Thursday, July 02, 2015

Vertigo 5: Music and more

Making Vertigo: Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. Reportedly this image is not posed.
Each time Vertigo is different. This time I identified with its profound sense of mortality. Its special personal charge may be due to the fact that both Alfred and Alma Hitchcock had become seriously ill for the first time in their lives during the pre-production. Watching Vertigo now I was of the same age as they were then, and a survivor of a recent near death experience. I could now appreciate more deeply James Stewart's compelling interpretation of Scottie's rehabilitation after his mortally dangerous accident.

One of my memorable Vertigo experiences has been at Cinema Orion when the film felt particularly music-driven. (Cinema Orion has good natural acoustics as it was designed as a silent cinema with a permanent live orchestra). We the audience were haunted by the music, and everybody stayed dumbfounded after the final crushing deep chord of Bernard Herrmann's compelling score. (Every film programmer can tell when an audience is gripped by a movie and by what elements: the audience seems the breathe in the rhythm of them. That time it was the music that moved us most).

The motifs of the haunting score are famous and have been performed and recorded independently as suites, although they work best in their original context. The "Madeleine", "Scène d'amour", "Liebestod" and "vertigo" motifs are among the strongest. This time I paid attention to the haunting prelude theme being repeated in the d'entre les morts scene where the metamorphosis of Judy back to Madeleine is completed. I also enjoyed the old-fashioned dramatic narrative passages: "The Letter" (peripeteia), "The Park" (passing by the loving couples at the Golden Gate Park / Conservatory of Flowers / Lloyd Lake / Portals of the Past), "The Necklace" (anagnorisis), and "The Return" (driving back to the scene of the crime). They evoke silent film scores, in turn inspired by narrative traditions in melodrama and opera.

The Spanish dimension of San Francisco and the Carlotta Valdes story is acknowledged also in Herrmann's music, in its vibrant, sensual habanera rhythms (the "Carlotta's Portrait" motif).

Of the performances I found James Stewart's part even greater than before. I also realized the importance of Barbara Bel Geddes's Midge in a new way as a foundation stone of the movie, a difficult part connecting the oneiric story with human reality. Barbara Bel Geddes, daughter of the great designer Norman Bel Geddes, was a big Broadway star, blacklisted in Hollywood since 1951. Hitchcock revived her Hollywood career in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (including in Lamb for Slaughter), and in Vertigo.

Kim Novak got to play one of the most unforgettable dream women in the Dream Factory. She is so easy on the eye that it is easy ignore the complexity of the role - or roles. We get to know her as Madeleine Elster, then we learn that she is actually Judy Barton, whom Scottie Ferguson starts to remake as Madeleine, but by now she is reluctant to play that part again. Dual roles are an actor's dream, and Kim Novak uses the opportunity well in her unique fashion. She displays the cool, ethereal Madeleine elegantly. There is the short sequence as Judy Barton where she is her natural, sensual, and temperamental self. All too soon starts the long tragic process of Scottie trying to make her over. He also brings her to tears, he causes her agony, he robs the smile from her face. The romantic obsession is one-sided, but the feeling of love is mutual.

The first story of Madeleine and Scottie is based on fraud, but the love affair is genuine although both are committed to prevent it. The second story is based on Scottie's obsession which is so extreme that he fails to connect with the real woman although her feelings are true. Kim Novak rises to the occasion in all these complex situations. We feel her torment, yet realize the love underneath. Without it she would not have risked everything in starting the affair with Scottie again.

Women have a harder time in relating to Vertigo than men. For a male viewer relating to Vertigo is a matter of simultaneous identification and distanciation, perhaps in a way similar to the famous Vertigo shot of simultaneous tracking and zooming. Scottie is an anti-hero, in the final movements of the story in the grip of an obsessive aggression towards a woman who loves him. Both are victims of the master criminal.

From a female viewpoint I would imagine that Vertigo would be important as a story relevant to feminism, as an essential thriller about male domination (the original Carlotta Valdes backstory, the Gavin Elster master plot, and Scottie Ferguson's imitation). There is a center of sanity, Midge, but she is perhaps too practical and mother-like for identification in a movie which is both romantic and anti-romantic, again perhaps like the Vertigo shot which moves simultaneously forward and backward. The figure of Madeleine / Judy may be too difficult for identification: we are introduced to her as an image, and when we learn that her act was a fraud all possible previous identification is demolished, and of the real woman we get to learn very little.

From a female viewpoint Scottie is not a strong love object. An important hint is Midge's remark in the beginning that they had been engaged, but after three weeks she had cancelled the engagement. Each viewer can speculate why. In the beginning Scottie is a sober and nice guy. But perhaps he is not a good lover, perhaps he is emotionally challenged, perhaps he is not the family kind of guy, perhaps he has little interest in sex. Also his entire Madeleine / Judy affair has an otherworldly character, dealing with a romantic ideal rather than a woman of flesh and blood.

To be continued.

Vertigo 4: Death drive

Vertigo. Ferguson (James Stewart) rescues Madeleine (Kim Novak) at Fort Point by Golden Gate Bridge.
With a chuckle, Jean Douchet summed up his Bologna introduction by saying that Vertigo is about premature ejaculation, and we chuckled, as well. That gross explanation makes little sense, as so much about Vertigo. It would make a bit more sense to say that Vertigo is about coitus interruptus. It is true that there are sex symbols in Vertigo. The towers are male symbols; the spirals are female symbols; the spiral movement is a symbol of intercourse (the union of the straight line and the circle). And rather than premature ejaculation Vertigo is about impotence. The fear of heights is (among other things) an image of the inability of getting to the top, reaching a climax / fulfillment / release. Hitchcock loved to flavour his films with saucy touches (he is on record on insisting on the visibility of Coit Tower as a phallic symbol), but they are not what Vertigo is about. Rather they are part of the sense of the life force important for the poetic balance in a tragic mystery play which is really about the death drive.

Robin Wood visited Vertigo twice in superb essays which are in my opinion the best written about the film. Typically for him, the essays are totally different but not incompatible. The later essay focuses on patriarchy, revealing the structure of male domination. In the name of romantic love the male protagonist remakes the female protagonist according to his dream image, thereby divesting her not only of her preferred clothing and outlook but also of her sense of humour, her joy of life, her identity, her autonomy, her self, turning her to a shadow of her former self, a ghost, shattering her to death. The contemporary story of Madeleine also reflects back into history, "the power and the freedom" of patriarchy to exploit women mercilessly, exemplified in the tragedy of Carlotta Valdes.

This time I experienced Vertigo more in the sense of Robin Wood's earlier, original essay which I had not read in a long time. A key concept of his there is the death drive. The death drive (der Todestrieb) is a concept first invented by Sabina Spielrein (who, however, did not use that word) in her essay Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens (1912). It was soon adopted by her mentor Sigmund Freud as an intriguing speculation, but gradually it grew into the second foundation of his entire theory especially after the experience of World War I. Eros and Thanatos became the twin drives of his metatheory. There is nothing mystical in the death drive. All organic beings have a drive to grow and reproduce, and they have also an inbuilt drive to wither and die.

Wood connects the death drive to the theme of vertigo in the first sequence of the film where Scottie Ferguson remains hanging from the rooftop gutter. Life is hard: it is strenuous to keep hanging on. Death is easy: let go, and everything is over. The life force and the death drive are dramatized in an extremely simple and powerful image. The secret of vertigo is in the simultaneous contradictory upward pull of the life force and the downward temptation of gravity.

The same idea is expressed in Bernard Herrmann's score, in its vertigo motif: the ascending chords rising step by step (twelve steps in the music) - and then the swirling, inviting, seductive, downward swirling spiral melody.

Herrmann also does an open hommage to Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and creates his own version of the Liebestod theme. Further, he appropriates Wagner's famous Tristan chord and integrates it into Hitchcock's sound of suspense.

Liebestod, "love death", means the consummation of the impossible love of Tristan and Isolde in death. From this perspective, the logical final image of Vertigo would be of Scottie jumping after Madeleine. Having overcome his fear of heights Scottie would overcome his fear of falling. We see no such image, but the music continues after the final image of Scottie standing by the abyss, and the music ends with a powerful, tragic, dark, descending chord. There is no "The End" caption in Vertigo.

Vertigo 3: Making sense of Vertigo

Madeleine (Kim Novak) watching the portrait of Carlotta Valdes at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor
Although Vertigo was voted as the best film of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, most voters did not mention it on their list (some 20% did), and it is important to realize the factor of growing dispersion on lists like this.

Most of my film expert friends do not particularly like Vertigo or do not rate it among Alfred Hitchcock's best. A deeply mixed reputation is part of the Vertigo enigma.

On the other hand, there are those of us for whom Vertigo is a cult movie. When we visit San Francisco or drive the Pacific Coast Highway, whether we make the Vertigo tour or not, we are spellbound, we sense the spirit of the place like Hitchcock did in Vertigo.

Vertigo is a surrealistic film, and like Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock knew that the most persuasive cinematic dream visions are grounded in physical reality. (Vertigo's dream sequences are less oneiric than the regular action.)

In the English-speaking world Vertigo's reputation started to grow after the publication of Robin Wood's book Hitchcock's Films in 1965. Before him, Frenchmen had written on Vertigo with great insight, for instance Eric Rohmer in his article "L'Hélice et l'Idée" ["The Spiral and the Idea"] (Cahiers du Cinéma, 93, mars 1959). Intriguingly, Rohmer and Claude Chabrol had published their book Hitchcock (Paris: Éditions Universitaires, 1957), the first monograph on the master, just before the release of Vertigo, covering his oeuvre until The Wrong Man. Yet in that book one can already anticipate Vertigo as a culmination of motifs and themes examined by the writers. For instance Rohmer and Chabrol study Hitchcock as a great inventor of forms, focusing on the figures of the circle and the straight line. The spiral motif in Vertigo is of course a combination of the two - the circle moving in depth.

