Friday, January 21, 2011

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) -- Akira Kurosawa

The story opens in 1933 as Japan's increasingly nationalist regime moves to suppress academic freedom and student activism in the period before World War II. Yukie (Setsuko Hara) the daughter of a university law professor, soon sees her life change dramatically. Two proteges of her father (Noge and Itokawa), vie for her attentions. When the father is fired, the two join other disgruntled students in a resistant movement that the minister of education easily and quickly controls. Noge drops out of school to continue his political dissent, while Itokawa chooses a safe path and graduates, becoming a government prosecutor and member of the establishment. But the story is about the girl, and what decisions she makes to bring meaning and purpose to her life.

Dissatisfied and empty, Yukie moves to Tokyo where she secures one meaningless job after another. She eventually meets Noge there, who is a recent parolee after five years in prison for political opposition to Japan's designs for expansion and war. Now a publisher, he continues his dissident ways in secret. The two marry. He tells her that one must have no regrets in life, to pursue a course that is important. If the people of today do not understand his opposition to the government, they will in ten years. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Noge is arrested. He later dies in jail, leaving Yukie again, unfulfilled and searching for a purpose.

Idyllic days before academic freedom was oppressed.

Viewers used to Kurosawa will find this a different film than his usual fare. Most obviously, it is centered on a woman rather than a male character. It contains no action to speak of and none of the Fordian themes of honor, loyalty, betrayal and revenge that inhabit his later films. (Kurasawa was a great admirer of John Ford and his cinematic approach to story telling.)  Like his later work, however; No Regrets is beautifully shot. The lack of a strong male protagonist allows the director to focus on character development and performance.      

Hara is remarkable. One of the world's great actresses, she is just 26 here, but demonstrates more skill and controlled emotion than just about any better known American and European actors (The only comparable ones for me are Stanwyck and Kerr). The film spans some 12 years of the character's life, and at no point does she not look or act the correct age. It is a turbulent journey of self-discovery, handled sublimely. She looks quite younger here than she did for the Noriko Trilogy roles with Yasujiro Ozu; fuller of face perhaps, with shorter hair, but still beautiful. Kurosawa uses plenty of closeups of his actress to great effect, as Hara's eyes convey an enormous range of feelings, from joy to despair.

When one thinks about her more famous "Noriko" performances: self-effacing young women still steeped in tradition; and compare them to her role as the passionate, tradition-breaking Yukie; you appreciate that Hara was a wonderfully versatile actor.     

The best scenes are in the final third, when Yukie has decided to travel alone to the country to live with Noge's parents. They live a miserable life, are old and dirt poor, and have been ostracized by the villagers for having a traitor for a son. At first they reject her, but her stubborn determination to help someone eventually wins them over. She stands alongside the old women planting rice and toiling in the fields, and you get a little appreciation of the back-breaking life that an agriculture-based existence could be in Japan in the 1940s.       
Setsuka Hara as Yukie.
Made just after the war, it is Kurasawa's first film not censured or controlled by the state. It is interesting that he includes no real mention of the conflict. It intrudes into the lives of his characters off-screen. Though there is a clear rejection on the director's part of Japan's role in the war, and of the philosophy of expansion that its jingoistic leaders embraced, he does not dwell on it. This is a more subtle, sensitive film than a lesser director might have made in his place.    

I like a film bookended by related scenes. No Regrets has one of films' finest examples. It opens with a perfectly idyllic scene. Yukie and a group of college students are on a picnic. They happily bound through a flowered meadow, step across rocks in a stream, and run through some woods to the top a hill where a panoramic view unfolds. There they collapse in the grass and rest. Gunfire is heard in the distance. Yukie walks off for a better look, saying she likes the sound. They find a body in the grass. This signifies the start of the oppressive period. Near the end of the film, Yukie revisits the spot, and sits near the same stream to watch a similar group of students. They enjoy the reinstated freedoms. It is a poignant reminder that life comes full circle and that she has come a long way.   

