#282: Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956)

I bloody love Fritz Lang. From the Dr Mabuse silent movie years right up to his underrated adventure final picture, Journey to the Lost City, Lang’s work was drenched in dark mastery and expressionism, which – much to his displeasure and further emigration to Paris – lead to him being Hitler and Goebbels favourite filmmaker. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, his last movie made in the States, is a low-budget courtroom drama which tackles the regular noir dilemma of moral injustice in a new, if slightly implausible way.

Following the death of a local nightclub showgirl, newspaper man Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), sets out on a quest to rival the problematic legal system which sees innocent men given the death penalty in the face of insubstantial evidence. Unable to do the job alone, he persuades his daughter’s fiancée, novelist Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) to help him.

Together they create a master plan, planting circumstantial evidence that links Tom to the crime; hoping that he’ll be called out as a murderer so that he can elaborately prove the flaws within the penal system, and humiliate the cocksure DA Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf) in the process. But, as always with these yarns, things don’t go according to plan, after a fatal car accident, Tom’s desperate attempt at proving his innocence to his fearful wife-to-be Susan (Joan Fontaine), and the courtroom jury becomes more difficult than he imagined.

At a slight eighty minutes running time, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt shows Fritz Lang at his most economical. Everything is tautly filmed with no single shot wasted, but Douglas Morrow’s screenplay and Andrews ever-austere performance doesn’t grip you by the scruff of the neck and shake you around like the central exoneration plot deserves.

As one of his least stylised movies, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is a nice and worthy companion piece amongst the Fritz Lang masterpieces like M, Fury, Metropolis, and While The City Sleeps (the last of which is also from 1956 and focuses on a similar ethical paradox premise). It’s mechanical, lightweight film noir, but it’s undoubtedly worth a watch for Lang fans.

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PS – It was remade in 2009 by Peter Hyams, starring Michael Douglas and Jesse Metcalfe. I hear bad things.

#274: Alois Nebel (2011)

Based on a graphic novel trilogy from Czech artists Jaroslav Rudiš and Jaromír 99 (who also write the screenplay), filmmaker Tomáš Luňák’s debut movie Alois Nebel is an existential rotoscopy animation about identity and disconnect. Film noir mystique filtered through Buñuel-like surrealism, it’s narrative problems don’t stop you from being compelled by the lusciously rich visuals.

Alois Nebel is the name of our dour hero, voiced and embodied on screen by Miroslav Krobot (who previously delighted in Béla Tarr’s The Man From London). Alois is a decoy protagonist, with his significance in the film’s overarching narrative being incidental; yet it is through his fractured perspective that the story unfolds.

An ageing guard at a baron train station, his life is as routine as the locomotives that pass him. At least, that’s what his stoney-faced exterior leads the people around him to think. Behind it all, he is tormented by hallucinations of his childhood: stripped from the clutches of his mother in Nazi-occupied Prague.

Back in the present day, the only tangible narrative thread is the story of ‘The Mute’ (Karel Roden), a silenced man who is chased over the Polish border carrying an axe, an old photograph, and skeletons in the proverbial closet. When Alois’ nightmares start to become more vivid, and his co-worker wants to steal his job, he is thrown into a local mental asylum. Bunking with ‘The Mute’, the pair form a taciturn relationship which will suffer grave consequences once they escape the ward.

Although there are further plot developments that help, I found Alois Nebel a difficult, confusing film to engage with. There are so many ways that director Luňák obfuscates the plot. Firstly, it’s already an illusory story – filled with contextual flashbacks and flash forwards, and two central characters (one an actual mute) who barely speak a word between them. Even when they are dominating the screen, the rotoscoped animation makes it incredibly difficult to register any facial expression or emotion (a problem that Linklater got around by making his actors exacerbate their movements in his rotscopic animation movie A Scanner Darkly). If you really want to ‘get’ Alois Nebel, having an extensive knowledge of the Czech Republic slang, rural locations, folklore and the relationship with Nazi Germany in WW2 may come as an advantage, as Luňák certainly isn’t giving us any expository tips.

