Friday, 22 March 2019

The Four Feathers (1939)

John Clements jacks in the soldier's life, then has to prove he's not a coward in The Four Feathers

Director: Zoltan Korda
Cast: John Clements (Harry Faversham), Ralph Richardson (Captain John Durrance), C. Aubrey Smith (General Burroughs), June Duprez (Ethne Burroughs), Allan Jeayes (Geveral Faversham), Jack Allen (Lt Thomas Willoughby), Donald Gray (Peter Burroughs), Frederick Culley (Dr Sutton), John Laurie (Khalifa)

Who doesn’t love a sweeping boys own adventure? The Four Feathers is a prime example of a classic late Victorian adventure story by AEW Mason, where stiff-upper lipped British men do what must be done for honour, Queen and country in the face of hordes of dangerous ruthless natives. Okay, you can see typing that why some of these attitudes can be seen as “troubling today” – and the film’s occasional non-PC stumbles (John Laurie blacks up – as does every other actor playing a speaking African – as radical leader Khalifa, while his army is referred to by an on-screen caption as “fuzzy-wuzzies”). But it’s a product of its time, and its attitudes are really less racist, than the sort of patronising parental colonialism, where the Khalifa has to be stopped as much because he is a danger to his fellow natives as he is the British rulers.

Anyway, putting it’s “of its time” attitudes to one side, The Four Feathers is an endearing, enjoyable and wonderfully made adventure story. After the death of General Gordon (see Charlton Heston’s epic Khartoum) in 1885, war is declared on the Khalifa in the Sudan. However young Harry Faversham (John Clements) resigns his commission on the day of the announcement that his regiment will be shipped out, feeling his obligation to join the army has ended with his father’s death and worried that he will prove a coward. His friends Durrance (Ralph Richardson), Willoughby (Jack Allen), Burroughs (Donald Gray) and fiancée Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez) are singularly unimpressed and all send him white feathers of cowardice. Realising he has led down everyone, Faversham disguises himself as mute, Sangali native (including facial brand – ouch!) and heads out to the Sudan to help his friends and regain his honour: and do they need it, as Durrance is blinded and Willoughby and Burroughs captured by the Khalifa.

The Four Feathers was shot on a huge budget at the time, with extensive on-set location shooting, and it barrels along with an old-fashioned sense of adventure that is hard not to get a little bit swept in. Of course, it’s also easy to question some of the film’s colonialist, white-man’s burden attitudes and also its opinions on what constitutes bravery and nobility (leaving the army because you never wanted to be in it in the first place is seen as yellow-bellied nonsense, which I suppose makes sense for a film made just before World War Two). 

But take it as a product of its own time, and the film works extremely well – easily the best version of the many that have been made of AEW Mason’s book. While epic, it gives us a low-key, dignified lead character who it’s easy to admire and relate to. John Clements plays the role with an expected upper-class stiffness in places, but he’s also a man bursting with desires to be something more than a soldier, then plagued with guilt and self-loathing when he believes he has betrayed all those he is closest to. Clements’ performance anchors the film extremely well, and makes Faversham into an admirable, very human protagonist, pushing himself to insane levels of deprivation and suffering to redeem himself in his own eyes, as much as in his friends.

Those friends are also not painted as arrogant buffoons or cruel, knee-jerk bullies. Ralph Richardson mines a great deal of sympathy from Durrance, a man determined to do his best but (its implied ) living under a deep sense of inadequacy and fear himself, who knows he is second best in most things, especially in love, and who accepts the ill fortunes that befall him with an eventual stoic good-nature. The film’s most successful sequence, features a wordless disguised Faversham, guiding the blind Durrance not only back to the British troops, but also helping him to find some will to carry on living. Its sterling work from Richardson, and his physical intelligence – his initial blindness is almost comically blundering, before the character trains himself to move and act almost as if he still had his sight – makes for further emotional connection.

