Friday, 7 September 2018

Abstract and tactile

The other week I read Earning the Rockies, the latest book by Robert D. Kaplan who is an interesting thinker on geopolitics. That book is about how the geography of the United States has been the basis for its political place (or dominance) in the world. Kaplan is a deeply read scholar with impeccable credentials, and can discuss the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Romanian urbanity and 5th century Chinese warfare in the same chapter. But, and this is why I mention him here, while deeply embedded in political and historical theory he is also critical of a certain strain of academic writing/thinking for its detachment from the real world. He is the kind of writer who goes to the places he writes about, a traveller as much as a thinker.

In many different fields and disciplines there is a difference between what can roughly be called abstract theory and tactile theory. (Theory loosely defined.) It is not only in political science that this is a distinction worth making. It is equally applicable on film studies.

Within film studies I would define the tactile approach is being interested in the work itself and how it is done, being interested in the art of film and the physical object. It is also interested in the filmmakers and the audience as actual people, as individual human beings. The former, abstract theory, is by my definition interested in theory in itself, and in books about films rather than actual films. It looks at politics and ideology, and deals primarily in generalisations. It can often show an indifference to actual films, film history, filmmakers and audiences.

It is not an either/or thing, few are pure tactile or pure abstraction (Kaplan mentioned above is both as much and the star of much of contemporary cinema studies, Gilles Deleuze, could be said to be as well) and one is not automatically better than the other; it is partly a question of what you yourself are interested in. But it is not just a matter of preferences. It is a question of whether the thoughts and ideas that are presented come from research and genuine engagement with and knowledge of the material about which one writes. While I am more partial to the tactile approach myself it often happens when I read about a certain film or filmmaker that the object of study is not contextualised and therefore not properly understood and the value and uniqueness of the film or filmmaker is overestimated due to this lack of context and wider historic awareness. But abstract theory is on average worse. It can even be offensive in its lack of interest in the subject it is allegedly concerned with, i.e. film. (On occasion at conferences I have been tempted to ask "Have you actually seen a film?" after a paper has been presented, but as yet I have constrained myself.) It is a peculiar thing how it seems that many people within film studies who are researching and writing about it seem to regard film as uninteresting and even worthy of disdain. It is particularly dispiriting that many of those who give that impression, through their writing and conference papers, actually teach film studies. Imagine playing football (or soccer) and the coach is completely uninterested in the actual playing of football and instead only talks about, say, the politics of grass-cutting among Chilean peasants in "the post-political". A potentially worthy subject, but not if you are a football coach and is supposed to teach children how to play.

I have often pointed out that much of what is being taught and written about concerning film history is a collection of myths and mistakes. One strong reason for this is that so many do not bother to watch the films, even the films that they themselves write about, and this combined with the general disinterested approach to the subject means that it is rather rare for academic writing to go deeper than a random Wikipedia-entry when it comes to actual film history or practice. The book or article might be insightful and knowledgeable about whatever political theory is being discussed but not about films, either in themselves or about film history. Instead one myth or distortion after another is repeated and taught. In the rest of this post I will focus on one such area, writings about auteurs, since I have recently read several recent articles and new books in which "auteur theory" have been discussed.

Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Ernst Lubitsch

Of all these books and articles, not a single one of them gave an accurate description of it. Rather the opposite. It was not a case of simplifying for expediency but getting the basic facts backwards. Most said that "auteur theory" argued that auteurs were filmmakers who wrote their own scripts and did not make genre or mainstream films but unique and personal films. This might be how the writer in question defines an auteur now but, as I said, this is almost the opposite of what Truffaut, Godard, Sarris and others argued. What they said was that auteurs could be found anywhere, not least among mainstream genre filmmakers, and that even when they did not write their own scripts their personalities came across in their films. If you pretend to provide a history of thinking about auteurs then at least study the issue first. It is not a difficult subject, not quantum physics. Or, accept that you do not care enough to actually research it and say nothing more about it.

As an example, in Sonatas, Screams, and Silence by Alexis Luko (which I previously singled out as the most interesting of a recent bunch of Bergman books) there is one page (p. xxv) about the history of auteurism, which she claims begins with Truffaut's 1954 article A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema and that Truffaut "called for a revolution" in that article. He did not. He was praising some filmmakers whom he liked, such as Bresson, Ophuls, Tati and Becker. He then added "it so happens — by a curious coincidence — that they are auteurs who often write their own dialogue and in some cases think up the stories they direct" and he compared their films favourably to the films written by the team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (and a few others). He was not suggesting a new kind of cinema, but was praising a certain kind of cinema that already existed. That is completely different. (Truffaut's article is one of those that are referenced by many but understood (or even read) by few.) There is no recognition in Luko's summary that this view of filmmakers far pre-dates Truffaut's article. The summary is so perfunctory it would have been better not making it at all.

In the recent edited collection The Global Auteur (eds. Jeremi Szaniawski and Seung-hoon Jeong) there is also an effort to give a summary of the history of auteurs. "As is well known, the 1950s Cahiers du cinèma critics initiated the political positioning of filmmakers' authenticity as equivalent to artists' authorship in other media." it says in the introduction (p. 2). That statement is not true. That discussion was initiated much earlier than the 1950s, it was there already in the late 1910s, in various countries and by various critics. It continued to be debated among French film critics in the 1920s, American film critics on the 1930s, British and Swedish film critics in the 1940s. There was nothing new in that respect with the Cahiers group. The Introduction later argues that "today's auteurs are philosophical thinkers who are also politically attuned observers and apt craftsmen or artists." (p. 9) which on the one hand is a bold statement from those who a few pages earlier had criticised the "semi-religious myth of independent creativity" (p. 4) and on the other hand confusing for it would suggest that earlier auteurs were not those things but if they were not then what were they and why and when did this shift from one stage to another take place?

The various chapters of The Global Auteur have their strength and weaknesses (I particularly liked William Brown's chapter about Michael Winterbottom), and for reasons known only to the editors no women are among the included auteurs, but now I want to continue focusing on the Introduction by the book's editors, partly as an example of abstract theory. The piece contains no thinking about film at all, it is only jargon and clichés, but more to the point was that there was so little connection (if any) between actual filmmakers and the theoretical constructions about them. They ask why it is relevant to talk about auteurs today and give this answer: "Because its agency is a causative force to activate an engagement that subjectively concretizes a certain universality of this global matrix of film discourse." (p. 5)

Later they argue that "Methodologically, their mapping can be not just a synchronic arrangement of various auteuristic positions, but also a diachronic narrativization of their agendas and motifs, pathologies and impasses, failures and potentials in the dialectic process of raising questions and seeking answers from the critic's perspective." (p. 7) They further say that "This yields a cognitive mapping of the political matrix that could reveal an unconscious ideology or paradigm and its cinematically virtualized reality through an aesthetic imaginary, as well as its political potential or deadlock when confronted with actual reality." (p. 9) This discussion throughout the Introduction is only interested in theoretical constructions about auteurs, and the actual filmmakers barely figures in that discussion.


There is nothing really new to say about filmmakers in general; it has always been, and will probably always be, the case that film is a collaborative art form but that frequently one person is the central figure, whose vision and techniques dominate the finished film, and this person is usually the director (whether or not they also have screen writing credits). This view of it has also been common among critics and others since at least the days of Lubitsch, Ince, Griffith and Chaplin. (Not about all films and all filmmakers, but about many of them, which still remains they case today.) Everything beyond that, whether you call it "auteur theory" or "auteur-structuralism" or "transnational auteurs" or "global auteurs" or "neo-auteurs" or "post-auteurs" or "third wave auteurs" or "vulgar auteurs" or whatever are theoretical games which does not change, or relate to, the actual making of the films, to what happens during pre-production, production and post-production. Filmmakers working today do not differ on average from filmmakers working in earlier eras, and there is no need for any random book about filmmakers to make an excuse for how things are different now and why we need new ways of theorising the auteur or to argue that something is more relevant than ever. (But there can be new and different ways of looking at individual filmmakers of course, from the tactile approach.)

