Balmy and Clod

June 17, 2011

I remember in sixth grade after a vacation, sitting and listening while each classmate was asked what he or she did over the break.  Several girls responded in this fashion:  “On Monday, I saw Bonnie and ClydeOn Tuesday, I saw  Bonnie and Clyde again.  On Thursday, I saw…”  I saw it too, but only once.

Some people criticized the film for glorifying a couple of outlaws – the usual culture-war stuff in the 1960s and early 70s.  Watching it yesterday, it seemed to me that the bank robbers were portrayed as utterly pathetic losers, uneducated and ignorant, stifled by their small-town lives in an era of economic disaster.

Clyde announces his masculine deficiencies right off, at the very start of the film.  First, symbolically:  He declares to Bonnie that he cut off some toes to escape work detail in prison.  Secondly, after a small robbery and heady getaway, he rejects Bonnie’s frenzied sexual advances and declares, “I ain’t no  lover boy.”  He’s a great shot with a pistol, though.

I was prepared to not like this film – another over-rated artifact of the 1960s effervescence – but, in fact, it is very good.  Spare, and very dark.  The editing is so crisp, keeping the pace going, and commenting on the smallness of the characters and their foolish, clueless self-aggrandizement.  Of course, it all builds towards that concluding fusillade, that made the film such a favorite for my sexually precocious, or curious, female classmates.  Doomed lovers are always a popular theme.

Clyde is impotent, although he does manage to perform at last, near the end.  They drive towards the final ambush, eating fruit, dribbling juice down their faces.  (Reminded me of the pre-sex meal scene in Tom Jones.)  Of course, sex is not what’s coming, or is it?  Sex-Death, the eternal couple, dancing on display here.  Eros and Thanatos.  Bonnie, cheated of earthly ecstasy, seems to achieve it in death.  The stylistic and thematic debt to the too-little-known Gun Crazy is enormous.

And of course, there’s this!

Man on the run

August 23, 2010

Hitchcock’s 1935 film, The 39 Steps, has an innocent man on the run from the law and his nefarious pursuers, trying to unravel a mystery and clear his name.  He’s pretty darn cool about it too.  Despite being a Canadian, he maintains a British devil-may-care lightheartedness through it all.  And he navigates some pretty racy situations as well.

He gets into the mess when an attractive woman bumps into him as the audience flees a theatre, and she asks to go home with him – she’s frightened.  At home, over dinner, she reveals that she is a spy, motivated by cash, not patriotism.  Somehow, she gets stabbed in his apartment, and he has to flee and uncover the murderers to clear his name.  In the course of his run for freedom, he encounters a train compartment with two traveling salesmen of ladies undergarments.  Then, to elude the police, he breaks into a compartment where the sole occupant is a pretty woman, and proceeds to kiss her passionately after begging her not to give him up.  The cops are reluctant to interrupt their embrace, but finally do, and she…so unromantic…tells them, “Here’s the man you want.”

Later, by chance, he finds himself joined up with her again, by the wrists in which they are handcuffed.  There are many amusing and sexy passages in which they must occupy a bed together, she peels off her wet, cold stockings, which he solicitously hangs to dry by the fire, and posing as eloping lovers for a credulous innkeeper.  I thought this woman was married to a minor player in the drama, but maybe she was always an available love interest.

A few images:

After she turns him in to the cops, they pull the emergency break and he has a narrow escape on the Firth of Forth Bridge, “that marvel of Scottish engineering,” as he remarks in an off the cuff speech he finds himself required to give.

Holed up in a country inn, he tells tall tales of his criminal past.  She begins to think he might be telling the truth.  Could a murderer be so charming and funny?

Another Hitchcock climax in a theatre, but a little down-market from the Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Led away by the cops, the hero demands of Mr. Memory, “Tell us, what is the meaning of the 39 Steps?