Friday, January 14, 2011

Great Expectations (1946) -- David Lean

Young Pip (Tony Wager) is an orphan living with his cantankerous sister and kind uncle, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). Pip has no aspirations beyond hoping to one day become a blacksmith like Joe, for whom he serves as apprentice. One night Pip encounters a menacing escaped convict on the marsh, Magwitch (Finlay Currie). Scared out of his wits, Pip steals some food for the man, who shortly is recaptured and taken away. About the same time, Pip makes the acquaintance of a strange old woman, Miss Havisham (Marita Hunt). She is wealthy and arrogant and introduces the boy to her beautiful niece, Estella (Jean Simmons). Pip is infatuated, but rebuked. She tells him he is course and common. He soon comes into some money, thanks to a mysterious benefactor, and Pip (now, John Mills) goes off to London and high society with great expectations to make a name for himself as a gentleman.  
Pip visits his parents' grave.
This is arguably the best adaption of any Charles Dickens' novel to screen, Dickens' most accessible work. The only other film of similar stature is Director Lean's own Oliver Twist, filmed two years later, with some of the same cast and crew. Here, Lean faithfully captures the mood of the novel's time and place, especially Havisham's ivy-covered and cobwebbed-ridden mansion, the murky marshland, and the teeming streets of London. Filmed in black and white, it is stunningly beautiful. And populated by some of Dickens' most fascinating and colorful characters, it is a delight. Currie as Magwitch, and Francis Sullivan as the irrepressible lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, are impressive and memorable. 

The film starts with a dramatic scene, its best. Pip comes to a churchyard to lay flowers at his parents' grave. The wind howls eerily and the trees creak ominously. Pip first meets the desperate convict here. It is a masterful achievement by Lean and art director Wilfred Shingleton; who together create the perfect atmosphere. Magwitch, starving, filthy, and bound by leg irons, looks exactly as a young boy's imagination would picture such a monster. He suddenly looms up and threatens the terrified boy: "Keep still, you young devil, or I'll slit your throat!" He tells Pip to bring him some food and tools. If he doesn't, he'll "have his liver and heart out!" Currie is wonderful. The set decoration includes tilted headstones, a period church in the background, and naked tree branches that remind one of skeleton arms.   

A horrible encounter with Magwitch.
There are moments of fine humor in the film. Mr. Jaggers, who serves as the intermediary between Pip and his secret benefactor, is bound to silence. Jaggers has his own language, deliberate and formal. He cannot tell Pip who saved him from a working life of poverty, and without being too direct, he cleverly advises the young man, scolds him when necessary, and generally makes sure he is taken care of. There is a peripheral character named the "Aged P." No longer able to hear, his son communicates with his father by nodding. It is silly, but funny.

Miss Havisham is one of film's most macabre characters. Certainly mad, she is a dowager in a rotting wedding dress. Jilted at the alter years earlier, she hasn't let the sunlight enter her mansion since. The table is still set for the wedding feast with a moldy cake as centerpiece. Even the mice won't touch it. 
Inside the Havisham Mansion.

What Makes Great Expectations Special:

This is simply one of the most visually rich films ever made. No scene is neglected. Of course, Lean had the wonderful source novel as grist for the mill. For example, Mr. Jaggers keeps death masks of clients he has lost to the gallows on his office walls.

Like all Dickens novels, the story is dense and complicated. Characters in the first act reappear later. Magwitch is one, and his second coming is dramatic and changes the course of the film. Lean, an accomplished editor before he turned to directing, knew how to trim it down without losing any of Dickens' unique flavor and atmosphere, or his biting social commentary. Everything is resolved in the end, of course.   

Lean's mastery of direction shows up in little scenes, like the one where Jaggers asks Pip to look out his office window. The Point of View is Pip's--he sees a plaza below packed with rowdies come to watch a multiple hanging. The POV shifts to Pip's face for his reaction. We hear the crowd quiet as the camera moves in for a close-up. Suddenly there is a rousing cheer and Pip cringes. The execution appears off screen, but we know exactly what happened. 

Inside Story:

Alex Guinness made his speaking film debut as Pip's friend and roommate, Herbert Pocket. He would go on to work with Director Lean five more times, most notably as Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948) and winning the Oscar for his role as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Lean would go on to international fame as a director of grand epics, like the aforementioned Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter, and Passage to India. But it is his early work, including the two Dickens' classics, that may be his greatest achievements. 

John Mills, who plays the older Pip was 38 when the film was produced. He does a fine job, but he is too old for the role, which requires someone a good ten years younger. It is the only significant distracting aspect of the film.

Jean Simmons at 17 is quite beautiful. It is too bad her role is such a short one.

