A Man Escaped (1956, Robert Bresson)

I’ve been watching Bresson’s earliest films in order, culminating in this extras-packed blu-ray of A Man Escaped. When I first started watching Bresson films (Au Hazard Balthazar, Lancelot of the Lake, The Devil Probably) I couldn’t figure out his style or why he was so acclaimed. Then I saw A Man Escaped and Pickpocket and loved them, but couldn’t say exactly why. Now I’m slowly figuring that out, though I still don’t really get Bresson’s worldview or what he means when he talks about his kind of cinema. He create subtle effects through careful modulation of elements that are usually more expressive: framing, editing and especially acting. This could lead to boredom, but he’s also using high-tension scenarios in A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, and the constant fear of getting caught clashes in interesting ways with the flat affect of the performance, plus this movie’s nonstop (sometimes redundant) narration provides the inner thoughts that the lead character’s blank expression hides. There are only brief bursts of music (I learned in the extras that Bresson plays Mozart whenever the lead character meets with someone who might aid his escape). All the movie’s tension and repression pays off after the final escape as Fontaine and his late-recruited cellmate Jost walk into the freedom of the night fog and the Mozart rises, the transcendence that Bresson was aiming for.

K. Elmore:

Bresson and André Devigny, the real-life former prisoner of war on whose experiences A Man Escaped was based, had differing ideas of what type of actor should be cast in the role of Fontaine. Feeling that the character must look physically capable of making the escape, Devigny presented Bresson with a young paratrooper and military triathlete. Bresson, however, was interested in making a “very psychological, very internal” film, as Devigny puts it, and chose the philosophy student François Leterrier, who, though he didn’t resemble Devigny in build, had very expressive eyes.

T. Pipolo:

The economy, purity, and rigor of Bresson’s aesthetic are directly related to his vision of the world, a complex perspective that carefully balances a belief in free will against the notion of preexistent design. For example, while A Man Escaped seems to be clearly mobilized by the protagonist’s will to be free, at the same time, Bresson said his aim was to “show the miracle [of] an invisible hand over the prison, directing what happens.” Thus, the propulsive trajectory of Bresson’s narratives — a result of the removal of excess and the refinement of technique — serves his overriding theme that human lives follow an implacable course. This is also apparent in such later masterpieces as Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1967), Lancelot of the Lake (1974), and L’argent (1983), despite their widely different subjects and increasingly cynical view of a world in which spiritual redemption seems to have vanished.

Elmore again:

Bresson put [assistant Louis] Malle in charge of Fontaine’s spoons, rope, hooks, and other escape implements, saying “Since you come from documentary, you take care of the props.”

Pipolo again:

Bresson’s method of creating character was not through the actor’s performance but through the actions performed — an approach that emphasized the external world and concrete reality. It is what a fictional figure does that creates character; his inner self is revealed by his outward actions and how he performs them. In short, action is character.

The Cineastes episode opens with long, uncommented section of Bresson films, then bursts of quickly-edited Bresson speaking philosophically, hating on filmed theater and escapism, finally settling down on an interview where he is hoping that filmmakers younger than himself can create the poetic “cinematograph” that he dreams of. It’s all very quotable, but he needs to use more examples so we’ll understand what he’s on about. Bresson also discusses his ideas for a cancelled film on Genesis. Listening to his theories, I started to wonder if Straub/Huillet were up to the same thing, but research (including my own post on Class Relations) says not exactly.

Bresson: “People say I was Rene Clair’s assistant. I never was. If I had been, I wouldn’t mind saying so.”

Functions of Film Sound is only about the sound of A Man Escaped. I’m amazed that he required 50 takes of some shots and still post-synched the whole thing – you’d think all the takes are required to get the vocal delivery just right, but that was just for the visual delivery – dialogue took another pile of takes a few weeks or months later.

Elmore:

All of the dialogue in the film was rerecorded in a studio. Bresson would say the line to the actor, and he would repeat it back to him, usually no fewer than forty to sixty times. Then Bresson edited together the best take of each word to re-create the line of dialogue.

The Essence of Forms opens with lead actor Francois Leterrier’s disclaimer that Bresson would not approve of any of this, then he gives stories and analysis of Bresson and his methods. “He never gave directions about interiority.”

Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme: “We saw several films together. He never liked them. He’d quiver in his seat, muttering ‘How can they do such things?’ It didn’t seem bad to me.”

