Friday, August 9, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for August 9-14

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

As long as I have the time, let me expound further on TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars.” Yes, it’s a novel way to re-package the same old fare usually shown, but there are the shining moments when a rarely-shown star’s work is screened. The best example of this occurs this week, when some of the films of Catherine Deneuve will appear on the small screen August 12. As far as I’m concerned, all of the scheduled films should be recorded for later viewing, but I will reluctantly limit myself in this column to featuring five of her films, each a classic. Deneuve, besides being one the great screen beauties, could also act; rare for a movie star of her status and beauty.

That’s the good. As to the bad, we need look no further than August 13, when Mickey Rooney is the designated star. Nothing against Rooney on my part, for I happen to be a fan – a big fan – of his film work. But he was Star of the Month a few months back, when the same films were shown. Also, and more to the point: if TCM is going to run his movies on this day, they should run one that we haven’t seen in a long while. Yes, I have just such a movie in mind: his 1957 gangster opus, Baby Face Nelson. Besides being a good film in its own right, it was directed by Don Siegel and co-starred the lovely Carolyn Jones. This movie hasn’t been shown in a dog’s age and the time is right for its return to our small screens.

August 12

6:00 am Le Petit Poucet (Le Studio Canal Plus, 2001) – Director: Oliver Dahan. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Romane Bohringer, Elodie Bouchez, Pierre Berriau, Nils Hugon, & Samy Naceri. Color, 90 minutes.

Though often confused with the English fairy tale character Tom Thumb, “Le Petit Poucet” actually originated in a story by French writer Charles Perrault. Perrault is considered one of the fathers of the fairy tale, having written such stories as “Cinderella,” “Puss n’ Boots,” “Bluebeard,” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” He also created the concept of Mother Goose as the collector of these tales, and would influence such later writers as the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen.

The story has been filmed many times over the years, beginning in 1905 as a silent short, Hop O’ My Thumb, directed by Vincent Lorant-Heilbronn. This 2001 production is the most lavish, although it abandons digital technology for the most part in favor of matte paintings and optical tricks. This gives it an artificial look that was purely intentional on the part of the producers and director.

It also sticks to the story: the title character is the youngest of seven children born to a woodcutting couple in the country and uses his wits to compensate for his lack of height. The parents’ poverty makes them unable to properly care for the children, so they are abandoned in the woods and left to their fate. Among the dangers they face is a hungry ogre intent on making a meal of them.

The film retains the more macabre and violent parts of the story, such as the ogre and his children and the brutal battles the children engage in to survive as they try to find their way back home. My friend in France recommended the film to me, and I must admit that being conditioned to digital effects as I am, it took a while to become used to the look of the this movie, but once I did, it was magical viewing. Dahan, having started as a painter, knows how to use colors to their best effect, which increases the intensity of the story and draws the viewer in to what’s taking place on the screen. If you like the films of Tim Burton, you should like this excursion into the fantastic.

7:45 am Repulsion (Royal Films, 1965) – Director: Roman Polanski. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Patrick Wymark, & Yvonne Fueneaux. B&W, 105 minutes.

This is the movie that introduced both Deneuve and director Polanski to the English-speaking public. Made on the relatively cheap for about $300,000, it became a worldwide hit. Deneuve was already a star in France, due to her breakthrough performance in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But Polanski was a starving artist living in Paris, having fled there to avoid the repressive regime in his native Poland, even though he was heralded there for his first feature, the brilliant Knife in the Water (1962).

Repulsion is an outstanding psychological thriller about a young woman named Carol, played by Deneuve, who works as a beautician in a distinctly un-hip part of London. To say that Carol is sexually repressed is an understatement: she suffers from an industrial-strength case of it. Living in a cramped London apartment with her sister and the sister’s married lover, Carol is left to her own devices when the latter two go on vacation. She barricades herself in the apartment and even tears out the phone after she takes an abusive phone call meant for her sister. Her isolation, combined with the hallucinations of men groping and grabbing at her ultimately makes her murderous.

