The tale of the Blue Beard is nothing new. Remember the Arabian nights? King Shahryar was one but the Thousands and one Night tales surrounding his heinous crime detract us from it. Days of king of kings behaving badly are gone. In a dog eat dog world of capitalism it is all profits that make man horny. Lately we read how one pizza company torched a rival company for a larger profit margin. Killing for money is the sign of the times. Insider trader from Goldman Sachs or from Citibank we have men who forget themselves by the lure of gold. Less luckier ones need make do with francs and centimes. There is so much in life so beautiful, acme of perfection and ultimate in Nature’s simplicity. These are all free and yet how many do you think turn man on or make him laugh at comedy of life? These days profits make him laugh as never before.
During the WWI there was a French man Henri Désiré Landru who lost his Gallic humor for once. To be precise whenever he proposed matrimony through classified ads. In such brutal world of centimes and euros what humor one might find except of the blackest hue? Of course he lost his head in the end. Monsieur Verdoux was released in 1947 even this day sounds black and is in keeping with the bleak future capitalism bodes for you and me.
With this comedy of murders Charles Chaplin signaled his definite break with the Tramp persona. Chaplin then wrote, directed, and starred in Monsieur Verdoux himself. The real facts are not clear but the credits give Orson Wells as the source for the idea. It is an outstanding film the Chaplinesque genius rather clouded by irrelevant particulars that have no bearing on the film. There was a paternity suit against him which he won and of course for the American Right who were sharpening their knives for another wave of Red Scare he was like a red flag. Naturally the film bombed at the box office, his first financial loss.
“Von Clausewitz said that war is the logical extension of diplomacy; Monsieur Verdoux feels that murder is the logical extension of business.” Verdoux (Chaplin), a mild-mannered family man of pre-war France, has hit upon a novel method of supporting his loved ones. He periodically heads out of town, assumes an alias, marries a foolish, wealthy woman, then murders her for the insurance money. He does this thirteen times with success, but wife #14, brassy Martha Raye, proves impossible to kill (nor does she ever suspect what Verdoux has in mind for her). A subplot develops when Verdoux, planning to test a new poison, chooses streetwalker Marilyn Nash as his guinea pig. She tells him so sad a life story that Verdoux takes pity on her, gives her some money, and sends her on her way. Years later, the widowed and impoverished Verdoux meets Nash once more; now she is the mistress of a munitions magnate. This ironic twist sets the stage for the finale, when Verdoux, finally arrested for his crimes and on trial for his life, gently argues in his own defense that he is an “amateur” by comparison to those profiteers who build weapons for war. “It’s all business. One murder makes a villain. Millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify…” Sentenced to death, Verdoux remains calmly philosophical to the end. As the condemned man walks to the guillotine, a priest prays for God to have mercy on Verdoux’s soul. “Why not?” replies Verdoux jauntily. “After all, it belongs to him.”
It is a classic performance by Mr. Chaplin, dapper and silver-haired, and he is fitly supported by a good cast, headed by Martha Raye. Miss Raye, as the most obnoxious and indestructible of the wives, is howlingly funny.
You shouldn’t miss “Monsieur Verdoux.”(NY Times-Bosley Crowther-july 4,1964)
The Prosecutor: Never, never in the history of jurisprudence have such terrifying deeds been brought to light. Gentlemen of the jury, you have before you a cruel and cynical monster. Look at him!
[all heads turn to face Verdoux, who turns around himself to look behind]
The Prosecutor: Observe him, gentlemen. This man, who has brains, if he had decent instincts, could have made an honest living. And yet, he preferred to rob and murder unsuspecting women. In fact, he made a business of it. I do not ask for vengeance, but for the protection of society. For this mass killer, I demand the extreme penalty: that he be put to death on the guillotine. The State rests its case.
Judge: Monsieur Verdoux, you have been found guilty. Have you anything to say before sentence is passed upon you?
