Murder By Contract (1958)

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First time with Irving Lerner I believe.

Some thing almost fascistically Randian about Claude’s impulse for physical self-improvement, coupled with his desire to become gun-for-hire despite already working a steady job. His apparent initial greed is undercut by the methodical patience of his process (“There’s too many doers in the world not enough people take time to think”); efficiency and twisted morality (“I brush my teeth three times a day and I obey local speed limits”) of Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter. But, in the prologue section, the figure who really suggests himself is Travis Bickle; no surprise to read that Scorsese loved this. Cruising, inexorability, blackened cynicism, domestic fidgeting. C’s beliefs and justifications suck you into the film; they later comment on ruthless capitalism, with a terrifying unblinking speech about cutting costs vs cutting throats and the fundamental similarity between assassination and competition.

MBC is also very distinctive stylistically. Read comparisons with the French new wave and I certainly see Bresson in the elliptical efficiency – an early contract in a barbershop is hitchcock-level suggestive and terrifying. Welles all over the place too: Touch of Evil in the motel showdown, Lady From Shanghai in the geometry, Third Man in the final shot. All the time under bleached-out LA sunshine, languid isolation in Antonioni streets.

Unfortunately the pulpy sensibility does tip over into some ridiculous moments, such as C bizarrely berating a hapless waiter for his complicity in ruthless capitalism, or the way C’s misogyny is much less poisonously alluring than his misanthropy (“the human female is descended from the monkey”). And when you’re spending most of the 80 minutes with three characters you feel the need for decent acting from more than just one of them (C reminded me of a midpoint between Brando and Ruffalo – random buffalo?). Still a lean and clean B noir with a jazzy sense of cool and a masterful efficiency.

7

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Summer With Monika (1953)

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Like Persona, SWM is a film concerned with image and film itself: there’s a sooty, neorealist opening in which Stockholm looms crookedly like Dickensian London, before the central theme of a blooming youth generation – a “touch of spring” – pushes through the soil in a sleepy cafe, old men grumbling in Ozu generational balance. Monika is far more taken-in than Harry by the cinema (as we see in an amusing juxtaposition of their reaction to silverscreen melodrama). Bergman foreshadows her lack of commitment through teenage vanity: she breaks off their first kiss to inspect her image in a portable mirror, and settles definitively on H the day after with the line “You’re just like someone in a film!”

H’s motivation seems (especially by the end) more wholesome and admirable, but we’re encouraged to remember the kitchen-sink circus-clatter of M’s chaotic bedsit, especially when H ultimately unwittingly repeats the domestic violence by which her father had forced her into his arms (H has actually escaped quite a cushy home life). Moving from this economic observation at escape velocity with babbling laughter to a shimmering coastline put me in mind of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and sometimes also of La Haine (it’s tempting to read the cinematic self-consciousness into some of the slightly hammy domestic strife scenes at the end of SWM, as if they’re both blowing up in the way they imagine adults might – M’s adultery is ironically foretold by one of H’s co-workers on the sleeper train back into S)

S looks amazing in this; it has a great sprawl, which we aimlessly but restlessly track across under the cloudy spring skies. H and M find their own route (love the boat leaving under the bridge carrying cars), escaping the high walls of the venetian waterways into the port in some satisfyingly unadorned and patiently edited shots.

They pitch up on a glittering shore with the confident abandon of Sheen and Spacek in Badlands (the moment H realises “I haven’t overslept!” is perfect). The slow peaking and sinking of summer in this middle section is idyllic and very free (particularly the dialogue, which is devoid of the sometimes overly dry and stilted rumination that peaks in Through A Glass Darkly), spliced with dreamlike natural shots that made me think of the river pursuit in Night of the Hunter and Ivan’s first dream in Ivan’s Childhood (particularly M’s escape after being held hostage at a fancy home). Amid this blissful lolling they hatch a strangely traditional, nuclear dream – “You and I will make something of life,” breadwinner and homemaker, peace privacy and happy children. It’s a strange conservatism but also a view still soaked in summer’s naïve glow, as if social ideals are themselves born from this imagined utopia.

Very heaven, but the comedown is urban and cold (“we can’t afford to see a film”), clouds returning (this is Bergman) – H plugging away at a mechanics like the almost-unredeemed nadir of Fear Eats the Soul (the straightjacket of legal proceedings in suits also recalled Fox And His Friends). Importance of perspective resurgent (H having realised that the summer was a dream): H peering through a window onto his ominous newborn future; a spectacular shot of a shared cigarette but M slowly turning to the camera with a darkening background as if realising that she’s trapped. This is emulated when H finally catches a glimpse of himself and his swaddled daughter in a mirror outside his new employment, flashing back to the summer on the shining waters. Unlike the recalled peace which closes Cries and Whispers or the confusingly reclaimed image that ends Wild Strawberries, this dream seems to have died, swallowed into a town patrolled by street-hawkers scavenging spare furniture and childhood toys.