The arguments are rarely new or different either, it is mainly just a new vocabulary. At any given time in academia, as elsewhere, there are certain fashionable words that are used, over and over again, until they lose their appeal and are exchanged for other words. You probably noticed some of them in the quotes above, such as "mapping," a current buzz word. "Re-imaging" and "re-thinking" are also popular, which usually refer to taking a perfectly good and useful term or phrase and give it a new meaning for no apparent reason. And by doing so watering it out until it becomes devoid of actual meaning, and needs to be "re-imagined" again.


Considering what I do professionally, I naturally spend a lot of time reading about films. It rarely gives me any pleasure though. I am much happier when reading about geopolitics and evolutionary cognition. It is a peculiar thing. All of this bothers me both on a professional level, not least with regards to the students who have to endure the teaching and the required readings of so much poor stuff, and on a personal level. I take films, and the studying of them, seriously and get offended by those within film studies who do not.

That quote from Truffaut above is slightly misleading. It is a fairly recent translation (I do not know the exact year) but made long after "auteur theory" became a thing. Obviously when Truffaut wrote it "auteur theory" was not a thing. The original text says "ce sont pourtant des cinéastes français et il se trouve - curieuse coïncidence - que ce sont des auteurs qui écrivent souvent leur dialogue et quelques-uns inventent eux-mêmes les histoires qu'ils mettent en scène" and nobody at the time would keep the word "auteurs" as it stands but translate it to "writers" most likely, or possibly "authors". So reading that translation gives the impression that Truffaut is coining a term, when he is actually only saying that some of these directors were also writers. This is a larger issue, which I might explore on a later date.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Victor Saville and Dark Journey (1937)

British cinema of the 1930s is naturally completely overshadowed by Alfred Hitchcock, but there is more to it than that. There were hundreds of films made, in various genres and various stages of professionalism. Both Michael Powell and Carol Reed were making their first efforts. But there were several others too, much less known, who should be subjects for further research. Previously I have written about Anthony Asquith. Two other filmmakers that interest me are Robert Stevenson and Victor Saville. They have in common that they were both prolific in various genres in the 1930s and then went to Hollywood when the war came. There Stevenson ended up working for Walt Disney and directing some of the biggest box office hits of all time. He will get a post later on.

Saville was born in 1895 I think, there is conflicted information on this. On BFI's profile it says both 1897 and 1896 and on IMDb and Wikipedia it says 1895. Early on he met Michael Balcon and produced a film with him in 1923, Woman to Woman, directed by Graham Cutts. (It was co-written by Hitchcock, who was also the art director and assistant director. Alma Reville was editor.) They then went their separate ways as producers during the 1920s but joined forces again in the early 1930s when Saville began directing films at Gaumont-British where Balcon was head of production. Later in the decade Saville became an independent producer/director (with a deal with Alexander Korda) and that is when he made Dark Journey (1937).

Saville claimed that he did not consider himself a great director and was more interested in producing, and this is what he primarily did when he moved to the US, where he became a producer first at MGM, and with a high profile. The transition from British to American films began with him producing two of MGM's British productions, The Citadel (King Vidor 1938) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (Sam Wood 1939). He then moved to the US where he first produced the great The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage 1940), which, together with Mervyn LeRoy's Escape from the same year, angered the Germans enough for them to ban all MGM's films. It also upset some people in Washington who called Saville in for a congressional hearing. (Borzage and the cast were also angry because Saville more or less argued he directed most of the film. A weird story which I do not understand.) He would then alternate between producing and directing (both for MGM and Columbia) until he returned to Britain in the late 1950s. His penultimate film as director was Paul Newman's first film, The Silver Chalice (1954), a film Newman famously hated. Saville had also required the rights to the books by Mickey Spillane so he was involved in the production of Robert Aldrich's incredible Kiss Me Deadly (1955). The last film on which he had a director's credit (as Phil Victor) was for the Spillane-based My Gun is Quick (1957), also directed by George White, otherwise an editor.

But those films are a far cry from the films he made in the 1930s, several with the musical actress Jessie Matthews. Musicals like Evergreen (1934), with music by Rodgers and Hart, and Evensong (1934), The Good Companions (1933) after J.B. Priestley's novel, an adaption of the German cross-dressing comedy Viktor und Viktoria (Reinhold Schünzel 1933) called First a Girl (1935), spy thrillers like I Was a Spy (1933) and Dark Journey and the drama about council politics, South Riding (1937). One thing they and many others of Saville's films have in common is that they have a strong female character in the lead. (His 1950 adaptation of Kipling's Indian spy adventure Kim is an exception.)

Dark Journey is set in Stockholm of 1918 (the Swedish title was Spioncentral Stockholm) and Vivien Leigh, exceptionally stylish and glamorous, plays the lead as a French spy posing as a Swiss owner of a fashionable clothes store in Stockholm while also posing as a German spy. She has two gentlemen callers, a British spy played by Anthony Bushell and a German spy played by Conrad Veidt, the latter of which is a more complicated love interest as he, being German, is an enemy. But the story in itself is not particularly interesting. More impressive is the production itself, an expensive one with impressive sets. The set designer for several of Saville's films was Alfred Junge, otherwise known for his work with Powell and Pressburger, but not here. Instead the sets were designed by Ferdinand Bellan and Andrej Andrejew, and there were three cinematographers working with Saville, Georges Périnal, Harry Stradling and Jack Cardiff (still only as camera operator). There is plenty of talent involved and it shows.

The film on the whole is rather luxurious and sometimes witty and could at times be mistaken for a Paramount production. The screenplay is by Lajos Biró, an Hungarian who wrote the scripts for a lot of exotic British films of the 1930s, as well as the play on which Mauritz Stiller's Hotel Imperial (1927) and Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo (1943) are based. He also wrote the story for Josef von Sternberg's The Last Command (1928). It may or may not be a coincidence that all those three films were produced by Paramount. But while being impressive looking and with an attractive mood Dark Journey still falls short, and this is due to Saville I would suggest. The actors could have been better directed, to be made livelier and more passionate. They are a bit too reticent for my taste. In addition, the staging of individual scenes is often rather unimaginative or too plain.

Despite those concerns Dark Journey is still an accomplished film, and one that need not be cast aside. There are other films by Saville of interest too, such as South Riding, which is peculiar but I like it, or Evergreen or the drama Friday the Thirteenth (1933), showing a day in the life of a cross-section of English society. (The acting in them is not as reticent as in Dark Journey.) Even if Saville was not a great director he had an interesting career with many different stages and above all he was a key player in British cinema, leading up to the glorious 1940s when British cinema was at the height of what the art form can do.

The Mortal Storm. One decent couple in a room full of Nazis.
A link to my earlier article about Borzage.

Friday, 10 August 2018

The 500 000

A few days ago the stats showed that I had reached 500 000 visitors on the blog. That seemed like a good excuse to rest on my laurels (primarily because it is a fun thing to say). And it is still summer and the heatwave continues, even though I have tentatively began working again, reading student essays (no one's idea of fun) and such. But the next post, on Friday in two weeks, will be a regular kind. So see you then!

