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Honor System

What I’ve Been Watching: They Came to Cordura (1959).

Who’s Responsible: Robert Rossen (director); Ivan Moffat, Rossen (screenwriters); Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin (stars).

Why I Watched It: Coop and Rita? Please.

Seen It Before? Yes.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 7.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 2.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 6.

And? Col. Rogers (Robert Keith, the poor man’s Les Tremayne) leads a cavalry unit of the “punitive expedition” sent to Mexico in 1916, in retaliation for Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico. Maj. Thomas Thorn (Cooper)—whose father, killed in action, served with Rogers—is in charge of recommending men for the Congressional Medal of Honor and writing their citations. He has suggested that his first candidate, Pvt. Andrew Hetherington (Michael Callan), be sent back to the base at Cordura until the citation is approved; most Medals of Honor are awarded posthumously, and with the U.S. shortly expected to enter World War I, it is seen as desirable to have live heroes as role models.

 

For that reason, Thorn and Hetherington are ordered to hang back when Rogers leads an old-school cavalry charge on a hacienda filled with Villistas and owned by the proverbial fallen woman, Adelaide Geary (Hayworth). Although it does accomplish its objectives, Thorn considers the assault a fiasco and refuses to recommend Rogers for a medal; stung, he orders Thorn to escort Geary—charged with giving aid and comfort to the enemy—to Cordura personally, with four additional nominees from the charge: Sgt. John Chawk (Heflin), Lt. William Fowler (Tab Hunter), Cpl. Milo Trubee (Richard Conte), and Pvt. Renziehausen (Dick York). Who among them will reach Cordura? Therein lies the tale.

 

I had only so-so memories of this film—based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, as were the likes of Where the Boys Are (1960) and The Shootist (1976)—but with two favorites toplining it, I gave it another spin, and quickly recalled that it had simply been a case of false expectations. Rita is probably my ultimate 1940s screen goddess (off-the-cuff nominees for her immediate successors being Grace Kelly and Raquel Welch, respectively, in the ’50s and ’60s) . So it was a little sad to see her so far from her luminescence opposite Fred Astaire in the aptly titled You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and yes, that number reduces me to tears faster than ever. Also, like The Shootist, this is much more than a straight-up oater, whose theme she herself states overtly: “One act of cowardice doesn’t make a man a coward forever, just as one act of bravery doesn’t make a man a hero forever.”

 

For we gradually learn two things, the first being that Rogers, in honor of Thorn’s father, covered up the fact that at Columbus, Thorn cowered in a ditch…and Rogers, it turns out, is not the only one who knows it. The second is that, however brave circumstances might have led them to be during the assault, each of the “hacienda quartet” is deeply flawed in one way or another, so much so that Thorn eventually has more to fear at their hands than at those of the Villistas they seek to avoid. So the story is a meditation on courage and cowardice, as he tries to understand how the others—worthy or not—found the courage he’d lacked and, perhaps (like Geary to a lesser degree), find some sort of redemption in the process.

 

There’s something fun about watching a film that, after a certain point, is restricted to seven characters—all of them played by actors I know, even if one of them, Heflin, is among my biggest bêtes noires; he and Conte, conversely an old favorite, both play pretty disreputable guys here. Yes, it’s that Dick York, the original Darrin on Bewitched (who reportedly suffered a back injury while making this film that had a detrimental effect on the rest of his life and career), and speaking of sitcoms, Edward Platt, the Chief on Get Smart, has a nice supporting role at the beginning. Hunter amply demonstrates why he never won an Oscar, although perhaps his performance was too subtle for me, because John Wayne was supposedly outraged by a gay subtext regarding him and Coop that went right over my head. The character least defined by the script is that played by Callan, recalled in BOF circles for Harryhausen‘s Mysterious Island (1961) and the Matheson-based Journey to the Unknown episode “Girl of My Dreams.”

 

Although it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen it, this would appear to be the stylistic opposite of Rossen’s next, penultimate, and presumably best-known film as a writer-director, The Hustler (1961), although it’s interesting that in his pre-directorial days, he worked on no fewer than three Humphrey Bogart vehicles: Marked Woman (1937), Racket Busters (1938), and The Roaring Twenties (1939). Of the two late-career leads, Coop comes off better despite having just two years and two films—The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) and The Naked Edge (1961)—ahead of him, and apparently the film was widely criticized for the discrepancy between his age and Thorn’s. Like Cary Grant and Astaire, Rita always looks better in black and white, but in fairness, her character should appear as though she (like poor Rita herself) had seen some hard living.

