Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955)

Journey to the Beginning of Time

Czechoslovakia
4.5*

Director:
Karel Zeman
Screenwriters:
Karel Zeman
Josef Antonín Novotný
Directors of Photography:
Václav Pazderník
Antonín Horák

Running time: 84 minutes

Original title: Cesta do pravěku

The fossils of prehistoric creatures housed at the National Museum are just a collection of bones, either spread out or assembled in a skeletal structure or set in stone as a result of petrification over millennia. They are not alive, and they only hint at the original. Sometimes, a museum may have an exhibit that is a representation of what one of these animals from long, long ago looked like. Usually, it’s a mammoth.

What the luminary Czechoslovak special effects director Karel Zeman realised, was exactly the same motivating force that must have compelled Steven Spielberg to shoot Jurassic Park in the early 1990s: The ability of the cinema, and of skilled filmmakers, to bring to life what until now we could only imagine, and make the past almost physically present.

Journey to the Beginning of Time was released in 1955, but as the country was isolated internationally at the time and would only open up a few months after Zeman’s death in 1989, his fame and magic were confined to the borders of the landlocked country in Eastern Europe.

What we realise more and more, however, is how far ahead of his time Zeman was. Inspired by Georges Méliès and explicitly referencing Jules Verne, whose work is the obvious forebear of both these artists, Zeman’s Journey to the Beginning of Time is a beloved classic in the Czech Republic and deserves widespread recognition, even though its visual effects have by now, more than half a century later, been surpassed by computer-generated effects.

Three teenagers, Petr, Jenda and Toník, and a younger boy named Jirka set off on a journey through the ages. Having read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, they consider themselves explorers and set off on a canoe upstream from the present day all the way back to the beginning of life on earth, where the fossil of a trilobite that Jirka found in stone will be seen for real.

It is a journey that obviously boggles the mind, and we are left wanting for an explanation of how the children go about skipping from one time period to the other (the film does employ some mist to cover the transitions, though), but what is obvious is that these machinations of the fiction are not what we should be focused on. The real reason we watch the film is to see the prehistoric animals come to life, and do so in the presence (and in the same frame!) as the children.

Petr, the de facto leader of the group, obliquely speaks for the viewer, too, when he observes:

We haven’t made this journey just for fun; we came to study what prehistoric life really looked like. We are so lucky to have the opportunity to do just that, to see everything with our own eyes.

Indeed, this is a privilege, and as the children travel back from the time of the cavemen to the time of the dinosaurs and beyond, we find ourselves constantly aware of the fact that while the events are about as possible as time travel, the thrill of seeing creatures from these two very different times in one place is extraordinary, and Zeman assembles and stages the actions with a very firm and steady hand.

While the special effects are not on the more or less seamless technical level of Jurassic Park, they are breathtaking considering the film was made in the early 1950s, in a country that had a few months earlier been racked by its infamous currency reform that cut the worth of everyone’s money by 90% while prices remained the same (a tale told in great detail by the remarkable 2012 film, Ve stínu). Often, the stop-motion animal movements would seem to be too fast or too slow, or when the mammoth stands still but raises its trunk, the bushes around it move without reason with jerky movements.

But Zeman achieves some impressive results during the staging of a nighttime fight between a Stegosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and while many animals don’t have a reflection in the water because they were not shot next to the river, but separately, the Brontosaurus’s appearance in the river, reflection included, is gorgeous.

At another point, the camera follows the enormous dragonflies called Meganeura as they fly between the trees, the camera apparently tracking down below while looking up at them. The effect is powerful and this technically ambitious sequence is very rewarding.

In some ways, the film can be called superficial, but covering the various life forms of 5 billion years in 80 minutes is no small feat. From time to time, mention is made of life in the present, and the juxtaposition is worthwhile, for example when club mosses were the size of trees, their eventual stratification would give rise to coal mining in the 20th century.

The four boys, with the exception of the inquisitive Jirka, don’t get up to much trouble, and have a surprisingly easy time of all this travelling through the ages, so in the end we learn little about them, but their awe at being able to see all these creatures is something the viewer understands all too well, as Zeman’s film awakens a curiosity in us for the life of things we may never really have considered beyond the bare bones of a museum exhibit.

