The Salt of the Earth (France-Brazil-Italy 2014)

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Breathtaking destruction

New German Cinema director Wim Wenders made his first feature documentary, Lightning Over Water (Sweden-France-Germany, 1980), about American film director Nick Ray. Although he still makes fiction films, documentaries have been increasingly important to Wenders and this one, co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, won ‘Un Certain Regard – Special Jury Prize’ at Cannes. His co-director is the son of the subject of the documentary, the extraordinary photographer Sebastião Salgado.

Although Wenders occasionally speaks on the voiceover, and appears in a few ‘reverse shots’ of him filming Salgado, he lets chronology structure this ‘sort of’ biopic. That works perfectly because it brings us full circle back to Brazil, which Salgado had to leave because of the fascist government in the 1960s, to see the results of the ecological project Salgado had instituted at the suggestion of his wife, Lélia. Throughout we get to see the extraordinary images that constitute the photographer’s career, often from extreme places such as the gold mines of Brazil and the genocide in Rwanda. It is after the latter that Salgado loses his will to document the evils of men and turned toward the environment; he has lived an incredible life.

What’s missing from the documentary is the cost to his family. He’d spend months, maybe years, away from his wife and children; they seemed to have stoically accepted his absence though the cost to them must have been high. I would also be fascinated to hear about Salgado’s technique in creating his incredible shots. All we get is a brief interjection about how it is important to frame shots against the background.

It’s a small quibble as that was clearly not the sort of documentary that Wenders and Salgado (jr.) wanted to make. Similarly the economics of the gold mine are barely explained and so reveals the limitations of photojournalism. If all we get is the image then we will not understand the world better. Particularly when they are as great as Salgado’s as the ‘breathtaking moment’ works against intellectual consideration of the social context. This isn’t to criticise Salgado and, as we see at the end of the film, he is trying and succeeding in ‘doing good’. The fact that his books cost an ‘arm and a leg’ further restrict his impact: a coffee table book for the bourgeoisie to show how much they care is not going to change the world.

Enough grousing, this is a brilliant film.

An earlier post on this film is here.

¡Nae pasaran! (Scotland 2018)

I missed this film when it premiered at the end of the Glasgow Film Festival last year. It is now slowly making its way around the UK and if it comes it appears anywhere near you, please make an effort to see it. You won’t be disappointed. On a wet windy evening in Hebden Bridge it was a rare treat to be confronted with a queue outside the Picture House – and applause at the end of the screening. It is showing again in West Yorkshire at the Shipley Community Cinema on 18th January (other venues for the ‘rolling’ distribution are listed on the website).

The film’s title neatly encapsulates its political and comradely subject matter. ‘¡Nae pasaran!’ has become familiar with resistance to fascism across the Hispanic world. The slogan, “They shall not pass!” was associated with the Basque Republican fighter La pasionaria (Dolores Ibárruri) during the Battle of Madrid in 1936. In its current context it refers to the actions of Scottish engineering workers at the Rolls Royce factory in East Kilbride who ‘blacked’ the Avon aero engines sent to the factory for overhaul in 1974 after the military coup in Chile in September 1973. This action meant that the workers (in a totally unionised plant) refused to work on engines that the Pinochet regime in Chile might use in their Hawker Hunter aircraft to suppress any opposition to the new fascist dictatorship. The action was prompted by one of the workers appointed as an ‘inspector’ of the engines. Eight engines were placed outside the factory where they slowly deteriorated until four of them were ‘spirited away’ one night using blackleg transport. The story may have remained an ‘anecdote’ but for the investigative work of the filmmaker Felipe Bustos Sierra, the son of an exiled Chilean journalist in Belgium who first made a successful short film and then expanded it into this feature-length documentary.

Sierra interviewed the surviving workers involved in the strike/boycott and then went to find witnesses in Chile. I think he began the project in 2013 (the first of the Chilean interviewees died in 2014 according to the closing credits). The worker who began the action, Bob Fulton, is I think 90 when we see him in the film. It’s impossible to watch this true working-class hero (and his two colleagues) without welling up. Sierra has found some truly shocking footage to illustrate the horrors of the coup. I’ve seen the two Patricio Guzmán documentaries in recent years, Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and The Pearl Button (2015) both of which explore the horrors of the dictatorship but I’m still shocked with the ferocity and inhumanity of what happened on September 11th 1973. Some of the footage in Nae Pasaran was new to me. I think the shots of the nun who waited by the river to fish out the floating corpses of workers and activists murdered in the night will remain with me.

