Friday, December 28, 2018

2018: The Year in Old Movies

Being another alphabetical list of the best old movies the Siren saw for the first time this year, with 11 entries, because round numbers are boring.

Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Andrzej Wajda; viewed on FilmStruck (RIP))
In many ways a gangster film, with Poland’s future on the line instead of loot. Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek, the cynical assassin, is so fiercely present he drags the movie out of its ostensible setting and even the time period in which it was made. Everything in the film lends itself to allegory, like Maciek and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) lighting fire to glasses of vodka, each symbolizing a fallen comrade, as a bunch of drunks bellow-sing in the next room. But few allegories feel this vivid and searing.

Barbed Wire (1927, Rowland V. Lee; kindness of a Siren commenter)
Film history has been unjust to Pola Negri, usually remembered either as the most flamboyant mourner at Valentino’s funeral, or as the leopard-clad cameo player in a Hayley Mills film. The Siren knew better, as she’s read Negri’s delightful autobiography, but the proof is in the acting. And this tender World War I romance, about a French farmer’s daughter and the German POW (Clive Brook) she falls in love with, shows what a versatile and talented actress she was.

Devi (1960, Satyajit Ray; viewed on Filmstruck)
Powerful statement about how religion devolves into superstition, and how superstition destroys. Sharmila Tagore’s performance as Dayamoyee, the trapped and suffering “goddess” of the title, is riveting. For the record, though some disagree, the Siren most definitely thought there was a villain in Devi (and how) but then the Siren never has been keen on religious fanatics. Track down this masterpiece and decide for yourself.

Douce (1943, Claude Autant-Lara; viewed as part of the Eclipse box set “Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France”)
La Ronde in miniature, with an exquisite and moving Odette Joyeux, then 28, as the reckless upper-crust teenager of the title. Douce is enamored of her widowed father’s (Jean Debucourt) estate manager, Fabien (Robert Pigaut). Fabien wants Douce’s governess Irène (Madeleine Robinson) to run away with him; Douce’s father is also in love with Irène. Douce’s grandmother, Madame de Bonafe (Marguerite Moreno), wants everyone to stop all this nonsense and remember their place. A Christmas film as melancholy as it is witty; alert TCM.

Gabrielle (1954, Hasse Ekman; kindness of a friend)
There’s “personal” filmmaking, and then there’s this movie by Siren favorite (since 2015) Hasse Ekman. The director casts Eva Henning, whom Ekman had only recently divorced, as the title character, married to a man whose memories entwine with jealous fantasies of betrayal to form the bulk of the film. Like another pitch-black Ekman film the Siren loves, Banquet from 1948, Gabrielle is both bitterly funny and suspenseful, with one sequence in particular that brings Hitchcock to mind. It’s also a savage indictment of how a man can drive away love. In another twisted touch, Ekman casts himself not as the husband (played by Birger Malmsten) but rather as the ex-boyfriend who figures as Gabrielle’s lover in the husband’s imaginings (that's Henning and Ekman above). Your best source on the Web for all things Ekman remains Fredrik Gustafsson, whose Ekman study The Man From the Third Row was published in 2016.

Goupi Mains Rouges (aka It Happened at the Inn, 1943, Jacques Becker; viewed on Filmstruck)
The Siren has seen umpteen movies about deranged rural families living in the South, where she grew up. That undoubtedly added to her pleasure in viewing this hilarious mystery set deep in the French countryside. The Goupi clan, who could show the Snopes a thing or two, dominate every local business from poaching to innkeeping. But when the city-mouse nephew (Georges Rollin) comes to visit, murder enters the mix. An immensely satisfying film that the Siren may well venture out to see again when it plays FIAF on Jan. 29. (Bonus: A haunting performance by the infamous Robert Le Vigan, with whom the Siren has become slightly obsessed.)

