Son of Saul
Any list of the most audacious feature film directing debuts would be headlined by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Continuing on it would probably include John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Charles Laughton’s The Night of The Hunter, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, The Coen Brother’s Blood Simple and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and maybe even Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Only Laughton and Hopper did not go on to have major directing careers, but since their reputations were equally made as actors, they still fit on the list. Time will tell, but Hungarian director László Nemes’ debut, Son of Saul, the Academy Award winning for Best Foreign Film, one day may be included on said list. It’s certainly the very definition of audacious.
The Holocaust film does not usually inspire as fresh material. Since Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List in ’93, the most notable title would be the totally over-rated Life is Beautiful. The most embarrassing would be the Robin Williams opus Jakob the Liar, and maybe the best would have been the German film The Counterfeiters. That is until Son of Saul came along. Nemes’ film, which he co-wrote with Clara Royer, brings a totally fresh approach to the material. Though only covering a 24-hour period, this is a new side of the Holocaust I have never seen in a film before. Set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, the film, shot in mostly moving long takes, follows a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig, powerfully played, an actor and poet who had previously only appeared a couple of films in the '80s) who works cleaning up dead victims in a crematorium, hiding the burnt evidence of the mass murder that is taking place daily. He is constantly shoved around, if not by the Nazi guards, then by his fellow Jews, who scramble to stay alive with a sort of command pecking order. His life appears to be a daze of a nightmare, with constant suffering, trauma and the a wait to join the others in the ashes.Continue Reading
The Night of the Hunter
Whoa, Daddy if you haven’t seen The Night of the Hunter you really need to. It is probably, along with Vertigo and Citizen Kane, one of the pinnacles of 20th Century American cinema. It manages the rare trick of being funny and scary, stylized and naturalistic. Visually it harkens back to D.W. Griffith’s silent films and to German expressionism, with its constant, shadowy sense of menace, giving this film’s depiction of an American past a sinister daydream quality. It’s the first and only film British actor Charles Laughton ever directed. James Agee, one of the most important writers of Depression era America, adapted the screenplay, and Stanley Cortez, a poet with a lens (he did the incredible cinematography for Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons) was cinematographer.
For all the top tier tinsel town talent, though, this is Robert Mitchum’s show and he dominates the film with a kinky intensity, a murderous, almost supernatural creepiness. There’s a reason Siouxsie Sioux cited Mitchum’s psychotic preacher character as a key reference point for what she wanted to explore with the Banshees’ music. He’s pure evil but he’s such a wild card, a character as much dark myth as flesh and blood, that he is utterly spellbinding on screen.Continue Reading
The Red House
Public domain film titles can be a great source of discovery for classic film buffs. There are some really weird movies that have made their way into Amoeba's DVD stock from companies such as Alpha Video which specialize in the obscure, the really terrible, and sometimes, a lost gem or two. But the experience of watching, even a good film, from a public domain copy can be pretty iffy. For one, their cover art is generally terrible. Poorly photoshopped images, terrible title fonts: on the whole, they are generally an affront to graphic design and good taste. This is why I had stayed away from The Red House, a not terribly well-known Delmer Daves noir starring Edward G. Robinson, made in 1947. Even when I finally relented, in search of more obscure noir thrills, the public domain copy I found looked and sounded awful. Whatever the filmmakers intended I could not see what it was because the sound and image were of such poor quality it was practically unwatchable.
But then a company I'd never heard of called HD Cinema Classics released a DVD/Blu-Ray combo of The Red House and once seen it was like a completely different film. What, in earlier editions, looked muddy and incoherent was now restored to its eerily gorgeous self. It's a beautiful and dark, dark, dark film and deserves high placement in the noir canon. This is a film that belongs in the same cinematic world of spooky, mysterious enchantment of The Night of the Hunter and Twin Peaks and, though it might be a stretch, The Innocents.Continue Reading
Witness for the Prosecution
Almost forty years after her death in 1976, Agatha Christie is still the queen of the mystery novel. Her characters, including Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are seemingly just as popular and prolific today (mostly on television now) as they were when she first invented them. Though many of her stories have been adapted for film, only two--by my recollection--have lasted the test of time. In '74 Sidney Lumet made a solid Poirot story, Murder on the Orient Express, thanks to a great cast led most memorably by Albert Finney. But even better was back in ’57 when Witness for the Prosecution was directed by the superstar director Billy Wilder. First appearing as a short story, Christie later turned it into a play. But Wilder and his two co-screenwriters, Larry Marcus (who would go on to co-write the brilliant screenplay for The Stunt Man) and Harry Kurnitz (the play A Shot in the Dark) would open it up for the screen and add the wonderful role of Miss Plimsoll for actress Elsa Lanchester, giving her an opportunity to share the screen with her husband Charles Laughton. Ironically, a TV remake and most stage adaptions of the play since have included the role, a Wilder invention, not a Christie one.
In England, big-time defense attorney (barrister) Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is on the verge of forced retirement due to health issues. He has a full-time nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Lanchester), on his case, nagging him to rest and give up his vices. But when Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) appears at his door, about to be indicted on murder charges, Sir Wilfrid is too intrigued to pass the case up. Vole, a handsome and married playboy (and American, though that is never acknowledged), is accused of murdering a much older woman who took a shine to his charms and conveniently had just changed her will, making him the beneficiary to her fortune. Vole reasonably explains his side, and it does appear to be circumstantial evidence stacked up against him. Vole's passionate German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) backs up his story. But when the trial comes along, strangely Christine is called by the prosecution, claiming Vole admitted to killing the old lady and painting a terrible picture of both herself and her husband. The great Wilfrid looks to be defeated until a greedy Cockney woman sells him some current love letters exchanged between Christine and her secret lover. The new evidence shows that the wife lied and it is enough to prove Vole’s innocence and end the trail. But Sir Wilfrid knows it was all too easy and there is something amiss. And here we get the great, shocking M. Night Shyamalan twist that Agatha Christie and her ilk specialized in.Continue Reading