Tuesday, November 13, 2012

La Habana noir : Lady Without Passport (1950)

I just caught this little-known (to me anyway) quasi-noir on TCM a few days ago. It’s the story of a tough but charming INS agent (John Hodiak), who is sent to bust up an illegal immigration ring in Bautista-era Cuba. Along the way he meets and falls for a mysterious WWII refugee (Hedy Lamarr), at the same time crossing swords with ever sinister bad guy George Macready. 

Lady Without Passport is on balance a fun movie : a tasty combination of romance* and film noir, done in the semi-documentary style popular in movies of the late Forties and early Fifties. It has the customary MGM gloss which tends to tone down the noir grittiness, bringing to mind The Bribe by the same studio, which also starred John Hodiak in a similar role (in that film Ava Gardner was the femme fatale; lucky John!). But MGM never had that much success with noir; perhaps the studio was just too civilized to capture the genre’s existential angst. Here the picture has the requisite gloomy look and familiar character types, but lacks the sinister undercurrent and aforementioned existential uneasiness.

Anyway there’s still much to savor in LWP. While clearly not the zenith of either Miss Lamarr’s or John Hodiak’s career, the film nonetheless has a quirky charm that makes it eminently watchable as it anticipates, by a decade, Our Man in Havana, another amiable if not quite memorable film.

Miss Lamarr is beautiful as always, but this was late in her career and she has a worse for the wear look which actually serves the character rather well. Her slinky cigarette girl costume recalls her role in White Cargo as the über jungle temptress Tandelayo (poor John Hodiak didn’t have a chance). 

Hodiak is perhaps best-known as the edgy socialist who becomes Talulah Bankead’s romantic interest in Lifeboat. In the noir context he is probably best remembered for Somewhere in the Night. His dusky looks work to his advantage in Havana as he poses as a ... Hungarian. And though not a conventional good-looking leading man there’s plenty of chemistry between him and Hedy. And of course there’s Macready, in a role similar to the character he played in Gilda, as the head of the human smuggling ring. He makes a deliciously effete villain. 

But the real star of the film is the all too fleeting on-location atmosphere in pre-Fidel Cuba, in which Havana is presented as a kind of sleepy, benign playground. The result is that it all tends to whitewash the rampant corruption that was going on. Probably the best, and most noirish scene is the racy dance number performed by Nita Bieber in a smoky mambo club -- pretty spicy stuff for the 1950s. There’s also, toward the end of the film, the novel setting of the Florida Everglades where a real jungle, with its own lethal charms, stands in for familiar noirish urban jungle. Also deserving mention is David Raksin’s jazzy Latino score.

The film is both pro INS and relatively sympathetic to the plight of the undocumented alien, giving the story an uncanny timeliness in our current political climate.

Further reading : Ruth Barton, Hedy Lamarr : the most beautiful woman in film, University of Kentucky Press, 2010, pp. 177-179.

* Then again all noirs are, at their core, romances, however offbeat.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Madame Du Barry (1934) : An undiscovered gem

Just saw this little known semi-masterpiece on the TCM channel. I can’t speak to its historical accuracy but it hardly matters; the picture is an absolute delight from start to finish. Nonetheless, some historical background : Madame Du Barry (Dolores del Rio) was a courtesan extraordinaire in Seventeenth Century France and eventual companion of King Louis XV, but alas became a victim of the guillotine during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. 

Interesting that the present film was followed only a few years later by the much more serious, even pretentious, Marie Antoinette, with the great Norma Shearer in the title role. Anyway both films have a similar look with lush costumes and sets and a certain flair for period authenticity, but there the similarity ends. Specifically, Madame Du Barry is much more a sex farce and comedy of manners than historical epic, though its broad historical outlines seem reasonably correct. 

Speaking with a French/Mexican accent, the incredibly beautiful Dolores Del Rio gives an irresistibly energetic, exuberant performance in the title role, and what’s more she seems to be having a great time immersing herself in the part. I’ve seen snippets of her films but didn’t know she was this good; she had a real flair for comedy, and to be sure, probably Madame du Barry wasn’t as madcap as Dolores’s intensely physical, manic performance implies but who can say. 

Dolores is wonderful but so is the supporting cast, especially Anita Louise as Marie Antoinette and Dorothy Tree, Helen Howell & Joan Wheeler as Louis' scheming daughters. But scene-stealing honors have to go to Reginald Owen as the befuddled King Louis XV. In Owen’s marvelously sympathetic portrayal Louis comes across as a real human being, composed of equal parts lecherous hedonist, practical - and sometimes devious - politician, and, not least of all, infatuated suitor.

