DVD Movie Review: The King of Comedy (1983)

Film Tribeca Closing NightJohnny Carson. David Letterman. Jay Leno. Larry Sanders. Rupert Pupkin. Famous, household name comedians who went onto achieve superstardom as late-night TV show hosts.

Legends of the small screen…hang on, Rupert who? Do you remember him? Of course not. Neither do I. Other than being the leading antagonistic protagonist in a brilliantly dark, fictitious meditation on the vain, soulless search for fame, he lives in a world of make-believe. He is the fly at a picnic who cannot be swatted. He is the spot that cannot be removed prior to a date. He is the friend who tags along at parties uninvited.

Mark Kermode opined, in his damning indictment of Seth Rogen’s 2009 lame effort Observe and Report, that Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro had already remade their seminal 1976 nocturnal netherworld nightmare Taxi Driver as a comedy, an achievement that Rogen had laid claim to.

Instead, they had, in the good doctor’s opinion, merely rehashed the already unremarkable Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) Scorsese and De Niro, on the other hand, had made a comedy as dark as the ace of spades, a London Taxi or the finest Columbian/Ethiopian coffee.

If De Niro’s Travis Bickle began Taxi Driver somewhat unhinged but with good intentions before descending into full-on psychosis (I’ve seen Travis diagnosed with many psychiatric disorders over the years in books/articles/magazines being one of the most famous/iconic/analysed characters in film history) then his Rupert Pupkin is Travis Bickle turned up to eleven in a full Spinal Tap sense, and he never regresses.

The irony is that he is never a visible threat or appears as such. Robert De Niro has become an icon of cinema from playing some very loud, threatening, abusive, verbally and physically violent characters in between some great very sweet and tender performances. His Oscar-winning performance as real-life prize fighter Jake La Motta in 1980s Raging Bull, the hand book for modern method acting, is as despicable a character that has ever been depicted in cinema.

Rupert, however, is mild mannered, never swears – note the films parental guidance certification – He rarely gets noticeably angry, except at his psycho-like mother, who always hollers at him off camera in a Norma Bates-esque way, and his crazy friend Masha who’ll be dissected later. When he does, he acts with such little threat you’d be more intimidated by a little rabbit with boo scribbled on its face. If anything, in terms of voice tone, De Niro is as close to his real middle class, son of artists, Greenwich Village comfortable upbringing voice as he has ever been. The heavy New York of 1973’s Mean Streets and Raging Bull is eschewed in favour of a more softly spoken approach.

Incidentally, many mistake Travis Bickle as a New Yorker. He is actually mid-western, a nuance that goes unnoticed in the overwhelming praise of his famous cabbie performance. This performance has largely gone unnoticed. Although deservedly nominated for a BAFTA, the academy shunned the film in favour of best picture winner tear-jerker Terms of Endearment and three other forgettable nominees – The Right Stuff is alright – and De Niro’s performance in favour of five others, won by Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies. Edward Norton cites De Niro’s performance as his favourite of all time. Kermode and Scorsese called it his greatest. High praise indeed.

Nowadays, a De Niro greatest performance list would be laughed out of the room, something Rupert frequently has done to him, if Pupkin is not included. An aspiring stand-up comedian, Rupert idolises and studies Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis – Frank Sinatra turned the role down), stand-up comic turned successful late-night TV show host. Lewis plays Langford as the total antithesis of his earlier on screen zany, wacky, nutty professor persona. He is a consummate professional at work but a weary eyed, cynical, burned-out celebrity outside of office hours who values his privacy. Rupert seizes his moment and weasels his way into a private meeting with Jerry in his limousine after frankly scary tactics from Masha.

He states his intention that he wants to be just like Jerry and that he wants a spot on his show despite his opposition to actually performing live in comedy clubs. He practices alone in his room and the audience in his head always laughs. He creepily waxes lyrical with cardboard cut outs of Langford and Liza Minnelli (De Niro’s co-star in Scorsese disaster New York, New York – it has its moments), in his bedroom, which is designed like a talk show set.

It is a precursor to the Kramer-led Seinfeld episode where he reassembles the Merv Griffin set in his living room conducting interviews with all and sundry. Will he eventually seek to become more than Jerry and to supersede him? Unwilling at 34 years of age – too old, apparently – to start at the bottom, he wants his shot now. Charles Bukowski lived his life, somewhat seedily, but earned his stripes and didn’t have a career until in his 50s. Ricky Gervais’ breakthrough came at 40. This is an anathema to Rupert yet he reluctantly accepts Jerry’s advice, given under virtual duress, “you have to start at the bottom…the bottom is the perfect place to start”. A pearl of wisdom is offered, “you don’t say ‘hey folks, here’s the punch-line’, you just do the punch-line”. Rupert fails to empathise and sense the fear of his virtual detainee in such a strange encounter. A mediocre joke from Rupert is followed by an offer of a business card. This is a clear swat from Jerry but an opportunity for Rupert.

