Looking for the early starring roles for Simone Signoret I found this 1948 film which was not released in the UK. It has an English language title , ‘Dilemma for Two Angels’ which doesn’t make that much sense to me. ‘Impasse’ means much the same in French and English – a ‘dead end’. It’s difficult to categorise the film but we are clearly in noir territory, both in visual style and theme. This is the last film directed by Maurice Tourneur, a prolific filmmaker from 1913 onwards in France and in the US during the silent era. He returned to France in the 1930s and made over 80 feature films in all. He was the father of Jacques Tourneur. This film was written by Jean-Paul Le Chanois, photographed by Claude Renoir and with a music score by Yves Baudrier (also composer on La bataille du rail (1946).
The story is slight. Anne-Marie, a girl from a poor background, has become ‘Marianne’, the star of theatre and variety in Paris (Simone Signoret). She has decided to marry into wealth and accepted the proposal of Marquis Antoine de Fontaines (Marcel Herrand). He has brought her a family heirloom, a valuable necklace, to wear for the wedding, and placed it in the safe in her house. She holds a pre-wedding party after her last stage performance at which she meets Antoine’s family and aristocratic friends. The necklace has attracted the interest of a criminal gang who hire a ‘specialist’ to steal it. This turns out to be Jean (Paul Meurisse) who was Anne-Marie’s lover seven years earlier when he suddenly disappeared from her life. He crashes the party, suitably dressed in evening wear. Recognising him, Anne-Marie slips out to join him and they go to a café. Will she leave her fiancé on the night before the wedding and stay with Jean? What about the criminal gang who are watching Jean? The answers to both questions make up most of the rest of the narrative. The film’s title refers to a dead-end street where there was once a small hotel, a rendezvous for Anne-Marie and Jean. It is now closed and the whole area is being re-developed.
Most of the action takes place at night using studio sets. An unusual element of these scenes for me was the use of double exposure so that when we see Marianne and Jean together in various locations, we also see the ghostly presence of their former selves, dressed as they would have been seven years earlier in the same location. I thought this was quite effective. The overall lighting and camerawork produces a familiar noir image and at 85 minutes the film doesn’t outstay its welcome. Meurisse was a leading man of equal status to Signoret at the time and they would appear together again in future features.
Having just acquired a copy of Susan Hayward’s book Simone Signoret: the star as cultural sign (Continuum 2004) it’s worth noting some of her analysis of Signoret’s developing star image. Hayward identifies different ways of dividing up Signoret’s life and in particular her film career. For convenience, here I’ll just refer to a couple of her observations. She notes that in the period 1946-51 Signoret appears three times as a prostitute, twice as a gold-digger and twice as a woman who has risen from a lower class (one of these films is Impasse des deux anges). This is seven roles out of ten films in which her role is leading or significant. Ironically in the film discussed here, her assumed name of ‘Marianne’ is linked to the national symbol of French womanhood (and is referenced as such in the dialogue). Hayward begins her chapter by comparing Signoret with Anna Magnani in Italy during the same period. She suggests that Magnani is symbolic of Italian recovery and “the moral and ethical strength of the people”. Hayward notes that although Signoret had all the same attributes of Magnani (intelligence, integrity and authenticity), French films didn’t attempt to showcase such a character and instead Signoret represented “France’s economic underbelly”. (p 64).
But Susan Hayward does recognise that Signoret presents a ‘strong and independent woman’, perhaps a woman of the 1970s rather than the 1940s. She suggests that this strength comes from three aspects of her performances. First is her sheer ‘corporeality’. She is aware of the strength of her body, the way she stands and how she walks and how she smokes – with “an insouciant vulgarity”. Second she has reduced her gestures to the minimum, aiming to convey more with less, the raising of an eyebrow, a momentary flash of the eyes etc. Finally, she stands out as part of the ‘real world’ not the artifice of cinema. We know she is going to be a great star. This film was released in 1948, the same year as Against the Wind, the British film in which Signoret stars as an SOE operative helping the Belgian resistance. It appears that French audiences just couldn’t accept the British script (which was based on real events) and the film flopped in France where the various ‘myths’ associated with the résistance in France were not dispelled for many years. I’ve also been reading Simone Signoret’s autobiography, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be (1976). It’s very good.
