Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

David Copperfield and me

The new film directed by Armando Ianucci, The Personal History of David Copperfield, seems to have made quite a splash. Most of the comments from those who have seen the film have been very positive, but some eyebrows have been raised by the casting: in particular, by the fact that David Copperfield is played by an Indian actor, Dev Patel.

I’ve had quite a long relationship with the novel. When I first came to Britain, aged five, my parents, I remember, rented a television set because they thought it would help me learn English, and I remember one of the programmes back then being a Sunday afternoon serialisation of David Copperfield. Of course, I didn’t understand a word of English at the time, and, at that age, most probably wouldn’t have been able to follow it even if I did, but I remember my parents telling me it was a famous book by someone called Charles Dickens.

(Doing a bit of online research, I find that David was played in that series by a young Ian McKellen. Which seems like good casting, though, sadly, Mr McKellen isn’t of course Indian.)

And then, once my English had improved sufficiently, I used to buy, or, rather, I used to have bought for me, a weekly comic for children. Sparky, it was called. And, amidst the various comic characters it featured – Hungry Horace (who was always hungry, naturally), Pansy Potter the Strongman’s Daughter (who was very, very strong), and a rather inspired character called Keyhole Kate (who was forever looking through keyholes) – they did a comic strip serialisation of David Copperfield. (And no, as can be seen here, this isn’t a figment of my imagination: even children’s comics those days aimed both to entertain and to educate: it was a different age.) And this time, I did manage to follow the plot somewhat. But I think I was about 11 or 12 by the time I came to the novel proper – the original novel, with the original words as written by the original Charles Dickens.

And I loved it. Or, rather, I loved the first half of the novel – the chapters dealing with David’s childhood. Once David grew up, I found it boring, and after a couple of chapters, I decided to turn back and read the first half over again. And so it continued. The first half of David Copperfield I read over and over again. Those childhood chapters of David Copperfield became etched in my mind, but once I had cheered Aunt Betsey Trotwood telling the Murdstones to piss off (well, not in so many words, you understand…) there just didn’t seem much point reading on, to be honest.

I think I was about 18 or so when I read the entire novel for the first time, and, while there are certainly many things in the latter part of the novel that I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed, I couldn’t help feeling then – and feeling still – that it didn’t quite measure up to the childhood chapters. And while I know I have had occasion to fulminate elsewhere on this blog against that most deplorable habit of judging the literary quality of a work by how closely or otherwise one could “identify” with characters, I must confess that when I read (and re-read) those early chapters of David Copperfield, I find myself still identifying with David entirely. So powerfully have I identified with David over so many years, that, as far as I am concerned, David Copperfield is Indian, goddammit!

(For similar reasons, Jane Eyre is Indian too.)

I am very much looking forward to this film. It is so good to see some authentic casting at last.

Cinematic hat-tricks

Here’s an interesting one:

Before I get on to it, I’d like to acknowledge that the idea for this, such as it is, came from a Facebook post I saw recently from a friend. He knows who he is. I won’t embarrass him by naming him here – unless, of course, he specifically asks me to. I think he comes on to this blog from time to time. However, if this idea turns out to be a bad one, I take full responsibility for this upon myself.

Now that’s over with, let’s move on.

Can you name an instance of a film director who has made three great films in succession?

Of course, much depends on what you consider “great”. The example my friend gives is Carol Reed, who made, in succession, Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man – and I reckon all three deserve to be called great. But what other examples are there?

There are surprisingly few. Usually, looking through even the most distinguished of filmographies, great films – or, rather, films I would consider great – are interspersed with minor works. For instance, I know Satyajit Ray started his career with the justly renowned “Apu Trilogy”, and that between the second and third of these films, he made Jalsaghar (The Music Room), which is also a masterpiece. So that’s four great films in succession. But looking at the full filmography, I see that in between those films he also made Paras Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone), which, to my mind, is a rather lacklustre comedy, so that spoils that one. I suppose one could go for Jalsaghar, Apur Sansar (the final instalment of the Apu Trilogy) and Devi, but the last of these, fine though it is, isn’t, perhaps, quite in the class of the others. (Ray continued to make great films right up to and including Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984), but they are all interspersed with lesser works.

So, presumably having nothing better to do, I started looking up filmographies of some of my favourite directors, and I was surprised how rare these hat-tricks were. The directors of classic Hollywood are generally a bad bet: they often regarded themselves primarily as craftsmen rather than as artists – even when they were artists – and made whatever the studios asked them to make (John Ford, say, is a prime example of this). Even with the very individual Billy Wilder, it’s difficult to find three consecutive works of comparably high standard.

I suppose it must be difficult, in any art form, and especially in cinema where so much depends upon collaboration and upon budgeting and finances, to maintain high levels of creativity over a concentrated period. And I suppose many film-makers may quite deliberately make a lighter film in between the heavyweights. But this makes all the more impressive the various instances where film-makers have indeed made great films in close succession.