Nobody remembers his name. Rupert who? Rupert Pipkin? Pumpkin? Are Jerry’s production team capable of rebuffing Pumpkins, sorry, I mean Pupkin’s right to a TV gig? There is a hilarious slapstick sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a silent comedy film whereby Rupert is chased down a corridor by security guards only to reappear again running in the opposite direction with security still in pursuit. Viewed from a camera inside a room looking out into the corridor, it has me in stitches. Eventually caught, he is told in no uncertain terms to never return again without an appointment or the authorities will be called.

He is aided largely by his partner in crime Masha. Their relationship is a very odd love-hate dichotomy. Neediness binds them. The need being Langford. Masha stalks Jerry like a great giant stalking thing. Portrayed by Sandra Bernhard, not everybody’s cup of tea – I find her repellent mostly – she is cast perfectly by Scorsese, who utilizes all the worst annoying elements of her persona to great effect here. Meryl Streep, double Oscar winner by that point, and with previous great on screen chemistry with De Niro in The Deer Hunter, couldn’t have bettered her performance. She should have got an Oscar nod. In a hilarious scene, they clash in a busy New York City street and quibble and bicker over who has a greater right of access to their property Jerry. Look out for a split second cameo from the great 1970’s/80’s band The Clash, credited as ‘street trash’.

Scorsese again really gets under the skin of New York City. The vast size and crowdedness is portrayed well. The image of Rupert desperately clutching onto a public telephone (his office number) in anticipation of an extremely important phone call whilst a long queue berates him is hilarious. It is a different side to the sleaze and mirth of Taxi Driver and the street energy of Mean Streets. Surrealism abounds.

Undeterred, Rupert drags his reluctant girlfriend to Langford’s holiday home, his hideaway, uninvited. The promise is that Jerry is his friend and collaborator. This delusion is enough to convince his former high-school fantasy to accompany him after she rejected him at school. In truth, in one of the films rare weaknesses, it is a thankless role played without vigour by De Niro’s wife (now ex) at the time, Dianne Abbott.

The role serves little purpose other than to fill the empty trophy cabinet in Rupert’s love life thus satisfying his teenage wet dream of dating a cheerleader, the most beautiful girl in school, now working late night shifts as a bartender. The point is made sharply but acted meekly. Pam Grier would have burned the screen down even with such little to do, but she wasn’t rediscovered until 1997 by Quentin Tarantino in the similarly unappreciated Jackie Brown, now slowly getting the recognition it deserves. The encounter at Jerry’s hideaway is awkward and tense to say the least. De Niro used anti-semitic epithets on set, not included in the film, to truly rile Lewis.

Alas, the show goes on. The darkness increases. You’ll never laugh at a plastic toy, chewing gum, sentence prompts, a knitted sweater and sellotape in quite the same way ever again. Will you get the chance to see if Rupert lives up to his own hype…

Upon its release, and following on from De Niro’s Oscar success for best actor in Raging Bull, Scorsese was shamefully shunned in favour of the capable but steady Robert Redford for his direction of family drama Ordinary PeopleThe King of Comedy was an expensive flop. To my knowledge, Scorsese’s vision was largely untouched yet sank like a box of tea being thrown into the Boston harbour. Despite the hatchet job done to many films released in the 1980’s, butchered by hacks, then later restored – Blade Runner, Once Upon A Time In America and Heaven’s Gate (debatable) are perfect examples – Scorsese making what appeared to be merely a wacky, zany comedy was deemed unacceptable by critics. True filmmakers indulge themselves as they like within certain limits. Paul Thomas Anderson slipped seamlessly from long, multi-layered/multi-character drama Magnolia to the darkly wacky Punch Drunk Love onto the truly epic There Will Be Blood without vilification.

Obviously expecting a brutal left jab followed by a knockout right hook of a movie like ‘Raging Bull’ or a gunshot film of .44 Magnum proportions that would be used in Africa for killing elephants like Taxi Driver, The King Of Comedy was heckled off the stage like a misunderstood comedian in front of an ignorant, unappreciative audience and was ranked one of the worst films of the year by many respected critics. Over 30 years later it has been reappraised as more than mere wacky high jinks, but as a dark comedy as black as cup of Joe that wouldn’t be out of place on agent Dale Cooper’s table in Twin Peaks.

Way ahead of its time, it pre-empted The X-Factor, American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent (even Cambodia has ‘…Talent’), whereby wannabees, whether talented or not, life’s winners or losers, attempt to make it to the top of the tree with little work or no effort. The 2000/2010’s may have reappraised the band Oasis as overrated, of their time, Beatles rip-offs, Britpop rubbish etc but Oasis earned their stripes in pubs and clubs for years before their 1995 – 1997 zenith. As did many, many others.