Several monographs have been written on Vertigo, and inspired by the Bologna screening I read what I consider the best of them, Dan Auiler's Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

The first Vertigo monograph may have been Peter von Bagh's Elokuvalliset keinot ja niiden käyttö: Alfred Hitchcockin Vertigo [Cinematic Means and Their Use: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo], Helsinki: Helsingin yliopisto, 1968, his master's thesis also published as a mimeograph edition, republished as a regular printed book in 1979 as Hitchcock: merkintöjä Alfred Hitchcockin elokuvasta Vertigo [Hitchcock: Remarks on Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo]. There is even another Finnish monograph on Vertigo, Heikki Nyman's Vertigo: rakkaus kuvaan: tutkielma Alfred Hitchcockin elokuvasta [Vertigo: Loving the Image: A Study on Alfred Hitchcock's Film], Helsinki: Heikki Nyman / Yliopistopaino, 1990, also incorporated in his magnum opus Hitchcockin kosketus: Alfred Hitchcockin elokuvat 4, Väärästä miehestä (1956) uran loppuun [The Hitchcock Touch: Alfred Hitchcock's Films 4, From The Wrong Man (1956) Till the End of His Career], Helsinki: Heikki Nyman, 1992. Nyman's works have been published as private mimeographed limited editions, available at the National Library and the KAVI Library.

Both Finnish Vertigo monographs cover a lot of ground and have interesting points of emphasis. Among other things, Peter von Bagh discusses Vertigo's affinities with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, including "The Oval Portrait". ("And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, 'This is indeed Life itself!' turned suddenly to regard his beloved: -- She was dead!") The philosopher Heikki Nyman's entire Hitchcock project focuses on themes of perception and the question of seeing - in all meanings of the word.

The disappointment of many people with Vertigo may have something to do with expectations of Alfred Hitchcock as "the master of suspense". As a thriller, detective story or murder mystery Vertigo fails miserably.

The composition is full of loose ends. How did Scottie Ferguson survive the rooftop chase? (Did he?) How did Madeleine disappear from McKittrick Hotel? (Was she even there?) The murder plot is outlandish, unconvincing and full of holes. Nobody would plan a murder like that. And why did Judy keep the bracelet of Carlotta Valdes?

Things look different when we see Vertigo without genre expectations, outside conventional categories, or perhaps in a special category such as a tragic mystery play, a surrealistic dream play, a mythic tale of modern romanticism, or an Orphic legend. Pygmalion and Galatea, Orpheus and Eurydice, Tristan and Isolde, and Svengali and Trilby have been evoked in discussions about Vertigo, as well as Edgar Allan Poe's tales of mystery and imagination. Vertigo is a suspense story, but the suspense is of an existential kind, a soul battle in realms of immanence and transcendence.

The Finnish counterpart of Orpheus in Kalevala is Väinämöinen, a shaman and a bard able to visit Tuonela, the Land of Death. Jean Sibelius's shamanic composition The Swan of Tuonela has been playing in my mind as I've been thinking about Vertigo.

It is interesting to observe how Hitchcock was expanding his scope as "the master of suspense" in the late 1950s. The Man Who Knew Too Much is based on a different psychological structure than the regular suspense thriller because the protagonists do not feel anxiety for themselves but for their child. The Wrong Man is quasi-documentary. And Vertigo is a Wagnerian Liebestod legend.

I would argue that French film critics had a lot to do with the fact that Alfred Hitchcock got the courage to produce a highly personal and poetic film such as Vertigo in the heart of the Hollywood studio system (he produced it himself, to be distributed by Paramount). Hitchcock had always been known as a skillful entertainer; even André Bazin saw him so. But Rohmer, Chabrol, and Truffaut saw more. It is an important turning-point in a man's life when he sees his most private and precious aspirations appreciated on the most profound level of understanding. Hitchcock had met sympathetic critics about to become fellow artists and professionals, all deeply influenced by him. That encouraged him to create his most personal masterpiece.

Vertigo 2: A James Stewart perspective

James Stewart in Vertigo. Click to enlarge.
When the "five missing" Hitchcocks, Vertigo among them, were re-released in 1983 after having been out of circulation for a long while, four of them starred James Stewart. All James Stewart - Alfred Hitchcock collaborations were included.

As far as I understand, Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart were not close friends. The link between them was Lew Wasserman. Both Hitchcock and Stewart had been liberated from their long-term contracts in the late 1940s, Hitchcock from his David O. Selznick contract, and Stewart from his MGM contract. They then became freelancers under the successful guidance by Wasserman.

James Stewart became one of Alfred Hitchcock's two major alter egos. Whereas Cary Grant became Hitchcock's idealized romantic alter ego, most prominently in North by Northwest, James Stewart got to project inner agony in Vertigo. Stewart had already played an invalid with Schaulust (scopophilia) in Rear Window. On the other hand, Stewart had gotten the male lead in Hitchcock's only remake, the highly personal The Man Who Knew Too Much, where he is not a sick man but a doctor, and where the suspense is not based on what happens to the protagonists personally but on their anxiety for the fate of their child. In the first Hitchcock-Stewart collaboration, Rope, Stewart had been the professor who realizes to his horror that his students are interpreting his teachings on Nietzsche and der Übermensch literally.

During WWII James Stewart had become the first major Hollywood star to wear a uniform. He had joined the U. S. Army Air Corps (reorganized as U. S. Army Air Forces in 1941). Stewart was an experienced flyer who flew cross-country to visit his parents and possessed both a private pilot certificate and a commercial pilot certificate. He had been born into a family with a long military tradition and started his own military career during WWII early and unobtrusively, advancing from private to colonel during the war and being promoted to major general when he retired in 1968. He ended his military career as an observer in Operation Arc Light missions on a B-52F Stratofortress in Vietnam in 1966. "He held the highest active military rank of any actor in history" (IMDb).

Stewart flew in dozens of dangerous combat missions on the European front. He hardly ever spoke about his wartime service and refused publicity about his military life, but he knew about war trauma having killed many people and seen many friends die. He also knew about the responsibility of the officer in sending men to missions with a high death count.

Because of the war Stewart interrupted his successful Hollywood career for five years. After Ziegfeld Girl (1941) his next film was It's a Wonderful Life (1946). He considered ending his acting career but when he decided to go on he was committed to become the best. Cary Grant commented that Stewart mastered natural, mumbling, stuttering, overlapping dialogue long before Brando. Stewart was so natural that it was easy to ignore that he was a great actor because his approach was so unobtrusive and unpretentious.

Stewart's scope widened. Hollywood usually celebrated the American Dream of success, promoted winners and steered the narrative to a happy end. Stewart also chose projects and roles with sympathy for the loser, and an insight in madness, obsession, and mental breakdown, even suicide as a real alternative.

No actor has portrayed agony, torment, pain and suffering more grippingly. Of his two main directors in the 1950s Anthony Mann seemed to sense this particularly well. But Vertigo is the culmination of this current in James Stewart's development.

John Ferguson is presented to us as a lawyer and a policeman with career ambitions to become chief of police. He is known as "the hard-headed Scot" with little patience in the irrational.

On a dangerous police mission, however, during a chase on the San Francisco rooftops, John and his police partner fail to catch the criminal, John slips and is left hanging on a rooftop gutter, and his partner falls to his death trying to help him.

John survives, but he becomes mentally unstable, suffering from acrophobia and vertigo and a guilt complex having failed to prevent his partner's death.

As a private investigator he accepts an assignment from his school friend Gavin Elster to observe the strange behaviour of his wife Madeleine. Because of his fear of heights John is unable to follow Madeleine to a bell tower from which she jumps to her death. John experiences a mental breakdown. Beside his former problems he now also suffers from acute melancholia which renders him catatonic. He is taken to a mental hospital.

It takes a year for him to recover. Still obsessed by Madeleine he meets a woman, Judy Barton, who vaguely resembles Madeleine, and starts to make her over until he realizes that she is the same woman who had been employed by Gavin Elster in a plot to murder his wife. The final revelation takes them back to the bell tower where a shadowy figure moving in the darkness so scares Judy that she falls to her death. The film ends in the desolate image of John having lost everything for the third time.

Anton Kaes has written a book called Shell Shock Cinema; Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War where he studies Weimar cinema as a coming to terms with the post-traumatic shock of the war.

I would argue that some of James Stewart's post-WWII roles from It's a Wonderful Life to Vertigo can be seen on one level as shell shock cinema - coming to terms with a condition we now call a posttraumatic stress disorder. In such roles Stewart lives the parts of ordinary men facing extraordinary challenges which can break them physically and mentally. Stewart lets himself become a medium, a conductor, a personification for processing overwhelming pain and failure which may lead his characters to ask if life is worth living. In such roles Stewart proved to be a great tragic actor. In tragedy, the protagonist has potential for greatness, but due to a fatal error or weakness he fails. The feeling of grandeur in a tragic masterpiece such as Vertigo is based on the clarity and depth of the vision - the capacity of transcendence which can provide catharsis. James Stewart had range from comedy to tragedy. In Vertigo he was at his tragic best.

