On Monday The Hollywood Reporter announced Peter Bogdanovich will write and direct an adaptation of Kurt Andersen’s monolithic novel Turn of the Century. What lovely news.
It’s been a white since we’ve had a big-screen feature from Bogdanovich, and it’s about time. The Cat’s Meow, his reimagining of the Ince yachting incident, was released in 2001, almost a decade ago. Since then, he’s been busy with everything from Sopranos to Tom Petty, and though many may not know it, Bogdanovich has used the time to turn out some terrific work. Directed by John Ford, televised by Turner Classic Movies in 2006, will surely become one of the most essential studies of John Ford in either book or film form, and will gain in importance as Ford’s legacy becomes more and more wound up in the past. While Ford’s contemporaries, giants like Hawks and Cukor, will have an easier time reaching audiences of the future – their sensibilities being so sharp and forever modern – visitors to Ford Country, I’m sure, will need more of a roadmap.Directed by John Ford will be just that.
Bogdanovich would be the first to admit that he learned landscapes from John Ford. Films like The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and Nickelodeon are full of expansive vistas, the sort of evocative, mythic terrains we think of when we think of Fort Apache or The Searchers. Even They All Laughed, Bogdanovich’s dazzling New York comedy, contains a Fordian fascination with topography. Some of those low-angle shots of John Ritter framed against shining skyscrapers bring to mind Ford’s famous depictions of John Wayne beaming against the desert sky. Monument Valley has been usurped by Times Square, but the effect is the same: setting is emotion.
This is all to say that a bit of Ford, a touch of Hawks, and a generous helping of Bogdanovich could – if the Movie Gods decree it – fuse to make Turn of the Century a very good thing. Peter Bogdanovich is at home in a crowd, and a rollicking, expansive satire like Turn of the Century, with its cast of thousands and epic scope, may very well provide him with the sort of omnibus ingredients that have buttressed his handful of masterworks.
At least I hope it does. Bogdanovich certainly deserves another terrific piece of time. “An’ that’s the thing,” Jimmy Stewart said to him, “that’s the great thing about the movies…After you learn – and you’re good and Gawd helps ya and you’re lucky to have a personality that comes across – then what you’re doing is – you’re giving people little…little, tiny pieces of time…that they never forget.”
Turn of the Century is scheduled to begin shooting next spring in New York.
The movies love a good fop. Whether it’s Joel Grey in Cabaret or Robert Preston in Victor/Victoria, dandies make for fun watching, and quite often, the more flamboyant they are the better. But rare is the actor, and rarer still is the performance, that manages to translate the fop’s innate theatricality into movie size.
On stage, where there’s a back row to reach, size and grandeur have their purpose. At times, they’re even necessary. But on film, more specifically in close-ups, behavioral decadence can ring false, lending the character, and often the entire picture, a hollow, forced feel that undermines whatever truths are lodged behind the embellishments. There are of course exceptions in both directions. Nothing is more fun than Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and there is nothing deader than Dirk Bogarde in Victim. One is a roller coaster than never ends and the other is a hearse that never starts, but in between there is a whole uncharted gulf of purple personalities the movies don’t see everyday.
I bring all this up because just last week I had another look at Carrington, and I was rocked by Jonathan Pryce’s performance, both with respect to his balanced handling of the dandy-figure, and by the unbelievable degree to which he seemed to have thought out his work. As Lytton Strachey, the spindly, spidery, perpetually scowling malcontent of Bloomsbury, Pryce managed to evoke, down to the flick of a breadcrumb, the deepest scratches of his character’s inner life with the absolute smallest of gestures.
In his hands, a raised finger or languid beard-tug become, at the right moment, perfect verses of self-disclosure. Perfect, because as a proper British gentleman of the 1920s, there is only so much foppishness Strachey can permit himself, and Pryce, through some miracle of synecdoche, meets the challenge, disclosing all on a miniature scale true to the limitations of Strachey’s predicament. On several occasions, I could swear his knuckles were acting.
