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by Bill Gibron

13 Feb 2007


It’s a lesson in cultures to see how differently every country views and celebrates the crime thriller. Italy has its giallo, lurid details and sinful sexiness wrapped up in a mechanical shell. The Japanese bathe their tales of cops and robbers in age-old customs and the life or death notion of honor and pride. For those in China—and Hong Kong more specifically—mob bosses and assassins have been turned inside out, fueled by a hyperactive action style and belief that both sides, the legal and illegal, fight the same internal struggles with self and society. Oddly enough, it’s the West that seems to have taken a more caricatured approach to cops and robbers. A typical US gangster film sets up its parameters of bad versus badge, loads up the Tommy guns, and lets the reign of lead ensue.

Or other times, a sultry dame and a private dick try to sort out a case of minor intrigue while falling in and out of love and the web of the real killer. While it didn’t invent it outright, America sure made the mob movie operatic, turning it into Shakespearean tragedy of universal pain and pathos, be it Rico Bandello, Cody Jarrett, or Don Corleone. But leave it to the French to find a way of reinvigorating the crime and caper film. As pioneers (along with the Italians) of neo-realism and the experimental new wave, the filmmakers of Paris understood the nuances of the stateside immigrant epic and went about conceiving it through their own skewed perception. No one did it better than Jean-Pierre Melville. Over the course of a dozen or so films, Melville used the trench coat and hat of the Tinseltown thug/mug and turned him into a man of mystery, an enigma with a gun. And Le Cercle Rouge is one of his best examples.

Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) is heist film as existentialism. It’s a character study told with events, not words. It’s a stellar work of implied understatement and a remarkably profound look at the rather pedestrian, plebian world of crime and crime fighting. In this seminal 1970 French film, there is no clear division between the under and real world. All segments of society are seen as devious and divisive. The police are intertwined so completely with the local criminal element that they cannot solve cases without their help. Likewise, when seeking accomplices and co-conspirators for their acts of fraud and theft, the street thugs and mafia brute find friends in the dishonored and corrupt ex-members of the force.

As an experiment in fracturing the felon formula, Le Cercle Rouge relies heavily on the nuances and knowledge of past pronouncements on the subject of criminality. It also relies on the classics of noir and gangland sagas of the 1930s thru ‘50s to fill in blanks that it would rather leave un-addressed. It gets us to root for felons and failures and then makes us reflect on why we would champion such scum. Brilliantly directed by Melville, it’s a movie that moves at a deliberate pace, never wasting a shot or shifting its tone. While it does play like a symphony to sin, it’s also a sad story of men without place, people without a part in the normal social structure. We are visiting a forgotten realm in Le Cercle Rouge, a place were everyone knows everybody, even if they didn’t know it before.

This is a film told in sections, three stylistically differing acts (think GoodFellas or Blow before its time). Each movement here adds to the suspense and complexity of the film’s plot and narrative themes. At first, the scenes are all subtle precision, slow and near static, building one on top of the other to lay foundations and create dynamics. Methodically, director Jean-Pierre Melville adds textures and characterization, all the while pushing our protagonists ever further into the story. The second section begins as the plans for the heist commence. The use of wipes and dissolves speeds up the sequencing of events, showing us that, while the devil may be in the details, those specific elements are going to be assumed here. We aren’t supposed to see everything. We are to be given the essence of the job, the concept of crime as a workaday element in these men’s lives.

The final portion of the film, after the deed has been done and a fence is sought, is far more swift and scattered. The interlinking storylines and characters converge and crash into one another in a chaotic attempt at breaking out of the fateful bonds, the ever-present ring of red that constrains and condemns them. We jump from the police station to the gangster bar to a quiet and serene Yves Montand and then back to the cops. All the while, the tension is wound tighter. After the pins and needle necessities of the jewelry store heist, this randomized approach throws the audience off its guard, tossing us into the aftermath where anything can happen, anyone can drop dime and well constructed plans fall apart.

Le Cercle Rouge is all about planning and plotting, about time spent in jail cells or dingy hostiles bidding and trading on the minutes and hours. It is a film about disgraced men, about the lost lone male within society as the ultimate expression of freedom, depression and the anti-hero. We never see any women of substance in Le Cercle Rouge. When Alain Delon’s Corey confronts his old mob boss at home, we see a blousy red head, completely nude, wander up to a closed bedroom door to listen in on the exchange of words. She has some vague connection to Corey (he carries her picture in his wallet). But after robbing the Don, he places her photo in the now empty vault. He is giving her up—whoever she is—for the next phase of his life. Then there is the unsung bachelor amongst the underworld brutes: the dapper, determined police officer Mattei. A methodical man of habits (we see him coming home twice in the movie, and both times he goes through the same routine, even addressing his cats in a practiced fashion), he doesn’t have a wife (though we do see a photo of a woman on his desk) nor does he seem to need one.

Le Cercle Rouge is a movie ridding itself systematically of females once and for all. Certainly they make up a background element to the film: dancers in clubs, hookers, and hat check girls. But there is never a balancing feminine presence within the movie the way there is in standard Hollywood fare: no girlfriend with a heart of gold or accidental sex partner who grows into something more important. No, Le Cercle Rouge denies the obvious sexual representations in its title from the feminine perspective (lips, nipples, etcetera) and instead returns the focus to the guys: hard-hearted and psychologically lone rogues. It gives the story a decidedly tough exterior.

