Category Archives: 1956

Le coup du berger (1956, Jacques Rivette)

I wish Le coup du berger had some kind of subtitle, like An Experiment in Head Room. Something to acknowledge the short’s constant issues with framing. It’s not clear who’s responsibly for the lousy head room. Director Rivette is the obvious culprit; there are a lot of shots where people move into better (and sometimes out of) better framing. But the frequent camera tilts are artless and rough, so maybe it’s cinematographer Charles L. Bitsch. But the tilt was presumably Rivette’s bad idea in the first place. And then there’s Denise de Casabianca’s editing, which is at best rhythmless and at works inept. The cutting on Anne Doat’s big scene arguably ruins the effectiveness of her performance.

Then again, who knows how good the performance would be with better editing.

The film’s about Virginie Vitry. Doat’s her sister. Married Vitry uses Doat as cover for going to see her lover, Jean-Claude Brialy. Brialy hangs out in his apartment and… does little else. Vitry’s husband, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, is an aloof Renaissance man. He plays the piano, he sketches, he paints. I think one of his nude subjects is supposed to be someone in their circle of friends. Of course, Brialy is also in that circle but it’s never explained. He’s just Vitry’s lover. And Vitry is just an adulterer. Three screenwriters—Rivette, producer Claude Chabrol, cinematographer Bitsch—and nothing in the way of character. For anyone. Doniol-Valcroze does the most at implying character and not when he’s supposed to be doing the big reveal. It’s when he’s sick of talking to Vitry after a few minutes. Coup runs thirty minutes. Vitry gets tiring by her third scene.

There’s story in those thirty minutes: Doniol-Valcroze gives Vitry a fur coat because they smash. Only she can’t bring it home because her husband doesn’t know she’s smashing one of their friends (who it turns out she doesn’t even like very much—I’m not sure if coup’s got enough energy to be misogynist; if it doesn’t, it’s just misanthropic). So Vitry has this plan to put the coat in a suitcase and put it in storage at the bus (or train) depot. She’ll “find” the ticket and send Doniol-Valcroze to get it. What could possibly go wrong? Well, you’ll probably be able to guess before the short even hits the halfway point. Maybe not all the details, but at least the plotting ones.

The music’s nice? It ought to be; it’s Baroque composer François Couperin’s work. Otherwise… Le coup du berger is far from the best way to spend a half hour.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Rivette; written by Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and Charles L. Bitsch; director of photography, Bitsch; edited by Denise de Casabianca; produced by Pierre Braunberger and Chabrol for Les Films de la Pléiade.

Starring Virginie Vitry (Claire), Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (Jean), Jean-Claude Brialy (Claude), and Anne Doat (Solange)


Advertisements

Picnic (1956, Joshua Logan)

Picnic is all about sex. It can never talk about being all about sex because it’s from 1956 and it’s set in small-town Kansas anyway and no one in small-town Kansas was going to be talking about sex. Not when schoolteachers like Rosalind Russell are trying to ban books for even hinting at sex.

But it’s all about sex.

Mostly it’s about women wanting to have sex with William Holden, who’s a drifter come to town looking to get a job as an executive from his old college buddy Cliff Robertson. Holden was thirty-seven in Picnic and, regardless of his beefcake factor, looks at least thirty-seven. Robertson was thirty-two. He looks about twenty-seven. It’s never clear how much time has passed since they were in college together though when Russell finally loses it and dresses Holden down for, basically, rejecting her drunken advances, she brings up the age thing. So are they supposed to be mid-thirties? They’re at least old enough Kim Novak ought to be rethinking her de facto engagement to Robertson.

Novak is nineteen. Her mom, Betty Field, wants her to marry Robertson before he gets tired of waiting for sex. Novak just wants men to stop objectifying her. Field says it’s all she’s got going for her so she better use it to get a ring on it ASAP. Couple years, she’ll be way too old to catch a good rich man. I guess the “good” thing about Field utterly devaluing her daughter’s worth is she’s not greedy about it? Field doesn’t want Robertson and Novak to take care of her, she just wants Novak taken care of. She’s selfless. Field doesn’t like Holden strutting around with his shirt off—her sexagenarian neighbor, kindly Verna Felton gets Holden out of his shirt as fast as she can—but Field doesn’t like it. Because it’s catching Novak’s eye and if Novak decides she might want to have sex with some guy instead of just doing it out of duty, well, she’s going down the wrong path.

