This oddity, which turned up on Talking Pictures TV, is a good example of the kind of ‘international’ production during the end of the ‘studio period’ in British cinema. EMI, which had taken over ABPC in 1969, took over British Lion as well in 1976. With the Rank Organisation gradually reducing its production plans, the ‘British film industry’ was now almost reduced to a single studio and even that was reliant on various partnerships. The actual funding of The Silver Bears seems a little murky. A small US company seems to have been involved as the actual producers with Columbia taking US distribution, but it’s still down as a UK film.
My interest was aroused because the film was directed by Ivan Passer, one of the original directors of the Czech New Wave. I very much enjoyed Intimate Lightning (Czechoslovakia 1965) when I screened it for a class some time ago and Passer was also a writer on Forman’s best known Czech films. He and Forman left after the Prague Spring was smashed by the Soviet Union in 1968. I thought he had gone straight to the US but some of his films that followed seemed to be UK co-productions like Silver Bears, even though they were often American stories. Most of these films were savaged by critics and presumably he kept working only because the films made enough money around the world. His next film Cutter’s Way (US 1981) was a critical sleeper and one of my favourite films. Cutter’s Way is a dark film with some comic moments but Passer’s films generally tend towards comedies first and that is the way with The Silver Bears.
The film is an adaptation of a novel by Paul Erdman, which appears to be partly autobiographical with Erdman managing to turn his own disastrous experiences with a Swiss bank into an ‘entertainment’. The film comes across as a comedy about financial con-artists. There is the possibility of some form of violence lurking in the background but mainly this is about greed and ego. The pleasure for the viewer is in the wonderfully detailed script which prompts us to invest in some characters rather than others and to enjoy the comeuppance of those who deserve to lose most. Passer has a group of well-known stars and character actors to play with, led by Michael Caine as ‘Doc’ Fletcher who has been commissioned by a Nevada crime boss (Martin Balsam) to find a way of laundering money. Doc’s solution is to set up an American bank in Switzerland. This daunting task is accomplished by ‘Prince Gianfranco di Siracusa’ (Louis Jourdan), an Italian in Lugano. I can’t really spoil the narrative because I’m struggling to remember each step in the complex interplay. The other players in the game involve a couple (Stéphane Audran and David Warner), contacts of the Prince who claim to have a silver mine in Iran (and to produce the silver ingots that give the film its title), a legit American Bank that wants to buy into the Swiss market and a British dealer (Charles Gray) who virtually controls the futures market for silver at the London Metal Exchange. The American bank is represented by a grasping Joss Ackland and his naive young market analyst played by Tom Smothers, the older of the two Smothers Brothers who I remember as a comic double act. The only star who seems to me miscast as the ditsy wife of Smothers’ analyst is the second-billed Cybill Shepherd.
With this cast, a skilled director with comedy experience can certainly create an entertaining film. Critics in the US expected the film to be a satire on banking practice but it is more a comedy of manners. Louis Jordan is very good at the smooth talk, Caine pretends to be a bit of lout trying to be suave, but he is naturally engaging. There are certainly gags associated with American brashness which is ironic when a Brit like Joss Ackland has to be rude in front of London bankers. From my point of view the only disappointment was the limited use of Stéphane Audran (and indeed David Warner). The Iranian scenes were actually shot in Morocco, I think, adding another layer of conceit. The shots of labourers in the ‘mines’ reminded me of documentary photos of the Brazilian goldfields in the work of the photographer Sebastian Salgado. The Silver Bears is presented in CinemaScope ratio and looks good in its four settings of Las Vegas, Lugano, Iran/Morocco and London. If it pops up again on Talking Pics TV, give it a go.
‘Doc’ learns how to kiss a woman’s hand . . .
I missed Fernando Meirelles’s last film as director, 360 (UK-Austria-France-Canada-Brazil-US, 2011), but his previous, Blindness, The Constant Gardner (UK-Germany-US-China-Kenya, 2005) and City of God (with Kátia Lund, Brazil-France-Germany, 2002) were all interesting. As is the Netflix-headed The Two Popes which surprisingly engaged me given my interest in religion is tangential at best. If I struggled with the film at all it was because it humanised the Pope(s), which is not to say they aren’t human, but they tend not to represented as such. As God’s representative on Earth, the issues of representation are tricky. I dislike monolithic meta-narratives that purport to tell others how to live; earlier this week the DUP tried to keep Northern Ireland in the ‘dark ages’ regarding religion and same sex marriages to show bigotry still thrives in some institutions. Indeed, that is the focus of the film, scripted by experienced film writer Anthony McCarten, as it contrasts the last two Popes: ‘fundamentalist’ Benedict and his successor, the ‘humanist’ Francis.
The Popes are embodied by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, who are both superb, and the narrative is ideal for those ignorant of anything other than broad brush Roman Catholic politics (me). It sets up the conservative versus progressive narrative and then undermines it with flashbacks to Francis in Buenos Aries under the military dictatorship of the 1970s. Humanist characters are rarely ‘black or white’, which is why the almost-deification of the Pope is ridiculous, and the film admirably shows us the shades of character that are part of all us.
My ignorance is such that I’m not sure how much we see is imagined or based on what is generally known. It’s certainly not a docudrama about the last two Papal accessions so a liberal degree of artistic licence is to be expected. The (almost) obligatory footage of the actual Popes at the end of the film seems to suggest what we’ve seen is true but the film would have been better without this epilogue. Has Francis been a better Pope than Benedict? I have no idea.
I saw the film in 4k, which for The Aeronauts added greatly to the experience (the ice on the ropes was palpably freezing), but it added little to my enjoyment of The Two Popes; though there is a scene in the Sistine Chapel. Such a dialogue heavy film will be little diminished by Netflix I suspect though, of course, films should preferably be seen in the cinema.
There was a bit of a stink last week when The Family was released in the UK. This film, written and directed by Luc Besson for his EuropaCorp was panned by virtually all the leading UK critics. They may well be correct in giving it the thumbs down. I haven’t seen the film, though I’m tempted to check it out (if it lasts long enough in cinemas). I’m intrigued because I read the source novel a few years ago. The novel – about an American mafia family, hiding under ‘witness protection’ in France – was written by Tonino Benacquista who despite his name is French and he has a generally very good reputation. The original title was ‘Malavita‘ which translates as ‘Badfellas‘. I thought the novel was a diverting amusement, but my interest now is in the ignorance of some UK critics who a) fail to notice that it is a French story and b) that it is essentially a French film, albeit filmed in English and starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard wondered how much of the film was shot outside LA (apart from a sequence in New York most of the film was shot in France). The main problem, I suspect, is that Luc Besson’s mix of extreme violence and comedy just doesn’t work in Anglo-American film culture.
So far the $30 million film has grossed over $50 million worldwide and will probably eventually make a profit. Besson consistently turns out commercially successful ‘international’ films in English with Hollywood stars and production budgets small by US standards but high for Europe. I’m using the term ‘international’ to stress that these films in English are not necessarily addressed directly to a domestic European market but are intended to compete with Hollywood product in the international market. The Family has an American (independent) partner, Relativity Media, but is essentially a French production. Nearly all these films are condemned by critics but audiences want to see them. Little is written about Besson’s success but I’m interested now because I’m starting to watch some of the better films produced on a similar basis in Europe (mainly France and Italy) in the 1960s and early 1970s. I’ve seen some crackers so far and I’m going to discuss them in an evening class course running next term at Cornerhouse in Manchester. Watch this space!