The Road to Bresson: The filmmakers use the Story of Film technique of shooting their documentary footage in the style that their subject might use. This one quotes Bresson’s book and redundantly (in blu-ray terms) excerpts the Cineastes episode (however it also makes the point that Bresson used redundancy in his films). Good feature, and it was made after L’Argent so it covers a wider range of work than the others. I liked Paul Schrader’s explanation of transcendental film style, summarizing the book he wrote on Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer. Happy ending: for his final film, Bresson received a Cannes award alongside Tarkovsky, presented by Orson Welles.

Bresson gets a laugh at the press conference.
Q: “Why do you make films that frustrate viewers?”
RB: “What viewer are you talking about?”

Talk of the Town (1942, George Stevens)

Cute comedy, doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that’d be nominated for seven oscars, but there you have it. Town malcontent Cary Grant is arrested for a trumped-up charge. Everyone knows he’ll be killed by the town mob, so he escapes and hides out in old schoolmate Jean Arthur’s house. But she’s fixing it up for visiting law professor Ronald Colman, and when he arrives early, she arranges to stay in the house as his secretary so she can take care of Grant, keeping him hidden away from Colman in the attic. Colman is a self-important Good Man who refuses to deal with real people in real situations, preferring to stay apolitical and theoretical as he’s about to be appointed to the Supreme Court, so Arthur and Grant arrange run-ins between him and the corrupt town officials that are rigging Grant’s case, convincing him to bring his great influence into play.

Jean Arthur would be in Stevens’s The More The Merrier the following year, which I thought about while watching this – Jean and two guys in a single living space trying not to run into each other. Grant was between Suspicion and Once Upon a Honeymoon, and Colman played amnesiac in Random Harvest the same year. “This is a great country is it not?” I was happy to recognize the commie from Trouble In Paradise ten years later as a borscht peddler.

Les Anges du peche (1943, Robert Bresson)

Like Rivette, Bresson started his feature career with a nun movie. This is an interesting one in light of his later movies about crime and punishment. On prison trips, young nun Anne-Marie (Renee Faure, lovestruck globemaker’s daughter in L’assassinat du Père Noël) becomes obsessed with Therese (Jany Holt, the prostitute in Renoir’s Lower Depths), trying to get her to join the convent – which she does after her release, but not before shooting a man to death as revenge for her imprisonment.

So, Anne-Marie gets ever more intense towards the woman she thinks she has saved, and Therese is extremely moody, never fitting in at the convent since she’s really using it to hide from her latest crime.

Senses:

For her disruption of convent life Anne-Marie is expelled, but secretly returns nightly to pray at the tomb of her order’s founder. When she becomes deathly ill, she is discovered and readmitted to the fold; and, upon her death, Thérèse undergoes a change of heart, delivering herself to the police and to her just punishment. .. This route to Anne-Marie’s saintly fulfilment and Thérèse’s transformation passes through continually ambiguous terrain, in which will, destiny, and chance become indistinguishable, and in which saintliness and criminality not only work side by side but mingle.

Head nun Sylvie was in Le Corbeau the same year, and one of the others – I get them confused – was Marie-Hélène Dasté, Jean Dasté’s wife and a stage actress for playwright/novelist Giraudoux, who adapted the story for this film.

Public Affairs (1934)

Princess defies king, flies to nearby Crogandy to marry their clown chancellor, who gets a few funny bits in this visually indistinct, silly-ass comedy. A pretty good extended contagious-yawn joke leads to a plane crash, then everyone in town falls asleep (probably not a Paris qui dort reference). We follow the chancellor from a statue unveilling to a firehouse demonstration to the launch of a ship, with Marcel Dalio (the marquis in Rules of the Game and Frenchy in To Have and Have Not) playing most of the movie’s roles besides the romantic leads.

Death Race (2008, Paul WS Anderson)

A stupid, jittery, high-energy action remake by Anderson, one of Cinema Scope’s 50 Under 50, highlighting what is for me the biggest problem with auteurism these days. In the 1960’s, movies were made on a factory line, some better than others, mostly credited to studios and producers, until observant critics realized that certain directors put out work of consistently high quality – no huge surprise there – but that they also had thematic and structural consistencies throughout a body of films from varied writers and studios. Heroes were belatedly made of Hawks, Ford and Hitchcock, and their films from critically-unloved genres (comedy, western, thriller) were reassessed. Today the studio system is totally different and every director thinks of himself as an auteur. Since the hardcore auteurists have nothing to discover, instead of enjoying the new world of supposedly personal cinema, they stare at the studio genre movies that still get made, searching for new names they can take credit for discovering. My pick was Hong Kong-turned-Hollywood Ronny Yu (Bride of Chucky, Freddy vs. Jason), but I lost interest after Fearless. Mubi latched onto the late Tony Scott, and Cinema Scope loves Paul W.S. Anderson, responsible for three of the worst video-game adaptations I’ve seen in theaters (Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator) and the underrated Event Horizon.

