What did Picabia, the demure and mysterious, the huckster and hermetic, the grand artist, indicate by a ballet titled No Performance in two acts with this film as Interlude? The absurd scandal prevents us from seeing the ballet (we have Parade).
The collaboration with René Clair is comparable to and precedes Un Chien Andalou. Among other things, the Dalí-Buñuel scenario presents images of impeded movement. Picabia’s argument is accelerating movement to no purpose. One ends in marriage, the other in resurrection.
The Crazy Ray
Paris qui dort
Clair’s comic masterpiece begins on a moonlit night in Paris, the attendant who dwells at the top of the Eiffel Tower wakes to find the city devoid of people save for some few here or there, in an all-night café for instance, alive but frozen in attitudes as though stopped in time.
A party of air passengers from Marseilles are unaffected. They all escaped whatever befell the city at 3:25 a.m. because he was in his room on the Tower and they were in the air, so they reason. They spend the night crammed on his little bed, gradually realize the world is their oyster, rifle it, quarrel over the one woman in their midst, and then a voice is heard on the radio, summoning any who can hear to No. 2, Rue Croissy.
This is the laboratory of Dr. Crase, whose ray has stopped the world. The speaker is his niece. He is persuaded to undo the mischief, the attendant and the niece fall in love.
These are the outlines. The passengers are “a lady of means traveling for pleasure”, an “international thief” (who proposes they empty the banks), an undercover police detective, a businessman visiting his mistress (he finds her hand being kissed), and the pilot.
The young couple try the ray one more time, they need money to marry. Crase undoes their plan (he never even thought of a way to start time moving again) when a colleague insists.
All the wakeful party are jailed and put in a padded cell, until they wisely forgo telling tales of their experience. Boredom had been their greatest bane, perched in the beams of the Eiffel Tower high above Paris. All that remains of their wealth is a ring for the engagement.
Exceptionally fine views of the Eiffel Tower and the spiral-staircase descent (Crichton’s The Lavender Hill Mob). Incomparable views of Paris. The superb situation, emulated in its various degrees by The Twilight Zone (“Where Is Everybody?”. “Elegy”, “The Mind and the Matter”, “A Kind of a Stopwatch”, etc.), Godard (“Le Nouveau monde”), Kramer’s On the Beach, MacDougall’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil, Holland’s The Langoliers, etc. Serling picks up the moon theme at the beginning and develops his pilot episode, then follows Rawlins’ Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome for the grand pilferage. Buñuel’s El Ángel exterminador is a variant, Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel (Cocteau) a model.
Le Voyage imaginaire
Two reels of superb comedy followed by a bank-clerk’s dream, asleep at his desk, love-struck, in three parts.
The realm of the fairies, who are old hags no-one believes in anymore, kissed they become rare beauties and bring his idol to him.
Atop a tower of Notre Dame, his two rivals pursue him and, by a stratagem involving a magic ring, turn him into a bulldog, then fight over the ring along the roof.
At the Musée Grevin, the celebrated and historical wax figures with their painted eyes awaken, a revolutionary tribunal sends the bulldog to a small guillotine, the kid from The Kid brings Charlie Chaplin to the rescue.
He wakes up, a curtain-ring and a forged note on his desk, he remembers the dream and is emboldened by it.
A key statement of themes and purposes throughout Clair’s films. Le Million has the love scene with falling leaves, The Ghost Goes West, La Beauté du diable, Les Belles de nuit, etc.
There is a particular influence on Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz, perhaps.
An absolute work of genius, so is the film, taking a proper analytical view of the thing from the ground up in one magnificent reel.
A certain Resnais tempo, to coin a phrase, will be noticed.
The Italian Straw Hat
Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie
The champion wedding comedy on an article of ladies’ attire the bridegroom’s horse swallows while the wearer has an assignation with a military man in the Bois de Vincennes en route to the “nuptial blessing”, partly. Perhaps “damages” is the word.
“Madame is a married woman sir! She cannot possibly go home without an exactly similar hat. Go! You must find one!”
This is properly surreal, of course, and in its 1895 trappings is rather like one of Max Ernst’s surrealist mysteries, to be sure.
Asquith has Quiet Wedding on the English side.
A supernal document on this subject. Later, Bergman can be relied upon for a thoroughgoing understanding when it’s needed, in such a mélange of styles (here, Entr’acte has an obvious relation). An amazingly prodigious comedy, as diligent as the valet collecting all the wedding presents once and for all.
“Clair’s talent would not long survive into the coming of sound,” Dave Kehr predicted (Chicago Reader). Halliwell’s Film Guide cites high praise and reckons it “very influential”, also “still amusing”, what is more.
Sous les toits de Paris
The girl who said yes.
Well, there was a monk once, and one day a woman of the town gave her child to him, because it was his, and later she took it back, because it wasn’t. His stoicism is considered admirable.
Clair doesn’t really care about such things, not very much. The street-singer and the hood and the pals and the gang and the girl, they’re movie stuff and not without interest, yes, and much more interesting is the last image of two old chimney pots upon the roofs of Paris, after so much has happened.
Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times couldn’t follow it.
Jacques Becker tells the story from another angle in Casque d’or, with the knife fight and Modot.
Prosperity is the test of a man, a light yoke, yes, but certain things come to light when it dawns as it does here.
The mistress who isn’t delicate, really, the friend who really couldn’t care less, the Roi des Occasions (which must have charmed Beckett) who gives up filthy lucre for a debt of honor, the Opèra Lyrique that really is lyrical, despite all, the creditors who vouch for one with the police, a comedy of one’s ship coming in, admired by Welles and the Marx Brothers (from Harold Lloyd et al.) and everybody else, and Beatrice excuses the critics for imagining it’s all an effect of style.
À Nous la liberté
The Beckettian equation (Act Without Words II), all the efforts and all the deference in the world come out the same in the end.
The Brechtian division of labor among thieves (“exception and rule”).
That a factory is a prison with the chance of getting sacked.
When machines produce machines, the Industrial Revolution will be fulfilled.
A musical by Clair and Auric, infinitely droll.
Le Dernier milliardaire
The Last Billionaire left his native land, the Kingdom of Casinario, fifty years since, there’s not a penny in the place, the nation is on strike because nobody’s been paid, even the casino takes barter for bets, the principal source of income. He is therefore sought out for assistance, the Queen’s granddaughter is thrown into the bargain, the Princess loves the young conductor of the palace orchestra.
Homage to Stroheim. M. Banco assumes control of the government off his own bat, taking the title of Administrateur Général. Les Fêtes Galantes...
Marriage might teach him who’s boss, the royal argument. Parliamentarians set out to frighten the usurper away. The conductor has a mind to make him dance. The general administrator’s bodyguard is the redoubtable M. Brown (Carpentier had just played the unwilling angel in Siodmak’s La Crise est finie), whose investigations render M. Banco inadvertently hors de combat, quite gaga, humming his own royal anthem.
The type of lunacy exhibited is subsequently that of Woody Allen’s Bananas. Marcel Ophuls has given a picture of the facts as they very soon came to transpire in France (Le Chagrin et la pitié).
Andre Sennwald of the New York Times, “since it has managed to get itself banned in Germany and Italy, it wears the accolade of triumph... but the film is long and talkative, and it lacks the luxuriance of comic invention that makes his best work unparalleled for consistent excellence.” Time Out, “turning his patrician gaze for a moment on the real world... feeble as satire, and only occasionally amusing.” TV Guide, “worth seeing for a number of funny scenes”. Hal Erickson (Rovi), “a sheer delight”. Halliwell’s Film Guide, “rather too determined to be satirical” etc., citing Variety on “rioting every night” in Paris but good prospects for “American specialized houses”.
Thus, according to the newsreel Casinario Magazine, “the most important reform of his regime... henceforth all citizens shall wear beards and, whatever their age, on Sundays and holidays short pants... de l’audace, toujours de l’audace!” On all fours, barking mad, literally (cf. Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety). When the Queen persuades her son to take up arms in the palace, it might be Granny and Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies subduing Shug Fisher, the result is that M. Banco is cured of his folie de grandeur, too late to save his fortune.
M. Brown, “eh bien, Madame. En ma qualité de chef de la Sûreté de Casinario, je m’arrête moi-même au crime de lèse-majesté.” The Queen’s blessing on the newlyweds is bestowed the following year on Larry, Moe and Curly in Restless Knights (dir. Charles Lamont). The million-dollar question is put by M. Banco in the end, “didn’t you know?”
The Ghost Goes West
It is easy to see a variant of Le Million, or for that matter Le Dernier milliardaire, though Andre Sennwald of the New York Times in an appreciative review denied any connection with Clair’s style or themes.
The very title of Keaton’s Go West supplies an antecedent.
Such films as De Sica’s Teresa Venerdi, Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street, Mackendrick’s The Maggie, and Crichton’s The Battle of the Sexes are influenced in one way or another.
The Flame of New Orleans
The phonybaloney countess from St. Petersburg who leaves behind a promising conquest to take ship with a sea captain.
The mercenary or logical aspect of love confounded, thrown to the winds, etc.
It opens on the opera stage of Le Million, Mae West has a lot to do with it, Lubitsch and Wilder are at either hand.
For T.S. of the New York Times, “a feeble effort from one of the finest comic directors of our time,” and there is a consensus.
Wood’s Saratoga Trunk and Kane’s Flame of Barbary Coast pick up the note here and there, but the banker and the girl with “a trick of fainting” in the old French town that ain’t Paris, nor London, nor “Vienny” are strictly from Clair.
The great analysis by Chaplin in A Countess from Hong Kong has also met with a consensus.
I Married a Witch
The witches strike back at a Puritan ass and his descendants, the weapon is bad wiving down two-and-a-half centuries until a candidate for high office is set to wed the shrewish daughter of a publishing magnate.
The vengeful witch drinks her own love potion, her father has immortal retribution in view for the man whose ancestor burned them both.
Thus the conceit and the satire. Fire strikes the Pilgrim Hotel to effect a corporeal appearance, the scheduled wedding never comes off, candidate and witch flee across the state line and marry, he wins a unanimous vote anyway and settles down to married life with a powerless witch and her pickled father.
Forever and a Day
The destruction of a house at No. 6, Pomfret Street, in a Nazi air raid on London during the night of March 8th, 1941.
The house is a hundred and forty years old, a descendant of the builder recounts its history to an American newspaperman whose father has agreed to sell it.
A work of art on which more hands worked than any other in Hollywood, gratis, legendarily.
Bosley Crowther thought it was nonsense (New York Times), James Agate that it was “one of the poorest pictures” he had ever seen (cited in Halliwell’s Film Guide, which does not find the film so bad).
Clair in place of Hitchcock is credited first, followed by Goulding, Hardwicke, Lloyd, Saville, Stevenson and Wilcox.
It is the endless war of the Trimbles and the Pomfrets, those who think “a house is more than bricks and mortar”, and those who think it is not, and there is more than this behind the “blazing row”, which has something to do with The Barretts of Wimpole Street (dir. Sidney Franklin).
And they marry, from time to time, down the years.
The illumination on these points is all that might be asked.
Variety opined that Claude Rains “does not impress” as the principal Pomfret. Charles Laughton is an early avatar of The Servant (dir. Joseph Losey), if you will. Crowther objected to the Hitchcock-Clair sequence as “patronizing snobbery,” he was an awful ass. The death of the aviator is an effect emulated by Hitchcock in Rope.
The “below decks” of the house that Admiral Trimble built are in service as a public air raid shelter, where the story is told.
It Happened Tomorrow
A man who marries sees his whole future before him, and so does his wife.
For critics this is a fantasy, and thus Clair’s reputation amongst them dwindled.
An absolute wonder.
And Then There Were None
The Irish judge stands condemned by his own account, a fact not evident to English reviewers who have lately devalued this supernal example of the filmmaker’s art.
From a dream to a hallucination to an open boat on the sea, the opening pays tribute to Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. He returns the favor in Spellbound only a month later (from Clair’s giant keyholes) and Rope (the breakaway set for the camera) and The Trouble with Harry (discovery of Rogers). The Lodger is also cited by Clair, a consummate scholar.
The film’s influence is properly incalculable, but there is Huston’s Beat the Devil at one point, his Prizzi’s Honor at another, and Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers elsewhere.
Le Silence est d’or
Position of the director, between producer (propriétaire) and actor and actress, a habitué of the show business.
He effectively runs the Atelier du Cinématographe Fortuna like a sultan, under these express conditions.
La Beauté du diable
A very refined Faust as the dilemma of le monde et le pantalon, on a basis of alchemy and the grand œuvre, with a happy foreglimpse of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
The same joke makes up the incomparably bitter substance of Herzog’s Fata Morgana.
A.W. of the New York Times found it nothing “vitally new” and nevertheless “philosophy for sophisticates”.
“A turgidly literary cocktail of escapist fantasy and Sartrean engagement” (Time Out Film Guide).
“Insanely pretentious... a prime example of intellectual kitsch” (Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader).
Les Belles de Nuit
The Opèra, where they can’t play everybody’s, keeps a young composer on tenterhooks, he seeks refuge from the caterwauling world in dreams.
The beautiful young mother of a little girl to whom he is teaching the piano propels him into la Belle Époque and grand success, the beautiful cashier at the café is an Algerian conquest, the beautiful daughter of the garage mechanic next door is condemned to death by the Revolution (and he a Revolutionary).
The dreams turn to opposition and hatred (a husband, two brothers, the guillotine), he seeks refuge in wakefulness.
Borges famously described his youthful mind compared with later in terms not entirely dissimilar, at any rate the Opèra finally summons the provincial music teacher to Paris for its judgment.
A great work, a masterpiece six times over. “Let us console ourselves with the great masters,” says Mendelssohn, “who after all had it no better than we.”
Bosley Crowther (New York Times) gave it the Gotham ave et vale, right hand raised in greeting, left hand holding the sharpened stick. Tom Milne (Time Out Film Guide) did not understand the ending, construed by him as “the trouble with the film.”
Les Grandes Manœuvres
Clair leaves no doubt where his Dragoon lieutenant is concerned by directly likening him in the stable scene to a horse’s ass (Clair is a great admirer of American cartoons), the wager on winning any woman at all chosen at random in the provincial town is lost, the Dragoons ride out for the title exercise in summer, and that’s all.
And there has been a duel over nothing, the dignity of an officer’s wooing, without result.
A widow, modiste, mistress, peeps out between her curtains as the lieutenant departs.
Truffaut places it among what he calls “the ‘best’ French films” (Le Rouge et le Noir, Diabolique), which he does not consider praise.
Porte des Lilas
Ne’er-do-wells have a wanted man billeted on them by chance, agreeably enough. He gives one a piece of fancy neckwear, he’s a flashy sort, les flics are a nuisance, anyway.
The foie gras gag goes into Gene Kelly’s Gigot.
There’s a girl in the picture.
The cat-and-cave gag goes into Joseph McGrath’s Rising Damp.
“A slight, fragile pic” (Variety).
“A genial and wistful film” (Bosley Crowther, New York Times).
“Very little to smile at” (Halliwell’s Film Guide).
“The absolute last gasp of French poetic realism” (Time Out Film Guide).
Les Fêtes Galantes
A siege that starves an army is like the princess in the castle forbidden the man she loves.
Her count, a musician, is off to Jerusalem for solitary devotion, thus the besieging army of his father, who nevertheless requires him to fill out the orchestra at the harpsichord for a performance of Le Sultan amoureux in which the father is to play the title role, and the leading actress on the stage his Christian slave (this lady loves a marquis whose life was saved in battle by a certain Jolicœur of the besieged who, having affronted the disguised princess during her attempt to cross the lines, must redeem himself).
A certain peasant whose pig has been appropriated by the besieged is pressed into service and nearly hanged by both armies in turn, he is ignored by History, which has the last word.