Vertigo (vintage La Cinémathèque française print, 35 mm dye transfer Technicolor features derived from VistaVision colour negatives)

Vertigo poster designed by Saul Bass. Click to enlarge.
Sueurs froides / La donna che visse due volte / Aus dem Reich der Toten / Vertigo - punainen kyynel / Studie i brott. US © 1958 Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, Inc. Based on the novel D’entre les morts di Pierre Boileau e Thomas Narcejac. SC: Alec Coppel, Samuel A. Taylor. DP: Robert Burks. ED: George Tomasini. AD: Henry Bumstead, Hal Pereira. M: Bernard Herrmann. C: James Stewart (John ‘Scottie’), Kim Novak (Madeleine / Judy), Barbara Bel Geddes (Marjorie ‘Midge’), Tom Helmore (Gavin), Henry Jones (coroner), Raymond Bailey (dottore), Ellen Corby (proprietaria dell’hotel), Konstantin Shayne (Pop Leibel), Lee Patrick (automobilista mistaken for Madeleine), Paul Bryar (Hansen). P: Alfred Hitchcock per Alfred Hitchcock Productions, Inc., Paramount Pictures Corp. 35 mm. Col. Sous-titres français. From: La Cinémathèque française by permission of Universal Pictures.
    Filmed in Vistavision / VistaVision: 35 mm dye transfer Technicolor features derived from VistaVision colour negatives.
    Viewed at Cinema Arlecchino (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Technicolor & Co. / Peter Forever, Homage to Peter von Bagh), introduced by Céline Ruivo (La Cinémathèque française) and Jean Douchet, with e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti Londra, 2 July 2015.
    The subtitled print was screened at 1,66:1.

Peter von Bagh (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website):
“I really identified with the story because to me it was saying: Please, see who I am. Fall in love with me, not a fantasy” (Kim Novak).
    “It’s an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world” (Lord Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde)
    "The means, tricks and central images of Vertigo are like verses of a poem, visible, identifiable, yet retaining their mystery, never obvious. Visual motifs reappear hypnotically: flowers, trees, the necklace, the ocean, the church, and the passages and stairways which are like labyrinths of self-deception and whose spirals are like invitations to hell. The very beginning leads to an entirely unreal emphasis: Scottie remains hanging from the roof-top gutter, and it is impossible to imagine that he could survive in the ‘real world’. His borrowed time takes him to situations that are no less difficult to master. Typically for Hitchcock, the most famous single image of the movie is a feat of both technical virtuosity and profound psychological insight. He told that he conceived it after fifteen years of thinking about a vision he had had in a moment of being terribly drunk and having the sensation that everything was going far away. It occurs at the church where Madeleine runs upstairs. Scottie cannot follow due to his acrophobia and when he looks down the stairwell everything escapes his eyes into a strange sawing pattern. Hitchcock realized that the viewpoint had to be fixed while the perspective changed lengthwise so he ended up using a simultaneous zoom and a dolly in opposite directions with a camera set-up where a miniature staircase was photographed sideways."
(Peter von Bagh) - AA: Extract from Peter von Bagh’s posthumous unpublished manuscript for a book on Alfred Hitchcock covering all his films with an emphasis on a single shot from each. Peter von Bagh was a champion of Alfred Hitchcock since the 1950s. His master’s thesis for the Department of Aesthetics and Literature at the University of Helsinki in 1968 was Cinematic Means and Their Use: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’. In 1968 von Bagh interviewed Hitchcock, who was visiting Helsinki in preparation for his projected spy thriller The Short Night. The interview was published on a full page of the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat with the title "Logic Is Dull". As we know initially Vertigo was not generally highly regarded, but since the 1983 re-release its reputation has steadily grown until it was voted as the best film of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. (AA, Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website)

AA: I have never seen a good print of Vertigo. This seems remarkable about a film that has been voted as the best film of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, and, more importantly for me, a film Robin Wood considered one of the few most profound works of art the cinema has given us.

Born in 1955, I did not get to see Vertigo during my school days. It had been withdrawn from circulation, and it had never been telecast, nor were there any prints that film societies or film archives could access.

But studying in West Berlin I did get to see a 16 mm print of Vertigo in April 1981. It was in the distribution of Peter Vollmann who regularly screened it in his Thalia cinema. I believe it was shortened by 10 minutes (intentionally I believe as no dialogue or key event was missing) but the colour seemed right; I had seen enough genuine Technicolor prints to have a sense of that.

Then finally came the 1983 re-release of the "five missing" Hitchcocks. The reason for the fact that they had been missing for such a long time was that Alfred Hitchcock himself owned them, and first after his death they were re-released. It was great but the prints of Vertigo were not particularly good. They looked duped and darkened.

In 1996, Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz finished their big and ambitious restoration of Vertigo in 70 mm - an accurate way to process the ratio of the original VistaVision negative. Because of differential separation shrinkage in Technicolor negatives there was significant colour correction and computer assisted colourization. For the new 6-channel DTS stereo soundtrack Harris and Katz re-recorded some sound effects via the foley process and even added sound effects to camouflage hisses, pops and bangs. (I copy here formulations from Wikipedia). This is the version of Vertigo that has been in general use since - until the 4K digital restoration of 2014. We have been very happy to screen it while aware of the fact that it is an approximation.

But because of this background it is exciting finally to see a vintage print of Vertigo. Some people criticize the very term "vintage print", but here it is justified. This is an original release print, a Technicolor print in which we can observe the original remarkable colour world of Hitchcock and his brilliant artistic team.

Céline Ruivo in her introduction commented that 1,85:1 was the standard aspect ratio for Vertigo but because of the French subtitles 1,66:1 would work better. There were two special projectionists: Pietro Piazzo on behalf of the festival, and a La Cinémathèque française projectionist.

The colour is beautiful. Here we can see the original reds, golds and greens of Vertigo, and the shades of blonde hair and gray dress of the dream woman. Much of the film has been shot with a realistic approach, but there is also a consistent painterly dimension in it. Green is of exceptional importance. On the one hand, the lush natural green of Judy Barton's dress: in February I saw the original dress in the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Academy Museum, and now the vintage film image. At the other extreme, the ghostly green halo surrounding Judy made over as Madeleine by Scottie at the Empire Hotel.

The otherwordly reflections at Mission Dolores can be here observed as intended; they must be difficult to reproduce in duplication. The strange reflections are not photographic or special effects; they actually emerge from way the white walls reflect sunlight.

On the other hand, the sequence at Pop Leibel's Argosy Bookstore was created with elaborate photographic and matte effects to convey a darkening atmosphere while we hear the story of Mad Carlotta. This too can be observed here as intended.

I have been impatient with the difficulties of digital in conveying forest and nature in general. I have to admit that nature has always been difficult for three-strip Technicolor, as well. The fit of the three Technicolor separation masters is never perfect enough to produce an unblurred image of a tree whose leaves are moving in the wind. Also in this vintage Vertigo the sequoia forest is blurred in a Technicolor fashion.

To sum up: this is the colour world of Vertigo I will try to memorize, and I will always be grateful for Il Cinema Ritrovato and La Cinémathèque française for that.

This print has been in heavy use, and it looks like it has been screened a thousand times. It is full of scratches, "rain" and cuts (more than one minute is missing). Some scratches are severe, the proud battle scars of a much loved classic.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Woman on the Run (2015 UCLA restoration)

Woman on the Run: Dennis O'Keefe and Ann Sheridan. Click to enlarge the images.
Il mistero del marito scomparso / Murhaaja etsii itseään / Vittnet som försvann. US © 1950 Fidelity Pictures Corporation. D: Norman Foster. Dal racconto [1948] di Sylvia Tate. SC: Alan Campbell, Norman Foster. DP: Hal Mohr. ED: Otto Ludwig. AD: Boris Leven. M: Arthur Lange, Emil Newman. C: Ann Sheridan (Eleanor Johnson), Dennis O’Keefe (Daniel Leggett), Robert Keith (ispettore Ferris), Ross Elliott (Frank Johnson), John Qualen (Maibus), Frank Jenks (detective Shaw), Victor Sen Yung (Sammy Chung), Jane Liddell (la ragazza), J. Farrell McDonald (il capitano), Steven Geray (dottor Hohler). P: Howard Welsch per Fidelity Pictures Corporation. 35 mm. 89’. B&w. English version. From: UCLA Film & Television Archive.
    Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding by the Film Noir Foundation. Preserved from a 35 mm nitrate dupe negative, a 35 mm nitrate composite print and a 35 mm acetate composite print. Laboratory services by Film Technology Company, Audio Mechanics, DJ Audio, and Simon Daniel Sound. Special thanks to BFI, The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Universal Pictures.
    Viewed at Cinema Arlecchino (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Ritrovati e Restaurati), introduced by Cecilia Cenciarelli and Yoram Kahana (The Hollywood Foreign Press Association), with e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti Londra, 1 July 2015.

Steven K. Hill (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "Shot largely among the gritty working class landscapes of mid-century San Francisco, Woman on the Run spotlights Ann Sheridan as an acerbic wise-cracking wife in search of her estranged husband who suddenly disappears after witnessing a gangland assassination. After suffering through a series of disappointing roles at Warner Bros., Sheridan bought out her remaining contract and turned to the upstart independent Fidelity Pictures in an attempt to re-establish her career as a leading lady. The resultant film was Woman on the Run, and Sheridan delivers a tour-de-force performance, aided by equally strong turns by Dennis O’Keefe, Robert Keith, and Ross Elliott in the supporting roles. Director Norman Foster, a former protégé of Orson Welles, had just returned to Hollywood after helming a successful string of features in Mexico and captured the anxiety-driven mood of Alan Campbell’s screenplay with seemingly effortless dexterity. The Bay Area location filming – in addition to the opening sequence shot in Bunker Hill and the dramatic climax staged at the Santa Monica Pier – was beautifully shot by esteemed cinematographer Hal Mohr and adds atmospheric realism to the production that studio-bound efforts of the era could not hope to match."