Sierra discovers some of the Chileans who survived incarceration, possibly as a result of the Scottish workers’ action which was part of an international campaign of solidarity. Labour returned to power in the UK in 1974 and the new ministers, Judith Hart and Alex Lyon both helped to make the UK a possible place of exile for Chileans. Even so they ran up against civil servants and military chiefs who made it difficult to clear the exiles and to grant refugee status. The British military would seemingly still rather listen to the CIA, who allegedly helped Pinochet mount the coup against a democratically elected government, than to refugees who had witnessed murder and torture. A credit at the end of the film tells us that Rolls Royce and the RAF were not prepared to make statements to the filmmaker. Sierra also interviews some of those who worked for the junta, including a retired Air Force General who still seems incapable of remorse.

The three workers honoured by the current Chilean government

Most of all though, many audiences will be moved by the humanity and solidarity expressed through the contacts between the East Kilbride workers and the Chilean survivors. Felipe Bustos Sierra is based in Edinburgh and he has an easy rapport with the retired workers in the pub, showing them his interviewees in Chile expressing their gratitude for the solidarity of the Scottish workers and explaining what it meant to them. Some were convinced that it helped them be released and travel to Europe. The film ends with a public presentation of honours granted to the three leaders of the strike action in 1974. Go and see this film. It is well-made and tells its story powerfully. It will make you feel better and remind you of what solidarity means – and why trades unions are an essential part of any democracy. I certainly feel humbled and wished I had done more to help in 1974-5.

The Official Story (La historia oficial, Argentina 1985)

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Intense reality

Many ‘subversives’ disappeared during the fascist dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s/early 1980s. From 1977 The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ensured the missing were not forgotten and I was surprised to learn they are (at least two years ago) still having to protestThe Official Story, apparently based on a true story, is a gripping political melodrama focusing on bourgeoise wife, Alicia (a Cannes winning performance by Norma Aleandro), who suspects that her adopted five-year old daughter may have been taken from one of the ‘disappeared’.

Aida Bortnik’s and director Luis Puenzo’s script brilliantly draws together numerous strands: Alicia is a history teacher whose class is far more clued up to the way ‘assassins’ are the ones who write history; her husband, Roberto (Héctor Alterio), has close ties to the military but whose brother and dad all but disown him as he berates them as ‘losers’. Central is the relationship between Alicia and her daughter which is suddenly thrown into doubt when an old friend, Ana, returns from exile. The scene when the friends are drunkenly reminiscing and Ana tells Alicia the truth about why she went away without saying anything is extraordinary. At first Alicia is chuckling along but the significance of what Ana is saying clearly doesn’t immediately sink in but then she realises Ana is describing how she was tortured; Aleandro’s performance in this scene is enough to justify watching the film.

Alicia’s cosy, bourgeois is punctured and she then seeks the truth in the face of her husband’s cynicism and worse. In such a male dominated society as Argentina was at the time, it’s not surprising that it required women to join together to seek justice and how brave they were (and are) to do so in the face of male oppression.

In the UK we keep hearing from politicians that we shouldn’t upset the extreme right-wing or their violence will get worse. While this may be simple (in more ways than one) politicking because they want PM’s May’s mess of a deal to leave the EU to be voted through today, such appeasement is obviously dangerous. With the new president of Brazil threatening a return to the bad old days of fascist governments in Latin America (usually propped up by America), The Official Story is important in reminding us of the evil perpetrated against ‘the people’ in the region. The film won best foreign film Oscar and whilst those awards are often poor arbiters of taste I suspect they got it right in 1985, only two years after the dictatorship had fallen.

An Elephant Sitting Still (Da xiang xi di er zuo, China 2018)

This title runs for 230 minutes, a challenging length that we know some punters find too long. So it was reassuring when fifty people turned up at the Hyde Park Picture House last Sunday for what appears to be the only local screening. Several people had to take pit stops during the film but [I think] only two members of the audience gave up before the end.

To start with the title; several characters tell the story of an elephant in Manzhouli, (a northern city right near the border with Mongolia and Russia) which just sits and ignores the onlookers, even when they attempt to feed it, prod it or similar. As the narrative proceeds various characters plan to visit Manzhouli to see this elephant. And the elephant does close the story, though in an unexpected manner.

