‘Foreign Correspondent’

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As if his British films weren’t evidence enough of his talent, Alfred Hitchcock made quite the impression when he came to Hollywood in 1940. His first picture in the states, Rebecca, was nominated for Best Picture at the 1941 Academy Awards. So was his second, Foreign Correspondent, also released in 1940. While Rebecca would ultimately win, many – then and now – consider the achievement as belonging more to producer David O. Selznick than to the director. This is not without some justification. Though Rebecca bears more than a few notably Hitchcockian touches, between the two features, Foreign Correspondent looks and feels more appropriately like Hitchcock’s previous and later works. The Criterion Collection, recently very kind to Hitchcock on Blu-ray, now gives this latter feature a suitably well-rounded treatment, with a documentary on the film’s visual effects, an hour-long interview with Hitchcock from The Dick Cavett Show, Joseph Cotten’s radio adaptation, an excellent essay by scholar James Naremore, and two features that focus on the film’s war-time resonance.

America had not yet entered World War II when Foreign Correspondent was released, and there’s more than a little insinuation – particular toward the end of the picture – that maybe it should. Set in Europe and following essentially just one American character, the propaganda isn’t as explicit as in films being made in more directly affected European countries at the time. Even though the movie opens with a dedication to real foreign correspondents (the “eyes and ears of America”), the audience is initially at a distance from the global troubles. There’s something happening Over There, and it’s probably not good, but for now, let’s just keep an eye on it. This is basically the sentiment of the New York newspaper editor Mr. Powers, played by Harry Davenport. He’s suspicious about this Hitler fellow, his rise to power, and the inevitable war that’s no doubt soon to follow. On the other hand, crime reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is less concerned. Asked what he knows about the crisis in Europe, he responds, “What crisis?” The editor needs a man in Europe reporting on the situation, but he doesn’t want someone sending out indefinite telegrams. He wants facts, not “a guessing game.” Despite his international ignorance, Jones might be the man for the job. He’s an average guy who recently beat up a policeman while covering a story (“Sounds ideal for Europe,” says Powers). He seems careless, but he’s apparently good at what he does.

Jones gets the assignment – give him an expense account and he’ll cover anything, he quips. Under the alias “Huntley Haverstock,” Jones first arrives in London to interview Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), a man who may hold the key to European peace talks. Van Meer is associated with the Universal Peace Party, which is headed by Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall). This being a Hitchcock film, and Hitchcock knowing that it often takes two to tango in thrillers (from The 39 Steps to Family Plot, an opposite-sex pair of protagonists is frequently prominent in his work), Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day), soon catches Jones’ eye. They exchange barbs and banter; they are, of course, clearly in love. Hitchcock somewhat recreates his proposal to his wife when Jones and Carol talk marriage as they’re huddled together during a cold, damp, and bumpy boat ride. In real life, when Hitchcock asked his wife to marry him she burped due to seasickness; he took that as a yes.

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Before he knows it, Jones is in Amsterdam and Van Meer is apparently assassinated in a wonderfully staged sequence that concludes with a swarm of umbrellas shot from above, enveloping the crime scene (Brian De Palma thought this overhead shot looked good, too; see The Bonfire of the Vanities). But when Jones, Carol, and a newfound colleague, ffolliott (George Sanders), follow the assassin into the countryside, the assailant’s car disappears. Jones investigates and discovers the real Van Meer hidden in a windmill. The captors escape with the hostage and Jones is left trying to convince others of what he saw. Fortunately, Carol believes him. However, unbeknownst to both of them at the time, her love and allegiance to Jones is going to get dramatically tested by a life – and a father – she previously thought she knew. Their relationship faces conflict as all involved attempt to unravel the mysteries of who’s up to what and to what aim. In the screenplay’s successful alternation between the points of view of Jones, Carol, and Fisher, emotional tension is well-integrated as the audience gradually knows more than each of the characters, and we’re left to suspensefully wonder when they too will ultimately get the full breadth of information.

Van Meer, for his part, knows something about a mysterious and apparently quite critical clause in the peace treaty, and that, as the famous Hitchcock “MacGuffin,” is what drives the film’s narrative on a basic, superfluous level. More important is the general scheming and suspicion surrounding those who make war, those who profit from it, and those who have the power to manipulate it. Jones is clearly in over his head in this world of foreign intrigue, but due in large part to Joel McCrea’s humorous charm, it’s tremendous fun to watch him go from the wrong man for the job to the man who knows too much.

Aside from McCrea’s nonchalant performance (it’s hard to imagine original choice Gary Cooper in the role), Foreign Correspondent also contains other strong comedic features throughout. There are more subtle bits of amusement, such as the menacing baddies being obvious stand-ins for Nazis, though the word “Nazi,” or even “German,” is never used. There’s also Alfred Newman’s jaunty score which, in the beginning, keeps the film happily and lightly moving along. And the sudden death of a complaining woman near the end of the film is one of Hitchcock’s funniest and darkest inclusions. Perhaps more than anything though, it’s George Sanders who comically steals the show. He’s not our main hero, but he might be the most entertaining and appealing; he blends a sharp wit with a degree of daring that Jones doesn’t quite possess.

