The Day of the Beast (de la Iglesia, 1995) and The Bar (de la Iglesia, 2017)

I’m pretty sure that The Day of the Beast is one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made. Alex de la Iglesia’s film is so loony and of-a-moment. It’s soaked in the 1990s, from the mise-en-scène through José María’s (Santiago Segura) metal obsession. The thing about The Day of the Beast is that it’s relentless. It begins with a bang (or rather, a crash, as a cross, in an omen of the coming of the antichrist, comes crashing down on a priest) and plows forward, nonstop.

The opening scene between Cura (Álex Angulo) and José María is a nice tone and style-setter.

That blue tone is later switched out for warmth, but there always feels like there’s a tint to the film. I love that first frame. The head in the foreground, frame left completes the composition and is just a little eerie. The list (that’s Napalm Death, Iron Maiden, and AC/DC) is hilarious.

Álex Angulo is fantastic as Cura, a priest committed to doing as much evil as possible in order to draw out the devil and therefore save the world. Sound logical? Other characters mention how absurd it sounds, but Cura is so dedicated to his plight throughout the film that we start to feel his resolve. This of course leads to plenty of comedy, including, probably my favorite moment, when he tells a dying man he’ll rot in hell while stealing his wallet.

I think the key here is that aforementioned commitment. Another film or director might have Cura playing it reluctantly, but de la Iglesia puts him right on the line of reveling. It’s far more entertaining.

de la Iglesia definitely has style, but he’s not reliant on gimmicks. The Day of the Beast is well made. I love the scene where Cura tries to drug Mina (Nathalie Seseña). de la Iglesia just uses her action of cooking on either side of the kitchen as motivation to move them, with Cura always nearby, stirring her drugged coffee:

It’s one long take, which continues with them getting closer to the lens:

This isn’t the entire take, but it’s snappy and crisp, accomplished basically with pans, and is at once tense and funny. It’s strong blocking where the actors have a lot of marks to hit in a small space. Good credence given to “give actors stuff to do,” and to the small stuff like leaning against a counter.

The Bar

The Bar is de la Iglesia’s most recent film. At its best, it’s a paranoid comic-thriller about media misinformation and government conspiracy; at its worst it’s an exploitation film. It sort of oscillates between these, before spending its final third in the latter.

A group of people are in a bar. Someone outside gets shot. Magically, the body is removed. They question their sanity, they throw wild theories around, they accuse and turn on one-another (like in any good one-location thriller/horror film), their dark secrets are revealed, etc.

The Bar works when we don’t know what’s going on yet, when those theories are all still possible, and when de la Iglesia works masterfully with a lot of characters in one location. Some of his early composition and blocking is really awesome. It’s tough work to track 8 people as they move quite rapidly and frantically in tight quarters.

TheBar

I loved this first third in particular. At a certain point the film starts to feel like an excuse to feature Elena (Blanca Suárez) with few clothes. She turns in a strong performance, but the last act doesn’t really do that justice as we get away from the paranoia that so strongly kicks the film into gear and move into something like a psychotic three-hander.

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The Lure (Smoczynska, 2015) and 120 BPM (Campillo, 2017)

I’m sure that both of these will, in some way, be on my year-end list of favorite films. The Lure is unique, though in various odd ways it reminds me of SpringRepo: The Genetic Opera (I hope that’s the last time I ever make that comparison), Underground, and The Happiness of the Katakuris.

Two mermaid sisters, Srebrna (Marta Mazurek) and Zlota (Michalina Olszanska) swim up to the shores of Poland en route to the United States. They’re adopted by a family of cabaret performers and fight their respective urges to marry a man (Srebrna) and kill/eat men (Zlota).

The Lure feels like one of those films that shouldn’t work. It’s campy as hell at times, but so beautiful and so confident that the camp just fits in like a natural part of the mise-en-scene.

It sort of signals its intentions and vibe with the cut from the first scene to the title sequence. With Srebrna and Zlota coaxing two men towards them from the water, Wokalistka (Kinga Preis), who will become their surrogate mother, sees them from a distance and screams. Director Agnieszka Smoczynska hard cuts mid-scream to the credits. After the credits we’e jumped ahead in time and the girls are on land and in the green room of a cabaret.