The actual action takes place in a Chinese city which does not seem to be identified. It could be Shenyang, but that seems a little too far from Manzhouli, being near to the border with North Korea, The main action runs for less than a day, from about 6 a.m. to late in the day. A journey of indeterminate length ends the film. Where ever this is a bleak, exploitative and oppressive environment. There is not one really happy character in the film. All seem weighed down with the bleakness of the environment and their lives. The film opens in high-rise flats where the power is not on in all flats, where toilets leak and the grim concrete stairways lead out to an area of rubbish and decay. There are several strands in this story but what mainly drives the development of the plot is the injury and death of a school student and the ramifications that follow this.

If the characters seem desolate they also seem alienated in the full sense of the word. For much of the film the main characters are more introspective than social. When they do carry out actions involving other people it seems misdirected, illegal or just likely to go wrong. The characters are mainly working class though some fall on the boundary between working class and petit bourgeois. And some are genuine lumpen-proletarians. The writing of the characters and the performances are very good. They appear complex and their actions are sometimes surprising.

The film’s style mirrors the bleakness of the environment. The interiors are drab and low-key. And exteriors are fairly low-key as well; I do not remember any sunshine. The cinematography by Chao Fan was shot (I assume)with a Steadicam. There are full sequences that are presented in a single take. The narrative is elliptical. The editing by Bo Hu, the director, frequently cuts to leave a point unfinished. There are regular cuts between protagonists ins different settings, both partly commentating on the characters but also developing a certain mystery for the viewer in the unfolding of the plot. This is reinforced through the camerawork. Frequently the camera angle deliberately avoids showing an action or character. At one point, when a dog is mauled, this may be reticence but at other times it is clearly designed to make the viewer wait for information.

Bo Hu scripted, directed and edited the film so all of this treatment of narrative is his intent. In addition whilst the film appears to have a linear presentation the time frame seems ambiguous. There are the parallel cuts but others that seem to cross to different times. At one point a character’s mobile phone shows 1100; if that is the time the plot so far seems almost in real time. But the film does not run twelve or more hours. And at least one sequence in a café seems like a flashback as it is preceded by two other character observing the café, and possibly the two characters within.

This is unconventional but workable treatment. But on occasions the ambiguity seems excessive. And there are a couple of sequences late in the film that seem unnecessarily prolonged. Part of a similar strategy? I did think a scriptwriting partner could have made the plot development sharper, But that would have only shortened the film by minutes. It does seem to me that the form and subject of the film do justify the running time of over three hours. And the way that we follow the characters was sufficient reason to forgo an intermission, a point some of us noticed.

The elephant of the tile seems clearly intended as symbolic as well as actual. One review sees the elephant as representing an indifference to the world, a world the film presents as cruel and painful. I did wonder whether it had a particular significance in terms of Chinese culture, but no review I found commented on this. But the director, Bo Hu, was a fan of Béla Tarr. Another review described them both as practitioners of ‘miserabilist’ cinema. Not really accurate. But Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies / Werckmeister harmóniák (2000) features a whale that seems to represent the alienation of the village setting; perhaps an influence.

This will be the only directorial credit for Bo Hu as he committed suicide after the film was finished but before its release. Suicide suggests that the despairing alienation felt in the film was a personal expression. How far this has effected the film we have is unclear. It has been reported that the producers tried to shorten the finished film by well over an hour. Fortunately it remains in what appears to be a mostly complete form.

The film was shot on 4K Redcode RAW and Dolby Digital 5.1. The version exhibiting here in Britain does not wholly reflect that. Partly this may be that it is distributed on a 2K DCP, in standard widescreen and colour with English subtitles. Some of the sound seems uneven and some of the interiors lack the contrast you would expect from 4K or from 35mm film. It remains a fascinating and powerful drama. It certainly reflects on the exploitation now experienced in China where capitalism has been restored. Compare the alienated characters with those in one of the dramas from the dawn of the Socialist Revolution in 1949 – Crows and Sparrows / Wuya yu maque, (both films are in Mandarin). The latter film has a real sense of community and people struggling together. Still, An Elephant Sitting Still is a worthwhile film to see and repays the time spent sitting in an auditorium.

