El Dorado [1966)

Funny thing about Westerns…

Sometimes you seen ’em, but you done FORGET you seen ’em.

And this one is that type of affair.

Except that it’s a masterpiece.

This here film takes multiple viewings to fully appreciate the craftsmanship at work.

Because back in those heady nouvelle vague days, it seems that the Cahiers crowd were known as the Hitchcocko-Hawksians.

I may be borrowing a term from Richard Brody’s book on Godard.

But he may have been borrowing it from elsewheres.

I don’t rightly know.

But El Dorado is certainly the spitting image of another film…by the same auteur.

Yes, Rio Bravo was the first incarnation.

1959.

It’s the one that gets all the praise.

But if my eyes and heart don’t deceive me, Robert Mitchum is a better actor than Dean Martin.

[as much as I love Dino]

And James Caan bests Ricky Nelson as well.

But it’s hard to replace Walter Brennan.

Damn near impossible.

That said, Arthur Hunnicutt is pretty darn fabulous in El Dorado.

But let’s get back to those Hitchcocko-Hawksians.

The first part is probably pretty self-explanatory.

These Cahiers du cinéma film critics revered Alfred Hitchcock.

Above all else.

Hell!

Before Truffaut did his book of interviews with Hitch (1967), Chabrol had written a monograph on the master (1957).

To be more exact, Chabrol cowrote the book with Rohmer.

Might as well say Rivette (“Rivette!”) just to round out les cinq.

Like the Mighty Handful (Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin), and one short of les six (Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Tailleferre), the Cahiers crew were the Hitchcocko-Hawksians.

But what of that second seme?

Indeed, it was Howard Hawks.

The director of our film.

And an auteur which Jean-Luc Godard has gone on about at length…in a profusion of praise.

But why are we even talking about these Westerns?

What do El Dorado and Rio Bravo have in common besides diagesis and director?

Ah yes:  John Wayne!

In El Dorado, our villain is Ed Asner.

Quite rich when considering that he was one of the very few to be a true hero in America after 9/11.

That’s right.

Ed Asner was on the front lines of getting the truth.

And we never got the truth.

Not from any official source.

But that’s ok.

Because we have gathered the general gist of the situation.

And so Ed Asner’s most important performance was what he did in real life.

To try and honor those 3000 souls who perished and were draped in a lie.

But we’re in Texas.

And Texas is a lonesome land.

Inhospitable.

And we aim here to mainly talk about the examples of the silver screen.

In Technicolor.

“details…deliberately left out” says Wikipedia…

Ah yes…something David Ray Griffin spotted with his razor-sharp mind.

“Omissions and distortions”, he called it.

That is the beauty of film.

It gets deep.

It burrows.

And it fuses to what we have experienced as visceral verities.

Charlene Holt was actually from Texas.

And she is every bit the female lead here.

Charming.  Strong.  Sexy.

I won’t go comparing her to Angie Dickinson, but let’s just say that Ms. Holt fit the bill.

To a T.

T for Texas.

And Ms. Holt passed on (God rest her soul) in Tennessee.

We get horses and streams.

Rifles and pistols.

And a lot of earthy talk.

As you can tell.

Gets under your skin.

Your tongue.

Burrows.

Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?

[Oops, wrong funnyman.  And Hemingway.]

Pound born in Idaho.  And Papa H died there.

Because the pain was too much.

Gut shot.

You can’t turn your back in these parts.

Gotta waddle out backwards.

On yer horse.

In high heels.

And keep your peripheral sharp.

Cardsharp, not shark.

Tiburon country.

Anyone missing Angie Dickinson likely ogled Michele Carey for the better part of El Dorado.

Though the appearances were brief.

John Wayne turns the other cheek.

Smears blood on the cowhide.

Get outta here.

Tough guy gets back on his horse.

Always guns in the river.

But you gotta retrieve it.

Dr. Fix (Paul Fix) isn’t up to the procedure.

Doesn’t wanna bungle a good man.