Known for stunning set pieces and action sequences, Hitchcock takes to the skies for Foreign Correspondent’s most famous special effects spectacular. Even if you do inadvertently see studio lights, the film’s concluding plane crash is pretty remarkable. Hitchcock goes into some detail about this scene during the Cavett interview, which, with the director being hilariously droll, is the most insightful and enjoyable bonus feature included.

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Throughout the film, Hitchcock masterfully creates a number of other scenes that benefit considerably from their setting. The aforementioned assassination is brilliantly aided by the rain and necessary umbrellas, the search amidst the windmills gets much of its visual value from its unusual locale, and there are multiple scenes played out from great heights, all quite effectively shot (was Hitch already thinking of Vertigo?). In all of these sequences, the location is both visually striking and functional. It’s more than just a backdrop to the action: the umbrellas, the windmills, the hotel rooms, the towering cathedral each serve a crucial narrative purpose in addition to their cinematically potent presentation. Among his many other filmic talents, this use of place was one thing Hitchcock did better than almost anybody.

As informatively pointed out in “Hollywood Propaganda and World War II,” the interview with writer Mark Harris on this disc, the gestation of Foreign Correspondent did not begin with Hitchcock. The film was more the brainchild of maverick producer Walter Wanger. Ever socially and politically minded, Wanger took the film, which first got his interest in 1936, and added considerable topicality. The impending war in Europe was a hot-button issue in America prior to Pearl Harbor, with many feeling that isolationism was imperative. As production went on, Wanger did what he could to slightly sway this idea by bringing the film up to speed, with the latest real-world developments added when possible. This is generally minimal throughout the film, but it’s nonetheless done efficiently. It’s fascinating and terrifying to see characters balancing on the brink of war, in a precarious situation where there are looming blackouts and requisite planning based on the inevitability of destruction, yet there’s still time for drives in the country and touristy sightseeing.

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Explicit propaganda is only brought in at the very end of the movie. It starts when America’s then-neutrality is somewhat mocked; during the film’s most hilarious scene, Jones attempts to secretly report to his paper about what has transpired (he’s not allowed to discuss such war matters aboard the American ship he’s calling from). The great Ben Hecht was brought in to write Jones’ final speech. Over the radio, Jones passionately pleads for America’s strength and perseverance in the face of the approaching war and the anticipated need for participation. Carol declares, “They’re listening in America, Johnny,” and he proceeds: “Don’t tune me out, hang on a while. This is a big story, and you’re part of it. It’s too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come, as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America, hang on to your lights. They’re the only lights left in the world.”

As is pointed out on the disc, this wasn’t Hitchcock’s only war-related work. He made a number of shorts for the US and British governments, and films like Saboteur and Lifeboat are strongly connected to World War II dramatics, but this, in Mark Harris’ words, is the “closest thing he ever made to a message movie.” Be that as it may, with the filmmaker’s customary humor, characterizations, staging, editing tricks, and a variety of camera effects, Foreign Correspondent is quintessentially, and unmistakably, a classic Hitchcock movie, whatever its motives.


‘Jules and Jim’

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In François Truffaut’s debut feature, The 400 Blows, widely seen as the flagship production of the French Nouvelle Vague, or “New Wave,” he was able to convey a representation of youth in a very specific era and, at that time, in a very unique way. Autobiographical as the 1959 film was, it also featured a notable vitality and honesty, two traits that would distinguish several of these French films from the late 1950s and into the ’60s. While The 400 Blows was an earnest and refreshing portrayal of adolescence, in some ways, Truffaut’s 1962 feature, Jules and Jim, his third, feels even more youthful, in terms of stylistic daring and energetic exuberance. Though dealing with adults and serious adult situations, Jules and Jim exhibits a formal sense of unbridled glee, with brisk editing, amusing asides, and a sinuously mobile camera. Jules and Jim is alive like few films are. It’s a movie by a young cinephile (Truffaut wasn’t quite 30 when it was released) as he explores and exploits the medium he loves.

As befits a film of this quality and esteem, The Criterion Collection release of Jules and Jim is one of their most impressive. Essentially carrying over the supplemental materials from the previous DVD release, the recent Blu-ray/DVD combo does boast a new digital restoration and retains two commentaries (one with co-screenwriter Jean Gruault, Truffaut collaborator Suzanne Schiffman, editor Claudine Bouché, and film scholar Annette Insdorf, the other with Jeanne Moreau and Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana). There is also a documentary about the author of the film’s source novel, Henri-Pierre Roché; interviews with Gruault and cinematographer Raoul Coutard; a conversation between scholars Robert Stam and Dudley Andrew; and several excellent and insightful interviews with Truffaut, one also featuring Moreau and Jean Renoir.

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A classic love triangle motivates the drama of Jules and Jim. Each making their way through various women like they would packs of Gauloises cigarettes, Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) struggle to find “the one” amidst the bevy of beauties they bed and abandon. Suddenly, into their lives bursts forth Catherine (Moreau), a girl even more erratic and spiritedly unpredictable than they are, first seen in a stunningly cut montage that ranks among the best character introductions in film history. She’s a perfect match — but for which guy? Both, apparently. Jules falls first and falls the hardest, and Jim does his best to maintain a respectful distance — this is Jules’ girl — but when Catherine inexplicably and purposefully plunges into a river, far from being unnerved by this action, Jim becomes further enamored by this reckless young woman. Despite her impulsiveness (or perhaps because of it), Jules marries Catherine. He loves her; however, he possibly also hopes that the institution of marriage and family will remedy her unconventional behavior. “Less the grasshopper and more the ant,” is how he puts it later in the film. In any event, it doesn’t work. And still, Jim harbors feelings for Catherine.