Fritz Lang had a difficult time during the period of ‘studio Hollywood’. Possibly he was his own worst enemy, but it is the case that he struggled to make the kinds of films he thought were appropriate for a filmmaker of his standing. In 1953 he would be 63 years-old and about to embark on his 36th directorial project. That means he directed 36 features over 34 years, including his ‘epic’ productions during the 1920s at Ufa.
In Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (faber & faber 1997), Patrick McGilligan argues that in 1952 Lang was complaining that he was blacklisted for his leftist/communist leanings after finishing work on Clash By Night, but actually Lang was ‘out of work’ for only six months before he got the contract to make The Blue Gardenia. It was Columbia supremo Harry Cohn who intervened for Lang and helped him get the job. The Blue Gardenia was an independent production which was to be distributed by Warner Bros., not Columbia. After it was completed, Lang signed a contract to work at Columbia and his next picture would be one of his best known American films, The Big Heat which would appear later in 1953.
The Blue Gardenia was a low budget film adapted from a story by Vera Caspary, a writer with real pedigree and a long list of Hollywood credits including Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and Joe Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Caspary’s story was adapted by Charles Hoffman whose credits were also numerous if slightly less distinguished apart from the Michael Curtiz film Night and Day (1946) starring Cary Grant as Cole Porter. Despite the low budget, the production did have some class, enhanced by the cinematography of Nick Musuraca who was still working at RKO but had just completed Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker. Presumably at this point he was available for loan-outs. He had also worked on Clash By Night (1952) which was an independent production released through RKO and using RKO contractees.
The story is fairly straightforward , especially for what some critics see as a film noir. It also shares with Lang’s later films, While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), a fascination with journalists and murder stories. Local fashion designer Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr) has a reputation as a womaniser, luring young women back to his flat where he also has a sideline in painting glamour/pin-ups of his attractive conquests. His latest idea is to hang around a telephone exchange hoping to collect the phone numbers of the ‘exchange girls’ as new conquests. One of the switchboard operators receives a ‘Dear Joan’ letter from her boyfriend in the American forces stationed in Korea and accepts a date with Prebble on the rebound. She is not the kind of young woman Prebble usually dates and in her fragile state she drinks too much and passes out. At this point, the film begins to feel not just Langian but also Hitchcockian. Bad things happen! Richard Conte plays a crime reporter with a following for his column in an LA paper. He sees the possibility of a major story and cooks up a plan to entice the murderer into the open. I’ve avoided any spoilers so don’t leap to conclusions about what happens (and ignore the IMDb summary which is wrong anyway). I do think that there are some flaws in the plotting but overall this makes an intriguing 90 minutes murder mystery. The ‘Blue Gardenia’ refers to the restaurant where the couple eat and drink and the flower bought from a blind flower-woman. It is also the song sung by Nat King Cole live in the restaurant – I told you this film has class!
The woman who goes on the date is played by Anne Baxter. She is very good and Lang said later that whatever his misgivings about the film (he routinely put down his own work), he was pleased with her casting. She was someone he had always wanted to work with. It’s not hard to see why. She was Oscar-nominated for her role as Eve in All About Eve (1950), she won as Best Supporting Actress for The Razor’s Edge (1946) and also appeared in leading roles for Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and for Hitchcock in I Confess (1953). Baxter’s character Norah is one of three single women, all working at the same telephone exchange and sharing a rented cottage-style house in LA. The older woman is played by Ann Sothern (who also appeared in A Letter to Three Wives) and the younger by Jeff Donnell. I spent much of the film trying to think why I knew her and eventually realised that she is the wife of the police officer, whose superior officer during the war was Humphrey Bogart, in In a Lonely Place (1950).