Regardless of these plotting and cognition problems, Alois Nebel is a stunning mood piece. That mood may be glum, but the beautiful, Waltz With Bashir style rotoscopy is alluring from the very opening scene of a train sluggishly approaching the screen, right through to the unyielding shots of an inmate being lobotomised in the asylum. It’s pure aesthetic vision, and Petr Kruzík’s moody score often helps lay on some emotional attachment to it all, even if we fail to understand what the hell is going on.

I should clarify, my problems aren’t in being confused with the plot, but confused by the point or directorial message of the whole thing. Is it style over substance? Looking at individual sequences in the film, I’d disagree- the visuals really are that breathtaking. As a whole film, however, Alois Nebel coasts on the comic book-like design, and in the process deals with it’s war-time story a little too impersonally, or unjustly. In the end, at a slight 84 minutes running time,  Alois Nebel’s canvas will certainly draw you in.

Yes, that was a pun. Fuck you, pun haters.

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#264: Crossfire (1947)

One of my favourite actors of Hollywood’s Robert Mitchum. A pot-smoking, wisecracking playboy, he embraced the hedonistic heyday of Hollywood’s post-war golden age and still managed to deliver some truly mesmerising performances (Out of the Past, Angel Face and the notorious Night of the Hunter are pretty great starting points).

A new-ish kid on the block, Mitchum turned up in the 1947 crime thriller Crossfire, directed by war-drama pioneer Edward Dmytryk. With a typically noir plot of a murder investigation amongst war vets, headed by the tempetuous Montgomery (Robert Ryan). It’s down to man of morals, Robert Young’s gumshoe detective to track down the murderer at loose amongst the ranks, meanwhile the captivating Gloria Grahame crops up briefly to throw some sexy mystique into the mix as a high-profile lady of the night.

An ensemble cast of excellent players, the maladroit, message-laden script fails to give them any space to perform. That is with the one notably exception of the towering Robert Ryan, who’s natural menace brings some life to the languid plot.

It’s unfortunate that Crossfire’s context of production is far more interesting than the movie itself. Adapted from the Richard Brooks novel (the man behind 1967’s In Cold Blood adaptation), screenplay writer John Paxton and Dmytryk had to shift the subject of prejudice from homophobia to anti-semtism, as the former was still considered as a ‘sexual perversion’ by America’s Motion Picture doctrine. It’s a great shame, as the bubbling subtext of four reckless men at war together, struggling with their loneliness and emotions, would have made for a far more interesting movie.

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#245: In A Lonely Place (1950)

Humphrey Bogart was the First Gentleman of Hollywood’s Golden Age. As much of a superstar as a victim to the industry, the Casablanca actor had a lifelong battle with alcohol, smokes and celebrity. Far from the glitz and glamour, his performance in In a Lonely Place is not only the best of his career, but also the one most painfully close to the fragile man behind that famous hard-boiled exterior.

From Rebel Without a Cause‘s Nicholas Ray, In a Lonely Place is an intelligent, if a little perplexing picture. Genre-hopping, he adopts the aesthetics and resilient sleuth tropes of film noir with a thwarted love story, finished with a hint of satirical indictment on the hollywood industry.

Much like the Joe Gillis character in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. of the same year, Bogie is a washed-up screenwriter by the name of Dixon “Dix” Steele. Falling fast into alcohol-fuelled obscurity, his tired agent Mel (Art Smith) manages to snap up a deal to adapt a trashy bestselling novel. An odious task, Dix has hat-check girl Mildred (Martha Stewart) read the book and tell him the story in her own words during a midnight aperitif at his bachelor pad. A few hours later, Mildred is found dead by the roadside and Dix is a prime suspect; his record of belligerence when angry, macabre sense of humour and blasé outlook on the crime don’t work in his favour. Fortunately enough, lovely neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) gives him an alibi that mutes the investigation for a while. An angel arriving in his darkest of hours, the pair’s unlikely kinship blossoms into a love that is both passionate and destructive.

