Capsule Reviews: May 30 – June 2

A Generation (Andrzej Wajda, 1955) – 3/5

Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, 1957) – 5/5

Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958) – 5/5

A Generation – the first installment in Andrzej Wajda’s War Trilogy – portrays the experiences of an idealistic young factory worker who joins the Resistance during WWII. At bottom a coming-of-age story, Generation’s protagonist, Stach, is drawn into political awareness by the lure of romantic attraction (to communist cell organizer Dorota) as much as the acts of industrial petty sabotage he commits in the opening scenes. Wajda’s direction owes an acknowledged debt to Italian neorealism – achieving its effects, apart from the long lateral tracking shot that plays under the opening credits, through crisp, bold editing more often than showy camera movement. In the film’s most visually evocative scene, the small band of freedom fighters clandestinely meet in the middle of an amusement fair, while in the background billows of black smoke rise from the Jewish ghetto. Ultimately, Stach must contend with betrayal and the loss of his beloved, while the modestly upbeat ending provides him with an alternative family in fellow Resistance members. Features, in a minor role, 21-year-old Roman Polanski.

Set against the final days of the Warsaw Uprising, Kanal indicates a level of maturation in Wajda’s style, exhibiting more fluid camerawork and a surer grasp of mise-en-scène. Voiceover narration introduces the members of an ill-fated Home Army company with the admonition: “Watch them closely, for these are the last hours of their lives,” as the ragtag assembly marches past. Without a doubt, scenes of urban devastation – bombed-out buildings and city squares piled high with rubble and debris – served as an influence on Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), especially since one of Kanal’s protagonists is a former composer who, given the opportunity, despondently tickles the ivories amidst the wreckage of Polish society. In its claustrophobic second half, the company descends into the sewers in a desperate effort to reach the last vestiges of relative safety in downtown Warsaw. Unsurprisingly, one of the soldiers mentions Dante during this infernal passage, as many of the men, awash in ordure and plagued by noxious vapors, go mad inch by inch, and those who persevere encounter bitterly ironic fates.

A botched political assassination that leaves two factory workers dead sets the stage for Ashes and Diamonds, a more intricately plotted, but equally ironic, allegory on the pointlessness of human violence. For the first time, Wajda employs widescreen film stock, yielding compositions that either strand his characters in some dingy corner, or else fill the screen with smoky, inchoate light and masses of gathered shadows, giving scenes a distinctly film noir feel. The final images – the anti-hero expiring amid a vast rubbish heap – rivals the remarkably bleak conclusion to Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950) in its metaphorical evaluation of all human endeavor.

The Thief of Bagdad (Michael Powell et al., 1940) – 3.5/5

Powell is one of six directors credited (and uncredited) for this Technicolor extravaganza – a remake of the 1924 silent swashbuckler directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Douglas Fairbanks. Since this version’s emphasis is on the fantastic, the story has been assembled as a breezy Arabian Nights knockoff. Performances are sturdy, if a bit creaky, though Conrad Veidt’s malevolent Jaffar is characteristically excellent. Set design – lavish, flamboyant even – and still-impressive special effects take center stage. The lush color palette – as well as the presence of Sabu – brings the brilliant Black Narcissus (1947) prominently to mind.

Above Suspicion (Richard Thorpe, 1943) – 2.5/5

Newlywed American couple (Fred MacMurray, Joan Crawford) living in England are recruited as spies by the Foreign Office on the eve of their honeymoon vacation in southern Germany. Played for laughs as often as thrills (and supplying both in limited, fitful spurts), this humdrum affair is notable for two reasons: it was Conrad Veidt’s final screen appearance before his untimely death later that year; one sequence stands out – a political assassination accomplished during a Liszt concert, with the fatal shot fired in time to the percussion section, and this thirteen years before Hitch would use the identical contrivance (substituting a cymbal crash) in the celebrated Albert Hall climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

It Happened Tomorrow (René Clair, 1945) – 3/5

“Newspaper from the future” (a frequent enough plot device that it now warrants its own Wikipedia page) fantasy/comedy starring Dick Powell and Linda Darnell allows co-writer/director Clair several showpiece sequences – a rooftop chase (recalling his earlier Under The Roofs of Paris) and a crane shot following a minor character as he rushes down a staircase, shot by DP Eugen Schüfftan along a vertical cross-sectional set – a truly marvelous image. The story is unexceptional, predictable, merely amusing. Notable for the craftsmanship Clair and Schüfftan bring to the table.

Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970) – 5/5

Picaresque revisionist Western, based on Thomas Berger’s novel, chronicles “Indian fighter” Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) from teen to 121-year-old, structured as a flashback narrated by the curmudgeon to an inquisitive historian. Penn’s film succeeds brilliantly on several levels : the episodic narrative allows for abundant satire and parody (religious hypocrisy, mercantile hucksterism and the gunfighter lifestyle frequently come in for disabuse), while building up a nuanced, often ironic portrait of the relations between the manifest destiny of pioneer folk and the, shall we say, less fortunate Native Americans. At the same time, Little Big Man functions as an anti-authoritarian cry of outrage against recent events in Vietnam, in particular the furor surrounding the 1968 My Lai massacre. (Descending upon a Cheyenne village while the braves are away,  a common technique as it happens for the US Cavalry in those days, one of the sergeants orders, “Bury the females and children…if possible.”) Penn also builds in some amusing cinematic references, and even an in-joke or two, to John Ford’s The Searchers (1955), the celebrated seduction scene in The Graduate ([1967]: reprised with Faye Dunaway in the Mrs. Robinson role) and, unless I am entirely mistaken, a distinct echo of Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert (1965).

About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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