Pretty hilarious that this was the angle pushed by US promoters in a stateside edit:

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It’s Bergman’s second-most glowingly beautiful film behind Persona.

Why do some people have good luck while others never do?
We have each other don’t we?

9

A Man Escaped (1956)

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First time with Bresson.

From the first moments (post-credits) we are made to feel like conspirators – with all the exciting potency and uneasy sense of risk that entails. In the car the camera’s glance darts back and forth as if we are being trusted to give the signal (spare pairs of eyes will later become integral to Fontaine’s escape plan). After failure and a beating he plays dead, “…sure I was being watched”; no broken bones but “I can’t have been a pretty sight.” Throughout AME ines of sight, perspective and panoptic paranoia create a spatial field which RB distends through long takes into scenes of uncompromising tautness (unsurprisingly this two-dimensional principle is exactly how games like Splinter Cell work).

Little room for artifice; reminded of Beckett’s attempts to write without style. Light and shadow is peacefully uncomplicated, planar, like Dreyer stills. A guard drags his keys along iron bannisters to create broken tones, a musicality alien in the colourless prison. Winter Light, monastic focus and interiority.

Your man’s got a bit of Ian Curtis about him, but also the languid and intelligent grace of Edward Fox in The Day of The Jackal (as it exists in my memory).

The focus is intensely manual, material. Processes are given proper attention and become ritualistic, freighted with history like artisan handiwork. Repetition of close shots (lean from bed, keyhole circle) gives texture to the distension which creates an unsettling timelessness to the incarceration (there is only a threatened terminus – these abstractions play into the catholic subtext, works and salvation amid abstract waiting). The exposition is again conspiratorial but also mirrors the dry but allusive concision of the visuals – “that night I fell asleep less unhappy.”

Besides all that it’s a great true story (as declared), a Colditz feat deftly and patiently handled and infused with a spiritual urgency. Sweaty palms.

8

Wild Strawberries (1957)

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After first seeing this a few years ago (perhaps second Bergman after 7S) I’d largely forgotten the tone, thinking it was a nostalgia trip. Truth is its more all over the place than most people seem to think. So many loose ends (mostly concerning Isak’s parents – remembering them helps him rehabilitate his own parental instincts but his mother is left hung out to dry, and his father is almost completely absent) and his late wife. Religion makes a blurting appearance through the rather ridiculous teens but is dismissed with a wistfully ambiguous poem. The role of the unhappy couple is unclear, especially because they trouble the relationship between intimacy and companionship as elements of a successful marriage. Inclusion of I’s divination of narrative continuity to events is accordingly somewhat frustrating.

What saves it is the narrative flow and the dream sequences, especially the haunting opening and the Rashomon assault on I’s wife. M and I ultimately agreed that WS is unusual for IB because it is best enjoyed as a character study (a short story) and a personal illustration, rather than a thematic meditation (running similarities for me with T’s Mirror, another canonical disappointment). Settling for this reveals a beautiful and drily amusing tale with philosophical clothing rather than entrails. Still, uncomfortably between the direct questioning of Winter Light and the investigative experimentation of Persona. Better than the dour but equally weird Through A Glass Darkly but doesn’t hold a candle to P, WL, 7S or Cries and Whispers (29 June: or Summer With Monika) (29 July: or Fanny and Alexander).

7

Pather Panchali (1950)

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First time with Satyajit Ray.

Though this is the beginning of the fabled Apu Trilogy, PP is really the story of three women. Sarbajaya’s life is dominated by routine activity – I wrote this about La Terra Trema:

Recalled Philip Fisher’s use of the term “manual” in ‘The Failure of Habit’: ie. “that part of any realistic novel or memoir independent of the line of action, suspense, and adventure, that part that documents how lives are lived as a means to celebrate or denounce styles of life.” Associates habit (repetition, behaviour) with ‘manual’ production, but in LTT the town’s habits both force Antonio’s hand and suppress his neighbours: the distinction is thus obliterated

S’s labours provide the structural “manual” imagery that grounds Ray’s realism. But she also exists at the emotional centre of PP. She is like Atlas holding the world of the family together; the pressure of her daughter Durga’s irrepressible thievery and her elderly cousin Indir’s mischievous encouragement weigh down on her shoulders as their actions are attributed to her failure to maintain a proper home. There is a LTT showdown in her yard, with accusatory neighbours scattering her daughter’s possessions, red with accusations; this point creates a fundamental split as she wordlessly punishes D but only after defending her publicly. One of the most touching scenes is a dusky soliloquy where S recalls her unrealised dreams, persuasively asserts that her kind-hearted but naïve husband Harihar cannot, on some level, comprehend her stress and fear.

