Out now! My essay in the newest Ed Brubaker "Kill Or Be Killed" # 7 all about Noel Black's Pretty Poison starring Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins. Art by the great Sean Phillips. Order here.
Here's the first paragraph:
Those little eyes So helpless and appealing One day will flash and send you Crashing through the ceiling -- Maurice Chevalier (Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe)
I got a pretty little mouth underneath all the foaming La la la la La la la lie Sooner or later, we all gotta die -- Nick Cave
There’s a scene in Noel Black’s 1968 Pretty Poison that’s so creepy- sexy, so erotically unnerving, that it still makes a viewer feel off balance and disturbed in 2017. Tuesday Weld’s beautiful, blonde 17- year-old high school majorette has just bashed some poor night watchmen on the side of the head – near dead. She and her new boyfriend, psycho but sensitive Anthony Perkins, have been mucking around at the chemical plant he works for on one of their dates/clandestine missions. Perkins is loosening a chute that dumps chemical waste into the town’s water supply and, filling her head with lies that he’s a spy for the CIA, she’s excitedly helping him. She loves the intrigue and mischief and she loves being bad. The factory guard catches him and Perkins stares back terrified – for good reason – he’s recently been released from a loony bin. Weld is not scared of anything. She’s a remarkably pretty girl with enviable hair and straight A grades and a bright future ahead of her. She calmly brains the old guy, blood oozing all over his face, and she seems a little proud of herself too. Like she just solved a relatively hard algebra equation. Without asking or alerting the freaked-out Perkins she, with all of her sociopathic common sense and know-how, drags the dying man’s body into the water. He’s now good and dead. And then she sits on his back.
Read it all here.
From my piece written for the New Beverly.
“David set it up . . . There are eighteen different places in that film, if you look at it, where he could have stopped the whole thing. He didn’t. He let it go on . . . As so often in life, we let things happen to us because we want it to . . . I’ve had to lecture twice now, really, about the film to psychiatrists . . . They say, ‘How did you find out about this?’ Well, I got married a few times.” – Sam Peckinpah
Romantic relationships, revenge, jealousy, masculinity, femininity… these are complicated matters in life, emotionally messy matters, things that, when up against serious impediments, aren’t easily resolved by valorous, well-adjusted people doing the right thing. And often, when feeling a looming problem, and a looming problem particularly in our relationships, we act out in little ways to both avoid the crescendo of drama while subtly stoking those fires, making what we wish to prevent (total collapse) a self-fulfilling prophecy. Through committing small, nasty acts of reprisal (justified or not justified), grievances and resentment can build and build and build until they are fully ignited, gasoline poured on the flames, the house nearly burned down. This is what happens (and literally) in Sam Peckinpah’s controversial masterpiece Straw Dogs, a movie about a man struggling with his masculinity and what that even means (and unleashing his savagery when pressed in the most extreme way possible) while also observing, in most lacerating detail, a failing marriage – two people falling out of love, and indeed, when all is said and done and killed, hating each other. Scalding liquid thrown on faces, bear trap coup de grâce, bloody bodies piled up in a farmhouse. Through severe, in part, metaphorical terms, Peckinpah’s dysfunctional couple is, by film’s end, stripped of their microaggressions to see things for what they really are – they are not in love anymore and why did they get married in the first place? I can only wonder if Ingmar Bergman saw this picture and admired it. I’m going to believe that he did.
Straw Dogs opens with a Peckinpah motif – children are awful, readying to be awful adults. Like the kids torturing scorpions in The Wild Bunch, the children of this Cornish village (Cornwall, UK) are laughing and screaming and singing while circling a wagging dog in a graveyard. Though the dog’s not tortured, you sense something ominous will happen to the pup, and one can deduce that Peckinpah meant it as such (I highly doubt he opened his film simply to show how adorable little children are). Underneath all of the “cute” childhood play is a creature who could turn around and bite their little hands off. We then see the film’s protagonists walking through town, stocking up on sundries – that’s Dustin Hoffman’s American mathematician David Sumner and Susan George’s Amy, David’s young and beautiful British wife. George gets an eyeful of an introduction, something that’s offended and titillated viewers and critics since its opening: wearing a white sweater and jeans, she is braless, and Peckinpah takes visual notice of this right away.
