Le Poison

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The comedy in Sacha Guitry’s La Poison (1951) is trés noir. In fact, I’m unsure if I should like it. In this guilty pleasure, La Poison gives us Paul Bracconier, a husband who can’t take his wife. Generally, I can’t stand jokes that put wives or husbands in a bad light, or that are just a series of complaints. But Blandaire Bracconier, the wife in question, is such a mean-spirited drunk with no redeeming qualities and it does seem that with a nicer woman, Paul would be a-okay, so I made an exception.

Also, since the wife has purchased rat poison to do her husband in, it seems they’re on equal footing.

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Played by Michel Simon (Two of a Kind , Port of Shadows and many other classics), Paul has a redeemable side. He doesn’t rush to murder his wife. At the start of the film he visits the local priest for sympathy, mercy and perhaps some advice.

When he hears a radio interview with a lawyer honored for getting murderers off, he goes to meet the lawyer. The conversation with the unethical lawyer convinces Paul that, yes, he can get away with murder so he is emboldened to try.

Scenes with the neighbors and their children add to the humor. One of my favorite scenes involves Paul’s neighbor visiting him in jail and recounting how grateful the neighbors are to Paul because his crime has increased tourism and business in the hamlet.

An entertaining film, La Poison is a dark, old-fashioned comedy that does show the problems in the legal system. According to the background commentary, Guitry made it as a commentary on his own incarceration when he was wrongly accused of collaborating with the Vichy government during WWII.

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Kind Hearts and Coronets

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Starring Dennis Price and Alex Guinness, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is a black comedy of revenge. Louis Mazzini’s mother’s upper class family disowned her when she married an Italian musician. After she dies, Louis seeks revenge. Using a different weapon or means for each subject, Louis plots to kill all eight of the relatives ahead of him in line for the family fortune.

Louis falls in love with his childhood sweetheart, but she throws him over for a rich man, whom she finds as dull as dishwater. She’s clearly mercenary, but then so is Louis as he’s reptilian in his ability to murder relatives one after another without feeling any remorse.

One quirk of the film is that Alec Guinness plays each of the eight relatives that kills. He plays young and old, male and female. It’s a clever technique.

The Criterion Collection DVD includes the American ending. The Hays Code prohibited films from showing a situation where crime paid.

Before I saw it thought it would be a much weaker ending, but they just added a few seconds with an action that I imagined would follow the end of the film. The British version led me to expect that action to occur. Nonetheless it’s interesting to see how the Hays Code influenced filmmaking.

Samurai Rebellion

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What a film! Starring Mifune, Toshiro* Samurai Rebellion (1967) blew me away. The Japanese really do know how to play on one’s emotions. Far from our stereotype of this culture, they’re capable of intense emotion, stubbornness and defiance.

Set in the early 18th century, Samurai Rebellion tells the story of a samurai family that’s more or less forced to make their son marry their Lord’s cast off mistress. Mifune plays the head of the family, Sasahara Isaburo, an older master swordsman, who had to marry his cold-hearted, domineering wife because he lacked social status. Sashara often jokes about how he’s just a hen-pecked husband. When the message comes that the regional warlord wants Sasahara’s son Yogoro to marry his troublesome mistress, Sasahara tactfully says, thanks but no thanks. He’d like a better marriage for his son. Sasahara’s wife thinks this is stupid. In this culture when the warlord asks you to do something you do it. she clearly has no respect for anyone but herself. This woman makes the farmer’s wife in Grant Wood’s American Gothic look cheerful.

This forced marriage is not kosher in this society. The warlord is abusing his power. Sasahara keeps politely refusing. In time the son, breaks in on a visit from the steward and agrees. No one expects much from this marriage.
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When Ichi, the mistress arrives with her daughter, she explains to her new husband that she was exiled because after bearing her child, she returned to the castle to see that the Lord has found her replacement, a cutie, who’s now making the Lord’s heart race. Ichi never wanted to be this guy’s wife or mistress, but is disgusted that after giving birth she’s been displaced. By speaking up, Ichi finds herself cast out.

Surprisingly, Yogoro and Ichi fall in love. Ichi is an ideal daughter-in-law who puts up with her grouchy mother in law and is a great asset to the family. But the course of true love never runs smoothly. When the Lord’s firstborn dies, Ichi is summoned back to the castle. She doesn’t want to go. Yogoro doesn’t want her to go and neither does Sasahara. In fact, the men are willing to defy the lord and fight to the death to keep Ichi.

