Arnaud Desplechin’s film was screened at Cannes in 2021 and released in cinemas in some territories in early 2022. It is now available to stream on MUBI. I presume that this means that it is unlikely to appear in cinemas in the UK and US. If so that would be a shame but not perhaps unusual. Deception is an adaptation of the 1990 novel by Philip Roth and presenting such a text in the aftermath of #MeToo does raise a number of questions. Roth, who died in 2018, became more controversial as a writer towards the end of his career as attitudes towards gender relationships changed. As a novelist he adopted several identities, each of which was a version of himself and Deception presents us with ‘Philip’, an American writer who spends time living in London in 1987 attempting to to write a new novel. His practice is to reflect on his previous extra-marital affairs. Each day he leaves the house rented for himself and his wife and visits a small flat intended as a study. Here he meets a younger Englishwoman. The three other women, besides his wife, who feed into his thoughts include an ex-lover and friend in the US, a young Czech exile and a former student from his teaching days at a university. The novel he is writing is dialogue heavy and appears to make use of his conversations with these women. Are they ‘real’ conversations or a product of his imagination?
1987 is two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is important in terms of Philip’s interest in Eastern Europe, but otherwise the only markers of the time are the phone sets and a red telephone box. Desplechin had wanted to adapt the novel for many years and had actually had a conversation about it with Roth after a reference on the DVD of Desplechin’s 2004 film Kings & Queen. He returned to the idea during lockdown which made him think of the writer’s room which allows Roth’s ‘Philip’ to shut out the world. The Press Notes for Deception include interviews with Desplechin and his two stars, Léa Seydoux as ‘the English lover’ and Denis Podalydès which I read after the screening. I was struck by Desplechin’s assertion that ‘realist cinema’ locks characters into their own little box whereas he likes the idea of the writer’s room where the characters can be ‘free’. This then translates to the director’s approach to the adaptation and his collaboration with his co-writer Julie Peyr and his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. Despite the English setting, the cast are all leading French actors and the dialogue is in French. The ‘room’ is re-imagined in different ways over the narrative, starting on stage in the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris. We never see Philip travelling and his memories of meeting a young Czech woman are played out against black and white film footage, back-projected. During the long scenes of interaction with the English lover (who is never named), the camerawork includes many close-ups and effects like iris-masking.
My own preference is for realist/sociological detail but I do enjoy the use of fantasy and effects in scenes so I was quite prepared to follow Philip’s thoughts in this way. I have read some of Roth’s works, but mainly the earlier novels so I didn’t have too much difficulty with the idea of a writer who plays around with his own identity in his texts. The most concrete issue of Philip’s identity is arguably his ‘Jewishness’ which is discussed at various points including his interest in other Jewish novelists, his family history which he traces back to his family roots in Galicia in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the profile of modern Israel. He also states that English Jewry is ‘soft’ compared to the more vigorous American Jewish culture. It’s at this point that I did find it slightly problematic, wondering if this was only Roth’s viewpoint, one invented by ‘Philip’ or whether there was also a French perspective in there somewhere? ‘Englishness’ appears only in terms of the pub where the lovers meet or complaints about the weather.
What to make of the world of Philip, the thoughts in his head and his interactions and memories with the four women? Is there a misogynist charge? The film narrative is divided into chapters, one of which, ‘The Trial’, is a theatrical staging of the case against Philip conducted solely by women. Desplechin says this is a pure Kafka sequence and Philip defends himself against all charges. Apart from the director and his lead actor, most of the other significant figures in the film are women. At this point I should say that the five women who play the four lovers and the wife and the women in the court give excellent performances and whatever I do think of the film overall, the actors (including the great Emmanuelle Devos ) are a major source of pleasure alongside the camerawork and art direction. The music by Grégoire Hetzel is also very good. The central question is really about the extent to which Léa Seydoux bought into the script. She is literally the most exposed character in the film with some of the most provocative lines, all delivered with panache and heart. If I have any doubt it is only about Roth’s view of the world. This is a film narrative which plays out within the sealed world of the writer’s head, with only tantalising glimpses into the characters’ relationships to events in the wider world outside. The lover has a young daughter who is never seen and an unhappy marriage, so perhaps she wants to just enjoy the hours away from her family or is her motherhood simply not relevant in the context of her afternoons with Philip? The lovers do discuss what having a child can mean at one point but just as we don’t know what Philip’s wife does while he is away in his room, that’s as far as it goes.
