DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Night Train to Munich


Carol Reed’s WWII espionage pot boiler confidently stands as tall as any of the celebrated Hitchcock war thrillers of the era. While this picture predates his more acclaimed post war pictures, The Third Man and Odd Man Out, it sizzles with the same kind of high stakes urgency.

Night Train to Munich (1940) dir. Carol Reed
Starring: Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul Henreid, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne

By Alan Bacchus

Carol Reed sets a crackerjack pace from the outset of this picture we can’t help be reminded of Michael Curtiz’s brilliant opening of Casablanca (perhaps it was an influence). Setting up the stakes, we meet Axel Bomasch, a Czech metalurgist highly sought-after by the Nazis who have just invaded Czechoslovakia, escaping the country via a tense airport rendez-vous. Unfortunately his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) doesn’t make it in time and is thrown into a concentration camp. While imprisoned she plots escape with the help of a charming Czech prisoner Karl Marsen, played with maximum allure by Paul Henreid (again, predating Casablanca). Once out we realize Karl was a mole for the Nazis using Anna as bait to get to Bomasche the metalurgist.

Enter Rex Harrison, pre-foppish alcoholic days of Dr. Doolittle or My Fair Lady, a Brit super agent Dickie Randall who arranges for Anna to link up with her father in Britain. But Marsen is a deft match for Dickie and kidnaps both Anna and Bomasche in a U-boat, sending them back to Germany. Reed ratchets up the picture, putting a perilous rescue mission by Randall into effect. Posing as a Nazi SS officer Dickie infiltrates the Nazi elite in order to escort the father/daughter pair out of Germany via Train – hence the title of the movie.

The Hitchcock comparisons are clear, the mixture of tense action, cloak and dagger intrigue with coy sexual innuendos and wry British wit. And the globe trotting scope from the concentration camps of eastern Europe to Britain, to the taut train sequence and finally ending with its celebrated sky lift chase sequence in the Alps brings to mind the exotic and familiar locales of Hitchcocks’ Sabateur (Statue of Liberty), North By Northwest (Mount Rushmore) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (Royal Albert Hall).

Reed’s sexual subtext is delicious. A number of references are made to the romantic competitiveness of Henreid and Harrison’s characters. Anna’s attraction to Marsen is clear, and its through his seduction of her which gets her into the mess she’s in. After Dickie Randall, posing the SS officer, enters the sphere, he blantantly claims the best way to get Anna to reveal her father’s secrets is through her bed. The scene of Harrison and Lockwood pretending to be intimate is glorious stuff. Of course, despite the ruse Randall does try to get in her pants (when in Rome!) and her denial of him punctuated by failed champagne pop at the end of the scene makes for a not-so-subtle metaphor.
We tend to forget how good Carol Reed was as a director and certainly the works of this picture, The Third Man and Odd Man Out, Carol Reed did espionage thrillers every bit as good as the Master of Suspense.

****

Night Train to Munich is available from the Criterion Collection

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Woman in the Dunes


'Woman in the Dunes', the third film from Japanese provocateur Hiroshi Teshigahara, is an indefinable film for genre and full of glorious Japanese strangeness, a captivating two-hander about a man imprisoned in a sand dune with a woman with no means of escape. Both a thriller, and meditative art film -  "Knife in the Water" meets "L'Avventura"- the film also has the distinction of receiving a Best Director Oscar nomination – then a rare feat for a foreign language film.

Woman in the Dunes
(1964) dir Hiroshi Teshigahara
Starring: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida

By Alan Bacchus

The film begins with Niki Jumpei, an entomologist catching bugs in the desert. He misses his bus home, and he asks a group of labourers for a place to stay for the night. Niki is brought to a one shack home located a deep sandpit in the desert. A kind young lady is the housekeeper and she is polite and accommodating. But in the morning when it’s time to leave, Niki can’t escape, the ladder which brought him down is gone. The men are gone as well, and the inclined slopes of sand which surround him are impossible to climb. The woman reveals that she and, therefore, him are victims of an act of criminal torture and blackmail to sift and extricate sand from the pit to the labourers that kidnapped them in exchange for food and water and thus, their lives.