H-8… (1958)

Yugoslavia

4.5*
Director:
Nikola Tanhofer
Screenwriters:
Zvonimir Berković
Tomislav Butorac
Director of Photography:
Slavko Zalar

Running time: 105 minutes

In the glorious tradition of Stagecoach, the 1958 Yugoslavian film H-8… takes a very heterogeneous group of individuals, puts them in a car, lets us slowly come to grips with their stories and their character traits, and before we know it, we know them all and the end credits start to roll. However, with some clever narration, by competing narrators, and a revelation in the very first scene that the characters are rushing together to their doom, this particular film has a core of profound suspense that draws us closer despite us knowing it will all end in a gruesome accident.

The film is based on a real story of a driver who overtook a bus while his car’s high-beam headlamps were turned on and who subsequently blinded the driver of the oncoming truck, causing a horrific accident from which this driver escaped and drove off without anybody ever knowing his or her identity. The only hint was the car’s license plate, which started with H (indicating Hrvatska, or Croatia) and the number 8, which a surviving passenger noticed as the car sped past the bus.

H-8… takes place on the night of April 14, 1957, along the highway between Belgrade and Zagreb, and in a terrifically energetic opening sequence, lasting a full seven minutes, we are shown the highlights of the evening’s events, though little makes sense to us because we don’t yet know the individuals concerned. However, the small snippets are memorable enough for us to realise, all through the film, that we can slowly start to put the pieces together.

The tension isn’t only derived from the fact we know what will happen, in a general way, at the end of the film, but the more we get to know the characters, and the more the narrators teasingly relate the seat numbers fatally affected by the upcoming crash, the more interested we become. Like the best Hitchcock films, the dramatic suspense of knowing the bomb is going to explode usually surpasses the surprise of having a bomb explode while we (and the characters) are focusing on other things.

Nikola Tanhofer, who directed this film around the time his début feature Nije bilo uzalud was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlinale, finds many small moments of tension in this main setting. And most of the time, these moments are not overplayed. There is the odd sudden backward tracking shot from or forward tracking shot onto a face, usually underscored by a violent thud on the soundtrack, to highlight the fact death has understood (and so has the viewer) that the intended victim has taken his or her spot in the hot seat.

One scene, in particular, is as short as it is powerful. The parents, clearly unhappily married, are taking care of their daughter at the back of the bus. She has a nosebleed that doesn’t seem to go away, and when one of the drivers eventually asks the girl to come and sit in the front to take her mind off the blood, the parents engage in a very frank conversation, which they themselves shamefully admit is inappropriate, in which they reveal they’ve thought about life without their daughter. When she is taken to the front seat, one of the designated death seats, according to the narrators, one can’t help but admire the director’s skill at infusing the film with a sense of dread, even as we rejoice that the girl is finally relieved of her parents’ petty quarrels.

There are too many characters to mention, but it is remarkable how the director takes his time to slowly reveal the many different angles to the individuals, and very often we come to realise that we have mistakenly judged a book by its cover, as the real intentions or some hidden secret is brought to light.

The other car, the truck with a father back from prison and his son, does not provide anything near the kind of entertainment we get from the characters on the bus, and that is a real disappointment. At a petrol station, the father and son meet up with one of the father’s former fellow prisoners, a man who is working as a con artist, and he ends up hitching a ride with them and shooting his mouth off the whole time. There is a reason for him being included in this storyline, and perhaps the director underplays his importance, but the scenes themselves are rather uninteresting and monotonous.

However, this is an absolute treasure of a film. Dark and ominous though full of life, H-8… must be seen to recognise what depth there can be in the flimsiest of story lines and how tension and suspense can be established very easily merely by pointing the camera at someone eyeing something or, conversely, by setting the camera in a way that makes us  see something the character doesn’t. Or, of course, by having two narrators tell us the death seats have not been filled yet, and have us wait for someone to make a move.

I Confess (1953)

USA

3*
Director:
Alfred Hitchcock
Screenwriters:
George Tabori
William Archibald
Director of Photography:
Robert Burks
 
Running time: 95 minutes
 
In I Confess, Alfred Hitchcock tries to pull the wool of one problem over our eyes so we are blinded to the easy resolution of another. He suggests the problem of a priest who would rather risk hell on earth than hell in the afterlife is perfectly credible and would inject a valid fear in the viewers of his film. He is only about half-right.
 
Father Logan, a very handsome priest (it’s Montgomery Clift, after all)  in Quebec City, is visited by a German refugee, Otto Keller, late one night. Keller is distressed, and the previous scene had shown us the reason: Keller has murdered a lawyer named Villette and unburdens himself in the confessional to Father Logan. Relieved of this weight around his neck, Keller keeps working at the rectory, where he runs into Father Logan every day, and so does his wife Alma, who also knows about her husband’s dark secret. But Father Logan can’t tell anybody about this confession because in his capacity as priest he is bound by the confessional privilege, in the same way as a doctor, to respect the confidence his interlocutor places in him.
 