I think I surprised myself by enjoying the film more than I thought I might. That may be mostly because of the performances, the direction and the presentation. Léa Seydoux and Denis Podalydès are a joy to watch at work.
I’d known about this film for a long time, but never attempted to see it. I assumed it was a ‘worthy’ filmed play. But when I began to watch as many Sidney Poitier films as possible, I decided to rent the Criterion Blu-ray available on Cinema Paradiso. My assumptions proved misguided at best. I was totally gripped by the film, staying up until 2 am to watch it through. I knew it was of some cultural importance but I didn’t actually know the half of it.
The original play was written by Lorraine Hansberry and when the production reached Broadway in 1959, she became the youngest, the first African American and only the fifth woman to write a Broadway play. Hansberry died tragically young at the age of only 34 from cancer in 1965. She also provided the inspiration for the Nina Simone song, ‘Young, Gifted and Black’. What a woman! Her parents were middle-class and it was their experience in moving into a previously all white neighbourhood of Chicago which provided the central idea for the play. The Criterion Blu-ray includes a host of extras, including background on Ms Hansberry.
The production took some time to reach Broadway via openings outside New York and it was a struggle to put on the show – but eventually it found its audience and especially Black theatregoers (though not without dissenting voices). Its success meant that a Hollywood adaptation was inevitable and the rights were acquired by Columbia. The studio were prepared to allow Lorraine Hansberry to adapt her own play, but they weren’t prepared to hire the play’s original African American director Lloyd Richards (who was actually born in Canada as the son of a Jamaican migrant father), claiming he had limited experience of either film or television. At that point he had appeared as an actor on television and as himself in two TV series about the theatre. Instead, Columbia hired the Canadian director Daniel Petrie who had ten years of experience directing dramas, including live plays on US TV, but only one feature film for the cinema (The Bramble Bush in 1960 with Richard Burton and Barbara Rush). Columbia also kept a tight reign on Hansberry. Supposedly worried that the film might be off-putting for white audiences, they barred the use of African American speech patterns and several subjects that Hansberry wanted to broach. Fortunately they didn’t veto the original cast so all the principal players appeared in the film.
The play features an African American family on Chicago’s South Side. It appears to be a family located on the boundary of working-class/lower middle-class. They live in a rented two bedroom apartment. Father has died and it is his life insurance money that drives the narrative. Mother (Lena) is about to cease full-time work as a domestic servant. Her eldest son is Walter Lee, a chauffeur and her daughter Beneatha is a student hoping to enter medical school. Walter Lee is married to Ruth and they have a son Travis. Walter Lee wants to use at least part of the money to open a bar with two friends. Some of the money should be used to pay Beneatha’s school fees. As the plot develops, it becomes clear that Lena has plans to use the money to put a deposit on a house in a white suburb – the only decent house she can find at the right price. If she goes through with her plan there will be consequences, possibly for Walter Lee and Beneatha. There is also the possibility of a reaction from white residents.
