Backlog #5: The Searchers (1956)

I mentioned earlier about playing bastards. John Wayne in The Searchers is probably as grand a bastard as the cinema has seen. He’s a confederate soldier returned from the war to his family, who soon after are massacred by the Comanche, except for his five year old niece, who is kidnapped. The film becomes his trail of vengeance, as he goes looking for her, expecting trouble.

Wayne as Ethan Edwards is dominant: nothing in life is as contemptuous as his delivery of the word “Comanche”. It’s fascinating: the great American actor playing at the surface, a great American hero. But no: whilst his down to earth charisma works its magic on the audience, we’re confronted by the uneasy reality that Edwards is barely short of a psychopath, a man driven to madness by his desire for revenge.

I’m nothing of an aficionado for westerns: I’ve never watched more than the fingers on my hand, so I’m can’t place Ford or Wayne in much of a context. The Searchers is at one level a rollicking adventure pursuit; at another as I’ve alluded to, an intense psychological study. It is all within the framework of Ford’s widescreen presentation of the west; an infinite territory of nature within which man and his quarrels and even his culture are swallowed up.

The awesomeness of this, merged with the power of Wayne is the film’s majestic strength. I found the humour, main via the character of Martin but also Wayne’s occasional diversions into geniality, a little incongruous. The film also moves a little interminably towards its climax – although we know that this film is a genre western, we can easily sense the themes that Ford is exploring and whilst fascinating it can be a grim and provoking experience.

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Backlog #6: Just Before Nightfall (1971)

This Chabrol picture is really, really good. It takes the dynamic of the previously discussed La Femme Infidele, with Michel Bouquet and Stephane Audran as virtually the same couple. This time however, the murder occurs right at the start – a claustrophobic scene where a sadomasochistic asphyxiation game goes badly wrong. The remainder of the film is an agonising study of guilt and responsibility.

The accidental murderer Charles is stunned by what has happened and flees in confusion, managing somehow to not incriminate himself. The police find themselves baffled – this is in no way a whodunit film. Initially Charles rationally considers his options and decides the best choice is to conceal the truth, keep calm and carry on. Soon enough he finds himself physically and mentally destroyed by guilt and confesses to his wife and his victim’s husband (a good friend). However instead of making him suffer for his crime, which is the response he expects and the only one he wants, they both understand and forgive him. This does not relieve Charles’ suffering and the film dissolves with his wife’s empathy soothing this torment in vain.

For me, Just Before Nightfall is a culmination of the series of films before it, the themes attacking bourgeois convention and twisting cinema norms. Ignoring or bypassing morality in favour of attempting to carry on without fuss or loss of face (or the diversion from the routines of normal life – Charles’ most mortifying experiences happen at a drab, gray railway halt). This is a crime thriller, but the guilty party is identified within 90 seconds and it is soon established that he is not going to be troubled by the police. Charles is unlucky enough to test himself within one of bourgeois life’s hypocricies (sexual abandon) and lose out. He then finds that the structure that he functions within is capable of protecting him from external harm, but no use in handling his psychological tremors.

The most amusing contradiction here was in Charles’ professional career, which appear in brief interludes away from his family life. Charles is a director in a public relations firm – the staid suited business-like presence, a figure of rectitude. Amusingly, his business partner is a ridiculously flamboyant middle aged hippie in fur coat and outlandish wig. We learn however, that the playboy is the one who has his eye on the firm’s business affairs – Charles instead has allowed the elderly accountant to rip both of them for fifteen years, finally running away with the secretary. When Charles bemusedly asks the errant why, he gets spat at. So to summarize, another Chabrol classic – these films are fantastic!

Backlog #7: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

I hadn’t anticipated rating this one so highly. Perhaps because of Tony Richardson’s career peaking shortly afterwards and then going into a long decline. What makes this film is Tom Courtenay’s performance as Colin, the long distance runner of the title. He is searingly brilliant, within the confines of his role as a down at heel working class lad. Colin is a smouldering fire of sullenness, resentment and incivility: the angriest young man in a scenario stocked with them: the borstal. Courtenay’s eyes and cheekbones, alone present an epitome of rebellion.

The plot straddles two time-frames: the “now”, of life in the borstal and the Governor’s project to channel Colin’s rebellion into the outlet of athletics. And the “before”; flashbacks to Colin’s family and emotional life in Nottingham, and the background to his incarceration. This takes up most of the centre of the film; it’s quite grim: the father dying of industrial disease, the mother already has moved on emotionally: while her husband lies bedridden, her mind is on her fancy man, the children that are still growing up and the materialism that is the only release. With all his disgust and resentment at this world Colin, even as the oldest, is just a bit-part within this matriarchal scene. Lacking inspiration and unwilling to look for or accept an escape, his frustrations relieve themselves in petty crime, which in turn give do give him the means to escape from Nottingham for a day or two: to attract a girl, to treat her, to make love.