He replies automatically, and the denoument is almost done…

At one point in his flight, the hero finds himself in the wings of a theatre while a speaker who is expected momentarily is introduced.  The chairman of the meeting mistakes him for the speaker, and to escape his pursuers, he takes the podium and gives a rousing political talk without knowing whom he is endorsing or what topic he is to speak on.  [Surely, an acerbic take on Depression Era politicos.]  The sequence is echoed, intentionally or not, but The Third Man, when the hapless Holly Martins finds himself spirited away to a literary meeting – at first he thinks he’s being kidnapped – where he has to speak about modern novels, something about which he knows next to nothing.  And finally, I am reminded of the sequence in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie when the characters find themselves on stage in a theatre, apparently the characters in play before an audience, but they don’t know their lines.

Death in the Garden

July 2, 2010

Death in the Garden is a film from 1956 by Luis Bunuel.    The plot is one we have seen many times in cinema:  an unlikely group  of characters is forced to work together in order to survive in hostile circumstances, outside of the boundaries of civilization, and in the process, their personalities and the old class distinctions begin to disintegrate.  Nothing at all surprising here, and the film is, in fact, rather straightforward for those expecting a wild dash of surrealism, but that is not to say it’s boring.  No, it was a wonderful, surprising, and sometimes poignant movie.  It’s also in stunning 1950s color.

Our group comprises a rather uptight priest, a brash prostitute used to running her own show, an elderly miner, her former customer, who has decided to marry her and take her back home to France with him, the miner’s daughter, a pretty young woman who is mute, and a handsome adventurer running from the law.  They all must flee their one-horse town in the South American wilderness when the high-handed actions of the corrupt local military man provoke an armed uprising.  The miner and adventurer are falsely accused of crimes, the whore is implicated with the miner, and the priest…at first he is taken against his will, but after that, he’s a marked man too.

With the setting of the Amazonian jungle, it’s clear that The Garden refers to Eden.  The philosophical and religious themes are piled on one after another, but with delicious irony and humor – you could ignore them if you wish and just enjoy a really good adventure yarn.  Now and then, there is a touch that jumps out as distinctly Bunuel, but mostly his presence is felt in the sure direction, the interplay of image and idea, and the portrayal of human culture and norms as just this side of bizarre when seen in the context of nature’s ‘garden.’

I had never seen Simone Signoret as anything but a plump and almost matronly older figure.  Here she is in her early bombshell days:  first meeting with Chark, who is happy to pay for her company; in the jungle with the priest for company, desparately in need of a bath.

Chark kills a snake, and saves them from starvation.  Later, the priest sees the remains swarming with ants.  What would a Bunuel film be without ants?  Was the priest having a vision, or does he really see it?

We see a shot of Paris at night, cars honking, and suddenly it’s an old snapshot of Paris by the light of their jungle campfire, the film suddenly runs down and the audio stops… Reminds me of the film breaking in Bergman’s Personna-which came first?

They are saved when they come upon the wreck of an airplane that was carrying a load of rich vacationers.  Suitcases yield food, drink, fancy clothes, and even jewels!  We see a well dressed woman opening a jewel box, and then are jolted to see it is the young Maria, dressed up, searching through the luggage.  The priest tries to inject a note of law and order, but the lovely young girl is dazzled by the apples, er…jewels.

Djin, the whore, “looks like a real lady,” and makes quite an impression on Chark.  They like each other, but they have to get past the fact that she turned him in to the police for a cut of his cash.  What a bizarre shot this is – high fashion in the wilderness.

Obviously, this idea has a lot of appeal for people today.

The images below say it all:  bare skin, the jungle, raw passion, jewels, civilization stripped away…I saw the advert on a huge billboard driving home from the airport after watching the movie on my flight.  It exploits the jewels on naked-savage-skin opposition for different ends.

She’s tempted, but she’s innocent.  Two of the group survive to escape down the river in a shot that brought to mind the end of The Great Escape, when Charles Bronson floats down a stream to freedom in a small boat.