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Thursday, Jul 31, 2014
King and Country finds Joseph Losey examining the human soul with his signature dispassionate curiosity.

Joseph Losey never saw a cornice, plinth, or pediment he didn’t like. This most architectural of directors opens King and Country with a slow, caressing shot that runs over two minutes long, moving around the details of a war memorial from arch to statuary to frieze. We hear only traffic, and then we cut to newsreel footage of an explosion with a boom. Surely, only Losey would open a movie this way.


Then we get to the credits, scored by Larry Adler’s lonely harmonica as the close-up camera roves over mud, boots, and duckboards of the trenches of WWI. The explosion repeats again, followed photos from the Imperial War Museum, then capped off by a transition of one startling skull-headed soldier’s corpse to the head of Tom Courtenay, lying down (already dead without knowing it) and supposedly playing that harmonica we’ve been hearing. We also hear a few lines from A.E. Housman. In this way, the film announces itself as serious art.


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Thursday, Jul 24, 2014
In these two films, Robbe-Grillet hones in on the plastic and empirical qualities of film, which expose entirely subjective and unreal states.

Dead women tied to bedposts can be found at the center of the hall-of-mirrors plots in these two popular hits from postmodern fetishist Alain Robbe-Grillet. In light of the female nudity, forgiving French audiences didn’t object to the teasing pseudo-narratives.


As himself, Robbe-Grillet rides on the titular train in Trans-Europ-Express, inventing and revising a narrative in which actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (also on the train as “himself”) plays a drug courier on an endless cycle of transfers and messages. Shot in gorgeous black and white, the movie borrows a page from Alphaville or Shoot the Piano Player in its cavalier mockery of pulpy plots. Amid the narrative feints, the filmmaker’s unconscious (or too conscious) fantasies rise to the surface as the story zeros in on a prostitute-spy (Marie-France Pisier), whose primary function is more femme fatality than femme fatale.


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Thursday, Jul 17, 2014
In Experiment Perilous and Berlin Express, Tourneur is interested in desires and ideals—the optimistic as well as the dark.

Jacques Tourneur, son of the great silent pictorialist Maurice Tourneur, spent some of his career in France, but most of it on Hollywood B-films. He’s most famous for directing Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie for producer Val Lewton, and also the noir film Out of the Past. I think his greatest achievement is possibly Stars in My Crown, a foreigner’s point of view on sentimental Americana, and to my knowledge the only American film between The Birth of a Nation and Storm Warning to feature the Ku Klux Klan; the underseen Way of a Gaucho also demands attention. With the help of an excellent, sensitive, well-researched appreciation, Chris Fujiwara’s Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, I’m better able to “see” this director’s work, including two RKO productions now available on demand from Warner Archives: Experiment Perilous and Berlin Express.


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Wednesday, Jul 16, 2014
The plot holes in Marion Parsonnet's script suggest that this film, too, is living dangerously.

Jane (Nancy Coleman) is a beautiful spy for the British war effort. In New York, she’s kidnapped by German agents and lands in the hospital after a car accident gives her temporary amnesia—or does it? Her doctor, Michael Lewis (John Garfield), alternates patronising her and hitting on her when she tries to explain the situation, but soon they’re both prisoners in a mansion with a man (Moroni Olsen) who claims to be her father. Running the scheme is the distinguished psychiatrist Dr. Ingersoll (Raymond Massey), proving Hollywood’s then-popular thesis that you can’t trust head doctors.


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Tuesday, Jul 15, 2014
In Alain Robbe-Grillet's cinema, one ought to be wary of men who play games.

One doesn’t watch a movie by Alain Robbe-Grillet to follow a story, but to follow a false story. Cobbled from various impulses and ideas, they form pseudo-narratives that either encourage or defy viewers to make sense of their patterns.


In the interview included as a bonus to his 1968 feature The Man Who Lies, Robbe-Grillet explains that he was invited to make a film in Slovakia with lots of resources, that he wanted to create a showcase for actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (presumably for his means his physicality, his capacity for mercurial shifts, his gift for enigma), that a nearby castle (which they could use) had a woman waiting for her brother who disappeared in the World War II Resistance, and that Communist monuments to dead heroes were fabricated to include all kinds of villains as well. From these ideas, and from his fondness for Franz Kafka’s The Castle and Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, Robbe-Grillet constructed the web of references that form this movie.


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