In 1946, when Notorious was released, Alfred Hitchcock and stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman were at the top of their game. Since his first American feature, Rebecca, in 1940, Hitchcock had in the past six years made Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Spellbound (1945), among others. As for Grant, in the past half-dozen years he had starred in His Girl Friday (1940), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Penny Serenade (1941), Suspicion, Destination Tokyo (1943), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and Night and Day (1946). And Bergman, having also just worked with the director on Spellbound, was primarily known for Casablanca (1942), Gaslight (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary's (1945). Now this is more than just a laundry list of excellent American films. When the trio was united for this Ben Hecht-scripted thriller, they were bringing with them a past marked by renowned and hugely popular movies. Notorious, to say the least, had a lot going for it. And boy does it live up to those expectations.

(Did I mention the film also costarred Claude Rains? He would receive his fourth Oscar nomination here.)

It’s a classic Hitchcock plot: Alicia Huberman (Bergman) is the daughter of a man convicted of treason against the United States. While she may not agree politically with her father, presuming that she would nevertheless have connections to his disreputable and dangerous associates living in South America, the US government, specifically agent T.R. Devlin (Grant), asks her to spy on the group. Perhaps she can infiltrate their circle and head off whatever plans are brewing. As luck would have it, one of the leaders of this shady assemblage is Alexander Sebastian (Rains), who just so happens to have had a fancy for Alicia. It’s perfect. She can get close to him, see what’s going on, and all’s well. Only it’s not. Alicia and Devlin inevitably fall in love; she’s reluctant to do everything her relationship with Sebastian might entail, and Devlin grows jealous at the thought of the same. In the middle of this are of course the familiar tropes of government secrets, suspense, spies, and sex. There is also the frequent Hitchcock device known as the “MacGuffin,” in others words, the item the characters are after but the audience doesn’t really care about.

Notorious has everything. It’s a masterfully crafted film, full of wit, intrigue, romance, and tension. There are at least three sequences in the picture that stand out among Hitchcock’s best (and that’s saying something given his body of work!).

As per the production code of the time, on-screen kisses could only be just so long. To undermine this, the perennially clever filmmaker mixes in the requisite kisses between Grant and Bergman with intimate moments of charged embracing, subtle glances, and seductive dialogue. Over the course of several minutes, Hitch doesn’t break the kiss code; he does so much more.

Technical virtuosity was also something noteworthy in nearly every Hitchcock film, and in Notorious we get a brief shot that is simply amazing in its execution. Bergman has secured a key crucial to the development of the plot. It’s a small feature, but it’s vital. To accentuate this, Hitchcock begins an elaborate crane shot from several feet in the air, hovering above a party. Gradually, the camera moves all the way down, through the crowd to ground level, and eventually concludes in a tight close-up of Bergman’s hand grasping the key. It’s a flamboyant maneuver that may not necessarily add anything to the characters or the story, but it’s a stylistic feature that adds considerably to the visual design of the film and the mechanical showmanship of Hitchcock.

Finally, there is arguably the most suspenseful moment of the film. Grant and Bergman have descended to Sebastian’s wine cellar. They know something is amiss down there, and it probably has something to do with the wine. Eventually they discover bottles with labels that don’t match the others. Grant browses through the bottles, while unbeknownst to him one is getting pushed closer and closer to the edge of the shelf. If that falls, the jig is up. The glass will shatter, someone might hear, and the contents will go everywhere. It’s pins and needles until … crash! But it doesn’t contain liquid at all. It’s some sort of mineral ore - this is the MacGuffin.

Notorious was another film I saw at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, and while I’ve always loved Hitchcock one really gets a sense of his skill when you see a film of his on the big screen with a crowd. It’s remarkable how, even after all these years, Hitchcock still commands his audience. The theater was brimming with anxiety, good humor, and rapt attention. During this wine bottle scene there was a palpable and audible sense of tension: squirms, gasps, the whole works. And many of these people, including myself, had seen the film before. We knew what would happen. But it’s still so powerful and effective. Hitchcock certainly knew what he was doing, and he did it better than anybody. 