With Jules on the German side and Jim on the French, World War I distances all three from each other, and through it all — the battles in the trenches and the emotional turmoil at home — Jules and Jim maintain, above all else, their unyielding friendship. Even when it becomes painfully obvious that Catherine no longer loves Jules (by his count, she has had at least three lovers and only just recently returned after having randomly left for 6 months), and even after she unashamedly transfers her affections to Jim, the two men remain respectful and cordial to one another. As the film’s narrator concludes, their “friendship had no equivalence in love.” Nevertheless, this inconsistent fluctuation of affection, as well as the resulting despair, paranoia, and frustration, cannot last. A breaking point for the trio is inevitable.

Upon subsequent viewings of Jules and Jim, knowing how the film ultimately turns out, it becomes obvious early on that this three-part relationship is not destined to succeed. One notices skeptical glances from Jim; regardless that he ends up falling for Catherine, he clearly senses something is askew with this potentially unstable charmer. Georges Delerue’s outstanding soundtrack also signals trouble on the horizon; even sequences of apparent elation are underscored by a particular piece that reappears throughout the film, a song tinged with impending doom, casting an audible cloud over the visual bliss. To be sure, Jules should know what he’s getting in for. No matter how one views Catherine, there can be no denying that she is who she is; she’s true to herself, if no one else. So when Jules insists that a woman’s fidelity is the most important thing in a relationship, we (and Jim) instantly have our doubts.

This is nonetheless all quite tragic, for despite their faults — and no one here is more or less guilty or innocent than another —  Jules, Jim, and Catherine are relatively likable and sympathetic characters, especially when things are going good and one wishes to be the fourth member of this joyous assembly. Jules gets hit the hardest, though. He goes from pleading “not this one,” asking Jim to refrain from encroaching on his budding relationship with Catherine, to “be careful,” when he becomes resigned to the fact that Catherine now loves his friend. And it’s Jules who, at the end of the film, clearly elicits our deepest sympathies. Jim, envious of the apparent (though illusory) stability of Jules’ life with Catherine and their daughter, Sabine, tells Jules that while France may have won the war, he would have rather “won all this.” This type of domesticity is, for now, beyond the gallivanting Jim. And thanks in no small part to Moreau’s appeal, it’s continually easy to forgive and forget Catherine’s transgressions. Truffaut, in one of the interviews on the Criterion disc, describes the film as one about a woman who “loves two men with equal passion.” She may be heedless in her other relations, but it’s hard to really blame her for what she seems to think is a perfectly legitimate arrangement among the three of them. If they’re all good with it, or at least pretend to be, well, why couldn’t this work?

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Like so many other films of the Nouvelle Vague, Jules and Jim is largely lauded and remembered for individual sequences, most of which highlight the incomparable Moreau. (This movement was nothing if not a showcase for beautiful and talented actresses.) According to John Powers, in an essay included here, Moreau was “a pop-eyed siren with the ferocity of Bette Davis and the kitty-cat wiles of Tuesday Weld.” From Catherine as “Thomas,” to the footrace on the bridge, to her musical interlude as she sings “Le Tourbillon,” there are many remarkable moments to take away from Jules and Jim. Already established as an attractive and gifted performer, it’s Moreau who generally steals the show. Having appeared in Touchez Pas au Grisbi, Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte, Moreau was a familiar and breathtaking screen presence, but usually a somber one. Aware of this, she and Truffaut have some fun with the brooding convention, making sure that Moreau smiled more often than normal (one scene in particular alludes to this). Their collaboration and friendship would grow from this film forward. They would remain close and work together again 6 years later on The Bride Wore Black.

At the time prior to Jules and Jim, Truffaut’s career was anything but secure. The financial failure of his second feature, Shoot the Piano Player, which is now a beloved film, led to some notable shifts in Truffaut’s production methods, namely a required bankable cast and a solid screenplay that was to be followed, his improvisatory tendencies temporarily put on hold. Whatever it took to get it completed, Jules and Jim is now one of the greats. It was enough to make Jean Renior jealous for not having made it himself, and–as noted by renowned New Wave cinematographer Coutard, who does exquisite work on this picture–it’s “a film that leaves one speechless.” Truffaut thought the film was perhaps “too decorative” in its depiction of a complex love affair: “not cruel enough,” he says in one of the interviews here. This could have been the result of a young man’s naiveté, but in any case, he sought to rectify the approach with Two English Girls in 1971, also, like Jules and Jim, adapted from a Roché novel with Gruault. This tale of a lovestruck threesome instead features, as the title implies, two girls and one boy and is much less buoyant than its predecessor.

Before his untimely passing at the age of just 52, François Truffaut covered a lot of cinematic territory, as a hugely influential critic (he speaks on the auteur theory in one interview on the disc) and as a filmmaker. He surely pulls out all the filmic stops here. Jules and Jim begins with a breakneck opening and never lets up in its barrage of technical tricks: rapid cutting, flowing camera maneuvers, tracks, dollies, zooms, irises, superimpositions, stock footage, and some superb freeze frames that perfectly, yet fleetingly, capture that Moreau essence. Few cineastes, in whatever form they choose to work in, wear their love of the medium so obviously on their sleeve. As a result, Truffaut is something of a film lover’s filmmaker. A quote from him gets to the heart of this. It perhaps helps to explain how he was able to make so many tremendous movies, movies that embodied and projected a passionate love of the cinema, and why he appreciated the art as he did. Asked in an interview which he preferred, seeing sights in real life or in the movies, he said, “I think I like the image of life better than life itself, because I don’t think real life is as satisfying as a film.” After watching Jules and Jim, it’s hard to necessarily disagree.


