Return from the Ashes (1965) ****

When your starting point is an arcane French inheritance law and the plot revolves around swindling a concentration camp survivor you are immediately on “icky” ground. Throw in a relationship between an adult male and the step-daughter of his deceased wife and the audience might already be backing off.

So it’s a tribute to the acting and that each character is not so much unlikeable as both vulnerable and predatory that this turns into a very involving drama. On the eve of World War Two in Paris Dr Michele Wolf (Ingrid Thulin) buys the love of penniless Polish chess player Stanislaus (Maximilian Schell) but at the cost of abandoning her step-daughter Fabi (Samantha Eggar). For him, love is contingent on wealth, but he marries Michele, a Jew, in a (failed) bid to save her from the clutches of the Nazis. Fabi, shorn of maternal love finds turns to a paternal variation, but is capable of coming up with an ingenious murder plot.

Just quite how hollow Michele has become is demonstrated in a brilliant opening scene set after the end of the war. In a railway carriage, a bored small boy endlessly kicks a door. Pretty much for 90 seconds we either see or hear that door being kicked. Foolishly, his hands wander from the window to the door handle. Next thing, he has fallen out. Cue screams, chaos, shocked passengers racing out of the carriage.

But when the conductor turns up to investigate the incident he finds Michele still sitting in her seat, oblivious to any death, even that of a child. When she returns to Paris, she takes a room in a hotel under a pseudonym, fearing that her ravaged looks make her unattractive, guilty at surviving (by volunteering to work in the camp brothel) when all her relatives were wiped out, unaware that she has unexpectedly inherited all their combined wealth.

So the story begins in a different way. When Stanislaus meets her accidentally under her false name, he immediately assumes she is just a dead ringer for his deceased wife and enrols her in a scheme to win the millions currently held in escrow under this inexplicable French law.

Since she continues to play the part of a different woman, she hears the truth about her relationship with Stanislaus, that although he committed the only unselfish “gallant act” in his life in marrying her nonetheless his prime reason was money. Already Fabi, in full femme fatale mode, is planning to rid the couple of Michele once the money has been legally acquired.

To his credit, Stanislaus initially balks at this notion, but when Michele reveals her true identity and scuppers his relationship with Fabi while at the same time trying to win back the affection of her step-daughter, matters take a deadly turn.

For the most part what we have is a menage a trois, equal parts driven by money and love, but in each instance propelled by innermost desire. Stanislaus is adept at pulling the wool over Michele’s eyes, she only too willingly blinding herself to his sexual deception. But Michele is equally willing, even when she knows his true feelings, to use her money to win him back while Fabi, aware that for her lover money will always trump romance, is determined to use her body to achieve the same effect.

What makes this so compelling is that, unusually, it avoids sentiment. It would have been easy to load each character up with such vulnerability that an audience would not condemn them. Instead, in addition to their individual weaknesses, we are shown their inherent predatory natures.

What makes it so enjoyable is the acting. So often Maximilian Schell is called upon to play stern characters, often typecast from his accent as a villainous German of one kind or another (Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, The Deadly Affair, 1967), rather than allowing him to invent a more rounded character as he did in Topkapi (1964). This is a wonderfully involving performance,  the wannabe chess grandmaster who uses his considerable charm to buttress his fears of poverty, and is only too aware of his failing, full of joie de vivre, bristling at being a kept man yet at the same time only too ready to financially exploit the situation.  

Where in The Collector (1965) Samantha Eggar was constrained by circumstance and in Walk, Don’t Walk (1966) saddled with an initially cold character, here she is permitted greater freedom to develop a conflicted personality, loving and deadly at the same time, drawn to and hating her step-mother, attracted by the thought of the money that would secure Stanislaus but repulsed by the cost.  

Ingmar Bergman protégé Ingrid Thulin (Wild Strawberries, 1957) is given the least leeway, another of the tormented characters in her intense portfolio. Herbert Lom (Villa Rides, 1968) puts in an appearance as a friend trying to warn her off Stanislaus.  

Director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, 1961) takes the bold approach of allowing characters and situation to develop before moving into thriller mode. There are a couple of quite superb scenes, running the opening segment close is the much-vaunted scene of Fabi in the bath (“No one may enter the theater once Fabi enters her bath” was a famous tagline). It is brilliantly filmed in film noir tones, bright light slashed across eyes rather than through windows, and Johnny Dankworth provides an interesting score. Julius J. Epstein (Casablanca, 1942) wrote the screenplay based on the bestseller by Hubert Monteilhet.

Is Paris Burning (1965) ****

Politics don’t usually play a part in war films of the 1960s but’s it’s an essential ingredient to Rene Clement’s underrated documentary-style picture. Paris has no strategic importance and after the Normandy landings in 1944 the Allies intend to bypass the German-occupied French capital and head straight for Berlin.

Meanwhile, Hitler, in particular vengeful mood after an attempt on his life, orders the city destroyed. Resistance groups are splintered, outnumbered and lacking the weaponry to achieve an uprising. Followers of General De Gaulle, the French leader in exile, want to wait until the Allies send in the troops while the Communists plan to seize control before British and American soldiers can arrive. 

When the Communists begin the fight by seizing public buildings, the Germans retaliate by planting explosives on the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and other famous buildings and all the bridges across the River Seine. German commandant Von Choltitz (Gert Frobe), no stranger to slaughter having overseen the destruction of Rotterdam, holds off obeying his orders because he believes Hitler is insane and the war already lost.

The Gaullists dispatch a messenger to persuade General Omar Bradley to change his mind and send troops to relieve the city. Director Clement, aware how little tension he can extract from the question of whether von Clowitz will press the destruct button (history tells us he did not) so he takes another route and documents in meticulous detail the political in-fighting and the actual street battles that ensued, German tanks and artillery against Molotov cocktails and mostly old-fashioned weaponry.