This doesn’t mean that the movie is not ripe with other, overt symbolism. Indeed, Le Cercle Rouge is constantly cluing in the audience as to the meaning behind the seemingly vague confrontations going on. When Corey discovers Vogel hiding out in the trunk of his car, the confrontation takes place in a horrible, muddy field. Corey is getting “dirty” again and Vogel is back to the “filth” he is known for (his exact crimes are never explained). The train taking Vogel to justice never enters its “tunnel” like most other extensions of “manhood.” It merely moves along the track, continually drifting further off into the distance. Montand’s alcoholic ex-policeman Jansen lives in a disheveled flat with a secret doorway in the wall that magically opens and disappears. It leads into a black void, much like his life. We have seen his detoxification hallucinations come pouring out of it, and we see him dread approaching it. Whatever he has done to have himself thrown off the force obviously hides in that closet/alcove, waiting and hungry, but we never discover the sinister source.

Indeed, we do not know what anyone is guilty of in Le Cercle Rouge. It’s as if the past crimes committed by these wayward men are no longer important. They are not beyond some manner of redemption, but they are beyond the grasp of innocence. They will never be pure again, no matter how straight they now walk or how hidden they become. They are forever tainted. As the Chief Inspector says to his lead detective on the case, everyone is guilty. We may be born without sin, but that quickly changes. And that is true about the trio of troublemakers in Le Cercle Rouge. They are men marked by their past and also by their destiny—their fate as part of the red circle.

All the acting here is first rate. Alain Delon confirms why he was such a stellar leading man of French cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s with his portrayal of Corey. Silent but sinister, there is a strength born of resilience in this ex-con. Similarly, Gian Maria Volenté simmers with a sinister stare as the ticking time bomb Vogel. But just like the dualistic nature of all the characters in the film (working both sides of the law for their own ends, living one way but believing another), he is a valuable asset in the controlled environment of the heist. Yves Montand probably has the showiest role (he gets to give the DTs a good primal scream or two), but he is also the most memorable, a man of principles who is trying to escape the deadening paralysis of alcoholism. While he is a disgraced cop and a pathetic rum head, he is also a dignified dandy, a suave showman with a sauced secret.

Even Bourvil, noted French comedian and songwriter, gives a remarkable performance as Mattei. Asked to essay the role of investigator, instigator, and calm center to a whirlwind of crime and corruption, this small, specific man with the funny hair and wicked smile makes his officer an example of duty torn by practice to forever walk the fine line between the legal and the illicit. These are the men who will be forever defined by the events in Le Cercle Rouge, the members of the sphere of violence and blood.

At its core, Le Cercle Rouge is all about fortune, about how it cannot be forced nor can it be avoided. It’s the answer to the question of why some people are destined to fail while others seem to glide to ever-higher accolades. It’s about place in the pecking order and how choice de-evolves into chance. It’s a story of three men hoping to make one final multi-million dollar score to salvage their otherwise wasted existences. But they learn a lesson that so many of us never even begin to comprehend. They are not meant to be profitable or pious. They are men of a certain trait, of the caliber of crime. And by using the very instrument for freedom that trapped them into a world of vice and lack of virtue, they are completing that bloody cycle, that red circle, that keeps dragging them over and over back into and around each other.

Perhaps we are not all evil, like the police chief thinks. Or maybe we can repent and wash ourselves clean of past mistakes. But once we have taken the steps into the looking glass, once we’ve entered the crimson realm of crime and punishment, we are forever linked to it. Like the social stigma of conviction (Corey), the public outcry of escape (Vogel), or the human misery of deflated hero worship (Jansen), everyone in Le Cercle Rouge wears a scarlet letter on their very soul. That letter is a circle, an “O,” which stands for too many things—outsider, offender, outcast. Certainly this is an entertaining, exceptional crime thriller, but it is philosophically and psychologically so much more.

by Bill Gibron

23 Jan 2007


Horror films, by their very nature, function as escape in the most primal of forms. They offer a chance for an audience to sit back, relax, and allow their instinctual sense of distress to overwhelm and startle them. As the dread grows thicker and more palpable, the body begins to shed its inhibitions and warrants. By the end of the saga, with the climax pushing the blood and adrenaline through the body at an alarming rate, the entire internal circuitry is alive! Then the lights go on and there is relief. There is catharsis, release, and a dispersion of pent-up emotions and feelings. It is a kind of therapy. It is a daredevil thrill ride. It is a throwback to the very essence of our humanity.

More times than not, the fright flick is a simple statement, a competition between killer and victim, between monster and mankind, for control of who lives and who dies. Occasionally, important social topics can be tossed into the ghouls and goblins. The Exorcist is more about the growing disconnect between single parents and terrifying teen angst than channeling a challenge by Satan. Hellraiser showcases the ultimate betrayal within a marriage—a wife seeking comfort in the bloody, zombified corpse of her husband’s brother. Even something as recent as 28 Days Later wants to warn us about the poisons within—the out-of-control military, animal experimentation, human rage—more than shocking us with the living dead dynamic.

Then there are horror films that work on our psychology, playing with the possibilities and concepts we’re comfortable with, only to twist and subvert them. Directors as diverse as David Lynch, Dario Argento, and David Cronenberg have all fashioned fear out of the circumvention of normal human understanding, from the disgusting dissertation on parenthood known as Eraserhead to the doctors-as-doppelgangers delirium of Dead Ringers. Yet when it comes to being the king of cranial corruption, Georges Franju has no equal. In 1959—while American movies were focusing on monsters and atomic mutations—Franju was inventing the modern mindf*ck fright film. Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage in the native tongue) is one of the landmarks of horror for everything it does, and for all the things it avoids. With the grisly story of a surgeon obsessed with restoring his daughter’s disfigured face, one would expect a gruesome, blood-soaked saga of body snatching, evisceration, and sin. But Eyes Without a Face is a far more complicated and cogent film than that. It wants to discuss issues inherent in both science and the parent/child relationship, as well as focus on forging forceful fear factors.