Altman’s Unsung ’70s


Director Robert Altman had his fair share of ups and downs. The oscillation between works widely lauded and those typically forgotten is prevalent throughout his exceptionally diverse career. This was — and still is — certainly the case with his 1970s output. This decade of remarkable work saw the release of now established classics like M*A*S*H, Nashville, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, as well as a picture like 3 Women, which would gradually gain a cult following of sorts and subsequently be regarded as a quality movie despite its initial dismissal. But couched between and around these features are more electric and generally more unorthodox films. There are multiple titles from this, arguably Altman’s most creative of decades, that remain generally unheralded to all but his most ardent of admirers.

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For Altman, the 1970s began with this disparity. The first year of the decade saw the release of M*A*S*H, one of his most instantly provocative and popular films, and one of his most enduring. Later that same year though, there was Brewster McCloud, easily one of his most eccentric. The titular main character, played by the quirky, owl-eyed Bud Cort, resides in the Houston Astrodome and pines to one day fly, which he ultimately does by means of a mechanical wing device he has constructed. (Sounds reasonable enough so far.) Along the way, the film, supposedly Altman’s favorite of his own movies, brings in the following: the opening credits, shown twice; bumbling cops trying to solve mysterious murders; multiple references to The Wizard of Oz (the film even features Margaret Hamilton, AKA the Wicked Witch of the West); an assortment of peculiar characters (for example, Altman regular Shelley Duvall in her first film role, and Sally Kellerman as a guardian angel of sorts who wears only a trench coat); some of Altman’s most random dialogue (Suzanne: “Have you ever had diarrhea from eating Mexican food before?” Brewster: “I like your car.”); and, well, a lot of bird excrement. After the timely and trendy M*A*S*H, a film like Brewster McCloud as a follow-up was certainly a change of pace, one that baffled audiences, most critics, and studio bosses. Now though, it feels charmingly unconventional. “It was my boldest work,” said Altman a few years later, “by far my most ambitious.”


While 1971′s McCabe & Mrs. Miller has rightfully been read as a key revisionist Western, where notions of generic heroism, setting, and imagery were subverted, Altman similarly deconstructed the Western film’s superficial ideas pertaining to mythic heroism with Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson in 1976. In this case though, the results are more combative, not necessarily just toward the characters (McCabe is definitely not presented as a “hero” either), but chiefly in its general approach to the genre’s penchant for distorted and exaggerated historical reconstruction; there’s a reason “history lesson” is part of the film’s subtitle. This Buffalo Bill is not the uncontested legend of the west; this Buffalo Bill is a questionable legend of his own making, a scheming, egotistic, shameless self-promoter. As played by Paul Newman (and like with Warren Beatty in McCabe), there’s an obvious thesis regarding the nature of celebrity in the casting here, commenting on image-centric star constructions. The film is very much about show business, according to Altman. “Buffalo Bill Cody was the first movie star, in one sense, the first totally manufactured American hero,” he noted in 1976. “That’s why we needed a movie star … to play the role.” Beyond that, the film’s larger concerns are those of the Western’s very essence: myth vs. reality, truth vs. fiction, and heroes vs. villains. Black and white distinctions are fine for John Ford; Altman works in shades of grey.


Between McCabe & Mrs. Miller and what is perhaps his best film, Nashville, Altman continued to broach new and ever varied filmic territory, with Images, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, and California Split. While each have their qualities, the former two stand out for this uniqueness. Images (1972), one of Altman’s most enigmatic features (along with 3 Women five years later), is also his lone venture into horror filmmaking. The results, predictably when Altman goes genre, are fascinating. Susannah York gives a stunning performance as a women plagued by continuous and increasingly disturbing visions (she would win best actress at Cannes). Her paranoia and schizophrenia seep into the film itself — in its cryptic narrative exposition and its equally ambiguous visuals — and we are never quite sure of what is real and what isn’t. We’re left to wonder, with York, what is developing, why, and if it even really is. The film makes excellent use of contrasts. There’s the idyllic rural Irish setting, but played against its serenity is John Williams’ unnerving, Oscar-nominated score, his most exciting, if not most memorable, movie music. There’s also the relatively stable and secure life of the film’s main characters. The husband and wife have money, mobility, and a weekend cottage, but beneath this veneer of comfort, the mysteries and doubts lurk. Images, then, is a perfect title for this ominous film that questions the illusory surface of people and places.


