Feeds:
Posts
Comments

A Chronological Subjective Journey Through His Oeuvre,

Punctuated with Excerpts from Truffaut by Truffaut

 

  • Une Histoire d’Eau (A Story of Water, 1958)
  • Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959)
  • Tirez sur la Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960)
  • Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim, 1962)

Die-hard cinéastes will immediately recognize my title as an homage to writer-director François Truffaut’s seminal book-length interview with one of his idols (and, perhaps not surprisingly, my favorite director), Alfred Hitchcock, which is usually known simply as Hitchcock/Truffaut.  Not having had the luxury of interviewing Truffaut during his all-too-brief lifetime (1932-1984), I am using the next best thing:  my treasured copy of Truffaut by Truffaut (1985), the gorgeous coffee-table volume released in the U.S. by Abrams in ’87, and compiled by film journalist Dominique Rabourdin from a wide variety of Truffaut’s own writings about his life and work, published and previously unpublished.  In fact, it is the enforced brevity of Truffaut’s career—four short films and twenty-one features—that helped me decide to undertake this daunting project, although the precipitating event itself was the TCM Friday Night Spotlight series on Truffaut throughout July.

After Martin Scorsese mentioned in his column for the TCM monthly programming guide, Now Playing, that they were showing all but two of his features, I quickly determined that those two were among the handful of Truffaut films I already had, as part of either the permanent Bradley Video Library (BVL) or my usual tape-and-erase activity.  That meant that if I could successfully tape the remainder, I would actually have access to virtually his entire body of work all at once, an opportunity I have never had with any other filmmaker.  I knew I didn’t have it in me to write a separate post for every film, but quickly noticed that if I lumped in the two shorts they showed as well, those twenty-one features would divide neatly into seven posts; as soon as I reviewed the three-feature groupings, I knew I had made the right decision, because each, quite coincidentally, represents an almost perfect cross-section of the many moods, settings, and subjects of his work.

I am forced to skip over Une Visite (A Visit, 1954), which I’ve never seen, and Les Mistons (The Mischief Makers, 1957), which I caught at Film Forum in 1999 paired with Antoine and Colette, and have largely forgotten, but I can begin with his third short, A Story of Water, which I saw for the first time.  The fact that it is credited to both Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard—whose work I usually despise, except for Alphaville: Une Étrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution, 1965), which even staunch Francophobe Madame BOF adores—is clearly cause for concern.  But, characteristically giving credit where it’s due, I must acknowledge that no matter how much I hated it myself, Godard’s À Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960) is not only regarded, along with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, as the start of French cinema’s Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), but also based on a treatment by none other than Truffaut himself.

Truffaut told Cinéma 67 that the short “was made in an unforeseen way, like an experiment in improvisation.”  Wanting to take advantage of some flooding in the Paris region as a setting, he secured the backing of producer Pierre Braunberger, borrowed Claude Chabrol’s car, and headed for “the heart of the floods” with actors Caroline Dim and Jean-Claude Brialy, planning to film a romance about a young man with a boat who tries to help a girl get to class in Paris.  “We simply took off one weekend, and I must say that when we got there, there wasn’t much water to be seen already.  And the little water there was didn’t inspire us, because we saw people looking for boats to get their belongings out.  In the middle of all that, to rent a boat and carry on like crazy struck us all of a sudden as pretty indecent.  Well, I had brought along 600 meters of film and I brought back 600 meters of exposed film but it didn’t impress anyone but us and not even us.

“I said to Braunberger:  ‘You’ve lost 600 meters of film.  Keep it around.’  Jean-Luc Godard wanted to see those 600 meters and said:  ‘I can have fun making a montage.’  He made a montage of the film in his fashion, a commentary.  It was obvious, once the film was finished, that it wasn’t his or mine and that it would be logical for both to sign and to make a present of it to the producer who never made a fortune out of it.”  Godard reportedly removed much of the plot, foreshadowing my biggest objection to most of his subsequent films I’ve seen.  As it stands, the short depicts Brialy picking up the hitchhiking Dim in his car, intercut seemingly at random with aerial footage of the flooding (accompanied by a jarring percussion score), and narrated—including the spoken credits, anticipating Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451—with a silly, stream-of-consciousness voiceover that invokes everyone from Raymond Chandler to Arthur Gordon Pym.

