Ace in the Hole is a quintessential Billy Wilder movie. Though largely ignored upon its initial release, this 1951 feature bears all the hallmarks one associates with Wilder’s best work: cynicism, humor, terrific performances, sharp dialogue, and impeccable direction. Here, to keep within the theme of the title, we get it all in spades.
The recently released Criterion Blu-ray of the film likewise boasts an abundant assortment of features. There is of course the new restoration, which looks great, as well as a commentary track with scholar Neil Sinyard, a brief afterword by Spike Lee, and interviews with Kirk Douglas and cowriter Walter Newman. The insert booklet, with essays by filmmaker Guy Maddin and critic Molly Haskell, is cleverly assembled as a foldout mock newspaper. And the documentary, Portrait of a “60% Perfect Man”: Billy Wilder, along with excerpts from a 1986 Wilder interview at the American Film Institute, give considerable insight into the director’s filmmaking processes, and include numerous anecdotes and comedic quips.
In the film, Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter who has bounced around from city to city, having been fired from nearly a dozen different publications (some of the best, as he would be sure to note). With Tatum, Douglas takes his generally admirable screen persona and dramatically flips it on its head. In the interview here, he admits dangerous roles excite him, and while he played similarly ruthless figures in films like Champion and the Bad and the Beautiful, his role in this picture is notably callous and self-centered. Maddin, whose essay reads like his films look, states that Ace in the Hole “might be Kirk’s best-of album.” Douglas fires on all cylinders in this film, as only he can. He’s charming to get what he wants; he’s theatrically dramatic to hammer home his points; and he’s emotionally animated just when the audience needs to get in his corner, or at least try to. But this isn’t easy. Tatum is no heroic figure. He’s cocky, impudent, conniving, and, to make matters worse, competent. The character’s introduction says it all. He’s first seen casually reading a newspaper in the front seat of his convertible … as it’s being towed down an Albuquerque street. Treating the tow-truck like his own personal chauffeur, Tatum instructs the driver to pull over in front of a newspaper office, the Sun-Bulletin. “Wait here,” he instructs. Inside, after breezing past a Native American employee clipping from the papers (a condescending “How” is Tatum’s greeting to his future coworker), he demands to see the boss. Granted the visit, Tatum proceeds to tell the publisher that he read his paper that morning over breakfast, and it made him throw up. More bravado and derision follows — and he’s hired.
A year into his new beat, Tatum is fed up. While he has everyone under his spell (this East Coast guy talks a good game, and look how he lights his match on the typewriter!), he’s nevertheless growing anxious and bored by the lack of groundbreaking news. He’s longing for the big story. He even fantasizes about the worst happening: tornadoes, explosions, murders, rattlesnakes loose in town. Something … anything. Assigned to cover a snake hunt (not what he had in mind), Tatum lucks out by stumbling onto a relatively minor tragedy when stopping for gas. Gas station owner Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped in the partially collapsed and now perilously unsteady Indian cliff dwelling known as the Mountain of the Seven Vultures. Tatum sniffs out a possible story and investigates. It turns out the site is believed by natives to be protected by ancient spirits. Did these angry beings from the beyond have a hand in the accident? Of course not, but that would sell papers. So Tatum begins his coverage.
Milking every incident and development for all it’s worth, Tatum takes charge and gets local law enforcement, television, and Leo’s family on board. Before long, curious crowds gather and it’s clear to Tatum, as well as Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), who cares little for her husband, above or below ground, that there is money and fame to be had. The Minosa’s gas station also offers food and novelties, and poor Leo’s plight is good for business; a lot of visitors equal a lot of mouths to feed. In the American way, as Spike Lee points out, “If there’s a buck to be made, it’ll be made.” Mrs. Minosa, who could give Tatum a run for his cunning money, even brings in a carnival, an outrageous yet somehow natural step in this ever-evolving circus (an alternate title of the film was, fittingly, “The Big Carnival”).
Tatum does pretty well for himself, weaseling his way to become the primary media source for information, a local icon who seems to have Leo’s best interests in mind; Leo even considers him his best friend. But while thousands of onlookers gather to witness the excavation (all charged admittance), Leo’s condition in this subterranean Jenga game grows increasingly hazardous. The drama that surrounds the rescue, much of which is stimulated by Tatum, begins to overshadow the man himself. There could be a quick and easy way to get Leo out, but that would reduce the publicity and the income. Since personal gain is the name of the game, Tatum manages to prolong the ordeal by suggesting an alternate rescue. “Everybody likes a break,” says Tatum’s young photographer. “We didn’t make it happen.” But is he asking him or telling him?
The concept of yellow journalism was nothing new in the early 1950s, but Ace in the Hole as a sellable property was shockingly risky. It’s likely the bitterly pessimistic and extraordinary vision of the whole thing that contributed to the film’s box office failure. Seen in 2014, though, it all seems so tragically real, so frighteningly probable. Molly Haskell puts it like this: “Already in the squawking, hawking opportunists are our own telegenic communicators in embryonic form, the self-promoting reporters donning bedouin robes or Muslim chadors or hurricane slickers to provide twenty-four-hour coverage of themselves at the ego-center of hot spots and sleazy ‘human interest’ tabloid stories.” Tatum would fit right in this age of continuous news cycles, bombastic “news” personalities, and careless Twitter-based news reporting (#sevenvultures, #saveleominosa, #tatumpulitzer). To say that the Oscar-nominated screenplay by Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman was prophetic would be a grand understatement. Spike Lee suggests a double bill with this film and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, two films he rightly notes had their crystal ball.
Kirk Douglas perhaps sums up Ace in the Hole best, noting its “biting, sardonic humor,” which is still remarkably modern and not at all old fashioned. It’s as hard-hitting as ever. As for Wilder, simply put by Douglas, “Billy’s a giant.”
