I was at the Pordenone Film Festival when the sad news came through that we had lost this talented filmmaker. Unfortunately, outside London, it has been difficult to view her films. The last time we had a feature locally was (I believe) when the Leeds International Film Festival screened her early masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). There has been a major retrospective at the ICA in London. Among the organisers were Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts who have also written an excellent obituary for the Guardian.
I hope that now at least we will see one of her major works in Leeds. The ICA are screening La folie Almayer (2011) as a tribute on October 22nd.
Born Hans Detlef Sierck in Hamburg in 1897, Douglas Sirk was one of the many filmmakers who left Germany in the mid-1930s for political and personal safety reasons, eventually ending up in Hollywood and beginning to work on American films in the early 1940s. He died in Switzerland in 1987 nearly thirty years after his final Hollywood film Imitation of Life. In his later years, Sirk was able to enjoy the revival of interest in his films, attending the Retrospective at the Edinburgh Festival in 1972 and receiving writers such as Jon Halliday, whose book Sirk on Sirk (Secker & Warburg) first appeared in 1971 (a revised edition was published by faber & faber in 1997).
In Germany in the 1930s, Sierck had been a highly respected theatre and film director but at first in America he struggled to find the openings that would allow him to make the Hollywood A pictures that his German success and obvious talent suggested was his proper role. After a potential deal with Warner Bros. fell through, he found himself contracted as a writer at Columbia which gave him a platform to direct a number of small independent pictures released through United Artists. After briefly returning to Germany in the late 1940s he finally got a contract with Universal in 1950. Again he was mainly employed on ‘smaller’ films at Universal (like Columbia, a mini-major without much access to A list stars). However, he was able to work with long term collaborators (such as the cinematographer Russell Metty) on a range of genre films and to develop his own star, Rock Hudson. His major successes came with a series of melodramas, mainly produced in Technicolor and forms of widescreen, for the same producer Ross Hunter. These were generally seen as ‘women’s pictures’ or ‘weepies’ and as such were critically derided. But they were commercially very successful and it is these films which would be later re-evaluated by critics and film scholars in France, UK and US. These were also films seen around the world which would serve to inspire future auteurs including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar, Aki Kaurismäki and Fatih Akin.
Sirk’s influence on younger directors is one aspect of his importance in global film. He also worked as a director in Spain, Switzerland, Holland and Ireland as well as in Germany and America. An avid reader with interests in theatre, cinema and other arts across cultures, Sirk is a major figure in film history associated primarily with the concept of melodrama, visual style and disguised social commentary. One of the most read posts on this blog is ‘What is Melodrama?’, a piece which uses Sirk’s 1954 picture All That Heaven Allows as a prime example. Many film students will know about Sirk from the revival in interest in his films in the 1970s, especially among feminist film scholars. But today it’s quite difficult to see Sirk’s films in cinemas and apart from the handful of films most often cited, the other titles don’t have much profile. To properly understand how Sirk’s later melodramas are constructed it’s important to look at the whole body of work. We’ll try therefore to discuss some of his films on the blog.
Eagerly anticipated, Andrew Haigh’s Berlin prizewinner had a very good opening weekend in the UK at No 10 in the chart with the highest screen average of £4,871 (apart from Secret Cinema’s Star Wars Event). It opened on only 68 cinema screens but also on Curzon online. This weekend it is more widely available, I think, and I’m intrigued to see what happens next. The critical coverage was also very positive and my friend asked “Will this be another King’s Speech?” I understood the question and I think that the reviews may have encouraged older audiences who have enjoyed mainstream comedies such as the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films or Quartet (which also featured Tom Courtenay). If this happens, I think some audiences will be disappointed. They might be surprised in a good way but some of the negative reviews on IMDB suggest that they might struggle. 45 Years is a traditional arthouse film which will feature on Film 4/Channel 4 at some point (Film 4 is involved in the funding). One of the ironies of British cultural life is that the theatre audience which might look down on cinema – and British Cinema in particular – would probably enjoy 45 Years.
Andrew Haigh (best known for Weekend 2011) adapted 45 Years from a short story by David Constantine (see this Telegraph feature). ‘In Another Country’, written some 15 years ago, was inspired by a news story about an 80 year-old man who had been asked to identify the body of his father that had been preserved in a glacier in the French Alps for 70 years. The father was a guide who had been lost in the mountains. In Haigh’s adaptation, Tom Courtenay is Geoff Mercer, a man in his 70s who learns that his girlfriend Katya, who fell into a crevasse fifty-three years earlier in 1962, has been spotted in a glacier after a recent snow melt in Switzerland. This revelation occurs five days before Geoff is due to celebrate the 45th Anniversary of his marriage to Kate (Charlotte Rampling). The short story (I think of only 12 pages?) has become a 95 minute feature. Haigh carefully depicts the impact of the news from Switzerland on Geoff and Kate and traces what happens in their relationship during the build-up to the anniversary party. The crucial change he appears to have made is to focus on Kate and to see the events from her perspective.