The two male leads are also interesting. Raymond Burr was very active at this time. He was an equally suspicious character in Rear Window (1954) for Hitchcock. Here he seems an enormously powerful physical figure, dwarfing the women he encounters. Richard Conte seems the only one of the cast who might be mis-cast. McGilligan describes him as a ‘hero-without-warts’ which is a little unkind, but I don’t see him as a reporter or a columnist. He seems too smooth and I think if it had been Dana Andrews, the journalist from Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, the role might have worked better. Conte is ‘Casey Mayo’, a star reporter/columnist whose clout on the paper can enable him to mount his own campaign to find a wanted person before the police. He is so prestigious that he is invited to witness an H-bomb test and must therefore ‘solve’ the mystery and get into print before he boards a plane to see the test. This reference alongside the war in Korea and a reference to TV shows are all markers of a clever script that strives to be contemporary but Conte’s character with his ‘little black book’ seems full of contradictions. He’s man in his forties who acts like someone much younger and I felt that his actions in the final third of the narrative don’t serve the intriguing situation that had been set up earlier.
It seems that Lang had only 20 days in which to shoot The Blue Gardenia – roughly the time available for most B pictures. The script and casting are for an A picture and Lang did very well to produce what he did in such a short time. The speed of the shoot must also have put pressure on Musuraca. As it is there are some impressive night-time scenes, complete with heavy rain and fog, and a drunken haze scene which perhaps evokes films noirs from the 1940s. Otherwise the camerawork is efficient and functional on a first viewing. The Blue Gardenia now has a much higher reputation than it had at the time. I’m not sure about its status as a ‘forgotten’ or ‘unheralded’ noir, but aspects of the film are very good indeed, particularly Anne Baxter’s performance and I would like to have seen the ‘three women in the apartment’ angle developed more. I just wonder what Lang might have achieved with more time to work on the script and more time to shoot.
Gumshoe is difficult to write about with any critical distance as it’s a film that I love on so many different levels (though I do worry about its use of racist language). It cropped up on Talking Pictures TV and worked as a tribute to Michael Medwin, one of the least recognised but most important figures in the British film industry over a period of 60 years or more – mainly as a character actor but also as a producer. Medwin died aged 96 a month ago and since Talking Pictures TV schedules well in advance this screening probably wasn’t planned as a tribute. In fact, because he appeared in over 100 films and TV programmes, Michael Medwin pops up frequently on Talking Pictures. In 1968 Medwin’s production company established with Albert Finney, Memorial Enterprises, released its first two films. Charlie Bubbles (1968) was directed by Finney from a Shelagh Delaney script and co-starred himself with Billie Whitelaw and Liza Minnelli and if . . . . made a star of Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson’s film. Spring and Port Wine followed in 1970 with James Mason in a Bill Naughton-scripted family melodrama set in Bolton. I really should post something on each of these three films, important to me when I first saw them and also now.
Gumshoe re-unites Finney and Whitelaw as actors but it also introduces a whole range of other creative talents. Albert Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a man in his early thirties who has ‘achieved’ little so far. He lives in a bed-sit at the top of a Liverpool town house where he re-reads Dashiel Hammett and develops a comedy routine to try out in the social club where he has a job as a bingo caller and occasional MC. But now he decides to expand his range and he posts an ad in the Echo offering his services as a ‘Private Eye’. He intends to hide behind his Sam Spade impersonation and dresses and talks like his hero in The Maltese Falcon. He’s surprised to get a phone call quite quickly and to be offered a job that appears deeply mysterious and which shocks poor Eddie.
