Sunday, June 24, 2012

Dodsworth (1936) - Directed by William Wyler

(Note: This post is in support of the William Wyler Blogathon which is being hosted by The Movie Projector, from June 24-29, where you can find more info and links to other reviews of William Wyler films.)

William Wyler’s masterful Dodsworth is the kind of film that even today rings so truthful. I find it is hard to find films from the 1930’s that reflect observant, realistic portrayals of marriage. Perhaps something like Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) would be the best contemporary from the era that broaches the subject of marriage with an observant eye. But there’s something so down to earth and devastating about Dodsworth. It’s not trying to be stylized or poetic (like Vigo’s film), or funny (like McCarey’s The Awful Truth). It just patiently observes marital interaction and tendencies, allowing the divide between the male and female to open up before us. There are no easy answers that this film provides for us and THAT is part of what makes the film resonate so well.

Dodsworth stars Walter Huston as Sam Dodsworth, head of a car manufacturing company who is retiring from his position. His post-retirement ambitions include traveling and seeing the world with his wife of 20 years. We follow Dodsworth and his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) as they travel by boat and begin to meet people who start to alter the course of their happiness. On the boat, Dodsworth meets a woman named Edith (Mary Astor) who without pretense appreciates Dodsworth’s curiosity and hunger for adventure. That same night, his wife Fran meets a man with whom she flirts and kisses. Feeling shame, she cries openly in front of her husband and admits her wrongs. Dodsworth is curiously not worked up about the event. Does he trust her too much? Does he not care? It’s hard to say for sure. He seems to love his wife, but he is also resigned to the fact that she is her own woman. She is obviously flaunting conventions by hanging around with other men and dancing away her evenings and she uses her husband’s trust as a cloak to engage in risky flirting. Soon, though, she flirts beyond her ability to relinquish it and invites a marriage proposal from a Viennese man. The devastating denouement of the film, involving Sam and Fran's separation and a potential reconciliation is handled so truthfully and compassionately, as Dodsworth prepares to move on from his wife by finding solace and companionship in the arms of Edith.

Walter Huston gives one of, if not his best performance of his career as Dodsworth. I am quite partial to his crotchety prospector role in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). But in Dodsworth, Huston’s understated performance is so good because he allows us a chance to question his behavior. He does not paint Dodsworth into a corner using broad strokes. He uses smaller facial expressions, changes in tone and dialogue to make us believe he is a complicated man. Perhaps a man that is a bit na├»ve? Perhaps a man that is blinded by high expectations of himself and his family status? Perhaps he’s a man with secret yearnings never expressed to his wife for fear that he would rock the boat? All of these and none of these may be correct about him. It’s such a well written role and brilliantly acted part that we enjoy the process of following Dodsworth on his path to self-discovery. Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor also give particularly fine turns in this extremely well-acted film.

Yes the film takes some melodramatic turns (and I’m the biggest melodrama fan there is), but Wyler’s assured direction and ability to let a scene play out, perhaps longer than other directors of this era, allows the film to develop a lived-in feel, creating not a bubble of stylized emotions but a realistic examination of people. Wyler seems to find not just the cinematic truth of the moment, but also the underlying human nature behind the moment. It’s not hard to envision how Wyler’s work here connects us to later decades where the likes of Bergman (Scenes From a Marriage), or Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence) would take us to more harrowing places. There’s something about Dodsworth though, that is devastating in its own right. As Dodsworth and Edith tentatively realize that they are developing significant feelings for each other, there’s a scene where she realizes that he is going to get a call from his wife. She’s so fearful that he will pick up that phone and that he will be lured back to his old life that she tries to do everything she can to get him away from earshot of that phone. Her failed resignation when she realizes she may lose Dodsworth exemplifies this film's ability to project emotion and create drama through understanding human nature, through understanding people and the way we operate. Dodsworth is the era-defining masterpiece that examines marital discord in the 1930’s. It is still vital today and remains perhaps Wyler’s greatest film.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Floating Weeds (1959) - Directed by Yasujiro Ozu

Ozu’s famed Floating Weeds, a remake of his A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) is a careful examination of past choices and present missteps. It is also one of Ozu’s more confrontational pieces in a career built upon quiet desperation and resignation. And yet, there are the ever-present joys of watching an Ozu film: the un-rushed narrative focus, the quiet/still scenes of empty rooms, the geometric interplay of the interior sets, the rich atmosphere and the underplayed acting from the entire cast which allows the determined resolve of the story to play out truthfully, without overstatement.