Major Awards:
  • Won Oscars for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Black & White Cinematography.
  • Nominated for Oscars for Director, Picture, and Writing.
  • In a 1999 poll it was named the 5th best British film by the British Film Institute.
Other Early Films by Lean:
  • Brief Encounter 1945
  • Blithe Spirit 1945
  • Oliver Twist 1948
  • Summertime 1955    

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Touch of Evil (1958) - Orson Welles

Orson Welles as the seedy Captain Quinlan.
Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) is soon scheduled to testify in a trial against a notorious Mexican crime family, the Grandis. In the meantime, while on his honeymoon, he gets embroiled in corruption in a Texas border town when a car-bombing kills an American developer. Because it's clear the explosive was planted on the Mexican side of the border, Vargas joins the investigation. Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), the American police captain, thinks he knows who did it, and to prove it, he's not above planting evidence to secure a conviction. "I never framed anyone," he says, "...unless they're guilty." Vargas is shocked by such unsavory police methods and threatens to out Quinlan. To protect his own reputation and pressure Vargas to back off, Quinlan joins forces with Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff).

Welles employs his characteristic camera magic--extended takes, deep focused darkened scenes with jarring angles, and unsettling close-ups, in this, the last of the classic American film noirs, a genre that petered out before 1960. It is a marvelously seedy atmospheric setting, where it's hard to tell the criminals from the cops. In the repulsive Quinlan, Welles creates one of noir's most memorable characters. Thirty years on the job and the murder of his wife has turned him into a man almost diseased by the fifth that cakes his soul. "I'm always thinking of her, drunk or sober," he admits. "What else is there to think about, except my job, my dirty job?" Obese and crude, he hasn’t shaved in days and looks to have slept in his clothes. You imagine he stinks.

Joe Grandi Shrinks in fear. 
In a film full of great sequences, the most critically acclaimed is the audacious three-minute plus opening high crane tracking shot that sets up the car explosion. Cars, street vendors, and pedestrians crisscross in front of and behind Vargas and his wife Susan (Janet Leigh) as they walk down the street and pass through a border inspection station. Complicated and reliant on perfect timing, it is a magnificent technical achievement. Two other memorable scenes both involve Janet Leigh. In the first, Susanthought to be safely tucked away in an isolated American motelis overpowered by creepy Grandi gang members, including Mercedes McCambridge in a cameo. She leers at the struggling girl with glee, saying, "I want to watch." Later, with Susan drugged and half-naked on a bed in a downtown hotel, Quinlan and a perfectly terrified Joe Grandi have a tense and pivotal encounter. Quinlan, drunk and sleep-deprived, shows his cruelty and desperation in an effort to protect himself.

Quinlan: "Come on, read my future for me.
Tanya: "You haven't got any."
Quinlan: "Hmm? What do you mean?"
Tanya: Your future's all used up."
The film is all about betrayal. There are four: Quinlan has long-since abandoned the police code of honor and he double-crosses Uncle Joe; Vargas resorts to unethical tactics to trap the big man; and most disturbing, Quinlan's right-hand-man, deputy Menzies, helps him do it. Joseph Calleia plays the loyal Menzies in a great performance. The captain once saved his life by taking a bullet meant for him. When finally forced to see his idol as he really is, corrupt and a killer, Menzies is sick with anguish. He loves the man.        

Janet Leigh thinks she's safe in a motel.
Henry Mancini wrote a wildly effective jazzy/swing score and two terrific supporting roles add to the unsettling nature of the film. Dennis Weaver plays a weirdly nervous hotel night clerk, and Marlene Dietrich is an out-of-place gypsy fortune teller, Tanya, who may have had a fling with Quinlan years ago. Illustrating the depth of his decline, he has become so fat she doesn’t recognize him, saying, "lay off the candy bars." Dietrich has the wonderful last line in the film.  

What Makes Touch of Evil Special:

Welles perfectly captured the visual style of Noir and produced a film significantly more entertaining than his consensus masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

There are lots of little touches thrown in, unnoticed except through repeated viewings. When Quinlan throttles Grandi, hoping to frame Susan for murder, he forgets his cane. He passes through the door, where a sign hangs reminding occupants not to leave anything behind. At one point a Grandi thug throws acid at Vargas. He misses but splashes a poster of the stripper killed in the opening car explosion. In another scene Uncle Joe loses his toupee.

The power of the film lies in Welles' ability to make a morally degenerate character almost sympathetic. Sure Quinlan's methods are as crooked as the criminals he chases, but the man's hunches on the guilty are right on the mark. Something happened to him in the past that we don’t get to see, but you sense he was a good man once upon a time. And betrayal is never pretty, no matter who the target.
Inside Story:

The film was famously re-edited by the studio against Welles' ardent wishes, deleting several minutes and reshooting some scenes. Welles didn't want credits shown or background music to interfere with the famous opening tracking shot.

Joseph Calleia played El Sordo in 1944's For Whom the Bells Tolls, which also starred Akim Tamiroff as the guerrilla band leader, Pablo.