All this is set in a sweeping, marvellously entertaining, grand-scale by Zoltan Korda. No expense was clearly spared, and the large scale sequences of battles and attacks – as well as the shots of armies moving across the desert wasteland – carry a great deal of scale and impact. The film barrels along with an impressive force, throwing events and actions at us throughout, all while juggling the personal stories of its lead characters. The technicolour shooting of the film has a classic gorgeousness about it, and the film has more than its fair share of decent lines. The film highlights a number of rather stirring battle set pieces, as red coated Englishman fight against overwhelming odds, the sort of thing that we are meant to frown at today but actually remains rather gripping.

The Four Feathers may be dated in places, but as a piece of classic entertainment from its era it’s hard to beat. The action adventure is full of bangs, shots and stiff-upper lipped Brits overcoming trials and tribulations. Faversham is a grounded and relatable character, and his doubts and fears make him admirable, not least because of the great lengths he goes to in order to overcome them. The Four Feathers still entertains today because it feels like exactly the sort of classic Sunday afternoon adventure story that appeals to boys of all ages.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)

Jean Louis-Barrault mimes up a storm in French masterpiece Les Enfants du Paradis

Director: Marcel Carné
Cast: Arletty (Claire "Garance" Reine), Jean-Louis Barrault (Baptiste Deburau), Pierre Brasseur (Frédérick Lemaître), Marcel Herrand (Pierre-François Lacenaire), Pierre Renoir (Jéricho), María Casarès (Nathalie), Louis Salou (Comte Édouard de Montray), Gaston Modot (Fil de Soie), Fabien Loris (Avril), Marcel Pérès (Director of the Funambules), Pierre Palau (Stage manager)

Les Enfants du Paradis is France’s Gone with the Wind or Casablanca – a beloved classic that holds an unshakeable place in any list of great French films. And you can’t argue with that, this is the sort of gem of a film that should be watched and seen by anyone who loves movies. Carné’s magisterial epic hums with a mix of romance and drama, comedy and tragedy, hope and despair. It not only captures the magic of theatre, but also the different shades and variations of love and lust. A totemic expression of art and life, it opened immediately after the liberation and ran for 54 solid weeks in Paris.

Set in the Parisian theatre scene of 1820-1830, the film charts not only the early foundation of French theatre, but also four very different men who all share a love for one enchanting, elliptical and magnetic woman, the mysterious Garance (Arletty). These men (all fictionalised versions of real people, except de Montray) are pioneering mime artist Baptiste Deburau (Jean-Louis Barrault), aspiring classical actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), ruthless artiste and criminal Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) and arrogant Comte Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou). The lives and feelings of these five characters clash and interweave over ten years.

In many ways, it’s a miracle that Carné’s film exists at all. It was shot on a high budget in occupied France. Filming was disrupted by the war and the peace – the actor originally playing small time hustler Jéricho was sentenced to death for collaboration and fled the country to be replaced by Pierre Renoir (son of the painter, brother to the director) – and its star Arletty was in prison for having an affair with a German Luftwaffe officer when the film was released. The film was split into two as Nazi rules prevented any films from being longer than 90 minutes. Half the vast number of extras were members of the Resistance using the film as cover. Its skilled art director Alexander Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma were secret Jews (Trauner was living under a false name with Carné). Filming delays struck the production time and time again. How did this get made?

Well it’s a wartime miracle, and a gift to any film-lover because Carné’s film is a magisterial achievement, a beautifully paced epic that mixes spectacle with human emotion. It looks simply sublime. Trauner’s set and design are astonishingly ambitious and real, beautifully bringing to life both the streets of Paris and the theatre of the early nineteenth century. The detail and costumes are sumptuous and the world it invokes all-consuming. You can see why the film was considered an almost unbelievable folly to mount during wartime. But it creates the perfect bustling, real life drama for Carné’s poetic story to be built around. 

Carné worked with Jacques Prevert, possibly France’s greatest screenwriter, on the script and crafted a romantic epic that manages to seem timeless. In its sweep and detail it shows every stratum of French society, and shows the same human emotions drive us all from high to low, no matter the background. On top of that, it mixes a romantic sweep with a real understanding of the selfishness, greed and flaws of humanity. Prevert’s script juggles the narrative balls of all these characters and uses each of them to show different facets of the passion and obsession of love. 