What I’ve Been Watching: Coneheads (1993).

Who’s Responsible: Steve Barron (director); Tom Davis, Dan Aykroyd, Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner (screenwriters); Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Michelle Burke (stars).

Why I Watched It: Numerous reasons, at least partly elucidated below.

Seen It Before? Yeah, baby.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 8½ (an oblique nod to my daughter’s recent wedding).

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): Off the charts. “Mebs!”

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 8.

And? Years ago—or I should say starting years ago, since it never stopped per se—the guys razzed me relentlessly for praising this film, a critical appraisal that doubtless epitomized my reputation as, shall we say, an easy lay. So it was with a mixture of nostalgic affection and profound curiosity that I finally embarked upon a re-viewing, wondering if I’d be forced to recant, but I won’t keep you in suspense: I loved it, again. If you watched Saturday Night Live back in the day (1977-’79) and simply never liked the sketches that introduced these characters, then I would understand that the feature-film spin-off is not for you, but if you were a fan, as I was, I can’t see not enjoying this.

 

The sketches—of which I was surprised to see there were fewer than a dozen—depicted the Earthbound escapades of Beldar (Aykroyd), Prymaat (Curtin), and daughter Connie (Laraine Newman) Conehead, who are natives of the planet Remulak, but explain their strange behavior by insisting, “We are from France.” I also did not know, until I started researching this piece like a responsible blogger (or is that an oxymoron?), that the film largely followed the plot of a 1983 Rankin/Bass animated special, which I avoided like the plague if I was even aware of it. And, believe it or not, Burke was so convincingly recast as Connie that throughout the entire picture, I did not know she wasn’t Newman.

 

Spinning sketch characters off into a film is usually, as my own beloved daughter would say, an epic fail, and requires a strong rationale, of which in my opinion this has not one but two. The first is a conceptually sound story too substantial to fit within the confines of a sketch, in this case the gradual realization by INS Deputy Commissioner Gorman Seedling (Michael McKean) and his delightfully slimy subordinate, Agent Eli Turnbull (David Spade), that the illegal aliens they’re tracking are literally aliens. The second is production values that, again, exceed TV’s limitations, here treating us to an actual look at Remulak, complete with a stop-motion monster by no less than Phil Phreakin’ Tippett.

 

As the credits unspooled, I was struck by the dichotomy between the largely unfamiliar names in the crew (excepting co-writer Aykroyd, who I gather was primarily responsible for developing the characters…inspired in part by 1955 Gil-fave This Island Earth!) and the comedic who’s-who of the cast. Director Barron is a TV and music-video guy, while the husband-and-wife Turners are SNL vets; seeing his name in isolation, I stupidly did not realize that this was Davis as in “Franken and.” Other roles, mostly Remulakians, are played by SNL alums Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, John Lovitz, Garrett Morris, and Adam Sandler; Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander and Michael Richards; SCTV’s Dave Thomas, et al.

 

Lovitz is magnificently deadpan as Dr. Rudolph, the dentist who helps Beldar blend in by capping his Zuni-doll teeth (later provoking the ire of Remulakian “Highmaster” Thomas), and Alexander sports a hilariously awful rug as their next-door neighbor, Larry Farber. You know a movie’s good when it gets you to like people you normally can’t stand, e.g., Sandler, who made me do a double-take in his single scene as the mobster who provides Beldar with a dead man’s Social Security number, thus alerting the INS. My heart sank when I saw the names of frequent co-stars Spade and Farley, but the former is splendidly sycophantic, while Farley’s auto mechanic, Ronnie, provides Connie’s romantic interest.

 

What can I say about the awesomeness of McKean, whose range extends from Laverne & Shirley’s Lenny during my misspent youth and the spectacularly dim David St. Hubbins in This Is Spinal Tap (1984) to The X-Files, for Heaven’s sake, and who is brilliant as the single-minded Seedling? I enjoyed the Coneheads’ clever speech patterns (“Maintain low tones!”) and offbeat mannerisms as much as I did in the sketches. And I loved the ingenuity with which they camouflaged their cones for the costume party: Beldar with Abe Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, Connie with a princess’s hennin (you may have to look that one up, as I did), and Prymaat by coloring it red and going as a giant lipstick. Great stuff.