The shock cut and the ellipsis both fit the style and mood. It’s a little jagged, a little silly, a little inexplicable, and riding the line between absurdity and normalcy (the latter of these is also true of the cabaret-crowd, who seems to be in awe of the two mermaids when they come out on-stage, but not so much in awe that they don’t accept it as reality. Their reaction is more that of a crowd that has seen an amazing performance, and not of a crowd that has just had their knowledge of the world warped and turned upside down).

The music in The Lure is also awesome. It’s catchy, sexy, and funny. The film embraces the musical as representative of various ideals (see, for example, the narrative musical in the shopping mall in the first act (the girls becoming more “human” via the musical), or the one in the club that turns into a huge and hilarious dance party (the musical as energy and utopia))

Smoczynska shoots the film in vibrant colors and hazy light, but it feels less like a fantasy and more like a seedy underbelly. You kind of start to question – though it never bothers – what the rest of Warsaw must think of these goings-on. But The Lure is really a fairy tale in the truest sense. There are risks that the two mermaids take; both are pushed for and against their true nature; there’s something like a moral; and the world accepts the existence of the fantastic, while preferring to keep it to a fringe sideshow.

120 BPM

After the first 20 minutes or so of 120 BPM I couldn’t stop thinking of Laurent Cantet’s The Class. That’s because no main character had yet emerged in the film, which I think is a real talent. How do you write a film that is compelling and narrative, that follows a group, that feels full of distinct voices, but that doesn’t give a protagonist’s introduction in the first few scenes? It’s not that we don’t meet Nathan (Arnaud Valois) or Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) early-on, it’s that they don’t rise above at least 3-4 other characters until much later. In some ways it also reminds me of Rome: Open City and its strategy, like much of neorealism, of the group superseding the individual.

Some minor SPOILERS below

I don’t think that neorealism is a bad comparison for 120 BPM. Director Robin Campillo (who I later learned wrote The Class) works with young actors (not necessarily non-professionals, but not many with a long track record), focuses on a community in resistance, looks at the social situations which that community deals with, and shoots much of it “on the streets.”

Of course there’s a lot that isn’t anywhere near The Bicycle Thieves. Like those great, fantastic, very French-feeling dance sequences. Or the fantasy sequence when Sean confesses his past to Nathan.

My two favorite scenes in 120 BPM both involve these two characters. One is when Nathan masturbates Sean in his hospital bed. What great directorial decisions here! This could so easily wallow in sadness, but their laughter at the end is refreshing and still tragic. The scene itself is realistically long and almost painful.

Then there’s the decision that Nathan makes at the end of the film. Again, I think it’s a great example of Campillo making a strong choice. I think most films – at least the American comparables I can think of – would have made this decision slow and painful, focused on Nathan in close-up, showed his indecision and hesitancy. But Campillo plays it fast and desperate, and it’s so much the better. You can almost hear Nathan’s internal dialogue, “just get it done just get it done just get it done…” It’s bold because it feels like anti-drama, but it pays off.

 

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The Sun In A Net (Uher, 1962)

A friend and former student recommended I watch Stefan Uher’s The Sun in a Net and I’m glad he did. It’s a great film, which somehow reminds me of The Cranes are Flying (stylistically).

Fajolo (Marián Bielik) and Bela (Jana Beláková) are boyfriend and girlfriend. Their relationship is lazy and uncertain. He leaves during the summer to volunteer at a camp and she stays behind.

Based on that logline it could be nearly anything, but Uher shoots it in such a beautiful and imaginative way. Here’s a favorite sequence of scenes. It introduces the motif of hands, which becomes much more obvious shortly into the clip, through Peto’s (Lubo Roman) in the foreground, the dialogue, and the ending beat.

0:30 begins a series of graphic matches. That’s Bela in the foreground, frame left and her blind mother’s hand reaching in towards her. The sun is bold in the background. It’s such a stark frame, but the heavy contrast and composition make it.

0:34 is the second graphic match and here’s where that motif becomes quite apparent. We push in on Fajolo’s photographs of hands. Turn a corner, push in again (“Hands…the strangest human shape.”) and land on the fantastic frame at 1:01.

