Archive for May 4th, 2008


Napoleon is a remarkable attempt by any filmmaker, by any standards to have embarked upon and at any time. Of course Balzac set out to replicate the achievements of the little corporal in literature and succeeded. Instead of a sword or pen Abel Gance set out to record the life of Napoleon on celluloid and that too during the silent era! It is only appropriate that the film was attempted by a Frenchman. The bio-pic was originally intended as a series of back to back productions in a series of six ninety-minute films. The intention was to cover his whole life. Gance however ran out of money by the time he came to the Italians campaigns of 1796 just as the subject of his magnum opus didn’t have enough to feed his army. The General could let the army live off the lands they ran over, a luxury that Abel Gance didn’t have.
Gance had managed a single film of six hours and twenty-eight minutes, taking Napoleon to the opening of his Italian campaign. The American distributer MGM slashed it to less than an hour and half for its 1929 US release. It was like the distributor upped Midas in their penchant for profits. By slashing the movie length they turned Napoleon not into gold but into iron: naturally it was a flop and killed whatever chances he may have had to raise the money to continue further. In the ensuing decades Abel Gance kept on and completed footage enough to run for 275 minutes. The original version is sadly lost but in 1979 a restoration project undertaken by Kevin Brownlow we get a chance to peek into the mind of a remarkable film-maker.
Film-making can offer few more poignant cameos than that of Gance as a very old man watching from his hotel room window an outdoor screening of Brownlow’s work-in-progress print at the Telluride Film Festival in 1979. Thanks largely to the vision and enthusiasm of Frances Ford Coppola and the Zoetrope Studio, screenings in London and New York in the early nineteen-eighties enabled Napoléon to receive the public acclaim it so richly merited. Coppola also had a laserdisc edition of the film in a shortened form – four hours as opposed to the five hours and thirteen minutes of footage than available – produced. Twenty and more years later, it is an injustice to both Gance and Brownlow that we have no possible opportunity to savour the version of Gance as he intended. Any work of genius one may tamper with at the risk of blighting it.

Technologically, Napoléon was before its time, at key points anticipating the introduction of Cinemascope thirty years later through the use of three projectors to produce a composite triptych image. Moments such as when Rouget de l’Isle teaches the “Marseillaise” to the crowd gathered in the Club des Cordeliers, when the ghosts of the leaders of the Revolution confront Napoleon in the deserted Assembly Hall prior to his departure to take over the army in Italy or when Napoleon’s eagle hovers over the army in the final triptych are unforgettable. Gance’s inspired cutting drives the action forward at an often blistering pace. He has even been lucky with his composers. Each of the three scores – the original by Honegger, the Carl Davis version used in London and, perhaps most of all, the version by Carmine Coppola used for the world tour – has been closely attuned to the imagery.
The feel of the film – its pulsating energy – cannot be better conveyed than by the final paragraphs of the scenario. The passage reads: “‘While the Beggars of Glory, their stomachs empty, but their heads filled with songs, leave history to pass into legend’ … The ragged troops are interrupted in their rhythm by the sight of a shadow on the road before them. The eagle! It stretches its wings across all three screens, and the great advance picks up its impetus. As the images become faster and faster the triptych becomes one gigantic tricolour flag, and the Chant du depart is succeeded by the Marseillaise. ‘A maelstrom fills all three screens. The whole Revolution, swept on at a delirious speed towards the heart of Europe, is now one huge tricolour, quivering with all that has been inscribed upon it, and it takes on the appearance of an Apocalyptic, tricolour torrent, inundating, enflaming and transfiguring, all at one and the same time'”.
So eloquent a passage cannot be experienced without emotion, or fail to recall the no less moving evocation of Napoleon at a very different point in his life of which Belloc wrote: “There is a legend among the peasants in Russia of a certain sombre, mounted figure, unreal, only an outline and a cloud, that passed away to Asia, to the east and to the north. They saw him move along their snows through the long mysterious twilights of the northern autumn in silence, with head bent and the reins in the left hand loose, following some enduring purpose, reaching towards an ancient solitude and repose. They say it was Napoleon. After him there trailed for days the shadows of soldiery, vague mists bearing faintly the forms of companies of men. It was as though the cannon-smoke of Waterloo, borne on the light west wind of that June day, had received the spirits of twenty years of combat, and had drifted farther and farther during the fall of the year over the endless plains. But there was no voice and no order. The terrible tramp of the Guard and the sound that Heine loved, the dance of the French drums, was extinguished; there was no echo of their songs, for the army was of ghosts and was defeated. They passed in the silence which we can never pierce, and somewhere remote from men they sleep in bivouac round the most splendid of human swords”. This passage is taken from Hilaire Belloc’s masterly biography of Danton, and which Gance may well have read.
(ack: Race Mathews, Steven D. greydanus).