The wide Parisian boulevards provide a fabulous backdrop for the fighting. Shooting much of the action from above allows Clement to capture the action in vivid cinematic strokes. Like The Longest Day (1962) the film does not follow one individual but is in essence a vast tapestry. Scenes of the utmost brutality – resistance fighters thrown out of a lorry to be machine-gunned, the public strafed when they venture out to welcome the Americans – contrast with moments of such gentleness they could almost be parody: a shepherd taking his flock  through the fighting, an old lady covered in falling plaster watching as soldiers drop home-made bombs on tanks.

This is not a film about heroism but the sheer raw energy required to carry out dangerous duty and many times a character we just saw winning one sally against the enemy is shot the next. The French have to fight street-by-street,  corner-by-corner, bridge-by-bridge,   enemy-emplacement-by-enemy-emplacement, tank-by-tank.

And Clement allows as much time for humanity. Francophile Sgt Warren (Anthony Perkins), an American grunt, spends all his time in the middle of the battle trying to determine the location of the sights he longs to see. Bar owner Simone Signoret helps soldiers phone their loved ones.

Like The Longest Day and In Harm’s Way (1965), the film was shot in black-and-white, but not, as with those movies for the simple reason of incorporating newsreel footage, but because De Gaulle, now the French president, objected to the sight of a red swastika.

Even so, it permitted the inclusion of newsreel footage, which on the small screen (where most people these days will watch it) appears seamless. By Hollywood standards this was not an all-star cast, only fleeting glimpses of Glenn Ford (Fate Is the Hunter, 1964), Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way To Die, 1968), Robert Stack (The Corrupt Ones / The Peking Medallion, 1967), Orson Welles (House of Cards, 1968) and George Chakiris (West Side Story, 1961).

But by French standards it was the all-star cast to beat all-star casts – Jean-Paul Belmondo (Breathless, 1960), Alain Delon (Lost Command, 1966), Yves Montand (Grand Prix, 1966), Charles Boyer (Gaslight, 1944), Leslie Caron (Gigi, 1958), Michel Piccoli (Masquerade, 1965), Simone Signoret (Room at the Top, 1959) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, 1966).  Director Rene Clement was best known for Purple Noon (1960), an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley starring Alain Delon

At $6 million, it was the most expensive French film ever made, a six-month shooting schedule, shot on the streets of the city including famous locations like Etoile, Madeleine and the Louvre. Big hit in France, it flopped in the United States, its box office so poor that Paramount refused to disclose it.

Black Butterflies / Les Papillons Noirs (2022) **** – Netflix

Not since Basic Instinct (1992) has there been such an obvious connection between sex and murder. Slow-burn French film noir throwback, every twist, unusually, is matched by emotional resonance. Over six episodes this turns into an absolute cracker with several shocking scenes and, for once, a post-credits scene in the final episode worth waiting for.

You do however need to give this time. The first episode is mostly confusing as it sets up the three main strands. But episode two contains such a revelatory twist thereafter you’re on a rollercoaster.

In the present day ex-con acclaimed but impoverished novelist Adrien (Nicholas Duvauchelle) takes up a not particularly well-paid ghost-writing job listening to grizzled old fella Albert (Niels Arestrup) recount his memoirs. Adrien, on the jealous side, has a tangled relationship with partner Nora (Alice Belaidi). Also in the present day a couple of cops, Carrell (Sami Bouajila) and Mathilde (Marie Denarnaud),  are working on a cold case, the death of renowned photographer Steven Powell.

Running parallel with these two tales we go delving into the romantic past of Albert and in particular his relationship with Solange (Alyzee Costez) back in the 1970s when the entire world was on a massive experimental binge. A couple of other elements pop up from time to time,  a small boy and his mother, Adrien and his stepfather, and an artist/tattoo artist Catherine (Lola Creton).

Eventually, it all comes together and when it does it packs an incredible punch, a real emotional wallop, as the lives of all concerned are turned upside down.

And while there is most definitely twist upon twist upon twist, what raises this above most movies/programs that rely just on twists, is the emotional impact of such changes, and above all, characters seeking identity, trying to work not just who they are but whether they like or are repelled by the characters they have become.

Chock-full of atmosphere, this will have you hooked from the incredible second episode which tumbles full-tilt boogie into a dazzling mysterious past. Mostly, it takes place in France but just for the hell of it we race to Brussels and Genoa, and timewise, there’s an important element that takes place at the conclusion of the Second World War.

Everyone is damaged one way or the other and as the series progresses you realize just how damaged. And one of the best parts of the series is that lives that should collapse under the weight of such heavy emotions find themselves taking an alternative route that occasionally provides solace and occasionally dodges the issues enough to keep them steady. But, of course, nobody can escape the past.  

While this is definitely on the raunchy side, it does set out to show the part sex plays in the lives of the characters, whether emotional crutch, expressing the full joy of falling in love, or desperate measure.

The characters are well-drawn, and as new personality details emerge, they take the story in different directions. In some respects it’s grounded by Albert, the kind of old guy who really knows how to smoke, slipping the cigarette into his mouth old-style, sucking the life out of it, and for all his obvious dodginess a genuine human being seeking respite and redemption.

What Adrien discovers relates only too well to what he suspects about his own instincts and so he is as much disgusted as revelling in each new discovery. An ex-kick boxer, one of the running motifs is not so much being up for the fight, or in true private eye mode being able to hold your own in the fisticuffs department, but willing to accept physical punishment. That is matched by an understanding of the toll emotions can take on your life, especially if you lack the mental capacity to defend yourself against such intrusions.