The actor’s movements are so intimate, so precise, and indeed so honest to Strachey’s circumstances, at times it seems that one has gone back in time to peer directly into his brain. Inside we see a mind of fierce intelligence; an amazing feat, considering that merely “acting smart” so often registers as pretentious. How does he do it? With the help of writer/director Christopher Hampton, who holds a magnifying glass to Pryce’s body. In close-up, the smoothing out of a crease in his pants, placed at the right time, screams louder than Daniel Day-Lewis at his loudest.
More than an act of non-fiction, of faithful replication, such physical acuity makes Pryce’s Strachey is a work of great imagination. And within the weary confines of film foppery – and in a biopic no less, a genre so often damaged by strict adherence to biography – that’s quite something.
A few days ago, Ishmael Reed suggested that the general response to the film fell largely around racial lines. As passé as his claim sounds, he may in fact be right. At least my own field research says so. Most white people I know have basically come down in favor of the film, and the few black people I know are mostly ambivalent. I’m not sure this is because, as Reed suggests, Precious flatters white audiences in its perpetuation of the “merciful slave master” stereotype, so much as it uses the Black experience as a punching bag/battle cry. Mrs. Lichtenstein, for instance, the most merciful white character in the film, is as Jewish as she is white, and “merciful Jewish slave master” is not a stereotype in wide circulation. To Lee Daniels’ credit, Mrs. Lichtenstein is merciful because she is merciful, not because she is white.
It seems more likely that the bifurcation stems from bad filmmaking masquerading as “authenticity.” Responding to certain clichés meant to register as “realistic” (ugly people, sweaty brows, hand held camera work, etc), white people – to continue the bifurcation theory – seem to have fallen for the picture’s social awareness agenda, the righteous sense that something must be done, while Black people, with a keener sense of the Black experience, seem to have sniffed out the objectification lurking beneath the massacre. Perhaps it was the relentless cruelties Precious doled out on its characters, combined with the awful feeling that one was meant to leave the picture changed, that lent Precious that certain Riefenstahlian something.
Mo’Nique’s tremendous performance notwithstanding, there is very little to recommend the film. Gabourey Sidibe is a striking screen presence, but Daniels, true to his needs as a propagandist, gives her few opportunities to breathe life, or even death, into her character. Her size is not acting; it’s a directorial idea, and a particularly facile one at that. The proof? If leaving the film, you have difficulty coming up with a more descriptive character trait for Precious than “fat,” it’s because Daniels thinks of her less as a person than as meat. This puts him closer to Pasolini than Rossellini, and Precious closer to 120 Days of Sodom thanRome, Open City.
Graham Fuller: Did you ever have the urge to direct a movie yourself?
Robert Mitchum: No. I’ve never had the urge to be an analyst or a stunt pilot either. (a) You have to get there in the morning before the actors do; (b) you have to stay there until they’re gone; (c) you have to wrangle with the producer and the front office; (d) you have to sit in a darkened room and watch the film frame by frame by frame. You can hire an albino to do that.
GF: Did people ever approach you to direct?
GF: You just didn’t fancy it?
GF: But you wrote scenes in the movie occasionally. I’m thinking particularly of Macao , the Josef von Sternberg movie that Nicholas Ray took over.
RM: I was pretty well compromised, wasn’t I? I walked in there and Nick and Jane [Russell] handed me a pad of paper and some pencils. That was it. I went to the dressing room and I wrote in the morning, and then we had it typed up and we shot it in the afternoon.
GF: Did you ever want to have a career as a writer?
RM: I wrote special material for night-club performers and I had worked as a junior writer at Warner Bros. Writing is a very lonely proposition. Every time I submit something, I would hand it in and run because I didn’t want to be around when the criticism came.
“In this business,” said producer David Brown, who died Monday at 93, “you’re either an artist or a salesman. When you fall in between it becomes problematic.”
David Brown fell in between. He came to power in the 1970s, at a time in Hollywood when the industry was losing its first generation, and with it, it’s old-world, old-fashioned power hierarchies. “Things had changed,” Brown said. “Actors were telling the Studios how to make a movie, agents were just as powerful as producers. The Moguls didn’t understand that world and couldn’t tolerate it. It was a Hollywood Darryl F. Zanuck wanted out of.”
The system was in flux. What it needed were producers who could help the young talent translate their ideas – ideas not customarily associated with Hollywood fare – into studio terms; producers, in other words, with one foot in the old and one foot in the new. That was David Brown. To see him you would see good taste. And that’s where you wanted your money.
