Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Carey Treatment (Blake Edwards, 1972)


The Carey Treatment was far from Blake Edwards’ favourite among his own films – it was mired in production problems and he tried unsuccessfully to have his name taken off it. I’ve always liked the movie a lot though – even if not entirely by the director’s design, it’s so honed down and clipped in some key respects that it verges on stubborn abstraction. This quality is evident from the start, as pathologist Peter Carey arrives at a Boston hospital for a new gig – within minutes he’s tangling with a security guard, taking the first steps toward a relationship with a female colleague (Jennifer O’Neill), and overriding the police in their handling of a suspected drug thief, and when a colleague is accused of killing a young girl through a botched abortion, Carey takes it upon himself to get to the truth (the police don’t seem interested in probing further, and there’s no sign of a defense lawyer), which reveals itself through four or five deductive steps and a lucky chance sighting of the perpetrator. Carey might be regarded as a kind of inverse Inspector Clouseau, each moving through a world in which resistance bends to the protagonist’s blind certainty: for all his provocative attributes though, Carey doesn’t share Clouseau’s defiance of the laws of science, taking a serious beating which leaves him on the verge of collapse for the climactic scenes. The prominence of illegal abortion in the plot (this being a pre-Roe vs. Wade world) certainly deepens the moral and ethical fabric, although it’s probably unintentional how the notion of women lacking control over their own bodies finds echoes in the near-absence from the film of any woman with more than sex on her mind (even by the standards of under-utilized female leads, O’Neill’s role is fairly pitiful). Overall, for all its flaws, the film feels personal and preoccupied, navigating between amusement and disgust.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

I Was Born, But... (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)


Ozu’s I Was Born, But… is a silent film that hardly feels like it, its characters and interactions and subtexts established as fully as in any of his sound films. It focuses primarily on two boys who move to a new neighborhood and establish themselves among the other local kids, a process depicted here as largely a grabbing of raw symbolic power, such that you can direct other kids to lie on the ground and they’ll go along with it. It’s inherent in this game that one should also lay claim to having the best father, but a home movie night at the boss’s house damages their reflexive belief in this assertion, by showing him clowning around to win favour, insulting their intuitive sense of how power and stature should manifest itself. At home later on, they rail at him and even go on hunger strike, and after the initial anger, he concedes to his wife that he essentially agrees with them, and even takes a form of pride in their rebuke, and a resulting optimism for their future (later works, of course, will chart in detail the many compromises and disappointments likely to await them). The film is unmistakably Ozu’s, but with a neo-realist-before-the-fact feeling to the observation of the boys and their stark-looking environment. Among other secondary pleasures, it’s one of train-loving Ozu’s most train-heavy scenes, the house’s location next to the tracks allowing them to pass by at what seems like very frequent intervals, and one of those in which he seems most in love with movies themselves – the home movie viewing providing much easy pleasures (lions and zebras photographed at the zoo) and traps (the boss’s embarrassment as his wife gets confronted with evidence of her husband walking in the street with two women, neither of which is her – that’s the only faint appearance that sex makes in the movie though).

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

End of the Game (Maximilian Schell, 1975)


The credits of Maximilian Schell’s End of the Game suggest a kind of puzzle: director Schell is best known as an actor; the film’s biggest part goes to a director, Martin Ritt, who at that point had barely acted since the 1950’s; top-billing goes to Jon Voight, except that the movie identifies him as “John"; and Donald Sutherland plays a corpse. Such playfulness might suit a film that explicitly labels matters of life and death as elements of a long-running game, and the movie does have some notes of productively evasive strangeness. In other respects though, it all hangs rather heavily, and some of its key central notions don’t really come off. The primary gameplayers are Ritt’s police commissioner Barlach and Robert Shaw’s prominent local businessman Gastmann, a man who believes his money and connections place him beyond the law – the two are bound by an incident some decades earlier in which their shared callousness caused a woman’s death. In his pre-corpse days, Sutherland’s character Schmeid was spying on Gastmann at Barlach’s behest, but apparently in a flagrantly transparent manner (posing as a professor of a topic on which he knew nothing) – likewise, much of what follows is knowingly transparent, belonging to a chess game not worth being played in silence (although the movie’s chess player character just perpetually plays himself). God is evoked numerous times, not always in the most theologically learned way (it's pointed out that Gastmann begins with G and so does God so, hey, that must mean something). Voight’s character is another cop who gets caught up in the mechanism, to the extent of sleeping with Schmeid’s girlfriend on the day of his funeral, but it’s hard to separate the character’s uncertainties from those of the actor (it's fancifully appealing now to attribute that to the moral confusion that would later consume the man). Overall, the film too often suggests a private joke not fully communicated to the viewer, but that’s at least better than not sensing any joke at all.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Les espions (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1957)


It may seem strange that the actor with by far the biggest role in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les espions, Gerard Sety, appears way down the cast list, whereas top-billed Curd Jurgens doesn’t appear until almost halfway through, and is gone long before the end. But it’s an oddity that rather suits the up-is-down nature of the movie, one in which an initial feeling of clutter and peculiarity eventually coalesces into a sharp vision of pervasive threat and anxiety. In a set-up as seemingly loosely sprawling as Clouzot’s preceding fiction feature, Diabolique, was tightly-wound, Sety’s Dr. Malic, owner of a failing psychiatric clinic, accepts a large sum of money from an American agent to take in a mysterious patient, a decision that soon has the clinic overwhelmed by suspicious characters forcing their way onto the staff, or purporting to be patients, or crowding into the bar across the street, or watching from trees and rooftops; Peter Ustinov and Sam Jaffe play senior operatives of the Eastern and Western blocs respectively. The scheme turns out to involve a missing scientist who’s discovered a breakthrough in atomic energy that threatens to destabilize the Cold War equilibrium, so that the quasi-comic portrayal of the spy game, one in which players may not even try to keep track of what side they’re on, yields to real existential stakes. The ruthless ending finds both sides collaborating to preserve the status quo, leaving Malic feverishly trying to tell a truth that no one will ever hear; no one, that is, except the people on the other side of the surveillance embedded in his house, making themselves known through a coldly ringing telephone. The only sign of hope is in how a long-mute patient finds her voice in the film’s closing moments, but even that’s undermined by her fear of the consequences, if she should try to make it heard.