Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘Film History’ Category

Update on Too Late for Tears on DVD

Monday, March 30th, 2015

A few posts ago, I wrote on the recent 35mm restoration of Too Late for Tears, and wondered when it would be on DVD.

A few minutes ago, I received this e-mail from Alan K. Rode, director of the Film Noir Foundation: “Re: your blog post for TOO LATE FOR TEARS coming out on DVD. Please rest assured that TLFT will be coming out on DVD in the near future. A time-consuming aspect of bringing this and other restored titles out on DVD involves the clearing of various rights even with titles that are in the public domain. In the case of TLFT, a deal with the estate of the late Roy Huggins that owns the rights to the Huggins screenplay adapted from his novel had to be initiated and negotiated. These matters are wrapping up and we will be moving forward on this project.

It is also germane to note that the situation with each film is different. The FNF brought THE PROWLER out on DVD and produced the special features after cutting deals with the film’s rights holders and the DVD distributor. Paramount Pictures owns the rights to CRY DANGER and licensed the title to Olive. We allowed them to use our restoration for the transfer.

Paramount also owns TRY AND GET ME! which we have also restored, but-to my knowledge-has not relicensed the title to Olive to bring our restoration to DVD. Owing to a variety of circumstances including rights, the process of restoring these films and bringing them out on DVD, is simply not a speedy process. I hope this provides some illumination on the subject. We certainly understand that our charter to restore America’s Noir Heritage extends beyond the eight cities that currently host NOIR CITY film festivals. We are fully committed to making our restoration of TLFT available to everybody, as soon as possible”

Good news- and many thanks to Alan for being in touch!

Gabriel Figueroa at El Museo del Barrio March 4 – June 27, 2015

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

Gabriel Figueroa, a brilliant cinematographer, has a retrospective at El Museo del Barrio in New York City.

I’m just finishing up a long and complex project on the worldwide history of black and white cinematography, and throughout writing the book, I’ve continually been struck by how undervalued cinematographers are by most critics and directors, and yet how much they contribute to the finished product – often without more than a few lines of acclaim. One of the very greatest DPs (directors of cinematography) in the history of the cinema is undoubtedly Gabriel Figueroa (1907- 1997), whose work is now the subject of a traveling exhibition, which was presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and now makes a welcome stop at Manhattan’s El Museo del Barrio. As I write in my forthcoming book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History, on Figueroa’s work,

“Born in Mexico City in 1907, Figueroa was orphaned at the age of 7, and became involved in the Mexi­can industry in his teens. After working as an assistant on various films, he photographed Grigori Aleksandrov and Sergei M. Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva Mexico! (1932) with Eduard Tisse, and then studied cinematogra­phy for a year in 1935 with Gregg Toland in Hollywood. Returning to Mexico, Figueroa photographed his first solo effort, Allá en el Ran­cho Grande (Out on the Big Ranch, dir. Fernando de Fuentes, 1936), after which he worked with several generations of legendary directors from around the world.

In his long career, Figueroa served as the director of cinematography for such eminent directors as Emilio Fernández, most notably on his gor­geous romantic drama María Candelaria (1944); John Ford on The Fugi­tive (1947); Luis Buñuel on his breakthrough study of life in Mexico City’s notorious slums, Los Olvidados (1950), as well as Buñuel’s Nazarin (1959) and the forty-five-minute featurette The Exterminating Angel (1962); in addition to working with John Huston on The Night of the Iguana (1963) and twenty years later, on Huston’s Under the Volcano (1983).  . . .

As he told Elena Feder in 1996, ‘It was with Fernández that I really began to develop my own style. He allowed me to compose a scene anyway I wanted. He would describe the set-up initially, explain what he wanted to convey, and then say something like, “There, now set up the lights and put the camera wherever you wish.”  So I would place the camera, choose the angle, and illuminate a scene, always looking for the desired effect. From the very beginning, when we shot the opening scene of María Candelaria, where she holds the piglet in her arms, Fernández told me to place the camera wherever I wanted. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the rushes; they went beyond his wildest imagi­nation. Since that point I had complete freedom to continue developing my own style.’”

