Sunday, May 27, 2018

Reading about Ansikte mot ansikte / Face to Face

Bergman och två av hans trognaste medarbetare, Liv Ullmann (Jenny Isaksson) och Erland Josephson (Tomas Jacobi), under inspelningen. Det var sjätte gången Josephson och Ullmann spelade mot varandra i en Bergman film. ///  Bergman and two of his most trusted coworkers: Liv Ullmann (Jenny Isaksson) and Erland Josephson (Tomas Jacobi) during the production. For the sixth time Josephson and Ullmann played together in a Bergman film. Foto: Arne Carlsson © AB Svensk Filmindustri. From: Stiftelsen Ingmar Bergman / Ingmar Bergman Archives website. Please do click on the image to enlarge it.

Ingmar Bergman: Ansikte mot ansikte. Stockholm: Bokförlaget PAN / Norstedts, 1976.

Liv Ullmann: Forandringen, 1976. In English: Changing.
    Read in Finnish translation: Liv Ullmann: Muutos. Translated from the Norwegian by Rauno Ekholm. Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Tammi, 1976.

Michael Tapper: Ingmar Bergman's Face to Face. New York: Wallflower Press / Columbia University Press, 2017.

Puzzled by Ingmar Bergman's Face to Face which I saw for the first time in over 35 years I stumbled upon a new book, Michael Tapper's Ingmar Bergman's Face to Face, published last year. I find it one of the best books on Bergman, immediately rising among my top favourites together with Robin Wood and Mikael Timm. (Bergman's own books are in a category of their own.)

Tapper has read everything relevant that has been published before, plus he has conducted a study of work journals and logbooks in the Bergman archives. He makes new sense of Bergman both in his private life and in his public work.

Face to Face was Bergman's most ambitious work to date, but Bergman later rated it as a failure, and so did many others. The most scathing and comprehensive set of critical reviews has been compiled by Michael Tapper in his book.

Yet Face to Face emerges as a work of unique distinction for him and the reader. Here we have multiple cases of "Yes, but... "

In this jubileum year I have more and more been thinking that the years before the fatal January of 1976 were Bergman's peak with Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, and The Magic Flute. But Bergman never rested on his laurels. He wanted to transcend his boundaries and achieve something more, something radical, something mythical.

In Face to Face Bergman and his ensemble indeed take steps beyond the tried and true, beyond the ordinary. They start well, and they partially fail, but the endeavour is still one of the most engrossing in Bergman's oeuvre.

Tapper provides us with background information to understand both the achievement and the failure of Face to Face. Tapper makes a fruitful suggestion that it belongs to "a Djursholm trilogy" started in Reservatet / The Lie (written by Bergman and directed by Jan Molander), continuing in Scenes from a Marriage, and culminating in Face to Face.

Tapper discusses women who were key real-life models for the characters in Face to Face: Karin Lannby, Ulla Isaksson, and Marianne Höök. I understand now that I need to read Höök whom Bergman called his "sister" and who was a major inspiration for the character Jenny Isaksson, the protagonist of Face to Face (whose family name is a reference to Ulla Isaksson).

Examining Bergman's workbooks and treatments Tapper discovers significant issues deleted from Face to Face, most importantly the incest between little Jenny and her grandfather. It is not just an omission from the narrative; there is not even a hint left in the final work. Jenny's psychosis and suicide attempt would be easier to understand if we knew that by moving to the room of her childhood she returned to the site of her molestation. In the film her breakdown remains a mystery.

To coincide with the American theatrical premiere and the Swedish telepremiere of Face to Face Bergman also published the original screenplay, or actually the original treatment or screen story. The finished work differs significantly from it, but it is worth reading since Bergman was always a great writer in his own right.

Finally, tipped by Michael Tapper in his book, I read Changing, Liv Ullmann's memoirs, also from 1976, culminating in Face to Face. It was generally considered her greatest performance.

"This film moves him more than any of the ones made by him before, I believe. It is almost as if he is living it – he will be exposed when other will assess it – see it – discuss it."

I think that Bergman came to disown Face to Face because of the humiliating experiences that coincided with its release. Bergman was a good Social Democrat who knew he was innocent to the accusations of tax fraud. The tax investigations did not hurt him endlessly, but he was deeply disappointed with the behaviour of his so-called friends.

There is a powerful undercurrent of joy beneath the dark surface narratives of Scenes from a Marriage and Face to Face. That undercurrent of irresistible vitality vanished for good from Bergman's oeuvre in 1976.

Ansikte mot ansikte 1–4 / Face to Face 1–4

Kasvotusten / Von Angesicht zu Angesicht.
    SE 1976. PC: Cinematograph AB / Sveriges Radio AB TV2. P: Lars-Owe Carlberg, Ingmar Bergman. P manager: Katinka Faragó. D+SC: Ingmar Bergman. CIN: Sven Nykvist – negative: 35 mm – Eastmancolor – theatrical version: 1,66:1 – tv version: 4:3. PD: Anne Terselius-Hagegård (scenograf). Set dec: Anna Asp (rekvisita), Peter Kropénin (attributör). Cost: Maggie Strindberg. Makeup: Cecilia Drott. Music selections: W. A. Mozart: Die Fantasie No. 4 in c-Moll, KV 475 (1785) perf. by Käbi Laretei. Johannes Brahms: Wiegenlied, Opus 49, No. 4, hummed by Liv Ullmann as she attempts suicide. Pianist: Käbi Laretei.  S: Owe Svensson. ED: Siv Lundgren.
    C: Liv Ullmann (Dr. Jenny Isaksson / associate professor, deputy chief physician),
Erland Josephson (Dr. Tomas Jacobi, gynecologist),
Aino Taube (Jenny's grandmother),
Gunnar Björnstrand (Jenny's grandfather),
Sif Ruud (Elisabeth Wankel),
Tore Segelcke (the lady in Jenny's apparition),
Kari Sylwan (Maria, Tomas's half-sister),
Ulf Johanson (Dr. Helmuth Wankel, Elisabeth's husband, psychiatrist), 
Gösta Ekman (Mikael Strömberg, actor),
Bengt Eklund (Ludvig, "Ludde", Mikael's friend at Elisabeth's party),
Rebecca Pawlo (boutique girl at Elisabeth's party),
Lena Olin (boutique girl at Elisabeth's party).
    The Second Act also:
Birger Malmsten (the elder rapist),
Göran Stangertz (the younger rapist),
Käbi Laretei (concert pianist),
Daniel Bergman (boy in concert),
    The Third Act also.
Sven Lindberg (Dr. Erik Isaksson, Jenny's husband),
Marianne Aminoff (Jenny's mother in her dream),
Jan-Erik Lindqvist (Jenny's father in her dream),
Helene Friberg (Anna, Jenny's daughter),
Mona Andersson (patient in Jenny's dream),
Donya Feyer (patient in Jenny's dream),
    The Fourth Act also:
Kristina Adolphson (nurse Veronica),
    Studio: Filmhusateljéerna (Filmhuset, Svenska Filminstitutet, Gärdet).
    1  Uppbrottet (The Separation) 45 min
    2  Gränsen (The Border) 48 min
    3  Skymningslandet (The Twilight Land) 44 min
    4  Återkomsten (The Return) 40 min
    Swedish telepremiere: 1 Act 28.4.1976, 2 Act 5.5.1976, 3 Act 12.5.1976, 4 Act 19.5.1976.
    Finnish telepremiere: 1 Act 1.9.1976, 2 Act 7.9.1976, 3 Act 14.9.1976, 4 Act 21.9.1976.
    The theatrical version was not released in Finland.
    We screened the theatrical version at Cinema Orion in 1986 – VET 11.2.1986: 93475 – K16 – theatrical version 3710 m / 134 min. The complete version in 4 episodes: 177 min
    The first cinema screening of the complete version in Finland.
    2K DCP from digital files from SVT at 4:3 with e-subtitles in English by SubTi London screened at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Bergman 100), 27 May 2018

It was a rare privilege to revisit the complete version of Face to Face, made during one of Ingmar Bergman's greatest periods. He had just made Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, and The Magic Flute. Face to Face had its telepremiere three months after Bergman's tax tragedy, but I don't think that affected it.

Mostly in Face to Face Bergman is at his greatest, but starting from the third act there is a slight loss of orientation in the screenplay.

There is only one protagonist in this story: Jenny Isaksson, a psychiatrist whom we meet as a deputy chief physician. She faces the most impossible patients professionally and shows will force in confronting extreme transference.

It is summer. Jenny's husband is in the USA, and her daughter is spending the summer on a camp. Jenny has a lover, Martin, whom we never see. Because the family's new home is not ready yet, Jenny moves back to her grandparents. Her parents have died in a car accident when Jenny was a child.

Dr. Tomas Jacobi starts dating Jenny, but when he realizes that Jenny is interested in a non-physical friendship only, they become best friends on this basis. One day two strangers first molest Maria, Jenny's deeply disturbed patient, and try to rape Jenny, as well, unsuccessfully. Meeting Tomas, Jenny first laughs at the event, and then breaks down.

At home her mental breakdown gets worse, although outwardly she is calm and collected. She records a suicide note for her husband on tape and attemps suicide by overdosing on Nembutal. Tomas rescues her, but there is still a risk of permanent brain damage. Jenny experiences a hellish nightmare journey back to health, after which, we learn in a postscript, she has started a new life in the USA.

Face to Face is largely a solo performance of Liv Ullmann in an incredibly powerful interpretation as doctor, patient, mother, daughter, granddaughter, wife, and friend. From full control at extreme pressure she moves to mental breakdown; the account of psychosis may have been influenced by Arthur Janov's theories of primal therapy. In screen acting of the highest order her expressions move from happiness to serenity to desolation. Excellent is also Aino Taube as Jenny's grandmother.