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT
Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli, Arthur Freed: names synonymous with the movie musical. Missing from this standard list is a key contributor to the form, the French director Jacques Demy. Perhaps part of the reason for his widespread unfamiliarity, even to those who adore the genre, is that Demy only directed a handful of musicals in his entire career. It’s also likely that the musical is simply thought of as an American type of movie, and therefore, “foreign” practitioners don’t quite warrant similar attention. In either case, Demy did amplify the genre with at least two major works, one of them the recipient of the Palme d’Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which also received four Academy Award nominations (at least some American love there), is not just an exceptional musical, it’s a genuine advancement in the genre. With every line of dialogue sung, it’s essentially operatic, but its distinctly cinematic features are what make it a truly great movie.
Divided into three parts (The Departure, The Absence, The Return), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg follows 17-year-old Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve), who works in her mother’s umbrella store — the title of the film — and is in love with the 20-year-old Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo), an auto mechanic. Like many young lovers in the movies, they have their obstacles, her mother’s disapproval being the first one. But it gets worse. Geneviève’s mother (Anne Vernon) is heavily in debt and Guy is soon drafted to the war in Algeria, where he’ll be for 2 years. Madame Emery finds her solution when she sells some jewelry to gem-dealer Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). That brings in enough money for now. What’s more, Madame Emery is quite taken by Roland, and while she herself appears smitten, it’s actually her daughter she has in mind. Roland is handsome, has money, seems to have a good head on his shoulders, plus, unlike Guy, he’s there. When Geneviève goes some time without hearing from Guy, it’s decided that she would indeed be better off marrying Roland, even if she is with Guy’s child. Upon his return, Guy discovers the scenario played out in his absence, but he too reluctantly moves on, marrying Madeleine (Ellen Farner), a young woman who had been caring for his ailing, now departed, godmother. In the end, an epilogue years later finds Geneviève and Guy briefly reunited. Having gone their separate ways, each with a new mate, each now with a child, their lives are not at all what they envisioned a few short years ago. Is there still a love there, or has time and the harsh realities of life dissipated what once was?
Sadness prevails throughout The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but the ending doesn’t quite fit that term. It’s certainly not happy, but it’s not really sad. Despite the fanciful whimsy inherent in a film that is wall-to-wall music and singing, this conclusion is something closer to a contented reality. This is the true course of love: at times tragic, at times joyful, but more than anything, utterly unpredictable and uncontrollable. The film also alludes to realistic themes of wartime separation and heartbreak, the struggles of fidelity in the face of challenging truths, and familial and economic burdens.
Still, with Michel Legrand’s astonishing score, covering all the musical bases, from enchanting romanticism to jazzy swing to somber melancholia, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg can’t help but be delightful. Add Jean Rabier’s Eastmancolor cinematography, which color-coordinates interior spaces, clothing, and seasonal shifts, and the film is simply a spectacular sensory achievement. The upcoming Criterion Collection transfer of the film, set for a July 22 release, is sure to be a stunning audio/visual treat.
On the surface, the concept of having the characters sing each and every phrase — the mundane and the genuinely lyrical — does seem a bit gimmicky. Yet not only does it work and work well, it works quickly. Early in the film, one of Guy’s coworkers puts down opera: “All that singing gives me a pain. I like movies better.” It’s amusing because already we’ve seen what all that singing is going to be like here, and far from being an off-putting experience, set within Demy’s gloriously lush world, it’s instantly evident that this is going to be something special, a musical unlike any other. It wouldn’t be the type of film that deconstructs the musical in some self-conscious way, like, say, Godard’s genre experimentation around the same time. This was, in its own way, a comfortable fit into the classical movie musical model.
It’s somewhat difficult to judge the performances here because they’re not necessarily dramatic in the conventional sense, but each of the key players does a fine job. If anyone though, it’s Catherine Deneuve who stands out, and indeed does convey the most effective emotional range. Frankly, she is also stunning to behold. Around 20 at the time, Deneuve is captivating, and with this film, her star was firmly set to rise. With her radically different turn in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion the next year, and her equally remarkable performance in Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour in 1967, Deneuve had — and still has — considerable talent to go along with that beauty.
Directly following The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, beginning with another (even better?) musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort, again with Deneuve and this time featuring the venerable Gene Kelly, Jacques Demy took on ever more diverse projects, including two personal favorites, Model Shop and Donkey Skin. Yet somehow, despite even the efforts of his wife and fellow filmmaker, Agnès Varda, he didn’t quite achieve the stature of other New Wave icons such as Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Rivette, and others. The aforementioned Criterion disc, in which The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of six of his films included in a set, will hopefully help rectify that oversight.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT
The Cannes Film Festival has long been a venue to court controversy, and filmmaker Luis Buñuel was likewise one who consistently reveled in the divisive. At the 1961 festival, Buñuel brought his latest release, Viridiana, and the results were spectacular, and spectacularly contentious. The film, which shared Palme d’Or honors with Henri Colpi’s The Long Absence, was subsequently met with charges of blasphemy from the Vatican’s newspaper, and it was promptly banned in Buñuel ‘s native Spain.
The Spanish reaction was particularly critical. Viridiana’s production in Buñuel’s place of birth was already a hot topic. Having left for America and Mexico in 1939, Spain’s surrealist native son was back home, the adamantly leftist filmmaker now working amidst Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship. What’s the worst that could happen?
Viridiana is what happened, a gloriously provocative middle finger to so many sacred Spanish establishments, not the least of which was the Catholic church. Spanish officials passed the screenplay (vague written details were easily transferred into scandalous images on film), and the film went unseen until the Cannes screening. Following that, however, anything to do with the picture was ordered to be destroyed. Fortunately, prints were smuggled out and the movie still exits.
Welcome home, Luis.
Viridiana stars consummate Buñuel dirty old man, Fernando Rey, as Don Jaime, an ailing, wealthy gentleman whose last wish is to see his niece, a nun named Viridiana (Silvia Pinal). She is away at a convent preparing to take her vows and is reluctant to leave. But since her uncle paid for her education, her sense of obligation sends her on her way. We first see the widowed Don Jaime as he looks upon a young girl jumping rope — doing so at his request. The girl is introduced through his lingering gaze upon her bare legs (legs, always legs with Buñuel). Viridiana arrives and Don Jaime immediately comments on her resemblance to his late wife, whom we later see he is more than just enamored by. “You even walk like your aunt,” he tells her. You can see where this is heading.