On the Museo del Barrio’s website, the museum notes that “from the early 1930s through the early 1980s, the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa helped forge an evocative and enduring image of Mexico. Among the most important cinematographers of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, Figueroa worked with leading directors from Mexico, the United States and Europe, traversing a wide range of genres while maintaining his distinctive and vivid visual style.

In the 1930s, Figueroa was part of a vibrant community of artists in many media, including Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Edward Weston and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who sought to convey the country’s transformation following the trauma of the Mexican Revolution. Later, he adapted his approach to the very different sensibilities of directors Luis Buñuel and John Huston, among others. Figueroa spoke of creating una imágen mexicana, a Mexican image. His films are an essential part of the network of appropriations, exchanges and reinterpretations that formed Mexican visual identity and visual culture in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.

The exhibition features film clips, paintings by Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Manuel Rodriguez Lozano and José Chavez Morado, photographs, prints, posters and documents, many of which are drawn from Figueroa’s archive, the Televisa Foundation collection, the collections of the Museo de la Estampa and the Museo Nacional in Mexico. In addition, the exhibition includes work by other artists and filmmakers from the period such as Luis Buñuel, Sergei Eisenstein, Edward Weston, and Tina Modotti that draw from the vast inventory of distinctly Mexican imagery associated with Figueroa’s cinematography or were heavily influenced by his vision.”

So, all in all, an opportunity not to be missed; here’s the chance to see the work of a master.

The Bedford Incident (1965)

Friday, March 27th, 2015

The Bedford Incident is yet another brilliant yet forgotten film; watch the trailer by clicking here.

We have only so much time on this earth, and so what we do with it is important. We can spend our time making junk, or watching junk, or we can give our time to some more serious films – past and present – that come our way. One such film is James B. Harris’s The Bedford Incident, a 1965 US/UK production from the novel by Mark Rascovich that toplines Richard Widmark as the unbalanced and resolutely hawkish captain of the destroyer the USS Bedford, which, on a routine reconnaissance mission, detects the presence of a Soviet submarine off the coast of Greenland, and unrelentingly gives chase. As a contributor to Wikipedia astutely notes,

“The American destroyer USS Bedford (DLG-113) detects a Soviet submarine in the GIUK gap near the Greenland coast. (Specifically, they are in Greenland territorial waters at the entrance to the J.C. Jacobsen Fjord, which is due northwest from Iceland.) Although the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are not at war, Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) harries his prey mercilessly, while civilian photojournalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) and NATO naval advisor, Commodore (and ex-World War II U-boat captain) Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman), look on with mounting alarm.

Because the submarine is not powered by a nuclear reactor, its submerged run distance is limited, critical when it also needs breathing air and to recharge its batteries. This gives Finlander an advantage, but also means the Soviets will be more desperate. Also aboard the ship are Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), an inexperienced young officer constantly being criticized by his captain for small errors, and Lieutenant Commander Chester Potter, USNR (Martin Balsam), the ship’s new doctor, who is a reservist recently recalled to active duty.

Munceford is aboard in order to photograph life on a navy destroyer, but his real interest is Captain Finlander, who was recently passed over for promotion to rear admiral. Munceford is curious whether a comment made by Finlander regarding the American intervention in Cuba is the reason for his non-promotion, perhaps betraying veiled aggression. He is treated with mounting hostility by the captain because he is seen as a civilian putting his nose where it does not belong and because he disagrees with Finlander’s decision to continue with an unnecessary and dangerous confrontation. Finlander is hostile to anyone who is not involved in the hunt – including the doctor, who will not stand up to the captain and advise that the pressure on the crew be reduced.

The crew becomes increasingly fatigued by the unrelenting pursuit during which the captain demands full attention to the instruments. When the submarine is found and ignores Captain Finlander’s demand to surface and identify itself, Finlander escalates the situation by smashing into the submarine’s snorkel, calling it ‘floating debris.’ Finlander then orders Bedford to arm weapons and withdraw a distance, where he will wait for the submarine’s crew to run out of air and be forced to surface. He reassures Munceford and Schrepke that he is in command of the situation and that he will not fire first, but: ‘If he fires one, I’ll fire one.’