Henri Verdoux: Oui, monsieur, I have. However remiss the prosecutor has been in complimenting me, he at least admits that I have brains. Thank you, Monsieur, I have. And for thirty-five years I used them honestly. After that, nobody wanted them. So I was forced to go into business for myself. As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you all… very soon… very soon.
and here is a gem:“I love women” Monsieur Verdoux says “but I don’t admire them at all”.
Chaplin was subjected to unusually hostile treatment by the press while promoting the opening of the film, and some boycotts took place during its short run. At one press conference to promote the film, Chaplin made his speech, then invited questions from the press with the words “Proceed with the butchering”.
*In 1964, Chaplin allowed Verdoux to be re-released along with several Chaplin films to play at the New York Plaza as part of a Chaplin film festival. The film was not only the biggest hit of the entire festival, but it broke box-office records for the Plaza.(wikipedia)
running time-124 min, black and white,USA
Archive for the ‘Italian films’ Category
The above still shows Renoir’s style to give spatial depth by which the interaction of characters add to the drama. Free grouping in space ( simultaeneously foreground and background groups or single character in relaton to the others). Such staging allows interaction between foreground and actions on the background. In this scene where Octave brings airmen Jurieu for the weekend at La Coliniere there is a painful silence. The guests are aware of the gossip linking the dashing airman to the Marquise who bravely tries to explain her part in making Jurieu a national hero. In the backdrop we see the nervous Marquis Robert who knows the truth and is apprehensive if his wife would be able to pull it off.
Camera by continuously tracking, panning, re-framing allows Renoir to compose the shots in terms of time and movement. Renoir and Bunuel are two directors that I can think of who prefers mid-shots to close-ups. Closeups and point-of-view shots are rare.
By way of preface Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1946) is about theater. From the first repeated three knocks where the curtain goes up we are given to look into the lives of certain personages who are caught up in the currents where their lives entangle with the rest. Most of these are living on the edge- criminals, actors, prostitutes and beggars. The title ‘children of paradise’ clearly indicates they are the stars and their lives are as fascinating and rich whether they for the price of two centimes wish to be the purveyors of lives unfolding before them or boo the actors off the stage if annoyed. Theater within a theater as a form helps us to examine reality and wish fulfillment as relevant to people regardless of class or wealth. What they get to see at Theatre des Funambules may be stock Italian comic characters, fantastic props and situations but they can still hitch their humdrum lives to it.
Before narrating a great scene I shall quote the dialogue between two actors who have had their first taste of emoting before the footlights. Both have been preparing their lives for this break and they have the satisfaction that they did rather well.
Baptiste the mime speaks about the gods who crowd nightly to see their performers, thus:
Yes they understand every thing.They are poor people, but I am like them. I love them. I know them well. Their live are small, but they have big dreams…”
As an actor a mime he duly acknowledges he owes his art to them. Unless he hobnobs with them in their natural haunts and see life as performed by them in their unguarded moments he would be lost.
This explains why he stepped out mysteriously in the night causing the other actor to describe him ‘a real alley cat, Monsieur Baptiste!’
Baptiste’s solitary walk takes him to the scene with Fil de Soie the blind beggar beautifully essayed by Gaston Modot.
The beggar wonders why he is walking on tiptoe. Baptiste has no money to give him but he walks just the same he wants to see everything. Soon the mime and the beggar warm up to each other. The beggar shall treat him that night. They go to the next door, to the seedy ‘Robin Roundbreast’. The beggar says,’You who like to learn things, this’ll amuse you.’
Soon we see the blind beggar is as much surprised what happens there as the mime. The beggar who considered the street as his beat learns a few lessons he never thought possible. Even in low haunts life springs surprises for those have ‘eyes’ to see. The scene where Baptiste realizes the beggar is not really blind is beautifully shown.
Close shot of Baptiste still stupefied with astonishment. Then shot of both of them, Baptiste three quarters back view. The waiter brings two glasses and a bottle.