At the house, Viridiana is spied upon and is visibly uncomfortable with Don Jaime and her surroundings. A good example is her failed attempt to milk a cow, the camera emphasizing her reluctance to grip the animal’s teat (get it?). The night before Viridiana is to leave, Don Jaime asks that she do him one favor. She agrees. Cut to her in her aunt’s wedding dress. She’s not happy but she’s complainant. And then he asks her to marry him.
Before the night is over, in a desperate and disturbing effort to keep Viridiana with him, Don Jaime drugs the girl, lays her in bed, begins to undress her, and kisses her. In the morning he tells her, “I made you mine while you slept.” That will keep her away from the convent. He didn’t really though, confessing that he only possessed her in his thoughts. As if she wasn’t ready to leave before!
Viridiana is about to head to the convent when she is urgently called back to the house. Don Jaime has hung himself (with the jump rope). Guilt-ridden, Viridiana stays on at the house and is soon joined by Don Jaime’s estranged son, Jorge (Francisco Rabal), and his girlfriend. While Jorge tends to the property, Viridiana attempts to make penance by taking in a group of derelicts, assigning them various tasks around the residence. She has a heart of gold, as one bum notes, but, as another declares, “she’s a little nutty.” Jealous of Viridiana, Jorge’s girlfriend leaves, and he instantly seduces Ramona (Margarita Lozano), one of the servants. He criticizes his cousin’s piousness, but it’s clear there’s also some attraction there as well.
One evening, Viridiana and Jorge are called away, and she naively leaves the house under the supervision of some of the more “responsible” new tenants. Left to their own devices and vices, all hell breaks loose in a menagerie of drunkenness, debauchery, and general misbehavior. The peak of this assault on decency is a mocking tableau of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”; the icing on the irreverent cake is when, rather than photographing the group at the table, as she said she would, one of the female vagrants lifts her dress and flashes everyone. Jorge and Viridiana return to the chaos (whereupon she is almost raped by one of the men she helped to shelter), the tramps disperse, and in a day or so things appear back to normal. Jorge is now firmly involved sexually with Ramona, and when Viridiana stops by the room where there two of them are supposedly playing cards, Jorge invites her in. Ambiguous glances are exchanged and the three of them sit down at the card table together. “You know,” says Jorge to Viridiana, “the first time I saw you, I thought, ‘My cousin and I will end up shuffling the deck together.’” The camera retreats from the room. The end. Originally, just Jorge and Viridiana were to be left in the room together, but that was deemed indecent. Adding another women is much better.
Viridiana takes on multiple social and cultural conventions in its varying insinuations, some more subtle than others, but in typical Buñuel fashion, it’s religion that bears the brunt of his humorous, challenging, perhaps even affectionate, criticism. Religious imagery is skewered, in the form of a crucifix that reveals a knife (which actually existed) and a crown of thorns set ablaze. Even the use of the Hallejujah chorus from Handel’s “The Messiah” seems included to inflame. But it’s all in good fun, at least to fans of Buñuel.
Whatever its reception, Viridiana was a major film for Luis Buñuel. While many of his movies in Mexico were quite good — some, in fact, are among his best — they weren’t usually enough to put him on the world stage. (Cannes was good to Buñuel during these years though; five of his Mexican features won or were nominated for various awards at the festival.) But what followed was a brilliant, nearly unparalleled succession of extraordinary work. From Viridiana to That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977, Buñuel directed one great film after another, nearly all, like Viridiana, succeeding in at least getting people to talk.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT
It’s telling that the Criterion Collection touts Master of the House as a comedy. So regularly austere are the more popularly known works of Danish great Carl Theodor Dreyer, that perhaps in comparison, yes, this is at times funny. As a standard comedy, it’s admittedly weak; as a drama, however, it’s largely effective. Historian Casper Tybjerg, in an interview included on the new Criterion Blu-ray/DVD, makes a (only slightly convincing) case for the film as “basically” a comedy, noting that it was even made at a studio identified with comedic films. But more accurate is David Bordwell’s description of the film, which he mentions in a visual essay also included. In its employment of “silent film conventions of domestic drama,” it forms something more akin to a chamber play, so prevalent in the silent cinema. What sets this apart from some of these other films is Dreyer’s notable attention to detail. As Tybjerg does quite rightly state, Master of the House is very much “a film about the importance of little things.”
The film begins with keen attention on these little things. Ida Frandsen (Astrid Holm) is introduced, along with her three children, as she begins her morning duties: preparing breakfast, doing the laundry, cleaning, and so on. Manic though it appears, she seems totally in control. Presumably, she is the master of this house. But no, the titular master is the tyrannical Viktor (Johannes Meyer), her husband, for whom all this work is apparently done. Utterly helpless, Viktor apparently awakens in a bad mood. He barks for his slippers (in the nightstand right next to him, which his daughter nevertheless fetches), he complains when the coffee isn’t waiting for him at the table, and he doesn’t like the clothes hanging up to dry. There’s not enough butter on his bread either, so Ida, unbeknownst to him, scrapes the butter off hers and adds it to his (he thinks she was simply being stingy). These are some of the little things Dreyer makes us see with sure focus, emphasizing their importance and the importance of Viktor’s obliviousness.
What a morning. The sad part is this is routine. Ida is in a near constant state of fear and anxiety due to the cruelty and irrational expectations of her husband. He’s never content with all that she does for him, yet he even chides her for getting up and working: “Must you run around all the time?” To keep up with his demands and the demands of the house, she must. The family is not well off either; we gather as much by holes in shoes and minimal food options, but we’re told outright later that Viktor is, in fact, unemployed.
Dreyer certainly makes his point in these early scenes, and if the film has any major faults, it’s in the redundancy of variations on Viktor’s harshness. By the 30-minute mark, it’s clear to the point of being tedious: this is no lovable grouch à la W.C. Fields or even Archie Bunker — Viktor is simply a bastard.