Ensign Ralston mistakes Finlander’s remark as an order to ‘fire one’ and launches an anti-submarine rocket, which destroys the submarine. Their sonar then detects a salvo of four nuclear-armed torpedoes coming at the destroyer. Finlander initially gives basic orders to evade, then goes outside. Munceford follows him, frantically pleading, but Finlander does nothing more to save his ship, perhaps because he recognizes that there is no way to escape and believes that it’s justice that his ship be lost, since his own actions brought about the unnecessary destruction of the submarine and crew. The film ends with still shots of various crewmen “melting” as if the celluloid film were burning as Bedford and her crew are vaporized. The last image is an iconic, towering mushroom cloud from the torpedo detonations.”

Described by a number of observers as “near science fiction,” this Cold war parable is made all the more effective by the obvious commitment of everyone in the film, especially star Richard Widmark, who co-produced the film with Harris. An expert in playing unsympathetic roles, going all the way back to his debut in Henry Hathaway’s crime drama Kiss of Death, Widmark took on the project both because he believed that the threat of a nuclear accident was very real, and also because it provided him the chance to work with Sidney Poitier as Munceford, the journalist who sees that everything is spinning out of control, but is powerless, as a civilian, to stop it.

But perhaps the most interesting character in the film is Eric Portman’s ex-Nazi U boat captain, Wolfgang Schrepke, who seems much more sane that Captain Finlander, perhaps because he has seen too much violence and death in World War II. His world-weary yet clear-eyed view of Finlander’s mounting mania is the clearest indicator of where The Bedford Incident is ultimately heading – like similar films of the 1960s that dealt with the threat of nuclear destruction, such as Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, one gets the feeling from the outset of the film that the entire affair will end very badly indeed, and that there will be no happy ending tacked on as a sop to the audience. That Schrepke’s role is now that of a bystander, a NATO advisor, does not diminish his importance within the narrative for a second.

Dr. Strangelove, of course, played the whole concept of mutually assured nuclear destruction for grim laughs, but The Bedford Incident, with its claustrophobic mise en scene – taking place entirely on board the destroyer, with no escape for either the audience or the crew members – is perhaps the grimmest project of the lot, because even after the final frames of the film have melted away, one knows instinctively that the destruction of a battleship and a submarine won’t be the end of the conflict; that indeed, this one small incident will in all likelihood trigger an all out nuclear war, which we will never witness (thankfully), because we have, in a sense, perished along with the crew of the the Bedford.

Shot in cold, efficient monochrome by the supremely gifted Gilbert Taylor, The Bedford Incident is the kind of thoughtful, high-stakes film project that has been pushed aside in the comic book era by the latest DC or Marvel project, films that play with the same concepts explored in this film, but never with anything real at stake, and the assurance of upbeat “narrative closure” always taken as a given. So The Bedford Incident has several strikes against it, which prevent it from being seen more often; it’s thoughtful, it’s unforgiving, it’s intelligent, and it’s frightening as hell – and, of course, it’s in black and white. Which it should be.

But you should see it anyway – check out the trailer by clicking on the image above, and get the DVD.

The White Reindeer (1952)

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

Here’s a real curiosity – a forgotten fairy tale / horror film from Finland.

As Wikipedia notes, “The White Reindeer (Finnish: Valkoinen peura) is a 1952 Finnish horror drama film written, photographed and directed by Erik Blomberg. It was entered in competition at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival and earned the Jean Cocteau-led jury special award for Best Fairy Tale Film. After its limited release five years later in the United States, it was one of five films to win the 1957 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film.

The film, based on pre-Christian Finnish mythology and Sami shamanism, is set in Finnish Lapland and centers on a young woman, Pirita (Blomberg’s wife Mirijami Kuosmanen). In the snowy landscape, Pirita and reindeer herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) meet and soon marry. Aslak must spend time away for work, leaving his new bride alone and lonely.

In an effort to alleviate her loneliness and ignite marital passion, Pirita visits the local shaman, who indeed helps her out; but in the process turns her into a shapeshifting, vampiric white reindeer. The village men are drawn to her and pursue her, with tragic results.”