45 Years uses a highly intelligent script. Haigh’s mise en scène is rich in symbolic meaning. The two central performances are extraordinary and deserving of the prizes they have won. These three features of the film make it a ‘must see’ and the reception of the film by many audiences demonstrates how much they have enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed the film as well but I think there are issues and questions – partly related to the switch of focus. In an interview with Nick James in Sight and Sound (September 2015), Haigh suggests that he made the switch because there are relatively few ‘later age female existential crisis’ films. He preferred to see Geoff recover from the impact of the news and to see Kate repress her emotions and face a later crisis. He confirmed that as a gay man, he did perhaps favour the wife as an underdog. All this is fine and makes a lot of sense but for me it causes difficulties because of the aesthetic decisions taken by the director.
Haigh uses the house and the local environment (close to the Norfolk Broads – a flat landscape with the tourist boats on the Broads, even in winter) almost as characters in the film. The house in particular actually looks and feels like a house an older couple may have inhabited for many years – rather than a ‘dressed set’. ( The nearest city is Norwich but there are no references to where this actually is in terms of dialogue, on-screen credits etc.) In one sense this could be anywhere. What we do get in the dialogue are little nuggets such as a reference to the Battle of Trafalgar and the hall where the wedding anniversary will take place (Nelson was a Norfolk man and his fleet was sometimes berthed at Great Yarmouth). I’ve seen one reviewer suggest that Haigh is a ‘realist filmmaker’ but this seems to me to be misleading. True, several shots by Lol Crawley as DoP use long takes and a long lens to show Kate as a tiny figure in the landscape in deep focus. But at other times she is shown in shallow focus, isolated in the centre of Norwich with the busy world around her – all out of focus in a fuzzy blur. Haigh himself describes his style as naturalism, arguing for single take two-shots for many internal scenes (i.e. avoiding the shot/reverse shot convention).
Who is Kate? We learn next to nothing about her except that she was once a teacher in the locality (she chides the postman who calls her ‘Mrs Mercer’). What did she teach? What is she interested in? (She plays the piano.) Does she have siblings? Did she have any relationships before she met Geoff, was there a ‘serious’ one? Mostly we learn about Geoff because the central plot incident concerns him. But his background is equally mysterious. What did he do in the plant that he visits for a reunion? Haigh and James seem to suggest that he was a ‘trade unionist’. But most people in large organisations were trade unionists in the 1970s. What skills/knowledge did Geoff have? Was he graduate or a trained engineer? How did he get to have a German girlfriend and to spend several weeks with her in the mountains? Perhaps it’s just me, but without knowing any of this I’m struggling to understand how Kate and Geoff have developed a relationship over 45 years. How did this leftist couple survive in rural Norfolk for so long? Did they travel a lot? Do they have other friends beyond the rather narrow group shown here?
I’m not suggesting that a romance drama needs tons of sociological detail but I do expect a few simple assumptions to make sense. I think I ought to be able to recognise the nuances of social class in a British drama. Perhaps after all it is the marriage of the colonel’s daughter to the working-class lad from Hull which offers the intrigue? That lad is still there in Courtenay’s performance which resonates with those of his 1960s prime in British Cinema. Charlotte Rampling was a heartless upper middle-class trollop in Georgy Girl (1966) but much of her subsequent success has been in European art cinema. In an interview Courtenay (in praising Rampling) suggests that she is much more attuned to the process of filmmaking (whereas he is more attuned to theatre). That might explain some of the tension in the intimate scenes, but it may also be nonsense on Courtenay’s part. I can’t imagine you can make 50 films without getting used to the process. Some commentators have suggested that 45 Years is more like a ‘theatrical play’, a ‘two-hander’. But it is also intensely ‘filmic’. The opening credits are white on a black background accompanied by the sound of an old-fashioned slide projector clicking through a carousel of slides. I tried to work out if the click was edited in time to the changing titles. Later the slide projector will become crucial to the narrative. Associated with this is a scene in which Kate returns to the house to find Geoff with a cut finger and tenderly dresses the wound for him. He says he’s been trying to fix the ball-cock on the toilet cistern. Again, later we wonder if he was actually doing something else. This is one of those moments when it would be good to know more about Geoff. Is he supposed to be good with his hands? 45 Years is a film with star actors – actors with star personae. Geoff and Kate are also Tom and Charlotte. Their star images are composites of the roles they have played and their appearances in secondary circulation. At the end of the film, Rampling as Kate conducts herself in the final scenes with the presence of an Ingrid Bergman. I’m trying now to imagine her as a younger star playing a local school teacher in Norfolk and it’s difficult. I’m going to have to watch the film again but my first viewing is still reverberating. I’m wondering about whether to see it as a melodrama – there are several songs as well as symbolic use of mise en scène. I’m intrigued as to what younger audiences (under 60!) make of the film – please let us know.
