La Femme Infidele (1969) Claude Chabrol

 

Like Hitchcock, who he is often compared to, Claude Chabrol has never quite received the same level of respect his fellow new wave colleagues Godard and Truffaut have over the years. Generally working within a more conventional framework, his films focused on the dark secrets of the French bourgeoisie; generally adultery and murder.  Chabrol never provoked the intellectual following his fellow new wave comrades enjoyed over the years, when needed; he willingly bowed to the making of a commercial film so he could gain the freedom to do a more personal project. 

Many of Chabrol’s early films starred the arresting French actress Stephane Audran, his then wife, whose cool detached manner always fit perfectly into Chabrol’s bleak view of the French upper class.

In the United States Chabrol’s film rarely got beyond the art house circuit and rarely outside of New York having never had a financial windfall of grosses on any of his works. One of Chabrol’s biggest successes, both artistically and financially was his 1969 thriller “Le Femme Infidele.”

Here we have Charles Dasvellees (Michel Bouguet), an upper middle class businessman who suspects his wife Helene (Audran) of having an affair and hires a detective to prove himself right. Once he learns who the lover is, one Victor Pegala (Maurice Ronet), a divorced writer living in a small apartment, he calmly and coldly sophisticatedly goes to his apartment, introduces himself as Helene’s husband and claims that he and his wife have an arrangement.  She can have her lovers and he can have his.  Though Chabrol films these scenes very matter of fact they come across as to the viewer as unsettling. Your collar begins to fit just a little too tight. Can Charles really be this blasé?”  The answer comes soon enough when Charles stoic demeanor snaps after Victor gives a tour of his small apartment and he sees the unmade bed where he seems to envision Helene and Victor made love.  With an unexpected swift movement Charles whacks Victor on the head with a heavy ornament he picked up off a table. A lifetime of civilized living is gone.  What follows is a methodical cleanup of a murder scene reminiscent of Norman Bates cleaning up after “Mother” massacred Janet Leigh in the shower, the entire sequence from the initial cleanup to the dumping of the wrapped up body into a lake repeatedly reminds one of Hitchcock’s masterpiece.

As the police begin an investigation after Victor’s disappearance, they discover Helene’s name and address among Victor’s belongings. A series of visits begin to the Dasvellees home. Helene admits she knows him but claims she cannot remember when she last saw him. Charles claims to have never met him. The police are not convinced either is telling the truth.

One day Helene finds a photograph of Victor, with his address written on the back, in one of Charles suit pockets. She realizes Charles knew about the affair and that he killed Victor. A small self gratifying smile appears on her face. Helene takes the photo.  Chabrol’s camera methodically watches her come down the stairs and go outside where we see her carefully setting the photo on fire destroying the evidence. 

Still there is something else going on with the police as they appear one more time finding the Dasvellees family outside of their house. Just before Charles goes and talks to them, he declares his love for Helene and she does the same for him. As he walks toward the police Chabrol leaves Helene and their young boy far back in the distance. We watch the conversation from Helene’s POV but like her cannot hear what is being said. Suddenly, Charles turns around and looks back. Chabrol’s camera now reverses to look back from a distance toward Helene and their son. The camera begins to move slowly to the right behind some leaves obscuring slightly the mother and child. The film ends without answering many questions. Only the affirmation of their love beyond the dark secrets is what we are sure of.

Chabrol’s camera is exquisite in its movement, like Hitchcock he is a master of camera placement. There is no unnecessary movement. You see only what he wants you to see and it is all part of the succulent pleasures this movie offers.     

 ****1/2

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Picture Snatcher (1933) Lloyd Bacon

Within four years Cagney made 19 films establishing his brash New York City persona as an alternative to the typical Hollywood male stars of the era. Cagney and the advent of sound movies were a perfect fit. His fast talking self-confident, cocky style was a perfect antidote to the stiffness of many actors transforming themselves from silent films to sound. Besides the cockier Cagney was, the more we loved him.

“Picture Snatcher” is a breezy, fast paced entertaining pre-code film that does it all right without ever managing to achieve greatness. The film stars an electric James Cagney as Danny Kean a streetwise recently released ex-con who decides to go straight.

