November 13, 2012

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From the multiplicity of locations to place a camera, the director and his collaborators have to settle on one. This decision, born of practical training and on-set instinct, can turn a routine shot into an extraordinary one. Three recent Blu-ray releases display the talents of the canniest of decision makers: Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958), John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) and Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977). Preminger and Carpenter are naturals in the CinemaScope sized frame, both alternating between B&W and color to emphasize their images’ deceptive surfaces. Aldrich uses the boxier 1.85 ratio, but chops it up into split-screens which convey a dizzying information overload that accompanies the creeping surveillance state of that film’s USA.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, Fritz Lang famously said that CinemaScope was only fit for snakes and funerals, so his character clearly hadn’t yet seen Bonjour Tristesse (1958). Out today on Blu-Ray in a sublime transfer from Twilight Time (available through Screen Archives), Otto Preminger’s film uses the wide frame to emphasize surfaces, whether it’s of Jean Seberg’s impassive face or the doorways and windows that promise a depth that never materializes. Preminger bought the rights to Francoise Sagan’s novel in 1955, and gave S.N. Behrman a crack at the screenplay before turning it over to Arthur Laurents, who received sole screen credit. The story tells of Cecile (Jean Seberg), a carefree teen spending a summer on the French Riviera with her playboy  father Raymond (David Niven, with chest hair perpetually flared). They act more like swingers than family, urging each other into wild romantic escapades and laughing at the wreckage.  But when Raymond falls for their old pal Anne (Deborah Kerr), Cecile becomes wildly jealous and aims to break them up. Her efforts, tragically, succeed.

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The story is told in flashback, with the present-tense Cecile in black and white, a joyless mannequin twirling through the nightclubs of Paris. She stares dead-eyed into the camera, her arm around another interchangeable Lothario, as she speaks of happier times in voice-over. This is when the color starts to peek through, a strikingly melancholy optical printing effect, as sections of the frame next to her head burst into the color of the Riviera, flickerings of memory coming to life. B&W gives way to hot reds and shimmering blues. The effort already shows in the flashback of Raymond and Cecile’s mirthmaking, having to constantly remind each other that they’re having fun.

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Exteriors are what matter. Early on Raymond’s chirpy French girlfriend Elsa (a hilarious Mylene Demongeot) gets badly sunburned, and this reminder of physical deterioration makes Elsa not long for Raymond’s world. Soon he ignores her for the regal Anne. Preminger emphasizes the openings and closures in their Riviera cottage, where windows, doors and hallways are made visible in every shot, intimating the depths beneath the skin that Raymond and Cecile fear to tread. They are almost always outside, whether on the beach or out on the town.

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The first assistant director Serge Friedman recalled that Preminger did not have the shot choreography planned out, but would have “to do a lot of thinking before he could find the right place.” One of the most memorable shots utlilizes the full ‘Scope frame at a dinner party. A maid is arranged in the  far left edge foreground, secretly chugging a beer behind the bar, while Raymond and his clan are grouped to the right, in the middle distance, nattering on about a casino. Their total obliviousness to the world around them is encapsulated in that slyly funny frame.  Chris Fujiwara, in his Preminger study The World and its Double, writes that “the floor of the set was treated with gelatin to allow the camera to move as freely as possible”, regardless of where he chose to move it. His method is improvisatory, but the result is controlled and structured – even Elsa’s skin troubles are rhymed in the devastating final shot, when Cecile rubs in face cream to preserve her beauty, which is all she has left.

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Another film of deceptive surfaces is John Carpenter’s They Live (1988),  now out on Blu-Ray from Shout! FactoryA scathing  sci-fi satire of Reagan-era America, Carpenter uses the CinemaScope-equivalent aspect ratio (2.35:1) make his compositions as herd-like as the zombified consumer society he is depicting, of crowds and lines and glimmering store lights. The hero in this debased trickle down society is, appropriately enough, played by mulleted (and likely roided) pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper. An unemployed drifter who still believes in the American dream, he is introduced as a hero from a Western, dropped off by a train in a dynamic diagonal composition, as did Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West.

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He realizes the truth upon donning some magic shades, which reveal a B&W world of alien brainwashing. Billboards scream OBEY and WATCH TV, hidden messages that are also beamed through TV screens to lull the populace into consumer comas. As with Bonjour, the sober B&W represents brute reality, and color the world of exteriors. Carpenter’s project is not one of subtlety, but a kind of satiric shock and awe. Piper’s pal, played by Keith David, is introduced behind a line of iron rebar, and they live in a smoggy abandoned lot across from a church.  They Live is a proto-Occupy Wall Street in its emphasis on extreme income inequality, visualized in alternating rows – of Piper and David’s construction sites and the aliens’ tuxedoed gentry imbibing champagne at a gala dinner.