In Sven Nykvist's cinematography spaces become images of mental conditions. The old childhood home of the grandparents. The family home in construction, full of promises which will never be fulfilled. Tomas Jacobi's home, the garden of which has become neglected after his divorce. The Sophiahemmet hospital, beloved by Ingmar Bergman since childhood. His mother had been a nurse there, his father the hospital priest, and the grown-up Ingmar a regular patient. These walls could heal. The composition of light and the composition in depth carry a lot of meaning. The close-ups are among the most soulful ever made. There are many long takes of high intensity. The "split screen" shot (the split achieved by a wall in the middle, see the upper image in the poster above) is original and disturbing.

Face to Face is the first film in which I became aware of Bergman dealing with homosexuality. In the first act we meet Mikael (Gösta Ekman) and his friend Ludvig at Elisabeth's party. Later we learn that also Tomas is bisexual. They are tormented individuals like everyone else in this story.

The music theme is W. A. Mozart's Die Fantasie No. 4 in c-Moll played on the piano by Käbi Laretei. One of Mozart's finest compositions, it is also one of those which in my layman's ears sound already Beethovenian, or at least I can imagine how playing this piece Beethoven might have been inspired to ideas in compositions of his own. Perhaps in this fantasy one can sense a tragic optimism, a will power with a touch of fragility.

I do not know the technical process history of this televersion, but it may have been transferred from 35 mm to 16 mm and further to digital. Missing 35 mm glory, this digital presentation provided a satisfying experience of a harrowing and unforgettable work.

The 3:4 frame of the televersion is the full, original frame of Face to Face. It was cropped to 1:1,66 for the theatrical version. The close-ups have more space in the televersion and are more tightly framed in the theatrical one.

P.S. 3 June 2018. The Primal Scream (1970) by Arthur Janov (1924–2017) may have been disowned or forgotten by most of his original followers, but he inspired two unforgettable performances: "Mother" (1971) by John Lennon, and Jenny Isaksson by Liv Ullmann.


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Dunkirk (2017) (Bio Rex 70 mm)

Dunkirk / Dunkirk.
    GB / US / FR / NL 2017. PC: Syncopy Inc.  Distr: Warner Bros. Pictures. P: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan. D+SC: Christopher Nolan. DP  Hoyte van Hoytema – IMAX, Panavision 65, Panavision Panaflex 65 – negative:  65 mm (also horizontal) – processing: IMAX and Panavision Super 70 – colour – release formats: 35 mm, 70 mm (also horizontal), 2K and 4K D-Cinema. PD: Nathan Crowley. AD: Toby Britton, Kevin Ishioka, Eggert Ketilsson. Set dec: Gary Fettis. SFX: Paul Corbould. VFX: Nelson Dsouza; Double Negative. Cost: Jeffrey Kurland. Makeup: Luisa Abel. Hair: Patricia DeHaney. M: Hans Zimmer. S: Richard King. ED: Lee Smith. Casting: John Papsidera, Toby Whale.
    C: Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Tom Glynn-Carney (Peter Dawson), Jack Lowden (Collins), Harry Styles (Alex), Aneurin Barnard (Gibson), James D’Arcy (Colonel Winnant), Barry Keoghan (George Mills), Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton), Cillian Murphy (komentaja sotilas), Mark Rylance (Dawson), Tom Hardy (Farrier).
    Loc: Communauté urbaine de Dunkerque / Grand port maritime de Dunkerque (France), The Netherlands, Great Britain. Studio: Warner Brothers Burbank Studios.
    London premiere: 13.7.2017.
    Helsinki premiere: 19.7.2017, SF Film Finland, DCP, Finnish / Swedish subtitles – dvd and blu-ray: 2017 Warner Bros. – MEKU K16 – 106 min
    Other film adaptations: Dunkerque – helvetinranta (Dunkirk, Leslie Norman, GB 1958), Dunkerquen viimeiset päivät (Week-end à Zuydcoote, Henri Verneuil, FR/IT 1964).
    Thanks to SF Film Finland / Warner Bros. / Syncopy Inc.
    Warner Bros. 70 mm print screened at Bio Rex, Helsinki (70 mm, no subtitles), 20 May 2018.

In collaboration with and thanks to SF Film Finland / Warner Bros. / Syncopy we arranged the first 70 mm screening of Dunkirk on the re-opening weekend of Bio Rex, the only cinema in Finland capable of 70 mm.

The 70 mm experience is of the essence in Dunkirk, an epic war film about the Operation Dynamo of the Allied in May 1940. The Blitzkrieg strategy of the Nazis has been so successful that half a million of Allied troops had been encircled by the Nazis on the coast of the English channel. (The Finnish term of this military situation is motti). Almost 400 000 troops were evacuated in Operation Dynamo in less than two weeks.

Christopher Nolan focuses on the action of the evacuation only, ignoring Germans and the British military command.

He divides his account into three elements: the land, the sea, and the air. In all the 70 mm cinematography provides a special feeling of physicality: the solidity of the ground, the fury of the sea, and the infinity of the sky. The marine unit and the aerial unit know what they are doing.

The film is constantly alternating from general views to ensemble shots to close-ups. We identify with the agony of a particular soldier, and then expand our horizon to see the big picture.

A novelty in the film is its considerable amount of handheld footage shot with 65 mm cameras. There is a special novel combination of the intimate and the epic in such an approach.

The film starts in medias res, and it resembles such relentless action movies as Speed which Christopher Nolan showed to his crew before the filming started. Exciting from the start, Dunkirk keeps escalating, and the most thrilling climaxes take place near the finale.

Dunkirk belongs to the war films like Samuel Fuller's Merrill's Marauders which are like choral works. We do not learn to know the protagonists as three-dimensional characters, yet we get a sense of them as unique individuals.

The soundscape is bold and alarming. The composer is Hans Zimmer, and there is a musique concrète approach in his score. It reminds us of heartbeats, electronic dance music, and alarm systems.

Dunkirk is an unglamorous war film with no conventional identification structure. Fear is constant. Equally strong is the power of self-control.

Dunkirk is about the triumph of a fighting spirit, sacrifice and solidarity.

A new accent is the story of the shell-shocked pilot who is rescued to the British civilian boat of Dawson (Mark Rylance). The pilot who wants to get back to the shores of Britain as quickly as possible unintentionally kills a young man who has volunteered to join the boat on its rescue mission to Dunkirk.


Vechir na Ivana Kupala / The Eve of Ivan Kupalo (Bio Rex 70 mm)

Вечір на Івана Купала / The Eve of Ivan Kupalo. Boris Khmelnitski (Petro) and Larisa Kadochnikova (Pidorka). Their love defies gravity.

Вечір на Івана Купала [in Ukrainian] / Вечер накануне Ивана Купалы / Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupaly [in Russian] / Vetshir na Ivana Kupala / Vetsher nakanune Ivana Kupaly / [Juhannusaatto] / La Nuit de la veille de la Saint-Jean / Der Abend vor dem Fest Iwan Kupala.
    SU 1968. Year of release: 1969. PC: Kinostudii im. Oleksandra Dovzhenka / A. P. Dovzhenko Film Studios (Kiev). P: David Janover. D: Juri Iljenko / Yuri Ilyenko.
    SC: Juri Iljenko – based on the short story «Вечір проти Івана Купала» (1830) by Nikolai Gogol in his collection Вечори на хуторі біля Диканьки  / Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. The short story in Finnish: ”Juhannusaatto” / ”Juhannusyö” / ”Ivan Kupalon yö” in Dikankan iltoja.
    CIN: Vadim Iljenko / Vadim Ilyenko. PD: Pjotr Maksimenko / Pyotr Maksimenko, Valeri Novakov. Art sketches (eskiz hudozhnika): V. Leventalja. Art decorations: Mikla Tereshtshenko. Set dec: Sergei Brzhestovsky / Sergei Brzhestovski. Scenery paintings: V. Lemport, Elizaveta Mironova. SFX: Volodimir Tsiplin. Cost: Lidija Baikova / Lidiya Bajkova. Makeup: Jakov Grinberg. M: Leonid Grabovski. S: Leonid Vatshi / Leonid Vachi. ED: Natalia Pishthsikova.
    C: Boris Hmelnitski / Boris Khmelnitski (Petro / Piotr), Larisa Kadotshnikova / Larisa Kadochnikova (Pidorka), Juhim Fridman / Efim Fridman / Yefim Fridman (Basavrjuk / Bassavruk), Dmitri Franko (Korzh), Sasha Sergienko / Aleksandr Sergienko (Ivas), Konstantin Ershov (priest), David Janover / David Yanover (landlord), Dzhemma Firsova (Mikosha) (witch), Nikolai Silis (innkeeper), Borislav Brondukov, Mihailo Iljenko / Mykhailo Ilyenko, Viktor Pantshenko / Viktor Panchenko (masked men), S. Pidlisna.
    Original in Ukrainian. Released also in a Russian dubbed version
    USSR release: 27 Jan 1969. Reportedly released only on 70 mm.
    The film was not released in Finland – 70 min
    SEA screening 26.9.1987 at President of a Gosfilmofond print in 70 mm.
    70 mm Gosfilmofond print (dubbed in Russian) with e-subtitles translated by Pentti Stranius (1987) and operated by Mia Öhman screened at Bio Rex (Nikolai Gogol, The Crazy Year 1968) 20 May 2018
Plot summary of Gogol's story in English Wikipedia: ”There lived a Cossack named Korzh, his daughter Pidorka and his worker Petro. Petro and Pidorka fall in love, but Korzh catches them one day kissing and is about to whip Petro for this, but stops when his son Ivas pleads for his father to not beat the worker. Korzh instead takes him outside and tells him to never come to his home again, putting the lovers into despair. Petro wants to do whatever he can to get her, and meets up with Basavriuk, a local stranger who frequents the village and many believe to be the devil himself. Basavriuk tells Petro to meet him in Bear’s Ravine and he’ll show him where treasure is in order to get back Pidorka.”