Whether you appreciate him or not, Bill Hicks had to die to gain true recognition, whereas instant fame, contracts, wealth and adulation is hoisted upon winners of glorified talent contests that should be reserved for Matthew Kelly’s Stars In Their Eyes or Butlins holiday camp. Truly a nadir for modern culture. With a few notable exceptions, the general system exists to provide instant gratification then the back door to obscurity. Step forward…Joe McElderry! Singing sensation X-Factor winner. Remember him? Nope, me neither really. Although those present at Rage Against The Machine’s free 2010 Finsbury Park gig will always remember him with fondness. in 2011 ITV had a stand up comedy X-Factor. It was not a success. Nevertheless, even the most talentless in society can become Z-list celebrities, get book deals, front covers of magazines, This Morning/Loose Women interviews. God bless Jade Goody’s racist little soul.

Is Rupert Pupkin a king? Or a schmuck? Whether or not, irrespective of circumstances, he always sticks to his motto: “It’s better to be king for a day than a schmuck for a lifetime.”

109 mins.

DVD Movie Review: A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

BeatlesWe at Picturenose would never boast that we have the world’s finest film critics. But we have some of the most honest (honest, guv). What other website gives you critics that openly admit their age? This writer mused on this when revisiting, and loving, A Hard Day’s Night(1964) the other day and hoping that he looks as good at 50 as this stunning film.

Too much ink has been expended on The Beatles to bother with the music in this, their first picture- but what, without the music, would they have been in the first place? Suffice it to say that little of their output of any kind was as indicative of what they meant to their era as this movie which, I would propose, is not only the finest rock movie of all time – prior to This Is Spinal Tap (1984), anyway – but at the time of production was possibly the best British film yet made. In terms of direction, scripting, but also in terms of sheer innovation and freshness, it had no peer.

It was unarguably the finest hour of American director Richard Lester, an expat who found in 60s Britain an outlet for his penchant for groovily zany, in-your-face comedy, often harking back to 20s and 30s Hollywood. Rarely can a script (by Alan Owen), a director and subjects for a documentary (the Beatles themselves, ostensibly in an archetypal ‘day in the life’ neo-verite project) have come together at such an opportune moment in time.

One superb line says it all – a City gent, played by Richard Vernon, confronts the lads in full lovable-Scouse cry: “I fought the war for people like you.” John wiseacres back: “I bet you’re sorry you won!” And the gradual demolition of Victor Spinetti’s old-school TV director is a thing of joy, as is Wilfrid Brambell playing to type as Paul’s horrible old grandad, tagging along with the band for a spree in ‘that London’.

In the vernacular of the period, it’s gear, daddy-o.

87 mins.

DVD Movie Review: The Blue Lamp (1950)

6a00d83451b77e69e200e54f807cb38833-800wiEvenin’ awl!

Picturenose is delighted to herald the return of one of our very finest writers, Paul Stump, with his thoughts on a classic Ealing crime film, The Blue Lamp (1950). Take it away, Paul, and welcome back!

I declare an interest. I was born and (at least in part) brought up in London, and so have a sympathy for movies that convey, or attempt to, everyday life there at any point in recent history. But should I let it cloud my judgement of a film’s merits and demerits? I hope not; I try to avoid it. But, ultimately, can I? Indeed, should I? I count myself unfortunate to live in a country – the UK – where the notion of homeland or roots is a culturally very strong one. Not as strong as the mythicized aggrandisement of the concepts of Volk and Heimat under the Third Reich, but on the Celtic fringes of the UK, such as Wales, it may yet assume that form.

I prefer adherence to the dictum of arguably Britain’s greatest living Modernist cultural commentator, Jonathan Meades, who declares, memorably, that ‘only vegetables need roots’. Cultural artefacts that rely upon a share of a particular complex of identifiers with specific times and places become difficult to evaluate for outsiders. As such, The Blue Lamp (1950) has become a part of British cultural folklore that is so rooted in its time and place – it is in its own way for this reason that explaining it to those unfamiliar with the milieu is no mean feat. But I shall try, because I think the effort is worth it, as are the sterling work of cast and crew.

It often draws surprise from observers when they learn that the film is a product of Ealing Studios, synonymous with its monochrome comedies of tweedy grotesques, teachers in mortarboards, eccentric spinsters and idealised little people pitched against villainous authority. It’s a policer, and rugged enough in tone to have the posters boldly headlining it as ‘The Battle for the Streets’. Ostensibly, it is about a seasoned, kindly bobby, George Dixon (Jack Warner) training a greenhorn copper, Andy Mitchell (Tommy Hanley, popular wartime radio comedian and go-to guy for cheeky chappie roles).

Mark Duguid, a cinema historian, in an excellent series of contributions to the BFI’s website on the contrasting light and dark styles of Ealing pictures analyses it thus: “The Blue Lamp’s credentials…as part of our ‘dark’ strand are strong”, and justifies this by reference to the film’s most shocking and memorable scenes in which the quietly heroic Dixon confronts teenage tearaway Tom Riley (a very young, very pretty Dirk Bogarde) in the course of a petty local theft. Riley simply shoots Dixon in cold blood, and in so doing effectively extinguishes not just a life but a whole set of moral and social values that for a 21st-century audience may seem laughably quaint but which, in the London depicted by director Basil Dearden and writers T.E.B. Clarke (screenplay), Jan Read (original treatment), Ted Willis (original treatment) and Alexander Mackendrick (additional dialogue) formed a cohesive social glue.