On the most fundamental basis, Eyes Without a Face is Frankenstein without the monster. Or maybe, it’s more of an incidental look at the creation of a modern Prometheus in parenthood. It’s definitely a tale of science perverted and ego outsized. In the cold, clinical, but still highly compassionate personage of Dr. Génessier, Franju sets up the first of several strict juxtapositions, a directorial device utilized to create both tension and torture. Here is a man well known for his charitable work, and a clinic that has a remarkable success rate with its curative powers. But there is indeed much more to this measured man of science. There is the secret chateau, the foreboding home that hides his most hideous secrets. As he heals the sick, he lies to the police. As he prescribes sedatives and salves, he’s cutting up college girls in his hidden lair. On the outside, he has the smart, serene look of a man of learning. On the inside, he is a raging torrent of disappointment and deranged desire. Between the doctor and Louise, the serene servant who also commits the most heinous of crimes, we have two villains who possess none of the necessary nemesis elements of fright films past. Both Louise and Dr. Génessier give off the aura of human empathy and settled sanity. But when thrust into the painful passion of helping the mangled Christiane regain her face, this couple becomes a study in startling contrasts. Using friendship, familiarity, and force, they befriend and then butcher young women, performing sick acts of surgery for the sake of a single goal.

The centerpiece of Eyes Without a Face is the mid-movie operation sequence, a riveting and revolting slice of slaughter that must have sent the crowds scurrying in the early ‘60s. The step-by-step, slice-by-slice removal of a young woman’s face is violent and vicious enough to make Ed Gein and his cinematic counterpart, Leatherface, extremely happy. Though it’s realized in Franju’s black and white cinematography, it still has the ability to sicken and unsettle—especially when Génessier grabs that long metal prod and starts systematically loosening the flesh from the female’s basic bone structure. By the time we close in to see the skin mask removed in an agonizingly languid take, Franju has accomplished his goal.

A basic reading of the plot would suggest some manner of mean-spirited melodrama, a soggy story of a devoted dad trying everything humanly—and inhumanely—possible to help his child. But Franju wants you to understand just what such devotion means. Though we witness the drugging, the mortifying mutilation of dogs (only suggested, not actually shown), and the laser-sharp focus on his medical objectives, we don’t really understand just how hideous Dr. Génessier’s calling really is until we watch him tear off a human face. When we learn that this is one of several attempts to address his daughter’s disfigurement, the undercurrent of alarm is enhanced. This is a man who will stop at nothing and who will do anything to restore his child. We need to see just how outlandish and extreme his methods will become. Thanks to one of the most ghastly scenes in modern movie macabre, we get the disturbing idea.

Who Dr. Génessier is and what he stands for are all part of Franju’s overriding conceit for Eyes Without a Face. As the title more or less suggests, this is a film concerned with identity and the lack thereof. The entire narrative uses the theme of identification, of who people are and what they are made of, to craft a dissertation on the importance of such a point of personal and professional reference. Looking at all the aspects of the film—the doctor who appears to be a charitable godsend, but actually spends his nights in serial killer-like mayhem; the police who make a living out of deciphering the identity of washed-up corpses, only to try and connect them to specific crimes; the housekeeper who plays both benefactor and assassin—we see that Franju enjoys the double layer of meaning within his characters and circumstances.

Everyone in the film serves double, or even triple purposes. Louise is nurse, confidante and co-conspirator. The ex-fiancé Jacques is business partner (he works with Dr. Génessier), lost lover, and aid to the police. Perhaps in Christiane and her father we have the clearest examples of cross-interpersonal purposes. Dr. Génessier feels guilt as a father, healer, surgeon, specialist, and driver (he caused the accident that disfigured his child), and uses a persona of strict gravity to hide his inner contempt. Christiane is a monster, a maiden, and a victim. She is a vital human being and a shamed shadow of her former self. She’s a reminder of the good times of the past and a constant source of criminally inspired culpability to those she lives with. It is this battle between bickering and battling human personalities and personas that gives Eyes Without a Face a great deal of its uneasy psychological weight. We never know whom we’re going to meet when a particular character arrives onscreen. And this is one of the reasons why the film is so effective in its casual creepiness.

Visuals are also very important to Eyes Without a Face. Indeed, it can be argued that this film is more of a throwback to older, silent film ideas in which imagery told the tale more effectively than words. Franju wants to create specific icons, images that will stand out and resonate beyond their moment in the film. He knows they will taint issues and individuals later on. Once we’ve witnessed the hideous handiwork of the doctor, we begin to worry for all other female characters who show up in the film. When Christiane has a sole, soft-focus moment where her real, fractured face is revealed, her deteriorating mental state suddenly comes into crystal clarity. All of her oddities, the late night phone calls and spectral-like glides around the house, start to make sense. As a masked mirage for most of the film, Christiane’s camouflaged face, a delicate and pristine creation of porcelain doll plainness, leaves an incredible impression. As we see the blank beauty and manufactured polish, we start to wonder if this entire enterprise is not some mad delusion. When she is temporarily “cured” and given a new, flesh façade, Christiane is hauntingly similar to the mask she’s been wearing. She is less than human, a nearly flawless flower that her father is desperate to preserve.

The performance by Edith Scob, a combination of grace and ghoul, is one of the most amazing elements of Eyes Without a Face. Spending most of her screen time behind an expressionless plate, she must convey all her emotion through her eyes and her body movements. Lithe, limber, and very laconic, Christiane troubles her home like a pretty poltergeist; a sad, simple shape longing to be normal again. It’s these pictographic elements that make Eyes Without a Face so memorable, moving the movie beyond the basic scare tactics of horror films.