As with so many interesting films from the past, even films such as this which received significant honors, and a fairly high profile festival release, The White Reindeer is not available on DVD in the United States, but can be found on a French DVD (Region 2) under the title Le Renne Blanc – and is well worth seeking out.

With a very brief running time, the simplest resources, this is a compelling and deeply original film that deserves more attention – another example of how much there is available in world cinema, and how much more there is to discover. Why this isn’t available in the United States is a mystery to me – there’s even a Criterion “fantasy” site where the film is listed as a supposed release – but sadly, this is just a dream.

So do yourself a favor – buy the DVD, which has English subtitles, while you still can.

New Book: Peter Stanfield’s The Cool and The Crazy

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

Peter Stanfield’s new book is a crash course in 1950s pop cinema – not to be missed!

I had the opportunity to see this book in page proofs, whose title is a homage to William Witney’s classic teen film of the same name. It’s a magnificent piece of work, both from a critical and new historical perspective. As Rutgers University Press, the publisher of the book, notes of Stanfield’s volume: “Explosive! Amazing! Terrifying! You won’t believe your eyes! Such movie taglines were common in the 1950s, as Hollywood churned out a variety of low-budget pictures that were sold on the basis of their sensational content and topicality.

While a few of these movies have since become canonized by film fans and critics, a number of the era’s biggest fads have now faded into obscurity. The Cool and the Crazy examines seven of these film cycles, including short-lived trends like boxing movies, war pictures, and social problem films detailing the sordid and violent life of teenagers, as well as uniquely 1950s takes on established genres like the gangster picture.

Peter Stanfield reveals how Hollywood sought to capitalize upon current events, moral panics, and popular fads, making movies that were ‘ripped from the headlines’ on everything from the Korean War to rock and roll. As he offers careful readings of several key films, he also considers the broader historical and commercial contexts in which these films were produced, marketed, and exhibited. In the process, Stanfield uncovers surprising synergies between Hollywood and other arenas of popular culture, like the ways that the fashion trend for blue jeans influenced the 1950s Western.

Delivering sharp critical insights in jazzy, accessible prose, The Cool and the Crazy offers an appreciation of cinema as a ‘pop’ medium, unabashedly derivative, faddish, and ephemeral. By studying these long-burst bubbles of 1950s ‘pop,’ Stanfield reveals something new about what films do and the pleasures they provide.”

As I noted in my critical commentary for The Cool and The Crazy, the volume has “fresh ideas, fresh arguments, and a good feel for the 1950s—Stanfield has it all. This book is one of a kind,” while critic Will Straw adds that “this dazzling archaeology of cycles and genres in postwar cinema goes deep into cultural history, then pulls back to reveal patterns and movements unseen until Stanfield saw them. Highly recommended.”

New, dazzling, and absolutely cutting edge – the inner workings of 1950s American pop cinema.

Summer 2015 Film Studies Courses – Just A Few Seats Left!

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

JUST A FEW SEATS LEFT!

ENROLL NOW FOR THESE SUMMER 2015 FILM STUDIES COURSES!!

IN PRE-SESSION:

FOURTEEN DAYS – FOURTEEN FILMS – THREE CREDITS

English 439/839: Film Directors: “Sixties Cool: Action, Comedy and Romance”

Pre-Session May 18 –June 5, 2015

Section 301

Call #s 2871 / 2878

CLASS MEETS Monday – Friday 9:30AM – 12:20PM in RVB 123.

IN FINAL FIVE WEEK:

SOME OF THE GREATEST SCI-FI AND ANIME FILMS EVER MADE!

English 413/813: Film: “Animé, Fantasy and Sci-fi Films”

Second Five Week Session July 13-August 13, 2015

Section 601

Call #s 3696 / 3697

CLASS MEETS Monday – Friday 9:15AM — 10:50AM in RVB 123

SEE  CLASSIC FILMS ON THE BIG SCREEN AT THE ROSS THEATER!

DON’T MISS OUT!!

Stan VanDerBeek Finally Gets A Book!

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Gloria Sutton’s book finally gives us a comprehensive look at the work of this pioneering, visionary artist.