The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety of the Penalty (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter, West Germany-Austria 1972)

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If only she knew he was a murderer

For people of my generation, when children, World War II hovered as an impalpable presence even though we were born many years after 1945. For the British it was a marker of former brilliance as the country divested itself of its empire. In Germany, it was a reminder of its shameful past or, possibly, if New German Cinema of the late ’60s/1970s is to be believed, something that was shamefully forgotten. Unfortunately in Britain some are still weirdly attracted to the war and use it as evidence we can survive outside the EU (as if surviving was a laudable benchmark) and ideas of empire remain instilled in their idea of Britishness as a high watermark of civilisation rather than shameful plunder from the rest of the world. Both the British new wave, of the early ’60s, and the German new wave held a mirror up to their country: for the British the main focus was on social class; for the West Germans it was the authoritarian nature of the recovery from war. In addition, Wim Wenders investigated how Americanised West German society had become.

Based on Austrian Peter Handke’s novel of the same name, he also contributed dialogue to the script, the ‘angst’ (sometimes translated as ‘fear’) is an existential one derived from French philosophers, particularly Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. Indeed the protagonist’s motiveless murder early in the film, of a cinema cashier (film’s another recurring theme in Wenders’ work), is a direct reference to Camus’ L’Étranger (The Outsider published in 1942). He, Bloch the goalkeeper who gets sent off at the start of the film, sort of goes on the run to a small village but the genre elements only linger in the background as the lassitude of everyday life is examined. If that sounds boring it isn’t, partly because of the brilliant cinematography (by regular collaborator Robby Müller) which looks exceptional in this restored print. Wenders had never cleared the rights to the American popular music played in the film and apparently it was unavailable for three decades though I’m pretty sure it played in a double bill with Hammett (US, 1980) in the ’80s.

Famously in Wender’s King’s of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976) a character states the ‘Americans have colonised our (Germany’s) unconsciousness’ and references to America proliferate in Goalie’s. The metaphoric meaning of the film’s title is revealed at the end but as to whether you find Bloch’s disconnect to his world a convincing metaphor of West Germany’s disconnect to itself is up to you. However, it is certainly a film that is worth viewing and I’m hoping there will be more Wenders I haven’t seen in the forthcoming MUBI season.

Colette (UK-Hungary-US 2018)

Bouyed by the success of her first novel, Gabrielle (Keira Knightley) and ‘Willy’ (Dominic West) stroll in the countryside outside Paris

Opening in the UK this week, Colette comes sandwiched between all the brouhaha created by The Favourite and the expectations for another female-centred historical drama, Mary Queen of Scots, due out next week. It’s remarkable to have three films together like this and we are certainly blessed to have six excellent female actors in lead roles on our screens at the same time. I enjoyed Colette very much and I was particularly impressed by Keira Knightley as the titular character.

Colette is a ‘partial biopic’, covering the relatively short period in which Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette gets married as a 20 year-old in 1893 and publishes her first novel under her own name in 1910. She would go on to have a long, successful and influential career as a writer, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. She died in 1954. This is the second film to focus on the early period of her career – Becoming Colette with Mathilda May in the lead and directed by Danny Huston was released in 1991. That title made little impact but the new film has some strong credentials with Knightley and Dominic West in the lead roles. It is directed by Wash Westmoreland whose previous success saw Julianne Moore win an Oscar for Still Alice (2014). His new film was written some time ago with his husband Richard Glatzer who died in 2015. The original script was then worked on by Rebecca Lenkiewicz whose first two scripts for the cinema were Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) for Pawel Pawlikowski and Disobedience (UK-US-Belgium 2017) for Sebastián Lelio. That’s quite a pedigree and for me the script is one of the major strengths of the film. The film’s producers include the well-known ‘American independent’ Christine Vachon and the British couple Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen. These three were together on Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015). Wash Westmoreland was born in Leeds and emigrated to the US, but much of the creative input on the film is British. It’s an odd combination perhaps to have a UK-US film shot mainly in Hungary but with cultural content that is totally French. The producers took the sensible decision in my view to present the dialogue in relatively non-accented British English, although Colette’s writing is shown in French. What French audiences will make of the film I’m not sure, although it seems to have done reasonably well in Spain and Italy. I think Keira Knightley has a real international presence.