Take Ingmar Bergman, for instance. In the late 50s, he made Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries in close succession. And he repeated the trick between 1961 and 1963, he made the three films known as the “Faith Trilogy” (don’t ask me why: that’s what it says on the cover of my DVDs!) – Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Night, and The Silence. And Luis Buñuel finished his distinguished career with three of his finest films – Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, Le fantôme de la liberté, and Cet obscur objet du désir.

And going back to my own favourite era of film-making – the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood – despite all the strictures imposed by the studio system, Preston Sturges, between 1941 and 1944, made  not three, but five consecutive films that I, for one, would place in the  top bracket – The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Hail the  Conquering Hero.

But perhaps the most impressive uninterrupted sequence of masterpieces came from Robert Bresson, when, in succession, he made Les dames du bois de Boulogne, Journal d’un curé de campagne, Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, Pickpocket, Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, As hasard Balthazar, and Mouchette. I guess the only sequence of films to match that would be the seven films made by Andrei Tarkovsky.

I suppose Bresson went into the doldrums a bit after those seven films (in my opinion, at any rate), but, again in my opinion, he came back to form again with his last film, L’Argent: here, he took his spare, detached style about as far as it could possibly go, and came up with a film that haunts my mind. It is a film that does, I know, split opinions, but I doubt anyone can take serious issue with that extraordinary sequence of films he had made earlier in his career.

I’m sure there are many other sequences of uninterrupted creativity in film-making. So now it’s time to throw this open: what is your favourite cinematic hat-trick?

The darker films of Billy Wilder

Mention the Golden Age of Hollywood – the 30s, the 40s, and into the 50s (although the studio system that gave rise to that Golden Age was already collapsing by then) – and most people these days … well, let us be on the safe side and say “a great many people these days” … will have a mental picture of the “Dream Factory” – a pipeline churning out frothy escapism, undemanding entertainment that is best seen with one’s brains left safely at home. Of course, there’s no denying that much that came out of Hollywood back then was indeed light, frothy entertainment: no-one will be watching the Astaire-Rogers musicals, say, or screwball comedies, expecting anything too serious. Although it may be added that should anyone take their brains along to these films rather than leave them at home, those brains would not necessarily feel insulted by what they see: there are gradations even in light, frothy entertainment.

But there was far more to the Dream Factory than merely confecting sweet dreams. Even at the height of the Depression, when, heaven knows, escape from a bitter reality was very much needed, the focus was not always purely on “escapism”: even comedies such as the Laurel and Hardy films acknowledged the reality of the Depression (Stan and Ollie were frequently penniless vagrants), and Chaplin, in films such as The Kid or Modern Times, certainly didn’t hold back. Social criticism was very much an integral part of the gangster movie genre at Warner Brothers; and in 1940, barely a year after the Great Depression is reckoned to have ended, John Ford made a magnificent cinematic adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: those who reckon Hollywood films of that era were essentially frothy escapism can still let out an astonished gasp or two as one of the characters in that film describes in shockingly graphic detail how his children had starved to death.

The darkness Hollywood films of that Golden Era were prepared to depict was not necessarily merely the darkness of social evils, murky though they were: sometimes, the darkness was of the human heart. And here, Billy Wilder, especially, excelled. In some sixteen or so years – between 1944 and 1960, to be precise – Billy Wilder co-wrote and directed, amongst, it may be admitted, more light-hearted fare, five films that look very uncompromisingly indeed into the darkness of the human heart. These films are, in chronological order, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival), and The Apartment. Each of these films features as protagonist a man who, through flaws and shortcomings in his character, finds himself morally compromised, and becomes, as a consequence, filled with self-disgust. (In Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, this protagonist shares the spotlight with a female character who, too, is very deeply flawed, though in very different ways.)

At this point, when the reader is, I’m aware, wondering what all this is leading to, and when I am eager to press ahead and satisfy the reader’s curiosity on that score, I have to issue one of those tiresome “spoiler alerts”. I know I have to, because when I don’t, I receive indignant e-mails. So here it is: If you have not seen these films – more particularly, if you have not seen The Lost Weekend and The Apartment – and plan to see them, and feel that the essence of good drama lies in finding out what happens next (at least on first viewing), and, in particular, in what happens at the end, then it is probably best that you read no further. For it is on the endings of The Lost Weekend and of The Apartment that I intend to focus.

With that out of the way, let us continue.

Three of these five films (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole) end in tragedy: they could hardly have ended any other way. The other two films are also dark and tragic in content, although tragedy is averted at the end. In The Apartment, the last film of this unofficial series, the deeply flawed protagonist is, at long last, allowed to redeem himself morally. And there is a real sense of joy when this happens: there is a sense of release, a rare concession, amidst all the pessimism and all the cynicism and all the vitriol, that a way out, even given our profound human shortcomings, may be possible. It is possible not by the Grace of God – the presence of God is not particularly apparent in any of these films – but by a moral strength that even the most unremarkable of us may retain within ourselves. This ending moves us because it is so hard won, because we have, both earlier in this film and in the previous films, been shown the various red hells into which our sightless souls may stray. For, until that ending of that final film, we are, morally, in very murky waters indeed. We are far from the Dream Factory here.