I steals the first half of PP for me. She is an amazing shape, bent and bowed like an ancient tree. She’s cast out again and again by her cousin, chucking kittens around on departure, first returning for the birth of Apu, united in shot with D. Her death connects her to D too, and also to S. There is a haunting thread of images that connects S’s wistful soliloquy, I singing about death outside under the night sky, S quiet on the same step as someone somewhere sings the same song after I has expired in the forest. On her last visit she is again denied a bed; simply requesting water, she gives most of it to an old plant near her habitual seat. Her roots are immovable.

D is where we begin. She is generous and inquisitive (love the shot from inside the pot as she reaches in); she usually occupies the films most intimate moments, as when she shares secret food with Apu, or during the turmoil of her fever. This is gripping: the wind howls outside like a wolf at the door, fluttering makeshift curtains and slamming windows; S keeps wary watch as if D were a sacred flame (there is a candle that flickers and moves beneath a rocking statuette of Ganesh). Her death sprawls across the film’s most powerful scenes: a monsoon heralded by quiet drums and D praying for maturity; chanting under leafy cover with A, asking the rain to leave; the deathbed; H’s return with gifts that culminate in an unbearable truth.

Apu is not at the centre but at the fringes. His round, glowing eyes take everything in like an infant (as a child he is introduced in the morning through just his eye under a blanket). We see him watching drama, music, children playing. We see his imagination in a mirror. We race behind him to catch up with a train that disappears into the countryside.

There is almost always a warmth to PP that does raise the question of poverty and happiness. Some have complained that Ray romanticises hardship. We feel sympathy for every single character at some point, but the almost irredeemable neighbour’s confession gives a clue: “Staying in one place makes you mean; it’s done that to me.” The beauty of the film is in the family’s ability to find happiness not inside but in spite of their condition – fundamentally it celebrates only childhood, while it examines what happens to childhood as a constituent part of us as we grow older.

You have to watch films like this every now and again. PP is a glowing world with a score by Ravi Shankar like a tumbling stream or a breathless sprint through a field, but it also has an unabashed sentimentality which is infused, as by Ray’s heroes, into scenes of documentary realism. They should keep a few copies of this in a nuclear bunker somewhere, or ship it out into space on a probe.

9

In A Lonely Place (1950)

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Returning to this one in a Mubi season on American noir.

Steele is introduced failing to recollect a face from his past. The classic theme of your past catching up with you here inversely presented: not a portentous reuniting but an isolated and unknowing man staggering away from a trail of collateral damage. The police later drag up a file of grisly episodes – we feel like we ought not to be eavesdropping.

S’ apartment court reminds me of Diane’s in Mulholland Dr.; Mildred arrives like an even dopier Naomie Watts, stunned to be in the presence of a Hollywood writer, affecting her own creative ambitions. She summarises the book directly to the camera while S is always looking away; some of his best zingers here too: “And there are lots of other little plots and things that I didn’t even mention.” “Thank you.”

The film’s world is sometimes ridiculously 50s – S instructing young African American street sweeper (who calls him Sir) to send flowers to M. Sylvia’s intuitions about S, in an argument with Brub, mentioning her psychology studies and B complaining that she always shoves that “college stuff” down her throat before dismissing her concern based on S’ army credentials. These bits are like the irascible, fag-chewing maid: reflections that look like they’re in a wacky mirror, but you’re just looking straight at a demented hollywood world. They are sketches that enrich the textual depiction of a morally distorted city, ruled by drunken masculinity and economic parasitism.

HB is brooding and brilliant. Takes me a while to get used to Grahame as Laurel, but her languidly alluring expressions and accent begin to take on a tremulous tone, her manners becoming truthfully desperate, kind of as if she had stopped acting and begun to believe the script to be real.

I love the way the ambiguity is handled, shaking our sympathies until we feel as confined as L in the pressure-cooker of her living room with seething S. At their engagement dinner he seems to react to the news of his script’s success exactly as his agent predicted: calming down after hitting him in frustration at all the bottled intrigue. The S we see here is not just violent; he is predictable, pathetically animalistic. But it’s at this moment that he becomes most tender; patching things up with his agent in the bathroom, proper contrite concern on his face. They’re old pals – this is a history of love to match his history of violence.