And at the heart of the story is the mysterious, seductive, beautiful Solange, a different kind of femme fatale, perched atop beguiling innocence, at times unaware of the passions she unleashes, and yet, trying to find a way out of her own spiralling emotions, internal conflict typified by undergoing various abortions while so desperately wanting a child that she plays interminably with a doll’s house, her own reaction to the sexual act buried deep in her past.

I’ll admit the first episode is at timse heavy-going as writer-directors Olivier Abbou (Get In, 2019) and Bruno Merle (The Lost Prince, 2020) set out their complex stall, but the second episode is such a humdinger it more than makes up for it. The contrast between the free-wheeling free-spirited 1970s and the grungy contemporary look where responsibility brings an edge to everything is very well done. But while the violence would do Tarantino proud, contemplation of the creative process is as considered.

It probably helps that I’m unfamiliar with any of the actors because for me they carry no screen baggage. Nicholas Duvauchelle (Lost Bullet, 2020) carries off his first top-billed role superbly, making a terrific transition from a character almost playing a part to one who wishes he had done a better job of remaining an ordinary guy. On the basis of this, Hollywood should come calling for veteran Niels Arestrup (A Prophet, 2009) any time they’re looking for a crusty supporting actor.

Alyzee Costee, in her biggest role to date, certainly announces her presence, presenting the most complicated character of the lot, daughter, lover, mother, possibly the most intriguing female character of all time, beauty matched with fragility matched with toughness matched with an agility to switch persona at dizzying speed. This is what Netflix is best at, investing in foreign television programs, or just sticking their name on them, to bring them to global attention. This is definitely worth a wider audience

Behind the Scenes: “Circus World / The Magnificent Showman” (1964)

For John Wayne it was the best of deals and the worst of deals. He had signed a six-picture seven-year contract with Paramount. On the plus side the studio paid the entire amount  upfront, wiping out the accumulated debts from the debacle of The Alamo (1960). On the debit side, he received only $500,000 per picture, well below his standard price of $750,000. In fact, Paramount could recoup some of its expense by hiring him out at his previous going rate.

Wayne was coming off hits McLintock (1963), Hatari! (1962) and How the West Was Won (1962) but other movies The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Donovan’s Reef (1963) – the first in the multi-picture deal – had punctured a hole in his supposed box office supremacy. But for maverick producer Samuel Bronston (El Cid, 1961), getting his hands on a star of the magnitude of Wayne was a coup. Originally entitled Those Were the Days, the title switched to the more appealing Circus World.

Bronston was a new-style producer. Apart from a $2.5 million injection by Paramount he  financed his pictures by country-by-country advances, and backed by DuPont, hardly the first big company to be seduced by the prospect of becoming a big Hollywood player. Distributors who advanced money in this fashion made hay if the film hit the bull’s eye, but if it flopped they didn’t get their money back. And a flop made it more difficult for an independent producer to raise the dough for his next picture. So Wayne’s involvement was viewed as a guarantee.

Nicholas Ray (King of Kings, 1961) was initially hired to direct followed by Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946), also made a Bronston partner, who tried to sabotage the script, planning only to shoot the sections he had rewritten. Bernard Gordon (55 Days at Peking, 1963) was credited with the original idea, but when Wayne came on board he brought with him James Edward Grant (The Commancheros, 1961).

Grant was only tempted by the promise of a three-picture deal. The tussle ended with Capra evicted at a cost of $150,000 and Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, 1960) at the helm. Hathaway instigated a week of rewrites with Ben Hecht (Spellbound, 1945) before settling down to more serious work with Grant.

Initial casting envisaged Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) in the role of Wayne’s partner and would-be lover of Cardinale, but he took the job without reading the script and on realizing it was little more than male romantic lead he bowed out. David Niven (55 Days at Peking, 1963) was initially signed as Wayne’s old buddy Cap but he, too, quit over the script. (Wayne and Taylor got on very well and should have teamed up for The War Wagon, 1967, until Kirk Douglas muscled his way in, later doing so for The Train Robbers, 1973. )

Their replacements John Smith (who had made his debut in Wayne picture The High and the Mighty, 1954) and the veteran Lloyd Nolan were hardly in the same box office league, but shaved cash off the budget.

A bigger concern than hiring a supporting cast was the circus. Bronston recruited famed European outfit Althoff Circus, whose 400 performers ensured the ringside element was authentic. For further realism Bronston added Bob Dover from Ringling Bros. There was no need for specialist horses, Bronston already having 125 trained from The Fall of the Roman Empire to pull circus wagons and for bareback riders.

The entire circus had to be transported by rail on 51 freight cars through the Brenner Pass to Germany and via Switzerland and France to Spain, halting at the Spanish border to unload the whole shebang onto a different train because the gauges didn’t match.

For the picture’s most spectacular scene, the capsizing of the ship transporting the circus, Bronston bought the 250ft long S.S. Cabo Huertas which was heading for the breaker’s yard. Repainted, decorated with circus posters and renamed S.S. Circus Maximus it was all set for a sinking overseen by special effects expert Alex Weldon (El Cid, 1961).

Three hundred tons of water were pumped into the half of the hold furthest away from the dock. The additional weight of 600 extras was enough to flip the ship on its side. Four 50-ton steam winches with steel cables kept the ship upright until it was time for action.

Female extras who were going to end up in the drink were fitted with corsets made of cork while the men wore cork belts hidden under their costumes. The Spanish Coast Guard cleared the harbor of debris and a local fleet of boats, just out of camera view, stood by for rescue. Seven divers patrolled the harbor bottom in case the cork failed to keep actors and extras afloat. Three sets of costumes were created for each participant so they would be kept dry as long as necessary.

