Blow-Up (1966)

Blow-Up (AKA Blow Up)Blow-Up Poster
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
1966/UK/USA
Bridge Films/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Repeat viewing
#448 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
IMDB users say 7.6/10; I say 9/10

Thomas: I wish I had tons of money… Then I’d be free.

When I was first exposed to the films of Antonioni, I thought he made boring films about boredom.  Now I think he makes interesting and beautiful films about boredom and a whole lot more.  While Blow-Up can hardly be called entertaining, it is a sometimes frustrating but intellectually stimulating and visually exciting examination of an artist’s unsuccessful struggle to find meaning within the distractions of an empty but swinging London.  Although it is impossible to spoil the unresolved mystery the film is built around, I will get deep into the story in order to explore its themes.  I would recommend not reading this review until you have watched the movie.

Blow-Up 3

The film begins with a group of merry-makers cavorting through the streets of swinging London collecting money.  These folks are among the most animated people in the entire film.   We then segue to a shot of a group of men leaving a homeless shelter.  We follow one of the men until he loses sight of the others and gets into his dirty Rolls Royce convertible, thus establishing our anti-hero (David Hemmings) as your basic super-cool fraud.  He is not named in the film but is called Thomas in the credits so I will call him that here.

Blow-Up 1

He proceeds to drive said car through the strangely empty streets of the city until he arrives at his studio.  We soon find out that Thomas has been photographing the men at the shelter, making him also a kind of voyeur and exploiter.  He is very macho and apparently irresistible to women.  When he begins photographing fashion models at his studio, we learn about the glee with which he keeps women waiting.  The famous scene of Thomas shooting the supermodel Verushka reads like a sex scene with Thomas tiring of the woman immediately after the climax.  He goes on to  berate a whole group of zombie-like models until he gets what he wants.

While he leaves his models standing around with their eyes closed, he visits the apartment of a painter friend.  The painter says that his abstract compositions have no meaning when he paints them but reveal themselves later.  This also applies to Thomas’s photographs of the park, as we will see.  Thomas then heads for an antique store he is considering buying.  He hunts for jewels among the junk and winds up buying a propeller on impulse with no particular use in mind.  He later asks his agent to follow up with the owner so that he can buy the shop before anyone else does.

Jane: This is a public place — everyone has the right to be left in peace.

Thomas: It’s not my fault if there’s no peace.

From there, Thomas heads to the park and starts aimlessly taking pictures of pigeons.  He starts to focus on a couple he sees embracing there.  The woman (Vanessa Redgrave – “Jane” in the credits) asks him to stop and demands the negatives.  He refuses her.  We soon find out he is planning to use them in an upcoming book, along with photos of naked men showering at the homeless shelter and other gritty images of marginalized Londoners.

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A very nervous and vulnerable Jane shows up at Thomas’s studio later and pleads for the negatives.  He toys with her, poses her as a model, and instructs her on how to smoke and listen to music.  She takes off her shirt, offering herself to him and he gives her a blank roll of film.  They then apparently make love.  She gives him what she says is her phone number.

Blow-Up 2

After Jane leaves, we see Thomas perform the most concentrated activity he does in the film.  Several minutes are spent developing the images he has taken in the park.  He spies Jane looking at something in the trees and enlarges the area she seems to be watching until he finds a gun in the shadows.  His concentration is broken by the arrival of two young would-be models who have been pestering him throughout the day.  He welcomes the distraction and dallies with them in a romp that begins in what looks a little like a rape.   The girls soon get into the fun.  After their three-way tryst, Thomas sends the girls on their way and returns to his photographs.  He discovers what seems to be a body under a tree.

Thomas goes back to the painter’s apartment, apparently to share his discovery, and finds the painter making love with his girlfriend or wife Patricia (Sarah Miles). She sees Thomas and seemingly tries to give him some message.  Thomas goes back to the studio  and Patricia soon follows.  Thomas tells Patricia about his discovery that someone has been killed in the park.  Patricia asks if Thomas has gone to the police but Thomas ignores that question.  He shows Patricia the greatly blown-up image that he says shows the body.  She remarks that it looks like one of her partner’s abstract paintings. Enlarging the photos has both revealed and removed information from the images.  Patricia reaches out to Thomas for help with a problem but then thinks better of telling him what it is.