”He has to find a fern that blooms on Kupala Night, a folk legend not based in fact. Basavriuk tells Petro to pluck the flower he finds, and a witch appears who hands him a spade. When he finds the treasure with the spade, he cannot open it until he sheds blood, which he agrees to do until he finds that they captured Ivas in order to acquire it. He refuses at first but in a fury of uncertainty lops off the child’s head and gets the gold. He falls asleep for two days and when he awakens he sees the gold but cannot remember how he got it. After they are married, things go downhill and Petro becomes increasingly distant and insane, thinking all the time that he has forgotten something. Eventually, after a time, Pidorka is convinced to visit the witch at Bear’s Ravine for help, and brings her home. Petro then remembers, upon seeing her, what happened and tosses an axe at the witch, who disappears. Ivas appears at the door with blood all over him and Petro is carried away by the devil. All that remains is a pile of ashes where he once stood and the gold has turned into pieces of broken pottery.”

”After this, Basavriuk begins to appear in the village again and Pidorka goes on a pilgrimage. Foma’s grandfather’s aunt still had problems with the devil however; a party is ruined when a roast lamb comes alive, a chalice bows to his grandfather and a bowl begins to dance. Even after sprinkling the entire area with holy water the tavern is still possessed, so the village becomes abandoned.

As a straggler in our Nikolai Gogol retrospective we screened The Eve of Ivan Kupalo based on short stories from Gogol's youth in a collection called Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka.

We postponed this screening to this date because the only 70 mm cinema in Finland, Bio Rex, re-opened this weekend.

Made on what seems like a solid budget, The Eve of Ivan Kupalo looks gorgeous and extravagant. Modern bloggers compare it with films by Dario Argento and Alejandro Jodorowsky.

But the background of this film is fully Ukrainian and Russian. It has not only been produced by the Dovzhenko studios but it has also a true affinity with the films of Alexander Dovzhenko such as Zvenigora. Dovzhenko was a key inspiration for Andrei Tarkovsky, and Tarkovsky influenced Sergei Paradzhanov who came on his own thanks to his Tarkovsky epiphany. Paradzhanov's first completely original masterpiece was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors which also started the second great wave of Ukrainian poetic cinema. Paradzhanov's cinematographer was Yuri Ilyenko, who simultaneously proved his mastery as a film director in A Spring for the Thirsty.

The Eve of Ivan Kupalo is Ilyenko's wildest film, a Midsummer Night dream phantasmagoria which goes much further than Shakespeare film adaptations and makes Nordic midnight sun escapades look tame. It is an art film like Paradzhanov's Sayat Nova, an experimental film, and a major psychedelic film.

In the crazy year 1968 psychedelia was on display everywhere: from visions of the future (2001 A Space Odyssey, a favourite film of John Lennon's) to visionary intepretations of folklore (The Eve of Ivan Kupalo).

The Eve of Ivan Kupalo is quite a trip. The young cossack Petro sells his soul to the devil to win a treasure so that he can marry his beloved Pidorka. But vodka makes Petro delirious and he burns alive. Pidorka tries to revive his ashes. The Orphic quest is reversed as here it is the woman who tries to retrieve her beloved from the beyond.

The grand phantasmagoria contains visions of Catherine the Great, Potemkin villages, charges of Crimean Tatars, changing seasons, forests shining with glow-worms, crawfish carrying small candles, torrents of autumn leaves, red-nippled snowwomen, sequences in blue-green colour negative, bold colour washes, and flashes of lightings. Tableau shots, handheld footage, aerial views, whip pans and jump cuts are among the devices.

The Eve of Ivan Kupalo is a lyrical film but it has also an epic dimension. We are constantly aware of people moving in immense steppes and along the mighty Dniepr River, as well as in gorgeous hill landscapes observed in distant views.

Originally The Eve of Ivan Kupalo was put in restricted release, and abroad it became possible to access only during the glasnost. That is when we screened it for the first time, too. I included the film in my centenary of the cinema Film Guide (a guide to the 1000 best films of all times, 1995).

The colour of the print feels authentic to the period. The image is not the sharpest possible, and the Russian dubbing feels slightly alienating, but anyway this is a breathtaking viewing experience. The Eve of Ivan Kupalo is a forgotten masterpiece. Hardly anyone in the audience seemed to know it, and the reception was enthusiastic.

It is a story about a great love that defies gravity, madness and death.


Thursday, May 17, 2018


Madigan: hamartia and peripeteia (a fatal error and a reversal of fortune). Barney Benesch (Steve Ihnat) asks his nude girlfriend to fetch his jacket. While the eyes of Dan Madigan (Richard Widmark) wander, Barney grabs his police gun. Madigan's partner Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino) is now at the killer's mercy, as well.

Säälimättömät / Brottsplats Manhattan (in Sweden) / De obevekliga (in Finland).
    US © 1968 Universal Pictures. P: Frank P. Rosenberg. D: Donald Siegel. SC: Henri Simoun (= Howard Rodman), Abraham Polonsky – based on the novel The Commissioner (1962) by Richard Dougherty. CIN: Russell Metty – Techniscope 2,35:1 – Technicolor. AD: Alezander Golitzen, George C. Webb. Set dec: John P. Austin, John McCarthy, Jr. VFX: Albert Whitlock. Makeup: Bud Westmore. Hair: Larry Germain. M: Don Costa. M supervisor: Joseph Gershenson. S: Lyle Cain, Ronald Pierce, Waldon O. Watson – mono (Westrex Recording System). ED: Milton Shifman.
    C: Richard Widmark (Det. Daniel Madigan), Henry Fonda (Commissioner Anthony X. Russell), Inger Stevens (Julia Madigan), Harry Guardino (Det. Rocco Bonaro), James Whitmore (Chief Insp. Charles Kane), Susan Clark (Tricia Bentley), Michael Dunn (Castiglione), Steve Ihnat (Barney Benesch), Sheree North (Jonesy), Don Stroud (Hughie), Warren Stevens (Ben Williams), Raymond St. Jacques (Dr. Taylor), Bert Freed (Chief of Detectives Hap Lynch), Harry Bellaver (Mickey Dunn), Virginia Gregg (Esther Newman), Rita Lynn (Rita Bonaro).
    Loc: New York City.
    US premiere: 29 March 1968.
    Helsinki premiere: 22.3.1969 Cinerama-Savoy, distributor: Väinän Filmi Oy – telecast 8.8.1988 MTV1 – VET 76424 – K16 – 2785 m / 102 min
    A vintage Technicolor print with Swedish subtitles by Olle Ekelund screened at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (50 Years Ago: The Year 1968), 17 May 2018

IMDb synopsis: "In New York City's Spanish Harlem, detectives Madigan and Bonaro are given 72 hours by their superior to capture a hoodlum wanted for homicide in Brooklyn."

Like in Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog (Nora inu, 1949), we have a cop duo in a chase story which starts with the theft of a policeman's gun in a big city. In Kurosawa's film the policemen are played by Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, in Don Siegel's movie by Richard Widmark and Harry Guardino.

It's a strong concept. A gun is symbolic of power, authority and virility. A chase story is always an excellent excuse to present a cross-section of a city.

Madigan was made 20 years after the heyday of film noir and just before the breakthrough of the new American realistic crime movies such as those directed by Sidney Lumet. Madigan is still glamorous and not yet down-to-earth realistic. The script is based on a realistic novel, but in the film adaptation the story has been glamourized with movie star gloss.

The sexual charge is high from the beginning. Most of the main characters have multiple relationships. High sexuality is the fatal weakness of Dan Madigan, who loses his gun when his eyes wander for an unguarded moment.

Although Madigan's surface gloss is Hollywood-glamourized, the fundamental concept remains realistic. more so than in most of the "high concept" police spectacles of the following decades.

The police gun is the key object, but it is not fetishized like in Dirty Harry movies, also launched by Donald Siegel. The arsenals of the big action movies of the coming decades would be endless and expendable, but here the loss of a single gun is a tragic event.

Walter Hill's 48 Hrs. (1982) is sometimes credited as having launched the buddy cop genre. Might Madigan have been one of its sources of inspiration?

Richard Widmark excels in the leading role. Although a humble cop, Madigan has managed to live like a bon vivant thanks to what he calls "police discount". But after the turning-point in the opening sequence he sees the writing on the wall and realizes that he is about to lose everything. Widmark conveys Madigan's growing disquiet, final agony and death in a great tragic performance.

There is a serious historical dimension about police corruption in the screenplay, probably deriving from Richard Dougherty's novel. Some policemen have had ancestors in the force since generations, and traditions and implications of fighting corruption date back to the scandals of Tammany Hall.

Commissioner Russell (Henry Fonda) is the voice of integrity in the narrative, and we witness some of his dilemmas. A black minister (Raymond St. Jacques) accuses policemen of brutality towards his son who has a history as a rapist. Russell discovers that his closest friend and colleague Charles Kane (James Whitmore) is implicated in corruption. Let's notice the charged symbolic act of giving up one's police badge (Kane wants to give it back to Russell). This act we also remember from High Noon and Dirty Harry, among others.

Russell does not know how to deal with Madigan and his "police discount". Madigan has a reputation of "not going by the book". "I like the book" says Russell. On the other hand it is also known that "Madigan never sold out". Russell is married, but he has had a long-term affair with a married woman (Susan Clark).

Also Julia Madigan (Inger Stevens) is shaky in her relationship because Dan Madigan is seldom at home. But in the tragic finale she screams out loud her shock, torment and grief and lets Russell hear what she thinks about him. "There never seems to be any right thing to say", says a dumbstruck Russell to his partner.

The exciting cinematography of Russell Metty is juicily conveyed in this vintage Technicolor print which is a joy to watch despite a patina of heavy use in the starts and ends of reels.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Minnet av Ingmar Bergman / The Memory of Ingmar Bergman

Minnet av Ingmar Bergman / The Memory of Ingmar Bergman © 2018 Donner Productions. This image stems from previously unreleased footage shot in 1975 for Tre scener med Ingmar Bergman. Bergman was at his happiest one year before the tax tragedy.