Floating Weeds concerns the story of a theatre troupe coming to a small coastal town. We find out that the lead actor and owner of the troupe, Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura) has a connection to this town and that he has come here to visit his son and former lover Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura). However the young man, Kiyoshi, believes that Komajuro is his uncle as he has been told. When Kiyoshi was born, the man didn’t want the boy to know that his father was an itinerant actor, so the secret has always been kept and the boy was led to believe that his father died. Things go smoothly until an actress in the troupe named Sumiko (Machiko Kyo) gets suspicious of Komajuro's intentions in the town and begins to meddle in the delicate family lie that the man has created for himself.

There is a particular scene in this film where the plot begins to thicken, tension begins to build, and we realize that conflict has come to Komajuro's carefully calculated life and everything is about to go wrong. There is a rain storm that comes and as it’s captured by the camera, there is a deep cleansing sensation afforded to the film. We are allowed to watch the rain. We see the rain through windows, and from different angles as it falls on flowers in the courtyard, as it falls into the street etc. There’s also a terrifically staged sequence where Komajuro and Sumiko are opposite the street from each other under the eaves of the house and rain dividing them both. It’s as if the rain has washed away the protective “cover” that the man has created for himself and has exposed his lie metaphorically. 

What I love best about this film is the way Ozu pulls you into the drama through the actors and the atmosphere. There tends to be a bit more confrontation, especially in the final 1/3 of the movie, than is usually commonplace in Ozu's films, where the conflict often plays out internally within the minds of the characters. Here, people grab one another, they strike each other, they twist each other’s arms. Additionally, the use of the summertime heat……people fanning themselves, the sound of the droning cicadas, the lazy summer afternoons at the beach, provide a thick atmosphere. Ozu’s use of the acting troupe also reflects a heightened state of dramatic effect, with the use of the costumes and the make-up providing a double-dose of cinematic drama. This is one of my favorite Ozu films and it’s fantastically written, shot, acted (particularly by Nakamura and Kyo), and directed. There is not a false step in this magnificent film.  

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Faust (1926) - Directed by F.W. Murnau

Is Faust the grandest experiment ever conducted by F.W. Murnau? He literally throws everything at the viewer here in a film that is overshadowed historically by the film that he made following it in 1927, Sunrise. I recently watched Sunrise, for the third time, and am absolutely convinced that, yes it contains mostly brilliant cinema, but it also contains a few really sappy segments that play poorly melodramatic- not to Murnau’s strengths. I actually find City Girl (1930) to be a far more evenly paced film than Sunrise and manages to avoid some of the maudlin aspects that Sunrise falls into times. Murnau was not at his best playing up melodrama though. He was at his best highlighting the darker recesses of humanity and made his most technically interesting films while still in Germany. This was his last German film.

Faust is based on the Goethe play and stars Gosta Ekmann as Faust, an elderly alchemist, who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for youth and earthly pleasures. Emil Jannings plays the demon Mephisto who escorts Faust around, and generally wreaks all kinds of havoc throughout the story through manipulation. Sex plays a large role in the film, as Faust is initially convinced to take a trial day under the Devil’s rule, but his day as a younger man is about to come to an end before he is able to fornicate with a woman he is wooing to bed. He is convinced to finalize the pact with the Devil therefore in order to keep his “date”. Later in the film, Faust is smitten by a young woman named Gretchen. His temptation to couple with Gretchen becomes not only his downfall, but also that of Gretchen and her family.

I think anyone familiar with the Faust story will not be surprised or particularly excited by the plot mechanics. For me the excitement of the film is in the presentation which is wildly chaotic and absolute fun. Several setpieces and images are quite memorable. From the image of the Devil and his hulking presence towering over the miniature town, to the sequence where Faust is out in the countryside calling the demon Mephisto to come to his side and out of the blackness, the overlaid imagery of Mephisto riding a horse comes closer and closer out of the sky. One of the most striking sequences is toward the end when Gretchen is trudging through the snow with her baby and out of sheer exhaustion plops herself down in the snow. Her scream for “Faust!” after they’ve found her baby dead in the snow is also an example of visual storytelling at its finest in the silent era. Using overlaid imagery, special effects, tracking shots, unique setpieces, Murnau reaches his pinnacle of inventiveness I believe here in this film.

So let’s talk about Emil Jannings who is magnificent as Mephisto. His performance just downright dominates the film and he in general puts most actors from this era to shame. His expressions are what I take away from this film, especially his evil smile. I wonder though, if the performance is a bit more caricatured than say, something like The Doorman from The Last Laugh, which might be his best work of all. There, he is able to express a greater range of emotion. Here, it’s almost like a glorious, extended cameo appearance of sorts, where he gets to have all of the fun and doesn’t have to carry the emotion. As for Murnau, I’ve found that the films I enjoy the best are the ones he made in Germany. The Last Laugh and Faust especially are wonderful, kinetic examples of his craft. When he went to Hollywood, something for me was not quite the same. Many people consider Sunrise the greatest silent film of all time though, so maybe it’s just me.