Like a perfect counterweight, the higher On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) rises in my estimation, the lower its immediate successor, Diamonds Are Forever (1971), descends. Why?

 

Glad you asked…

 

  • Guy Hamilton. Back in ’65, having done as much as anyone to get the franchise off to a successful start with Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963), returning director Terence Young had been placed in the strange position of trying to make Thunderball equal or outdo Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964), which in many ways formed the template for the rest of the series. Now, after the upheaval of OHMSS, Hamilton himself was brought back to try to replicate his monster hit, and their intent is sometimes all too transparent. Stay tuned.
  • Richard Maibaum. Not faulting him per se, since I consider him one of the bedrocks of the series, and we’ll never know just who contributed what. But if I remember my 007 lore correctly, he was behind the early concept of making the villain Goldfinger’s brother (see what I mean?), played again by Gert Frobe. As Professor Flynn would say, “Ofah.”
  • Tom Mankiewicz. If a single one of these bullets deserves the appellation “Strike One,” this is it. Much as I’ve always lamented the jokiness that increasingly infected the series during the Roger Moore-era decline, I’m obliged to admit that it didn’t start there, and Mankiewicz is widely regarded as its source, so for that alone may he be burned in effigy.
  • Sean Connery. Heresy? Look, I am second to none in my affection for Connery and my conviction that, in his prime, he was the definitive Bond. Back in ’71, it was the biggest possible deal that Sean was back in harness, even if in recent years I have reversed my contention that OHMSS would have been the ultimate Bond movie had he starred in it. (Somewhat paradoxically, although I think Lazenby was underrated, I also think it’s best that he did only one…but that’s a story for another day.) However, “in his prime” is the operative phrase, so I’ll come right out and say this: HE’S TOO OLD to be a credible Bond. No, at 41 by the time of the film’s release, he was hardly decrepit, but people age differently, and even in those five years between Dr. No and You Only Live Twice (1967), he’d been starting to show signs of wear and tear. We won’t even talk about Never Say Never Again (1983).
  • Jill St. John. Well, she’s occasionally droll, and admittedly decorative, and…that’s about it. Granted, following Emma Freakin’ Peel as the lead Bond Girl is beyond tough, but as Tiffany Case, she brings very little to the craps table besides that well-filled purple bikini (aptly, my favorite color).
  • Charles Gray. Listen, he was brilliant in The Devil Rides Out (1968), and a welcome presence in countless other films, but St. John’s predicament was a walk in the park compared to his, ostensibly playing the same character as the hands-on and superbly formidable Telly Savalas in OHMSS. “Science was never my strong suit,” Blofeld says, a bizarre claim for a chap who, when last seen, was a specialist of global standing in the field of allergies. Suffice it to say that at one point ol’ Ernst actually appears in drag (and he’s no Caitlin Jenner), presumably one more thing to lay at the doorstep of Mankiewicz.
  • Lana Wood. Yeah, okay, she was Natalie’s sister; so what? As Plenty O’Toole (“Named after your father perhaps?”—oh, Tom, you wag), she just adds to the Bond-Girl Vacuum.
  • Jimmy Dean. I initially went the obvious route and wrote, “Dude, go back to making sausages,” but as the film progressed, I realized I was being somewhat unfair. True, he stands out like a sore thumb in a Bond movie, yet he’s also a welcome breath of fresh air, enlivening things late in the game. His role of Willard Whyte (allowing for the charming pun of “The Whyte House”) was obviously inspired by Howard Hughes. Yet did you know that Hughes was a good friend of Bond producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli’s, and not only smoothed the production’s way on his home turf in Vegas, but also appeared in a dream of Cubby’s that inspired a major plot twist? Read my Cinema Retro article!
  • Bruce Cabot. WTF? Almost 40 years earlier, Cabot had played the—for lack of a better term—juvenile lead in the original King Kong (1933). Admittedly, he doesn’t actually do anything wrong as Whyte’s treacherous right-hand man, Bert Saxby (“Tell him he’s fired”). But still…WTF?
  • Putter Smith/Bruce Glover. I’d like to say as little about these two as possible. It’s true that hitmen Wint and Kidd were gay in Ian Fleming’s novel (only some of which made its way into the movie, naturlich). But while some—you know who you are—find these onscreen caricatures amusing, I find them hateful and offensive in the extreme. And, by the way, I don’t think a scorpion’s sting will make you drop dead immediately like that.
  • Norman Burton. Like Cabot, he doesn’t do anything wrong per se, but of all the many actors to play Bond’s CIA pal, Felix Leiter, he is almost certainly the least interesting. This guy makes Goldfinger’s avuncular Cec Linder (who played Dr. Roney in the original BBC version of Nigel Kneale‘s Quatermass and the Pit, if you can believe it) look positively charismatic in comparison.