The young Gabrielle with braids – her story is told through changes in her hair and costumes as much as the dialogue

Gabrielle Colette married an older man, one of her father’s friends, Henry Gauthier-Villars, an unlikely husband for a young woman from rural Burgundy. Dominic West requires whiskers and a prosthetic paunch to capture the corporeal form of a man described variously as a ‘rake’ or ‘libertine’. He operated a ‘writing business’ in Paris, finding outlets for his own music reviews and also peddling the work of a team of ‘ghost writers’ producing ‘popular literature’. He made money and spent it just as quickly but he was generally a popular figure in fin de siècle Paris. At a moment of crisis he persuades Gabrielle to become one of his ghost writers. He discovers that she can indeed write and after ‘spicing up’ her first story with some suggestions he sells it under his own pseudonym, ‘Willy’. The book is a major commercial success detailing the largely autobiographical experiences of ‘Claudine’ – and reaching a new audience of young women. Soon, Gabrielle finds herself writing three more ‘Claudine’ novels, all published under Willy’s name but it becomes clear that several of their friends have suspicions that Gabrielle is the writer.

Gabrielle has her palm read by Willy’s friend Gaston (Jake Graf)

I don’t want to spoil the narrative, so I’ll just say that the material of the central section of the narrative sees Gabrielle starting to assert herself more forcefully in the relationship as she comes to terms with Willy’s world and develops her own interests. I don’t mean to suggest that she isn’t assertive throughout – her talent and personal qualities are there for all to see from the beginning – but she does have to adjust from being a country girl to a sophisticated Parisienne. Keira Knightley handles the transformation with great skill. She has to age from 20 to 37 over the course of the narrative and while Dominic West has his prostheses to hide behind (I understand they were very uncomfortable but he works well with them), Keira Knightley has only changing hairstyles and clothes, so her ability to change her movements and gestures to mark her increasing confidence and maturity is remarkable. The clothes are one of the highlights of the film and I wish I knew more about fashion in the period.

Gabrielle towards the end of the narrative when she is touring as a performer and creating an identity not connected to Willy. (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

Gabrielle became associated with a kind of literary erotica (I think it took some time before her work was translated into English) and life with Willy soon saw his wife expanding her horizons in several ways including her sexual experiences and her circle of friends. Wash Westmoreland was at one time a director of gay porn films and that experience seems to have been beneficial in developing his understanding of how to handle the sexual relationships that develop in Colette. What might seem clumsily transgressive in a mainstream period drama works well here. Willy’s fetishes and Colette’s lesbian affairs produce scenes which are erotic in ways which I think are new in mainstream cinema. (I was amused by one American review that referred to “the dirty Downton Abbey period piece Colette“.) The American reviews generally seem to be less taken with the film than with those I’ve seen from the UK. Keira Knightley still means a blockbuster star of the Pirates franchise to some audiences in the US but for me her roles in Anna Karenina (2012), A Dangerous Method (2011) and a host of other specialised films are much more important. She has matured well as a star actor who uses her body well, especially when faced with an array of period costumes.

Colette deals with gender issues and I think that the story about the early years of a famous female writer’s career is getting compared to other films that have been promoted as part of the #MeToo discourse – and then seen as somehow not saying enough. It isn’t a daring, unconventional film. In some ways it is very conventional and it carries with it all the potential criticisms of a ‘partial biopic’. It’s beautifully photographed by Giles Nuttgens whose work I’ve admired on a wide range of films from Deepa Mehta’s Fire (India-Canada 1996) to David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water (US 2016). There is a well-chosen music soundtrack, no doubt slightly anachronistic, and I suspect that several historical details have been altered. But, unlike The Favourite, the film is coherent and I found it very entertaining. The two older women I followed out of the cinema sounded like they thoroughly enjoyed it as well. I should also credit the production design by Michael Carlin (who also designed The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley), costumes by Andrea Flesch (who was responsible for the costumes for The Duke of Burgundy)and an excellent supporting cast featuring Fiona Shaw as Gabrielle’s mother and Denis Gough as her lover.

Rosa Luxemburg (Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg, West Germany 1986)

This title is one of four films directed by Margarethe von Trotta being distributed by the Independent Cinema Office with support from the Goethe-Institut London and German Screen Studies Network. It is also the first one to be screened in West Yorkshire; at the Hyde Park Picture House this coming Tuesday January 15. Let us hope that it will be followed by the other three. This film was screened at the National Media Museum a couple of years ago. But two other titles, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1975) and The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981), have not been seen for years. Whilst the fourth title, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages / Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (1978) is getting it first British release.

