Monthly Archives: February 2011

Tevye – Best Pictures of 1939 (#9)

Maurice Schwartz as Tevye

Multiculturalism in the United States has conditioned us to appreciate and respect various cultures in an integrated society. (Well, most of us anyway – some still shudder at the idea.) Different ethnic and religious groups live side by side, maintaining their own unique cultural legacies while, in the process of interacting with others, creating a new, diverse cultural milieu. This is not the old, discredited melting pot ideal. Instead lots of peoples come together to make something distinctive as a whole while retaining their individual religious and ethnic identities.

This background makes it difficult for us to understand the seemingly self-imposed insularity of Tevye and his family in the pre-Soviet Russian Ukraine. Tevye, the patriarch of his Jewish dairy family works hard to ensure the happiness and success of his rural family which includes his wife Goldie (Rebecca Weintraub), their two daughters Khave (Miriam Riselle) and Tseytl (Paula Lubelski), and Tseytl’s two children. The crisis that dominates most of the film is Khave’s infatuation with Fedye (Leon Liebgold), her Christian suitor. Tevye alternately begs and threatens his younger daughter to give up the romance, not to marry outside the Jewish faith. Khave is resistant; she doesn’t understand his arguments that no matter what she does or who she marries she will always be an outsider. No matter what, Tevye argues, no matter how nice people are to them, no matter how much they seem to accept them, they will always be subject to the whims of their goodwill.

Khave ignores her father’s exhortations and marries Fedye, causing Tevye and the rest of the family to cut her off. To our modern, multicultural sensibilities this reaction seems harsh and, frankly, intolerant. We, along with Khave, learn how wise Tevye is. I don’t know if it was intended this way, but we follow the same learning curve as Khave. We discover why Tevye argued so strongly for the Jewish people to stick together, to maintain their families, their culture, and their safety in societies that can withdraw their goodwill at a moments notice.

Tevye is at times touching and heartbreaking, an examination of the trials and tribulations of one Jewish family at a specific time and place that reminds us of the precarious balance between multiculturalism and tolerance on the one hand and nativism and bigotry on the other. No matter how ideal a society may appear, minorities are usually at the mercy of majorities. They may seem integrated and accepted, but they can still suffer injustice and discrimination should the ugly mood strike the majority. Just ask Muslim Americans after September 11 and Hispanic Americans in “Papers Please” Arizona.

Though Tevye touches on these themes it is not an entirely hopeless film. The final outcome of Tevye’s story may be tragic, but this is a man and a people who have survived worse and would go on to survive the horrors of the Holocaust. The last shot reconfirms the persistence of hope in the face of horror.



Filed under 1939, Yearly Best Pictures

The Spy in Black – Best Pictures of 1939 (#10)

Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger first teamed up for the 1939 low-budget World War I espionage thriller The Spy in Black. It’s both an entertaining and thoughtful story of German spies infiltrating British naval headquarters at the height of the Great War in 1917. Powell and Pressburger, who would go on to make some of the greatest films in British cinema together, play with audience expectations and interrogate the fine line between war as a means to diplomatic ends and war as a self-sustaining myopic monster.

German agents intercept and kill a young school teacher on her way to her new post on the Orkney Islands north of Scotland which serves as the base of British naval operations. To gain access to the heavily guarded island, the Germans substitute one of their agents, Frau Tiel (Valerie Hobson), to take over the teacher’s identity. She travels to the island and takes her post, fooling everyone. Tiel eventually rendezvouses with Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt), a German naval officer who snuck ashore from his U-boat waiting off the island. Together they work with a disaffected British officer who passes information of shipping maneuvers and works out the optimal time to strike and sink the entire fleet.

Frau Tiel in a jam

As enthralling as the cloak and dagger stuff is, Powell and Pressburger focus on the human interactions between and among the spies and their British traitor. We, against our better judgment, go along with their plans, sympathize with the spies, hold our breaths when they are faced with danger and the plans threatened. All this emotion is expended despite them being the “enemy.” We become wrapped up in their nefarious plans because Powell and Pressburger toy with our allegiance and moral sense by having us identify with the “bad guys.” They cunningly show that when we connect with characters we are much more likely to ignore (or at least overlook) their immoral motivations. In the case of this war film, nationalism is trumped by character and personality, an interesting argument in the face of war with Germany.

