Friday, 8 February 2019

The White Cat (1950)

I felt like posting an excerpt from my book about Hasse Ekman, The Man from the Third Row. This excerpt is about his psychotic thriller The White Cat from 1950:

The White Cat is probably the darkest and cruellest film Ekman ever made, and it still has the potential to shock and disturb. The opening sequence, which is almost without dialogue, shows a man (Alf Kjellin) arriving by train at the central station in Stockholm. He just sits there, staring blankly in front of him, after the train has stopped and all the other passengers have got off. Eventually, he gets up and starts walking around the station, and at one point he tries to leave, but when he sees two policemen he returns and walks up to a café and sits down to have a coffee. He overhears two women reading a newspaper article about an escaped convict, a rapist, and the description seems to be his. The convict is said to have a scar on his face, and the man goes to a mirror to check whether he has one. He does not, and he returns to the café. (In [Jean] Anouilh’s play The Traveller without Luggage (...) there is a similar incident, except that the man finds out that he does have a scar when he looks in the mirror.)

This is Ekman’s most striking opening sequence, and it is shot by [cinematographer] Göran Strindberg in an impressive style with great depth of field and almost expressionistic lighting. Like Girl with Hyacinths [1950], the visual style of the film as a whole recalls aspects of film noir, but film noir spiked with surrealism. The White Cat has a distinct Freudian theme and is filled with dream imagery, nightmares of often violent and/or sexual content. The man, whose name remains a mystery throughout the film, has lost his memory and is haunted by those nightmares. Unusually for Ekman, the film has several extreme close-ups of faces, deep in fear and full of sweat. The themes of guilt and disorientation also recall American film noir – films such as The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall, 1946).

The waitress at the station café (Eva Henning) takes an interest in the man, and when her shift is over they walk together through town to her apartment. She wants them to work together to try to find the key to his mind, memory and identity. He is wary of discovering the truth, since whatever it is, it is not going to be pretty. Maybe his amnesia is ‘an escape from a reality that is unbearable’, as he says. Eventually, however, he gets to the bottom of his story. It turns out that he was once married but that he found out that his wife had an affair with a painter, and that they had both become drug addicts while he, the husband, was away on a journey. Due to circumstances that are never revealed, the wife dies in a fire, together with another man, who strangely enough is not the painter with whom she had the affair, and nor is he of course her husband. In many ways The White Cat can be seen as the usual Ekman story but inverted. In almost all of Ekman’s films there is a constant wish to escape the boredom of the mundane bourgeois life; to go abroad or become an artist or actor. That is also the case in The White Cat. However, this leads here to death and despair. In a confrontation between the husband, before he developed amnesia, and the painter, beautifully played by Sture Lagerwall, the painter says that he only wanted to be free, to be able to live life to its fullest potential, to be as creative as possible, and that he does not regret a thing. He then asks the husband if his life, the safe and secure one, was really worth living. The husband struggles to respond.

The film can be seen as taking place in the hidden corners, in the subconscious, of Ekman’s characteristic dreamer. It is a subconscious filled with violence, sexual repression and neurosis, with the white cat a recurring symbol of a torn psyche. In one striking shot a white cat is seen crucified and in another scene a white cat is shot dead. Or is it another cat? It might be the same, like some kind of mystical creature. It keeps coming back, prowling the alleys, basements and attics, and haunting the characters’ dreams. This is Ekman making a film in the style and with the ideas of [the group of Swedish writers called] ‘Generation 40’, which he had so many times criticised. This fact did not escape him. At one moment, the painter says to the husband that the situation he is describing is ‘even worse than Generation 40...’. It could be argued that this does not really fit Ekman, and he struggles with the ending, trying to smooth over what has happened, in a sense introducing a ray of light into the prevailing darkness. During the title sequence the white cat is seen approaching the camera in an alley, but in the last shot the cat is seen running away from the characters and the audience along the same alley. Yet again, this is an example of Ekman’s habit of beginning and ending the film in the same space, with an almost identical scene, but with a slight variation.

