Justine (1969) **

In pre-WW2 Alexandria in the Middle East with the British on the point of departing, impoverished young poet Darley (Michael York) becomes the latest plaything for Justine (Anouk Aimee), wife to Egyptian banker Nessim (John Vernon) who encourages her multiple relationships in order  to smooth the path for his gun-running activities. Matters are complicated since Darley is having an affair with belly dancer Melissa (Anna Karina) and some of Justine’s other lovers float in and out of the picture. Political intrigue which might have anchored the movie also shifts in and out of view. In this cross-cultural hotchpotch various groups – Jews, Moslems, Coptic Christians – look to seize control.

Cluttered is the best way to describe this. Despite excellent performances by Anouk Aimee and Dirk Bogarde it is still a mess. Whatever story there was has been buried by “atmosphere” and too many characters adding too little to the overall outcome. Entangled lives end up being just that – wrapped around each other with nowhere to go. Over-emphasis is placed on the louche background, nightclubs featuring cross-dressing belly dancers and a  massive carnival. Luckily, we can’t entirely blame venerated Oscar-winning director George Cukor (My Fair Lady, 1964). He was picking up the pieces after Twentieth Century Fox fired Joseph Strick (Ulysses, 1967) but was stuck with a lot of footage that had already been shot and a screenplay that didn’t make much sense.

When you realize the movie encompasses religious prejudice, racism, same sex arrangements, incest, child prostitution, nymphomania, revolution, and police and political corruption and is hardly able to give any of these themes more than a fleeting glance you soon realize this is one of those films that is just going to go on and on until sudden conclusion rears up and all is revealed. And that would be fine since many movies of this decade meander at length and sometimes appear to be completely lacking in plot or logic, but whose flaws are more than compensated by outstanding direction or performances. Alas, even the stunning evocation of this city and period cannot save the day.  

And it would have worked if Justine had been a femme fatale of the film noir school or if the politics been more grounded, but that doesn’t occur either and although Justine does have many influential men in her clutches you could hardly say that Darley is one of them. His role is merely to act as narrator and apologist.

One last point which has little to do with the film. In this film and in the same year’s Topaz, John Vernon gives very good dramatic performances, in both cases, coincidentally, wounded emotionally. So what happened that he is mostly remembered for villainous tough-guy roles from the following decade?

The Angel Wore Red (1961) ***

Given that this is filmed in black-and-white, it seems a curious title. So I’m assuming the color is a reference to a scarlet woman which, indeed, Ava Gardner (On the Beach, 1959) is, working in a “cabaret” in an unnamed town at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Strangely enough, the decision to shoot in black-and-white works in the actress’s favor. She was one of the last relics of the Hollywood Golden Age when brilliant cinematographers used innovative lighting to capture on screen not so much great beauty but tantalizing emotion.

The close-up was almost exclusively the preserve of actresses who could convey deep feeling with minute changes of expression or simply through their eyes. Here, a couple of joint close-ups prove the point: Gardner’s face illuminated, struggling to contain passion; that of lover Dirk Bogarde (Song without End, 1960) merely the same as always.  

This Italian-American production is part homily, part reverential, part brutal. Bogarde plays a priest on the run from the invading Communist forces during the Spanish Civil War. He takes refuge in a cabaret (code for brothel) where he is sheltered by Gardner. He has just denounced his faith so when captured is not executed as an enemy of the state, thus allowing him to begin a relationship with her. They share an unusual type of innocence, Gardner because, as what was known in those days as a woman of easy virtue, she has never known true love, Bogarde, for obvious reasons, the same. Their trembling acceptance of this wondrous state of affairs is the beauty of the film. No one can portray a fallen woman like Gardner, but even as a mature woman her steps towards true love are hesitant, almost believing it is tucked away beyond the rainbow far out of reach, while inner conflict had become central to the Bogarde screen persona.

The love story which would surely in any case have a tragic outcome unfortunately too often plays second fiddle to a subsidiary tale of safeguarding a sacred relic – about whose importance, strangely enough, both sides are agreed – and of arguments between various other political characters over the conflict. Joseph Cotten as a cynical journalist – are there any other kind? – bears testimony to the opposing perspectives while Vittorio de Sica has a glorious cameo as a no-nonsense general who nonetheless deplores the “dirty” war. Neither side comes out well in the war, the Communists, like a mob storming Dracula’s castle, destroy the cathedral, the Republicans committed to killing all prisoners so as not to hold up the advance of their troops. Only the clergy retain their principles even when tortured.  

Writer-director Nunnally Johnson had good reason for choosing to film in black-and white – it permitted use of newsreel footage of diving Stuka bombers and more importantly since much of the story takes place at night it creates a haunted background of dark alleys. Color would have destroyed such a vision. You could argue there is artistic purpose here, filming a country which has fallen into spiritual darkness. But that would not be true of the star – black-and-white allows rare opportunity to show what the camera adores in Gardner, her face, even in repose, absorbing the light, as if she were, indeed, redemption.