Nationalism depends on the facelessness of the other to truly sway populaces. On the eve of the Second World War with Britain threatened by the German fascist threat, Powell and Pressburger avoided perpetuating the faceless other. Instead of strictly reinforcing the German threat they give them faces that, for at least part of the movie, we identify with. Of course everything comes out right in the end because of a nice twist, not everything was as it appeared, and British nationalistic pride is ultimately reinforced. Powell and Pressburger skillfully make a thoughtful point without subverting national propaganda needs in a time of impending war.

Beyond all of my ruminations about nationalism and propaganda, The Spy in Black is, ultimately, an nail-biting thriller with unexpected twists and turns that all lead to an gripping climax on the high seas. Watch it as a comment on war and nationalism or as a fun spy movie or, as I did, both. Any way you look at it The Spy in Black is a masterful film and provides a great indicator for the future success of the Powell and Pressburger team.


Filed under 1939, Yearly Best Pictures

Weekly Movie Diary (2-21-11) “Even the Rain,” “Cedar Rapids,” “I Am Number Four,” “Unknown”

Luis Tosar and Gael García Bernal in "Even the Rain"

My liberal sensibilities make me a sucker for movies that lament the exploitation of the weak and celebrate the power of the people. Even the Rain (También la lluvia) does both as it follows a Spanish film crew in Bolivia making a movie about Christopher Columbus’ violent conquest of the American Indians. Why is the film crew in Bolivia? It’s a landlocked, mountainous state smack dab in the middle of South America when Columbus actually tooled around the Caribbean. The producer of the film, Costa (Luis Tosar), can hire Bolivian Indians cheaper (two dollars a day) than anywhere in the Caribbean. The irony of this isn’t lost on the film’s writer/director Sebastián (Gael García Bernal) and constantly needles his friend and colleague for his spendthrift ways (but never really challenges him in a serious way). All of this plays out in 2000, the year Bolivians initiated mass protests against foreign ownership of their water systems and the exorbitant prices and debilitating shortages that came with it. (The title of the film refers to a law which prohibited Bolivians from collecting rain water for their use, codifying foreign control over all of Bolivia’s water.) The instability and violence stalls production of the film and forces Costa and Sebastián to reassess what is truly important – their film or their ideals.

The film could have better explained the water issue, but it does a great job of revisiting the horrors of sixteenth century colonization through rehearsals (including a great table reading scene), actual filming, and watching the rushes. Yes, the irony of a film crew making a movie about exploitation while exploiting is obvious (maybe inelegantly obvious), but director Icíar Bollaín plays the story out well. Also look for some nice supporting performances from Karra Elejalde playing the actor playing Columbus and Juan Carlos Aduviri as the Bolivian actor portraying a resistance leader who also turns out to be a leader in the water rights fight. It is an effective and engrossing film that highlights the disparity between idealism and reality, and the insidious parallels between colonialism and globalization. It is, he argues, much easier to decry the violations of the past while turning away from injustice today. It is also remarkably relevant considering the recent mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt and the current ones in Libya, Bahrain, Morocco, and Wisconsin. (Never thought I would see a list like that.) These protests and the protests in the film remind us that power still does reside with the people and if their leaders are deaf and/or corrupt they will find ways to take their governments back. (Rating ****)

Ed Hall lets loose with Isiah Whitlock Jr, John C. Reilly, and Anne Heche in "Cedar Rapids"

Cedar Rapids is a rare new-release comedy that works more often than not. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is a sheltered, small town insurance salesman sent to an annual convention in the big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim is awed and overwhelmed by everything from a typical car rental to the key card in his hotel. His roommate is the incorrigible and irrepressible Dean Ziegler played by John C. Reilly (a character he has been playing variations on for years though he is particularly effective here). There’s nothing terribly fresh here; we have a pretty good idea where things are going from the first scenes, but director Miguel Arteta handles the material well and mostly resists the urge to resort to cheap gross-out gags. The movie could have descended into mean-spirited condescension, but Arteta avoids it mainly thanks to his cast. Ed Helms is always sympathetic – we’re meant to appreciate his naivety, not look down our cosmopolitan noses at him. He might not be all that bright or worldly but he’s good, true, and still believes in things like honor and honesty and, even as an insurance salesman, has not bought into the cult of the dollar like many of his colleagues. Two particularly refreshing supporting performances come from Isiah Whitlock Jr., who has fun with his fame from The Wire (incidentally one of the best television series in history), and Anne Heche who reminds us that she used to be a pretty good actor before she turned into tabloid fodder. (Rating ****)