From the surgical set piece to the clever use of a montage of photographs to illustrate Christiane’s disintegrating post-operative face, Franju was ahead of his time with Eyes Without a Face, both as a storyteller and as a visionary. In 1959, most horror films were dealing with outrageous elements and even more illogical circumstances to sell their scares. No one, save for Hitchcock, was looking at horror from a serious, adult format. But Franju obviously understands how much power there is in treating his subject with deep and abiding respect. From a narrative standpoint, his film is a study in simple construction and plotting. We see a crime at the start of the story, and then it is connected to Génessier (although not how you think). Then we move through the entire murder/mutilation angle before the third act action draws its denouement.

Directorially, Franju never cheats the audience. Everything is out in the open in Eyes Without a Face, never thrust to the background or hinted at in suggestion. Surely the film has its secrets (the experiments with the dogs are only hinted at), and obviously not all the horror is played out immediately. But what Franju is attempting is to drag the fright film out of the realm of the supernatural and the bizarre and frame it within the everyday world of contemporary France. There is never a desire to blame all the badness on spirits or demons. Franju knows that man is the ultimate evil in the world, and it is via the hand of the human that all the wickedness and destruction occurs. It is easy to blame acts of debasement and immorality on unseen entities bloated with the power to pervert. It is another thing all together to see and champion said tendency toward sin in one’s fellow man. This is what Eyes Without a Face is illustrating. We may be able to act without impunity, or a “face,” but our souls (which our eyes are the windows into) will always know our betrayal.

It is this matter-of-fact, straightforward approach in combination with horribly misguided motivations that makes Eyes Without a Face one of the classics of contemporary horror. It is a building block, a stepping-stone between the Universal idiom of beasts and baddies and the modern notions of terror around every real-world corner. It lays the foundation for numerous innovations within the genre as it utilizes old dark house Gothic parameters to meet its needs. Though some may consider it tame by the Raimi / Romero/ Argento standards of blood and guts, its mixture of the beautiful with the baneful, the gorgeous with the grotesque, is more unsettling than any overblown gorefest.

Though Georges Franju was working within a well-known format in his native France (Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the famous writing duo behind Diabolique and Vertigo, crafted the crime story here) he was also attempting to expand the movie macabre, moving it out of the unreal regions of life and existence and into the concrete jungle of the actual world we live in. From its moody, magnificent look to an ending that suggests both destruction and rebirth, Eyes Without a Face is a monumental achievement in the arena of psychological horror. It shocks as it soothes, simultaneously confronting and comforting us. It is that rarity from the early part of cinema’s history, and yet it resonates more readily with a present-day audience than perhaps it did with individuals in its time. After all, back in the late ‘50s, we were mostly unaware of the evil going on right under our noses. Today, we practically wallow in it. Eyes Without a Face is a fascinating, frightening experience.

by Bill Gibron

16 Jan 2007


When one looks back at the golden days of Hollywood, back before big business turned the industry into a cash machine hell-bent on making every opening weekend the most important aspect of filmmaking, there was one name that guaranteed spectacle and larger than life entertainment. With a canon, both as producer and director, that ranged in subject matter from the circus (1952’s The Greatest Show On Earth) to the high seas (1958’s The Buccaneer), the Wild West (1937’s The Plainsman) to the frozen tundra of Canada (1940’s North West Mounted Police), Cecil B DeMille made movies for and of the masses. Known for his casts of thousands, his attention to historic detail, and sets that usually dwarfed his performers, DeMille guaranteed that moviegoers got their money’s worth, understanding that people could see all the everyday world they wanted right outside their own back door. To DeMille, movies were invented to tell the really oversized stories, to create the myths and the mystery that kept seats filled and box office registers ringing—especially when having to compete with the variety of vaudeville and the growing popularity of the newest home-based novelty, radio.

And when it came to the sacred in scope, the holy in histrionics, perhaps no one excelled in the telling of the ultimate legends carved out of The Bible than DeMille. Over the course of his fifty years in show business, he made at least half a dozen films with religion as its overriding theme, including the classic The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah, and, naturally, The King of Kings. Treating these tellings as testaments to his own personal faith, and formulated to follow the scripture as closely as dramatics would allow, DeMille fueled his fanciful preaching with opulent sets, incredible effects, and carefully crafted, flawless filmmaking. The results were regal in their resplendence, luxuriant without being decadent, and filled with as much meaning and message as possible. Certainly, some efforts were better than others, but there is no denying how direct, forthright, and inspiring his films could be. Indeed, DeMille was on of the few filmmakers who could fill his frame with the actual sense of God’s omnipresence, power, and grace.

The King of Kings is an example of such sensational storytelling. It is cinema at its most artistic. It is also moviemaking at its most basic and effective. There are no massive overriding themes or brave symbolism to overshadow the situations. This is a simple, straightforward saga (the last few days in Christ’s life) told with skill and obvious sentiment. Like seeing a series of prayer cards come to life, or witnessing a literal imagining of imagery from the Gospels, The King of Kings is a somber, sobering experience in overall mood and atmosphere. DeMille designs his film like a Bible reading, highlighting passages to propel his narrative, and quoting chapter and verse to solidify his sacrosanct purposes. All throughout he hints at standard iconography, creates his own new vibrant visuals, and manages to dig down deep into the very core of Christ’s time on earth. Naturally, this means miracles (the curing of the blind, the raising of the dead) but instead of turning this title into some sort of misguided magic act (The Ten Commandments can occasionally be faulted as being too effects-heavy), DeMille keeps this a very personal, very profound look at Jesus, the man.