Field’s got another daughter, a younger one, Susan Strasberg. Strasberg is a bit of a tomboy, super-smart (there’s some throwaway line in the first act, which is full of throwaway lines, about Strasberg having a four year scholarship except then she goes back to high school), and she too takes notice of Holden. Not in an inappropriate way but in the same way Felton notices Holden; they understand he’s a foxy man and there ain’t no other foxy men in Kansas. But they don’t lust after him in the same way as… oh, Russell, who gets drunker and drunker as the day progresses and finally gets so touchy-feely with Holden she tears off half his shirt. Got to let the beefcake out!

Russell’s all about the sex; even as she describes herself as the “old maid schoolteacher” what she really means is she hooks up with hot younger dudes out of town then brags about it to her friends at work. In town she’s stuck with decidedly not sexy, not younger Arthur O’Connell. He’s a local shop-owner, a bachelor stuck in his ways. Who, sure, gets hammered and talks Russell into going off after the picnic to “drive” in his car. There’s a great line from Felton about how everyone disappears after a picnic—Field is wondering where everyone went because she’s forgotten what it’s like to want sex—but Felton remembers. And she’s like, “They’re all off having sex.” And you’d think Field would remember because she told Novak to go off with Robertson and give him some play so he stays interested.

Now, Novak’s a good girl, from a good family, she’s just not a rich girl. Or a smart girl. She’s quiet and a little sad. Being socialized to accept paper boy Nick Adams hitting on her every morning no doubt has something to do with that sadness.

She just wants someone to take her seriously. And not because of how she looks.

So when she and Holden have this super-charged sexy dance at the Picnic, which sets off Strasberg’s jealousy and resentment as well as Russell’s beefcake lust, well… is it different when Holden ogles her? Because it’s William Holden and not Nick Adams or Cliff Robertson.

Or, in the film’s grossest revelation, Arthur O’Connell. Who goes over to visit Russell (who lodges with Field and daughters) and ogles Novak.

O’Connell recovers from that moment, mostly because he’s got Russell holding up their scenes, but… yuck.

If Picnic could talk about sex, would it be better? Well, not if it still had such unbridled passion for patriarchal relationships. Novak and Holden have zero chemistry, which would be a bigger problem if the script ever needed them to have any. But Novak’s written so thin—she’s constantly asking people to define her character in the first act, which gets tedious fast because the character relationships ring hollow. Director Logan, who directed the original play on Broadway, has no patience or regard for his actors. He’s always in a hurry, always shooting in these boring long shots (though James Wong Howe’s photography is fantastic). Often there will be some terrible cut; editors William A. Lyon and Charles Nelson shockingly won an Oscar for the film, which is something since there’s not a single smooth transition between long shot and close-up in the entire film.

While I’m talking about the crew, might as well get George Duning’s score out of the way. It’s too loud, too bombastic, too obvious, too melodramatic. Jo Mielziner’s production design is excellent though. It’s a shame Logan doesn’t have better shots for it. He’s got some really awkwardly pedestrian shots, like he’s scared of cranes or something. The film’s wide Cinemascope aspect ratio is another problem. It opens the film up too much and Logan rarely can compose for it.

The big dance scene is about the only intentionally well-directed sequence in the film, though there are occasional unintentional good shots.

It’s never incompetent, it’s just never anything but competent.

The film peaks somewhere in the second act, during the picnic. Regardless of all the problems, Picnic has a great pace. At least until the third act, when it starts to drag on and on, introducing these juxtapositions between Novak and Russell, O’Connell and Holden. Only none of the characters do enough for the juxtapositions to make any narrative sense, much less drum up any dramatic effect.

Great performance from Russell, really good ones from O’Connell and Felton. Okay—all things considered—one from Holden. He’s pretty good in the first act. By the last act you wish he’d rethought agreeing to the film (given he was worried he was too old for the part he’s obviously too old to play). Novak’s… she could be worse. Same goes for Field, though she’s immediately grating. Strasberg’s great, but the part’s crap. Worse, it’s a big part. It’s just a big, crappy part. If the movie were actually about her and Novak, it’d be something. If the movie were about Novak, it’d be something. If it were about any of its characters, it’d be something. But the smorgasbord approach? Doesn’t work. No one gets enough time or space.

Though it probably wouldn’t matter because they still couldn’t talk about sex. Picnic is fixated on it. Even if all of its ideas about it are at least bad, sometimes icky, sometimes much, much worse.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joshua Logan; screenplay by Daniel Taradash, based on the play by William Inge; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by William A. Lyon and Charles Nelson; music by George Duding; production designer, Jo Mielziner; produced by Fred Kohlmar; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Hal Carter), Kim Novak (Madge Owens), Susan Strasberg (Millie Owens), Rosalind Russell (Miss Rosemary Sydney), Arthur O’Connell (Howard Bevans), Cliff Robertson (Alan Benson), Betty Field (Flo Owens), Nick Adams (Bomber), and Verna Felton (Helen Potts).



Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)

The longest continuous stretch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about fifteen minutes (the film runs eighty). Small California city doctor Kevin McCarthy and his long-lost lady friend Dana Wynter have just spent the night holed up in his office, hiding from their neighbors, who have all been replaced by “pod people.” The pods are giant seedpods. They birth human facsimiles, down to scars, memories, and current injuries. They just don’t have any emotion. The evening before is another lengthy sequence, but not continuous like this fifteen minute one, which comes at the end of the second act. It doesn’t exactly end the second act because the third act is really wonky (Body Snatchers had just about as much studio post-production interference as a film can have, down to the studio literally cropping director Siegel and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks’s framing by ten percent).

After a big hint McCarthy and Wynter consummated their reuniting—it’s a shame McCarthy doesn’t get to talk about it, from his third scene in the film he’s constantly chatting up the ladies—the bad guys arrive and give McCarthy, Wynter, and the audience an information dump. It’s all about where the pods come from—outer space—and how McCarthy and Wynter are just going to love being passionless. Despite being a tell-all moment, the dump doesn’t feel like one. Daniel Mainwaring’s script is great—especially when characters get to monologue (save when Wynter gets lovey-dovey in an even more panicked moment)—and the actors’ not quite emotive enough delivery is perfect. Siegel does a great job directing his actors; at least the actors who matter. The occasional gas station attendant gets a pass.

As McCarthy and Wynter are faced with their loveless (sexless?) future, they start to break down before thinking their way out of the situation only to end up betrayed by their humanity and on the run into the mountains surrounding the town and, presumably, the third act.

But that third act is the wonky thing I mentioned before. See, Body Snatchers has a framing device—McCarthy telling disbelieving doctors and state troopers about what’s going on in his hometown. The pods have taken over, they’ve got to believe him, it’s almost too late to save everyone from being the same! Okay, he probably doesn’t say the thing about being the same at the beginning because part of the wonkiness is how much Body Snatchers just gives up on internal consistency. There’s three layers to the narrative. McCarthy on screen in the framing, McCarthy on screen in the flashback, McCarthy narrating the flashback (from the frame). The third, the narration, proves the most problematic in the third act. There are plot holes to jump over or at least to address and the narration plows over them instead. It’s a big missed opportunity, especially since it takes the film away from omnipresent protagonist McCarthy at the end.

Though it doesn’t help the frame already forces a protracted distance from McCarthy, which the narration and the actual story help to correct. Right up until the third act smacks it even further away than before.

The entire thing hinges on McCarthy. Body Snatchers isn’t about the fear of being replaced, it’s about the panic of being in danger. When the film starts and McCarthy is hearing about all the slightly weird stuff going on in town, people desperate to get an appointment then cancelling, kids not thinking their parents are their parents anymore, the opening has the audience primed for how it’s all going to play out. It plays out gradually, with recent divorcee McCarthy pursuing even recenter divorcee Wynter as fast as he can. He literally can’t keep his hands off of her. There’s the lovey dovey in the script and there’s some chemistry thanks to the direction, but you know McCarthy’s crazy about Wynter because McCarthy appears to be uncontrollably crazy about Wynter. And their romance subplot introduces some more information about the goings on before the first pod person shows up.

McCarthy’s pal, King Donovan, ruins their date because he’s found what appears to be a body and wants McCarthy to take a look at it. For a while, Donovan and Carolyn Jones (as his wife) are the main supporting leads. Because they’re panicked and they’re active so they end up around McCarthy. When it seems like Wynter isn’t going to be part of this core, McCarthy brings her into it. Very smart script, plotting-wise. Once McCarthy and Donovan start investigating, they’re going to discover missing bodies, strange gatherings in suburbia, and what’s better than dry martinis for putting on the steaks.

Because even though they’re in danger of being replaced by the pod people, they’re not going to miss out on steaks and martinis. It’s the fifties and they are Americans, after all. Panic can only drive you so far. If you skip martinis, the pod people win. And, somehow, magnificently, it all works. When Body Snatchers is being quiet about the culture it’s portraying, it excels. When it tries to explain what that portrayal means… the opposite. Are the “pod people”—who are without love, desire, ambition, faith—stand-ins for communists? Stand-ins for McCarthyists (no relation)? McCarthy (actor Kevin) apparently thought it was a comment on “Madison Avenue”-types. But it seems like something, only it’s really unfocused and the narration plays directly against what’s described and portrayed in the action. By the end, McCarthy is just ranting nonsensically, not because he’s panicked, not because he’s exhausted, but because the script doesn’t have the answer.