Dianna Agron and Alex Pettyfer look pretty in "I Am Number Four"

I Am Number Four is a surprisingly decent action movie – but just barely. If not being bored and not getting angry is the worst one can say about a movie, I suppose that is a borderline recommendation. The story is well-treaded ground and offers few surprises, but it all unfolds nicely despite lackluster performances. Leads Alex Pettyfer and Dianna Agron may be great to look at, but they don’t truly create characters and inhabit the roles – you know, act. Pettyfer has an attractive screen presence, but that will only take him so far. His cut abs don’t distract from his empty eyes and uninspired line readings. (Well, OK, they do a little.) He is, however, head and shoulders better than the icy Ms. Agron, who doesn’t do much beyond what she is called on to do in Glee. She has the most boring character in that show and has carried her over into this movie, making us unsure why it is John (Pettyfer) is willing to risk so much for her. John is one of nine protectors of an alien planet that was destroyed by an invading force when he was a baby. The nine and their protectors (who seem fairly useless) came to hide on Earth. John’s protector Henri (Timothy Olyphant) takes him from one city to another so the invaders, who have tracked them here, can’t find him. They can, it seems, only be killed in sequence and at the beginning of the film, Number Three is murdered. John knows they will come for him next and, even with supernatural powers, he and Henri don’t stand a chance. But, of course, he just wants to be a teenager. (That’s pretty lame – how many people died to keep him alive and he wants to go to high school and play sports?) I Am Number Four works if you want a brainless action movie (and there are plenty of plot holes someone with a brain can find). It is, however, fun, fast-paced, and, for the kind of movie it is, satisfying. (Rating ***)

Diane Kuger and Liam Neeson try to figure out what's going on well after we figure it out in "Unknown"

I was mostly curious about seeing Unknown because I wanted to test whether I had figured it out from the trailers. I’m disappointed to say that I did. I’m disappointed because I was hoping that the upshot wouldn’t be obvious, that they would have had a twist in there for me, but they didn’t. Watch the trailer and you can, more or less, figure out exactly what is going on. (There are two lines that really give it away and should have been excised from the trailer.) Liam Neeson plays Martin Harris, a doctor who has just arrived in Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotech conference. He is in an accident, wakes up after being in a coma for several days, and suddenly no one, including his wife, seems to know who he is. The more he insists, the more people think he’s crazy until he is forced to concur. After all, if everyone says you’re crazy, maybe you’re crazy. But when someone comes to kill him, he figures something must be up. Neeson does his best, but he’s just as lost in this material as his character. And like Agron in I Am Number Four, January Jones transfers her cold character from Mad Men, Betty Draper without showing any range – if we can call Betty Draper range. Luckily she doesn’t have a lot of screen time and Diane Kruger and Bruno Ganz have opportunities to shine – and they do, which must have been hard in this drek. Ganz does have a great scene with Frank Langella, two old spies talking over the good old days and dancing around the problem today, but that was a rare gem. There are some well choreographed action and chase sequences, including a breathtaking car chase through the streets of Berlin that was refreshingly shot in Berlin rather than an Eastern European stand in, but there the scenes between are listless, a pale combination of Frantic and The Bourne Identity. The movie finds a better footing in the last act, but the poorly paced and awkwardly written first two thirds stymie any connection with the film as a whole. We just don’t care what is going on. (Rating **)


Filed under Current Releases

Jean Gabin (Quai des brumes) – Best Actor of 1938

Other Noteworthy Performances: James Cagney (Angels with Dirty Faces), Robert Donat (The Citadel), Errol Flynn (The Dawn Patrol), Jean Gabin (La bête humaine), Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby), Cary Grant (Holiday), Leslie Howard (Pygmalion),  Charles Laughton (St. Martin’s Lane), Aleksei Lyarsky (The Childhood of Maxim Gorky), Reginald Owen (A Christmas Carol), Edward G. Robinson (A Slight Case of Murder)

Jean Gabin commiserates with Michele Morgan in "Quai des brumes"

With Jean Gabin as best actor, 1938 is the first year that I have chosen four foreign language performances. I suspect it will, unfortunately, be the last for quite some time as war will erupt in Europe and Asia slowing the film production in those places to a trickle and its artists fleeing for safety. I’ve already written about Quai des brumes as one of the best pictures of 1938 and when I chose Michel Simon as best supporting actor so I won’t go into the specifics of the film. The focus will be on Jean Gabin and his character, Jean.