The male gaze is exactly what Peckinpah has placed front and center (even if women also look at and admire George), as you feel a palpable sense of dread, the townies staring at her as we stare at her, making us feel immediately aroused, and some of us uncomfortable, perhaps even complicit, and a little sorry for Susan George who is simply braless. To a young woman in 1971, going braless wasn’t that big of a deal, and for some (then and now), even if she knows everyone is looking, she doesn’t really care. And why should she? Yes, it’s always wise to assess the danger of your surroundings (and David brings it up later, though with little concern, this isn’t James Stewart lecturing Lee Remick about wearing a girdle in Anatomy of a Murder), but the idea that she deserves any kind of aggression based on her lack of an undergarment is absurd. I can’t believe that I’ve read this subtly questioned, even in reviews from the 2000’s. I recall reading that Amy was “gallivanting around” in one piece, which suggests she’s being overtly ostentatious in her attire. Jeans and a turtleneck sweater? I’ve seen sexier getups worn by Marcia Brady on “The Brady Bunch.”
So … maybe Amy just doesn’t like wearing a bra and Peckinpah noted how men view this and placed us directly in that view. It may come off as exploitation at first but it serves a purpose throughout the entire picture. Amy is both knowing and wagging a big middle finger to those who look. Both times she’s caught in erotic visual (topless in the window, or her mini-skirted leg and panties from the car) she stares down her gawkers more with a challenging “what?” than a flirtation. That many critics view this as merely flirting seems strange to me, not taking in the complexities and the impressive subtly of George’s performance.
But that kind of liberated manner is scary in this setting and furthers the animosity the locals feel for Hoffman’s American, whom Peckinpah also describes via wardrobe – ineffectual, sweatered-preppy in white tennis shoes, walking into a pub full of hard-drinking manly men who clomp around in work boots and scruffy beards. David even requests American cigarettes. You feel sorry for him too. He’s immediately an outsider. This is Amy’s hometown and so the watchful locals may make her feel both more comfortably accustomed to their roughness and wary at the same time and yet, she must know they resent this return. Already a man she’s had romantic involvement with, Charlie Venner (Del Henney), is getting aggressively fresh. But you get a feeling, immediately, that something is not right in David and Amy’s marriage; that it likely wouldn’t have worked out even in a different setting. It’s just that this was the entirely wrong town to relocate to. This will be the place to inflame their already apparent strain. Much like the way Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse make a fresh start at the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby, you can already see the tension before the Satanists show up.
So much of the picture is building on this dread and animosity – between the villagers with the husband and wife, and between the husband and wife alone, that every little infraction is loaded. David has left the states during the Vietnam War (some believe Peckinpah viewed this pacifism as cowardly, I do not think it’s that simple), and he’s trying to accomplish work on complex math problems in the farmhouse. At one point he tells a worker, Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison), why he ventured out there: “I’m just glad I’m here where it’s quiet and you can breathe air that’s clean and drink water that doesn’t have to come out of a bottle.” It’s an innocuous yet amusing line because, one it’s timeless, someone would say that now, and two, nothing appears bucolic in this town at all – not even the air. Muscularly shot by cinematographer John Coquillon, the town is potently grimy, where nature is tangled and cold, the green of the earth damp and dirty, everything is effectively oppressive, a place where people are self-medicating illnesses (physical and mental) at the pub, and disease-ridden rats are proudly caught by a giggling rat catcher psycho named Chris Cawsey (Jim Norton) who sings this dreary little ditty: “Smell a rat, see a rat, kill a rat!”
Amy and David are always being watched while the men working on the farmhouse lewdly discuss Amy’s attractiveness with perceptible violence, even stealing a pair of her undies. They don’t like David, whom they view as weak, and laugh at him as he attempts to start his sports car – an emasculating moment, backing up when he means to move forward, accidentally turning on the windshield wipers. Amy is the better driver, and the more reckless one as well. People may consider Amy as the most reckless at everything but I believe they both are. Or rather, everything around them is a torrent of recklessness, fueling their normal transgressions.