But before you go, a clip with Robert Redford, who announced his retirement this week.

A mountain man in Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack 1972)

Incredibly preppy in Barefoot in the Park (Gene Saks 1967), with Jane Fonda

With Brad Pitt in Spy Game (Tony Scott 2001)

Friday, 27 July 2018

Aston Martin

Already in my pre-teens I had developed an interest in British cars and the first thing I ever wrote for myself (i.e. not school-related or postcards to grandparents) was about Jaguar, one of Britain's most distinguished car makers. I wrote it on this typewriter which is still with me, although these days as a fashion statement rather than as a tool for writing.

While Jaguar is a fine car, a favourite is a green XK 120 from 1948, I still always favoured Aston Martin, and as it is the car that plays such a prominent part in the Bond films I have an excuse to write about it here. They became a pair in 1964 when Goldfinger came out and Q assigned an Aston Martin DB5 to Bond, with assorted extras such as bullet proof windows, machine guns and, famously, an ejector seat. ("Ejector seat? You're joking!" "I never joke about my work 007.") He got one in Fleming's novel Goldfinger too, but a DB Mark III as the novel came out in 1959 and Aston Martin began making the DB5 in 1963. DB is part of a tradition of Aston Martins, and stands for David Brown who was Aston Martin's owner from 1947 to 1972. When he was forced to sell the company, Aston Martin stopped using those letters until the DB7 appeared in 1994, when the company had new owners again. Ford was the new owner and they had also bought Jaguar, and in a way DB7 was a modified and Aston Martin-fied Jaguar. A brief but necessary glitch.

Today when the cast and crew of a new Bond film is revealed to the public the Aston Martin chosen for the film is also revealed, as if it too was a member of the cast. And it has almost always been a close collaboration between the car company and Eon Productions, the UK company that produces the films. Sometimes Eon has approached Aston Martin and asked what they have got to offer and sometimes Aston Martin has approached Eon and asked whether they might be interested in a certain car. But Roger Moore's Bond never drove an Aston Martin, for various reasons, and it is something that also exemplifies how the company was in a really bad shape for many years after David Brown had to sell it. The appearance of the V8 Volante (or variations thereof) in The Living Daylights (1987) was a conscious effort to help bring Aston Martin back to life. The company has often been in financial troubles, and this is still the case. It has lost money most every year for the last decade or so, but there are many individuals and firms (though no longer Ford) who are more than willing to provide financial support. I hope they manage to keep going. (Obviously Brexit will not be helpful.)


Aston Martin is a well-chosen brand because it is arch-British just like Bond and it is not an ordinary car. Few have even seen one in real life and even fewer have owned one or been in one, and so it is a fitting car for a character such as Bond. They are similar in style, origin and perhaps even decadence. Before Aston Martin, Bond drove a Bentley in the first two films, as he had in the books, but it is not as good a match because Bond is fast, irreverent and sexy, words that are a better fit for Aston Martin than Bentley. It was true for the DB5 as well as consecutive models which have appeared in the films, such as the DBS in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) or the V8 Volante in The Living Daylights. In the latest film, Spectre (2015), it was a DB10, which was made (handbuilt as usual) in only 10 units and exclusively for the film, one of which can be seen in this photo:

Given this it is absurd to consider that in three of Pierce Brosnan's Bond films he drove a BMW. Of course, Bond has driven all kinds of cars before, of many different marques, but the BMW's were not just ones he had to use because they were the only ones available; they were the official Bond cars. That was wrong on multiple levels. It was not a British car but a German one, and it was not a unique, somewhat otherworldly car but a car most people have seen, and many have owned themselves, if not new then as second hand. BMW might not be like a Toyota Corolla, but it is still a mainstream brand. A good year for Aston Martin is at best a couple of thousand cars sold. A good year for BMW is several million cars sold. And, even worse, one of those BMW's was a four-door sedan (750iL), not a sports car. An example of corporate sponsorship that goes against the concept of both film and character. Fortunately, for Brosnan's fourth Bond film Die Another Day (2002) Aston Martin was back, the V12 Vanquish. (It is still not a particularly good film though.) And Daniel Craig's Bond has always driven an Aston Martin, in all four films so far.

In Craig's first, Casino Royale (2006), a new Aston Martin (DBS V12) appeared as well as the old DB5. The new car meets a rather brutal end after being driven off the road and flipping over several times. I had long assumed that it was CGI at work but no, it was an actual car and driven by the stuntman Adam Kirley. What you see in the film (or clip below) is real. Aston Martin was meant to destroy the car afterwards, as is standard procedure, but they had developed an attachment to it so it is still with us. I have seen it in London and it looks surprisingly well, all things considered. It is a very impressive car.

The passionate interest I once had for cars, not just British ones but cars in general, is long gone and I do not spend my free time reading car magazines in three different languages as I did in the days of yore. But Aston Martin has maintained its hold on me. We have a long history together, and I therefore felt that it would be fun to write something about it here. I also think that one reason I am still interested in Aston Martin is that it means I keep something of my childhood intact, there is a connection there to my own past which is gratifying. The more so the older I get. Maybe when I retire I should even buy one.

Sean Connery in Goldfinger

Often people seem to think that it was with Star Wars that merchandise based on a film first appeared but this was well-established much earlier than 1977. The Bond series is an example, and one of the key items for sale have been models of the various Aston Martin cars Bond has used, beginning in 1964 with a toy model of the DB5.

Another famous film with a noticeable Aston Martin is Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), where the car owned by Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren's character) is a DB2/4 Mk I Drophead coupé. It is featured throughout the film, and was especially required from Aston Martin.

While Roger Moore never drove an Aston Martin as Bond, he drove a DBS in the series The Persuaders! (1971-1972), as it was the car of his character Brett Sinclair. The most famous car associated with Moore is otherwise, with the possible exception of the Lotus in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), the Volvo P1800 which his character Simon Templar drove in The Saint (1962-1969). A time when Volvo was considered cool and stylish and before it came to be used by only two kinds of characters in films: the wannabe bohemians or the boring fuddy-duddies.

The first Aston Martin, from 1914, called Coal Scuttle

Saturday, 14 July 2018

100 years of Ingmar Bergman

Today is not only Bastille Day but also the centenary of the birth of Ingmar Bergman, so he will (again) be the theme of this post. I was at a Bergman conference last month in Lund in the south of Sweden, the town towards which they travel in Wild Strawberries (1957), so he has had an unusually active presence of late. During and after the conference I read a lot of books about Bergman, some old ones I had read before and some new ones. Robin Wood's book really is one of the best, and as it has been updated and re-issued in 2013 (the version I read) it is both old and new. I was not particularly impressed by any of the entirely new books (you are better of just watching the films) but if I were to recommend one of those available in English it would be Alexis Luko's Sonatas, Screams and Silence (2016).

The Magician (Ansiktet 1958)

When I say I was not impressed by them I mean that I did not learn anything new about Bergman, so if you have not spent as much time with his film and his archives as I have you might find them more interesting, but I do think there are too many books about him. Despite there being many important topics that have not really been explored so far the books so often are about the same old things, or they use Bergman as an excuse to talk about other, unrelated things. Regardless of how important and good he was, the majority of filmmakers are vastly under-researched and among them there are many that are as interesting, or might be as interesting, as Bergman. Consider F.W. Murnau. How can it be that there has not been a single book in English about his life and work since Lotte Eisner's Murnau, originally from 1964, and then revised a bit in 1973? It is now out of print, and she did not say all there is to say about Murnau. The only Murnau book now in print is, I believe, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Ein Melancholiker des Films, published by Deutsche Kinemathek in 2003. And where are the books on, say, George Sherman and Márta Mészáros? (Catherine Portuges's book about Mészáros from 1993 seems to be out of print too.)

Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna 1963)

One reason why so many write about Bergman, as well as Hitchcock, is that they have not just made the films but also willingly talked about them and about themselves, and have had a strong public persona, carefully crafted. They are famous among people at large, not just among those interested in film, and fame obviously appeals to film scholars as much as to the next guy. It has become something of an industry, a self-perpetuating Bergman-Hitchcock-complex (and a handful of other directors), so there will be more books about them, and hopefully some might add something new.

But that apparent openness of Bergman to talk about himself and his films is also a problem because he is such a performance artist. Everything he does is an act, which is why you should never take anything he says as being true in any conventional way. He invents things, embellishes things or twists them around and adjusts them to his daily mood. Many of the stories he tells about his own life and his childhood are invented and often have little to do with what actually happened, whether it was something good or bad. Yet many critics and scholars use Bergman's own sayings and writings in an uncritical way as if he was telling it like it is (or was). He is not, and they should restrain themselves from relying on it. That is a topic I will have to explore further another day.

But here are some topics I have already explored because I too have written about Bergman of course. I do like his work after all, whether books, TV-productions, films or stage adaptations (his version of Yukio Mishima's play Madame de Sade was amazing), and because I have had so much to do with this work, professionally.

Friday, 29 June 2018

A summer break

Admittedly there is a lot to write about, from apparatus theory to the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, but I think I deserve a break so this is all you are going to get today. It is summer after all. But in two weeks there will be more. Well, two weeks and a day.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Summing up Hathaway

It was watching Diplomatic Courier (1952) that started my Henry Hathaway project. I saw it in 2011 and I thought it was so good that I immediately watched another Hathaway, and then another, and then my first post about Hathaway was published here that same year. Now I have come to the end of the project.

When I wrote the first post I had only watched about half of Hathaway's oeuvre but I wanted to watch everything he had ever directed because those I had seen were almost all good (even though Prince Valiant (1954) was disappointing) and it seemed plausible that the rest would also be good. If you discount aborted projects and those films he directed only parts of, like Airport (George Seaton 1970), he made 62 films. The first ten are short B-films (around 55 minutes long) and usually Westerns made from novels by Zane Grey. Of those ten I have now managed to see five, including his very first film, Heritage of the Desert (1932), and they are all surprisingly accomplished and confident, and prove that Hathaway was a natural. He did not have to grow in to being a good director, he was one from scratch. But the dialogue can be corny and the acting rather wooden at times, but Randolph Scott, who acted in most of them, is fine. Below he is with Sally Blane in Heritage of the Desert, and she is also good. (Judging by the film it seems Hathaway was quite smitten with her.)

From Now and Forever (1934) he only made full-length features and mostly with stars and big budgets. I have seen all of them now except his last, the blaxploitation film Hangup aka Super Dude (1974) which seems impossible to find. The last I got hold of was The Last Safari (1967), which seems to never have been released on DVD but of which I managed to get a version transferred from (I think) a VHS tape to a disc. I was correct in thinking that the rest of the films would be good too, they really are. A few were disappointing, like the aforementioned Prince Valiant or The Black Rose (1950) or Woman Obsessed (1960), but even those have redeeming factors and none is a complete failure.

He is an interesting guy, Hathaway. A traveller, adventurer and artist, a self-taught historian and art collector. In 1930 he travelled through India and apparently met everyone, including Gandhi, and this had a profound effect on his life. He was hardworking and a temperamental, mean sonofabitch on set, and he made films about friendship, honour and revenge, often quests in harsh environments. The films and his characters were almost always like him: tough, rough and straightforward. Having spent so much time with him, through the films and interviews and books about him or books in which he appears, I feel like I know him now. Obviously I do not, but it does something to you, spending so much time with an artist. It becomes difficult not to watch the films without a sense of personal connection, and a sense of belonging. When watching the films of Hathaway, even the poor ones, you do feel his presence. In the framing, in the sentiments, in the dialogue (which improved after the first years), in the overall decoupage, in the issues being discussed, in the general scope and trajectory of the stories.

A key concern in many of his films is ethics. One fine scene in You're in the Navy Now (1951) shows how a high-ranking officer is visiting a navy ship and as he is angry with the ship's performance he starts criticising a sailor on board. When the ship's captain hears what is going on he confronts the higher-ranking officer and says that if he is to shout at anybody it should be at him, the captain. The men on the boat are not responsible for its performance, it is he alone who has the responsibility, so attacking a sailor is wrong. Even if the sailor did something wrong it is still the responsibility of the captain. This is a powerful lesson in the ethics of leadership, an enactment of Harry Truman's "the buck stops here" if you will, on taking on the burden of responsibility. It is easy to read this as Hathaway's own belief.

Sometimes the ethical contests are between a human and another animal. Two fine examples:

In From Hell to Texas the main character reluctantly kills a man in self-defence. When he is about to leave he notices that the dead man's horse is looking at him. He returns the look, and they stand like that for a while, facing each other. Then the man unsaddles his own horse and puts his saddle on the dead man's horse and mounts it, as if trying to atone for having killed its owner by taking the dead man's place himself. (I have discussed this at greater length in my separate article about From Hell to Texas.)

The other example is The Last Safari, which is about a "great white hunter" who is searching for the elephant who killed his friend. He wants to kill the elephant in return. (Hathaway saw it as a version of Moby-Dick.) But in the end of the film, when the hunter finds the elephant, the two just stand there, face to face, looking at each other. Finally the man fires his gun in the air, the spell is broken and man and elephant go their separate ways.

In both films the other animal has the moral authority, and is staring down the human, forcing him to do right. I find this very moving.

Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith

I have come across many stories about Hathaway, some of him being so hard on set that people ran away in tears or promised never to work with him again. But also of his generosity, work ethic and compassion. One story I particularly like is from the making of Nevada Smith (1966). It stars Steve McQueen, and he looked up to Hathaway as a father-figure. Hathaway was usually on set before anybody else but McQueen made it his mission to be there before him, as a sign of respect, and when Hathaway showed up McQueen would already be there, saying "Where have you been, sir?" I find this, too, very moving.


It often happens that two filmmakers are put together, to compare and contrast. The one filmmaker to which it feels natural to compare Hathaway is John Huston, and not just for both of them being cigar-smoking, temperamental adventurers. They have things in common too as filmmakers, such as subject matters and the kind of people that interested them (like gangsters, adventurers and gamblers), and they did not make comedies and very rarely domestic dramas. Historically speaking, Huston is held in much greater regard yet personally I prefer Hathaway. Judging from film to film I think Hathaway is the stronger one. This might be difficult to explain but it feels like Huston has more of an analytic interest in his characters whereas Hathaway has a personal interest in them, as if he is one with them and not just observing them. I also think that Hathaway has a more coherent visual concept whereas Huston often seems to be trying things out just to try them out. One is not better than the other here, neither with regards to character or visual style, I just mention it as two ways in which they are different. But another difference is, I believe, a flaw in Huston. Hathaway is less explicit about the themes and messages of the individual film. A character in a film by Huston is much more likely to quite literally explain to the audience what the film is about than anybody in a film by Hathaway. The latter seems to either be more relaxed in his art or more trusting of the audience. If so, that trust is, or should be, reciprocated.