Hathaway completed the scene without a single injury. He called it “the greatest job of its kind I have ever been involved in.” Bronston, who was as much a detail man as Cecil B. DeMille, ensured the band played instruments from the period

The picture went in front of the camera in September 1963 with Wayne due to end his commitment on December 18. But severe flooding in Spain knocked the movie off schedule and it went way over budget, running on until March 1964, the finishing touches added in London, the budget hitting $9 million.

Rita Hayworth, who hadn’t made a picture in two years, proved a handful, usually late on set, committing the cardinal sin of not learning her lines and, probably as worse, being rude to everyone

At  just 135 minutes long, Circus World  wasn’t originally envisaged as a roadshow until Cinerama put an estimated $2.5 million into the project, which defrayed the costs. By the time that partnership was announced, it was too late to shoot it in the Cinerama process. The 35mm Super Technirama footage was blown up to 70mm for showing in 60 U.S. theaters boasting the iconic Cinerama curved screens. Everything in Cinerama at that point was roadshow. And they had two more projects lined up with Bronston, Vittorio De Sica’s Paris 1900 and Jack Cardiff’s Brave New World, neither of which were made. Bronston also had another two movies in preparation with Paramount: The Nightrunners of Bengal to be directed by Richard Fleischer and Suez, neither made either.

Roadshow suited Paramount which had not used that method of premium release since The Ten Commandments (1956). In 1963 it had set up a roadshow department to handle the forthcoming Becket (1964) and The Fall of the Roman Empire, which were proper roadshow length of, respectively, nearly 150 minutes and over three hours. But, initially, Circus World did not fall into the roadshow category as far as Paramount was concerned. Only the arrival of Cinerama as an investor made it imperative.

To avoid a title clash with the ultra-successful It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), British distributor Rank changed the title to The Magnificent Showman. That alteration did little to improve its box office, opening at London’s Coliseum for a “NSG” (not-so-good in Variety parlance) $11,200, not much more than The Fall of the Roman Empire in its 17th week, How the West Was Won (90th week) and Cleopatra (51st). Nonetheless it ran there for seven months, followed by a mass general release in the U.K. with a record number of prints. In the U.S., on the eve of general release in April 1965, Paramount considered a title change to Wild Across the World and a switch of marketing emphasis to John Wayne and action.

Audiences didn’t bite, certainly not enough to recoup the budget, and far from enough to prevent Bronston’s operation sliding into liquidation.

SOURCES:  Scott Eyman, John Wayne, The Life and Legend (Simon & Schuster, 2014) p379-385; Mel Martin, The Magnificent Showman (Bear Manor Media, 2007), p153-168; Sheldon Hall, Introduction to Circus World, Bradford Widescreen Festival, 2022; “Rank To distribute New Bronston Pic,” Variety, September 26, 1962, p15; “Althoff Circus Logistics for Bronston’s Film,” Variety, September 25, 1963, p4;“New Roadshow Dept at Paramount,” Variety, November 13, 1963, p3; “Bronston and Paramount in 4-Picture Deal,” Box Office, December 9, 1963, p7; “Circus World Filming in London,” Box Office, February 17, 1964, p14; “Bronston’s Circus Goes Cinerama,” Variety, February 19, 1964, p4; “Bronston-Cinerama Unite on 2 Films,” Box Office, February 24, 1964, p5; “Special Mass Release for Showman,” Kine Weekly, May 28, 1964, p3; “Paramount Retains Circus World Title,” February 24, 1965, p3.

Behind the Scenes: “Last Year in Marienbad” (1961)

The late British Queen Elizabeth II put it succinctly, “Recollections may vary.” Or as director Alain Resnais, in reference to his masterpiece Last Year in Marienbad, explained, “It is quite possible that all the characters are speaking the truth…what is presented as the present or the past is simply a reality that exists while the character is speaking.”

However, Resnais was keen to dismiss other theories. “As far as I am concerned Marienbad contains no symbols or allegories.” He suggested that anyone looking for such meanings “will arrive at a correct interpretation 60% or 80% of the time but your interpretations will never hold good for the film as a whole.” Nonetheless, even Resnais was susceptible to such possibilities, for example, there is a Breton legend of Death coming to fetch his victim but allowing him a year’s respite.   

It was unusual for a director to admit he has no clue what his film was actually about. Resnais confesses that “the game (Nim) is the only point about which I am unable to tell you anything…Robbe-Grillet (the screenwriter) invented a variation without knowing it (the game) existed. My personal impression is that Albertazzi (the would-be lover) loses it consciously and deliberately.”

Offering an alternative view to the film’s meaning, Resnais added, “The whole thing is possibly a part of the woman’s stream of consciousness, as, on the point of deciding what to do, she recalls all the various factors in a few seconds.”

The last pages of the script had barely been written before shooting began. And while that was scarcely unusual, nor for pages to be rewritten during filming, what was singular in this approach was that when the editing could offer dozens of ways of putting it back together, “we always fell back on our original ideas.”

“We wanted the film to work quite differently from a conventional entertainment: by a sort of contemplation, of meditation, a series of advances and retreats from the subject. We wanted to feel ourselves in the presence of a sculpture which one studies first from one angle, then from another, from near or farther away.”

In one sense the movie, as Resnais accepted, can be seen as the man playing the role of a psychiatrist forcing his patient to accept events she has deliberately suppressed. Resnais also introduced other psychoanalytic themes: “the ostentatiously large rooms indicating a tendency to narcissism.”

Resnais added, “It is also attractive to conceive of her (Delphine Seyrig) as an invalid. First of all, the hotel has a special air. And I have always been intrigued by (potential husband) Sacha Pitoeff’s words to the woman as she lies on the bed, ‘You must rest, remember that is why we came here.’ Perhaps the hotel is really a clinic.”