Though not a genre in itself, no fewer than ten films have featured hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe as he adroitly solved crimes and treaded through the criminal underworld. Altman’s inclusion in this, The Long Goodbye (1973), is something a little different. Never having finished the source (“It’s almost impossible to comprehend”), Altman took considerable liberties with this 1953 Raymond Chandler novel. (Credit should also be given to screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who additionally penned the classic Howard Hawks Marlowe picture The Big Sleep, in 1946.) While still on the trail of a murderer, this Marlowe, played by Elliott Gould, is a chain-smoking, cynical, lackadaisical, too-cool-for-school smartass. As such, while there’s detective work to be done, in Altman’s hands there’s also more than a little fun to be had. That fun is as much a part of the performances — Gould especially has considerable time for amusing asides, ticks, and character-building habits (the bits with his cat, for instance) — as it is with the Marlowe mystique. Those expecting a Bogart-esque slickness and tough-guy persona were sorely thwarted by this jaded incarnation. Altman the audio-innovator also takes the idea of a musical theme to another level, bringing in the title song in a variety of styles, popping up throughout the picture, even as grocery store music. A minor touch perhaps, but one that only adds to The Long Goodbye’s singularity.

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Speaking of Altman’s aural techniques, much has been made of his innovative use of multi-track sound recording, and the full impact of this fascinating system is usually most appreciated in his films compiling a large number of speaking roles. In most cases, Nashvilleis seen as the crème de la crème of this method; its characters constantly talking over each other leaving audiences to — quite realistically — pick up the pieces of audible dialogue. But it was with A Wedding in 1978 that Altman arguably outdid himself with this audio construction. The interiors were far more constricted than in Nashville(there’s essentially only one location), making for more people in less space in any given scene, thus more talk to sift through. Not only that, Altman upped the ante by including no less than 48 featured characters in this film. Apparently, Altman jokingly told a reporter that after 3 Women he was planning to film a wedding — what a demotion for such a filmmaker! However, upon reflection, Altman realized the drama that was inherent in weddings and his next film, his next real film, was set. Certainly, other movies have centered on weddings and the catastrophes that abound, but none come close to equaling the hectic yet perfectly plausible mingling of people and their individual tragedies and comedies as A Wedding.


Altman’s next foray into genre territory was the 1979 science fiction film Quintet, again with Paul Newman. This movie isn’t quite like any other in the Altman cannon or in the wider category of sci-fi/fantasy. “It’s set probably in the future, or else in the present in a parallel world,” stated Altman, and this type of obscure description perfectly suits the film’s unconventional visuals and narrative. The titular ‘Quintet’ is the name of a game played amongst the inhabitants of an inhospitable arctic wasteland; some play with a dire and deadly seriousness, thus forming the crux of the film’s suspenseful and mysterious plot. The setting is a city dying out, the result of an impending ice age set to eradicate human existence. This idea of a frozen reality dooming humanity is more than an additional narrative catalyst though, it’s a stylistic device. Aided by a genuinely frigid location (at one point, the temperature reached 60 below), the film looks and feels cold. The icy conditions are palpably present in every stark, grey, dismal scene. It gives the performances and the story credibility, and it all forms the despairingly bleak visual palette of the picture. In some ways, it similarly reflects the glacial pace of the film, certainly one of Altman’s most trying in terms of typically swift story progression. And if the locale looks barren yet somehow futuristic, it’s most likely because the film was shot on the dilapidated site of the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montréal, which perfectly matched the desired sense of prior vibrancy now in decline. Lastly with Quintet is one of Altman’s most curious stylistic choices. For some reason (and the reasons are quite debatable), the edges of the frame are obscured with a Vaseline-like substance, essentially creating a blurred border around the central image not unlike masking effects from the silent era. A further part of the film’s overall visual appearance? (Something to do with the cold maybe… or symbolic of surroundings closing in?) Or simply an empty and ineffectual gimmick? This is but one point of discussion raised by this truly distinct Altman movie.

Altman would begin the next decade with what may be his most underrated movie. Popeye was widely panned upon its opening and is still seen by many as one of the great filmmaker’s lesser works, one that, just in general, seems rather odd (at best) or simply bad (at worst). But Altman’s Popeye is actually one of the director’s most purely enjoyable pictures and, as some more recent Internet comments point out, the film is newly gaining much deserved popular appeal. When released, Popeye was not the kind of movie audiences were expecting from this rebel director (ironically, it appears Popeye was seen as too unusual and too unclassifiable, even by those who appreciated Altman for being just these things). In any event, with a mumbling one-eye-closed Robin Williams in the title role and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl (the part she was born to play; indeed it’s her best performance), the plot is as delightfully unassuming as one of its source comics. It’s directed and acted like a live-action cartoon, with sequences obviously exaggerated and preposterous, the characters similarly erratic and unorthodox in the extreme, and some moments at times simply bizarre. It’s over-the-top and amusingly absurd, but it’s extremely likable and fascinating, and Williams’ nearly inaudible one-liners are frequently hilarious.


Nevertheless, Popeye’s poor reception would signal the beginning of further tumultuous, though nonetheless productive, times for Robert Altman. After more than a decade of lower-key film and television work, work that is still noteworthy, Altman would burst back onto the Hollywood scene with a film that, oddly enough, sharply jabbed the ridiculous mechanics of Hollywood itself: The Player in 1992. As opposed to his work in the 1970s, from this point on even his lesser features were paid some attention, based solely on his previous record of accomplishment if nothing else. Then into the new millennium, Altman was generally heralded as one of America’s great filmmakers, an iconoclast who was still doing things his own way. An honorary Oscar in 2006 sealed the deal.