The “now”, presents the clash of underclass rebellion against the professionals of the prison service and the world of incarceration: paternalistic velvet around iron brutality. The brutality is through the warders and other staff: cruelty in behaviour and physically intimidating. The paternalism is mainly through the Governor who fulfils his responsibilities towards rehabilitation through noblesse oblige. Thus Colin, with his outsider mien, is immediately tagged as a suitable case for the Governor’s schemes. Clever enough to accept this patronage as a way out of his share of hard labour, Colin is given gardening duties and is allowed to go for cross-country runs, which cue in the flashbacks.

Eventually, all this concludes in the cross country challenge, where the Governor’s project resolves in the only way his patriarchal paternalism can: in a race between the borstal boys and public schoolboys. The ending manages to be both an agonising anti-climax and a glorious climax: one of the best “fuck-off”s on film. Colin’s refusal to surrender his integrity, even if it means continuing to destroy his few opportunities in society and life, is both tragic and triumphant.

I don’t think this film has dated too much, in fact it’s very watchable indeed. Some of the tricks Richardson uses in the home life sequences haven’t aged well (I’m thinking of when Colin and Mike steal the car, which seems to me to be too trad-50s British rather than new wave) and the Governor’s characterization and his exploitation of the opposite ends of British social life for his own ends is quite heavy handed (Michael Redgrave is good though, as you’d expect). Walter Lassally’s photography is excellent, in particular the contrasts between the grey, drab and miserable city and the clear, sunlit woods that Colin passes through.

The main thing about The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is its theme of British society and class: how the only emotions that Colin has developed are negative ones, nurtured by his environment. In response he has only sullen anger, jaded sarcasm and resentment to give. It’s a horribly brutal theme and not one, in spite of the working class becoming more upwardly mobile in the fifty years since, that has been fully addressed.

Backlog #8: Edvard Munch (1974)

This biographic of the Norwegian painter is wonderful. It’s made in Peter Watkins’ characteristic fashion: a docudrama utilising non-professional actors, with a strong socio-political strain. With its three hour running time, it’s a move in Watkins’ development into a more contemplative and measured presentation, allowing more time to explore the film’s themes and contemplate them. It’s a challenge for the viewer: the film’s narrative continuously moves back and forth and sideways in tracing Munch and the worlds of his art, his family and his public. In the right mood, it’s an extremely rewarding challenge serving Watkins’ purpose in presenting his work outside of mass-media conventions.

Edvard Munch presents the life of the painter as: his childhood and upbringing in an upper-bourgeois family; his adoption of painting and his stylistic and technical innovations; his emotional life, in particular his affair with Mrs Heilberg; the hostile reaction of the public to his work and his subsequent escape to Berlin. Linking these strands of plot and theme is Watkins’ narration, calm and matter-of-fact, which places the events of Munch’s life in context with his biography and that of 19th century Norwegian society; but it also attempts to link the darkening tone of the wider historical events in western society with the art of Munch.

Life in late 19th century Christiana is discussed with frequent digressive inserts documenting the formalities, hypocrisies and privations it contained. Watkins uses, as in his previous work, close-up interview responses with characters both major and minor, eliciting their (in and out of character) opinions on all of the film’s themes; most notable are the responses from the critics of the Norwegian art world when first confronted by Munch’s paintings.

Munch is independent from this 1st/2nd person presentation, as if to enforce the impression that his turbulent emotional life was expressed by his painting and fulfilled by his obsession with Mrs Heilberg. This is the heart of the film and Geir Westby and Gro Fraas look right and are excellent. Perhaps Watkins attempts to cover too much in the course of the narrative, to the effect that the centrifugal plot of Munch’s crises cannot command the film over its course. Regardless, Edvard Munch is a massive achievement, an exploration of biography, art, social and cultural history and human emotion that stimulates the audiences understanding of the artist’s life and his background and context.

Backlog #9: This Man Must Die (1969)

A proper gripping film, this. It’s an adaption of a novel rather than an original idea, so its tones and lines are more straightforward and clear-cut than in Chabrol’s other psychological thrillers. It’s also a good deal more elegiac: death is a presentational theme as well as a narrative presence (and the cool and incomparably classy figure of Stephane Audran is not involved).