All five of these films seem to me masterpieces, but speaking entirely subjectively (as I often do on this blog), it is The Lost Weekend that particularly intrigues me. Its protagonist (played by Ray Milland) is an alcoholic, but the film is not really about alcoholism, as such: at least, alcoholism is not its central theme. The central character, Don Birnam, seems to have everything going for him: he is handsome and charismatic, he is intelligent and cultured, and he is supremely articulate. But he is haunted by a sense of failure.  He had aspired, and aspires still, to be a writer, but all he has to show for it is a series of unfinished manuscripts. His tragedy is not merely that he is mediocre, or, worse, talentless; his tragedy is also that he recognises it, and that he cannot come to terms with what he recognises. And he takes refuge in drink, and exercising his supreme articulacy with the barman:

It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does it do to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent. Extremely competent! I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo, moulding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer, it’s the Nile, Nat. The Nile and down into the barge of Cleopatra.

As the film progresses, we see Don Birnam travel through what seems like the circles of some Dantean inferno. Even now, some  seventy-five years after the film’s release, I doubt I have seen anything more horrific in a film than the sequence in the drying-out ward, or the terrifying alcoholic hallucinations Don Birnam has back in his flat.

But the tragedy that seems inevitable is averted. His girlfriend Helen (played by Jane Wyman), persuades him to start writing again, and he sits down to pen a novel based on his experiences. We, the viewer, may be left unsatisfied by this. Don Birnam has had false starts before, we know; and, further, we know also that, despite all his qualities, he does not have whatever it takes to be a writer: what stirs his imagination is not what he is writing, but rather, the idea of being a writer. When I saw this film in my younger days, I had no doubt that he would return to his drinking, and that what we see on screen is not so much a new start, but, rather, tragedy deferred.

But in my latest viewing (last week), I thought differently. Shortly before the end, Don has redeemed his revolver from the pawnbroker, obviously planning to shoot himself, and Helen, knowing this, and not really knowing what to do about it, pours him a drink; and when he expresses puzzlement, she breaks down and says “I’d rather have you drunk than have you dead”. Now, call me sentimental (as you probably will), but I suddenly found myself rather moved by this. Helen has, after all, stayed by him even when she has been told, by Don himself amongst others, to get out while she still can. And if she would rather have him drunk than dead, then maybe she would rather have him talentless than dead too. Maybe she could reconcile him to his lack of talent. Maybe. The future, as the film ends, is still uncertain, but if Don is to redeem himself, it won’t be through discovering his talent (he doesn’t have any), but, through Helen’s love, by being reconciled to himself by her love. And if that sounds sentimental, I’d counter that, perhaps, too often, we miss out on profound matters by our fear of being sentimental as much as we do by actually being sentimental. At any rate, this last viewing, the ending did not seem to me so inevitably dark as it used to seem.

It is only at the end of the last film of this series, The Apartment, that the protagonist (played here by Jack Lemmon) is allowed unambiguously to redeem himself. What he had been doing really was unspeakably sordid: in return for promotion, he would lend out his apartment to senior managers in his office for them to carry out their extra-marital affairs. But in this film, the protagonist is, at long last, allowed to rediscover his moral bearings. And yes, the driving force, once again, is love. Perhaps these Wilder films are not quite so cynical as they are so often made out to be: yes, morality is frequently flouted and love frequently slighted, but morality and love both exist, and they are both potent, redeeming forces.

By the time The Apartment was released, in 1960, what we think of as The Golden Age of Hollywood was finished. Perhaps The Apartment and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, released two years later, were the last remnants of that age. And while that age did turn out the most glorious entertainment, it wasn’t blind to the darkness either. And no director, I think, peered into that darkness as insistently as did Billy Wilder. But it would be a mistake, I think, to see in even his darkest films merely undiluted pessimism and cynicism.

Stan and Ollie

Given that this blog has been going for nearly nine years now, and given further that I had set this blog up primarily to talk about various things I love, it is strange that I have managed so far not even  to mention Laurel and Hardy. I suppose it’s because I find it difficult to describe what their films mean to me without gushing. But now that a new film about this duo is doing the rounds to hearteningly popular acclaim, it seems as good a time as any to write something about them on my blog. And I’ll do my best not to gush, as those who are fans will already know what I mean, and those who aren’t will merely be put off.

laurel-and-hardy

Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel.

I must admit, though, that I am always somewhat shocked when anyone tells me they do not like Laurel and Hardy films. And yes, there are many who think them essentially silly, and simple-minded. And I have to ask myself whether my continued love for them is really justified in terms of their merit, or whether it is merely a leftover from a fondly remembered childhood. I think it’s the former, but I cannot, of course, demonstrate it one way or the other. I plead that, as a child, I used to laugh at Abbott and Costello films as well, but that they soon paled, and now I find them merely irritating; but Laurel and Hardy films I continue to love. That doesn’t constitute a proof, of course – nothing can constitute a proof in this context – but it does indicate, at least, that my continued enjoyment of Laurel and Hardy is due to more than mere nostalgia. Although what that more is, is difficult to identify, let alone articulate.