After telling his former cohorts, and collecting his share of the last job before his incarceration, that he is quitting the rackets Danny gets a job at a New York tabloid called “The Graphic” through a connection he made with the City Editor Al McLean (Ralph Bellamy) while in the clink.  Not suited for reporting but brash enough to take a job as a photographer when all others are reluctant to go the scene where a crazed firemen is hold up  with a rifle after discovering his wife’s remains in bed with another man after a fire. Posing as an insurance adjustor, Danny worms his way into the distraught man’s confidence while his real true goal is to steal a photo of the man’s family to publish in the paper.

Along the way, Danny meets Allison (Alice White) a two-timing dame who is supposed to be McLean’s girl but has desires for Danny who continually fights her off. Danny does have his principles, he does not fool around with a friend’s dame.  He is more attracted to a young journalism student  named Patricia Nolan (Patricia Ellis) who happens to be the daughter of tough but lovable cop Lt. Casey Nolan (Robert O’Connor).

Danny’s ethics as a press photographer are no better than they were as a hoodlum; he steals a pass from another reporter to gain entry into Sing Sing to witness an electrocution of a female prisoner. Inside the prison, Danny with a miniature camera strapped to his ankle gets his money shot which makes the paper’s front page, but in the process get s his girlfriend’s father/cop busted in rank as was in charge of security and received the blame for Danny slipping into the facility.

The execution sequence is based on the true story of one Ruth Snyder who in 1928 became the first woman to be electrocuted since the late 1800’s. Snyder and her lover, also electrocuted, killed her husband for insurance money (should sound familiar, the case inspired James Cain to use as the basis for Double Indemnity).   The New York Daily News hired an out of town photographer from the Chicago Tribune, someone unknown to the prison guards at Sing Sing, to sneak in to witness the execution and snap the photo which appeared the next day on the front page of the Daily News with the headline DEAD!

Danny does redeem himself somewhat by the end of the film when he is caught in an apartment with one of his former hoodlum buddies, Jerry the Mug. He protects Jerry’s frightened wife and kids trapped in the apartment as Jerry recklessly shoots it out with the police. As the battle with the police is about to reach it dramatic end, Danny gets an incredible photo of Jerry as he shot to death by the police.

Written by Allan Rivkin and P.J. Wolfson based on a story by Danny Adhern, The Picture Snatcher is overall a light-hearted fast moving film filled with gangsters and newspaperman directed by Lloyd Bacon and played to the hilt by Cagney. The films generally low opinion of the news media, whether intentional or not, remains relevant to today with the onslaught of all the in your face vulture paparazzi we see brought to the extremes today in gossip magazines and TV. The Picture Snatcher is Cagney’s film all the way, his exhilarating performance drives the film and must have been a revelation to audiences of the day who were used to more suave refined leading men than the in your face anti-authoritarian  character Cagney is here and would perfect in so many films yet to come.

Pay or Die (1960) Richard Wilson

For three years, 1906-1909 Lt. Giuseppe “Joseph” Petrosino headed what became known as the Italian Squad of the New York Police Dept.  As a detective, Petrosino focused on fighting the Italian criminal element in New York’s Little Italy, a group known as La Mano Nera or the BLACK HAND a forerunner to the Mafia. The Black Hand began in the late 1890’s, a hoodlum by the name of Ignazio “Lupo” Saietta was one its original organizers.  Sainetta was big on extorting money from local Italian businessmen. He even penetrated the Union Scilciania, a charitable organization for newly arrived Sicilian immigrants in America. After obtaining a search warrant, Petrosino with other law enforcement officers found more than 60 bodies hidden in the Union Scilciania building. Most of the bodies were chopped up into pieces. After this Petrosino became even more determined to bring the Black Hand to justice. He came up with the idea of forming an all Italian member police squad hoping to win the confidence and help of the Italian community in capturing these criminals. Petrosino and his men went on a rampage; more than 500 hundred Italian criminals were deported back to Italy. Many others went to jail.