The beggar says,” You can’t believe your eyes, can you, actor? Smiling.But it is very simple. Outside I am blind…incurable and in here I am cured.. It is a miracle isn’t it?” There is another great acting when the Old clothes man approaches them. Fil de Soie as if by reflex turns away from the mime not to compromise his companion. The beggar then finds that he need not have worried. Jericho knows the actor and they have no love lost between them.
The two scenes at the Robin Redbreast is a key to understand the core value of the film. Art of theater and of course film, is enriched by life. Rich or poor is besides the point.
(ack:classic film scripts/pub:Lorrimer publishing Ltd.,-1968)Baptiste
The Third Man-1949
Here I shall give three scenes which stay on mind.
The American pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has come to bombed-out, post-war Vienna on the invitation of his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) but is told of his death under most mysterious circumstances. One night, Martins becomes aware of a figure in a doorway on the opposite side of the apartment of Lime’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). He spots her cat meow loudly. The animal rubs itself at the feet of the silent, motionless figure in the shadows of a doorway. Harry can see the big shoes of the figure picked out by slanting light. A mystery figure and he defiantly calls out to the figure to come out and reveal himself. Then, Holly momentarily and suddenly sees Harry, the ‘third man’ himself.
A light from an upstairs window briefly illuminates the figure’s face, shining straight across the street. The sight of the teasing, smiling face of his friend staring back at him packs a punch in the somber mood of the film. It lights up briefly Holly’s confused mind at a loss to explain the sudden demise of his friend. Amazed to see Harry still alive the viewer is given jab into sides hinting he being alive could only mean there is something evil in the air. Holly is startled and then the light is extinguished. Before Holly can reach his friend, a car approaches and blocks his path. The figure makes off and vanishes to the sound of retreating footsteps in the dark. Holly finds the doorway empty by the time he crosses the street.
Another scene that stays in my mind is the meeting of Lime and Holly atop a Ferris wheel above the Russian sector. In the light of the day, Lime emerges and greets Holly with a bemused look: “Hello, old man, how are you?” They both ride high above the ground on the ferris wheel that is still operating in the midst of the dark city – it is the last ride of Holly’s symbolic childhood. As they rise higher in the car which they have all to themselves, Harry shows how uncaring he can be about Anna’s predicament after betraying her to the Russians: “What can I do, old man? I’m dead, aren’t I?” Harry explains how he doesn’t wish to be a hero:
What did you want me to do? Be reasonable. You didn’t expect me to give myself up…’It’s a far, far better thing that I do.’ The old limelight. The fall of the curtain. Oh, Holly, you and I aren’t heroes. The world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories.
Holly confronts Harry with his disgust at his racketeering and corruption (the light side exposing the dark side) and how he has already informed the police and Anna about Harry’s charade and disappearance. Harry claims immunity in the neutral zones of Vienna. Knowing of his cynical dealings on the black market, Holly asks if he has ever seen any of his victims – children who populate the hospital wards [in a city and amusement park desolate of playful, happy children]. Harry looks contemptuously down from the ferris wheel at the scuttling mortals below, cheerfully calling the people unrecognizable “dots” from the height of the ride:
Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. (He opens the door to the car.) Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax. The only way you can save money nowadays.
They reach the very top of their ride on a child-oriented attraction, and for a few ominous moments [in a very different kind of amusement-thrill ride], Harry threatens Holly. He contemplates executing his uncooperative friend and making him one of the “dots” below because he is the only one with living proof of his existence: “There’s no proof against me, besides you.” Harry suggests that he could easily shoot him – a bullet hole in a corpse that had fallen from so high up in the wheel would not be found. Holly wraps his arm around a door frame and clutches it for protection:
Holly (looking out the window): I should be pretty easy to get rid of.
Harry: Pretty easy.
Holly: I wouldn’t be too sure.
Harry: I carry a gun. You don’t think they’d look for a bullet wound after you hit that ground.