Thomas goes to the park alone and sees the corpse. When he returns to the apartment, his cameras, negatives, rolls of films, and prints of the park photos are all gone.

He goes out to search for his publisher to get him to go with him to look at the body.  He sees Jane standing at a store window briefly but when he goes to confront her she has disappeared.  He goes to a club and stands with a zombie-like crowd who are absently watching the Yardbirds perform.  The crowd becomes animated when they start to fight over the neck of the guitarist’s smashed guitar.  Thomas manages to “win” this treasure.  When he leaves the club he discards it in the street.  It has no meaning for him now that he has gone; he only wanted to get it away from the others, like the antique shop earlier.

Blow-Up 1966 Club Wall

[last lines] Ron: What did you see in that park? Thomas: Nothing… Ron.

Finally, Thomas arrives at the party his publisher is attending.  He tries to convey his urgent need to have the publisher confirm his sighting of the body but the guy is stoned out of his mind. Thomas, defeated, goes into the back room with the publisher for some diversion.  At this point, I began to feel sorry for Thomas.  He seemed so utterly alone in spite of his many acquaintances.

He wakes up in the morning and goes to the park by himself but the body is gone.  There is no evidence except his own memory of the shooting he saw in the photographs.

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The film ends with the return of the merry-makers who proceed to mime a tennis match on one of the courts.  Thomas looks on skeptically but when the “ball” goes over the fence he runs off to retrieve it.  We hear the sounds of rackets hitting the ball with Thomas’s eyes following the action as the match becomes real for him.  At last he stoops to pick up his camera and dissolves into air leaving only the green grass behind.

We are left with more questions.  Is the character of Thomas a misogynist creep or a tortured artist or both?  What happened in the park?  Do the distractions of modern life make it impossible to find meaning?  Is it valid to abstract reality from second-hand experience?  Can we know reality that is not confirmed by a shared group experience? Is Antonioni reminding us that the film, too, is not real when Thomas disappears at the end?

I find all this stuff fascinating so I could watch this again any time. As a murder mystery, however, it stinks.

 

Trailer

 

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Battleship Potemkin (“Bronenosets Potyomkin”)Battleship Potemkin Poster
Directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein
1925/USSR
Goskino

Repeat viewing
#27 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Opening Intertitle: Revolution is war. Of all the wars known in history it is the only lawful, rightful, just, and great war. . . In Russia this war has been declared and begun – Lenin, 1905

The sailors of the Battleship Potemkin are fed up with their diet of rotten, maggoty meat and refuse to eat their borscht.  The officers threaten to kill them for insubordination and the sailors revolt.  The citizens of Odessa rise up in support of the rebel sailors and are slaughtered on the Odessa steps by tsarist soldiers.  The rest of the squadron closes in on the Potemkin and the crew gets ready to fight.  At the last minute, victory!  The sailors on the other ships allow the Potemkin to pass safely.

Battleship Potemkin 1

While this movie does not exactly make my heart sing, there is no arguing that it taught the world a lot about how to tell a story and manipulate audience emotions through editing.  The famous Odessa steps sequence is still one of the most powerfully horrific scenes in film history.  This time around I noticed some pretty exquisite cinematography in this film at well.  The restored print brought out the ethereal ships in the harbor when Vakulinchuk’s body is brought by boat to the docks at dawn.  The sequence of the fleet of little sailing boats taking provisions to the battleship is also lyrical and quite lovely.  It is easy to forget such interludes in a film that seems to determined to brand shocking images on the brain.

2011 Kino High Definition release trailer

She (1935)

SheShe Poster
Directed by Lancing C. Holden and Irving Pichel
1935/USA
RKO Radio Pictures

Repeat viewing

 

She, Queen Hash-A-Mo-Tep of Kor: I am yesterday, and today, and tomorrow. I am sorrow, and longing, and hope unfulfilled. I am Hash-A-Mo-Tep. She. She who must be obeyed! I am I.