The film’s title is taken from the 1951 poem ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The concept of ‘deferred gratification’ is often quoted as marking the difference between working-class and middle-class approaches to life in capitalist societies. In this play, Walter Lee’s aspiration, after working as a chauffeur for many years, is a business venture whereas Beneatha is prepared to give up several years of earnings in the hope of earning a higher salary in future. For Walter Lee, earning money, ‘making money’, is what defines him as a man. For Beneatha it is acquiring learning and culture that will define her. But for Lena it is family that is most important and that means a home in which the family can thrive. These are universal issues but Hansberry’s play also presents the specific context of African American life and weaves the specificities of certain issues into the narrative. The play’s origination in housing issues and specifically the racial segregation experienced, even in the North before the ‘Fair Housing Act’ as part of the 1968 Civil Rights legislation, is one aspect of this. Beneatha has two suitors in the play. George Murchison is a successful business man and an ‘assimilated’ African American. But Beneatha spends more time with Joseph Asagai, a Yoruba student from Nigeria who tries to educate her about Africa (many (most?) African Americans of this era knew little about Africa). Hughes’ poem about a ‘dream deferred’ points to all the problems associated with African American life in the 1950s.
The filmed play
Stage adaptations have long had a bad rap among film critics and scholars and I confess to having avoided them whenever possible. However, in this case I think the adaptation works. The first major issue is whether to ‘open out’ the play in order to make it more ‘cinematic’. This can produce a very artificial sense of shooting an outdoor scene just for the sake of it. Petrie uses three main scenes outside the apartment – Walter Lee seen as a chauffeur at work and again in his local bar meeting his friends and the whole family visiting the house in the suburbs. The first of these is not strictly necessary but the other two add something significant. But the vast majority of the long running time (128 minutes) remains in the apartment. The studio set was designed and lit to enable particular framings and shot compositions. The most notable feature of the camerawork is the use of deep focus. This means that on occasions shots can be organised so that the whole depth of the apartment could be utilised with characters in the foreground, middle ground and background. There is also a number of high angle and low angle shots inside the rooms. The overall effect is not an expressionist style in which the the mise en scène plays an exaggerated role, but a form of realism in which the emotional playing of the actors can be highlighted. Charles Lawton Jr. was an interesting choice as cinematographer. He was a veteran, often associated with Westerns. Two of the directors he worked with were John Ford and Orson Welles, both known for deep focus staging. He had also worked on live TV plays.
Since the cast were very familiar with the script they were able to approach their roles with confidence and move freely through the set. As well as Sidney Poitier playing Walter Lee and Ruby Dee again playing the Poitier character’s wife on screen, the other two main players were Claudia McNeil as Lena and Diana Sands as Beneatha. I’m not sure if stage productions are less age-specific in casting, but Claudia McNeil was playing much older than her real age – she was only twelve years older than Poitier. All the central performances are excellent. Most reviews of the play and the film acknowledge the standout performance as Poitier’s and argue that it is a play focused primarily on Walter Lee. I didn’t feel this so strongly. I wouldn’t want to put one performance ahead of the others, but as a narrative I thought this was Lena’s story. Perhaps it is because I see it as a family melodrama which in film and television is usually focused on the women.
This does appear to be a play which is both specific to the African American experience in the 1950s and early 1960s but is also relatable for universal audiences. As I watched it I did think of the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the British New Wave including the stage play Look Back in Anger (1959) and the literary adaptation A Kind of Loving (1962). I was also reminded of a Spanish film, Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner (1963). These may all sound unlikely comparisons but they each explore working-class ‘aspirations’ around more or less the same period. They also each use a similar form of what is now known in Europe as social realism. To be more specific, The Executioner uses a neo-realist idea in that a young man accepts the job of executioner for the Spanish state because it confers access to public housing (he has no desire to execute people but he needs a house for his wife and child and father-in-law). A Raisin in the Sun follows the same neo-realist idea – introduce a simple change to the lives of an ‘ordinary family’ and explore what happens. In this case $10,000 dollars of insurance money, rather than ‘solving’ the family’s problems exposes some of the tensions which lie below the surface of family life in South Chicago.