The critics were on the whole sceptical and felt that Ekman had failed to make a strong and coherent film, several critics suggesting that Ekman had tried to make a ‘Bergman film’ but since his heart was not really in it, and since he did not have the necessary depth, the end result suffered. There is a sense in which the critics were to some extent allowing their prejudice against Ekman to shape their responses, and [the prominent critic] Robin Hood felt the need to come to Ekman’s defence. He wrote in a column that it was wrong to say that Ekman was a lightweight maker of comedies who now had tried and failed to make a serious film: ‘He has within him more than just the spirited amiableness; he has also experienced life’s unpleasant and dark sides. This foundation is what he wants to set free through his films. Has he not been at his most serious, most truthful as an artist exactly in those tough scenes in The Banquet [1948], Girl with Hyacinths, The White Cat?’ (Hood 1951, trans.).

What Robin Hood suggests here is that there has been a misreading, a misperception that Ekman is primarily a maker of comedies. The irony, however, is that even if Hood in this instance tried to set the record straight, the year before, in 1950, Hood had himself said that: ‘Ekman began with light, shallow, graceful comedies, well made, and then changed his mind and became serious and realistic’ (Hood 1950, trans.). But as has been made clear here, Ekman had always had this serious side, evidenced as early as his second film. Where this idea that Ekman was primarily a maker of comedies stems from is something of a conundrum; and it is still prevalent today. It might be due to Ekman’s public appearances. Ekman was sometimes seen as a playboy, driving around in a yellow sports car and often seen with beautiful women, and maybe when critics thought about him as a filmmaker they had this image in their heads. This image might then have skewed their memories of his films towards the funny and cheerful, much like a playboy. When he was asked in an interview if he considered himself a playboy the answer was that he certainly did not: ‘No, I’m everything but a playboy. Work has taken up all my time. I wanted to work. Surely no playboy wants to do that?’ (Frankl 1967, trans.).

Henning and Kjellin

The above was from the book. I want to add that the question as to why people were convinced Ekman primarily made light comedies, and why many persist in believing this, is a curious one. A peer reviewer once faulted an article I wrote because I said Ekman primarily made dramas and the reviewer responded that this is not true and wanted me to change that. That reviewer was a fool but also part of a tradition.

Psychology rather than film history might provide the answers.

I have written a lot about Ekman before on the blog. Here for example:

And the book is available from online book stores and assorted libraries and such.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Late work and last films

In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman argues that after Psycho (1960) Hitchcock lost his creative touch and began making bad film and that this was due to the lavish praise he had received during the 1950s, particularly by French critics, which had gone to his head. I do not buy this as all. It is true that his films in the late 1960s are not as good as before, but he had been highly praised already in the 1930s and should be used to it, and his two films after Psycho, The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964) are not the films of a director in decline. Whatever happened after Marnie is related to other things; personal issues, changes within the film industry, changing tastes and so on. And he did get back on his creative feet with Frenzy (1972). Besides, Hitchcock made only two films between Marnie and Frenzy: Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), and they have their merits. They are not worse than some of his earlier films, like Stage Fright (1950).

This is about a topic that interests me a lot, that of late films, or a "late phase", in a filmmaker's career. These films are often dismissed or unacknowledged and in general it is earlier works that are the focus of peoples' and critics' attention. Sometimes, as with Satyajit Ray, it is only the very first films that are talked about at any length. I remember a discussion I once had with a student about Billy Wilder being a filmmaker who (the student claimed) lost it completely in his later stage, and the student is not alone in this belief. But Wilder in the late 1960s/early 1970s is to me as good and interesting as he was in the 1940s, there is no decline there.

The first thing to wonder about is at what stage in a career it becomes appropriate to talk about a late phase. When does it begin? How should it be measured? Obviously the career itself must be of some length, spanning a couple of decades at best. And what is meant by it? There has to be a distinct change in the films for there to be a point of talking about a late phase. With Hitchcock it seems possible to see Psycho as the beginning of such a late phase. With Howard Hawks I would like to suggest Rio Bravo (1959) as the first film of his late, and glorious, phase. It was made after a longer pause, and it and his later films are looser, more meandering and even less concerned with plot than before. While thematically consistent with his films of the 1930s and 1940s, they have a different tone, mood and pace.