Leo Vincey’s (Randolph Scott) dieing uncle tells him of the family legend that a 15th century ancestor, John Vincey, found the flame of immortality. Leo bears a remarkable likeness to his ancestor.  He sets off with the uncle’s assistant on a journey to the Arctic to locate the flame. On the way, they meet up with Tanya (Helen Mack), a guide’s daughter. An avalanche reveals the entrance to a volcanic cave and from there to Kor, a land ruled by Hash-A-Mo-Tep or She (Helen Gahagan), an immortal beauty and absolute monarch who has bathed in that same flame. She has been waiting through the centuries for the return of her beloved John Vincey and believes Leo is his reincarnation. In the meantime, Leo has fallen in love with Tanya which does not bode well for Tanya’s survival.  With Nigel Bruce as Vincey’s side kick.

She 1

Helen Gahagan and Randolph Scott

Marien C. Cooper, who produced this film, intended it as a lavish special effects successor to his 1933 King Kong. Unfortunately, it was a box office bomb. I believe the problem may have been that Helen Gahagan just lacked the charisma to bring life to the title role. In addition, the rituals of the civilization of Kor and the screenplay are both fairly clunky. The film is nothing special on any front, though the Max Steiner score is rather nice and the settings are certainly lavish.

I thought it was fun to find out where Rumpole of the Bailey’s wife got her nickname (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”). This movie killed Helen Gahagan’s film career. She went on to become a U.S. Congresswoman from California.

Excerpt – scene between Helen Gahagan and Helen Mack

 

La mujer del puerto (1934)

La Mujer del Puerto (“The Woman of the Port”) (1934)la-mujer-del-puerto DVD
Directed by Arcady Boytler and Raphael J. Sevilla
1934/Mexico
Eurindia Films

First viewing

 

 

You just never know when you are going to find that special film!  I had never heard of this one until I was gathering films for this exercise.  Rosario (Andrea Palma) lives in poverty with her aging father and is in love with a neighbor who says he will marry her when he has more money.  Her father dies and her lover proves unfaithful so Rosario becomes a prostitute on the docks in another town.  One night she meets a client who defends her from a drunk and her fate takes an even more tragic turn.  (I will not spoil the ending but I was shocked.)

La Mujer del Puerto 1

The plot and acting in this are secondary to some exceptionally beautiful images.  In terms of the story, the film is uneven with certain parts moving at a very leisurely pace and the final fifteen minutes unnaturally rushed.  Some of the acting is a bit overdone.  However, the composition of the shots and some of the editing are just masterful.  There is a scene where Rosario is escorting her father’s coffin through a group of carnival revelers that is breathtaking.  The whole movie is bathed in gorgeous expressionist lighting.  Well, well worth seeing.

Director Arcady Boytler was born in Moscow and directed silent films in the USSR and Europe before arriving in Mexico and meeting Sergei Eisenstein at the time of the filming of Qué viva Mexico! (1932).  He made several other films during Mexico’s Golden Age of cinema but it looks like this is the one that is most readily available on DVD.

Excerpts with song “Vendo Placer” (Pleasure I Sell) as background

Judge Priest (1934)

Judge Priest Judge Priest Poster
Directed by John Ford
1934/USA
Fox Film Corporation

First viewing
#85 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Opening crawl: The figures in this story are familiar ghosts of my own boyhood. The War between the States was over, but its tragedies and comedies haunted every grown man’s mind, and the stories that were swapped took deep root in my memory.

This is essentially a love letter to a simpler time – in this case 1890’s Kentucky, where folks still remember the glories of the antebellum South vividly.  Judge Priest (Will Rogers) presides over the court in his small town dispensing justice and folksy wisdom.  His nephew returns to town, having just graduated from law school, and is courting a local belle.  His mother objects due to the girl’s lack of breeding; her father’s identity is unknown.  The nephew’s first client is a mysterious loner who is charged with assault for defending the girl’s honor.  Judge Priest is forced to recuse himself from the case, which enables him to assist his nephew at the trial.  With Hattie McDaniel as Judge Priest’s cook/maid and Stepin Fetchit as his errand boy.