I won’t describe the plot but I will sketch in the characters and the themes. The script is by Neville Smith, a Liverpool lad who was a young actor in the 1960s, appearing in some of Ken Loach’s TV plays as well as writing his first script in 1966, The Golden Vision about a bunch of Everton FC supporters, for Loach. Smith also gets a small part in Gumshoe as he had in the Loach play. Finney was from Salford, just up the Ship Canal from Liverpool and Whitelaw was brought up in Bradford. Both were part of the RADA wave of brilliant young Northern actors who broke into UK stage and screen acting in the 1950s. Billie was a few years older and got a start in the early 1950s. In Gumshoe, she is Ellen, Eddie’s ex-girlfriend who went and married his older brother William, the smooth and money-grabbing character played by Frank Finlay. Finlay was born in Farnworth, Bolton. There are also parts for two familiar Liverpool actors, Bill Dean as the club owner and a cameo for Ken Jones as a clerk in the labour exchange. Liverpool looks good in the film, from an oddly deserted Lime Street station down to the docks and around several streets of Georgian terraces. At one point Eddie goes down to London and meets a woman in a bookshop played by a young Maureen Lipman (from Hull). I thought this scene was perhaps a nod to Humphrey Bogart in the bookshop in The Big Sleep where he meets Dorothy Malone. There were moments too when Eddie’s internal monologue seemed more Chandler than Hammett when he refers to hotel carpet “so thick you could feel Axminster up to your knees”. And to reverse Lippman in London, Eddie also has a joking dialogue with Wendy Richard as a girl working in William’s office who came up to Liverpool from London and got conned into staying (Richard was born in Middlesbrough). The mystery is concocted by the arrival of a South African in Liverpool played by the American actor Janice Rule and the mystery girl (looking very late 60s) is Carolyn Seymour as a South African post-grad student. Finally, Fulton Mackay is a menacing would-be Scots gangster type. Mackay and Jones were re-united in the long-running UK sitcom and later feature film Porridge (1974-9).
The dangerous criminal narrative behind all the comedy moments involves William’s trading company getting involved in a sanctions-busting enterprise, shipping goods to Mozambique that will then be transported to Rhodesia to support the Ian Smith regime. This plot seems vestigial at best and Eddie’s involvement is accidental. One disturbing feature is that the young white South African woman played by Seymour is protected by a black student (Oscar James). He has to be ‘dealt with’ in the process of the smuggling deal and Eddie (who discovers what happens) refers to him using the language of Hammett/Chandler as it might have been used in the 1930s and adds to them some 1970s racist terms. Similarly, Eddie’s comic routine includes the kinds of racist/sexist lines common in northern clubs at the time. It’s jarring now but it works in context – Eddie is a good guy, even if he does himself no favours. Perhaps his racial taunting is cover for his own terror? I think we forget now just how prevalent such language was, but even so it does demean Eddie and emphasises his lack of confidence in himself. His relationship with Whitelaw as Ellen is not dissimilar to their relationship in Charlie Bubbles. But in this case marriage to the horrible William seems to have derailed Ellen.
This is a great Liverpool film and an essential North of England film. (There is a useful Liverpool perspective on this website.) Gumshoe did get a US release but, from some of the reviews, it did present problems for American viewers. Some must have been baffled by Finney playing the ‘loser’. It was a début fiction feature for director Stephen Frears (from Leicester) who would go to become one of the most accomplished British directors of the last fifty years. It’s a sign of where British cinema was heading in the 1970s that Frears began in TV and made his name there with some important working relationships, including with the writer Alan Bennett on TV films and plays. Apart from the criminally under-rated and neglected The Hit in 1984, it wasn’t until My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985 that Frears would emerge as an international filmmaker – and even then its success was almost accidental since that film began as a Channel 4 TV film. Chris Menges photographed Gumshoe as his first high profile job after Kes in 1969. He had shot Living Memory a 57 minute drama directed by Tony Scott, again for Memorial Enterprises in 1971, but I don’t think that got a cinema release. Gumshoe was composed for 1:1.66 projection so it is very slightly blown-up and then cropped to fit the 16:9 TV screen. There is plenty of diegetic music in Gumshoe, mainly in the club, but the only false note in the film for me was the non-diegetic song over the final scene and closing credits – by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. This was before their careers had taken off. Lloyd Webber is credited with the film’s music but this is the only one of the duo’s compositions (the others are covers) and it is wrong on every level. It’s the song not the singer, who was Roy Young, a ‘Beatles in Hamburg’ era rocker. But there is a mute button on the TV remote.