He was from New York, a journalist, Columbia educated, and he looked like it. He looked like the kind of man you wanted on your side, a gentleman equally at home in boardrooms as he was at Le Dôme. His battles, after all, we waged on both fronts.
It took the vision of an artist to see in the unproven Steven Spielberg the makings of a giant, and it took the chutzpah of a salesman to get the ridiculous proposition of Jaws into to production. Everyone in pictures has to fight, but on Jaws, David Brown did double duty in two wars, against the studio and against the Spielberg, the sharks and the shark. Rather than make him seem duplicitous, Brown had a finesse, an air of suave in style and substance, that made his wrangling invisible, or if he got caught, justified, putting him in that ultra rare echelon of Movie Generals, who not only knew which battles were worth fighting, but how to win them.
An artist and a salesman. The salesman saw The Verdict, Driving Miss Daisy, andA Few Good Men to their maximum box office potential, but the artist saw in The Player, Michael Tolkin’s Hollywood novel, a “true authenticity,” and bought the rights. Movies about movies never do business. But Brown was in the business of quality.
As if making a movie of The Player wasn’t risky enough, Brown agreed that Robert Altman – renowned for his temper, the liability he brought to his productions, and his recent succession of flops – was flat-out perfect for the job. “Bob,” he said to Altman, “I agree you were born to direct this, but you have to be a good boy and play ball.” “I will,” Altman said. He didn’t.
Altman might have smirked to himself as he got off the phone with Brown, thinking he pulled yet another fast one on yet another suit, but chances are the fast one was on Altman. At that point, after forty years of finesse, Brown knew what he was getting himself into. He knew Altman thrived on resistance, so he gave it to him, and in the space of a few words, the artist transformed into the salesman, which proved he was a better salesman than he’d ever let on.
David Brown, September 25th 1959 – February 1st 2010.
Quibbling over Oscar nominations is as futile as quibbling over who left the cap off the toothpaste. No matter what you say or how emphatically you protest, you know it’s going to happen again, so either give it up, or pack your things and get out. Fighting the tide isn’t just mundane, it’s exhausting.
And now that we have ten Best Picture nominations instead of five, there are more uncapped toothpastes (and a few raised toilet seats) than ever before. An Education? District 9? What is this, The People’s Choice Awards?
Perhaps. We all know the Academy Awards have ceased to be about The Academy or the Awards, let alone the movies themselves. Now, like everything else, like The Biggest Loser and Fear Factor, they’re about the numbers. Thus the ten: with more movies in the running, you have - or so the logic goes - more viewers. But there I go again with the toothpaste.
And yet, like a spineless cuckold, I keep coming back. Call it ritual or call it cockeyed hope; call it an anthropological inquest or call it masochism, but there it is. I keep coming back.
I’ve tried/am trying to make peace with the nauseating glory of it all. This morning, for instance, I hurried through the top portion of the nominees and scanned down to the bottom of the list. I saw there certain names that made my heart flutter. There was Inglourious Basterd's cinematographer, Robert Richardson; Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller, directors of the Oscar nominated documentary, Burma VJ; and miracle-workers Stephen Rivkin and John Refoua (and James Cameron), editors of Avatar. Seeing in print these formidable figures of the movies, whose TV presence has no bearing on ratings, and whose work should win them the boost of Oscar recognition, I felt again that feeling of wholesome movie-love only the Academy Awards could ignite.
It was swell to see deserving people like Bigelow and Bridges on the list, but they were locks, and as widely recognized above-the-liners, they’ve already received their chunk of national attention. But it’s an entirely different opportunity for Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche, who have been nominated for their In the Loop screenplay. Moment to moment, and line to line, here was a script that never quit, a script so ornately verbal, and so in love with language, that watching the movie, it was difficult not to imagine its writers hunched over a dozen volumes of the OED, debating every word down to its every syllable. And I do mean syllable: rhythmically, In the Loop is an astounding, almost musical feat of film comedy - one of the best in quite a while - and to see the picture gain Oscar visibility, even if it doesn’t go on to win, felt like some kind of personal vindication.