Screen Shot 2017-12-01 at 9.21.40 AM

Interesting to note that here Fajolo rises into frame the way that Peto’s hand did towards the beginning. There’s some kind of a comparison going on between them, totally supported by the voiceover.

Starting at 1:10 we go into the rooftop scene between Bela and Fajolo. Uher’s blocking here is dynamic and he uses the surrounding, external influences of the location a lot. Planes flying overhead at 1:47 and 2:04 are segue shots to change the frame and shoot from overhead. They mimic the perspective of the planes, but aren’t quite.

Her also uses the atmosphere quite well. The shadow of the overhead wires, reflections of the clouds and the huge sign at the front of the roof all fill the space and dance on the image.

Another plane flies by at 2:49. After its path, Uher cuts away from the really intimate, eye-level 2-shot that he’s been on to something more frontal and removed. Those planes really move the conversation around. They’re distraction for the characters – buffers in their conversation to move to and from something more or less intimate – and also visual lynchpins for us, easing the transitions around multiple points of coverage.

There’s a screen direction break at 3:03, when Bela throws something into the window. She throws it left to right, but on the cut it flies in right to left. The change is only slight and the match on action helps keep it consistent. I don’t think we really notice it. We also never look in this direction on the roof. We come close when Fajolo stands there at 3:44, but it’s not as extreme an angle as the one that Bela throws on. So it’s a cheat. Doesn’t matter. Uher shows so much depth on two sides of the roof that we don’t feel enclosed or constricted by a set or off-screen space that isn’t really there.

The camera cranes to and from so much in this scene. Again at 3:21, then yet again at 4:48. It’s certainly, still, like those overhead planes, but I think that Uher is also really adept at isolating his characters. Bela feels so alone, almost naked at 3:28. Then the same is almost true, but not quite, of Fajolo at 3:47. A lot of that difference is from the zoom, where Uher compresses the space, makes Fajolo feel more like a part of his surroundings, and just literally brings us closer to him.

 

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Lanthimos, 2017)

This will be a pretty scatter-brained post. The Killing of a Sacred Deer reminds me most of Dogtooth, of all the Lanthimos films I’ve seen. The intruder scenario (one day I’ll have another/better (is there a better?) comparison than Teorema but it comes to me immediately again with this film. Maybe it’s just that Pasolini seemed so interested also in the dynamics of an enclosed society under the microscope…), the family, the clean mise-en-scène are all reminiscent.

I recently read an interview with David Fincher where he mentions the “wide angle wit” of the Coen brothers (and in reference to Soderbergh). I love this line. I think Yorgos Lanthimos has wide angle wit, but in a different way. Where I imagine that Fincher was referring to action that takes place towards and away from the camera which is emphasized in unexpected ways because of the wide angle lens, Lanthimos’ wide angle is mostly mood. It feels like surveillance at times, something I was struck by in the really early scene of Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) and Matthew (Bill Camp. I love Bill Camp!) walking together down the hospital hallway. They seem pushed so far away as the walls of the hall bulge around them. Certainly a product of the lensing, but it also felt like we were a surreptitious drone above them. I imagine that Lanthimos also likes the distancing effect. Because of the affected performances he’s after and gets I think we’re pretty off-kilter throughout his films. That lens choice keeps us further than arm’s length.

It’s hard to talk about a Lanthimos film without talking performance. Kind of like Kaurismaki, who of course I mentioned when talking about The Lobster. But I think that comparison is a little facile. Lanthimos’ characters do show real emotion. I think now I’d characterize these performances as frank and blunt. It’s not only what the characters discuss, it’s that very little seems of any more important than anything else (in terms of delivery). They discuss things like menstruation and ejaculation with the ease of talking about the weather. There’s also the pretty rapid pace of dialogue, especially from Stephen and Martin (Barry Keoghan) that feels so confident.

I love these performances. Keoghan is like a man-child. It’s pretty damn inspired casting. And Farrell just seems to get Lanthimos. It’s their second great collaboration in a row.

When watching the film I was really struck by two cuts. I need to watch it again to exactly figure out why (and to be able to describe them better). One is to Martin and Stephen’s daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) on a motorcycle. The other is just to an overhead aerial shot of a car.