Ida makes excuses for his behavior — his lost business has made him bitter — and she argues that they’ve had their good years. But Viktor’s old nanny, Mads (Mathilde Nielsen), who is still a visiting fixture at the house, isn’t buying it. With Ida’s mother, the two elderly women conspire to give Viktor his comeuppance. They get Ida out of the house (not telling Viktor where she is for more than a month) and Mads takes over. Since Mads dares to challenge and talk back to the brute (functioning more or less as the comic relief), things begin to change. Put in his place, Viktor grows subservient to Mads, just as he was as a child. He does his own chores and soon sees the error of his ways. He’s even friendly to birds! “His pompous sense of entitlement is punctured in due course by the machinations of the clever old family nanny,” writes Mark Le Fanu in an excellent essay that’s part of this Criterion package, “… and the film culminates, as all the best comedies do, with equilibrium restored and the womenfolk quietly vindicated.” While Mads gets an odd sort of delight from seeing Viktor humiliated, and apparently changing his infant daughter is humiliating (?), the desired outcome, in any case, is achieved. Viktor gains an appreciation for all that his wife does. As a concluding title card states: “SHE is the Heart of the Home.”
Everything in Master of the House is very well photographed, not unusual for Dreyer, with exquisite close-ups and camera maneuvers that are most striking due to their infrequency. As would be evinced in his greatest work, there’s also a particular devotion to composition. Essentially taking place in one location, it’s notable how Dreyer manages to prevent the film from ever feeling cramped. Movable studio walls helped open up the interiors, but more than that, ingenious alterations in camera placement and distance keep the rooms and the action (for lack of a better word) freshly depicted. Dreyer’s skill at filming interior space is expertly analyzed in the Bordwell essay, where he also comments on the nuanced performances of the film. This might be the most unheralded aspect of the movie. There’s little emotionally explosive drama, so it’s easy to overlook the subtlety of the actors’ expression and movement, but fortunately, Dreyer’s direction makes sure such features are paid their due attention.
Not of the caliber of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s finest achievements (Bordwell, Le Fanu, and Tybjerg argue otherwise), all of which are also available from Criterion, Master of the House is nonetheless a vital release, if nothing else because it marks the first American home video version of the film, and anything to boost the availability of the Dreyer canon is a surely a good thing.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT
Director Anthony Mann was a specialist at genre filmmaking. From early crime dramas like T-Men and Raw Deal, to historical epics like El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, he seemed to have a knack for working within — and working with — the conventions of a given generic formula. His Westerns, especially, are among the best that that particular type of movie has to offer. And when he set his sights on the war film, his natural aptitude for genre would be as prominent as it was anywhere. Men in War, from 1957, his second war film of the decade (released two years after Strategic Air Command), contains much of what makes Mann a distinct filmmaker, and reveals much of what makes the war film its own unique form of motion picture.
Set in Korea, 1950, Men in War has a deceptively simple narrative set-up. A platoon of about a dozen exhausted men are isolated in enemy territory. They can’t establish friendly contact by radio and their closest point of safety is a hill miles away. Their truck has broken down, so they have to carry all their supplies. The men are weary, and one is very sick. But led by Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan), they soldier on and remain determined. As the primary plot is revealed, so too are the essential features of Men in War, and the war film generally. A printed statement at the beginning of the film declares, “Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I will tell you the story of all wars.” Indeed, this could be a war film about any war: its setting is mostly indefinite, the enemy is largely unseen, and many of the genre’s basic ingredients are present. This is what makes Mann’s work in diverse genres so fascinating. Before the 10-minute mark, he depicts the anxieties of the soldiers, their discomforts, their habits, their rations, the way they eat, their aliments, their gear, their equipment, the hazards inherent in war, and the seldom seen combat reality of downtime, when there is no action and the men are simply waiting. This range of features establishes what this group of men is like and what their status is at this point in the mission. It also acts as a larger commentary on the genre itself, filled as it is with so much of what defines the war film. Just as Mann’s Westerns are rife with the characteristic visual and thematic icons of that genre, Men in War is quickly shown to be a conglomeration of the war film’s key components. (This iconographic allusion was even present in the titles of certain of his Western films: Winchester ’73, The Tin Star, The Naked Spur, etc. As far as Men in War goes, its title plainly situates the film in its given genre; the next year, Mann would likewise release a Western called Man of the West. The importance and overt awareness of genre is obviously fundamental.)
As the men march forward, there’s a sudden shift in action. They see a jeep plowing through an open field. Given the proximity of the enemy, they assume the driver must be crazy to reveal himself like this, but more importantly, they see the jeep as a vital resource, something to assist in the movement of their supplies. Once they stop the speeding vehicle, they find Sgt. Montana (Aldo Ray) driving, and his passenger is a shell-shocked colonel (Robert Keith). Montana is reticent to divulge too much of his or the colonel’s backstory, so subsequently, Benson is skeptical about the sergeant’s true motivations. Benson commandeers the jeep and the group continues.
The goal for the men is relatively clear. They have to reach the hill to obtain the upper hand, or at least some relief. But it’s a long haul, a grueling trek for a group disheartened and fatigued. In their weary physical and mental condition, and with prolonged periods of inaction, it’s easy for the men to lose focus. There’s the chance for complacency to settle in as they navigate the grounds without incident. They must avoid carelessness and remain on guard, for they know what can happen if they disregard their threatening circumstances. The murder of the mechanic, Killian (James Edwards), serves as a reminder. He sits and dreamily picks some flowers, stretches his legs, and neglects his surroundings. He is promptly dispatched by the hidden enemy. This particular death scene stands out, as Mann brilliantly films the slaying by showing first Killian’s twitching foot at the moment of the stabbing, and then simply showing the moving grass as the North Koreans quickly flee. On the other hand, the men can also become hypersensitive. See, for example, the mania, the sheer terror on their faces when they encounter landmines.