From his first feature (Countdown, 1967) to his last (A Prairie Home Companion, 2006), it is surely indicative of Altman’s talent and place in cinema history that so many of his films are worth a second look and critical reevaluation; not only worth it, but benefiting from it, their merits justly revealed. In so doing, as hindsight remains 20/20, no doubt more unsung Altman films originally dismissed will be newly minted as classics.

This piece is part of the Robert Altman Spotlight at Sound on Sight

Argento’s ‘Dracula 3D’

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More than his fellow giallo maestros (Bava, Fulci, Martino, and others), Dario Argento has had to live and work in the burdensome shadow of his earlier successes. After nearly two decades of exceptional films boasting glorious cinematic artistry and blood-soaked thrills, Argento established quite the reputation. In recent years, though, since 1993′s Trauma, these prior landmarks of genre perfection have become a distressing caveat added to nearly every negative criticism of his newest release: “Ah, Argento, how far he’s fallen. Remember when….” His latest offering, Dracula 3D, now available on an American-issued 3D Blu-ray (an Italian disc, still playable in the US, has been out for while), is no exception. Does it rank with Suspiria, Tenebre, Deep Red, or Opera? No. But is it as bad as some detractors would suggest? Certainly not. If one is going to place the film within Argento’s canon, this picture stands somewhere within the lower third: not great, though still with enough to distinguish it on its own merits. Dracula 3D, despite its shortcomings, is a rather sardonic, pleasantly schlocky, and at times visually dazzling take on the familiar Dracula tale. Argento’s previous masterpieces don’t hinder the film; in some ways, they provide key points of reference. If it’s not horror sacrilege to say so, Dracula 3D has some of Argento’s best use of color since Suspiria, and it includes brutal sequences among his most outlandish. And that’s just the start of more pluses than minuses.

Before getting to the plot (admittedly one of the lesser elements of distinction here), a note on the 3D: Obviously, since it’s in the title, Argento working in this format is a primary selling point. For the most part, it doesn’t disappoint. Perhaps less than one would think, given his penchant for overt visual bombast, there are relatively few moments of in-your-face, things-coming-at-the-screen 3D exploitation (though there is certainly some of that). There are times when the 3D provides a more subtle sense of depth, playing off the vibrant color palette of the picture. Where the 3D fails most is in the scenes featuring heavy CGI. There’s no doubt about it, most of the CGI here is atrocious. Presumably (hopefully) a matter of budgetary constraints and not because Argento honestly thought they looked good, certain effects shots range from laughably cheesy to head-scratchingly bad. Viewing the film in 2D, where there isn’t the addition of 3D to augment the imagery, the cartoonish effects are even more pronounced and unattractive. It’s also worth pointing out that, as with all 3D home viewing, and even with as sharp as this disc is otherwise, the result isn’t going to be nearly as impeccable as in a theatrical setting.

Dracula 2

Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) arrives in the Transylvanian town of Passo Borgo. He’s there to organize Count Dracula’s extensive library and, while there, he visits Lucy Kisslinger (Asia Argento), a friend of he and his wife, Mina (Marta Gastini), who arrives later. Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann) discovers that Mina resembles his 400-years dead lost love and so captures Jonathan, setting his sights on this apparent reincarnation. In the meantime, others fall victim to Dracula and his “brides,” and those who had been tolerating in willful ignorance Dracula’s horrific deeds (he’s something of a town benefactor) begin considering rebellion. Eventually, Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer) arrives to clean up the mess. Throughout all this, Mina functions as a stand-in for the viewer as she questions the behavior and deaths of the residents and seeks to uncover the mystery of her missing husband. An ominous tone is set immediately, the result of Argento’s natural talents as a horror filmmaker as well as a general familiarity with the Dracula story. It’s soon discovered that Dracula has lackeys amongst the townsfolk and it’s established early that behind the apparent local prosperity lurks a terrifying catalyst.

Thanks in no small part to the dubbing, the acting is largely stiff and unaffecting, and the dialogue is stilted at best. The performers seem to move and behave convincingly enough, but their expressions and verbalizations are less than credible by comparison. All of this remains tolerable in light of the movie’s outstanding visual accomplishments. Argento is clearly in love with capturing images on film, occasionally letting several sequences go on longer than necessary, especially given their predictability, but that’s of minor concern. There’s also the sense, not exactly positive or negative, that Dracula 3D strives to hit all the requisite sub-generic notes. There’s the garlic, there’s Dracula’s lack of reflection, stakes through the heart, animal shape-shifting (at one point as a huge mantis – why not?), and so on, and like all good over-the-top, occasionally tawdry horror films, there’s equal parts blood and breasts. The latter does include Asia (again, Dario’s nude depiction of his daughter still managing to ruffle some feathers), and the former includes a standout sequence where Dracula gloriously dispatches some of the rebellious residents in classically gory Argento fashion.

Of all the features of Dracula 3D, it’s the film’s photographic quality that is most satisfying. When conveying a tangible reality (as opposed to the CGI, effect-driven sequences), Argento crafts some astonishingly beautiful moments. With cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (who was also behind the camera on Suspiria and Tenebre as well as Antonioni’s fascinating video work The Mystery of Oberwald), the effervescent imagery is impressive, with bold colors bursting to create an overall look of dreamlike florescence. The sets, while evidently economical by big-budget Hollywood standards, are nonetheless appealing and realistic enough to give the movie some semblance of being a period piece.