Humphrey Bogart was popular again in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In 1969 Woody Allen appeared on Broadway in Play It Again Sam in which he actually converses with a Bogart look-alike and a film version was directed by Herbert Ross in 1972. I don’t know if Neville Smith saw the play. Probably not, but he may have caught the zeitgeist. There is another link worth exploring and that is Jack Gold’s The Reckoning (1969), a film in which Nicol Williamson plays a scouse version of Charlie Bubbles, returning to Liverpool for his father’s funeral and investigating the death. Columbia put money into both The Reckoning and Gumshoe. Gumshoe is now available on a Blu-ray from the UK specialist distributor Indicator. The disc also carries an early Stephen Frears short Burning (1968), shot in Morocco standing in for South Africa.
The Wild Goose Chase was in competition at Cannes in 2019. I think that the Cannes competition place was won because this is a French co-production of the fourth film of writer-director Diao Yinan, a filmmaker who began as a writer for the Sixth Generation director Zhang Yang in the 1990s soon after his graduation from drama school in Beijing.
His previous film, the thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (China 2014) won the Golden Bear at Berlin and was released in the UK. I’m sorry I missed it. This new film is described in the French press notes as a polar and US critics have described it as a film noir, but I’m grateful for the press notes in which director’s own statement suggests a hybrid of polar and wu xia (martial chivalry film). He refers to that rather wonderfully envisaged concept of the jianghu or ‘marginal world’ where things and people are not quite what they seem. I think I remember this concept as worked out in A Chinese Ghost Story (Hong Kong 1987) and The Bride With White Hair (Hong Kong 1993) both featuring the much-missed Leslie Cheung. The polar provides the battle between police and criminals and the jianghu describes the ‘marginal world’ in which the action takes place. As Diao himself puts it, the police are not in uniform, they are disguised in this night-time world where all kinds of things can happen, especially on the misty lake and in the chaotic backstreets of the town.
The film begins with a meeting at an underpass beneath a railway station on a dark and wet night. The central character Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is waiting for his wife, but a mysterious woman Liu Aiai (Kwei Lun-Mei) in a slinky red top appears and tells Zhou that she has been sent instead. Several flashbacks will then reveal why this meeting is taking place before the narrative moves into the inevitable noir/polar ending. I must confess that I found some of the jumps in time between sequences slightly bewildering so I’m having difficulty trying to discern a linear story. I don’t think that would worry the director. He suggests that he is more interested in ‘movement’ through the dark world than a psychological study of the ‘doomed man’ and the femme fatale. The opening is in fact quite slow but things soon speed up, moving into a series of sometimes surreal and always fascinating set pieces and chase sequences. Diao suggests that each of them has a basis in reality – a news story or something he himself had noticed. One sequence presents a ‘conference’ of local criminal gangs, meeting for a demonstration of how to steal motorbikes and a subsequent re-organisation of territories for each gang. But the aspect of the film that really caught my attention were the scenes on the ‘Wild Goose Lake’ itself where prostitutes posing as swimming beauties ply their trade. I can think of a few American films noirs where a couple are in a small boat on the water in the fog, but the most striking image I remember is the boat trip in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953).
At points the film becomes a police procedural but the central plotline focuses on the large reward offered for Zhou’s capture. Zhou himself decides that if anyone is to get the money it will be his wife and child. But how can he ensure that this happens and who can he trust?