We can, at least, say what they aren’t. Their humour is not – despite ignorant claims to the contrary – primarily slapstick. Yes, of course they employed slapstick; but so, for that matter, did Cervantes. And yes, of course that slapstick is funny. But what we are laughing at is, I think, more than merely the slapstick, more than the pratfalls that lie in wait of them. And that more lies, I think, in these characters’ relationship with the world around them, with each other, and with us, the audience.

Oliver Hardy once said that people enjoyed watching these films because they can feel smarter than these two. (I’m sorry I can’t link to this, as I can’t find a reference to this quote anywhere:  but I’m sure I read this somewhere – though damned if I can remember where!) I’m not sure what context Oliver said this in, but whatever he meant, he was surely only partly right. Yes, of course we feel we are brighter than these two: there would be something very wrong with us if we didn’t. And yes, of course, we laugh at their stupidity, their ineptitude. But – and here’s the most important thing – we never look down on them. No matter how foolishly they act, no matter how inept they are, we’re on their side. To use that lazy cliché – we can identify with them; we can sympathise with these two essentially well-meaning people who are unequal, as, frankly, we all are, to the demands life makes of us. It is partly because the world conspires against them; it is also partly because they are not very bright, or capable. And yes, as we watch Stan and Ollie struggle with living their lives, we laugh: but we laugh not at them, but in the recognition deep down that, no doubt on a somewhat different level, we too aren’t up to meeting life’s demands.

Flaubert had pulled off this trick in Bouvard et Pécuchet (which often strikes me as Flaubert’s masterpiece): here, too, we have two genuinely well-meaning people trying to grapple with the complexities of life, and repeatedly failing. However, we do not look down on them, for we see in them, despite a comic exaggeration, an image of our own state. But Flaubert observed his creations with a studied ironic distance, whereas I don’t think even detractors of Stan and Ollie could fail to notice the genuine warmth with which these two characters are portrayed. And frankly, this is a mystery to me.  I too sense the warmth in their films; and yet, Ollie is an overbearing, pompous bully who frequently hits Stan. (And Stan occasionally hits back.) I once saw an interview with the late Richard Briers, one of the finest comic actors of his generation, who also admitted that he couldn’t explain this. We all hate pompous, self-important people, he said, we all hate bullies, and yet, we watch Oliver Hardy’s performance, and we love him. He said he watched these films repeatedly just to see how Oliver Hardy achieved this, but that he never could work it out. He thought it was simply a miracle.

But, whatever life throws at them, they never give up, or give way to despondency. They keep on failing, and not even failing better. But they carry on. Because, like the rest of us I guess, they must.

Fans of Laurel and Hardy are probably a bit cheesed off with me by now. Here I am, talking about Cervantes and Flaubert and what not, while ignoring the most salient aspect of their genius – they were funny.

Yes, they certainly were. Are.

But I challenge anyone to explain what it is about them that makes one laugh. It’s an impossible task, and I’m not even going to try. In any case, if anyone needs to ask why they are funny, they’re not going to get it anyway.

The recent film Stan and Ollie has excited much comment, especially around my neck of the net. The Laurel and Hardy fan club page on Facebook has been buzzing with excitement, with virtually everyone recommending the film, and praising Steve Coogan’s and John C. Reilly’s superbly convincing performances. I must admit I tend to steer away from showbiz biopics: if they are hagiographies, I find that boring and pointless; and if they are hatchet jobs, they are equally boring and pointless, and also somewhat repugnant. Sometimes, the middle course is taken, showing both the  virtues and the vices of the subjects, but even there, I remain dubious: we all have our character flaws – what purpose does it serve to dramatise these peoples’ personal flaws and foibles? But in this case,  I must admit I was quite pleasantly surprised.

I do not know much of the biographical details of these two: I am  generally more interested in artists’ works  rather than their lives; but I do know that the  two got on  really well together, and had for each other a great respect and affection. But the film-makers also take – as I discover from some of the posts on this Facebook page from those who know about their lives far better than I do – a few liberties. Producer Hal Roach was no money-grubbing philistine as is portrayed here; and while Stan and Ollie did have a few differences with him, it was never about pay. More significantly, Laurel and Hardy never quarrelled with each other in real life. No doubt they had some minor disagreements when filming, but it never amounted to a break in their friendly relations. In this film, Stan is somewhat resentful of Ollie going off to make a film on his own: in real life, Stan had actually congratulated Ollie. I assume that the quarrel was introduced into this film to inject some drama into the proceedings: two people getting on just fine is no doubt admirable, but frankly a bit boring. However, it was made clear that neither was at peace till they had made it up and acknowledged to each other that they had not meant the words spoken in anger; and the reconciliation scene was genuinely touching. It is impossible for us fans to think of Stan and Ollie without feeling a sense of warmth, and of generosity: both these qualities came over very strongly.