What about John Ford? Is there a late phase beginning with Sergeant Rutledge (1960) maybe? When he, as is sometimes suggested, began make films that deliberately questions assumptions and ideas from earlier days. (Although he had already done that too, in the late 1940s for example.) Does Vincente Minnelli's late phase begin with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962)? David Lean's late phase, when he ventured abroad and made long epics, began with Bridge of the River Kwai (1957); a phase which, with the exception of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), is also often disparaged. Michael Powell's late phase began after the thrashing Peeping Tom (1960) got by British critics. After The Queen's Guard (1961) he did some TV-work, two fine films in Australia and an adaptation of Béla Bartók's opera Bluebeard's Castle.

Some filmmakers move around and this might make it easier to distinguish phases. Luis Buñuel's late phase might be said to begin when he began making films in France, with The Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), or perhaps better to push it forward to 1967 and Belle de Jour. Jean Renoir, who also did a version of The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), could be said to having inaugurated his late phase when he left the US, first for The River (1951) in India, and then his last films in France. Max Ophüls is another filmmaker who moved around, and could be said to have three phases, first a European, then in the 1940s an American and then in the 1950s a French phase, although in his case the last phase is too similar to the earlier ones for it to be meaningful to talk about it as a distinct "late phase". This is also his most celebrated phase; much like Yasujiro Ozu, the later films are the ones most people talk about. Buñuel is a similar case. They are exceptions to an otherwise strong rule.

Vittorio De Sica and Ophüls on the set of The Earrings of Madame de... (1953).

But is there any value of talking about a late phase? Or argue about when it might have begun? I think there is, if you are interested in film as art, and in the artists who make them. The conventional response is to focus on the earlier work, or some alleged golden age, and then ignore or belittle the later work, but often only because the later films are in one way or another (or more ways) different from the earlier ones. Sometimes this can be put down to an inability among critics and people at large to appreciate change and development, and often it comes from an unwillingness to look beyond the usual classics and established "masterpieces". Another reason might be that a late phase is often not in tune with the prevailing styles and themes of the younger contemporary filmmakers' work, and is therefore not considered hip and trendy and consequently dismissed as old and conservative. This is often unfair though and leads to dismissals on shallow grounds. But these aspects are still interesting to discuss. To follow a filmmaker's long and winding career can be very rewarding, and lead to insights about not just personal developments and creativity but also to discussions about how filmmakers navigate changing societal and industrial contexts and circumstances, and also to discussions about how we evaluate films. Another aspect is to consider how artists deals with ageing and mortality, including their own, in their later years. Many filmmakers have done this, from Hawks to Ozu, and some not yet mentioned here such as Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa.

Sometimes it is in their late phase that filmmakers really burrow deep, get personal and sometimes reach for the sublime. I think Fred Zinnemann began to blossom in his late phase, which began with The Nun's Story (1959).


Related to this, and particularly poignant to me, is a filmmaker's very last film, and even the very last image of them. I am not talking about the solution to the story but the very last thing we see, the final image. Here are five last images that have always struck me as being particularly suitable or poignant, from the last films of Buñuel, Lean, Hitchcock, Minnelli and Ozu.

Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) ends with a sudden and unexplained explosion, a fabulous end to an explosive and surreal style of filmmaking. Lean's A Passage to India (1984) ends with Judy Davis's main character turning away from a window, on which it is raining. A temperamental person trapped in a damp English apartment which is too small for her outreaching personality. Hitchcock's Family Plot (1976) ends with the main character, played by Barbara Harris, looking directly into the camera and wink to us, as if it has all been one big joke and Hitch wants to let us know. Minnelli's last film, the flawed but marvellous A Matter of Time (1976), ends with a freeze frame of the face of his daughter Liza Minnelli, who plays the lead. But most moving of all is the last shot of Ozu's last film An Autumn Afternoon (1962). Chishu Ryu who had played the male lead in Ozu's films ever since the 1930s, sits alone in a small room, now old and tired, looking away from the camera and us, faced with his own loneliness and approaching death. It is the end scene to end all end scenes.

