Monday, December 26, 2011

Inspecting Clouzot: The Wages of Fear and The Assassin Lives at Number 21

I'd like to say I had something particularly clever and insightful to say about Henri-Georges Clouzot here, but I have to admit - I only went to these two shows, and I didn't spend much time reading up on the filmmaker, his life, and career. It's an interesting one, though, from his apprenticeship in the German film program (part of what led to him being considered too close to the Vichy regime after the war) to his tendency to cast singers. At least, that's what I heard before those two screenings; clearly I'll have to make some more time to see other Clouzot films to get an idea of his full career.

Worth mentioning: If you missed the first of these two films, it will be playing The Brattle Theatre next week, from Wednesday January 4th to Sunday the 8th. They are advertising it as a new print, though likely not the same new print that played at the HFA; that one was acquired by the Archive via Janus Films/The Criterion Collection, and while it would make sense for them to just ship it down the block, I don't know how often it works that way. And here's hoping the new print the Brattle gets will be a bit nicer than the one the HFA got.

That's even less likely, I imagine, as the flaws with the print I saw at the HFA are less due to the print and more due to the restoration. As was mentioned in the introduction, this is a new, digitally-restored print, and a good example of why "digital" should not be taken as a synonym for "better". First, the digital restoration work appears to have been done at something around HDTV resolution, which looks very nice in one's living room, but when blown up to the size of a screen measured in feet rather than inches, well, you can see pixels on occasion. It is, as usual, especially evident during the open credits, when plenty of unmoving images with what are meant to be straight lines instead resolve as having little staircase patterns. I've sort of given up complaining about those when I see them in a new movie; they're just part of the way text is expected to look these days. But in something almost sixty years old, it just looks wrong, a bit of 2011 style out of place in a 1953 movie. On a messages board I frequent, someone else mentioned that this black & white film had clearly been printed on color stock (and since this guy is a pretty great projectionist, I believe him).

These are some pretty distressing developments, especially coming from Janus/Criterion, who have a generally well-earned reputation as authoritative in the field of classic film presentation. Apparently it's not the first time they've done something like this; at least one person was heard to boo at the Criterion Collection logo. It is kind of alarming, though - their great reputation (and that of the HFA) is going to have a fair number of people thinking that this print is what The Wages of Fear should look like, and while it's not as bad as something cropped or colorized, it's a bit off. And if the next generation of prints is built from this print's master, it will be a bit more off - still basically the same movie, but losing a piece of its essential character.

Le Salarie de la Peur (aka The Wages of Fear)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2011 at the Harvard Film Archive (Henri-Georges Clouzot)

Supposedly, when it was first published, Hollywood tried to snap up the film rights to Georges Arnaud's novel Le salarie de la peur, but he insisted on a French adaptation. At some point, Arnaud's heirs relented, and the result, William Friedkin's Sorcerer, is a pretty good movie. The Wages of Fear, on the other hand, is a great one, the one to see if you've only got a two and a half hours of your lifetime to give to this story.

South America seemed like a land of opportunity in the post-WWII years, but for many it turned out to be a trap: Stuck in company towns designed to separate workers from their money and without enough jobs to go around, most can't even earn the money to get back home. That's where Mario (Yves Montand) finds himself in geography and circumstance as the film starts, though his spirits are given a boost with the arrival of a fellow Frenchman, M. Jo (Charles Vanel). An opportunity to make enough money to leave soon presents itself, though: An oil rig owned by the company is on fire, and needs quite a bit of nitroglycerin transported there to blow it out. Volunteers will be paid handsomely, presuming they make it there alive, but the two trucks being used to transport the volatile liquid - one driven by Mario and Jo, the other by hard-working Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli) and his German partner Bimba (Peter van Eyck) - are not designed for the task and the road is treacherous.

The Wages of Fear is, at the center, a character study. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot (who also adapted the novel with Jérome Geronimi) takes his time establishing the characters at the start of the movie, not doing much to describe their pasts but making their present very clear. Clouzot does not make the characters terribly likable, although they clearly have their virtues which could be more prominent in better circumstances. What we see is a group of people who tolerate each other and are even friendly enough when all things are equal, but with an underlying desperation that could send things crashing down should things stop being equal. By the time the characters hit the road, things have the potential to explode figuratively as much as literally.

Full review at EFC.

L'assassin habite... au 21 (aka The Murderer Lives at No. 21)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2011 at the Harvard Film Archive (Henri-Georges Clouzot)

You know, I don't think I've seen another crime comedy quite like this one, which somewhat surprises me, because the darn thing works as well as anything in it's genre not named "The Thin Man". It's the sort of movie one expects to get ripped off and remade, and yet The Murderer Lives at Number 21 is a relatively unique obscurity, noteworthy as Henri-Geroges Clouzot's directorial debut but not otherwise as well-known as it should be.

A thief and a killer stalks the streets of Paris, frustrating the gendarmes even more for literally leaving a calling card at the scene of each crime. They've had a break, though - a burglar found a cache of these cards in the attic of a house he was robbing. Unfortunately, it's a boarding house, requiring Inspector Wwenceslas Wens (Pierre Fresnay) to enter undercover. None of the residents seems particularly likely - there's Professor Lalah-Poor (Jean Tissier), artist Colin (Pierre Larquey), Dr. Linz (Noel Roquevert), spinster and would-be writer Mlle. Cuq (Maximilienne), former boxer "Kid Robert" (Jean Despeaux), and his nurse Vania (Huguette Vivier) - with owner Mme. Point (Odette Talazac) and valet Armand (Marc Natol) seeming equally harmless. And if Wens's job doesn't seem hard enough, his girlfriend Mila (Suzy Delair) soon shows up, figuring she can crack the case and that the publicity from doing so can only help her singing career.

Give Stanislas-André Steeman's novel to a half-dozen different filmmakers and they'll probably come back with as many different tones; that description allows for everything from broad door-slamming farce to a taut psychological thriller. Clouzot - who, in addition to directing, collaborated with Steeman on the screenplay - opts for something in between. I'm not certain that the case is actually solvable for the audience, but it probably is. The audience just doesn't spend a lot of time working on it; not only do the filmmakers pull off the Agatha Christie tricks of populating the house with characters who all seem charmingly insignificant and not clearly favoring any of them, but they make sure that we spend as much time watching the detectives as the suspects.

Full review at EFC.

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