Of course, this secrecy is bound to become an issue, and this process has a few sides to it. Father Logan becomes complicit in keeping very important information from the police. Now, he has the training to do this with legion personal secrets which his parishioners confide in him, so Hitchcock turns the screws by, firstly, having Keller commit the murder wearing a cassock, so as to avoid suspicion, and secondly, having Logan keep his own secret, which is revealed halfway through. This personal secret puts him in a lot of trouble, because it could easily result in his reputation being tarnished and therefore his credibility undermined, even though we know, from the very first scenes, that he is not the one who committed the murder.
 
This theme of guilt would play well with a 1950s Catholic audience, but when seeing it today, most viewers would be puzzled, if not outraged, by the main character’s decision to keep a secret (about a mortal sin, no less) rather than protect himself by telling the truth. Rather than honorable, this just seems weak. It is a situation whose gravity and absurdity is compounded by the disgust Keller evokes in us by constantly hovering around Logan, making him more and more uncomfortable. Keller clearly has no regard for the actions taken by Logan to protect him and instead tries to pin the murder on Father Logan — his patron and the man who saved him and his wife from misery by providing them with jobs at the church.
 
The beauty of Quebec City isn’t fully utilized either, and many street scenes could have taken place anywhere. The famous Château Frontenac does appear now and again, and the first glimpse we have of this magnificent building, during the opening credits, has it under dark clouds, a perfect visual metaphor for the film’s plot, and, unfortunately, its execution. One very smart visual move is the stitching on Father Logan’s cope: in one of his first scenes, with his back turned to us, we see a big cross across his back — evidently the one that he prepares to bear for the rest of the film.
Clift is as good as he always is, which is to say in a class of his own, but he seems a bit too stable, too certain of himself: While he conveys some distress when he clasps his face, his voice never wavers, even under the immense strain of his seemingly hopeless situation. 
 
I Confess is a failed film for Hitchcock, since there is very of the little dark humor that otherwise made many of his films so enjoyable. The murder takes place before the start of the film, which admittedly happens in other Hitchcock films as well, but the notion of our hero being framed for a crime he didn’t commit is something Hitchcock does not successfully exploit. Instead, he opts for flashbacks in soft focus (!) and a love story that, despite its considerable running time in flashback, never lives up to much in the present. And although they have picked a priest as their prime suspect in the case, has it not occurred to anybody that his silence in many key scenes — most significantly his testimony in court, when, with the ridiculous flourish of a fade-out, an important part is done away with by means of an ellipse — is the result of his duty as a priest to keep matters of confession in the confessional?

Niagara (1953)

USA

4*
Director:
Henry Hathaway
Screenwriters:
Charles Brackett
Walter Reisch
Richard L. Breen
Director of Photography:
Joseph MacDonald

Running time: 85 minutes

Niagara is all about Marilyn Monroe — everything happens as a result of her and the effect of this blond goddess on the people around her is blood-curdling. This film proved that film noir was not limited to colour, nor was star-studded suspense limited to Hitchcock.

Shot mostly on location in gorgeous Technicolor, Henry Hathaway’s Niagara demonstrates the talent of a young Ms Monroe (she was 26 years old during production of this film) and her ability to play – but never overplay – the role of the wily femme fatale: Rose Loomis.

And while Joseph Cotten, whose portrayal of Leland in Citizen Kane arguably engages us as much as Charles Foster Kane, stars as her husband, George Loomis, he is not nearly as memorable as Monroe. There is another couple, the Cutlers, who arrive at the Niagara Falls just as things start to fall apart for the Loomises, but they serve more as a sideshow to the fun than anything else – the viewer’s companions, compared to the shining stars of Monroe and Cotten.

This couple, Ray and Polly Cutler, is spending a few days in a luxury resort opposite the Niagara Falls. They are on a delayed honeymoon, having just moved here in order for Ray to start working at a Shredded Wheat Company plant. But on their arrival, making the acquaintance of Mr and Mrs Loomis, they soon discover that all is not well – Mrs Loomis, for one, leaves her husband, who seems to be mentally ill, at home, while she flirts her way into another man’s arms at the Falls.

