1984: Wheels on Meals (Kuai can che)

This post is part of Forgotten Films’ 1984 Blogathon. So much 1984. So little time.

The year 1984 was not awesome in a lot of ways. But it was a great year for films – check out the other 1984 Blogathon entries – and it was a big deal specifically for Hong Kong: The Sino-British Joint Declaration (the agreement to hand HK back to China in 1997) was signed. Combine 1984, movies, and Hong Kong, and you get films like Wheels on Meals, directed by Sammo Hung, produced by Raymond Chow, and starring Jackie Chan, Sammo, and Yuen Biao, a year after their collaboration in Project A. Not too shabby.

While Wheels on Meals (more on that especially silly name below) didn’t win any Hong Kong Film Awards that year, it has hung around pretty well as a result of some fine martial artistry brought to you by Jackie, Sammo, and the less well known, but demonstrably wonderful Yuen Biao.

The story is predictably and blissfully ludicrous. Thomas (Jackie Chan) and David (Yuen Biao) are cousins running a food truck in Barcelona. Perhaps this is because David’s father (Paul Chang) is in a Barcelona loony bin. Perhaps not. Don’t ask questions—according to Wheels on Meals, there was a large HK ex-pat community in Barcelona in the 80s. There is also a fair amount of discussion about characters’ nationalities, specifically as an explanation for their various proclivities and behaviors. Hiding in their apartment after a tryst, Thomas and David’s randy neighbor insists, “Italians can’t live without love,” while his wife waits outside the door with a shotgun. The Italian also points out that “All you Chinese know is work.” When Thomas and David exit by the window to avoid the continuing fracas (and get to work), the Spaniard downstairs opening his shop exclaims, “Don’t you Chinese use stairs?!” (Well, no, you don’t take the stairs, not if you started training in the Peking Opera School at the age of six, as Jackie, Sammo, and Biao did, together.) They excuse their acrobatics by explaining that “the Italians are fighting on there.” Best of all, not five minutes later, Sammo is describing himself, out loud, to another person, as “an inscrutable Chinese.”

This weird obsessiveness with nationalities becomes relevant (insofar as anything here is) when we learn that David’s father has fallen in love with a fellow loony, the Spanish Gloria. This is how the Thomas and David meet Gloria’s daughter, the lovely Sylvia (Lola Forner), or “Princess” as the boys call her.

son-of-man-1964(1)Meanwhile, in what a viewer might be forgiven for thinking is another film altogether, Moby (Sammo), a fledgling private eye, is asked by Magritte’s “The Son of Man” (Miguel Palenzuela) to find the daughter of a woman named Gloria. Before we can go any further, you must know that something awful has happened to Sammo’s hair. Perhaps as the result of some freak Spanish weather event, he appears to have been subjected to a bad perm. Sammo’s characters are usually pretty goofy, and let me tell you, the perm does nothing for Moby’s professionalism.

2497979065_69c78d4d49

It turns out that Thomas and David’s Sylvia is the woman Moby’s client has been looking for, and, thankfully, hijinks ensue. Moby’s client is dressed like Magritte’s Son of Man at least partly because he is (or used to be) the butler for the family Gloria used to work for. At this point, the narrative is revealed to be a crazy riff on an 18th-century novel: Gloria, once a maid in the house of a rich family, was raped by the head of the household. She fell pregnant (as one did under such circumstances, narratively speaking) and was kicked out—ending up in the loony bin. The male heir of the family now wants to hunt down Gloria and Sylvia and eliminate them so they cannot make any claims on the family fortune. This turns out to be pretty stupid, since neither of them has any idea there is a fortune which they might claim…until someone kidnaps them.

photo-4photo

 

 

 

 

There is a lot of enjoyable silliness between Thomas and David visiting the loony bin and Moby trying to act like a professional private detective, given that he appears to believe private eyes dress like a flashier Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (1955).

205043

There are a few teaser fights here and there—a training session between Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, the boys defending Sylvia from Mondale’s henchmen—but the real fighting starts when everyone ends up at the villain’s castle.

Wheels-on-Meals-2benny-the-jet-duels-with-jackie-chan2

 

 

 

 

 

The centerpiece is Jackie’s fight with Benny “the Jet” Urquidez, but this isn’t to slight Yuen Biao’s fight with Keith Vitali–an altogether more goofily choreographed and acrobatic encounter. Meanwhile, Sammo is left to face the villain alone. Once the villain dons his fencing mask, however, what you’re really watching is Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung fighting. You can see why, of the three, all of them charismatic and gifted fighters, Jackie Chan is the one pitted against Urquidez, the main event. Jackie is a ham–but not such a ham that we’re allowed to think he’s a clown like Sammo. Yuen Biao gets a lot of the sort of stunts here that Jackie made a career of–moving through furniture and riding walls to physically outwit his opponents.

Stay tuned below for some clips of the fighting. I know that’s why you’re here.

 

So, just how 80s is all this silliness?

1) Legwarmers and sweater vests

photo-1 wheels_on_meals3

 

 

 

 

 

2) Headbands

0000137795

…and a matching jacket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2) This:

photo-2

3) Did I mention Sammo’s Jeri-curl?

29qcu9d

4) Traditional Spanish music as played on a synthesizer

6) The Knight-Rider-esque screen in the cousins’ food truck

Knight Rider

7) Skateboards

Jackie_Chan_Wheels_On_Meals_Hong_Kong_Legends_UK_Promotional_Trailer

1984_Wheels_On_MealsRK075933Q00N59K13O

8) Assholes on dirt bikes ruining everybody’s good, clean fun

wheels_on_meals4

Apparently, this what Hell’s Angels ride in Barcelona.

1326832633_wheels-on-meals-1984-bluray1

9) A random shot of people who may or may not be the main characters riding horses on a beach at sunset

WheelsonMeals+1984-43-t

I mean, that’s what you’d guess this guy’s name is, right? Mondale?

10) The villain’s name is Mondale, played by a guy named José Sancho. Honestly, I’m not making this up.

 

So what’s with that crazy title?

According to a post on IMDb: The film is titled “Wheels on Meals” instead of “Meals on Wheels” because of superstition. Golden Harvest had produced two flops beginning with “M,” Megaforce (1982) and a film titled Menage a Trois. The company’s executives changed the title hoping this film would avoid the same problems.

 

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kq6k3EYx8rU?list=PLu7LQmHpiQqbkDDoO8Kcj–edxkBe_SC-&w=560&h=315]

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eI2dzMEzX2w?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

I couldn’t find a good clip of Yuen Biao from Wheels on Meals, so instead, here’s an amazing sequence from the slightly more old-school Magnificent Butcher (1979). Yuen Biao is the guy in the white shirt fighting a dude with a knife (or two) inside (rather than outside). It’s all pretty amazing, but you can appreciate YB’s acrobatics here. Magnificent Butcher stars Sammo, who co-directed with fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGQHlG9f4Fw?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

Peeping Tom (1960) – The British Invasion Blogathon

peeping1

Take Me to Your Cinema!

