For Reel

Repast (1951)
September 12, 2012, 5:30 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Mikio Naruse

A single-mother relates a devastating epiphany to Setsuko Hara’s Michiyo: “A woman on her own can’t achieve much.” Director Mikio Naruse, whose work is often discussed in terms of his frequent feminist themes, examines the discontentment of a wife in a partnership that has long since proven satisfying in Repast. The situation in the household doesn’t seem particularly volatile, rather ridden into the ground by the predictability of routine (Naruse’s frequent use of the claustrophobic frame-within-a-frame perhaps best accentuates the lack of flexibility in their day-to-day living). While one might expect Ken Uehara – as Hatsunosuke, the husband – to be vilified, he is taken seriously if not apologetically. In a marriage without any affection, he chooses to seek romantic fulfillment in his flirtations with his young niece in a surprisingly bold subplot. Naruse, like Ozu, is fascinated with the minutia of domestic living, and the drama plays out so understated that one might make the mistake of thinking that nothing has happened at all. If not wholly successfully, partially due to a cop-out ending that shares similarities with many of the Hollywood pictures compromised by the Production Code, Repast is a quietly moving drama that affords its topic the complexity and nuance it deserves.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
March 1, 2012, 10:23 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Robert Bresson

Diary of a Country Priest was the third film of Robert Bresson, but it was the first to articulate itself through an intensely first-person perspective, which would be repeated in two of his oft-cited masterpieces, Pickpocket and A Man Escaped. Its star, Claude Laydu, was the pioneering model of Bresson’s cinema – the first nonprofessional whose “acting” is nearly invisible. For these reasons and more, it is not only emblematic of the director’s aesthetic means, elliptical narrative devices, and dealings with crises in faith, but it is among his very best pictures. Laydu plays the priest of the title, who arrives at Ambricourt, a commune in Northern France. From the readings of a diary – which serves as a relentless voice-over – it is revealed that the priest is ailing from a potentially fatal stomach cancer and has been surviving just barely on stale bread soaked in bad wine. Though priests in cinema are often wrought either as repressed perverts or with excruciating sentimentality, Laydu is not depicted with any inherent sense of nobility, but rather as an earnest believer whose physical ailments are perhaps metaphorically birthed from the hostile treatment that he receives from the faithless parishioners (for this reason, he might be the most blatant Christ allegory in all of Bresson, even moreso than Balthazar). As a servant of God attempting to get by in a Godless world, Laydu’s priest is a devastating suggestion of the burden of failure, no matter the circumstances.

Lightning Strikes Twice (1951)
February 23, 2012, 1:59 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: King Vidor

An engaging late noir from the prolific King Vidor, Lightning Strikes Twice stars Strangers on a Train‘s Ruth Roman as a woman who seeks to prove that a released suspect convicted of murdering his wife is innocent. Like High Sierra, the picture raises tension and paranoia not in dingy back alleys, but in arid Southern ranches and atop canyons. Vidor and screenwriter Lenore J. Coffee teamed two years prior for Beyond the Forest, a preposterous melodrama remembered as being among the worst films that Bette Davis had ever starred in. Although the pair mostly gets things right with this effort, there are such missteps as a young, crippled boy who has a comically excessive dinner-table outburst about the nature of morality, only to be left so peripheral throughout the rest of the picture that he might as well be invisible. As damaging as such narrative tumors are, the casting of Richard Todd as the male lead was the biggest handicap. He evokes no sense of menace or mystery, which, as a murder suspect until the third act, is problematic. Zachary Scott shows up for a few brief scenes late in the film and plays a threatening slime-ball so well that he outshines Todd in every way. Additionally, although it wasn’t uncommon to hear inconsistent accents no matter the setting in this era of Hollywood, Todd’s British accent is completely distracting and ill-fit for the film’s aesthetic. Roman and Scott are worth watching, however, and especially the great Mercedes McCambridge, who plays the holdout juror that prevented Todd’s conviction.