Resnais’s directorial method included making sketches to elucidate his thoughts. “It helps in my relationships with the actors and the cameramen. They save the actor from getting panicky eight or ten days before the shoot. If he has read the shooting script and has a clear idea of it and then while shooting I place him in a position or composition which hasn’t been foreseen he is apt to worry.

“And as I like everyone to be relaxed as possible on the set, I prefer arguments to be over before shooting. I’m all in favor of rehearsing the entire film before shooting begins.

“For Marienbad we drew up a complete chronology on squared paper. And before beginning any scene with the actors, we said, ‘in the editing this scene follows such and such a scene, but in actual chronology it follows another scene which will appear later in the film.’ I frequently recorded a fragment of the preceding scene so as to work from the continuity rather than from the cue.”

He hesitated to adapt his ideas to suit the cinematographer. “I would be reluctant to transform a setting, even in small details, to suit the camera. It is up to the camera to present the décor in the right way, it’s not for the setting to conform to the camera. The same holds good for the actor. I have an immense respect for an actor’s work. (But) how rarely we alter the shooting to suit an actor’s feelings, whereas we are constantly changing it on account of the weather.”

SOURCE: Alain Resnais, “Trying To Understand My Own Film,” Films and Filming, February 1962. P9-10, 41; translated from Cahiers du Cinema by Raymond Durgnat.

Last Year in Marienbad / L’Annee Derniere a Marienbad (1961) *****

Six decades later this miraculously emerges as a compendium of contemporary themes. Starting off with “my truth,” and segueing through unreliable narrator, false memory, parallel universe, stream of consciousness, dream vs. reality, repetitive voice-over, and still the most tantalising – or infuriating – movie ever made. A cinematic jigsaw with every piece of the puzzle highly stylized.

People have shadows but not the trees, the interpretation of a statue is disputed, characters in backgrounds are as frozen as mannequins, there’s a game you cannot win, no one has a name, and every now and then a row of men as if choreographed by Busby Berkeley wivel in turn and shoot at targets. Set in a huge baroque chateau with fabulous meticulous grounds, this fantasy building proves the ideal locale for an endless discussion of reality. And whatever happened last year in Marienbad could have occurred instead  in a number of other locations.

The trees have no shadows. These days CGI would rid trees of shadows but in those days it was the other way round and the shadows of the characters
were painted on the ground.

Two men, a prospective lover (Giorgio Abertazzi) and potentially a husband (Sacha Pitoeff), buzz around a woman (Delphine Seyrig). The would-be lover conjures up a tremendous amount of detail about when he met the woman, only for her to deny all knowledge of the incident, to the extent of failing to recall the reason they are meeting again, one year on. According to him, she had refused to enter into an affair the previous year but vowed to consider his ardent proclamations of love a year later. He has come to claim his reward.

That plot, slim as it is, is all you’re going to get. The movie goes all around the houses trying to establish not only was such an agreement actually struck but also whether she has ever met him at all and where exactly this supposed event might have taken place.

And were it not for the hypnotic tone, the mastery of camerawork, the cleverness of the situation, and the long tracking shots – for me an enormous plus – you might have given up the moment the man repeats, with mild differences, sentences he has already uttered. It’s the equivalent of the crime novel’s closed room mystery, except there is no solution.

So you either dismiss it as a typical French New Wave farrago, fall out with your friends over its meaning, or just sit back and enjoy it, as I did.

For a start, it’s one of the best films ever made in black-and-white, the contrast between the two so striking, the white glowing, the black occasionally ethereal, the lack of dialog almost insisting this is in reality a silent film. There are all sorts of pieces of experimental cinema, flash cuts in conflict with the languorous stately progress of the tracking camera, the aforementioned shadows and mannequins, greater emphasis given to the ceilings and corridors than to the people.

Time and place are distorted, different versions of events presented, the initial story given substance by the husband attempting to put the lover in his place by continuously beating him at an obscure game of cards (the Japanese Nim). And much to my astonishment, just as I was well settled in to letting the director take me where he wanted and expecting no conclusion, there is a climax of sorts that may point the audience in the direction of the correct reality.

By that point, did we even care, the whole essence of the movie being the inability to detect truth, the slipperiness of meaning, the elusiveness of intent and the certainty that what was clear one year is not the next. Cinema is built on conflict, and the most obvious one is difference of opinion. What one person regards as fact, the other dismisses as supposition. This could have been played out in dialog, endless discussion about meaning and veracity, we see it all the time in crime pictures and romance, what exists in one mind not having the same resonance in another, but instead we are treated to one long glorious cinematic essay.  

Director Alain Resnais had already set cinema alight with Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and there can have been few artists who hit the arthouse ground running in such style. That the script had been written by eternal bad-boy and future director Alain Robbe-Grillet (Trans-Europ Express, 1966) ensured that it was always going to be controversial. Unusually, Resnais, apparently, stuck very close to the script, so in that sense it was a collaboration rather than the usual loose interpretation of a screenplay.

The stars all took different subsequent routes. Delphine Seyrig, in her debut, would go on to become an arthouse darling in Accident (1966), Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (1968) and Jacques Demy’s La Peau Deuce/Donkey Skin (1970). Italian Giorgio Albertazzi did not become an arthouse darling, more likely to turn up in bit parts in a historical drama like Caroline Cherie (1968) or in a supporting role in giallo Five Women for the Killer (1974). You might remember Sacha Pitoeff from The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968) and he, too, headed down the support/bit part route.

You might end up resistant to what you see, but everyone with an interest in cinema should see Last Year at Marienbad at least once.