I feel that director Petrie, cinematographer Lawton and the whole creative team were able to showcase the emotional performances of the principal players. The images presented in this post (including a selection of screengrabs from dvdbeaver.com) show how a stage play can be adapted effectively for the big screen. Poitier is well served by Petrie. His very physical performance is enhanced by the camerawork and compositions. When I consider how Poitier is presented in this film, I see a distinct change from the 1950s roles in films like No Way Out (1950) and Edge of the City (1957). In those films he still feels trapped within the concept of the ‘good Negro’ but Walter Lee is allowed to be human, to ‘fail’, to be cruel and insensitive and to be shamed by his mother. It is the strength of the characterisation of the three women in his life that makes this possible.
The Criterion website is an excellent resource and carries two useful essays on the film as well as details of the Blu-ray and DVD. If you are going to watch this film, I urge you to consider watching the Criterion disc.
Asako I & II is the second of the four features which announced Hamaguchi Ryusuke as a writer-director on the world stage after an earlier career mainly concerned with student film projects and documentaries. I watched it before a screening and discussion of Drive My Car. Already on this blog are Happy Hour (Japan 2015) which Nick Lacey reviewed and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) which I wrote about after its London Film Festival screening. I did also manage to watch a small part of Happy Hour before it disappeared from MUBI. I mention this simply because I now realise how much Hamaguchi seems to be teasing away at some of the same or similar narrative ideas across the four films.
Asako is a shy and retiring young woman who also happens to be very attractive in a quiet way. We first meet her going to a photographic exhibition in her home city of Osaka and becoming intrigued by a tall young man with wild hair who doesn’t appear to be her type. Nevertheless she follows him out of the exhibition and they tentatively begin a relationship. He tells her his name is ‘Baku’. Asako is clearly smitten and then she meets his friend Okazaki. It turns out that Asako’s best friend Haruyo knows Okazaki and she warns Asako (in front of the two young men) that Baku looks like ‘bad news’. I think I missed something during this meeting of the four characters. Haruyo makes a comment about Okazaki’s name and Asako later explains to Haruyo that she likes the name Baku because the kanji symbol for Baku means ‘Wheat’. These early sequences (including a clubbing scene and a motorcycle ride, both accompanied by the music of Tofubeats (the singer, producer, DJ, Kawai Yusuke)), suggest that we are watching a conventional romcom. But then Baku does his disappearing trick, going out on a simple shopping trip but never returning. All of the film so far is a pre-title credit sequence, a device Hamaguchi will extend in Drive My Car.
A little over two years later, Asako has left university and is now in Tokyo, working in a coffee shop. Close by are the offices of a sake brewing company where she delivers coffee for a meeting and, shocked, comes across a young salaryman who looks just like Baku apart from wearing a suit and sporting a more conservative haircut. This is a second ‘meet cute’ in the language of modern genre romance. But this isn’t Baku, it’s Ryohei, someone who looks just Baku. Asako will fall in love all over again. She has a new friend in Tokyo, Maya, and Ryohei has a young colleague Kushihashi. The quartet this time are more conventional and become involved in more grown-up and sophisticated activities. Maya is an aspiring actor and one intriguing scene involves a discussion of acting in a Chekhov adaptation. I won’t reveal any more of the plot details but, as you are wondering, yes, Baku does re-appear later on and Asako will make a number of startling decisions.
As the title suggests, Asako I & II, is about the question of Asako’s reactions to events, rather than the differences between Baku and Ryohei. The film was adapted by Hamaguchi and Tanaka Sachiko from Netemo Sametemo, a novel by Shibasaki Tomoka. Hamaguchi tells us he followed the book quite closely but he has made one significant addition to the narrative in the form of the Tohuku earthquake of 2011. The novel was published in 2010. Hamaguchi explains that Shibasaki’s novels deal with the everyday but that they also contain social commentaries. The 2011 event was so important it had an impact on everyone’s lives. Its introduction in the film produces some remarkable cinema and its aftermath is cleverly woven into the narrative. Hamaguchi also tells us that he partially defined the two versions of his central male character by their speech and Baku the more ‘closed’ character speaks a standard Tokyo dialect while Ryohei speaks with a Kansai (Osaka region) dialect – common to many of the characters in Shibasaki’s novels.