The use of Long Shots and the ‘lived in’ house are evident in this UK trailer:
As part of its centenary tribute to Orson Welles the British Film Institute has re-released Welles’ Touch of Evil (US 1958) on a DCP. I’ve seen the film several times before but not for some time. I was amazed/heartened to find an audience of over 50 for a screening on a sunny August morning in Hebden Bridge. I was also surprised to discover that this was a release of the 1998 version – the re-edit by Walter Murch. This following the detailed description given in the memo that an angry Welles sent to Universal after the studio took the film from him and shot extra footage as well as re-ordering scenes and using more non-diegetic music than Welles wanted. All of this I learned after the screening from the detailed account by Jonathan Rosenbaum who was the ‘Welles scholar’ consultant on the re-edit.
Touch of Evil was not a box office success in 1958 but its reputation has grown considerably since then and it is now very highly regarded. It was a relatively low budget film, shot on Universal’s lot and in nearby Venice. Charlton Heston is Mike Vargas, a Mexican police officer visiting a border town with his new American wife Susan (Janet Leigh) on their honeymoon when they become involved in a cross-border incident – a local businessman and his girlfriend are blown up by a car bomb. The local American lawman is Captain Quinlan (Welles) who very quickly finds a suspect. Vargas soon realises that Quinlan’s methods are unorthodox and risks saying so. In the meantime Susan falls into the clutches of a local criminal family headed by Joe Grandi (Akim Tamaroff) who turns out to be the brother of the big drug dealer who Vargas has arrested in Mexico City. The narrative thus involves a diabolical triangle between Quinlan, Grandi and Vargas. The other major star involved in the film is Marlene Dietrich who has a small but significant role as Tana, a rather exotic madame of a local brothel.
I’ve seen several theatrical re-releases recently and I’m often aware of how much I’ve forgotten about films I thought I knew well. But I also have contradictory feelings so that one moment I’m in danger of getting bored because I know (hazily) where the plot is going and then suddenly my attention is caught by something I hadn’t noticed before. Screenings often have a specific context which ‘fixes’ a reading of the film. Touch of Evil was at one time classified as a film noir – indeed as the ‘last film noir‘ of the classical period. That is probably the context in which I first saw the film. It still is a great noir, but this time round I was more conscious of other features of the film, some of which are certainly noir elements, but others which produce new perspectives. For instance, this time I was more conscious of the racism inherent in Quinlan’s approach and I was also intrigued with the way that Joe Grandi’s ‘gang’, comprising mainly younger members of his family, were presented as ‘leather boys and girls’, a Mexican version of what in the UK were originally ‘teddy-boys’ and later ‘rockers’. Allied with aspects of Henry Mancini’s score this seems like an attempt to make a crime genre picture more attractive for younger audiences (a crucial move in 1950s Hollywood).
Welles’ directorial credit seems to have come about because Heston saw that Welles had been cast and assumed that he would direct – and then persuaded Universal that this should happen. In terms of studio productions it is also interesting that the film’s producer and cinematographer, Albert Zugsmith and Russell Metty are Universal regulars familiar from Douglas Sirk’s films of the 1950s. The two art directors, Alexander Golitzen and Robert Clatworthy had also worked with Sirk. Given the cast and crew it seems surprising that Universal would release the film cropped to Academy Ratio (1:1.37) in 1958 even though it had been previewed as 1:1.85. The 1958 release version ran only 93 minutes (the print I saw was nearer 110 minutes) and otherwise differs from the 1998 re-edit mainly, as indicated above, by presenting linear narrative sequences rather than cross-cutting between what is happening to Vargas and what is happening to his wife. What is really noticeable though is that the re-edit omits the titles completely at the beginning of the film (they are given in full at the end. This means that Metty’s incredible opening tracking crane shot of the car with the bomb in its boot is not encumbered by traditional overlaid credits. Also, instead of Mancini’s traditional non-diegetic score, we only hear snatches of music played in bars and on the car radio. Rosenbaum suggests:
Though the suspense is lessened, the physical density, atmosphere, and many passing details are considerably heightened, altering one’s sense of the picture from the outset.
I agree that this creates a heightened sense of atmosphere but I actually thought the tension and suspense increased. Because the intricate movement of the car is so closely choreographed with the walking couple (Heston and Leigh) I found myself more and more concerned about where the explosion would take place – even though I knew Heston and Leigh would not be injured. The other moment when diegetic sound becomes important is a fight in a bar when the juke box suddenly stops playing. Overall the sound in the 1998 version is improved dramatically from the 1958 cut and that’s another reason to see this print even if you know the film from earlier versions. The other revelation for me was the terrific performance by Joseph Calleia as Quinlan’s sergeant.
Trailer from 1958 (1:1.37)
Documentary on the ‘making of’ the film (there is also part 2 on YouTube):