I first saw this peculiar film about ten years ago, sometime when I was still in grad school. I can’t remember why; I must have stumbled across it at the very fine Four Star Video Heaven, which is—somewhat miraculously—still in business. Neither am I sure why I liked it so much so immediately. It’s certainly unlike anything I had seen before. It might even have been the first of British director Michael Powell’s films I ever saw. Plenty has been said about how Peeping Tom ruined Michael Powell’s career, which is essentially true. Martin Scorsese was instrumental in rehabilitating him starting in the 1970s, and Powell did make a few more pictures before he died in 1990. Thankfully, it’s not the most interesting thing about the film, so let’s skip over that. I’ve watched the film so many times now, that it’s hard to narrow down what to talk about. So I’m warning you now, this may end up being another two-parter. Or just long-winded.

PT-exploitation

Can you guess what sort of reaction the film got when it was originally released?

Michael Powell, with his long-time partner Emeric Pressburger, made some of the finest British films you can rest your peepers on: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Powell made Peeping Tom after they went their separate ways, but it shares with those classic films a devotion to fabulous color (here, Eastmancolor) and an off-kilter British eccentricity. Much of the eccentricity manifests in the characters. For example, Helen (Anna Massey), the love interest—maybe the first Last Girl in horror films—is writing a children’s book about a magic camera that sees adults as the children they were. One of the cops investigating the murders that take place starts snapping his fingers and bopping around in time to the music on a victim’s tape recorder discovered at a crime scene.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAZZmclLdo8&w=560&h=315]

The main character, the Peeping Tom of the title, is Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), a focus-puller (assistant camerman) at a British film studio. In his spare time, Mark takes unnecessarily artistic nudie photographs for the owner of a newsagents shop who peddles what his customers coyly refer to as “views.” But all of this is merely a cover for Mark’s real calling—documentarian, for he is the artistic child of a scientist. He documents the murders of women he commits using a dagger hidden in his camera’s tripod. Like all good serial killers and superheroes, Mark has an origin story. Mark’s father, a scientist who studied fear in children, recorded as much of Mark’s childhood as he could—both on film and on tape. The scientist would dream up ways of terrifying his son in order to film his fear, record his screams and cries. Dad filmed the boy’s budding interest in sex—one of the movies we watch Mark and Helen, watching is of Mark as a boy watching a couple (Powell’s neighbors) necking on a park bench. The cherry on top of this Freudian sundae might be the film of Mark “saying goodbye” to his dead mother. Later in the film, as we see Mark’s father give Mark his first camera, the adult Mark refers to his mother’s death as “the previous sequence.” After all this, even Mark refers to himself as “mad.” (Also competing for cherry-on-top is the fact that Powell plays Mark’s father, and his son Columba plays the young Mark.) Don’t worry—a short, crazy-haired psychiatrist shows up on the set of the film Mark is working on, called The Walls Are Closing In, naturally, and after being introduced to Mark, muses that “he has his father’s eyes.”

941

Moira Shearer as stand-in Vivian filming Mark film her. Things go downhill from there.

The general plot—a serial killer who was traumatized as a child and now murders women using his camera—is reminiscent of some typically American horror movies about voyeurism and cameras: Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984) and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) come to mind. But the American versions are crasser, more vulgar—and I actually don’t mean that in a bad way. Cronenberg’s earlier work is known, of course, for gooey action in which the boundaries of a character’s body are violated and merged with or taken over by what is often some sinister technology, as in the aforementioned Videodrome, The Fly (1986), Naked Lunch (1991), or Existenz (1999).

Peeping Tom has nothing so unseemly. It is an incredibly decorous film given that it’s about a serial killer. Tidy. The climactic violence at the end produces almost no blood. Some of this is due to when it was made, surely. But it’s also an indication of where the film’s real interests lie. It is a film in which the boundaries crossed are almost entirely psychological. The physical violence is almost beside the point. What Mark wants, as a result of his particular trauma, hero_EB19990502REVIEWS08905020301ARis to record the terror, the fear the women experience on the threshold of death. Part of what is unique about Mark’s method is that he wants his victims to share his own experience of their death by watching themselves die. To this end, Mark has attached a distorting mirror to his camera, in which the women are forced to watch their own murders. Interestingly, almost no write-ups of the film mention this detail, though it seems essential to Mark’s story.

peeping-tom-karlheinz

Karlheinz Böhm as documentarian Mark Lewis

The film would have been a disaster without the right person playing Mark, and Karlheinz Böhm (also known as Carl Boem) is the Right Person. Powell initially wanted Laurence Harvey, and watching Peeping Tom, you can see why. The part requires the same sort of quiet woundedness Harvey did so well two years later in The Manchurian Candidate. Harvey also has a malicious edge, however, and I think this is at least partly why Böhm is the better choice. He does shy and damaged, but there is simply no aggression to him at all. Böhm’s Austrian accent, which ought to not to work, since his character allegedly grew up in the London house he still occupies, is instead an asset. It softens the edges of his words, making them more tentative and fragile than they would otherwise be. Two of the women we see him murder know him well, and, unlike so many later horror/slasher films, it is utterly believable that neither of them sees Mark as a threat. Even as he murders, Böhm’s Mark is more determined—focused—than aggressive.

Another character, like Mark, whom we might be tempted to see as weak is Helen’s mother, Mrs. Stevens (Maxine Audley)—she is not only blind, but an alcoholic (Johnny Walker Red, thanks). But Mrs. Stevens is a more overtly aggressive character than Mark. She is a cranky drunk and immediately suspicious of him. She says to Helen:

I don’t trust a man who walks quietly.

Helen: He’s shy!

His footsteps aren’t. They’re stealthy.

One of the many interesting aspects of the film is the way Powell links Mark to the blind Mrs. Stevens. Both she and Mark are sharp, both have been wounded by someone who should have taken care of them. (Mrs. Stevens, we learn, has been blinded by an incompetent doctor.) And they both love Helen.

Maxine Audley as Helen's mother, Mrs. Stevens

Maxine Audley as Helen’s mother, Mrs. Stevens

At the end of a scene of one of Mark’s nudie photo shoots, we see a model’s hand pouring tea. This cuts to Mrs. Steven’s hand pouring herself what is clearly another glass of scotch. Later, we cut from another closeup of Mrs. Stevens pouring herself another scotch, to Mark, pouring developing chemicals upstairs. During Helen and Mark’s only date, Mrs. Stevens sneaks up to Mark’s apartment. While Mrs. Stevens cannot secretly watch others, she does listen. She has heard Mark in his darkroom, watching his films on a projector. And she has recognized in Mark a fellow addict. She confronts him there, after his date with Helen.

