Ingrid Bergman at MoMA

With the 100th anniversary of the birth of screen legend Ingrid Bergman coming up next month, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has announced a special film festival in honor of the late Swedish actress and three-time Oscar winner. MoMA will be screening 14 of Ingrid’s movies, selected and introduced by her four children, including actress Isabella Rossellini.  Several of Ingrid’s most famous movies will be shown, such as “Casablanca” (1942), “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945), and “Notorious” (1948) – my favorite Hitchcock film, as it happens – among others.  In addition several of her European films, less well-known to American audiences, will be screened. These include four of the Italian films she made with her second husband, director Roberto Rossellini, which are considered some of the most important works of European Neorealist cinema in the Post-War era.

While it is great that so many of Ingrid’s performances will be shown to audiences who have never had the chance to see her on the big screen, there are a few notable absences.  I find it somewhat odd, for example, that MoMA of all places would not include “Spellbound” (1945) with Gregory Peck, since certain elements of the production were designed by Salvador Dali. Neither will be attendees be seeing “Anastasia” (1956) with Yul Brynner, for which Ingrid won her second Oscar, nor the now-legendary Sidney Lumet ensemble film, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), for which she won her third.  It would also have been nice to see the sophisticated romantic comedy “Indiscreet” (1958) with Cary Grant which, while admittedly more of a specialist taste, has always been one of my favorite films of hers because of its very grown-up, cosmopolitan script, and whose Technicolor positively glows on screen.

That being said, I’m pleased to see that MoMA will be screening “Autumn Sonata” (1978) with Liv Ullman, Bergman’s final film and the only one she made with another towering Bergman of the cinema, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. The two Bergmans had always wanted to work together, but as so often happens, sometimes these collaborations only happen in the autumn of one’s years – appropriately enough for the title and subject matter of this work. For those whose image of Ingrid is of the compassionate but resolute, strong yet tender beauty, this performance is quite a departure. It shows not only that she could act – John Gielgud’s catty comments notwithstanding – but that she could confound your expectations.

At first the role of the famous performer, all warm smiles and graciousness, seems to be Ingrid the actress playing a musical version of herself. Yet as the film develops, she plays against type in such a way that at first you don’t realize that her character is actually quite monstruous. The viewer is both drawn to and, upon reflection, repulsed by her character at the same time. It is not surprising that Ingrid received her 7th and final Best Actress nomination for the role, and that it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.  Even if you can’t get to New York to see it, if you enjoy good acting you should definitely add this one to your screening queue.

Ingrid Bergman: A Centennial Celebration runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from August 29th to September 10th.


I’m All About “Eve”

This weekend I had the good fortune to view (in convivial company) the classic 1950 film “All About Eve” on the big screen for the first time, at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland. Now as regular visitors to these pages know, I have been a huge fan of this film for many years. I have seen it more times than I can recall, and can also recite almost all of the dialogue from memory. I also own a copy on DVD, naturally enough.

However there is something truly unique about seeing a classic black and white Hollywood film from the golden era on the big screen. No matter how familiar you are with a particular movie that you have seen on a television or computer screen, there is nothing quite like the experience of being in a theatre with a large group of people, seeing it on a huge screen, surrounded by sound. And truth be told, despite having lived in Washington for many years, this was only the first time I visited the AFI Silver Theatre, which is a wonderful space showing a wide range of both classic and contemporary cinema.

With “All About Eve”, this film in particular does not necessarily need to be on the big screen to be enjoyed. There are no great action sequences, and the film itself is not unlike a stage play, in which the dialogue is far more important than the action. However because the characters in the film – not unlike the actors who portray them – are so much larger than life, seeing them several stories tall really does add to the feeling that you are watching a hugely important work of American cinema, which “Eve” definitely is.

There are many reasons why I might recommend that you check out “All About Eve” if you have never seen it before. It could be because it is such a devastatingly accurate look at the misunderstandings and conflicts in relationships between men and women, for one thing. Or it could be because of its steely-eyed look at the problem of unfettered ambition and how it can harm other people. Yet I think on the whole if you enjoy hearing the English language well spoken, and you also enjoy a carefully crafted book, fiction or not, that becomes the primary reason to see the film. The words of the magnificent screenplay of “Eve” fill the air on the film set in a way that few films have done before or since. Paradoxically, this is a sensory feast for someone who loves to read.


Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and George Sanders in "All About Eve"

Review of “Le Corbeau”: Why Shock Value Isn’t Enough

A film whose central character is a philandering abortionist would seem to be too hot a commodity for mainstream cinema to attempt, even today. Yet Henri-Georges Clozot did so in his controversial 1943 work “Le Corbeau” (“The Raven”), which I screened over the weekend. While the film shows there really is nothing new under the sun, insofar as shocking audiences is concerned, I must confess that it left me rather underwhelmed: it is all crime and no punishment.