Niki has trouble believing such a ridiculous notion. A battle of attrition ensues between Niki and his captors. And as the days go by he realizes the gravity of his situation and accepts his dilemma. As the weeks and months go by, Niki starts looking at the woman differently. He gazes at her naked sleeping body and unexpectedly, a carnal attraction is born. Not out of love, but mutual desperation.

The film masterfully uses symbolism to convey the ideas of fate and destiny. In the opening scenes Teshigahara teases us with metaphorical close-ups of the bugs. Niki captures them, and pins them to his miniature diorama of cardboard and sand. Later when Niki is imprisoned in the dunes we realize the sad significance and irony of his predicament. Niki, himself, is imprisoned, exactly like his bugs, on display to his captors.

Woman in the Dunes immediately strikes the viewers as a modern parable of the Greek story of Sisyphus, the prisoner who was tasked with rolling a boulder up a steep hill only to have it continually roll down to the bottom. Or maybe it’s the guinea pig cage metaphor, which the animal runs and runs on the spinning wheel without going anywhere. Niki's task is a similar unconquerable act of frustration.

Structurally Woman in the Dunes suffers from some overindulgence common in lengthy Asian films. At the 1hr 40mins mark, the film appears to rise to its climax, when Niki escapes his prison via a handmade rope. It's a masterful sequence of method and procedure. Niki escapes and after a lengthy chase he's caught again and lowered back down into the pit. At almost the 2-hour length it seemed like the natural point to end the film, but in fact, the film continues on for another 45mins which arguably is less intriguing than the beginning.

Teshigahara also leaves many essential plot elements unclear. In the myth, it was Zeus’ punishment for Sisyphus’ betrayal of him. What did Niki do to deserve such maddening servitude? Who are the villagers and why do they need the sand, when itseems so abundant around them? Do they torture Niki and the woman because they are sadistic? And who exactly is the woman in the dunes? Is she there voluntarily? I didn't require these questions answered to enjoy the film, but they were continually in my mind.

Woman in the Dunes is a film of texture, subtext, metaphors. Because of the parallel with Sisyphus, it should be viewed more as a fable – like Grimm Fairy tales - than a structurally coherent genre film. It’s visual storytelling at its best. Teshigahara’s images construct the conundrum with a multitude of closeups of moving sand, naked body parts and intercutting of all these elements creates a uniquely erotic and frightful experience. Enjoy.

Woman in the Dunes is available on Blu-Ray and DVD via the Criterion Collection

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Night and Fog

Despite numerous other documentaries on the subject, as a masterwork of craft and technique, Alain Renais’ landmark Night and Fog still evokes the mind-boggling obscenity of the Holocaust with maximum impact. Renais forces us to witness the horror and digest those horrible images which, once seen, never leave one’s mind. While the breadth of Claude Lanzmann’s work is missing from Night and Fog, Renais’ vision in documenting the Holocaust is close to being the first and final word on the subject.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Alexander Hall’s thoroughly delightful ‘heavenly’ comedy, a Capra-esque tale of a deceased boxer who’s given a second chance at life by his angel/mentor Mr. Jordan by being able to inhabit the bodies of other recently deceased persons, is perhaps most famous for its notable remake as Warren Beatty’s ‘Heaven Can Wait’. But as produced under the studio system (Columbia), Mr. Jordan represents that unmistakable pre-war Hollywood magical combination of swift screwball comedy, dry black humour and high concept fantasy.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The Naked Island

Two lowly Japanese farmers repetitively climbing an intense incline slope from the seaside shore to the top of a mountain to water their measly crops is the signature image of Kaneto Shindô’s social realist experimental film. Shindô observes his characters' backbreaking work with the same kind of salt of the earth honour as in the Soviet propaganda films if the 1920’s. Shindô’s cinematic eye triumphs over his self-imposed dialogue-free obstruction to achieve a woefully tragic slice of Japanese peasant life.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