A Story of Water seems so little indicative of Truffaut’s later work (if not necessarily Godard’s), and apparently had so little effect on his career, that I will move without further ado to his debut feature, The 400 Blows, which began a semiautobiographical five-film cycle that follows his alter ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), over twenty years.  “Our intention, from the start, was to draw the portrait of a child who would not be an unhappy child nor a spoiled child but simply an adolescent,” he noted.  “If there was a thesis behind our film, it would be this:  adolescence leaves pleasant memories only for adults who can’t remember.  When you’re in that difficult age, the thirteenth year is your bad luck time…”  Throughout his career, from The Mischief Makers to The Wild Child and Small Change, Truffaut displayed an affinity for children, and even though Antoine is obviously the focus, The 400 Blows features sharply etched portraits of his classmates.

Although it depicts and evokes a variety of moods, the film is not sentimental, and particularly as a parent, I cringe inwardly watching Antoine misbehave at school, cut class, run briefly away from home, and impetuously tell the whopping lie that his mother, Gilberte (Claire Maurier), has died in order to explain his truancy.  Yet I also sympathize as he endures the benign neglect of his often squabbling parents in their impossibly cramped flat, and accidentally starts a fire after his youthful enthusiasm leads him unwisely to place a lighted candle inside a makeshift shrine to Balzac.  We particularly feel for Antoine as he witnesses Gilberte kissing another man when the two of them see, but do not acknowledge, each other while he is playing hooky; we later see him wrestling with the question of whether or not to tell Julien (Albert Rémy)—the generally good-natured man who, we discover, is really Antoine’s stepfather—and evidently deciding against it.

Truffaut wrote, “It was Jean Renoir himself who taught me that the actor playing a character is more important than that character, or, if you prefer, that you always have to sacrifice the abstract for the concrete.  No wonder then that Antoine Doinel, from the first day of shooting of The 400 Blows, moved away from me to become more like Jean-Pierre [who was then 14]….In the [sequels], I readjusted my sights and took into account the extraordinary phenomenon of the sympathy that Jean-Pierre Léaud always elicits from the public…”  The film contains a splendid sequence showing Antoine on one of those carnival rides where centrifugal force pins you to the wall as you rotate inside a giant drum, with alternating shots of the boy and from his perspective that capture the exuberance of the New Wave; in another, the hungry Antoine looks practically feral as he steals and guzzles a bottle of milk during his nighttime odyssey on the streets of Paris.

Truffaut has a Hitchcockian cameo at the carnival, and for luck, his future star, Jeanne Moreau, improvised a bit in which Brialy (from A Story of Water) brusquely supplants Antoine in helping her catch a dog.  In 1965, he said, “In the classroom scene, when the father turns up to slap his son [because of the lie], I had problems in crosscutting.  I knew I couldn’t get out of it without cutting back and forth a lot—because it was a rapid action—whereas in the film as a whole it was simply recording how things stood.  And there I knew I was obliged to ‘make cinema,’ and I thought of Hitchcock…”  Certainly one recalls the Master—who attributed his lifelong fear of the police to being briefly locked in a cell at his father’s behest—when Antoine is caught trying to return a stolen typewriter he was unable to fence, and eventually sent to an observation center for delinquent youth, from which he escapes to the nearby seashore in the celebrated final fadeout.

The 400 Blows “is not an autobiographical film completely,” Truffaut said.  Like Antoine, he was raised by, and given the surname of, a man who was not his biological father, and regularly cut school to attend the cinema; he later recalled, “When I was fourteen the theft of a typewriter got me into the hands of the cops.”  Yet he also noted that, “if I had wanted only to put my adolescence into images, I would not have asked Marcel Moussy to come and collaborate on the screenplay and to write the dialogue.  If the young Antoine Doinel sometimes resembles the turbulent adolescent I was, his parents are absolutely unlike mine, who were excellent, but, on the contrary, are more like the families who confronted each other on the TV program Si C’Etait Vous, which…Moussy was writing for Marcel Bluwal.  It was not only the television writer I admired in [him] but also the novelist of Sang chaud, which is the story of a little Algerian boy.”