“Le Corbeau” is set in a small town in France, where all of the local residents have closely-guarded secrets. From the start, we are made very much aware that this is not a happy, peaceful town: long-standing hatreds are commonplace, and people are often very much less than kind to one another. The “hero” of the story, if we are to call him that, Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) works as a surgeon at the local hospital, and practices illegal abortions on the side. He is carrying on an affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), the wife of one of his colleagues, and in the course of the film succumbs to the amorous advances of his landlady Denise (Ginette Leclerc).

As the story develops, a series of poison-pen letters signed by someone who calls himself “Le Corbeau” begin to circulate, accusing Dr. Germain and others of committing various crimes. The supposed mystery of the writer’s identity, as matters become more heated and turn to acts of violence, is what occupies us as the film gets going. Unfortunately for this reviewer, I realized who the author of the letters was almost immediately, and so the foregone conclusion turned the experience into something of a waiting game.

“Le Corbeau” is a film which is usually on the must-see list for those of us interested in the development of French cinema, and it is not hard to understand why. It is a something like a combination of Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock – in the French taste, natch. Parts of it are superbly well-shot, particularly in using empty space/silence and unexpected camera angles to create a threatening atmosphere. And there are a number of good performances from the cast, though throughout the movie I kept thinking that the character of Denise would have been played more convincingly by the great Jeanne Moreau, a generation later. Most view it today as a kind of veiled criticism of the atmosphere of distrust brought about as a result of the Nazi occupation, when neighbors would turn in their neighbors to the Gestapo.

However the real notoriety of the picture stems from its scandalous public history. It was produced by a German-owned company, and seemed to offend almost everyone across the moral and political spectrum – from the Church to the French Resistance to the Vichy Regime. The film was banned for a time, and Clozot himself was barred from working in French cinema for two years after the war. As we all know, anytime something like a book or a movie is formally banned, it is going to attract an audience keen on examining it for themselves, and this is one reason why “Le Corbeau” continues to be studied today.

This did not have to become the only reason to see the film, however, even though that is now the case, at least in the opinion of this reviewer. The poison-pen letter used as a plot device by Clozot can be a useful tool for ripping open the painted scenery and showing us what lies just behind. He could have allowed the possibilities open to him through the implementation of this device to lead him to create a script and accompanying film which captures our universal desire to see crime being punished. He would not have been the first Frenchman so to be fascinated, or successful, in considering the subject through the use of this plot device.

Perhaps the most famous French example is the 18th century novel “Les Liaisons dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos, which has been treated by cinema many times on both sides of the pond. Two examples with which my American readers may be familiar are the now-classic Glenn Close/John Malkovich “Dangerous Liaisons” from 1988, and the Reese Whitherspoon/Ryan Philippe reinterpretation “Cruel Intentions” from a decade later. In these films, crime has consequences that not only result in death, but in actual punishment.

The spectacular performance by Glenn Close in the earlier film as her world crumbles around her is made particularly satisfying because her own methods are being turned against her. We enjoy her punishment because it is part of our fallen nature to enjoy revenge, but more importantly because we realize, as she does, that she will go on experiencing a living hell on earth. She has ruined the lives and reputations of others, and now her life and reputation are ruined: the punishment fits the crime.

By contrast, in “Le Corbeau” the writer of the letters is punished, vigilante-style, but we are left unsatisfied by the outcome, thinking, “That’s it?” The doer of the deed comes almost out of nowhere; the story has become so convoluted by this point that we have forgotten about them almost entirely. And despite some last-minute “what ifs?” by Clozot there is never any doubt as to the writer’s identity or fate.

Clozot leaves us with important, unanswered questions. Are the townspeople just going to go back to being mean to one another? Is Dr. Germain still going to be committing infanticide and fooling around? Is Denise still going to be playing Potiphar’s wife to all of her husband’s lodgers? In other words: has anyone actually learned anything? “Le Corbeau” fades out on a beautiful shot, but the story faded long before we got to this point – and this is ultimately its greatest problem.

Making something shocking is one sure-fire way to gain notoriety, or at the very least some attention. Yet the real power of a well-written play or novel that also happens to shock its audience at the time of its initial appearance is its staying power to continue to shock audiences a decade (or a century) or more later. Certainly, there is much to like about “Le Corbeau”, if you are interested in the history of cinema. Yet those interested in really getting into the meat of man’s inhumanity to man, in ways that can be just as shocking to us today as they were at the time their works appeared, would be better served by reading Balzac or Camus.