In the midst of an undertaking that invites so much cynicism, these names (and many others) are a reminder of why we care so much in the first place. So hold your heads high, Oscar lovers, because where careers are made, lives can change. And that has nothing to do with toothpaste.
The other night, my friend and I were having a falafel down by the beach, and your name came up, and I managed to convince him that you were worth a serious look. Having seen Fatal Attraction fairly recently, and not wanting to reopen the Eszterhas mess of Flashdance, we decided on Indecent Proposal.
I have to admit, I was nervous. I knew I was in safe territory with 9 ½ weeks andLolita and Unfaithful, but all I could remember from Indecent Proposal was the air of Dawn Steel goofiness about it, the instant-camp quality that surrounded the movie when it came out almost twenty years ago. And after spending the full lunch defending you, extolling your knack for inserts, your sensitive handling of actresses, and your amazingly variant sex scenes, I didn’t want to roll the dice (as it were) on what I was sure would be an unwise gamble.
(Are you in France, btw?)
But I was wrong, Adrian. Really wrong. Indecent Proposal looks better now than it ever did. Parts of it are terrific.
Of course, there’s really no way you can surmount the problem of your material, which even you must admit is TV stuff. (“If you ever want something badly let it go. If it comes back to you, then it’s yours forever.”) There were certain moments when I could practically feel a tampon commercial coming on, moments when I understood why coming to your defense has been an uphill battle.
But can we get back to those sex scenes? Where your contemporaries went in for things like panting stomachs and sweaty brows and – dear God – pans up from a trail of discarded clothes, you draw in all of these wonderful little naturalistic details, and allow room for accidents (like when Woody Harrelson climbs on top of Demi and accidentally turns over a chair), and you never fall for stupid slow motion stuff, or gooey power ballads, or any of the other jive that screams PEOPLE DOING IT IN MOVIE.
You’re interested in your characters enjoying each other. I can’t remember, for instance, the last time I saw two grown-up lovers actually laugh in the middle of a fuck. But in Indecent Proposal you allow it to happen. That kind of observational insight draws us into them being drawn into each other and makes the whole ridiculous arrangement (“One night with your wife for a million dollars…”) seem real. Good move, Adrian. Good move.
Anyhow, we miss you over here.
P.S. Even if no one else is saying it, I just wanted to say I know you’re an auteur.
He was young and eager and full of verve. He was vervish. When he spoke, he gesticulated with a robust sincerity that could be mildly off-putting. She was older, though not by much, striking in a bohemian way, and wrote for The New York Times, the official paper of Judea. Her name was Manohla, and he loved her with a passion hitherto reserved for Gene Hackman in The Conversation.
“One day,” he vowed, raising a fist to the heavens, “One day we will be together. But until then, we shall remain like the lovers of 84 Charing Cross Road, separated by a great distance, except where the Anne Bancroft character was aware of Anthony Hopkins’ existence, and in fact communicated with him regularly, you have no idea who I am. So, actually, it’s more like 84 Charing Cross Road meets Harvey, but instead of a giant Rabbit, it’s you. Wait, never mind…” With great solemnity, he lowered his fist. No one was watching.
The days were long and the seemed longer in wideshot. Without her, life was like a Visconti movie of the seventies, ambitious, but meandering, and often quietly sensual. She was his Tadzio and for hours or sometimes minutes at a time he wandered the beaches of Venice hearing only his own breath as the objective audio faded from the mix.
Over the course of several dissolves, his breathing grew louder. By now his gay seeming linen suit was stained, but he had stopped caring. Now it was mostly over the shoulders, handheld, and with a little glare. He smelled of hot sand and Malvasia delle Lipari.
“One day,” he vowed again, now reaching both fists heavenward à la Personal Best, “One day, you and I will walk the streets of Culver Città, hand in ink stained hand. I will buy you antipasto and hope you offer to split the bill. Of course, I will insist, but you will insist with greater strength and rip the bill out of my hands. You will pull hard because I will be pulling relatively hard in the other direction to give you the impression that I really want to pay, which of course I do, but honestly, you have the killer job and I’m at home writing a blog at 6:15 on a Saturday night.”
His feet were parched and his mouth was also parched. It was tough to say which was more parched. On the one hand, there were his feet; on the other, his mouth. But there was no way to know. That’s how evenly distributed the parching was.