What are these films you can’t wait to see? Take me to your cinema!

Mrs. Stevens uses a cane to maneuver in the crowded space, and we see at the end of her cane a short blade. She holds the cane out in front of herself, defensively, mirroring Mark’s movement when he unsheathes his own knife from the tripod.

As an addict, Mrs. Stevens—also a damaged but functional mother figure—understands Mark better than Helen can. As she leaves his room, she tells him, “All this filming isn’t healthy. Get help—while you still can.” Of course, Mark knows only too well how unhealthy it is.

peeping+tom+cake

No one in the film respects the boundaries of others. Mark’s father uses him as a science experiment, invading every private moment Mark should have had as a child. Even Helen invites herself in to Mark’s apartment, and Mrs. Stevens breaks in. As a child Mark was never allowed to lock a door, and he says he can’t get used to keys. This invasion is represented as much by all the doorways and curtains through which characters enter and exit—and sometimes linger in or block—as it is by the various cameras in the film. (One of them, a Bell and Howell, is Powell’s first camera. Of course it is.)

pt_street

Like his earlier collaborations with Pressburger, Powell’s Peeping Tom is more of a fantasia than a “realistic” portrait of a serial killer. The worlds of The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and, especially, The Tales of Hoffmann are passionately intensified, lurid versions of the real one. The characters in them, however, seem very real because they touch us, and I think this is really what upset everybody so much about Peeping Tom the first time around.

Midway through the film, Helen wants Mark to help her illustrate her magic-camera book, which has just been accepted for publication. Mark is genuinely thrilled for her and wants to “find [her] faces” for her, as he puts it. He tells her, “Everyone’s face looks like child’s if you catch them at the right moment.”

 

Check out all the other awesome British Invasion posts at A Shroud of Thoughts!

 

Don’t miss:

“Peeping Tom” is screening on TCM Saturday, October 4 @ 03:00 PM (ET). It’s available for rent, streaming, from Amazon Prime, and available on disc via Netflix.

 TCM’s article on Peeping Tom

Roger Ebert’s “Great Movie” review

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GItFNbLVCs&w=560&h=315]

 

Playtime (1967)

“Life is full of homages to Tati”*

originally intended as part of the 1967 in Film Blogathon

hosted by The Rosebud Cinema and Silver Screenings

(and then I got horribly sick—children are Petri dishes of contagion

—so it’s only, uh, three weeks late)

Anyway, check out the plethora of great posts from the Blogathon!

 

playtime001

French filmmaker Jacques Tati was only able to make six feature-length films, but each film, right from the beginning with Jour de fête (1949) and Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), has the mark of comic genius. Tati’s films are immediately recognizable for their use of sound, their democracy of action (and lack of any significant plot), and exuberant Tati gags. Playtime (1967) is generally regarded as the director’s masterpiece. Originally running around 2 ½ hours, Tati eventually edited it down to just under two (and at least some of that edited footage is still missing).

Playtime is about people and their urban environment: buildings, technology, and other people. Tati was interested in people and their experience of space, and he was worried about how certain kinds of modern spaces were changing the way people interacted. The film takes pleasure in mocking our ability to thrive in the structures we’ve created and to manage the gadgets we fetishize. But there is always a gentleness to Tati’s mockery, much like Buster Keaton’s, a clear influence. And like many silent film artists, Tati turns his environment into art by manipulating how people and objects interact with each other. To make the world look and work the way he wanted it to, the director constructed his own town, dubbed “Tativille,” outside of Joinville, Haute-Marne, France. (Unfortunately, manipulation on this grand a scale bankrupted him when the picture didn’t do well at the box office.)

vlcsnap-27117

Tativille looks suspiciously similar to our world, but like the obsessively constructed worlds in Vladimir Nabokov’s novels or Quentin Tarantino’s films (two much-less gentler geniuses), it is plainly not the real world. Each object, each line and curve has the potential to come to life at any moment. Everything (and everyone) is a prop in a Tati film, which may sound dehumanizing. But the overall effect of every Tati film is to humanize its setting and give its inhabitants (they don’t often rise to the level of characters) a space to be human—to socialize and experience pleasure. By the end of a Tati film, no matter how many mistakes have been made, no matter how much destruction has taken place, you are likely wishing his world were the real world. During the last 20 – 30 minutes of Playtime, the drably-colored, antiseptically-modernist environment breaks into a carnival-like chaos, with brightly colored decorations, a lot of drinking and dancing and socializing across classes and languages.

Beyond this shift, there is no plot to speak of—an American tourist named Barbara arrives in Paris with a tour group and Tati’s Monsieur Hulot has a business appointment are the closest thing to plot here—but there are recurring individuals. In addition to M. Hulot and Barbara, there  are the customer in the pharmacy-deli who turns out to be one of the jazz musicians at the Royal Garden nightclub, the man with whom Hulot has an appointment, M. Giffard, but keeps missing, an army buddy or two of Hulot’s, and so on.

tatiwindows

The architecture—all floor-to-ceiling glass walls and doors and endless grayish-blue cubicles (see the masthead above)—often has people on display but keeps them from interacting. Indeed, one of the film’s first gags is a worker trying to get a light from the porter of an office building, not realizing that there is a glass wall between them. Once people are outside these constructions, or they collapse, connections are made—Hulot runs into the army buddy he saw earlier but who was stuck in traffic; M. Giffard, out to walk his dog, finally sees Hulot on the sidewalk and they walk off together. Whatever they have to discuss is beside the point; the important thing is that they’ve finally gotten in touch.

BDDefinition-PlaytimeUK-7-1080

Spaces “deteriorate” in the last third of the film, creating new space more accommodating to these connections. The Royal Garden nightclub opens before it’s quite ready and the space just comes to pieces as tiles peel off the floor, waiters rip their uniforms on poorly designed chairs which are leaving marks on the backs of diners’ jackets and dresses, and finally the walls literally come down. Once the décor of the nightclub starts to come apart, the customers are able to mix with each other and with the workers, and to make their own music. The lengthy sequence is a justifiably famous set-piece. Similarly, the pharmacy-deli introduced in the last third of the film is a typical Tati mish-mash of spatial functions, resulting in sandwiches glowing green as they bask in the neon light of the pharmacy on the one hand while encouraging conversation and jollity on the other.

6837950452_bcbef77a59_dPLAYTIME_-49

 

 

 

 

 

pt08

From top left, the Royal Garden starts out looking pretty slick but things slide into a delightful chaos over the course of the evening.