Salón México (1948, Emilio Fernández; viewed as part of MoMA’s retrospective on the director)
The Siren wrote about this for the Village Voice (another film-supporting institution she greatly misses).

No Name on the Bullet (1959, Jack Arnold; the Siren bought the DVD, and BOY is it on sale at the moment)
What a joy to discover that a movie’s cult reputation is entirely deserved. The Siren loves Audie Murphy anyway, and she hopes one day to write a ringing defense of his acting in Westerns. Murphy plays John Gant, an uncommonly intelligent villain: He arrives in town trailing a violent reputation, and waits for the residents to unravel as they try to figure out who this gunfighter aims to kill. As the citizens turn on one another, right on schedule, Gant begins to seem as much like an evilly insightful philosopher as a killer. This was recommended to the Siren by Laura G., whose write-up the Siren recommends.

That Brennan Girl (1946, Alfred Santell; viewed as part of MoMA’s Republic Pictures series)
Brilliant women’s picture that was subsequently shown on TCM. The Siren mentioned it in an article for the Voice.

The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924, Mauritz Stiller; viewed on a screener as the Siren prepared to write about it for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival)
Mauritz Stiller is underrated.

The Sea Wolf (1941, Michael Curtiz; viewed on Warner Archive Blu-Ray, also a deal at the moment)
A disguised concentration-camp movie set on the high seas. Bleak as all-get-out, startlingly vicious and violent. Whatever the Siren was expecting from this newly reconstructed version of Curtiz’s film, it was not Barry Fitzgerald leering at Ida Lupino and threatening her with gang rape. The Siren had seen the butchered version and promptly forgot it, and as far as she’s concerned, this counts as an entirely different film. (Here is Leonard Maltin on the story of its resurrection. ) The Sea Wolf is an intense anti-Fascist allegory (via then-Communist screenwriter Robert Rossen), and like other such films from its era, feels newly and agonizingly relevant. Stellar work from all concerned, including John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, and (a pleasant surprise) Alexander Knox. Do read this assessment at the New York Times by J. Hoberman (where has he been?). And the Siren assumes you've all read or are reading Alan K. Rode's Curtiz biography?

Honorable Mention:

Hellfire, Hell’s Half Acre, A Lawless Street, Three Daughters, Transatlantic, Young Desire, Ghost of Yotsuya (1959), Come Next Spring, Ride Clear of Diablo, Contraband, After Tomorrow, Victimas del Pecado, The Late Edwina Black, Love From a Stranger (1937).

Bonus: Not Exactly Good, But Boy Did I Have a Good Time

Love Has Many Faces (1965, Alexander Singer; viewed on Amazon Prime)
Or, as the Siren can't stop calling it, Love Has Many Suntans. (Followed, one hopes, by the sequel, Love Has Many Mole Checks.) Two hours of Hugh O’Brian and Cliff Robertson in Speedos and Lana Turner in $1 million of Edith Head costumes that shouldn’t be viewed without ISO-certified eclipse glasses. Virginia Grey and Ruth Roman have supporting roles, the plot is an ostensible murder mystery with the biggest wet-rag of a denouement you ever saw, and the Siren enjoyed every blessed minute.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948, St. John Legh Clowes; viewed on Filmstruck)
It’s an S&M love story, it’s a gangster movie, it’s proof that British actors are not better at American accents than vice versa, and strangest of all, it's a musical. Or wants to be, what with a bunch of nightclub numbers shown at length and sometimes even in full; one character's reluctance to stop watching the floor show becomes a key plot driver. To the Siren, the high point (if that is the term she wants) was Zoe Gail singing "When He Got It, Did He Want It?". Verse after verse about how boring women get once you've (ahem) had them, winding up with the big finish about how Cellini had the right idea because he poisoned his lays once he was done. The Siren still isn’t sure what hit her.

OK, OK, sorry about that last. The Siren will see herself out, along with 2018 while she's at it. Happy New Year, dear friends and patient readers!

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