  • Bernard Lee. Make no mistake, I love the guy, even if the movies increasingly depicted M as having a rod up his ass that was less present in Fleming. But as written here, he’s more than a little insensitive about demanding “a little plain, solid work” out of a 007 who’s recently been trying to avenge his wife’s murder. More on that in just a moment.
  • Desmond Llewelyn. Q comes off the best of the three series regulars in this installment, although that’s setting the bar pretty low. He’s understandably miffed when Bond abruptly hangs up on him, but charmingly modest about his voicebox gizmo (“an amusing little notion,” I believe he calls it), and the slot-machine bit with Tiffany is fun.
  • Leonard Barr. Come on. This guy was a punchline on The Odd Couple (“Tell us about your career, Slugger”), and he turns up in a Bond movie? Yeah, we know the real reason is that he was Las Vegas Rat Pack member Dean Martin’s uncle. The insult comedy of Shady Tree (one of whose “Acorns” is supposedly an uncredited Valerie Perrine; you can’t prove it by me, but then again, who cares?) makes Don Rickles look warm and fuzzy, although it does give me the opportunity for this observation: how perfect is it that this inexcusably—yes, I’ll use the word—schleppy film’s primary location is Vegas, a byword for flashy, empty, sleazy spectacle? They reportedly didn’t even need any extra lighting for the nighttime scenes, including that tiresome demolition-derby-style car chase, which was probably inspired by the stock-car race in OHMSS and, alas, endlessly aped in subsequent entries. That said, I’ve never outgrown my 8-year-old’s fondness for the lunacy, if you’ll pardon the pun, of the moon-buggy chase, especially seeing 007 on the mocked-up lunar surface.
  • Lois Maxwell. Same deal as with Lee, but far worse. Moneypenny was last seen weeping at James’s wedding. Now, when asked if she wants anything from Holland, she requests a diamond ring…from the guy who was widowed minutes after the ceremony. SERIOUSLY?????
  • Joe Robinson. Had to look up the name of the guy who played ill-fated smuggler Peter Franks, which tells you what a nonentity he was. But it’s the character, or rather the circumstances surrounding his death, that makes my blood boil. After Bond, posing as Franks, kills the guy and switches their i.d.’s to preserve his masquerade, Case says, “My God! You just killed James Bond!” Acknowledging Bond as a household word, that not only is an irksome little bit of metatextuality (exacerbated, not surprisingly, in the dire A View to a Kill [1985]), but also completely subverts the whole idea of a spy, whose very essence is anonymity. Duh.
  • Laurence Naismith. Again, nothing against him personally; in fact, I’m fond of him in Ray Harryhausen‘s Jason and the Argonauts (1963)—as the eponymous Argos—and elsewhere. But the establishing scene of his lecture about diamonds epitomizes what I was saying about this film as a Goldfinger wannabe, shamelessly copying that film’s lecture on gold by Colonel Smithers (Richard Vernon), right down to M’s petulance regarding the sherry.
  • Marc Lawrence. Another guy I’m not faulting personally. He was a welcome heavy in endless films, and Barbara Shelley told me he was a good friend when they were working together in Italy in the 1950s. (“He always played gangsters; as, although very kind, he looked like a gangster.”) But it says something when that guy has two of the best lines in a Bond picture: “I got a brudder” and “I didn’t know there was a pool down there.”
  • Ed Bishop. Actually, I always liked his bit as Klaus Hergersheimer, the poor schlepp from Section G who’s checking radiation shields, which also gives Joseph Furst one of the film’s best lines (to Bond) as Dr. Metz: “Will you please leave, you irritating man?” And how cool is it that the star of UFO is in a Bond movie?
  • Roy Hollis. Again, had to look up the name of the uncredited guy who plays the Sheriff (and, per the IMDb, does so again as a Louisiana counterpart in Live and Let Die [1973]). Sure, he’s tiresome. But I swear to God, he reminds me of Robert Aldrich every time…
  • Lola Larson/Trina Parks. Am I a sexist if I dislike seeing Bond get his ass kicked by the biracial Olga Korbut twins, Bambi and Thumper? (Poor Walt.) If so, I apologize, but in my defense, I get even more annoyed when—after throwing 007 into the pool—these two suddenly become as formidable as low-voltage jellyfish when subjected to…a dunking.
  • Shane Rimmer. Not a slam but a salute. Has any other actor played as many different roles in the series, culminating in the sub commander in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)?
  • John Barry. Anybody who seriously thinks I’m gonna criticize John Barry should just get the hell out of here right now. And in fact, I think his theme song (sung by Shirley Bassey, as was “Goldfinger.” Get it?) is one of the best. But it reminds me to mention that I think Maurice Binder phoned it in with a somewhat perfunctory credit sequence. Barry’s faux Vegas cues seem suitable, sometimes getting stuck in my head like Velcro, and his original “007 Theme” (introduced in FRWL) makes a welcome return appearance; at least once he also does that neat John Barry trick of hybridizing the title tune with “The James Bond Theme.”
  • Ken Adam. The justly celebrated Bond production designer neither distinguishes nor embarrasses himself with this one. Whyte’s penthouse is fine, but the sunken central scale-model bit dates back to—you guessed it—Goldfinger, and the setting of the climax is…an oil rig. Yes, it’s a very handsome oil rig, but at the end of the day, it’s…an oil rig.

