Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Love is a Funny Thing (Claude Lelouch, 1969)


Even at their sappiest, Claude Lelouch’s films are usually more eccentrically ambitious and personal than his reputation often acknowledges; the 1969 Love is a Funny Thing is no exception. Henri (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Francoise (Annie Girardot) are both working on the same American-shot movie, as composer and actress respectively; they hook up and take off on an improvised road trip, with the film intriguingly eliding both the details of the initial seduction and most of the key decision points thereafter, concentrating instead on momentary experience and engagement. This allows a quasi-pre-Herzogian cavalcade of American oddities, including a Western shoot-out enactment (Lelouch thoughtfully lets the scene run long enough for each participant to be acknowledged and to take a bow), the ability to walk into a gun store and make a purchase using travelers cheques, and the all-round kookiness of Las Vegas (where the food may be lousy, but at least there’s a trapeze act to distract you from it, or failing that, Pat Boone with special guests Sonny and Cher). The two return to Europe and to their spouses with the idea of meeting up again later, but their connection was all too obviously dependent on a particular set of circumstances, and the film ends in absence and separation (the original title, Un homme qui me plait, better reflects that the story belongs more to her than to him). It’s a shame that a viewer is most likely to encounter the film in a dubbed English version which flattens the sense of language and broader cultural differences (although the person who dubs Girardot does so with some delicacy, reflecting the actress’s reticent presence), but it’s still worthwhile viewing, with the bonus of a very young Farrah Fawcett, cast in the early scenes in a miserable have-I-got-a-girl-for-you role, at the mercy of Belmondo at his most offputtingly leering and predatory.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Q Planes (Tim Whelan, 1939)


Tim Whelan’s Q Planes makes for fun viewing, especially perhaps for the retrospective hints of a Bond-like franchise in formation, with Ralph Richardson’s secret service agent Hammond quipping his way through fraught situations, battling a foreign power equipped with cutting-edge technology in the service of malign dreams of dominance. Pursuing a theory about a series of recent supposedly unconnected accidents, Hammond embeds himself inside a airplane manufacturer, soon crossing paths with test pilot McVane (Laurence Olivier, a mostly workmanlike presence here) who shares his suspicions; the next test flight promptly goes missing, and we see it brought down by a device located on a nondescript-looking industrial ship, which scoops up the plane and imprisons the crew. The scheming foreign power isn’t specifically identified, but audiences of the time would obviously have had little problem filling in the blank; the film focuses just as much on treachery from within though, suggesting an environment of multi-faceted, destabilizing threat. The country’s best safeguard against this, it implicitly posits, is to put one’s trust in the grand old establishment: the film is fairly drenched in class-based privilege, with Hammond and his journalist sister (Valerie Hobson), who also sneaks her way into the plant in pursuit of a story (and of course soon has a thing going with McVane) scything their way through the world with an innate moneyed confidence, exhibiting the unwavering good humour of those for whom things always work out (Olivier’s McVane by comparison often seethes with resentment, feeling himself hard done by, exhibiting few of the same social skills). A running gag has Hammond continually phoning a woman to postpone his latest date with her, often when she’s virtually out the door already, never letting her get a word in; like other aspects of the film, it would fall flat if not for Richardson’s superb force-of-nature timing.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Crime of Love (Luigi Comencini, 1974)

Luigi Comencini’s unhelpfully titled Crime of Love is single-minded to a fault, but makes a walloping cumulative impact, rooted in fine personal and social detail. Nullo and Carmela (Giuliano Gemma and Stefania Sandrelli) both work at an emblematically awful Milanese factory, its employees mired in mind-numbingly repetitive tasks while often enveloped in toxic fumes; the mutual attraction is plain, but held back by Carmela’s mercurial nature, based in a mixture of strategy and instinct and in the inherent impossibility of her situation. She’s from Sicily, living with the rest of her family in a single room seemingly filled mainly with beds; Nullo’s home in a more modern building, although also shared with parents and siblings, appears luxurious by comparison (plastic covering still on the couch; a fish tank); he’s an anarchist who rejects the idea of a church wedding whereas she can’t imagine anything else. And yet, she frequently demonstrates the inclination and capacity to be freer and more self-defined: she swings from not wanting him to enter her house because she’s there alone to being the one who shortly afterwards initiates sex (and mentions that she’s been on the pill ever since they met); she sets the tone and direction of things far more than he does, to his perpetual bemusement it seems. The film sometimes evokes Antonioni, depicting a world from which one could only possibly feel alienated (when she talks about wanting to go somewhere sunny, Nullo takes her to a swimming spot of his youth, now a polluted cesspit surrounded by garbage and dead birds), but Comencini’s intentions are more straightforward, with Carmela ultimately a victim of just about everything there is to be a victim of (when her brother beats her up for coming home late and gives her a black eye, she tells people that Nullo did it, because that seems more respectable, and indeed earns him praise from some co-workers). The film ends on a startling act of protest, but one that barely registers, compared to the persuasively draining chronicle that precedes it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

One Mile from Heaven (Allan Dwan, 1937)


About as eventfully varied as any 67-minute movie you’ll ever see, Allan Dwan’s One Mile from Heaven has Claire Trevor as Tex, a reporter who takes an unplanned trip to Harlem and then starts fixating on Sunny, the Shirley Temple-lookalike daughter of Flora, a Black mother (Fredi Washington). Tex instigates a juvenile court proceeding to investigate Sunny’s parentage, and the newspaper coverage of the case triggers a long-dormant history involving a convict father and a now well-connected mother who believed her child to be dead. The film is a fascinating melange of the progressive and patronizing: to take just a couple of examples, the Black community exhibits a distinct lack of rancour toward Tex’s meddling, accepting her actions mainly as the natural excesses of a newspaper woman and downplaying the obvious element of race-based prurience; the narrative ultimately works its way to a sort of proposed co-parenting arrangement, but one in which Flora will plainly only be marginalized over time, given the vast disparity in economic power and social connection. The film generally views Black culture in terms of prettified otherness: the depiction of Harlem, with its teeming streets and hoards of kids running outside to watch the dancing neighbourhood policeman (Bill Robinson), seems to place it as close to toytown as to heaven (Washington’s inherent dignity and gravity make her a general exception to such trivialization). Still, Dwan avoids the worst potential pitfalls, and at times appears to be grasping for something genuinely and idealistically radical; Robinson’s dance numbers are valuable on their own terms, and if it’s hard to see his persona as that of a beat cop, it's notable that he’s not merely a comic relief, but is treated as a credible and considerate moderating presence. On top of all that, the film includes strands of screwball comedy (mainly involving Tex continually getting the best of rival reporters) and of gangster melodrama, all melded together with no-nonsense efficiency and know-how.