Carné’s camera works beautifully, exploring Trauner’s set brilliantly to recreate beautifully the beginnings of French modern theatre. He knows when to keep the camera simple, and when to use extravagant shots: his opening crane shots through the bustling streets of Paris are superb, as is the carefully static camera that captures Barrault’s early mime routine. He has a wonderful understanding of the backstage world of theatre: very few other films have captured the mood and atmosphere of life behind the scenes. He also is perfectly at home with Prevert’s literary and witty script, packed with good lines. There are superb scenes from start to finish – despite its length, everything feels essential and the pace never slackens, because each moment teaches us something about character or deepens our understanding of their relationships and the world of the film. This is possibly one of the paciest and leanest three-hour films you will ever see.

At the centre of all this is Arletty as the mesmerising Garrance. Arletty juggles a hugely difficult role: Garrance is, in some ways, with her desire for liberty, her strong will, her mysteriousness, her desire for independence clashing with her sense of being bent to the will of men, an expression of France herself, following in the footsteps of Delacroix’s Liberty or Joan of Arc. Arletty’s performance is fine, playing up to this legendary unknowability, although I will say she is (whisper it) at nearly 50 too old for the part (in high definition she looks noticeably older than most of the men courting her). I must confess re-watching it that I would have loved the astonishingly talented María Casarès to play the role (she is exceptionally heartfelt and tragic as Baptiste’s devoted but unloved wife-to-be), but it’s a very hard part, a role that has to be everything to all the men in the film, but also whose true desires (under the masks she must wear) are hard to know. 

Arletty’s slightly stagy and theatrical, mannered performance is perhaps shown up as well by the more genuine and enjoyable performances around her. As mentioned, Casarès is sublime as the tragic Nathalie. Pierre Brassuer is extraordinarily entertaining and larger-than-life as Lemaître, a bon-vivant with ambition but who is willing to accept that life moves on and relationships change. Marcel Herrand is wonderful as Lacenaire, a character of immense shades of grey, part ruthless crook, part bitter cynic, part romantic. Lacenaire’s actions defy characterisation but constantly feel true, and Herrand plays the role with a sly wit tinged with danger that I love.

Jean-Louis Barrault, himself a famous mime artist, is physically perfect as Baptiste – his mime sequences are extraordinary in their detail and grace – and he makes for a fascinating nominal lead. A romantic in some ways, a nervous young pup who idealises Garrance (while Lemaître sees her more as an equal partner, Lacenaire a kind of protégé, and the Comte as property who can be brought and sold) who turns down advances offers from Garrance due to his idealised view of her, his development is fascinating. Starting as our romantic lead, Prevert and Carné slowly reveal that the years turn him into someone approaching a selfish obsessive, barely able to function when Garrance is near, who jilts his wife and child in a heartbeat when he has the opportunity to see her, an obsessive who will sacrifice others without a thought to feed his fire. 

Does Garrance return this love? Perhaps yes, it’s one of the mysteries of the film. This is, after all, a world abounding with actors and liars, where people take on personalities all the time. A blind beggar gleefully shows his disability is a façade when someone buys him dinner. Pierre Renoir’s hustler Jéricho has as many nom-de-plumes as he does dodgy deals. Garrance perhaps recognises in Baptiste the only one of her potential lovers who has no desire to bend any part of her to his will – Lemaître will place his ambition first, Lacenaire would have her a partner in crime, the Comte would control her every move – and maybe this is what draws her to him. 

But the romance in the film is never that simple: instead it’s as likely to cause harm as happiness. Carné’s beautiful and wise film shows love is never simple and romance is never as harmless as we might like to think. The dialogue is perfectly assembled, the acting superb and every shot of the film is beautiful. Les Enfants du Paradis is a classic must for lovers of film, but also for lovers of theatre – its recreation of early nineteenth-century theatre is perfect – and a film that you can watch and enjoy time and time again.

