Sunday, March 29, 2020

1917 (2019)

Directed by Sam Mendes; produced by Sam Mendes et al.

At the height of the Great War, two British soldiers (Dean-Mark Chapman, George MacKay) are given a dangerous but vital assignment: penetrate German-held territory and deliver an order to the commanding officer (Benedict Cumberbatch) of a battalion, stopping him from launching an attack that would lead to disaster. The soldiers’ odyssey leads them through danger after danger, the worst hazard being the clock against which they are racing.

I wanted to like 1917. As an historian, and one tired of the stereotypes in depictions of the First World War (eg. the resigned but brave ranker, the weary but conscientious junior officer, the general maniacally apathetic to the slaughter he causes), I had hoped to see a film that presented a more balanced view, one reflecting the newer researches conducted into the conflict. As well, I had hoped for an exciting action movie, as one has a right to expect from a war film. The results, I found, were mixed.

The acting is very good. The two leads are persuasive in their roles, even if MacKay seems most of the time to wear the same slightly stunned expression. All the actors have lengthy lists of credits, though many may be unfamiliar faces. A few veterans show up, such as Cumberbatch, Colin Firth (as the general who dispatches the soldiers on their errand) and Mark Strong (as a captain met on the way.) They all give fine, seemingly effortless work.

Certainly, the stereotypes often seen in fictional interpretations of the subject were almost absent. Firth’s general is no unconscionable martinet, but a reserved officer trying to save lives. The soldiers themselves are dedicated, the one who has seen action is naturally reticent, though still willing to do his bit. There is one junior officer (Andrew Scott) whose behaviour and situation is more reminiscent of Apocalypse Now than All Quiet on the Western Front, but for the most part, the characters portrayed come across as realistic.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is uneven. The depiction of the setting cannot be faulted. There is a long initial scene of the soldiers moving from a reserve position to the front line – though no reserve position would be so close to the fighting – showing the transition from open country, through support trenches, to the firing line. This is almost mesmerizing, as the men literally submerge themselves in the war. The shell-blasted desolation of No Man’s Land is convincing. There are snippets of real history here: the incredible complexity of the Germans’ trenches and underground quarters, the placement of booby-traps, the wanton destruction by retreating Germans.

Against this must be placed the inaccuracies of the story. It reflects the strategic withdrawal of the Germans in early 1917 to the almost impregnable ‘Hindenburg Line’; this is the position the battalion in danger is attempting to attack. But this battalion is supposedly behind enemy lines, or perhaps there are German positions behind the battalion. Germans are encountered before the battalion is reached, so the situation must be either one or the other. In the continuous Western Front, however, units were caught behind enemy forces only during enemy breakthroughs – the opposite of what has happened at the beginning of this film. The British high command knows the Germans have withdrawn from their previous trenches, but the British units just opposite those trenches don’t know it, which doesn’t make sense.

Two soldiers are sent out on a mission that could have been accomplished in minutes by an aeroplane dropping a message. By 1917, the Royal Flying Corps had a hundred squadrons, most of them in France, so they could have spared a machine or two. Distance would have been no problem: MacKay and Chapman need travel only nine miles, as the Sopwith Camel flies. As well, such a mission would probably have not been given to a couple of lowly lance-corporals but to an officer, so he would have inherent authority behind him. After traversing a deadly No Man’s Land and equally hazardous abandoned trenches, MacKay and Chapman are found by a British unit passing by in lorries on a road. Why couldn’t this unit have been contacted, and a ride given by them?

A frontal attack is made at the end of the film; this is executed without any artillery or machine-gun support. Even against an unfortified position, this sort of assault (except in minor affrays such as trench-raids) would have failed abysmally. The British Army abandoned such tactics in the Boer War, and every attack in the Great War was preceded by an artillery barrage of varying duration and intensity.

There are minor irritants, such as Indian soldiers present; the Indian Army (India being under British rule then) played a huge role in Allied strategy, but their formations fought in France only until late 1915, when they were transferred to Mesopotamia, where the climate was more amenable to Indian soldiers. MacKay and Chapman advance into unknown situations holding their rifles like modern SWAT teams, which any combat photograph of the era (and later) will discredit.

Even if a viewer is uninterested in such criticisms, there is the fact that there is little tension in the movie until the climax. MacKay’s chase through a ruined town is notable more for the lurid – and very effective – lighting (caused by flares and fires in the movie) than for its suspense. A contrast may be made to Saving Private Ryan, a similarly-plotted film which, while its script was heavy-handed and the story ordinary, had the sufficient compensation of breath-taking battle-scenes.