Even London’s criminals team up with the police to help trap Riley in a stunning final sequence at the White City Stadium, so heinous is the murder to ‘ordinary folk’ – a trope loved by Ealing movies, both light and dark. In this it has a curious antecedent, Fitz Lang’s M (1931), an Expressionist meisterwerk in which the pursuit of a child killer unites police and thieves. Dearden is no Lang – never could be – but the crisp, taut direction, unusually unaffected performances and brilliantly evocative lighting, as well as the use of a time and place evocative of nostalgia to create something that transcends both its time and its place, make this no ordinary Ealing film, and no ordinary British one. This writer always misjudged it. Did you?

84 mins.

DVD Movie Review: Annie Hall (1977)

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Woody becomes Allen

It was one of the proudest days of my life when a family friend told me, in my teens, that I looked ‘a bit like’ Woody Allen, as well as having a similar sense of humour. Well, I was a fan anyway, albeit of what were accurately and deathlessly dubbed the cineast’s ‘earlier, funnier’ films in Stardust Memories (1980), the last of a trilogy of movies that definitively signposted Allen’s move away from pure comedy and into the mildly humorous auteur-ism with which a new generation of moviegoers is familiar.

Annie Hall (1977) had been a harbinger. Rather like contemporary rock music getting its hair cut and hiding its sense of the fantastical under a bushel, here was a film that was adult, mature and commanding, whereas preceding hits such as Take the Money and Run (1967), Bananas (1970) and Love and Death (1975) had been childlike and innocent. There were laughs in Annie Hall, but they wwere chuckles and discreet giggles, whereas hitherto Allen had dealt in belly-laughs, chortles, guffaws.

Annie Hall might be said to have invented an entire dramatic trope- urbane, neurosis-addled East Coast intellectuals, the ‘elitists’ that rednecks and Republicans drone on about (for which read ‘Jews’). Said trope has practically annexed US television comedy, from the brilliant (Seinfeld) to the awful (New Girl); yet watching its first incarnation in the comedy of manners that Allen and the still-mesmerizing Diane Keaton pick their way through like the live lobsters that Allen’s character Alvy Singer inadvertently drops at one point is to marvel at a model of economy and simplicity delivered with canny sophistication almost wholly absent from Hollywood today.

Not since Fred and Ginger did their thing have two characters negotiated each other with such wit and, it has to be said, actorly assurance. The great British writer of teleplays, Andrew Davies, once told the current reviewer: ‘I keep Allen’s screenplays in the bog to read while I’m going and they’re an invaluable tutor.’ The dialogue hardly fizzes with smart-alecky putdowns and zingers, but there’s lots to feast on here, such as – famously – the two old dears on holiday; ‘the food here is really terrible’; ‘yes, I know, and such small portions’. That’s Allen returning big-style to his Jewish roots, a theme which recurs often. This is a highly autobiographical movie, with ‘I’ being one of the most frequently used words in the script. It is also a profoundly character-driven piece, and Allen proves himself capable of directing a large cast with utter authority in small ensemble scenes and sketches. The performance he draws from Keaton is particularly memorable; at once neurotic and confident, sexy and severe, penitent and imploring.

In one of his more uncharitable moments, the late Leslie Halliwell in his ninth edition (1989) of the Filmgoer’s Companion, sniped as to how well the film would wear in a decade and implied that it was very much of its time; well, it hits as many targets now as it did then, possibly because the human frailties and idiocies it illustrates are so timeless.

While it does reflect that brief moment in time when liberal young people reacted against the counterculture of the 1960s (one only has to look at Keaton’s androgynous trouser suits and shirts, a million miles from the floaty. flowery creations her ilk would have sported ten years before), this is hardly a criticism that should militate against seeing a master director at work. This is the movie where Allen became *Allen*- and for that alone, it should stand as a monument to his singular art.

93 mins.

Cinema Movie Review: Les Miserables (2012)

Russell_Crowe_Costume_Javert_Les_Miserables_Set_1332785871‘Shall his sins be forgiven? Shall his crimes be reprieved?’

And so, I can now die a happy man – not only was Skyfall (2012) released last year and is clearly the best Bond ever, 2013 has begun with the big-screen musical adaptation of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Cameron Mackintosh‘s amazing, world-beating show Les Miserables, with The King’s Speech (2010) director Tom Hooper at the helm. And…

…I have a confession to make, first up, and that is that I simply adore musicals. I have been made aware that there is apparently a Venn diagram that exists, which, taking some of my other tastes into consideration, such as horror films and fiction, would place me in the sociopath category, and I am not gay, but I cannot help it – musicals (a little like Woody Allen) divide the world squarely into them that do and them that don’t, and I am on the side of the angels. Watch it.