“Tutti saranno fini,” he whispered. “Tutti saranno fini…” and then he died.
Bogdanovich: The scene [from Twentieth Century] in the train compartment with Lombard trying to kick Barrymore looks particularly impromptu.
Hawks: That was the first scene we shot in the picture. Lombard had never done that kind of comedy before, but I cast her because I’d seen her at a party with a couple of drinks in her and she was hilarious and uninhibited and just what the part needed. When she came on the set, though, she was emoting all over the place – she was trying very hard and it was just dreadful. Barrymore was very patient and we tried it a few times and she was just so stilted and stiff. Then I said to her, “Come on, let’s take a walk,” and we went outside and I asked her how much money she was getting for the picture. She told me and I said, “What would you say if I told you you earned your whole salary this morning and didn’t have to act anymore?” And she was stunned. So I said, “Now forget about the scene. What would you do if someone said such and such to you?” And she said, “I’d kick him in the balls.” And I said, “Well, he said something like that to you – why don’t you kick him?” She said, “Are you kidding?” And I said, “No.” So we went back on the set and I gave her sometime to think it over, and then we tried that scene and we did one take and that was it. And when I said, “Print,” Barrymore yelled out. “That was fabulous!” And she burst into tears and ran off the set. Well, she never began a picture after that without sending me a telegram that said, “I’m gonna start kicking him.”
Six Degrees of Separation and the Wonderful Strangeness of Stockard Channing
John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, one of the most unusual and affecting stage comedies of the 90s, is enjoying what seems to be a strong revival in, of all places, London.
It’s surprising to think that such a quintessentially New York play could work anywhere outside of Manhattan, specifically the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Moreover, it seems an awkward time, in the midst of worldwide financial unpleasantness, to revive a comedy about the unrepentant rich. And to top it all off, you’ve got to wonder, what kamikaze actress would be crazy enough to take on Ouisa Kittredge, a role that Stockard Channing so famously nailed ten years ago at Lincoln Center? (Lesley Manville.)
Most of us won’t get to the Old Vic to find out how the current production addresses these riddles, but luckily, wherever you are, there’s a really good production of Six Degrees of Separation playing only steps away (assuming you own, or have rented, a DVD of the film.)
Fred Schepisi’s 1993 movie, starring Stockard, Donald Sutherland, Ian McKellen, Will Smith, and (briefly) J.J. Abrams – whose brash, mean performance transcends everything he’s done on Lost – is really as fine a film adaptation of play can get. Schepisi, working from a script by Guare, finds a highly seductive, almost addictive stylistic analog to the face-paced world of the quick-witted rich. Considering a great majority of the film is spent watching Mr. & Mrs. Kittredge lure a crowd to attend their tale of a mysterious, and mysteriously compelling, intruder, Schepisi’s choice is utterly apt. He cuts freely, and with a sense of fun; his camera glides out of windows and over skylines; and the performances he elicits – more so than any production of the play I’ve seen – are themselves involved in the very notion of seduction. These characters are constantly engaged in a performance of some kind. They are people who so deeply want to be interesting.
And that right there is Stockard Channing’s triumph. Her Ouisa Kittredge has all the trappings of a terrific performance, but more than that, it has a strangeness rare in movies. Most of today’s film actors, for reasons unknown to me, wash their characterizations clean of idiosyncrasy, preferring instead not to embellish around the fringes, but evince personalities that are both clear and direct. These are good performances. They do the utilitarian work of driving the picture forward, but rarely do they luxuriate in the funky, odd world of behavior the way Channing does in Six Degrees. Of course, there are exceptions, like Robert Downey Jr., who never misses an opportunity to surprise us, but on the whole, that quality of strangeness, a quality we love so much about character actors, seems to be absent from star performances of the moment. But I digress. The point here is that Channing creates a real person, and real people are never entirely smooth. They are corrugated.
Naturally, the news of Cameron beating his own record is bound to draw a little dissent. Cynics – or to use the technical term, “screenwriters” – will invariably complain that these pictures amount to little more than a string of exploding set pieces, that Cameron’s people ring hollow, and that the lines they grunt sound as if they were coming from sixteen year old boys in states of shocked-out, pre-orgasmic, video-game ecstasy. “Awesome!”