The casting of the film sees a well-known young actor, Higashide Masahiro, as Baku/Ryohei. Although barely 30 when he made the film, Higashide had more than 40 credits to his name. Karata Erika as Asako had much less experience, mostly in TV and none of the others had quite the profile of Higashide (who Hamaguchi knew partly because the young man had appeared in a Kurosawa Kiyoshi film). As in his previous film Happy Hour, Hamaguchi used a rehearsal method inspired by Jean Renoir and the results are impressive. The film looks good as photographed by Sasaki Yasuyuki, but I’m not sure why it is presented in a 1.66 : 1 ratio – perhaps it is the French connection since that screen shape remains a choice for some French auteurs.
I enjoyed the film which I found intriguing. As Hamaguchi predicted in his press notes, I found the final section startling. I now feel (after also watching Drive My Car, post to follow) that although the four films are structurally different, I am getting a feel for Hamaguchi’s narratives and his ideas. I’m very much looking forward to what he does next. IMDb carries a teasing suggestion that he is currently planning or making something in Paris. With Kore-eda Hirokazu now taking Netflix’s shilling, I hope we get something new from Hamaguchi. Asako I & II is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK but I don’t know of any planned UK cinema or DVD release.
The original version of this story was a short story, “Broncho Billy and the Baby”, which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1910 and was the basis for an Essanay short film of the same name. The short story is credited as the basis for Kyne’s later novel ‘The Three Godfathers’ in 1913; an online version is dated 1916 and would seem no longer than the original story. Set in Arizona, the basic plot has a gang of bank robbers stumble on a covered wagon where a dying woman entrusts her baby to their care; thus they become the ‘godfathers’ of the title.
” The Youngest Bad Man had just been the recipient of a serious thought. He hastened to get it off his mind. Boylike he interrupted and rose to a question of information.
“What’s a godfather, Bill? What job does he hold down?”
“You’re an awful ignorant young man, Bob,” replied The Wounded Bad Man reproachfully. “You been raised out in the woods somewheres? A godfather, Bob, is a sort of reserve parent. When a kid is baptized there’s a godfather an’ a godmother present, an’ for an’ on behalf o’ the kid they promise the preacher, just the same as the kid would if he could only talk, to renounce the devil with all his works an’ pomps——”
“What’s his works and pumps?” demanded The Youngest Bad Man.”
“Well—robbin’ banks an’ shootin’ up deputy sheriffs, et cetry, et cetry.”
The drama then follows as the men battle the Colorado Desert and a lack of water to carry the baby to safety. Their destination is the mining town of New Jerusalem. One item the men carry is a bible, found in the wagon. The story is full of religious symbolism from the New Testament and the passion sequences. A burro stands in for the donkey of Palm Sunday and there are several references to the ‘good thief’ of the crucifixion.
The novel has proved a popular source for film adaptations;
Three Godfathers, a 1916 film with Harry Carey
Marked Men, a 1919 remake of the 1916 film, also starring Harry Carey, considered a lost film
Action, a lost 1921 film
Hell’s Heroes, a 1929 film directed by William Wyler
Hells Heels, a 1930 ‘Oswald the Lucky Rabbit’ animated short directed by Walter Lantz
Three Godfathers, a 1936 film featuring Chester Morris
3 Godfathers, a 1948 film starring John Wayne [Three Godfathers in Britain].
Ice Age, 2002, where a mammoth, a tiger and sloth rescue a child; but neither the novel nor the earlier films are credited.
Tokyo Godfathers, a 2003 Japanese animated film loosely based on the novel.