The key to the unusual locations is the regional setting of the film in Wuhan, a major city region and large urban sprawl in Hubei province. Diao searched for locations around the many lakes in a 200 km radius from the centre of Wuhan on the Yangtse River. He then decided to use local Wuhan dialect rather than standard Mandarin. Kwei is Taiwanese and she had to learn the dialect, as did Hu Ge. Most of the large cast are local actors or non-professionals. The production must have been relatively expensive because of the many nights (50) of shooting complicated action scenes. It seems strange that Diao would create a film for which most Chinese audiences would need subtitles. The international audience will have subtitles anyway and won’t appreciate the local dialect. So is this a rare hybrid genre-art film. Obviously this works for the South Korean auteurs such as Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook, but their films are blockbusters at home as well as arthouse/specialised hits abroad. From the Unifrance website (all French films listed) it looks like the film could be distributed in the UK by MUBI so I’ll be watching out for it on my stream and hoping it gets into at least a few cinemas.
I’ve enjoyed researching the film and I think now that I’m beginning to understand a bit more. There are some extremely violent incidents (which are also quite unusual) to go alongside the surreal sequences. Overall the film is exciting and fascinating for anyone interested in Chinese cinema and that distinctive blend of Chinese and French crime genre ideas. I’m intrigued to see that this has now become an aspect of mainland cinema. I’d be interested to know what HK filmmakers like Johnnie To make of this film. Which brings me to Hu Ge. He is quite distinctive as a tall Chinese whose looks certainly equip him for the role. One review I saw suggested that he had a presence like Robert Mitchum in RKO noirs. I’m not sure that is quite right, but he does reming me of other actors in crime noirs. This is definitely a film to look out for.
I watched Bastards twice when it came to the UK in early 2014. I even introduced the film for an audience but I knew that I needed to see it again at a later date and when it appeared on MUBI this month I watched it again. Some films by Claire Denis make, for me, an instant impact (Beau Travail, 35 rhums). But Bastards is more like L’intrus in demanding long retrospection. My notes from 2014 reveal that I wasn’t sure whether Bastards was a film or an installation – a work of art, a dissection of genre, mood, style, ideology and much more. But I’d done my homework, I knew where the ideas came from and now I think I see how they come together.
In the film’s Press Pack, Denis tells us that she needed to find a story idea quickly to exploit a production opportunity that suddenly arose. Whereas in 35 rhums she turned to Ozu to help her tell a personal family story, in this case she turned to Kurosawa and his noirish take on Hamlet, The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Kurosawa’s tale of a man (Mifune Toshiro), who marries an industrialist’s daughter as part of a strategy to avenge his father’s suicide, provided her with a protagonist, an outline story and a title (the Kurosawa film was titled Les salauds se portent bien in France). But Denis and her co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau needed another character as well:
In the film, all seems normal, everyone has a family, children are collected from school, they are given afternoon snacks – even the divorced couple manages to handle their relationship pretty well. But there’s the young woman. She’s from another state of the world.
She comes from another character who has always been with me: Temple, the female character in William Faulkner’s [1931 novel] Sanctuary. When I was myself an adolescent, that book transformed me. I wasn’t frightened at all, on the contrary, the last chapter between father and daughter in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris gave me a rush, and a certainty that girls must deal with their sexual misfortunes by themselves. Temple takes out her compact and looks at herself. (Claire Denis interviewed in the Press Notes)
I confess that I tried to read Sanctuary but struggled to finish it. But I can see how Denis used the ‘Temple’ character in her script. Let me try to outline Bastards without spoiling the narrative. The brilliant Vincent Lindon (up there with the very best in global cinema) is Marco Silvestri, a ship’s captain on an oil tanker who is forced to abandon his ship in an unnamed port and head home for Paris where he finds disaster has struck the family of his sister Sandra (Julie Bataille) and brother-in-law, his buddy from training school. His next action is to investigate what or who is behind the tragedy that he finds on arrival. The camerawork and editing by Denis regular Agnès Godard and new recruit to the Denis team, Annette Dutertre presents the ellipses in the script so the timing is not clear, but we see Marco moving into an apartment where one of his neighbours is Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni) with her young son. Only later do we realise that Raphaëlle is the mistress of Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor) and that Marco has identified Laporte as the cause of the collapse of the Silvestri family shoe factory business. A telling line of dialogue in these opening scenes comes from the nephew of the concièrge of the apartments who when challenged by Raphaëlle explains that he is filling in for his aunt – “It’s normal, it’s family business”. Marco is about to threaten one family, unaware of some of the secrets within his own family. But later we we will understand that he had withdrawn from the family business to go to sea and that his own marriage has ended with his two daughters living with their mother. This is certainly a film noir and a very dark and very disturbing noir, something emphasised by shot compositions and Stuart Staples’ music. The ‘Temple’ character is Marco’s niece Justine (Lola Créton) who he finds in a psychiatric hospital. What has put her there?