In Playtime, there is never just one thing going on—there is a constant symphony of activity, and not just throughout the film but throughout the screen. Filmed in 70mm, “that grand epic format that covers the largest screens available with the most detail imaginable,” according to Roger Ebert, Playtime requires a big screen and rewards multiple viewings. It was filmed almost entirely in long shot; there are no closeups. A preponderance of frames are filled with activity in each field—foreground, medium ground, and background—or in every quadrant. Often the audience must decide where to look—our attention is not always directed to the unfolding of a particular event.

 

pt132

Street lamps bloom like flowers on the road between Paris and the airport.

The soundtrack is likewise a panorama of traffic, conversations (often at a level we can’t quite hear), blips and bleeps, doors opening and closing. These noises create some of the humor and also suggest that everyday objects have developed their own personalities. Sound was always an integral part of Tati’s cinema—doors seems to have been a special favorite, starting in Vacances. Which makes sense, as so much of Tati’s narrative, in all of his films, is about collapsing boundaries. And the soundscape in Playtime does work something like its field of vision. We hear some ambient noises in the “foreground” more loudly than they’d be in real life, directing our attention to something on screen we might not otherwise notice.

playtime-curving-arrowTati loves shapes and colors, and you can tell even when he’s not using many—the interaction of shades of gray in Playtime are carefully orchestrated and make the colors that do appear in the last third of the movie especially captivating. One of the pleasures of Tativille is the constant matching of shapes and movements. When a tiny but very important man deplanes at the beginning of the film, a tag on his suitcase flaps in a nonexistent breeze inside the terminal. Later, at the Royal Garden, the maître d’s suit tails swing back and forth as though equipped with an invisible metronome. In the exhibitor gallery of a futuristic product expo, an absurdly statuesque woman demonstrates a pair of dark, thick-framed glasses whose lenses flip up separately, so that its wearer can apply makeup, one eye at a time. Shortly after that, we’re introduced to the owner of a firm that makes silent doors (more on this below), whose dark, thick-framed glasses later break in the middle, repeating the visual of the one-up, one-down lenses on the first pair of glasses. It is no accident that an accident creates the same effect that some company has mass-produced and offered for sale. Accidents frequently open an avenue between previously segregated groups of people.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHEOIVKdSPY?list=PLN607fMMBWWnp_WvOTW7sggodq-Nj3bvu&w=560&h=315]

One of my favorite gags in Playtime is the “Slam Your Doors in Golden Silence” bit towards the beginning of the film. Hulot (and the American tourists) walk through the expo, booths advertising the latest in mod cons.images These are all, of course, ridiculous contraptions that no one needs. There is the garbage can shaped like an ionic column. There is the desk lamp that offers different colored light. There is the vacuum cleaner with headlamps attached (wait a minute…I have one of those—though in my defense, the lights on mine are not the size of grapefruit). All these objects make delightful burping and metallic grunting noises.

Except for the silent doors.

The doors have been made with an insulated material and whatever sound they actually made when moving or closing seems not only to have been wiped from the soundtrack but maybe replaced with a noticeable silence. (Or maybe that’s just the effectiveness of the bit.) A faux Hulot (the film is filled with them) mistakes the silent door exhibit for an extension of an adjacent exhibitor selling office desks. While the door salesman is demonstrating the silence to a potential customer, the faux Hulot rifles through the desk, empties his pipe in the ashtray, and generally helps himself in a way most offensive to the salesman—who can’t do anything because he’s distracted by a sales prospect. The owner of the silent door company turns up a few moments later, and his salesman complains about the man in a hat and raincoat carrying a pipe. The salesman trots off and Hulot appears. The owner (the one whose glasses split) mistakes him for the impolite not-Hulot. The set-up is at least as funny as the pay-off, when the owner berates the oblivious Hulot. The mistaken-identity gag perhaps suggests Tati’s impatience with the popularity of the Hulot character. But the encounter is also one of several that eventually blossom into the revelry at the collapsing Royal Garden nightclub. And like the bumbling encounters that later bear fruit, the “golden silence” of the insulated doors is later replaced by the amiable cacophony of unplanned, unprogrammed conversation and music.

Towards the end of Playtime, Hulot is attempting to leave a small and crowded magasin with a gift for the American tourist. He maneuvers around a set of pot handles sticking into the aisle, only to be told he must go back and exit through a turnstile which now looks remarkably like…a bunch of pot handles sticking out. Hulot can’t reach her in time, but the encounter is saved by an intermediary who passes the souvenir to Barbara as she boards the bus for the airport. Playtime is overflowing with little gags like these, and they are exquisite in design and the joy they take in the physical world. The greatest thing about any excursion to Tativille is that infectious joy the audience brings back with them, and how it changes the way we look at our environment.

Photograph by André Dino.

Photograph by André Dino.

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMWq40YtexY&w=560&h=315]

* This post is dedicated to my parents, whose anniversary is July 14, Bastille Day. *

* Michael Chion, Senses of Cinema

 

Other Tati essays/tidbits:

Roger Ebert on Playtime, one of his Great Movies.

Le main droite de M Hulot about Tati’s collaborator, artist Jacques Lagrange, including details about his work on Playtime, by Kristin Thompson. (She argues elsewhere, convincingly, for the title as two words.)

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay on Playtime from Criterion.

David Bordwell’s post on “Funny Framings” starts off with a Tati example from Playtime.

Dan North’s post on Playtime: “Modern Life is Noisy”

TCM’s essay on Playtime.

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938)

a contribution to the Billy Wilder Blogathon, hosted by Once upon a screen… and Outspoken & Freckled

Dir. Ernst Lubitsch

Written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder

brack

Brackett, reclining, and Wilder hard at work on something awesome.

Ernst Lubitsch’s 1938 comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, starring Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper, was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between writers Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (later producer and director, respectively). Well, maybe not a beautiful relationship, but certainly a very productive one, and one for which classic film fans, and writers of any stripe, are (or should be) eternally grateful.

Charles-Brackett-and-Billy-Wilder

Brackett, left, and Wilder not having an argument.

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife was the first collaboration between the pair who wrote Midnight (1939, another film starring Colbert), Nintochka, (1939, another Lubtisch production), Ball of Fire, (1941, also starring Cooper), The Lost Weekend, (1945), and ended their working relationship with Sunset Boulevard (1950). This first film has all the ingredients of their later films, but they don’t have the recipe quite right yet. Wilder himself allegedly commented, “It was not a very good picture, but it was kind of all right.” But who cares? A lesser Lubitsch written by Brackett and Wilder is still light-years better than…well, anything you’re likely to encounter in the course of an average day.