The narrative trajectory of Men in War is extremely economical. The men essentially stay on one path, and every now and then, a new obstacle arises. Threats can be internal, as in the animosity between Benson and Montana, or external, as in the looming danger of the unseen enemy. In either case, Mann’s establishment of a clear goal and path allows drama to surface along the way, without apprehension about the audience forgetting the ultimate aim. It also allows for Mann to revisit any number of his frequent themes. First among these is the attention paid to loyalty and responsibility. Montana has a blind devotion to the colonel, the result, we find out, of a previously formed paternal bond. Similarly, the platoon is quick to obey Benson and trust his instincts. When an enemy soldier surrenders, the primary concern is to test his reliability. In a second, typically Mann motif of morally ambiguous heroes, Benson can be ruthless, but he has the respect of his men. He’s reasonable, driven, and strategic, and he can also be harsh and easily blinded by his objective. Third is location. Most prominently (and understandably) highlighted in his Westerns, Mann’s use of setting is one of his hallmarks. In Men in War, like in those Westerns, the environment serves a number of functions: it’s an impediment and it’s camouflage; it works against the men and it works for them; it affects their actions and thoughts and it influences their plans and determines their outcome.
The new Blu-ray of Men in War, from Olive Films (the company behind the Blu-ray release of Mann’s Strangers in the Night and his extraordinary God’s Little Acre), is a no-frills disc, with zero special features. The audio and video transfer, however, is quite good. The quality of the imagery is of particular note, as when Mann was working at his best, his talent for composition and camera movement rivaled that of John Ford or Samuel Fuller, to cite just two contemporaries. And with cinematography by Ernest Haller (The Roaring Twenties, Gone with the Wind, and Rebel Without a Cause, among others), Men in War is a film boasting exceptional photography.
When he was working, Anthony Mann never quite received the critical or industry recognition he deserves now in retrospect, though as the disc summary points out, his work here did warrant him a Director’s Guild award nomination, his second of three. Officially written by Philip Yordan (probably fronting for the blacklisted Ben Maddow), Men in War is, at any rate, a valuable entry in the fascinating, varied, and significant filmography of an American movie master.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT
Director Lars von Trier is nothing if not creative. From films like Epidemic in 1987 and Europa in 1991, to last year’s two-part Nymphomaniac, he has managed to bring a continually imaginative photographic and narrative formula to nearly all of his films, the best of which ultimately end up masterpieces of contemporary international cinema. It was arguably his 1996 feature, Breaking the Waves, that first, and most dramatically, catapulted him to the front ranks of modern-day global filmmaking, particularly within the arthouse arena and festival circuit, and understandably so. This affecting film is a powerful work that delves deeply into often unspoken and unconventional recesses of faith and love. Its themes are profound, its performances staggering throughout, and its visual palette and filmic technique are replete with saturated hues, vigorous camera work, and an unabashed intimacy.
It’s the imagery of Breaking the Waves that most benefits from the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD. The transfer is magnificent, with the granular quality sharply evident and the locations rendered markedly realistic by a now clearly visible level of interior and exterior detail. As von Trier notes in a printed interview included with the release, the film was transferred from film to video, the color was adjusted, and it was transferred back to film; this manipulation and visual experimentation has never been more apparent than it is here. Bonus features that include scene-specific commentary with von Trier, editor Anders Refn, and location scout Anthony Dod Mantle, as well as interviews, deleted and extended scenes, and von Trier’s rather curious Cannes Film Festival promotional clip, makes this a superb addition to Criterion’s already notable treatment of the director’s films. (It’s a shame they didn’t get their hands on Melancholia.)
The film begins with the uneasy wedding between Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), a simple-minded, deeply religious, and purely good young woman, and Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgård), a hardworking and occasionally rowdy but generally pleasant laborer on a nearby oil rig. Von Trier chooses to skip over their courtship (it must have been unorthodox), but it’s clear that their relationship is facing its fair share of obstacles. The locals are leery of “outsiders,” and while Jan is by no means a bad man, he and his friends are a little too unruly for their puritanical sensibilities. Most of the animosity arises due to the extremely conservative religiousness of those in the northern Scotland setting. Women do not speak during church services, nor can they attend funerals; in all aspects of life, these individuals are set in their restrictive, dogmatic ways. “Our church has no bells,” declares one elderly gentleman. “Not too fun, is it?” argues a friend of Jan’s. But this life is crucial to Bess. As von Trier notes, “Religion is her foundation,” and it proves to be the motivation, for better or worse, for most of her ensuing decisions.
While the villagers remain skeptical about the new couple, Bess is steadfast and confident; she is sure of her love for Jan and his love for her. The others are concerned, though. Everybody likes Bess — she has a big heart, giving freely of herself, to others, to the church, to her god — but her mental stability, or at least her cognizance, is shaky. There is some concern that in her blind obedience to Jan, he will take advantage of her. This seems unlikely, so subsequent audience allegiance is firmly placed with these young lovers as they stand strong against the naysayers. There’s also more than a little insinuation that jealousy is a factor in the local mistrust. Dodo McNeill (Katrin Cartlidge), Bess’ widowed sister-in-law, is mostly on the side of the newlyweds, but there is perhaps some resentment at their marital joy, which she no longer has. And in general, the happiness Jan and Bess express is not displayed elsewhere amongst this largely dour group of neighbors.
As with other von Trier films, particularly as of late, sex is important in Breaking the Waves, and it’s shown to be central to the early days of this marriage. It’s initially awkward for the inexperienced Bess, but Jan is gentle and caring and eventually, she grows increasingly uninhibited. When Jan goes back to work on the rig, she even attempts some sweetly uncomfortable phone sex. The importance of physical love in their relationship proves fundamental when tragedy strikes. As Bess childishly and anxiously waits for Jan (some accuse her of loving him too much, of being unable to function on her own), she prays for his return, and when that return comes due to a debilitating accident that leaves Jan paralyzed, she is racked by guilt. She believes she asked for this and God gave her what she wanted: Jan has indeed come home. The doctors aren’t convinced that the life Jan will have is worth living, but Bess remains optimistic. Sexuality again becomes prominent as Jan first requests that Bess wear looser clothing, so he can’t see her body and consequently become aroused, and then instructs her to seek out lovers and relay the experiences, somewhat similar to her phone sex routine. He reasons that it’s a way for them to have a type of sexual connection. Bess, who is still bothered by what she thinks she caused, does what Jan asks. She is relatively content to carry out whatever marital and spiritual obligations she can manage, and in her quest for redemption, it is hoped that both she and Jan will achieve a sort of mutual fulfillment.