The Falls, shown so often from up close, and appearing in the background on many occasions, serve both as a nice backdrop to the story and as a very ominous reminder of the destructive power of beauty. In one very frank conversation between Ray Loomis and Polly Cutler, he anticipates the story’ developments:

Let me tell you something. You’re young, you’re in love. Well, I’ll give you a warning. Don’t let it get out of hand, like those falls out there. Up above… d’you ever see the river up above the falls? It’s calm, and easy, and you throw in a log, it just floats around. Let it move a little further down and it gets going faster, hits some rocks, and… in a minute it’s in the lower rapids, and… nothing in the world – including God himself, I suppose – can keep it from going over the edge. It just… goes.

Niagara does a neat job of combining both suspense and surprise, and in one of the film’s key moments, the suspense is accomplished by a deafening silence – one that would have made Hitchcock proud. In another moment of audiovisual ingenuity, reminiscent of the famous scene in North by Northwest when a conversation is obscured by an airplane engine, the sound of the Falls drowns out an important bit of dialogue between George Loomis and Polly Cutler.

The Cutlers are in way over their heads: Polly, though a goody two-shoes, is still bearable, but her husband, Roy, has a constant smile on his face that shows there is nothing going on upstairs. The two make a quaint couple, far removed from the emotional turmoil in the relationship (and the characters) of George and Rose, and at times this disparity between the two couples is a little too much to take. But the film sketches the situations and the motivations well enough and Hathaway’s direction is exactly what is needed to tell this story coherently and effectively. I was also impressed by the very good quality of the scenes that use rear projection – coming only two years after The African Queen, whose green screen made for some terrible pictures on the rapids, Niagara is brilliantly staged and photographed to create the impression that all of these scenes on the roaring waters are taking place outside a studio.

Cairo Station (1958)

Egypt

4.5*
Director:
Youssef Chahine
Screenwriters:
Abdel Hay Adib
Mohamed Abu Youssef
Director of Photography:
Alevise Orfanelli

Running time: 77 minutes

Original title: باب الحديد
Transliterated title: Bab al-Hadid
Alternate title: The Iron Gate

The acting could be much better, and the climax requires an enormous suspension of disbelief, but Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station is compact and those parts that might seem random at first all fit together in the end, underlining Chahine’s skill as a storyteller and a craftsman.

Chahine stars as the main character Qinawi, a young man who lives at Cairo’s main railway station and whose limp either scares other people or makes him the object of their ridicule. He sells newspapers and has his eye on Hanouma, a woman who doesn’t let herself be ordered about, but she seems destined to be married to Abu-Serih, who wants the workers at the station to form a union and stand up against their boss, Mansour, in whose employment they struggle to make ends meet.

The film is very frank about Qinawi’s sexual frustration, and the first time we see the inside of his little home, it is plastered with magazine cut-outs of scantily clad women in braziers. Referring to Qinawi, the voice-over ominously asks us “How could anyone have foreseen his end?”

While Qinawi is infatuated with the feisty Hanouma and sometimes leers at her obscenely, a gesture she does not take very seriously, two others stories, seemingly insignificant, are taking place in the background. In the first one, a young girl’s boyfriend is about to leave for four years and the small part of their story that we are privy to seems sincere and romantic. The second story, of which we learn indirectly whenever the main news vendor, Madbouli, talks about it, is a grizzly tale of murder: a woman was discovered in a trunk, her head and arms chopped off, and her killer unknown. These two stories will slowly come into focus towards the end of the film and tie in with Qinawi’s obsessive idea of romance.

The film doesn’t have many surprises – we can see the dénouement a mile away – but the final reel does contain a nail-biting sequence of events that is breathtaking to behold and even if you know what you are in for, the full cinematic experience is truly amazing. In many respects, this final part of the film is the culmination of the art of the filmmaker, whose film starts off on some shaky ground. Another scene that is a stand-out takes place on a stationary train at the station, where Hanouma starts dancing along to the music being played by the passengers. It is a raucous affair, upsetting some of the more conservative onlookers, and at the end of the number Hanouma turns to the camera and winks at us, signalling our complicity in this unconventional bit of fun.

Some of the direction is magnificent, including a moment when a boy is saved from an oncoming train and narrowly escapes when Hanouma pulls him from the tracks. The film sometimes struggles with the post-production studio dubbing and it is particularly audible whenever Abu-Serih speaks and produces a very loud echo even when he is outside. One brief shot caught my attention: when Hanouma and Qinawi are sitting next to the fountain, one quick image shows them clearly defined in the foreground, separated from an indistinct background by the haze of the fountain. It is beautiful – much shorter, unfortunately, than the strange long take that precedes it, which shows these two characters speaking at length without looking at each other.