Monday, 18 March 2019

The Driver (1978)

Isabella Adjani and Ryan O'Neal buckle up in The Driver

Director: Walter Hill
Cast: Ryan O’Neil (The Driver), Bruce Dern (The Detective), Isabella Adjani (The Player), Ronee Blakely (The Connection), Matt Clark (Red Plainclothesman), Felice Orlandi (Gold Plainclothesman), Joseph Walsh (Glasses), Rudy Ramon (Teeth)

The Driver was Walter Hill’s attempt at making a pure genre film. Characters? Who really needs ‘em – how about we just name every character after their function? Plot? Let’s keep it really simple – cops and robbers? Events? Let’s never take longer than 20 minutes to get from one action, car-chase set-up from another. The Driver is an alarmingly simple piece of genre film-making – which means you can see why it’s been so popular with a generation of film-makers who have admired its stripped down cool and sparse chill.

The Driver (Ryan O’Neal) is a supernaturally gifted escape car artist, who lives his life by an almost samurai code and rigid punctuality. The Detective (Bruce Dern) is the obsessed cop willing to bend the rules in order to catch this uncatchable man. The Detective hires a gang of criminals to hire The Driver to be part of a bank job – he’ll let them get away with the heist if they will help him catch The Driver. But things are never that simple.

The Driver barely has a plot at all really – it’s totally about the vibe of creating something so stripped down there is barely anything left. Like pure experience cinema. However, somehow, a piece of pulp cinema like this still manages to end up feeling very self-important and pleased with itself, for all its grimy realism. 

For starters, it’s hard not to feel slightly annoyed by none of the characters having names. On top of this they are all treated, to varying degrees, as unengaging ciphers, plot devices rather than human beings. When they speak they tend to stand and stare into the middle distance while doing so, or drop elliptical statements that feel important but are actually pretty empty. This isn’t helped by casting a selection of actors who are pretty balsawood in the first place: Ryan O’Neal is no one’s idea of Laurence Olivier, although at least his wooden delivery pretty much matches up well with a bland cipher like the Driver. Isabelle Adjani, in her first English language role, feels rather confused by the whole thing and goes for a dead-eyed inscrutability.

Perhaps, with the lack of energy coming from his co-stars, Bruce Dern goes all out as a character who, really, makes no sense at all as the lawman so obsessed with justice he’ll break the law to enforce it. Dern pretty much chews the scenery with wild-eyed intensity, even though in dialogue he also has too fall back on the same empty, metaphorical nonsense as the other two.

This all makes for a strange mixture of bizarre art installation and hard-boiled, super driving stunts. Everything that doesn’t take place behind the wheel of car is laced with a portentous self-importance. The driving in this film is, by the way, fabulous. The film has three major sequences of driving expertise which signpost each act, and each is shot and framed with an influential edginess by Hill. Using low angles, and strapping the camera onto the bonnet of the car, the film throws us into the middle of all the wheel-spinning action.

The opening sequence – a high speed escape from a robbery that narrowly falls behind the Driver’s tight schedule causing all sorts of problems – is a perfect entrée for what will come, neon lit cars burning down and through downtown LA, engaged in all sorts of fast turns and clever tricks to shake off tails. Hill follows this up with an entertaining sequence mid-movie, where the Driver proves his unquestionable skill by expertly manoeuvring at high speed around a car park, skilfully and deliberately knocking parts of the car off as he goes round. This all builds towards the final chase, which rips through a building estate and finally a factory as the Driver chases down the thieves who have fleeced him of his cash.

Ah yes, the cash. There is a complex sting operation going on here around some cash from a job being kept in a locker in a train station, but it hardly really matters (the film barely stops to explain it anyway). You only need to know it’s a trap but the Driver needs it as the results of this big job. Like the characters, events in the film matter only as far as their plot function requires. It makes for an odd viewing experience, but this has influenced so many films later – not least Drive which is a remake in all but name – that The Driver, for all it is a slightly frustrating watch at the time, is assured now of a classic status you wouldn’t have expected when it bombed at the box office on release.