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"Journey to Italy"


Roberto Rossellini had more than made a name for himself with the Neorealist trilogy of Rome, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948), all masterful works of post-war cinema, but his career began to take a notable shift in the decade that followed. Aside from taking new narrative and stylistic approaches, beginning with Stromboli in 1950 Rossellini also had a new leading lady, in real life and in his movies – Ingrid Bergman – and neither he nor she, nor their filmmaking career, would ever be the same.

Bergman was a great admirer of Rossellini’s work to this point. She expressed a desire to work with him, which she would first do in the 1950 production noted above. But a more than professional relationship developed and the two fell in love. Both were already married, and she became pregnant and decided to stay in Italy. This did not sit well with self-appointed moral superiors in America. She was, after all, the seemingly wholesome and innocent Oscar-winning star of Casablanca (1942), Gaslight (1944), Spellbound (1945) The Bell's of St. Mary's (1945) and Joan of Arc (1948). As the outrage spread amongst various religious and social institutions condemning their relationship, they carried on, and while their marriage didn’t last in the end, it did produce (along with daughter and future star Isabella Rossellini) some extraordinary films, including  Europa ’51 (1952), Fear (1954) and the film discussed here, Journey to Italy (1954).

With these films, Rossellini was starting to distance himself markedly from his Neorealist roots, occasionally to the surprised disappointment of critics. Journey to Italy was one of the first hints at the sort of modern cinema that was to develop even further as the decade went on. While later films by fellow countrymen Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni would soon be greeted as movies ushering in a whole new era of motion picture art, Journey to Italy was among the initial films to explore relationships and individual psychology in complex ways, with a more restrained and ambiguous presentation.

In an occasionally stolid yet at times deeply affecting fashion, the film follows husband and wife Alex and Katherine Joyce (George Sanders and Bergman) as they travel to Naples in order to arrange the outcome of a deceased relative’s villa. That goal has little to do with the plot of the film, however. Instead, we are more focused on the gradual disintegration and evolution of their marriage. Their animosity toward each other becomes clear early on, and it fluctuates as the picture progresses from subtle jabs at one another to all-out aggression. They go their separate ways at times, finding respite in solitude or in the company of others, but though they decide a divorce is the best course of action one gets the sense that they are not fully committed, that perhaps there is more to their marriage, and their arguments, than what’s shown on the surface. We see this is indeed the case near the end of the film, when two fascinating scenes test their feelings for each other. By being in these two particular places at the specific times they are, they are confronted by life and death in exceptional ways, and their characters and their ideas and plans are altered.

What places Journey to Italy into the “art film” or “modern” category is the way in which Rossellini presents the drama. Everything is extremely intimate. We are with these two at their most volatile and vulnerable. But at the same time, we’re not granted access to their innermost thought processes. Their feelings and subsequent actions are not always clear or fully explicated. We’re fascinated by Alex and Katherine, and we’re absorbed in their relationship, but we’re kept at a distance. In a way, while Journey to Italy takes place in what seems like a whole other world than that in Rossellini’s Neorealist works, it’s not totally unlike the objective stance taken in those war-time films. In fact, it may be even less manipulative and controlled (neither method is necessarily bad though). And in an approach similar to Antonioni’s so-called “Trilogy of Alienation” (L'avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L'eclisse (1962)) and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), Journey to Italy also comes across as being as much about contemporary society, culture and relationships, and the larger strains that affect all three, as it is about specific individuals.

Rossellini’s career would continue to shift in style and substance; he would return to war themes and settings, he made a docudrama in India, and later he did some extraordinary historically-based television projects. Bergman, who would also work with other international greats like Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman, was eventually welcomed back into the Hollywood and American community (her first film back in the US was Anastasia in 1956 and she won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance).

For me personally, Journey to Italy was one of 9 films I had the pleasant opportunity to watch at the recent Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival. While this included some great features (all of which I’ll be writing about over the next couple weeks), I find that I keep thinking about Rossellini’s film more than others. It wasn’t the best movie I saw at the festival, and it wasn’t the first time I saw it, but something about it has stayed with me, and I’m eager to see it again already. It’s a testament to the way in which Rossellini carefully crafts the film - one may not become immediately enraptured by the picture, given its pace, tone and lack of “action,” but the impact grows progressively and profoundly.  

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"I Know Where I'm Going!"

