Monday, June 17, 2013

Murder! (1930)

With 1927’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog Alfred Hitchcock established himself as a force to be reckoned with behind the camera. While The Lodger may have only been Hitchcock’s third film (it would have been his fifth had his first 2 been completed) the amount of skill on display in that film not to mention the innovative camera techniques and the inclusion of influences from the German expressionist movement mistaking the film for the work of a veteran filmmaker wouldn’t be without warrant, especially considering the time period in which it was released. Its also the film that Hitchcock often referred to as his real “first” film as it was the first of his films to deal with various themes he would go on to perfect and become synonymous with. Hitchcock returned to the crime thriller in 1929 with Blackmail which featured Hitchcock continuing to explore and expand upon his favorite motives. Blackmail also happened to be his first talking film (or “talkie“), while the films technical aspects may be considered primitive by today’s standards, for 1929 the film was revolutionary. Enter Murder! (get it?), Hitchcock’s third talking film in 1930. Murder! is defiantly one of Hitchcock’s variations on a theme occupying an interesting place in Hitchcock’s body of work, making great use of his favorite devices while at the same time bringing new things to the table.

Actress Diana Baring is found standing over the murdered body of Edna Druce, another actress traveling with Diana as a member of a touring troupe. Diana has no memory of what happened and is arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to hang. One member of the jury, Sir John Menier, who also happens to be an actor isn’t so sure, and almost immediately after delivering a verdict of guilty along with his fellow jurors begins to have second thoughts. His belief in Diana’s innocence is so strong he becomes determined to prove it himself. Enlisting the help of the stage manager of Diana’s troupe and his wife, the three set out to get to the bottom of the case in the hopes of clearing Diana’s name in time to save her from the gallows.

Technically Murder! could be classified as a whodunit but its not exactly your traditional whodunit the way Hitchcock presents the story to us. As is the case with most Hitchcock, the proceedings become increasingly more intriguing as the film moves forward as we learn more about the characters and their motivations become more and more clear. The mystery element is strong and you’ll find yourself doing just as much guess work as Sir John all throughout the film. One thing that immediately stands out about  Murder! is the films cleverness, which goes back to the film not really being a typical whodunit. One of the more brilliantly clever aspects of the film is the way Hitchcock employs the theatre and acting within the story, with the character of Sir John being an actor using his craft in his quest to save Diana leads to some pretty unique detective techniques. Murder! may have only been Hitchcock’s third film to deal with these type of subjects but even at this stage in his career nobody could stage and execute a suspense sequence like Hitchcock and one certain “audition” sequence in this film stands out as being an absolute nail biter and what makes it even more effective its perfect placement in the film timing wise. Hitchcock’s ability to find black humor in the most dire of situations is evident here as well, with the jury deliberation scene being particularly hilarious by way of the jurors ganging up on Sir John and one overtly jittery juror.

Murder! happens to hold a very important place in film history as it was the first film to feature an interior monologue actually being heard on screen, which was done by having actor Herbert Marshall pre-record his lines and the recording was then played during the scene where we here Sir John’s inner thoughts, while an orchestra played nearby supplying the music on Sir John’s radio. A far cry from just doing a voice over in a studio during post but just another example of Hitchcock being ahead of the rest. Like a lot of Hitchcock’s early British films Murder! was public domain for many years and has seen quite a few VHS and DVD releases. Interesting to note that the original version of the film ran at about 104 minutes while most of the home video releases have a run time of 92 minutes. The 104 minute version was finally restored and released in a box set along with 4 other early Hitchcock films in 2007, although according to one review on Amazon an important scene happens to be missing from the print! The film isn’t a difficult or expensive find and while most prints aren’t exactly pristine they’re hardly unwatchable so its really a matter of preference which copy to pick up, but its an important film to pick up and to witness Hitchcock further perfect his already near perfect craft.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Immoral Women (1979)

AKA Les Héroïnes du Mal (Heroines of Evil) and Three Immoral Women (Tre Donne Immorali)

The classic 1974 anthology film Immoral Tales was an incredibly important entry into the filmography of Walerian Borowczyk. Aside from giving us the now iconic image of Paloma Picasso (daughter of Pablo) bathing in a tub filled with pigs blood during her portrayal of the blood countess Elizabeth Bathory in the films third segment, it was a film that thematically set the course for what was yet to come from Borowczyk. It was also the film that began Borowczyk’s banishment from the good graces of critics. Prior to Immoral Tales, Borowczyk’ animations as well as his debut live action feature film Goto, Island of Love (1968) and its follow-up Blanche (1971) won him various festival prizes and even had many hailing him, rightfully so, as a genius. Although Immoral Tales won the festival choice award at the 17th Regus London Film Festival, the films taboo content  ultimately proved to be too much at the time for the snooty critical establishment (the fact that the film made a lot of money probably irked them even more). Not that Borowczyk ever let critical opinion sway him, he let that be known loud and clear with The Beast (1975) and the rest of his body of work speaks for itself. 5 years after Immoral Tales, Borowczyk returned to the anthology film with Immoral Women, which could be seen as somewhat of a sequel to Immoral Tales.  