Chahine’s film is short and creates tension by means of a play between light and darkness, and a quickening pace at the end that will leave you breathless. Its climax relies on us to believe that Qinawi is literally blinded by obsession, but the rest of the film makes up for this bit of extreme simplicity and succeeds in presenting a story that is truly riveting.

The World of Apu (1959)

The World of ApuIndia
3.5*

Director:
Satyajit Ray

Screenwriter:
Satyajit Ray

Director of Photography:
Subrata Mitra

Running time: 107 minutes

Original title:  অপুর সংসার
Transliterated title: Apur sansar

This review is part of a series on the Apu Trilogy that also includes:
Pather Panchali
– Aparajito

The poetry of youth has disappeared. What is left, though unexpected and not always pretty, has its own dignified arc and undeniable realism. Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu is the third instalment of the Apu trilogy, which also comprises Pather Panchali and Aparajito (The Unvanquished). Where the first two films showed the young Apu facing all kinds of domestic tragedies, besides his terrible poverty, there was genuine hope at the end of the second film that Apu, thanks to his education and his interest in all kinds of subjects, would be able to rise above his socio-economic class.

But things don’t always turn out the way we want them to, and in the very first shot of this last film, we find an adult Apu asleep on his bed, wearing a T-shirt with a hole in the back, the ink of an empty ink-well soaking his bed sheets and his shirt. Nature is also crying at Apu’s situation, as a very heavy sheet of rain is covering Calcutta outside his window. As he gets up to rinse out the ink stains, the all too familiar train whistle – the sounds of opportunity, established in Pather Panchali – can be heard on the soundtrack.

Apu has obtained an “Intermediate” in Science, which means that he is teaching private lessons in the subject, but he does not have full-time employment, and when the rent is due and he goes out in search of more work, he only finds work that he deems to be beneath him. He has retained some of his father’s optimism that things will eventually work out, but we get a very miserable picture of his present living conditions.

Pulu, one of his school friends, invites him to his cousin’s wedding in the countryside; when he arrives, the bride’s mother is quite taken with him and says that he reminds her of Krishna. The day of the wedding is supposed to be very “auspicious”, and despite the fact that the groom-to-be arrives at the wedding half-mad, the father insists that the couple get married. But Pulu asks Apu to consider taking the place of the groom and after he initially dismisses the idea, he finally relents and takes his wife, Aparna back to Calcutta.

Given the lack of means at their disposal, Aparna seems to adapt to life with Apu, whom she doesn’t know from Adam. They have very little money, and the bedroom scenes seem very cold (although this might be a result of their lack of sexual chemistry, or a prudish way of presenting intimacy; it must be said that none of the films contains any real intimacy – not even a hug), but somehow Aparna manages to get pregnant.

It is here that tragedy strikes in Apu’s life once again, and unlike the previous times, this incident hits him very hard and sends his life careening into even greater uncertainty, to such an extent that he even considers suicide, in the film’s only shot that is as visually perceptive as his two previous films. Standing at the railway tracks, his face in close-up, he is expressionless. When a train approaches, the camera zooms towards the sky, giving us a white screen while the train whistles loudly; when the camera zooms back, we are relieved to see Apu still in the frame, his place having been taken by a stray pig on the tracks.

Another scene is worth noting: Apu has been working on an autobiographical novel meant to sketch the optimism of a young boy despite his terrible surroundings. At one point in the film, he throws away this novel, dropping the pages from a cliff and letting them float through the air into the dense forest, and by implication he lets go of his past, but the moment seems unusually melodramatic for such a naturalistic film, and I was strangely unmoved.

The film proves the point of the father in Ozu’s Tokyo Story – children don’t always live up to expectations – and having seen the development of Apu, one might be disappointed by his decisions in life. Apu is also disappointed and tries to make up for his mistakes, though it is unclear what lies ahead after the end credits roll. This final instalment of the trilogy is also visually much less courageous than the other two films, and I was frustrated by the lead actor’s rather awkward performance. The World of Apu remains a work that should be seen as part of the larger story of Apu, but in my opinion it is the weakest film in the series.

