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On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online

Video

Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

Essays

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema

Articles

Book Reports

Observations on film art

The Republican Health Care Plan comes into full effect

Thursday | March 26, 2020

Dave Whamond, Canada, PoliticalCartoons.com.

It’s a very simple plan.
1. Don’t get sick.
2. If you do, die quickly.

Alan Grayson, House of Representatives, 2009

 

TRAPPED: Low-budget flash is good for you

Thursday | March 26, 2020

Trapped (1949).

DB here:

Films of the 1940s sported many vivid titles, from Double Indemnity to The Best Years of Our Lives. But a lot of them really didn’t try too hard. We have Dangerous Lady, Shock!, Men on Her Mind, Bad Sister, Lust for Gold, and Criminal Lawyer. Even worse are Crack-Up, Manhandled, Temptation, Nightmare, Impact, Homicide, and even, the purest of all, Conflict.

Fortunately the lack of imagination didn’t always extend to story and style. In the Forties, even minor genre films could get flashy, displaying weird plot turns and wild visuals. Nowhere was this truer than in films centered on crime and mystery.

Granted, this material always encouraged some unorthodox techniques. (We can find examples going back to the 1910s.) Still, whatever you think “noir” was, it encouraged filmmakers to push even further. A 1930s B would have been unlikely to be as bodacious as a moment in Detour (1945), when a single forward tracking shot lets the lights lower and makes a coffee mug as big as a bucket.

          

For such reasons we should be grateful to the Film Noir Foundation, to the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and to Flicker Alley for bringing us Trapped (1949). The generic title had been used by four earlier films, and it could refer to several of the characters, but the results onscreen are far less banal. I hadn’t known the film, but if I had I might have wormed it into Reinventing Hollywood  for the wrinkles it adds to the government-agent semidocumentary.

 

Crime high and low

Product placement for studio Hollywood’s favorite brand.

Trapped was produced by Brian Foy and distributed by Eagle-Lion, the same company that gave us the bizarre Repeat Performance (1947) and some of Anthony Mann’s best Forties items. According to the disc’s informative, pleasantly sensationalistic booklet, the project was hitching a ride on the success of Mann’s T-Men (1947). The Treasury Department approved of the project, and the film includes lots of fascinating shot-on-the-street scenes of LA. Although director Richard Fleischer doesn’t mention the film in his autobiography Just Tell Me When to Cry, he should have been  proud of it. (He does mention Clay Pigeon, though, a film I talk about in another entry.)

A stern voice-over launches a quasi-documentary montage of the rise of counterfeiting after the war. Tris Stewart is serving time, but bills with his signature have resurfaced. Agreeing to act as a mole, he’s allowed to bust out of prison, but soon he eludes his federal handlers. He hooks up with his old girlfriend Meg and discovers that his precious plates are in the hands of an old adversary, Jack Sylvester. The bulk of the plot follows Tris’s effort to fund a last big job before fleeing to Mexico with Meg. In the course of it, he joins up with John Downey, a down-at-heel gambler.

The viewpoint shifts freely among the characters, so we always know more than any one of them. We know that the Feds have wired Meg’s apartment for sound. We learn that Downey is actually a government agent working to trap both Tris and Sylvester. And we see Tris eventually learn Downey’s identity decide to double-cross him.

Meg has a pivotal role in precipitating the climax. She’s naturally punished for hanging out with the wrong guy. I could apply my quatrain on Hollywood Stories:

The plot only works
If the men are all jerks;
But at the end of the game,
It’s the woman to blame.

Lloyd Bridges plays the sort of natty, grinning sociopath whom he would make memorable in The Sound of Fury (1951, aka Come and Get Me!). The dry John Hoyt is needed to carry the last stretch of the film, which he does with sangfroid, but Tris exits the plot a little sooner than we’d probably like. Eddie Muller suggests that Tris was intended to be in the climax but production contingencies put Sylvester into it.

To compensate, the wrapup becomes one of those dazzling Forties climaxes played out on an overwhelming location. Like the gasworks in This Gun for Hire (1942), the field of storage tanks in White Heat (1948), and the Fort Point Compound of The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), here a vast trolley-car barn provides spectacular compositions and lighting effects.

     

Noir really did bring out the best in creative personnel. Guy Roe, a camera operator and assistant since the 1930s, had moved up to Director of Photography for Sirk (A Scandal in Paris, 1946), Mann (Railroaded!, 1947), another punchy Eagle-Lion effort, and Boetticher (Behind Locked Doors, 1948), so he was ready to give this effort flamboyant touches, some overt and some more subtle.

We tend to think of crane shots as aiming for surveying vistas outdoors. By the 1940s, many interiors were shot with smaller cranes or vertically mobile dollies that permitted alternation between tight high- and low-angle setups.

     

Roe would go on to shoot more films now considered strong noir entries: Armored Car Robbery (1950, another flat title) and The Sound of Fury. This last, as I suggest here, promotes the same tight high angles we find in Trapped, with perhaps more fine-grained results.