Brackett and Wilder have all the parts of a perfect screwball comedy in Bluebeard—formal wear, cocktails, witty wordplay, and a married couple slapping, spanking, and biting each other. Nicole De Loisel (Colbert), daughter of Edward Everett Horton’s penniless Marquis, and Michael Brandon (Cooper), capitalist extraordinaire, are meant to be together, like all screwball couples. And like the couples in The Awful Truth (1937), The Palm Beach Story (1942, another Colbert picture), and His Girl Friday (1940), Mr. and Mrs. Brandon are already married for much of the film, during which time at least one of them is trying to obtain a divorce. Unlike the couples in The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday, however, the Brandons are not an evenly matched couple. Nicole has the upper hand here, as Colbert’s Gerry does with her hapless inventor-husband in Palm Beach. Bluebeard’s Michael may be a millionaire investor and a big shot, but—despite seven previous marriages—he doesn’t know much about women. He is about to get an education.

The setups are fantastic even if not all of them pay off the way they should. The meet-cute at the beginning is classic Wilder and works like a dream. A 1948 New York Times profile of the writing team mentions its origin:

They were trying to bring together the boy and girl involved in “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.” Wilder suggested they meet in a department store.

“The boy is buying pajamas,” Wilder continued, “but he sleeps only in the top. The clerk is sorry, he cannot sell only the top. It looks like a catastrophe. Then the girl comes into the store. She buys only the pants because she sleeps only in the pants.”

Brackett and Lubitsch were entranced, it was not until weeks later that they learned Wilder was a tops-only sleeper and had been awaiting a chance to use the idea.

colbert.and.cooper.stripey

“If ever there was a stripey type, it’s you.”

The film is filled with exchanges and business deals, starting with this first pajama-buying arrangement (a deal which also allows for lots of naughty speculation about whom the bottoms are for, exactly). To lower the price on the bottoms, Nicole throws in a tip to help Michael, an insomniac, fall asleep: spell Czechoslovakia backwards. Nicole may turn out to have a better head for business than her multi-millionaire husband-to-be.

On the verge of marriage, Nicole discovers that Michael has seven previous wives. She is shocked, but is quite rightly less disturbed by the fact that he’s been married before than by the fact that he seems to go through women like hankies he hasn’t even bothered to mongram. Michael believes in acting on impulse—he doesn’t want to get to know her better before taking the big leap (which apparently isn’t much of a leap at all for him). Marriage, like business, is a gambling proposition for him. Nicole has no reason to suspect that her fate will be any different than Michael’s previous conquests. She agrees to marry him anyway, provided that he will pay her $100,000 a year in alimony if they get divorced. And she spends the rest of the film working diligently to goad him into one.

2014-05-11Shortly after their disastrous honeymoon (to Czechoslovakia, naturally), Michael is told by his doctor to buy some books to help quiet his nerves. (“Oh, what you want is the classics,” the bookseller informs him.) Running into Nicole in the bookshop, he says, “You know, if you’d be a litter nicer to me, I wouldn’t have to buy all these books. What do you say?” Thoroughly unimpressed with this ham-fisted flirting, she suggests that Michael is likely to end up with a library. Forced into reading by his uncooperative wife, he discovers one of the books he’s brought home is The Taming of the Shrew. Ah-ha! he thinks. And so, to the beat of martial drums, he marches over to his wife’s rooms and slaps her across the face. She slaps him back. He retreats, and consults Shakespeare again. He marches back, (drums again) smiles and tickles her under the chin. And then yanks her down over his knees for a good spanking. Shockingly, neither of these approaches melts Nicole’s heart. He returns to his room, disheveled and bitten. Desperate for the divorce, Nicole hires a boxer to pretend he is having an affair with her. Michael will burst into her room and the boxer will knock him out so there’s no trouble (Coop was 6’ 3” and apparently ate like three or four horses at every meal). Michael will capitulate and give her a divorce and everyone will live happily ever after. Especially Nicole, who will have the satisfaction of having humiliated Michael.

Wilder-Bracketttumblr_metblisMH81qgpddwo1_1280

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The film is a showcase of the verbal anarchy of screwball comedies. But Bluebeard suffers from leaning too heavily on the wordplay and not finessing the characters quite enough. The quips are flying so fast that it’s never as clear as it needs to be how these two actually fell in love with each other—or what makes Nicole return to Michael after she gets her divorce. Michael is, well, Gary Cooper, but his character is grumpy and gruff and often condescending to Nicole. When he tries to seduce his wife during a dinner date, Michael plays a goofy tune on the piano, a mischievous gleam in his eye. It’s impossible not to sympathize when Nicole drunkenly exclaims, “Why, Michael, you look so different. You don’t look like a multi-millionaire anymore. You look like a man with a $100,000—or even less!” There’s something almost irresistible about Gary Cooper being a goofball.

Almost.

Michael kisses his wife, who has, unbeknownst to him, eaten a bunch of raw scallions, later insisting, “I will fight you with every vegetable at my disposal!”

As screwball comedies go, in which the husband (or ex-husband) is often humbled into behaving reasonably, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife has a pretty biting reconciliation. Michael is completely at Nicole’s mercy—trussed up in a straightjacket, which is where this story has been headed from the first scene.

Nicole exclaims, “Why do you think a woman puts a man into a straitjacket? Because she loves him!”

Michael remains (temporarily) unmoved. “Love! You’re a fine one to be talking about love. You wouldn’t be my wife when you should’ve been. The only kiss I ever got out of that marriage was smothered in onions!”

And you really can’t complain much about  a film with such wonderful writing.

bluebeard.straightjacket

It has become clear in the years since that 1948 profile of their collaboration that Brackett and Wilder were not “the Happiest Couple in Hollywood,” as someone suggested way back when. Wilder apparently used to ride Brackett until Brackett began throwing things—heavy things—at Wilder’s head. So the snappy dialogue and (not so) latent violence of the screwball comedy was probably always a good match, not only for their gifts as writers, but their partnership as well.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vz74bn-xCtU&w=420&h=315]

Postscript

In lieu of any clips from the film, which I couldn’t find, I present the dialogue of one of the finest scenes. Here, Kid Mulligan (Warren Hymer), the boxer, and Nicole negotiate at some length about precisely how much damage Mulligan will do to hopefully-enraged Michael.

MULLIGAN: [I’ve been knocked out] plenty. And believe me there’s nothing like it. Aw, what a sensation. Once I hit the canvas with a bang and the next minute there I was in a Japanese garden, with them pink cherry blossoms. Another time I was floating over Constantinople. I tell you, you get to see countries you otherwise couldn’t afford to visit.

NICOLE: It sounds perfectly wonderful!