Ingmar Bergmanin muisto.
    Suomi © 2018 Donner Productions / Bufo. P: Jörn Donner, Misha Jaari, Mark Lwoff. D+SC: Jörn Donner. CIN (new footage): Rafael Donner – released in: 2K DCP. M: Pedro Hietanen. ED: Klaus Grabber. A documentary film. Featuring: Ingmar Bergman (archival footage), Jörn Donner.
    Archival footage from: Tre scener med Ingmar Bergman © Donner Productions 1975, Ingmar Bergman: Om liv och arbete © Why Not Films GmbH 1997. In association with: Kai Holmberg / Why Not Films GmbH.
    Locations: Stockholm, Filmstaden and Fårö (Sweden).
    Finnish festival premiere: 7.5.2018 Espoo Ciné / Hanaholmen.
    Theatrical copy: 2K DCP, in Swedish, English subtitles by Eva Malkki. 57 min
    Jörn Donner's previous Ingmar Bergman documentaries: Ingmar Bergmanin maailma (Tre scener med Ingmar Bergman, 1975), Bergman-kansio (The Bergman File, 1978), Intervju med Ingmar Bergman (1981), Ingmar Bergman – elämää ja työtä (Ingmar Bergman: Om liv och arbete, 1998).
    Introduced by Jörn Donner.
    Screened at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Bergman 100) with English subtitles, 15 May 2018.

"Här är evighetens strand."
"Here is the coast of eternity." 
– Edith Södergran (quoted in the film)

Jörn Donner first met Ingmar Bergman in Helsinki in 1953 when Bergman had come to promote Summer with Monika together with Harriet Andersson. Footage from that visit is included in Donner's new Bergman documentary. Donner and Bergman became lifelong acquaintances, "sometime friends", as Donner puts it. Donner remembers Bergman's last words from their last telephone conversation. "Wir verbleiben". [German: "We'll remain {in touch}".]

Donner's first visit abroad had been to Stockholm at the age of 16, as an exchange student to the Södra Latin läroverket. There schoolmates urged him to see a new film by a relatively unknown young director. The film was Fängelse / Prison which had just had its premiere on 18 March 1949. It was the first film in which Ingmar Bergman was completely on his own as a director. It was a revelation for Donner, the most original and impressive film he had seen. Possibly it was this screening that turned Donner into an indefatigable film devotee.

Donner wrote the first book-length critical study of Ingmar Bergman as a film-maker, Djävulens ansikte (1962) / The Personal Vision of Ingmar Bergman (1964). He produced Bergman's last film for theatrical release, Fanny and Alexander (1984). He has made four documentaries on Bergman. This, his fifth, is based on previously unreleased footage from his ten hours of filmed interviews with Bergman conducted in 1975 and 1997.

Bergman is in great form in the interview footage. There is a Proustian sequence in which Bergman discusses the senses of a child. "I carry my childhood with me". He can remember his childhood sensually in detail: the beautiful tiled stove, the woodshed, their smell, and the beautiful scent of his grandmother, the entire world of scents in his childhood. This was before his discovery of the cruelty of the grown-ups' world.

His introduction to the theatre was at the age of six or seven, to see Little Red Riding Hood (Rödluvan) at the Röda Kvarnet in a charity event of the Red Cross. Ingmar was so scared by the tailor that he screamed. At home mother was a director of tableaux, and Ingmar debuted in the role of a chanterelle. Puppet theatre together with his sister, four years younger, became important. Around the same time Ingmar made his first visit to the professional theatre, Dramaten, in 1928, in a play which was one of Alf Sjöberg's first stage productions. The temptation was enormous. It was exciting, it was magical. Ingmar never wanted to create puppet performances for himself only, they were always designed for an audience. And there was always a fee, even if only symbolic.

Talking about religion, becoming liberated from it in the middle of the 1950s provided Bergman an endless sense of relief. He got rid of an enormous ballast. He got the insight that "vi har detta enda liv", we have this one life. In Through a Glass Darkly there is still hesitation. In Winter Light the hesitation is removed.

What remained was the sense of the holy. Listening to music, be it Mozart, Bartok or Beethoven, Ingmar is aware of the holiness in the human being him/herself.

Why create? The only reason to create is a search of contact. That is what drives him.

Shock is natural, part of the natural course of things. "I am a dramatist. I see reality as drama. It is as if I'd carry a tape recorder with me all the time."

When Bergman became his own producer after the fall of the studio system in the 1960s he admits that he had to become more careful, due to the responsibility to his staff. "As a producer I have to realize that people {distributors, exhibitors} try to cheat me as much as possible".

Bergman even reminisces his army days before WWII. The equipment, the kulspruta [old-fashioned word for a machine gun] was from the year 1914. The idea was to be prepared for an invasion of the Nazis. (Sweden stayed neutral during WWII).

The kind of people that Bergman loves the most are actors. Even when he is stern and critical they sense intuitively that he loves them. "Jag ställer in mig" ("I attune myself").

As an artist Bergman is a cannibal. He eats others and also himself without moral inhibitions. But he changes everything. Nobody can recognize true life models except the models themselves. Only once he consciously and obviously modelled film characters after real people: in creating the inferno couple in Wild Strawberries, to get even with a vicious person who had insulted Bergman in public.

Young people always want to learn from Bergman, and he is always eager to help. What can they learn from him? "Ingenting" ("nothing"). "It's in my genes. Already my mother was a director: of the family, of the priest's house". Young directors nod eagerly to Bergman's remarks, and the next day they have forgotten everything, which is how it should be. "Directors must follow their own path".

These are some of the main discussion points in Donner's documentary tribute. Some points are familiar from Bergman's books, but there is special intimacy in these interviews. Bergman enjoys talking, and the warm presence and sense of humour in this previously unreleased footage makes this a rewarding centenary tribute.

It is also a wistful and deeply personal journey for Donner with his son Rafael to Fårö and key sites such as the old Filmstaden which had housed the golden ages of Swedish cinema until the 1960s. A confession ends this journey. "Utan Bergman vore jag en annan". "Without Bergman I would be someone else".

NB. Finnish is a special language for being gender neutral. There is no he or she, only one universal word, hän. Here I for the first time noticed a tendency to gender neutral expressions in Swedish. "Heligheten in i människan själv" ("The holiness in the human being itself").


Thursday, May 10, 2018

Tulipää / Flame Top

    FI 1980. P: P-Kino / Claes Olsson, Milja Mykkänen. D+SC: Pirjo Honkasalo, Pekka Lehto. DP: Kari Sohlberg. M: Heikki Valpola. S: Paul Jyrälä, Ossi Viskari. AD: Pentti Valkeasuo. Cost: Päivi Tiura, Tuula Koski. Set decorations: Kristiina Tuura. ED: Irma Taina.
    C: Asko Sarkola (Algot Untola / Maiju Lassila / Irmari Rantamala), Rea Mauranen (Olga Esempio), Kari Franck (publishing manager Avanto), Ari Suonsuu (Kalle), Esko Salminen (station master), Ritva Juhanto (Kurttuska), Matti Oravisto (Commander Feldt), Heikki Alho (little Puovali), Soli Labbart (Lassila's mother), Tuomo Railo (Esempio's son Sulo), Pirkka Karskela (young Algot), Markku Blomqvist (Lundberg, a worker), Gunvor Sandqvist (Anna Belostotskova), Esko Pesonen (the editor of Työmies), Antero Harpf (a rebellious officer), Esa Suvilehto (the priest of Nälkäsuo), Juri Rodionov (terrorist leader Rawitz), Pentti Kotkaniemi (an officer of the Russian army), German Lupekin (General Porunov), Toivo Tuomainen (the master of the house of Lassila), Arno Virtanen (a circus director), Aleksandr Zaharov (Minister of the Interior of Russia), Galina Galtseva (Magda). 155 min
    Introduced by Markku Eskelinen.
    Screened at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Tribute to Pirjo Honkasalo in preparation of a Pirjo Honkasalo Masterclass, The Memorial Year 1918, Centenary of the death of Maiju Lassila), 10 May 2018

We are remembering the centenary of the death of Maiju Lassila / Algot Untola / Irmari Rantamala (28 Nov 1868 – 21 May 1918), one of the most beloved Finnish writers. He was killed a hundred years ago in the aftermath of the Finnish Civil War having been arrested by the White Guards. He was the last editor and finally the only journalist standing at the Työmies [Working Man] newspaper editorial office during the war. All other leaders had escaped. Lassila had appealed for armed defense in the beginning, but when defeat was certain he asked Reds to give up arms, avoid bloodshed, hold back revenge and hatred and focus on the future.

Markku Eskelinen who has championed Maiju Lassila recently in his magnum opus Raukoilla rajoilla, a counter-history of Finnish prose literature, in his introduction stated that in his opinion Lassila's biggest crime in the eyes of the White Guards was his writing about the landing in Finland of the Imperial German Army and his prognosis that Finland was about to become a colony of  Germany. Historical research has increasingly confirmed this. That would have happened had not Germany lost the war and had the Empire not fallen. Lassila was a hundred years ahead of his time.

I saw for the first time Tulipää which I missed at the time of the first run because I was abroad and also suffering from a fatigue of important epoch films with splendid production values.

Indeed, Tulipää is such a film, but there is much in it that is unique and extraordinary in Finnish cinema.

Maiju Lassila with his many different identities and writer profiles would be an exciting subject for a series of films. Here the focus is on the identity of Irmari Rantamala who wrote a hallucinatory giant anti-novel called Harhama [Tumbleweeds might be a possible translation for its name, or Lost Rambler] and who was the editor of Työmies in the Civil War. Bits and pieces of his other lives appear as a framework in the flashback structure. It all starts in 1938 when Lassila's remains are dug out of the mud of a pigsty and properly laid to rest.

There is passion and conviction in period atmosphere and detail. The art direction is more than decoration. There is a feeling of lived reality, with a touch of baroque exaggeration and ornamentation. Perhaps there is an affinity with the sensual world of a Russian Orthodox church.