Released today on Blu-ray from Olive Films, Twilight’s Last Gleaming may be even more timely in its visualization of image overload. A paranoid political thriller still haunted by the death toll of Vietnam, it places Burt Lancaster as a dissident Army vet who breaks into and gains control of a nuclear missile silo. Unless President Charles Durning releases a secret National Security Council memo to the public that reveals the cynical reasoning behind the war, Lancaster will fire the nukes.  A furious film, director Robert Aldrich finds an equally furious style. Instead of parallel editing between the White House, Richard Widmark’s hawkish general (modeled after Curtis LeMay) and the silo, Aldrich uses an increasingly complicated series of split screens (of two and four), in which actions unspool simultaneously, as if you are watching the live feed from the President’s Situation Room. The footage of Durning sitting with his cabinet (which includes an avuncular Melvyn Douglas and a sepulchral Joseph Cotten) as they watch a special forces raid on the silo recalls the photograph of Obama’s team watching the raid on Osama Bin Laden. Or maybe it’s the first found footage movie, a scarier version of The Blair Witch Project in which the bogeyman isn’t one pissed off ghost but the entire social and political system in which we live and work.


April 12, 2011

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Olive Films continues to raid the Paramount vaults, this time with William Dieterle’s 1949 Casablanca clone Rope of Sand. Released on April 5th, along with Edward Dmytryk’s The Mountain (1956), it’s another strong DVD presentation from the company. The spotless print is presented in a progressive transfer that showcases the inky blacks of cinematographer Charles Lang. Producer Hal B. Wallis left Warner Brothers in 1944 to form his own production company, Wallis-Hazen, and was eager to recreate his biggest hit for his new distributor Paramount. He bought Walter Doniger’s Casablanca-esque script and wrangled three of that film’s actors: Paul Lorre, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains. The leads were given to Burt Lancaster, who was under contract to Wallis, and Corinne Calvet, a French siren the producer hoped to mold into the next Ingrid Bergman. The result is a prickly bit of entertainment, a threadbare and more nihilistic version of its model.

There is much less at stake in Walter Doniger’s screenplay. In Casablanca Bogart wrestles with aiding the French Resistance, and in Rope of Sand Burt Lancaster is trying to steal a cache of diamonds from a South African mine. Lancaster plays Mike Adams, a former hunting guide turned depressive. A few years back one of his clients wandered off onto the protected area of the mine, hoping to strike it rich. He succeeded in in finding a rich vein of jewels, but dies of dehydration. Davis is then caught by the mine’s security force, led by Paul Henreid’s Commandant Vogel. Vogel tries to beat the location of these diamonds out of him, but to no avail. Stripped of his license, and unable to obtain a passport, Davis is a man adrift. He returns to the mine to rip off the diamond load and get his revenge on Vogel. Claude Rains plays Arther Martingale, a mine functionary who plays both sides off each other, with the help of Corinne Calvet as the ambitious prostitute Suzanne Renaud.

Davis is a stridently unlikeable character: selfish, brutish and a little dense. Lancaster was evidently unhappy with the production, as his biographer Kate Buford reported that it was “he one he would remember as the worst movie in which he ever appeared.” Eager to play out the string of his Wallis contract, he gives Adams a cold, dumb brutality that hedges against the threat of audience identification. There are no anti-heroics here, just a profoundly unconvincing happy ending.

Director William Dieterle and cinematographer Lang follow Casablanca‘s visual template, of cluttered baroque interiors and roving tracking shots inside bustling nightclubs. Lang uses lower light than the earlier film, perhaps compensating for the lack of background activity. While Casablanca has an expressive face sitting on every barstool, the world of Rope of Sand is relatively de-populated. Peter Lorre, who crawls into the film as a philosophizing fence, enters an empty frame. With less to explore, Dieterle’s camera movements are adumbrated compared to Curtiz’s long traveling shots down the bar. What Dieterle emphasizes instead are power relations, mainly expressed through a simple but effective method of blocking his actors along with alternating camera angles.

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When Mike Davis returns to South Africa on a freighter, Vogel is there to meet him with plum-voiced taunts. Davis is physically restrained by a pair of strapping deck hands, as Vogel looks imperiously downward. The camera peeks down at Davis, and upward at Vogel, quickly sketching their respective positions in the narrative. By the end, they are framed on equally level angles as their fortunes meet in the middle. Dieterle’s framing of Corinne Calvet undergoes a similar shift, tracking her transformation from a tool of Martingale’s to a woman who asserts her will.

The image that top-lines this post shows Calvert posing for Claude Rains, an erotic puppet that he’ll use to arouse the jealousies of Henreid and Lancaster. This becomes visualized in a poker game, before which Rains whispers devious nothings into Calvert’s ear. When she sits down, Rains is placed behind and to the right of her, his mouth still in visual range of her ear. Then the camera slowly dollies forward, and Calvet moves her head to the right, obscuring Rains’ face – the puppeteer lost in his art. Then there is a cut to Lancaster, with empty space around him – the only man outside of all human entanglement.

The controlling imagery surrounding Calvet continues when she goes home with Henreid, who pins her in-between two hanging canvas frames. She is a decoration to Henreid’s narcissistic martinet, window dressing to his tin-horn dictatorship. Little does he know that she’s under Rains’ employ, or that she is rapidly falling in love with the brusque Lancaster, for reasons that remain obscure aside from narrative necessity. By the end of the film the imagery of control and display fall away in Calvet’s scenes, and she shares equal screen space with Lancaster.

With thoughtful little stylistic strategies like these, Dieterle is able to lift his second-run scenario into something with a semblance of vitality. And thanks to the shit-eating grin of a performance by Claude Rains, as well as the reliably creepy work by Peter Lorre, Rope of Sand pulls itself together to be a diverting shadow of Casablanca.