Anyway, it was at a cinema in London, while I was back in Blighty on business and decided I needed a night off, that I caught up with the film I have perhaps been awaiting with even more breathless anticipation than I was for Bond – you see, since around 1995, I have been a massive fan of the show, which is a peerless adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic, and have seen it on stage (London, Edinburgh, Sheffield and elsewhere) 25 (count ’em) times. It was actually the video of the special tenth anniversary of Les Miserables (it opened in 1985 to much critical carping, but what the hell did those critics know?) featuring the ‘dream cast’ (Colm Wilkinson, Michael Ball, Philip Quast et al) that first drew me to Les Mis, before I went to see it for the first time on stage in Bristol, 1996.

Enough of my history, let’s talk about Valjean (Hugh Jackman). In 1815, convict number 24601 Jean-Valjean is released on parole by prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean was originally sentenced to five years for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister’s starving child but, because of his repeated escape attempts, his sentence was increased to 19 years. Forced to carry a yellow ticket of leave, which casts him as a marked man who is thus unable to find work, he is nevertheless offered food and shelter by the saintly Bishop of Digne, but he steals his silver during the night. He is caught by the authorities, but the Bishop confirms Valjean’s story that the silver was given as a gift (‘You forgot I gave these also, would you leave the best behind?’), which ensures Valjean’s release. Horrified by what he has been reduced to, and awe-struck by the Bishop’s kindness, Valjean breaks his parole and vows to begin an honest life under a new identity. Javert swears he will bring the escaped convict to justice.

Of course, there is so much more to the story than the above, and Valjean’s road to redemption is long, tortuous and ever-winding. For those unfortunate souls out there who have not seen the stage show (around 80 million people worldwide have), now you have absolutely no excuse to miss out on an experience of a lifetime – when I heard that Hooper had decided not to post-synchronize the recorded vocals to lip movements, I was very much afraid that a total hash would be made of the job, as occured with Peter Bogdanovich’s disastrous musical At Long Last Love (1975), which also did not use post-synchronization.

I need not have worried – the beautifully powerful, haunting lyrics translate marvellously to the screen, sung direct to camera as they are, and the approach gives the film as a whole the immediacy and excitement of watching the show live. Very little more to be said, really, except that if Anne Hathaway does not get the 2013 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the tragic Fantine, whose child Cosette Valjean vows he will raise as a father, there is absolutely no justice. Forget ‘SuBo’ – I Dreamed A Dream, as sung by Hathaway, is the best version of the song that I have ever heard. Alright then, one more prediction to finish – I believe that Hooper’s incredible Les Miserables (2012) will be the first musical to lift the Best Picture gong since Chicago (2002). Definitely worth a flutter, but whatever you do, don’t miss out on seeing this, I implore you.

157 mins.

Belle de Jour (1967)

Not quite the ‘happy hooker’

Earlier critics of this surprisingly accessible piece by Luis Buñuel have been guilty of referring to the film as a whole as ‘sexy’, even ‘erotic’ and to the quite lovely Catherine Deneuve as ‘an icy beauty’, ‘frigid’ or a ‘steely beauty’.

It may be just me but I think they miss the target in a spectacular fashion on all counts. That Ms Deneuve makes the title role her own is not in question, nor is the fact that a good portion of the film is set in a Parisian bordello. The point that many seem to have bypassed is the reasons why having her walk around in some quite jaw-dropping costumes is essential to the narrative.

Deneuve plays Séverine, wife of a wealthy and upwardly mobile Parisian surgeon, Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel). She has very little to occupy her days, save for walking round looking great – something she seems to pull off with some aplomb. Séverine is not, however, a happy lady. Her waking and sleeping hours are tormented, or perhaps even titillated by strong, stark fantasies of sexual degradation and submission. She moves about town like a swan – poised and graceful above the water, but paddling really quickly to stay afloat. Buñuel does a remarkable job of making these fantasies alluring, mysterious and at the same time, disturbing. For a film made nearly 45 years ago, it’s a wonder it ever got made, let alone released.

Perhaps the reason for her fantasies lies with her sexless marriage, or perhaps that same marriage is responsible for them? It is quite likely something else. There are a few brief, fleeting shots of Séverine as a little girl; careful, fleeting glimpses, almost as if we see her out of the corner of our eye. Meek and innocent, she stands before men we never see, suggesting terrible acts that have shaped her view of men. Buñuel’s lightness of touch here is outstanding, especially when you consider that delicacy is most definitely not his usual modus operandi. Ultimately, she sits trapped in a relationship with a man who is rich, successful and caring. This may not be everyone’s idea of entrapment but sometimes golden handcuffs can bind as tight as leather. She loves him but she can’t express it physically, as if she resents his power over her. Matters are not helped by her girlfriend’s beau, Henri (Michel Piccoli) who makes it very clear that he would be only to happy to relieve her of the burden of her chastity, something Séverine finds unappealing.