The beginning is awesomely morbid; a sports car speeding along a country lane, with Katheen Ferrier’s haunting voice arriving through the stereo, passes through a village and hits and kills a young boy, before speeding off. The victim’s father, Charles, a calm, sober and respectable man who appears to be a widower, surrenders to his grief and then an urge for revenge. He painstakingly and logically uncovers a lead to the car’s passenger: a television actress who (a little surprisingly) falls for him and unknowingly leads him to his goal.

This detective work is allowed the first half of the film; any longer and it perhaps would have dried up the narrative. Once we have located the killer, all that there is to do is for the father to take his revenge. However there are three spectacular twists; the one I’ll mention is the first, where the father, on close acquaintance with his prey Paul, discovers that he is indeed a spectacularly unpleasant man and despised by all who know him. As a result Charles’ self-pity and quiet rage becomes confused with a pity for the other man. He becomes hesitant, allowing the goalposts to change and he loses control of the situation.

This Man Must Die is a superb film. I particularly liked its Brittany setting, the stylish focus of the cinematography and the acting (particularly Michel Duchaussoy as Charles and Jean Yanne as Paul, who shows that actors love playing bastards). The elegiac tone I state above moves the viewer; however this is placed alongside the variation of genre tropes and moral ambivalence that Chabrol brought to his thrillers. It’s a more traditional thriller than La Femme Infidele and equally strong.

Backlog #10a: Theorem (1968)

Theorem is brilliant. The plot is absurdly straightforward. An upper-bourgeois Milanese family live a frigid, statuesque existence. One day, in the midst of a torpid house-party, a handsome and charismatic stranger (Terence Stamp) walks in as if out of nowhere and hangs around. He makes love to each and addresses their various emotional sicknesses. Then almost as soon as he’s arrived, he goes away; being returned to the world as it was prior to the stranger, they react violently in different ways.

To me at the surface level, Theorem works as a kind of strange, other-worldly, almost holy sex comedy. What happens is amusing and the libido is explicit: the family and the maid lust after the strangers’ body (e.g. the bony severity of the maid’s countenance when she surveys his groin whilst raking the leaves). This need for sexuality and its satisfaction is the film’s primary theme.

This survey takes in the first half of the film; the second half traces the reaction of the family and the maid, where they individually respond to the gratification with revelation, shock, creativity, self-indulgence and guilt. Each of these is making its own point, I think, most markedly in the factory owner forgoing civilization and heading for the desert (amusingly contextualised by the films bookend scenes outside the factory, with the press interviewing the workers making what they will of it).

So Theorem studies our sexual drives and how fundamental they are to the politics of our society: those of the family, those of bourgeois economics and their place within our acceptance and use of Christianity.

Technically, it’s a beautiful film. The setting is gorgeous and Pasolini’s direction is spare and clear. It does drag a bit in the second half, particularly in the sequences where the maid travels home, but Theorem is a surprisingly moving film.

Backlog #10: That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

That Obscure Object of Desire is a delight. Bunuel’s works strike one as conventional, possibly even humdrum on the surface. His method is very economical, quite spare. Things generally are presented as they seem (if one lived in mid-seventies France and had mildly vivid film stock for a retina). Bunuel’s unrivalled (from what I can tell) reputation kidded me into believing (prior to watching The Exterminating Angel) that he was a grand director. In a sense he is, of course, but as I say, at first glance his films are strikingly conventional.

From this base, convention is under attack. Things aren’t quite (or at all completely) what we’d take them for when thinking about reality. This film is a more subtle assault than Phantom of Liberty, but within its civilised and sophisticated background it still knocks us back.

The film is fundamentally a one-sided romance, between a rich gentleman and an impoverished girl (parallels with Tristana). He takes her in, but she, for the entire length of the film, refuses to give herself to him. He’s so infatuated that the suffering is accepted at first, but the frustration understandably becomes too much. This scenario is repeated several times, never as a logical narrative (Conchita will appear out of nowhere to kick in another chapter), but we accept what happens within its framework: Mathieu relating his tale to his fellow passengers in the carriage (which itself is framed by two buckets of water and two bombs).

The disconcertion that is most obvious is the casting of two actresses to play Conchita: one a cool, classical beauty, the other a more vivacious, Latin type. What does this do? Do we take Mathieu’s passion and the film’s theme of frustration love in a more contextual sense as a result? That desire is a more complicated emotion than the one we are normally presented with in art?

Looking back, it is perhaps the most satisfying of the Bunuel’s that I watched. He’s in total command of the film. The story entertains and moves us (Fernando Rey is brilliant as the very unconventional tragic hero) and it all works splendidly well.