For a production put together quickly, Bastards is a complex work, finely detailed with numerous clues and narrative links that don’t immediately register. It helps that most of the cast and creative collaborators like Godard and Staples are Denis regulars. Alongside Michel Subor we get to see Alex Descas and Grégoire Colin as familiar Denis performers. Vincent Lindon was the protagonist of Vendredi Soir (France 2002) and Nicole Dogué from 35 rhums has a minor role as a Police Inspector. The three central women in the story are all Denis first timers and she said that she wanted them to be dark-haired ‘Mediterranean types’. They are all very good and very much part of the noir narrative. Bastards is a brutal film – ‘dangerous’ or even ‘deranged’ as one blogger has put it – and misogyny is suggested by the presence of a ‘Temple’ character. However, as is usual with Denis, the women are not passive victims, even when violence of different sorts is directed towards them. Nor are they simply ‘good’. The men are wretched and all tainted in some way but the women are also implicated or even directly involved. Which one is the femme fatale? Perhaps they all are?
I’ve read a number of reviews of the film and interviews with Claire Denis. One of the best is on the cinema scope online website by Jose Teodoro. He suggests something that I also experienced. On a first viewing the film sees dreamlike and floating. The one or two short sequences that might be dreams or flashbacks are disorientating. The ellipses confuse the sense of a narrative drive. But on later viewings we realise that the story-line has a strong narrative drive. As Denis explain, we only gain an insight into the narrative data as Marco himself discovers things. Marco is the key character and he defines the noir narrative as much as the formal elements of cinematography, mise en scène and music. Teodoro suggests he is like a Robert Ryan figure who might be in a film noir or a Western. That’s a good call I think. Bastards made me think of a 1950s film noir, something as cold and brutal as The Big Combo (1955) or neo-noirs based on the novels of Jim Thompson. Vincent Lindon’s star persona is ideal. He looks like the hard man who could sort out any mess, but there is both an ‘ordinariness’ and ‘working stiff’ quality that makes him vulnerable. In Bastards, he has all the accoutrements, including a vintage Alfa-Romeo and a taste in expensive shorts but he is also flawed. There is a strong erotic spark between him and Chiara Mastroianni’s Raphaëlle but Marco is also the most naïve character and we know that he is the doomed man of the noir.
I’m so pleased that I watched Bastards again. I realise I saw things much more clearly this time. Significantly, perhaps, I remembered most scenes but I’d repressed the detail of the harrowing closing scenes. How did I feel at the end? The film is so dark that I might have despaired but it is so beautifully crafted and intelligent that somehow I felt uplifted by a beautiful work of art. That’s Claire Denis for you. I know many people don’t get her films, but for me they define what cinema can be. One final point, the film was shot digitally which both created problems with lighting but also allowed more flexibility. In interviews Denis explains this in some detail.