Of course, they’re right. But they’re missing the bigger picture.
For every one of Titanic’s embarrassingly false moments (i.e. “king of the world,” “I want to draw you, Rose,” “You jump, I jump, right?” and that suggestive hand throbbing against the fogged up carriage window etc.), there is an equally impressive cinematic decision, and one that had to be made in the middle of an absolute meltdown.
Think about it: you are James Cameron. You have an enormous ocean liner going down, thousands of passengers aboard, several narratives to maintain, two major studios already way over budget, special effects not yet completed, dozens of dangerous stunts happening all around you, journalists already calling the film a flop and personally insulting you, stars growing tired, Kathy Bates – and where do you put the camera?
Where do you put the camera? With the clock ticking, you only get one, or maybe two takes. Three at the absolute outside. Where do you put the camera? Too many wide shots and you’ll lose your intimacy; too many close-ups and you’ll lose the sense of annihilating disaster. So you’ll do both. But how will you intercut them? Decide now.
And be warned: After a while, those regular old wide-shots will lose their impact. How many times can we be startled by the same shot of The Titanic going down? How many people can we see flip over the port bow before we lose interest and start to think about how we’re going to try to hold the hand of Sarah Goldberg, the girl whose mom dropped us off and paid for our tickets? You’re going to have to mix it up, Mr. Cameron, and you’re going to have to do it for hours and hours of screen time, because Sarah is really cute and I heard she gave Alex Horwitz a handjob.
We know the boat is going to tank (we knew that before we got the ticket), so how are you going to surprise us? You’ll have to visualize something more frightening, and more grandly ruinous than we could have imagined. So as you’re setting up that shot, make sure that what you’re shooting is as impressive as how you shoot it. And don’t be merely descriptive. Don’t give us what we’ve read about in history books. Imagine something bigger. Imagine dozens of somethings. And then be prepared – if your crew is sick, the set is falling apart, or if the suits get words that you’re not shooting what you said – to throw that away and imagine something else. And imagine it now.
Mr. Cameron, if you did all that, I’d pay $10 to see what you came up with. Or at least Sarah’s mom would.
Godard never hits my sweet spot and Truffaut, with few exceptions, hits it too hard. But Chabrol, mercurial, clever Chabrol, always knows what I want. True, he may choose not to give it, he may delay or even withhold satisfaction, but our pleasure is always in his crosshairs, and Chabrol feathers it like a giggling coquette. Better than that, when he’s in a playfully sadistic mood, he may not feather at all. But he’s still laughing. Mercurial Chabrol almost always is.
Like Hitchcock, one of his masters, Chabrol gets a big kick out of perversity. But unlike Hitch, Chabrol’s sense of a humor never sinks to sea level. He’s too damn French for that; Shakespeare would have him somewhere between Lady Macbeth and Falstaff. Think of Les biches (1968), which Chabrol called “the first film which I made exactly as I wished.” It begins full of delicious ennui (bien sur) as Frederique, a beautiful, wealthy Parisian (played by Chabrol’s wife and frequent collaborator, Stephane Audran), picks up a sidewalk artist called “Why” (Jacqueline Sassard), brings her to her posh apartment, watches her bathe, and after some highly suggestive cross-cutting on the part of Chabrol, drops to her knees to drink in Why’s glistening midriff. Well, by now we can hardly stand it. (Come on, Chabrol! Give it to us!) Slowly, so as not to disturb the thick air of languor our director has painstakingly cultivated, Frederique raises her spindly fingers to the button on Why’s jeans, and Chabrol slams us with a hard cut to another place and time. The foreplay has begun.
Into their idyll comes Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to lure Why from Frederique. Together, the three of them circle onward toward a ménage, but no one seems to be having any fun; we soon see this is a game of possession, not sex, and certainly not love. Indeed their every interaction is handled with a sensuality so joyless, if it wasn’t for Chabrol’s cinematic wit, you might think you were watching Antonioni. Throughout the picture, Audran keeps her face as still as lake. When she moves or speaks, it’s practically without intention. At times, like a person out of Pinter, she barely seems to play the part. And yet, it comes off.