Like Les Mistons, based on a short story from Maurice Pons’s Virginales, Truffaut’s next efforts, Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, were both literary adaptations, as are about half of his features.  In 1962, he told Cahiers du Cinéma, “when I’ve finished a screenplay, I think I know, if not the defects, at least the dangers from the point of view of clichés and conventions.  That guides me, gives me a kind of bias against those dangers during the filming….In Piano Player, where the danger lay in having a character who would be too moving, I did so much to bring out the egotistical side of the artist, his wish to cut himself off from the world, his cowardice, that I rendered him not very attractive, very hard, almost antipathetic.  That’s even, no doubt, one of the reasons why the film failed.  The same thing almost happened with Jules and Jim.  I didn’t want people to love Jeanne Moreau’s character [just] on principle, so I made it a little too harsh.”

About half of Truffaut’s adaptations fall into the genre his countrymen have labeled noir; he and Moussy based Piano Player on the novel Down There by David Goodis, whose work served as the source for films ranging from the Bogart/Bacall vehicle Dark Passage (1947) to those of fellow Frenchmen Henri Verneuil (The Burglars, 1971) and Jean-Jacques Beineix (The Moon in the Gutter, 1983).  The cinema confers a unique, occasionally dubious honor on novels such as Down There that are later reissued under, and sometimes known almost exclusively by, the titles of their screen incarnations.  I wish I had a copy of this one (or, for that matter, Dark Passage) so that I could kill two birds with one stone by doing a page-to-screen comparison, but that might make this post unwieldy or unbalanced, so perhaps it is best to focus solely on Truffaut’s second and last collaboration with Moussy, who contributed to the underrated Is Paris Burning? (1966).

Musician Charles Aznavour, whom I first saw as the ill-fated entertainer and inaugural victim in the 1974 version of Ten Little Indians, is again appropriately cast (although he does not sing here) as the titular pianist, Charlie Kohler, who plays in a seedy bar owned by Plyne (Serge Davri).  The credits are superimposed over a shot of the mechanism of Charlie’s upright piano as he plays a catchy yet somehow mournful ditty that always reminds me of the one on the pianola in Touch of Evil (1958), and since Truffaut is known to have admired Orson Welles—hey, who doesn’t?—this is perhaps no coincidence.  Charlie is raising the youngest of his three brothers, Fido (“Le jeune Richard Kanayan”), with the help of Clarisse, a neighbor and good-hearted prostitute who sometimes shares his bed, played by shapely Michèle Mercier, known to genre fans for Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963) and Antonio Margheriti’s Web of the Spider (1971).

Fresh from the role of Julien Doinel, Albert Rémy was in the ensemble cast of Is Paris Burning? and worked with John Frankenheimer in The Train (1964) and Grand Prix (1966); he and Jean-Jacques Aslanian are Charlie’s other brothers, Chico and Richard, who have absconded with the loot after a falling-out with their partners in a heist.  The story is set in motion when Chico takes refuge from Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger) in the bar and Charlie helps him escape by delaying the hoods, who later kidnap Charlie and Léna (Marie Dubois), the barmaid for whom he has an unspoken attraction, in an effort to learn the location of the family farm, where they assume Chico and Richard are hiding out.  Léna’s quick thinking attracts the attention of the police to the car, enabling her and Charlie to get away, and when they go back to her place, Charlie learns that she already knows about his past, at which Chico had hinted earlier.

An extended flashback reveals that “Charlie” is really concert pianist Edouard Saroyan, whose deteriorating marriage to Thérèse (Nicole Berger) came to a head when she admitted having an affair with impresario Lars Schmeel (Claude Heymann) to further his career.  Moments after angrily walking out, Edouard reconsidered his love for her and the sacrifice she made, yet his stubbornness resulted in tragedy, and he returned to find that she had jumped from a window to her death.  Léna persuades Charlie to resume his career, but when they confront Pyne, who had sold their addresses to the hoods, the jealous publican attacks Charlie and is stabbed in the struggle; although witnesses clear Charlie by confirming that he killed Pyne in self-defense, Momo and Ernest have abducted Fido in the meantime, leading to a snowy climactic confrontation at the farm that leaves Léna shot dead and Charlie once again an emotionless shell.