The Blu-ray includes the film in both 2D and 3D, and aside from the dreadful “Kiss Me, Dracula” music video by the Simonetti Project, the major extra is an hour-long behind the scenes documentary. While featuring an assortment of cast and crew, most of whom go into insightful detail about their contributions on the picture, noticeably absent is Argento. There’s plenty of great footage of him on set, but we never hear from the man himself.

Dracula 3D defies the critical black and white distinction of “good” or “bad” (or “fresh” or “rotten”). It has its obvious faults, granted, but there’s so much simultaneously positive and enjoyable that one has to give it the benefit of the doubt and accept it for what it is, without necessarily predicating evaluations on other works.



In the 1990s, violent films with dashes of comedy were very much in vogue. While Quentin Tarantino is widely seen as the preeminent purveyor of this formal juxtaposition, it’s arguably Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo that most skillfully balances the shifting between, and integration of, equal parts bloodshed and laugh-out-loud hilarity. The film – “based on a true story” (not really) – is immediately and frequently amusing, while it also maintains tension to the very end. The picture opens with a blindingly white, snow-enveloped tundra that is North Dakota; a vehicle slowly comes into view like a character emerging in the Arabian Desert. First, there’s the awkwardly devious, yet largely good-natured, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), clearly and constantly in over his head when dealing with goons Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) or when trying to sell the benefits of TruCoat protection. And then, more than 30 minutes in, there’s pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, quite rightly winning an Oscar), waddling along, solving crimes, stealing the show. But on the brutal other hand, there’s comedic kidnapping, geysers of blood, and bodies in wood chippers. Still, in the brothers’ body of work, full of unusually quirky characters, these folks are among the most authentic … or at least most authentically quirky. Maybe it’s because of the terrific performances across the board, maybe it’s the Coens’ personal identification with the region and its regional eccentricities (they were born in Minneapolis — how else could they nail the “yas,” “you betchas,” and prowlers needing jumps?). Either way, there are moments of genuine down-to-earth heart here that don’t always surface in the rest of their films. It might be a murder story, but at least it’s a “homespun” murder story. With the exception of the professional and proficient Marge (she knows what DLR means on license plates; her partner, Lou, not so much), the otherwise incompetent characters can be quite dastardly. Why then do we enjoy watching them so much, and why is it often so funny when they do these dastardly things? Fargo is also endlessly quotable (IMDb’s “Quotes” page shows why dialogue alone warranted the Academy Award for original screenplay). Ultimately, Fargo is profoundly and pleasantly engaging in its depiction of simple people caught up in not-so-simple schemes. It’s all this, and here they are, and it’s a beautiful day.

This piece was part of Ranking the Films of The Coen Bros. on Sound on Sight

Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Nostalghia’

Nos 1

Nostalghia was Andrei Tarkovsky’s penultimate film, and the 1983 movie, made for Italian television, has the tone and scope of a work of contemplation and austere topicality, not at all uncommon for an artist in his or her later portions of life. The notion of this frequent tendency, to broach issues of dire seriousness in concluding creations, doesn’t work seamlessly with Tarkovsky, though. To begin with, while Nostalghia may have been his second-to-last feature, he was only 51 at the time (he tragically passed away just 3 years and one film later). In addition, this type of weighty subject matter had been common thematic territory for Tarkovsky since his first films in the early 1960s. And though only having made seven feature films, each approach was a spiritual level of visual, verbal, and atmospheric transcendence not regularly attempted by many other filmmakers, save for the likes of Bresson, Dreyer, and Bergman, and even they at least started with some frivolity. While Nostalghia is distinctly divergent from some of Tarkovsky’s previous works (certainly his shooting out of the USSR was a crucial factor), it is, nevertheless, unmistakably one of his own, a fine addition to his remarkable, though limited, body of work.

Nostalghia’s basic plot is established clearly and early. This sets the broad narrative wheels in motion while allowing time for the characters and the film to carry on with more substantial concerns beyond a surface story. Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovskiy) is a Russian writer traveling through Italy to research the life and work of an Italian composer. Married with children, he is conflicted by his growing attachment to his traveling companion and translator, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano). Her romantic intentions are more obvious than his relatively internalized feelings, but in any case, it’s the cause of initial friction when the two arrive in a small Italian town. The film’s next major narrative thrust, the more significant one, comes when the two encounter Domenico (Bergman regular Erland Josephson, who would star in Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice). Townsfolk ridicule the old man, for some time ago, fearing an impending apocalyptic event (a prime plot point of The Sacrifice), Domenico kept his family locked up for 7 years. Once freed, his family fled and he was left alone, deemed crazy and potentially dangerous. There doesn’t seem to have been much attempt to understand his reasoning, but Andrei is less quick to judge. What’s more, he’s in some way inspired, or at least intrigued, by Domenico’s conviction. Where others see madness, Andrei sees (and hopes for) faith.

Here begins Nostalghia’s more abstract interests. While these story elements infuse the duration of the film, for the most part, the primary ideas, actions, and images are expressly preoccupied by larger dilemmas pertaining to memories, fears, and spiritual voids. Upon first arriving in the town, Tarkovsky’s visual magnificence as manifest in natural exteriors is readily apparent. A foggy, damp majesty sweeps around the characters and envelops the screen. Anyone familiar with Tarkovsky’s films from Ivan’s Childhood onward knows that weather and the natural elements are of major aesthetic importance. The climate is literally and cinematically one of somberness. Rain, or the remnants of, soaks through nearly every frame, exteriors and, in some cases, interiors alike — “Water is a mysterious element,” said Tarkovsky, “a single molecule of which is very photogenic.”