In 1909 Petrosino went to Italy as part of a joint investigation between the police and immigration officials. In Palermo he examined police files trying to identify criminals who could be deported as well as the real identities of many who changed their names. He also was searching for a connection between the Italian Mafia and the Black Hand back in the states. He came real close because Petrosino was shot dead in the Piazza Marina under the statue of Garibaldi after receiving an anonymous tip with promising information. Credit for the assassination generally is given to Don Vito Casico Ferro who had various run ins with Petrosino in New York before he returned to Palermo where he would become capo dei capi.  When Petrosino’s body was shipped back to Little Italy in New York more than 200,000 people came by to pay their respects.

From the late 1950’s through the early 1960’s the largest wave of gangster films were produced since the golden age of the 1930’s. Though mostly low budget, within a span of six years we saw ”Baby Face Nelson”, “Machine Gun Kelly”, “Al Capone”, “The Purple Gang”, “Young Dillinger”, “Bonnie Parker Story”, “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond”, “Portrait of a Mobster”, “Mad Dog Coll”, “King of The Roaring Twenties”,  “Murder Inc.”, “The Scarface Mob” (two episodes of the TV series The Untouchables released as a feature film)  and “Pay or Die.” Of all these films, “Pay or Die” and “Murder Inc.” are arguably the most important of the group and “Pay or Die” is the only one of the films to focus on a heroic American figure in fighting crime.

“Pay or Die” is a vivid account of the life and times of Giuseppe Petrosino. Like most film biographies liberties have been taken but the overall story is true, including an extortion attempt on Opera star Enrico Caruso as portrayed in the film.  Though obviously filmed on a studio lot, the film reflects an accurate look at immigrant life at the turn of the 20th Century. Italian immigrants were pouring into the United States mostly from the poorer parts of Italy, and the poorest part was Sicily. Many of these families settled in New York, in what became known as Little Italy. The Black Hand preyed on the Italian community extorting money from store owners. If they didn’t pay, storefronts were blown up or worst the owners were brutally murdered. A note would be left with the body, a black hand imprinted on it as a warning to others.

The film opens up with the celebration of the Santa Rosalia Street Festival which includes a harrowing scene showing two young girls, about nine of ten years old, dressed as angels. The two girls are seen suspended on two clothes lines that stretch across the street between two tenement buildings. They are “wheeled” to the center of the street, two or three stories high and recite a pray. Down below, the crowd is thrilled, the girls parents proudly watch,  Lt. Petrosino roams the crowd as does a well dressed though slimy figure who we watch climb up to an apartment adjacent to  the clothes line. He pulls out a switchblade and cuts one of the clothes lines sending one of the little girls crashing down to the street below demonstrating the Black Hand’s persuasive measures to ensure people will pay. In another example of their brutal methods three thugs come into the bakery of Papa Saulino, who is “late” in paying. The men wreck the place, tie him up and slide him into the bread oven to think over his decision about whether to pay or die.  Later Saulino’s daughter (Zohra Lampert) and eventually, Petrosino wife, is attacked one evening on her way home from night school. She is threatened, her dress ripped and one of the thugs with black paint or ink on his hand presses a handprint over her left breast, a message to her father that his whole family is vulnerable.

“Pay or Die “provides a  tough look at the early days of the Italian criminal element in the United States and how they as predators, extorted and terrorized their own people, and one man’s attempt to fight back. The film uses the phrases “Mafia” and “Mafioso” at a time when J. Edgar Hoover only just began to admit that the Mafia even existed (maybe he watched this movie). Interestingly there was no outcry from the Italian-American community when the film came out, unlike some twelve years later when Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” hit the screens and used these same phrases, possibly because unlike the high profile Coppola film, “Pay or Die” came and went into theaters without much fanfare.

Ernest Borgnine is perfectly cast as Petrosino who comes across as a tough honest cop dedicated to cleaning up the Black Hand out of Little Italy and giving honest Italian immigrants the chance to become part of the American dream. Look for a young John Marley (Faces) as Caputo, the ragman.

Ten years earlier there was another film called “The Black Hand” with the very Irish Gene Kelly playing a fictional young Italian named Johnny Columbo and J. Carroll Nash in a supporting role that was based on Petrosino.  Of the two films, “Pay or Die’ is dramatically and historically the more interesting and more accurate.

The film is well shot by cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who at times gives it a bit of a noirish quality (though this is no film noir). Ballard already had a long career behind him but would become best known for his later work with Sam Peckinpah photographing “The Wild Bunch”, “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”, “The Getaway” and “Junior Bonner.”  It was directed, without flare, by Richard Wilson who just the year before made “Al Capone” with Rod Steiger another low budget though decent gangster film.

Newspaper Movie Ads of Yesteryear #2 – Hitchcock’s Films

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Il Posto (1962) Ermanno Olmi

In 1961, Ermanno Olmi was thirty years old when he made his first feature film though he had been working as a documentary filmmaker since 1953. “Il Posto” is an autobiographical coming of age story about a young man seeking his first job at a large corporation in Milan (we never find out exactly what this company does).  The film is a sometimes sad and sometimes touchingly humorous look at young Domenico Cantoni (Sandro Panseri) who comes from a lower working class background having to give up going to school to get a job while his younger brother continued his education.  Young Domenico travels from his small town on the outskirts of Milan to the big city to seek employment. He along with other applicants, including a young attractive girl (Loredana Detto) goes through some bizarre pre-employment testing before he is accepted for a position as a messenger.

Young Domenico is introverted but more so he is an observer of the behavior of others, he constantly studies his co-workers manners and the dehumanizing affect pedestrian jobs and bureaucratic bosses have had on their lives. As the film progresses you sense a horror coming over the young man as he comes to realize that staying in this corporate environment his whole life (both his parents and co-workers talk about how fortunate it is to work for the corporation where you have a job for life), there is nothing else to look forward too. They work all day, eat lunch in the company cafeteria and even party together on New Year’s Eve at a company bash where the bandleader announces that the company gives married couples and lovers permission to kiss on the lips come midnight!

The final shot in the film of young Domenico who had to start his career as a messenger because there were no openings in the department he was assigned to has now finally obtained his own desk and a clerical position after the apparent death of a co-worker. As he sits in the back of the office at his newly assigned desk, he looks up; he looks down, and mostly he looks scared! Scared that, my God here is where I will spend the rest of my life working for mindless robotic bureaucrats (shades of Metropolis and The Crowd) if I don’t get out.

Like his protagonist, Ormi worked for ten years at a clerical job and feared the same bleak future until he got a job making documentaries and eventually raising money to make this film. Like DeSica and Visconti, Olmi used no professional actors. Olmi mentions in the accompanying documentary on the Criterion DVD that the young male lead Sandro Paseri, he believes now is working as a manager at a super market and the pretty young girl he had a crush, Loredana Detto, well she is now Mrs. Ermanno Olmi.

 “Il Posto” is a simple coming of age story of a young man told with a quiet beauty and small vivid details that are universal in how it unfolds.  Olmi’s scenes of Milan are of a major metropolis still rebuilding after the war but anxious to move on into the modern era.     

****

Middle of the Night (1959) Delbert Mann

Middle of the Night is a story of a May/December romance. Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann. Mann directed three films written by Cheyefsky, Marty, his first film which won Best Picture of the Year and Best Director awards, followed by The Bachelor Party and Middle of the Night. Later on Cheyefsky would write the screenplays for Network and The Hospital. He also adapted the William Bradford Huie novel, The Americanization of Emily for the screen.  Middle of the Night began as a TV episode on the anthology series “The Philco Television Playhouse”, starring E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint. In 1956, Cheyefsky turned it into a play and it opened on Broadway with Edward G. Robinson as the older man and Gena Rowlands as the young woman. In 1959, the  movie version was released with Fredric March and Kim Novak in the roles.

Jerry (Fredric March), a 56 year old lonely widower, is a successful businessman in the garment district in New York and 24 year old Betty (Kim Novak) is working there as a receptionist and part-time model. Betty is newly divorced and uncertain about her future. The story centers on their romance and eventual decision to marry, the ups and downs in any relationship and specifically about one with a wide age difference. One of the more uncomfortable scenes is when Jerry meets Betty’s mother who it turns out is approximately the same age as he is. Later there is an even more painful confrontation with his family, which includes his daughter, a year younger than Betty, and his single over protective nagging sister. Everyone seems to have an opinion though the one thing everyone is in agreement on is that they are against the marriage. If all that is not enough there are the couples  own insecurities, Jerry’s jealousy when she talks to younger men or will she leave him in a few years? Betty anxieties are over her newly divorced husband, a musician who wants her back, and then there is her father fixation. In the end, despite all the objections from family and their own uncertainties they realize they love each other and maybe just maybe, they have a chance.

Fredric March is excellent as Jerry who at 56 feels that life has passed him by. Family and friends tell him that he should relax in his old age and take it easy. Jerry feels like everyone is ready to put him out to pasture until he starts dating Betty who makes him feel alive again. He tells everyone he’ll have enough time to take it easy when he’s dead! (Jerry would liked Warren Zevon’s song, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead). You absolutely believe March in this role, the struggles and fears that he is facing at this particular junction in his life. Kim Novak also does a fine job as the young and insecure Betty whose father dumped his family when she was young. Conflicted about the breakup of her marriage she finds comfort and security with Jerry. She brings a nice vulnerability to Betty that makes her real. Throughout her career Novak has been underrated as an actress. She holds her own here with a magnificent cast that includes Lee Grant, Martin Balsam, Albert Dekker and Glenda Farrell. There are also some nice location scenes of New York’s garment district and other areas circa the late 1950’s.

One aspect that I found interesting is how old the actors look considering the age they are portraying. Fredric March who was 62 at the time portrays a man who is 56. Albert Dekker’s character was 59 ( he was 54 in real life), however both men look closer to being in their late 60’s maybe even in their 70’s. Compared to some of today’s actors equivalent in age like Dennis Quaid (55) or Jeff Bridges (59) or Harrison Ford (66) they looked much older than the ages they are portraying. Lifestyle? Healthier living? Whatever it is, people do look a lot young today than their counterparts of forty or fifty years ago.

Delbert Mann began his career during the Golden Age of Television drama. When people discussed directors from the Golden Age of Television who came to film in the late 50’s and early 60’s the names usually consist of John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn. Delbert Mann is rarely mentioned yet his filmography in those early years is pretty impressive. His debut film was Marty, which as previously mentioned won a few Oscars. That was followed by The Bachelor Party in 1957, Desire Under the Elms, Separate Tables, Middle of the Night and Dark at the Top of the Stairs. All of these were adaptations of stage plays except for Marty and The Bachelor Party. In the 1960’s Mann had success with two Doris Day comedies, That Touch of Mink and Lover Come Back. He made a few more films including Mister Buddwing and The Pink Jungle before going back to television in the 1970’s and 1980’s. While no auteur, Mann was a solid actor’s director and always told a good story.

****

Last of the Silent Film Organists Rosa Rio Dead at 107

 Silent film organist Rosa Rio died today at the age of 107 years. She would have 108 in three weeks! Ms. Rio was still active having made her last appearance at the Tampa Theater  in 2009.  A native of New Orleans she began playing the piano at eight years old. By the time she was ten she had a job at a theater in New Orleans accompanying silent movies.  She eventually moved north and was the organist for the Brooklyn Fox Theater.

Rosa Rio at the Brooklyn Fox (above)

With the advent of sound movies, Rosa moved into radio and worked with people like Bob and Ray. She also worked with Orson Welles on “The Shadow” and the radio show , “The Goldbergs.” She eventually transitioned to TV working on soap operas and other shows.

Since 1996, Rosa made many appearances at the historic Tampa Theatre performing on the mighty Wurlitzer organ for more than 30 silent film presentations including “The Mark of Zorro” which my wife and I were fortunate enough to attend. Here is the New York Times Obit.

Rosa at the Tampa Theater in 2006 (above)

 

Below is Rosa playing the mighty Wurlitzer at the Tampa Theater