françois truffaut & jean-luc godard's
TOP 10 FILMS OF 1957
SAINT JOAN & PENNYWHISTLE BLUES
Time is not always kind.
I wish I had been able to see Pennywhistle Blues (released in the U.S. as The Magic Garden), but some films are almost completely annihilated by history. It appears to have never been released on dvd or vhs anywhere in the world and very few English-language reviews outside of Bosely Crowther's very positiveoriginal New York Times review remain - I could only find a handful of capsule reviews that seem to be based on Crowther's write-up (or each other.) The simple passage of time has all but destroyed the film. It's shame too, not only because the film sounds charming, but because it sounds like a real step out his comfort zone for Truffaut. Directed by Englishman Donald Swanson, the film takes place in a small South African township and features an amateur cast made up of the local black population. The soundtrack is apparently made up of African-inflected jazz, much of it performed by the lead actor, Tommy Ramokgopa. What makes this such an off-beat choice for Truffaut is that while he always demonstrated an appreciation for international cinema, his tastes ran distinctly towards Western European and American cinema. You might notice an absence of films by Japanese filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu on his 1957 list even both men were by that time world-reknowned and Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths and Early Spring could have conceivably been included. On top of that, major masterpieces by Andrej Wajda (Kanal) and Satyajit Ray (Aparajito) don't make the cut in addition to Kenji Mizoguchi's Street of Shame and 4 possible films from Mikio Naruse not making the lists. No Russian films, no South or Central American films (unless you want to count the Buñuel movie), no Middle Eastern or South Asian films make the cut (not that I'm specifically thinking of any that should have been.) In his "Best of the Year" lists running from 1954 to 1965, he picks only 3 Japanese films (films by Mizoguchi and Ko Nakahira), 1 Eastern European film (the Soviet The Enchanted Desna) and 1 South American film (the Brazilian Vidas Secas. Out of 82 selections*, he only picks 5 films without a Western European pedigree of any kind, so seeing a South African film (even if it is from a British director) stands out.
I'll do my best to avoid out and out plagarism here, but so little has been written about the film that I'm going to be playing a stupid game of it. In the circular, cleverly repetitious plot of Pennywhistle Blues an elderly man decides to donate his life savings to a local priest. They momentarily put the money aside and, while they're trying to decide the best way for it to be spent charitably, a thief (played by the aforementioned Tommy Ramokgopa) makes off with the loot. As he's pursued, he stashes the cash in the garden of a dirt-poor elderly woman - presumably the type of person who would have received it as charity from the priest. She thinks the money is a miracle (shades of a less offensive The Gods Must Be Crazy - but also the source of the U.S. release title) and uses it to pay off a grocery store debt. From there, the thief steals the money back again from the grocery store, he loses the money, it's recovered by a young fellow who pays off the debts of his girlfriend's dad, the thief steals it again, it ends up back in the hands of the priest and so on. It's actually excellent idea and from Crowther's review, I can almost picture Ramokgopa as the charmingly dour and determined thief - he apparently steals not only the cash... but the film!!! Anyhoo, the whole thing sounds enjoyably ramshackle and probably felt even more fresh and interesting in 1957 when ramshackle films from strange foreign lands weren't a dime a dozen. I do wish I had been able to find a copy so I could speculate about what Truffaut had seen in it - again, on the surface of things, it doesn't in any way sound like something he would like. I couldn't even find anything he had written about it. I know that Truffaut's tastes gravited towards opposite poles: difficult European Art films that you can't say without the director's name in front of them like Bresson's Pickpocket, Bergman's Winter Light and Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Hollywood pop like Hollywood or Bust, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Party Girl. A low-budget South African comedy defies expectation and that's genuinely exciting, to think about a critic with as rigidly conceived and rigorously promoted views as Truffaut stepping out of character for a moment. Unfortunately time creates intractable mysteries: with each passing day it becomes more likely that no one will ever see Pennywhistle Blues again. Jake Perlin or Amy Heller: find this film!
Time can be cruel in slightly less expected ways: the story of the misunderstood film rediscovered by later generation, its reputation rehabilitated by audiences for whatever reason better able to see its worth and judge it appropriately, is one of the most enduring narratives in not just film, but all of art. Moby Dick's failures, The Magnificent Amberson's flop, The Rite of Spring's hostile reception, the examples are countless - in fact, Truffaut and Godard's specialty as critics was getting out ahead of the curve and praising Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller with their films were still in the process of getting those confused and dismissive initial reviews which would be over-turned by history. Saint Joan is the opposite: initially receiving unfair and confused reviews, an artwork that when viewed after a clarifying passage of time looks even worse. And, boy, does Saint Joan look bad now. Otto Preminger directs from an abbreviated version of an (at the time) 34-year old play by George Bernard Shaw, bringing together two artists you don't like and never wished to see work with each other (come on, be real, those guys never did anything you like.) Grahame Greene did the screenplay and, of course, you like him (you've got pretty good taste, I gotta say), but there's no trace of his personality other than a vague connection to the international intrigue. There's nothing to be said about the thing itself other than that it's one of leaden prestige project misfires that pulls together a creative group with dubiously "remarkable" pedigree and assigns them the thankless task of trodding over an endlessly examined Important Subject. Do you care that Shaw and Greene were looking at French religious politics and history through a dinstinctly English lense? Of course you don't. The only notable element of the film itself is Richard Widmark's truly hammy performance as the uncrowned king/idiot man-child Charles VII.
