Diabolique [Les Diaboliques]

Diabolique, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1955) 114 minutes

This is my entry in the The Best Hitchcock Movies (That Hitchcock Never Made) Blogathon. Please click on the link and check out the entries by my fellow bloggers! I would like to also thank Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci [Tales of the Easily Distracted] and Rebecca Barnes [ClassicBecky’s Brain Food] for putting this all together and letting me be a part of it 🙂

Alfred Hitchcock is the undisputed master of the thriller. He did it better, more often and more consistently than anyone else. Others have made excellent thrillers, but they are always compared back to the master. Hell, these films are even called “Hitchcockian Thrillers.”  This genre is the focus of this lovely, little blogathon. They are basically thrillers that are so freaking good, that could have been made by Hitchcock, himself. Clouzot’s Diabolique holds an interesting place amongst these films. Hitchcock almost made this film. Diabolique is based off a novel by Boileau and Narcejac. Hitchcock was actually looking for the rights to this, but Clouzot beat him to it! There were no hard feelings from Hitchcock, however. He later adapted another Boileau and Narcejac novel with Vertigo (which is one of my favorites). Also, he reportedly showed Diabolique to those who helped him make Vertigo and Pyscho as a great example of a thriller.

Diabolique is about a wealthy, kindly woman, Christina Delassale (Vera Clouzot (the director’s wife)) who is tormented and abused by her gold-digging husband, Michel Delassale (Paul Meurisse). They run a boarding school for little boys. Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) is a teacher at the school and also Michel’s not-so-secret mistress. Michel is quickly characterized as the villain in the film. He is horrible to his wife and mistress both. He buys rotten food for the children of the school and hands out outrageous punishments for the slightest offenses. Nicole, surprisingly, is Christina’s friend. They have struck up an odd partnership and are out to get rid of Michel. While Nicole pushes for action to be taken against this horrible man, Christina is much more hesitant. These two women are set up as diametric opposites. Nicole is a taller, more masculine blonde. She is anything but passive. Christina is much more sensitive and hesitant to act. Her appearance is much more fragile and feminine than Nicole. She is also  a foreigner and a devout Catholic with heart issues (apparently she’s sickly and doesn’t deal with stress well). There are also a number of smaller characters who serve to add some humor to this dark film.

I’m not going to get into much more of the plot or characterization. If you have never seen Diabolique, you really should avoid spoilers like the plague. It is jam-packed with shocks, twists and turns. If you are watching it for the second, third or tenth time, you will see many little hints and clues scattered throughout the film. Also, the cinematography and lighting for this film are absolutely stellar. There is a lot of play with shadows, especially in the most “important” moments in the movie. This film can hold its own with any Hitchcock movie and is considered one of the greatest French thriller of all time.

Creepy Credits:. The words are projected on a filthy pool of water, which is constantly rippling. The music starts off as a standard, pretty creepy score. Then the voices of young boys are introduced into the music. After that an organ starts to play the theme (this is were I was getting pretty weirded out). Finally the original theme comes into this mix even louder with the organ and the choir continuing to play/sing (unmistakably the score to a very scary movie!).

How to Watch: Do yourself a favor and watch this at night in a dark room. I’ve watched in the middle of the afternoon and its not just not the same.

Who to Watch This With: Probably not the best for young children. I don’t want to say much more (for fear of getting into spoilers), but there are some rather disturbing images, which may lead to nightmares… and not only for the little ones!

Final Verdict: Diabolique is a wonderful example of a suspenseful, intelligent and nuanced thriller. It is beautifully shot and the plot is masterfully crafted.  Whether it’s the setting or the characters, this movie is unmistakably French. And to give credit where credit is due: Clouzot, himself, is a wonderful director, who shines in this film. Its totally like Hitchcock, but not really… Maybe thats a bit of a cop-out from me, but I don’t mean it to be. Just give it a shot and you’ll see what I mean.

