The Last Metro

Starring the elegant, beautiful Catherine Deneuve, François Truffaut’s The Last Metro takes us back to WWII where Marion Steiner struggles to aid her Jewish husband who’s hiding under their theater, to put on a new play despite the government censors. The news is that Lucas Steiner has fled France, but that’s a cover. He’s hiding out in the theater’s basement, where his wife Marion visits every night. She lined up a guide to get him out, but the plan fell through as the situation has grown too dangerous.

Though he’s going stir crazy, Lucas listens through the pipes and gives notes to the performers via Marion, who must keep a cool façade while being pulled in all directions fearing that a German-sympathizing critic will censor the play, which could lead to the discovery and imprisonment of her husband.

Gérald Depardieu plays a young amorous actor, who’s also in the Resistance.

As the film is based on Truffaut’s childhood memories of the era, The Last Metro offers several light hearted moments, such as Depardieu’s failed attempt to woo one of the theater staff.

The film is well acted and paced covering a significant era, but for me it wasn’t quite as good as The 400 Blows or Zazie dans le Métro

Seven Samurai

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Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is a film that left me stunned. So much action! Bam! What bold characters! Wow!

During a period of political instability in the 16th century, samurai were cut loose from their masters. Bandits roamed Japan pillaging and farmers lived in fear. In Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a small, farming village is attacked by bandits. The bandits leave since the farmers don’t have much to steal. The bandits took most everything before. However, they do plan to return when the crops come in.

The elder of the village suggests the peasants hire some samurai to protect them. The peasants aren’t sure, but “Grandpa” is revered and no one has a better idea. So a few scouts go to town to recruit.

They luck out and find wise Kanbei, played by Kurosawa regular Takeshi Shimura, who leads the motley crew. Other samurai includes trained swordsmen, a master samurai who’s head and shoulders above the others, and the bull in a china shop, Kikuchiyo, played by another acting powerhouse Toshirô Mifune. Kikuchiyo is an outsider even in the midst of this motley crew. He’s crude and has a sense of humor that has no idea what’s appropriate when. Kikuchiyo is so fun to watch because he’s incredibly physical able to move and fight like no one I’ve seen on film.

The film is dramatic, but also funny. No character is put on a pedestal. Most defy the idealized social roles most stories confer upon them. One of the high points of the film is a speech Kikuchiyo gives deriding farmers. He tells the other samurai that they’re fools to think these people are simple and honest. He calls them out as greedy, timid and secretive. After his heated speech, Kanbei says, “So you’re from a farming family?” Yep. You called it.

By the end of the film we see that Kikuchiyo was exactly right. The farmers show their true natures. It takes nearly 3 and a half hours to see the team assembled, watch them prepare and then fight in a couple of the most compelling battles I’ve ever seen on film.

From David Ehrensteins’ essay on the film from Criterion.com:

“Japanese films all tend to be rather bland in flavor, like green tea over rice,” Kurosawa remarked in an interview, making a knowing dig at his staid rival, Yasujiro Ozu (one of whose films was actually called The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice). “I think we ought to have richer foods, and richer films. So I thought I would make this kind of film entertaining enough to eat.”

The dish Kurosawa set before audiences was certainly different from what they had tasted up until then—particularly as far as period filmmaking was concerned. Instead of the slow, ritualistic, and highly theatrical style of the typical sixteenth-century saga, Seven Samurai moved with the sure swiftness of a Hollywood action epic, like Gunga Din or Stagecoach. The characters may inhabit historical settings, but their manner and bearing were, often as not, strikingly contemporary—particularly in the case of the buffoonish Kikuchiyo, the high-spirited would-be samurai played with great gusto by Toshiro Mifune. Most important of all was the visual style of the film which, thanks to Kurosawa’s use of multiple cameras, lent itself to many unusual editing techniques.

Seven Samurai is a classic that all film lovers should see.

Small Change

François Truffaut’s Small Change (1976) was the first foreign language film I can recall seeing. I distinctly remember some neighbors raving about it and I was astonished by the idea of seeing a film in another language. A think our parents thought Small Change would be edifying so we were piled into a car and a group from the neighborhood all went. I remember being delighted by the scene when a toddler’s left alone and falls out of his apartment window, but remains unscathed. “Gregory go boom!” the boy exclaims to the petrified crowd.

The film still delighted though I did wish for more plot. Truffaut is wonderful with children and understands their lot better than most. The mischief of kids making a mess whenever the adults get caught up in their own lives, the innocence of looking for love, and the loneliness of hiding your family’s poverty or abuse are all present in this brightly colored panorama. Childhood’s changed in many ways with helicopter parents and high tech developments, but some of comedy and even the tragedies still remain.

The teachers monologue at the end struck me to the core in 1976 and again in 2018.

Yojimbo

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I didn’t expect to like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) as I knew it was a samurai film and fighting’s not my thing, but since I’m on a Kurosawa roll, I figured I should see it anyway. Boy, am I glad I did. The film offers unexpected wit and an unforgettable, surly hero, named Sanjuro.

Sanjuro wanders about the country after his master and retinue have lost. He comes to a town caught in the crossfire of two gangs. The townspeople live cowering in fear. After Sanjuro displays his swordsmanship with finesse the gang leaders try to lure him with money so he’ll play for their side. Ever cagey, Sanjuro’s wise to their game and trickery and double-crossing follow. There is no good side to join.

Sanjuro’s irascible but not evil. He does save a family knowing that’ll cost him. He gives them his gold coins to flee, but when they try to thank him he shouts that he hates anyone who’s pathetic and if they cry he’ll kill them. It’s all tongue in cheek and such humor in the context is a poke at the Western or samurai genre movies.