Moreover, everything else in Madame Du Barry is first-rate : sets, camerawork, lighting, costumes. But the thing that breathes life into what could have been a shallow historical romp is the sparkling, pitch-perfect script which bubbles like vintage Dom Pérignon. The principals all chirp away on court gossip without ever lapsing into caricature; the actors’ rapid-fire, almost sing-song delivery is such that one expects Gilbert & Sullivan melodies to erupt any minute. It’s a fine balancing act, and the film pulls it off brilliantly. The other crucial element in the film’s success is the fine work of director William Dieterle, whose smooth, brisk style brings to mind Michael Curtiz. 

Information is unclear whether this was a Code or pre-Code movie, but in any case it’s all pretty risqué for the 1930s : lots of knowing, suggestive dialogue and bedroom scenes; Dolores flouncing about in a sheer, more or less see-through nightgown; but most of all the banquet scene which includes near-to-the-buff dancing beauties which Louis ogles with lustful approval. 

A thoroughly wonderful film. Highly recommended.

style ***
substance ***

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Noir de Boulogne

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne ; Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne. Les Films Raoul Polquin ; un film de Robert Bresson ; scénario et adaptation de Robert Bresson ; une production Raoul Polquin. Based on Jacques le Fataliste et Son Maître by Denis Diderot. Originally released as a motion picture in 1945. Camera, Philippe Agostini; editor, Jean Feyte; music, Jean-Jacques Grünenwald; production design, Robert Lavallée. With : Maria Casarès, Paul Bernard, Elina Labourdette, Lucienne Bogaert, Jean Marchat.

   When I first saw this film about ten years ago, it blew me away and immediately went to the top of my list of best pictures you never heard of. Happily, the film is much better known these days, with much of the credit for its increased familiarity going to the Criterion DVD release in ’03.

   The story itself is pitifully thin: a beautiful society woman plots revenge on a boyfriend who has jilted her for another woman. And for all the riches that director Bresson and cinematographer Philippe Agostini tease from such limited material, Les Dames is ultimately about atmosphere and character. Indeed, with one notable exception, discussed below, the stars of the film are its irresistible black and white look and the Paris locales [1]. Speaking of Paris, I’d be interested in the film’s production history. It was released in 1945, only a year after the Liberation, but there’s not the slightest hint of the War.

   There are good performances throughout. Though not a particularly memorable actor, Paul Bernard is competent and sympathetic as he glides through the role of the smitten playboy. Cary Grant lite, if you will. The wonderfully luminous Elina Labourdette gives an affecting performance as the virtuous heroine with a shady past [2], her naiveté a perfect foil to the calculating malevolence of her nemesis Hélène. But ultimately the movie belongs to the incredibly intense, elegantly creepy Maria Casarès [3] as the said character Hélène. With her thick, flowing black locks, Madame Grès and Schiaparelli wardrobe (dark tones, please) [4], vampiric features (those eyes!), and the vague hint of bisexuality, she’s the very embodiment of the noir spider woman. Apparently she was a legend on the Paris stage in the Forties and Fifties but alas made few films, and we’re the poorer for it.

   But is Les Dames film noir? Well, maybe. There’s no crime, strictly speaking, but the spitefulness and maliciousness of the Casarès character borders on the criminal. It also has the requisite b&w look, the themes of psychosexual obsession and betrayal, and an incomparable femme fatale, all noir staples. Then again, one could just as easliy describe it as a cross between a drawing room melodrama and offbeat love story, almost a comedy of manners, done in an eminently Forties style.

   Multilayered, subtle and strangely haunting, with a great cast, score and visuals, Les Dames is a terrific film, whatever its genre. One caution: it has a very restrained, quintessentially European pacing and tone (i.e. it’s slow). Thus if your thing is explosions, car chases and generally action-filled high adrenaline, then better pass this one by.

style ****
substance ***

Reviews : Film Sufi Film Couture: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne The Power of Resistance: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne Dress Inspiration: Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

   [1] Curiously, in view of its noirish bonafides, including being the city where the term and the concept originated, Paris has not been the setting for many noirs. Rififi and Touchez pas au grisbi spring to mind but few others.

   [2] It was unclear to me whether the Elina Labourdette character was supposed to be a former prostitute or simply a notorious dancer (in 1940s movies is there a difference?).
   [3] She reached her cinematic zenith four years later as Death in Orphée, about as fatale a character as one can play!

   [4] Incredibly, neither lady's contribution is mentioned in the credits.

In Les Justes of Albert Camus. Paris, Theatre Hebertot, 1949. [Photo Roger Viollet].