Tells him take care uh that whens you get tuh proper chirurgien.

Christopher George looks spitting Willem Dafoe.

Ping!

But the real story is Diamond Joe.

Or so.

It seems under the bridge.

Natchez.  Matches.

Jarmusch maybe…

Always.

Revenge.

Gotta git your own justice.

Around these skillet lickers.

Like the freaks from Octopussy, knife to a gunfight.

Had to saw off a holstered piece at the Swede.

Following me?

If the top is a high hat, Mississippi’s is low.

I think Tom Petty adopted one.

Mine never fit quite right.

From crown to gun butt…soft wobble with every bump.

But enough phrenology.

Only love can break your heart.  Neil Young said that.

And I know all too well.

Stuck behind an 18-wheeler from Dallas.

And the rains set in.

And Górecki just makes you cry even more.

Feels like an addiction.

And sometimes you substitute one addiction for another.

Because you got an empty place there in your ribcage.

Friendship rides in least expected.

Crusty.

Professional killer don’t have no friends.

A liability.

Can’t get too connected.

Go soft./

Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.  Bob Dylan said that.

And I think maybe he meant Robert Johnson.

When the poison of whisky ain’t enough.  I said that.

Not enough holes in the world get a rise outta me at Royal Albert.

But I’m not too worried about it.

Just modulating grammar.

Because El Dorado is filled with sine qua non dialogue.

Seeming hapex legomenon with every breath.

Latin/Greek shift.

Cipher.

A lot of soap.

Running joke.

The others’ll come to me.

Maybe.

High low, do-si-do.

My uncle died with a stack of VHS Westerns on his TV set.

That smoking’ll kill you.

Two uncles.

But only one owned a square dance barn.

So that no matter how Cahiers I get, I’ll always be from Texas.

City boy.

Country heart.

Not even aware how much of a rube I really am.

It’s a concoction you gotta pinch the nose to force down.

A medicine resembling asphalt.

Alcohol, 4 days

No punctuation.

I’m just lucky to never have done more’n cowboy tobacco.

But Texas is lonesome.

Unless you’re riding with John Bell Hood.

In which case you’re shitting yourself with fear.

Itch on the back of your neck.

But learn to play a good bugle.

Close quarters combat.

Urban warfare.

In the Wild West.

Two walk forward, two reverse.

To slap a RICO charge on a greasy bastard.

Like the goddamned Great Gate of Kiev.

And back to the five.

A gamelan of adobe marksmanship.

Distraction.

Diversion.

Deputy was just the courage.  Pin on “I do”.

We think Pecos.

Information travels.

And to have a leg up.

[no pun]

Old wounds and creaky bones.

Been knocked down too many times.

Fallen off my horse.

[shift]

We don’t negotiate with terrorists.

But do we terrorize negotiators?

Turns out the whole thing was about water.

When it’s dry.

And you gotta wake up.

And you didn’t just win the Super Bowl.

Why you can’t take a giant leap in chess.

Giant steps.

Because your plan sucks.

Just showing up is pretty damned brave.

Every day.

Fight.

[And I didn’t even get to Edith Head and Nelson Riddle]

-PD

Pokolenie [1955)

You think you’ve lost because you don’t know the truth.

Right now.

This very second.

But it takes a lifetime to mull and savor.

Each bit of propaganda proffered.

Yes.

I am a coward.

But honest.

Just scared.  Scared at the rustle of leaves.  Worthless in battle.

When pursued by dumb, fearless slabs of meat.

The brave wear white.

Purely afraid.

We have no real dream to comb out.

And you say we’re not in a real war.

But we are playing chess with Lucifer, age-old.

And so now I apologize to Bobby Fischer.

If you can get to that.

Because he started multiple games.  At random.  In progress.

Textbook tells one way.  And wake up early works well.

But weird candlelight attic window can’t be replicated.

The most valuable aberration.

For now I have created language.

And I no longer need you.

Your wars have ceased in importance.

Because I can implode your machines.  Which you rely on so heavily.