Director of photography, Russell Metty, also shot 1961's The Misfits and 1960's Spartacus, for which he won an Academy Award.   

A box office bust in the U.S. upon its initial release, it was lauded elsewhere, named best film at the 1958 Brussels World Fair by critics/judges Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who'd later direct Breathless and The 400 Blows, respectively.

The Famed Opening Sequence:

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Early Summer (1951) -- Yasujiro Ozu

The Mamiya family. 
Noriko (Setsuka Hara) is twenty-eight and lives with her parents, her brother and his wife, and their two sons. She is unmarried, which in post-war Japan still borders on being an old maid. Her marital status is of great concern to all, particularly her brother and parents. Times are changing, however, and Noriko is an independent woman. She works in an office and helps with the family budget. She enjoys being single and visiting with friends, both married and single. When her boss suggests she marry a 40-year old friend of his who is well established with an executive job her family urges her to accept. Though caring and devoted to her family, Noriko has other ideas.

This the the second in the "Noriko Trilogy" by Director Ozu and Hara. If the weakest of the three films it is still wonderful (the others being Late Spring 1949 and Tokyo Story 1953). It similarly is in the minimalistic style of the director, with mostly static, low angle camera shots, little action, and conversations that show a family's every day existence. They are quiet films, serene in their pace, where the focus is on family interaction over action and plot. There are scenes of eating and simple conversation, characters going to work and coming home. With these Ozu cuts to scenes of a bird cage, a tree, a moving train, or a busy Tokyo street to emphasize that each family is but a small part of life in the city. The film opens and closes with a shot of waves lapping a shore--life is constant and inevitably moves forward.

That theme is what this film is about. Noriko's choice reflects the changing culture of post-war Japan, which is increasingly being Westernized. Women are beginning to make their own choices, and are not so reliant on tradition and the wishes of parents. Marriages are becoming less arranged contracts. 

The best scene in the film is between Hara and her sister-in-law, Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake). It is near the end and Noriko has decided to reject the arranged marriage proposal, and instead, wed a long-time acquaintance, a widower with child. Fumiko loves Moriko like a sister, and needs to express her concern. She warns her about being poor. Assured by Noriko that she knows what she's doing, they share a poignant laugh. Noriko explains she wasn't comfortable about a 40-year old man still drifting around unattached. The scene ends as they run down to the sea and begin to stroll along the shore, water lapping at their feet.    

Noriko and Fumiko share quiet moment.

The scene opens with a shot of a sand dune. The camera pans slowly up and from behind we see the two women walk up the hill, stop at the top and sit down. There is an immediate cut to the front. We can still not see what they are looking at. During the conversation you get the sense that despite her worry, the slightly older woman envies Noriko a little. She admits that she herself knew nothing of marriage before she wed Noriko's brother. It is a small, honest moment between two friends that care for each other, something that Ozu captured as well as anyone. Each trilogy film contains an undercurrent of sadness. Here, both women feel the imminent change in their lives. It is disquieting, but inevitable. And the loss of another brother killed in the war haunts the family, particularly the grandmother who still hopes he will return. Still, Early Summer is much less overtly sad than the other films. The aged parents see the family broken up and dispersed, but the old couple are still together, and no doubt will see everyone again. 

Like the great John Ford, an American director he purportedly admired, Ozu has his stock company. Many of the same actors appear in the Trilogy films, most notably Hara and Chrishu Ryu, who here plays the brother. In Late Summer he is Hara's father, in Tokyo Story, her father-in-law. Ryu has an extraordinary talent to assume the age and appearance of his characters, down to an old man's shuffle. 

The supporting actors will be familiar to Ozu viewers. With little screen time they give effective performances.  

What Makes Early Summer Special:

Setsuko Hara is a joy to watch. Easily shifting character: from a mature, confident young woman, to almost a giggling schoolgirl with friends and family, or crying because her decision unintentionally hurts someone, she is a natural actress. Her smile is radiant and comforts the viewer. When Japanese woman talk in Ozu films they often sound like happy birds chirping. Hara's voice is like that, and conveys sympathy and concern. In each film she is the most likable character.   

Ozu does a great job capturing signs of Americanization in a nation bound in tradition: Noriko's business attire, a Coca Cola sign, a movie poster, a mention of a Hollywood actress.  

Inside Story:

Ryu appeared in 52 of Ozu's 54 films, certainly the greatest partnership in film history between an actor and a director.  

At the time of this writing Hara is still alive at age ninety. She retired from film in 1963, shortly after Ozu's death, still at the height of her popularity.