Compared to other versions of the life of Christ, DeMille’s reinvention is marvelous and quite moving. He knows the command in the parable and prophecy contained in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and builds off their fundamental narrative strengths to compel his story. His compositions are carefully constructed, used to accent the spiritual nature of each scene while keeping us connected to the characters. The King of Kings is really remarkable in its tone and talent. DeMille barely makes a wrong move here, picking the parts of Christ’s life that synchronize seamlessly into the overall significance of His life and works. The plot points out problems to be overcome, moral issues to be addressed, and Jesus is presented as the emblematic response, a period on the end of all ethical statements that solidifies the soundness of his teachings. Jesus is never shown as being too strong or overly passive, only using his command when absolutely necessary. But he is also shown drawing on his more humble vulnerability to make God a personified, approachable person. Unlike other Christs who seem, pardon the pun, holier than thou, DeMille’s Messiah is a completely three-dimensional entity, a near perfect epitome of consecration in human form.

This is not to suggest that The King of Kings is faultless. While the imagery is among the best ever created, some of the liberties taken by story scribe Jeanie Macpherson may confuse even the most learned Christian. Those who know their Bible should not expect The King of Kings to be historically, or even contextually correct. For example, Judas Iscariot is portrayed as a king-making Jesus wannabe, living an impossible existence in his master’s substantial shadow. We constantly see actor Joseph Schildkraut (who is very, very effective, by the way) rubbing his hands together and flaunting his ego as he tries to sway some attention the Iscariot way. His retrofitted relationship with Mary Magdalene seems like a cheap meet-cute way of getting the famed religious figure in with Jesus at the beginning of the narrative. It’s almost as if DeMille needed to present Christ with a scoundrel more viable than a poorly described member of his disciples who would end up betraying his master for thirty pieces of silver. From a short sequence where Judas tries to “cure” an insane child, to the final confrontation with the Council where he practically begs for audience sympathy, the new and improved Judas Iscariot will be, perhaps, the sole sticking point for Biblical purists.

No one could argue with the acting, however. As stated before, Schildkraut is amazing, less mannered than you would expect in the vain, villainous Judas role. Indeed, the hyper-serious nature of the story seems to have inspired DeMille to pull back a great deal on the typical silent movie Method acting. Usually so arch and over the top that modern audiences balk at the horrible hamminess of it all, The King of Kings contains some of the most naturalistic, normal performances in any religious epic. The rest of the cast is very powerful indeed. H.B. Warner essays the lead role of Jesus Christ with a near ideal depiction. Never too pious to isolate the audience, but never resorting to the kind of intense humanism that hampers other portrayals of Christ (especially Jim Caviezel’s gut wrenching Christ in Mel Gibson’s Passion, or Willem Dafoe as the emotionally tortured Savior of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation).

Unlike other versions of this prophet and religious leader, DeMille is more interested in the deeds than the man, and it is left to Warner to center and suggest the inner sanctity of Christ’s unending love. And he does so brilliantly. From Ernest Torrence’s big bear of a disciple (Peter), to Rudolph Schildkraut’s (Joseph’s Dad) piercing portrayal as Caiaphas, we never once feel like we are watching one of those hoary old classics were people are playing it large and lumbering. There is more subtlety than show-off during this stirring drama, and it is one of the reasons why The King of Kings succeeds so well.

Still, some may seem put off by a silent film that takes a very picturesque, anglicized version of the Christ’s passion. DeMille is not trying to affect some kind of radical rethinking of the story of Christ. No matter what later genealogy or archeological findings would warrant, the director envisions his Jesus a Caucasian white male, traditional close-cropped blond hair framing a face full of noble virtue. Well-trimmed beard in place and eyes alive with deep inner warmth, there is never a moment when Warner doesn’t look 100% the part. But not everything DeMille does is mired in the mundane. In order to keep the cinematic aspects of the film fresh and forceful, DeMille does have some marvelous tricks up his sly sleeves. In a scene where Jesus drives the Seven Deadly Sins out of Mary Magdalene, the director uses a wonderful optical effect to have the horrible, harmful harpies surround their victim. By applying some splendid double exposure, we see several actresses made up to be grotesque decadent demons draping the figure of Mary. As expected, Jesus normally has a luminescence around him, a glorious glow that separates and sanctifies him for the audience. A bit with the Devil’s temptation is spectacle at its most amazing, and the ending is equally effective, filled with the kind of pre-CGI physical effects that used to be the studio system’s bread and butter. Once you’ve witnessed the quaking of the earth and the renting of the temple vestment in The King of Kings, you’ll immediately understand that DeMille was determined to make us believe in the truth of this tale.

DeMille also trusts the inherent narrative in the Bible (Judas jerry-rigging aside) to carry his story, and when he stays true to its tenets, The King of Kings is remarkably powerful. Naturally, there will be those who wonder if DeMille is as guilty as Mel Gibson for portraying the Jews as a bloodthirsty cult of stereotypes bent on feeding every negative image the world has ever had of Hebrews. The answer is no. DeMille takes a decidedly tame position on both the High Priest Caiaphas and the Romans (who ridicule Jesus, but don’t beat him with anywhere as near the insane fervor of Gibson’s gratuitous guards). Some could point to a few hackneyed actions or caricature-ish faces that fill out the crowd scenes, but one never gets the feeling that DeMille was out to condemn a people for the death of the Savior (this could also be the reason for the retrofitting of Judas). True, the crimes they pile on Christ seem stupid, and the decision to put him to death does derive out of a pathetic power struggle amongst a corrupt set of Council members, but the overriding idea is that Jesus’s untimely end is preordained, and that we are merely witnessing the motions that needed to be gone through to reach the resplendent Resurrection goal.