Read Full Post »

Cleopatra(69-30 B.C)
Mark Antony had done his best to entertain Cleopatra and was peeved by her taunts as to the quality of his table. He was perplexed too. When she remarked that she would in one supper spend ten million sesterii Antony laid a wager that it was impossible.
When she laid out her table Mark Antony checked each item against the bill and he had to laugh at her presumption. But she promised that not only she will keep her promise but that the supper would cost 60m.Sesterii.
For the second course a goblet of vinegar of special quality, strong enough to dissolve pearls was brought in. For the occasion she was wearing two most precious pearls in the world. Before his eyes she took off one and dropped into the vinegar. Making sure it was dissolved she downed her goblet. She would have done the same with her second pearl had not Plancus the referee stopped her from it. He pronouncedher to have already won the wager.
Turning to a crest-fallen Antony she murmured,”No soldier is a match for a woman.”
In the German state of Würtemberg, the town of Weinsbeg crowns a hill overlooking surrounding vineyards. In the Romanesque church over there one may see a tablet dedicated to the memory of faithful wives. In the vicinity are the ruins of Weibertreu castle or Castle of the Faithful Wives.
Who were these women?
In 1140, Emperor Conrad III seized the town and had surrounded the castle where the townsfolk had sought refuge. Only the women were allowed to leave carrying whatever they considered most precious of their possessions. At that each woman loaded her husband onto her back.(L’echo de la Mode. France.)
Empress Josephine wife of Napoleon was once giving a party to which she heard that a woman she detested also would be present. Having been informed that the guest would, for the occasion wear a dress of deep green she hastily redecorated her drawing room in a shade of blue that would make her dress seem vulgar and gaudy.( E.A Rheinhardt-“Josephine, the wife of Napoleon.)
Philospher Herbert Spenser (1820-1903)remained a bachelor by default: he could not find one suitable. His well meaning friends for long tried to pair him off with their candidates without success. At last one woman who they described as having not only beauty but a great mind was introduced to the great man. After spending several hours in her company the philosopher informed his matchmaker that she was undoubtedly beautiful. As for her great mind he found it was ‘a small mind in constant activity.’
During rehearsal Laurette Taylor (1884-1946) was told by the director,”This is your scene, Miss Taylor and I feel you should have the centre of the stage for it.”
She replied with her characteristic hesistant tone,”You know, this may seem odd to you but I always thought where I was- that was the centre of the stage.”( Guthrie Meclintic(?)- Me and Kit-Little, Brown)
When Helen Hayes, the actress addressed the Senate on a bill to admit refugee children to the U.S.A one senator heckled her,”Do you mean to say you’d adopt a child unseen?”
The actress replied:”I never saw my own child until it was delivered.”(World Digest.)
The range of Eleonara Duse(1858-1924) as a dramatic actress was as astounding as her ability to live and breathe the role she currently played off stage as well. In Trieste she once played Odette and the dramatist Marco Prago found her sitting on the floor of her hotel room, tears running down her cheeks.
“What’s wrong?”he asked in alarm.
“Nothing,”she replied between sobs,”But tonight I am playing Odette and if I don’t cry a bit now, I shall weep too much in the fourth act.”
Eleonara Duse admitted no one to her dressing room during a performance except her personal maid. One when she was performing in Stuttgart, the king of Würtemberg wanted to visit her during the interval and sent a message in advance and she politely refused since ‘all visits shatter the illusion I need.’ Undeterred the king went and knocked on her door. Duse was adamant. The next day