The meaning of a last image might change, or deepen, depending on whether you know if the filmmaker knew that this was the last film they would make. That is a topic worthy of a book...

And speaking about books, Goldman says a lot of dumb things in his book, but I shall have to come back to that another day.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Reading in films

A light start to the new year. Among the many things that intrigue me in films is what books characters are reading and what it might mean and what the books are like. Sometimes they can be real books that were popular at the time, sometimes they are self-referential, sometimes they are jokes and sometimes they are fake, just a title and a cover created for the film. I can also be fascinated by books being written by fictional characters that are authors. In Finding Forrester (Gus Van Sant 2000), the character played by Sean Connery wrote one novel once upon a time, which was considered a masterpiece and won the Pulitzer Prize, but he has written nothing since. It is called Avalon Landing and I am desperate to read it, even though I know it does not exist outside the frame of the film. To add to its allure, the book is briefly shown in the film and it is in the same style as Penguin Books of the 1950s, a design I find irresistible. I even have a small collection of Penguin books from that series, such as this one (which was adapted into a film by George Cukor in 1956):

But back to books being read. Here are five examples that have always excited me for one reason or another:

Grace Kelly in Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock 1954)

Jayne Mansfield in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Frank Tashlin 1957)

Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million (William Wyler 1966)

Claude Jade and Jean-Pierre Léaud in Bed & Board (François Truffaut 1970)

Chris Eigeman and Allison Parisi in Metropolitan (Whit Stillman 1990)

That was just a small collection; a starting point for a conversation, for further research and for the year of 2019. Let's get going! 

Friday, 28 December 2018

Holidays holidays

This is just a service announcement to inform that I am on vacation and will not be blogging this week. Friday two weeks from now all will be back to normal.

Happy New Year!

Friday, 14 December 2018

Bullitt (1968)

After a screening of Bullitt (Peter Yates 1968) my students spent some time discussing who exactly Chalmers was (the character played by Robert Vaughn) and what exactly had happened. Who was killed in the hotel room and who was shot at the airport? I find it exhilarating that the film is so oblique. Those who made it were not deliberately trying to be confusing but there is hardly any exposition. Since everybody in the film know each other and are on the same page they do not spend time telling each other things they already know but that might be beneficial for us. The film is patient, meticulous and meandering, so it is not impossible to follow what is happening, but in order to grasp the significance of what is happening and where the police investigation of that first murder takes us, you need to pay attention. The film is not giving anything away for free and does not provide summaries or explanations. I think the approach of Yates and scriptwriters Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner shows a level of trust in the audience, a belief in our attention span and cognitive abilities. Such respect is frequently lacking among filmmakers of mainstream hits today, where characters often provide a running commentary on all that is happening, has happened and will happen.

McQueen and Vaughn

Bullitt, which I have seen many times, has more good things to offer besides this trust. It is for example one of the great films of San Francisco and uses the locations to utmost effect, not only in the celebrated car chase. The cinematography by William A. Fraker is overall very good and the film combines stylish, moody shots with raw, naturalistic shots, all helping to create the mood and style of a film both artful and real. That most of the film is without a score adds to this feeling. It is only in a few instances that Lalo Schifrin's jazzy score appears, and then quickly disappears again.

Clearly I am very fond of Bullitt, including the nice scene where Bullitt/McQueen goes shopping for groceries in a small corner shop, but I am also interested by the history behind the production of it, and its transitional place in Hollywood cinema. It was made just as what is frequently, and often confusingly, labelled "New Hollywood" is said to have begun, although Bullitt is rarely spoken off in relation to films such as Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn 1967) or The Graduate (Mike Nichols 1967). But it is as interesting (and as a film better) as those two, and several others. It was also made the same year as Madigan (Don Siegel 1968), with which it has some similarities but also important differences.