But Holly counters the threat by mentioning that the police are already on his trail – they have dug up the corpse and discovered it wasn’t him but Harbin. Harry is startled that the body of his cohort has been disinterred and his voice suddenly drops. As the car starts its journey downward, Lime closes the door, discards his deadly plan to dispose of Holly, and then compares himself to governments:
Harry: Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs – it’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans, so have I.
Holly: You used to believe in God.
Harry: Oh, I still do believe in God, old man. I believe in God and Mercy and all that. But the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here, poor devils. (He traces Anna’s name and the image of a heart with an arrow through it on the window of the car.) What do you believe in? Oh if you ever get Anna out of this mess, be kind to her. You’ll find she’s worth it.
When they reach the end of their ride and exit the ferris wheel on the ground, Lime offers his boyhood pal a partnership in his illicit business:
Holly, I’d like to cut you in, old man. There’s nobody left in Vienna I can really trust, and we’ve always done everything together. When you make up your mind, send me a message – I’ll meet you any place, any time, and when we do meet old man, it’s you I want to see, not the police. Remember that, won’t ya? Don’t be so gloomy. After all, it’s not that awful. Remember what the fellow says:
Then, he smugly delivers his famous and cynical monologue ad libbed by Welles and exactly in line with the whole mood of the film. The amoral Lime cynically justifies his black market criminal activities by recognizing that despite appearances, good and evil (black and white, peace and war, up and down, etc.) are complementary concepts. He puts his thesis in historical context:
In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed – but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.
The final closing sequence of the film is just as memorable: Holly leans on a cart and waits on the tree-lined cemetery road for Lime’s former lover Anna as she leaves Harry’s second funeral on foot. Off in the distance, she is walking and approaching toward him, 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. Holly follows her with his eyes, but she stares impassively ahead, walking out of his life. He lights a cigarette as the film fades to black.
The primary conflict in his films battle between sexual attraction and the particular state of being of individuals as part of society. An individual has a social position that pulls him in a certain way whereas his sexual attractions might direct him in another. Forbidden Paradise,Cluny Brown,
The Love Parade, Merry Widow and the Student Prince.
In films like Marriage Circle,Lady Windermere’s Fan,So This is Paris,One HourWith You,Angels the character felt their marriages and desires coming in conflict. In Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be political beliefs pull one way,passion another. In Trouble in Paradise the thief finds his vocation coming in the way of desire.
He simply handled the explosive subject of sex in such ironic and clever ways to take all the passion out of it and turn sex as in the matter of intellect. He could in his silent films convey while shooting of two persons in the same room how they felt for one another with the agency of inanimate articles buttons,mirrors, gloves or hats. Whereas in his sexual comedy he made the sound track and the picture work in opposition. In The Love Parade Maurice Chevalier tells a risque anecdote-if the camera stays outside a window and reveals him telling about an incident that we cannot hear we make up in imagination the words he must be saying. In Merry Widow we see Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald at a cafe table and the camera doesn’t stray below the table and is above the table cover and on them. Only MacDonalds,’Stop that’,and ‘Don’t do that’ inform us what is going on beneath the table. What we cannot see is left for us to imagine. In the film Angel Lubitsch conveys the essential yet delicate information that the Grand Duchess’ ‘salon’ is merely an euphemism for brothel. He doesn’t show customers or girls working there but he manages to treat an explosive subject without unduly drawing attention to it. He flouted the silly Hollywood Code whenever necessary. Lubitsch showed that sex was merely one kind of an activity between the extreme views advocated by Hollywood: sex destroys or Sex is nonexistent.
The Studio Years by Gerald Mast
(notes taken from the essay as titled above.b)
The System came up along the slow evolution of cinema as an art. In 1916 Adolph Zukor( Famous Players-Lasky company) assumed control over Paramount distributing company. In 1924 Marcus Loew set up MGM studio with Louis B.Mayer as head of Production. By 1925 the Warner Brothers Company,the Columbia Pictures Corporation,Universal Pictures and the Fox company had been set up.