Gabin possessed a naturally intense screen presence out of which a mediocre actor could have milked a decent career. But Gabin was much more than a mediocre actor – he was a very good one. He exploited his talent and his ability well in a string of artistically successful movies in the 1930s: High and Low (1933), The Lower Depths (1936), Pépé le Moko (1937), Grand Illusion (1937), La bête humaine (1938), and Le jour se lève (1939). Taking these (and other) movies into consideration, I’m not sure if his performance in Quai des brumes is his best (next years Le jour se lève will rival it), but it is one of his most intense and the best performance by an actor in 1938.

Gabin’s Jean is a man resigned to his fate. Having deserted from the army, he knows his time is limited. He could be arrested at any moment, but Jean’s resignation is more philosophical than considerations of physical imprisonment. He recognizes that everything is temporary, everything will come to an end – and sooner than we think. He has given up hope even though he makes vague plans to escape the country, but little beyond that. Why would he need to plan for a life beyond the shores of France when he has given up, resigned himself to an existential fate.

That Jean’s journey mirrors the attitudes of many French citizens at the time makes Gabin’s performance all the more relevant. He captured their frustration, anger, and sense of betrayal with a subtle sneer or narrowed look. And not even the love of beautiful young Nelly (Michèle Morgan) can reclaim him from the depths of a corrosive apathy.

Like Jean, nothing Nelly does improves their situations – there is nothing they can do. Their bleak world is immune to love or hope. The biggest mistake they make is recognizing a connection in one another and mistaking their feelings for a faint glimmer of hope that they can escape. Escape is impossible. It’s a bleak vision of the world, but one with which too many identified in 1938 – and one in which Jean Gabin fit perfectly.


Filed under 1938, Yearly Best Performances

Simone Simon (La bête humaine) – Best Actress of 1938

Other Noteworthy Performances: Jean Arthur (You Can’t Take It with You), Bette Davis (Jezebel), Janet Gaynor (The Young in Heart), Katherine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby), Katherine Hepburn (Holiday), Wendy Hiller (Pygmalion), Miliza Korjus (The Great Waltz), Vivien Leigh (St. Martin’s Lane), Michèle Morgan (Quai des brumes), Margaret Sullavan (Three Comrades)

It’s hard to consider the best actress of 1938 without Simone Simon entering the conversation for her melancholy, conniving, and tragic role in Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine (The Human Beast). She plays a beautiful woman (what other type could she play?) trapped in a stifling marriage desperate for a way out. Modern audiences often identify her role as an early femme fatale, but I’ve never thought that was entirely appropriate. Her motivations are more complex than later, more traditional femme fatale-types, like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street. These women were driven by greed, but Simon’s Severine is more complex. She’s trapped by violence and jealousy, and tries to use the only tool she has to escape: her sexuality.

Simone Simon as the mysterious Severine with Fernand Ledoux as her jealous husband

Severine is married to Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux), a slightly pudgy, plain-looking railroad station master. We can’t help but wonder why she married the man – she certainly could have attracted a younger, better looking man. And Roubaud isn’t poor, but as station master he isn’t rich either. While we are tangentially aware of these discrepancies, Roubaud is consumed by them, acutely aware that Severine could have done much better – and still can.

When Roubaud discovers that Severine’s godfather M. Grandmorin seduced her, he flies into a jealous rage and forces her to help him kill Grandmorin. From the time they kill the old man, Severine withdraws even further from her husband. She is now pointedly aware of how violent he truly is and knows it is only a matter of time before Roubaud’s jealousy and guilt will overcome him, and he will murder her as well.

She finds solace and hope in a dangerous relationship with Lantier (Jean Gabin), a locomotive engineer and a friend of her husband. They fall in love and, eventually, Severine urges him to help her kill Roubaud before he can get to them. This is when Severine’s motives get cloudy and highlight the mastery of Simon’s performance. Does she really love Lantier, or is she an opportunist, using his affections to get rid of her husband? Simon plays the part with a deep sincerity that compels us to accept her emotions as genuine. She isn’t cruel or evil; she wants to save herself – nothing terrible about that.

Ironically, despite Jean Gabin’s hypnotic screen presence, Simon’s most powerful scenes are played opposite Fernand Ledoux as Roubaud. In them we see that she truly loved her husband despite (or maybe because of) his jealousy, but all affection dies when he kills Grandmorin.

Simone Simon commands the screen, juggling Severine’s contradictory traits – her vulnerability and strength, her nativity and intelligence – in ways only an actual person could. . Simon is crafty in this part, but never gimmicky. We’re never able to quite put our fingers on what drives Severine; every time we think we’ve got it, she does something to undermine our satisfactory explanation. The ambiguity with which Simon approaches Severine is an intelligent acknowledgement that we are complex animals and no matter how much we try, we will never be able to fully understand another person’s motivations, especially those secret, dark ones that lead to murder. It’s a masterful job.


Filed under 1938, Yearly Best Performances

Weekly Movie Diary (2-14-11) – “Kaboom,” “Carancho,” “Cold Weather,” “Gnomeo and Juliet,” and “The Eagle”

This week started off exclusively independent and foreign, but ended with a couple of big new releases, just to keep things even. Five movies in seven days and the score is in my favor: three good ones, two bad ones. Not a bad ratio.

Juno Temple, Thomas Dekker, and Haley Bennett in the muck of "Kaboom"

Kaboom is Gregg Araki’s latest confused picture. There’s so much going on that when I left the theater I wasn’t entirely sure what I had seen or what I was supposed to take away – if there was anything to take away. Young Smith (Thomas Dekker) is negotiating his freshman year at a San Diego area college, but so much goes down he doesn’t have much time to study: his pan-sexual dating causes one drama after another, but if that isn’t enough for a movie there is also a missing person mystery, a tale of lesbian obsession, Smith’s attraction to his straight roommate Thor (Chris Zylka ), ESP and witchcraft, nude beach cruising, absent parents, missed meetings in the internet age,  a mysterious cult – creepy animal masks and all – and the impending end of the world. In fairness, most of it comes together at the end (except for the psychotic lesbian witch whose presence can only be explained by Araki desire to get some girl on girl action in his celebration of all possible sexual combinations), but the journey to the end isn’t all that enjoyable.

Araki could have crafted a good movie out of any number of these parts, but he overshoots and messes everything up. It should have been campier but everything is played so straight that even the lighter moments come off as serious and neurotic, such as when Smith walks in on Thor trying to – um – fellate himself. The rest of the scene is played with Thor in that awkward though provocative position, but instead of enjoying it, instead of engaging with the inherent sexual playfulness of it,  we are treated to a desultory series of lines between the actors about something inconsequential and, like everything else in the picture, too serious. In the end, there are things to admire (Araki’s liberating celebration of bisexuality) but there is too much to make us groan (the confused plot, the obvious, tired gags, and the overworked script). While we should have been smirking and giggling, we were too often, rolling our eyes and checking our watches. (Rating **1/2)

Ricardo Darin and Martina Gusman in "Carancho"

Ricardo Darín plays Sosa in Pablo Trapero’s taut thriller from Argentina Carancho. Sosa is an ambulance chasing personal injury attorney looking to make a quick buck off the national scourge of auto accidents. (We are told that the number one cause of death in Argentina is car accidents.) He is basically an honest man but, as an unlicensed attorney, he can only find work at a shady firm that cheats its clients and steals most of their settlement money. When Sosa falls in love with Luján (Martina Gusman), a drug addicted young doctor, their destructive paths converge leading to even more chaos that gets worse the more they try to fix it. Carancho is a spellbinding film held together by the magnetic presence of Darín who reminds me of a modern day Humphrey Bogart or Jean Gabin. He, like Bogart and Gabin, is a man of unmistakable strength, but is worn out by life. Darín has the same tired eyes, the same slow, distinct movements, the same weariness, but counteracted by a dynamic screen presence. Carancho stumbles when Trapero tries to get too cute, especially the ending which so obvious that Trapero should have thought out another way. He is clearly trying to pull the rug out from under us and give us a wink-wink moment (like Tom Ford shamefully and insultingly did in the would-be great, but ultimately infuriating A Single Man), but he can’t get the response from the audience he wants because we see it coming miles away. I chose, however, to ignore the last minute or so and focus on the engaging and tense couple of hours before. (Rating ****)