"Although the film opened strongly amidst positive critical reviews, attendance dwindled precipitously due in part to a bizarre advertising campaign that touted the movie as a woman’s picture: “a probing study of the failure of modern marriage”. Quickly falling into obscurity, the film has been long and unjustly neglected, compelling Film Noir Foundation founder and president Eddie Muller to remark that “If Woman on the Run had been directed by Raoul Walsh or Joseph H. Lewis or Don Siegel, it would have been rediscovered decades ago and heralded as a minor masterpiece”."

"For years it was believed that a restoration of Woman on the Run was impossible after the last known surviving print of this film was destroyed in a studio fire."

"An exhaustive worldwide search was eventually rewarded with the discovery of duplicate pre-print elements in the vaults of the British Film Institute."
(Steven K. Hill)

AA: This film noir is a chase story. Frank Johnson is chased by the mob because he has witnessed the killing of a key witness. But he does not want to get into police custody and is chased also by the police with the help of his wife Eleanor. Ominously, Eleanor is helped by Daniel Leggett who pretends to be a newspaperman for Graphic but is actually a hitman for the mob. Leggett manages to win Eleanor's confidence.

On another level, Eleanor fears that Frank has now left her and is actually escaping her. The clues Eleanor keeps getting from Frank during the chase affirm her trust in her husband's love.

On the deepest level, Woman on the Run is a vision of existential Angst. Nobody can be trusted, and even the trust in the nearest one can lead into a fatal trap.

The action is well directed, the dialogue is witty, and the film has been conceived in powerful visual terms thanks to the inspired location shooting by the old master Hal Mohr, a veteran who had started in Hollywood before WWI (Salomy Jane), often excelling in shooting on location.

Woman on the Run is in public domain which may explain why good theatrical prints have been hard to come by.  UCLA has done a fine job of restoration of this solid film noir.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

La Fin du jour / The End of the Day (2015 digital restoration by Pathé)

La Fin du jour. Michel Simon, Louis Jouvet. Click to enlarge the images.
I prigionieri del sogno / Varjojen vangit / Skuggornas fångar. FR 1939. D: Julien Duvivier. SC: Julien Duvivier, Charles Spaak. Dial.: Charles Spaak. DP: Armand Thirard, Robert Juillard, Christian Matras, Ernest Bourreaud. ED: Marthe Poncin. AD: Jacques Krauss. M: Maurice Jaubert. C: Louis Jouvet (Saint-Clair), Michel Simon (Cabrissade), Madeleine Ozeray (Jeannette), Victor Francen (Gilles Marny), Gabrielle Dorziat (Madame Chabert), Sylvie (Madame Tusini), Arthur Devère (il direttore di scena), Gaston Modot (il padrone del bistrot), Raymone (la padrona del bistrot), François Périer (il giornalista). P: Regina Films. DCP. 105’. B&w. English subtitles by Lenny Borger. From: Pathé International.
    Arquillières / Alexandre Arquillière  (Monsieur Lucien).
    Song: "Le Temps de cerises".
    Viewed at Cinema Arlecchino (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Ritrovati e Restaurati) with English subtitles on the DCP and e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti Londra, 30 June 2015.
    Introduced by Sophie Seydoux.

Roberto Chiesi (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "Julien Duvivier knew the secret to creating explosive opening scenes where in just a few minutes he could condense the atmosphere of a world and the features and story of a character with masterly visual fluidity. La Fin du jour opens with a performance of Alexandre Dumas’ Antony in front of a half-empty audience, and the troupe is in a hurry to finish the show so they don’t miss the last train. All but Saint-Clair (Louis Jouvet), an old actor performing his swan song. He brags about an upcoming vacation but instead is about to go into a retirement home for actors at the Saint-Jean-la-Rivière abbey. It is another confined space (as is often the case in Charles Spaak’s screenplays – Grande illusion is another example) in which the story of Saint-Clair is intertwined with that of Cabrissade (Michel Simon), a failed actor used as a stand-in, Marny (Victor Francen), a showman who is laid up because of depression caused by the loss of his wife, and a lively array of carefully characterized old actors and actresses (including Gabrielle Dorziat and Sylvie). Duvivier describes old age without sugarcoating, dominated by feelings of regret, bitterness and frustration. He entrusts to the genius of Michel Simon the guise of a loser who stubbornly refuses to accept old age, taking refuge in unyielding childishness. There is also an autobiographical echo in the scene where Cabrissade is about to finally play the role of Flambeau but forgets his lines as he goes on stage. It was something that actually happened to the young Duvivier in 1916 when treading the boards at the Odéon."

"The frailty of old age is reflected in the vulnerability of being actors, living in a make-believe world, often also off stage, a fiction which Duvivier (sometimes alluding to the real identities of the performers) also shows in its aspects of deception, a game of masks that can drift into madness: the Saint-Clair of the great Jouvet, cynical seducer, confirmed narcissist (he sends himself old letters from lovers to make others believe he is still adored) and cruel manipulator, tries to provoke a young waitress to commit suicide.Made by Duvivier following his first Hollywood experience (The Great Waltz), the film was awarded the Coppa della Biennale at the 1939 Venice Film Festival, troubled by the outbreak of war. The Italian version was cut by around twenty minutes."
(Roberto Chiesi)

AA: The 1930s were Julien Duvivier's anni mirabili, and La Fin de jour was his penultimate film during a decade in which he also directed David Golder, La Tête d'un homme, La Bandera, La belle équipe, Pépé le Moko, and Un carnet de bal.

Carried by the brilliant dialogue by Charles Spaak La Fin du jour is a study in illusions in the last stage of life of professonal creators of illusions, set in a retirement home for actors. Gilles Marny (Victor Francen) is known as the actor who had talent but no success. Cabrissade (Michel Simon) has been the talented understudy of a master actor - Lucien Guitry - who was never sick. Saint-Clair (Louis Jouvet) is the brilliant man of the surface, a master seducer and a dazzling performer. There are those who act the parts and those who live the parts. As a contrast to Saint-Clair's illusionary love affairs there is the happy couple who has lived together for 35 years and who now decide to marry in an official wedding. A final climactic sequence is a benefit performance of Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon.

A memorable scene takes place during the singing of "Le Temps de cerises" where we hear a quick version of Letter from an Unknown Woman with Saint-Clair in the role of the seducer who never remembers.

As a story about ageing people there are affinities in La Fin du jour with Make Way for Tomorrow and Tokyo Story.

It is fascinating to observe such a cast, ranging from the actor of the cinema's first super-villain, Arquillères (he created Zigomar) to a young François Périer in one of his first screen roles.

The digital restoration is bright and clear.

Visita ou Memórias e Confissões / Visit or Memories and Confessions

Conversazione privata. PT 1981 [catalogue: 1982]. Posthumously released: 2015. D: Manoel de Oliveira. SC+Dial.: Manoel de Oliveira, Agustina Bessa-Luís. DP: Elso Roque. ED: Manoel de Oliveira, Ana Luísa Guimarães. C: Manoel de Oliveira, Maria Isabel de Oliveira, Urbano Tavares Rodrigues (se stessi), Teresa Madruga, Diogo Dória (voci). P: Cineastas Associados. 35 mm. 68’. Col. From: Cinemateca Portuguesa.
    [A 2015 print. Two years are given on the print: 1981 as the year of production and subsidy and 2015 for the laboratory work.]
    M: Ludwig van Beethoven: Klavierkonzert Nr. 4 op. 58 (1806).
    Viewed at Cinema Arlecchino (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Ritrovati e Restaurati), introduced by Gian Luca Farinelli and José Manuel Costa, with e-subtitles in English and Italian [tbc: English subtitles on the print?], 30 June 2015

Lorenzo Codelli (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "Filmed in the early 1980s to be released posthumously, Visita ou Memórias e Confissões led Manoel de Oliveira to film the house in Rua Vilarinha, Oporto, designed by architect José Porto, that he had built and then used as his family home for four decades after his marriage in 1940, until he was forced to sell it."

"Visita ou Memórias e Confissões is an autobiographical film of ‘memories and confessions’, hence the filmmaker’s wish to keep it unreleased during his lifetime. “A house is an intimate, personal relationship, where one finds his roots”, “upon my request, Agustina wrote a very beautiful script, that she called Visita. And I added some reflections on the house and on my life” (Manoel de Oliveira)."

"Thank you, dear Manoel, for leaving us one of your most beautiful films as a posthumous gift! Forced to sell your house-labyrinth surrounded by an enchanted garden, where you had lived and created for forty years, you decided in 1982 to film a Visita, like Marienbad, through its twists and turns, its hidden secrets, supported by a lyrical text written by your faithful Agustina Bessa-Luís and recited by two voices. Furthermore, you wanted to tell us standing up, facing the camera, like in one of Escher’s mirrors, your ‘memories and confessions’. Back then, you had made just six films, a fifth of your work. You told us about your father, a powerful industrialist, your wife, a devoted muse, and women in general, your children, your nefarious stay in Salazar’s prisons, your turbulent century, and above all your vocation. “Cinema is my passion. For him, I have sacrificed everything”. Already in Porto da minha infância, from 2001, you told us about your youth as an athlete and a cinephile."

"Your parable, from well-heeled bourgeois to great artist, including fatal falls and audacious flights, how you sketched it with such studied nonchalance! Freed, for eternity, from Time. Thank you so
very much."