Andrzej Wajda a third time.

Tadeusz Łomnicki was a Daniel Craig orphan here.

And you think left better off a poem.

Why shoehorn Cahiers?

We can all do it for the sake of a Urszula Modrzyńska.

Curls to comb out like Marx’s beard.

And our Jewish comrades.

It’s no joke.

Keep the beat, Tadeusz Janczar.  Neu!  Neu!  Neu!

Like Klaus Dinger.  Single-minded.  Double-footed.  Almost an arm to spare.

You will see Roman Polanski act.

And scream.

Like Beavis.

Ah!  Ah!  Ah!

No Butt-Head doth stem the bathos.

Dodoism, now and forever!!!!!!

 

-PD

SNL Season 1 Episode 8 [1975)

I don’t feel much like writing.

Christmas is creeping up.

I have much to be thankful for.

But it’s still sad.

That’s the best way to put it.

Dreams abandoned.

Deferred.

Years ticking by.  And family we have lost.

Time we have lost.

But I try to focus on the positive right now.

Things could be much worse.

I am lucky.  I’m lucky for the family I have.

Yes, this Saturday Night Live episode was the last of 1975 (their inaugural year).

They wouldn’t be back on until 1976 (the year I was born).

I want to say that this is not a very good episode.

That’s probably true, but I don’t want to seem like a scrooge.

I suppose it is wistful…

Candice Bergen is back on the show.

Ah, lovely Nordic Candice.  The tyranny of beauty (as I heard someone say recently)…

It’s wistful because life has passed me by in many ways.

I was out making things happen, but I couldn’t make everything happen.

We dwell on our mistakes.

But what is really sad is being ignored.

Reaching out for help and getting no response whatsoever.

I myself haven’t been perfect.

A friend in Hong Kong.  I owed him a letter.  And we lost touch.

Life gets in the way.

But I’m still waiting at the altar.  I poured my heart out the best I could.  No response.

And another.  (As Martha Reeves sings “Silver Bells”)…I was nice, right?

Not too pushy.  Meek, even.

No response.

Ok, maybe it got lost in the mail.  Try again.  No.

No go.

And then finally another.

An honest message.  Self-deprecating.  Easy to get out of.

No response.

A handful of people that really don’t seem to care whether I live or die.

And who do I have?

Almost no one.

Humbled unto death.  Staring at the dry dirt.

Christmas.

Martha Reeves is good.  Great, even.

The Stylistics know what I’m talking about.  Wonderful, soulful singing.

But we’re not having any fun.

Not like Candice and Gilda and Jane and Laraine.

Not like Garrett with his wonderful voice.

Not like Chevy and Dan and John.

The cute choreography.

That’s fun.

I miss that.

Not a lot of humor in this episode.

We need humor.

We need hope.

What does tomorrow bring?

More isolation?

Baby steps to normalcy.

I was in the coal mine for a year.

On the space station.

There wasn’t a blowout.

I came home safely.

I was at home all along.

But not with my thoughts.

No time to think when you’re climbing through ditches.

You might be a little too old to learn Welsh or Basque without an accent.

Yeah…

When you start to doubt your reason for being, you might be beaten.

One more year.

And then what?

A crappy job that you hate?

But there is an answer.

Love.

You can find love in the newspaper.

A clipping.

Something that tells you you’re on the right track.

Right now I’m not thinking too much about me.

I can’t move.  I can’t breathe.

Right now is about love.

No more selfish.

No more head in the clouds while others pay the price.

I tried to be the best artist I could.

And now this is my art.

This is all I have left.

Not exactly Cahiers du Cinéma, but it’s the best I can do.

I pray it’s not meaningless.

That I’m learning.

That I won’t always be a loser.

I work hard.

I’m tired.

 

-PD

Luttes en Italie [1969)

Wherever you are.  In the living moment.  Entombed by lonely commerce.

If for you it read Lotte in Italia.  You understand that Lotte is not a person.  Comme Lotte Lenya.