Roy has reviewed a digital version of the 1948 title. I had the pleasure of viewing the 1929 version on 35mm at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1994. This was my second visit to the Festival, then still presented in the old 1930s Verdi Theatre. The film appeared in both silent and Movietone sound versions. We viewed the silent version in a 35mm print with English title cards from the George Eastman House. The film had some inspired additions to the novel. Neil Brand provided the piano accompaniment. The climax of the film had additional music in one of the finest cinema experiences that I have enjoyed. In this film version the surviving Bob [Charles Bickford] staggers into New Jerusalem, carrying the baby; it is Christmas Morning rather than the night of Christmas Eve in the original story. He collapses in front of the town’s people gathered in the wooden framed church. This sequence was accompanied by a burst from a choir out of the darkness singing ‘Silent Night’. In the darkness they had gathered in the two small musician’s balconies either side of the proscenium. There was not a dry eye in the theatre. Unfortunately the old Verdi is no more. However Universal Pictures together with The Film Foundation is producing a restoration of the film.
The film notes in the Catalogue comments:
“Poignant camerawork and naive yet effective symbolism shouldn’t make you overlook the director’s early evidence of Jansenist obsession with falling from grace and the struggle for forgiveness.”
As Roy notes, this is based on a comment by Andre Bazin and Bert Cardullo. Jansenism rose in the C17th and 18th; it was condemned as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. The perceived error was an emphasis on ‘justification by faith alone’ rather than the embracing of God’s grace through free well. In ‘The Three Godfathers’ the reader senses that the three bad men are forced, by their encounter with mother and baby, to reveal an innate goodness that overcomes their evil ways. One could see a similar personal development in Wyler’s later masterpiece, The Best Years of their Lives (1946). But the scriptwriters presumably were also responsible in translating the themes of the novel to film. Tom Reed and C. Gardner Sullivan were both experienced dramatists for popular film including work for the western genre.
The 1948 version, directed by John Ford, is not of the same calibre. However, Roy rightly praises the Technicolor cinematography of Winston C Hoch. The screenplays, by Laurence Stallings and Frank S. Nugent, credits the Kyne novel. However, there are quite few changes from that and they also differ from those in the Wyler version. In particular the ending completely lacks the drama and tragic overtones of the 1929 version. This is partly down to the writing but also to the way that the Wayne persona differs from that of the young Bickford. And whilst the music presents Ford’s particular favourite melodies and songs it does not offer the impact of the live choir of 1994.
This is a hybrid drama presented as a francophone film in My French Film Festival. It is also available on UK streamers via the BFI for a few more days (i.e. BFI Player subscription, Amazon Prime and Apple) and possibly on Google and Apple for longer. Adapted by Joanne Giger from a novel by Roland Buti, this is the second feature by the Swiss director Delphine Lehericey, now living in Belgium. The film is an official Belgian-Swiss co-production. It has quite a starry cast and has won a positive critical response at festivals and subsequently gained distribution in a number of territories. I am not totally convinced by the film but it is certainly worth catching.
I’m calling it a hybrid simply because all the reviews and most of the promotional material I’ve seen categorise the film as a ‘coming-of-age’ story. While that is certainly an important element in the film and the narrative is focused on 13 year-old Gus, that isn’t a complete description. And apart from anything else ‘coming of age’ is a very loose concept related to individuals and occurring at very different ages. Sometimes it is sexual maturity, sometimes it is about adult responsibility, sometimes it is simply about the ending of childhood. Just as important in this case is a natural phenomenon and a couple of social issues which loom large in the lives of a family in 1976 on a farm somewhere in rural Europe. Anyone over the age of 50 will now remember 1976 as the time of the great heat wave and drought. It was a momentous year in my life in the UK but fortunately I wasn’t in a rural area and I remember the heat rather than the drought – but farming communities in Central Europe must have suffered. This film was actually shot in Macedonia. I’m not sure why (apart from wider European funding) but it works well as a landscape for drought.