Bored with the Parisian bourgeois lifestyle, and presumably the elegant and stylish wardrobe by Yves Saint Laurent, she is intrigued to hear a friend’s story of a brothel down town, where business is still good despite the official banning of such places. She hesitates and procrastinates for a while, then finally makes it to the door of Anaïs, (Geneviève Page) the madame who will eventually change her life. Initially shy and with great reservations she slowly becomes used to the life of a prostitute. Her marital commitments require her to be at home by 5 o’clock in the evening, so she is christened Belle de Jour – a play on Belle de Nuit, an old French euphemism for a hooker.

Seemingly energized by the experience, her confidence grows and she is prepared to do some things with clients that the other girls won’t even consider. There is the mysterious Japanese man with a mysterious box – the contents of which the girls find abhorrent, but not even this fazes Séverine.

With the control she gets from having what men want, and the abandon to detach herself from the physical act of sex as pleasure, rather more like a tool to do a job, her personality shines and she even encourages her husband into bed, safe in the knowledge that it is love for him, not business. Their relationship grows closer and he starts to talk about having children – an unsettling proposition for Séverine. Everything seemed to be going her way but the prospect of kids, an obsessive client who follows her home and a visit from an old regular of the brothel all conspire to snatch this away from her.

Buñuel took to his first colour film outing with great zeal and made a very good job of it. Even back in the dark days when colours were primary and crude, he seemed to get his crew to rein it in and produce a more rounded look to the palette.  The scene transition from reality to fantasy and back builds over time and reaches a quite cloying crescendo. The fantasy scenes visit themselves upon the viewer in a jarring fashion, startling in their execution and the finesse of the ending is unspoiled by the fact that Buñuel himself has feely admitted he has no idea what it’s about.

After all the raving about Buñuel and Deneuve, a special mention needs to go to Jean Sorel. He seems so insignificant and ineffectual that you may wonder why he’s there at all. It is, in fact, a testament to the script and particularly to his acting skills that the film works as well as it does. Mild, unassuming and often confused, his soft words and casual but non-threatening French chauvinism are the perfect backdrop on which to paint the damaged beauty of Belle and her somewhat disturbing sexual fantasies.

Those watching this for the erotica will not only be bitterly disappointed but will miss the point of it all. With great power comes great responsibility, as Belle finds out. In seeking resolution and redemption from her own sad past, she unlocks yet another facet of the complicated sexual relationships between men and women. Erotica it isn’t, and frigid, she ain’t. To understand Belle is to enjoy this quite wonderful piece of French film-making.

A sequel, Belle toujours (2006), followed – read Picturenose’s review here.

101 mins. In French, Spanish and Mongolian.

The Sheltering Sky (1990)

Sky blues

We always welcome new blood at Picturenose – our good friend Marc Bacon casts his eye over Bernardo Bertolucci‘s The Sheltering Sky (1990). Take it away, Marc! 🙂

Bernardo Bertolucci’s noble effort to preserve in celluloid the fantasia of what was in Paul Bowles’s mind was always going to be an ambitious project. The base story, however, is as old as the hills. Guy likes girl, girl not sure. Hmmm – we are living in an age of tragedy, but we refuse to recognize it.

The book was written in a period (1949) where divorce was first becoming commonplace without any tragic consequences, and was a precursor to what has become a modern-day contagion. The main character Port, like Tony as in E.M. Forster’s Hard Cheese on Tony (A Handful of Dust), finds this turn of events a bitter pill to swallow. The book reads a little like E.M. Forster in terms of lightness, neutrality and mindfulness, which makes putting it on the silver screen rather difficult.

Enter Mark Peploe, who transforms what was a bleak and depressing tale into a kind of desert love story with a dash of Lawrencian (D.H.) style, passion and sensuality. So, Berty finds himself having to harness two worlds; the mental and the emotional. It’s Forster versus Lawrence. A delicate balancing act, if ever there was one.

Bored with western life, two artists, Kit and Port Moresby, embark on a ‘savage pilgrimage’ to Northern Africa, in a bid to save their marriage. To do justice to Bowles’ book, the film had to deliver more than a portrait of a couple in disarray – it also had to explore the profundity of the female psyche and of the turmoil that is male desperation. A woman over 35 who knows exactly what she wants is as rare as rocking-horse shit, and this film bears witness to that with style and ease. Port is a man who has become too dependant on his lythe, lissom spouse, and a sense of tragedy is deftly engineered from the start.

The lythe lissom spouse feels like a change but is held back. Indecision sets in, and then all hell breaks lose involving customs officers, prostitutes, petty English criminals, a camel train and sexual captivity, all set against a dark, sensual and sumptuous North African burning backdrop.

Those familiar with the works of Bowles and the book might find the choice of Debra Winger as Kit a curious one; too much empathy, no jagged edge of existential angst and selfishness. In short, too homely and too damn nice for Paul Bowles’ Kit but perfect for Mark Peploe’s screenplay. The casting of Port to the terminally gloomy John Malkovich was, on the other hand, a no-brainer. He makes Jack Dee look sunny and cheerful. Whacked on the head by the misery stick at birth, the man oozes quiet disharmony and unquiet dissatisfaction in equal measure.