photo (1)

 

…here’s my Mom, doing what she loves best.

She turned 84 on the Fourth of July.  We had celebrated the Sunday before with a screening of Lawrence of Arabia (the first time for her and Madame BOF, both of whom loved it), part of Film Forum’s Alec Guinness centennial tribute, and a lovely dinner of paella for me and tapas for the ladies at Café Espanol, one of my old hangouts from when the Movie Knights and I worked a block away at Penguin USA.

 

Goodbye

I’m so glad I posted that photo.  We lost Rex a little while ago.

I had just submitted my latest post for Marvel University, and was checking my e-mail with my right hand while cradling a snoozing Rexy on my left arm—a familiar sight.  Suddenly, he jumped up with a bewildered look, as if to say, “Where the heck am I?,” as though he’d woken up from a bad dream, turned around, gasped a couple of times, and that was it.

He died two years to the day after his original nominal foster mother, Diane.  He outlived his expected lifespan by about five months, must have been relieved to spend his last couple of weeks not lugging that big tumor around, clearly felt little if any pain, and literally died in a loving embrace.  We should all be so lucky.

None of which is any consolation in the short run to a devastated Loreen.  It’s only now, after about an hour, that I’ve been able to bring myself to put him down.  I just kept him cradled in my arms, absurdly petting him, because somehow if I was still holding him, he would just be sleeping, but if I put him down, he would be really and truly dead.

We’ve got tickets to Cabaret for tonight.  Can’t wait.

Goodbye, little guy.  I loved you more than I ever thought possible.  I’m crying too hard to write any more.  Thank you all for your prayers and support.

Bradley out.

Peacable Kingdom

With Rex recovering from the removal of a benign mammary tumor (he’s having his stitches out on Monday), it seemed like as good a time as any to upload this photo…

 

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It was taken at the tail-end (ha ha) of the Christmastime 2013 visit by my daughter, Alexandra, with my son-in-law-elect, Thomas, and his sister, Jocelyn.  That’s Rexy—the most common of whose countless Madame BOF-ascribed sobriquets is Doodley Day—on my left shoulder, natch, with our nut-job ex-feral, Sally, sprawled on my right arm and poor Mina‘s surviving sister, Lucy, tucked into my right hip…

A Chronological Subjective Journey Through His Oeuvre,

Punctuated with Excerpts from Truffaut by Truffaut*

  • Baisers Volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968)
  • La Sirène du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid, 1969)
  • L’Enfant Sauvage (The Wild Child, 1970)

Once again, we begin with the latest installment of Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical cycle about Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), to which it must have been a relief to return after reportedly clashing with his leading man or (now former) cinematographer on his last three features; Raoul Coutard’s replacement, Denys Clerval, would shoot his next film as well.  Truffaut collaborated on the script with Claude de Givray, who was an assistant director on Les Mistons and his co-writer on several projects he did not direct, and Bernard Revon, both of whom would re-up with Doinel for Bed and Board.  By the way, I must sheepishly admit to only recently realizing that the woman Antoine encounters in the street with her husband, Albert Tazzi (Jean-François Adam), is Colette, who is uncredited, unidentified by name in the film, and played by the returning Marie-France Pisier at a far younger age than I would know her from Chanel Solitaire.