In a Lonely Place

As a Hollywood screenwriter burdened with a hair trigger temper and seemingly psychopathic predilection to violence, Humphrey Bogart delivers one of his great late-career performances. 'In a Lonely Place' marries the mysterious tension of the unknown in Hitchcock’s 'Suspicion' and 'Shadow of Doubt' with director Nicholas Ray’s interest in brooding and damaged enigmatic characters.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Strike up the Band

Mickey Rooney is an electrifying dynamo in this foot-tapping, often astonishing musical which helps cement for me why the pre-war period was the absolute creative peak of Hollywood. This Rooney/Garland vehicle, the second of many musical pairings charts the journey of the young teenage pair to make something of their fledgling big band. The magic of the Busby Berkeley choreography matched with Rooney’s electrifying performance, as singer/dancer/actor /musician and Judy Garland’s youthful energy gives this film a pulse rarely seen in movies today.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Only Angels Have Wings

The exotic lands of South America provide the location for one of the big adventure films of Hollywood’s most famous year (1939). Cary Grant as an adventure-seeking enigmatic airline pilot running mail into dangerous regions of an unnamed town in the Andes established his Hollywood star status as a true leading man, game for comedy, romance and adventure. Howard Hawks’ recurring themes of male comraderie and his knack for wordy rhythmic dialogue elevate this straight-ahead actioner into something memorable and resonant.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Over the Edge

A sublime time capsule of the era, Over the Edge, exists as a rarely-seen cult classic, plugging nihilistic punk-like anger into the conventions of a teen rebel movie. Based on an actual incident in which the teenagers of a dreary Midwestern town unite and use anarchic violence to take over their school, director Jonathan Kaplan and his team create an angst-fueled ride of adolescent rebellion. The soundtrack featuring Cheap Trick, The Ramones, Van Halen and the Cars, exemplifies the pitch perfect American suburban flavor of this film.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Sorcerer

What a strange and wonderful picture, a thrilling remake of Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, made with the documentary-like realism which embodied most of Friedkin’s films. At a cost of nearly $22m of 1977 dollars, Sorcerer exemplifies the hubris of those celebrated 70’s mavricks who at the beginning of the decade shook up the studio system with the New Hollywood movement then through a series of expensive flops saw the end of the progressive scene at the onset of the 1980’s. Sorcerer survives magnificently over time as one of Friedkin’s best films, now revered by cineastes around.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Southern Comfort

Walter Hill’s Cajun siege picture, for a long time barely registering on the cultural radar, for cinephiles now sits nicely in the highly influential late 70’s-early 80’s period of Hill’s filmography. At once a retelling of the wolfpack themed pictures Hill nearly perfected around this time ('Alien', 'The Warriors', 'The Long Riders'), but also sharp allegory to American foreign policy, 'Southern Comfort', like all of Hill’s films resonates on multiple levels – historical and social commentary, cinematic legacy and a good old fashioned movie thrills.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Sweetie


Sweetie, the title character of Jane Campion’s idiosyncratic and typically Aussie -quirky first feature, is the house guest from hell, the firebrand bi-polar sister of Kay who shows up unwanted at Kay and her boyfriend's door thus disrupting her attempt at a regular life of independence from her thoroughly messed up family.  Strange but inspired, Sweetie admirably showed the signs of a director with a unique voice and laid the thematic sign posts for Campion's future works.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Blackhat


It’s impossible not to watch a Michael Mann film these days without the context of his previous work in mind. Because virtually each and every one of Mann’s films connect so intimately with one another in theme, character and tone. Blackhat is no exception, a crackerjack procedure crime picture about a different kind of thief, tracking a different kind of criminal essentially retelling the cat and mouse chase antics of obsessive cops and robbers on ultra-grey sides of good and evil as in Mann’s previous films.

Friday, 12 February 2016

The Gold Rush



The second of Chaplin’s feature films (after 1921’s 'The Kid') loses nothing over time, easily gliding past all technical innovations (sound, colour, widescreen, 3D). And with Chaplin’s natural gifts as a filmmaker and performer, he crafts a hilarious adventure epic with heartbreaking emotional sentimentality.