He plays the role of Port with aplomb. His love for, dependence on and despair with Kit is clear from the start; a life without her unthinkable. The film takes us on a terrible journey where this ‘life-without-her’ scenario moves from an increasing possibility to a foregone conclusion, with tragic consequences. The story is neatly punctuated by Tunner (Campbell Scott), a friend of both Kit and Port, providing the tension of temptation and enticing Kit’s prolonged fall into treachery. The casting of Timothy Spall as petty criminal Eric Lyle and Jill Bennett his mum Mrs Lyle, a perspicuous travel writer, only adds to film’s period and place authenticity.

The judicious casting and well-executed performances combine with the stunning imagery, hypnotic score, haunting narrative by Bowles and evocative cinematography, to make this film a powerful, thought-provoking masterpiece. My only word of caution would be to be careful who you watch this film with; taking your partner to see this film could have dangerous consequences. It could cast an unwelcome seed of doubt as to your compatibility, which could throw your own life into a “Portesque” nightmare.

My advice would be to go on your own, or with a friend, or someone you’re trying to impress who is seeing somebody else, where these seeds of doubt can grow in your favour. Yes, this film really is that potent.

Does it in some way undermine the author’s original ideas? Possibly, but ultimately it leaves you with a positive impression, despite the uncomfortable excursion into the mystery and misery of the human condition, and even provides hope for the human race.

138 mins. In English, French and Arabic.

L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) (1961) (Re-release)

This year, last year, some time, never?

The vague, frequently irritating and pretentious but nevertheless awe-inspiring L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) (1961) by Alain Resnais is 50 this year, hence its commemorative re-release in the UK this week. So, should you go? Well, if you want to even pretend that you know what you’re talking about when it comes to the language of cinema, I’m afraid so…

Resnais, whose earlier work such as Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and, later, Muriel (1963), used similarly unconventional techniques, was one of the pioneers of French New Wave cinema, which sought to challenge traditional concepts of narrative construction.

The screenplay for …Marienbad was written by acclaimed French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who had not worked in cinema previously – Resnais wanted his work to be untouched by preconceived notions of pacing or structure, and this is exactly what Robbe-Grillet achieved.

A summary is by and large pointless, as this is a film that simply demands repeated viewing if ‘understanding’ is what you’re after – in a nutshell, it’s simply about beautiful, brown-haired woman ‘A’ (Delphine Seyrig) and man with an Italian accent ‘X’ (Giorgio Albertazzi) who may, or may not, have met a year previously at Marienbad, the beautiful, ornate, cathedral-like château in which they find themselves wandering from the film’s outset. There’s a long, long trail a-winding for both characters (and the audience) to reach any kind of destination – the journey includes devilish parlour games and a loaded gun, and takes in elements from many genres, including romance, the supernatural, even horror.

It’s safe to say that if you do not enjoy the stereotypical perception of French cinema, you might prefer a Coke, popcorn and blockbuster, for there is no doubting that Resnais pushes his luck more than a little in terms of audience attention-span expectations. However, if you allow yourself to fall under its spell, this is a film that will remain with you forever, and one to which you will return. So, what’s it going to be then, eh?

94 mins. In French.

Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961)

‘I loved her, Bert. I traded her in on a pool game.’

I was feeling sorry for myself over the past few days, go easy on me will you, it happens to the best of us. And what better film to accompany a long, dark weekend of the soul than the sublime The Hustler (1961), by Robert Rossen? Regular readers of Picturenose will likely know by now that, when I *really* like a film, I tend to intersperse my thoughts with quotable quotes. Well, guess what? 🙂

“I’m the best you’ve ever seen Fats, I’m the best there is. Even if you beat me, I’m still the best.”

That would be young ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) from Oaklands, California, who’s speaking – after spending a few months working local towns on the road with his older partner Charlie Burns (Myron McCormick), he’s arrived in New York at Ame’s Billiard Hall, there to challenge Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), who’s widely acknowledged as the country’s finest pool player, to a high-stakes game that will end only when Fats says so. After a marathon session that sees Eddie take Fats for $18,000 before losing it all after drink and fatigue gets the better of him, our anti-hero is left busted, which is when he happens to run into the troubled Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), who falls in love with him, and evil gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), who sees his chance to take a slice of Eddie’s talent, regardless of the consequences.

“Eddie, is it OK if I get personal?” “What have you been so far?” “Eddie, you’re a born loser.”

Trouble is, the desparately lonely Sarah doesn’t see it that way:

“You’re not a loser, Eddie, you’re a winner – few men ever get to feel that way about anything. I love you, Eddie… “You need the words?” “Yes, I need them very much and if you ever say them, I’ll never let you take them back.”

And it can only really end one way. After all, Eddie has to learn about character.