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, together known as The Archers, were rapidly growing to prominence in the British film industry by the time they made I Know Where I'm Going! in 1945. In a relatively rare move, then and now, the duo shared written, produced and directed by credit, though they each came from varied backgrounds of individual accomplishment. Powell had started working with Rex Ingram on silent productions and Pressburger wrote his first film in 1930. World War II brought them together, and film history would never be the same.

Pressburger was fleeing the Nazi rise to power and Powell was becoming cinematically involved with the British war effort. Their first collaboration was The Spy in Black (1939), a film starring Conrad Veidt, who was also getting out of Germany while the getting was good. The years that followed saw the release of such classics as The Lion Has Wings (1939), 49th Parallel (a film made in 1941, set in Canada, and at least partially designed to help nudge American involvement in the war), One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), a marvelous picture that caused considerable ire amongst the British military class due to its humorous depiction of wartime pomp and regulation. Just prior to I Know Where I'm Going! the two released A Canterbury Tale (1944), an ode to the people of the English countryside against the backdrop of war.

This penchant for the depiction of rural individuals and their natural surroundings was a major facet in The Archer’s output. Powell especially became enamored with the Scottish Isles, where most of I Know Where I'm Going! was shot. In this film though, the locale is much more than just a setting. It serves a pivotal role in terms of narrative and characterization, acting as a catalyst for the story’s unfolding and informing the mind, body and soul of the individuals presented.
The film stars Joan Webster as Wendy Hiller, an ambitious English woman who is set to marry a wealthy industrialist. She’s brash and has always been a self-determined and confident young lady. Her sense of certainty is thwarted, however, when she arrives at the island of Mull, hoping to board a ship bound for the island Kiloran where her beau awaits. The weather and the natural elements of the area do not cooperate though, and it puts a kink in her well-developed plans. With harsh conditions plaguing the region she has no way of getting across the water. She is stuck in a location and with people that are far removed from her background and her intentions. These are simple, unassuming and unpretentious people. They are careless in the best sense of the word, and they live their life unabated by the negatives of contemporary society and urban mores. While there, Joan meets Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), a naval officer and pillar of the community. He’s at home there and his home is very much a part of his character, in ways that she only gradually discovers. He quickly develops a fancy for the girl, but she is still set on her approaching wedding. As obstacles get in her way, she begins to change … in demeanor, thoughts, and feelings. She becomes less sure of where she’s going.

This is a magnificent looking film. Powell, who operated in the role of director within the duo, captures the location with great care and realism; it’s unadorned by any sort of artificiality, and this gives the imagery of nature’s fury a very strong sense of being a force to truly be reckoned with. Simultaneously, this attention to detail also coveys the beauty of the scenery: trees, grass, the wind, the water, everything vigorous and in perpetual motion.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was The Archers’ first color film, and a superb Technicolor picture it was, but it’s hard to imagine I Know Where I'm Going! in anything other than black and white. Its ethereal presentation of a place untouched by time seems all the more palpable in shades of grey. (Likewise, it’s unthinkable to picture some of their later works – the masterful Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) – in anything but vibrant color.) Another great color film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), which was actually shot in black and white and color, was the film Powell originally wanted to make at this time, but he could not apparently obtain the Technicolor cameras. I Know Where I'm Going! is by no means a paltry substitute.

In terms of performances, it’s Roger Livesey who for me carries the film. Livesey had to replace Laurence Olivier in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and the result was a simply astounding depiction of Clive Candy (the eponymous “Colonel Blimp”) as he ages from a strapping young man to an overweight, balding older gentleman. Here too his distinct voice and pure screen presence is something special and unique. An interesting bit of trivia found on imdb.com notes that “James Mason was originally cast as Torquil but declined when told he would have to ‘live rough’ in the islands. Ironically Roger Livesey never went to the islands because he was in a West End show at the time. A double was used for long shots and all close ups are shot in the studio.” This is a fascinating detail to keep in mind while watching the film, and it just goes to show how accomplished all involved were as filmmakers.

Powell and Pressburger would continue to work together until I’ll Met by Moonlight in 1957, before going their separate ways. The latter continued to write novels and screenplays (Pressburger would write They're a Weird Mob, which Powell directed in 1966.), and the former would make a handful of features, most prominently and notoriously his second solo effort Peeping Tom (1960), a great, great film that in many ways ended his career due to the ensuing scandal it caused.