She and her troupe were ordered out of the country.
Eleonara Duse was possibly goaded to excel herself by Sarah Bernhardt who was performing in Alexandre Dumas’latest play ’The Princes of Baghdad’ at Turin. She night after night watched her all the while learning from her. The day after the Divine Sarah left town she announced to her producer she shall not appear tomorrow except in the role her rival had triumphed. Finall she had her way and her performance was a success.
These two great divas were once in London drawing crowds and George Bernard Shaw after watching them praised Sarah for her beauty, skill and extra-ordinary personality and wrote thus,”Sarah Bernhardt… is always the same. She does not enter into the leading character, she substitutes herself for it. All this is precisely what does not happen in the case of Duse, whose every part is a separate creation.”
Mrs. Fiske, American actress
Once Margaret Anglin left this message stuck in the mirror in Mrs.Fiske’s dressing room. ’Margaret Anglin says Mrs.Fiske is the best actress in America.” Mrs.Fiske read it,added two commas, stuck it in an envelope and sent it back to Miss Angline. It read, ”Margaret Anglin,says Mrs. Fiske, is the best actress in America.”
Dorothy Parker(1893-1967)critic and humorist once bumped into a lady in the doorway of ’21’. She stepped back and motioned for for Dorothy to exit first, saying,”Age before beauty.” Pat came her retort,”Pearls before swine”as she went out.
Dorothy once owned an isolated country house. Asked if she could describe it in two words she said,”Want it?”
Dorothy Parker was once at a dinner honouring a governor. During the speeches a man next to her let out a belch and showed his embarrassment. She leant over to whisper,”Never mind. I’ll let the governor to pardon you.”
At a party she was asked by a bore if she had her ears pierced. She murmured,”No but I have often had them bored.”
Danseuse Yvette Guilbert(1865-1944) the subject of countless sketches, paintings and posters by Toulose Lautrec, was once savaged by Sarcey a formidable critic of the day and she forced her way into his study. She said,”You are an insolent cad…“.
“I regret,”he said and pointed to a pile of papers that needed to be filled before noon,”and if we have no more to say to each other…”
At this the fiery tempered danseuse seized the brass inkstand and overturned it on the sheets saying,”they were to be dirtied, they are dirtied.”
Germaine Coty, wife of Rene Coty the former president of the French Republic was a warmhearted lady. On the night her husband was elected as the President the hall-porter fell on her neck,”Oh madame! We are so happy…. but also sad to see you leaving us.” “Yes,”Mme Coty sighed,”to think that I have ordered fuel for the whole winter!” That remark endeared her instantly to the French houswives who could count on her as one of them.
Madame de Staël(1766-1817)
Germaine de Staël, the French writer called on Napoleon Bonaparte one day and insisted on seeing him. His orderly told her that the Citizen-General was in his bath. ”That is unimportant,” she exclaimed,”Genius has no sex.”
When Napoleon told Madame.de Staël that women had no business being interested in politics, she replied,”In a country where women have been decapitated, it is only natural for other women to ask why?”
Seated between the beautiful Mme.Recamier and the plain Mme. de Staël, the astronomer Lalande said,”How happy I am to find myself between beauty and wit.”
“And without possessing either,”came her prompt reply.

Read Full Post »

This was Sir Carol Reed’s second collaboration with British screenwriter Graham Greene (after The Fallen Idol (1948)) – a clever and original mystery tale simply evoked by one sentence written by Greene: “I saw a man walking down the Strand, whose funeral I had only recently attended.”