In a dystopian future, racing legend Jason Statham is set up for killing his perfect wife, and sent to a post-reality-TV prison, where he can earn his freedom by winning a few weapon-equipped car races which are, of course, rigged by the authorities (Joan Allen). He takes the place of a masked driver called Frankenstein (role reprised from the original by David Carradine), gets a mechanic (Ian McShane), a saboteur-spy sidekick (Natalie Martinez) and a rival (Tyrese Gibson, in the Sylvester Stallone role). After some ‘splosiony car races, Statham avenges his wife by killing mohawked driver Max Ryan and Pryzbylewski-looking guard Jason Clarke, then secretly teams up with Tyrese, easily breaking out of prison by shooting the walls with their missile-equipped cars, driving away to a Shawshank-esque incognito freedom.

Also, Ian McShane blows up Joan Allen:

Set in the dystopian future world of 2012. Will someone tell me again why future-movies always take place in the extremely near future? Followed by two sequels starring Ving Rhames and Danny Trejo. Produced by the great Roger Corman, in between Supergator and Sharktopus.

C. Huber in Cinema Scope calls him “the elder, least pretentious, and most consistently amusing Anderson of the current director trifecta: its termite artisan.”

Il Generale Della Rovere (1959, Roberto Rossellini)

First some context from the always-reliable Tag. By 1958/59, Rossellini “hated commercial cinema with a vengeance,” but was broke as usual, so “was selling himself to a producer for a project that wasn’t his own.” Films about the Italian government’s WWII collaboration with nazis had been forbidden for years, and as this ban was lifted, Rossellini shared the golden lion at Venice with Mario Monicelli (The Great War) for breaking taboos. So, sucked back into a system he hated, he ended up with his biggest success since Open City.

Adapting the true story about a fake leader of the anti-fascist resistance planted in a political prison to try and ferret out the real resistance leaders, Rossellini was assigned fellow neorealist director Vittorio de Sica as a lead actor. And he’s excellent, I thought, but Tag says R.R. considered VdS a ham, and utilized tricks to make him tone down his huge performance. Either way, it’s an engrossing movie about sordid wartime subjects.

De Sica is Bardone aka Grimaldi, a local during the occupation who meets nazi Colonel Muller (Hannes Messemer, POW camp commandant in The Great Escape) on the street and gives him directions, then proceeds to his usual past time, which is scamming his countrymen whose relatives are in jail, collecting gifts to pass on to the imprisoned, and money for their release, then gambling it away. His girl Valeria (Sandra Milo of Juliet of the Spirits and 8 1/2) leaves him, and while looking for a sucker to buy some fake jewelry, he visits Olga (Giovanna Ralli, star of RR’s follow-up Escape By Night), an ex working in a brothel.

Valeria:

Olga:

Meanwhile, in a botched capture attempt, General Della Rovere of the partisan underground is killed. And Bardone is arrested, turned in by a girl he was trying to scam (Anne Vernon, Deneuve’s mom in Umbrellas of Cherbourg), promising to free her husband who had already been executed. Bardone pleads his case passionately, saying he’s providing a great service to the locals by providing false hope in a hopeless time, and Col. Muller gets an idea.

Anne Vernon:

The second half of the movie is traitorous Bardone doing time in a political prison, trying to identify captured leaders of the underground so they can be tortured for information. But Bardone spends enough time faking that he’s General Della Rovere that he starts to believe it, taking to heart the letters he receives from Rovere’s wife. “When you don’t know which path to take, choose the hardest one.”

His new friend Banchelli the barber (Vittorio Caprioli, plant manager in Tout va bien) is tortured to death, and Rovere is tortured as well, as Muller gets tired of waiting for results. In the end, Bardone/Rovere meets the leader of the resistance, but goes voluntarily to the firing squad without divulging the secret, a patriot at last. Yeah, it’s a bit melodramatic.