1917 struck me as resembling the recent Dunkirk in its depiction of the times and events. Both seem empty of a great deal of combat, almost as if the events were taking place in a vacuum. Both seem more interpretations of their stories than realistic re-enactments. I wish I could recommend 1917, but instead, I suggest another view of All Quiet on the Western Front would be both more informative and affecting.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Conflict (1945)

Directed by Curtis Bernhardt; produced by William Jacobs

Richard Mason (Humphrey Bogart) is a successful engineer stuck in an unsuccessful marriage. His wife, Kathryn (Rose Hobart), and he don’t love each other, though they’ve been married just five years, and don’t seem even to like each other much. Mason’s affections have instead turned to his wife’s younger sister (Alexis Smith). After an automobile accident leaves him with a broken leg, Mason determines to kill his spouse. One night, he carries out his plan, but soon finds clues that suggest Kathryn is not dead, and is taunting him. Did he kill her? Is he going crazy?

For those used to seeing Humphrey Bogart as a man of action, as a hero, Conflict will come as a surprise. It is definitely different than most of his films, casting him as a more ordinary person, buffeted by ordinary desires and problems, but giving him an extraordinary - and felonious - solution to them. This allows him to show aspects of his talent not always apparent in his other movies, and it serves him well. There are some scenes in which Bogart allows a very subtle reaction or expression to speak his lines for him, and it displays his talent: check out his face when he hears that his wife survived the car crash unscathed.

The other actors do themselves a credit, too. Hobart, as the wife, is not a shrew, though her behaviour is not really sympathetic. Even so, we can understand it. Smith is effective as a young woman caught in an uncomfortable situation. Sydney Greenstreet plays a retired psychology professor whose association with Bogart is key to the story; he is far more jovial and amiable here than in a number of his surprisingly few films. It’s interesting to see these two professionals working together, their relationship in Conflict more distant and formal than in, for instance, Casablanca, in which their characters share shades of grey from their pasts.

The trouble with Conflict lies in its script. The story depends upon it and, while that story may be seen to be at fault, it could have been more mysterious, more eerie, with a better script. The problem is that the solution to the mystery may be too easily seen by viewers. Certainly, red herrings are tossed in admirably, and may cause some confusion, but if a viewer thinks he has the answer early on - and many probably will - the false leads and dead ends won’t shake his conviction.

That written, I can state that Conflict is nonetheless entertaining. The atmosphere is successful (thanks to the direction) and the acting is on target. If the script is weak, then it is not a fatal weakness. It would be in a straight mystery, a movie with its puzzle at its centre. But Conflict can be seen for Bogart, Greenstreet and Smith, for the human drama of their story, as much as for the crime element. In this respect, the film works.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Snorkel (1958)

Directed by Guy Green; produced by Michael Carreras

A man (Peter van Eyck) carries out an elaborate scheme to murder his wife, using gas to make her death appear as suicide. It fools the police, the local British consul and a close family friend – but not the victim’s daughter (Mandy Miller), who is adamant in both her claim that her step-father is a killer and her demand that justice be done - by herself, if need be. Will the murderer silence her before anyone decides to believe her?

This Hammer Production is typical of the company’s early works: low-budget, black-and-white, not a horror film but a thriller. Also typical is the fact that it is a successful small movie worth one’s time.

The story is straightforward, and in the tradition of the ‘Dr Thorndyke’ series of books, in which the criminal is described committing his crime; the tale then centres on the investigator discovering the truth. This format was followed very successfully in the popular ‘Columbo’ series of tv movies. The suspense comes less from frightening situations than from the tension created by Miller’s relentless inquiry into her parent’s death, and the growing determination of Eyck to do something to stop her.

The writing is good, though not quite realistic; the murder-method is one which is rather improbable but which a confident, perhaps over-confident, criminal might perpetrate, even though it is too elaborate for his own good. As well, Eyck’s motive is left unstated, though the viewer may infer it. He is, in fact, likely a double-killer, his first crime being for money, his second for love, or perhaps just lust. The interaction of the characters is well-handled and credible, and the ending excellent, though one could debate whether the film should have ended two minutes before it did.