This film is a biopic of one of the most important and in influential revolutionaries of the early twentieth century. Rosa Luxemburg was a lifelong critic of capitalism and the reactionary governments in her native Poland and in Germany where she worked politically. She was an important contributor to Marxist theory and analysis. Read her ‘Reform or Revolution’ (1900) now and sections offer an astute and detailed critique which applies directly to the recent 2008 crisis of capitalism. Most notably Rosa was one of the few Marxists, along with Lenin and the Bolsheviks and our own Sylvia Pankhurst, to oppose the imperialist war of 1914 – 1918. Finally she was murdered in 1919 after the failed Spartacist uprising.

[[See the recent demonstration to commemorate Rosa and Karl Liebknecht].

“Red Rosa now has vanished too. (…)

She told the poor what life is about,

And so the rich have rubbed her out.

May she rest in peace.” (Bertolt Brecht).

Von Trotta’s film covers most of Luxemburg’s adult life. It is selective, of necessity with a running time of just on two hours. The film opens in one of the many spells in prison; here in 1916 and then cutting to an earlier prison spell in Poland in 19106. This film continues to use changes in time to explore Luxemburg’s adult life. The key characteristics of Luxemburg are dramatised, including her break with the reformism of the German Social Democrats. Luxemburg spent a number of spells in prison and these show the steely conviction of this heroine. The film uses well chosen extracts from Luxemburg’s letters and speeches. The weakness of the film is that whilst it shows the complexity of Luxemburg herself it is not able to do this for her comrades and her enemies. The film does not attempt to explicate the Marxism of the period but concentrates on her battle within the German party and her opposition to the war. It details both her political and personal lives but does no completely integrate them. The film does emphasise Luxemburg’s political action as a woman; making it seem relevant to the present. But it also means that the male revolutionaries do seem pale by comparison. Oddly Lenin and the Bolsheviks only get one brief mention.

Luxemburg is played by von Trotta’s long-time collaborator Barbara Sukowa, who won awards in Germany and at the Cannes Film Festival. Deserved awards as Sukowa creates a complex character who generates sympathy but who also is a difficult person with whom to deal.

Margarethe, as is her wont, has also scripted the film. Her production team is, as usual in her films, excellent. The music, by Nicolas Economou, is orchestral and marks the more dramatic sequences. The cinematography is by Franz Rath, who also worked on the earlier films. The palette, given the subject and settings, is often suitably grim and gloomy. This is especially true of the prison sequences but at other times there are impressive long shots of Rosa against settings that are both realist and symbolic. The Film Editing is by Dagmar Hirtz and Galip Iyitanir in a film that has a complex structure, cutting back and forth in time and space. And the film’s look, with Set Decoration by Stepan Exner and Bernd Lepel and Costume Design by Monika Hasse, catches the period accurately. In the latter part them film also uses archive film to weave this biography into the seismic events at the end of the war and in the immediate post-war world.

We are still waiting for The Young Karl Marx to appear in West Yorkshire but it is good that the portrait of this outstanding and fascinating woman revolutionary is with us. And fortunately the film is of the quality that she deserves. The film is in standard widescreen and colour with English sub-titles. And the German transfers to digital are usually of a high quality.

The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (US 1939)

It’s a while since I’ve watched a ‘B’ picture from studio Hollywood so I’m not sure how representative this film is. Online research shows that there are American fans of ‘The Lone Wolf’ and that this film is for some fans one of the weakest in the series. It’s much easier to see these kinds of films on American cable channels and I can’t comment on those preferences, though I disagree with some of the comments about Ida Lupino in this film. (I’m referring to this interesting post on the film from a Warren William blog which I otherwise found very useful.)

This is the first of nine outings for the character ‘Michael Lanyard’ a.k.a. ‘The Lone Wolf’ played by Warren William, a leading man in ‘pre-code Hollywood’ who continued to be prolific in the later 1930s and 1940s but who died aged only 53 in 1948. He’d previously played in a Warner Bros. series as ‘Perry Mason’ but this Lone Wolf series came from Columbia with each film running for around 70-80 minutes. This first film has the distinction of two female leads still in the early stages of what would later become ‘A’ list careers – Ida Lupino and Rita Hayworth. Both young women were 20 at this point, but both had already appeared in several films. Lupino was second-billed to William as she had more experience in leading roles than Rita Hayworth. I don’t know much about the director, Peter Godfrey, who was British and a former actor directing only his second film. Later some directors took on more than one title in the series. Edward Dmytryk directed two of the later ones. My research suggests that there had already been other ‘Lone Wolf’ films from other studios and this story actually dates from 1914, one of the eight stories written by Louis Joseph Vance (1879-1933). IMDb suggests that there were some 20 films in all plus radio and TV series featuring ‘The Lone Wolf’. There is a suggestion that Columbia gave this a slightly higher budget to cover the salaries of Lupino and Hayworth but in the event it turned out to be one of the shortest films in the series. I wonder if there were cuts?

