Friday, December 29, 2017

#616: The Fallen Idol

Directed by: CAROL REED
1948, TSPDT Rank #993

Graham Greene, who wrote the short story on which The Fallen Idol was based and also scripted Carol Reed's next two films (The Third Man and Our Man In Havana), once cited this film as his favorite of all the films he had written. And it's an ingenious little film, which brilliantly illustrates a violent clash between the innocence of childhood and the often corrupting influence of adulthood. As a suspense film, it's very unique, as the primary narrative conceit here is that the audience knows that a butler accused of murdering his wife is innocent, although the web of lies which has been spun around the incident makes it nearly impossible to prove this fact. The primary obstacle to the investigation is an ambassador's son (played with wide-eyed obliviousness by Bobby Henrey), who looks up to the butler (portrayed with the perfect balance of coolness and warmth by Ralph Richardson) but is unsure of his innocence and feels obligated to lie to the police in order to protect him. Graham Greene's screenplay shows how the small lies of childhood grow naturally into adult lies which destroy relationships and blur the line between guilt and innocence, while Carol Reed's careful handling of the material results in a briskly paced film which makes its audience think while never failing to be entertaining at the same time.

Friday, December 15, 2017

#615: Oldboy

Directed by: PARK CHAN-WOOK
2003, TSPDT Rank #542

Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is one of the defining films of contemporary Korean cinema - a brooding, Hitchcockian psychological thriller with disturbing sexual undertones and a pervasive sense of unease which begins in the opening minutes of the film and lingers long after the ending credits have finished. It follows a hard-drinking middle-aged businessman named Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who finds himself imprisoned in a hotel-like room for fifteen years, a long period of time which is compressed into a whirlwind prologue sequence - with the man's release seeming to come almost as abruptly as his imprisonment did. As such, we get to know him mainly as man bent on getting revenge, but not before he discovers who imprisoned him and why.

While this might sound like a fairly standard setup for a revenge film, Park takes the premise to unexpected territory in terms of violence and brutality while also probing deeper into the psychological implications of the characters' actions than most revenge films would venture. For while Dae-su's imprisonment is a disturbing concept, Park continually encourages us to question the impact of this experience on his psyche and the motivations of his mysterious captor. Dae-su's sense of reality is never entirely stable; it always seems that he is being set up or toyed with is some way, but it is not clear until very late in the game by who or why. And once these details finally are revealed, it is not comforting to either him or the audience in any respect.

Furthermore, as the harrowing story unfolds and comes into focus, the cruelty to which the characters subject each other becomes as disturbing as the reasons behind their actions. Park ultimately leaves the viewer without much hope for the film's characters, or even assurances of the extent to which their experiences were real. As with many contemporary Korean thrillers and horror films, the lingering effects of memories and personal grievances loom heavily throughout Oldboy. It's an unpleasant and somber film, but Park's use of impressively-choreographed action, together with a complex and visceral plotline, makes it one that is not easily forgotten.

#614: Les enfants du paradis

Directed by: MARCEL CARNÉ
1945, TSPDT Rank #58

This is one of the highest-ranked films on the list that I still hadn't seen, and it did not disappoint. Many others have attempted to convey the idea that the whole world's a stage, but Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert may have done it best with this film. Carné started out as an assistant to Jacques Feyder, eventually becoming one of the leading filmmakers in the French poetic realist movement, making his mark with films such as Le quai des brumes (Port of Shadows), Le jour se lève and Hôtel du Nord. But by the time of this film, Carné had traded his pre-noir (and prewar) atmospherics for an 1800s period look and a feel of theatricality, which can sometimes disguise the fact that this is an incredibly graceful and well-structured piece of filmmaking.

A film like Jean Renoir's La bête humaine might suggest that people are defined by the work they do, and with the character of Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a cynical and over-educated petty criminal who scoffs at the romantic rivalries of the other characters in the film and sees himself as the architect of their destruction, Children of Paradise also makes a similar point. The actors and mimes who make up the film's motley cast of characters are often shown at work, each performing their own solitary interpretations of life, but in the end, they are all characters in the same farce - and the roles they play on stage reflect the roles they play in real life. The carnival of life goes on and their romantic yearnings will ultimately be drowned out by the sea of life which continues all around them.

While this film may be more rooted in the past than Carné's earlier work, it nevertheless takes a poetic view of life which has much in common with the famous prewar French films of the 1930s, and its expression and execution of these ideas is second to none. This is definitely an excellent film which I regret not seeing earlier and am sure to revisit in the future.

#613: La bête humaine

Directed by: JEAN RENOIR
1938, TSPDT Rank #854

Like Julien Duvivier's Pépé le moko, Jean Renoir's La bête humaine contains many moments which foreshadow the Hollywood film noir movement of the 1940s and '50s. It tells the story of a railroad worker named Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin in another of his iconic 1930s roles), who witnesses a Le Havre stationmaster (Fernand Leydoux) and his wife (Simone Simon, a mesmerizing femme fatale prototype) returning from the scene of a murder on board a train. Rather than reporting what he saw, he falls in love with the wife - who, in turn, attempts to convince Jacques to kill her husband. The story, based on a novel of the same name by Émile Zola, differs from the typical noir narrative in a number of ways, but its downtrodden mood and story of man blinded by passion may have been a source of influence for Hollywood filmmakers who saw the film.

La bête humaine also devotes a great deal of screen time to showing its main character at work, a common characteristic of the French poetic realist films of this era. The film opens and closes with lengthy sequences that show Jacques driving his beloved locomotive, focusing on the gritty details of the work and evoking the poetic in the everyday. Jacques' romance with the stationmaster's wife pulls him away from this essential part of him, reducing its importance in his life to the point that he turns into a murderous beast - a condition supposedly inherited from the generations of alcoholics before him, although it also works as a convenient poetic allegory for the destructive nature of his romantic relationship.

La bête humaine was one of Renoir's most popular films in France, coming directly between the two major pillars of Renoir's filmography: La grande illusion, his sweeping anti-war statement, and The Rules of the Game, his definitive satire of the French bourgeoisie. The latter of these would be banned in France, making him persona non grata in the world of French cinema and causing him to leave France for an unsuccessful career in Hollywood. It would take decades for Renoir's French films of the 1930s to be reappraised by a new generations of cinephiles, but for a brief moment, La bête humaine placed him at the forefront of French filmmakers, and defined the French poetic realist movement at its height.