The Toronto festival trailer:
I think I must have first seen Phantom Lady on TV in the 1970s. In those days my TV screen was small and all I remember from that first viewing was a bar, high heels clacking on the dark streets and Elisha Cook. Everyone knew poor Elisha would never make it to the last reel in any of the dozens of films in which he appeared and he certainly didn’t in this one – he’s also playing a drummer in a jazz group! Other than that and that the film was directed by Robert Siodmak, the director of that remarkable German film Menschen am Sonntag (1930), I could remember nothing. My recent viewing via MUBI proved to be a revelation on a larger TV screen in HD it sets up a whole range of interesting questions as well as providing much visual pleasure.
Phantom Lady is an adaptation of a ‘breakthrough’ novel by Cornell Woolrich published under his cover name ‘William Irish’. Woolrich was immensely prolific and IMDb lists 42 film titles based on his stories and novels. He’s best known as the writer of the short story that became Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and for the stories adapted for Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969). He’s also known as one of the key sources for Hollywood films noirs of the 1940s alongside Hammett, Chandler and James M. Cain. After watching the film I looked up two detailed studies of the film, one by Michael Walker in an essay simply titled ‘Robert Siodmak’ in the MovieBook of Film Noir (ed. Ian Cameron, 1981) and the other, ‘Strange Pursuit: Cornell Woolrich and the abandoned city of the Forties’ by David Reid and Jayne L. Walker in Shades of Noir edited by Joan Copjec (Verso 1993). One of the most important revelations of these two pieces is that Woolrich wrote in such detail about scenes that Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell with art directors Robert Clatworthy and John B. Goodman were able to form very clear ideas about how to put them on screen. The narrative is set in New York City but filmed on Universal Studio lots in Los Angeles which are used to conjure up streets very effectively. There is definitely a feel of German Expressionist Cinema about them.
As Walker points out, the narrative structure is clearly defined in three sections. In the first a professional engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) visits a bar feeling depressed and buys a drink for a woman who seems similarly down. He persuades her to join him at a variety show as he has two tickets. At the end of the evening they part and she leaves him without revealing her name. When Scott returns home expecting to find his wife with whom he quarrelled earlier, he finds her dead and a trio of police detectives waiting for him. He believes the ‘phantom lady’ will provide him with an alibi, but although she was wearing a very distinctive hat, none of the obvious witnesses remembers her with Scott. He is arrested and later convicted. In the second section one of Scott’s employees (her role in his office is not clear), Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman (Ella Raines), is convinced that he is innocent and sets out to find the ‘phantom lady’. But the witnesses she questions tend to disappear. At the end of this section she meets Scott’s close friend Marlow (Franchot Tone) back from South America and in the third section she and Marlow seek the final witness, the ‘phantom lady’ herself. They are supported by Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) who by this stage believes that Scott Henderson may have been framed. In between each section, a bridging scene sees Kansas visiting Scott in prison awaiting execution. It’s apparent that she is in love with him. There is a clear resolution to the narrative with a ‘happy ending’ – something which many viewers find banal after the mystery/suspense twists and the look and feel of the film overall.
Kansas, as played by the wonderful Ella Raines, is an unusual female lead. She acts something like a femme fatale at one point in order to get information off a witness. Towards the end of the film she needs to be rescued, but for much of the film she is an intelligent and resourceful investigator. Although her role in Henderson’s business is never clearly defined, she is a professional office worker and independent woman – unfortunately rare in Hollywood narratives of the 1940s. Ella Raines had a film career which was probably not that unusual for talented and attractive young women in the mid 1940s. She was ‘discovered’ in a drama school stage production by Howard Hawks and put into The Nelson Touch (Corvette K-225 in the US) in 1943. Over the next few years, she appeared in several films, usually in the lead film role and opposite major male stars such as Randolph Scott, John Wayne and Charles Laughton and directed by name directors. She made three films in all for Robert Siodmak, two for Preston Sturges and Brute Force (1947) for Jules Dassin. But after 1950 her film career petered out and she moved into television. She virtually retired from film and TV aged just 36. I had always thought of her as a B picture player, but her films were, I now discover, A features. Robert Siodmak didn’t suffer the same fate and I’m going to dig out some more of his work.