The film is famous for its highly-publicized exhaustive internationl search to discover a fresh-faced heretofore unknown actress to play Saint Joan herself, The Maid of Orléans. After months of searching through thousands of actresses, they settled on 17-year-old Jean Seberg and the best that can be said of her performance is that she's not worse than Milla Jovovich in the role. She's strangely placcid and aloof, like she studied Maria Falconetti's legendary performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc and figured out a way to recreate her manner while draining it entirely of emotion. I feel kinda bad slagging her performance because Preminger was notorious for being verbally and emotionally abusive with his actors: how could I not feel sympathy for an inexperienced teenage model-turned-actress berated into a tentative and amateurish performance by an overrated clown? Certainly, his methods worked wonders in such masterpieces as the Jackie Gleason acid-trip gangster "comedy" Skidoo and the beloved Frank Sinatra heroin "drama" The Man with the Golden Arm, but a different approach probably would've helped in getting a good performance from a girl under intense scrutiny in pressurized environment. Especially since Joan of Arc, in reality, was driven by a psychotic confidence in her abilities. Seberg brings to the table a natural ability to look pretty (although, I personally find her jowls disconcertingly hairy) and Preminger makes sure she fails at everything else.
Obviously, Godard's affection for the film points to Seberg's starring role in Breathless, but I really think the essence of that connection can be boiled down to: Godard really likes attractive models-turned-actresses. He likes them so much, he married Anna Karina. And put a not very talented one in Breathless. I can forgive Seberg's work in Saint Joan because of futile circumstance and I guess I should be more excited about one of the few concrete connections between Godard's Top 10 list and his own work, but Seberg in Breathless is a real enthusiasm killer. She's not bad (certainly not like she is in Saint Joan), but would anyone disagree that she's the weak link Breathless and the difference between her work and Karina's is what actually keeps Godard's debut from being as powerful, lively and brillaint as Band of Outsiders, Pierrot Le Fou or Vivre Sa Vie? Breathless is an historically important film (maybe the most historically important), but it's not a flawless film and Seberg is undoubtedly the key flaw. There is almost no historical importance to Saint Joan, which only serves to highlight Seberg's total mediocrity. It is easy to imagine a more talented, magnetic, expressive actress in the role completely altering the whole course of Saint Joan's history: critics were sharpening their knives after Greene cut Shaw's play in half and a relentless publicity machine forced Seberg down their throat - there was no way it was getting good reviews in 1957. But with a different actress (say, Anna Karina**) anchoring the film it is entirely possible that history's judgement would have inverted and an overlooked gem could have been discovered by future generations - and on Godard's recommendation. As it stands, the film is rightfully remembered as the crummy curio that introduced Seberg to the world.
* Some years he picked 11 films and he didn't make a list at all for 1964.
** I think of her role in New Waver Jacques Rivette's adaptation of Denis Diderot's The Nun as I write this. It's not a fantastic film (and it more or less misses the point of Diderot's epistolary hoax novel), but Karina displays an intense and emotionally focused side of her talent rarely on display in Godard's more anarchic, free-form films.
THE WRONG MAN & SAIT-ON JAMAIS...
The master and his imitator.
Godard and, in particular, Truffaut were unbashed Hitchcock superfans; they were pretty much the original film nerds obsessed with a specific genre-film craftsman. They invented the idea of trying to find the good in even a mediocre entertainment by a director aspiring to very little and The Wrong Man popping up on both of their lists is their tribute to Hitchcock, their proof of a love thoroughly willing to weather complete mediocrity. As Hitchcock would be the first to tell you, almost all of his films could be retitled The Wrong Man; it was a plot device to which he returned at least 2 dozen times in his career (by my count), a basic set-up that follows heros suddenly swept up in events beyond the normal scope of their life, plots of sabotage, treason and murder in which they are unexpectedly entangled. Even a film like Psycho is about an average woman (Janet Leigh's Marion Crane) suddenly pulled into the mechanations of a world she scarcely could imagine existing. An innocent everyman (or woman) unwittingly entangled in a web of evil: it's a plot that could be used to describe everything from Rear Window to North by Northwest to Rebecca to The Lady Vanishes to Saboteur to both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much. The plot of The Wrong Man is a less clever variation on the plot than most of these those films, but it has the novelty of being based on a true story.