The cinematographer Kari Sohlberg is at his best here. The cinematography and the mise-en-scène are gorgeous in juicy, lively colour. The wind, the water, the earth, the smoke and the mud are essential elements. The feeling for the raw and the windy is palpable as in other films by Pirjo Honkasalo and Pekka Lehto. It is not fair to say that they aestheticize squalor but they create highly expressive images from situations that are not beautiful nor sublime. They are masters of light in all seasons, and they also know how to use reflections. And deep space in many layers. The setpieces are striking but they are held in view for so long that there is an affinity with the tableau approach of early cinema.

Although there is a strong basic structure in the film, the storytelling is needlessly dragging. It was a mannerism of the time to have actors whisper dialogue.

The last fifty minutes are the strongest: the account of Maiju Lassila during the Civil War. There is a genuine epic feeling, a sense of dignity and tragedy. Lassila sees what is coming but he has the courage of his convictions. The dialogue of Lassila and Commander Feldt is an anthology piece. Both Asko Sarkola and Matti Oravisto give great performances. Lassila dies like a man. In his clenched fist a pen is found.

Rea Mauranen is also great as Olga, a strong and passionate woman abused by men and abusing them. He betrays Lassila but never forgets.

It was a pleasure to watch this juicy photochemical print made with a genuine appetite for colour.


Sunday, May 06, 2018

The Nitrate Picture Show 2018

Until ten years ago we used to screen nitrate regularly in Finland. We even had extended retrospectives mostly based on nitrate prints, such as a retrospective of the director Ilmari Unho, one of the house directors of the Suomi-Filmi company. Also our Valentin Vaala retrospective was largely based on nitrate.

When films are image-driven, based on a painterly vision, "painting with light", to quote the title of the book by John Alton, it is essential to be able to refer to first generation prints to know what they are meant to look like.

The term "aura" used by Paolo Cherchi Usai in this context is of course paradoxical about works of mechanical reproduction. But there is in fact a "first generation" impact which has an affinity with the uniqueness of the "aura", something that can diminish or vanish in duplication. There are films that feel designed for nitrate.

Last year in Rochester was my first nitrate festival visit. (Until ten years ago we screened nitrate in Finland with a mundane approach, not with a festival approach, not making a big deal of it, perhaps out of superstition or because being self-conscious about something makes you nervous and you might make an irreversible mistake).

The Rochester experience proved that deep down this is not about technology. It is about art, the revelation in art. The screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s Bakushu / Early Summer revealed the refined softness of the cinematography, the sense of the ephemeral which is at the core of Ozu in many ways. In Rochester one gets thinking in concepts like "the sublime". I might add stronger words: ”the holy”, ”the sacred”, ”the divine”. Lux aeterna. That is what we are discovering.

Now that we for the moment have no home for nitrate viewing in Finland, a voyage to Rochester is a pilgrimage to the original light.

In the opening show of nitrate shorts we saw first Arne Sucksdorff's masterpiece Människor i stad (1947), a visual poem of Stockholm combining bird's eye views with grass roots observations. Lost Lake (1944, in Cinecolor) and Along the Rainbow Trail (1946, in Technicolor) were genial travelogues. Our Navy (1918) was the miracle of the show: a hundred year old print, a concrete memento of the WWI centenary, revealing a subtle and refined look of tinting and toning in an era when the fashion is for heavy tinting. Let's Go to the Movies (1949), a "movies are your best entertainment" kind of promotion piece from the Motion Picture Academy, was a document from the fatal years of cinemas facing an overwhelming competitor: television. The show climaxed with Len Lye's abstract animation classic Trade Tattoo (1937) screened in a print of breathtaking Technicolor. This is getting close to visual art in the traditional sense due to the handmade (painted on film) quality of Len Lye's work. The nearer you are to the original the stronger the impact.

The first feature film was Sommarlek / Summer Interlude (1951) by Ingmar Bergman, his first fully conceived masterpiece, his first great summer film, a film which promoted the first great Bergman heroine (Maj-Britt Nilsson), a meditation on the interplay of the past and the present – performance and life – art and life – and life and death. The concept is visual: the elusive mystique of the white nights as an expression of the transience of happiness. Fully conveyed in the magic of Gunnar Fischer's cinematography. In Helsinki we screened earlier this year the Bergman 100 DCP of Sommarlek. It is very well made but fails to convey the magic of Fischer's cinematography like this vintage nitrate print from Helsinki.

Of George Cukor's Holiday (1938) we saw a special print from UCLA Film and Television Archive: a print with a refined sepia toning. The shimmering quality of the nitrate added to the elegance of this stylish and wonderful film. We had been warned about streaking on the image, but it was easy to look beyond it and focus on the beauty of Franz Planer's cinematography.

A film which I had never seen before was Edmund Goulding's The Razor's Edge (1946), based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, a long, epic melodrama with an all star Fox cast. Set in the 1920s it is about two "lost generations": of the First World War, and of the stock market crash of 1929. Tyrone Power expands his scope in this study of a man who loses himself and reinvents himself after a journey of meditation to the Himalayas. The cinematography of Arthur C. Miller is stunning with long tracking shots. The gorgeous visual quality of the Academy Film Archive print makes sense of the complex composition in depth essential to follow a large cast of characters.

Another discovery followed: Mlhy na blatech / Mist on the Moors (1943) directed by František Čáp in Czechoslovakia, a drama of social consciousness first published in the beginning of the 20th century. It is also a lyrical account of life on the farms, forests and lakes in rural Czechoslovakia, bringing to mind associations with Gustav Machatý. There is an enchanting luminous quality in this vintage print from Národni filmový archiv of Prague.

Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 (1950) launched the greatest period of his career: his cycle of Westerns starring James Stewart who expanded his register profoundly as an agonized wanderer and anti-hero trying to make sense of his life after a traumatic defeat in the Civil War. A marvellous cast including Dan Duryea at his best. Shot by William H. Daniels in black and white with a film noir ambience including expressive silhouettes and shadows. My first experience of Anthony Mann in nitrate, the full impact of which was conveyed by this Library of Congress print.

The centerpiece of the festival was The Red Shoes (1948) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger seen as a special presentation combining the vintage prints of George Eastman Museum and the Martin Scorsese Collection (a print reportedly donated by Michael Powell himself). The Red Shoes is often considered the most beautiful Technicolor film. I registered the softness of the image and the subdued quality of the colour palette. We plunge into a dreamspace of warm colour. The image is not sharp and clear. It is oneiric, vibrant, and radiant with warmth.

Cry of the City (1948) was another discovery for me, the only Robert Siodmak film noir that I have never seen before. His films noirs were generally produced by Universal, but this is a 20th Century-Fox production, and a solid one at that, starring Richard Conte and Victor Mature experiencing a dance of death as two childhood friends who as grown-ups find each other on opposite sides of the law, as a criminal and a policeman. The film communicates a genuine feeling of agony. On the other hand it is full of humoristic observation and brilliantly cast characters down to the bit parts. Lloyd Ahern had a short but distinguished career as a director of photography for theatrical films (he soon moved to television). He had learned his craft with masters like Otto Preminger. He can handle darkness and compose a dynamics of light powerfully, and this gorgeous MoMA print does full justice to him.

Vesyolye rebyata / Jolly Fellows (1934) directed by Grigori Aleksandrov was the first Soviet musical. It starred Lyubov Orlova, and the music was composed by Isaak Dunayevsky. The trio would be essential in a cycle of popular musicals made in Russia perhaps as escapism to forget the nightmarish reality of Stalin's terror, or perhaps as a counter-image to preserve a sense of joy, to be able to laugh at the madness of "real existing socialism". The print screened was from Österreichisches Filmmuseum, a 1958 reconstruction by Aleksandrov himself from the battered remains of his hit film.

"The blind date with nitrate" this year was Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran (1934), the final film of his "ethnofiction" trilogy preceded by Nanook and Moana. In his grand poetic vision Flaherty focuses on mythical grandeur and ignores ethnographical validity. In his search of a "paradise lost" he is interested in the humans' primordial relationship with forces of nature, ways of life long since vanished but still just barely possible to reconstruct with peoples living close to the nature. Gloriously disregarding actual practical, social, and religious conditions Flaherty pays tribute to something deeper in us, something ancient, creating a saga of human dignity and nobility beyond social structures. Aesthetically, Man of Aran belongs to the realm of the sublime. The stormy Atlantic Ocean is about to overwhelm the island with waves more magnificent than high-rise buildings. The visual look is based on fine shades of darkness. The vintage George Eastman Museum print deposited by the Flaherty estate reveals the original look from velvet blacks to silky whites.

Blind Date with Nitrate 2018: Man of Aran (The Nitrate Picture Show)

Robert Flaherty, UK 1934
Print source: George Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY
Running time: 76 minutes
Viewed at The Nitrate Picture Show (NPS), George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, Rochester, 6 May 2018

NPS: "About the print

A gift to the Eastman Museum from the Flaherty estate in 1964, this stunning print has held up remarkably well and shows little damage. Some perf and edge damage has been repaired. Shrinkage: 0.75%

About the film

"The eternal and endless surge of the sea on the rocks, the awful and impersonal hatred which the flood tide expresses in its brutal sweep, are brilliantly created on Mr. Flaherty's canvas. The theme develops symphonically, rising in excitement, shortening in tempo, establishing in the spectator an emotion that is beautiful, tragic and cleansing. At the last, as the seas strive with Providence for the souls of the Man of Aran and his comrades in the tiny curragh, and in defeat continue to smash relentlessly against the towering cliffs, the tendency of the spectator is to hang back in terror from the screen and finally to droop in exhaustion" 
- Andre Sennwald, The New York times, October 28, 1934

"The islanders risked their lives to make the film. The curraghmen in the storm sequence went out to the sea three times, at increasing peril, till [Robert Flaherty] got the stupendous result shown. When the films were projected, the cast and village friends cheered. But they had their superstitions, beginning with the opinion of some that the camera lens was an evil eye."
- David Flaherty, New York Herald Tribune, October 28, 1934

"The awarding of the Mussolini Prize to Man of Aran at the recent international festival of films at Venice is an ... important event in the history of the world-cinema. For this is the first occasion on which an unequivocal victory has been gained by that type of film called 'documentary'."
- Christian Science Monitor, October 6, 1934" (NPS)

AA: Man of Aran brought to completion Robert Flaherty's trilogy on "man against the elements" preceded by Nanook of the North and Moana. Flaherty was interested in the eternal story, the pre-modern way of life going back to millennia, the "paradise lost", already vanishing from memory but still just barely possible to reconstruct with people living close to nature. Flaherty made people play their ancestors, and often they had to be taught obsolete customs of previous generations. Certain customs were fictional.

