The backstory to Mr. Arkadin/Confidential Report is Orson Welles just Wellesing it up everywhere. The initial release happened because he was too much of a perfectionist (or maybe just too distracted with a new relationship) to finish his cut on time. Then before he got a chance to put his out, the producer went ahead and just kept recutting it and releasing it. A lot. That’s counting the original radio scripts it’s based on and the novel. But then on top of that, the Criterion boxset includes another version, this one made specifically for this release and containing all footage available from any other version. It’s Comprehensive, yes, “but is it art?” It’s something.
We start a trip through the early work -- the War Films -- of Polish director Andrzej Wajda this week. We start with his first film, and indeed the first film for many of the on and off screen talent involved: A Generation from 1955. This film, made before the Soviet "thaw" hit Poland, cautiously tells the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in a way that hopefully won't make too many Poles angry, though mostly not making the Soviets angry. Wadja, to his credit, hoped the film would make people more communist than the Soviets ever wanted to be. It did not.
An editor's note: we've settled on a system where our episode numbers match to the film's Criterion Spine Number, but with boxsets that contain films that do not have their own number that always becomes iffy. As such we're going through the films chronologically and adjusting accordingly.
Many of Ingmar Bergman's films could be called comedies in the existential cosmic absurdism sense, but Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) is a romantic comedy sex romp with shades of Oscar Wilde. It was Bergman's big break. He'd been making films for over a decade with nothing landing with an audience. He was at his wits end, even thought he was dying, and desperately needed a win. Which he definitely got here.
Laurence Olivier plays a power-hungry outsider with a distinct physical feature and speech patterns whose ascension to power allows him to imprison his political enemies and ultimately leads to war.
There are no parallels.
Just kidding. Olivier based his portrayal of the title character in Richard III (1955) on Hitler, as he'd done when he first played the role in this Shakespearean play on stage in 1944. Surely there are no new lessons to be learnt from this.
Olivier also directs and adapted, and what a job he did at each. A fantastic job. The best job.
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A concentration camp is built like a Grand Hotel.
You need contractors, estimates, competitive bids
And no doubt friends in high places.
These were the lines of Night and Fog that may have hit me the hardest. Someone, some company, built the barracks, the guard towers, the ovens. And no doubt that company beat out other companies for the contract.
Alain Resnais' 1955 short documentary subtly twists the knife as the audience is called out for its part in the Holocaust (and all other holocausts) whether active or passive. Maybe you didn't place the noose around the neck, but maybe you sold the rope to the hangman, maybe you built the gallows, maybe you sat idly by because the people being led up the stairs didn't look like you.
But it's not about guilt; it's about responsibility.
When the Allies open the doors,
All the doors,
The deportees look on without understanding.
Are they free?
Will life know them again?
"I am not responsible," says the Kapo,
"I am not responsible," says the officer,
"I am not responsible."
Who is responsible then?
And it is not just a question of who is responsible for what happened, but of who is responsible for what may happen.
The skill of the Nazis is child's play today.
Someone builds the walls. Someone guards the gates. Someone fires the furnace.
Someone drops the bombs.
Someone steers the drones.
Someone writes the checks.
But also someone speaks the dehumanizing rhetoric: "they only want money", "they're all rapists and murderers," "they can't be trusted in a public restroom", "they're ruining this country."
And someone listens.
Rhetoric has consequences.
Resist being one of these someones. Do what you can to help others resist being these someones.
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Continuing through the Carl Th Dreyer boxset brings us to 1955's Ordet. Meaning "The Word", Ordet is a deliberately paced look at the faith of small town Danes in 1925, a faith challenged and changed by the actions of a young man who believes himself to be Jesus Christ re-incarnate. It's fascinating in that "what is going on, like for real?" way that Dreyer is so good at. That is, the ability to leave unanswered questions without the lack of answers being so frustrating that the whole exercise becomes tedious (see Picnic at Hanging Rock).
Blacklisted from Hollywood. Jules Dassin went to France and created one of the most intense crime procedurals of all time. And we do mean crime procedural, not police procedural. 1955's Rififi is a dramatic heist film nearing Clouzot-level suspense. It was also famously parodied in Big Deal on Madonna Street, which we talked about two weeks ago.
Douglas Sirk made big studio melodramas that audiences ate up and critics hated. Until decades later when filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Rainer Werner Fassbinder decided he was awesome and now everyone's on board. All That Heaven Allows is a 1955 venture starring Jane Wyman as a rich widow who falls in love with her Thoreau-obsessed gardner, Rock Hudson. It's a beautiful film; Sirk and cinematographer Russell Metty craft perfect frames that tell the story better than the actual plot.
Henri-Georges Clouzot has been called the French Alfred Hitchcock, which is really just a Anglo-centric way of saying that if Clouzot had been working in English he'd be more popular (in general? or more than Hitchcock? Yes). We've got two of his best movies in a row starting this week with Diabolique (1955) based on a novel by Pierre Boileau. It's said that Clouzot bought the rights to the novel mere hours before Hitchcock arrived for the same. As a consolation, Hitchcock bought another Boileau novel about a former detective with a fear of heights and his investigation of a woman who should be dead. Vertigo, masterwork that it is, and Psycho, which borrows a bit from Diabolique, don't quite achieve what Clouzot does here.
David Lean's 1955 tale of summer love was called Summer Madness in Britain, which might give you an idea of how well Kathrine Hepburn's attempts at a relationship in Venice go. Or the madness of the title may be the production's insistence that Kathrine Hepburn's accent is that of an elementary school secretary from Akron, Ohio.
Donovan Hill joins us again as we continue our discussion on Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy, this time focusing on the second film in the series which came out in 1955 to quite a deal less acclaim internationally. But Mifune's still in it, so it can't be that bad, right?