The film focuses on the tour they made of Britain in 1953, when they were both getting old, and somewhat past it (at least, on the evidence of their later films, which I frankly find a bit painful to watch). And Ollie’s health was clearly failing. The film could easily have become sentimental, but it didn’t. Even their reconciliation scene, which, fictional or not, no fan of the pair could fail to find touching, consisted of only a few words:  no more needed to be said. One thing I hadn’t realised, and which, I admit, did leave me a bit tearful, was that for the eight years Stan lived on after Ollie’s death, he continued writing gags for the two. Obviously, he knew that these gags would never be performed (and I, for one, hope they never are, not even by the excellent Coogan and Reilly): presumably, Stan wrote these gags because that was his way of keeping in touch with precious, vanished times, and with a precious, vanished friend. I’m glad the film only mentioned this in passing at the end: some things really don’t need to be dwelt upon.

cooganreilly

John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy, and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, from the film “Stan and Ollie”, courtesy of producing companies Entertainment One BBC Films Fable Pictures Laurel and Hardy Feature Productions Sonesta Films

 

After seeing the film, I came back home, and immediately put on one of their two-reelers. (I chose Midnight Patrol at random.) And I laughed all over again, although I knew all the gags by heart. I think I just enjoy their company. Foolish, inept, pompous (on one side) and vacant (on the other), utterly unable to cope with all that life throws at them, often cruelly defeated – but however stupid we may think them, we never look down upon them: they’re still one of us.

If I had to pick a single DVD set to keep from my collection,  I would undoubtedly choose the Laurel and Hardy films.

Bypassing thought

“I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it” Robert Bresson once said in an interview. T. S. Eliot had said something similar: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Art can, in other words, bypass thought, and still affect us.

In one way, I rather like this. After all, I’m damned if I can understand Bresson’s Pickpocket, say, or Eliot’s “Little Gidding” – at least, I’m damned if I understand these works well enough to account for the effect they have on me. And yet, they do have an effect on me: I can’t deny it.

But in another way, it bothers me. If one can respond, even respond powerfully, to something before one understands it; or even, perhaps, without ever understanding; can one then not respond to any old thing? What then of our powers of discrimination that we so pride ourselves on?

Of course, I tell myself, there is much one can love deeply without understanding. If, after all, one had to understand the principles of counterpoint to enjoy listening to a Bach fugue, poor old Johann Sebastian wouldn’t be left with too many admirers. And similarly with visual arts. Earlier this year, as I stood in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, in those great oval rooms, surrounded on all sides by those vast water-lilies of Monet, by those dazzling, resplendent splashes of colours, I felt quite transported. But were I imprudent enough to try to write a blog post about them, I don’t know that I could say anything more interesting or more meaningful than “I like them, and think they are very good”.

Indeed, now I think about it, much of writing on arts, perhaps most, could be reduced to that. “I like it. I think it is very good.” Or maybe “It rocks”. Or, conversely, “It sucks”. For who needs articulacy when you don’t have much to say in the first place?

And this, I admit, bothers me, because, while I do accept the truth of Bresson’s dictum (and of Eliot’s), the logical end of their pronouncements seems to be the death of dialogue. If understanding is not the point, then why go beyond “It rocks” and “It sucks”?

I pose these questions rhetorically, of course, but if I cannot at least attempt an answer, much of what I write on this blog would be quite meaningless (if, indeed, it isn’t pretty meaningless as it is). And I think my answer may be along the following lines:

While gaining an understanding may not be essential to appreciation, it surely helps.

Recently, I watched Robert Bresson’s last film, L’Argent, made when he was an old man in his 80s. It is a challenging film, as I think the expression is; which, in other words, means it’s hard to figure out what the hell it’s about. Bresson seems, towards the end both of his career and indeed of his life, to take his trademark austere style to its very extremes. The narrative line is elliptical, with the causes of the various effects we see never quite made clear; the actors have clearly been instructed merely to speak their lines clearly, without the slightest hint of expression; and it is left entirely to the viewer to figure out what these characters’ motivations are, or, indeed, what it all signifies. For, presumably, it all does signify something: it is clearly not a set of random events strung together arbitrarily. But how do I know this? I mean, how do I know that this is not merely a set of random events strung together arbitrarily, when, to tell the truth, I can’t make too much sense of it all? I’d answer that the film affected me. Rather strongly. But is this enough? Is a mere subjective response on my part, a response I cannot account for in any objective terms, a sufficient criterion of artistic merit?

Well, yes, it is, if one believes that the very concept of artistic merit is merely subjective. But I don’t believe that. And there’s my problem.