Adapted by Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman from Gordon M. Williams’s “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm,” some changes in the script made the disparity between the couple more evident. Their ages – younger – and Amy young enough for us to assume she was once David’s student. The dynamic of teacher-student crush is now colliding with real life, with nature. That whatever intellectual control David had over her before, he is losing his power, and especially in this turbulent, rugged environment. Their bickering is that of a focused academic who doesn’t take his wife seriously (she also seems quite a bit more affectionate than him) and a wife who seeks respect and validation, even if she has to be annoying to get it. Amy is unhappy, even tortured at times (you can see it in her eyes), and young actress George displays this in knowingly subtle ways. She does small things to show her annoyance – crossing out a plus sign to a minus on David’s blackboard, even sticking her gum on it; talking to the workers only to mock David by telling him they think he’s “strange;” yelling at him to question the workers over who hung their cat in the closet (this seems pretty justified, though it would be hard to approach a group of intimidating men, accusing them of killing your cat).
They’re bickering like an old married couple while playing up their roles, perhaps to restore their attraction. In one scene, David gazes at Amy flopped out on a chair and remarks that she looks like a 14-year-old. He playfully drops the age to 12 and then 8, as she vamps up the Lolita wife by smacking and chewing her gum like a sexy teenager. This works for them. In that moment. But not-so-Lolita Amy has her small victories. Like when David says she’s smarter than he thought because she actually understands a mathematical concept or that Peckinpah shows her playing and studying a cerebral game like chess before going to bed. Amy wants to win at something and if chess won’t be taken seriously enough, her sexuality might, and so that sex, her braless beauty, hovers over the picture as, not just a torture device or Amy having it coming, more as impending doom through sexual extremity.
The working men invite David out to hunt and humiliate him further – they ditch him in the woods and one calls on his wife. Charlie Veneer returns to their farmhouse where Amy is alone. Here begins the notorious moment that has been studied, argued about, upset or confused critics to this day: in a meticulously crafted scene, through expertly horrific, ferociously real and yet, hallucinatory directing, editing and performance, Charlie rapes Amy. And then Scutt sodomizes her. It starts with Amy rejecting Charlie’s advances, but he overcomes her on the couch. Peckinpah does not spare Amy, her clothes are ripped off, breasts revealed, her quaking fear so evident you know (and this was indeed true) that the actress is terrified herself. What offends many is that Amy eventually succumbs; she climaxes and holds her ex lover tenderly. When Scutt sneaks in, unbeknownst to Charlie, Charlie at first tells him no, but then, disgustingly siding with a buddy over a woman, holds her down while Scutt rapes her. It’s horrifying, Amy convulsing in terror and pain. Critics who loathe the picture feel that Peckinpah is suggesting that Amy is asking for it, through her attire, through her flirting (I still don’t view her as merely a flirt) or, that craving his masculinity, she’s turned on by Charlie’s brutality. I don’t think it’s quite that simple (though I’m not going to tell anyone what they should or should not be offended by). Amy is being victimized by someone she knows and, in my view, could be submitting to save herself from being further brutalized. She can’t overpower him. She can’t even move. It’s shocking and unhealthy and it makes her feel undeservedly guilty. To underscore this, the scene is intercut with David out in the woods, feeling like an idiot for trusting the brutes, holding a lifeless bird he shot with the look of someone who is thinking, what is the point of this? He’s no idea what is happening to his wife – making the rape also serve the purpose of ultimate cuckolded nightmare – something he’ll later learn and replay in his brain over and over – that she liked it. This is what men might think, even if a woman does not enjoy it. And this it is where many critics draw the line. Amy is traumatized and suffers a traumatic flashing, which returns to her in recurring trauma that will likely never leave this woman. Never mind the man’s issues. Amy has to live with this. It’s a fucked up moment, complicated and troubling but no, nothing Amy deserves. And I don’t think Peckinpah would view it quite that simply either. Though I’m sure some would disagree with me.