But we have our subject.  Cristiana Tullio-Altan says Italian Wikipedia.

What a beauty!

In communism you are not allowed to say, “What a beauty!”

In capitalism you must pay to say, “What a beauty!”  Unless it is a lie, in which case it is free.  Gratis.  Grazie.

Prego…

From the start we have a “choose your own adventure” situation.  Francese or Italiano?

We start with French but realize that we will get Italian anyway.  This isn’t a Cinecittà production.

We switch to Italian.  We were already 3/4 there.  Now we merely lack the French interpolations…interruptions.

If you auto-translate the Wikipedia page Lotte in Italia (there is no English equivalent), you will get some bizarre gender dissonances.

Paola is a he?

No, Paola is most certainly a she.

We are too old to write dissertations on the “fertile” ground of transsexual discourse.

It is mostly a trap.

Boring.

As for entertainment, that Wiki translation…”Translate this page” clicked from Google results.  A garbled mess.

Althusser.

Leave it to Godard to make revolution sexy.  Again.

But this was really a shunning of the movie star world.

Yet, for us, living in absolute despair, it is a moment of hope.

It reminds us how thoughts have shaped history.

And Paola is most attractive in her green military surplus jacket and red wool scarf.

And her white T-shirt.  Plain.  Ready for work.

The productive force of intellect.

It is time we told you that there will be no wind from the east.  No Vladimir.  No Rosa.

There is no getting anywhere.

Two separate sentiments.

Somewhere we took a wrong turn.

And many beautiful people took a right turn.  It seems.

There is no talking about something so hidden.

So I again reaffirm the gruff beauty of Paola.

We wretched of the earth.  Vietnam.

Che Guevara’s Rolex.  Right.

We are not meant to know.

Why Das Kapital is not on the endcap at Wal-Mart.

Or Barnes & Noble.

Or anywhere.

An amazing film makes itself with a simple phrase…a combination of terms…through Google’s master search algorithm.

It will change.  Depends.

Someday…we fill in the blanks.

The purpose is not to explain, but to get you thinking.

Once you think, there is no stopping that.

And so take stock of the present situation.

How are you treated?  Objectification is universal.  At least galactic.  Reification.

Don’t thing-i-fy me.

And who is the worst culprit?

Oh, to be in a French-speaking country…where one might perchance stumble across Cahiers du Cinéma.

Even if the publication has seen better days, one can go back in time to an era unlived and trace memories unmade.

It is not this cruel world where we are useless.

We learned another way which doesn’t exist.  Like the big stage at MGM for la nouvelle vague.

Just a moment to delineate a pain so perfect as to chop our knees off.

We doubt any place for this skill set.

Put “unskilled worker”…

-PD

Slade in Flame [1975)

And now for something COMPLETELY different…

Yes, it was in a flat in Brixton that I first learned a hallowed reverence for the name Slade.  A legendary band.

It’s one of those quintessentially British phenomena.  Like HP Sauce, perhaps.

But on with the film…in the tradition of The Beatles and Elvis before them.

Director Richard Loncraine did a fine job of actually conveying both the anarchy and oppression of rockroll.  Plainly put, this movie is a ton of fun, but the message which comes with the thrills is somewhat harrowing.

Loncraine’s filmography as auteur doesn’t really read like a Cahiers-approved canon.  An illustrative title might be his Brimstone and Treacle from 1982.

At any rate, he certainly did a fantastic job leading Noddy Holder and the group into cinematic immortality.

There are some priceless contributions from actors such as Alan Lake (as Jack Daniels, rockstar).

Tom Conti is the perfect foil to the antics of Slade (in meta-character as Flame).

Noddy’s first real bit is fronting a band called The Undertakers.  Like Screaming Lord Sutch, he gets locked in his coffin (think Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) on stage…a sort-of archetype to be later expanded upon for the “pods” sequence of This Is Spinal Tap.

What makes this film fascinating is the balance it strikes between the beer-swilling rock life and the Covent Garden big money managers who bring scruffy rabble to the masses.