Excellent acting from McCarthy throughout, with really strong support from Donovan and Larry Gates. Jones is good. Wynter is… often good, sometimes thin. She’s got too much of an English accent, which the film explains by her living in England for five years but… really?

Jean Willes and Virginia Christine are good in the other two biggest roles. Most of the townsfolk, pod or not, are background.

Great direction from Siegel. You wish you could see the other ten percent of his framing. There are a lot of night exteriors and Fredericks’s photography on them is glorious. Fredericks’s photography is superb throughout, but those night shots are exceptional.

Good enough score from Carmen Dragon, good enough editing from Robert S. Eisen.

Great production design from Ted Haworth.

Even with the three times clunky finish—even without the framing device, it’s impossible to imagine what the film would play like without the added narration and since that narration screws up the third act, there’s not a lot going right outside the spectacular technical filmmaking-Invasion of the Body Snatchers is exquisite. It’s a step higher than almost great (so pretty great?). It just should and could be better. And—rather frustratingly—would have been better, had the studio just kept their hands off it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, based on a story by Jack Finney; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Robert S. Eisen; music by Carmen Dragon; production designer, Ted Haworth; released by Allied Artists.

Starring Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Miles J. Bennell), Dana Wynter (Becky Driscoll), Larry Gates (Dr. Danny Kauffman), King Donovan (Jack Belicec), Carolyn Jones (Teddy Belicec), Jean Willes (Sally Withers), Ralph Dumke (Police Chief Nick Grivett), Virginia Christine (Wilma Lentz), and Tom Fadden (Uncle Ira Lentz).


RELATED

The Ten Commandments (1956, Cecil B. DeMille)

While Yul Brynner easily gives the best performance in Ten Commandments, until the second half of the movie Anne Baxter gives the most amusing one. She's an Egyptian princess and she's going to marry the next pharaoh. The next pharaoh is either Brynner or Charlton Heston. Cedric Hardwicke is the current pharaoh and Brynner’s dad. Heston is Hardwicke’s nephew, though no one knows Heston is actually an adoptive nephew because mom Nina Foch pulled him out of the river. His real mom had to get rid of him because Hardwicke’s dad, pharaoh at the time, was going to kill all the newborn Hebrew male babies because a falling star told them a newborn male Hebrew baby would lead the enslaved Israelites out of bondage.

So, you know, it's hard to really get into the zone with Commandments when the historical inaccuracies, regardless of whether the filmmakers knew they were inaccurate at the time, slap you in the face. There's already a big artificially enforced narrative distance because director DeMille comes out at the beginning to tell you to be scared of Frankenstein—wait, wrong movie—but director DeMille does introduce the film and tell of its historical accuracy. Sure.

There's also the enforced distance from DeMille’s bible-y but not actual Bible narration. Sadly he never says anything about like, “And lo, Anne Baxter was hot for Charlton Heston’s shiny bod.” It’s a scenery chewing part for Baxter and many of her scenes end with her almost staring into the camera, punctuating her actions in the scene (it occasionally feels like DeMille is doing some kind of Mae West gag). Baxter’s miscast, but has good chemistry with her costars, even if that chemistry never really amounts to any actual sincere moments. Maybe other than Baxter not being able to stand Brynner, which gets less funny in the second half after she has to marry him.

The first half of Ten Commandments—well, more than half; up until intermission—the first half is Heston getting stuck finishing a project Brynner screwed up on because he couldn’t get the Hebrew slaves to build a monument city for Hardwicke fast enough. Heston becomes quickly sympathetic to the slaves’ plight after the Egyptian foremen want to run a trapped old woman (Martha Scott) down with these giant statue pieces. Water bearer Debra Paget tries to save her, can’t, kind of gets stuck, which causes her beau, John Derek (who’s actually greased up more than Heston throughout), to try to save them. He punches out an Egyptian to do it, causing the foreman to stop construction so they can kill him first. Paget goes to get Heston who saves the day because Charlton Heston.

It doesn’t take long for Brynner to conspire against Heston, who’s getting the slaves to work by being nice to them; Brynner screwing with things for Heston eventually leads to Heston finding out he’s adopted and he’s Hebrew. As such, Heston decides he’s got to go become a slave incognito, even though Baxter keeps trying to talk him out of it. Heston gets cast out of Egypt once he gets busted, so Baxter is stuck marrying Brynner. Heston is ostensibly going to pine away for Baxter but once he runs into Yvonne De Carlo and her six horny sisters, his heart starts to mend. It helps De Carlo is willing to share the hole in Heston’s heart with God, who happens to frequently visit a nearby mountain and Heston wants to give him a piece of his mind.