The editing is first-rate too, especially the quickly cutting scenes of implied violence. There is one shot that stresses how frightening this film is: S’s wild face advancing as L slams a door on him from off camera, the image frozen on our retinas as if we had reflexively screwed our eyes shut at an oncoming terror. The car chase and fight is a classic climax too. This is much less silky and luxurious than Out Of The Past (my mental noir prototype), much more insidious and gripping.

All sorts of interesting paratextual stuff here too. Louise Brooks on Bogart’s magnetic suitability for S because sharing his isolation, his cynical perfectionism and mistrust of popular opinion. Also this from wiki on Nicholas Ray and GG’s own farcically duct-taped relationship:

Grahame and Ray’s marriage was starting to come apart during filming. Grahame was forced to sign a contract stipulating that “my husband [Ray] shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday…I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail.” Grahame was also forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.” The two did separate during filming. Afraid that one of them would be replaced, Ray took to sleeping in a dressing room, lying and saying that he needed to work on the script. Grahame played along with the charade and nobody knew that they had separated.

Puts me in mind of Juliet of the Spirits. Here the ending is again lingeringly, perhaps revealingly ambiguous: the final exculpation of S doesn’t excuse his violence throughout the film, nor does it remedy L’s fear that he might be capable of the kind of murderous outbursts that he takes so much perverse pleasure in reimagining.

Really a perfect noir chiller. Dials down some of the genre’s trademark stylisation but replaces it with some scathing reflexive critique of hollywood style.

9

The Seventh Seal (1957)

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Picked this poster because its a) Swedish and b) hilarious. Looks like a crappy sitcom with a peppy slap-bass theme tune and studio laughter (also starring Death).

What surprised me (revealing that I had reverted to the assumptions I held before I’d seen it the first time; which in turn reveals that I should watch this more often [although it is interesting returning to this now after having seen Winter LightThrough A Glass Darkly, etc.]) and perhaps (therefore) impressed me the most was the writing – this must be Bergman’s best script. “Wait a minute” says Block as Death bears down on him on the beach; the latter: “That’s what they all say.” This is much funnier than people give it credit for – I especially like D’s response to A revealing his strategy, which manages to be sinister and ridiculous at the same time: “I’ll remember that.”

Although: SS is distinctly chilling. Each scene slowly unfolds like a flower; no line is wasted. Often tableaux of vitality (the actors doting on their young child Mikael; the little play-within-a-film among the trees ending in Skat’s reflections) are curtailed by D’s appearance, the spool of tape snipped cruelly short. D himself is hauntingly implacable, complicit in God’s Silence. His most terrifying line, capped with a camera zoom toward his staring, blank eyes:

“You’ll reveal your secrets?”
“I have none.”
“So you know nothing?”
“I am unknowing.”

That familiar scene structure of ‘long life –> brief death’ plays out grandly in the central sequence: the pageant interrupted by the stalking crowd of monks, hysterics, self-flagellants. Blood-curdling, and the central soliloquy by the wide-eyed monk is up there with the priest’s terrified spiel in Cries and Whispers and HA on the spider god for most shocking Bergman monologue – we feel implicated as his gaze roams, as indeed we are implicated in SS‘s bleak roll call.

IB manages to craft what feels like a very realistic middle ages world (the squalor, the conversation, the imaginative traditions) and imbue it with his own modern existential angst. Tonally entirely congruent with Winter Light, which discomfortingly belittles the temporal difference (and notions of progress) that separates us from this crusading past. That thick, supplicatory fear that I associate with the religiosity of this period returns in both elemental and ineradicable fear of mortality and a specifically modern questioning bereavement.

Questions of performance and entertainment: Jof’s morning routine in acrobatics; Jons scripting Plog’s melodramatic confrontation in the woods (those woods, btw, are half-Rashomon half-Ulver); the church painting (Rublev) of death at which Jons scoffs – the one of the plague from which he recoils; the actors’ song about Death’s constant presence followed by the marching penitents. Only a true artiste can keep one juggling ball in the air indefinitely – not even AB can pull it off.

Interesting gender stuff here too: Jons’ rescue of the young girl and subsequent boasting of restraint from rape is blunt, and she follows meekly. She seems entirely pointless for most of SS, silent until the penultimate scene: coming slowly forward to kneel before Death with almost Marian and beatific purity, cutting through the inane prating of the others (to which both Jons’ cynicism and AB’s desperation are thereby almost reduced). The wagon rolling off inland, Mia and Jof in arms, is a comforting image, but the young girl is more enduring. (besides, of course, the danse macabre) “It is finished”

Persona is his most engaging, for me, but this deserves its throne for its script, imagery, historical imagination, and variety.

10