The Unlikely Femme Fatale: Breathless (1960)

Patricia Michel

When Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) makes her first appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless, she hardly seems the femme fatale type. An American in Paris, hawking the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Élysées, she looks rather boyish in her t-shirt, pants and tightly cropped pixie cut. In fact, she doesn’t behave like a femme fatale either; far from seducing Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the film’s antihero, she turns down his advances multiple times, uncertain about her feelings for him. Nevertheless, his infatuation with her brings about his own destruction — almost as if she can’t avoid destroying him.

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Scenes from a Marriage: The Catered Affair (1956)

Announcement

When Jane Hurley (Debbie Reynolds) announces that she’s engaged to Ralph Halloran (Rod Taylor), her boyfriend of three years, at the beginning of the 1956 Richard Brooks-directed film The Catered Affair, her parents’ reactions are decidedly restrained. “Well, Jane, that’s very nice,” replies her mother, Aggie (Bette Davis), in the midst of making breakfast. Her father, Tom (Ernest Borgnine), who’s just come home after driving a taxi all night, doesn’t respond at all until prodded by his wife, and then he merely echoes her words: “Jane, that’s very nice.” To be fair, Jane herself is rather subdued in delivering the news, and as she explains, their reasons for getting married now are largely practical: “Well, what finally decided us was Ralph’s got this friend, you know, in California, but his wife’s pregnant, so he asked Ralph if he knew somebody who could drive his car out for him ’cause he can’t drive it out himself, you know, ’cause his wife’s pregnant, so Ralph thought quickly and decided we could make a nice honeymoon out of a nice trip to California like that.” For them to take advantage of this opportunity, the wedding will have to take place in only a few days’ time, a no-frills, ten-minute affair, without a reception or any guests beyond the bride and groom’s immediate families. That’s how Jane wants it, and her parents are fine with the idea — at least at first.

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Accidental Detectives, Accidental Pilgrims: A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Hair Washing

In a place with a name like “Chillingbourne,” perhaps it’s inevitable that something strange and unsettling should happen, particularly on a dark night made all the darker by the enforcement of a blackout. Even so, when Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), a member of the Women’s Land Army, arrives in the Kent village, having a mysterious uniformed man pour glue in her hair and then run off is probably the last thing she expects — yet that’s exactly what happens at the start of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale.

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Fugitive Friendship: Tiger Bay (1959)

Spying

The 1959 film Tiger Bay, directed by J. Lee Thompson, takes its title from the area of Cardiff now known as Cardiff Bay. As the name suggests, the district is located along the waterfront, encompassing the city’s docks; consequently, in addition to being home to an ethnically and culturally diverse, immigrant-rich population (at least fifty-seven different nationalities were represented there in the 1950s), it also serves as a temporary host to countless people coming and going by boat. In this kind of setting, it’s inevitable that strangers with little or nothing in common should find themselves crossing paths on occasion — although few such chance encounters are apt to bind two strangers together the way this one does.

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An Anti-Romantic Romantic Comedy: Marriage Italian Style (1964)

Air Raid

Naples, World War II: With an air raid siren howling its warning in their ears, everybody in the vicinity of the port, a potential target, is running for shelter — well, not quite everybody. Domenico Soriano (Marcello Mastroianni) doesn’t appear to be in any great hurry to leave the bordello he’s visiting, though the prostitutes and the other clients have fled in terror. He takes time to look out the window, to turn off a record player, even to make a quip about the Italian army’s uniforms (“How are we supposed to win a war with people dressed like that?”) before strolling toward the exit. Only then does he realize that someone else is still in the building: a frightened girl (Sophia Loren) peeking out of one of the rooms. “Miss, aren’t you coming down?” he asks, to which she cries, “No, no!” and slams her door shut. Satisfied with this response, Domenico turns and starts walking away, until something makes him turn back. Is it kindness, a purehearted, altruistic concern for another human being’s welfare, or is his interest in her a bit less noble than that? Tellingly, he takes a second to fix his hair before approaching her room; then again, maybe that’s just a natural, thoughtless gesture in vain, womanizing, thoughtless man.

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Director Series: François Truffaut

truffaut
Source

Ages and ages ago, as recorded in my very first post on this blog, I decided to view and write about all of Yasujirô Ozu’s extant films in chronological order. For one reason or another, I never made it very far, only managing to get through Days of Youth, Fighting Friends — Japanese Style and I Graduated, But… before abandoning — or simply forgetting about — the project. At some point, I hope to pick up where I left off, though I’ll probably wait until the Criterion Channel launches in April, which should (fingers crossed) give me access to the bulk of his work. (Side note: Is there any legal way to watch The Munekata Sisters, preferably with English subtitles? It’s the only one I still haven’t seen. Anyway…)

For the time being, however, I’d like to attempt the same project with the films of François Truffaut. I’ve already written about quite a few of them here, but I hope to avoid retreading too much old ground; I think that the chronological format will help foster new insights, and these posts will probably be a bit more informal in style than the others, though we’ll see how things develop. The plan at this point is to publish one write-up per month, starting later this month.

Brief Encounters: The Masseurs and a Woman (1938)

carriage

A few minutes into Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1938 film The Masseurs and a Woman, the titular characters cross paths for the first time, in rather less than auspicious circumstances: while walking along a mountain road with fellow masseur Fuku (Shin’ichi Himori) — both of them blind, a tradition in Japan — a man named Toku (Shin Tokudaiji) stumbles on a rock and falls to the ground just as a horse-drawn carriage rounds the corner. Fortunately, he manages to get to his feet in time to move out of its way, and when he resumes his conversation with Fuku, he doesn’t even comment on his narrow escape. Something much more agreeable has captured his attention. “There was a nice woman aboard,” he says. “A lady from Tokyo. She had the scent of Tokyo.” Meanwhile, the driver of the carriage tells his passengers, including the woman in question (Mieko Takamine), about the two masseurs, whom he describes as “famous in these parts” due to their fondness for overtaking sighted people on the road during their annual visits: “Like swallows, they come north every spring, then return to the spas in the south every winter.”

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On First Viewing The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Phantom

The Phantom of the Opera is one of those tales that perennially lends itself to new adaptations, new re-imaginings — and yet, in spite of having read Gaston Leroux’s novel a number of years ago and having spent several sessions studying Phantom in a middle school music class, I’ve never actually seen either the stage musical or any film version of the story in its entirety*. While I know that we watched clips from some production or another in that music class, I can’t pin them down at this point — except one. At some point, our teacher showed us the scene from the 1925 Rupert Julian-directed silent adaptation in which the Phantom’s face is revealed, a sight that we were told had shocked and terrified moviegoers at the time; we, sophisticated thirteen-year-olds that we were, found it hilarious, a view encouraged by the teacher. This was the same class in which we (or the vast majority of us, myself included) first encountered West Side Story, another classic that we regarded as a object of mockery (though it, at least, wasn’t presented to us as such). Having grown to love West Side Story in the intervening years, it only seemed fair that I should give the 1925 Phantom of the Opera another chance, to put that unmasking in its proper context and re-evaluate its impact, and The Greatest Film I’ve Never Seen Blogathon struck me as the perfect opportunity to do just that.

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