Mrs Harris Goes To Paris (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

How is that the British, way down now in the rankings of global movie production, have come up with a successful genre all of their own – the national treasure. Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren to be sure first came to prominence in the same year, 1969, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Age of Consent respectively, but whereas Hollywood has turned its back on the ageing female contingent, the British film industry has wrapped its most famous stars in cotton wool and proceeded to give them roles they can take to the Oscar bank.

Mirren was in her early 60s when she romped home in The Queen (2006); you only have to say Downton Abbey and Smith, already two Oscars to the good, is regarded as screen royalty. And that’s before Judi Dench enters the equation, a few years older than Mirren when she nabbed the Oscar for Shakespeare in Love (1998). You can pretty much count on getting funding for any picture if you can rustle up any of this trio. Want to bring back the older crowd? Dangle these carrots!

Elevated into this category now is Lesley Manville, the 66-year-old star of the delightful Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. While largely escapist, there’s enough of a contemporary vibe, a Paris redolent of filth, the downtrodden going on strike, to provide an edge, and a narrative that continually punctures dreams any time fantasy looks like running away with itself. Set in 1950s London and Paris where the poor know their place, and are rigidly kept in it by the arrogant rich, but where aspiration can at any moment take flight.

Cleaner Mrs Harris, dreaming of buying a £500 dress – we’re talking the best part of £14,000 these days – scrimps and saves, and through a couple of more than fortuitous events, finds her way to the House of Dior where she is despised by haughty manager Claudine (Isabelle Huppert), adored by philosophic model Natasha (Alba Baptista) for having such aspirations, and manages to cast a spell, although not for the reasons expected, over rich widower the Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson).

There’s not much plot. She has to remain in Paris for a fortnight for fittings and whiles away the time helping along the romance between under-manager Andre (Lucas Bravo) and Natasha, assisted by their existentialist leanings, eventually overcoming hostility and putting everything to rights in the Dior empire. But you don’t need plot when you’ve got charm. The English notion of fair play initially comes a cropper when facing French egalitarianism out of whack, when the rich can jump the queue and basically make everyone jump to their tune. But when a character like Mrs Harris settles for second best you can be sure she’ll come up trumps. Whether it’s icing on the cake or to make a rubbish-strewn Paris more palatable, there’s a good ten minutes of oo-la-la devoted to parading the latest fashions.

Not content with conquering one city, Mrs Harris developed sequelitis and headed for New York.

And there’s not just a philosophical undertone – people not what they appear on the surface – but a feminist one, women holding the world together while men whistle. But by and large it’s joyous entertainment, a confection straight out of the Hollywood top drawer, a poor woman having her day in the sun through sheer strength of character.

Unless you’re British or a big fan of arthouse director Mike Leigh or noticed her Oscar  nomination in the largely unnoticed The Phantom Thread (2017) Lesley Manville will probably have passed you by. She nabbed a cult following as the dumped-upon lead in comedy series Mum (2016-2019) and picked up a wider audience as Princess Margaret in The Crown, but mostly she’s known for a certain kind of acting, where she can change expression 20 times in a minute without ostensibly doing anything different. Just like her predecessors, Smith, Dench and Mirren.

You can’t take your eyes off her, which is quite feat when she’s up against French screen royalty (perhaps a “tresor national”) Isabelle Huppert (Elle, 2016). Alba Baptista (Warrior Nun series) could well be the breakout star here though Lucas Bravo definitely runs her close. I saw Bravo in Ticket to Paradise (2022) and the characters there and here could not be more different. Ellen Thomas (Golden Years, 2016), Lambert Wilson (Benedetta, 2021), Anna Chancellor (For Love or Money, 2019) and Jason Isaacs (Operation Mincemeat, 2021) have smaller roles.

Director Anthony Fabian (Skin, 2008) adds deeper issues to a movie that was crying out to be all surface. He co-wrote the screenplay with Carroll Cartwright (What Maisie Knew, 2012) based on the classic Paul Gallico novel.

Diary of a Madman (1963) ***

Contemporary perspectives occasionally raise a film in the estimation. Here, our knowledge of the psychology behind serial killers sheds quite a different light. The idea that a killer can blame outside forces over which he has no control was one of the original tenets when the ordinary mind could not take in that some folks just enjoyed the act of murder so much they were inclined to do it over and over again.

Where I come there there’s a saying – “a big boy did it and ran away” – a device used by small boys in big trouble. And that’s pretty much the idea here. The innocent can be taken over by an evil entity, rather than admitting to surrendering to their most heinous desires.

A prisoner condemned to death in 19th century France confides in magistrate Simon Cordier (Vincent Price) that his murdeorus acts were the result of direction by the mysterious and, unhelpfully, invisible “Horla.” Naturally, Cordier dismisses the notion until, in self-defence, he kills the prisoner. Disturbed by his action, he seeks counsel and is advised by a psychiatrist (an “alienist” as such a person was known at the time) to spend more time on his hobby, sculpting.

Although Cordier appears to be a model citizen, there lurks in his past a suicidal wife who killed their child, and the notion that somehow he was responsible. Into his world comes woman-on-the-make Odette (Nancy Kovack) who earns more money as an artist’s model than her husband Paul (Chris Warley) does for his paintings. Unaware  that she is already committed, Simon proposes marriage. It doesn’t take long for him to suspect she is not what she seems and he does away with her only for Paul to become the main suspect and be condemned to death.

Cordier, discovering by accident that the Horla, is frightened of fire, lures the entity into his deserted house (servants sent away) and plans to destroy the entity but in the process the fire melts the door handles and Cordier can’t escape, dying in the process.

Price and Kovack.