Judge Priest 2

Well, I have to admit that this was much better than Doctor Bull, the 1933 Will Rogers/John Ford movie I saw.  There is a sort of small town charm to the storytelling.  On the other hand, there is also much too much of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known in his Stepin Fetchit persona.  His shtick just makes my skin crawl.  I can’t help it. Many people would also be offended by Hattie McDaniel’s character but that does not rub me so much the wrong way.

Setting the racial stereotyping questions aside, I do not understand why this pleasant but unremarkable film should be rated a “must see.” It is an introduction to Will Rogers, who I suppose is a major personality of early 20th Century American pop culture but not more than some others we don’t meet in our journey through The List.  Will Rogers worked with Stepin Fetchit many times so it may be hard to pick a decent Rogers film that doesn’t include that character.

Clip – Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel

Baby Take a Bow (1934)

Baby Take a Bowbaby-take-a-bow poster
Directed by Harry Lachman
1934/USA
Fox Film Corporation

Second viewing?

 

Trigger Stone: So you’re Eddie Ellison’s kid.

Shirley Ellison: I’m not a kid, I’m a girl, and today is my birthday.

Kay (Claire Trevor) is waiting for her sweetheart Eddie Ellison (James Dunn) to be released from Sing Sing.  Eddie goes straight and they marry and have an adorable little girl, Shirley (Shirley Temple), who they love dearly.  Fast forward to six years later and Eddie is working as a chauffeur for a wealthy family.  Fellow ex-con Trigger Stone shows up and wants Eddie to fence some stolen property.  Eddie refuses.  A valuable pearl necklace is stolen from Eddie’s employer and insurance inspector Welch, who has long had it in for Eddie, tries to pin the blame on him.  Shirley helps clear her father’s name.

Baby Take a Bow 2

Shirley is irresistible, to those of us who love her, in this film, released when she had just turned six years old.  James Dunn is her ideal Daddy and Claire Trevor turns in a good performance as her mother.  This is part prison film, part gangster film, and part musical.  It all works in that 1930’s studio alternative reality.  No masterpiece but I enjoyed it.

Clip “On a Account-a I Love You” – unfortunately colorized

Jane Eyre (1934)

Jane EyreJane Eyre Poster
Directed by Christy Cabanne
1934/USA
Monogram Pictures

First viewing

 

“I am not an angel,’ I asserted; ‘and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me – for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.” ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

The first sound adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel.  After a lonely and difficult childhood, the independent-minded Jane Eyre (Virginia Bruce) becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall.  There she falls in love with the master of the house Mr. Rochester (Colin Clive)  but he has a shocking secret that stands in the way of their happiness.

Jane Eyre 1

I have a few more films to watch but I do believe I may have hit the bottom of the barrel for 1934.  This film might not be worse than Maniac but it is certainly less fun.  Where to start?  With the sets that quiver when brushed?  No, I think the worst part is the amateurish brutalization of the novel.  Here we have a glamorous Jane Eyre with golden ringlets who sings to Rochester at their first meeting for what seems like five minutes of this 62-minute movie.  The Adele character is changed to being Rochester’s niece and has quite a prominent part in the story so that she can do hilarious stunts like falling head first into an urn.  Crazy wife Bertha shows up at the wedding looking quite OK and asking to see her husband.  There are many times when it seems like the actors have been asked to improvise their lines.  Since it is evident that no one, including the director, has read the novel, this was a bad idea.

I may be revising how I go forward with my year-by-year project.  Seeing so many mediocre movies in a row is making me jaded and cranky.  I think I may forego seeing anything with a user rating less than 6.0/10 on IMDb.  This one was rated 4.7/10.