Both are cuts from an interior to an exterior. The first shot I mention above is in slow-motion. I think I like it because of the irony (if I remember correctly Stephen and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) are talking about something that very much involves Martin, so the cut is timely), but also because it felt like such a candy-coated teenage romance moment. The way she hugs him. That slo-mo. The popping colors of the moment. The low angle. The wind in their hair. It was so disarming amidst a really alarming moment.

The other cut hit me because of sound. Is there any sound at this second shot? It felt like the air got sucked out of the theater. The film is fairly loud, at least the score is, so the absence (or near absence of sound landed).

I’m envious of Lanthimos’ ability to easily use really high and low angles. I feel like this is a filmmaking style that is going away. But Lanthimos is often framing at extremes and it really works. There’s an early conversation between Martin and Stephen that, I think, has three shots of coverage. A wide angle dolly that follows them. An MCU from behind, favoring Martin. And an extreme low angle from in front, favoring Stephen. That low angle should grab so much attention but it just fits naturally. It doesn’t feel like your noir-ish usage, and it doesn’t really seem to say much more than the conversation does (sure, Stephen seems to have more power here, and sure, Martin has something to hide, but later usage of these angles doesn’t track that way. I think.).

There are a lot of long L and J cuts with dialogue. Voiceover, basically. I wonder if that was written into the script. The film takes on this feeling that something is always happening somewhere else. That events are always starting to pile on top of one-another. I love that.

SPOILERS FROM HERE

Here’s the big thing about The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Why do we accept the big reveal midway, or a little earlier, through, when Martin explains to Stephen what’s happening as they sit in the hospital cafeteria? It shouldn’t work. The world hasn’t really lived up to his explanation at that point. The interesting thing to me is that Stephen doesn’t accept his explanation (Stephen’s reaction is logical), but we do. Why? Because we’re watching a movie? That feels like a dumb reason. I think if some other director made this exact same script we might not accept it.

It’s one thing to not believe a beat, or a performance, or a moment in a film, but this is the thing that the entire movie hinges on. It feels a bit out of the blue, pretty ridiculous, unbelievable, and undeserved, but we just go with it. There’s something in Lanthimos’ tense visual build-up (that wide angle lens) and the eerily hilarious way that Martin delivers the explanation that just makes sense. Sure, it’s also that what has happened to Stephen’s son, Bob (Sunny Suljic) is impossible, and that we haven’t established rules for the world yet, but most screenwriting instincts would, I think, at the very least point towards a restructure and try to force this moment 20 minutes earlier, which would kill the uneasy dynamic (raise your hand if you thought it was sexual) between Martin and Stephen to this moment. It’s a strong decision that is totally buoyed by the strangeness of the preceding audio-visual world.

If I have one complaint about Sacred Deer it’s the “metaphor” moment in Stephen’s basement. It’s right as Martin bites his own arm. It’s a painful, powerful sequence, but it’s too on-the-nose. It starts to feel really obvious that Martin is talking about the film and the aforementioned scene.

But whatever. The film is an awesome experience that sucks you in. Great, loud music; performances that are all unique, yet all cohesive (can’t forget Alicia Silverstone’s great turn); lots of tense hilarity (the scene where Stephen visits Bob and Kim’s principal…); and plenty of risk-taking (the scene where Kim sings Martin a song really shouldn’t work, but it does).

 

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The Boxer and Death (Solan, 1963)

The Boxer and Death is a hell of a film. Peter Solan directs this really tense concentration-camp set film that holds to such simple ideas of screenwriting – fast setup, high stakes, opposite protagonist and antagonist – yet excels at all of them in beautiful, novel ways.

Komínek (Stefan Kvietik) is a former boxer who, at the beginning of the film, has been caught escaping from a concentration camp. Kraft (Manfred Krug) is the commandant of the camp who is also a boxer. Holder (Gerhard Rachold) is an officer at the camp who is another embodiment of evil (though, and in one of the many ways this film is great, Holder’s overt evil serves to mask, or mitigate, Kraft’s, making the latter seem to be composed of shades of gray, though he’s not really. It’s great writing and casting).