This serious subject matter is punctuated by moments such as one hood swearing that his mother should die if he is not telling the truth, followed by a quick silent-movie-style shot of a woman keeling over.  “At the time of The 400 Blows and the euphoria of Cannes [where it won the Best Director award], I said to Braunberger there’s a book I want very much to do…I very much liked Aznavour also, so if we can put those two things together, let’s do it….We worked out for ourselves the ending in the snow,” Truffaut told Cinéma 67.  “Rémy,…Boulanger, and I sat around a table asking one another who was going to shoot whom.  On top of it, the cold got some of us and we decided to film with those who weren’t sick.  Finally we liquidated earlier those who had to get back to Paris.  All the ending was done just like that, with the slight reservation that, in spite of Braunberger’s amicable insistence, I had had it in mind to make…Dubois die…”

Truffaut alternated among various types of films, rarely if ever making two of the same kind in a row, and although Jules and Jim is also an adaptation, it could scarcely be more different from Piano Player, whose offbeat improvisational style apparently hurt its commercial prospects.  It is the story of the friendship between the two title characters, an Austrian and a Frenchman played respectively by Oskar Werner and Henri Serre, and how that friendship—which survives fighting on opposite sides in World War I—is affected by their love for free-spirited Catherine (Moreau).  She marries, moves to the Black Forest, and bears a child, Sabine (Sabine Haudepin), with Jules but, perpetually restless, carries on various affairs, including an on-again, off-again one with Jim, who lives with them at various points; the relationship overshadowed by their inability to have a child, Catherine finally drives off a broken bridge, killing herself and Jim to leave Jules all alone.

As I often say, “What a happy story,” and despite the delight it takes in depicting their more carefree days, I find I enjoyed it no more on a second viewing than on the first, remaining baffled by its enduring popularity.  In his foreword to the press book, Truffaut wrote, “I wanted to get back to the ‘tone’ of The 400 Blows:  a story recounted in half-tints, sad in its line but droll in its details.  If this film is successful [it earned Truffaut several international awards], it must resemble the book…and thus constitute a hymn to love, perhaps even a hymn to life”; he also recalled in 1979 that “thanks to Jeanne Moreau, [the filming] remains a luminous memory, the most luminous.”  Much as I admire Moreau and Werner, who both worked with Truffaut in other films, it doesn’t help that through no fault of theirs, I am at best indifferent and at worst averse to, in no particular order, the period setting, the Bohemian lifestyle, adultery, love triangles, and doomed romances.

Ironically, despite all of that, Jules and Jim is, in its basic concept if not its tone, very similar to a film that I dearly love, Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933).  As a 21-year-old film critic, Truffaut had read the semi-autobiographical first novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, then 74, shortly after its publication in 1953, and quickly determined to adapt it someday; they exchanged ideas about his doing so in a lengthy correspondence that began when Roché saw a review of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Naked Dawn (1955) in which Truffaut called Jules and Jim “one of the finest modern French novels…in which a woman loves two men equally during almost an entire lifetime, thanks to an aesthetic and new morality incessantly reconsidered.”  Urged by Truffaut during the making of The 400 Blows to read the book, Moreau immediately accepted the role of Catherine, a casting coup of which Roché expressed approval just days before his death in 1959.

As Truffaut noted in the press book, “I felt that [it] would be a difficult and ambitious film, and I didn’t as yet feel sure enough of myself to venture on it.  So I made two films before this one….At the start of ’61 I thought that the time had come to concretize this old dream.”  The script, co-written with Jean Gruault, makes extensive use of an omniscient narrator, Michel Subor.  Truffaut told Le Monde, “I kept an off-screen commentary throughout the film every time the text seemed to me impossible to transform into dialogue or too beautiful to be amputated.  I prefer, over the classical adaptation, which willy-nilly transforms a book into a theater piece, an intermediate form which alternates dialogue with reading aloud, which corresponds in a way to a filmed novel.  I think in any case that [this] is more a cinematic book than the pretext for a literary film….[I left] myself the option of improvising while shooting…”

To be continued.

I’ve never met Pierre V. Comtois, yet I think it would be fascinating to come face to face with a man who not only shares several of my obsessions, but also channels them into concrete form much more successfully than I do.  For example, he is the author of Marvel Comics in the 1960s and …1970s, which have been on my to-read list for an embarrassingly long time; both their presence and their duration on that metaphoric list are directly related to how completely my efforts on behalf of Marvel University have come to consume my life.  It is, however, his work under another of his many hats that led to this long-overdue post, namely as the editor and publisher of Fungi #21, the special 30th-anniversary issue of “The Magazine of Fantasy and Weird Fiction,” about which you can read much more on Pierre’s website here.