The fact that this is my longtime favorite among Truffaut’s work, an Oscar and Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film, makes it difficult for me to write about with any kind of objectivity.  I believe it was the second one I ever saw—courtesy of a college course—after a library screening of Fahrenheit 451 back in the pre-VCR era, as my love for science fiction far predated my interest in the French New Wave (or, more precisely, in Truffaut, since Godard et al. have never had a similar effect on me).  Typical of the cycle, it is not plot-heavy, but has three predominant narrative threads:  Antoine’s hilariously inept search for gainful employment, most notably with the Blady detective agency; his wooing of Christine Darbon (Claude Jade) and, as with Colette, warm relationship with her father, Lucien (Daniel Ceccaldi from The Soft Skin), and mother (Claire Duhamel); and his obsession with Mme. Fabienne Tabard (Delphine Seyrig).

Perhaps inevitably, the film’s original soundtrack—Antoine Duhamel’s first of four consecutive scores for Truffaut—is overshadowed by its signature tune, “Que reste-t-il de nos amours? [What remains of our love?],” which you just know I’m firing up repeatedly on YouTube as I write this, although misting up makes it a little hard to see the keyboard.  Legendary singer-songwriter Charles Trenet’s 1942 hit, from whose lyrics Truffaut took his highly appropriate title, was popularized Stateside in 1957 by Keely Smith, retitled “I Wish You Love” with new lyrics, while I know at least one reader will perk up significantly when he learns, as I just did, that according to Wikipedia, “His romantic ballad ‘La Mer’ was reworked by Bobby Darin into the million-selling smash ‘Beyond the Sea.’”  I’m a man of many nicknames, but the Pavlovian opening of my tear ducts in response to this film and song epitomizes my Maudlin Man moniker.

They are not exactly tears of joy, because I now know that Antoine and Christine’s marriage is a rocky one that will ultimately end in divorce thanks to Antoine’s infidelity, and while he can be quite charming, I would never hold him up as an admirable character; Madame BOF finds him completely insufferable and, having dutifully sat through and hated this film, vowed never to watch another Doinel.  They are not exactly tears of sorrow, because this is easily Truffaut’s most lighthearted film to date, one that I mistakenly thought for years was more representative of his oeuvre, with the quirky, humorous touches that characterize his work.  I cry over the simple, girl-next-door beauty of Jade—who for me represents a quintessential Frenchwoman in the best possible way, with whom I fall hopelessly in love every time I watch this picture—and over little touches like her taking his hand in a nightclub, or his silent proposal with a bottle-opener “ring.”

Dishonorably discharged from the army for being chronically AWOL, Antoine fulfills a vow that he will avail himself of a prostitute at a certain hour, then takes and loses a job as a hotel night clerk after being used as an unwitting pawn in a divorce scam by a representative of the Blady Agency, which soon hires him.  After various misadventures, he is assigned to be a “periscope,” working undercover as a stock boy when shoe-store owner Georges Tabard (Mich[a]el Lonsdale) hires the firm to find out why his staff detests him.  It says something about my love for this film that it transcends a reflexive aversion to Lonsdale, who set a new low for Bond villains as Hugo Drax in Moonraker (1979)—although I grew to respect him in films like Frankenheimer’s Ronin (1998)—and to Seyrig, the star of the late Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) but, for me, a grim reminder of her bisexual vampire in the nasty Daughters of Darkness (1971), and a far distant second to Jade.

Antoine’s personal and professional fortunes are constantly intertwined.  It is through his work at the store that he meets and becomes fixated on Fabienne, and when asked while checking in to describe her, he rhapsodizes to such a degree that he is curtly told, “What we want is a report, not a declaration of love!”  His conflicted feelings about the women in his life manifest themselves in a strange scene—which I won’t even attempt to explain—where Antoine stares into the mirror while repeating their names and his over and over.  After he sends her a love letter, Fabienne appears at his apartment for a never-to-be-repeated tryst to get it out of both their systems, but because of the surveillance, Antoine must admit the meeting and is fired again.  Finally, when he becomes a TV repairman, Christine (who had resisted when he “stole a kiss” from her in her parents’ cellar) disables their set as a pretext to summon him, and the two are next seen sleeping in bed together.