Since DeMille is a master storyteller, both from a production and a directorial standpoint, the end result is a movie that truly moves you with the spirit of its sincerity. Though Gibson’s modern marriage of mise-en-scène with emotion and message would present a far more potent set of cinematic pictures, The King of Kings is equally evocative for far less boastful reasons. DeMille believes the Bible is the greatest story ever told and he is willing to work within the parameters it provides to tell his tale. He then carefully casts his creation, manages the tone and the flow with expert efficiency, and finds just the right visual cues to bring it all back home in Heavenly respite. Inspiring and insightful, The King of Kings is classic old school theatricality at its most monumental. It truly lives up to the regal reputation of the individual it champions.

 

by Bill Gibron

9 Jan 2007


There is a fine line between insanity and eccentricity. There is also an even slimmer margin between desperation and dementia. Sometimes it’s hard to decipher between the various mental fallacies. Some people use idiosyncrasy as a way of coping. Others allow their craziness to create endearing individualistic personas. After you factor in such adjunct issues as wealth, health, status, and situation, it becomes clear that even the nuttiest of individuals can avoid the stigma of psychosis by merely staying locked in their own insular place. It’s what protected the Beales for almost 50 years.

As relatives of the rich and famous, themselves both minor celebrities in their own singular right, the mother/daughter combo lived a reclusive, bubble-like existence in a tumbledown manor in the swankiest part of the Hamptons. With the standard domestic amenities always in question (they lived, for a time, without running water) and an evershifting menagerie of animals invading their space (cats, mice, raccoons, etc.), these one-time society stalwarts are now viewed as lamentable lunatics, adrift in an unhealthy home and an even more damaging familial dynamic.

Strangely enough, their quirky escapades would have been reserved for the back pages of the New York dailies had filmmaking brothers Albert and David Maysles not stumbled upon their story while researching the life of Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwill. One of the family’s aunts, a defiant older woman named Edith Bouvier Beale, had recently had her home raided by health and human services officials who were worried that the septuagenarian, along with her nearly 60-year-old daughter Edie, were living in horribly unsanitary conditions. Required to clean up their Hamptons home, the duo claimed that local politics and a desire for their property was the cause of the personal persecution. But what the Maysles discovered once they contacted the Beales was startling to say the least.

Holed up in a couple of rooms in their massive manor, cooking on hot plates and eating not much more than canned soup, ice cream, and simple salads, the pair were isolated, alone, and rebellious. Constantly bickering back and forth, sending each other mixed messages about their devotion and their disgust for one another, the Beales barely connected with the humanity outside their door. While they were aware of the events transpiring around the globe, they were too involved in their complicated companionship to care. The original owner of the estate called it Grey Gardens, a quasi-criticism on the locale’s inability to sustain vibrant life. Apparently, the name applies to the interior as well as the exterior landscape. It makes a fitting moniker for the brothers’ amazing movie.

When we first see the home, it looks haunted. Even up close, the manor is draped in a heavy layer of age and decay. Windows appear broken out, shutters hang haphazardly from cracking sills, slats missing or misaligned. On all sides, stately homes gleam in the Hamptons sun, their rich inhabitants happy to polish their palaces to within an inch of their importance. It’s opulence as reflected by real estate, status centered in a concept of curb appeal—but not for the Beales. These old-money matrons could care less about the upkeep on their estate. “Big” Edith is 75, and more than settled in her secluded life, thank you very much. Her spinster daughter, “Little” Edie, views the last few decades as mother’s maligned helper as a premature prison sentence. Housekeeping is the last thing on their mind.

As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for government interference—and some latent familial charity—the pair would be practically homeless. But lineage won’t allow these ladies to live in the lap of self-determined near-destitution. The surrounding kin—the famous Kennedy and Bouvier clans—have cash, and they make sure the Beales are well-endowed. But neither one really cares about the money. For them, life has become a comical battle of wills, a mother vs. daughter dynamic that pits hopes against help, dreams against distraction. To call the Ediths hermetical would seem overly simplistic. They live in one great big wide world—it just happens to be of their own unusual creation.

Grey Gardens reflects the status of the Beales as women, socialities and—in some ways—human beings. They are femme fatales whom life has let die, upper-crust crones who sit around half-dressed in a mansion festooned with peeling paint, rotting wood, and the feces of various animals. Their relationship is like a contest, a “who will blink first” face-off in which old wounds, new foibles, and lamented losses pile up as potential ammunition. For Big Edie, old age has robbed her of the two things she built her entire personality on—her looks and her career as a singer. While still in good voice, her body has completely broken down. She can barely walk, her eyes and legs failing simultaneously. Still she fancies herself a captivating catch and flirts shamelessly with Jerry, a young handyman.

Little Edie, on the other hand, has bigger personal fish to fry. Feeling hemmed in by her mother’s constant demands and constantly threatening to move back to the big city, she understands implicitly that most of her dreams are unobtainable. Having given up any concept of a career decades before, and taken care of financially by a complex series of trusts and trade-offs, the aging beauty believes she’s still fated for fame. Dressed in bizarre designs of her own making, shawls and scarves covering her seemingly bald head, Little Edie is a fatalistic fashion plate, a woman desperate to escape but unable to find the proper route out.

Together, in front of the Maysles’ constant camera, these reckless and refined relatives square off, trading praise and poison back and forth like volleys in a country club tennis match. Little Edie will cheer her mother’s rendition of “Tea for Two,” then mimic and mock her recordings in the next catty breath. Big Edie will criticize her child’s increasing weight while wondering aloud why her stunning singing voice never eclipsed her own. They will share simple memories and melt down over comments concerning the late, lost Mr. Beale. Men are a mitigated factor in Grey Gardens, Big Edie having shunned her spouse early on in their marriage, her two sons nowhere to be seen in and around the home (we do glimpse them, as babies, in some old photos). Even Jerry, the slightly slow hippie who seems to have moved in with the ladies, is seen as a cog to be used between the fighting females.