MULLIGAN: That time I fought Battleship McCarthy, boy, I’ll never forget that second round. Now I ask you Mrs. Brandon, where is there another racket where a man of my weight can feel like a flying fish?

NICOLE: Alright, then do it. —No, don’t do it! It’s too good for him.

MULLIGAN: Aw, come on, Mrs. Bradon, don’t be so hardboiled.

NICOLE: No, no, no, no, no. He doesn’t deserve it! Why should he dream he’s in a Japanese garden? After what he’s done to me? I should pay 5,000 francs so he can feel like a flying fish? Noooo, no. Never.

MULLIGAN: But, Mrs. Brandon, he’s your husband. You must have loved him once.

NICOLE: Let’s not talk about it.

MULLIGAN: Aw, come on, give him a break. Have a heart.

NICOLE: Alright, knock him out.

cooper.in.tub

“Whether [Louis the XIV’s bathtub] is too short or I am too long is a matter I would like to discuss with you over dinner.” This is the sort of thing that only happens in a Brackett-Wilder picture.

Snoopathon: L’armée des ombres (1969) Part 1

Once again, I seem to have chosen the one of the least typical examples of the genre for a genre-based blogathon. “L’armée des ombres” (“Army of Shadows”), Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film about a small group of French Resistance fighters during World War II, is undeniably a spy film. And yet it is strikingly unlike other examples of the genre.

armee-des-ombres-title

Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows”

Bursts of action happen only between long stretches of mostly silent waiting. The heroes make no perceptible progress against the enemy, managing little more than survival before the betrayal and death they each know is inevitable. As Roger Ebert said in his “Great Movies” review of the film, “This is not a war film. It is about a state of mind.”

As others have remarked, Melville’s film is both obviously artificial (particularly in its sets) and deeply intimate. The coexistence of what ought to be mutually exclusive characteristics is a consistent feature of Melville’s style, a feat critics have described as “difficult to explain” and “miraculous.” It gives his gangster films a kind of lived-in mythic quality, and it is an uncannily appropriate tone for a film about underground spies during an occupation. The résistants are estranged from their surroundings, and to a great extent from each other, though what they do couldn’t be more personal.

Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), center

Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), center, at the internment camp.

“Army of Shadows” is unmistakably Melville, but it is just as much Lino Ventura’s film (which is particularly interesting given that Melville and Ventura were not on speaking terms during filming). Ventura plays Philippe Gerbier, an electrical engineer operating as a chief of sorts in the Resistance. The film opens as Gerbier is being transported to the most painfully ironic internment camp in France, having been designed by the French for the Germans. The gendarme assures Gerbier he will be “all right” there, as it is “the best in France.” Gerbier gets the most screen time, and he is also the most solid, both physically and mentally, the most reliable spy.

When Gerbier arrives at the internment camp, it seems deserted. The camp director places him in an area originally reserved for German officials—a privilege not lost on Gerbier, who tells the director he is honored. But the following morning, the camp that appeared desolate the night before is teeming with many of the groups the Nazis rounded up—Jews of all nationalities, of course, but also anti-Fascists, Communists, gypsies, and black marketers, among others. (Unsurprisingly there is no mention of, say, gay or disabled prisoners.) When someone in Gerbier’s barracks dies, Kabyle prisoners, members of a Berber ethnic group in Algeria, come to take the corpse.

Jean-Francois Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) at the Kommandantur.

Jean-Francois Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) at the Kommandantur.

Taken to the Kommandantur, Gerbier manages an unlikely escape. From then on, the spies work mostly in the dark, literally as well as figuratively. And though the title refers to the spies themselves, it might as well refer to their environment. The rooms they voluntarily inhabit are shadowy, classic Melvillian palettes of blues and greys. The sound in the film is equally narrowed and heightened. As Gerbier waits for the right moment to distract a guard at the Kommandantur, for example, we suddenly hear the relentless ticking of a clock (and little else).

A common Melvillian motif is his male characters’ chapeaux. In “Army of Shadows,” these become subtle signs that the audience learns to read with the paranoid attention of a spy. Félix (Paul Crauchet), one of Gerbier’s soldiers, wears a bowler at important moments, first when he picks up Dounat (Alain Libolt), a member of the Resistance who betrayed Gerbier to the Germans. In order to avoid further betrayals, they of course will have to murder him. Félix hustles the doomed young man into the car and says to Gerbier, “Dirty job.” Gerbier replies, “You may dislike the hat, but you still have to wear it.” When Félix is later nabbed by the police, his bowler is knocked to the ground and left there. Gerbier, in London for a meeting with de Gaulle, hears of Félix’s arrest. He immediately leaves for France, abandoning his own hat in the London hotel room. Wearing the hat may be the right thing to do, but it is a dirty job, and, furthermore, one that will almost certainly kill you.

FélixEverything ordinary about these previously ordinary people has been circumscribed, calling to mind Yeats’s “Easter 1916.”

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Smiles have been reduced to nearly imperceptible facial tics. There are few safe places; their circle of friends has dwindled to a few fellow resistance fighters, who they know may betray them under Nazi torture. (This is a film that rewards multiple viewings, especially so that you can focus on the actors rather than the subtitles.) Indeed, sometimes even action is built around what the spies don’t know. A pair of brothers, one of whom is a Resistance leader (Paul Meurisse, astonishingly sly and completely open at the same time), never know they are working together. The younger brother, Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel, Vincent Cassel’s father), ultimately sacrifices himself—futilely and anonymously—for a comrade, having deceived his fellow fighters in order to help them. This combination of loyalty and fatalism will be familiar to anyone who’s watched “Bob le flambeur” (1956), “Le deuxième souffle” (1966), or “Le cercle rouge” (1970). Perhaps Melville’s own Resistance work is where some of this code comes from.

The most telling moment, in a film that seems full of them, might be the scene of the informant’s murder. Like many uncomfortable scenes, this one is drawn out, as the men must decide how to kill the terrified Dounat. Neighbors have moved in next door, so they can’t use their guns. (“The British should have sent the silencers,” one complains.) Dounat, barely more than a boy, must then listen as the men discuss possible methods. When a knife is suggested, a new member of the group, “Le masque,” protests, “Not like that!” confessing, “It’s my first time.” Gerbier wheels on him, horrified. “It’s our first time, too; isn’t that obvious?” One of the tragedies is that it isn’t at all obvious.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?

The Resistance fighters have become so used to confronting such situations that, even though no one wants Dounat to die, discussing his death appears rote, emotionless. The Mask (Claude Mann) is our stand-in at this moment, our way in to understanding, as far as we can, an impossible context.

what to do with dounat

 

murderofdounat

 

 

Coming up: Part 2, in which I explain why Simone Signoret is amazing in “Army in Shadows,” and some other stuff, like this:

armée_des_ombres_Félix.shoulder

The Merry Widow Waltz: Lubitsch’s “Heaven Can Wait”

This post is part of the Romantic Comedy Blogathon, hosted by Backlots and Carole & Co.!

