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).
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.
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.