I can’t stress enough how bad-ass this group was.  The first performance they give in the film, in a shitty little club, is a revelation…absolutely devastating in an MC5 sort of way.  The songcraft is impeccable–like Zeppelin meets Beatles.

Seeing the rows of council flats…a few mere years before Johnny Rotten laid waste to the decrepit stupor of Britain…this is a poignant time capsule.

Not only do we see Noddy as the veritable rock god he is, we get every angle of the meteoric rise to fame which has lobbed bands across the heavens since those heady mid-70s days.

Enjoy.

-PD

Le Petit soldat [1963)

“La photographie, c’est la vérité, et le cinéma, c’est vingt-quatre fois la vérité par seconde.”  It is one of the most famous quotes in the history of cinema and likewise among the most often quoted in relation to Godard, yet it is a line in a film…this film…and it is delivered by the character Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor).  And so, there is some distance from the auteur…perhaps very little , but yet it exists.  This is just one of the odd disconnects about this brilliant film.

The synopsis on Wikipedia presents another right off the bat.  Bruno is a deserter from the French military, yet he is working for French intelligence in Geneva.  On the surface this seems irreconcilable, yet a bit of thought opens up several possibilities.  First, the “French intelligence” under consideration might be an organization not wholly sanctioned by the French government.  We hear of these dark organizations often.  Rogue branches.  Rogue networks.  Informal connections.  Perhaps even an entire parallel government (or, at the very least, intelligence apparatus).  Second, we must take the film’s context to ascertain the indisputable fact that Bruno Forestier isn’t entirely a free agent.  In other words, his record is being used against him to greater or lesser extent to blackmail him into performing dirty deeds (assassinations) for this intel branch (asset by coercion).  Again, this certainly isn’t without precedent in real world situations.

But perhaps the greatest dissonance, though nuanced, is presented in something Jean-Luc Godard himself wrote in 1960.  As this film was banned in France for three years, this written explanation would predate the film’s release by the same number of years.  It can be found in the Simon and Schuster Modern Film Scripts version of the action (1967, English translation by Nicholas Garnham).  In this short piece, Godard explains his take on the film.  The focus is on realism.  Cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who had been a war photographer in Indochina, was integral in conveying Godard’s vision by way of a handheld camera (as opposed to the large Mitchell camera which he used on his next film Une Femme est une femme).  The auteur likewise makes reference to “whip-pans, over- and under-exposed shots, one or two blurred ones,” etc. in dissecting his own mise-en-scène.  The beginning of this introduction apparently comes from issue no.109 of Cahiers du cinema.  More importantly, what follows in this introduction delineates his focus on stubborn freedom.  It is in this concept which Godard manages to declare that Le Petit soldat “is not politically orientated in a particular direction.”

This was not something I had previously noted in prior viewings, but I can see how Godard might claim such.  Indeed, Bruno Forestier is a very conflicted character.  In some ways he is the noble version of Michel Poiccard from Breathless.  Both have a strange, tenuous grasp on ethics.  Nihilism abounds in both, yet Forestier’s brand almost comes off as a noir Buddhism.  It is little wonder that Godard would later dedicate one of Histoire(s) du cinema‘s chapters to Clint Eastwood.

Bruno Forestier is far from perfect, but in that condition he is still charming and likable…even heroic to a certain extent.  There is no doubt that Rossellini’s Roma città aperta loomed large as an influence for the torture sequences of our film.  It might even be said that this Godard film is more poignant now (with respect to torture) than it has ever been.  Bruno is subjected to a method not unlike waterboarding.

But there are other pithy quotes such as, “…killing a man from a distance, I think it’s dishonest.”  This almost begs to be compared to the drone strikes which have become sadly ubiquitous in our upside-down world.