The work of these two tremendously talented individuals was on the verge of being forgotten, despite their acclaimed films of the 1940s and 1950s, when younger filmmakers in the 1970s began to rally behind them and started calling attention to what were steadily being reevaluated as cinematic masterworks. The driving force behind this was Martin Scorsese, who was taken by The Archers’ films from a young age. He and others, like Francis Ford Coppola, gave new life to the output of Powell and Pressburger. Even if they never made films as good as their earlier productions, the fresh attention and the consequent reassessment of their work is incredibly significant and thankfully continues today. Emeric Pressburger passed away in 1988 and Michael Powell died two years later. He left behind widow Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor and another tireless champion of her late husband’s movies.

The Criterion Collection, that God-send to movie lovers, has treated many of these films exceptionally well, with several available on gorgeous Blu-ray and DVD transfers, all with the usual plethora of bonus features that only heighten what are already remarkable cinematic achievements.

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"To the Wonder"

When writer/director Terrence Malick released The Tree of Life in 2011 it was his first film since The New World, in 2005. It was also just his fifth feature since 1973. Then all of a sudden this reclusive, mysterious and profound if not prolific filmmaker had a follow-up in production for release the very next year. To the Wonder, which had its premiere in 2012 and has just recently received a wider distribution, is, to say the least, a complex picture, as with all of Malick's work, and it may be his most abstract film to date.

Essentially, the film follows Neil (Ben Affleck, in a nearly mute performance) as he struggles to maintain a relationship with, first, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a French woman with a young daughter whom he brings back to Oklahoma, then Jane (Rachel McAdams), a former lover who reenters his life once Marina leaves. Neither relationship runs smooth, and as with The Tree of Life, Malick intercuts the domestic strife with reflections on the world, on God (Javier Bardem as Father Quintana gives voice to these issues), on family and, most prominently here, on love. There's no real story to speak of. We're simply following these individuals as they go about their life, from setting to setting in one situation after another; some locations figure into the (loose) narrative, some seem to serve merely illustrative purposes.

"Merely" doesn't really do the imagery justice though. Just as he's become known for his oblique structural devices and his incomparable use of the voice-over, Malick is also a preeminent visual stylist. His compositions and camera maneuvers are breathtaking. One wonders how he captures such moments of splendor and transcendence, or how he even thought to film such imagery to begin with. To the Wonder has less of a conventional story than anything he's done before, but it is a sight to behold, and in most cases that's enough. 

To the Wonder has had its fair share of detractors. It has not been largely well reviewed to this point (notably, one of the most positive pieces on the film came from the late Roger Ebert – it was his last review). I can't help but feel this negative reaction isn't really a result of the film itself though. Had this been his first film in six years, perhaps it too would have received some of the laudatory praise that The Tree of Life did. I'll admit that the 2011 film is a better picture (it was my favorite movie from that year), but with a Malick film it almost seems as if too much of his distinctive and challenging style is a drawback for some. In small doses, they're able to accept his atypical narratives, theoretical divergences and formal boldness, but two films in two years...that might be pushing things (I think not). Given that two of its main characters also speak in foreign languages (and another minor character speaks in a third), it's also possible that the film may feel too much like a foreign film; certainly, portions of dialogue sound reminiscent of something by Godard, Resnais or Antonioni. This blending could prove troublesome for those used to a clear dividing line between American films and those from another country, and the cinematic attributes that go along with each. 

For me personally, I don't think To the Wonder will hold as high a ranking as The Tree of Life did by year's end. Frankly, I hope it's not the best film I see this year. But it's a worthwhile movie, an impressive work of art, and one that's going to be unlike anything else released anytime soon, or at least until the next Terrence Malick film. Amazingly, he does have three other projects currently in post-production, two with a 2013 projected release date. Too much Malick? Certainly not for me.

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"Crime Wave"

                                                          The first striking feature of Crime Wave, an excellent, low-budget 1954 release from Warner Brothers, is the sound. For a Film Noir, a type of film typically identified by its visual designs, this may seem unusual, but in many cases the aural attributes of these movies added an extra ingredient of formal quality and interest. This is what we have here. Crime Wave has all of the imagery one associates with Film Noir – the high contrast lighting, dark shadows, canted angles, etc. – but the sound is something unique. Many scenes are void of a complementary score or background music. Instead, we're presented sequences as if we were there, or at the very least as if the direct recording has simply been taken and immediately played back without any sort of technical manipulation. It gives the film an almost hollow quality, like we're in these unadorned rooms and offices, with no amplification, resulting in a bare, simple and extremely realistic atmosphere.