For whatever reason, I cannot leave it there. I cannot just say “I like it” (“It rocks”) and leave it at that.  I had to think about the film as best I can, allow it to enter into my consciousness. The plot is based on a late novella by Tolstoy, The Forged Coupon. In that story, the simple act of passing on a forged coupon has all sorts of unexpected knock-on effects, and Tolstoy shows us a small act of evil – so small, indeed, that “evil” may seem too strong a word for it – escalating into something enormous. And then, in the second part of the story, Tolstoy shows the opposite effect: a single small act of human kindness similarly escalates, and has knock-on effects, but in a different direction. Tolstoy’s work is, of course, a moral fable, and while some, I know, think of it as evidence of the decline of a once great artist, I personally think of this novella as among the world’s greatest literature. But be that as it may, Tolstoy’s purpose, unlike Bresson’s, could not be clearer.

Bresson takes this story, and shows us only the first part. Two boys pass a forged banknote, and the cumulative effect of this thoughtless action grows, until it seems to engulf humanity itself. But the counter-action – the spreading of Good – Bresson does not show. He takes the spread of evil to its end – omitting quite deliberately many of the links in the process – and then leaves us there. So yes, Bresson’s film, unlike Tolstoy’s story, is a deeply pessimistic work: it sees evil as triumphant, and humanity helpless. But if this were all, it would not have affected me so very powerfully. “Evil is all-powerful and we are helpless” seems too trite an observation to be the basis of a great work of art.

So what else is there to this film that affected me so? To get a better grasp of the film, I needed not merely to feel, but to understand – to understand why the characters act as they do. And yet, those are the very aspects of the film that Bresson chose to leave out. So, naturally, it was up to me to try to fill in those gaps. I have felt the film, as Bresson had wanted me to: but I found it deeply unsatisfactory to leave it there. I needed also to understand. And maybe, if I did, I could feel even more intensely.

It isn’t easy: Bresson was not merely a devout Catholic, he was also a Jansenist, and the modes of thinking this implies are very alien to my sensibilities. But it does seem to me that the principal character, having already attempted to kill himself, becomes so filled with hatred of his own self that he wants to damn his own soul. Mere physical destruction isn’t enough: through some strange workings of his mind that are outside the normal orbit of my own, he has to destroy himself spiritually too.

Now, there is no point in wondering whether or not this is the correct interpretation: since Bresson himself refuses to explain, any explanation that is not inconsistent with what is in the film is valid. A work of art isn’t, after all, a crossword puzzle – a code one has to solve to arrive at a correct answer. However, having reached at least some sort of understanding, however inadequate and superficial, I needed desperately to know what others have made of it. For the perspectives of others can but deepen my own.

I searched on Google, but I must admit I didn’t really find anything that was particularly valuable. Maybe I was looking at the wrong places. But I am not looking for a solution: there aren’t solutions to these things. What I am looking for is dialogue – something a bit more substantial than “it rocks” or “it sucks”. For the more one can understand, the better one can feel.

Ultimately, all works of art, of any substance at all, ultimately lie beyond our understanding. Even works we are well acquainted with. I have known King Lear, say, since I was eleven: I have seen many performances, both on stage and on screen; I have read it and re-read it for nearly 50 years now; I have even read books and essays about it. But do I really understand it fully? Could I account for all this play makes me feel? No. Ultimately, these things remain a mystery. But without making the effort at least to understand what I can, I would not have been able even to approach this mystery.

Looking back at the quotes with which I started this piece, I notice there is one word they both use. “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.” “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” (My italics.) Feeling may indeed come before understanding, but that is not to say it replaces it. And nor does analysis (which is no more than structured thought) destroy feeling, as so many seem to think. Quite the opposite. True, we may never pluck out the heart of the mystery that any work of art of any substance, I think, possesses; but not even to make the effort reduces us merely to passive spectators. And to engage adequately with a work of art, we need to be far more than that.

“The Maltese Falcon” vs “The Big Sleep”

There are some right ignorant arseholes who think The Big Sleep is a better film than The Maltese Falcon.

OK, that first sentence was a consequence of an online conversation I had recently: a friend of mine (she knows who she is) dared me to open my blog post with that. Now that I have comfortably won the dare, let’s start again.

Take two.

It is inevitable that…

No, wait, I have forgotten something:

*** SPOILER WARNING ***

If you have neither read nor seen The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, then it is probably best you read no further.

I had to post that, otherwise my inbox will be full of angry communications. But now that’s done, let us start again.

Take three.

It is inevitable that The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep will be compared to each other. Both films were made in the 40s, within a few years of each other, and both were based on what are now regarded (quite rightly) as classic crime novels, but what were then works of fairly recent vintage. And both feature at the centre a tough and cynical private eye who tries to keep himself free of corruption in a world where corruption is ever-present. And, famously, in both films, this private eye was played by Humphrey Bogart. So comparisons are, perhaps, inevitable. And it seems to me – I may be wrong, of course, basing my conclusion as I am on merely anecdotal evidence – that the current consensus of opinion favours The Big Sleep over The Maltese Falcon; that some go so far as to see The Maltese Falcon as a sort of preparation for the masterpiece that was to come later. I vehemently disagree.