Adapted from the novel of Dorothy B. Hughes (which is equally marvellous, by the way), Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North not only know how to write  fantastic drama, but they’re unsurprisingly great at creating a complex screenwriter character. Initially, we expect that Dix is an innocent man, but the writing duo manage to get the audience–and the doubtful Laurel–to question the veracity of this emotionally cold and uncaring figure.

Although it could appear as a rather vapid and forgettable film title in the first instinct, it soon becomes apparent that existential isolation and lack of purpose is a key component to the film’s story and production background. Firstly, there’s Dix – a man on the brink of giving up with life until he finds true love. This raw emotion that he has only ever written of overwhelms him and –afraid of that lonely place–Dix desperately tries to control Laurel.

But Laurel is no subordinated housewife, and neither is the magnificently cast Gloria Grahame who manages to toy with melodramatic moments but never oversteps the mark. Perhaps her screen restraint is a product of her fiery and problematic real life relationship with director Nicholas Ray, who reportedly ended up sleeping in the studio dressing room’s after their disclosed separation.

Lastly, we’re back to the start – our beloved Bogie. Sick of being a profitable puppet in the Hollywood system, In a Lonely Place was financed by his own studio, Santana Productions. With more creative freedom comes greater performances, and Bogie is magnetic as Dix, a performance that is better than the film itself. Moving from the cool and charismatic comedian to the threatening and unpredictable maniac, he never loses a trace of that natural screen presence. A true icon, it must feel awful lonely being in a class of your own.

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#219: Shadows in Paradise (1986) / #220: Ariel (1988) / #221: The Match Factory Girl (1990)

Lionised as the genius anti-art filmmaker of Finland, the writer, producer, director, editor and some-time actor known as Aki Kaurismäki is an icon of world cinema. At the helm directing seventeen feature films in just under thirty years, he is unsurprisingly a huge influence on NYC bad-ass Jim Jarmusch, creating stories around boozy subcultural movements. From rockabillies to punks and working-class beatniks to the haute bourgeoisie, Kaurismäki has it all laced up in a stylised, socio-realism veneer, orbiting the genres to mix film noir with romantic comedy to dazzling effect. Well, that’s what I hear, at least, for I have never seen a Kaurismäki film.

Although it pains me to say it, I’ve just never got round to this formidable filmmaker’s work. As one of my “crimes against cinema” I’ve chosen ten films from his body of work to explore, observe and critique. With the updates coming thick and fast over the coming days, we kick off with his “Proleteriat Trilogy”.


#219: Shadows in Paradise (1986)

From Shadows in Paradise’s very opening shot of a dirty blue garage door, you know that this medley of films will be drenched in stale, working-class struggle. Garbage man Nikander (Matti Pellonpää) is a perpetual outsider; a lone soul glumly enduring a vacuous life in the dumps of Helsinki. A beacon of hope comes in a furtive love interest with the local mini-market cashier-girl Illona (Kati Outinen), but love here is no less capricious than betrayal. Kaurismäki sees the world as a succession of crappy homes and desolate roads, with people desperately seeking out compassion in any form. Such unwanted misanthropy and anguish becomes the product of brilliantly sharp absurdist comedy. In one scene, a rigid hotelier (played Kaurismäki himself) reels off a list of amenities and prices to the shelterless Illona only before fatally claiming that there’s no vacant rooms. Escaping the clutches of dullard work, the pair still have nowhere to go, and no way to get there.

Shadows In Paradise is a stoney faced comedy of underclass solidarity. The two sourpuss lovers are constantly awkward, taciturn characters. Defying all clichés, their unity is tragically real and therefore more affecting, even when the two sail off on a ferry to Estonia the result is grim, you will still be right there with them, hoping that they find a better future out of their subordinated status. It is truly a love story with a wristcutter’s pain at its heart – recycling familiar, rom-com conventions for something wholly depressing yet completely engrossing.