Banchelli:

Film Quarterly said the first section, before Bardone is arrested, was “much too long.” This may be true if you’ve read the true story, or are expecting a prison movie. But I thought it was perfectly timed out, because we get to know him before prison, see what a scoundrel he is, and how he deals with friends and strangers. Then his turn in prison from early nervousness to pride in his (false) position of honor to partisan has more meaning.

12 Monkeys (1995, Terry Gilliam)

Haven’t seen this in a long time. Love the Vertigo and La Jetee references, and the Vertigo-via-La Jetee references. Katy was pleasantly surprised that Brad Pitt used to have energy. With such a perfect script, I’m surprised the writers haven’t done anything except a Kurt Russell actioner since.

Where Are They Now: Madeline Stowe hasn’t been in movies since 2003, is starring in a new show Katy watches. Chris Plummer (Brad’s dad the famous biologist) came back to play Dr. Parnassus. His plague-unleashing assistant David Morse was in Drive Angry 3D last year. Jon Seda (Bruce’s ever-present fellow prisoner from the future who hands him a civil war pistol in the airport) is in Treme. And Bruce Willis has an upcoming movie called Looper, in which he travels from the future and his past-self sees him (almost) die.

Gilliam:

I loved the idea of trying to make people consider the thought that to save the world five billion people might die. . . . But now you know that the world demands that things change. The word “culling” comes to mind. There’s going to be a culling of human beings soon. I don’t know what it will be. David’s thing was that a plague will do it. War? Famine? These things, the old favourites, are always there. Basically, I think there are too many people. And it’s not just that there are too many people; there are too many people who all want all these things that we have. That’s the problem. It’s Malthusian: there’s population and resources and, when they hit imbalance, look out boys and girls!

Grand Illusion (1937, Jean Renoir)

A weird sort of (anti-)war film in that the opposing sides (mostly French vs. German) are extremely nice to each other. The great Jean Gabin (between The Lower Depths and La Bete Humaine) is pilot Marechal, flying the right proper monocle-wearing Captain Boldieu (Pierre Fresnay, star of Le Corbeau and Duvivier’s Phantom Carriage remake) when they’re shot down by the right proper monocle-wearing Erich von Stroheim – who shakes their hands and invites them to dinner.

The next section is the source of many comic/dramatic prison camp films, but without the grit and terror of many of them (although Gabin is painfully placed in solitary confinement after provoking a celebration over Germany losing a battle), since WWII forever changed the face of prison camps. The men are stationed with a series of characters digging an escape tunnel beneath their barracks, including three major Rules of the Game actors: The Engineer (jealous husband Gaston Modot), The Actor (Julien Carette, Gaston’s poacher nemesis) and Rosenthal (Marcel Dallo, the marquis), along with Jean Daste (a brush-mustached vegetarian).

That’s Daste at upper-right, and his L’Age d’Or-starring engineer companion over his shoulder:

Before they can use the tunnel, our initial two Frenchman plus Rosenthal (a rich jew who receives lavish care packages from home) are transferred to a new camp – one run by a stiffly strict Stroheim (is there any other kind of Stroheim?), now in a back/neck brace from an injury. They immediately set about planning their escape again. Boldieu causes a distraction while the other two climb down a handmade rope. Stroheim is extremely depressed to have to shoot down Boldieu, a man he considered too respectful to break the prison rules.

Gabin and Dallo on the run:

Finally, a section that proved unexpectedly resonant with Essential Killing – a prisoner on the run encounters a woman living alone (the lead actress of the film, not appearing until the last fifteen minutes) who brings him in and cares for him. Rosenthal has a leg injury, but overall the guys are in better shape than Vincent Gallo was, and Gabin falls for the lovely Dita Parlo (Renoir was always casting actors from L’Atalante), a German civilian with a young son, whose husband and brothers have all died in the war. The men walk off through Switzerland, Gabin hoping to return. But Renoir obviously doesn’t believe he will.

P. Cowie on the audio commentary:

“War is a great illusion,” said Renoir on another occasion, “with its hopes unfulfilled, its promises never kept.” Of course the interesting thing is that [Marechal and Rosenthal] say farewell to each other with no plans to meet, whereas in the original scenario, Bazin claims that the two fugitives had arranged a rendezvous at Maxime’s in Paris for the first Christmas Eve after the war, and the last shot would show “December 24, 1918,” and their table, reserved but empty in the midst of the busy restaurant, as though even their friendship had been an illusion. . . . Many years later, when Renoir was asked about war films and their effectiveness, he replied soberly, “In 1936 I made a picture named Grand Illusion in which I tried to express all my deep feelings for the cause of peace. This film was very successful. Three years later, the war broke out.”