In terms of story, Crime Wave is Film Noir through and through. Ex-con Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) is trying to make a legit go of his new life. He's got a wife, Ellen (Phyllis Kirk), a decent job, and he's doing all he can to stay the course and avoid all reminders of his past criminal existence. But this is Film Noir, and fate frequently steps in to make sure that the best laid plans seldom meet expectations. For Lacey, everything starts when he gets a phone call, apparently from a former prison acquaintance. The blast from the past upsets Steve and Ellen (in Film Noir, the past is always ready for a reemergence and that usually means trouble), so when the phone rings again, he doesn't answer. This is unfortunate for Steve because as chance, luck or fate would have it, at the same time three men who just so happen to know Steve are robbing a gas station, shooting a police officer and assaulting an attendant. Steve's proximity to the area and his troubled history make him a possible suspect. If he's home, he probably didn't commit the crimes, but he may still board the crooks. Det. Lt. Sims (Sterling Hayden) has one of his men put in a call to the Lacey house, and that's when no one answers, and that's when Steve becomes a hunted and wanted man. This sets off a string of events where the true criminals are sought and Steve seeks to maintain his innocence and keep his distance from those seeking his illegal assistance.

Crime Wave was directed by André De Toth, a Hungarian immigrant who came to Hollywood in the early 1940s and made feature films and worked in television through the 1960s. Some projects were uneven, but he excelled in several high quality genre pictures, usually of the "B" variety – Westerns, crime films, thrillers, and horror (his most famous movie was probably the 3-D House of Wax, from 1953, a technical achievement all the more impressive when you know that De Toth only had one eye). Though made in 1952, Crime Wave would be the fourth film to carry his director credit released in 1954. With Hayden, the most famous performer in the film is Charles Bronson, acting as one of the hoods. Listed by his real name Charles Buchinsky he's barely recognizable at first.

Crime Wave is a remarkable little movie. It's a great example of the quickly crafted and artistically competent films Hollywood could produce in this period. Shot in just 13 days and with a running time of 73 minutes, it's a taut, sharp and entertaining picture; for the eyes and ears it's an arresting film, impressive from start to finish.

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Greta Garbo in "Queen Christina"


"What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober."

So said critic Kenneth Tynan in 1954. Not only is this one of the most incisive quotes about movie star allure, it seems to truly capture the essence that was and still is Greta Garbo. There is indeed something about this cinematic beauty, something that goes beyond her mere presence on the screen. There is something magical in watching Garbo: a mystery, an unidentifiable association, a breathtaking persona of utter captivation. Make no mistake though, and this is crucial, Garbo the actress was more than just looks. She was a fine performer and she had a powerful command of each and every frame she occupied.

Much of what made Greta Garbo such a prominent figure in cinema history is on display in her 1933 film Queen Christina. This was several years after her first American feature, Torrent, in 1926. Garbo is such a fixture in Hollywood iconography that it's sometimes easy, despite her accent, to forget that she worked to considerable acclaim in Sweden before this; her debut screen role was in a short called How Not to Dress in 1920. But it was after the one-two punch of Gösta Berlings saga (1924) and The Joyless Street (1925) that Garbo was promptly lured to Hollywood in an MGM deal that also brought with her Mauritz Stiller, the director of the former film.

Garbo benefitted from her exotic quality in these early American features, and her lack of English speaking didn't matter in silent film, so her star rose quickly. Then came Anna Christie in 1930, her first sound effort. How would she transition? So many stars of the silent screen had failed in the conversion, and some of them spoke the language just fine. The result … "Garbo Talks!" That's how Anna Christie was sold and it was a success. Her accented, husky, even somewhat masculine voice was fascinating and seductive. She ended up with a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance. What's more, she was also nominated the same year, in the same category, for Romance (1930). Welcome to Hollywood.

