Monday, 28 January 2013

Cinema Komunisto (2010)

When he wasn't busy oppressing the people and leading North Korea into starvation and ruin, Kim Jong Il loved to relax with a movie, either from Hollywood or from his own subsidised state dream factory. However, he was by no means the first Communist dictator to do so. Over in 1940s Yugoslavia, Marshal Josip Broz, better known by his nickname, Tito had similar ideas, lapping up Westerns starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, and planning to harness the power of cinema to promote and build his authoritarian Communist regime. Cinema Komunisto tells the fascinating and poignant story of the Avala Studio and the Yugoslav film boom of that era, an industry that at its height attracted the likes of Orson Welles, Richard Burton and Yul Brynner.

What is obvious from the beginning is how much pride so many of the people involved in the industry still have in the work they did, some of which revolves around the opportunities to rub shoulders with the big Western stars of the day, and show them that their work was just as good as anything from America. Where their Hollywood counterparts might have had to use model work to show a bridge being blown up, in Yugoslavia, they would simply ring up their beloved leader Tito, who would grant them permission to blow up the real thing.

What is not so obvious is what to make of the films themselves. The clips provided are too fragmented and diverse to be able to judge the style or quality, and most seem overly derivative of Hollywood war films and Westerns of the 1940s to 1960s, with their easily definable good and bad guys, and bloodless shootings. The propaganda is pretty blatant and unsophisticated at times, with songs about how breaking rocks is fun, and endlessly quotable dialogue such as "Tell the Communist party we have exceeded our quota by 70%"

The figure towering behind all of this is Tito, with his love of film and understanding of its use as a tool to invent the story of the revolution. This understanding would sometimes see him getting involved in the production side of things, personally annotating scripts with handwritten suggestions, or corrections to things he felt were factually incorrect. Tito is still held in genuinely high regard by many of the interviewees, perhaps not surprisingly, given how well they did professionally out of their leader’s cinematic obsession. Some of the Hollywood types seem a little star-struck themselves, with Brynner singing Tito's praises in a French TV interview and, in a particularly unedifying clip, Welles proclaims that “…it is a self-evident fact that Tito is the greatest leader on earth”. To his credit, Richard Burton, who ended up playing Tito in The Battle of Sutjeska, seems, from the footage shown, more reserved and detached, with the real life Tito fawning over him like a breathless fan. Only towards the end of the documentary do we get an admission of a darker side to the Utopia, with hints at the repression, and purging of dissidents and enemies of the state, all too familiar in totalitarian regimes.

Nothing lasts forever though, and with the death of Tito, the once mighty Yugoslav film industry began to disintegrate. More chillingly, as we are shown, without his presence to unify and bind the country together, so did Yugoslavia itself, descending into barbaric conflict that led eventually to NATO intervention (including bombing the very mansion where Tito sat watching films nearly every night). The studio now lies rotting and abandoned, the films lie rotting and unwatched, and the communist revolution that powered them has been consigned to history. Cinema Komunisto does an excellent job of shining a light on a previously neglected side of World Cinema, and by charting the rise and fall of Avala Studio, presents a perfect metaphor for the rise and fall of the country of Yugoslavia.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Hitchhiker (1953)

The Hitchhiker is a taut, edgy affair from the classic “Film-noir” era, and one of the few examples of the genre to be directed by a woman. 

The plot sees two friends, Roy Collins (Edmund O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) heading off to Mexico on a fishing trip, only to be hijacked by fugitive serial killer Emmett Myers (William Talman). He needs them alive because, unlike them, he does not speak "Mexican", and a deadly cat-and-mouse game unfolds as Myers bullies, tortures and provokes the two men. Can they keep their cool and escape before they are no longer useful to him?

Although some Film Noir movies were proper Hollywood productions with A-list stars, many more were shot cheaply and quickly for smaller scale studios, and as a result, made a virtue of their limitations. The Hitchhiker is a great example of this, eschewing elaborate sets for the wide-open desert spaces of California, and with no time or money to waste, the script moves quickly, with barely a word or scene feeling extraneous.

By the 1950s, Ida Lupino was an established, respected actress who had moved into writing, producing, and directing, and deserves recognition as one of the pioneers of feminist cinema (although, interestingly, in this film, there are no female characters shown at all). Here, in her fourth outing behind the camera, she makes great use of the desert locations, and far from representing freedom, the wide-open spaces, when juxtaposed with the tiny car the characters are trapped with, only emphasise the claustrophobia of the situation.

Aside from the locations, the real star of the show is William Talman. His ferociously evil and sleazy performance as Myers is underpinned with some original character touches, such his paralysed right eye lid, the upshot of which is that he sleeps with one eye open, daring his captives to guess whether or not he is watching them. This is typical of the mind games that he plays with the other two, designed to slowly but surely break them. However, this is not a one-note performance, and Myer’s cockiness repeatedly shifts to paranoia whenever he needs his captives to act as translators, the one time when he is completely in their power, and that, combined with his itchy trigger finger leads to some very tense moments.

Film Noir usually revolves around crime, and the protagonists are either those who are involved with it professionally, such as cops, detectives or crooks, or, as here, ordinary people who are unwittingly dragged into it, often as a result of a completely random event. These two are not macho tough guys, but utterly normal individuals, family men ("Except for the war, this is the first time I've been away from the kids") who normally do very little that could be considered adventurous.

Their friendship is their greatest asset morally, and their compassion and empathy for each other and the other human beings that they encounter along the way is the major thing that sets them apart from their low life tormentor. It is also, however, the thing that on several occasions sabotages their chances of escape, as they both seem unable to leave the other person behind in order to save their own lives

The ending feels like a bit of an anti-climax, but that is more a reflection on the intensity of what has gone on before, and does not spoil what is an excellent piece of Film-Noir that deserves its place alongside more well-known examples.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Dial M for Murder (1954)

Although lacking the extravagant set pieces or psychological depth of some of his other work, Dial M for Murder is still classic Hitchcock, and a great example of a confident and assured director at the top of his game.

Former tennis pro Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) thinks he has devised the perfect way to get rid of his cheating wife Margot (Grace Kelly, in her first collaboration with Hitchcock) and get his hands on her money. Blackmailing an old college friend into murdering her, it looks like the plan has come unstuck when Margot manages to kill her attacker, but then the police charge her with murder. Can her boyfriend stop her being sent to the gallows?

Dial M for Murder (originally shot in 3D, but rarely seen in that format since) is based very closely on the stage play by Frederick Knott, and it is to Hitchcock’s credit that he resists the urge to expand the location or plot any further. The original story is elaborately but tightly plotted, with hardly an extraneous word or action, and the single location, the Wendice's London flat gives the film a claustrophobic feel.

Ray Milland gives an excellent performance as Tony, smooth, charming, confident and virtually unflappable. Grace Kelly plays Margot across as vulnerable and sympathetic, not easy to achieve, as she is the one cheating.

They are backed by an excellent supporting cast, especially John Williams as Chief Inspector Hubbard, who goes for the Columbo method of crime solving, by making out he hasn’t got a clue what is going on, while all the time playing cat and mouse games with Tony. Only Margot’s boyfriend Mark (Robert Cummings) comes across as stiff and unappealing, but this may be more to do with Hitchcock playing with the audience expectations, by making the evil schemer much more appealing than the clean cut good guy.

The other star is, of course, Hitchcock, who, with Dial M for Murder, is wise enough to realise that with the right cast and the right script, sometimes it is enough to just point the camera and let them talk.