Like the production of Ford motor cars out of Detroit the heads of the Production planned an entertainment factory from which a large number of goods(films) of consistent and dependent quality were to roll out without any snarl. Like any factory, guiding principle of a studio was division of labor, by which each department contributed to the whole. Writers, actors,technicians and mechanics were all part of it. Studio publicity was another that pitched the finished product to the public. Time saving devices were more welcome than inspiration a human quality that made writers or stars at time excel themselves from their usual. There was a front office that planned the year’s production,managed all the budgets and kept the assembly line smoothly running.
Introduction of sound system meant a bigger financial out lay that only big studios could afford. Conversely it made the studio more rigorous with their production costs. The informality of early silent films was gone and in the complicated technically savvy world of dream factory nothing was left to chance or human tantrums. The stars emoted come what may according to detailed shooting scripts that went dead against the intent of the author and script writers who still nursed certain literary integrity. Their principles and feelings had been bought by the studio when they signed the carefully worded contracts prepared by their lawyers. The studios had also battery of legal firms that helped them to control the production all along the line.
From 1930 to 1945 the Studio system reigned supreme.
When films found their feet among masses the need was to produce more while the demand was very strong. With the crash of 1929 and lives of men growing desperate, films as an escape from everyday circumstances were real. Those who produced them knew they had to account for every cent they spent. They knew the commercial need for large quantities could only be justified when these were of good quality and technically competent and also were entertaining. After the World War II the studio system died when television came into vogue. It brought entertainment right into homes of Everyman. There was no more need for such quantity as the studio system planned for a year.
The Hollywood Studio system was uneven. Take two giants as MGM and Paramount studios. In the former Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg had much more control than the other . Paramount was a studio of directors and writers-Ernest Lubitsch, Joseph von Sternberg,Cecil B. DeMille and Billy Wilder. This also had such names as WC Fields and Mae West. MGM was the studio of stars- Greta Garbo Jean Harlow Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. MGM inherited the Marx brothers and made their zany chaotic routine fit with their intricate production numbers and trite plot and the result was lacklustre. Similarly Buster Keaton was flattened out when MGM took control. In the 1930s the MGM policy seemed wiser of the two. Audiences treated MGM films as the most impressive and artistic of their day and Paramount’s chaotic individuality ran the studio into severe financial difficulties and imposed restructuring of the studio in 1935 . Paramount lost in the process WC Fields Marx Brothers to name a few. Today the MGM films look flat and dead besides the exuberant vitality of Paramount’s.
The studios also differed in the genres they handled. RKO was remarkable for the smooth comedies with Cary Grant,and both the adventure films and comedies directed by Howard Hawks.Warner Brothers was most remarkable for its gangster,musicals and biographies. 20th Century Fox excelled in historical and adventure films directed by John Ford,Tyrone Power,Henryhathaway,Henry King. Universal excelled in the horror films-Frankenstein,Dracula,WolfMan, and the comedies of WC Fields.
Most directors were staff directors-competent,proficient and unimaginative technicians who took every script the received ,shot it and then passed the footage along to the editing department for shaping into its final form. There were exceptions to these those who were to individualistic that they like great stars could do films for other studios other than the ones thy had signed their contract. Walt Disney and Charley Chaplin worked for themselves. Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and Clair made films for the studios and were imported from abroad. Maurice Stiller, Orson Welles( destroyed by the studio) couldn’t work within the system. Then there are directors like Lubitsch, von Sternberg, Hawks,Ford,and Capra who were products of the system and could work within it. In order to do their own Ford and Hawks had to make a number of mediocre films. These great directors avoided the Hollywood clichés and infused so much life about them to give the cliches a fresh cast and color.
Ernest Lubitsch for example could avoid formulas of what to say and how to say it. He even enjoyed playing with them. Central Lubitsch subject was sex, something that the studio system accepted as a necessary evil. In 1933 the formal code was to eliminate sex from the movies. In the studio years a woman was pure or fallen and a gentleman either faithful or a rake. Lubitsch could show that even faithful husbands have their rakish streak and women were not statues but women with powerful drives of their own. In an era of plaster-cast idealism of American male his cynicism was not as grotesque or bitter as of Erich von Stroheim.