"P.S. Note to distributors: do not dare call it a ‘documentary’!"
(Lorenzo Codelli)

AA: A highlight of the Festival. Manoel de Oliveira (1908-2015) who died in April spoke directly to us from the screen in a projection of a posthumous film made over thirty years ago. The audience at Cinema Arlecchino was ideal. The message was gratefully received.

It is a confession of love to the director's wife Maria Isabel and their family. Woman for Oliveira is a symbol of the equilibrium of the world. "I love life, but death does not scare me". "Only love can give life its ultimate meaning".

Two invisible guests wander in Oliveira's family house, and we keep meeting Oliveira himself at his typewriter and 16 mm film projector. We see home movies and hear the Oliveira family story, including the story of the family industry until the Carnation Revolution. During the Salazar dictatorship Oliveira was caught by the secret police PIDE and taken to prison after he had made Acto da Primavera.

We also hear about valued friends such as André Bazin, Paulo Rocha, and Erika and Ulrich Gregor.

The family home is a site of love and culture, and we are invited into a last tour to the house that has already been sold, to witness the 1930s architecture, the garden, the furniture, the paintings, the photographs, and the objects.

Co-written with Oliveira's favourite author Agustina Bessa-Luís the dialogue and commentary is of high literary value. I hope it will be published.

Shot by Elso Roque, the film is a refined visual journey into the garden and the interior of the house.

The new photochemical print is beautiful.

The Dumb Girl of Portici (2015 digital restoration from Library of Congress)

The Dumb Girl of Portici. Douglas Gerrard (Alphonse), Anna Pavlova (Fenella), Edna Maison (Elvire). Click to enlarge.
[Porticin mykkä] / [Den stumma från Portici]. US © 1915 Universal Film Mfg. Co. D: Lois Weber, Phillips Smalley. Story: Eugène Scribe, Germaine Delavigne. SC: Lois Weber. DP: Dal Clawson, Al Siegler, R.W. Walter. C: Anna Pavlova (Fenella), Rupert Julian (Masaniello), Wadsworth Harris (duca d’Arcos), Douglas Gerrard (Alphonso), John Holt (Conde), Betty Schade (Isabella), Edna Maison (Elvira), Hart Hoxie (Perrone), William Wolbert (Pietro), Laura Oakley (Rilla). P: Universal Film Mfg. Co. · DCP. B&w. From: Library of Congress.
    Viewed at Sala Mastroianni (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato,  Recovered & Restored, Beloved Bluebirds, About a Hundred Years Ago. 1915), introduced by Mariann Lewinsky and John Sweeney, grand piano: John Sweeney, percussions: Frank Bockius, earphone translation in Italian, 30 June 2015
    Based on the opera La Muette de Portici (FR 1828) composed by Daniel Auber with a libretto by Germain Delavigne revised by Eugène Scribe.

Geo Willeman and Valerie Cervantes (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916) was a project by two powerful artists: director Lois Weber and dancer / choreographer Anna Pavlova. The production was huge, one of Universal’s most expensive up to that time."

"The only version known to have survived was a 35 mm nitrate reissue print dating from the 1920’s preserved at the BFI until we located a second print at the New York Public Library. Even though this was 16 mm and probably duped from a Kodascope reduction, it could be used to complete the existing 35 mm print and bring the film back closer to the original version."

"The 35 mm print had remade 1920’s intertitles but fortunately the 16 mm print had the original plain-looking titles standard to Universal productions. The decision to replace all the titles in the 35 mm print with the originals considerably smoothed the narrative flow."

"As examined the 16 mm print in detail, we found extra shots that were absent from the 35 mm print. (Invariably, these turned out to be scenes of extreme violence and bloodshed – pretty graphic stuff for 1915.) It was fairly easy to reinstate them into the continuity of our digital workprint from a narrative point of view and although the image quality is decidedly lower than the bulk of the film, we feel that the restored version is now probably as close as we can get to the original continuity until (wishful thinking) a more complete print is unearthed."

"A final story: the ending of the film bothered us – it bore one of those awkward reissue titles and was exceedingly abrupt. The film ends with a Pavlova dance number, but in the 35mm print, had been cut to about 35 seconds. We looked back over the 16 mm print and discovered something that had been there all the time, spliced near to the beginning of the film, where the star does a short exhibition dance. It was well over two-and-a-half-minutes long and a complete routine – Pavlova’s parting gift to her audience. Feverishly, we placed the sequence at the tail and removed the intertitle and – there was our ending: delicate, beautiful, sad, and joyful." (Geo Willeman and Valerie Cervantes).

AA: According to Wikipedia the opera La Muette de Portici is "loosely based on the historical uprising of Masaniello against Spanish rule in Naples in 1647." The opera is famous as the first French grand opera and as a revolutionary opera which actually launched revolutions: in Belgium (1830), as well as in France (the 1830 revolution). "Richard Wagner remarked, in his 1871 Reminiscences of Auber, that the opera "whose very representation had brought [revolutions] about, was recognised as an obvious precursor of the July Revolution, and seldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event."" Thanks to the central part of the dumb woman "it marked the introduction into opera of mime and gesture as an integral part of an opera plot." Famous dancers were cast in the central role of Fenella, the dumb woman. "La Muette de Portici played a major role in establishing the genre of grand opera. Many of its elements – the five-act structure, the obligatory ballet sequence, the use of spectacular stage effects, the focus on romantic passions against a background of historical troubles – would become the standard features of the form for the rest of the 19th century". "Auber's pioneering work caught the attention of the young Richard Wagner, who was eager to create a new form of music drama. He noted that in La Muette, "arias and duets in the wonted sense were scarcely to be detected any more, and certainly, with the exception of a single prima-donna aria in the first act, did not strike one at all as such; in each instance it was the ensemble of the whole act that riveted attention and carried one away..."". "It also played a large role in the founding of the Kingdom of Belgium. The riots that led to the independence started after hearing the opera."

Mariann Lewinsky introduced Anna Pavlova's only feature film. A 60 piece orchestra would be needed to play Daniel Auber's music.

The Dumb Girl of Portici has been adapted to film by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley in Film d'Art style in the year when The Birth of the Nation among others revolutionized film narrative. The film is mostly constructed as tableaux conveyed in long takes and long shots with an immobile camera. Intertitles predict action. But there are also camera movements (pans and tracking shots) and superimpositions.

The performances are mostly based on grand histrionics. Feelings are telegraphed in grand gestures. The playing is mostly anti-realistic.

Anna Pavlova's stylized and exaggerated pantomime fits into the general performance mode. It is a wild and consistent performance, a grand tragic interpretation which leads to a transcendent final dance number - the ascent into heaven.

The inflammatory revolutionary spirit of Daniel Auber's opera is still alive in Lois Weber and Phillip Smalley's silent film adaptation. There is a true epic sense of history and tragic grandeur. The Dumb Girl of Portici still partly belongs to the "before Hollywood" period - before a general streamlining into slick and polished studio production. It is one of the big early film epics with a constant sense of danger and surprise. The violence is startling in the massive sequences of tyranny, oppression and revolt.

John Sweeney did a splendid job in arranging and performing a piano adaptation of Daniel Auber's music, together with Frank Bockius in the percussions. It was an amazing experience.

The restoration has been conducted with loving care from often battered and difficult sources, sometimes in 16 mm. There was an irresistible drive in this memorable performance of a film which has not been shown in a decent way for generations.

Sotto il sole di Roma / Under the Sun of Rome

Sotto il sole di Roma with Liliana Mancini and Oscar Blando. Click to enlarge the images.
Rooman auringon alla [Finnish telecast 23 May 1981 Yle TV1]. IT 1948. D: Renato Castellani. Story: Renato Castellani, Fausto Tozzi. SC: Renato Castellani, Sergio Amidei, Emilio Cecchi, Ettore Margadonna, Fausto Tozzi. DP: Domenico Scala. AD: Dario Cecchi. M: Nino Rota. C: Oscar Blando (Ciro), Francesco Golisano (Geppo), Liliana Mancini (Iris), Alberto Sordi (Fernando), Gisella Monaldi (Tosca), Alfredo Locatelli (Nerone), Ennio Fabeni (Bruno), Luigi Valentini (Romoletto), Omero Paoloni (Coccolone). P: Universalcine. 35 mm. 100’. B&w. From: CSC – Cineteca Nazionale.
    Theme song "Sotto il sole di Roma" (Nino Rota) sung by Claudio Villa.
    Wikipedia: Prodotto da Sandro Ghenzi per Universal Cine S.A., il film fu girato tutto in esterni mentre per gli interni furono usate ambientazioni reali, quasi tutte intorno al quartiere romano della Basilica di S.Giovanni, piazzale Appio, via Magna Grecia, Via Corfinio, via Sannio, via Appia Nuova, via Emanuele Filiberto, via dello Stradone di San Giovanni, via Taranto e via Assisi ovvero nei pressi della Stazione di Roma Tuscolana e della storica fabbrica Pirelli.
    Viewed at Cinema Jolly (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, La bella gioventù, Renato Castellani), with e-subtitles in English by Sub-Ti Londra, introduced by Emiliano Morreale, 30 June 2015.

Sergio Tresatti: "The scenario of Sotto il sole di Roma is fifty pages in which the common thread is the friendship between two boys. One represents youth that does not want to die, Peter Pan who does not want to grow up; the other is the friend who leads a normal life. There is a girl in the neighborhood, and a woman past her prime directly taken from reality... Castellani showed the scenario to De Laurentiis, but his answer was disappointing: “Oh Castellà, what do you want to do with these stories about filthy kids? Look at how successful Freda was with Aquila nera. Make a nice adventure film”."