Buy from Amazon:
Grand Illusion DVD

Kisses (1957, Yasuzo Masumura)

A straightforward rebellious-youth/romantic drama. Should’ve watched this with Katy, but I didn’t think Masumura would be her style. It’s one of Masumura’s earliest films, from the writer of Mizoguchi’s Story of the Last Chrysanthemums.

Hiroshi Kawaguchi and Hitomi Nozoe would also star together in Giants and Toys:

Moody Kinichi’s dad is accused of election fraud, will need 100k yen in fines. While visiting dad in jail, Kinichi runs across Akiko who’s also visiting her dad, also needs 100k. Their moms aren’t around – the boy’s wants nothing to do with the family anymore, is a jeweler or something, and the girl’s is in a sanatorium with TB. Akiko’s family friend, a famous painter, has a playboy son who sees his chance to buy her (even blatantly phrasing it that way) now that she’s in need.

Kinichi with mom: Aiko Mimasu, in Street of Shame the previous year

So it sounds like the movie could be a sordid drama about sad poor people, but it’s not that at all. Mostly it’s a light romance between the two heavy-hearted kids – at the racing track, the beach, a piano bar. Kinichi seems somewhat reckless at first, but he’s a good, responsible kid, finally gets the money from his mom, tracks down the girl (there’s extra drama when he loses her address) and gives it to her.

In smaller roles, the boy’s jailed dad (“Lawmakers are the crooks. Until the law changes, I’ll go to jail after every election”) is Eitaro Ozawa of Assassination and The Crucified Lovers, and the girl’s sad, sick mom is Sachiko Murase, star of Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August.

Thunderbolt (1929, Josef von Sternberg)

It’s nice to hear George Bancroft for once, but the sound recording and mix is so primitive, and the visual style seems to be suffering alongside it. It looks more like a standard early 1930’s Hollywood movie than a follow-up to Sternberg’s brilliant silents. Fay Wray has some bad line reads, but weirder, there’s a shot early on where one guy in a conversation is hidden behind a column, as if nobody knew where the camera was located. But it gets better as it goes on, so either it was shot in sequence with the crew learning on the job, or more likely, I was adjusting myself to its quirks, starting to forgive the sound mix and focus on story and shadows instead.

Has a lot in common with Underworld – in each, Bancroft is a tough criminal whose girl falls for someone else. Bancroft goes to prison, and at the last minute he drops his hold upon the girl, wishes the other guy luck and goes to his death laughing.

Sternberg’s first musical number is a success, starring Theresa Harris:

Fay, just off Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March, is in love with boring Bob (boring Richard Arlen of Wings and The Four Feathers). She’s got a good voice, but her dialogue has no flow, as if she’s still learning to speak. Seems like most of the movie takes place in the prison (a nice, simple set for the monstrous talkie camera) after some early scenes in an apartment and a racially integrated nightclub. T-Bolt is briefly introduced to his cellmates, but only a few stand out, such as Bad Al Friedberg, the meanest guy in the joint until Bancroft showed up. George finally gets to back up his tough talk when Bad Al snatches a guard’s gun and the warden (timid old Tully Marshall, one of the professors in Ball of Fire) lets T-Bolt handle the situation. In return, T. gets a pet dog, because audiences can’t be expected to relate to a hard-ass criminal unless he’s kind to dogs, at least. I’m glad the movie kept the dog out of the execution chamber in the final scene. Anyway, his men frame Bob, who is sent to the same prison, and on execution day George plans to grab Bob through the bars and crush his skull, but has a last minute change of heart after a candid chat and seeing Bob and Fay marry in prison, admits the frame job instead.

T-Bolt, left, with Bob:

The convicts have a singing group – my favorite use of sound was the choral backdrops to prison dialogue. The setting gives Sternberg plenty of opportunity to aim noirish shadow-bars across the scenes (online I’ve seen this labeled a proto-noir) Movie was co-written (with Sternberg) by Joseph “All About Eve” Mankiewicz and his brother Herman, who worked on Citizen Kane.