Clip – Wedding scene (appearance of Bertha Mason)

 

We Live Again (1934)

We Live Again (AKA “Resurrection”)We Live Again Poster
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
1934/USA
The Samuel Goldwyn Company

First viewing

“Every man and every living creature has a sacred right to the gladness of springtime.” ― Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection

 The story is based on the novel Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy.  A noble household is quite attached to its servant girl Katusha (Anna Sten); the son, Prince Dmitri (Fredric March), and the girl grew up together.  One summer, the callow, idealistic Dmitri comes home from military training full of ideas about equality of the classes and falls chastely in love with Katusha.  But when he returns to the army Dmitri is quickly swept up in its decadent lifestyle and forgets about his ideals.  When he comes home again, he seduces and abandons Katusha who ends up pregnant, disgraced, and discharged from her position.  Years later, Dmitri sees Katusha again when she is on trial for murder, having previously descended into a life of prostitution.  He realizes the great wrong he has done and attempts to make amends.  With Joan Baxter as Dmitri’s fiance; C. Aubrey Smith as her father (did the man have time to sleep in 1934??), and Sam Jaffe as a revolutionary.

We Live Again 1

 This is a really gorgeous film lensed by Gregg Toland with wonderful authentic 19th Century Russian sets.  There is a glorious scene of Russian Orthodox Easter in a church.  I have never seen Anna Sten before and she is very beautiful and appealing in the love scenes.  Frederic March is good as well.  Both go a little bit overboard in the later scenes.  Something happened to this film between the first act and the second act.  The early love scenes took their time and were a pleasure to watch.  The later scenes were good too but seemed rushed or something – like this was clumsily edited for time.

Despite the out-of-wedlock sex, this film was certified by the Hayes Office.  According to Wikipedia, Joseph Breen wrote to Will H. Hays: “Though dealing with a sex affair and its attendant consequences, the story has been handled with such fine emphasis on the moral values of repentance and retribution, as to emerge with a definite spiritual quality. We feel that this picture could, in fact, serve as a model for the proper treatment of the element of illicit sex in pictures.”

The Scarlet Letter (1934)

The Scarlet LetterScarlet Letter Poster
Directed by Robert G. Vignola
1934/USA
Larry Darmour Productions

First Viewing

 

 

“It [the scarlet letter] had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.” ― Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

This poverty-row adaptation of the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel stars Colleen Moore as Hester Prynne, Hardie Albright as Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, Henry B. Walthall as Roger Chillingworth, and Alan Hale as comic relief.  In 17th century Massachusetts, a woman whose husband was thought to be lost at sea is forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her breast as punishment for adultery that resulted in the birth of a child.  She refuses to reveal the father of the girl but her husband returns incognito, determined to hound both parties to the affair for the rest of his days.

Scarlet Letter 1

It is hard to find anything good to say about this movie.  The first strike against it is that the makers felt compelled to lighten the dark story of the novel with copious amounts of comic relief, mostly supplied by Alan Hale and William Kent as sort of a Mutt and Jeff team.  Their bits are really jarring and not all that funny.  All the beards look obviously fake.  Then you get the principals posturing as if they were making a silent movie.  Colleen Moore is the worst and also seems years too old for her part, though she would have only been 35 in 1934.  This was the last film Moore ever made.

Colleen_bobbed

 

Colleen Moore was a silent film star.  She is most famous for “flapper” roles such as in  classic Flaming Youth (1923), in which she played Patricia Fentriss. By 1927 she was the top box-office draw in the US.  She invested her motion picture earnings wisely and remained wealthy until her death in 1988 at age 88.

Excerpt – oh, those wacky Puritans!

 

 

 

 

Zouzou (1934)

ZouzouZouzou Poster
Directed by Marc Allégret
1934/France
Les Films H. Roussillon/Productions Arys

First viewing

 

Beautiful? It’s all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest… beautiful, no. Amusing, yes. — Josephine Baker

Zouzou (Josephine Baker) and Jean (Jean Gabin) performed in the circus as “twins” as children and grew up as brother and sister.  Zouzou is in love with Jean.  When he is falsely arrested, she enters show business to get the money to defend him.  Will Jean see the light?

Zouzou 2

This is the French equivalent of a backstage musical and very charming, if not as polished as a Hollywood production.  I have read about Josephine Baker for years and was excited to be able to see her in something.  Jean Gabin is a major heart throb of mine and it was nice to see him in a different kind of role and singing a bit no less!

Jean Gabin sings “Viens Fifine”

Josephine Baker sings “Haiti”