A modern reading of course would set it up a different way, putting greater emphasis on the past, trying to uncover what drove Cordier’s wife to suicide. That he gives in to overwhelming urges might well be followed by periods of guilt until he realises that the only way out is his own suicide.

But the 1960s moviegoer – possibly still recovering from the murderous goings-on at the Bates Hotel, and grateful that it was fiction, and The Boston Strangler only just getting into his stride – was not quite ready to put any faith in a landscape filled with predators and victims, so it would make more sense for outside forces, voices or the like, to be controlling the ordinary person.

An eerie glowing light comes over the eyes of Cordier (and the earlier convict) any time the urge to kill dominates. But if you were going to set this up as a picture of innocence driven to dark deed you would not populate it with Vincent Price (Witchfinder General, 1968), who had form for dastardly deeds. Nor is Price quite able to pull it off, those sepulchral tones always seeming to indicate something lurking, and he’s hardly in the debonair category so at the very least he belongs to the caste of entitled rich taking advantage of a poor woman to press his case for marriage.

Nancy Kovack (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) is more convincing as the manipulative object of his desire. I half-expected her to turn into a murderer in order to rid herself of her the husband getting in the way of her chance at a new, wealthier, life. Chris Warfield (Dangerous Charter, 1962) is the talentless dupe, whichever way you cut it, and you have to admire his wife for sticking with him for so long.

Given that director Reginald Le Borg’s career dated back to the 1940s and he had been lumbered with the Joe Palooka series and any number of B-movies, it was perhaps surprising that horror, although still strictly on B-movie budgets, became a forte – The Black Sheep (1956) and Voodoo Island (1957). While this one was clearly filmed on a studio backlot, he does a good job of bringing a bit of lushness to the proceedings.

Perhaps the most interesting element is that the idea originated in the mind of famed French short story writer Guy de Maupassant – you might be surprised to learned that nearly 300 movies and television adaptations have been made from his works, a dozen alone in 1963 including Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath. Worth comparing with Maniac out in the same year where the idea of the mad killer is exploited for a different end.

Very old-school, but with passable sfx.

Maniac / The Maniac (1963) ****

Such an ingenious thriller you just have to applaud. Opening with a close-up of a predatory eye, this scarcely draws breath as it dashes through a latter-day film noir maze, spawning out auditory and visual cues, beautiful woman luring dupe, twisting the expected narrative round her little finger.

Artist Jeff (Kerwin Mathews) setting up his easel in the Camargue, hardly one of the most tourist-friendly spots in France, eyes up Annette (Liliane Brousse), the daughter of a hotelier Eve (Nadia Gray), but, in extremely opportunistic style, settles for the mother. In true noir fashion she is using him, seducing him into a scheme to free her husband George (Donald Houston), incarcerated in a mental asylum for torturing and killing with a blowtorch the aforementioned predator who raped Annette four years before.

Eve convinces Jeff that in return for his freedom the madman will effectively give his blessing to their affair. It’s a deal only a besotted dupe would fall for. George has an ally inside the asylum, assisting his escape, but when George turns up, and Jeff drives him to Marseilles, he leaves behind the corpse of his criminal associate in the boot. Jeff dumps the body in the river.

Cue the start of a series of strange events. A fired-up blowtorch is discovered in the garage where Georges committed his initial crime. Annette, jealous of her mother’s relationship with Jeff, plans to leave and go with her father.  

And I’m sorry to say that in order to explain the attraction of this neat little picture I’m going to delve into SPOILER ALERT territory.  

All the while of course you are wondering whether George will keep to his side of the bargain, especially as Eve starts to get antsy with Jeff, and the investigating police inspector seems overly suspicious. And it being this kind of picture you expect a twist.

But not one this clever.

George, blowtorch at the ready, traps Jeff in the garage. He has fished the corpse out of the river. He plans to burn the garage to the ground, leaving behind two dead bodies, assuming the police will imagine that in a further bout of psychotic behavior the murderer gave in to his desires and killed again, but in the process accidentally killed himself.

But that’s not the final twist.

One of the victims survives. But which one? He is so badly mutilated as to be rendered unrecognisable and lies in a hospital bed covered head to foot in bandages. Has Eve’s plan backfired? Has she accidentally killed her lover?

But that’s not the final twist.

Eve knows who the man in the bed is. It’s not her lover. Because Jeff is just the dupe. The body dumped in the river was George. All the time Eve was visiting her husband in the mental asylum she was carrying on an affair with one of the guards. The guard killed George after the escape, retrieved the body from the river, left it in the garage and planned to kill off his competition at the same time.  If you’re going to be tabbed a maniac, you better behave like one.

It’s a shame you can’t see the shock on the face of poor Jeff because he is encased in bandages. And this isn’t just the clever villain unable to stop herself boasting about how clever she has been. This is Eve getting into the murder racket. She switches off his oxygen.

But that’s not the final twist.

Jeff ain’t dead. He wasn’t even on a life-support machine. He was just trussed up to tempt Eve in revealing herself. He had escaped the garage inferno and told the police what was going on. So you can guess the rest, but even then there’s one other ironic twist. Just like Jeff, the imposter George is as taken with the daughter as the mother.

The twists are so well done, the narrative so compelling, that would be enough to make a convincing case for entry into the category of cult. What makes an undeniable case is the directorial style. Sights and sounds drive the story as much as anything. The eerie bright light in the garage, the sound of blood dripping on the floor, the bold close-up of the eye, the advancing blow torch, setting it in a bleak rather than scenic area of France, are cinematic notions belonging to classic movies, not to a tawdry B-picture.