Yet, amidst all of this painful reality, Godard manages to outdo himself in artistic name-dropping.  Paul Klee is referenced multiple times (Swiss artist, movie set in Geneva).  We sympathize with Bruno Forestier partly because he is artistic (a photographer).  “And Veronica, are her eyes Velasquez grey or Renoir grey?”  So muses Bruno about Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina).  This was, in fact, her first film for Godard.  Dreyer is no doubt an homage to Carl Theodor Dreyer (Danish actress, Danish legend/director).  The artistic references are almost comical at times…such as when Jean Cocteau’s novel Thomas l’imposteur is improbably brought into play.

One final thought.  Maurice Le Roux’s music plays a vital role in setting this film apart from anything Godard had done in his first four films.  The dense, clustered piano textures play like Henry Cowell improvising on Brahms. After the tides of Manaunaun, that Irish god of motion, wash Veronica’s fate ashore Lake Geneva, we get the biggest shock of all: Bruno behaving like Meursault from L’Étranger.  The final disconnect comes from recalling that Bruno told Veronica he detests Camus.

-PD

A bout de souffle [1960)

To paraphrase Lester Bangs regarding The Velvet Underground, modern cinema begins with Jean-Luc Godard.  The strangest part is that Godard’s trajectory has been somewhat like that of the great French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline.  Both would be primarily recognized in their lifetimes for their first creation.  For Céline it was the groundbreaking spleen of Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932) and for Godard the film in question (his first full-length feature).  The most criminal aspect of this whole equation is that Godard IS STILL ALIVE AND MAKING GREAT, GREAT FILMS!

For awhile, my dissatisfaction with the public’s reception of Godard over his long career led me to undervalue his earlier works (to perhaps balance out the disproportionate attention these films get in relation to his oeuvre as a whole).  What cannot be denied, however, is that Breathless (literally “at the end of breath”) is as important to film as Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage…) is to literature.  There are more similarities.  Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is not so different from Céline’s Bardamu.  The spirit of youth and anarchy run throughout these two works…all of it tied together with a dark humor which disarms as much as it offends.

The key to Godard’s film is that it is radical while also being somewhat subtle.  Perhaps this is only accurate in hindsight (considering what has followed Breathless in the cinematic canon), but the avant-garde nature of the film is really in all of the little rules it breaks.  The most oft mentioned are the jump cuts (and there are plenty of them).  A deeper reading into the history of the film might reveal that Cécile Decugis and Lila Herman were responsible for this novel approach as much as Godard.  Agnès Guillemot did not become Godard’s regular editor until Une femme est une femme (or Le Petit soldat…take your pick).  There is reason to believe that the jump cuts were mainly in the service of keeping the action going.  Along with Martial Solal’s excellent noir jazz, the pace rarely slackens but for a few contrasting scenes.

What is less-discussed is the plethora of filmic references which play like an inside joke for the Cahiers crowd.  Breaking “the fourth wall” is just one of the many transgressions which Godard takes up joyfully in this affront.  One might venture to guess that what was truly “dégueulasse” to Godard was the state of the French film industry leading up to his first real foray into direction.  At every turn, the “tradition of quality” is left in the dust as Breathless speeds away wild and free.

-PD

Notorious [1946)

The key in Ingrid’s hand.  The ring on Grace’s finger.  It’s not her key.  It’s not her ring.

Rio is beautiful…even in black and white.  Only Hitchcock could make it so.  Christ of the Andes.  The greatest creator of forms of the 20th century.

Icy.  Pithy.  Notorious is stoic Cary Grant.  And this shall be a terse dispatch.

It’s a very fine vintage…1946…1940…1934.  I pity the sommelier assigned to this house of horrors.  God forbid he pick the 1934.  You can tell, old man, when a seemingly-polished chap makes a completely inappropriate choice of wines.  Strangers on a train bound for Zagreb.  Yes, a keen eye for detail is certainly not to be underestimated.

T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) knows every trick in the book.  When to bluff.  When to kiss.

It is only when matters of the heart come into play that the C.I.A. has no official manual.  It will never be declassified.  Because it doesn’t exist.  The manual is Petrarch.  Shakespeare’s sonnets.  The manual was written long ago.  It is no secret.  Only a mystery.