Rod Steiger and Joan Collins in Seven Thieves (1960)

Here are 15 films that I think are Hathaway's best (at least as of writing):

Souls at Sea (1937)
The Real Glory (1939)
Johnny Apollo (1940)
The Shepherd of the Hills (1941)
Home in Indiana (1944)
The Dark Corner (1946)
Call Northside 777 (1948)
Down to the Sea in Ships (1949)
Rawhide (1951)
Fourteen Hours (1951)
Diplomatic Courier (1952)
Niagara (1953)
From Hell to Texas (1958)
The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
Nevada Smith (1966)

That is a good spread, year-wise, and narrowing it down to 15 means many good ones are left out. But it is a place to start for those who have seen nothing yet.

All links to my previous posts on Hathaway:

The story about McQueen, Hathaway and Nevada Smith has been told in several biographies, and the "Where have you been, sir"-quote is from My Husband, My Friend: A Memoir written by Neile McQueen Toffel.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Hawks and Foucault

This Wednesday, May 30, was the birthday of Howard Hawks (1896), who I regard as the greatest of all filmmakers. That is as good a reason as any to post this, something I wrote several years ago as part of a longer academic essay for a Hawks-project. Nothing came of it but now you get to read this part at least.

 Utopia and Heterotopia 

In Howard Hawks’s films there is usually very little sense of the larger world. There are exceptions. Contemporary politics is a part of His Girl Friday (1940) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949) has an element of social critic, or at least satire. In Rio Bravo (1959) the main character is the sheriff in the town. But in general the world is kept at bay. (In El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970), the other two films of the trilogy in which Rio Bravo is the first, the characters are not driven by any kind of duty to society.) It could be said that one aspect of Hawks’s films is escape. His characters are usually running away from society, their escape is both from the bourgeois world and from themselves, from their own pasts, and this is true for the men as well as many of the women. The groups that his films so often are centred around can be seen as being made up of drifters who have built their own communities, with their own rules and ethics. Rio Bravo for example is about four men who are more or less confined to the jail in their small town, since they are threatened by gunmen, but there is a sense that they are not just hiding in the jail because of the gunmen but that they are hiding from the world in general, and that Nathan Burdette (the leader of the gang) is just a symptom of this world. But it is not just the groups. The films which do not have these self-contained groups instead have individuals who are trying to escape, individuals who also tend to be self-contained, such as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946).

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep

So what they are escaping from can be summarised as the conventions and restrictions of ordinary life, and that includes marriage and family life. It is easy to imagine that Hawks’s characters would succumb to existential boredom if they were not in their self-contained worlds. They could not live in a safe and controlled environment; they must live with the elements, putting themselves at risk. In this self-created world they are working together, being dependent on one another, and are fearless in the face of danger.

Related to this need for escape and self-sufficiency is a utopian element, in that the spaces created by these “escaped” men and women are successful havens, where they are among equals. Hatari! (1962) in particular has this feeling of a perfect world, where people from all over the world come together. It is like a United Nations camp, with people from France, Italy, Germany, Mexico, the US (including a Native American) working in Tanzania. Hatari! is also unusually happy, since the dangers of the outside world do not intrude at all, whereas in most other films by Hawks it might at any moment disturb, restrain or even kill you. One reason why Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is in many ways the quintessential Hawks film is because it has all of these things in such a pure form.


It is tempting to apply Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia when talking about Hawks’s films. Foucault describes heterotopias as “counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted.” He calls them heterotopias because, unlike utopias, they do exist. He talks about various kinds of spaces that might be called heterotopias such as cemeteries, gardens and libraries, but also certain colonies. Foucault also suggests that a role of the heterotopia “is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.” And this can also be seen in many of Hawks’s films.

See also my article about Hawks and Fred Zinnemann:

And my article about Hawks and Yasujiro Ozu:

Foucault discussed heterotopia in a lecture in 1967 which was then published as an article in 1984 called "Des Espace Autres" or "Of Other Spaces".

When Hawks made Hatari! Pier Paolo Pasolini came to visit as he was a friend of Elsa Martinelli, who acted in the film. I have always wondered how Hawks and Pasolini got along.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Tully (2018)

On occasion I write about a new film together with a group of Swedish film bloggers. We watch the film together in the cinema and then write about it the following Wednesday. Today is such an occasion, hence a post on a Wednesday and not a Friday. Try not to get too upset.


The five films by Jason Reitman I have seen are all interesting but flawed except one, Up in the Air (2009), which I find flawless. It is actually a film I would put on at least a top 100 list, if I was asked to provide such a list. Now every time I watch a new Reitman I hope it will be another Up in the Air. So far no such luck.

The new one, Tully, is the third collaboration between Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, and their second film with Charlize Theron, and of the three of them it is Theron I am most happy with this time. I remember back in 2000 a girl I liked told me that Theron was her favourite actress and I was completely bewildered by this (the fact that this is one of the few things I remember about this girl proves how shocking I found her statement to be) but either me or Theron has come a long way since then because now I would not be shocked by such a statement, and she seems fearless in her choice of parts to play. In Tully she plays Marlo, a mother of two kids and one soon to be born, and it is a handful; she is in a constant state of complete exhaustion. The husband/father is kind and does the homework with the kids but he mostly works or plays video games in bed with his headphones on. Of the two children, the girl is functioning just fine but the son has some kind of problem and is very demanding. When the third child appears the stress and sleep-deprivation become even worse of course. The film does not sugar-coat motherhood, and Theron is admirably non-glamorous and it is a fine and honest performance. There is for example one scene where she cannot keep it together after a talk with the school's headmaster about her difficult son, followed by her just screaming in the parking lot, which was very powerful. The title character of the film is the night nanny Marlo finally hires to get some sleep and they soon form a strong bond.

Cody's script has several great ideas and a neat structural cleverness. If you pay attention to the dialogue in the first half you will notice that things happen in the second part which is a reaction to or comment on what was said then, even the odd joke. A lot of craft has gone in to it. A scene with a brush in the beginning and again in the end is quite lovely, and there are other more subtle things I will not mention due to the current spoiler-phobia. But simultaneous with this good writing there are also deep problems with jokes, other lines of dialogue and whole scenes that are awkward, over-emphatic or just wrong. Stuff that probably sounded good in Cody's head when she wrote the script but when it appears on film feels too much like it was meant for us, the audience, and not something that is natural in the scene, in the moment or as something somebody would actually say. One example: Violet, a former roommate of Marlo, has a chance encounter with Marlo at a café and Marlo says she has two kids and one more on the way. The former friend recoils and says "I better go before my coffee gets black and cold like my womb." The line just hangs there in the air, hovering as if in a speech bubble in a cartoon, and spoken without any conviction or timing. You may think that the line, when read in this post, sounds hilarious but that is beside the point. The point is how it sounds when actually spoken in the film. It is not necessarily bad writing, but bad acting and direction.

The Violet character is interesting because that short scene is her only appearance yet her presence lingers on in the film. In one through-away line Marlo says, almost as if talking to herself, that she was in love with Violet. Since you love friends and family but you are not in love with them, that is for lovers and partners, is it that the line should be read literary, that Marlo, although frequently having sex with men and eventually marrying one, would actually have wanted to be in a proper relationship with Violet but did not have the guts to go through with it, and that this is one reason why she is having such a miserable life now? Or was it nothing at all like that; they were just friends and Violet's lingering presence is only there to remind us and Marlo of the life she used to have before marriage, career and children totally boxed her in and drained her of all energy? That this is unclear is not a criticism of the film but one of the good things about it. It is something to play around with and discuss afterwards.