Kvietik gives such a physical performance (you can get a good look at some of it at the end of the clip embedded below). At the start of the film he’s weak. At Kraft’s orders to build the prisoner up so he’s again a capable boxer Kvietik’s performance gradually changes. The posture and energy shift is remarkable from the first few minutes to the last.

As good as Kvietik is, he doesn’t necessarily steal the show. I really loved Krug’s performance. As noted above, he’s complex. Is he murderous Nazi officer, or sympathetic athlete thrust into a difficult position? Sometimes this feels abundantly clear, but, and particularly in some early scenes, it’s not always. Krug plays it so well – he’s cool and calm, rarely on edge. There’s a real danger in that person.

I love Solan’s imaginative directing. Here’s one moment that really struck me, probably because I was just talking about motivated camera in class:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/242912889

The opening to the scene is a great use of an extra to bring me into the scene. It’s a question off the bat: who is he shining the light at? (Since he’s shining it at the audience it feels extra uncomfortable). I love scenes that start tight and end wide because of the ways I have to put the whole together in my mind before I get to see it. This scene does that so well.

The motivation here is pretty simple. It’s that repetitious whistle that moves us from shovel to shovel. It feels like such a dance that it very nearly distracts from the utter absurdity of the prisoners shoveling from their own pile immediately onto the person to their left’s pile. It kind of has an ominous “whistle while you work,” tone.

The camera is dizzying, which adds to the stress. The hidden cut at 0:18 just keeps the rhythm going. It almost feels like these guys must be making progress until we get to the wide. I love cutting to Komínek walking away at 0:31. Cutting away from that whirling camera is jarring. It makes him feel even more separate than he is. We sort of have to recover from the spins to get our bearings and an idea of where he is.

I’m including these stills below only because it’s something else I’ve been talking about in class, and because I noticed it during the film. It’s a mistake, I think, but doesn’t detract from the film.

Kraft talks to his wife Helga (Valentina Thielová). Shestands up and walks off frame left (second image below). His eyeline matches that:

Then Solan cuts to her by the window. It’s clearly not the window we see in the last frame above. But then Kraft enters and he enters frame left (you can just see the corner of his shirt in the second image below):

It’s actually pretty confusing. Sure, there’s a world where, after Solan cuts to Helga, Kraft walks along the bed, around the camera as it were, and enters from frame left. But that’s just awkward.

Like I said, I’m really only pointing it out because these kind of fundamentals have been on my mind of late. The Boxer and Death totally and wholly outshines what is, in the end, a very small instance.

There’s plenty of great dialogue in here, too. As Komínek enters the ring for the near-climactic 10 round fight that Kraft has organized, one of the Nazi wives comments something like, “they should show him to the International Committee.” It’s such a pointed line with a lot of background to it (obviously, Komínek, now well-fed, looks good enough to present to any organization wishing to seek some form of unjust evidence regarding the camps).

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Distant Thunder (Ray, 1973) and What’s Up, Doc? (Bogdanovich, 1972)

Distant Thunder is, like so many of the best of Satyajit Ray, a sensitive look at a singular relationship set amidst changing circumstances. I think that Ray really liked the idea of the outsider (see Utpal Dutt in The Stranger, or Madhabi Mukherjee in The Big City for examples of two different, learned (or maybe we should just say “non-ignorant”) people functioning outside of the societal norms upon which they intrude). He’s got several of those characters in Distant Thunder, a really touching film about a famine in an Indian village in the early-1940s.

One of those is Gangacharan (Soumitra Chatterjee), a teacher and priest who angles for advantages, yet is not an unsympathetic character. His relationship with his wife Ananga (Bobita) really reminds of the husband-wife dynamic in The Big City, yet here the tension comes more from without than within. Gangacharan strikes me as a fairly typical Ray protagonist. He’s smart, but needs to learn about life; he has kindness in his heart, but struggles with pride.

The title refers to the war that’s never seen but frequently heard, and which, importantly, is the cause of the food shortage. Ray often lenses the landscape in wide frames-

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 11.35.25 AM

These are gorgeous but also add to the sense of isolation. That thunder is distant, which is good in one sense (the violence of war isn’t imminent), but also bad (the village is cut off from food access).