Trivia: Polanski talked Deneuve into posing nude for Playboy to help publicize the film, a decision Deneuve was to bitterly regret years later. But she did meet her husband, David Bailey, on the shoot. He was the photographer.

12:00 Un Flic (EIA, 1972) – Director: Jean-Pierre Melville. Cast: Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve, Richard Crenna, Riccardo Cucciolla, Michael Conrad, & Andre Pousse. Color, 98 minutes.

“Un flic” is a French slang term meaning “a cop.” In the hands of a master like Melville, it turns into a noir, which itself becomes the resonance of life. While in America, noirs were made fast and cheap, intended to be no more than a violent thriller, in France, with its postwar urban weltanschauung, the noir assumed the place the Western held in America, where the hero wrestled with issues of good, evil, destiny, and the ironic meaning of life. In Japan, those issues were to be found within the allegorical Samurai films.

While directors such as Truffaut, Malle, and Dassin dabbled with noir (although Dassin was quite at home within its borders), Melville was its undisputed master. In his hands, noir changes from its cops vs. robbers motif into a vulgar existential version of what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” To quote writer Michael Atkinson, “The hapless gangsters and gangsterish cops in Melville's films don't know much except two things: one, their sense of honor is the only thing they can take with them to the grave, and two, that date with the grave may be coming all too soon.”

Un Flic was Melville’s last film and opens with a robbery of a seaside bank, during which one of the bandits is wounded. Leading the robbers are Crenna and Conrad. Leading the police is detective Delon. The iconic femme fatale uniting the characters is Deneuve, who is the girlfriend of both Crenna and Delon. I will say no more here, lest I spoil a beautifully-woven plot.

Atkinson sees the plot machinations of Melville as heavily influencing the screenwriting style of Quentin Tarantino, and I’m not about to argue. His point is obvious to anyone who has seen their movies. But I also spot an influence of this movie on Michael Mann and his dynamic neo-noir, Heat, especially the scene where Deneuve, Delon and Crenna all sit down for a drink. Melville is not only wildly entertaining, but he is also quite infectious.

8:00 pm The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Landau Releasing, 1964) – Director: Jacques Demy. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Ellen Farmer, & Marc Michel. Color, 90 minutes.

Demy’s homage to American musicals stars Deneuve and Castelnuovo as Genevieve and Guy, an umbrella shop salesgirl and a mechanic who pledge their love to each other. When Guy is drafted they decide to consummate their love, with the result that Genevieve becomes pregnant. While Guy is away in Algeria fighting, Genevieve decides she no longer lovers him and marries Roland, a wealthy diamond merchant. Guy is wounded, returns to Cherbourg, and discovers the truth. If you can put up with a film in which every line is sung, and can forget the overwhelming bubble-gum colors, this is a film one can really get to appreciate for what it is.

Trivia: Shot on location in the Normandy port town of Cherbourg, the citizens allowed Demy to paint their houses, hence the bright, cheery colors.

2:15 am Belle De Jour (Allied Artists, 1968) – Director: Luis Bunuel. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Genevieve Page, Michel Piccoli, & Pierre Clementi. Color, 100 minutes.

This was the film that catapulted Deneuve to international stardom. She plays Severine, a bored and sexually frigid housewife plagued by fantasies in which she is sexually and enjoyably debased by her husband, among other men. Acting on these fantasies she moonlights as a part-time prostitute, calling herself “Belle de jour” (Daytime Beauty). Soon, however, she is working there every day while precariously balancing her life outside the brothel with her husband. Based on a 1928 novel of the same name by Joseph Kessel, director Bunuel, along with his co-screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrire, reportedly visited brothels, interviewing the prostitutes as to their sexual fantasies.

Trivia: In most subtitled versions of the movie, an italicized font is used to separate Severine’s fantasy from reality.

August 13

9:45 am A Family Affair (MGM, 1937) – Director: George B. Seitz. Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Cecelia Parker, Eric Linden, Mickey Rooney, Julie Haydon, Charley Grapewin, & Spring Byington. B&W, 69 minutes.