One thing that did bother me was the son Jonah and his problems. The only word used to describe him is "quirky" but that is obviously not appropriate. Marlo says that the doctors' have been unable to diagnose him but he seems to me to have some form of ASD, or autism spectrum disorder, and it does not seem plausible that they would all be in the dark as to what his problems are and what might be done to help out. The school more or less kicks him out. That might be read as a critique of the American school system but it felt so underdeveloped and in fact Jonah's illness or whatever it was did not feel genuine but some vague construction for quick plot points and as such belittling the issue.

So there are some good things and some bad things. The film felt rushed, as if it needed at least one more round in the development stage to whip it all into better shape. But mainly it felt like Theron and Cody were let down by Reitman's direction, there is something about it that feels slightly off, like it is almost there but not quite yet. But, as always with Reitman, the music is impeccable and creatively used. There is for example a Cyndi Lauper medley (from her first album She's So Unusual which Marlo listens to during a drive to Brooklyn) and a beautiful cover version of You Only Live Twice, originally sung by Nancy Sinatra but here by Beulahbelle. So yes, sometimes Tully is very good.

The film Cindy Lauper is watching in the beginning of the video is The Garden of Allah (Richard Boleslawski 1936) one of the very first three-strip Technicolor films (and the first one from David O. Selznick's company). An unbearably stiff and peculiar film, although it looks spectacular.

Here are the other blog texts (in Swedish only):

Friday, 18 May 2018

Zinnemann and Hawks

Been working on a long piece about Fred Zinnemann. Below is an excerpt where I am comparing him with Howard Hawks. It is somewhat abrupt, and a work in progress, but still intelligible I hope. 

Zinnemann is sometimes compared and contrasted with Howard Hawks, as them being the antithesis of each other, and the fact that Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959) was to some extent made as a response to Zinnemann’s High Noon [1952] is often invoked. Yet the two filmmakers are more alike than this would suggest. As filmmakers they were independent, and they made films about people who did not accept the conventional rules and hierarchies of society but lived by their own personal moral codes. Hawks has always focused on professionalism and it could be argued that Zinnemann has shown a similar interest in professionalism. Both Hawks’s and Zinnemann’s characters are men and women completely dedicated to their tasks, and loyal to their beliefs and responsibilities. Finally, while their styles are different from one another, their relation to space is quite similar. That is, they do not have an interest in pictorialism or scenery; they are not landscape filmmakers like John Ford or Anthony Mann. Neither does the space in their film take on a metaphysical meaning as in the films of Michael Powell or David Lean. It does not come alive as it does in the films of Akira Kurosawa. Instead they can seem rather indifferent to the surroundings. What matters to them both are the actors and the characters that these actors embody and space has no meaning in its own right, it is just the place in which the characters happen to be. In a telling quote, Zinnemann once said to cinematographer Ted Moore, when making A Man For all Seasons [1966], that it is ‘[n]ot important where people are’. Instead space is only where the characters happen to be and it is their inner struggle that matters. (Five Days One Summer (1982) is an interesting exception however, a film in which the landscape is unusually important and almost becomes the central character.) But, like with Hawks, the space can often be seen as claustrophobic, as if the characters are trapped. In Hawks it is the world at large that is hostile (and the characters have sometimes created their own private space) whereas in Zinnemann it is the institutions, which the main character is a part of, that are keeping them down and contained (and there is no private space). 

In Zinnemann’s case the view of space is linked to his overarching interests in ethical dilemmas and procedures. He is, again like Hawks, almost exclusively interested in people under pressure and how they deal with that pressure, whether it is as a drug addict in A Hatful of Rain (1957), a refugee from a concentration camp in The Seventh Cross (1944), a marshal in High Noon, a chancellor in A Man for All Seasons, to name a few examples. His focus on characters and their interiors is emphasised by his extensive use of close-ups. Sometimes characters seem to be cut off from their surroundings, floating in an unspecified space, especially with the close-ups of heads and faces. In High Noon there are a few “floating heads” shot, which means that the camera is focused so tightly on the heads of the actors that not much else is seen so they appear to be floating in space. In A Man for All Seasons cardinal Wolsey (played by Orson Welles) sometimes seems to consist of a head only, and his red dress is absorbed by the red walls. (Although the film begins with a close-up of first his medallion and then his hands, his face is not shown.) 
[But there are obvious differences between them too and Zinnemann's focus on individuals is where] he differs the most from Hawks. Hawks’s films almost always focus on a group, and the characters are seen as being together. Being alone is not a condition a character in a film by Hawks finds himself in, whereas in Zinnemann’s films the opposite is true. The quintessential image from a film by Hawks is of a group, in complete harmony, but in Zinnemann’s films it is of a lone individual estranged from his surroundings, strikingly emphasised for example in the opening shot of From Here to Eternity [1953] where Prewitt (played by Montgomery Clift), a lone man, is walking vertically through the shot while a long line of men are walking horizontally in the foreground. 

The marshal in High Noon, abandoned by everyone.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Current cinema culture

Earlier this year, after reading a column in one of our leading global newspapers, I felt compelled to write on Facebook about contemporary film criticism (if that is what it is). Some month later, after watching Wichita (Jacques Tourneur 1955), I again felt compelled to comment on Facebook about larger issues about current cinema. It occurred to me that these two Facebook posts are connected so I decided to add them together and post them here, with a few necessary edits, as one piece:


Watched Wichita (Jacques Tourneur 1955), with Joel McCrea as Wyatt Earp. It is not a particularly noteworthy film, one among many of its kind, a short, unpretentious, focused, straightforward Western in colour and CinemaScope, although with the aesthetic feel of a TV-movie. (The style of the film, every aspect of it, makes it feel like it was directed by its main character, Earp, rather than Tourneur.) However, during its 80 minutes it intelligently tackles almost every political issue (except race and gender) that is still today engulfing the US. Democracy, ethics, courage, corruption, gun rights (Earp's first action after becoming marshal is to ban handguns in Wichita), pride, professionalism, freedom of the press, crime and punishment.

A film with these kinds of themes today would be rare, be at least 150 minutes long, and probably highlight its own importance and marvel at its own cleverness and boldness. It would be considered an art film, or Oscar-bait if American, and it would be the focus of hundreds of columns and hot takes and takedowns and whatnots. There would be debates about alleged backlashes, and discussions as to whether it critiqued or celebrated toxic masculinity. More people would read about it, and be outraged by it, than watch it.

The point here is not that Wichita is some forgotten masterpiece or even a great film. The point is its very unremarkableness. In the 1950s many films like it were made every year, and nobody at the time would take much notice of them. But seen from the perspective of contemporary cinema, it is just so obvious what the art form has lost. The kind of film Wichita is, short and unpretentious yet with a dedicated political and philosophical agenda, has become completely extinct. And there is nothing that has replaced it.

The reception I imagined a film like Wichita would get today stems from my experience of the kind of reception new films actually do get. As an example, consider this article I read about a new film, published in a major publication. [It is not important which publication, film or writer since this is not about them but about current larger trends.] It was not the publication's review of this film but an additional piece. The article contained not a single original thought. It is questionable as to whether it contained any kind of thought. It was written in the style that the majority of articles about popular culture use as default, from sentence structure to choice of words. The article criticised the film but not after having actually engaged with it; instead what was said might have been said by anyone who had read the film's Wikipedia entry and seen the trailer perhaps. Much were generalisations that could be used for any new film and its director, as if the writer used a pre-set form with just a few empty boxes which he had to fill in with the names of this particular film and these particular actors.

That article, which is completely unnecessary and without any merit, will generate some comments. It will be linked, tweeted and liked. But nobody will care much for it, not even those who enthusiastically tweet "This is so great! You must read this piece!" They and everyone else will have forgotten it a few hours later.