The Third Man is a decadent film pure and simple. Before we consider the film in cinematic terms the only reason for being here, we may look at the basic premise of the film: nations are corrupt of which war is a sure sign as much as the murder of an individual for some monetary gain is symptomatic of the darkness of the soul of man.
The story begins with a spoken prologue (“I never knew the old Vienna, before the war. . .”). The shattered postwar city has been divided into French, American, British and Russian zones, each with its own cadre of suspicious officials and it is ample proof with regards to the corruption of man collectively that I stated above. Into this sinkhole of intrigue comes Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), alcoholic author of pulp Westerns. He has come at the invitation of his college chum Harry Lime. But Lime is being buried when Martins arrives in Vienna. Martins, an American is well meaning but bumbling innocent who does not realize what a murky world he has stumbled into.
How did Lime die? That question is the engine that drives the plot, as Martins plunges deeper into the labrinth of unrelieved moral depravity. ( Perhaps the superb score ‘Harry Lime theme’ played on a zither by Anton Karas was aesthetically necessary to lighten the mood). Where the opening shots show the ‘Blue Danube’ is anything but blue what with a corpse floating among other things we see the climatic shots in a sewer. One may draw conclusion that the film is a kind of descent into hell and it is so.
I suspect the shots mostly used in this film have to do with a world out of joint: more shots are tilted than are held straight; there are fantastic oblique angles. Wide-angle lenses distort faces and locations. And the bizarre lighting makes the city into an expressionist nightmare. (During a stakeout for Lime, a little balloon man wanders onto the scene, and his shadow is a monster three stories high). Choice of Vienna was right on. The action fits the city like a hand slipping on a glove.
Let me get back to the story.

How did Lime die? Martins needs to know and Calloway (Trevor Howard), the British officer in charge, bluntly says Lime was an evil man, and advises Holly to take the next train home. But Harry had a girl named Anna (Alida Valli), who Holly sees at Lime’s grave, and perhaps she has some answers. Certainly Holly has fallen in love with her, although his trusting Yankee heart is no match for her defenses.
‘The emotional heart of the movie is Holly’s infatuation with Anna, who will love Harry and be grateful to him no matter what she learns. The scenes between Holly and Anna are enriched by tiny details, as when they visit Harry’s apartment and she opens a drawer without looking–because she already knows what will be inside. Or the way she sometimes slips and calls Holly “Harry.” Everyone in the movie has trouble with names. Holly calls Calloway “Callahan,” and Dr. Winkle insists on “VINK-ell!” And the name on Harry Lime’s tombstone is wrong, too.
Then there are the faces: Joseph Cotton’s open, naive face contrasts with the “friends” of Harry Lime: the corrupt “Baron” Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch); the shifty Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto), the ratlike Popescu (Siegfried Breuer). Even the little boy with a rubber ball looks like a wizened imp. The only trusting faces are those of innocents like the hall porter (Paul Hoerbiger) who tells Holly, “There was another man . . . a third man. . .” and the beefy Sgt. Paine (Bernard Lee), Calloway’s aide, who levels the drunken Holly with a shot to the chin and then apologizes. Even the resident exiles are corrupt; Crabbin (Wilfrid Hyde-White), the head of the discussion group, chatters about culture while smoothly maneuvering his mistress out of sight through doors and up stairs.

There are two scenes unforgettable and cinematically most satisfying that I have relished many times over. Reed allows Orson Welles to make the most famous entrance in the history of the movies and the sequence is as follows: the meow of the cat in the doorway, the big shoes, the defiant challenge by Holly, the light in the window, and then the shot, pushing in, on Lime’s face, enigmatic and teasing, as if two college chums had been caught playing a naughty prank.
Next the famous speech comes during an uneasy ride on a giant Ferris wheel; at one point, Lime slides open the door of the car they are riding in, and Holly uneasily wraps an arm around a post. Harry tries to justify himself: ``You know what the fellow said: In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love–they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” The speech was an off- the cuff bravura delivery of Welles that adds to the film richly. Since then Welles was given a free hand to ad-lib lines and none of which are as memorable as this.