Eugenia enters a church, where a devotion to initiate childbirth is underway. She speaks with a priest but she’s awkwardly out of place when surrounded by such belief (she can’t even kneel). This is where we first encounter some of the film’s religious application, and for the first time, one also sees common Tarkovsky compositions of observation; she’s not there to pray, she’s there “just to have a look.” Be it through the point of view of his characters, or just a general position of authorial commentary, lingering gazes of contemplation signal the thoughts and feelings of Eugenia (in this case) and assist in guiding the spectator toward the film’s own deliberations. This observational positioning continues throughout the film, moving back and forth between vantage points owned by the characters and unattached views resulting from Tarkovsky’s lateral tracks and slow dollies forward.

Nos 3

The emphasis on the written word, particularly poetry (Tarkovsky’s father was a well-regarded and quite famous poet), alludes to another of the film’s preoccupations, that of translating texts and, subsequently, cultures. Can an Italian ever really understand Russian poems or novels? Conversely, how can a Russian fully grasp someone like Dante? As much on Tarkovsky’s mind as Andrei’s (the director was, after all, working for the first time away from home), this question boils down to a difficulty in understanding. Tarkovsky said the film “is about the impossibility of people living together without really knowing one another … there is an aspect of the film … concerning the impossibility of importing or exporting culture.” This carries over to Domenico, and Andrei’s attempts to come to terms with what the man did and why. In the same way that one tries to understand a culture and a country through its art, Andrei seeks to make sense of Domenico’s seemingly inexplicable actions. This is where the titular notion of the film is most prescient. As Tarkovsky stated, “I wanted to speak about that which is called ‘nostalgia,’ but I mean the word in its Russian sense, that is to say, a fatal disease. I wanted to show psychological traits typically Russian … The Russian term is difficult to translate: it could be compassion, but it’s even stronger than that. It’s identifying oneself with the suffering of another man, in a passionate way.”

These attempts at a clear personal or cultural understanding, on the part of the character Andrei and the filmmaker Tarkovsky, are complicated by Nostalghia’s multifaceted overlay of audio/visual construction. Like most of Tarkovsky’s work, Nostalghia progresses slowly, often holding a shot much longer than is normally the custom in today’s cinema (certainly in America), with only gradually perceptible shifts in light or camera movement. Elsewhere, disembodied voices discuss characters and actions, yet it’s not always fully clear who is speaking or, at least at first, who or what they’re speaking about. Tarkovsky’s graceful and supremely controlled tracking shots bring people in and out of frame, at times tracing the path of a particular character, at times simply scanning the territory. Poetic musings further add to the intricate patchwork of aural components.

Visually, aside from the basic veneer of lushly soggy settings, Tarkovsky’s exceptional skill at composition gives Nostalghia a dominant and continual beauty. Every frame, if stopped, is a still photo of tremendous splendor. It’s a quality obvious to see yet difficult to explain when a filmmaker is able to craft such carefully executed imagery. Like Stanley Kubrick (a former photographer whose similarly meticulous arrangements are frequently breathtaking), Tarkovsky’s Polaroid photos give the same impressions as his films; perhaps this talent is derived from this photogenic pastime? With the recently released Kino-Lorber Blu-ray of Nostalghia, this striking imagery is more prominent than it had ever been before on home video. (The quality of the visual and audio transfer had better be good, as the disc offers nothing else in the way bonus features. Not that they’re necessary, but when compared to Criterion’s Ivan’s Childhood and Solaris, a few additions would have been nice; Kino-Lorber’s release of The Sacrifice was similarly bare-bones, but did contain the documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.) As he did with Solaris, Tarkovsky also shifts to sepia-toned sequences, here in the times of memory or dream (or fantasy). It’s not always apparent what sequences fall under what category, and at times, these scenes overlap with sights and sounds from the actual events of the individuals’ real life.

Nos 2

Water has already been mentioned, but with Nostalghia, the elemental opposite occurs with some frequency and, presumably, significance. Fire, which first beautifully illuminated the church interior at the start of the film, by the end emerges during the two final scenes in pivotal though inconclusive ways. The first involves Domenico and a particularly shocking performance upon a statue. The last involves Andrei as he struggles to cross a drained pool without extinguishing the flame of a candle he’s holding. This latter sequence suggests a ritualistic test of sorts, a challenge that ultimately, when accomplished, leads to a sacred triumph yet also to Andrei’s apparent demise. Without making it explicit, Tarkovsky seems to be making a connection between death and fire, in opposition to water and life. “Our life is a metaphor, from the beginning until the end,” he has said. “Everything that surrounds us is a metaphor.” With this on his mind, it’s little wonder that so many of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films contained images if not entire sequences that seemed to be about more than just what they were simply showing. Reoccurring visual motifs point to narrative components that dictate something other than a momentary glance. And this is one of the joys with Tarkovsky’s work — frequently bewildering at first, if given the time and attention, mysteries unravel as further ambiguities are revealed, and, as in the case of Nostalghia, this fluctuation results in an extraordinary viewing experience.