As the notes for book state, “in 1965, the experimental filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek (1927–1984) unveiled his Movie-Drome, made from the repurposed top of a grain silo. VanDerBeek envisioned Movie-Drome as the prototype for a communications system — a global network of Movie-Dromes linked to orbiting satellites that would store and transmit images. With networked two-way communication, Movie-Dromes were meant to ameliorate technology’s alienating impulse.

In The Experience Machine, Gloria Sutton views VanDerBeek — known mostly for his experimental animated films — as a visual artist committed to the radical aesthetic sensibilities he developed during his studies at Black Mountain College. She argues that VanDerBeek’s collaborative multimedia projects of the 1960s and 1970s (sometimes characterized as ‘Expanded Cinema’), with their emphases on transparency of process and audience engagement, anticipate contemporary art’s new media, installation, and participatory practices.

VanDerBeek saw Movie-Drome not as pure cinema but as a communication tool, an ‘experience machine.’ In her close reading of the work, Sutton argues that Movie-Drome can be understood as a programmable interface. She describes the immersive experience of Movie-Drome, which emphasized multi-sensory experience over the visual; display strategies deployed in the work; the Poemfield computer-generated short films; and VanDerBeek’s interest, unique for the time, in telecommunications and computer processing as a future model for art production. Sutton argues that visual art as a direct form of communication is a feedback mechanism, which turns on a set of relations, not a technology.”

Essential reading – VanDerBeek is one of a kind, and an absolutely integral part of cinema history.

Why Isn’t The Restored Version of Too Late for Tears on DVD?

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

There’s no more hardboiled screen duo than Dan Duryea and Lizabeth Scott in Too Late for Tears (1949).

Too Late for Tears, directed by Byron Haskin, is a cult noir film that currently only survives in truly terrible Public Domain DVDs that can only be watched for archival purposes – if you watch one of these versions, you’ve sort of seen the film, but you haven’t really experienced it. Splices, scratches, rips, tears – they’re all part of the Public Domain print, and it provides only an approximation of the watching the 35mm original. You see, the copyright for the film expired long ago, so anyone can put out a DVD – using any materials at hand, and what’s available – until now – has been really substandard.

However, as Rick Paulas wrote on August 6, 2014, in Pacific Standard Magazine, one man is making it a lifetime mission to track down and preserve these genre gems before they’re lost forever. As Paulas notes, “Eddie Muller is the president and founder of the Film Noir Foundation, a non-profit working to locate and repair films from the classic era. His work has led to 12 years of film festivals in San Francisco’s Castro Theater, the rescue of six films, and a badass nickname from legendary noir novelist James Ellroy: ‘The Czar of Noir.’ But when it came to restoring Too Late for Tears, The Czar was nearly crying tears of his own. ‘It was by far the toughest,’ he says.

While Internet streaming may make it seem as if we can watch anything whenever we want, that’s just not the case. Every migration to a new medium relegates a portion of films to the dustbin of history. There’s a triage that occurs when 16mm leads to VHS, to DVD, to Blu-ray. Conversion takes time and money, two resources that movie studios aren’t going to waste on titles that don’t generate sales. ‘It’s a funnel,’ Muller says. ‘It may seem like there are more titles than ever before, but I guarantee you this is an illusion.’

Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates that half of all American films made before 1950, along with over 90 percent made before 1929, are gone for good. While there are high-profile ‘Holy Grail’ lost films that collectors have been obsessing over for years—Erich von Stroheim’s nine-hour director’s cut of Greed, which only 12 people ever saw; Lon Chaney’s detective/horror movie London After Midnight, the last print reportedly burned in the tragic MGM vault fire of 1967—there are crates more on nobody’s radar. The hardest to locate, by far, are ‘orphans’: independently produced films seemingly not owned by any studio [. . .]

The first move for Muller during any restoration is to ask the community for any and all elements they have. This means 35mm prints, 16mm, good digital transfers. Anything but circulation prints—prints that have been sent out to theaters—which have wear-and-tear that makes a restoration nearly impossible. The prize is an original negative or duplication that’s been created for the sake of protection, but those are nearly impossible to come by.