I imagine that Ray is often thought of as a social filmmaker first, and a visual filmmaker second. I remember hearing an interview with one of his actors years ago (I can’t remember who) and she said that his films often had so little money behind them that they’d get one take and be forced to move on, but that Ray came so prepared that the scenes still felt complete and organic.

There are a lot of sequences in Distant Thunder that give credence to this preparation, and that also paint Ray as a master visualist. One of the best is between Chutki (Sandhya Roy) and Jadu (Noni Ganguly). Jadu is the ultimate outsider in the film. He lurks on the outskirts of the village, hiding in ruins, keeping his scarred face from view.

As the famine escalates Chutki encounters Jadu while walking. Ray shoots this sequence so expressively. It’s full of longing on many fronts. Chutki wants rice. Jadu wants to sleep with Chutki. It’s a scene that another director might play as eerier, or even violent. For Ray it’s sad.

The sequence starts in this wide with a low horizon. The camera pushes in as Jadu approaches Chutki:

A transition shot of a lizard later-

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 11.36.30 AM

-Ray cuts to this wide of the ruins. Jadu walks into them. The camera pulls back to reveal Chutki in the foreground. Then she exits frame left and we push in to the empty structure:

Jadu emerges, and in the same long take we now track left to right with him as he finds Chutki, who has turned his back on him and walked away (but not too far away):

He approaches her from behind and holds the rice out over her shoulder. She knocks it away. I love this moment. There’s so much decision in her face. Her openness to camera feels blunt but it works. She’s doing this for the rice but slapping it from his hand is so angry and instinctive.

I’ve skipped a few shots, but the scene ends beautifully and sadly. Ray tracks left to right with Chutki as she walks away from Jadu again. The ruins are in the foreground:

We cut to a tight CU of Jadu. The camera pushes in on him a little bit:

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 11.39.06 AM

And then to his POV. A tragically wide shot of Chutki, nearly blending in despite her red sari:

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 11.39.12 AM

The scene is so haunting. It’s mostly wordless. Ray’s camera moves often and, though it does in fact move for Jadu (see the second-to-last shot above where it pushes into him) it’s mostly motivated by Chutki and her literal movement or her absence. The wide frames, the characters pushed to the fringe – there’s nothing romantic about this. It’s a desperate scene.

It’s amazing how Ray is able to make Jadu sympathetic. Though he carries hints of violence with him he’s never outwardly violent. Still, he’s far from innocent. He uses the rice as a way to manipulate Chutki. Of course, it’s partially the performance and makeup. It’s also that other characters in the film are much less sympathetic. But it’s also Ray’s desire to look at how desperate situations make people more desperate.

What’s Up, Doc?

Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? owes a big debt to Bringing Up Baby and to Blake Edwards. It’s a funny film, buoyed by some slapstick set pieces (the wrong room motel hallway wide shots are great), and Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand have good chemistry.

Maybe the best part of What’s Up, Doc? is simply reveling in the return of the screwball. Bogdanovich makes no bones about his references (can O’Neal channel Cary Grant any more?) and, true to the subgenre, just tries to up the ante from scene to scene.

The definite highlight is a plate glass gag. Who did the first one of these? It has a Buster Keaton feel to it, but I can’t think of a Keaton film that uses it. The packed cars zipping down the street reminds of Edwards’ Pink Panther films. The gag is so great because of Bogdanovich’s constant return to the extras – the guy on the ladder and the characters moving the plate glass. Their choreography is hilarious, and the conclusion of the gag is totally satisfying.

Streisand’s really good in this. I had no idea she had already won an Oscar by 1972. There’s little subtlety in her Judy Maxwell, but there doesn’t really need to be. This is a film about timing, both directorially and actorly timing, and everyone pulls it off. It’s harder timing than it looks. To get people in a long shot of a hallway to open some doors at just the right time is one thing. To play with foreground and background, body language and reactions, all in one frame (as Bogdanovich does really well in the fire/trashed hotel room scene) is another entirely.

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Hra bez pravidel (Polák, 1967) and Conflict (Bernhardt, 1945)

I was lucky enough to catch both of these at the Noir Film Festival here in Prague. Jindrich Polák’s really fun ’60s noir feels like so many different things at once. The quiet of Rififi, the fatalism of Odds Against Tomorrow, the dark comedy of Blood Simple. Málek (Svatopluk Matyás) is the former policeman who can’t quit the crime. Litera (Jirí Adamíra) and Burian (Zdenek Kryzánek: what a face!) are mixed up in it. The film is well-written, and about halfway through you sort of get the idea of everyone’s fate; the fun then is the “how” more than the “what.”