Aparajito (1956)

India
4.5*

Director:
Satyajit Ray
Screenwriter:
Satyajit Ray

Director of Photography:
Subrata Mitra

Running time: 113 minutes

Original title: অপরাজিত
Alternate title: The Unvanquished

This review is part of a series on the Apu Trilogy that also includes:
Pather Panchali
The World of Apu

With a tighter focus on Apu, the trilogy’s main character, and his mother Sarbajaya, the second film, Aparajito, substitutes the episodic nature of the first film, Pather Panchali, with a strong narrative that is a journey full of love and loss, presented in an unforgettably cinematic way that takes the best of Eisenstein and uses his approach in a new context without the film ever seeming self-indulgent.

Watching this film in sequence provokes the same kind of emotions I had when I first saw the series of Antoine Doinel films years ago: One feels privileged to watch a character grow in this way, for it is a kind of divine perspective, and it is the medium of film that enables us to appreciate this possibility.

In Aparajito, based on two novels by Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, we meet the young Apu and his parents in Varanasi, where they were headed at the end of the first film. They are still living from hand to mouth, but Apu has made a few friends, including a boy with whom he speaks English. When Apu’s father falls ill and dies, Apu and his mother move back to the countryside, having only each other to lean on.

But let me dwell on the father’s death for a moment. In a fusion of striking images, potent sitar sounds and a very emotional undercurrent, Ray creates the most stirring five seconds of his first two films, and in cinematic terms I would rate it close to the cut from the match being extinguished to the sun rising on the horizon in Lawrence of Arabia. Here, Apu’s father’s face is in close-up, his mouth open, receiving water from the sacred Ganges. When he loses consciousness, a very audible gasp is heard on the soundtrack. There is a cut to birds leaving a rooftop – literally released from their terrestrial bonds; first from up close and then, in another shot, from farther away – and the metaphor of escape should be fairly obvious. But it is the combination of these three shots, and the addition of the sitar, that brings about a very moving moment that does not inhere in the shots considered separately.

The film is about Apu’s journey towards becoming an adult, and besides the death of his father, there are two very general themes I wish to touch on briefly. The first is his relationship with his mother, who has already endured the loss of her daughter and now, of her husband as well. She has little hope of living a prosperous life and wants to hold onto her son as long as possible, but then, in the countryside, there is a major turning point in Apu’s life that would forever change the trajectory of his story: He catches sight of a school and decides that he wants to enrol there.

What follows is a sequence of events that deal with the second theme – Apu’s education – and demonstrate Apu’s aptitude for learning. We quickly become caught up in his progress at school, which includes very clearly defined snippets of schooling; this sequence culminates with a scene at the headmaster’s office, where Apu, now all grown up and about to leave school, is informed that he has received a scholarship to study at university in Calcutta.

One can feel the heartache of the mother, but one can also comprehend Apu’s position, and Ray does not choose sides: Rather, he presents both characters in all their human complexity. In one instance, a shot of Apu’s mother, sitting under a tree, desperately waiting for her son to come visit her, is intercut with a shot of Apu lying leisurely under a tree in Calcutta, studying for his exams. This is life, and people have their reasons and seen from the outside it might seem tragic, but we fully understand how the situation has come to this.

As in the first film, Apu is introduced in a very significant manner, his big black eyes immediately captivating our attention when he peers around a wall in Calcutta, playing hide-and-seek with a friend. As a young man, he seems to be responsible and quite shy, but his intelligence and desire to learn create expectations that the last film, The World of Apu will challenge – and make us realise once more that stories don’t always work out the way we expect. On the contrary, they have a mind of their own.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

USA
3.5*

Director:
Billy Wilder

Screenwriters:
Billy Wilder
Harry Kurnitz

Director of Photography:
Russell Harlan

Running time: 116 minutes

It’s all about the ending. Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, based on the Agatha Christie play with the same title, was a landmark film in the sense that it was one of the first films whose main attraction was a final plot twist. Before The Sixth Sense, before House of Games and even before Psycho, there was Witness for the Prosecution, and, just like Hitchcock, who launched a marketing campaign to ensure people don’t give away the ending (nor the beginning), Wilder’s film ends with a voice-over asking the audience to please keep silent about the film’s last-minute coup de théâtre.

Unfortunately, this is by far the film’s most interesting aspect, and this is what saves it from mediocrity. Charles Laughton delivers a wonderful performance as the stubborn barrister who is convinced of his client’s innocence, despite the lack of tangible proof and the decision of the defendant’s wife (or, ex-wife) to be the titular witness for the prosecution, and he knows how to undermine proceedings when they do not seem to be progressing in his favour. But the screenplay, co-written by Wilder, does not possess the same verve that one generally associates with his work, and the dialogue in particular is merely functional where it should have delivered more punch.