The acting by the two leads is essential for the movie to work. Eyck convincingly portrays sympathy, with cold, black stone underneath; his heartless execution of his plan in the film’s first scene shows his real character. Miller’s performance can’t be faulted, even if, though only fourteen at the time, she gives the impression of being older. This may be due to the fact that children were much more mature in past decades, as anyone will know who has read children’s literature – or literature in general that features children – of the past.

The location filming helps raise The Snorkel above the level (often good already) of the well-made low-budget picture. The story is set on Italy’s Ligurian coast, which is where the movie is shot; the proximity of the French border is a key point in the plot. This setting may, in fact, have raised the budget out of the era’s ‘low’ category.

This movie is one of the reasons I enjoy exploring little-known films from decades ago. One doesn’t know quite what to expect and, best of all, the ending, even if one thinks one can guess its direction, cannot be quite assured. Anticipation of the unknown is the essential of a thriller, not fear or gore or monsters, and in this aspect The Snorkel is a thriller to recommend.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Peur sur la Ville (a.k.a. Fear Over the City; a.k.a. The Night Caller) (1975)

Directed by Henri Verneuil; produced by Jean-Paul Belmondo

A killer calling himself Minos (Adalberto-Maria Merli) is on the loose in Paris, first tormenting women with nightly telephone calls, and then killing them for their alleged depravity. Put on the case is Commissar Letellier (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his team. Complicating the case is Letellier’s obsession with capturing a bank robber (Giovanni Cianfriglia), whose earlier escape led to the police officer’s disgrace. Despite Letellier’s lukewarm initial interest in Minos, he is soon determined to bring the murderer to justice.

In 1970s France, there was no more popular actor than Jean-Paul Belmondo and in this, one of his most popular movies, he shows why. Teamed with a director with whom he had worked previously, he produces a movie that, despite flaws, is an entertaining crime thriller with elements of American film noir and Italian giallo genres.

The story is probably the weakest aspect of Peur sur la Ville. It’s an ordinary tale of a lunatic on a spree, daring the police to catch him. Letellier’s character is the hard-driving, hard-boiled cop seen in about a thousand similar films, though, with a characteristically French take on the stereotype, Belmondo plays him as both almost light-hearted and dismissive, cynical and dedicated. In many respects, though, viewers will see very familiar traits, and nothing in the way of originality.

The script, by the director, is rather better than the story. Unlike some American films of the decade, the protagonist breaks the rules but does not show disrespect toward his superiors; indeed, his immediate chief (Jean Martin) is sharp, and knows how to push Letellier’s buttons to get him to do what is needed. There is no great trauma in the hero’s past that has damaged him, just dissatisfaction at his job prospects. Unusually, there is no love-interest; not quite.

The direction is good  - very good in action sequences – but seems almost as if it needed refinement or, perhaps, better editing. There is a relatively extended radio interview which is seen to provoke the killer to anger, but is too long and, really, unnecessary. The best sequence, a long pursuit, which becomes another pursuit, is by far the most exciting part of the film, and should have been worked into the climax. There are some memorable images, though, such as a deadly game of hide-and-seek among mannequins.

Though it would be inaccurate to write that Belmondo is the movie, or that another actor could not have been cast, he nevertheless brings a presence to the film that is compelling. He is very watchable. Certainly not conventionally handsome – as Humphrey Bogart was not – he manages to be convincingly attractive to women while likeable, or at least comradely, to men. Then there are the stunts. Belmondo performed his own, and these make the action sequences worth seeing. He dangles from a helicopter, drives a car from its passenger seat, runs along the roof of a speeding subway train and, in a scene that will make many palms sweat, chases the villain along roof-tops.

The music is a successful aspect of Peur sur la Ville. Composed by Ennio Morricone, it provides at times a driving pulse, at other times a discordant anxiety. I found it in way similar to his later score for The Untouchables. There are smaller items of interest, such as the differences between police procedure here and in American and British films. Instead of a partnership of two detectives, Lettelier leads a team (‘brigade’), though he works most closely with his deputy (Charles Denner). Watching Peur sur la Ville in French (a foreign film should never be seen in a dubbed version), one learns that Parisian junior police detectives called their chief ‘patron’. The City of Lights usually provides an excellent setting for a film, and this one is no different, though I have yet to determine whether one can see the Eiffel Tower from almost anywhere in Paris, or if the shots were decided by the availability of that background.

Peur sur la Ville has problems, some of which may not be such to French audiences, but is for the most part an involving police action flick starring an actor at the height of his career.