Who knew back in 1937 that this little B-throwaway film would lead to one of MGM’s most profitable series ever? Based on a 1928 play titled Skidding, by Aurania Rouverol, the film concerned the lives of Judge Hardy (Barrymore), his wife Emily (Byington), their daughters Joan (Haydon) and Marion (Parker), and their youngest, Andy (Rooney). The Judge is running for re-election in what appears to be a tight race because of an unpopular decision he has made that is affecting the townsfolk. And he has his family’s problems to deal with at the same time. The film proved a hit with audiences and exhibitors alike and Louis Mayer rushed a sequel into production, You’re Only Young Once. This time, however, the roles of Judge Hardy and Emily Hardy were filled by Lewis Stone and Fay Holden, which was fine by Barrymore, because he never wanted to do the film in the first place. He only did it because he was contractually obligated. Ann Rutherford replaced Margaret Marquis as Polly Benedict, Andy’s girlfriend, and the character of the oldest daughter Joan was dropped. Though the character of Andy Hardy was secondary in the film, as Rooney’s career at MGM took off, so did his screen time and billing in the Hardy Family series.

Trivia: It was producer Sam Marx who convinced MGM to buy Rouverol’s play with the idea of making it into a B-movie.

August 14

6:00 am Parachute Jumper (WB, 1933) – Director: Alfred E. Green. Cast: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Bette Davis, Frank McHugh, Claire Dodd, & Leo Carrillo. B&W, 73 minutes.

I love Davis’s early movies, before she hit it big and chucked her natural acting for a series of mannerisms. This film was made during a time in Davis’s career when she seemed to be playing an endless succession of girlfriends. Here she plays stenographer Patricia “Alabama” Kent. She’s the girlfriend of Bill Keller (Fairbanks), who, along with his pal “Toodles” Cooper (McHugh) are ex-Marine flyers who can’t find jobs in Depression America. Keller and Toodles eventually do find jobs as muscle for gangster Kurt Weber (Carrillo), flying blind to Canada at night to pick up illegal booze. But – wouldn’t you know it? – Alabama also finds work, as the receptionist for Carrillo’s front business. Implausible, of course, but Warners films of the early ‘30s are entertaining, and this one’s no different.

Trivia: When Robert Aldrich was filming Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962, he chose two film clips to represent the decline of Davis’ character, Baby Jane Hudson. One was from Parachute Jumper, and the other was from Ex-Lady, also made in 1933 . . . Davis has always cited Parachute Jumper as her least favorite of all 94 films she made.

7:30 am The Girl From 10th Avenue (WB, 1935) – Director: Alfred E. Green. Cast: Bette Davis, Ian Hunter, Colin Clive, Alison Skipworth, Katharine Alexander, & John Eldredge.  B&W, 70 minutes.

More early Davis. This time, she gets top billing is this programmer from Warner Brothers affiliate, First National. Based on a play by Hubert Henry Davies from 1914 titled Outcast, it had been filmed three times previously (in 1917, 1922, and 1928) under that title. This time, in recycling it, the title was changed, but the plot is basically the same. Lawyer Geoff Sherwood (Hunter) recently dumped by his fiancé, Valentine French (Alexander), gets stewed to the gills and marries a perfect stranger, shopgirl Miriam Brady (Davis), also three sheets to the wind. Coming to the next day, they realize what they’ve done, but still decide to give the marriage a chance. That is, until Geoff runs into Valentine, who tells him what a dreadful mistake she made in marrying John Marland (Clive). Geoff decided to move into his club to think things over. There he runs into Marland, who tells him in no uncertain terms what a fool he would be to leave Miriam.

While The Girl From 10th Avenue is a B-movie, it’s entertaining from beginning to end due to the performances by leads Davis and Hunter. Also look for scene-stealing Skipworth as Davis’s landlady who gives Davis’ character an impromptu lesson in charm. It also represents a new turn in the characters Davis would be playing – the female underdog. 

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