Polák’s camera is really loose in the film. It’s obviously shot on-location and there’s not much of the smooth, studio-style of the classic American noirs. This feels like realism-noir, like Prague-noir. The camera stutters and shakes a bit, the characters feel more Don Siegel and less Jean-Pierre Melville.

Wiliam Bukový’s score is amazing. It’s so jazzy and tense, and it’s everywhere. The long, quiet, stylized opening, complete with freeze frames and slow overhead zooms has hardly any diegetic sound. It’s just the ticking score pushing us forward. It really works.

One of the best parts of Hra biz pravidel (which loosely translates to A Game Without Rules) is Pepi (Vladimír Mensík).

HraBez1

He plays Litera’s assistant and, though he’s probably only in about 20% of the film, he really makes his presence felt. His face is a cross between innocent naïveté and cunning. He’s also in some of the most comedic scenes in the film (leaving Litera’s room like “What? Nothing to see here” as Málek pulls up; jumping in front of a train-christening ceremony with a stolen briefcase). It’s the ending chase scene between Málek and Pepi, shot on an otherwise deserted train yard which Polák lenses with a lot of long tracking shots and clever choreography, that is the tensest and the darkest.

Conflict

I had never seen Conflict before, and what starts as a pretty standard Humphrey Bogart vehicle really elevates to something much more. I don’t really know much of Curtis Bernhardt, but I’ve seen Possessed a long time ago. From his filmography it looks like he was a German émigré, and that makes more sense given that Robert Siodmak, someone I’m much more familiar with, co-wrote the short story on which the film is based.

Bogart is Richard Mason. He’s in love with Evelyn (Alexis Smith) who just so happens to be his wife’s sister. Sydney Greenstreet plays Mason’s friend, the psychologist Dr. Mark Hamilton, beautifully against the type I’m used to seeing from him. Maybe that’s because I just immediately associate him with The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca when Bogart’s also involved.

Performances aside, two things really elevate Conflict. The script is quite interesting for the time. It seems always on the verge of veering into psychological territory, but ends up resisting that urge, staying very different from, say, Spellbound of that same year, and hewing closer to something like a ghost story or Gaslight.

Then there’s Bernhardt’s camera. I was really struck by two fairly innocuous scenes: the opening sequence with Richard and his wife Kathryn (Rose Hobart) where Bernhardt, true to the times, keeps things often in medium shot, but has a really fluid camera that moves all around a large bedroom, sometimes in a pretty complicated fashion; and a scene only a short time later at Mark’s house. This second one seemed more unique to me in slight ways.

First, the establishing shot slowly pushes in past some rainy tree branches. That dolly in feels modern and just gives a little extra atmosphere to the scene. Bernhardt cuts to a shot outside of Mark’s dining room. The camera again pushes into the glass. Mark approaches and opens the door, stepping outside to get a rose. The camera pulls back for him. Then he goes in, leaving the door open and the camera again pushes in after him, finding the dinner party in a wide shot. It could feel like a yo-yo-ing, indecisive camera, but it’s so confident.

Bernhardt’s camera isn’t always so expressive as this, or as his German cinematic background might insinuate, but it is always confident.

Parts of Conflict really reminded me of Vertigo, especially when Richard is chasing the woman who he is convinced is his wife. I could feel Scotty on the streets of San Francisco desperately seeking Madeleine. When Richard chases the unknown woman to an apartment and follows her in, it felt so much like the same mysterious house (The McKittrick Hotel) that Scotty follows Madeleine into. It reminded me so much of it that I’m convinced Hitchcock made a nod to Conflict in his 1958 masterpiece.

Conflict is filled with great side characters. The two best are the first pawn shop worker, played by Oliver Blake, and the apartment building owner, played by Mary Servoss. Both are just a little off. They’re wide-eyed, their speech is drawled or slow. They’re so well-cast and directed given the narrative context at the time of their appearances in the film.

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