Contraband (Powell, 1940) and Rocco and His Brothers (Visconti, 1960)

Who doesn’t like The Archers?  Though I guess technically Contraband finds Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger before that moniker, it’s still a meeting of the minds of the director (Powell) and screenwriter (Pressburger) who will eventually go on to make films like Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp under the name The Archers.

This isn’t my favorite Powell, but Contraband, aka Blackout, has some great moments, including one that seems to have been referenced by Kubrick in 1955’s The Killer’s Kiss.

The suave spy narrative features a strong turn by Conrad Veidt, who kind of has the looming presence of a Boris Karloff, and feels, plot-wise, very much like Hitchcock’s early romantic/thrillers (The 39 Steps, Sabotage, etc).

While The Archers’ later stuff got a bit more stylized – especially as Powell started pushing the use of color and matte backdrops – there are still some hints of that in here.  Here’s an extreme low angle that really stands out amidst an otherwise pretty eye-level camera:

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Here’s a brief look at that climactic shootout I referenced earlier.  It involves a lot of busts of Neville Chamberlain.  The effect is surreal (see the 3rd, 4th, and 5th stills below), and ironic (Viedt’s sardonic line of dialogue, “I guess you’re good for something after all.”), and reminds me of those mannequins in The Killer’s Kiss as just an eerie set piece.  I think the idea that location, set design, and props can so enhance a scene is criminally overlooked too often:

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Contraband also features some nicely blocked moments and dramatic angles.  Here Veidt’s Captain Andersen holds a gun on his enemy.  The beautiful close-up below is intense and sums up a lot of the emotion of the moment, while the wide-shot that both precedes and follows in the film is nicely framed to give us more information than the character in the film:

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Here’s a still that I simply liked.  The use of silhouette reminds me of Notorious, and it’s heavy on mood:

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Rocco and His Brothers

I must say that I’m a bigger fan of later Luchino Visconti than I am of his Neorealist efforts and those immediately thereafter.

While Rocco and His Brothers is a famous film, and at times deserves its reputation, at other times its way too histrionic and melodramatic for my tastes.  It does feature an early performance by Alain Delon, which is serviceable, but nowhere near on par with his really excellent turn the same year as Tom Ripley in the gorgeous Rene Clement film Purple Noon.

It’s no secret that Scorsese is a Visconti fan, and I wonder how much he watched Rocco prior to Raging Bull.  This film, along with the likes of The Set-Up must have been an influence.  The boxing sequences here are beautifully shot and staged.

Visconti and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (who also shot for Fellini and Nichols, among others) start in the ring, before cutting out to a slight low angle, with ropes and patrons in the foreground:

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I love the framing of that last shot above, with Simone (Renato Salvatori) in the corner and his opponent close to the lens.  The contrast is beautiful and he looks like a caged animal in that corner.

Visconti keeps the camera at a complementary angle for the opponent, before cutting into the crowd to catch Rocco’s (Delon) reaction:

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He then cuts out to some dramatic angles.  There’s this wide-shot with the crowd in the foreground like a huge black mass, overwhelming the two men in the ring, and giving it all a ghostly feel.  The boxers feel like they’re floating here:

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This overhead shot has a different effect, really putting things into a more “sports-film” realm, emphasizing the ring itself, the distance between the men, and taking the crowd partially away:

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That last shot above is almost a transition to get us closer to the ring and to move from spectator to boxer, as Visconti then moves to handheld, getting really close to the fighters, and showing the action in aggressive detail:

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While the Raging Bull sequences feature other flourishes – freeze frames, extreme slow motion, canted angles – you have to think that Scorsese took the general look – that hazy, soft light, the over-crowded throng of spectators, perhaps even the black and white – in part from Visconti here.  

As mentioned, these scenes are also so great in how Visconti moves us back and forth between outsider and insider.  One moment we’re watching, totally detached from the violence, and the next we’re getting hit in the gut.

Rocco and His Brothers also features a pretty early turn from Claudia Cardinale:

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-and though Neorealism has more or less ended several years prior, keeps, at least in part, the tradition of realistic locations and on-location shooting intact:

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But Visconti’s really a romantic at heart, as either the narratives or the design of his later work (The Leopard, Death in Venice) attest to.  There are plenty of flourishes that foreshadow what is really a move away from the realism of an Ossessione or Senso.  These grandiose wide shots at extreme angles where Rocco and Nadia (Annie Girardot) meet:

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The various close-ups, either enigmatically framed-

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-or in an overhead full of longing:

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You kind of get the sense with Rocco that Visconti is trying to have the best of both worlds: stay true to the Neorealist “movement” from a few years prior while transitioning into something new, even more so than he did with Le Notti Bianche (1957).

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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