The Beast In Me: Le Bête Humaine (1938)

LA BETE HUMAINE (1938)

To view La Bête Humaine click here.

Following the transformative success of Grand Illusion (1937), Jean Renoir suddenly had an overwhelming number of opportunities. There was an offer on the table from Samuel Goldwyn to come to Hollywood, though he delayed his route there, at least temporarily. Instead he would direct the panoramic French Revolution drama La Marseillaise ([1938],which I will write about later in my Renoir series) and our subject today, La Bête Humaine (1938). The latter is a moody death-haunted drama adapted from the Emile Zola novel, returning to the author’s work for the first time since Nana (1926). A grimly fatalistic tale about a train engineer’s inbred compulsion to murder, and his desperate attempts to restrain it, it is graced by an iconic Jean Gabin performance that attempts to go beyond good and evil.

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For Richer, For Poorer: The Lower Depths (1936)

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To view The Lower Depths click here.

“That man who makes films where people spit on the ground.” – Jacques Schwob d’Héricourt (producer) on Jean Renoir

When the funding ran out on A Day in the Country (1936), Jean Renoir left that film unfinished to start casting on The Lower Depths (1936). An adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play starring Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet, it was a major step up in budget from the independent operation he was leaving. The Lower Depths captures the changing fortunes of Gabin’s flophouse thief and Jouvet’s gambling Baron, their lives intersecting up and (mostly) down the social ladder. Production started on September 5, four months after a coalition of leftist groups known as the Popular Front swept into office in France. Renoir was becoming one of the public faces of the movement, writing articles for the Communist paper L’Humanite and attending meetings and screenings at the Ciné-Liberté, a self-described “worker’s cooperative for variable-capital production” that would battle “against the ill fate with which film is saddled.” The political Renoir was not the artist Renoir, however, who took his production money wherever he could get it. The Lower Depths, for example, was produced by Films Albatros, which was founded by White Russians who fled the country before the 1917 revolution. While restricted somewhat by its stagebound material The Lower Depths still contains remarkable scenes of downward mobility, highlighted by Louis Jouvet’s smirkingly disgraced Baron, who finds a home dozing in the grass.

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Desire: A Day in the Country (1936)

DAY IN THE COUNTRY, A (1936)

To view A Day in the Country click here.

One of Jean Renoir’s most beloved films is one he wasn’t interested in finishing. While making A Day in the Country, Renoir was in pre-production on both The Lower Depths (1936) and Grand Illusion (1937). Once A Day in the Country ran into money problems he put it to the side, leaving it to be finished by his producer Pierre Braunberger. Shot in 1936, it wasn’t released until 1946 as a 40-minute short, whereupon it swiftly entered the pantheon. A suggestive slip of a movie, adapted from a Maupassant short story, it portrays the dueling desires of a bourgeois Parisian family and two country layabouts out for a bit of flirtatious sport. What transpires is beyond their respective imaginings, a transformative lust that lingers well beyond that afternoon under the summer sun.

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“Just shut up and watch!”: Remembering Seijun Suzuki (1923-2017)

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To view the work of Seijun Suzuki click here.

On February 13, we lost Seijun Suzuki. The Japanese director, screenwriter, actor and producer was 93-years-old at the time of his death and a titan in my own cinematic universe but I haven’t had the opportunity to properly mourn his passing. With Suzuki’s birthday fast approaching (May 24th) I thought I would devote some time to discussing the movie maverick who is being commemorated on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck with “Chaos of Cool: A Tribute to Seijun Suzuki.” The programing theme presents seven of Suzuzki’s films including Take Aim at the Police Van (1960), Youth of the Beast (1963), Gate of Flesh (1964), Story of a Prostitute (1965), Fighting Elegy (1966), Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967) but if you search for the director’s name on FilmStruck you will also find Everything Goes Wrong (1960), which I singled out in the past. If you are unfamiliar with Suzuki or already a fan, “Chaos of Cool” provides subscribers with a fantastic opportunity to explore the work of one of Japan’s most dynamic, influential and innovative filmmakers.

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The Tramp: Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING (1932)

To view Boudu Saved From Drowning click here.

“From Boudu I have learned that one of the attitudes to take toward society is to loathe it.” - Michel Simon

In Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) Michel Simon plays a bearded bum who has lost interest in humanity. Boudu would prefer to stroll in the park with his dog or drown at the bottom of the Seine than re-enter the world of neckties and table manners and responsibility. But he is dragged into it by a bourgeois bookseller who hopes to “save” him from his “plight.” But instead of praise Boudu brings chaos, destabilizing the household from within. Simon closely collaborated with director Jean Renoir on the production, and it is a tour de force performance, with Simon a loose-limbed satyr, extending his gangly frame in all the wrong directions so as to most annoy his hosts. It is something of a thematic sequel to La Chienne(1931), which Renoir and Simon completed the previous year and which I wrote about last week. They both center Simon as a sympathetic monster, one who commits despicable acts but only because they are being true to themselves. It is Boudu’s nature to drift, so if he is not allowed to drown in the undercurrent, he will coast above it, roiling all the lives he touches along the way.

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Bigotry & Bloodshed: Sapphire (1959)

SAPPHIRE (1959)

To view Sapphire click here.