Flaherty's grand poetic visions, focused on the mythical dimension, are ethnofictions without ethnographical validity. They are, however, always tributes to the people on display, mythological accounts on ways of life, made with the people and for the people. Irishmen were proud of Man of Aran, as were the islanders who played in it. It was a poetic celebration of Irishness essential for Flaherty personally, proud of his Irish roots.

Man of Aran is one of the great sea movies, belonging to a noble tradition also including Jacques-Yves Cousteau and dating back to the Lumière brothers (a favourite of mine is Mauvais temps au port, Vue N° 1096) and the Brighton school and including the sea masterpieces of Jean Epstein. Michael Powell was influenced by Flaherty in The Edge of the World. The sublime of the sea has never been more powerfully rendered than in Flaherty and Powell's films. During a storm in the Atlantic waves higher than a high-rise building hit the rocky island and almost drown it.

Flaherty ignored social and religious conditions, imported the customs of the exciting shark hunt sequence from Scotland, and confessed that he should have been shot for having put people in peril in order to get an exciting scene. But Araners defended him. Araners are the heroes in this drama illustrating the battle of survival, not documentary or truthful in detail but true on more profound and eternal levels. Perhaps even John Ford (whose yacht was called USS Araner) was influenced by Flaherty in The Long Voyage Home. Man of Aran is a saga of human dignity and nobility beyond social structures.

The cinematographer was Flaherty himself. His vision is brave, dark, and engrossing.

The visual look of Man of Aran, based on fine shades of darkness, must be difficult to reproduce in copies.

This vintage print from the Robert Flaherty estate reveals the original look of the masterpiece, covering the full scale of light from the velvet black to the silky white.

Vesyolye rebyata / Jolly Fellows (The Nitrate Picture Show)

Vesyolye rebyata / Jolly Fellows. Lyubov Orlova.

Весёлые ребята / Moscow Laughs, Grigoriy Aleksandrov, Soviet Union 1934
Print source: Österreichisches Filmmuseum (Austrian Film Museum), Vienna
Running time: 90 minutes
Viewed at The Nitrate Picture Show (NPS), George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, Rochester, 6 May 2018

NPS: "About the print

This print from 1958 is proof that not all production on nitrate stock stopped in 1951. It is a restoration made by Aleksandrov himself, partially re-dubbed because the original soundtrack had been damaged. It shows scratching that was already in the material in the 1950s and additional scratching from use. No repair was needed in preparation for this projection. Shrinkage: 0.98–1.2%

About the film

“When the Muscovites produce a film which does not mention Dnieprostroy, ignores the class struggle and contains no hint of editorial Marxism, it immediately becomes one of the great events of international cinema. The new Soviet jazz comedy at the Cameo, in its uniquely Russian blend of syncopated music and straightforward slapstick, is no more politically minded than a Laurel and Hardy picture. . . . It is a loud and brawling carnival, unashamed in its imitation of the bourgeois Hollywood technique, and curiously attractive even when it is being as subtle as a side of beef.”
– Andre Sennwald, New York Times, March 25, 1935

“After viewing Moscow Laughs, . . . some film observers are speculating as to what extent S. M. Eisenstein, the Russian director, was indebted to Grigoriy Aleksandrov for the pictorial effects he achieved in his productions. Aleksandrov, who directed Moscow Laughs as his first independent film, was associated with Eisenstein for many years. Together with their cameraman, Edouard Tisse, the three produced films which made cinema history.”
– Los Angeles Times, September 29, 1935

“[The film] attempts to supply an antidote for the depressing spectacle of a starving peasantry, fired by patriotic zeal that usually has been grossly overdrawn, by presenting so exaggerated a picture of unbridled gayety as to defeat the disarming purpose for which it so desperately strives. No cross section of any citizenry . . . could comport itself with the sublime insanity of the principal participants of Moscow Laughs.”
– Nelson B. Bell, Washington Post, June 16, 1935" (NPS)

AA: Grigori Aleksandrov released this first Soviet musical in a special year, 1934, about to be a theme for a retrospective at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna this year, "Second Utopia: 1934, The Golden Age of Soviet Sound Film" curated by by Peter Bagrov.

There was an ominous background to this carefree comedy set in the countryside. The Soviet Union had just experienced the Great Famine of 1932–1933. Millions lost their lives especially in the Holodomor mass starvation of Ukraine, resulting from a policy of brutal state repression. Stalin's Great Terror was about to take place in 1936–1938. In between there was a short period of relative freedom which film artists utilized.

Jolly Fellows was Aleksandrov's first solo fiction film as a director. The star was Lyubov Orlova who would become Aleksandrov's wife and star for the rest of their lives. The composer was the wonderful Isaak Dunayevsky, a brilliant ballet and operetta composer and songwriter, and a pioneer of jazz in Russia. Jolly Fellows was also Dunayevsky's debut film. Besides Orlova also the male lead, Leonid Utyosov had his breakthrough in this film.

The musical cycle created by Aleksandrov, Orlova, and Dunayevsky (Jolly Fellows followed by Circus, Volga-Volga, The Shining Path / Tanya, and Springtime) can be viewed as escapism or as an elixir of life-affirmation during Stalin's years of terror.

The accents are weird to say the least, and Paolo Cherchi Usai commented that the film felt like "Luis Buñuel on drugs". Kostya's (Leonid Utyosov) pan flute attracs the kolkhoz animals to the dinner tables of a sophisticated banquet. The bull entering the salon brings to mind L'Age d'Or and the whole sequence prefigures the beggars' banquet in El ángel exterminador.

There is a lot of animation in the film, starting from the credit sequence, followed by a vision of animated radiowaves. Later we see an animated clock and a recurrent motif of an animated Moon. The optical effects are assured and attractive. The film is full of humoristic detail, comical camera angles and witty moments such as the one where birds on a wire become notes for music. The long tracking shots are inspired and engaging.

The violence in the orchestra rehearsal is exaggerated and brutal, perhaps conveying conscious or unconscious overtones from an age of terror.

Jolly Fellows is not an exercise in good taste, but it has panache. And a dimension of the macabre.

The director himself supervised this 1958 reconstruction from the battered remains of his mega hit film. Considering the premises that we are to understand have been challenging the result was quite successful. But we must remember that this is a re-recording of a high Stalin era film.

    «Марш весёлых ребят»: музыка И. Дунаевского, слова В. Лебедева-Кумача, в фильме исполняется её неполная версия. Исполнители — Леонид Утёсов, Любовь Орлова и другие.
    «Сердце»: музыка И. Дунаевского, слова В. Лебедева-Кумача. Исполнитель — Леонид Утёсов. Композиция «Сердце» была написана ещё до фильма — как самостоятельная песня для Леонида Утёсова.
    В заглавной теме фильма — «Марш весёлых ребят» — одна из музыкальных фраз («И тот, кто с песней по жизни шагает») была заимствована из народной мексиканской песни времён революции 1910—1920 годов La Adelita, мотив которой Исааку Дунаевскому напел Григорий Александров.
    В сцене, где Костя Потехин дирижирует оркестром в мюзик-холле, звучит «Венгерская рапсодия № 2» Ференца Листа.
    Песни из кинофильма регулярно транслировались по радио, включая Всесоюзное радио[прояснить].
    Музыкальные номера из фильма постоянно вставлялись в «киноконцерты» на телевидении со дня его создания.
    Музыка и песни из кинофильма выпускались Апрелевским заводом на грампластинках. С середины 1960-х годов выпускались на пластинках фирмой «Мелодия» (Д-033307-8 и других). Позднее, песни из фильма выпускались на аудиокассетах (в СССР — на кассетах «Свема»)

музыка И. Дунаевского, слова В. Лебедева-Кумача

Как много девушек хороших,
Как много ласковых имен,
Но лишь одно из них тревожит,
Унося покой и сон, когда влюблен.

Любовь нечаянно нагрянет,
Когда ее совсем не ждешь,
И каждый вечер сразу станет
Удивительно хорош, и ты поешь:

Сердце, тебе не хочется покоя.
Сердце, как хорошо на свете жить!
Сердце, как хорошо, что ты такое.
Спасибо, сердце, что ты умеешь так любить!

Cry of the City (The Nitrate Picture Show)

Cry of the City. Berry Kroeger, Richard Conte.