Jacqueline Bisset with McQueen

Steve McQueen had just started his own production company, Solar Productions, with Robert E. Relyea, and, with Solar having cut a deal with Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, McQueen had almost full control over the making of Bullitt. Its producer was Philip D'Antoni, whose focus was also on gritty naturalism, but McQueen had the script, hired the writers, oversaw the casting and hired the director, and made sure everything stayed true to how he envisioned the film. But he and the director, Yates, seem to have had the same idea, of making it as true to life as possible. McQueen wanted Yates after having seen his film from 1967, Robbery, and Bullitt would be Yates's first American film. The films are not particularly similar except for the emphasis on real locations and as little exposition as possible. But what seems to primarily have caught McQueen's interest was the car chase that opens Robbery, through the streets of London. A car chase is also what Bullitt is most famous for, here on the streets of San Francisco. The emphasis is again on naturalism, with McQueen partly driving himself and instead of music there is only the sounds of engines and tyres. It is a powerful effect, and it gives the chase a peculiar feeling. The shooting of it keeps the cars in their context, so you are very aware of where they are in relation to each other, to other cars, other buildings and in San Francisco. It is the opposite of car chases in for example The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass 2004) in which everything is fragmented and dislocational.

But already three years after Bullitt, William Friedkin staged the car chase in French Connection (1971, also produced by D'Antoni) in a distinctly more chaotic way than Bullitt and with more emphasis on cutting than long takes. A development which could be seen as an example of what David Bordwell refers to as "intensified continuity". The look of French Connection overall is also rougher than Bullitt, which feels smoother or warmer (I am not sure which words are most helpful). Another way of putting it is that cinematographer Owen Roizman's style of shooting and lighting French Connection is not the same as Fraker's on Bullitt, and the style of shooting and lighting in the 1960s differs, on average, from the 1970s. A combination of different artistic choices and larger historical trends.

After French Connection, Philip D'Antoni made The Seven-Ups (1973) as an unacknowledged sequel, this time as director as well as producer. It too has an elaborate car chase but for each film they seem to lose something. Yates is a better director than both Friedkin and D'Antoni. Another person who needs to be mentioned is the stunt driver Bill Hickman, who played a part in designing the chase of Bullitt. He also plays the hitman who drives the car McQueen is pursuing, and he also drove the car in the chase in French Connection as well as a car in The Seven-Ups.

Hickman in Bullitt

Siegel's Madigan, mentioned above, is similar in structure to Bullitt (a few days during which two weary cops look for a killer) and while Siegel also aimed for realism and verisimilitude, he was unable to convince the producers to shoot it all in actual locations and it shows. It does diminish the film, however good Richard Widmark is in the title role, and however excellent the staging of individual scenes is. It is also a plot-heavy film, with several parallel stories unfolding, which is an important difference from Bullitt too. A similarity though is the unpredictability of them. It is part of the appeal of these police thrillers from this time that you do not know whether the main character will get killed or not in the end. Sometimes they die, sometimes they live. Even when re-watching one of them I sometimes catch myself wondering how it will end this time.

Another point of comparison is with Siegel's earlier thriller The Lineup (1958). It has a very different plot (two contract killers clearing up after a failed drug delivery) but it is shot on location in San Francisco and it has a good car chase. It is one of Siegel's very best films, and while it cannot be said to be an inspiration for Bullitt, it is a reminder that the latter was not the first car chase through San Francisco. But the sequence in Bullitt is significantly longer, more complex and advanced. It is something new.

The Lineup

Bullitt was a key film in McQueen's career, and one of his biggest successes at the box office. It is also a key film in Yates's career. Yates made three great police thrillers, Robbery, Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) but despite his obvious skills it is probably right to say that on Bullitt it was McQueen who was the most influential person on set.

By Yates I can also recommend, for example, Murphy's War (1971), a British war film with Peter O'Toole; The Hot Rock (1972), scripted by William Goldman; and Breaking Away (1979), his first cooperation with writer Steve Tesich.

Having too much exposition and dialogue directed to the audience rather than to any character in the film is obviously not a new thing. A film like On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan 1954) is not exactly subtle or oblique, and it has all kinds of speeches for our benefit rather than for the benefits of the characters. This is common enough in films. But then it at least serves some narrative or thematic purpose. Today it often feels like there is exposition for the sake of exposition. Maybe there is a fear of people being distracted by their mobile phones and therefore losing track of the story, or maybe a fear of being accused of plot holes. As a general rule, people who complain about plot holes have just not been paying enough attention. They would not like Yates's films.