The family is headed by Nicole (Laetitia Casta) and Jean (Thibaut Evrard). Jean’s father Annibal (Patrick Descamps) is still alive and the children are Gus (Luc Bruchez) and Léa (Lisa Harder). There is also Rudi (Fred Hotier), a young man with some form of learning difficulty. I wasn’t sure of his status but one review I read stated he is a cousin of Gus and therefore perhaps the nephew of Nicole. At 13 Gus is still quite small as a late developer, but his hormones are starting to kick in and early on we see him stealing a magazine of nudes to add to his usual reading of comic books. He will have other experiences that are more tactile and the six weeks of summer holiday drought and heat are quite eventful. One thing is clear and that is that he is close to his mother. Luc Bruchez was appearing in his first film and the fact that he is on screen for most senes adds to his excellent début. His haircut and small stature reminded me of the Small Faces, the UK band from the mid 1960s.
1976 is an important period of feminist consciousness (see films like Agnes Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (France 1977) and Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (France 2015)). In this film Nicole meets the divorced Cécile and a relationship begins. Cécile’s arrival on the scene has an impact on most of the other family members – and many others in the area. The farm needs money and Nicole decides to work part-time at the Post Office with Cécile. Daughter Léa also responds to Cécile’s arrival but I think her story is underplayed in the film (I couldn’t find an image from the film that includes Léa).
The males in the family do most of the actual farming and it is very difficult with crops and animals dying in the heat and drought. This is a double issue. Jean has invested in some intensively-raised poultry, not a good idea for sustainable farming, even back in the 1970s. The maize crop is ruined and the dairy cows fed on expensive stored feed are the only part of the farm generating an income. In some ways scenes reminded me of foot and mouth disease in the UK and the thousands of cattle and sheep that had to be burned. If you are upset by animals dying this probably isn’t the film for you. The other factor is the long-term economic decline of the family farm. Jean doesn’t want to work for anyone else but he hasn’t got the resources to keep the farm going. Rudi is a willing worker but Gus is reluctant and works only out of duty and family pressure. Jean is a hard worker but it isn’t enough.
The cast are all very good and the cinematography by the very experienced Christophe Beaucarne is excellent. Léa is part of the school orchestra and some of the discussions about music are interesting (the Ramones aren’t allowed onto the radio for instance, so UK style punk won’t be having much of an impact). I read one review that suggested that the director consciously avoids conventional storytelling. That’s an interesting point. I felt that some characters who seemed important were not really explored and although there is a narrative climax when the rains finally come, I didn’t feel that there was any kind of conclusive resolution. I suspect that what we are meant to take from the final image is simply that after the summer of 1976 the family will never be quite the same again.
I re-watched The Maltese Falcon in order to remind myself of the Dashiel Hammett narrative and his characters. This is part of my Raymond Chandler research. Hammett was a few years younger than Chandler but the two men both served in the Great War. The big difference was that Hammett started writing crime fiction for Black Mask in the early 1920s, a good decade before Chandler, and his novel-length stories such as The Maltese Falcon were sold to Hollywood in the early 1930s. Hammett had already worked as a Pinkerton’s detective before he started writing and his approach to writing was one of Chandler’s early influences when he too started writing for Black Mask.
The 1941 film was the third use of Hammett’s novel, following The Maltese Falcon (1931) with Bebe Daniels in the Mary Astor role and Satan Met a Lady (1936) a slightly changed adaptation with Bette Davis and Warren William. This version had the same cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, as the 1941 film. There are also possible later versions. This is a good example of the way in which the studios re-cycled properties in the 1930s. There are several reasons why the 1941 version has remained in the public consciousness where the older films have fallen from view. One is that this was the first film directed by John Huston who also wrote the screenplay, having become established at Warner Bros. as a writer in the late 1930s. Huston was seen as gifted young man whose writing credits dated back to the early 1930s. His directorial début came at a precise moment and coincided with the rise of Humphrey Bogart into the front rank of Warner stars. This was partly because of his performance as Roy Earle in High Sierra earlier in the same year which was another crime fiction literary adaptation (from W. R. Burnett) written by John Huston. Finally, The Maltese Falcon has been seen as either an early film noir or as a film that pointed in the direction of the noirs that were to come. This last reason why the 1941 film has been remembered is, I think, a case of retrospective invention. The film noir claims are rather thin and I think most of this is based on a similar coincidence in the 1970s when Bogart was in the midst of a revival of interest in his star persona and film noir was just starting to be discussed in detail by film scholars and fans.
