Wednesday 27 January 2010

Early Richard Fleischer

I was about to start this posting by writing "Richard Fleischer is today probably best known for..." but then I came to my senses, realizing both that it's such a clichéd beginning, and that I don't think there actually is an ending to that sentence, other than possibly in this way "Richard Fleischer is today probably best known for what?" So I begin again.

I don't know how my interest in Richard Fleischer began, but I do remember distinctly one of my teachers in film history (this was in the mid-1990s) talking about The Narrow Margin (1952) as an example of a brilliant noir. But I never saw it. It wasn't available. I did however see the new version of it, directed by Peter Hyams in 1990. I really liked it. So maybe that's how it all started. I did then get a VHS-recording of Compulsion (1959), but I never saw that one either. For some reason I was nursing a Fleischer-fascination without having seen any films and without even seeing the few that were available.

The next thing that happened was that late one night a couple of years ago, when I was just about to go to bed, I zapped my way through the many TV-channels I had. A film had just begun on one of them, and since Henry Fonda was in it, I decided to watch it for a few minutes, not knowing what film it was. But tired as I was I couldn't stop watching. As it turned out, it was The Boston Strangler (1968), and it was very good. So now I had finally seen something directed by Fleischer, and especially the second part of the film, which more or less takes place inside the head of the killer, was striking. Even though I'd seen only one of his films, I thought I could see a pattern. Crime thrillers, with a psychological perspective.

And so I finally saw The Narrow Margin. My teacher hadn't been lying, it was a brilliant film. It was good on many levels. Tight, suspenseful, well characterized and at the same time unpretentious. Charles McGraw, as the cop with a dash of vengeance and a pinch of (self)loathing, was very good, and fresh. I hadn't seen him before. Now I wanted to see all that Fleischer had done, at least the early films, which wasn't easy. They're not on available either in Sweden, Britain or the US. But some can be found in France. The last months I've seen The Narrow Margin again (it was even better the second time), as well as Armored Car Robbery (1950), Follow My Quietly (1949) and Child of Divorce (1946), all bought in France. I must say I'm thoroughly impressed by the high quality of them.

When it comes to heist movies, there's much talk about John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and that is a great film, but Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery was actually done earlier, and it's also very good, and has all the usual criteria of a proper heist film. And Charles McGraw as well. Follow Me Quietly is a film about a serial killer, and it's surprisingly scary and unsettling, with a nice sense of humour and very good camerawork (by Robert de Grasse). Child of Divorce though is different; it's a sad story about a girl who's devastated when her parents decide to break up.

Later in the 1950s Fleischer began to do adventure films and fantasy, and I've seen a few which were fun ("directed with muscle and verve" as Nigel Floyd said about The Vikings (1958)), but I much prefer the tight thrillers. And I have more to explore. Next on the list is The Clay Pigeon (1949), also available in France.

Here's a scene from Narrow Margin.

This post was amended 2014-01-30, with a new clip and a few changed sentences.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Remakes and repetitions

In today's The Independent on Sunday there's an article about Hollywood's current interest in wizards and fairy tales. In the beginning of the article Andrew Johnson is lamenting the fact that this year Hollywood is "relying on a slew of remakes, sequels". Now, my question is this: Has there been any year since, well, since I came of age*, that there hasn't been complaints like "this year Hollywood seems to have run out of ideas and is only making sequels and remakes". Here Hollywood and film journalism are running in tandem, both repeating themselves (for commercial reasons most likely), and cross-pollinating each other.

*It was probably just as common before I was born.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Ray Harryhausen

There are many great artists out there in the world of film, and not only directors. Ray Harryhausen is one of these artists. Stop-motion model animation is his speciality, and although most of the films he's been involved in are either cheesy or just plain bad, his work is almost always worth the prize of admission.

Harryhausen, who turns 90 this year, has been celebrated a lot over the last decades. This is my own celebration.

Stop-motion means that you photography an object which on its own can't move, and betweeen each photo you move the object a little bit, so that when the images are seen in a sequence, they give the illusion of movement. This was not something invented by Harryhausen, and he was certainly not the only one doing it, but he was doing it with great style, intelligence and warmth, and the result is just great. Look at this bit of lethal skeletons, raising from the earth, in Jason and the Argonauts (1963):

And here's a big ape from Mighty Joe Young (1949):

And last but not least in this little parade is a screen test for a version of War of the Worlds that was never made, although it was a pet project for Harryhausen:

Monday 11 January 2010

Eric Rohmer gone

Today's sad news is that Eric Rohmer has passed away. He was one of the great filmmakers, and he became an addiction. I've seen almost all of his films, and though they are uneven, the complete body of work is a source of constant joy. The first one I saw was L'ami de mon amie (Boyfriends and Girlfriends 1987) and among my favourites are Le rayon vert (The Green Ray 1986) and Conte d'automne (An Autumn's Tale 1998). Rohmer and I seems to have shared the same unconditional love of the sun, and that is probably one reason why he gets to me.

He, like me (and like Jacques Rivette who I wrote about last autumn) also had a great love for the films of Howard Hawks, to the extent that he once wrote in Cahiers du cinéma that "I think that one cannot really love any film if one does not really love the ones by Howard Hawks."

And about his own work, he once wrote: "After all I do not show, I say. I show people who move and speak. That is all I know how to do, that is my true subject."

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Iranian films

To complement the previous post on Iranian cinema, here's a list of some very good Iranian films of the 90s and 00s. Required viewing.

10 (Abbas Kiarostami 2002)

Apple, The / Sib (Samira Makhmalbaf 1998)

Circle, The / Dayereh (Jafar Panahi 2001)

Close-Up / Nema-ye Nazdik (Abbas Kiarostami 1990)

Day I Became a Woman, The / Roozi ke zan shodam (Marzieh Makhmalbaf 2000)

Delbaran (Abolfazl Jalili 2001)

First Letter, The / Abjad (Abolfazl Jalili 2003)

Moment of Innocence, A / Nun va Goldoon (Mohsen Makhmalbaf 1996)

Kandahar / Safar e Ghandehar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf 2001)

Paper Airplanes / Mooshak e Kaghazi (Farhad Mehranfad 1997)

Secret Ballot, The /Raye makhfi (Babak Payami 2001)

Song of the Sparrow, The / Avaze gonjeshk-ha (Majid Majidi 2008)

White Balloon, The / Badkonake sefid (Jafar Panahi 1995)

Wind Will Carry Us, The / Bad ma ra khahad bord (Abbas Kiarostami 1999)

Monday 4 January 2010

The struggle in Iran

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Iranian cinema was perhaps the most interesting and inspiring of all world cinemas. But these last years I haven't seen as many films from Iran as before. That could be because of poor or middlebrow distributors are importing fewer films to where I am, or it could be that the climate for filmmakers have worsen since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005. I've been wondering about that, but haven't done enough research into the matter.

Now though, after last year's (probably) fraudulent election and the brutality shown by the regime afterwards, the political climate for everybody, including filmmakers, have deteriorated very much. An article in today's New York Times has the latest update.

It's a sad and upsetting story, the story of Iran. The country has so many riches, it should be one of the great nations today, not least culturally, but instead they (the leaders) waste it all on bad politics and bad economics. Things were looking up when Mohammad Khatami was elected president in 1997 (and again in 2001), but he might not have been strong enough to make much of a difference.

The great Persian poet and scholar Omar Khayyam once wrote something like:

The end of the story is cruel and sad
From dust we came, and gone with winds cool

Let's hope there isn't a cruel and sad end to the story. And remember, as Khayyam also wrote:

Life is a temporal gift that we borrow
Whether dead for ages, or leave tomorrow