Now, watch it and let me know what you think! :D

And the Oscar Goes to… The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean (1957) [161 minutes]

{This is the first post in a new series I’m doing on the Oscars. This will cover all the Oscar winners since the inception of this prestigious award. Not in chronological order, however, it is simply random (as this post shows). Of course, not all of these movies are worthy winners or even good films, but that’s what makes it fun 😛 }

After I published the post about my favorite year in movies [here it is, if you haven’t seen it], many expressed complete incredulity at how I could write a post about my favorite films of 1957 without including The Bridge on the River Kwai. The answer is really very simple: I had never seen the movie before.  Many of the comments told me that I must rectify this. Even if it’s not going on my top list, I should watch it. This along with my dad constantly lamenting that he raised daughter who has never seen this film, led me to watch it. Honestly, it was well worth it. Writing this review was quite a hurdle for me, though. Since I haven’t watched many war movies, I don’t have much to compare it to. I have to judge The Bridge on the River Kwai on its merits as a cinematic experience. I don’t know much about what actually happened on the river Kwai (all I know is that its nothing like the movie), but I do know a little something about great movies.

This is a World War II movie, probably one of the most famous ever filmed, but we are never in the heat of the battle. It’s a film about British soldiers who are prisoners of war in Japanese occupied Burma. They are instructed to build a bridge for their captors. Their leader, played masterfully by Sir Alec Guinness,is extremely honorable and proud. He’ll break before he bends. He is horrified that the Japanese are not abiding by the Geneva Convention. Commanding officers are forced into physical labor, which is a major faux-pas (the Convention mentions that specifically as a bad thing).

The highlight of this film has to be the characters. It is a psychological study of the effects of war on different personalities. These men are thrown into horrible situations and are faced with difficult decisions. I find it completely fascinating, and I have to admit I was not expecting that at all. The whole film is also entrenched in irony (especially the fantastic ending).The men lose sight of the bigger picture. In order to prove the superiority of the British soldier, they end up helping the Japanese.

You leave the film with a wonderful mix of satisfaction and disappointment, which is an extremely difficult balance to achieve. Traditionally it is a happy ending, but the way that the story is crafted it comes across as bitter-sweet.

All the trailers I found were awful. This famous scene is a better introduction to the film than anything else:

Some Good Old-Fashioned Scene Analysis: The scene above is one of the most famous in cinematic history. It is our introduction to the British soldiers and damn do they make an impact! They march into camp, as prisoners, with their heads held high, whistling and marching in perfect time. Their shoes are broken and they are filthy, but their spirits are not broken. The men in the camp look at them in utter confusion. The Japanese officers look more befuddled than anyone. Here comes a group of captives, but they seem prouder than the men imprisoning them.

Why Hadn’t You Watched It Before?: I am not too big on war movies, never have been. I don’t hate them, but sometimes they bore me. They tend to be really long, which means that I really have to purposefully sit down one afternoon/evening and watch it… and that kind of foresight and planning isn’t really my thing. I’m more likely to do it for the genres I love, but for war, not so much.

How to Watch: This movie needs that big screen experience, but more than that it needs great sound. The sound for this movie, whether diagetic or not, is probably among the best I’ve seen. That clip above is a wonderful example. You hear the men’s boots, their clear whistles and then the orchestra seamlessly blends in. It gives me goosebumps.

Who to Watch With: Anyone can watch this. There is nothing crude or graphic. It’s great for people who aren’t into war movies, too (like me!).

Final Verdict: There is a reason this is so famous. The characterization is amazing, as is that super catchy whistling tune. It’s worth it.

Now, watch it and let me know what you think! :D

My Movie Year: 1957

Fandango Groovers Movie Blog is having a day were bloggers post about their favorite year in movies. It is not the “best” year as deemed by others, but rather it is my personal choice. I had a lot of fun participating and I think you’ll have fun reading!

Here goes nothing:

Being a very indecisive girl, picking just one year was really hard. I tossed and turned over the decision more than I should have. As if somehow the neglected years would be offended by my choice (I’m a bit odd at times). After much research and thinking about what I really like, it was clear, 1957 is the year for me. It has a little sample of everything I love about film. The following five movies really speak to me, all in very distinctive ways. Here I will post little mini reviews on these films (and link to my longer ones as I write them). Enjoy!