The Maltese Falcon is set in Hammett’s San Francisco rather than Los Angeles. The setting is more or less contemporary for the late 1930s/early 1940s and the narrative begins in the offices of Sam Spade (Bogart), a private eye in partnership with Miles Archer. A similar office would appear in the first full Chandler adaptation, Farewell My Lovely (1944). Spade, however has a helpful and loyal ‘secretary’ in the form of Effie (Lee Patrick), who is brave, smart and sassy – she is a considerable asset in Spade’s business. Spade receives a visit from a woman who he eventually discovers is a ‘Brigid O’Shaughnessy’ played by Mary Astor. Spade soon realises that Brigid is not what she actually appears to be and that she can’t be trusted. Yet he also finds himself attracted to her. But Spade himself is no angel and he too is adept at spinning tales. What follows is a series of murders and the appearance of three more characters who would become iconic figures in Hollywood. First Peter Lorre arrives as ‘Joel Cairo’, then Sydney Greenstreet as Mr Guttman and finally Elisha Cook Jr. as the gunsel. Lorre was already a Hollywood figure and had come to America after his lead role in M (Germany 1931). It was Greenstreet’s first cinema role after many years on the stage in the UK and US. Elisha Cook Jr. racked up over 200 credits for minor roles in a career lasting more than 50 years. The joke among filmgoers was whether or not his character would survive until the end of the film. The Macguffin in the story is the ‘Black Falcon’, a valuable relic in the form of a statuette that Guttman seeks to acquire and Brigid claims she is about to collect. The plot doesn’t really matter that much. It is the interaction of the characters that engages the audience. There is also a role for Ward Bond as a Police Detective.
What I most noticed this time were the very quick dialogue exchanges and in particular Bogart’s delivery. Bogart delivers his lines at pace and sometimes as he’s going out of the door as he’s finishing a line. It’s very snappy and the pace never let’s up. But Sydney Greenstreet is a perfect foil in his scenes responding to Bogart in calm measured tones. Bogart earns possession of the screen in his first genuine starring role but the the acting honours arguably go to Mary Astor. It’s an unusual role for a woman in this kind of ‘tough guy’ drama. She plays on her seeming gentility and projects a softer image all round to cover her duplicity.
The film looks very good on a DVD from a Bogart box set. Arthur Edeson’s work behind the camera is as good as his experience suggests it should be but it doesn’t really introduce the noirish elements that are about to come from the influence of the European directors and cinematographers. Much of the film is set in hotel rooms and corridors and generally compositions are designed to cover character interactions. In those images with only one or two characters, low angles are often used . None of these comments are meant as criticisms. The cinematography and set design complement the performances in telling the story and the music too is designed to give the sense of a mystery that is proving difficult for Spade to unravel. Overall it is a stunning achievement by John Huston. I can’t better the description by the New York Times when the film was re-released in 1973 (one of many revivals):
. . . hard, precise and economical – an almost perfect visual equivalent of the Dashiell Hammett thriller. Bogart is backed by an impeccably ‘right’ cast . . . (quoted in Humphrey Bogart by Nathaniel Benchley, Hutchinson 1975)
That nails it. It’s a ‘version’ of Hammett, perfectly executed, a work of art and an entertainment. I’m still doubtful about its influence on later ‘tough guy’ thrillers, although it certainly helped the careers of all involved. Dashiell Hammet clearly knew how to write such stories and Huston served him well. But the difference in a film like Double Indemnity is remarkable. The combination of Chandler and Wilder adapting Cain is something else – which we’ll get to eventually.