"Castellani did not give up. The screenplay was written quickly with the help of Sergio Amidei. The story was presented from the point of view of Ciro so that everything, even the dangers of war, are a source of amusement and mockery; voiceover is used here for the first time not as a narrative device that overlaps from outside but as integral element of the story. The actors were ‘taken from the street’, except for Alberto Sordi who worked in variety entertainment. The film was then dubbed by the same kids with some difficulty. It went to Venice. No one hoped for a grand result: instead the screening was vastly attended, and the same success was had in theaters.
"

Sergio Trasatti, Renato Castellani, La Nuova Italia, Firenze 1984

Miguel Marías: "Still too heavily melodramatic in its elaborate, fatalistic arrangement of quite contrived tragic coincidences – most damagingly in the ending sequences –, which increasingly entrap a group of teenagers during the summer of 1943 and after the liberation of Rome (as they age and become forcibly responsible after the death of their parents), Sotto il sole di Roma, a first decisive step from stylization towards realism, strikes most today for Castellani seems to have foreshadowed, more than a decade before, a lot of things which were at the core of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first features as a director, Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962). The emotionally lighter scenes, which are never half as heavily handled as the more dramatic ones, still shine today with a freshness that must have looked quite new in 1948, perhaps as a new chapter in the adventures of the boys in Roma città aperta, just a bit older now (1945)."

Miguel Marías (introductions from Il Cinema Ritrovato catalogue and website).

AA: Agonizing during an entire week before the start of the Festival over my viewing choices I first thought I had seen Sotto il sole di Roma before, but checking the introductions (see above) I did not recognize the film of which I had fond and different memories. I thus did go to see it, and soon realized I had seen the previous Il Cinema Ritrovato screening five years ago.

I have always admired Renato Castellani although I mainly know from him only Due soldi di speranza which we screen regularly and the splendid television series La vita di Leonardo di Vinci 1-5 (1971) which I saw at an impressionable age.

Emilio Morreale in his rewarding introduction mentioned that Sotto il sole di Roma was one of the few neorealist films with popular success, the opening of his beloved "la bella gioventù" trilogy (Sotto il sole di Roma, 1948; È primavera…, 1950; Due soldi di speranza, 1952). There are already leads here to Accattone, and premonitions of commedia all'italiana, complete with a memorable appearance by Alberto Sordi, still young and unknown. This was a new start for Castellani which had so far belonged to the calligraphic school, a master of beautiful scenes. He shot on location impressive scenes of swimming at the marrana, an urban swamp, not very healthy. The film takes place in two periods of time, in 1943 during the German occupation, and in 1944 after the liberation, and the account seems to confirm Pasolini's claim that "Fascism had no impact on Italian life".

In the beginning we are told that the movie is based on real events and was filmed entirely on location with non-actors.

It is a tragi-comic Bildungsroman, a growing-up story of an anti-heroic young boy during the transition period from Fascism till Liberation. The boys are running on the streets of Rome on their way to an illegal swimming pond and meet the homeless Geppa who lives in the cellar of the ruins of Colosseum. Ciro loses his new white shoes, and new ones are stolen for him from the shoe store. Their adventures include boxing, evading Nazis and bombings, black market adventures on the countryside, visiting Liberty Club after the liberation, and stealing tyres from Pirelli.

Two female types are introduced at once: the charming Iris, the girl next door, and the formidable harridan mamma, always barking at the incorrigible boys. "Are all women like that?" asks Ciro from his father. "Tutte". (There was laughter in the audience). The mother dies, and gradually we realize that Iris will soon become like her.

But a lot will happen in Ciro's éducation sentimentale before that. Ciro becomes the lover of the insatiable Tosca, the wife of Fernando (the shoe store clerk who becomes the owner of Liberty Club), but Ciro must discontinue the relationship because he is losing too much weight.

Ciro has trouble in finding his place in society, and to make a short cut he decides to participate in a robbery at the Pirelli tyre depot. He is interrupted by Iris, but Ciro's father, a night watchman, is killed during the robbery. Having lost both parents Ciro must face his responsibilities of making a living not only for himself but for the entire family, with a disillusioned Iris by his side.

Nino Rota has composed an engrossing score. We see poverty but we hear splendid, operatic music full of passion, celebrating an irrepressible life force. The theme song is sung by the great Roman singer Claudio Villa, here at the start of a long and successful career. There seems to be no recording of this song, and thus the soundtrack is especially valuable as a document of Claudio Villa at his best.

The cinematography of Domenico Scala (Ossessione, Acciaio, Fanny, Domenica d'agosto) is a masterful display of realistic location work.

The print is awful, perhaps the same one that was screened here five years ago. This film would deserve a fine restoration project.

Bunny Lake Is Missing (2014 digital 4K restoration by Sony Pictures)

Bunny Lake Is Missing. Keir Dullea, Carol Lynley. Click to enlarge.
Bunny Lake è scomparsa / Bunny on kadonnut / Bunny Lake är försvunnen. GB © 1965 Wheel Productions Ltd. D: Otto Preminger. Based on the novel [1957] by Evelyn Piper [= Merriam Modell]. SC: John Mortimer, Penelope Mortimer. DP: Denys Coop. ED: Peter Thornton. AD: Don Ashton. M: Paul Glass. C: Carol Lynley (Ann Lake), Laurence Olivier (ispettore Newhouse), Keir Dullea (Steven Lake), Martita Hunt (Ada Ford), Noël Coward (Orazio Wilson), Anna Massey (Elvira Smollett), Jill Melford (l’insegnante), Finlay Currie (il costruttore di bambole), Clive Revill (sergente Andrews), Lucie Mannheim (la cuoca), Adrienne Corri (Dorothy). P: Otto Preminger per Wheel Productions Ltd. DCP. 107’. B&w. From: Sony Columbia per concessione di Park Circus
    Restored in 4K by Sony Pictures from the original camera negative and fine grain master. 4K wetgate scanning at Cineric. Image restoration by Prasad and MTI Film. Audio restoration at Chace Audio.
    Panavision, 2,35:1.
    The Zombies: "Remember You", "Just Out of Reach" and "Nothing's Changed".
    Viewed at Cinema Arlecchino (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Ritrovati e Restaurati), 30 June 2015

Jean-Louis Comolli: "Here, the desire to lose the viewer among false leads and false characters is so obvious as to create a doubt not about the truth of the characters and the secret of their nature, but about the reality of their existence itself: as if the absence of Bunny Lake, presented in the film as a creation of the mind, undermines the real existence of her parents, confining them too to the role of ghosts. So much so that we wonder if we are passing through a world of phantoms moving vacuously looking for shade... The psychological motives, the police investigation, the psychoanalytic explanations encountered along the way appear superfluous, irritating in this game of ghosts, and contradictory, as a result of the realist devices dragging behind them, compared to the evocation of dramas and figures so poorly personified."

"In one sense, Bunny Lake is the final destination of Preminger’s ‘fantasy’ streak: never were mysteries, doubts, dreamlike visions, double or triple personalities more flaunted; but it is also his admission of failure: never, in fact, were cruder patterns and more pompous means used for such a subtle and common cause. We can visibly trace – paralyzed within the failure – the dialectic between suggestion and excess, between allusion and redundancy, between the effective and the superfluous, between the two-faced and the monolithic, the struggle between mystery and the system, between shadow and the spotlight (a prophetic scene of Advise and Consent) which, perpetuating itself from film to film and leaving its mark more or less evident in each, ended up with the loss of value of the central figure of the piece, at the same time its symbol and secret.
"

Jean-Louis Comolli, L’œil du maître, “Cahiers du Cinéma”, n. 178, May 1966 (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website)

AA: "A woman reports that her young daughter is missing, but there seems to be no evidence that she ever existed." (IMDb synopsis). Critics have recognized the affinity of Bunny Lake Is Missing with key films of modern horror such as Psycho, Peeping Tom, and Repulsion, and perhaps even Les Diaboliques belongs to the relevant points of comparison. The special affinity with Psycho is underlined by the effective Saul Bass credit sequence with a recurrent "tearing" motif.

Otto Preminger's mise-en-scène is firm in Bunny Lake Is Missing, as is his brilliant camera choreography based on long, elaborate takes with exciting pans and tracking shots. Preminger belonged to the masters of the wide screen, and the Cinema Arlecchino screen does justice to his dynamic Panavision 2,35:1 framing. This bewildering detective story takes us to a journey of exploration in many fascinating London locations.

The film is well cast. The American leads seem intentionally bland, but Laurence Olivier is fine in his laid back performance as the police officer, and Martita Hunt, Noël Coward, Anna Massey, and Finlay Currie bring a lot of vitality and touches of eccentricism in their memorable roles.

Jean-Louis Comolli in his remarks above reveals the problems of such a tricky story. Madness in entertainment fiction is difficult but not impossible to handle. There are serious obstacles if the narrative is based on identification. In Preminger's objective approach identification is not even strived at, yet there is a sense of futility after we have been tricked so many times. At first we are led to believe that Ann and Steven Lake are a couple (they are a sister and a brother with a presumably incestuous relationship), then we start to doubt that Bunny Lake exists only in the imagination of Ann who is mad, and finally we realize that it is Steven who is a psychotic trying to frame his sister as a dangerous madwoman. By then I had stopped to care too much about such a clever story.

The digital restoration has been brilliantly conducted. The movie looks splendid, indeed.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Arab

Filming The Arab. Click to enlarge.
Beduiini / Beduinen. US 1924. D+SC: Rex Ingram. DP: John F. Seitz. C: Ramón Novarro (Jamil Abdullah Azam), Alice Terry (Mary Hilbert), Maxudian (il governatore), Jean de Limur (Hossein, il suo assistente), Paul Vermoyal (Iphraim), Adelqui Millar (Abdullah), Alexandresco (Oulad Nile), Justa Uribe (Myrza), Gerald Robertshaw (Dr. Hilbert), Paul Francesci (Marmount), Giuseppe De Compo (Selim). P: Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corp. 35 mm. 1182 m (l. orig.: 2045 m). 50’ a 21 f/s. B&w. Russian intertitles. From: Gosfilmofond.
    Viewed at Sala Mastroianni (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Albert Samama Chikly, principe dei pionieri), earphone translation in Italian and English, Stephen Horne at the grand piano and Frank Bockius at percussions, introduced by Kevin Brownlow, 29 June 2015.

Mariann Lewinsky (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "The photographic evidence was there, in the book of Guillemette Mansour: a film still featuring Ramón Novarro, in his sheikh costume and beside him Haydée Chikly, costumed as a desert girl. So she had a role in The Arab, a film by Rex Ingram? Her name doesn’t appear in the credits, it could have been a small role as an extra, or more likely, as an extra guest. Of course – her father must have been involved in what was a major foreign film production on location in Tunisia, and it is easy to imagine how things went: Rex invited to dinner by his new best friend Albert... beautiful daughter with acting experience... “Oh, but you must be in my picture!”... and Albert insisting that Rex study at length all the photographs documenting the making of Zohra...."

"To our good fortune a print of The Arab was known to exist, preserved by Gosfilmofond. With Russian intertitles. Very incomplete. We have yet to discover during the festival screening if Haydée Chikly actually appears in the remaining 1200 meters or if she appeared, that is, disappeared, in the missing 800. "

"Whether with her or without her, there are many reasons why The Arab, hailed by “Variety” as “the finest sheik film of them all”, fits perfectly into this year’s Cinema Ritrovato. Rex Ingram was one of greatest visual talents of his generation, and three of his films, The Arab (1924, partly shot in Tunisia), The Garden of Allah (1927, partly shot in Algeria) and Baroud (1933, shot in Morocco) testify to his deep fascination for North African landscapes and towns, resulting in location footage of outstanding beauty. Ingram spent much time in the Maghreb and converted to Islam in 1933."

"In The Arab, conversions to or from Islam briefly seem real options for the American girl and the Arab boy. The plot revolves around an orphanage in Syria run by American missionaries, with the children in danger to be handed over, deported and killed by the attacking Turks (see section Armenia. Genocide and After). The actor playing Hossein is Jean de Limur, who would in 1930 direct Mon gosse de père, scripted by Mary Murillo (see section The Velle Connection)."

"Ingram himself spent his formative first years as a young film director working for Bluebird Photoplays in 1916-1917 (see section Beloved Bluebirds). It all connects, inexplicably."
(Mariann Lewinsky)

AA: Kevin Brownlow in his introduction lamented the status of the surviving print which he compared to the look of a copy from a first generation Xerox machine whereas Rex Ingram was known as the master of the visual. He told us about his visit to Alice Terry when he was given access to Rex Ingram's memoirs and a treasure trove of correspondence including letters from Lawrence of Arabia. The Arab was produced between two masterpieces. Ingram insisted on shooting on location in Tunisia. Ingram discovered a strange affinity with the Arab culture, its passive attitude to life. He made a formula picture with a weak and turgid story. During the filming the MGM merger took place. Louis B. Mayer Ingram could not stand. It was written on the contract that the picture would be an Ingram - Metro Goldwyn production. Critics admired the documentary sequences. Ingram was a Flaherty devotee. In the Czech film archive there survive four reels of The Arab for future possible reconstruction. One critic claimed that Ingram made authentic backgrounds look like movie sets. With Mare Nostrum Ingram was back on form again.

From the fragmentary print it seems that this is the story of Jamil Abdullah Azam (Ramon Novarro) caught between two worlds: his own Bedouin world with its military and religious commitments, and the Christian world to which he starts immediately to convert having fallen in love with Mary Hilbert (Alice Terry). The epic background is the intelligence and strategy plotting for a war against the infidels. The protagonist falls between the camps, trusted by neither. There are epic shots of the charging Bedouins of the desert. This print ends abruptly to a scene where it is planned to hide in an ancient Roman fortress.

The scenes on location are beautiful and impressive and they do not look like movie sets: the camels in the desert, the muezzin in the tower, the morning prayer juxtaposing Muslims and missionaries, the wonderful dresses of the women, the dances, the games, the pipe smoking, the thieves, cooking coffee in little kettles, sheep led down flights of stairs, children's play during the recess. There are touches of comedy as Azam learns to read English and keeps the book upside down yet realizes that his place is elsewhere ("gave me a Bible, asked for a rifle").

Visual quality: not good, much duped and incomplete, it fails to do justice to the cinematography of John F. Seitz, yet watchable, better than what we were expecting.

Alyam alyam / Oh the Days! (2015 digital restoration by The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project, 4K scan) introduced by Ahmed El Maanouni

Alyam alyam. Click to enlarge.
آليام آليام / Oh i giorni! / Alyam alyam - oi niitä aikoja (Yle TV2, 10.8.1982). MA 1978. D+SC+DP: Ahmed El Maanouni - 16 mm - sepmag. ED: Martine Chicot. M: Nass el Ghiwane. C: gli abitanti di Toualàa (Oulad Ziane) nella regione di Casablanca, in particolare: Abdelwahad e la sua famiglia, Tobi, Afandi Redouane e Ben Brahim. P: Rabii Films. DCP. 90 min. [not b&w] but Colour. Arab and French [French in the school sequence] version with English subtitles. From: The Film Foundation.
    Restored by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project in collaboration with Ahmed El-Maanouni. Restoration carried out by Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory; 4K scan performed at Eclair laboratories.
    World Cinema Project website notes on the restoration: The restoration of Alyam, Alyam used the 16 mm A/B rolls original camera and sound negatives preserved at Eclair Laboratories, where the 4K scan was performed. Restoration - carried out at Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata - succeeded in stabilizing the image and bringing the original chromatic qualities to light. Director Ahmed El Maanouni supervised the color grading process and approved the final restoration.
    Viewed at Sala Scorsese (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato) (The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project) with e-subtitles in Italian, 29 June 2015. 88 min
    Introduced by Ahmed El Maanouni.

Ahmed El Maanouni (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "Alyam Alyam is a film about shattered dreams and the circumstances leading up to that point; about the shaking of the traditional social structure; about the strength born of desperation and the unrelenting dissipation of lost generations. This is stressed from the first notes of the opening music, by the strangely empty building frame that is slowly filled with people, by the village space, by the silence of the wandering woman who smokes, until the last shot of the film, when a crowd appears from behind a deserted hill. The dreams of a society growing smaller, unable to hold on to the resources that could help it survive, are mirrored by the mother’s helpless prayer, “I need your shadow, I need your light, I need your face”."

"I simply wanted to show the farmers’ faces, to honor their sounds and their images, their silences and their words, and that’s why I chose not to interfere and to opt for deliberately restrained composition, movement and mise-en-scène. I tried to minimize the camera’s ability to distort, make a point, or discriminate."

"I wanted each aspect to be presented equally. I did not look for spectacular beauty, but made an effort to let the imagery of the rural world speak through abstraction and silence."

"Almost 40 years later, when I watch Alyam Alyam again, I am still comfortable with my aesthetic choices and my intuitions, but I cannot avoid noticing how, from beginning to end – from the opening shots with the blood shed by the camels, to the crowd of peasants appearing from behind the hills – it all seemed to presage the current tragedy experienced by the thousands whose broken dreams lie at the bottom of the Mediterranean, on which the voice of Nass El Ghiwane’s Larbi Batma seems to strangely resonate:"

"“Alyam Alyam, oh, those were the days! Why are you crossed? Who changed your course? You were once sweet like milk, now you’re bitter. I love all men as if they were my brothers. My brothers have crushed me. I will silence my pain and let my love be loud”."
(Ahmed El Maanouni)

AA: It was a privilege to see this exquisite movie presented by Ahmed El Maanouni, the director-cinematographer himself, a man of fine personality, a carrier of culture. He told how Alyam alyam got a good start in the Un certain regard section at Cannes but that it has not been too much seen in Morocco as it is "too real, too rooted in reality". He told about the attention he paid to the handcraft, architecture, and clothes in his film. Shot on 16 mm, with the sound on a separate tape, the 2015 digital restoration was performed at 4K, supervised by Ahmed El Maanouni.

Music is important in Alyam alyam, starting from the drums during the credits sequence displaying old Moroccan paintings. There is also an "Alyam alyam" song, the lyrics of which are important. We hear muezzins ("God is great"), communal sing-alongs, a dirge sung at a grave, and a woman's tragic song about the agony of love ("see dear what has become of me / my love has suffocated me") (also intentionally comic).

The semi-documentary Alyam alyam belongs to the noble tradition of Flaherty in recording an entire traditional way of life on the brink of modernity, just before it is about to disappear. The approach is realistic and subtly lyrical. There is still a spirit of life in harmony, a feeling of popular community. We visit a slaughterhouse, we see women carrying jugs on the tops of their heads, boys spying on women in the grass, cooking in the kitchen, children visiting a French-speaking school, little children playing agriculture games, fetching water from the well, cows grazing in the grass, spinning a yarn, baking bread, harvesting, washing carrots and beetroot and packing them for transport, harvesters, irrigating fields, taking a bus to the doctor. An entire cycle of hard work in traditional agriculture is covered.