Although The Devil Rides Out (1968) is generally considered the top Hammer picture of the decade, I would argue this runs it a close second, and possibly even tops it.  Taking time off from his studio job Michael Carreras (The Lost Continent, 1968), later Hammer’s managing director, delivers a little masterpiece working to an effortlessly clever original screenplay by future director Jimmy Sangster (The Horror of Frankenstein, 1970).

It’s enough that Kerwin Mathews (The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, 1960) is playing against his screen persona as upright hero. The biggest advantage in casting Nadia Gray  (The Naked Runner, 1967) was that she was unknown and didn’t have the kind of onscreen presence that might have you doubting her motives from the start.  Liliane Brousse (Paranoic, 1963), in her penultimate movie, is initially too much all-arched-eyebrow and pout, only coming into her own when she becomes dutiful daughter rather than wannabe seducer. The pretend George, real name Henri, Donald Houston (A Study in Terror, 1965), hidden beneath dark glasses most of the time, is a dab hand at a pretend psychopath.

Surprisingly effective little gem.

Seven Thieves (1960) ****

You wouldn’t figure director Henry Hathaway for a caper movie. He seemed more at home with action, whether that be war (The Desert Fox, 1951), adventure (Legend of the Lost, 1957) or western (Nevada Smith, 1966) although he was a dab hand at film noir (Kiss of Death, 1947). And before the big-budget all-star Oceans 11 entered the equation in the same year as Seven Thieves – and stole much of its thunder – the heist movie ran mostly on B-movie steam such as Rififi (1955), The Killing (1956) and Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958).

And probably judged against other glossy efforts of the 1960s like Topkapi (1964) and Gambit (1967) Seven Thieves would appear on the surface to come up a bit short. No doubt accounting for it being so under-rated. But while this is in itself a neat little thriller the kick comes in the emotional entanglements and a succession of twists at the end that sends it in my book into a higher category.

And it’s so outrageously clever that the mystery of why French-based criminal mastermind Theo Wilkins  (Edward G. Robinson) would reach out across the Atlantic Ocean to recruit former jailbird Paul Mason (Rod Steiger) to spearhead the heist of a cool four million dollars from a Monte Carlo casino is not resolved until the end, and in spectacular fashion.

Technically, there are actually only six thieves, the other is an inside man, Raymond (Alexander Scourby), who has fallen for the seductive charms of nightclub dancer Melanie (Joan Collins). Making up the rest of the septet are safe cracker Louis (Michael Dante) and muscle-cum-driver Hugo (Berry Kroeger) with Poncho (Eli Wallach) playing the key role of the pretend crippled, arrogant, irascible millionaire – and contrary to the claims of one poster he is the decoy not Melanie.

Distrust of his team makes Theo bring in Paul, who ruthlessly knocks them into shape, putting into seamless action the plan devised by Theo. Simply put, Poncho is going to act as a distraction by having a heart attack at the gambling table while Paul and Louis climb out a window along a ledge to the casino director’s flat which provides, by means of an elevator, direct access to the underground vaults. Once they’ve stolen the cash, they clamber back along the ledge and hide in the flat where, by this time, Theo, playing the role of Poncho’s personal physician, has taken him. The money will be hidden in Poncho’s wheelchair and removed to a waiting ambulance.

But Paul is a rather suspicious character and wants to know what he’s letting himself in for so in turn works out the weaknesses of his team. Melanie hides behind a façade of high birth, Pancho is too reckless, “measuring danger only in terms of profit,” Hugo prone to unnecessary violence, while Louis has omitted to mention he is terrified of heights, the ledge on which the operation depends standing on a 100ft high cliff.   

In some posters, this was promoted as Al Capone (Steiger)
vs Little Caesar (Robinson).

The plan relies on Poncho actually appearing to be dead, so dead that the casino director (Sebastian Cabot) will not hesitate, at Theo’s insistence, to shift him out of sight of the rest of the gamblers into his flat. But Complication No 1 is that Poncho doesn’t want to be dead, even if it is a ruse, skeptical of Theo’s plan to convincingly knock him out by means of a carefully measured dose of cyanide. Complication No 2 is that a night club client recognizes Melanie and casts doubt on her credentials as a lady of quality. Complication No 3 is that English physician Dr Halsey (Alan Caillou) questions whether Poncho is as dead as he seems.

But such complications are nothing compared an extraordinary range of twists that raise tension sky-high at the movie’s denouement. I challenge you to guess what these three superbly-conceived twists would be, all of them one by one turning the project on its head, and it rapidly shifts from one direction to another, ending with an unbelievable – and yet so in keeping with the premise – climax.

Attention to character detail lifts this out of the rut, whether it be Theo’s penchant for collecting seashells, Paul resplendent in a white suit, Melanie resisting the blandishments of becoming a kept woman, Raymond trying to climb out the murky depths into which the lure of Melanie has taken him, and a series of subtle relationships, some developing through the robbery, others which began long before the heist working themselves out.

The heist itself is well done, tension kept constant mostly through the failings of the crew and the suspicions of the dupes. All in all an excellent picture.

This was a critical film in the careers of most of the cast. Edward G. Robinson (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) was handed his first top-billed role in four years. It was a deliberate change of pace for Rod Steiger (The Pawnbroker, 1964). For Eli Wallach, best known at the time for stage work, it was the first of three films that year that would launch him into the higher ranks of top supporting stars; it was followed by The Magnificent Seven and The Misfits. After being leading lady to the likes of Gregory Peck and Richard Burton, this spelled the end of Twentieth Century Fox’s belief in Joan Collins’ star qualities while for Michael Dante (The Naked Kiss, 1964) it was a step up.

Wallach and Dante could be accused of over-acting but Robinson, Steiger and Collins all act against type with considerable effect. Hathaway does a superb job working from a script by Sydney Boehm (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) based on the Max Catto bestseller.

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