With looks as blank as these, it falls to Chabrol to make sense of them for us. He becomes, in a sense, a kind of translator, and uses his camera to reveal the quiet violence coursing beneath the façade. To pull it off, Chabrol could, like Hitchcock, dutch the angle (as in I, Confess), or subsume us in point of view (Rear Window), or try out terrific tricks (Vertigo), but – surprise, surprise – he’s too damn French for that. Instead, Chabrol casts a cool, objective lens on his characters’ dysfunction. But rather than distance us from them, his remove invites us to push past the surfaces and wonder at what sickness churns on the other side of their eyes. Suddenly, the hairline fractures come into view. Then the cracks. Things begin to break.
Enough hours with Chabrol, and one can see the fissures coming a long way off, but no matter; when his mysteries falter, or when his suspense lags, there is more than enough psychological disintegration to keep us going. Can’t see it on the faces? Then look to the camera. By the end of Les biches, flat, deadening two-shots – the shallow-focus kind that Buñuel loved – give way to cubism. With whirling elegance, Chabrol juliennes the action; small pushes-in, gentle tracks-out, and layered compositions lend the narrative its multidimensionality, and enhance our understanding of these people’s inner lives. It keepsLes biches from drooling into hysterics and flamboyant clichés, and it allows Chabrol’s two opposing loves – refinery and brutality – to exist side by perverse side.
Remembering Jean Simmons, who died Friday of lung cancer at 80, the first thing I thought of is her performance in Angel Face. Opposite Robert Mitchum, Simmons played a femme fatale so fraught, she ought to be considered amongst the most challenging in all of noir. But to look at her you never would have expected it.
Until Angel Face, before she was bad, Jean Simmons was very, very good. One look at her pretty face in the late forties and it was easy to see why; she was cute as a button and plucky and English, with all the trappings of a proper, well-behaved girl. And when she was less well behaved – as she was as Estella in Lean’sGreat Expectations or Ophelia in Olivier’s Hamlet – the young Simmons affected an attitude that suggested she knew her wrongnesses were wrong. “I know you’ll think this naughty,” she seemed to say, “but…” At her cleverest, she could have been Vivien Leigh’s kid sister.
But in those days, no matter how piercing her glance, there was something morally wholesome in her face. Even as she aged, Simmons retained a girlish roundness to her cheeks and chin, a softness that might have kept her star grounded to Debbie Reynolds territory if it wasn’t for Howard Hughes, who, ironically, she despised. In 1951, Hughes bought out Simmons’s contract with the British-based J. Arthur Rank Organization, intending, despite her protestations, to wring out of his new possession every last day she owed him (there were eighteen). To make matters worse, Otto Preminger, the director Hughes assigned to the project, was every bit as Austrian as she was English. They clashed almost right away. And as if that wasn’t uphill enough, she was to play Diane Tremayne – an unassumingly ladylike psychopathic killer – a part distressingly far from her established range. At least the psychopathic part was.
What Simmons didn’t know, however, was that Diane, for all her cold-bloodedness, is actually, sort of, poignant. Sort of. Unlike the other bad girls ofnoir, Diane kills not for power or money, but for love – her father’s love. She twists Mitchum’s character into knots, yes, but it’s not because she wants to see him go down. In fact, Diane defends him. At a crucial moment – like something out of Spartacus – she even speaks up on his behalf. That’s the Simmons in the Tremayne.
Watching the movie again, I glimpsed, for the first time, the Tremayne in the Simmons. I was struck now by those shivery looks of calculated helplessness Mitchum shakes out of her, looks that remind the viewer that no matter what Mitchum’s size, this one’s going to be a fair fight. Between her cat-like beauty (her head down and eyes titled up) and his powerful grip, it’s hard to say who is going to devour whom.
Though it seemed strange at the time, the casting of Jean Simmons in Angel Face, like every great feat of casting, now seems utterly obvious. Her nimble one-two punch, combining poignancy and intransigence, imbues the character with a paradox so mysterious, that to call her, simply, a femme fatale seems only to put a fence around her rabid strangeness. In Simmons’s hands, she is both definitive and impossible to define. I don’t know about you, but that’s how I like my unassumingly ladylike psychopathic killers.