Every day hundreds of articles just like it, many of them probably about the same film, are published. But to what end? What purpose do they serve? Whom do they please? Do those who write them take any pride in them? They will get paid I assume, and maybe being a writer is all they ever wanted to be, and the only thing they can do. But they cannot get much money? And how does it profit the publications to have generic space-fillers of no value? I suppose it must be the case that whatever ad revenues they take in on that article are greater than whatever they paid the writer, but only if he was paid very little, and then the question returns to what was in it for him.

An article with no meaning written by someone who does not care what he writes, written for people who do not care what they read. This is what contemporary cultural criticism consists of.

If you want to watch a film by Tourneur and with Joel McCrea that does also discuss racial issues I recommend Stars in my Crown (1950). That really is a great film, one of Tourneur's best. Juano Hernandez also stars in it, and it has that supernatural aspect which is so often found in Tourneur's films, although not in Wichita.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Bergman's films of the 1940s

In 1944 SF, Svensk Filmindustri, bought a play by the Danish writer Leck Fisher. SF did have different people in mind for directing it but since Ingmar Bergman was an employee and since he had had a great success with his script for Frenzy aka Torment (Alf Sjöberg 1944), and since Bergman was eager enough to direct that, he claimed, he would have been happy to make an adaptation of the phone book, SF gave it to him. He began shooting on July 4, 1945. Thus began the directing career of Ingmar Bergman.

Part of the film, to be called Crisis, was shot at SF's studio complex Filmstaden in Råsunda (just outside Stockholm) and part of it was shot on location in the small town of Hedemora in Dalarna County. The shooting ended on the last of August. The production was an unhappy one, with the nervous and insecure Bergman fighting with most everyone. He did not get along at all with the cinematographer Gösta Roosling but he did get along well with the editor Oscar Rosander, who taught him a lot about filmmaking and who would be one of his closest cooperators for 15 years until Rosander retired in 1961.

When Crisis opened the critics were torn. Some saw it as a great film, intelligent and realistic, and with very good acting. Others thought it was dreadful. But most seemed to find something of value in it, and that Bergman showed great promise. SF were not pleased though, and he was not asked to make another film for them for some time.

The story of Crisis is not very interesting. An 18-year-old girl who has lived with a foster mother in an idyllic small town is now brought to the big city and corrupted. Then in the end she returns back home to her foster home and to the man who was in love with her before she left, and still is. But there are other things about it beyond the story. The setting for example. Hedemora was not chosen by chance. Dalarna is where Bergman grow up to a large part, his maternal grandparents were buried in Hedemora, and Dalarna would continue to be important for him. Styggforsen, where he shot The Virgin Spring (1960), is some 100 kilometres northwest of Hedemora. Skattungbyn, where he shot Winter Light (1963), is just 30 kilometres northwest of Styggforsen. The town of Rättvik where Bergman was a frequent guest at the hotel Siljansborg, where he wrote many of his films, is some 20 kilometres southwest of Styggforsen. So this is Bergman country, much like Fårö.


During his first five years as a filmmaker, 1945-1949, Bergman was on an exploration. Each film was different, he was trying to find himself and his own style and voice. Some efforts are more successful than others but they are all of interest, Crisis too. They are above all interesting for those scenes, shots or actions that, even if surrounded by otherwise poor material, are really powerful, moving and stylish, those moments where you can see the Bergman to come, experience the first appearance of some quintessential Bergman shot, motif, line of dialogue or facial expression. On Crisis there is in particular a scene at a train station between the foster mother and a young man which is shot, edited and written in a typical Bergman fashion. Watching these early films back to back can be an overwhelming experience, to witness his steady progression from Crisis to Thirst (1949), which I would say is his first pure Bergman film. The earlier ones are more like other films, but with a Bergman touch. Thirst is all Bergman, although like the rest of his films of the 1940s it is not entirely successful. Summer Interlude (shot in 1950 but released in 1951) is his first complete film, the first unquestionably great one, and one of his very best.


Crisis could have been a Hollywood melodrama, something by Edmund Goulding, or perhaps remade by Douglas Sirk in 1953. Bergman's next film on the other hand, It Rains on Our Love (1946), feels very Swedish, a typical product of the exciting and vibrant Swedish cinema of the 1940s. This also means that you can sense the influence from French poetic realism, which had a major impact on Swedish 1940s cinema. It is about a young man and a young woman who meet at a train station, spend the night together, and then are reluctant to part. The one-night stand turns into a love affair and a relationship, but with little money and little support from society. They settle down in a small cottage on an allotment, and get by as best they can. Their attraction is a very strong physical one, and there is considerable frankness in subject matter, as well as partial nudity. Birger Malmsten and Barbro Kollberg play the couple, and they are very good. And the film is fine too, much better than Crisis. It has greater warmth and is less overbearing, it is even at times quite playful. But Bergman's fears and concerns are present. There is for example an almost dreamlike trial sequence towards the end where society is willing to condemn the couple for daring to live their own life.

Malmsten and Kollberg after a night of passion.

It Rains on Our Love was not made at SF but was produced by Lorens Marmstedt, one of very few famous Swedish producers, something like a Swedish version of Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox. He had begun his career as a film critic, became a film director in 1932 and started his own distribution company, AB Terrafilm, in 1938, which soon also began producing its own films. Marmstedt was an entrepreneur and a cinephile who helped build the career of many Swedish filmmakers, especially Hasse Ekman, but also Bergman. After Crisis, he took Bergman in and gave him the chance to make It Rains on Our Love for the company Sveriges Folkbiografer AB. Marmstedt was perhaps not overly enthusiastic by the final result, and complained, Bergman claimed, that Bergman was certainly not a Marcel Carné and Malmsten was certainly not a Jean Gabin. But he still produced Bergman's next film A Ship to India aka A Ship Bound for India (1947), again for Sveriges Folkbiografer AB. It also shows the influence that Carné and French poetic realism had on Bergman at the time. Like Crisis and It Rains on Our Love, A Ship to India was based on a play, this time by Martin Söderhjelm, and like the earlier two films Bergman rewrote it substantially. It is about a young man who falls in love with his father's mistress, whom the father has invited to come and live with them (father, mother and son), a situation which obviously does not lead to happiness for anyone. It is again a very uneven film, but with several remarkable sequences, including one at an amusement park and a sequence towards the end where the father tries to kill his son and then barricades himself in an apartment. The film competed in Cannes, and won an honourable mention.

Gertrud Fridh and Malmsten in A Ship to India.

Bergman followed it with another film for Marmstedt, this time at TerrafilmMusic in Darkness (1948). It is based on a book by Dagmar Edqvist, the male lead was as usual played by Birger Malmsten and the female lead was Mai Zetterling. She had already left Sweden for an acting career in Britain but she was able to come to Sweden now and then to make a film. Unfortunately, this is quite possibly Bergman's worst film. Unconvincing and awkward, with little coherence or sensibility. But it has some finely lit shots and a spectacular nightmare sequence. The film, like Bergman's other films produced by Marmstedt, was shot by Göran Strindberg, one of Sweden's finest cinematographer at the time. He was responsible for the look of not just these films but several of Ekman's best films as well as Alf Sjöberg's Miss Julie (1951) and Arne Mattsson's One Summer of Happiness (1951). Another member of the team Marmstedt had at his disposal was architect and set designer P.A. Lundgren who would, beginning with It Rains on Our Love, become another one of Bergman's closest collaborators, all the way until The Touch (1971).


