March 29, 2011

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In the third and final short film in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Vanquished (I Vinti, 1953), a youthful British strangler walks out of a double bill at The Saffron theater. The headliner is the Esther Williams musical comedy Skirts Ahoy (1952), with Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown (1950) as the “B” picture. Aubrey (played by Peter Reynolds), is the fame-seeking young poet exiting the cinema, ready to commit his so-called perfect crime. But did perky Esther Williams or the avuncular Joel McCrea make him do it? I encourage one and all to stage your own version of this twofer and see if any homicidal rage bubbles up. Please report in the comments. But alas, Antonioni doesn’t answer this pressing question in The Vanquished itself. What is undeniably true is that both The Vanquished and Stars in my Crown both received recent DVD releases, from RaroVideo and the Warner Archive, respectively. It’s a dreamlike bit of capitalist coincidence, and one of those secret joys of cinephilic pursuits.

RaroVideo is a cult Italian DVD label that initiated a North American wing earlier this month, starting out with Fellini’s I Clownsthe Fernando Di Leo Collection and the pretty 1974 horror film The Perfume of the Lady in Black. Today they drop The Vanquished. In the ever-shrinking DVD market, they are an idiosyncratic godsend, plucking high- and low-brow gems from Italian film libraries.

The Vanquished is an omnibus film, containing three short films of teenage rebellion and murder in three different cities: France, Italy and England. Released the same year, 1953, as Marlon Brando’s leather-clad rebellion in The Wild One,  it was partaking of the worldwide paranoia regarding juvenile delinquency that would peak with Rebel Without a Cause two years later. Adapting three real-life crimes, the production was hit with official protests, and severe changes were made to the script before production. It was Antonioni’s second feature, following 1950′s Chronicle of a Love Affair, and without any leverage he had to bow to their demands. Because of imposed re-shoots and other post-production difficulties, The Vanquished was released into theaters months after The Lady Without Camelias, which is often credited as his second film as a director, although it was the third he shot.

The French section was modeled after the “Affaire J3″, in which a young man, Alain Guyader, was killed by his schoolmates during a picnic in the woods near Paris. Google Books has made available an article on the murder in LIFE magazine from June 4th, 1951. Through the years of rationing during and following WWII, “J3″ was the government’s code for cardholders from the ages of 15 to 18. The anonymous writer notes that now, “the term has become the symbol for a tragic story of adolescent intrigue, confusion and murder”, opining on the “fearsome look the trial provided into the curious dream world in which these adolescents lived and played at adult affairs.” That is, they acted like they were in a movie, this time a WWII French Resistance film.

The scandal of it all was that these children were from solidly bourgeois families, so the usual bromides about violence originating in poverty couldn’t be trotted out. This was something new, and newly ascribed to this generation being raised during a world war, inured to bloodshed. They are what the film’s tacked-on introduction describes as the “burnt-out generation”. This group of teens played at being black marketeers and revolutionaries: “When studies seemed unexciting, they created their own excitement, hatching plans to organize a great new Maquis [a rural guerilla bands in the Resistance]  if the Russians would come. They would make a fortune in the black market…and would run arms to the Middle East.” This adolescent cell grew tired of Guyader’s boasts, including his declarations that he was “a man of his times” as well as made up love affairs with other members of the group. Setting up a mock trail, the Maquis declared “he was too vain and would have to die.” They scripted their own drama.

This episode in The Vanquished was the subject of a “defamatory press campaign” and protested by the family members of the “J3″ teens. The French Ministry of Commerce refused to grant an export visa, blocking the transportation of the negative to Italy. Although it eventually got through, France still banned the film until 1963. Antonioni’s handling of the material is anything but exploitative – opting for a talky naturalism, with long-take group shots of the kids joining and breaking-up in endless waves. It skimps on the details of the murder in favor of a disconcerting reverie. The group has already decided to kill, so they spend their time gallivanting through the verdant woods, talking of their lame parents and fickle crushes. It is indebted to neorealism, with its use of real locations and unaffected performance,  but Antonioni’s penchant for intensely psychologized spaces and architecture crops up in the final scene. The murder takes place in the ruins of a castle, reflecting the fractured fairy tales cycling through these embryonic Red Brigadeers’ heads.