Eddie’s calls for Too Late for Tears elements netted him a few nibbles. One was a 35mm print from a private collector, the quality of which was uncertain. Another was a 35mm print that somehow ended up in the Jones Film Archive at Southern Methodist University. (‘You can fall down a rabbit hole when you start investigating this stuff.’) UCLA also had a print after a French collector dumped loads of canisters on them. (‘Luckily, their print didn’t have subtitles.’)

But the question at hand was whether or not Muller wanted to pour his limited funds into a restoration using this unproven trio or hunting the rumors of a Baltimore projectionist’s pristine nitrate print [. . .] Under the watchful eye of UCLA restoration manager Scott MacQueen, the best parts of the three prints were spliced into one. Finally, on January 25, 2014, Muller premiered the restoration of Too Late for Tears at the 12th-annual Film Noir Fest in San Francisco to rapturous applause.”

But for those of us not in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, I have a simple question; when is the restored version of Too Late for Tears, one of the toughest and most unrelenting of all noirs, going to be available on DVD? Another noir film that Muller was instrumental in saving, Robert Parrish’s acerbic Cry Danger (1951), starring Dick Powell, was restored in 2011, screened theatrically, and then made the jump to DVD, and it goes without saying that I bought one of the first copies of the restoration available.

But now Too Late for Tears has been restored, yet as far as I can find out, no DVD or Blu-ray release is imminent. So, as Johann Sebastian Bach might ask – and indeed ask, although obviously in another context – “oh, when will that day come?” Too Late for Tears is one of Haskin’s finest films, one of Dan Duryea’s most desperately corrupt performances, and surely one of Lizabeth Scott’s most brutal turns as a femme fatale, one who really knows what the term means – she’s lethal, in every sense of the word. So it’s great that Too Late for Tears has been rescued and restored – cue the applause for Eddie Muller, seriously – but when will we get the DVD?

Until we get the DVD or Blu-ray, or both, we won’t really have the film back in circulation.

Leon Wieseltier on Turner Classic Movies

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Leon Wieseltier recently published an appreciation of TCM in The New York Times; I couldn’t agree more.

As Wieseltier wrote, in part, “when disappointment has brought you low, or sadness has colonized you, or fear has conquered your imagination, you experience a contraction of your horizon. Your sense of possibility is damaged and even abolished. Pain is a monopolist. The most urgent thing, therefore, is to restore a more various understanding of what life holds, of its true abundance, so that the bleakness in which you find yourself is not all you know.

The way to break the grip of sorrow and dread is to introduce another claimant on consciousness, to crowd it out with other stimulations from the world. Sadness can never be retired completely, because there is always a basis in reality for it. But you can impede its progress by diversifying your mind.

Nothing performs this charitable expansion of awareness more immediately for me than TCM. Movies are quick corrections for the fact that we exist in only one place at only one time. (Of course there are circumstances in which being only in one place only at one time is a definition of bliss.) I switch on TCM and find swift transit beyond the confines of my position. Alongside my reality there appears another reality — the world out there and not in here. One objective of melancholy is to block the evidence of a more variegated existence, but a film quickly removes the blockage. It sneaks past the feelings that act as walls [. . .]

When I watch the older movies on TCM, I am struck by the beauty of gray, which makes up the bulk of black and white. How can the absence of color be so gorgeous? Black and white is so tonally unified, so tone-poetic. Shadows seem more natural, like structural elements of the composition. The dated look of the films is itself an image of time, like the varnish on old paintings that becomes inextricable from their visual resonance. There is also a special pleasure in having had someone else choose the film.

Netflix, with its plenitude of options, asks for a decision, for an accounting of tastes; but TCM unburdens you of choice and asks for only curiosity and an appetite for surprise. The freedom to choose is like the freedom to speak: There is never too much of it, but there is sometimes too much of its consequences. Education proceeds by means of other people’s choices. Otherwise it is just customization, or electronically facilitated narcissism. Let Mr. Osborne decide!”

You can read his entire essay in The New York Times by clicking here, or on the image above.

Le Silence de la mer (1949) by Jean-Pierre Melville

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Nicole Stéphane in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la mer (1949).