Set in London in 1952, the film was shot exclusively in a studio and in fact, nearly the entire second half of the film takes place in the courtroom (the Old Bailey). From the title one can already surmise that this will be a courtroom drama, and of course one has the expectation of discovering who the “witness for the prosecution” will be. It is indeed a courtroom drama, but Laughton, starring as Sir Wilfred Robarts, plays it as comedy, shifting his weight around to make an entrance, keeping brandy in a flask that ought to be for his warm cocoa, and trading jabs with his nurse, the high-strung Miss Plimsoll.

Shortly after his release from the hospital, Sir Wilfred is paid a visit by a man named Leonard Vole, who has been accused of murdering the elderly, very wealthy Miss Emily French (whom I considered a bit of an excitable blabbermouth). Sir Wilfred is intrigued by the case, especially when Vole’s German wife, Christine (a wonderful job by Marlene Dietrich), seems not at all convinced about her own husband’s innocence. Sir Wilfred decides not to use her as a witness, but before long she is recruited by the prosecution, who alleges that Mrs Vole was already married when she first met Leonard and therefore is allowed to testify against her own husband.

Sir Wilfred easily discredits Mrs Vole, but he is not entirely happy with the way the case has proceeded, and frankly, neither was I. Compared with today’s courtroom dramas, or even Judgment at Nuremberg, released in 1961, this film is incredibly simplistic, and it would seem that the case is decided within two days. But then there is a deus ex machina that appears in the form of a drunk in a bar at Euston Station, and before we know it, things take a pleasant and wholly surprising turn.

It would seem that the case is open and shut, but Sir Wilfred still waits for the banana peel, and when we get this information, in the film’s final minutes, it turns the whole case upside down, with remarkable adroitness. The film is all about the ending, and it is a pity we have to wait two relatively tepid hours for the finale, but when it does come, it strikes a thunderous blow to our preconceived notions.

Pather Panchali (1955)

India
4*

Director:
Satyajit Ray
Screenwriter: 
Satyajit Ray
Director of Photography:
Subrata Mitra

Running time: 115 minutes

Original title: পথের পাঁচালী

This review is part of a series on the Apu Trilogy that also includes:
Aparajito
The World of Apu

This has to be one of the best debut films ever shot. Based on a Bengali novel by writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay (try saying that three times in a row), it was adapted for the screen and directed by Satyajit Ray, a man in his early thirties who had had no formal training in film making, but who had a passion for cinema and had founded the Calcutta Film Club in 1947. The other crew members were equally inexperienced, and Ray’s director of photography, Subrata Mitra, had barely turned 21. Many of the actors, including the young boy, Apu, hadn’t acted before either.

This was the start of the Indian New Wave, also known under the moniker “Parallel Cinema”, because the films were being produced in India as an alternative to their better known musicals. Similar in kind to the social realist Italian New Wave of the time, it also came about in part thanks to Ray’s involvement in Jean Renoir’s The River, released in 1951, for which Ray had met with Renoir and assisted during the shoot.

But Pather Panchali is much more gritty than the superproduction that was Renoir’s film, and it has certainly dated much better, primarily because the acting is more sincere and it does not contain any heavy-handed narration. The film is the first instalment in a series that would later be known as the “Apu Trilogy”, after the main character, whose life as a boy is portrayed in the first film; in the second film, Aparajito, we see him as a young man; and in the third film, The World of Apu, he has grown up and has to take responsibility for his choices earlier in life.

Pather Panchali seems like a very rough-and-tumble film, with little going for it as far as the plot is concerned, but the film’s memorable characters are all introduced very early in the film in such a way that we are immediately attached to them. The setting is equally difficult to pinpoint: We see crumbling houses in a big forest and an open field with tall grass that leads to the railway tracks, but that is the extent of the locations. And yet, it is enough: Ray finds beauty in everyday objects and has a very acute sensibility for composition that ensures our interest in the visuals as well as the narrative.

In one of the film’s most strikingly beautiful shots, we see Apu and his sister Durga following the sweet-seller. The camera shoots their reflections in the shallow pond next to them, as their movements are accompanied, as is so often the case, by the sitar music of Ravi Shankar. His music is used repeatedly throughout the film and the only time that it seems strained is during the scene when a parent finds out that his daughter has died.