The Italian episode was hacked to pieces. The original scenario, as described by Stefania Parigi, was to follow a “hotheaded fascist who sets up his own suicide in such a way that the blame seems to lie with the Communists.” This was based on the story of Achille Billi, a young fascist who was murdered and dumped into the Tiber River. The April 25th, 1949 issue of Life magazine has a photo of the funeral, captioned FASCISM REVIVES. The photo shows an overflowing crowd (credited as over 5,000) giving his coffin the Fascist salute. The producers gutted the scenario, first changing the main character to a violent leftist who bombs an arms depot (this version is presented as an extra on the disc), and then removing politics entirely, requiring re-shoots to change him into a small-time smuggler. The result is a rather ridiculous, neutered scenario – a high schooler ends up  bossing around a grizzled bunch of black marketeers. But it certainly looks stunning, filmed mostly at night in low-light chiaroscuro by Enzo Serafin.

The final section, with our beloved Aubrey, was based on the crime committed by 19 year old Herbert Mills, who strangled an older prostitute in the suburbs of London, “for no apparent reason” (Parigi, liner notes). This section seems to have been left untouched, and in an Antonioni anomaly, is a rather straightforward Hitchcockian mystery. Reminiscent of Robert Walker’s epicene character in Strangers on a Train, Aubrey is after the perverse pleasure of getting away with murder, a decadent Raskolnikov. It becomes clear early on that he is guilty, the question becomes how he did it, and whether he’ll get away with it. Peter Reynolds, playing Aubrey, is a self-deluding delight as the muckracking murderer, who smirks his way to the newspaper as he trumps up publicity for the crime he just “witnessed.” Maybe Aubrey saw Strangers on a bill right before Stars in My Crown, and wanted his own slice of notorious fame and fortune (Antonioni might have had this short in mind during Blowup, with its concluding shot of a tennis match).  J. Hoberman, in his Cold War histories,  would say they were just participating in the violent dream life of nations.

In Stars in My Crown, the dream is of an idealized past. The whole film is a flashback reminiscence of John Kenyon (Dean Stockwell), whose voice-over forthrightly idealizes the small Southern town of Walesburg that he grew up in. Jacques Tourneur famously took a pay cut to direct this modest triumph, and it was the favorite of his films. What is immediately striking is the unreliability of the narration – which is focalized solely through Kenyon’s perspective. In his opening voice-over, he states, “According to the words of the song we are promised a city of gold in the hereafter. I used to think that was a long time to have to wait. But I know now that there is a city of gold right here on Earth for every one of us. The city of our youth.” We can return to our memories of childhood to construct our vision of heaven. The story to follow will be an act of Kenyon’s imagination, his personal Utopia.

Joel McCrea is the Pastor who raises Kenyon, a folksy preacher who can joke and fish as well as read the gospel. He is a man of the world as well as a man of God, and his wife Harriet (Ellen Drew) is equally wise, beautiful in body and soul. McCrea is a jovial oak, laying down roots with every stride of his giant frame, bringing the community around him in the tight medium-shots that Tourneur frames the majority of the film inside. These frames are egalitarian spaces in which any member of the town can take center stage, from the half-wit Chloroform (Arthur Hunnicut) to Uncle Famous (Juano Hernandez), the African-American livestock farmer who has acted as the entire town’s generous godfather.

The relationship between the Pastor and Harriet is one of the most genuinely loving depictions of marriage ever put on film. One scene, and a few gestures, stand out. Kenyon contracts Typhoid, and the adoptive mother and father take turns watching over him. Pastor tells Harriet to take a rest. She goes to her bed, and fights back a sob, wondering aloud if the boy understands how she loves him like her own. McCrea, standing above her, silently lets her work through her emotions. Then, he notices her taking out two hairpins, to get ready for bed, as she continues her monologue. Without a word he takes over this ritual, silently plucking out the remaining pins, and then straightening her hair as it tumbles down. The Pastor’s gestures allow Harriet to allow her entire body to grieve – he has seamlessly taken over the practical rituals of her evening in order to let this take place. It is both comfort and freedom, and an indication of the complex density of their bond.

Antonioni and Tourneur present nightmares and dreams of youth in this impromptu double bill. If you’re feeling frisky, you can also add Tourneur’s Days of Glory (1944), just released by the Warner Archive. Released in the short window of Hollywood pro-Soviet propaganda towards the end of WWII, it presents a bustling anti-Nazi resistance cell in Russia, led by Gregory Peck in his first starring role. Saddled by a ponderous script and the Manichean dictates of the propaganda machine, it’s a minor, frustrating work, but Tourneur still manages some striking scenes of communal living. Managing deep focus in this makeshift hovel, he establishes multiple planes of action as the group oils their guns, boils their soup, and plots for Soviet victory. It’s a canned, albeit elegant, dream of romantic revolutionaries, the flip side of the canned nihilistic violence in THE VANQUISHED. STARS IN MY CROWN is the only fantasy here that is worth believing in.


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