Cris Lankenau and Trieste Kelly Dunn play Sherlock Holmes in "Cold Weather"

Continuing with my independent theme of the first half of the week, I made it out to Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather. If you can get through the first 30 minutes of seemingly aimless modern youth angst, the movie settles into a disarmingly clever and amusing mystery. When Doug (Cris Lankenau), a forensic crime school dropout, returns to his hometown of Portland he firmly embraces the slacker motif for his life. He moves in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and gets a job in an ice factory with vague notions of returning to school to finish his degree. Doug loves Sherlock Holmes and envisions a blurry future where he solves crimes, kind of like Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote, traveling the country and stumbling into murder cases. The idea of working at an actual job does not appeal to Doug. But when his ex-girlfriend disappears he, his sister, and his friend Carlos (Raúl Castillo) put his skills to the test and set out to solve the mystery of the missing ex-girlfriend. Katz demonstrates a level of respect for disconnected and disenfranchised twenty-somethings that many of the so-called “mumblecore” films don’t. Just showing us that they can sit around, kvetch, and do nothing does not enlighten us. But Doug illustrates real skill and intelligence while a lesser script would have made him the apathetic, know-it-all buffoon he appears to be at first glance. By making Doug smart and resourceful Katz is arguing that there is a great untapped resource in these young people. Their intelligence is being wasted, both by their own snarky indifference and an economy that has less and less need for them. (Rating ****1/2)

Love among garden decorations: "Gnomeo and Juliet"

I shuddered at the thought of Gnomeo and Juliet. An animated retelling of the Shakespeare tragedy set amongst, of all things, garden gnomes. Really? It sounded suspiciously like a Toy Story knock off, only this has the added burden of doing justice to the classic play when we know full well a children’s movie can never kill off its protagonists. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it is an utterly charming movie. Not only did the legion of screenwriter (and there are a lot of them) really think through the lives of these little gnomes, creating a credible world (though I’m still not sure how they have babies) in which the rivalry between neighboring gardeners spills over to their decorative gnomes. They also had some fun with the Shakespeare legacy by acknowledging his ending, but use it as a way of getting out of a double suicide (with a clever appearance by Patrick Stewart). Gnomeo and Juliet are voiced by James McAvoy and Emily Blunt and they are supported by an impressive cast including Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Matt Lucas, Ozzy Osbourne, Dolly Parton and, most unexpectedly, Hulk Hogan. (Rating ****)

Tahar Rahim smacks Channing Tatum around while Jamie Bell looks on in "The Eagle"

I started the week with a dud (Kaboom) and, despite the three very good movies I saw in between, it seems I was destined to end with a dud as well with the Roman empire adventure The Eagle. Set in the untamed island of Britain in the second century, Channing Tatum plays Marcus Aquila, a young Roman officer eager to reclaim his family’s honor. His father led a legion of 5000 men north of Hadrian’s Wall twenty years before, but disappeared. To add to the shame, they lost the golden eagle standard. (For some reason losing a golden eagle is considered more shameful than losing 5000 men.) Marcus ventures north of the wall — where it is believed no Roman can survive — with only his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell) to find the eagle. The movie suffers from the same problems those British colonial movies of the 1930s did like Lives of a Bengal Lancer, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Gunga Din: they celebrate the “civilizing” effects of empire over savage natives. Sure, Esca voices objections to what Rome has done to his people, but he comes around by the end, fully embracing Rome and rejecting his savage way of life. When they finally make it to the blue-face painted Seal people of the north where they find the eagle, it’s hard to cheer on Marcus when we in this post-colonial world empathize with the Seal people’s stand against Rome. Writer Jeremy Brock and director Kevin Macdonald (who also collaborated on the equally colonial minded Last King of Scotland) have to resort to distasteful gimmicks to make the fight morally unequivocal and Esca’s cultural transformation complete. Tatum (who isn’t, despite popular belief, a terrible actor – he was, after all the best thing in The Dilemma) and Bell do their best, but their efforts aren’t rewarded with a good movie. Even though he is unrecognizable in the blue makeup, it’s nice to see Tahar Rahim after his fantastic role in A Prophet and continues to impress here by performing in ancient Gaelic. But it’s a sloppy script directed with little flair, though there are a few sublime shots of running water. They are, however, the only evidence of thoughtful direction. (Rating: **)