While the film is clearly the beginning of a journey for young Apu, whose big, black curious eyes are impossible to overlook, almost all of the characters have something unique by which we can identify them and that serves the narrative in a very powerful way. The train is also a symbol that is hard to miss and it is interesting to note the scenes in which a train can be heard in the distance: at night, when Apu’s father mentions his desire to write and sell plays, and when his wife discusses her wish to move out of his ancestral home and let them settle in Benares (Varanasi). For the moment, these desires are unfulfilled, but as the seasons change, people’s eyes open to the possibilities that are available to them, and Apu’s eternally optimist father has to make up his mind about the way forward.

Speaking of eyes – another shot that will make an impression on the viewer is the introduction of Apu. Unlike the other characters, who simply appear in a shot, Apu is clearly introduced: His sister pulls open his eyelid through a hole in the cloth covering his face and when his eye is suddenly visible, this image, framed by the cloth around his eye, receives backing on the soundtrack with loud sitar music.

The entire family of characters, including the slightly senile grandmother, is a wonderful mix of people who cope as best they can with their abject poverty, and the small scenes that Ray has strung together form a very colourful impression that will stay with the viewer for a long time after the credits roll.

The African Queen (1951)

USA
4.5*

Director:
John Huston
Screenwriters:
James Agee
John Huston
Director of Photography:
Jack Cardiff

Running time: 104 minutes

Today, John Huston’s African Queen might seem tame and innocent, but I can imagine that it was quite a different story when it was released in 1951. It tells the story of a very tightly wound church organist in German East Africa (present-day Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda), a woman named Rose Sayer, who in 1914, on the eve of the First World War, flees her small village in the jungle when the Germans are rounding up the villagers with a scorched-earth policy to turn them into soldiers and thus protect the area from outside forces.

The only way out is with Charlie Allnut, a Canadian mailman who is used to travelling from one village to the next on his little fishing boat, the “African Queen”. He is played by Humphrey Bogart, and Katharine Hepburn stars as Rose Sayer. In the very first scene of the film, during a service at the church of Rose’s brother, it is made clear that Allnut and Rose are quite different. While she plays the organ, dressed like something out of a Victorian novel, and sings with her brother, who tries to conduct the congregation from the pulpit, the villagers merely mumble along. The service is crudely interrupted by the loud steam whistle of Allnut’s boat, and we see him interacting with the locals in their native tongue.

So, when these two board the same boat, it seems unlikely that it would be the start of a beautiful friendship. And yet, soon enough, we discover that they both have strong, assertive characters that are nonetheless willing to compromise. Most importantly, they are both very likeable. Rose refuses to stay hidden in the forest until the war is over and insists that they make their way downriver to a large lake, where they would blow up the “Louisa”, the German ship patrolling the body of water, and thus make their escape.

Much of the film was shot on location, a remarkable feat for the time – as it would still be today. The cinematography is gorgeous, as is to be expected from Jack Cardiff; the rivers are either sapphire-blue or pitch-black, and the greens of the lush forest foliage are spectacular. For some of the more animated scenes on the river, such as those in which Charlie and Rose have to make their way across the rapids, rear projection was used, making for a less than credible combination of real and staged materials, but luckily these scenes are kept to a minimum. Rather, our attention is directed at Rose, who surprises (and is surprised herself at this revelation) with a genuine excitement at the dangers they face together: “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!”

How she deals with the river and the quirks of her companion, especially his fondness for Gordon’s Gin, is entertaining because we like to see what conflict results from their inescapably intimate living conditions on the boat. While I didn’t much care for the brief scene in which they are apparently “drunk on love”, including Charlie’s imitation of the animals in and out of the water, their romantic camaraderie is rather affecting.

It was a pleasant surprise to find Peter Bull, who starred as the Russian Ambassador in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, as the German captain of the “Louisa”. His deadpan delivery of very contrasting ideas are hilarious and fit in superbly with the kind of humour that Hepburn and Bogart do so well, and it is a testament to the acting ability of Hepburn and Bogart that they leisurely carry almost the entire film on their own.

With the exception of the rear projection, which is below par, as well as a scene in which the main characters are attacked by buzzing insects, both scenes visibly more defective because of the film’s use of colour, The African Queen receives full marks in every aspect of the film’s production and entertainment potential. Hepburn’s tongue is not as sharp as in some of her other films (such as Bringing Up Baby, and The Philadelphia Story in particular), but while she certainly stands her ground against the dry wit of Humphrey Bogart, she does not overpower him, which makes the romantic union all the more convincing.