The past few days have been an education into obscure film. Working off of my son’s spectacular Janus collection of 50 Years of Art House films, I dove into (with his recommendations), three great classics of French cinema and one Italian great.
This morning I finished Pepe Le Moko, a gangster film set in the Casbah, starring Jean Gabin and directed by Julien Duvivier. Gabin, who also starred in one of the other French classics I watched this past week, The Grand Illusion, has been described as the French “Bogart.” He is incredibly charismatic in the role of Pepe, a fugitive thief self-imprisoned in the exotic back alleys of the Casbah, a dark place the police dare not enter. The film is about their repeated efforts to lure Pepe out of the safety of the Casbah into the city where he can be apprehended. Deceit and treachery, plot and counterplot, and some of the best lines I have ever heard (or read in subtitles), made this one of my favorites of all time.
The Grand llusion is one of those films you know you should see, but manage never to get the chance to watch. This is hailed as a classic of war films, set in a World War I German prison camp and focused on the experience of some French officers and their German guards. Another Jean Gabin film, Grand Illusion ends on a beautiful note near the Swiss border, when Gabin and his fellow-escapee find refuge in the home of a German farmwoman, widowed by the war. The scene reminded me of Barry Lydon, when Ryan O’Neal seeks refuge from the wars in the home of a German woman.
Wages of Fear has been remade as Sorcerer and stands as a prototype for suspense films. Clouzot’s original was chopped up for American distribution, so when I first saw it as a Saturday afternoon television film, I know I was missing something and this reviewing in the original cut confirmed it. William Friedkin’s remake with Roy Schieder was great, but the original, as always trumps. The synopsis: four men accept the impossible task of driving two trucks filled with nitroglycerin to the scene of an oil well fire in South America.
Fists in Pockets is the 1965 debut of director Marco Bellochio, who, at the age of 26, filmed this tale of family dysfunction in his own family home. The protagonist, played by Swedish actor Lou Castel, manages to solve that dysfunction in such a way that the film freaked out the Catholic Church and Italian political establishment, as well as earned Bellochio rebukes from his heroes Bunuel and Antonioni.
And the last film in the ongoing series:
Alexander Nevsky: Sergei Eisenstein’s comeback made for Stalin as an anti-German propaganda film. The cinematography was pretty amazing. Especially the big panoramas and facial closeups. The plot — medieval Russian prince kicks ass on the German knights invading Russia. Battle scenes are pretty cheesy, the exhortations to defend the motherland are kind of quaint. Can’t recommend it unless you want to be able to say you saw it, or have a hankering to see more Eisenstein than the Potemkin