Fleischer didn’t have the blasting visual force of Mann, and Roe didn’t have the baroque imagination of Mann’s DP John Alton. Still, Trapped does deliver a handsome array of long-take deep-focus shots. These attest to the influence of Citizen Kane (1941) as a prototype for dynamic compositions, often exploiting ceilings on sets.

     

Such angles led directors  to think more about using the vertical stretch of the screen, again aided by a camera pitched slightly high or low.

     

One turning point, Tris’s discovery of the Feds’ bug in Meg’s lamp, is designed to exploit a slightly tipped-down framing, with the splash of light accentuating the moment of revelation.

 

American crime films weren’t unique in their pictorial bravado. Watching Trapped drove me back to Noose, a 1948 British film by Edmund T. Gréville. A semi-comic tale of London gangsters, it abounds in florid depth compositions. (See below.) Just more proof that the 1940s saw a new exploration of bold narrative and stylistic initiatives in sound cinema around the world. And those weren’t confined to the big productions. Once new image schemas were available, artisans at all levels could make piquant uses of them.


The Flicker Alley release is nicely filled out with informative supplements contributed by Alan K. Rode, Eddie Muller, Donna Lethal, and Julie Kirgo. Mark Fleischer offers some touching reminiscences of his father’s life and creative ambitions. Thanks as well to Jeffrey Masino and Josh Fu of Flicker Alley. And we owe a debt to the collector who deposited a 35mm acetate print at Harvard, whence it comes to us.

For more on 1940s cinematography, see our book The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 and entries in the 1940s Hollywood categories here. Patrick Keating’s central chapters in The Dynamic Frame: Camera Movement in Classical Hollywood supply a lot of information about the growing use of cranes and maneuverable dollies for intimate dramatic scenes.

Noose (1948). A Brit noir ripe for Blu-ray release.

Flicker Alley fills the Pudovkin gap

Saturday | March 21, 2020

The End of St. Petersburg (1927)

Kristin here:

Flicker Alley continues its editions of classic silent films previously unavailable on disc or available only in inferior copies. Vsevolod Pudovkin’s three great silent features, Mother (1926), The End of St. Petersburg (1927), and The Heir of Genghis Khan (commonly known in English as Storm over Asia, 1928), are packaged here as “The Bolshevik Trilogy.” (As of now, the discounted price at Flicker Alley’s own site is considerably cheaper than what Amazon is charging.) All three films have appeared in my annual survey of the ten best films of ninety years ago; see the entries for 1926, 1927, and 1928.

The only restoration in the set is Storm over Asia, done in connection with Lobster Film in Paris.

 

Mother

Pudovkin’s trilogy is a sort of survey of key events in Russia’s move toward becoming the Soviet Union. Mother, based on Maxim Gorki’s novel of the same name, deals with the failed Revolution of 1905. That revolt was viewed as an important precursor to the Communist Revolution of 1917. Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) was an anniversary film for the same struggle.

Pudovkin is known for centering his films around individual protagonists rather than the group protagonists favored by Eisenstein in his first three silent features. Here the hero is Pavel, a young worker and clandestine revolutionary who lives with his drunken father and downtrodden mother. When guns that Pavel has hidden in the house are discovered, the mother naively betrays her son to the police. He is imprisoned. After a prison break, Pavel joins a protest march, and his mother, now converted to the rebellion, sees him mowed down but carries the flag onward.

Pudovkin’s style is already fully formed here. It’s very flashy, employing the usual fast cutting and depending on highly unconventional ways of framing shots. Pavel’s escape from prison, for example, contains a bird’s eye view as he climbs down some railings to help his comrade put a guard out of commission (above) and a shot during Pavel’s trial uses one of the director’s favorite compositions,  shots of police or soldiers seen past their horses heads.

Pudovkin also tends to use imagery of nature to symbolize the revolutionary impulse, as in the famous breaking up of ice on a river during the prison break and protest march. Rivers and lonely trees against low horizons appear in all three films, and the escape over ice floes returns in Storm over Asia (see bottom image). Such techniques perhaps help explain why Pudovkin was the most popular of the major Montage directors.

Given the importance of having these three films available, I hate to find fault. This print of Mother is simply the old Blackhawk/Image. It’s certainly acceptable, but a restoration of Mother, and as we shall see below, The End of St. Petersburg remains to be done. That better prints exist is shown by the illustrations I used in the 1926 entry linked above, which were taken from a 35mm archival copy.

 

The End of St. Petersburg

For many film fans, The End of St. Petersburg is perhaps the least emotionally involving of these three films. Pavel in Mother and the unnamed Mongolian hunter in Storm over Asia are appealing characters, friendly, brave, and ready to stand up to imperialists, soldiers, and police–and both the victims of flagrant injustices. The unnamed peasant who is at the center of The End of St. Petersburg is initially an ignorant, selfish young man. In a time of famine shortly before World War I, he goes to the city in search of work and becomes a scab, working at a large factory during a strike.