And this movie was very personal to him, according to Peckinpah biographer David Weddle (“If They Move . . . Kill ‘Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah”). As discussed in the biography, the director’s soon-to-be wife Joie Gould was apparently a version of Amy, and David a version of Peckinpah:
“The costumes used for Amy in the final film bore a striking resemblance to Joie’s own wardrobe, and Dustin Hoffman wore many items that could have been pulled out of Sam’s closet. (Peckinpah was dressing – coincidentally or purposely – more preppily than he had in the States.) Peckinpah was not only using his own past as raw material for the film, but manipulating his present, himself and the people around him, to help feed the psychodrama. A dangerous game, as Joie would learn the hard way … The slightest smile or exchange of pleasantries with another male would throw Sam into a fit of jealousy. By the time they returned to the house in the evenings his eyes were two red pulsing sores and his mood swings were rapid and unpredictable. He flew into a rage at the slightest provocation.”
That some critics believe Peckinpah sided with the savage men of the town, and the savage unleashed in passive David seems too simplistic – that he was picking sides and not, perhaps, addressing problems within himself. Pauline Kael famously called it “the first American film that is a fascist work of art.” (Peckinpah was incensed by this review). The director likely viewed himself as both type of man, which, by film end, David is. The film is hard to wrap one’s mind around, or place tidily in a box (just as A Clockwork Orange, also released that year, was and still is) as it confronts the difficult realities of innate savagery – and not for the better of us. But not for any better or for worse – that Peckinpah is observing it’s there and in David’s eventual circumstances, he’s going to unleash (for protection, but also for satisfaction). Even as the brilliantly choreographed siege (arriving from even more violent/sexual hysteria) which takes over the final third act of the movie, is as exciting as hell, it also underscores how fucking unfair everything in this movie (and life) is.
The emotionally disturbed (or simple, one might say) Henry Niles (David Warner) has gone off, quite innocently, with teenager Janice (Sally Thomsett) which enrages her father – the stupid, volatile Tom (Peter Vaughan) – and he rounds up a group of townies, including Amy’s rapists, to find her. Of course they blame Niles who, in an Of Mice and Men-Lenny moment of fear, accidentally chokes Janice to death. Amy and David have left the church party since Amy cannot stand the sight of her rapists, and David hits a fleeing Niles with his car. Taking him home against Amy’s objections (no one in the town trusts Niles), David refuses to release him to the lynch mob outside the house. David finally takes a stand, and not necessarily for his wife – she has turned against him but is now forced to help him because what else can she do when marauders are breaking into her house, ready to kill them? David is sticking up for himself, for his home and for Niles, though Niles seems more a symbol of his rage and pent up frustration, an innocent who inadvertently isn’t innocent (and maybe a savage too, after all he attacks Amy; David slaps him and says, “No,” to him like a misbehaving child). Niles is an enormous organism of confused impulses and guilt, and perhaps, helps David focus his rage to act and think. And David thinks fast when combating such radical violence and horror.
A few critics at the time saw this as implausible and even melodramatic, but to me it’s a vicious fever dream of not just David’s inner barbarian, but of marital discord exploding to bloody bits – every passive aggressive slight, every sexually unfulfilling night, every jealous moment, every moment of feeling lesser, either intellectually or physically, coming to a literal boiling point of hot oil tossed in a rapist’s face. Much like Warren Oates’s Benny channeling his pain and rage and revenge into a flurry of focused madness, driving with that bloodied head in a sack in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, David must preserve his self-respect, through retribution. But does he? Oates’s Benny has more loving reasons – he’s lost his love to death, and, dammit, “nobody loses all the time,” as he says, but, perhaps through everything, David loses anyway, because there’s nothing romantic about his vengeance. The brilliant Alfredo Garcia, though dark and unsparing, is also romantic, as is The Ballad of Cable Hogue and The Getaway. But David’s just lost his love to … life. To marriage. All pretense is removed as David (and Amy, I think people forget Amy does help David, even if she resists, ready to bolt out the door towards the townies) defend what’s left of themselves against this leering, loathsome, all-impulse, no-thought mob – hypocrites, since they see no connection with their rape of Amy to anything Niles has done.