12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet

12 Angry Men is not an “action-packed” film. 12 men basically just sit around a room and talk for the whole movie. And somehow you are still on the edge of your seat. The level of tension is equivalent to a Hitchcockian thriller. Our hero, Henry Fonda, plays a juror who feels that there is not sufficient evidence to put a defendant to death. The other 11 just want to get it over with and head home, but Fonda takes his duty seriously. Each juror has a distinct personality and justification for their decision. Fonda goes to great lengths to convince these men, performing monologue after amazing monologue. Lumet also does a great job with the direction. Every camera movement is so efficient and subtle that you almost don’t notice how brilliantly it’s done.

Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa

While 12 Angry Men is driven by witty and powerful dialogue, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood does not put the same weight on the spoken word. This film’s visuals make it a masterpiece. Kurosawa took my favorite Shakespearian drama, Macbeth, and transported the narrative back to medieval Japan. He did not worry about translating every line perfectly or making it all in iambic pentameter, but rather he really captures the “feel” and emotion of the Scottish play. The cinematography and mis-en-scene are among the best that Kurosawa has ever done (and if you know his work, you know that is high praise). I love a film that embraces the fantastical and poetic, like Throne of Blood does.

Also, it has Toshiro Mifune in it, how can I not love it?

[My full review]

Witness for the Prosecution, Billy Wilder

This is probably my favorite movie ever. Along with Laurathis film is one of the reasons I am such a film buff today. I watched Witness for the Prosecution when I was little and it really stuck with me. It has a special place in my movie loving heart. It’s not an accurate portrayal of the British justice system, but who cares? Charles Laughton plays a crotchety, old lawyer. He was always a brilliant defense attorney, but now is ill and should not take difficult cases. Of course, that lasts all of 5 minutes and he ends up taking a fascinating murder trial where nothing is what it seems. The film is worth watching for Laughton alone. The rest of the stuff is just icing on the cake. (I do have to give kudos to Wilder, he got great performances out of all the actors, wrote the witty screenplay and captured it all wonderfully)

Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman

This is one of those “must see” films for any fan of cinema. Whenever people say things like that it just sounds like a boring, preachy, pretentious film. Seventh Seal, however, is anything but. Believe me, it will be one of the most profound and beautiful movies you will ever see. It is a story of the calamities of medieval Europe and the struggle to find peace between life and death. The visuals are so striking, you will remember them long after the credits roll. After watching it, the most interesting conversations will arise between you are your fellow viewers. You could talk about it for years and not run out of things to say. Even if it just consists of “I need to learn some chess, so I  can cheat death, y’all,” you will have a great time.

Nights of Cabiria, Federico Fellini

Guilietta Masina gives a brilliant performance as a naïve, optimistic prostitute in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. Her life is one tragic disaster after another, but she keeps moving on. She is so adorable and goofy in the film. You know the men are conning her, but you can’t help but hope that this time around it will be okay. The story will break your heart, yet is somehow inexplicably uplifting. Also, just look at the picture I put up there. It is so beautiful. When I was picking a screen cap I was having a horrible time. There are so many great shots it was overwhelming, in a good way :P! This is the only Fellini movie I’ve seen (I know, it’s bad), and this film makes me want to watch a whole lot more!

Throne of Blood [蜘蛛巣城-Kumonosu-jô]

Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa (1957) [110 minutes]

I adore watching adaptations. Some are truly awful, taking the original work and tearing it to proverbial shreds. On the other hand, some are brilliant. These take a familiar story to a new, fascinating place. I love seeing how different cultures, generations, or mediums interpret the tale. In Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa takes Shakespeare’s Macbeth (If you need a summary/refresher on the Scottish Play click on that link) and transports the play  to Feudal Japan. Macbeth is probably my favorite of the Shakespearean dramas. Watching one of my favorite directors, Kurosawa, make it a film, is a true delight.

Kurosawa takes many liberties with the plot of Macbeth. He crosses this masterwork of British drama with his native Japan’s Noh theater. Noh is a medieval form of extremely stylized, high theater. The basic story of Macbeth remains in the film, as well as the themes that drive through it, but the visuals are unlike anything we would see on Shakespeare’s stage. The acting illustrates this beautifully. While watching the film the facial expressions seem a little exaggerated. The performances may appear over the top to American eyes, our theater tends to be more naturalistic. In Noh the actors wore masks to represent different characters and emotions. In Throne of Blood, he doesn’t go that far, but he told his actors to mimic those masks with their expression and they wore makeup to further highlight that. You will see our Macbeth, called Taketoki Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), and his Lady (Izuzu Yamada) use this hyper expressiveness a lot throughout the film. Until I found out about the Noh and the masks, I found it all enjoyable but still rather confusing. This is one of those cases that the more you know, the more you can enjoy the film. You don’t need to know much! Just a little bit about Noh and a little more about Macbeth and you’re good to go!