Also, the soundtrack is pure 1960s Western music, which adds a layer of fun as it winks at Hollywood and films in general. Another aspect of humor is the buffoonery of the other characters one gang’s nincompoops are just as inept as the other’s. Sanjuro operates on a whole different plane.

Toshio Mifune plays Sanjuro masterfully. He shows more with a glance or flick of a toothpick than most award-winning actors of any era. If he can convince a Western/fighting movie anti-fan like me to eagerly desire to watch the three other films, his performance must be stellar. Kurosawa made a lot of movies with Mifune and once said that:

Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities. – Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography.

Tatsuya Nakadai, who starred in Human Condition, Ran, and several other classics, appears as a loyal member of one of the gangs. He’s set apart as the one gangster with a gun, which he shoots with precision as a counter to Sanjuro’s very traditional swordsmanship. His character is threatening and probably the sharpest of the bunch though no match for Sanjuro.

This film inspired Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, in fact it’s said to be almost a carbon copy. I may just watch that too, but I’ve become such a Mifune fan, I doubt anyone can fill his shoes.

Gilda

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What a great introduction to a character! Rita Hayworth who plays the title character in Gilda wows with her hair when she first appears. Her hair is just terrific and is probably one of the best things about the noir film. Her hair is used to great effect at least twice in the film so I’m in no way putting down the film.

Gilda is a classic film that’s mainly plot and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it has so much style, that it’s easy to forgive. Set in Argentina, the story begins with Johnny Farrell (Glen Ford) wins big in a dice game, but is cornered by some sore losers. Fortunately, a mysterious stranger, Ballin Mundson arrives with his trusty cane with a hidden blade. He intimidates the thugs and saves Farrell. Later he again crosses paths and hires Johnny Farrell.

Johnny’s life becomes far better as he goes from gambling in dives to managing Mundson’s high end casino. His life is humming along till Mundson returns with his new wife: Gilda. Wouldn’t you know it, Gilda and Johnny were once a couple. Add to that Mundson is a controlling husband. He charges Johnny with keeping tabs on Gilda, who’ll take up with any handsome, young man from the hundreds who’re smitten with her. (So I suppose Mundson has some reason to appoint someone as her keeper.)

On top of the love triangle, Mundson’s trailed by mysterious Germans who’re chasing him and want to seize control of Mundson’s cartel so his work keeps him too busy to spend much quality time with his wife.

We never learn why Gilda and Johnny broke up but it’s clear their love-hate relationship will live on. Mundson fakes his death and so Johnny marries Gilda. At first we think they’ll finally work through their past and find love, but Johnny actually just married Gilda to get punish her for cheating on Mundson.

Some view Gilda as her husbands’ pawn, but while Johnny does trick her and hurt her, she was able to quite a degree to defy both of them. It’s a complicated film and none of the characters are meant to resemble real people so it’s easy to enjoy the film despite its plot failings.

Hayworth is a compelling actress, not just for her hair, but for her stage presence and voice.

If you’re interested in film noir, you should see Gilda.

Shoot the Piano Player

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Charlie & Léna, the waitress

Inspired by American B movies, Shoot the Piano Player begins with Chico, a ne’er-do-well tracking down Charlie, his brother who’s a classic concert pianist turned bar room piano player. Two thugs are chasing Chico who’s run off with the whole pot that they ripped off in some heist. Charlie wants no part of Chico and his other brother’s two bit crimes. Along the way Charlie recalls his first marriage and early fame as a concert pianist, woos a beautiful, young waitress, evades the two thugs, murders his boss in self-defense, and runs off to the woods to join his brothers.

An adaptation of a novel by David Goodis, whom I’d never heard of, Shoot the Piano Player is a noir story, which beautiful and often clever cinematography. Though it was made in 1960, it seem fresher than many films made today. The love scenes are so beautifully done in a way that is totally lost with modern filmmakers. I wonder whether the black and white film of that day are part of the reason. There is plenty of visual wit and intelligent repartee.

Shoot the Piano Player was not a success when it first came out, but later was rediscovered and loved. People who know Charles Aznavour, the star, think of him as a singer, but actually his first goal was to act. When he couldn’t get acting roles, he’d sing.

This film, Truffaut’s second after the successful The 400 Blows, features a couple actors from his first film. Charlie’s impish little brother and Chico were both in The 400 Blows.

Shoot the Piano Player has plenty of surprises and twists and turns, that it’s sure to delight with its sensitivity, innovation and humor. I know I’ll watch this again and again.

I watched with the commentary on so I could hear all about the filmmaking. Get the Criterion Collection edition with interviews with Truffaut and Aznavour.

Laura (1944)

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Laura

After seeing something on Twitter about the film Laura, I was intrigued. With a hard-boiled detective, a beautiful, dead woman, a load of suspects to sift through and lots of plot twists, Laura held my interest. It’s about a notch down from a Raymond Chandler film. It starts with a wiry, old snob typing away in his bathtub. He’s narrating and telling us about Laura’s disappearance. Soon we learn more about this beautiful woman, who’s about to marry a hick from high society, played by a young Vincent Price. Her maid discovered her dead body. She’s got a great apartment and job and every Tuesday and Friday she dines with this snobbish radio personality who’s obsessed with her.

Enter Detective McPherson who’s cut from Philip Marlowe’s cloth. He’s sent to do a job, but before you know it he’s smitten with the victim.  He’s also aggravated Laura’s fiancé, who it turns out has no money, and the old snob. Both look like good candidates for the culprit. Yet a 180° plot turn pops up as McPherson’s daydreaming about Laura and the plot keeps getting twisted.

The story’s not on the level of a Raymond Chandler film starring Bogart, but it moves along and kept me guessing.

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