from left: Karen (Rita Hayworth), Michael (Warren William) and Val (Ida Lupino)

Michael Lanyard is an ex-saferobber who was once a kind of ‘gentleman thief’ in the mould of Raffles. He is now going straight and has been accepted in high society, so much so that he is dating the daughter of a Senator in Washington. This is Val Carson (Ida Lupino). Lanyard’s household includes a young daughter, Patricia (Virginia Weidler) and a butler Jameson (another British actor, Leonard Carey). The plot is a convoluted tale of crooks rather than ‘spies’, working for an oil millionaire who is attempting to steal the secret plans for an anti-aircraft gun. Lanyard is entrapped by a young woman, Karen (Rita Hayworth), and forced to open a safe where some of the plans are kept. The plot hinges on the plans being split into two parts, each of which is in a safe in a different location. Cue endless mini-chases as different envelopes are stolen and then taken back while The Lone Wolf is pursued by both the crooks and the police. I thought at first that it was going to work along the lines of The Thin Man and other comedy thrillers of the 1930s. The spy theme doesn’t appear to have any direct connection to the expectation of war in Europe which isn’t too surprising, though the British actors and director would presumably have been aware of events. It is certainly a ‘light’ and at times quite witty film. But Lupino is much younger than William who is twice her age. It is difficult for her character to match his sophistication (i.e. like Myrna Loy with William Powell in The Thin Man) and the script relegates her role to comic relief, much like the butler and the daughter. (The film was also released with the title The Lone Wolf’s Daughter.) I understand that the girl playing Patricia was a prolific and well-respected child actor who the next year appeared in both The Philadelphia Story and The Women, but here she is a brat for much of the film only becoming resourceful in the final sequence. Columbia must have come to the same conclusions about the casting because for the remaining eight films they cast different female leads, changed the butler and dropped the daughter.

My main concern with the film is Ida Lupino’s participation.The film came at the point when she had left Paramount and was working freelance. She must have been concerned about her income and responded to Columbia’s offer even though she was in the process of marrying Louis Hayward in November 1938 when the shoot began. In one sense it is odd in that she presumably thought of the film much as she did some of the other ‘B’ pictures that she had appeared in as a loanee from Paramount. On the other hand, the comedy element may have been attractive. The blog by Cliff Aliperti referenced above suggests that the comic elements were not there in the original stories and that Warren William brought them with him from the Perry Mason series – an intriguing suggestion as I don’t remember any comic elements (apart from a few smiles and nudges) in the books or the later Raymond Burr TV series. But then Aliperti argues that Ida Lupino can’t play comedy and he describes her performance as ‘cartoony’ and zany (while saying that he admired her performances in the early 1940s when she stepped up to ‘bigger pictures’). These are interesting comments, especially put against other commentaries on later Lupino films.

The ‘knife scene’ in which Val frightens away Helen (Marie Templeton) who she thinks is a rival (she’s not!)

Ida Lupino was often described as ‘intense’, both in her performances and sometimes in her off-screen behaviour. At the same time she was a talented actor with an unparalleled range of performance skills learned within the Lupino family set-up. She could do comic timing and she had the skills for slapstick. Aliperti points to a piece of ‘comic business’ she does with a knife when interrogating a woman she thinks is a rival for Michael’s affections. Ida Lupino did appear in a full-blown Warner Bros. comedy, Pillow to Post (1945) in which she plays the daughter of a businessman, trying to make a contribution as a travelling salesperson and discovering how difficult it is to find accommodation in wartime – and having to share a room with a man. Several commentators attest to Lupino’s skills in pulling off this kind of farce/screwball comedy, expressing surprise that she wasn’t used more often in this kind of role. I haven’t seen Pillow to Post (her Warners films are difficult to find in the UK) but I enjoyed her performance in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt. In this mode Ida comes across as a ‘trouper’ (which I’m sure she was) willing and able to have a go. She handles a baseball bat as a weapon with as much skill as she wears a mink stole. This would be the last time Ida Lupino appeared in a B movie but the interesting trivia point is that Louis Hayward played The Lone Wolf on TV in the 1950s, by which time Ida Lupino was in her third marriage having divorced Hayward in 1945.