We will kill her off slowly, they say…on the installment plan.  She will gargle in the rat-race choir.  Until Devlin comes with his pointed threats to bluff with scorn and Claude Rains is left like a groom standing at the altar…except it’s not his wedding, it’s his funeral.

It’s the way they killed Sindona in Voghera.  Poison in the coffee.  C.A.B.A.L.  It’s not a Fleming invention.  Far older than that.  And I.G. Farben…not a fanciful name plucked from Hitchcock’s imagination.

Mata Hari.  Theda Bara.  Arab Death.

MacGuffin.  Mackintosh.  Scotland Yard.

This was the first time Hitchcock was really in charge.  Byb-bye David O. Selznick.

Ben Hecht.  Clifford Odets.

This is really loose crap.

That’s a quote.  ” ”

This is a puzzle, dear friends.  This is your dossier.  Jigsaw.  Fragmented.

It is Vivre sa vie.  The back of a head only.  Cary Grant’s black hair.  A man, as yet, with no name.

Susan Sontag was on a different mission.  We defer to Cahiers du Cinéma.  To Henri Langlois.

These are our agents.  Our “Wild Bill” Donovans.  Our O.S.S.

She may not sniff it through a cane on a supersonic train, but it still makes me laugh.  Murnau more now than ever.

A full 360°.  The subjective, drunken camera.  We have suspicion of Grant from the start–is that fizzy aspirin or a glowing glass of milk?

The con man exploits your trust.  What was the bait?

It is like Dostoyevsky.  We feel sympathy for Norman Bates just as we do Raskolnikov.

Yes, sometimes…Mother Sebastian, we are protected by the enormity of our stupidity.  Forrest Gumption.

The key was stolen.  The key brought such luck.  The key was passed on.  And now, Mr. Hitchcock, the key has been returned.

Thank you.

 

-PD

 

 

 

 

Dr. No [1962)

Strangways, here we come.  We shan’t be arriving at Ian Fleming International Airport.  It doesn’t exist yet.  Nay, not till 2010 would the quite-real airport process its first international passenger (the singer Jimmy Buffett, as it turns out) under its newly christened name.  When James Bond arrived in the history of cinema, he disembarked at Palisadoes Airport (now Norman Manley International).

The year was 1958.  The place Jamaica.  Dr. No operates his guano mine on an island nearby to Kingston.  In the film it would become a bauxite mine.  Indeed, by the time Fleming wrote Dr. No (his sixth James Bond novel) he had been enjoying a yearly retreat to his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica to write for some years.  He first purchased the land for the estate in 1946 and, after having a house built from his own personal sketch, began spinning Bond tales in 1952.

A centipede becomes a tarantula.  Mafia-severed hands become radioactive-experiment-casualty hands.  These are the changes of creative license.  One might call it “the Hollywood version,” except that this and almost all the other Bond films made to date have been produced by Eon Productions based in Piccadilly, London (and operating from Pinewood Studios, Buckinghamshire).  No, Hollywood can’t be blamed directly.  This is simply a case of too many brilliant details to pack into one film (and some details which were either not cinematic enough or rather too complex to neatly tie up over the course of 109 minutes).

In the book Dr. No himself quotes Clausewitz.  Quite an erudite flourish for an author who was, in his time, attacked for being an unethical hack writer on the order of John Buchan or Raymond Chandler.  Film historians will no doubt realize the compliment contained in that shortsighted slight.  For it was John Buchan to whom Alfred Hitchcock looked when he needed a story in 1935 (The 39 Steps).  And it was Raymond Chandler’s ’39 novel (his first) The Big Sleep to which Howard Hawks gravitated (eventually making the 1946 masterpiece film adaptation with Bogart and Bacall).

No, Fleming was no hack writer.  Of all the contributions which the Cahiers du cinéma crowd made to film philosophy, one must not overlook their bold esteem for authors like David Goodis.  Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste was based on Goodis’ novel Down There.  Even Godard acknowledged the writer by naming a character in Made In U.S.A. after the author. 