Split up into 3 segments, Immoral Women focuses on 3 individual women set against different time periods. Margarita - In renaissance Italy Margarita Luti (Marina Pierro) the beautiful daughter of a baker hatches a get rich quick scheme by using her natural charms to seduce and become the model of Raphael, a young artist commissioned by the Pope for a very lucrative sum to create new fresco’s for the Vatican. Margarita’s greed quickly escalates and it soon becomes apparent that she’ll go to any extreme necessary to get what she wants. Marceline - Marceline (Gaëlle Legrand), a whimsical teenager in 18th centaury France is closer to her pet bunny Pinky than society would deem acceptable. Disapproving of all the time Marceline spends with Pinky, her overbearing parents take matters into their own hands unprepared for the consequences. Marie - In contemporary Paris, Marie (Pascale Christophe) is kidnapped in broad daylight. Her captor demands her husband pay a ransom fee, threatening Marie’s life if payment is not made. When her husband fails to rise to the occasion, Marie finds an unlikely hero in her dog Caesar, rewarding him in her own unique way.

There’s no mistaking Immoral Women for the work of any other filmmaker. From the playful eroticism that oftentimes takes a turn for the bizarre (especially during the second and third segments), the jabs at the church and uptight, upper class society and oddball humor, all three segments of the film feature the majority of Borowczyk’s trademarks. Much like his previous film Behind Convent Walls (1978), its the humor that comes to the forefront, specifically during Margareta and Marceline’s tales. The comedic elements of the former are fairly traditional (“traditional” for Borowczyk anyway), even featuring a pretty elaborately set up gag involving a maze-like structure complete with dead ends and trap doors. Its during this first episode where Borowczyk takes his usual shots at the church and the brief moments involving a mud-slinging painter are hysterical albeit random. Its during Marceline’s segment where the humor goes into the off the wall territory by way of Marceline’s parents and maid’s behavior during family meals plus the singing “talents“ of Marceline‘s mother. This particular segment was based on the writing of André Pieyre de Mandiargues which would explain the surreal sense of humor. The second meal sequence in particular is as unusual as it is side-splittingly hilarious due to the overt absurdness of it all which also ties in with Marie’s segment. For the most part this final chapter of the film does seem to the be “odd woman out” so to speak but its final outrageous moments are a fitting way to cap the film off.  

Naturally painting and texture play a massive role during Margarita considering the history of the story plus Borowczyk’s history as a painter, there are several shots which could have easily been transported from the canvas to the screen and vice versa. There are a few instances during Marceline featuring hanging meat carcasses which will perhaps spring to mind thoughts of painting as well. Borowczyk’s affinity for period pieces is ever apparent during Margarita and he has perhaps never filmed Pierro more beautifully than he does here. Pierro not only couldn’t have been more perfect for the role of Margarita but it was only fitting for Borowczyk to cast his gorgeous muse in the role of one of history’s most gorgeous muses. With Marceline, the most notorious of the three stories, Borowczyk makes expert use of soft focus making the whites of Marceline’s garb and of course the bright fur of the rabbit beam. Speaking of, Borowczyk stages and films the infamous scenes of Marceline and the rabbit in such a manner that, believe it or not, they actually don’t appear nearly as exploitative as they might sound on paper while at the same time obviously being objectionable enough to make many a squeamish viewer very uncomfortable. Marie again sticks out like a sore thumb visually on account of its modern setting and knowing Borowczyk’s rather cold view of the modern world so its no surprise to see him playing it fairly straight for the majority of this episode, although  Christophe’s presence makes up for it.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the original theatrical poster for the film featuring provocative images of Gaëlle Legrand and Pinky the rabbit ruffled a few feathers back in 1979, and when the film made its way to DVD in 2007 courtesy of Severin (a fantastic looking release by the way) the poster art once again caused a bit of a stir with Severin posting a statement on their website reading: “One day following its heralded release, a prominent US retailer has unceremoniously returned all copies of IMMORAL WOMEN due to what has been reported as its 'offensive' packaging. Despite the fact that the cover art replicates imagery used on its 1979 theatrical posters, morally sensitive folk at the chain found the suggestive shots of bunny-lust to be too much for their customers.” On another somewhat humorous note, actress Pascale Christophe appeared in a Disney production of all things for television in 1977. She was also featured in Immoral Tales as Countess Bathory’s servant. Immoral Women might not carry the same reputation as Borowczyk’s previous Immoral film but in no way should it be considered a so called “lesser” work. As described above, all three stories feature several of Borowczyk’s visual and thematic trademarks, and with Marceline containing some of his most audacious and lasting imagery, in the grand scheme of things Immoral Women is an essential addition to any Borowczyk collection.