Dodo and the others become troubled and even angered by this most unusual arrangement, but Bess insists that these “stories about love” are valuable: “Love can save Jan,” she contends. Bess and Jan’s situation in the community, which was precarious to begin with, is even more uncertain once word spreads of her dalliances. However innocent and well-intentioned she is, the villagers are unable to comprehend or sympathize. And once Jan’s condition deteriorates — physically and mentally — Bess isn’t sure how to cope; her actions grow more daring and dangerous and others become even more hostile. By the end of the film, conflicting opinions are given about Bess and her unique form of martyrdom. Jan’s doctor at one point describes her as “an immature, unstable person” who suffered from being good. Ultimately, the film’s final sequence and final image seem to suggest that maybe she was on to something after all.
As he would do in most of his films following this one, von Trier incorporates multiple formal devices to enhance and punctuate Breaking the Waves. To begin with, the film is broken up into novelistic chapter headings, the titles of which are shown over a scenic panorama of regional natural splendor with 1970s rock songs playing in the background. Neither the songs nor the images necessarily relate to the film’s basic narrative, but the breaks do provide moments of reflective respite from what is an otherwise intensely demanding feature. There are also Watson’s occasional glances at the camera. A Filmmaking 101 no-no, these direct confrontations with the audience arguably serve a variety of purposes, none of which are spelled out in any explicit fashion. Is Bess guiding the audience to join in with her joy or sorrow, to sympathize with her; is she perhaps inviting us to objectively contemplate her dilemma; or is it simply a self-conscious decision on von Trier’s part? It wouldn’t be the first or last time he did something provocative for provocative sake. Any – or all – of these options are equally plausible.
These direct looks at the camera are not the only deviations from standard cinematic rules and regulations regarding normative moviemaking practice. There are also jumps cuts, discontinuous sound, and a handheld camera that occasionally goes in and out of focus. These various stylistic choices contribute to the film’s modernist immediacy and a sense of the characters’ chaotically dramatic existence. It’s also part of an approach on von Trier’s mind at the time. Breaking the Waves was made just after the director joined other fellow Danish filmmakers to sign off on the so-called Dogme 95 manifesto, essentially eschewing typically used cinematic devices such as artificial lighting, a demonstrative score, optical effects, etc. As Breaking the Waves would nevertheless adhere to some of these customary conventions anyway (though it would ignore others), von Trier’s next film, The Idiots, would be his first true entry in the short-lived movement.
According to Stig Björkman, von Trier was initially quite afraid of actors and tended to focus more on the mechanical side of filmmaking. Björkman puts the change in this methodology around the time von Trier first started working on The Kingdom TV series, starting in 1994. Certainly Breaking the Waves still has its fair share of technical flair, unpolished though it may be, but clearly, von Trier was adjusting nicely to working with actors. Case in point: Emily Watson, a newcomer to movies at the time (who showed up for her audition barefoot – footage of which is also included on the disc). Watson notes an autobiographic interest in this film, having come from a strict cult-like religious upbringing, and she admits that this film, with its sexuality, nudity and rawness of emotion, was an “extreme place to start.” She reiterates the adjective by summing up the film as an “extreme version of human experience.”
Breaking the Waves would launch Watson’s career, and rightfully so, as she’s remarkable in the film, and it would also signal the beginning of an extraordinary string of female roles created by von Trier and brilliantly executed by a wide range of actresses through the years. While Kirsten Olesen turned in a great performance in the title role of von Trier’s Medea in 1988, it was with Watson that von Trier would establish himself as a preeminent director of women, from Björk to Nicole Kidman to, recently and especially, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Though the women in his films, including Watson here, do go through a lot — emotionally, physically, mentally —Skarsgård, for one, points out the absurdity of the accusations that von Trier doesn’t like women. Ever the provocateur, this is just one charge von Trier has had to contend with. But perhaps, as Skarsgård says, not necessarily pertaining to this issue, but just in general, “The problem’s not Lars von Trier. The problem’s the world.”
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT
As with much of his work, especially in the last 15 years or so, one’s response to Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes (1999) was to a large degree established even before the film’s release. Coming off the commercial success of Mission: Impossible two years prior, this 1998 feature was in many ways a return to form for the filmmaker. There were certainly flourishes of his established formal virtuosity in the Tom Cruise-starring blockbuster, but thematically and narratively, Snake Eyes was reminiscent of De Palma’s more (in)famous thrillers. As such, expectations were set, but they cut both ways. To De Palma fans, those who stuck by him through generic departures and critical and financial disasters like Wise Guys (1986) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Snake Eyes was undeniably going to please; this was the territory where they most liked to see him work. Conversely, for those who had had De Palma in their sights since Dressed to Kill (1980), Scarface (1983), and Body Double (1984), with condemnations of excessive violence and misogyny, Snake Eyes wasn’t going to produce any converts. To be sure, it didn’t contain either of these disapproving features (whatever their validity in the first place), but minds, in both cases, seemed to be made up. When it comes to Brian De Palma, his devotees are seldom disappointed, just as his detractors are never satisfied. Rare is the alteration, even more so in recent years. In any event, Snake Eyes was a project perfectly suited to De Palma’s own sensibilities.
With a screenplay by Mission: Impossible scribe David Koepp, based on a story by he and the director, the set-up for Snake Eyes is classic De Palma. A detective uncovers a multilayered conspiracy following the assassination of the secretary of defense during an Atlantic City boxing match. Duplicitous personalities, ulterior motives, and conflicting points of view are rampant, and De Palma does what he does best to stylishly convey a sense of confusion, suspicion, and desperation. As the detective—the verbose, egotistic, and frenzied Rick Santoro—wild-eyed Nicholas Cage is initially overbearing and almost embarrassing to watch. The over-the-top behavior is thankfully subdued when Santoro unearths the plot and learns of the involvement of his old friend, Commander Kevin Dunne (an at times robotic Gary Sinise). The audience is made aware of this revelation about 45 minutes in, but Santoro is only gradually convinced, the seeds of doubt having been planted by Julia Costello (Carla Gugino), a young woman who first tried to warn the secretary and soon becomes Santoro’s lone ally. This tactic of having the audience privy to information before certain characters is admittedly conventional, but it does work well with Snake Eyes, particularly as the film’s main themes deal with the visible and the hidden, the known and the unknown. After all, the “eye in the sky” camera that records the nefarious actions of Dunne, finally convincing Santoro, only captured that image because no one knew it was there.
With no apparent conscience to speak of—personally or professionally—Santoro is suddenly stricken with a moral compass and finds his allegiances conflicted. Dunne based his illegal actions on the assumption that Santoro could be bought, no matter the situation. He banks on his friend’s carelessness and penchant for corruption, and while we may feel certain that Cage will end up the “good guy,” there is a brief moment of hesitation that causes some doubt. Santoro is not exactly easy to get behind (to be sure, he is one of the least endearing characters Cage has played), but ethical misgivings notwithstanding, he knows what he’s doing and he’s good at what he does.
De Palma utilized split screens early in his career, and it was a tool he returned to repeatedly, for good reason. The technique is particularly functional in the hands of a filmmaker so concerned with multiple points of view (his, the audience’s, the character’s). Snake Eyes is no exception, with one split screen sequence taking place about halfway through the film. But here De Palma ups the ante by also incorporating diverse diagetic vantage points as well as a temporal and spatial shifting of narrative revelation: simultaneous actions recorded or recalled from a variety of viewpoints. Key sequences are repeated, but each is different as each is dependent upon those relaying the events. Not all perspectives are equal, nor are they necessarily reliable. It’s reminiscent of the varied points of view in something like Rashomon. Here though, the points of view also belong to a multitude of cameras. Security and television cameras have recorded much of the drama, and in doing so, they provide continual points of reference and revelatory possibility. It’s impossible for any one person, including the spectator, to have witnessed everything, but with these various devices—the individual recollections and the recordings—Santoro is able to piece together what transpired; likewise, the audience assembles a wider range of narrative and geographic understanding.
De Palma once said, “The camera lies 24 frames a second,” and with that in mind, Snake Eyes is an exceptional examination of what we see, who governs it, how, and why. At the beginning, we are first shown the action via three television monitors: three different cameras feed three different screens, each distinct and each mediated and controlled by unseen parties, but none the “true” event. The film is at once concerned with the idea of multiple views, but is also illustrative of manipulative and illusory appearances. The plot is driven by false impressions and deceit. The boxing match contains a fake victory, a thrown fight. The missile test that is the background catalyst for the political intrigue was manufactured to distort perceptions and prompt legislative action. Everyone in the film either has an angle or is suspected of having an angle. Stories are spun, from the actual nature of the weather to the varying accounts of what really happened. When Julia first appears, before it’s made clear what her role in the whole ordeal is, she is seen wearing a blonde wig—even one of our protagonists is in disguise at first. The opening shot of the film, an apparent 12-minute take, is itself an illusion. In fact, this sequence, a bravura example of cinematic choreography in any case, contains no less than eight cuts, each hidden by camera or character movement.
Speaking of this opening, while today’s visual movie dazzle seems to typically consist of special effect sequences bolstered by heavy CGI, there’s still something to be said for the elaborate camera movement unaided by computer technology. Fluid long takes around characters and their environment are a uniquely cinematic display of technical and artistic proficiency. Snake Eyes surely benefits from this stylistic choice, as amidst the crowd of fight fans and through the corridors of the casino, De Palma’s camera winds and weaves incessantly and gloriously. With Stephen H. Burum as cinematographer (his seventh collaboration with the director), the camera adopts points of objectivity, as in the crane shot shooting over the top of various hotel rooms, as well as the subjective views of several key characters. Especially early on, with a dizzying array of lights, movement, and people, De Palma’s prolonged takes and intricate maneuvers convey the bewilderment that drives the action. When this type of aesthetic is competently executed and is done so with a purpose, the results can be extraordinary. And when Brian De Palma does this well, he does it as well as anybody.
In the director’s own words, Snake Eyes is “a very Brian De Palma film,” even if it would signal more divisive work to come. As for Nicholas Cage, by 1998 he was on a roll. An Oscar in 1995 for Leaving Las Vegas led to a string of successful and generally entertaining action films—The Rock (1996) and Con Air and Face/Off (both 1997)—and the romance, City of Angels, released a few months before Snake Eyes. Today however, Cage’s performances, and their reception, have been more erratic. He has made some excellent movies since, even receiving another Oscar nomination in 2003, for Adaptation, but many of his choices have left audiences and critics scratching their heads. On the other hand, De Palma’s success rate since the turn of the century has been negligible across the board, except of course to those ardent admirers.
Snake Eyes was recently released on Blu-ray by Paramount Catalog.
This REVIEW was previously published in FILM INTERNATIONAL
The past few weeks have been good for Humphrey Bogart on Blu-ray. The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen were recently rereleased and assembled for the Best of Bogart Collection, and now, Sabrina, one of the legendary star’s final films, has received its first American appearance on the format. Perhaps more importantly, if total number of titles available on Blu-ray is the basis for judgment, Sabrina also marks one of disappointingly few Billy Wilder titles available in the remastered form. That the film also stars the radiant Audrey Hepburn and the remarkably versatile William Holden confirms that the release is worth commending.