No, there was something special about Fleming.  Paul Johnson of the New Statesman eviscerated Fleming and surmised that the author had, “no literary skill.”  Yes, Ezra Pound had it right when speaking of Tropic of Cancer.  There are “unprintable” books which are “readable,” but far too few.  Thank God for Henry Miller and Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

It’s funny now to imagine that Dr. No (the novel) could have truly ruffled feathers as being immoral, but the year was (after all) 1958.  The aforementioned Paul Johnson keyed in on sadism, “sex-longings” (oh my) and snobbery.  Not exactly the stuff of offence nowadays.

But I’ve hardly spoken of the film…

Yes, four years later Dr. No came to the big screen.  Some details had changed.  Honey Rider appeared as Ursula Andress in a white bikini.  And the world got its first glimpse at the New World Order in its most grotesque form:  SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion).  Yes, 1962.  Bay of Pigs had been 17 April 1961.  By November 22, 1963, J.F.K. had been mysteriously assassinated.  But what did Fleming know?  He was just a hack writer, right?

Fleming was, in fact, not just a hack writer (if at all a hack writer).  He was British Naval Intelligence and specifically involved in planning and oversight for two intel units (during WWII).  Sure, he did in fact write Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (yes, that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), but he had been recruited to be the personal assistant of Britain’s Director of Naval Intelligence in 1939.  The guy wasn’t just pulling stuff out of his ass (pardon my frankness).

Yes, indeed…it would take a man named Broccoli (“Cubby” Broccoli) to bring (together with Harry Saltzman) the world what Hollywood apparently thought was simultaneously too British and too sexual.  How’s that on the oxymoron scale?  No, this wasn’t Georges Simonon (nor even Agatha Christie’s Poirot).  This was Ian Fleming:  Brit.  And an agent with a name so uninteresting that from any other voice than that of Sean Connery it would have fallen flat and flaccid.  But it didn’t.  Excuse the fragments.  Bond was white-hot shrapnel.

All of this brings me to a crucial point:  the reconsideration of Terence Young as an auteur.  The Cahiers crowd managed to canonize Hitchcock (rightly so) and Hawks (likewise).  A close study of Godard reveals more filmmakers who became sublime upon passing through the French imagination…names like Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, etc.  What, I would like to know, makes Terence Young any less of an auteur than, say, Fuller?  Fuller no doubt had moments of brilliance…from Shock Corridor to The Big Red One–engaging film noir (some even in color) like House of Bamboo and The Crimson Kimono…  I can get behind The Steel Helmet…even Hell And High Water.  But what about all of those schlocky noir films like Underworld U.S.A. (not to mention the dire Westerns like The Baron of Arizona)?  Even The Naked Kiss is a little dodgy as regards auteurist pretensions.  Perhaps this is why by the time Godard made Histoire(s) du cinéma in the 1990s (1988-1998) he had seemingly dispensed with his admiration for Fuller.  Indeed, there is not a single Fuller film referenced in that gargantuan 4 1/2 hour epic.

So…Terence Young.  Aside from the three early Bond flicks he did, his filmography doesn’t exactly read like a John Huston’s.  It is even alleged that Young was the editor for a six hour Iraqi telenovela about the life of Saddam Hussein in 1980.  Hard times indeed.  How bleak was the Young house in and around 1980?  Fleming, for his part, had been commissioned in 1960 by the Kuwait Oil Company to write a history of Kuwait and its oil industry.  The government Sheiks eventually found it unpalatable and it was never published.  Perhaps Fleming is the auteur after all in the case of Dr. No (the film).  One thing is certain:  this is a highly-entertaining and visually engaging film which has kept moviegoers entranced now for half a century.  It would be the first of many such triumphs owing a debt to “the British disease”–that now transcendent fascination with espionage which has conquered lands and minds far and wide for the Queen by way of the James Bond franchise.

 

-PD