Amy is just doing what she’s told, we’ve no idea if she’s going to stick around (doubtful she will) as this Frankenstein creature is saved, the child they wrought. The idea that this is a merely anti-liberal, pro-violence movie in which savagery triumphs over passivity seems too easy for such a difficult story with such confused characters in such extraordinary circumstances. As David drives away with Niles, Niles says, “I don’t know my way home.” David, smiling, curiously, remarks, “That’s okay. I don’t either.” Did he find himself through becoming lost? Or is he merely gone? It’s unclear and it should remain unclear. Straw Dogs is overwhelming and, in the end, thought provoking because even through violence, nothing is solved. Nothing is easy. And, like the best Peckinpah, it forces you (and force is the right word) to look within yourself, to ask questions. As Peckinpah said:
“I’m defining my own problems; obviously, I’m up on the screen. In a film, you lay yourself out, whoever you are. The one nice thing is that my own problems seem to involve other people as well. . . . Straw Dogs is about a guy who finds out a few nasty secrets about himself, about his marriage, about where he is, about the world around him . . . It’s about the violence within all of us. The violence which is reflecting on the political condition of the world today. It serves as a cathartic effect.”
“Someone may feel a strange sick exultation at the violence, but he should then ask himself: ‘What is going on in my heart?’”
Sad day. Rest in Peace, Robert Osborne. A big part to my enjoyment and learning while watching classic cinema. A King in the household. So it was a thrill and an honor sitting across from him as a guest programmer for TCM. That day Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was shooting a segment and we were getting hair and makeup at the same time (I was already nervous and in walks legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was incredibly nice and talked to me about the greatness of Peter Lorre. It was wonderful and seemed like an "only at TCM" kind of moment which Osbourne brought out -- everyone who loved movies wanted to talk to him. When I shot my segment Osborne put me at ease immediately. He was so gracious and funny and charming and, of course, he knew all about the pictures (Jack Garfein's "Something Wild" and John Berry's "He Ran All the Way"), that should go without saying. He knew about everything and his knowledge and enthusiasm was infectious and so truly respected, which is why audiences were in such able hands and loved him so much. Thanks for one of my greatest movie moments, Robert Osborne (I treasure the framed photo TCM sent after my appearance, signed by Osbourne). And thanks for everything you gave to classic cinema.
“What was serious was when critics followed suit. But then they became afraid of appearing old-fashioned by defending the cinéma de papa, as we call it. And they made fun of its French quality, which is there. They didn’t do anything – nothing important, anyway. They never made a Carnival in Flanders, a Grand Illusion, or a Children of Paradise, forgive my saying so. They made ‘intimate’ films with some kind of elevator music – like Truffaut. I’m not criticizing Truffaut, but one day we inaugurated a movie theater in the suburbs where there were two theaters: a Truffaut Theater and a Carné Theater. And we went up on the stage together. Truffaut had dragged my name through the mud, mind you, but I was very honored to have my name together with Truffaut’s. I’m not sure he felt the same way. He said so many nasty things about me . . . Anyway, he had no comment, which was easy to do after ten years. He finished his speech by saying, ‘I’ve made twenty-three movies, and I’d give them all up to have done Children of Paradise.’ What could I say after that? Nothing. He said it in front of three or four hundred people, but it was never written down . . . I am not upset with him anymore. At that time, if I was in a studio . . . and Mr. Godard came in, he said nothing to me, not even hello. It’s almost as if he turned his back on me . . . When they said, ‘At least we can shoot on location, something the old filmmakers couldn’t do’ – they shot on location, fine, but they owe that to the talents of the photochemists and engineers, not to their own”. – Marcel Carné
That deep drum. That wonderfully bottomless sound that opens Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise – an invocation or a demand. The movie announces itself at once with that dum-dum-dum, almost like a rapping on a door, a door you’re perhaps too intimidated to open but deeply curious to see beyond. You want that door to open, if only in your mind (even as you stare at a screen). It’s the sound of being awoken from a dream, bolting up in bed wide-awake – what is that? Who is there? Were you roused from a pleasant reverie or are you still dreaming? Carné places your eyes, mind and ears in a nocturnal attentiveness with that beating, immediately setting you in bracing dream logic that, paired with a closed curtain, ingeniously positions you as audience member, your eyes gazing at the luminous draperies, still shut, your ears perked up by the processional music turned to lush score which promises something grand, something romantic, surely something beautiful. Open, curtain, we think. What on earth lies behind it? This is a movie, not a play, and these curtains don’t appear playful or Brechtian, they seem a portal to another world. Staring at the screen swathed in curtain, just a curtain, a lovely curtain – it’s a singular sensation – and one you don’t forget. If a movie could possibly make you feel both the disparate sensations of being purely in focus and partially off kilter, and right away, it is the masterpiece Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis). And then the curtain opens.