Big Edie sees his attention as verification of her stunning sexuality. Little Edie views him as an interloper capable of stealing her antiques, precious books—and her place in Mother’s heart. Indeed, the minor interaction we witness between the Beales and the rest of the world is presented as uneasy and unreal. A birthday party for Big Edie finds the guests sitting on newspapers (the chairs are dirty and haven’t been cleaned in years) and drinking vintage wine out of Dixie Cups (the glassware having mysteriously disappeared long ago). Even the Maysles, who have become like ancillary family, face considerable limits, since they’re not allowed by Little Edie to venture into other areas of the massive, 24-room home.

From a pragmatic standpoint, it all seems so nutty. Though we slowly become aware that the implied wealth that comes with the Beale/Bouvier name is not as comforting as we assume (these women appear to be living right on the edge of abject poverty), their situation is obviously the result of a surreal self-fulfilling prophecy. By returning home without establishing her own identity, Little Edie was destined to fall under Big Edie’s demonstrative domineering. All throughout Grey Gardens, the Maysles catch her scampering about and giggling like an arrested adolescent and, in essence, that is exactly what Edie is. Isolation has stunted her social skills to the point where, while refined and well turned-out, the younger Beale sounds like a lost and troubled teen.

As she slinks around in scandalous, revealing clothes (so stylish that she actually inspired several famous fashion designers to copy her clever combinations) and bats her eyes at the camera, we see an aged youngster trapped in a wrinkling body. Big Edie is also ensnared by the past, but her feelings are very focused. She hates the fact that her marriage and child-rearing responsibilities misdirected her profession, and has apparently tried several times to jump-start her career (mostly by inviting men to live in Grey Gardens with her). For the meditative matron, fame flew away the minute she turned her back on what she really wanted. Now, with daughter Edie flaunting failure in her face on a rather consistent basis, Big Edie is bitter, a battleaxe ready to wield her own personal blade at anyone within range.

That Grey Gardens gives us all this via a non-intrusive, fly-on-the-wall perspective, says a great deal about the Beales’ desire for attention. Though they claim to hate the interference of outsiders, they are more than happy to make room for the Maysles and the genial Jerry. In fact, as natural performers, the pair is desperate for almost any audience. There is lots of singing and carrying on in this film, almost as if the filmmakers fancied they were making a musical. During uncomfortable quarrels or awkward personal insights, one of the Beales will break out into song, stifling the moment with a melodious mist. Frequently, when confronted in lies or contradictions, Little Edie will just caterwaul away, keening in a juvenile, off-key manner that makes her mother furious. It could all be part of a battle plan made up of disappointment and deflection, but one senses something consistent here.

Like a perplexing puzzle made up of heartaches and histrionics, Little Edie annoys her parent to prove the old gal’s feelings—she can’t live without the child. Similarly, Big Edie criticizes her only daughter as a way of keeping her practical and present. This is necessary since, throughout Grey Gardens, we see how easily disconnected the wayward woman can become. Perhaps the best example of an inaction film ever fashioned, neither resident of this rotting façade wants to leave. They may clamor for greener pastures or broader personal horizons, but there is something queerly comforting about their seemingly haunted home. Within its walls, a kind of truce has been forged, a peace between ladies who would rather suffer than live alone. It’s what makes Grey Gardens such a stunning documentary. It’s also what has made the Beales’ legacy live on long after they finally found their eternal peace.

Interesting enough, Grey Gardens is a fairly balanced presentation. Both Edies get their moments, and when one occupies the screen solely, the other is not far behind—either physically or spiritually. For the 2006 sequel, Albert Maysles, the remaining living member of the filmmaking brotherhood, decided to unearth as much footage as he could from the hours the pair spent in the disintegrating home. Oddly enough, it seems that Little Edie got the shortest end of the original’s editing stick. Much of the new material in The Beales of Grey Gardens centers on her, her tendency toward awkward musical moments, and those oddball sequences where she reads from a well-worn horoscope paperback and tries to make sense of her life. In an introduction to the film, Albert hints that the reason most of these scenes were excised was because they show how intertwined the brothers were in the Beales’ life.

Edie obviously fancied David, and spent untold screen time commenting on their future together. Similarly, the filmmakers didn’t like to prompt their participants, and all through the update, we hear them asking questions in hopes of spurring some interesting exchanges. This is more of a supplement than a true sequel (Grey Gardens maintains a sort of implied narrative while The Beales is more like a collection of outtakes), but anyone who believes that more of the Edies is an entertainment windfall will thoroughly enjoy this companion piece. While it lacks some of the original’s psychological insight, the Edies remain fascinating, factual entities.

It seems odd that, for two people fiction could not possibly create, mediums other than the documentary have embraced and are interpreting the baffling Beales story. An off-Broadway musical (which recently shifted to the Great White Way itself) and a full-length feature film (with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange attached) are set to keep the ladies’ story alive for future fans to discover. Yet no matter how good (or bad) these versions eventually are, nothing can compare to that first fleeting moment when we see the vine-covered Hamptons home, wood cracking as uncontrolled vegetation hides it from view. Suddenly, from out of the darkened back doorway, a decidedly older lady, her head wrapped in a telling turban, announces the situation for the day. “Mother’s complaining about something,” she winks, before flitting off like a preoccupied pixie lost in her daily designs.