Rossen’s film is nothing short of electrifying – adapted from the novel by Walter S. Tevis, the director’s screenplay, like all great adaptations, takes what it needs from its source, then goes on to accentuate the story’s key elements, namely darkness, desperation and, for want of a better word, depravity.

Sarah Packard: Doesn’t any of this mean anything to you? This place, the people. They wear masks, Eddie. And underneath the masks, they’re perverted, twisted, crippled.
Eddie Felson: Shut up!
Sarah Packard: Don’t wear a mask, Eddie. That’s Turk, Eddie. He’s not going to break your thumbs. He’ll break your heart. He hates you, because of what you are.

In a career spanning nearly some 50 years, Newman, great actor though he was, was only ocassionally within touching distance of his performance here, while Scott was never better. Plaudits must go to Piper as well, with her attempts to save Eddie from himself forming the film’s emotional bedrock. It’s heartbreaking, and singularly real.

And the pool? It’s like watching artists with cues. Who will win, do you think?

“You don’t know what winning is Bert, you’re a loser – cause you’re dead inside, and you can’t *live* unless you make everything else dead around you. Too high. The price is too high, Bert, and if I take it, she never lived, she never died. But we both know that’s not true, don’t we Bert? She lived. She died.”

134 mins.

12 Angry Men (1957)

‘I just want to talk’

This review is dedicated to legendary director Sidney Lumet, who passed away on 9 April 2011, aged 86 – the end of a great career spanning 50 years of sublime cinema. This electrifying court-room drama was his first feature, and his work also included Picturenose favourites such as Equus (1997), The Verdict (1982) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007).

It’s a sweltering summer’s day in a New York court room, in which an 18-year-old Spanish American is on trial for his life, for the murder of his father. If convicted, the youth faces the electric chair – the jury must now consider his guilt or innocence, having been made aware by the judge that, whichever way they decide, their verdict must be unanimous. The 12 ‘angry men’ in question retire to a locked room that has no air conditioning, and the preliminary vote is looking like it’s going to be an open-and-shut case, until one juror, number 8 (Henry Fonda) expresses his ‘reasonable doubt’ – and thus begins the finest court-room classic in cinema history.

If ever the term ‘ensemble cast’ was rightly applied to a movie, it was to this one – Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec and Robert Webber combine to create an utterly credible combination of disparate men, each with their own quirks, characteristics, strongly held beliefs and, most importantly, prejudices. Each, thanks to Reginald Rose’s riveting screenplay that manages the singular feat of removing the story far from its potentially ‘stagey’ setting, has their own turn in the spotlight, as Fonda’s liberal-conscience character slowly but surely turns the jury around.

Not really much more to be said, but my favourite ‘bit’? The switch-blade knife, and you know it if you’ve seen it. So long, Sidney – you shall be sorely missed.

96 mins.

Seconds (1966)

Second to none

Now then – this is one that I have really meant to write about for some time, and those who have seen it will know only too well why. John Frankenheimer, who made the similarly disturbing The Manchurian Candidate (1962) prior to Seconds (1966), takes us into a Faustian nightmare that is among the most frightening ever committed to celluloid.

At its core is the eternal question – what would you do, really, if you were offered a ‘second’ chance at life? It’s a quandary that takes on life-changing significance for middle-aged businessman Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) – though financially secure, his life has lost all flavour, with Hamilton feeling completely out of sorts with his job, his wife Emily (Frances Reid), his very existence. Disturbed to be contacted by his old friend Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton), whom he had believed dead for some years, Hamilton is then approached by ‘The Company’, which is presided over by the seemingly benevolent ‘Old Man’ (Will Geer) and which offers clients the chance, via extensive plastic surgery, physical reconditioning and pyschological support, to be reborn in a new identity of their choice.

Blackmailed so that he has no choice but to proceed, Hamilton is transformed into artist Antiochus ‘Tony’ Wilson (Rock Hudson), placed in a luxurious beach villa, provided with a loyal manservant and begins a relationship with a young woman named Nora Marcus (Salome Jens). All seems well, but it really isn’t and, as his dissatisfaction with his new life grows, Wilson becomes an increasing threat to The Company. Bad, bad idea…

This works so very well thanks to Frankenheimer’s willingness to play fast-and-loose with viewer expectations from the outset; via the superb, other-worldly fish-eye lens cinematography of the legendary James Wong Howe and Lewis John Carlino’s intelligent and spare adaptation of David Ely’s original novel, as well as an excellent one-off performance from Hudson, we are at the absolute extreme of the notion of ‘them’ being out to get you, ahead even of all the cinematic versions of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers.

And the ending, oh God, the ending. Intelligent horror hounds *may* guess where this is leading, but I wouldn’t bet on it – rather like Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), it will leave you with more than an impression that everything is very much *not* right with the world and, hopefully, with a chance to reflect on the fact that ‘second chances’ may really *not* be what you need.

Enjoy, if that is the right word, and enjoy it here.

107 mins.