Le Silence de la mer, Melville’s first feature film, was shot in 1949 on a shoestring budget, based on the novel of the same name by Jean Bruller, under the pen name of Vercours.The plot is simple: a German lieutenant, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) moves in with a rural French family during the Nazi occupation of World War II, consisting of an old man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane), who refuse to speak to him during the time he is billeted there. Courteous, cultured, and superficially charming, von Ebrennac is an impractical idealist, who is proud of German heritage and culture, but who also believes that in the end, the war will serve a common good; the uniting of Germany and France, and the intermingling of each nation’s cultures.

Night after night, von Ebrennac emerges from his bedroom upstairs with the deepest politeness, and engages in a series of seemingly endless monologues about the future of France and Germany, the cultural history of both nations, his childhood and upbringing, his first romance, and his faith in the Nazi hierarchy. During all the time, the uncle and his niece say not a single word to von Ebrennac, who despite his position of power, doesn’t threaten or intimidate them, but rather longingly expresses his hope that someday the two nations will “marry,” while making obvious allusions to his attraction to the old man’s niece.

One day, von Ebrennac announces that he has been called to Paris to meet with the Nazi hierarchy. Here Melville manages to blend newsreel footage of the Occupation with staged footage of Vernon, as von Ebrennac, taking in the sights, and reveling in the city’s cultural atmosphere. A music composer during peacetime, von Ebrennac doesn’t really know how barbaric the Nazi regime is, until one functionary tells him of the death camps at Treblinka, and later, a group of Nazi officers at a party reveal that their true plan is to crush French culture entirely, to destroy the entire nation down to the ground so that it can then be rebuilt according to Hitler’s plans, stating that “only technical books” in French will be allowed – everything else, modern or old, will be summarily destroyed.

Von Ebrennac finds this impossible to believe, but gradually realizes that he has been duped into joining the Nazi cause. When he returns to the old man’s house, von Ebrennac relates the story of his “grave” discovery in detail, one which he finds impossible to accept. Finally comprehending the monstrous nature of the regime he so blindly supported, von Ebrennac files an application for active duty on the Eastern Front, where he will almost surely be killed. As he puts it, I’m “off to Hell.” A last shot suggests that he may disobey future orders given to him by the Nazi regime, but this is left unresolved.

Shot in Bruller’s own house in 27 non-consecutive days by the great Henri Decaë – his first film as a Director of Cinematography – Le silence de la mer manages to pull off a neat trick; though it’s utterly claustrophobic in design and execution, and is essentially a series of monologues by Von Ebrennac, the film is continually visually inventive, and through an intricate design of fade in / fade outs and wipes, weaves a spell over the viewer, who soon becomes invested not only in Von Ebrennac’s coming to consciousness, but also in the outcome of the narrative – how on earth will this battle of wills be resolved?

Some have described it as a love story, but if so, it’s one that never really announces itself; the niece may indeed be a sort of stand-in for France as a whole, but this is never unduly emphasized. Instead, the film explores what happens when a tyrannical regime recruits an aesthete, and what then transpires when that person discovers he’s been deceived. Bruller wrote the novel in 1941; it was published clandestinely during the Occupation, and circulated by members of the Resistance, during a time when the possession of single copy of the work was punishable by death. Bruller was initially resistant to the idea of adapting his novel to film, despite offering the use of his house as a shooting location, and stipulated that when the film was completed, it would have to pass a “jury test” by 27 members of the former Resistance, to see if it was faithful to the novel, and should be released.

If the jury voted against the film, Melville promised to burn the negative and all prints. Thankfully, only one member of this “jury” voted against the film, and now it has been digitally restored in glorious fashion, first by Eureka DVD in Europe, and now in the United States from Criterion. This is a superb, one of a kind film – and a real window not only into the past of cinema, but also to an era in which films were made for the sake of art, rather than commerce – when individual talent was sufficient to overcome all financial and practical obstacles. And, of course, although he loved film noir and American crime films, Melville never sold out and went Hollywood – instead, he remained an individual and committed artist, something that’s completely rare these days.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him wdixon1@unl.edu or his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/