It’s hard to imagine Ernst Lubitsch, director of The Love Parade (1929), Design for Living (1933), and Ninotchka (1939), making something that isn’t a classy, urbane romantic comedy. Heaven Can Wait (1943) is an odd duck, though. For example, not many romantic comedies begin in Hell. Yet, it is here that we, and His Excellency, played by the devilish Laird Cregar, meet Henry Van Cleve (smoothie Don Ameche). Nor is the plot of most romantic comedies structured around its hero’s petition to get in to Hell. His Excellency isn’t sure Henry’s in the right place, but he’s an accommodating fellow and willing to listen.

Why is Hell so...pink?

Why is Hell so…pink? Laird Cregar as His Excellency.

So, Henry tells the story, through flashbacks, of his would-be Casanova history  with women, which, it turns out, is mostly his mostly-happy marriage to Martha Strable, played by the luminous Gene Tierney. Despite not being able to point to any outstanding crimes, Henry assures His Excellency, “I have no illusions. I know where I belong.” He adds, “I can safely say my whole life has been one continuous misdemeanor.”

Hell is not impressed with misdemeanors. “My dear Mr. Cleve,” His Excellency retorts, “a passport to Hell is not issued on generalities.”

Given this introduction, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Henry is an odd duck of a romantic hero, as well. He’s a playboy and a loafer who loves women and

"Just give me five minutes to pull myself together." Don Ameche as Henry Van Cleve.

“Just give me five minutes to pull myself together.” Don Ameche as Henry Van Cleve.

accomplishes nothing over the course of his life, other than loving Martha. When we put Lubitsch’s world in the context of the other, not-so classy world, Henry looks even less heroic. He is a slight and mostly unredeemed character in a world beset by the tragedies of World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. None of these so much as knocks on the door of Lubitsch’s world of grace, charm, and apparent lightness.

Or do they?

Henry believes he belongs in Hell because he ran around on Martha. It’s not totally clear what this is supposed to mean in the film—but since we’re talking about Lubitsch, and his “continental mind,” it’s probably adultery rather than shameless flirting. What we do know is that, on their tenth wedding anniversary, Martha has had enough and goes home to Kansas. When Henry tries to win her back, he employs what we learn are his usual play-acting and excuses. He starts with the classic How-could-you-do-this-to-me?. It is Henry’s description of their son Jackie’s beginner flirtations with girls, so much like his own, that eventually wins Martha over again, despite her better judgment. And they elope, for the second time.

1181684_original heaven-can-wait-1943-don-ameche-gene-tierney-784065

The story of their accidental meeting and first elopement is pure romantic comedy. Henry overhears Martha lying to her mother (!) and, already smitten, follows her to a bookshop. Henry pretends to be a clerk, and when he discovers that Martha wants to buy How to Make Your Husband Happy, he gives one of his first great speeches.

Confessing his deception, he tells Martha:

I took one look at you and followed you into the store. If you’d gone into a restaurant, I would have become a waiter. If you’d walked into a burning building, I’d have become a fireman. If you’d walked into an elevator, I would have stopped between two floors, and we’d have spent the rest of our lives there.

I took one look at you and followed you into the store. If you’d gone into a restaurant, I would have become a waiter. If you’d walked into a burning building, I’d have become a fireman. If you had walked into an elevator, I would have stopped between two floors, and we’d have spent the rest of our lives there.

 

Later that evening, they discover, to their mutual discomfort, that Martha is engaged to Henry’s goody-two-shoes cousin, Albert. The scene in which Henry literally sweeps Martha off her feet is both classic screwball comedy and classic Lubitsch. At the Van Cleves’ to celebrate Henry’s birthday and Albert’s engagement, Martha has the temerity to sneeze during Mrs. Cooper-Cooper’s aria. Albert hustles her into the study in order to avoid any further social disasters. Unbeknownst to him, he has just delivered Martha into the arms of Cousin Henry. (Henry has spent a lifetime successfully avoiding Mrs. Cooper-Cooper’s “coloratura,” he informs His Excellency.) Henry wastes no timeHeaven-Can-Wait-Technicolor2 and kisses her. That you can watch Martha move from rapture to the sense that she should be outraged to actually making an outraged face is a testament to Tierney’s ability as an actress. And it is a chiasmus of the change we watch come over Henry’s face moments before, as he realizes who Albert’s fiancée is: a move from light amusement to something between horror and grief, and then a grim determination.

It turns out that Martha is marrying Albert because he seemed the only way out of Kansas and away from her loving but endlessly bickering parents (the sublime Eugene Pallete and Marjorie Main). Fortunately, Henry has a better solution, to which Martha replies:

Get married! Oh! How can we do that? How can I marry you? I’m not even engaged to you. … Oh, I wish I were dead.

Though the next minute Henry has swooped Martha into his arms and a cab and off to the nearest justice of the peace, the reference to death (not the first) is more important than we’re likely to think when we first hear it. We know that Henry is dead when he tells this story, and the plot moves forward by leapfrogging from one birthday or anniversary to

"How can I marry you? I'm not even engaged to you!" Gene Tierney as Martha Strable.

“Albert, suppose some day in the future I have to sneeze?” Gene Tierney as Martha Strable.

another. And in between what seems like every flashback, someone we care about has died. These deaths are never discussed; we have to infer that a particular character is no longer among the living by the portrait now up on the wall, or an absence (or two) at the breakfast table. Even when Henry’s beloved Martha dies, we learn this through inference, and maybe ten minutes into the sequence, only after Henry confesses to his 60th birthday and after he is chastised by Jackie for his endearingly age-inappropriate conduct.

Despite the encumbrance of a truly appalling hairstyle in what are meant to be her later years, Gene Tierney has some wonderful moments in the film. One of them is her speech to Albert when he renews his suit.

Now, Albert, I don’t want anybody to get the impression that I’ve been the victim of ten years of misery. Nothing of the kind. On the contrary, I can say there were moments in my marriage that few women ever get to experience.

That’s not the purpose of marriage. Marriage isn’t a series of thrills. Marriage is a peaceful, well-balanced adjustment of two right-thinking people.

I’m afraid that’s only too true.

The film is much more about Henry’s love for Martha, however, than it is about Henry and Martha. Henry’s Lubitschean grace, tempered by some very human bumbling around in pursuit of Martha, is the core of the film. It is his love for Martha that redeems him, insofar as he needs redeeming; it is his Oscar Wilde-ish pursuit of pleasure for its own sake that suggests he doesn’t really need redeeming. As Martha tries to explain first to her parents and then to Albert, her marriage to Henry may not be perfect, but it has more perfect moments than most of us ever get. That is finally why Henry doesn’t belong in Hell, and why Albert is wrong about marriage.

