Capsule Reviews: June 21 – 23

The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1920) – 3.5/5

Sjöström’s silent morality play proves a classic example of style over substance (and not in the pejorative sense). Based on a popular novel written as a hygienic diatribe against “consumption” (TB, not the modern economic basis), The Phantom Carriage employs a notably intricate, flashback-laden structure to convey its simplistic moral message. As midnight on New Year’s Eve approaches, a dying Salvation Army volunteer, Sister Edit, feverishly expects a visit from one David Holm (Sjöström). Concerned friends conduct a search in vain. Elsewhere, the man cavorts with drunken cronies, sharing a bottle among the gravestones in a cemetery. From there, a series of narrators fill in the back story: David was Sister Edit’s first charge, taken in a year ago, who repaid her with contempt and spite (giving her TB in the bargain). Through the year, she tried in vain to change his wicked ways and, in the process, fell in love with him. (Naturally.) David, however, has a wife and children who occasionally bear the brunt of his drunken displeasure. In one memorable scene, his wife locks him in the kitchen, while she bundles up the babes. He breaks out with the help of a handy hatchet. (It has been said by some critics that this scene influenced Kubrick in The Shining [1980], but it’s just as likely he was thinking of Griffith’s Broken Blossoms [1919].) Onto all this Naturalistic pathos (whether derived from Zola or Strindberg), Sjöström imposes a supernatural frame—the last soul that dies on New Year’s becomes Death’s carriage-driver—that provides some of the film’s most striking imagery: the carriage retrieving a dead soul from the ocean floor is particularly evocative. The proto-surreal trick-photography effects, as well as the film’s visualization of Death (his driver, actually), were supposed to have been formative influences on a young Ingmar Bergman, who would repay the debt by using similar imagery in one masterwork The Seventh Seal (1957) and starring an elderly Sjöström in another, Wild Strawberries (also 1957).

Hara-kiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962) – 5/5

While many samurai films set their action toward the end of the shogun era, establishing a elegiac, “passing of an era” atmosphere (for instance, Takashi Miike’s recent 13 Assassins), Kobayashi sets his anti-authoritarian dismantling of the genre at its origins in the early 17th century, suggesting that the feudal Japan so often lionized or lamented in other films was rotten to its core and from the start. (The Iyi clan’s famous red armor, seen at film’s start and finish, may be impressive—imposing, ornate, ferocious-looking—but it’s also quite empty.) The complex flashback structure is carefully imbricated, each narrative strand (which extend to stories within stories) sheds new light on what has gone before, providing an ever-shifting focus of identification and sympathetic investment for the viewer. Kobayashi’s visual style alternates between fixed-camera static shots (Ozu-inflected, no doubt) and mobile tracking shots, and often the shift seems motivated as much by affective content as it is by aesthetic considerations. (Which considerations include an apparent love for frame-filling, fixed geometrical patterns.) Rendering the personal tragedy of the main characters even harsher (and more resonant), the film suggests that all records of the events will be expunged or emended to conform to “the official story.” As much as it valorizes the act of making a principled stand against the caprices and injustices of unchecked authority, it also makes plain that these private rebellions will meet with failure more often than not, effectively leaving the structures of power untouched.

Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961) – 5/5

Taking its cues from the Western in general, and John Ford’s iconic contributions to the genre in particular, Yojimbo in turn proved the progenitor of the Spaghetti Western by serving as thematic and iconographic template for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). (Also contributing to the mix of influences are the crime novels of Dashiell Hammett [Red Harvest, The Glass Key], especially noticeable in Walter Hill’s overlooked retro remake Last Man Standing [1996].) Kurosawa’s third venture into widescreen (Tohoscope) composition features stunning monochrome cinematography and a rollicking, incongruous Westernized soundtrack. Just in case, one way or another, despite its multiple incarnations, you’re not familiar with the story: Toshiro Mifune, the original Man with No Name, strolls into a small town in the midst of a running battle for its control by rival factions of organized crime. Sensing they’re both rotten to their foundations, he sets about bringing them both down. Kurosawa injects a dark, gallows humor. Kurosawa and Mifune would return a year later with a sequel, Sanjuro. (To be reviewed soon.)

The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1938) – 3/5

Routine screwball farce teams Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as warring exes who, of course, still harbor a hankering for each other. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with the setup (see The Palm Beach Story [1942] for Preston Sturges’ superior take on the trope), it’s just that The Awful Truth doesn’t do anything extraordinary with it. Amusing more than riotous, there’s really only one standout sequence: Having had her own prospective suitor (Ralph Bellamy) disposed of via Grant’s machinations, Dunne returns the favor by posing as his dipso sister in the company of his heiress fiancée and her snooty parents. For five minutes or so, Truth isn’t so awful, since it lands as many laughs as it misses. By the end, alas, the film’s squandered whatever goodwill it built up in that scene and ends with a whimper, a true groaner of a gag (involving animated cuckoo clock automatons, of all things!) that renders the conventional happy ending even less tolerable than usual.

Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941) – 3.5/5

Inspired by (if that’s the term…) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and based on a story and screenplay co-authored by Billy Wilder, Ball of Fire is best seen as an ungainly hodge-podge of interests that, later in his career as writer/director, when he suffered somewhat less interference, Wilder would integrate with greater success; the mobster material, especially, will be treated with more precision and purpose in Some Like It Hot (1959). Ball of Fire earns points, not surprisingly, for its verbal dexterity (an ear for his adopted language was always one of Wilder’s strong points)—an extended montage early in the film shows stuffed-shirt Professor of English Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), one of seven specialists hard at work compiling an up-to-date encyclopedia, scouring Manhattan for choice bits of contemporary slang, serving up a colloquial cornucopia of dazzling variety. Once the plot kicks into gear, however, with the introduction of Miss Katherine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) into the professorial bachelor pad, things get pretty predictable. Seven years later, Hawks reconfigured the material into a Danny Kaye musical, A Song is Born. (Incidentally, that do-over is hardly an aberration in the Hawks filmography—he remade Rio Bravo [1959] twice: first as El Dorado [1966] and then Rio Lobo [1970].)

Moonfleet (Fritz Lang, 1955) – 3.5/5

With Moonfleet, Lang inaugurates a new subgenre. Call it “Cinemascope Gothic.” At bottom a second- or third-rate adventure yarn in the R. L. Stevenson vein (Treasure Island, Kidnapped)—complete with spirited young protagonist, a brooding, Byronic “hero” (Stewart Granger), smugglers’ coves, hidden treasure, etc—Lang lends some mood and local color (Eastman Color, that is) by investing the mise-en-scène with the trappings of late 18th century Gothicism—a ruined manor, gloomy churchyard, cobwebbed statuary. Despite his evident dislike for the widescreen format—dismissing it as fit only for “snakes and funerals”—Lang makes the most of the frame’s horizontality: from banquets and gambling parlor scenes to a swashbuckler-style brawl in a pub. Beneath the picaresque theatrics lies a kernel of social criticism: the aristocrats, in particular Lord and Lady Ashwood (George Sanders, Joan Greenwood), are portrayed as decadent, scheming and rapacious.

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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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