A beautiful young woman named Sapphire (Yvonne Buckingham) has been murdered. Her bloodied corpse was found in London’s Hampstead Heath park. A seasoned detective (Nigel Patrick) and his young partner (Michael Craig) are called on to investigate the case but as they try to piece together the puzzle of this post-war whodunit the mystery only deepens. Behind her tweed skirts and pale complexion, Sapphire was keeping many secrets including the fact that she was the biracial child of a black mother and white father. Did race play a part in her murder? Is a family member involved? Or was she killed by one of her male suitors? Before the killer is unmasked, this curious mystery takes some surprising twists and turns. In the process viewers get a firsthand look at London’s vibrant city streets undergoing a tectonic shift as denizens of white working-class pubs and black jazz clubs mix, mingle and occasionally fall in love. We also get a taste of the revolting racism quietly simmering underneath this modern cultural melting-pot.

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An Unusual Friendship: Tiger Bay (1959)

TIGER BAY

To view Tiger Bay click here.

Tiger Bay is one of my all-time favorite films that I made. I still can’t get over the thrill I got when I first saw Hayley on the screen, with those wonderful big eyes … She was an ideal little person to work with because you knew … when you just looked through the lens at her that the camera loved her … You just knew that she had such a rapport with the camera and that’s what filmmaking is about – the rapport between the camera and the artist. It’s that magic that you can not explain. You either have it or you don’t. The very best actor or actress in the world, if the camera doesn’t love her, half the performance has gone.” – J. Lee Thompson

Twelve-year-old Hayley Mills made her screen debut in Tiger Bay (1959) playing Gillie, a rambunctious doe-eyed orphan living with her aunt in the British working-class neighborhood of Tiger Bay. When Gillie unwittingly witnesses a Polish sailor (Horst Buchholz) shoot his girlfriend (Yvonne Mitchell), she steals the gun to impress her young playmates and protect the charismatic killer. Over the course of the film Gillie and the murderer develop an unusual bond while trying to evade a determined police superintendent (John Mills) and escape prosecution.

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Life is Beautiful: La Chienne (1931)

CHIENNE, LA (1931)

To view La Chienne click here.

The characters in La Chienne (1931) do not learn or grow, but remain indelibly themselves. Each act of pettiness, adultery or murder is a logical extension of personality, fated in DNA.  It is the earliest of director Jean Renoir’s canonical works, bitterly funny and desperately sad, which unravels a love triangle in which all three members cling to unsustainable illusions. A mild-mannered cashier (Michel Simon) and brutish pimp (Georges Flamant) both project their dreams of escape onto a no-nonsense prostitute (Janie Marèse), who is unwilling to satisfy their divergent desires (the cashier asks for love, the pimp money – neither ask what she wants). None are capable of enough empathy to consider the other’s position, so they continue in mutual incomprehension, and on to frustration and violence. Renoir bookends the film with a puppet show, framing the trio as marionettes not in control of their destiny, tugged along by their natures. While this leads them to tragedy, it also provides them with a radical kind of freedom, the sloughing off of all control.  

This is the third part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate is here. The second entry on Nana is here. [...MORE]

Margaret Lockwood is The Wicked Lady (1945)

WICKED LADY, THE (1945)

To view The Wicked Lady click here.

“I’ve got brains and looks and personality. I want to use them!”
- Barbara Worth (Margaret Lockwood) in The Wicked Lady (1945)

During WWII, many British citizens were desperate for movies that allowed them to forget about the destruction and mayhem engulfing the world. Against the backdrop of war, it’s not surprising that female film viewers began flocking to historic melodramas offering a momentary escape. The horrors of modern combat were left at the ticket counter while audiences immersed themselves in another time and place. Gainsborough Pictures was at the forefront of this trend buoyed by a stable of attractive and talented actors that included James Mason, Stewart Granger, Patricia Roc, Michael Rennie and Margret Lockwood. Lockwood (The Lady Vanishes [1938], Night Train to Munich [1940], Cast a Dark Shadow [1955]) was Gainsborough’s most popular female performer and although she never had much success in Hollywood, the actress became a household name in Britain during the 1940s. Her voluptuous beauty attracted both sexes but women were particularly drawn to the strong-willed characters she portrayed and her most successful film was The Wicked Lady (1945), which is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel at FilmStruck.

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Mad Men: Putney Swope (1969)

PUTNEY SWOPE (1969)

To view Putney Swopeclick here.

In 1969 Robert Downey Sr. waited outside a screening of Putney Swope  (1969) at the Cinema II in NYC to see if the film was still working as intended. As reported by Stephen Mahoney in Life magazine: “Two couples emerge. A woman is tearing at a handkerchief. ‘Tasteless. An exhibition…Filth’, she stammers. Under the cowboy hat Downey’s face lights up with joy.” Mahoney’s article was entitled “Robert Downey Makes Vile Movies,” a takeoff on a particularly outraged review by the New York Daily News (“Vicious and vile, the most offensive picture I’ve ever seen.”). Putney Swope is a clattering joke-stuffed satire both hilarious and exhausting. It begins as a spoof of ad agency racism, and keeps widening its targets until it takes itself down, a circular firing squad of comedy. Downey wanted his audiences to leap out of their seats, preferably with shock and disgust, and so it includes a horny and despotic little person president, an office flasher and the takeover of an ad agency by black militants who get co-opted by the business they wanted to overthrow. No one gets away unscathed. Putney Swope is streaming on FilmStruck, along with four other Downey films.

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