The narrative is structured in a circular format. That’s not necessarily a big deal, many movies start and end in the same place. The way that Kurosawa weaves this tale is different from most of what I’ve seen. It’s not just the final scene that is “repeated”, but many scenes throughout the film. In the beginning, there is a scene in deep fog, a conversation with the demon (who replaces the three witches from Macbeth) and a montage of the characters riding through the forest. You will see those scenes again at the end, but with a completely tone and context.

This storytelling technique, along with the Noh influence make you hyper-aware of the narrative structure. Nothing in the film is realistic, and there is no attempt to make it seem so. Personally, I find this kind of refreshing. Throne of Blood fully embraces that fantastical, poetic tone, which makes the film such a delight. The problem I have with many Shakespeare adaptations is that they really suck all the fun out of it. They’re so worried about the dialogue and how faithful they are to the play. It becomes a bunch of people showing off how great they are at acting and British accents. You watch them in high school just so you don’t have to struggle through the written play. With Kurosawa’s version you may not get an A on that English paper on Macbeth, but hey, that’s what sparknotes is for!

Nerdy Linguistics Moment: The Japanese title literally means “Castle of Spider’s Web/Spider’s Web Castle.” I can see why they changed the English one, though. Throne of Blood sounds more enticing.

Famous Fans: According to this article T. S. Eliot said that this was his favorite movie! If you don’t buy my recommendation, you’ve got to believe him 😛

Commentary Critique: The commentary for this film is among the best I’ve ever heard. It was so informative and entertaining. A little tip: I generally watch commentaries while doing some menial task (like laundry); that way you are getting something done and learning something in the meantime!

How to watch: The dialogue isn’t too important in the film. Sometimes I noticed that I hadn’t been reading the subtitles for the last few minutes… oops! This film is so visual, though, that you really don’t miss a beat. You learn much more by what you can see, rather than what you hear.

Who to watch with: Again, this film won’t help you with your English test on Shakespeare, but I found that I learned more about what the play is truly about by watching this. So watch this with Shakespeare fans and non-Shakespeare fans (hopefully this will convert them!).

Final Verdict: You will have a good time watching this. Especially if you keep that Noh theater stuff in mind; the film will make much more sense. And even if you still don’t “get it,” just enjoy it. I still don’t understand why most of the stuff that happens goes on, but it didn’t take anything away from the experience. If anything, the mystery made it more entertaining.

Now, watch it and let me know what you think! 🙂

The 400 Blows [Les Quatre Cents Coups]

The 400 Blows, François Truffaut (1959) [99 minutes]

Before working as a director, François Truffaut was a rebellious, brilliant film critic (I can’t help but love him a little for that :P). He and some other critics, all working for Cahiers du Cinéma, were fed up with the stuffy academicism that had taken over French film. They wanted to make movies that people could connect to; so the audience could feel that the film spoke to their problems and sensibilities. They decided to make these movies themselves. These films are fun, yet poignant; they are made by movie lovers, for movie lovers.

Their movement, titled the French New Wave, was thrust into the spotlight by this little film, The 400 Blows. This film centers around a young boy, Antoine Doinel, played fantastically by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Attending a strict all-boys school in Paris, he doesn’t fit the mold of a well-behaved young man. He is too creative, too curious, and much too mischievous. His father is largely ineffectual. His mother is absent and doesn’t care about him care unless it suits her interests. Throughout the film, he continually gets into trouble and he has no one to turn to. 

The 400 Blows is filmed in a documentary style on the streets of Paris. The film is actually a semi-autobiographical account of Truffaut’s childhood (poor guy!), and it feels very true to life. The actors performances are impressive, even more so if you consider that they were not given a script to memorize. This is one of the reasons that the movie feels so believable.  The actors had to react as they would in life to the situations they were placed in. Truffaut used this to his advantage, while most directors previously had shied away from giving their performers that much freedom.