Dedicated to the late Richard Matheson—a name you may have encountered once or twice on this blog—the issue is literally as large as a phone book (for those of you old enough to remember what that was), making it impossible even to come close to doing justice to it in this post, so I hope I may be forgiven for taking a BOF-centric approach.  Knowing that Pierre planned a special section devoted to “The Group,” the circle of authors and screenwriters to which Matheson belonged, I granted him the use of the profiles I had partly distilled several years ago from my 1990s interviews with fellow members George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan, and the late Jerry Sohl.  Among other related goodies, he also re-presents “The House of Matheson,” an appreciation written by Gauntlet publisher Barry Hoffman for The Richard Matheson Companion (which I edited with Stanley Wiater and Paul Stuve), and Group scholar Christopher Conlon’s commendable overview, “Southern California Sorcerers,” another of the informal group’s many names.

Obviously, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and the roster of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and artwork on display is mind-boggling indeed.  Included are the original stories that were adapted into two Twilight Zone episodes (Charles Beaumont’s “Elegy” and Lynn Venable’s “Time Enough at Last”) and the film Target Earth (Paul W. Fairman’s “Deadly City”).  Other names that jumped out at me from the table of contents as subjects and/or contributors:  Robert Bloch (represented by an interview, as is Zone writer Earl Hamner), H.P. Lovecraft (with an introduction to his letters), Nolan himself (the story “Small World”), Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer, and even Thongor of Lemuria (in a new adventure by Robert Price).

Okay, I’ll shut the hell up now so you can go and order the thing!

Canned Ham

In the unlikely event that you’ve ever wondered about the voice matching the face above, you need do so no longer.  Knowing of my high-school and collegiate stage experience, not to mention my general hamminess, my boss asked me if I would be willing to lend my dulcet tones to this two-minute promotional video for our sister division, the Easton Press.  It was a fun but surprisingly involved experience, which required breaking the brief script down into tiny sections that were recorded over and over until I got my inflections just the way they wanted…although I still disagree with their direction of the last line.  Just as Madame BOF predicted, surprisingly few of my friends and family recognized my voice when I experimentally sent it to them “cold.”

I am painfully aware of, and grimly resigned to, the fact that many of those among my friends and heavily Teutonic extended family are reflexive Francophobes.  But I would urge even those who are, and especially those who are not, if they are any true lovers of the cinema, to tune in to Turner Classic Movies this month for the second installment of their excellent new Friday Night Spotlight series, starting at 8:00 PM ET.  They’re featuring the work of François Truffaut, one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, the former Cahiers du Cinéma critic who spearheaded the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) as the writer-director of The 400 Blows (1959) and the co-writer of the dreaded Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960).

TCM is showing all but two of the 21 features Truffaut directed, and if you do yourself a favor by dipping liberally into his oeuvre, you may find it more diverse than expected.  That’s the experience I had several years ago when frantically attending as much as I could of the comprehensive “Tout Truffaut” festival at New York’s Film Forum (which now won’t even deign to send me a printed schedule, and thus will no longer receive my longtime financial support, but that’s another rant).  Twenty-one features is a sadly small number for such a giant talent, and bespeaks both his criminally short life—he died at 52—and his productivity, averaging almost a film a year through Confidentially Yours (1983).

By way of encouragement, I’m taking the unusual step of enumerating TCM’s entire Truffaut schedule, and while it is beyond the scope of this post to editorialize on every film, I hope it will at least give you some idea of his impressive range.

They kick off on 7/5 with back-to-back showings of his semi-autobiographical Antoine Doinel series, in which we watch Jean-Pierre Léaud age 20 years as his alter ego.  Succeeding The 400 Blows are Antoine and Colette (a short that represents Truffaut’s contribution to the 1962 anthology film Love at Twenty), Stolen Kisses (1968, my personal favorite among his work), Bed and Board (1970), and Love on the Run (1979, both a continuation and a recap of the series, inspired by a marathon showing of the prior entries).  These are followed by the lesser-known but fascinating The Green Room (1978, inexplicably retitled The Vanishing Fiancee), a Henry James adaptation and one of several films in which Truffaut also acts, in which capacity he is best known to American audiences for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

