Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Ten Days Wonder (Claude Chabrol, 1972)


Claude Chabrol’s adaptation of Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder jettisons the detective character, repurposing the material as a fabulous meeting of cinematic universes: the opening scene, with Anthony Perkins’ character Charles waking up covered in blood in a mysterious hotel room clearly evokes Psycho, and the casting of Orson Welles as his enormously wealthy father Theo deepens the sense of a work drawing on Hollywood myth and shadow; in contrast, the other two principals, Marlene Jobert and Michel Piccoli, are firmly rooted in then-current French cinema. For once cast in something more than a cameo, Welles has a field day as Theo, a man whose desire for control is so great that life inside his enormous mansion (to which Piccoli’s character Paul accompanies Charles, hoping to aid his healing) exists as if stuck in his favourite year of 1925, with his family and staff dressing accordingly, living by the commensurate technological limitations and so on; his much younger wife (Jobert at her most fragile) originally came to live with him as a child, adding an element of murky sexuality. The denouement pushes the premise yet further, first to posit that Charles has essentially viewed Theo as being God, and then suggesting rather that the identification was Theo’s own; Welles’ theatrical gravitas (his fake nose often prominent) continually blurs the line between the scene-shaping will of the actor and that of the character. The film is most alluring and satisfying when at its most happily inventive, unveiling lurid secrets, unseen threats and inexplicable actions; the final explanation and accounting lands in rather hollow fashion. Not uncommonly, the fact of half the principals being dubbed (although it's a different half, depending on whether you watch the English- or the French-language version) introduces a sense of distance and artificiality; in this case though, that often seems to work for the better, emphasizing the conscious other-worldliness of events.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Saludos Amigos (Walt Disney Studios, 1942)


Any present-day viewing of Disney’s Saludos Amigos is likely to be preceded by a formal citing of the film’s “negative depictions and or mistreatment of people or cultures”, and accompanying acknowledgement of its harmful impact and of Disney’s commitment to learning from that. Indeed, the movie is not quite Song of the South (it’s still readily available for viewing after all), but carries a pervasive feeling of complacency and missed opportunity: the framing device has a group of studio artists heading off to South America for research and inspiration, but on the basis of what’s shown their interest is amply satiated by mere exotica and surfaces, and it’s a bit sad that one’s reaction to seeing (say) a strikingly colourful parrot would be to busy oneself with using it as the basis for a cigar-smoking caricature called Jose Carioca. The movie at least throws a load of local terminology at the viewer (albeit not of a kind that would have helped much in everyday life), especially in the sequence where Goofy is dropped into the role of a gaucho (bolas!). That’s probably the most straightforwardly enjoyable sequence; the least so is the tale of the little plane that could, which even allowing for anthropomorphic latitude is just too dumb to relate too (Poppa Plane and Mamma Plane?) Before that, Donald Duck visits Lake Titicaca, getting into trouble while traversing a rope bridge with his llama (admittedly, over-familiarity and repetition makes it easy to overstate the skill involved in such sequences). The film gives a big build-up to the final chapter, a for-a-while beguilingly lilting samba portrait of Brazil, even allocating the voice of the parrot a special voice credit, but it ultimately descends into more Donald-infused silliness. And after that the film abruptly ends, with no pretense of wrapping things up or of extracting some kind of overall message, without even an Adios. Oh well, maybe that was for the best…

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Shamisen and Motorcycle (Masahiro Shinoda, 1961)


Masahiro Shinoda’s early feature is known in English both as Love New and Old and as Shamisen and Motorcycle – as it happens, a mash-up of both those titles might encompass the film’s meeting of romantic, generational and stylistic conflicts. The opening stretch holds every promise of a brash youth movie, defined by bright colours and lively exchanges and impulsive motorcycle adventures – an accident brings this to a halt, landing its teenage protagonist Hatsuko in hospital. She develops an affectionately spiky rapport with her genial doctor, Kuroyanagi; he in turn is an old flame of her widowed mother Toyoeda, a teacher of traditional “kouta” singing, with whom he soon starts a new relationship. An unusually strong-willed and pesky protagonist, Hatsuko is at best passive-aggressive in her reaction to this, and often downright hostile, ultimately forcing Kuroyanagi to withdraw from seeing her mother, a capitulation that ultimately serves no one’s interests. For all the movie’s evidence of a newly modernizing Japan, the legacy of the war (a key factor in keeping her mother and Kuroyanagi apart back then) remains prominent, and traditional class- and gender-based expectations shape actions and attitudes as much as they ever did, even if in different ways (for example, despite the culpability of Hatsuko’s boyfriend Fusao for her injuries, his wealthy parents look down on her and her mother, shunning them both in the hospital). It’s nicely summed up in the ending, in which Hatsuko gains a greater awareness of the complexity of things, then rapidly pivots into receiving a proposal from Fusao which is as much a directive as it is romantic, with a final shot as heavy with peril and the memory of past errors as with excited anticipation. The film certainly demonstrates, in somewhat embryonic form, Shinoda’s appealing stylistic and thematic range and curiosity, which would yield career peaks as diverse as Pale Flower and Silence.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The Squeeze (Michael Apted, 1977)


Despite its beefy action credentials, Michael Apted’s The Squeeze frequently reminds you of the director’s roots as a documentarian (it belongs to the same year as his 21 Up), capturing lots of unpretentious social observation around the edges (I particularly enjoyed the cafĂ© seen near the end, the menu offering up such items as a 45-pence steak salad). Much credit belongs to Stacy Keach’s playing of the lead in such an intriguingly low-key, preoccupied manner, his character Jim Nabboth often seeming on the verge of drifting away altogether (more social observation - at one such point, it takes a masseuse's “special relief” to snap him back into shape, the charge for that being six pounds). Nabboth is a former cop now in bad financial and personal shape (he claims to be thinking of “chimney restoration” as an appealing next career step), his wife Jill (Carol White) remarried to rich businessman Foreman (Edward Fox); Jill and the daughter she has with Foreman are kidnapped in the park (along with their dog, who doesn’t last long thereafter), the price of their release being for Foreman to cooperate in a million-pound robbery from his own company. The once in a lifetime cast includes David Hemmings (trailing no Blow-Up resonances whatsoever), Stephen Boyd having fun going full-on Irish in one of his last roles, and TV comedian Freddie Starr, a decade or so before tabloid allegations of eating a hamster. The movie makes for grubby-feeling viewing, devising a way to strip Nabboth naked and drop him in the street, and to force Jill into performing a strip tease for her kidnappers (a scene in which it seems painfully hard to separate the actress’ mixed feelings from those of the character); Nabboth’s ultimate foiling of the plan involves as cold-hearted a move as anything the villains have pulled. Still, Apted is pretty effective at observing all the nastiness without seeming merely manipulative about it.