Before intermission, Ten Commandments is always moving. There’s always something going on, always some subplot percolating and then boiling over. Least effective (initially) is star-crossed lovers Paget and Derek. See, Paget’s a really hot slave so all the guys want her, like master builder Vincent Price and scumbag narc slave Edward G. Robinson. And then there’s this fake subplot about Hardwicke’s big party, which occurs but isn’t really a big party. It’s foreshadowing of the second half’s scale issues.

Ten Commandments takes a hit in the second half. There are the plagues, there’s Heston the Silver Fox, there’s the Red Sea, there are the dead firstborn sons, there’s all sorts of stuff and it’s never impressive. The Ten Commandments’s special effects aren’t spectacular. They’re not even particularly inventive. They seem like they were difficult to pull off, but they aren’t the better for that effort. A lot of the problem is the lousy matte shots. Loyal Griggs does an okay job with the photography throughout—there’s not much he can do when they’re shooting exterior scenes on a sound stage, Commandments has a crappy sky backdrop—but he does well with the epic exterior shots and so on. Well, the orgy scene is a little goofy photography-wise but it’s just a little goofy overall.

But until the actual exodus occurs, the second half is mostly Heston threatening Brynner with a plague if he doesn’t free the slaves. Brynner tells Heston to stick it, plague happens, Brynner tells his advisors to stick it, then Heston to stick it, then another plague. By the end of the movie, Brynner’s kind of trapped in this pitch black comedy about being way too vain and way too stupid. Only he wasn’t stupid in the first half. But whatever.

Baxter’s less fun in the second half too because the chemistry with Heston is gone. It’s not like she hits on godly Silver Fox Heston and there’s some spark. There couldn’t be; a spark would light his robes on fire. It’s also indicative of the biggest second half issue—Heston. He ceases to be the protagonist and instead is some kind of bit player who comes on to scare, confuse, or inspire the other cast members. The movie never figures out how to handle Heston now getting divine guidance or how much he knows about what’s going to happen. There’s a disconnect between script and performance on it too, at which point Commandments is just out of luck because DeMille’s already established he doesn’t give a crap about directing the performances.

If he did, he would have gotten enough coverage of dialogue scenes between Heston and Baxter editor Anne Bauchens isn’t stuck doing a harsh cut every single time they go from medium to long shot. Every single time. Actors are on different marks and stuff. Looking in other directions. It’s very lackadaisical, which the movie might be able to get away with if DeMille actually had some great special effects sequences in store. He’s got some enormous scale sequences in store, but what DeMille delivers after all that obviously outstanding coordination between his set decorators and the production managers and whoever yelled at extras? It’s decidedly lacking.

Maybe if there were some booming Heston performance to hold things together but nope. And Brynner and Baxter’s second half arc fills time but is far from successful. It gets time, but that time never pays off. It comes closer than the Robinson stuff, which also never pays off but also gets a lot less engaging as time goes on. It’s too bad; Robinson gives one of the film’s better performances.

Everyone’s basically okay. Except Paget. And Derek’s really one-note. And Price. And Judith Anderson’s mean nanny. And, kind of Hardwicke. Like, you want to cut Hardwicke slack because he’s miscast, but he’s also thin. Like. The part’s thin, he’s miscast, but the performance is still slack. Baxter’s good with him though, probably better than with anyone else. Poor De Carlo comes in before intermission, gets back burnered for her six sisters to make their play for Heston, comes back in, gets more to do, then disappears once intermission’s over. She gets one more significant scene, where Baxter gets to chew up the scene around her. So bummer for De Carlo.

Foch is good as Heston’s adoptive mom.

Pretty good Elmer Bernstein score.

It’s a lot of movie. Some of its good, some of it isn’t, some of it is impressive, more of it isn’t. Brynner’s performance is about the only unqualified plus.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille; screenplay by Æneas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, and Fredric M. Frank, based on material from books by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, J.H. Ingraham, and A.E. Southon; director of photography, Loyal Griggs; edited by Anne Bauchens; music by Elmer Bernstein; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Charlton Heston (Moses), Yul Brynner (Rameses), Anne Baxter (Nefretiri), Cedric Hardwicke (Sethi), John Derek (Joshua), Debra Paget (Lilia), Edward G. Robinson (Dathan), Nina Foch (Bithiah), Yvonne De Carlo (Sephora), John Carradine (Aaron), Martha Scott (Yochabel), Judith Anderson (Memnet), and Vincent Price (Baka); narrated by Cecil B. DeMille.


RELATED