From about 1944, with Double Indemnity, to Irma la Douce in 1963, Wilder had an astonishing run in Hollywood, and Sabrina came roughly in the middle of that period. Wilder, by this point, had 12 Oscar nominations for writing or directing. Sabrina would bring him 13 and 14. It was a relatively early picture for Hepburn, just a year after her similarly delightful turn in Roman Holiday, and it was arguably at the height of Holden’s career. He had worked with Wilder on Sunset Blvd. and Stalag 17, winning his only Oscar for the latter. Ernest Lehman and Samuel A. Taylor, who would both have several stellar titles to their credit in years to come (each would do work with Hitchcock, for example), co-wrote the script with Wilder. Finally, with Charles Lang (Charade, One-Eyed Jacks, Some Like It Hot, The Man from Laramie, The Big Heat, Ace in the Hole) as director of photography, it’s easy to say that Sabrina had considerable talent behind it.
Based on Taylor’s original play, “Sabrina Fair,” Sabrina tells the pleasant story of a chauffeur’s daughter who first falls in love with one rich brother then, over time, falls for the other. The brothers are David (Holden) and Linus (Bogart) Larrabee. The waifish girl is Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn). The Larrabees of Long Island lead a life of wealth and luxury, to say the least, the description and presentation of which is done in typically cynical Wilder style. We are introduced to their lifestyle by way of their hired hands and possessions (indoor pools, outdoor pools; indoor tennis courts, outdoor tennis courts). While this may seem comical to the audience, the young Sabrina witnesses the life they lead with extreme envy and wonder. She is particularly smitten by younger brother David, a frivolous playboy. Doe-eyed, she looks on David and the Larrabee life in general with great awe. But it is not to be. They are out of her class. As her father reminds her, there is a front seat and a back seat, and there’s a window in between.
In contrast to David is the financially minded and pragmatic Linus. While David is out spending the family money, Linus is making it. Part of his scheme for profit is to have David married off for business purposes. David is not one to settle down, nor is he particularly worried about the productive merger that would develop as a result of the arranged union. Nevertheless, the engagement is settled and all seems to be going well for the Larrabee clan.
Following her pathetically amusing suicide attempt, spurred on by David’s inattention to her, Sabrina is sent off to Paris for culinary school, where her first lesson is apparently on how to correctly boil water. Away from David for 2 years, Sabrina matures but never truly forgets the love she has for him. Upon her return, that infatuation is rekindled, this time with a twist. The twist is that now grown up, smartly dressed, well spoken, and looking even more radiant, Sabrina catches David’s eye. If only he wasn’t now engaged. And if only the family company didn’t have so much riding on the impending marriage. In any event, Sabrina now enamors David, while the perpetually diligent Linus is more concerned with a newly manufactured plastic. This all changes, however, when Linus schemes to keep David’s focus on the marriage/business proposal and intimately encounters Sabrina himself, becoming equally besotted by her looks and charm.
With Linus, before her true feelings for him are apparent, Sabrina is easygoing and cordial. She doesn’t have to try so hard with him. There aren’t years of infatuation to overcome. Even if Linus isn’t sure of what to do with Sabrina, how to keep her away from David and to not interfere with the marriage/merger, he manages to charmingly entertain her and their relationship grows closer with each diversionary attempt. They even share a troubled suicidal past. Ultimately, both David and Linus fall for Sabrina, no matter how they came to that feeling, how genuine it may be, or how likely their association is.
Like Bogart’s most famous feature, Casablanca, there was supposedly quite a bit of trouble with the Sabrina screenplay, even as filming was underway; like that 1942 classic, one would never know it by the completed film. Most prominent and admirable is the adept balance of romance and drama infused with comedy. Wilder, as he does so well, keenly observes and reveals the subtle humor inherent in even the most dramatic moments, never taking anything too seriously. The smartness of the dialogue is also typical for the filmmaker: after sitting on champagne glasses, David begins composing a poem and wonders, “What rhymes with glass?” All three main performers expertly fluctuate between moments of almost screwball comedy and delightful romantic rapture, and all work particularly well with and against each other. It must be admitted, however, that Bogart does seem somewhat out of place in the film, if only because he’s not typically associated with such a straightforwardly stuffy character. Cary Grant was the original choice for Linus, and Bogie’s casting was the subject of some debate at the time, revolving mostly around his age, despite the fact that he was only about 6 years older than Grant; when taking Sabrina out at one point, Linus dubs himself “Joe College with a touch of arthritis.” He was not pleased by Holden and Hepburn as costars, either (though they certainly didn’t mind each other – they fell in love while making the movie). Bogart apparently wanted his wife Lauren Bacall instead of the young leading lady newcomer, whom he felt wasn’t the least bit talented.
None of this stopped the film from being a success, ultimately earning $10 million, about five times its budget, and garnering a multitude of awards; its only Oscar win was for Edith Head’s black-and-white costume design. Along these lines, a short bonus feature on the disc highlights not only Head’s celebrated work, but also focuses on Hepburn as a fashion icon. Upon Sabrina’s return from Paris, Hepburn’s stylish prominence is evident, particularly in view of Sabrina’s “ugly ducking” narrative transformation.
Additional features on the disc run an eclectic gamut, from a documentary on the North Shore of Long Island to a promotional overview of the film’s production. More interesting are the features that look at William Holden’s career at Paramount (where he evolved from William Franklin Beedle Jr. into the leading man he became by the time Sabrina rolled around) and the short look at Paramount’s camera department. The real gem of the supplemental materials, however, is a documentary titled Supporting Sabrina, which highlights some of the character actors in the film, such as John Williams, Marjorie Bennett, Emory Parnell, Ellen Corby, and Walter Hampden. While Sabrina is just one film to feature some of these familiar but frequently forgotten faces, the value of these performers is a subject crying out for extensive exploration and further study.
With solid bit players like these, stars who shined as bright as any in Hollywood, a versatile director who maintained a staggering constancy of theme and wit, and with such an agreeably simple story, Sabrina is a classic of American cinema. It’s an exceptional example of the assured best the studio system had to offer.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT