The Beckettian “rupture”, three men in a tub. Frederick, “every-man-his-own-wife”. Fred, Love’s Labour’s Lost. Freddy, “Crazeology”.
IDHEC for studio filming.
Ascenseur pour l’échafaud
An early influence of Hitchcock is in evidence here and there, notably during the café scene toward the end when after his ordeal the murder suspect is identified by a little girl resembling Patricia Hitchcock, and in the last scene with Jeanne Moreau done up like Grace Kelly.
An executive uses a grappling hook to reach his boss’s office from the outside one floor up, he’s an ex-paratrooper in the Foreign Legion who served in Indochina and North Africa, the boss is an arms dealer and war profiteer. They discuss a counterintelligence plan called Operation Pipeline (which, the boss observes, ought to be diverted to Morocco), the executive uses the boss’s pistol to kill him, leaving the appearance of a suicide.
On the street, he sees the rope still dangling from the balcony. He slips inside to retrieve it, as the security guard turns off the lights and power. It’s Saturday, the office has just closed, he’s trapped in the elevator. The boss’s wife is waiting for him at a café.
A boy and girl take his car for a joyride, meet an older German couple at a motel and kill them. The executive’s gun, raincoat and car are taken by the police as evidence. His picture’s on the Sunday front page.
Every detail of the murders is eventually known to the police, even the relationship of the executive and the boss’s wife. She’s set to take the fall for a decade or two, but regarding the photos of herself and her lover seized by the police she reflects, “we’re together here.”
The Miles Davis score is heard to advantage in a long night solo as she wanders the streets and cafés looking for him, until the police pick her up at five in the morning without identification. “I was going to Mass,” she tells them.
Wife of a provincial newspaper publisher, mistress of a Spanish polo-player in Paris, lover of an archæologist who takes her away.
The scandal is in the filming, the scene en panne and the ensuing garage for example are so well filmed as to be outrageous in a certain sense.
Certainly if it is not a perfect film, it is more than perfect.
The English-language reviews are notable for giving the opinions of a lot of cucks or cuckolds.
For the French, “not a masterpiece,” says Truffaut, a perfect error.
Bergman later on has The Touch. Moreau’s modalities include Bette Davis and there is the joke from Mankiewicz’ All About Eve (maid at the mirror).
Zazie dans le métro
An eleven-year-old girl is brought to Paris on her mother’s romantic escapade. A key film establishing a control of cinematic technique from the silent film onward, and allowing a solipsistic basis of perception to govern the work.
Paris is seen most acutely as a resultant of Malle’s constant preoccupation with bedazzlement. There is no métro, of course (a strike), until the end, when Zazie is carried asleep back to her uncle’s apartment. Her imaginings are a stream of consciousness in a way, and the Three Stooges figure in them along with Termite Terrace and Entr’acte. She dozes off, and her dreams are an even more fantastic version of events.
On the Eiffel Tower, Malle pays a debt of homage to Charles Crichton by way of outstripping The Lavender Hill Mob. He understands the magic tricks of cinema, which are a Frenchman’s true inheritance after Méliès and Cocteau, and makes use of the illusionist’s doublings to great effect. There is no respite nor relief to the child’s effort at understanding, and because she’s a particularly merry girl in a particularly grand city, there is a lot of material for her to work with.
The influence on Richard Lester is complete and entire, and certainly Tony Richardson had it in mind when he filmed A Taste of Honey. Many other films bear a trace, but Malle himself made the best analysis in Black Moon.
A Very Private Affair
Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, represented by Mastroianni and Bardot for the purposes of this drama, in which Kleist’s Heilbronn at Spoleto stands in for An Enemy of the People, let us say.
“Deplorably banal” (Bosley Crowther, New York Times).
“Difficult to say exactly what Malle thought he was up to” (Time Out Film Guide), that sort of thing.
The English dub of Vie privée.
Le feu follet
A great study of the littérateur’s ennui, the grand theme of a few Mallarmé pieces. The title might be Tennyson’s gleam, but will o’ the wisp is just as well, in keeping with the very reserved tone.
“What an age of hands,” women and money can’t be held, the hand finds nothingness there in its reach, admirable feint or supposition.
Various cranks, survivals, fads, the big bruiser of the market (a Napoleonic “force of nature”), fags, druggies, politiques, no recourse away from constant mediocrity everywhere.
Drink hasn’t helped (Malle adds an association with Fitzgerald, or Baudelaire), désintoxication accomplishes nothing. The author’s puppet takes a tour of its environs and dies “to leave you an indelible stain.”
The “Spartan maieutics” whereby a terrorist’s daughter becomes a trouper, and a showwoman becomes a revolutionary. After Zazie dans le métro Malle is gagmeister extraordinaire, Twain out West is the grand sufficiency of outlook south of the border, here, where Thornton Wilder has the prime tale of theatricals and provincials.
Between what he knows and what he has invented, Malle variously cites or inspires Salome, Where She Danced, The Scalphunters, My Darling Clementine, Heller in Pink Tights, Rio Escondido, Castle Keep, Vera Cruz, The Wild Bunch, Return of Sabata, The Magnificent Seven etc., La Marseillaise, Rio Lobo, The Madonna and the Dragon, among others.
Julius Caesar is cited and acknowledged, material finds its way from Exodus and into The Charge of the Light Brigade, a rare joke has the père supérieur accost the two Venuses out of Attila, Kafka’s harrow flies apart onscreen, a dove breaks the impasse of The Longest Day, and the whole thing ends with a shower upon Danaë.
The eternal song of the thief, he was disinherited, he was robbed, he fell into it, got his own back, now it’s a métier.
His life and career, told in a single night whilst burgling a country house.
How far the theme goes, his predecessor in the gang spends six months escaping from Devil’s Island, now aligns himself with the anarchists.
The bourgeois are so greedy and stupid, they deserve what they get, this is the line, more or less tacit.
A devoted and ardent analysis of the arch-villain as precipitous suicide. The memories of school days come from Vigo and Cocteau and Malle (Au Revoir les enfants), everything has been precisely calibrated, as in the trilogy as a whole.
Le Souffle au cœur
To get the French down to brass tacks, it starts just before Dien Bien Phu and ends just after Bastille Day.
Played by the Marx Brothers en famille.
The dumbest farmboy in France, un petit taureau du Sud, haphazardly joins the German police even as the Allies are landing.
And because the dumbest French farmboy is smarter than any Nazi, he flees with his Jewish girlfriend and her grandmother at last. Dumb as he is, they don’t make it to Spain, but to a rustic idyll, until the Maquis get him.
The bicycle champ of ‘39 is a collabo, letters of denunciation come into HQ at the Hotel des Grottes every day (“it’s like a disease,” says Madame), he was too young and dumb for the Maquis. There’s even a movie starlet at the Hotel.
They’re like gangsters. Henriot is on the radio at a nursing home where the boy cleans up before taking this new job, “a thin veneer of nationalism and religion” cannot hide the Allies’ lack of “common sense” and their ties to Moscow.
He has a new suit and a pistol in his pocket, the tailor is the girl’s father, late of Paris.
Humain, Trop Humain
“Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”
Place de la République
Godard famously wondered how the French could hold a place on the world’s stage when they’re such poor actors, Malle tries an experiment, handheld cameras on the sidewalk, interlocutors (one of them himself) chatting people up, simple.
Recognizable, pleasantly familiar personnages from the films people this one, great portraits and originals, the artist in his studio amongst the come-and-go of the day, his vivid hand sketching, making notes, as it were.
The great photographer does not find people quaint.
“Cameras in the streets with non–stars” (Truffaut, Day for Night).
The World Wide Web is an immense machine for looking into the minds of men for the nothing cited from Queneau’s Zazie, in the end.
That is, one that receives no illumination. Thus, a virginal symbolism throughout, which for some reason mystified the critics in the last degree.
Our Alice sees men gunning down women, women torturing a soldier. Or, she sees visions of peace, little children naked leading sheep or cattle or hogs. She envisions a house in the country with a brother and sister who have her name, Lily, and an old woman who converses with a rat who is also her dear Humphrey.
Steinbeck’s Rose of Sharon figures in. The Buñuel of the credits might as well be the author of Le Fantôme de la liberté. This is Zazie’s solipsism a few years later, Dorothy’s dream without the endpapers.
Never was there a dream more lucid or more vividly conveyed. Two of the children put on costumes and makeup to sing the Liebestod in sopranino voices to her piano accompaniment, after which Sven Nykvist frames an open window on the countryside before sunup, which presently appears.
The window is from La Grande illusion, the one Renoir dollied through to present Spring. Malle introduces it earlier as a pair, one with scenes of battle, the other of peacefulness.
The function of the artist, to redeem the time. Famously, someone else reaps the institutional glory.
Bellocq is the instrument, Storyville the locale, a particular house, a certain Violet.
The style is rich and demure (Kelly’s The Cheyenne Social Club is very similar), eked out with nature in abundance, cat, goats, chicken, baby, verdure, Seurat’s river.
Many constructions avail the director, Neame’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Donner’s Twinky, Wellman’s The Light That Failed and so on, small aperçus carrying the expression here and there.
The real city is like every other place in America, Malle shows you what that is. “This other one”, as Borges would say, is a fantasy come true, in the sense that it has a kind of floy-floy for dim memories and a kind of remote affiliation with Monte Carlo for dim aspirations, and there are some amusing further aspects of the fantasy projected as this film, while the real city goes to dust before your eyes.
My Dinner with Andre
As Andre Gregory tells one flabbergastingly mad anecdote after another, and at length Wallace Shawn attempts to reason with him, these men of the theater divide the stage between happy clod and sad jerk, a perfect satire of the daily grind.
So much work went into the production that there’s life in it above and beyond the satire, but perhaps the joke is that Andre buys the dinner of quails, he has money.
The coffeecake and the cockroach, Hercules and Antaeus, the Babbitt and the Bromide.
Satie has the last word (Gymnopédie).
The absolutely ideal analysis is Andy Kaufman’s My Breakfast with Blassie.
Crackers is a monumentally good joke. Analytically, Malle treats the bulk of the material (from Monicelli’s I Soliti ignoti) as first a setup to the punchline in the last scene, and second the subject of his translation to an American idiom.
This is a daring contrivance. The transposition to San Francisco is flavored with H.C. Potter’s The Time of Your Life, and the vision of America it presents was not one that audiences were prepared to receive, even with The Pawnbroker under their belts. Furthermore, and fatally, Malle violates the 15-minute rule of film criticism in the fullest measure. It takes all 91 minutes of Crackers to see the point, and once he’s made it, Malle cuts to the credits without a moment of reflection. What was left for critics was to fathom the technique, but they were long gone by then, professionally speaking.
Various down-and-outs circulate around a pawnshop and resolve to rob it. The caper goes badly, the pawnbroker (Jack Warden) suffers a change of heart, symbolized by the salmon he carries with him from a visit to his aged mother. So large is it, she perishes at the sight with “lox” on her lips. He returns to the shop, drunk and democratic.
That’s part one of the punchline (it’s a one-two punchline). He discovers the gang at work, and obliviously offers them a piece of fish. The police arrive, he’s bewildered, these are his friends. Someone’s obviously broken in, who but they could have scared them off, they’re heroes. But he’s not that drunk, friendship’s all that matters, he tells the ringleader (Donald Sutherland), “and in the meantime, you’ll have to do.”
Malle’s direction allows for a great deal of precision in the acting, rightly observed. This can be noted especially in Sean Penn’s performance as a blond Southern rocker, which carries out its various tasks and leaves the actor poised for comedy. But there’s also room for the surreal expansion of Christine Baranski’s meter maid by day and erotic fantasist by night, the cold caricature of perennially hungry Wallace Shawn, a boisterous bit from Charlayne Woodard, Larry Riley’s fine comic turn, and an amazing bravura rendition of the safecracking expert by Professor Irwin Corey.
At the same time, Malle is less concerned with reduplicating the joke value of Big Deal on Madonna Street, contenting himself with evoking pleasant memories of it, the structure of Crackers being situated differently.
The nature of democracy is vertical as well as horizontal, as Whitman points out. Individual freedom accords with lateral harmony, the two don’t coincide in Crackers, hence the comedy. In the end, the pawnbroker is brought to a recognition of his fellow men, and they of him.
So, embarrassingly abject as it is to admit, a masterpiece by a great director on our shores went entirely unnoticed. This happens so often with the local product, however, that at least we can boast a truly well-rounded ignorance.
Add to all this a send-up of the arty set, with a gag light-sculpture of a brilliance not seen since What a Way to Go!—and also, the relation of it all to John Cassavetes’ Big Trouble.
Au revoir les enfants
The French lack discipline, Vigo’s students are told by a Gestapo man in plainclothes at St. John of the Cross. The memory is soft-pedaled, material floats up as Siegfried and Alberich, but the WWIII mentality is evident in the three Jews as Negus the Black Knight and a talented musical intellectual type (associated with The 1001 Nights) and the Sick Man of the Sublime Porte (picked up in the infirmary).
There is no dragon, no Waldweben, no sublime intellectual activity, and, what is more, Sullivan’s Travels is called into play by way of The Immigrant just to make the veiled point that nothing’s funny about Auschwitz and Mauthausen.
At the same time, Ford’s jazz-piano “Frère Jacques” in Donovan’s Reef gets the boogie-woogie treatment.
Milou en Mai
The Communist Revolution of ‘68, or De Gaulle’s “referendum ploy”, has its effects one way and another.
It amounts only to the bourgeois dividing an inheritance, a country house, furnishings, a stream.
From Buñuel to Renoir, with perhaps a touch of Bergman, on a grand basis of Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You, treated as a mocking veneer.
“A mistake,” Vincent Canby called it. “A bad rural French art film” (Desson Howe, Washington Post).
The structural fluctuations are many and various (one critic noticed Last Tango in Paris), but Stephen and Anna give Accident. Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case is a useful study in contrast.
The lovers initially meet at No. 10, but the most damage is done just outside a re-creation of an apartment in Atlantic City.
The theme is related to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the stylistic soullessness of the sex is from Antonioni’s Identificazione di una donna, strange echoes of Lolita filter through, and the most difficult intrusion of form supplies an identical twin for Anna in Martyn, her fiancé, that suggests an outrageous answer to Ordinary People.
Vanya on 42nd Street
A contemporary American production, in a setting that puts the actors “a hundred years on”, the New Amsterdam.
Abandoned, the roof leaks.