On the whole studio system helped great many directors hone their skills and learn the craft. It was a liberating experience for them to make some good films if not the films that we treat as classic films. Mervyn LeRoy din’t direct a film as The Graduate of Mike Nichols. LeRoy made more films between 1930 and 1933 than Mike Nichols will make in a lifetime.
About the system there are two opposite critical opinions. The system created a very clear tension between art and commerce. Art defies mass production and assembly lines.The system bred popular entertainment, a myth as people who lapped up everything that flashed in front of their eyes. They were in awe of the stars, the glamor and the glossy perfection of a system that made the problems of life go away at least for a short while. The system played upon the wishes and dreams of the masses : the poetic justice worked too well and the crime paid in the end. Optimism of the good despite of every bad thing that visited them and reward of suffering the greed of crooked bankers, politicians gave them a false sense of American idealism as distinct from the way things worked in Europe. In a sense the system played too safe to displease public opinion and the powerful lobbies.(in the way the Motion Picture industry handled the Hollywood Ten during the Red Scare of 1947 one cannot miss fear of commerce than morals among the studio heads. They created a blacklist of their own.) The system stoked the gullibility of the masses and made them participants of a communal experience and a religious affirmation of the society. Such optimism which we see now by hindsight was based on misplaced naivete. Most films produced under the system are more interesting sociologically than aesthetically. The system ironed out what it considered as
too individualistic and no wonder MGM could not stomach WC Fields who,ripped up the sentimental cliches of propriety,Protestant ethics, or Marx Brothers who ridiculed high finance,higher education democracies and everything that the studio bosses held in mortal awe.
Notes made from Griffith to Eisenstein and Back-Peter A. Dart
Griffith and Eisenstein stand out in the history of modern motion picture as two giants, both were innovators who advanced the basic form and structure of motion pictures.Both came to films from theatre backgrounds.
Griffith’s influence on Eisenstein and V.I Pudovkin, Lev Kuleshov. But how much has Eisenstein influenced American film form?
Films of 1908 when Griffith began directing motion pictures films were crude: 10 minutes in length one reelers were made cheaply and sold cheaply to mass audience.In six years Griffith mastered the craft He realized Edvin S. Porter had only understood partially the basic storytelling . He shot one individual scene and edited, arranged in context of other shots. Griffith realized he could photograph each part of the scene with the final arrangement in mind, These details could then be arranged successively by which the audience could make their inferences. It involved them as well. In 1908 the scenes were shot as though film was like a stage play transferred into film. The close-up was unheard of. But Griffith began moving his camera for closer shots. He also tried extra shots of the surrounding locale for ‘atmosphere’. In case of dense action like a battle or a chase he used long shots or extremely wide angle shots. He began to move the camera while it shot a scene. Iris mask to block out extraneous details were also used by him. Selection of a scene arrangement of shots keeping in mind tempo pace rhythm and action added to the story telling new richness. Parallel cutting was the next innovation where two scenes one after the other giving an impression both were happening simultaneously. Emotional impact of two scenes was that the sum of parts were greater than the whole scene. Each scene resonated in the minds of the audience and gave emotional impact that was more than a straight story telling of Porter or other film makers before him.
Of his great films Intolerance(1916) had the greatest impact on Russian film makers.
Montage was the result.Montage of parallel scenes progressing where each detail of a scene though unrelated in its progression acquired a depth of its own:dynamic juxtaposition of these parts made them greater than single scene. Emotional, ideological and artistic power arising out of montage was the gift of Soviet film makers.’The school of Griffith before all else is a school of tempo. However he didn’t have the strength to compete with the young Soviet school of montage in the field of expression and of relentlessly affective rhythm.” Sergei Eisenstein
please refer pen portraits#46 for DW Griffith