At the same time we witness young boys getting restless and impatient in living in poverty. Their main goal is to secure a contract of employment in France. They see no future in their own country and look forward to starting a new life in Europe.

The approach to life in Alyam alyam is sober and reverent. The tempo is relaxed and unhurried. There are fine sequences that are effective without tensions but there may be issues with dynamics, structure, and duration.

Alyam alyam is an image-driven movie. Without being self-consciously aesthetic it has a refined sense of composition and a beautiful colour palette. We see air vibrating in the heat, we see a rich register of warm nuances in harmony with the colour world of the old paintings on display in the credit sequence.

The digital copy: I have been a critical observer of warm colour and nature footage in digital. In Alyam alyam these difficult issues have been solved beautifully.

Rio Conchos (2015 digital restoration, Twentieth Century Fox)

Rio Conchos. Jim Brown, Wende Wagner, Tony Franciosa, Richard Boone, Stuart Whitman. Click to enlarge.
Rio Conchos / Rio Conchos. US © 1964 Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. D: Gordon Douglas. Based on the novel Guns of Rio Conchos by Clair Huffaker. SC: Joseph Landon, Clair Huffaker. DP: Joseph MacDonald. ED: Joseph Silver. AD: Jack Martin Smith, William Creber. M: Jerry Goldsmith. C: Richard Boone (Lassiter), Stuart Whitman (capitano Haven), Tony Franciosa (Rodriguez), Wende Wagner (Sally), Warner Anderson (colonnello Wagner), Jim Brown (sergente Ben Franklyn), Edmond O’Brien (colonnello Pardee), Rodolfo Acosta (Bloodshirt), Vito Scotti (bandito messicano), Kevin Hagen (Blondebeard). P: David Weisbart per Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. DCP. 107’. Col. From: Twentieth Century Fox.
    Restored in 2015 from the 35 mm original color negative (CinemaScope) at the Sony DADC, Modern VideoFilm and Audio Mechanics laboratories.
    Viewed at Cinema Arlecchino (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Ritrovati e restaurati) with e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti Londra, 29 June 2015.

Jean-Pierre Coursodon: "Rio Conchos, adapted from a novel by Clair Huffaker, co-author of the screenplay, is Douglas’ most complex and ambitious Western. A plot layered with surprises, ironies and paradoxes; the complexity and variety of the characters; a trail leading them through a thousand obstacles from Texas to New Mexico and on to the Mexican border (with exteriors wonderfully photographed in CinemaScope by Joseph MacDonald), all contribute to give life to this clever tale. A disparate group of four men – Lassiter, an ex-Confederate officer-come-adventurer (strongly interpreted by Richard Boone), a cavalry captain, a black sergeant and a womanising, unscrupulous Mexican bandit – sets out in search of a load of 2,000 rifles stolen from a military convoy by Apache. With a wagonload of gunpowder as bait, the four protagonists hope to find the mysterious ‘Pardee’, who, according to Lassiter, possesses or knows where to find the rifles. As we will later discover, Pardee is a Confederate colonel who, two years after the end of the civil war, still wants to fight the ‘enemy’ and dreams of leading an army of Apache against the Yankees. In addition to the antagonism between the four main characters, all of whom are rightfully wary of each other, there is a series of violent clashes with Mexican bandits and especially the warmongering “Red Skins” that allows Douglas to further indulge his taste for spectacular violence (particularly the scene in which the Indians drag three prisoners with horses). The violence culminates in the apocalyptic finale, in which the explosion of the gunpowder barrels sets fire to the Indian camp and the extravagant Southern mansion that Pardee is building in the middle of the desert." (Jean-Pierre Coursodon: Douglas redux: sur quelques films de Gordon Douglas, “Positif ”, n. 587, January 2010) (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website).

AA: There is little to add to Jean-Pierre Coursodon's excellent review above. Rio Conchos belongs to the contemporary cycle of the anti-heroic Western, a milestone of which had been Vera Cruz ten years earlier. The anti-heroic trend was almost as old as the Western genre itself in the cinema (Harry Carey, William S. Hart), but there was a new blend of desillusion after WWII, with affinities with film noir, existentialism, and the theatre of the absurd. Yet Rio Conchos does not belong to the cynical current of the meta-Western with the contemporary Italians.

Most Westerns take place during three decades after the American Civil War. Rio Conchos is a post-Civil War epic with points of contact to The Great Escape and even James Bond adventures (the trajectory towards the supervillain's lair which needs to be spectacularly exploded in the finale). The Civil War trauma is dramatized in an extreme way. There is a super-entertainment aspect in the thrilling story, but the execution is grim and gritty. There is a current of desperation in the mission of the four men: Captain Haven and Sgt. Ben Franklin reluctantly in the company of the totally unpredictable Lassiter and Rodriguez. Among the themes of the movie is brutalization, both of "them" and "us". Ultimately the film is about the morass of humanity after war.

Jerry Goldsmith has composed an exciting score with sometimes experimental ideas.

The cinematography of Joseph MacDonald is superb as Coursodon states above.

The digital presentation: a fine visual quality in a movie that must have been difficult to restore.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Shvedskaya spichka / [The Swedish Match]

Shvedskaya spichka / [The Swedish Match]. Click to enlarge.
ŠVEDSKAJA SPIČKA / Шведская спичка / [Il fiammifero svedese ] / The Safety Match / Se alkoi tulitikusta / Den svenska tändstickan / [the film has a subtitle]. SU 1954. D: Konstantin Yudin / Konstantin Judin. Based on the short story by Anton Čechov. SC: Nikolaj Erdman. DP: Igor’ Gelejn, Valentin Zacharov. AD: Georgij Turylëv. M: Vasilij Širinskij. C: Aleksej Gribov (Nikolaj Ermolaevič Čubikov, investigatore), Andrej Popov (Djukovskij, aiuto investigatore), Michail Janšin (Evgraf Kuz’mič, sovrintendente di polizia), Marina Kuznecova (Ol’ga Petrovna, sua moglie), Michail Nazvanov (Mark Ivanovič Kljauzov), Ksenija Tarasova (Mar’ja Ivanovna, sua sorella), Nikolaj Gricenko (Psekov, amministratore di Kljauzov), Nikolaj Kuročkin (Efrem, il giardiniere). P: Mosfilm. 35 mm. 55’. Col.  From: Gosfilmofond per concessione di Mosfilm.
    Based on the short story [133.] Шведская спичка. (Уголовный рассказ) / Ruotsalainen tulitikku, 1883 [A Swedish Match (A Criminal Story)] by Anton Chekhov.
    Viewed at Sala Scorsese (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato), introduced by Olaf Möller, with e-subtitles in English and Italian, 28 June 2015

Peter Bagrov (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "In his native Russia Čechov is loved first and foremost for his short stories – and only secondarily for his plays. There have been dozens of screen adaptations from the 1930s through the early 1950s – mostly of the anecdotes signed by Antoša Čechonte (Čechov’s pen name in his early days)."

"Švedskaja spička was to become yet another one: 1954 was particularly fruitful for this ‘humorous’ Čechov, a peculiar way to commemorate the writer’s memory 50 years after his death. Yet, it became a turning point for Čechov’s adaptations – which will almost become a genre in the following decades. For in this film Čechonte was read through the eyes of Čechov. Konstantin Judin never reached high ranks, but was known as a master of genre, making some of the best comedies and action films of the 1930s-1950s. Among his admirers and supporters were Sergej Ėjzenštejn and Boris Barnet (no wonder after Judin’s death Barnet completed his last film, The Wrestler and the Clown, which was highly praised by Godard and Rivette)."

"Čechov’s The Safety Match was an elegant spoof on detective stories, nothing more. It suggested a two-reeler with a very stylized grotesque setting. It was a custom to turn short stories into features by making a ‘Čechov stew’, adding funny phrases and anecdotes from any of his stories on hand. But it seems that Judin did not add a single word. Instead he put much effort into recreating a most convincing atmosphere of provincial Russia at the turn of the XIX century. For example one of the interrogations takes place during breakfast, at the victim’s house – and what a breakfast it is! It seems that the joy of a good meal can overshadow a murder case, deadly accusations and bloodstains right outside the window."

"The murder itself is a source of excitement, the big time for almost everyone in this God forsaken little town. The investigation is ridiculous in a way – for everyone here knows each other, even the local ‘Nana’ at some point has lived with every male involved in the case. But the young inspector’s logic and pathos are irreproachable. And when the whole case turns out to be nothing but a silly anecdote it’s almost a tragedy for this man who lost his only chance for a ‘real thing’."

"Cozy wooden houses with old-fashioned furniture, grim autumn landscapes with all the suspects squelching through the mud one after another (that’s one of the leitmotifs of the film – a daring one for 1954, two years before the ‘De-Stalinization’), and a sentimental waltz interwoven with grotesque polkas... All that will soon become standard for a Čechov film. And a Čechov film will become standard for an existential tragicomedy, Russian style." (Peter Bagrov)

AA: After a long day I stayed awake only until the half of this film but I managed to observe that this is a pleasant humoristic interpretation of one of Anton Chekhov's entertainment stories typical of him before the great turning-point of The Steppe in 1888. This movie version of The Swedish Match seems to belong to the same agreeable Chekhov tradition as Isidor Annensky's film adaptation of The Bear. There is a constant sense of vitality, of truth in the approach to the milieu, a vigorous satiric attack on the small town mentality of the bureaucracy, and a good interplay within the actor ensemble. With a police force like this the solving of a crime (if there is any) seems to be a random occurrence. The print seems very good with a pleasant reproduction of the Sovcolor of the era.