As an illustration to what makes Grey Gardens so special, such a sequence seems less than auspicious. But once we learn that this is just the icing on an unusually dense and deliciously cloistered cake, the anticipation for another slice becomes unbearable. It is easy to see why, as symbols or kitschy cult icons, Big and Little Edie Beale have endured. Something about them is so timeless, so vibrant and vulnerable, that they have no choice but to enter the realm of myth. Even though it has long been sold and re-modeled to modern specification, Grey Gardens will always be a dark, desolate place. Luckily, the ladies who once lived there lit it up quite well.

by Bill Gibron

26 Dec 2006


You know you’ve had a good year in DVD distribution when you can discount a company’s remarkable reissues and still come up with an amazing list of definitive digital releases. And in Criterion’s case, the accomplishment is even more impressive when you realize that The 400 Blows, Armacord, Grey Gardens, Brazil and The Seven Samurai are all part of the second time around list. For SE&L‘s 2006 pics, we’ve purposefully avoided the new presentations of these timeless classics, simply to make room for more amazing cinematic goodness. Of the over 50 releases this year, the industry’s premiere preservationist introduced film fans to the eclectic catalog of independent international film, resurrected several seemingly ‘lost’ efforts, and argued for the place of works both pre-sound and post-modern as viable benchmarks in the history of cinema.

In essence, choosing a top ten out of this amazing collection is actually fairly counterintuitive to Criterion’s overall philosophy. Indeed, in the rare cases where a release goes out of print, the company attempts to replace the missing title with something of equal import and aesthetic merit. And besides, how fair is it to discount other fabulous discs like Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales or Pietro Germi’s Seduced and Abandoned? On the other hand, to mention every single DVD the company created this year would look kind of foolish, and so, the creation of a subjective Top Ten. By no means definitive, the list represents 12 months of remarkable entertainment options, as well as a spectacular amount of film history and archeology. Covering nearly eight decades of filmic expertise, here are the choices for the best Criterion DVDs of 2006:

1. Dazed and Confused
Richard Linklater’s love letter to the sensimilla-tinged ‘70s was given one of the best digital presentations of the entire year, which is apropos when you consider the fabulous film inside. More like a snapshot come to life than a fictional recreation of the last day of school in a small Texas town, the director expands his Slacker dynamic to create the ultimate illustration of youth, unaffected and unbridled.

2. Pandora’s Box
Criterion uncovers yet another gem with the release of this legendary Louis Brooks vehicle. The tragic story of a prostitute and performer named Lulu, this is the film that made Miss Brooks a star, and the toast of the jumping jive jazz age. Director Georg Wilhelm Pabst combined his acclaimed insight into actors with the inherent artistry of German Expressionism to forge an epic dissection of the human spirit.

3. Mr. Arkadin
A film whose history is as convoluted as its narrative, Arkadin represents Orson Welles at his most insular and inspired. Writing, directing and playing the lead role of a mysterious tycoon with no memory of his past, the infamous filmmaker once again saw his vision butchered, altered and rearranged by distributors desperate for financial returns. Criterion does it’s best to preserve the artist’s original vision, and the results are masterful.

4. The Double Life of Veronique
Looking for another way to explore spirituality’s place in the world, Polish director Krsysztof Kieslowski crafted a complex exploration of duality/parallelism featuring two identical women living similar lives in different parts of the planet. Veronique/Weronika both have magical singing voices. They are also both burdened with a biological birth defect. What follows is a meditation on the connectivity between humans and of unlinked lives still being inseparable and intertwined.

5. The Spirit of the Beehive
Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice’s amazing The Spirit of the Beehive is the visualization of the moment when every child’s mind turns from naiveté to knowing. Combining youth, the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s fascism, and the indelibility of Hollywood imagery, Beehive plays on themes of fear and alienation, using the ghost town-like village at the center as a symbol of Spain’s internal destruction. The results are both moving and revelatory.

6. Equinox
Yet another example of innocent filmmakers flimflammed by a savvy distributor out to make a buck, this Famous Monsters of Filmland inspired novelty is nothing more than a home movie fleshed out to definite drive-in dimensions. Thanks to Criterion’s decision to release both versions, as well as a complete compendium on the film’s making and reconfiguration, we witness the birth of horror fandom, and the evils inside the motion picture industry.

7. Sweetie
Sweetie is a strange experience, a movie made up almost exclusively out of hints and suggestions. Obviously, Australian auteur Jane Campion (in her first feature film) is dealing with a family hiding a mountain of damaging dysfunction behind their dry, dopey, demeanor. Between one child’s uncontrolled Id and the rest of her kin’s slighted and submerged egos, the result is a ticking human time bomb waiting to insert itself into situations and simply implode.

8. The Fallen Idol
Carol Reed, the British director responsible for several of cinema’s more outstanding milestones (The Third Man, Oliver!) delivered one of the most devastating takes on hero worship shattered ever attempted. When cruelty and death forces an isolated child to confront his issues of loyalty and adulation toward a favored family butler, the truth becomes more difficult to decipher than the mixed messages from the adults around him.

9. Playtime
Call him France’s answer to Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton, or a post-modern silent comedian, but no one can deny Jacques Tati’s filmmaking acumen. A stickler for detail as well as a painstaking perfectionist, Playtime began production in 1964…and didn’t wrap until 1967! Focusing on his classic character, the bumbling Monsieur Hulot, and his 24 hours in Paris, this pop art poem glitters with cosmopolitan gloss and delightful urban angst.

10. Young Mr. Lincoln
John Ford’s adulating approach to Lincoln in his early, pre-Presidential days is highly fictionalized, but oddly enough captures the American icon in all his revered glory. Thanks to Henry Fonda’s fascinating performance, the amazing black and white cinematography, and the crackerjack court case the characters participate in, this is a vision of how America might have been – or at least, how a pair of patriotic artists wish it would be.

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