What followed were significant turns in classics like Grand Hotel (1932), Camille (1936 - Best Actress nomination #3) and Ninotchka (1939 - nomination #4). Her last film was Two-Faced Woman in 1941.

Coming back to Queen Christina though, this was Garbo at her most sexually ambiguous and daring (like Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, made three years previous, she too cross dresses and kisses another woman). Garbo stars in the titular role as the popular ruler of 17th century Sweden, a position she inherited from her equally admired father. All seems to be going well, but she soon begins to ruffle some feathers when she first opposes the incessant drive to conquer continuously and, second, when she refuses to show interest in her assumed would-be suitor Prince Charles Gustavus (Reginald Owen), a lauded war hero. Christina flees the throne for a while, just to get away from it all. Her hair reasonably short for a woman's, and dressed in innocuous attire, she is somehow presumed to be a man (!). In this guise, she ends up sharing a room with the Spanish emissary Antonio, played by John Gilbert in what was basically his last major role; after one more film he died of a heart attack in 1936. As they begin to disrobe for the evening, the jig is quickly up. Subsequently, of course, they fall in love. (Didn't he just think she was a man? No matter.) Christina does not, however, let Antonio know that she is the queen he is on his way to meet. That surprise comes later in the midst of a royal ceremony. When her love for Antonio is seen by some as a distraction, maybe even a disloyal fancy, things get complicated for Christina and she is essentially forced to choose between love and country.

Queen Christina is a richly romantic film, full of grand emoting and lush close-ups, carefully lit to accentuate Garbo's striking face. This is Hollywood's style in the golden age at its best. At the helm of the picture was director Rouben Mamoulian, a neglected figure in American film history. Applause (1929), his first film as director, was a pioneering work in early sound film production, where he contested the common notion that the camera couldn't move as effortlessly with the new, cumbersome sound equipment as it could in the silent days. His Becky Sharp (1935) was the first three-color Technicolor movie. In Queen Christina, he keeps the mobile camera and uses it to great effect throughout. He also crafts a notably textured backdrop for the film, its settings detailed and elaborate.  

In the end, in a testament to her cinematic impact, it is Garbo that captivates more than anything else. This isn't a knock on actors and actresses of equal or greater skill, but there is simply a notable impression made by performers who seem especially suited for the screen. Does it help that the star be attractive? Sure, there's that, but that's really only part of it. The camera likes them, and they radiate a force that is pronounced but oftentimes indescribable. And this is Greta Garbo. No matter the role, the quality of filmmaking, the setting or the costars, when Garbo is seen all else fades.

I get the sense there's a good deal of Garbo in Queen Christina. She too felt hounded by those around her, by the pressures and expectations of her profession. She seemed torn between work and a personal life and struggled to perhaps rise above a superficial obligation. A reputation for isolation would be misapplied to Garbo, and yet it only added to her mystique. As she noted, "I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 'I want to be left alone.' There is all the difference."

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Jean Renoir's "The Rules of the Game"

The masterful Jean Renior, the great humanist of the cinema, created not only his masterpiece with La règle du jeu, but also one of the few films to rival Citizen Kane as the greatest movie ever made. This film is just astounding. Everything about it is pitch-perfect. While it certainly wasn’t greeted with such praise, looking back now, had Renior not made any other films this picture would have alone secured his place in the annals of film history. To think that he did, indeed, make many more films, including the excellent La grande illusion, Les bas-fonds, Partie de campagne, The River, Elena et les homes, French Cancan, and La bête humaine—to name just some of my personal favorites—marks him as a seminal figure of the cinema.

La règle du jeu thrives on a culmination of all that the cinema had developed by 1939. The acting was first-rate, emotional and restrained, characters were individual and yet universal. The camera was now able to effortlessly glide from room to room, down corridors and mingling between people—we feel sometimes as if we are guests at the château location, simply happening upon the incidents shown. Editing was controlled, heightened only when necessary. And lighting reached a point of outstanding impact, adding to Renoir’s exceptional and influential use of depth of field.