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#219: Ariel (1988)

The prole hero this time around is a big-lug mineworker by the name of Taisto (Turo Pajala). After his father blows his brains out, Taisto slips on his dishevelled black suit, white socks and black RayBans and drives out of Lapland in his snowy white Cadillac for mainland Helsinki. If the grim realities of Shadows in Paradise are anything to go by, we know that the grass won’t be greener for Taisto, who, after starting another convenience-sake romance with single mother Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto) is thrown into jail after beating down a thief who tried to mug him.  He is unjustly thrown into prison where he meets erratic cellmate Mikkonen (Matti Pellonpää once again putting in an astounding, muted performance); a new maestro who sets him straight on the wrong path in the Finnish underworld.

Ariel is much more menacing than Shadows in Paradise, with Kaurismäki’s regular cinematographer Timo Salminen using extended, still close-ups of prison bars and empty rooms to illustrate the inescapable isolation of these two hapless convicts.

A compelling blend of gritty realism and escapist fantasy – a polarity perhaps best emblematised by the juxtaposition of the film noir movie which Taisto watches on television, and the Finnish language take on the Wizard of Oz’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the film’s closing moments. Not totally harmonious throughout, yet Kaurismäki’s ability to weave  a complex narrative combining elements of prison-drama, crime caper, buddy comedy and fleeting romance, all in a measly seventy minute running time, is as mystifying as the enigmatic Taisto himself.

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#219: The Match Factory Girl (1990)

Finishing up his working-class tripartite, Kaurismäki’s The Match Factory Girl is perhaps the bleakest of the three tragicomedies; a revenge movie about a subordinated woman going through an existential crisis as an underclass con in the mechanical Finnish society.

The film’s theme is stated, with characteristic bluntness, in the opening sequence, as a tree trunk is mechanically whittled down to the size of a matchstick – a brutal metaphor about the severity of life, and its inevitable demise.

Cementing her place as Kaurismäki’s muse, Kati Outinen stars again as the titular factory girl Iris. Swimming in mute disconsolation at her monotonous day job, by night she returns to a home-life even more catatonic, paying rent to her exploitative, stoical parents, eating a potato-heavy dinner in silence, ironing clothes and then straight to bed. With no social life, friends or personable qualities, she plucks up enough courage to break free and treat herself to a pretty dress, much to the dismay of her stepfather, who – seventeen minutes in to the picture – spurts the first diegetic piece of dialogue in the entire movie by calling his only daughter a whore. Shaken by parental disgust, Iris heads out to a club, where she meets the bearded man who shows her a good time.

Hardly a blossoming romance, Kaurismäki subverts the optimism when, in the morning after the night before, Iris’ night of passion is subverted to a night of convenience when she awakes to find a crisp Finnish mark bill on the bedside table. Confused and bewildered, she is nothing more than a prostitute to the man of her dreams, who later delivers the fatal line ‘Nothing could touch me less than your affection’. It’s enough of a tragedy to push Iris over the edge and seek vengeance on him, her parents, and anyone else who stands in her way.

As expected, Kaurismäki’s use of pop music in The Match Factory Girl superbly chronicles the practically silent film (there’s about twenty lines of spoken dialogue in the whole seventy minutes running time).

Moreso than any other of the working class characters in the series, Iris is the one you desperately long to see breakout of the acquiescent life she leads. The ensuing series of events, as compassionate as they are scabrous, provides not just a terrific, cathartic punchline to the story, but a significant political commentary on outmoded class structures in Finland and beyond.

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Although the trilogy is far from perfect, all three represent a filmmaker who is unafraid to test audience’s patience with minimalism. Going further than french influence Robert Bresson, Kaurismäki’s worldview is distinctively humanistic but resolutely astringent, and watching his work can be akin to the alcohol which douses his stories: best served in moderation.

Next up on my Kaurismäki, “crimes against cinema” binge will be his 1989 music parody Leningrad Cowboys Go America.

PODCAST no.2: Week 31 / Films #188-194

Ernest Goes to Podcast

Popping down the quill and warming up the vocal chords, this is my second weekly round-up podcast for your ear’s delectation. Seven reviews, movie clips, and  thirty minutes of me talking. Why wouldn’t you want that?

Subscribe to the iTunes podcast HERE, or listen in to the Soundcloud hosting episode below. I may be biased, but I’d say that it is at the very least listenable.