The film kept me in suspense from start to finish. Mifune gives a powerful performance and the director Kobayashi Misaki provides a beautiful drama. There were some times when the cinematography was too much like when there’s an intense meeting at the castle during which lots of bold, distracting shadows come through the windows, but that’s a minor fault. Much of the cinematography is gorgeous as the filmmakers use the aesthetics of Japanese homes with little furniture, tatami mats, and dark beams against white walls to good effect.

Though there are only two female characters, they’re both strong women who hold their own in a man’s world.

I highly recommend Samurai Rebellion, which I bet you can get the DVD from your library as I did. (Thank God of inter-library loans.)

You can read the illustrious Donald Richie’s Samurai Rebellion article here.

*Note, I’ve used the Japanese practice of writing the family name first and the Western first name second.

Green for Danger

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British detective film Green for Danger (1946) kept me guessing. Set during WWII in a rural hospital, Green for Danger begins with a postman, who dies on the operating table. Was it an accident or murder? When a senior nurse suspects foul play and starts to investigate, she winds up dead and it seems there’s a murderer in the little group of doctors and nurses. One doctor is quite a ladies’ man and is wooing/stealing the anesthesiologist’s fiancée. The hanky-panky makes figuring out what happened and why all the more difficult.

Enter Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim), who has the driest sense of humor I’ve ever seen. Cockrill, aloof and observant, makes Sherlock Holmes look convivial. Yet in the end, with great creativity, Cockrill discovers the culprit.

Green for Danger is a sophisticated who done it that kept me guessing and entertained. It’s got the with and gravitas of a Golden Age film. There’s plenty of steamy romance and betrayals.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

Starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Shirley Temple, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is a musing light entertainment. Temple has transformed from the cute dancing girl to a beautiful young woman, though in this case a very fanciful romantic, named Susan. Loy plays Margaret a judge who’s Susan’s sister and guardian. At the start we see that Susan represents the epitome of teenage energy and foolishness. Her goals change weekly every time the high school has a different guest speaker. Susan sees herself as sophisticated and is blind to her own foolishness. Margaret tries to discipline her with grace, wisdom and kindness.

As the film starts Margaret is off to court to preside over the case of Dick Nugent, a debonair bachelor who’s accused of causing a disturbance at a night club. Of course, you’ve guessed that Grant is the bachelor. He arrives to the courtroom late and strikes Margaret as callow and annoying, but hardly a menace so he’s cleared and let off with a warning.

Next Nugent heads to the high school where he’s this week’s career speaker. An artist, Nugent enthralls the female students with his idealistic presentation. Susan is especially swept off her feet and hallucinates that Nugent is actually wearing a gleaming suit of armor. Before we know it, Susan is sneaking into Nugent’s apartment. Today we’d say she was stalking him, but in this farce things never get that dark.

If you’re looking for a light amusing film full of clever banter, sophisticated costumes and outlandish physical humor, you’ll enjoy The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.

Madadayo

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Madadayo (1993) is the story of a high school German teacher in Japan in retirement and his devoted former students, who visit him, celebrate his birthday every year and who come to his aid when he’s in need is a slice of life film.

Unfortunately, the film dragged and got to sentimental for my taste. Lasting over 2 hours the film seemed much longer. I enjoyed seeing how devoted the former students were to their teacher and to each other, but that was the only good thing. The birthday parties and drinking parties got repetitive.

I suppose the climax of the film, which was written by Akira Kurosawa, was when the teacher and his wife lose their beloved stray cat, Nora. The students, now business men, do everything they can to find the cat as its loss has traumatized the teacher so much that he doesn’t bathe or eat. For a man who was supposed to be so philosophical and wise, I’d expect him to take a bath during the months the cat was gone.

There are better Japanese films. Watch something else.

Day for Night

In the film world Day for Night refers to shooting a night scene during the day using a filter over the camera lens. I’d read a bit about the making of this film in Truffaut’s biography.

But when I started watching this film about making a film, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. Early on I felt Day for Night was too self-aware, however I soon warmed up to Jacqueline Bissett, Jean-Pierre Léaud and François Truffaut himself as soon as their vulnerabilities became clear and the success or completion of the film was in jeopardy. Bissett plays a fragile woman who’s recently recovered from a nervous breakdown. As usual, Léaud is a n alter-ego for Truffaut. It’s not new territory, but he carries it off like no one else can.

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When the film gets into the actors various relationships and the hanky-panky that takes place, I got more into the film and it won me over. It caught the 1970s well.

Also, Truffaut’s montages were creative and engaging, without overdoing it. I’d say this isn’t a must-see, but it is an entertaining film. Given Truffaut’s biography, I’d say the hanky-panky shown, it’s true to life. I felt it was a realistic view of filmmaking, which shows the art, business and relationships of a film crew.