A great instance of Renior’s superb ability to control a scene, to envision an ultimate design, comes near the end as, beginning first in one room, Lisette is trying to stop Schumacher from going after Marceau. Next, the camera follows them through a doorway, then to another room. They remain struggling stationary, the camera pulls back, racks focus, and then, quickly from frame right, Robert and André come bursting in, also fighting. It’s just a fantastic example of Renoir’s keen use of the long take, the mobile camera, and deep space. Many of his scenes, shot frequently down halls and through doorways, are also arranged in depth so that, within a single area, the camera is across the room while the action takes place at the far, other end. Early on we see this quite well as Octave is convincing Robert to invite André. The camera is placed away from the action, on the distant side of the room, and so in between we’ve got this frame of empty space, only irregularly filled with furniture and decoration; but aside from all of these material possessions, the room, like most of the characters, is empty. It’s additionally important to note the lack of close-ups in the film. They are few and far between and I’ve always looked at this as Renoir, while no doubt presenting some engaging characters, also wanting us to keep our emotions in check, to not connect too much with these petty bourgeois individuals.  

Renoir with this film also presents some remarkable physical comedy, clearly harkening back to one of his biggest idols, Chaplin. Look at Octave, the way he bumbles about (in a bear costume no less!) and Marceau, crawling around on the floor under tables, getting chased by Schumacher—it’s just great stuff. The dialogue too is chock full of some great lines:
Robert: “Corneille put an end to this farce.”
Corneille: “Which one?”
That sort of says it all.

Or, there’s the scene where Geneviève and Christine discuss Robert’s infidelities, which rather quickly turns to talk regarding evening wear. It’s a very smooth path Renoir takes to a cynical comedy. I also love the scene in the kitchen when the peanut gallery of cooks and servants mock the diets and indiscretions of the guests; little do they know at that point, however, just how close they are to be intertwined with them.

This brings me to the questions of the rules of this game. What are they? What is the game? To me, this game is obviously a frivolous one, one with clearly two sides (classes), a game that is based on manners and socioeconomic regulations (Speaking of Christine, “She is a society woman,” says Octave, “and society has strict rules”). But who can win? Can anyone win? Both sides seem incapable of separating themselves enough from the ideas or behaviors of their governing group to make a clear break. The upper class, especially, is so contained, so locked within their own world, that they are incapable of division. Take Christine. Only at the very end does she break from her class to accept Octave as her true love. But what does he do? He gives her up. They are both back to where they started. They are stuck. They don’t act progressively; they act out in other ways. Look at the film’s two main activities: a show, a masquerade (lest they have to face reality) and a hunt (a way of expressing the violence that they suppress, with innocence as the victim).

Renoir, perhaps particularly with this film, reminds me a lot of Jacques Tati. Both filmmakers, notably both French, were masters at being tender critics. They were pointed to human foibles and faults, to odd and irrational behavior, but they never belittled nor scathingly chastised. They took what life offered, for better or worse, presented it, and let it go, often with a smile, a sigh, and a “C'est la vie.” Even in his war-related films (La marseillaise, Le caporal épinglé, and of course La grande illusion are three good ones) Renoir presents many of the characters and their actions with a cultivated and sensitive fashion. The great and telling quote from La règle du jeu, crucially uttered by Renoir’s own Octave, says it perfectly: “Everybody has their reasons.” Even a nuisance like Boudu in Boudu sauvé des eaux is shown not totally void of sympathy. Renoir intended La règle du jeu to be, “A pleasant movie that would at the same time function as a critique of a society I condemned rotten to the core.” And certainly this comes across, but yet, as Renoir also noted, “The portrait of this society makes us love it … because this society has at least one advantage: It wears no masks.” The film is in many ways too clever to be nastily abrasive. While there is, to be sure, a clear agenda with this film, it doesn’t approach any sort of viciousness, most of Renoir’s work never does (La chienne, as the translation of the title sort of suggests, can be occasionally and frankly unpleasant, but even it has considerable comedy). But in the end, La règle du jeu is, as Amy Taubin writes, a “social satire that is devoid of cynicism and its companion, sentimentality, and that evokes compassion rather than contempt.” 

No less a filmmaker than Orson Welles called Renoir the “best director ever,” and Bernardo Bertolucci quite rightly remarked that Renoir’s films are “So close to life [yet] completely cinema.” Renoir is a great storyteller and a great creator of ingenious characters (“[I am] trying to discover human beings,” he once said), and at the same time his cinema is so totally enamored with the art form itself. Renoir’s films are the absolute most brilliant combination of pure narrative and technical virtuosity.