Now, as you have probably already inferred, I really liked this movie. It’s funny in parts, but it is truly tragic throughout the narrative. Do not watch this if you are looking for a carefree, happy-go-lucky time. This poor boy goes through a lot, but at no point does it feel exploitative, like one of those movies that the only purpose they serve is to leave you in tears by the ending. It just feels honest. Little boys like this were all over Paris, Truffaut himself was one of them. These melancholic moments are interspersed with silly gags and clever pranks played by Antoine and his friends, and this is what really helps make the movie more than just a melodrama. This film does not preach to you, which I really love (I despise preachy films). I feel like it escapes from that after-school special/PSA feel that most movies about troubled youth take. The children in the movie feel like real kids, not vague sterotypes designed to teach us a lesson.

Extras: I watched the Criterion Blu-Ray release of the film. They did a great job with it. The menu is beautiful and easy navigable. It comes with some nice extras. There are some good interviews with Truffaut and Léaud and they are worth a look. These include Léaud’s adorable audition tape!

How to watch: In the original French with subtitles. The Criterion DVD/Blu-ray doesn’t even have the option for English dub, which is one of the reasons I’m a bit obsessed with Criterion.

Who to watch with: Kids could definitely watch this movie. There is nothing inappropriate. Honestly, you could watch this with anyone. Male, female, whatever I don’t think anyone could resist this.

Final Verdict: Please watch! Believe me you will have a great time. Certain moments (I won’t spoil them for you :P) will stick with you long after the credits roll. If anything just watch it to see Léaud. He is too good and too adorable.

Jumping into the Frame

The time has come; I am finally doing my first blog post! I’ve decided to describe in detail a scene from a movie. I’ve chosen to look a short segment from Ugetsu Monogatari. It is actually the scene where the still, which is featured on my banner is from. Honestly, I chose this movie because I think this exercise in description is a great example of how to watch a foreign film. Sometimes we get too bogged down in understanding and reading subtitles that we don’t really take in the visual or auditory aspects of the scene. For this post I took off the subtitles and really just immersed myself in the diagesis.

Here we go:

The night is dark. A dense fog has formed over the lake. It looks like smoke, pale yet all-consuming. A canoe approaches from the distance. As it lulls through the fog the small canoe and its passengers become clearer. A woman dressed in kimono looms tall over the vessel. She rocks back and forth with the boat as she pushes and pulls the oar. All we can hear is the splash of the oar as it moves through the dark water. She begins to sing, first softly and then more clearly. Her lone voice unaccompanied, except for the sounds of the water lapping against the vessel. Her song becomes part of the atmosphere, more than just a mere human creation. Her tone is tragic. Her voice sounds like a deep lamentation, perfectly mirroring the oppressiveness of the ever-present fog. The sight is reminiscent of tales of Arthur journeying to Avalon to call upon the Lady of the Lake.

As the boat approaches the camera, we cut to a closer shot of the other passengers on the ship. We first see two men. They are sitting casually on the boat gulping down sake from a bowl. They are constantly drinking and refilling their glasses, seemingly oblivious to the “magic” around them. Another woman on the boat sits with her son on her lap. She is looking out at the water smiling, while her son seems troubled. Throughout this shot these other characters are eating and speaking without a care, but the woman’s song carries on as she continues to rhythmically row. The sounds of the water and her voice underline the conversation. The camera cuts away from the others and moves closer to our singer. Here we see her tired eyes and disheveled hair. She sways with the boat; her movements are fluid mimicking the water all around her. Suddenly she stops everything and looks off-screen. She stops singing. The camera cuts to a shot of another boat approaching. It appears to be unmanned as it comes ominously through the fog.

The scene is silent, except for the water lapping up against the boat. The boat gets closer and closer. We get another shot; this time with both boats in the frame. They are almost touching when one of the men pulls the mysterious boat parallel with their own. It has gotten much darker now. The black of the water creates a stark contrast with the white fog. We, the audience, cannot see anything in this foreign boat, it is completely shrouded in that deep black. In the meantime, the passengers look into the boat. We see them flinch in disgust and fear flash on their faces…

To find out more you’ll have to watch!