Right before it parts upward we read on screen, “Part 1: Boulevard of Crime,” and the opulent instrumentation turns to the music of the Paris street, the organ grinder, the noises of show people. Once it rises we observe a crowded Parisian district circa 1827 in the neighborhood of the “Boulevard du Temple” (called “Boulevard of Crime” not for actual theft and violence, but for the entertainments shown there, melodramas and crime stories). There’s a fellow traversing a tight rope, a strong man lifting barbells, a monkey walking on stilts, horse drawn carriages, dancing girls kicking up their legs, vendors selling wares, and a clown-faced barker beckoning men to a tent featuring a beautiful woman. She will be naked, for what other reason would we spy a gorgeous woman in a tent lest she sport a beard. No beard here, but a bath (“Totally unadorned, naked for all to see!”). After the camera pans through this elaborate, exquisitely crafted set with thousands of extras, and moves towards this tent where another, smaller curtain parts (“Our show is enticing. Audacious! Arousing! For those with eyes that see”) we’re finally presented to the woman who will center the story and who will motivate, inspire, instigate, love, break, reject, bewilder all four men around her – Arletty – as the lovely Garance. She soaks in a tub of water, nude, staring at herself in a mirror as the men stare at her shimmering nakedness, not too much revealed, while we, the viewers, look. Triple vision, not counting the camera, a fourth spectator. We see a vision looking at a vision, and one lit so beautifully we’re uncertain if Arletty is not a young woman, but then, she’s not an old woman either – she’s a woman, and a disarming insouciant woman at that.
Carné (and DOP’s Marc Fossard and Roger Hubert) exit the tent to the crammed street and get to the task of introducing the men of the story, as fluidly and as lyrically as the camera moves – these men are connected to Arletty in varied expressions of desire. Bon vivant womanizer Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur) is looking for acting work and after eying Garance, he’s so struck by her beauty that he hustles over to her for a flirtation, all wooing and kissy lips. She smiles back and handles his declarations like the seasoned beauty she is, so used to strangers coming on to her that she can give him her mysterious Mona Lisa smiles and say things like, “I love everyone,” with absolute charm. Another one of her most attractive traits, and one that even supersedes her beauty at times, is that she is just so casually cool about everything around her. And not cold, not even cynical, but bemused, charmed, taking life in with the kind of sophistication that makes her wonderfully unclassifiable, devoid of those stock terms writers and critics and people use towards women – the femme fatale, the hooker with the heart of gold – Garance (and Garance through that glorious creature Arletty specifically) does not fit neatly into any of these appellations, she’s instead, an intriguing person, her own artistic creation, and nobody’s fool.
Garance then moves on to her other admirer (who proudly does not love her, and she does not love him, her “I love everyone” then, seems more, “I love no one,” and that makes life so much easier), Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand). He’s a scrivener and a criminal, who writes letters for others, a dandy with his perfect moustache and curly-cued hair resting at his temples, but a dangerous and hard man with his good looking young accomplice Avril (Fabien Loris) who seems to love him, always at his side. (There’s a lot of sexual fluidity in this picture). After meeting this strangely attractive, debauched rogue, Garance and Lacenaire go back into the bustling streets and stop at mime act in front of the Funambules Theater. Once again, another man is entranced by Garance, this time the white-faced, long-wigged mime, Baptiste Deburau (a brilliant Jean-Louis Barrault) who saves Garance from a pickpocketing charge after she’s unfairly accused of lifting a man’s gold watch (of course Lacenaire actually stole it, and of course he walked away). In a brilliantly shot and acted scene, Baptiste, as Garance’s witness, acts out the crime as it happened to the police, impersonating the large man and the innocent lady to both the crowd and Garance’s delight. The art of mime is elevated here to dance, or a surrealistic depiction of life itself, it is so graceful and lovely and entrancing – a simultaneous emulating and bending of reality. Garance thanks him and throws the young man a flower. He is smitten. But as we’ll see through this first act, he’s so innocent that his feelings are almost too much to bear – that feeling of love, overwhelming love, the kind that makes one almost suffer a mental collapse – makes you worry for poor Baptiste.
The other two men – the womanizer and the cruel dandy – they know their way around women, but Baptiste encompasses all that one feels when one senses their heart losing control. It’s romantic but painful, immediately, that dum-dum-dum of the drum, and that Carné and his screenwriter, frequent collaborator, poet and surrealist, Jacques Prévert, knew how to write and script this sensation so quickly without cheap sentiment or spuriousness, is testament to how powerful their alliance was. Upon introduction, vision to word to wordless description, connects us to these characters. There is not one wobbly moment here, not one scene that feels superfluous or dishonest. And the movie is three hours and ten minutes long. And I’m just discussing the opening.
The picture is indeed vastly epic, packed with scenery and extras and meticulous set decoration (by the genius Alexandre Trauner), and yet it’s so intimate and free… it never feels trapped on set, even with the theater backdrop (in fact, the theater feels like a releasing outlet for life, both mirroring it and expanding upon its truths and mysteries). The emotions here are both so fervent and even, at times, unconcernedly honest, and the characters so lived-in and of-the-world, we never doubt for a second they could exist as living breathing entities in this grand creation. There are choices characters make for self-preservation over love, but they aren’t presented as tragic with a capital T, not straight away, and yet there are tragic consequences because of these choices, consequences that sneak up on you and leaves you devastated.
Garance will eventually set up life (not marriage) with the Count Édouard de Montrayrich (Louis Salou), whom she likes least of any of these men, but who rescues her from yet more illegal shenanigans (attempted robbery and murder) via bad boy Lacenaire and his backup, Avril. She had nothing to do with it, but the world being the way it is, Garance is under scrutiny as a woman, and as the type of woman she is. The cynical Count represents another form of affection or attention lavished on a woman – she is bought, she is arm candy, she is the mistress – a free spirit and intelligent, this is not her favorite arrangement. Garance’s men are representative of options, but also the varied stages of love as well, or acting, how we may act with loved ones. Perhaps one could have a relationship (or marriage) with all of these types, presented in one person at various times: The reckless, though likable lady’s man, the cruel, sexy, scoundrel, the sensitive, wide-eyed lover/artist and the tedious sugar daddy.
The film presents archetypes without being obvious or hackneyed about it, with Garance both sexual object and mother figure. Where will her fate lie? Does this have anything to do with fate? Listening to rat, thief Jericho (Pierre Renoir, brother of Jean), who observes the actions around him and comments, disparagingly and threatening, we wonder if he, as unlikable as he is, represents a kind of fate. Norman Holland put this beautifully in his essential essay on the film, that Jericho, “the moralist himself is corrupt, a spy, an informer, a dealer in stolen goods, as the Vichy bourgeois often were – or as children can feel fathers are. Jéricho is a city of walls, the obstacles that our characters face in the world.”
The curtain closes on Act One with all of Garance’s choices, with the theater as life in all of its ambition and talent and crime and sex and sadness, blurring from artifice to actuality, and Act Two presents us with “The Man in White” (we hear that drum again, this time we’re wide awake). It’s seven years later and Garance doesn’t love the man keeping her, she loves the one she should love, the one who loves her, Baptiste. Will that work out? Since he’s married to the one who loves him, Nathalie (María Casarès) and has now birthed a child (the moment where the child introduces himself as a spy for his mother to Garance is captivatingly sweet)… no. It’s not going to work out. Garance shows up to watch him perform, in secret, veiled, and his immense talent and gentle soul is likely soothing the coarseness of her arrangement. It’s another act of artifice – the veiled lady, hiding behind a mask just as the mime or the actor or the criminal pens secret letters for pretenders. She is sad, but Garance never says she’s simply unhappy, she describes it poignantly, at one point as an artful mechanism, damaged: “I’m not sad, but not cheerful either. A little spring has broken in the music box. The music is the same but the tone is different.”
Meanwhile, Frédérick and Baptiste have become famous in their professions, Baptiste as a mime and Frédérick in the Grand Theater, even as he mocks a play and its authors by turning a melodrama into comedy. Another act that bleeds into life – Frédérick even joins the audience in a seat from the stage, enraging the writers enough to challenge him to a duel. Frédérick knows his audience and he knows himself so much that living and breathing acting inspires him to use his newfound jealousy over Garance and Baptiste to motivate his performance of Othello, a sensible solution to pain. Lacenaire creates his own life as well, fulfilling his earlier statement that his head will wind up in a basket – he murders Garance’s Count. And Baptiste, now an acknowledged artist, resumes his love with Garance, but it’s too late and too complicated. Baptiste chases after her but is famously swallowed up in a crowd, literally engulfed by real life – art, mime, the theater, cannot save him at this moment. It’s a gorgeously shot scene in a movie so beautifully filmed and lit (the silver of the black and white, the swooping observational tracking shots, the loving detail of a staircase or a circus or the streets or a blind man who really isn’t blind, another deception), that the time Carné takes showing Baptiste’s aggrieved face, one that is no longer an innocent, (he’s now hurt others) makes his pain so palpable, both for love and for finally growing up and absorbing the end of love in all of its excruciating and layered heartbreak, is potently expressive . And no one is to simply blamed; no one is simply demonized. Even Lacenaire sits down and awaits his punishment. This is not a movie made by immature, mawkish people. These are makers who have lived life, lived art, and lived through war.
And one cannot discuss how real life and theater, artifice and authenticity intersect in Children of Paradise without mentioning its historic, tumultuous making, during the middle of German occupied France in WWII. Carné cleverly set the film in two parts due to the Vichy authorities requiring a film be no more than 90 minutes long, production was often halted, actor Robert Le Vigan was sentenced to death by the resistance and replaced by Pierre Renoir, set designer Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma, both Jewish, worked secretly during production, and by the time of the premiere, when Paris was liberated, the picture’s star, Arletty, was in prison. Infamously, Arletty had fallen in love with a German Luftwaffe officer and for that she was jailed (in a chateau) for her morally treasonous affair. In response to her controversy, Arletty famously stated these words: “My heart is French but my ass is international.” Spoken like a true Garance.
Carné discussed much of this in a 1990 interview with Brian Stonehill (read it all here) for the Criterion Collection. His thoughts on Arletty, whom he worked with in Hôtel du Nord, Le Jour Se Lève and Les Visiteurs du Soir before this (“She was wonderful.”) and the scandal are intriguing:
“During that period, there were snipers on the roofs of Montmartre, and they went into homes and searched apartments. Anyway, he left, and two days later, I got a phone call from him saying that Arletty had been arrested in his house. A bunch of partisans knocked at his door. My friend, like an idiot, opened the door, and one of the partisans suddenly said, ‘Oh, look at the whore over there! Do you see Arletty over there?’ So they arrested her, took her away; they came close to shaving her head at the station. They never hit her, but they were very lewd toward her, called her all kinds of nasty names and put her under house arrest outside Paris. There, she had to go see some kind of judge on a daily basis. The judge began to fancy her. Every day she went, and he joked around with her. One morning he said, ‘How do you feel this morning, Ms. Arletty?’ She answered, ‘Not very ‘resistant.’”
The picture was an enormous hit, and one of those classics that had become so famous, that some younger filmmakers and critics of the early 1960’s turned against it (particularly André Bazin, Francois Truffaut and others at Cahiers du cinéma), for various reasons. Other poetic realists were still embraced, as they should be, like Jean Renoir or Jean Vigo but Carné was treated by some critics (then, not so much now) as old fashioned, or not an auteur, relying too much on collaboration and, specifically, with his screenwriter, Prévert. (Bazin called him “disincarnated”). The accusation of Carné being set bound to his detriment and/or fussy or not innovative seems unduly unfair, as if his type of artifice and collaboration are a bad thing – absurd. (I’m sure there were other reasons and Truffaut changed his mind) The art and life that stimulated movies like Children of Paradise (and the photography of André Kertész and Brassaï, all part of this rich artistic movement), feel as magnificently authentic and as emotionally honest as Arletty’s beguiling smile, or those Children of Paradise, the poor unwashed up in the cheap seats, laughing and even screaming for their entertainment as they nearly fall into the orchestra pit, or that beating drum introducing the picture’s two parts, calling us to attention, thumping right into our very soul. Time to wake up to live and to dream.