The peasant is friends with one of the workers who fomented the strike, and, echoing the actions of the mother in the earlier film, naively betrays the man to the management of the factory. Once the war breaks out, the peasant stolidly suffers through the entire conflict at the front. Only late in the film does he realize his folly and join the Bolsheviks in the 1917 attack on the Winter Palace. This ends the period when the city was named St. Petersburg.

The peasant is also not in the film nearly as much as the central characters of the two other films. Instead of a compact dramatic narrative, Pudovkin takes us from an era in which the stock market rules society through the war–also waged for the benefit of capitalists–to the Winter Palace attack of October, 1917. The peasant weaves through this, but there is no real point-of-view figure.

The End of St. Petersburg is a marvelous film nonetheless. In his survey of revolutionary progress, Pudovkin’s flashy style is even more self-assured. In a sense, the city becomes the central symbolic source, with the statues for which St. Petersburg (as it is now again known) is famous representing the power against which the Bolsheviks revolt. The opening scene includes a remarkable series of shots, not of the famous landmarks, but of their reflections in the city’s canals, filmed and then shown upside down, as if the city is shimmering with the weakness that will soon bring down its rulers. The image above shows the griffins holding the cables for the well-known suspension pedestrian bridge, the Bank Bridge.

There are fascinating parallels to Eisenstein’s October, which came out a year later. Both films were among three made to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. The End of St. Petersburg and Boris Barnet’s Moscow in October were finished and released in the anniversary year, but Eisenstein’s was not. Pudovkin and Eisenstein shared a fascination for the rich Tsarist trappings of the Winter Palace, which were, according to them, enjoyed by the short-lived Provisional Government and its supporters. Certainly The End of St. Petersburg contains some beautifully composed and lit shots of decadent luxuries surprisingly similar to those Eisenstein filmed. (See top.)

The print shares the cropping problems that I pointed out in my 1927 post including The End of St. Petersburg. Since this version is, like earlier releases, based on a 1960s Gosfilmofond “restoration” that sliced off the left of the frame to make room for a recorded soundtrack, all of the shots are too square. I was frequently aware that the frame was simply too close, eliminating part of the image. (The lady in the image at the top was originally more centered in the composition.)

As if to compensate for this problem, the visual quality of this print is startlingly good, as the images immediately above and at the top show. The clarity of the images is actually better than that of the restoration of Storm over Asia. I cannot resist showing another example. Here, in the final attack on the Winter Palace, there is an amazing precision of the lighting in picking out each member of the group of soldiers waiting for the signal to launch the offensive.

We still need a restoration of this film with the full width of the original. In the meantime, however, this version is a substantial improvement over earlier video releases.

 

Storm over Asia

Pudovkin completed his survey of the creation of the revolutionary struggle with an unusual choice: to set his story in one of the countries that would become close allies of the USSR. It takes place in the early 1920s in Mongolia, where White Russian forces were battling the Chinese for domination. The Bolsheviks formed an army in Mongolia and ultimately helped the country win its freedom. (Pudovkin distorts history by making the imperialist government British.)

The Mongolian hunter is played by Valerii Inkhizinov, a Mongolian citizen who had studied under Lev Kuleshov alongside Pudovkin. His character is cheated by British agents who cheat him out of the fair price for a rare, valuable fox fur (above). His retaliatory attack makes him a fugitive, and he joins a partisan group of Bolsheviks in the mountains simply in order to survive. He is eventually arrested and shot, but a document he carries seems to identify him as the heir of Genghis Khan. Nursing him back to health, the British officials exploit this connection to their own advantage. Ultimately he rebels. A final fantasy sequence has him leading at attack by partisans as a huge tempest symbolically sweeps away the British army

There are virtuoso passages of editing. One comes when he rebels against being cheated over the price of his rare fox fur. Another comes at the end, during the symbolic tempest. In between, Pudovkin often follows a convention of Montage filmmaking, breaking scenes into multiple shots. When a British official and his wife visit a local temple, Pudovkin strings together five increasingly close views of the face of a large statue.

     

   

Although the three films have no overlapping characters or social situations, they play very well as a trilogy.

 

This Blu-ray pair of discs is not a perfect restoration of the three films, but it is so much better than what was available before that this becomes a vital addition to any collection that purports to covers the basic historical classics of the silent cinema.

The set includes several informative extras, including a booklet essay by Amy Sargeant, author of two books on Pudovkin, and two commentaries by present and past curators at George Eastman House: Peter Bagrov on Mother and Jan-Christopher Horak on Storm over Asia. Some short videos analyzing Pudovkin’s editing and showing 1920s footage of St. Petersburg are also included.


Our friend and colleague Vance Kepley authored an in-depth book-length study, The End of St. Petersburg (I. B. Tauris, 2003).

Storm over Asia (1928)

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Saturday | March 21, 2020

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