Robert Siodmak, US 1948
Print source: Museum of Modern Art, New York
Running time: 95 minutes
Viewed at The Nitrate Picture Show (NPS), George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, Rochester, 6 May 2018

NPS: "About the print

This film’s striking black-and-white cinematography is highlighted through the nitrate print’s excellent condition—there is minimal scratching or damage throughout the copy. Shrinkage: 0.65%

About the film

“Except for a couple of unlikely incidents, this film is a realistic and exciting story of a man hunt. The principals are two men who had the same start in life—they were both of Italian parentage, came from poor families, and lived in the same rundown district; one made easy money the wrong way, the other earned a small salary and did it the hard way. . . . All the settings have an authentic flavor, the dialogue is terse and natural, and the direction gives the film both pace and punch.”
– Mae Tinee, Chicago Daily Tribune, October 21, 1948

“Cry of the City at the RKO Boston Theatre is another thriller of realistic crime school, obviously patterned by 20th Century-Fox to appeal to those huge and enthusiastic audiences who liked this company’s Kiss of Death, Call Northside 777 and Boomerang. It is tough and hard and stark, full of red-blooded action, yet so well developed in characterization and plot that it will appeal to mature film-goers. . . . Men will love it, and even if the romantic scenes are few and far between, no woman who likes good pictures should stay away from RKO Boston because the hero doesn’t marry the heroine in the last moments of the story.”
– Daily Boston Globe, October 29, 1948

“Understatement is the keynote of both Robert Siodmak’s direction and Richard Murphy’s pithy script. And Victor Mature, an actor once suspected of limited talents, turns in a thoroughly satisfying job as a sincere and kindly cop, who not only knows his business but the kind of people he is tracking down.”
– A. W., New York Times, September 30, 1948

This screening is supported by Friends of the Nitrate Picture Show." (NPS)

AA: Cry of the City was a film noir produced by Sol C. Siegel at 20th Century-Fox and directed by Robert Siodmak in the middle of his cycle of eight films noirs for Universal (Phantom Lady, Christmas Holiday, The Suspect, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, Spiral Staircase, The Killers, Criss Cross, and Dark Mirror). Oddly, it seems that Cry of the City has never been seen in Finland except at our screenings in Orion in 1996 (which I missed as I was in Hollywood). It was banned here when Fox first tried to release it.

The standard plot concept is familiar from crime films since the silent period. We have two childhood and family friends from the same neighbourhood. One of them is a criminal, the other a policeman. They share an Italian background, a taste for minestrone and an adherence to the Roman Catholic church.

But Cry of the City, a handsome production, is an original interpretation. Inspired by neorealism, there is some vibrant location footage in the streets of New York. A documentary passion is evident.

In a film festival, films influence the reception of other films, and having seen The Red Shoes last night I see Cry of the City this morning also as a dance of death. It starts with the criminal Martin Rome (Richard Conte) on his deathbed, facing either death from his wounds or the electric chair because he has killed a policeman.

There is a genuine feeling of tenderness and sorrow in the hospital sequence as Martin receives the last rites. A mysterious girl, like a dream, like an angel, visits him after all others have gone. "I can die now". The sense of agony is genuine. But having been threatened by the police and a crooked lawyer representing another criminal Conte gets so furious that he partially recovers and breaks out.

The film is full of humoristic and interesting detail. A staring contest between Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) and a child turns into a smiling contest. A key document for the police is Martin's little book with all his girls. The trusty of a temporary prison shows Martin how to escape with the help of a simple spoon. Immigrant doctors, top experts in their countries, work illegally since they get no work permit. Madame Rose's Swedish Massage is a formidable operation, and Madame Rose demonstrates to Martin how easy it is for a masseuse to kill a patient.

Robert Siodmak directs his film with an assured sense of tempo, alternating slow scenes with rapid action sequences. On display is the excitement of the big city as well as the silence and sorrow in the presence of imminent death. Further, this story is one of those where "the streets were dark with something more than night", to quote Raymond Chandler. The finale is a bit of a letdown with some prolonged action and needless morality-clarifying dialogue.

Alfred Newman creates a superb score based on his "Street Scene" standard from 1931 which he reworked in at least seven 20th Century-Fox productions, most memorably in How to Marry a Millionaire in the prologue of which we see Newman himself conducting his orchestra. Impressive in this film is also what might be called "a slow theme of destiny".

The casting is brilliant and proves that bit parts matter. Betty Garde is wonderful as the senior nurse Pruett as is the junior nurse (Ruth Clifford) in her walk-on part. Not forgetting Berry Kroeger's crooked lawyer, the formidable Madame Rose (Hope Emerson), a pre-stardom Shelley Winters as Brenda Nightingale, or Konstantin Shayne (Pop Leibel in Vertigo) as the illegal doctor. Debra Paget gets her debut role her as Teena Ricante, Martin's mysterious girlfriend.

Lloyd Ahern had been promoted into a director of photography the year before, and his work is brilliant in Cry of the City. He was a veteran of film noir, including as a second camera operator for Laura, and the experience shows in an assured sense of darkness and dynamic composition.

An excellent vintage print.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

The Red Shoes (The Nitrate Picture Show)

The Red Shoes. Moira Shearer.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, UK 1948
Print source: George Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY
Running time: 134 minutes
Viewed at The Nitrate Picture Show (NPS), George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, Rochester, 5 May 2018

NPS: "About the print

This presentation includes two nitrate prints. The museum’s own print provides most of the running time; to make up for sound problems, however, the last two reels are courtesy of Martin Scorsese’s collection held at the museum. Although those two reels are more scratched and slightly more shrunken, the Technicolor remains vibrant throughout. Shrinkage: varies, 0.75–0.95%

About the film

“It is not a film with a stage ballet included only because ballet happens to have a large following. If you want to see stage ballet you must still go to the theatre. But this is not stage ballet at all—it is ballet written for or translated for filming. And that is a very different pair of shoes altogether. . . . Now for the first time, ballet has been planned as though through the camera lens, and it could not be produced in any other way than by film.”
– Maurice Ambler, Ballet Today, January 1948

“This is the poetry of motion beautifully and skillfully photographed. There is one scene where the ballerina dances with a torn sheet of newspaper that comes to life, which is a miracle of ingenuity as well as lovely to watch. There is a story, slight but enough to hold your attention, while hoping that the inevitable tragedy of the ending may be averted.”
– Picture Show, August 1948

“This uncommonly beautiful film is one that you certainly should not miss, even if you are one of those who say ‘Ballet bores me.’ The Archers, always enterprising, once again have broken new ground. There have been pictures with ballet in them before, but never one that captured so completely the spirit of the thing. . . . All the cosmopolitan, colourful intensity, confusion, concentration, temperament, and creative fervour are there. You see a new ballet take shape out of chaos, and as you do so you learn something of the spirit of the people whose life is ballet.”
– Picturegoer, August 28, 1948" (NPS)

AA: "It's about art worth dying for" was Michael Powell's message to the international premiere at Berlin Film Festival of the 1988 restoration of The Red Shoes, the one he himself supervised. The latest restoration was supervised by Martin Scorsese and had its premiere in 2009 in Cannes.

There was a sense of the sacred in this screening. The Red Shoes has often been considered the most beautiful Technicolor film. We now saw a compilation screening of two vintage prints. The last two reels screened were from a deposit from Martin Scorsese, reportedly originating from Michael Powell himself.

The key colours are the red shoes and the red hair of Moira Shearer. They radiate a warmth and vitality into this dance of death.

What struck me in this viewing was the softness of the image and the subdued quality of the colour world. We plunge into a dreamspace of warm colour. As a rule the image is not sharp and clear. It is vibrant and radiating with warmth.

The Red Shoes still has a place of honour as the all time greatest ballet film. From Yevgeni Bauer's Dying Swan to Darren Aronowitz's The Black Swan they all share fundamental themes. But The Red Shoes is both the most direct ("to live or to dance", that is the question) and the most sophisticated.

The train motif brings to mind Anna Karenina. It also brings to mind one of the earliest train films, Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat (1897) by the Lumière brothers, shot not far from the Monte Carlo railway station where the tragic finale of The Red Shoes was filmed.

The unforgettable "The Red Shoes" ballet is seen twice. First with the wonderful Moira Shearer. Then with only a spotlight on the empty space in her absence.

NB. 10 May 2018. Today we heard the news of the death of Anne V. Coates, one of the greatest editors of all times. She got her debut as a second editor in The Red Shoes.

Winchester '73 (The Nitrate Picture Show)

Winchester '73. James Stewart.

Anthony Mann, US 1950
Print source: Library of Congress, Culpeper, VA
Running time: 93 minutes
Viewed at The Nitrate Picture Show (NPS), George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, Rochester, 5 May 2018

NPS: "About the print

This print displays light, recurrent vertical base scratching, but it does not detract from the lovely Arizona landscape. There is some warpage, which causes the print to wander at times in the film path and can affect focus, making the projectionists’ job even more difficult. Shrinkage: 0.65%

About the film

“The rifle Winchester ’73 is a beauty, and so is the picture about it. I use the word, however, in admiration of the picture’s cinematic feel and not of the story it tells and the emotions it engenders, which are ugly. For the bad men of this movie at Ritz, United Artists, Vogue, Culver and Studio City theaters are really evil men, and even its hero, James Stewart, is spurred by an old blood feud to kill. The technique employed by Stuart N. Lake, author, Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase, scenarists, and Anthony Mann, director, has the same lean-ribbed, debunking quality as the recent Gunfighter. The men in Winchester ’73 seem to be the product of the hard land and a parlous time; everything conspires against their chances for survival, and they are ringed by hostile forces, tangible and intangible.”
– Philip K. Scheuer, Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1950

“The famous Winchester repeating rifle, ‘the gun that won the West,’ is celebrated in a lively and noisy western at the Paramount. Winchester ’73 has the redoubtable James Stewart wearing a dirty ten gallon hat and six-shooters and avenging his father’s death back in the 1870s. It also has enough action to carry several horse operas and still have some to spare. There is a rifle match in Dodge City, followed by a successful repulse of Sioux Indians on the warpath just after Custer’s last stand. Stage coach holdups and killings in cold blood punctuate the proceedings. All in all, it is quite a melodrama of frontier days. . . . Of chief importance is the fact that Anthony Mann has kept the action violent and progressive, winding up with a wild Winchester duel on a craggy ridge.”
– Howard Barnes, New York Herald Tribune, June 8, 1950"

AA: Anthony Mann had debuted as a Western director at MGM with Devil's Doorway starring Robert Taylor. In the same year his greatest period was launched at Universal with Winchester '73 based on a screenplay by Borden Chase and starring James Stewart with whom he also made the Westerns Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie.

All shot on location, all with a profound sense of the landscape, always also including a human presence. From the beginning Mann's Western landscapes were soulscapes.

Since Bend of the River Mann usually shot in colour, but Winchester '73 is still in black and white, the only b&w Western in the Mann-Stewart cycle which is among the greatest in the history of the Western.