After Music in Darkness, Bergman was called back to SF and made Port of Call (1948). The story is typical for Bergman, couples who cannot stand each other yet remain together, and includes disillusionment, suicidal characters, infidelities and abortions and, typical for this part of Bergman's career, the struggles of a young, working-poor couple trying to survive in a society which has little time and patient with them. Other Bergman conventions have now also been well-established such as fog horns, aggressively ticking clocks (part of Bergman's particular soundscape) and there are flashbacks, violence and faces superimposed on other faces. What is new however is that this was the first time Bergman worked together with the cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, who would from then on be his visual half until Sven Nykvist took Fischer's place in the early 1960s. (The Devil's Eye (1960) would be the last film Fischer and Bergman made together, just as it was the last film Bergman would make with the editor Rosander.)

If Bergman so far had made an American melodrama (Crisis), a distinctly Swedish film with a touch of French poetic realism (It Rains on Our Love) and another poetic realist work (A Ship to India), he now, with Port of Call, made his neorealist film. Much has been made of Bergman being influenced by Roberto Rossellini, not least by Bergman himself, with the emphasis on the on-location shooting. But it is not obvious that there is more on-location shooting in Port of Call than Bergman's earlier films. There are other things that are more relevant for making the Italian connection, and that is partly the way work and casual incidents are shown, and given ample screen time, at least before the melodramatics of the plot take over. In the beginning of the film there are lot of scenes in the harbour, with the actors working alongside genuine dock workers. 

Speaking of influences, Bergman was a committed cinephile too, like Marmstedt. There was no official film school but by watching films over and over Bergman did teach himself a lot. One particular favourite was Michael Curtiz, whose films he would watch night after night. (In an interview with John Simon in 1971 Bergman also said that George Cukor had influenced him "very much".) This influence on Bergman of 1940s Hollywood cinema is often overlooked, as critics and historians prefer to focus on his European peers. But it is an important part of his emergence, and of his style. Hollywood cinema of the 1940s was constantly experimenting with narration, like different layers of flashbacks and various forms of voice-overs, and Bergman does this too. Crisis has an all-knowing, dispassionate narrator, heard but not seen. It Always Rains on Our Love has a character, a benevolent father-figure, who acts as our guide in the story, appearing with regular intervals and sometimes talking directly into the camera. A Ship to India is one long flashback, first narrated by the main character directly to us, the audience. Port of Call has several flashbacks, and Thirst has one genuine flashback and several scenes that might appear to be flashbacks but are better described as parallel storylines. And Prison is so narratively complex, with so many layers, that it is not enough space here to disentangle it. Curtiz might have approved. In Bergman's films there also sometimes appear shots and light patterns similar to Curtiz's style, which may or may not be deliberate. 

Swedish films of the time had a rather relaxed sense of nudity and in, for example, Music in Darkness and Port of Call there are scenes with what you might called casual nudity, that is unrelated to sex or eroticism but just the way people dress, change clothes or wash up when they are home. Sweden would in the 1950s get a reputation for sex and nudity in films, but this earlier casual nudity instead gives the films added realism, as it is so mundane. (It was there already in the 1930s.) But since nudity is so extremely rare in films from this age, globally speaking, it is still somewhat startling to suddenly see, for example, a woman baring her breasts because she is putting on a new dress.


By now Bergman had established himself as a filmmaker, and there was even talk about an international career. David O. Selznick was interested, among others. There were meetings, proposals and scripts passed back and forth, but nothing came of it. After Port of Call Bergman would direct three more films before the decade was over and two of them would be released in 1949: Prison, produced by Marmstedt at Terrafilm, and Thirst, made by SF. (The third, To Joy, was released in 1950.) The first is a short (76 minutes) and cheap experimental work which is completely unlike anything Bergman did at the time, or until Persona (1966). It is an allegory about the devil's work and the absence of God, with elaborate dream sequences, tales within tales and a high level of reflexivity as it takes place on a film set. The credit sequence does not have text but a spoken narration by Hasse Ekman (not by Bergman, as some claim), and Ekman also plays a leading role as the film director in the film. This is the first time Ekman and Bergman work together, and much can be said about the way this creates yet another meta-level to the films. The two were rivals and both were considered "the best" by the Swedish critics, and they influenced one another, competed in various ways, and also, in various way, incorporated their relationship in their films. After Prison, Ekman wrote and directed The Girl from the Third Row (1949), calling it his "anti-Bergman film". Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) was the last time Ekman acted in a Bergman film and that whole film can profitably be seen partly as an allegory about their rivalry and relationship. Sawdust and Tinsel is a fascinating, great film, but since it came out in 1953 it is outside the scope of this article. Prison on the other hand is not a great film (it is crude, sometimes too emphatic and didactic) but it is one of Bergman's most interesting, and among all the horror and despair it portrays there are also several really funny scenes. It is also the first time the "Bergman scream" and the "Bergman light" appears, both in scenes involving Birgitta Carolina, the young prostitute the film is centred around and who is played by Doris Svedlund. 

In one scene, after having been assaulted by a pimp, she screams with such a deep, agonising force that it is almost impossible to watch. Here the acting goes beyond just acting and reach some other level, some primal fear or terror or trauma, and moments like these appear on occasion in Bergman's films, creating a crack in the fabric of fiction.

In another scene, towards the end, she has committed suicide and after her death the light breaks through the window and embalms her, as if it has come to caress her and take her away. This light, as from a different dimension, like a religious manifestation, will also appear again and again in Bergman's films, disproving the idea of a godless universe.

Svedlund and Malmsten

That leaves Thirst, the first film in which, as argued above, Bergman finally feels ready. After all his experimenting and exploration, he has now found his voice, and there is a sense of self-confidence that had not necessarily been there before. The story in itself is not new, couples locked in mutual hatred yet unable to be apart, but the way it is shot and told is different. Scenes are longer without much happening externally but are instead about inner turmoil. Scenes are often silent and there is much less music. (This is the only film Bergman directed in the 1940s that Erland von Koch did not write the music for). In general the staging, pacing and ambiance just feels distinctly Bergmanesque for the first time. Malmsten plays the male lead, now established as something of Bergman's alter ego, and Eva Henning plays the female lead. The film is based on some short stories by Birgit Tengroth, who also plays a major part, but although the stories do not successfully coalesce together, and some scenes have a certain histrionic tension, it is a fitting end of the decade; a filmmaker finally finding himself after having been searching for several years.

Ekman and Henning in Prison

Regarding Bergman's claim (in Images: My Life in Film) that Marmstedt criticised him for trying and failing to be Marcel Carné, and Malmsten for not being a Gabin, it is worth pointing out that Ekman earlier had said that Marmstedt had said the same thing to him after Ekman wrote and directed Changing Trains (1943), in which Ekman also played the male lead. Marmstedt might have said it to both Ekman and Bergman, but it is also possible that Bergman borrowed Ekman's anecdote, or appropriated it. Bergman has never been a reliable teller of his own story.

A few films written by Bergman but directed by others also came out in the 1940s but they will be discussed in a separate piece later.

A person not mentioned but of vital importance, as friend, mentor and cooperator, is Herbert Grevenius, theatre critic and writer. They co-wrote the scripts for several films, including It Rains on Our Love and Thirst.

During the period covered in this post Bergman was also contracted director at Göteborgs stadsteater (1946-1950). He got his first job as theatre manager through Grevenius, at Helsingborg stadsteater in 1944, but it was at Malmö stadsteater, beginning in 1952, that he really came into his own, and began building up his now famous stock company.

A few links to related pieces:
Schamyl Bauman
Mai Zetterling
Michael Curtiz