On 7/12, they focus on Truffaut’s noir adaptations, most notably those of Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish):  The Bride Wore Black (1968), featuring Jeanne Moreau and a score by Hitchcock mainstay Bernard Herrmann, and Mississippi Mermaid (1969), with Breathless star Jean-Paul Belmondo (feh) and Catherine Deneuve, which—like the steamy Banderas/Jolie remake, Original Sin (2001)—was based on Waltz into Darkness.  In between they’re showing his swan song, Confidentially Yours, a black-and-white homage to Hitchcockian romantic thrillers, based on a book by Charles Williams; it stars Fanny Ardant, who gave birth to Truffaut’s daughter Joséphine about a year before he died, and French legend Jean-Louis Trintignant (’nuff said).  Topping it off are Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me (1972), a black comedy from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? author Henry Farrell, and his sophomore feature, Shoot the Piano Player (1960), which has celebrated signer Charles Aznavour in the title role and did double duty during last month’s Friday Night Spotlight segment devoted to noir author David Goodis.

TCM provides a mixed bag on 7/19, starting off with The Soft Skin (1964), a tale of adultery featuring Deneuve’s ill-fated elder sister, Françoise Dorléac, and two adaptations of books by Henri-Pierre Roché, both about romantic triangles:  Jules and Jim (1962), starring Oskar Werner and Moreau, and Two English Girls (1971), also with Léaud.  Next is a real rarity, A Story of Water (1961), a short co-directed with Godard, whose work—excepting Alphaville (1965)—I normally loathe; I have yet to see that or the next offering, The Woman Next Door (1981), with Gérard Depardieu and Ardant as dangerously obsessive lovers.  Finally, The Man Who Loved Women (1977) is one of my least favorite Truffaut films, a situation doubtless exacerbated by the reflected shame of the head-scratching eponymous 1983 Blake Edwards/Burt Reynolds/Julie Andrews/Kim Basinger remake.

Ending on a generally high note, 7/26 opens with Day for Night (1973), Truffaut’s love letter to filmmaking itself, in which he really stretches his range by playing a director, joined by Jacqueline Bisset and Léaud.  I’ve been slow to warm up to The Last Metro (1980), a tale of refugees and the Resistance during the Nazi occupation that stars Deneuve and Depardieu, but I loved The Wild Child (1970), the true story of a late-18th-century doctor (Truffaut) who tries to educate a boy raised by wolves.  As a perfect capstone, Isabelle Adjani—so luminous in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979)—impressively portrays the mental deterioration of Victor Hugo’s daughter in The Story of Adele H (1975)…which, oddly, is not the only film in which we see Adjani go spectacularly mad, e.g., Possession (1981).

The two films not being shown are, fortuitously, both in the Bradley Video Library:  Fahrenheit 451 (1966), his love-it-or-hate-it adaptation of the late Ray Bradbury’s classic SF novel, featuring Werner, Julie Christie in a dual role, and another Herrmann score, and Small Change (1976), a largely improvised composite character study of the children in a small French town, played by non-actors, which is better than it sounds (at least to me).  Meanwhile, inspired by this outpouring of Truffaut-Amour, I’m doing something long overdue, dusting off some of the tapes I made when TCM devoted a similarly thorough marathon to Akira Kurosawa to honor his centennial back in 2010.  In this, at least, Madame BOF is my eager co-pilot, and we’ve already traveled back to the beginnings of his directorial career with The Most Beautiful (1944) and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945); on deck at the moment are my first viewings of Sanshiro Sugata Part Two (1945) and No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), plus One Wonderful Sunday (1947).

Addendum:  Film Forum did finally send me a printed schedule.  “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles…”

Bradley out.

King Richard

Richard Matheson died on Sunday, June 23, at the age of 87, leaving behind a lovely wife of 60 years, three generations of literal descendants in the family that was always his greatest pride and joy (e.g., the three successful writers he sired), and at least as many metaphoric ones among the creators consciously or unconsciously affected by his incalculably influential 63-year career.  We were never as close as I would have liked, and he hadn’t responded to my attempts to reach him over the past year, so I intuited that something was up.  Yet he had nothing but kind words to say about my many efforts on his behalf, and the hundreds of pages I have written about the man and his work speak for themselves.  He will be sorely missed.

Cat Scratch Fever

What I’ve Been Watching: Track of the Cat (1954).

Who’s Responsible: William A. Wellman (director), A.I. Bezzerides (screenplay), Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, and Diana Lynn (stars).