They are based on the concept of the quest, with mythological dimensions which are conscious but unobtrusive, as are the connections to the classics of antiquity and Shakespeare. The protagonist is an innerly torn searcher who confronts his enemy and simultaneously his own dark side.

In Mann's Westerns Stewart matured as a tragic actor. Stewart had been known as a nice humoristic actor, but this film opened new dimensions in him. During his quest Stewart's character, Lin McAdam, discovers that his father's murderer is his own brother. The look of hatred in Stewart's face as he is fighting his enemy is shocking because we realize that Lin is not a hero but an anti-hero.

The cast is rich and wonderful. Shelley Winters as Lola, Stephen McNally as Lin's brother Dutch Henry Brown, Millard Mitchell as High-Spade Frankie Wilson, John McIntire as Joe Lamont, Will Geer as Wyatt Earp, and Jay C. Flippen as Sgt. Wilkes. Rock Hudson has one of his earliest roles as an Indian chief. In a smaller role we can spot Tony Curtis, also in one of his earliest parts. The most memorable performance next to James Stewart is by Dan Duryea. He is at his best as Waco Johnnie Dean.

The film is violent, one of the reflections of the heritage of violence after the Civil War. Lin is a war veteran, too. The direction of action is excellent.

Shot by William H. Daniels, a film noir ambience lingers in the black and white cinematography with expressive silhouettes and shadows. The composition in depth is assured and exciting, as is the use of the moving camera.

This was the first time I saw Anthony Mann in nitrate. The screening did full justice to his rich visual power.

Mlhy na blatech / Mist on the Moors (The Nitrate Picture Show)

František Čáp, Czechoslovakia 1943
Print source: Národní filmový archiv (National Film Archive), Prague
Running time: 93 minutes
E-subtitles in English (following the original translation from 1943).
Viewed at The Nitrate Picture Show (NPS), George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, Rochester, 5 May 2018

NPS: "About the print

This print has been in the National Film Archive’s collection since the institution’s beginnings in 1943, so it’s certainly a deposit from this title's first distribution run. A new duplicate negative and acetate print were made in 1976, but the original nitrate remained in NFA’s care. Shrinkage: 0.8%

About the film

“Mist on the Moors examines fates of just about a few people. Their stories are outlined in a short space of time and are a symbolic representation of the drama of life, struggle for justice, human cognizance and the healing power of love. One of the most important components of the film is the nature, which ceases to be a mere stage for its plot—it serves almost as an autonomous plot agent. The movie landscape is a precisely defined and localized one. Only the South Bohemian ponds can serve as the right environment for development of such earthy and typically human stories as we encounter in the Mist on the Moors.”
– Kinorevue 10, 1943 (translated from Czech)" (NPS)

AA: Based on a novel by Karel Klostermann published in 1909, Mist on the Moors is a drama of social consciousness. The working people in the countryside are oppressed, and even fishing and hunting is illegal. Gamekeepers protect their masters' interests with an iron hand. When a gamekeeper spots a young farm lady on a forest path he routinely proceeds to rape her but the lady is rescued in the nick of time by a young poacher. There are many misunderstandings on who did what, and like in other films in this festival, parents are unable to read the young generation. In a society based on inequality and injustice it is hard to do the right thing but that is finally the morale of the tale. "Honesty is the best policy". "Clean conscience before God". "I'll do anything to deserve her".

A lyrical feeling for nature, a celebration of communal labour in haymaking scenes, and lovemaking in the haystack are aspects familiar for a Finnish viewer of films of the same period. Memorable are the fishing and hunting scenes, including a farmhand releasing a yelling deer calf from a poacher's trap. The gigging (tuulastus) sequence in the beginning is visually enchanting.

I hardly know the Czech cinema of the period. Certainly Gustav Machatý's pantheism comes to mind watching this early movie directed by František Čáp. Machatý, especially Extase, was by the way a major influence for our Teuvo Tulio. And for Ingmar Bergman to whose a handful of most influential movies Extase belonged. In Mlhy na blatech visual pleasures are provided by the leading man whose muscular, naked upper body is amply on display.

A luminous quality is enchanting in this vintage nitrate print.

The Razor's Edge (1946) (The Nitrate Picture Show)

The Razor's Edge. Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power.

Edmund Goulding, US 1946
Print source: Academy Film Archive, Los Angeles
Running time: 145 minutes
Viewed at The Nitrate Picture Show (NPS), George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, Rochester, 5 May 2018

NPS: "About the print

Arthur Miller’s wonderful black-and-white cinematography is highlighted by this well-conserved nitrate print. Warpage was a concern, and certain reels have many splices. Some scratches are noticeable, and some edge repair was necessary. Shrinkage: 0.6%

About the film

“Somerset Maugham, who authored this best-seller, has given the screen a plot which has a little of everything for virtually every taste. It has a message of faith for the fans who are not regular showgoers, a background of two continents with an ever-changing pattern of romance (for the women); a ‘Don Birnham’ characterization by a French barfly (for the dramatic fans), and Tyrone Power (who is well liked by everybody).”
– Paul Jones, Atlanta Constitution, November 24, 1946

“The picture has mobile camera work that telescopes time or space, as needed, offering fascinating shots of Paris dives, the Riviera, a Himalayan mountain top and ‘period’ scenes of life in the 1920s. Much of the philosophy of the film is dispensed in neat little verbal capsules. There is some obvious sermonizing, but at least the film’s propaganda has the virtue of being illustrated by character study. Moreover, an idea or two of the type found in The Razor’s Edge will do no harm scattered by means of the motion picture into the present world. Hollywood deserves credit for producing a thought-provoking film of this nature.”
– Baltimore Sun, December 26, 1946

“It is doubtful that any picture in the modern cycle has embodied more divergent elements of dramatic appeal. . . . Essentially a melodrama, the story . . . presents a deftly woven pattern of jealousy, greed, snobbery and fear, offset by a study of profound faith and exaltation. It is an unusual—and usually incompatible—combination that has been wielded here with extraordinary smoothness and remarkable effectiveness.”
– Nelson B. Bell, Washington Post, January 9, 1947" (NPS)

AA: Connections, connections. Watching films in a festival one starts to see connections such as the figure of the overpowering father in Holiday (seen last night) and The Razor's Edge (this morning). Both fathers are self-centered and making the life of the young generation miserable. In this epic film the father figure Elliott Templeton is played by Clifton Webb. Templeton's vanity and narcissism keep growing literally until his deathbed.

The Razor's Edge belongs to the special movies in which a famous author participates as a character in his own story. Other examples would include Jean Servais as Guy de Maupassant in Max Ophuls's Le Plaisir. Here Herbert Marshall plays W. Somerset Maugham, a discreet observer and participant in key scenes. There are also films in which the authors appear themselves: as themselves or playing roles written by them. F. E. Sillanpää appears as the narrator in Roland af Hällström's Poika eli kesäänsä. Stephen King plays a role in George A. Romero's Creepshow. Irvine Welsh is a drug dealer in Trainspotting. James Dickey is the sheriff in Deliverance.

Darryl F. Zanuck (new startling Me Too revelations about whom I happened to read during this weekend) produced the film with an all star Fox cast. Besides Clifton Webb, Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney and Anne Baxter are in key roles. Tyrone Power had been a Fox star since 1936, a dashing lead in Jesse James, Blood and Sand, and The Mark of Zorro, and expanding his scope in difficult psychological roles such as Larry Darrell in The Razor's Edge.

Edmund Goulding was a great women's director* and an equally great men's director. He had gotten his breakthrough at MGM, switched to Warner Bros. and worked at 20th Century Fox since 1943. His two Tyrone Power vehicles there, The Razor's Edge and Nightmare Alley, were among his best.

Seen today, The Razor's Edge emerges as a story relevant to the centenary of WWI, another great "lost generation" tale which must have struck a chord in 1946. Larry Darrell has been saved on the front by a friend who gave his life for him. He feels lost, and it takes him ten years to find his balance, which finally succeeds in the highlands of the Himalayas. He has been snubbed by his elite friends who have no idea of what he is going through, but he is above being resentful for that.

With men like this, women can feel disoriented, as well. Women stay with money or marry money. Isabel (Gene Tierney) marries a millionaire, Gray (John Payne). They lose everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Larry thanks to skills learned on the Himalayas is able to heal Gray who gets a nervous breakdown.

The only one who has survived the Wall Street crash is Elliott Templeton who has been selling short, profited enormously and retired to the Riviera where he keeps getting more snobbish by the day and where his main joy is in his noble and royal contacts. Larry, whom Elliott has always despised, makes the final moment of his life happy by faking a royal invitation for him.

The character of Larry belongs to the most interesting religious characters in the cinema. His spirituality is a mix of Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. His happiness is in his good deeds for which he expects no acknowledgement. He lives in humble circumstances but is richer than the others.

Larry saves from the gutter Sophie MacDonald (Anne Baxter) whom he is about to marry. The jealous Isabel who has never stopped loving Larry traps Sophie back to alcoholism and a destructive path that leads to her murder. With her ingenious plot Isabel only achieves a situation in which Larry will never have anything to do with her.

There is a big, sprawling, epic approach in the movie which is not without moments of kitsch, such as the sequence on the Himalayas shot on the Fox backlot. Towards the end the storytelling is needlessly prolonged.

The Razor's Edge is a melodrama, and the performances are highly stylized, not psychologically convincing. This is polished, glamorous star acting, missing nuance and complexity.

The cinematography by Arthur C. Miller is stunning with something close to a plan-séquence concept. The long, elaborate camera movements are breathtaking, connecting a large cast of characters with clarity and excitement.

The visual quality is gorgeous, the sense of depth essential to a story like this.

* Louise Brooks on his dear friend Eddie Goulding: "His name evokes a vision of sex without sin which paralyzes the guilty mind of Hollywood. All for love, he directed his sexual events with the same attention he gave the directing of films." (Louise Brooks: "Why I Will Never Write My Memoirs". Focus on Film, Nr. 15, March 1978).