Truffaut shot the movie while embroiled in the controversy over the firing of the Cinémathèque Française’s Henri Langlois (to whom it is dedicated).  “When my films are finished, I realize that they are always sadder than I would have liked.  This one…I wanted to be funny.  I don’t know if it is, but in any case we ourselves had fun making it.  When I began to make films…I thought at first that there were funny things and sad things.  Then I tried to pass abruptly from a sad thing to a funny thing.  Today what strikes me as most interesting is to work in such a way that the same thing can be funny and sad all at once.  That is one of the reasons why I asked Charles Trenet’s authorization to use [his lyric] as the title…I think Trenet is the one who has found the truest poetical equilibrium, who has best managed to mingle gravity and frivolity in his songs.  Stolen Kisses is quite simply a film that hopes to resemble a song,” as he wrote in the press book.

I hadn’t realized that Truffaut’s two Cornell Woolrich adaptations were made with only one film in between, and although the fatalistic nature of the second (whose title seems more appropriate in French, La Sirène du Mississippi, given the sinister connotations of “siren”) makes it not too surprising that—according to New York Magazine critic David Edelstein’s TCM introduction—it was his biggest financial failure, I think it deserved better.  The first of his features on which Truffaut had sole screenwriting credit, it updates Woolrich’s 1880 New Orleans setting to the contemporary French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, to which the ship Mississippi brings a woman (Catherine Deneuve) claiming to be Julie Roussel, the mail-order bride of Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo, whom I have loathed since seeing Breathless).  She doesn’t match the photo that Julie had sent him, but Louis clearly falls for her at first sight and marries her anyway.

She says she sent a photo of a neighbor to ensure that Louis did not marry her for her looks, while he wrote that he was the foreman and not the owner of a cigarette factory, because he did not want to be married for his money.  After “Julie” cleans out his bank accounts and disappears, Berthe Roussel (Nelly Borgeaud) arrives, and we learn that her sister was murdered aboard the ship by Richard (Roland Thénot), who later abandoned accomplice Marion Vergano, so they hire private detective Comolli (Michel Bouquet, like Lonsdale an alumnus of The Bride Wore Black) to find the impostor.  In France, Louis spots Marion in some news footage—precisely paralleling the source novel for Vertigo—locates and confronts her, but is unable to kill her; Louis shoots Comolli when he gets too close and refuses to take a bribe, and the couple’s peripatetic future as fugitives seems bleak, despite Louis forgiving Marion for trying to poison him and her declaration of love.

I’d only seen this once before, and that almost certainly in the 1999 “Tout Truffaut” retrospective at the recently redeemed Film Forum, yet it seemed surprisingly familiar.  It’s true that at various times I have also read the 1947 source novel, Waltz into Darkness (I was honored to be asked to weigh in on whether Viking Penguin, where I was then employed, should reissue it, which they did), and seen the 2001 remake, Michael Cristofer’s Original Sin, notorious for its steamy scenes between Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie—talk about something for everyone—but I think there’s more to it than that, perhaps something distinctively Woolrichian.  His future biographer, Francis M. Nevins, Jr., wrote in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers that “love dies while the lovers go on living, and [he] excels at showing the corrosion of a relationship between two people,” plus the theme of imposture recurs in his oft-filmed I Married a Dead Man (1948).

“I read [the novel] when I was doing the adaptation of The Bride Wore Black,” Truffaut told Le Monde in 1969.  “At that time, I actually read everything [he] wrote in order to steep myself in his work and to keep as close as possible to the novel, despite the unfaithfulness necessary in films.  I like to know thoroughly any writer whose book I transpose to the screen [as he had with Goodis and Bradbury]….My final screenplay was less an adaptation in the traditional sense than a choice of scenes.  With this film, I was finally able to realize every director’s dream:  to shoot in chronological order a chronological story that represents an itinerary….[The] shooting began on Réunion Island, continued in Nice, Antibes, Aix-en-Provence, Lyons, to finish in the snow near Grenoble.  The fact of respecting the chronology permitted me to ‘build’ the couple with precision….The Mermaid is above all else the tale of a degradation through love, of a passion.”