Why I Watched It: Mitchum.

Seen It Before? No, thank God.

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

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

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 2.

And? I thought I might have seen this one before, but I realize now that I was mixing it up with Mitchum’s later Home from the Hill (1960)—in which he appeared with a young George Hamilton, rather than a young Tab Hunter here—because if I’d seen this before, it would have been burned into my memory. Of course, it does Wellman no favors that Encore Westerns squeezed his CinemaScope opus into a pan-and-scan format, but I still expect more from the director whose credits include the winner of the de facto first Best Picture Oscar for Wings (1927). And while I can’t speak for Walter Van Tilburg Clark, on whose work this was based (ditto Wellman’s 1943 classic The Ox-Bow Incident), I do know Bezzerides as the author and/or a screenwriter of Bogart faves They Drive by Night (1940) and Action in the North Atlantic (1943), plus the immortal Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

How do I hate this film? Let me count the ways. Start with the supremely dysfunctional family at its heart. The patriarch (Philip Tonge), if you want to call him that, serves no useful purpose whatsoever, doing nothing but drink and bloviate, so it’s no surprise that the true head of the family has become son Curt (Mitchum), who lords it over brothers Arthur (William Hopper) and Harold (Hunter) and sister Grace (Wright), abetted by the sanctimonious Ma (Beulah Bondi). Remember what a horrible old bat the “alternate-universe” Bondi was in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)? Now imagine that squinty-eyed performance stretched out over an entire film. Art endures with sarcasm as his shield, while Hal spends most of the movie walking around with an expression on his face that I can only describe as looking like he’s just been sodomized, hoping to achieve manhood.

Hal, you see, wants to strike out on his own, claiming his share of the family fortune and getting hitched to Gwen Williams (Lynn), currently the world’s least comfortable house guest at the Bridges ranch, which is ostensibly located near Aspen c. 1897, but I’ll turn in my BOF credentials if it isn’t firmly planted on a soundstage. The exteriors were shot on Mount Rainier, Washington, and according to Wikipedia, “Mitchum regarded shooting in the deep snow and cold as the worst filming conditions he had ever experienced”; no big surprise to the viewer, since his character is relentlessly obnoxious. Skulking around the edges of this train-wreck clan to complete the eight-person cast is an apparently mystical Indian, Joe Sam, a kind of eminence rouge played by Carl Switzer (yes, Alfalfa, about as far from IAWL as you can get), unrecognizable—so why cast him?—in old-age makeup.

The “cat”-alyst (forgive me) for change in this long-stagnant household is the threat to its cattle by the titular panther, the subject of the worst of the film’s numbingly repetitious dialogue. If you played a drinking game in which everybody took a shot each time they talked about what a nice blanket the pelt would make, or the various scenarios dependent on the color of its fur, the entire audience would be dead of alcohol poisoning before the end of the first reel. Arthur being the most normal offspring, he is of course killed off by the unseen cat in a shockingly amateurish scene, leaving Mitchum (whose own interest in Lynn is implied as subtly as this film ever gets) to emote to himself on his solo quest for revenge, which turns into a poor man’s “To Build a Fire,” and as the rest of the Bridges Bunch frets over his lengthy absence, things take their inevitable course; you do the math.

When Carmine Infantino worked for Marvel in the late 1970s, penciling extended runs of Nova, Spider-Woman, and Star Wars, he was frankly one of my least favorite artists, yet I am the first to admit that his contribution to the comic-book industry, without which there might never have been a Fantastic Four or a Marvel Comics as we know it, cannot be overstated.  In 1956, he and writer Robert Kanigher were given six months to turn around the fortunes of the Flash, and their revamped version (which debuted in Showcase #4 and played to Infantino’s flair for fast-paced, dynamic action) is now considered the start of the post-Wertham Silver-Age revival of the super-hero genre.  Difficult though it may be to believe today, Batman was in similar straits by 1964, and Infantino—who later rose through DC’s ranks as art director, editorial director, and publisher—worked with writer John Broome to create the character’s “new look,” which inspired the successful but divisive live-action TV series.

Margalit Fox’s New York Times obituary also credits Infantino with luring Jack Kirby away from Marvel, “a coup akin to the Yankees’ acquisition of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox,” so you could even say he was indirectly responsible for my beloved Bronze Age…

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32 other followers