles but mongrels. They are saved in the nick of time, but it is a peculiar scene to have in such a film, a moment of sheer horror and a suggestion of what kind of film Wilder might have made had he not tried to suppress it. It would take a few years before he went really dark again, especially with Ace in the Hole (1951) and Stalag 17 (1953).

In the barrack in Stalag 17

Another interesting thing about The Emperor Waltz is the way it looks. It is set in the Austrian alps but shot in Jasper National Park in Canada. The landscape is fine as it is, quite spectacular, but Wilder was unhappy, and so particular about the look of the film, that he demanded new pine trees to be planted, an island built in a middle of a lake, a country road painted and thousands of flowers too. His eagerness to improve on nature and the mounting costs (the film went way over budget) led Herman J. Mankiewicz to quip "It only goes to show you what God could do if he had the money." It was Wilder's first film in colour, something he otherwise disliked, and is not necessarily good at using. But here it works, perhaps because it rhymes well with the film as a whole. But it would not be until The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) that a colour film of his would look good again, and there the colours are very different from The Emperor Waltz. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is one of the visually most satisfying of Wilder's films, shot by Christopher Challis.

Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine on Wilder's man-made island.

The Spirit of St. Louis, about Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic, is not bad either, although it is compromised, and parts of it were shot, or re-shot, by John Sturges. But it has a fine structure and individual scenes can sometimes be quite impressive. It was not a successful film either, it flopped, but it was a film Wilder had been eager to do, and he and Lindbergh were friends of sorts, despite Lindbergh's Nazi leanings during the war. Their relationship might have made for a more interesting film. 


Of Wilder's films there is one that towers over all the rest of them, and that is, as mentioned, The Apartment: it is where everything comes together at their finest, casting, writing, direction and sentiment. Stalag 17 is the one that comes second. After them there are a number of really good ones, primarily Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset BoulevardLove in the Afternoon (1957), The Fortune CookieAvanti! (1972) and Fedora (1978). Films about hypocrisy, sleaze, venality, hustling, filmmaking, business, role-playing and sex, and ever so often genuine sweetness. (Like the scene with the rose in the fridge in Love in the Afternoon.) So that is plenty of fine films, and for the weaker ones, well, nobody's perfect.

The temporary morgue in Avanti! One of Wilder's finest scenes.

Monday, 5 December 2016

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Many years ago a friend said, after I had insisted that he watch A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1946), that it had a different perspective from how to view the world, and that it consequently made the spectators view the world from a new perspective too. I have always felt it was a good way of describing the film, and the films of Powell and Pressburger in general. There is always more to the world than meets the eye they seem to be saying, something I have discussed before regarding their film A Canterbury Tale (1944). Now I have had my students watch A Matter of Life and Death, and afterwards they spent two hours talking about it freely. It was great fun.

The film begins with a British pilot flying towards home, the only remaining crew member on a Lancaster bomber returning from a raid over Germany, and right before he has to jump out without a parachute he talks on the radio to an American woman working on a British airfield; spending his last moments alive with her. What happens in the rest of the film is not as easy to describe. Due to a mistake from higher authorities he does not die, instead he finds himself on a beach (where he has a strange encounter with a young, naked, shepherd) and then he meets the woman whom he spoke to on the radio. When, belatedly, he is summoned to the next world he refuses to go. He was ready to die then but not now, and since they made a mistake he argues that he should be allowed to remain on earth.

This is the literal interpretation of the film. There are other possibilities, such as him having a brain injury which causes these hallucinations of another world, or that he actually died in the beginning and this is his afterlife fantasy. The film does leave it open as to what happens.

In A Matter of Life and Death, Powell and Pressburger effortlessly breaks through such conventional boundaries as death, time and space, making them seem irrelevant and transparent. Several people die in this film, death is a key subject, but when they die they are not really gone, they just move, move to another world which is a kind of secular heaven open for everyone regardless of nationality, religion or ethnicity. But they can move in our world too, at least some of them. Moving between this world and the next is here comparatively easy, there is a huge, potentially endless, escalator between the two sides, the monochrome world (which is the other world) and the Technicolor world (which is ours). But is it literally happening, or is it just in the mind of a dying man? Well, it might not matter. Who is to say what is real anyway? Not Powell and Pressburger. This is the world, or worlds, they are presenting to us and it is up to us to accept or reject them, depending upon our fears, beliefs and prejudices. This is a deeply philosophical film, as their films usually are, speculating in various ways about mind, matter, space, time, love, history and nationality. What these concepts are, what they mean, how they affect us, how they conspire to make us what we are, how they are the bedrock of humanity itself. That might sound like a lot to deal with, and Powell and Pressburger are not timid filmmakers.

Besides love and death, time is also a central aspect here. In the other world, time does not exist. Time ends when you die, and becomes separated from space. "We are talking in space, not time." as one of the agents of the other world says. He also adds "After all, what is time? A mere tyranny." When he is on earth, time stops, or rather it pauses for the people who are alive whereas it continues (since it does not exist) for those who are dead. After you die you are forever exactly as you were at the moment of death, living in a constant now.

But A Matter of Life and Death is also about England, England at war (although war was over by the time the film opened). In one spectacular sequence in the beginning a main character, a doctor called Frank Reeves, is observing the small village in which he lives through a camera obscura. With it he can see everything that is going on in the village from a room in his house. In one sense he is spying, or being the eye of God, but there is nothing malevolent about it. He is not like Peeping Tom, from Powell's later film, a disturbed and homicidal man. Reeves does it out of joy and love, even though that does not prevent it from being slightly unsettling. What he is observing is Powell's England, a brief love letter to the place of his childhood, to some extent a rural fantasy (like A Canterbury Tale). This is what is contrasted with the celestial fantasy of the other world. England is also contrasted with America, of two different cultures fighting the same war. (England's colonial crimes are also brought to light, albeit briefly.)

Powell and Pressburger and their team at the Archers, such as cinematographer Jack Cardiff, production designers Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth and editor Reginald Mills (the composer Brian Easedale had not joined them yet, he came along with the next film, Black Narcissus (1947)), have always been pushing the medium, all aspects of it, to go further and be bolder, than what might be considered possible or practical. There is such an unrestrained imagination at work here that it is thrilling just to watch and see what they are up to, how far they are willing to push things, and A Matter of Life and Death is perhaps their most audacious film. In that respect re-watching their films will always be a slightly lesser experience from one angle, because the aesthetic surprises constantly coming at you will now already have been experienced. But that does of course not mean that their films should be seen only once. The craft, the ideas, and the powerful emotions remain from one viewing to the next, in this world and in any other that might exist.

Judging by the two-hour discussion I had with the 60 students, they seemed quite taken by it, and approached it from all possible angles. The use of colour, the concept of time, the acting, ideas on nationality and heritage, narrative structure, ethics and philosophical viewpoints. I had provided them with some keywords before but they went beyond them, and everything was meticulously analysed. They also pointed out that when the "conductor," the man sent to collect the dead, first meets the pilot a game of chess is suggested, ten years before Bergman picked up the same subject. 

A Matter of Life and Death was a huge hit when it came out, on both sides of the Atlantic, and in interviews Powell often said it was his favourite among his own films. It is comforting to know that it still enthuses new generations.

Friday, 2 December 2016


For research purposes I need to postpone today's real post until Monday. Apologies to all! Here is an image from Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1947) to keep you company over the weekend. It is not unrelated to the next post.