The Wild Child marked Truffaut’s first return to black and white since The Soft Skin, and the start of a long collaboration with Nestor Almendros, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), who would shoot the majority of his remaining films.  It is rare among his work in being based directly on fact—specifically, Dr. Jean Itard’s memoir Victor de l’Aveyron—rather than adapted from a literary source or, as in the case of The Soft Skin, merely inspired by actual events.  After reading a 1966 Le Monde review of a thesis by Lucien Malson, Truffaut considered Victor “the clearest and most instructive example” of a child growing up in isolation without any human contact, “studied at length and minutely by…Itard, who became interested in the boy immediately after his capture by hunters in the middle of a forest in the summer of 1798,” he wrote in an article on the making of the film for L’Avant-Scène du Cinéma.

Truffaut noted that in crafting the screenplay with Jean Gruault (a veteran of Jules and Jim who has a small role as “Visitor at Institute”), “the main difficulty was in transposing a text actually consisting of two reports [by] Itard.  The first, dated 1801, was probably intended for the Académie de Médecine; the second, written in 1806, was designed to convince the Ministry of the Interior to renew the pension of Madame Guérin,” the housekeeper in whose care, as the film does not tell us, “Victor lived to the age of forty…doing little jobs and living in peace.”  To solve the problem, “we imagined that Dr. Itard, instead of writing these reports, had kept a daily diary.  This gives the story the allure of a personal chronicle and preserves the author’s style, which is simultaneously scientific, philosophical, moralistic, humanistic, in turns lyrical and familiar.”  He steeped himself in the reports, which is hardly surprising in light of his decision to play Itard.

Unlike Orson Welles, whom he greatly admired, Truffaut only occasionally starred in his own work, and rarely acted outside it—Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) being the notable exception—although he was a talented actor; he cast himself out of practicality rather than vanity.  “It seemed to me that the essential job in this film was not to manage the action but to concern oneself with the child.  I therefore wanted to…deal with him myself and thus avoid going through an intermediary….I would have been saying all day to some gentleman:  ‘Now take the child, make him do that, lead him there,’ and that was what I wanted to do on my own….From the day I decided to play Itard the film took on for me a truly complete and definitive raison d’être.  From this experience I don’t retain the impression of having played a role, but simply of having directed the film ‘in front of’ the camera and not ‘behind,’ as usual.”

Truffaut abandoned the idea of finding someone like a young Nureyev to play Victor, “because the little dancers I saw were really just too sweet.  [So] I went to the opposite idea, which was to go back a little to The Mischief Makers…where I directed five boys from Nîmes, of whom one or two really had something savage about them….I should have liked to find a little boy along those lines.  I sent my assistant to watch when school let out, at Arles, Nîmes, Marseilles, etc.  It was in a street in Montpellier that she noticed, questioned, and photographed among others a little gypsy boy, Jean-Pierre Cargol.”  His performance is so extraordinary that it’s a shame his only other credit was Geoffrey Reeve’s now-obscure Alistair MacLean adaptation Caravan to Vaccares (1974).  As Truffaut told Radio-Canada in 1971, “for the first time, I identified with the adult, the father, so much so that when the editing was finished I dedicated [it] to Jean-Pierre Léaud…”

The simple but absorbing narrative follows Victor—believed to have been left for dead in the forest seven or eight years earlier, at the age of three or four—as he is transferred to the Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Paris, where he is exhibited like a freak, and then fortunately comes to the attention of Itard (1774-1838), who is researching deafness and takes charge of the boy in his own house near Paris.  Although Victor was never able to speak, Itard demonstrated that he was neither deaf nor retarded, and the film effectively depicts both his education and the bond of affection that grows among him, Itard, and the good-hearted Madame Guérin (Françoise Seigner).  Eschewing an original score, Truffaut had Duhamel arrange and conduct the Vivaldi Concerto in C Major for Mandolin and Strings that was later popularized in Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), which coincidentally garnered Almendros another Oscar nomination.

Addendum:  I see Film Forum will begin repeating its “Tout Truffaut” festival on March 28.  Coincidence?

To be continued.

Back to Part II.

*Text and documents compiled by Dominique Rabourdin; translated from the French by Robert Erich Wolf (New York: Abrams, 1987).

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