Saturday 30 August 2014

Touchez Pas au Grisbi [1954]

That the French Nouvelle Vague crop loved classic American film noirs and used noir themes and archetypes as a springboard is a well-known fact; but the French also dabbled in classic noirs – cases in point being Dassin’s Rififi and the underrated Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi. The template of ageing criminals planning for one last job before calling it quits, albeit with tragic consequences, was given a slight twist in this film – here 2 ageing men, having already scored their last hit, must now somehow retain the stash so that they can retire in peace; however, as is usually the case with fatalistic noirs, it’s easier said than done. Suave, loner and weary gangster Max (Jean Gabin), and his buddy Riton (René Dary), have successfully pulled off a heist of a lifetime. Unfortunately for them, Riton, fearing that he might lose out his striking young girlfriend (Jeanne Moreau) to younger men, has let loose on their secret in order to impress her; she, in turn, has spilt the beans to Angelo (Lino Ventura), a brash and crooked hoodlum who now wants to get hold of the spoils. This is where the film starts off! Friendship, honour and the process of ageing – and how that sometimes makes even the toughest men weak and careless – were the principal themes of the film. Shot in exquisite B/W, the narrative had its share of tense and muscular moments, including a blazing face-off at the end; but they were complemented with moments of quietude that struck a fine balance between melancholia and sentimentality. Gabin did a fine job as the tough but romantic hood, though I would have personally loved to see more of Ventura and Moreau (two of my favourite actors).

Director: Jacques Becker
Genre: Crime/Crime Drama/Gangster Film/Film Noir
Language: French
Country: France

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Nayak (The Hero) [1966]

In Nayak Ray, in an inspired casting decision, worked with the reigning superstar of Bengali cinema Uttam Kumar for the 1st time, and the result befitted the stellar collaboration. This intense and gripping road movie provided a revelatory behind-the-scenes peek at a movie star with all the baggage that comes with stardom – guilt, insecurity, loneliness, false braggadocio, heart-breaks, ego, inner turmoil – but needs to remain cloaked under the fragile veneer of smug confidence. The narrative follows the journey of Arindam Mukherjee (Kumar), a superstar of the silver screen, who’s aboard a train from Calcutta to Delhi to receive a national award He plans to spend the time with himself, but his acquaintance with co-traveller Aditi (Sharmila Tagore), a beautiful and independent-minded journalist, acts as a disruptive element in his journey. Despite not being an admirer of the star or formulaic cinema, she coaxes him for an interview; their interactions gradually take him out of his cocoon and comfort zone as he introspects, re-lives the memories haunting him and reveals details from his life hitherto unknown to the public – his transition from theatre to cinema against the wishes of his mentor, his trysts with a volatile former star during and post his days of fame, his changing friendship with a Leftist friend, the constant fear of failure, certain scandal-worthy episodes, etc. Meanwhile other secondary characters added dimensions to the slice of life portrayed herein. Kumar, who knew a thing about superstardom, gave a tour de force and multi-faceted turn as the complex protagonist, while Tagore was also good as the enigmatic lady who starts empathizing with the man behind the mask, in this compelling and brilliantly cinematographed scoop.

Note: My earlier review of Nayak can be found here.

Director: Satyajit Ray
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Road Movie/Showbiz Drama/Ensemble Film
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Sunday 24 August 2014

3:10 to Yuma [1957]