I think what worries me most about The Big Sleep is that Marlowe seems to be having far too much fun. Raymond Chandler’s novel is dark and sleazy, and in it, Marlowe is disgusted by the wickedness and corruption that he sees all around him. Of course, a film adaptation is under no obligation to be true to the book it is based on, either to the letter or to the spirit; and it could further be argued that it wasn’t possible for director Howard Hawks to portray such sleaze in a Hollywood film of the mid 1940s. However, Hawks was a sufficiently good director to have implied that sleaze, had he so wanted. But he clearly didn’t want to. Instead of the sleaze, we have glamour – quite impossible glamour. Of course we expect the leading lady to be glamorous (and it’s hard to imagine anyone more glamorous than Lauren Bacall); and it is also important, for the story to work, that her younger sister, Carmen, must also be good-looking. But, mixed up as she is in a rotten world of all sorts of shady goings-on – gangsterism, prostitution, pornography, blackmail, drug-dealing, you-name-it – it is important that she should also project a sense of corruption, of sleaze, of humanity blighted and decayed to such an extent that her beauty is but a grotesque parody of the purity it promises. And the very beautiful Martha Vickers, frankly, doesn’t convey any of that. What’s more, I don’t think she was meant to.

In the novel, Mrs Regan (Mrs Routledge in the film) is also involved in the corruption: here, to make her a suitable romantic interest for Marlowe, she is cleared of any such entanglement. Fair enough, I suppose – if you insist on incorporating a romantic story into all this, that’s what you need to do. But it’s that decision to incorporate a romantic story into all this that I find questionable.

And on top of all that, just about every woman Marlowe encounters (who is not on the side of the villains) is impossibly drop-dead gorgeous; and, even more impossibly, they throw themselves at Marlowe. Even the bookshop-keeper (played by Dorothy Malone) is gorgeous, and she closes her bookshop early within minutes of meeting Marlowe to do with him whatever it is that cameras in those days had discreetly to cut away from. Even a taxi-driver who is on screen for less than a minute (Joy Barlow, uncredited) is impossibly glamorous, and, within minutes of meeting Marlowe, she gives him her number and tells him to get in touch. Now, this sort of thing would be fine in a light-hearted comedy, and someone like Cary Grant, say, could have carried off such scenes with panache; but it seems to me to sit rather uncomfortably with the cynical tough-guy persona of Bogart’s Marlowe. One cannot be a cynical hardened tough guy and a charming skirt-chasing Lothario all at the same time.

Worst of all, there is little sense of evil. Or even of corruption. The chief villain here is Eddie Mars, and he is so under-characterised that, despite having seen this film countless times over several decades, I can barely remember what he looks like. The evil, in other words, barely has a presence in this film. Bogart does from time to time register disgust with what is around him, but everything seems so pretty, so beautiful, so glamorous; and Marlowe is having such fun in this glamorous world – what with such beautiful women throwing themselves at him, why shouldn’t he? –  that one can’t help wondering: what precisely is he disgusted by?

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Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep

There is one sequence – and a very impressive sequence at that – where the darkness comes very much to the fore: this is the sequence involving Elisha Cook Jr. The scene in the deserted office at night-time really is rather frightening. But this scene merely serves to highlight what is missing in the rest of the film: what is very conspicuously missing is a sense of evil as a palpable presence. There is too much romance, too much glamour; and Marlowe seems to be having too good a time. And even after going through all those glamorous ladies, he still gets the girl he really loves. Which is nice.

Of course, Hawks was under no compulsion to be true to the novel. He clearly wanted the glamour, and the fun, and so he put them there. And there’s no denying that it is indeed very glamorous, and great fun, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed. But the nature of the material seems to me to demand a far greater darkness, a far greater sense of corruption; it demanded that the evil be perceived as a real presence. And, apart from a single brief sequence, that simply doesn’t happen.

In The Maltese Falcon, the evil is more clearly present, even though it can manifest itself in forms that are charming (Sidney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman), endearing (Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo), or beautiful (Mary Astor as Bridget O’Shaughnessy, or whatever her real name is). And Spade himself is not entirely immune from it all: he had, after all, been having an affair with his partner’s wife.

In the film, Spade plays along with the villains, and it is uncertain to what extent he is tempted by the evil. He is certainly tempted by Bridget O’Shaughnessy, even though he knows her to be evil. But although his role is morally dubious for most of the film, there are times when his disgust does burst out. When Gutman asks him if he knows what the jewelled falcon is worth, he bursts out that he knows how much it means to “you people” in terms of human lives; and yes, he is disgusted. And when the wife of his former partner – with whom he has been having an affair – reveals that she is quite indifferent to her husband’s death, Spade, despite not having cared for her husband, is nonetheless disgusted. The moral integrity he displays in the final scene does not quite come out of the blue.

And it is this final scene between Sam Spade and Bridget O’Shaughnessy that raises The Maltese Falcon, I think, to another level. Till that point, it was already in the top drawer (as far as thrillers are concerned, only Double Indemnity and The Third Man are, to my mind, in the same league): that final scene takes it a few notches higher. Here, it’s not about the falcon any more: perhaps it never was about the falcon. It’s now about something far more fundamental. Spade had been tempted – not by the money (Spade is no mercenary), but by Bridget O’Shaughnessy. By whatever her real name is. He had been tempted even though he had known she was pure evil. Unlike Marlowe, Spade is not totally immune to the temptation of evil, and he knows it. And in this scene, he confronts it. He tries to distance himself emotionally, listing in as detached a manner as possible all the reasons he has for handing her in to the police, and all the reasons he has for not doing so. But at the end of what he had intended to be a dispassionate speech, his passion flames out in one unforgettable line:

“I won’t do it because all of me wants to.”

The line is Hammett’s (as is virtually all of the sparkling dialogue in this film) but once we have heard Bogart deliver it, it is impossible to imagine it delivered any other way. Spade does what is right, but it is an immense struggle. Bridget O’Shaughnessy tries to play him, and, being the expert seductress that she is, she knows where his most vulnerable spot is: if he really loved her, she says, he won’t need any more reasons. But even this he resists.

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Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, and Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon

This final scene has an emotional depth, an intensity, that may come as a surprise given the fireworks in the rest of the film, but which, one realises on subsequent viewings, had been simmering under the surface all along. And there is absolutely nothing at all like this in The Big Sleep. There, it is all just a bit of fun. There, the leading lady is exculpated from all nastiness and corruption so she could be worthy of the hero. Here, the leading lady is handed in to the police, and the hero, such as he is, is left free from corruption, but empty and desolate. He didn’t protect her and win her, though all of him wanted to.

“The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”

Any other actor would have played that for laughs, and any other director would have encouraged him to do so. But Humphrey Bogart and John Huston knew better.

***

Reading back on what I have written, I have probably been a bit unfair to The Big Sleep. It certainly is hugely enjoyable, and is great fun, and there are those who say that is all that the “Golden Age of Hollywood” produced, and that we should look for no more. Perhaps. But as far as I can see, The Maltese Falcon gives us considerably more than that.

“A Doll’s House” and “The Maltese Falcon”

It occurred to me while taking a morning walk earlier today that Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which I was blogging about only yesterday, is surprisingly similar to The Maltese Falcon –  both Dashiell Hammett’s novel, and John Huston’s film version. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this similarity before, but now it’s in my head, it seems quite obvious really.

No, please, do bear with me. Let me, at least, explain.

In A Doll’s House, the principal theme (the relationship between Nora and Torvald, and the state of their marriage) is introduced quite early. But then, Ibsen introduces new strands of the drama – forged signature, blackmail, and all the rest of it. And he develops these new elements, ratcheting up the dramatic tension in the process. And then, suddenly, almost too easily, these elements are resolved. And once they’re resolved, the true central theme of the work, which had been introduced right at the start but which had been allowed to simmer away only below the surface, emerges, bringing with it a shift in tonality. And we realise, to our surprise, that this had been at the centre of the drama all along, and that the shift in tonality,  though perhaps unexpected, is perfectly in order, because this seemingly new tonality had never really been too far away.

And I couldn’t help wondering: I knew there was another work in which something similar happened, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And then it came to me. Of course! It’s The Maltese Falcon!

[ At this point, I suppose I should issue a spoiler warning for those who have neither read Dashiell Hammett’s novel, nor seen John Huston’s film. And issue also a recommendation either to read the book, or to see the film, or, better, do both, as both book and film are absolute dynamite. ]

At the start of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, is killed while on a case. But then, Spade finds himself embroiled in all sorts of shenanigans, with a wonderfully colourful cast of crooks and villains and murderers all in search of the fabled, jewel-encrusted statuette of Maltese Falcon. It all builds up superbly towards a tense climax. But then, the tension just seems to dissipate: the issue of the Maltese Falcon is resolved, almost too easily. And once that’s out of the way, we come to the real thing – the murder of Miles Archer. Sam didn’t particularly like Miles, but he was a partner, and, as Sam says, when your partner is killed, it doesn’t matter whether you liked him or not, you’re supposed to do something about it. And we realise that this is what it had all been about, all along. Sam has to do something about the murder of his partner, even if he has to sacrifice what is dearest to him.

***

Now, I don’t know whether this similarity between these two masterpieces has ever been commented on before. I somehow doubt it. Unless someone tells me otherwise, I flatter myself that this is my unique contribution to the field of literary criticism. Now, some may tell me I’m talking rot, and they may well be right. But, rot or not, I offer it, free, gratis, and for nothing, to any literature student out there searching for a theme for a dissertation. No fees charged: just a little mention in the acknowledgements will do.

Thank you for your attention.