The “Merry Widow Waltz” is a recurring theme in the film, and as I’m sure someone else has pointed out, all of Lubitsch’s films move like an elegant ballroom dance; watching them is like watching Fred and Ginger. The title of that piece of music encapsulates the challenging tone of the film—both merry and melancholy. Heaven Can Wait is a gentle but compelling argument for pleasure, pleasure not only despite the tragedies of life, but also because of them. That the melancholy doesn’t destroy the merriment and that the merriment doesn’t undermine the melancholy is an astonishing achievement, a kind of grace in itself.

 

** Heaven Can Wait is available on DVD from Netflix and on Amazon Prime for rental. **

Postscript: Heaven Can Wait was written by screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, who also wrote Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Shop Around the Corner (1940), as well as Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941).

Clarence Muse, who plays the Strables’ butler, Jasper, deserves his own post. He gets an excellent scene in which he expertly maneuvers between the Mr. and Mrs. during a breakfast spat over the who gets to read the funny papers.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6hrsg01qdk&w=420&h=315]

Bonuses: There is a lovely chat about the film between Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell on the Criterion DVD.

“Heaven Can Wait” clips @ Turner Classic Movies

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5IEvc2j5uY&w=560&h=315]

John Landis (not William Bendix!) on the trailer for Heaven Can Wait.

 

 

 

The “Austere Wickedness”* of Alain Delon

The Villain: Tom Ripley * The Movie: Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) 1960

tumblr_l25rayUFgy1qa6heqo1_1280

WvWnXwIMy husband refers to Alain Delon as “farcically good-looking,” and, really, Delon is so good-looking, it’s practically an insult. He was a mere 25 when he made Plein Soleil (known in English as Purple Noon for no good reason I can find) with director René Clément. Plein Soleil (which translates as Full Sun) is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s brilliant novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. In it, the father of Tom Ripley’s childhood friend Dickie Greenleaf (Philippe in the film) dispatches young Tom to Italy to bring Greenleaf fils home (to San Francisco, naturally), in exchange for $5,000.

This was Delon’s first big movie, and even if he weren’t very good, you can see why. But Delon is shockingly good. Delon’s Tom Ripley is not just youthful, he is a criminal novice. Much of the pleasure of both Patricia Highsmith’s first Ripley novel and of Plein Soleil is watching Tom come into his own as a sociopath.

Once in sun-drenched Italy, Tom enjoys the company of the rich and careless Philippe, or at least he enjoys helping Philippe spend his money. But Tom is eager for that promised $5,000. Unlike Philippe (Maurice Ronet), Tom does not come from money. Rather, he has a genius for insinuating himself into other people’s lives, and being whomever people expect him to be. Tom’s murder of Philippe a third of the way through the film is not merely—not even mostly—because Philippe won’t be a good boy and go home. In both the novel and the film, there is an uncomfortable, competitive homoerotic something-or-other going on between Tom and Philippe. If the desire is mostly on Tom’s side, Philippe does

Why does Philippe have a whip? Wouldn't you like to know?

Why does Philippe have a whip? Wouldn’t you like to know?

nothing to discourage it. Philippe is thoughtless in the way only rich people can be—other human beings and their feelings are not quite real to him. Philippe toys with Marge, a woman he appears to genuinely care for, as much as he tests Tom, to see how much humiliation he will take in exchange for that elusive $5,000. More than Tom wants Philippe, more even than Tom wants that $5,000, however, he wants to be Philippe. Or to be a much-improved version of him—a kinder, more considerate Greenleaf. And so Philippe has to go.

How does Tom get away with two cold-blooded murders (first Philippe and then the unappealing Freddy–an American pal of Philippe’s who sees more than Tom can afford for him to), not to mention an awful lot of forgery? Tom is so slight, and despite Delon’s “almost unearthly perfection,” so unassuming, so unthreatening. He actually tells Philippe he’s going to kill him, and until the moment Tom stabs him, Philippe doesn’t believe he will. However physically slight, Delon can radiate menace, as he does in Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece, Le Samourai (1967), but here uses himself as bait—vulnerable, pretty, socially and sexually inferior to the confident and masculine Philippe. It’s a tightwire act of a performance. Tom isn’t interested in being Tom Ripley, at least not as the impoverished and apparently inferior creature he is at the beginning of the film. Instead, Tom tries out other identities, primarily Philippe’s. There is an enormously uncomfortable scene during which Tom tries to join in a make-out session Philippe is having with a woman they’ve picked up. Ick.

More pointed is the scene shortly after, back at Philippe and Marge’s apartment. After a typically inept attempt at a serenade, Tom is kicked out of the room so that Philippe and Marge can neck in private. Tom retreats to Philippe’s bedroom and begins trying on his clothes.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuX8EpBcZus&w=560&h=315]

Here, the Tom Ripley we’ve met disappears behind a suitcase, and when he reappears, he is well on his way to being the other Ripley—both the man he was meant to be and somebody who can become another man as easily as a reptile sloughs off a layer of useless skin (perhaps these are the same person). He is a forger not merely of signatures but of whole identities. Part of the genius of this scene is that once Ripley is looking in the mirror, we can see Philippe’s feet and legs behind him in the mirror. Ripley is imitating Philippe based on his observations of Philippe, Philippe is watching Ripley’s imitation of himself, and we are watching both. This is Philippe’s first chance to escape his fate, but he fails to sense the danger in Tom’s role-playing, precisely because he sees Tom as pathetic. It’s an identity Tom finds it useful for Philippe to believe in, right up until he stabs Philippe and tosses his body into the sea.

Some reviewers, including the nearly infallible Roger Ebert, complained about the ending of the film, which appears to wuss out–having Tom arrested, whereas in the novel, he escapes, and carries on escaping, to our discomfort and not-so-secret enjoyment, in the subsequent Ripley novels. In this last scene, Delon’s Tom looks so happy, so confident, finally, that I always find it hard to believe he is going off, unknowingly, no less, to his downfall. Delon plays the end the way it should have ended, even if Clément is hiding some policemen around the corner. That is not the smile or the gait of a man about to be arrested. It is the carriage of a man who knows he is about to move smoothly, imperceptibly out of the way of danger, again.

534568-plein-soleil-delon

*David Thomson, “Delon @ 75

villain_stanwyckThis post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon!

Please check out some of the other fantastic posts, from Angela Lansbury: Mother of the Year to Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West to Waldo Lydecker, Laura and more baddies than you can think of!