Henry Fonda plays man falsely accused of holding up an insurance agency at gunpoint and the story follows the various convolutions and unfortunate coincidences that cause him to get dragged deeper and deeper into a legal morass, eventually so desperate and bleak is the situation that his wife (played by Vera Miles) ends up in a mental institution. Maybe the constraints of reality put Hitchcock off his game, but The Wrong Man really is a film that feels like it's going through the motions and there's very little spark. The best word to describe it would be "laborious" - there's an idea for a film there, but Hitchcock just can't seem to get the mechanics of the story worked out, so the whole thing is a slog. It was Hitchcock's final film under a short-lived, unhappy contract at Warner Brothers and it wouldn't be unreasonable to diagnosis its lethargy as a case of him playing out the string. But Godard and Truffaut clearly loved "falsely accussed man condemned by the vagaries of fate" flicks, as evidenced by another subpar film appearing on Godard's list, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. I find Hitchcock's films to be more or less over-rated, something than can be traced to the Cahiers critics vocal, impassioned promotion of his work - Truffaut's interview book Hitchcock/Truffaut remains one of the most taught and referenced film texts in the world - and their staunch defense of even a staid time-waster like The Wrong Man is undoubtedly a significant part of the reason that Hitchcock is generally regarded as infalliable. Truffaut seems to know he's working from of a position of disadvantage with The Wrong Man and, tellingly, begins his defense of it this way, "Hitchcock has never been more himself than in this film, which nevertheless runs the risk of disappointing lovers of suspense and of English humor. There is very little suspense in it and very little humor, English or otherwise." Well, I'm glad we got that out of the way. In the same paragraph Truffaut goes on to compare The Wrong Man to Bresson's A Man Escaped, which is exactly the kind of borderline insane comparison that the Cahiers critics were fond of making to get their point across. At least we can all agree that there is very little suspense and humor (English or otherwise) in Bresson, as well.
At this point in history, though, there was something radical about springing to the defense of a filmmaker like Hitchcock, one being maligned for his move to Hollywood from London and the supposed dumbing down of his material attendant to that change. As with Tashlin and Guitry, it's easy to sympathize with Truffaut and Godard's annoyance at films being rejected out of hand by snooty critics with very old-fashioned ideas about what should and should not be taken seriously. In that way, the appearance of Sait-On Jamais... is interesting because it marks one of cinema's first attempts by a serious artist to delibarately evoke the feel of popular entertainment. Additionally, Sait-On Jamais...'s Hitchcock aping represents another artistic development: one of the first attempts to create an original artwork through diligent imitation of a specific artist. It might be hard to remember a time before the patische film existed, but it used to be a rarity for filmmakers (especially serious artists) to try to slavishly recreate the work of another director - even before the auteur theory, most filmmakers took pride in putting their own stamp on a genre or shopworn concept. With Sait-on Jamais... the inverse is true: director Roger Vadim is desperate to put Hitchcock's stamp on his movie. It's another wrong man story: a journalist sleeps with a mysterious young woman and is unexpectedly drawn into a world of violence and greed with street thugs and millionaire ex-Nazis romping through the gorgeous Venetian settings. The film's entire existence can be attributed to the burgeoning critical reverance for Hitchcock led by Truffaut, in that way its inclusion on Truffaut's list feels a bit self-congratulatory.
Beyond that, Sait-On Jamais... could've been a film Truffaut himself made late in his career when he was turning out lifeless Hitchcock pastiches like The Bride Wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid. In the back of his head, Truffaut must have been thinking, "Yes! This is exactly what I want to do!" when he saw director Roger Vadim's second feature. Since Vadim went on to find his voice as the essential icon of mainstream Euro-sleaze, it's tough to suggest that he would have better served cinema by not making pointless pastiches like Sait-On Jamais... The world probably would've been better off if he didn't make movies at all and just stuck to romancing the ladies, at which by all accounts he excelled. This pair of films (Sait-On Jamias... and The Wrong Man) represents a test of just how much one can love Hitchcock and their inclusion on Truffaut's list seems to declare, "As much as is possible." Godard calls The Wrong Man the second best film of the year, so while he won't go so far as to endorse even the imitation meat, he also makes it clear that he feels a bad cut of Hitchcock is a higher grade than just about anything else on the market. Their affection for The Wrong Man represents the two men as critics at their most stubborn and polemical, but it's hard to argue that their posture didn't work - even minor Hitchcock films are seen as masterpieces by a director who purportedly spun cinema gold out of pop-entertainment straw on a regular basis.
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