High Noon heralded a generation of character-driven psychological Westerns, and 3:10 to Yuma, Delmer Daves’ adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story, was a striking example of that. This low-budget film played out as a tense cat-and-mouse thriller given its marvelously plotted tale about two men trying to outwit each other and the tight temporal span of the storyline; but its greater strengths lay in the layered character arcs of its leads, and the way Delmer provided a delicate balance between grime and grittiness on one hand, and affecting moments of melancholia and evocation of the West’s loneliness on the other. The film begins with Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and his close-knit gang holding up a stagecoach which ends with robbery and a couple of casual murders; the event is witness by hardened rancher and family-man Dan Evans (Van Heflin). When offered money to catch Ben and make him board the titular train, Dan, who’s hard pressed for money on account of drought, takes up the job. Holding him at gunpoint and awaiting the train, a fascinating game of one-upmanship begins as Ben offers to buy Dan out while also coolly making him aware that his men will arrive before the train does. Ford was absolutely terrific as the charming and confident, but also weary, surprisingly suicidal and complex outlaw. The film was beautifully shot in B/W with action continually shifting between exteriors and interiors, while the lilting score added an introspective touch to it. The violence in the first scene was followed by focus on a family finding the going tough, and a leisurely paced and quietly sentimental bar scene followed that – they were enough to show the film’s depth and virtuosity.

Director: Delmer Daves
Genre: Western/Psychological Western
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday 17 August 2014

The Inheritance [1962]

Kobayashi followed up his monumental magnum opus ‘The Human Condition’ trilogy, and preceded his renowned Samurai film Harakiri, with The Inheritance – no wonder, it got lost in the process. Dark, tense, nihilistic, filled with wry but pungent humour, and set in contemporary urban Japan, this superb film provided a grotesque picture of incessant greed, jealousy, self-centeredness, lust, corruption, and propensity for deceit and violence that remains cloaked under fragile veneers of civility and decency. An aged business tycoon (So Yamamura), upon learning of being afflicted with a terminal disease, decides to re-draft his will wherein 1/3rd of his immense fortunes would go to his much younger wife (Misako Watanabe), a cold and scheming femme fatale, and the balance to his three illegitimate children. He employs his subordinates, an unctuous lawyer, a couple of unreliable associates (one of them played by Tatsuya Nakadai), and his coy secretary Yasuko (Keiko Kishi), to locate his children and decide if they are worthy of the endowments. As can be expected in a situation such as this, they start finding ways of getting hold of the wealth themselves, while at the same time trying to hoodwink and out-smart one another in the process. Yasuko, for most parts, seemed to be the only decent character, but as the excellent opening montage had given indications and her convenient moving-in with the dying man, despite his failing potency, furthered that, she might just have the necessary guile to win this nefarious and twisted race to the finish. The sparkling and expressionistic B/W cinematography, and the brilliant but low-key jazz score, added sensual dimensions to this bleak, noirish and delicious morality play.

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Post-Noir
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Sunday 10 August 2014

Take Aim at the Police Van [1960]

A Nikkatsu Noir, qualified as such by Criterion because this was one of many such low-budget crime thrillers produced by Japan’s Nikkatsu Studio during the 50s and 60s in order to compete with American and French films in the box-office, Take Aim at the Police Van was one of Suzuki’s earlier films, even though he’d made over a dozen films by then. Though not considered among his best works, this crisp, kinetic, moody and unpredictable little film did pack in enough wallop to make this an entertaining ride. The story begins with what the title makes amply clear – a police van, carrying a bunch of criminals and led by prison guard Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima), is ambushed by unknown assailants that lead to couple of murders, the escape of a small-time hoodlum who’d been anticipating the ambush and suspension for the prison guard. Tamon, unable to digest the disgrace, takes the onus of connecting the dots and solving the crime, and this leads him right into the middle of the netherworld of murderous gangsters engaged in flesh trade, and a dangerous affair with the powerful and beautiful femme fatale Yuko (Misako Watanabe). The film proceeded as a mix of gangster, noir and whodunit, as Tamon gets deeper into Tokyo’s seedy underbelly. The dour-faced Mizushima, with Marlowe’s grit and relentlessness but without the acerbic cynicism, led this slight but solid, deftly photographed caper to its violent climax, with enough twists and turns to keep the viewers thoroughly engaged. The film also provided an interesting exposition on Suzuki’s formative years on his way to becoming a daring filmmaker.

Director: Seijun Suzuki
Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Gangster/Post-Noir
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan