Friday, May 13, 2011

Hell is Other Movies: Wrap Up Edition

Over the course of this past Metro Classics series, I watched a bunch of movies tangentially related to the films we were playing, with the idea of writing a little about them here the week the film's played.  Sometimes, I actually got those posts written.  These were the films I didn't get to.  A trio of Billy Wilder films for Double Indemnity, a Powell & Pressburger movie for A Matter of Life and Death, and a samurai movie for Seven Samurai.

Kiss Me, Stupid - Possibly the strangest Billy Wilder film I've ever seen.  Ray Walston stars in an initially annoying performance (like always with comedies from this era, I kept thinking Jack Lemmon would have played the role better) as a small town piano teacher and aspiring songwriter.  When Dean Martin, in a vicious self-parody as popular womanizing drunk singer "Deano" rolls into town, Walston's writing partner, the local gas station attendant, schemes to get Deano to stay in town for the night, wherein Walston will convince him to listen to one of their songs and eventually make them big stars.  As Deano bait, they hire local cocktail waitress/prostitute Kim Novak to pose as Walston's wife and sleep with Deano, leaving Walston's actual wife, the adorable Felicia Farr none the wiser.  The first half of the film suffers through all this plot, and Walston's manic overplaying doesn't help at all.  But as the night grows late, the film shifts point of view from Walston's pathetic ambition and Deano's single-minded selfishness to Novak's melancholy resignation and Farr's dawning understanding of just what her husband has been up to.  It leads to an ending that's as close as the generally cynical and misanthropic Wilder ever got to transcendence.  

Five Graves to Cairo - On the other end of Wilder's career is this fine World War II drama starring Franchot Tone as a British officer in North Africa.  After barely surviving a German attack, he crawls to a bombed out hotel just before the German Army arrives and sets up a command post.  The hotel's owner (Touch of Evil's Akim Tamiroff) disguises him as the hotel's dead waiter, not knowing that the waiter was actually a German spy.  Tone poses as the spy in order to learn Rommel's plans for the invasion of Egypt.  With Anne Baxter (All About Eve) as the hotel maid who hates and then loves Tone and Erich von Stroheim as Rommel.  It's a great example of the war movie genre, with excellent performances, efficient story-telling and the same toughness Wilder would later bring to his noirs.  Franchot Tone is an actor I'm starting to really like, he's got a great voice and he always looks angry. 

Avanti! - One of Wilder's last films stars Jack Lemmon as a wealthy businessman who travels to Italy to pick up his father's dead body.  While there, he discovers his father had been having a decades-long affair with an English woman when he meets her flighty daughter (Juliet Mills), in town to pick up her mother's body.  He might be Lemmon's most unpleasant character, kind of like his award-winning performance a year later in Save the Tiger, but with less self-pity, and the film is essentially a manic-pixie narrative, with Mills and Italy conspiring to turn Lemmon into a decent human being.  I don't think it really earns Lemmon's redemption, but it might be Wilder's most beautiful film.  Italy seems to have softened Wilder a bit, as we get great shots of the countryside and the ocean and a beautiful sequence in a mortuary, golden sunlight streaming through a lone window into a room empty but for the coffins and a bureaucrat's table. 

The Battle of the River Plate - One of the last collaborations between Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger is a bit of an oddity.  It's an apparently real account of a true story, where in the early days of World War 2, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, after harassing Allied shipping off South America for months, is cornered at the mouth of the River Plate, off the coast of Montevideo, Ecuador.  The bulk of the film is taken up with the question of what will happen next: the Germans requesting permission to conduct repairs in the hope that reinforcements will arrive, the Allies trying to lure her out and sink her before that can happen.  The story is mostly told from the perspective of the Allied officers captured by the Graf Spee and what they can piece together from inside the ship, and later from a radio news broadcaster, sending out updates worldwide from a seafront bar.  For a war movie, there's hardly any action, and the scope of the film limits the kind of character examinations Powell & Pressburger were so good at.  Most notably absent, though, is the kind of uncanny spirituality that seems to emanate from the earth itself in their greatest films, where the characters are taken over by their environments and radically transformed.  Maybe because so much of it takes place at sea?  

Onibaba - A medieval horror film from director Kaneto Shindo about a woman and her daughter-in-law during war-torn 1300s Japan.  In order to survive, the two hunt down wounded and dying samurai fleeing the local battles, murder them and trade their weapons and armor for meager amounts of millet and rice.  When a neighbor returns home, after fleeing the fighting himself, he begins a clandestine affair with the daughter-in-law (her husband, he claims, is dead).  The old woman contrives a plan to keep them apart using a terrifying mask she's taken from a murdered samurai, which of course only makes things much, much worse.  A harrowing look at medieval life, unusual in its focus on women and the poor for a samurai film, the film makes excellent use of its location on a sluggish riverside in a field of giant grass, and Shindo uses every trick in the expressionist playbook to make a very scary film out of a samurai film-critiquing Buddhist parable about interfering in young people's love lives.  It's reminiscent of another film released the same year, Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Woman of the Dunes, but where that film is all mysterious, dreamy romanticism, this one is shock effects and misery. 


Nathan said...

Uriguay, not Ecuador.

But, yeah, the movie is strangely lifeless.

sean said...

Totally right. Bad geography by me, thanks.