Saturday, December 8, 2012

Cinéma Inhabituel for December 8-14

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

I’m still on the mend, but am finally out of the hospital after more than a month recuperating. I apologize for not submitting a column for last week and hope readers can forgive my lapse. But we’re back on track for the week of December 8-14 and will remain so through the near future barring complications, which I really don’t see happening.

My first television destination after returning home was to Cinemoi. Readers have heard me complain before and I will be even more vociferous after seeing that their seeming philosophy of not running French classic films has not changed. I love Georgy Girl, but how many times can I see it? Also, if I want to see 1932’s American Madness and 1941’s Meet John Doe, both directed by Frank Capra, I need go no further than this channel. But this is Cinemoi, not Cineme, so why the dearth of French films? Are they ashamed, or simply without a freaking clue? For God’s sake, TCM shows more French cinema classics than Cinemoi, which should tell readers which is the real movie channel. Oh well, perhaps someday.

December 9

2:00 am L’Amore (Finecine, 1948) – Director: Roberto Rosselini. Starring Anna Magnani, Federico Fellini, Lia Corelli, and Elli Parvo.

L’Amore is a film in two parts with Anna Magnani starring in each episode. After the opening credits roll we see a title that reads, “This film is an homage to the art of Anna Magnani.” And what an homage it is. She not only stars in each episode, but she thoroughly dominates throughout. The first part is titled “Una Voce Umana” (The Human Voice) and is scripted by Jean Cocteau from his story of the same name. It concerns a woman in her bedroom making a desperate phone call to her former husband. As such it is entirely dependent on Magnani and she comes through with one of the most compelling performances ever put on film. Rossellini cleverly uses close-ups to capture Magnani’s grief in full stride. As the conversation goes subtlety from pleading into confessional we see the beauty and poetry of Cocteau’s style. Yet, with a lesser actress, all this would be for naught. Magnani makes us believe in the totality of the woman’s situation and with just the tone of her voice, wins our sympathy.

The second part is titled “Il Maracolo” (The Miracle), and boasts an original script by Fellini and provides us with a glimpse of his later work in this dark fairy tale. Magnani plays a peasant woman whose elevator doesn’t quite reach the top floor. She meets and is seduced by a tramp whom she believes to be Saint Joseph, played by Fellini in his one and only film appearance. He plies her with wine and she passes out. Later she finds she is pregnant, and she believes she is carrying the Christ child. As she was out cold and doesn’t remember having sex, she believes the pregnancy to be miraculous. Though the villagers mock her, she remains strong in her conviction. This is one of the most powerful stories ever put on film, characterized by overt Christian symbolism and shots of the countryside that makes the environment itself into another character in the fable. Because of this segment, the film was denounced by the Vatican in Europe, and in America by Cardinal Spellman.

The result of this was that no major theater chain would book the movie and it wound up playing in art theatres and grindhouses. For instance, it was not unusual to see this on a double bill with a film such as Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda. This is a film every cinephile must see at least once. If you miss it here, your only chance is to buy it from Amazon as the odds are overpowering that it will not be shown anywhere else.

December 13

12:00 am Les Miserables (Pathe Image, 1934) – Director: Raymond Bernard. Starring Harry Baur, Charles Vanel, Charles Dullin, and Marguerite Moreno.

Victor Hugo is one of France’s national treasures, and deservedly so. His novels covered the depths of the human psyche and it’s inevitable reaction against the society of its time. Thus it only stands to reason that this 1934 French version of his masterpiece should itself be regarded as the best version made.

Though it clocks in at a lengthy 281 minutes (the complete French version runs an astounding 5 hours and 15 minutes) and is subtitled (Oh, horrors!), the writing and the performances capture Hugo’s novel almost to a T. The only – and slight – flaw is the performance of Charles Vanel as Inspector Javert. But this can only be seen when in comparison to Charles Laughton’s definitive performance, which didn’t come until a year later. But in this version, as in the novel, we are able to see Javert as an extension of the government that was so willing to impose the harshest penalties for the slightest crimes, unlike later versions, several of which play out like an episode of the old TV show The Fugitive.

Harry Baur’s Valjean is magnificent, without the self-brooding we see in later versions, and comes closest to capturing the character in the novel. Though director Bernard’s camera angles can be annoying at time, and the background presents the cleanest slum this side of Samuel Goldwyn’s Dead End, the plot allows us to quickly forget these trespasses and concentrate on the story itself, which is helped by the expressionist lighting throughout.

Baur’s performance shows hints of what could have come. Unfortunately he was arrested in Occupied France for anti-Nazi activities and tortured to death for information on his cohorts. It also didn’t help matters that his wife was Jewish.

If you haven’t yet read the novel, watching this film version may inspire you to do so – the unabridged version, of course. (There is nothing worse than an abridged book.) And for those that have read the book, there is nothing in the film to make you wince and anything being left out. It is a masterpiece, and a forgotten one at that.

December 14 

2:45 am Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (Blackfern, 1973) Director: Richard Blackburn. Starring Lesley Taplin, Cheryl Smith, and William Whitton.

UCLA film school graduates Richard Blackburn and Robert Fern were looking to make a splash in Hollywood. They came up with this film for their first effort, and, in spite of its low-production values, it holds up today not only as a legitimate shocker, but also as a piece of memorable cinema.

The plot is simple: Young and innocent Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith) is the daughter of a gangster and wife killer. A Baptist minister (director Blackburn) takes her in and is determined to protect her innocence while acknowledging his lust for her. Freaked out, young Lila runs away, and straight into the arms of Lemora, a rather mysterious figure who promises to reunite her with her father. Instead, Lemora takes young Lila into the world of the wicked and the undead.

Blackburn and Fern co-authored the screenplay and filmed the production on a shoestring with help from a crew of friends, fellow film school students and a professional or two who donated his time. Viewers will be surprised to see how, by skillful camerawork, the town of Pomona, California, has been remade into a city right out of the ‘30s. Add period cars and some great costuming, and we have a very spooky film complete with an eerie haunted forest (where Lemora dwells).

The producers might have thought they were tapping into a recently-opened vein of good box office. Neglected for years outside of Europe, the vampire film began to make a comeback in the early ‘70s with the addition of sex (Count Yorga, Vampire) and lesbian vampires (Daughters of Darkness). However, they were badly mistaken. A disastrous preview caused potential distributors to back off and Blackburn and Fern were forced to sell the film to pay off debts. It then went through many distributors and was released in 1975 under a plethora of titles from The Legendary Curse of Lemora to Lemora – The Lady Dracula to simply Lady Dracula. It was under this title that I first saw it on Channel 9 in New York late on Saturday night.

This is a film, again, not to be missed. Once you get through the production values, you’ll be awed at just how much could be accomplished on a shoestring.

No comments:

Post a Comment