Filed under Current Releases

Michel Simon (Quai des brumes) – Best Supporting Actor of 1938

Other Noteworthy Performances:

Basil Rathbone (The Dawn Patrol)

Lionel Barrymore (You Can’t Take It with You)

Claude Rains (The Adventures of Robin Hood)

Basil Rathbone (If I Were King)

Robert Morley (Marie Antoinette)

Edward Arnold (You Can’t Take It with You)

Pierre Renoir (La Marseillaise)

Roland Young (The Young in Heart)

Charles Ruggles (Bringing Up Baby)

Edward Everett Horton (Holiday)

Humphrey Bogart (The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse)

Sabu (The Drum)

There are several good choices for best supporting actor of 1938, most notably Basil Rathbone in The Dawn Patrol as a conflicted officer sending untrained pilots to their almost certain deaths or in If I Were King as the gleefully clever king of France trying to save his kingdom from foreign and domestic threats. Other good choices (listed above) include Lionel Barrymore doing what he does best in You Can’t Take It with You and Claude Rains as dastardly Price John in The Adventures of Robin Hood. In the end though only Michel Simon truly stands out as the complex villain Zabel in Quai des brumes.

Michel Simon as Zabel directing his unwanted attentions to Nelly (Michele Morgan)

Simon’s Zabel is a mess of contradictions without ever coming off as phony or contrived. He is a quasi-respected member of the harbor community in the film, the dutiful owner of a bric-a-brac shop and noted lover of religious choirs who has admirably raised his stepdaughter Nelly with no complaints. He spends his days minding the shop while the pious harmonies set the wholesome scene. This is Zabel to the rest of the community – an upright citizen just trying to get along honestly like everyone else.

Of course Zabel’s respectable image is a façade that masks darker truths about his character. Zabel supplements his income by dabbling in criminal enterprises and his aboveboard relationship with his stepdaughter hides his lascivious desires for her. Nelly is forced to run away when Zabel’s lust gets the better of him and loses control of himself.

What is clever about Simon’s performance is Zabel never comes off as a pure villain. He truly wants to be the respectable man he pretends to be, but his urges and desires – for money or for Nelly – subvert his positive impulses. He’s a man driven by desires and is too weak to control them. Several times in the film we see him struggle with what he knows is right and what he wants. What he wants usually wins so long as he believes he can maintain his public image and his misdeeds are kept in the dark. Exposure is the only thing that keeps him in check.

Simon recognizes the rarity of pure evil and grounds Zabel in reality. Most people who do bad things are more like Zabel than truly evil people. Perhaps viewers will recognize a little bit of Zabel in themselves making the character all the more chilling. Not only could he live in our own neighborhoods, but he could reflect something dark in ourselves.

That Simon chose a realistic way of depicting Zabel supports director Michel Carné’s critique of French society in the 1930s. Had he been an extraordinary or cartoonish villain, audiences could have detached themselves from his actions, dismissing Carné’s message. But by giving him emotional layers, by expressing his struggle through Simon’s performance, Carné confronts his audience head on about what he believed ailed French society. Zabel represents those who have abandoned their commitment to the nation for their own benefit.

Michel Simon was a prolific actor on the stage and screen from the 1920s to the 1970s. But it was during the 1930s that he gave some of his best performances for France’s best directors. In La Chienne and Boudu Saved from Drowning for Jean Renoir, L’Atalante for Jean Vigo, Drôle de drame and this film for Michel Carné, Simon proved that he was a great actor, intimately in touch with characters shunned, ignored, and forgotten. He forces us to examine those we would pass without comment, without a glance on the street, and recognize ourselves in them. His portrayal of Zabel in Quai des brumes is one of the most skillful of his illustrious career and well deserving of recognition as one of the best performances of 1938.


Filed under 1938, Yearly Best Performances