The chase sequence in “The Third Man” is another joining of the right action with the right location. Harry escapes into the sewer system like a cornered rat, and Reed edits the pursuit into long, echoing, empty sewer vistas, and closeups of Lime’s sweaty face, his eyes darting for a way out. Presumably there would be no lights in the Vienna sewers, but there are strong light sources just out of sight behind every corner, throwing elongated shadows, backlighting Harry and his pursuers’.(roger ebert, suntimes)
In the famous closing sequence, a bleak and uncompromising, unromantic ending (bookending the opening scene at the cemetery), Holly leans on a cart and waits on one side of the tree-lined cemetery road for Lime’s loyal, former lover Anna as she leaves Harry’s funeral on foot. Off in the distance, she is walking and approaching toward him down the empty avenue, first a dot, then a shadow, and then a full figure – in an extremely long-held stationary shot. As he seeks in vain for any response from her, she stoically ignores him and continues by, passing him without paying any attention – without a pause, a look, a word, or a gesture. Her defiant response is a simple judgment upon his betrayal of a friend, similar to the attitude of Harry’s unsociable cat. Holly follows her with his eyes, but she stares impassively ahead, walking out of his life and abandoning him. He lights a cigarette as the film fades out to black.

Reed fought with David O. Selznick, his American producer, who wanted to shoot on sets, use an upbeat score and cast Noel Coward as Harry Lime. Reed defied convention by shooting entirely on location in Vienna, where mountains of rubble stood next to gaping bomb craters, and the ruins of empire supported a desperate black market economy. And he insisted on Karas’ zither music (“The Third Man Theme” was one of 1950’s biggest hits). Anton Karas, who was playing in a Vienna beerhouse one night when Reed heard him. The sound is jaunty but without joy, like whistling in the dark. It sets the tone.
“The Third Man” is like the exhausted aftermath of “Casablanca.” Both have heroes who are American exiles, awash in a world of treachery and black market intrigue. Both heroes love a woman battered by the war. But “Casablanca” is bathed in the hope of victory, while “The Third Man” already reflects the Cold War years of paranoia, betrayal and the Bomb. The hero doesn’t get the girl in either movie–but in “Casablanca,” Ilsa stays with the resistance leader to help in his fight, while in “The Third Man” Anna remains loyal to a rat.
Holly Martins: Joseph Cotten Anna Schmidt: Alida Valli Maj. Calloway: Trevor Howard Harry Lime: Orson Welles Porter: Paul Hoerbiger “Baron” Kurtz: Ernst Deutsch Dr. Winkel: Erich Ponto Popescu: Siegfried Breuer Old Woman: Hedwig Bleibtreu Sgt. Paine: Bernard Lee Crabbin: Wilfrid Hyde-White

Directed by Carol Reed. Produced by Alexander Korda, Reed and David O. Selznick. Screenplay by Graham Greene. Photographed by Robert Krasker. Music by Anton Karas. Edited by Oswald Hafenrichter. Running time: 104 minutes.
The black and white, pessimistic film is one of the greatest British thrillers of the post-war era, in the best Alfred Hitchcock tradition, and beautifully produced and directed by Carol Reed. It was voted the #1 British Film of the 20th Century by the esteemed British Film Institute (BFI). It was co-produced by Hungarian-born Alexander Korda and American movie mogul David O. Selznick. Because Korda gave American distribution rights to Selznick (who cut eleven minutes from the original British version), the credits of the US version include Selznick references.
For the movie buffs here is 2 cents worth: Welles and Joseph Cotton earlier teamed up in Citizen Kane 1941 and in The Magnificent Ambersons-1942: Welles wrote and directed Joseph Cotton.
(Ack: Tom Dirks, Eberts)
compiler: benny

Read Full Post »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,882 other followers