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.

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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.

Why the Devil Wears Prada

In the brilliant Ernst Lubitsch film “Ninotchka” (1938) the title character – wonderfully played by Greta Garbo in perhaps the finest part of her legendary career – is a dyed-in-the-wool Communist sent from Moscow to Paris, to help negotiate a deal on behalf of the Soviet Union. She is initially stunned and appalled by the bourgeois world around her, though by the film’s end she has embraced it. In a very memorable scene when she first arrives at the grand hotel where she will be staying, she passes a window display for the hotel’s boutique, and pauses before an outlandishly shaped, sculptural-looking object. Ninotchka is informed that the object is in fact a lady’s hat. Shaking her head in disgust, she remarks, “How can such a civilization survive which permits their women to put things like that on their heads? It won’t be long now comrades.”

In a somewhat different vein, on Monday evening I dropped into a recently-opened shop in Georgetown on my way up the hill to the home of a fellow blogger (where we spent a convivial evening on the back porch with some non-blogging friends discussing various and sundry matters.) The shopgirl whom I was chatting with as I examined the selection on offer grabbed my arm and said, “I have a Prada suit that would look *great* on you.” Giving a sly smile, I remarked, “I’m sure it would. But I don’t wear designers who sponsor communism.”

Admittedly the comment as regards myself borders on the immodest, but that regarding my rejection of a particular label is based on a long-time awareness of the machinations of said label’s head designer. Miuccia Prada is well-known among the cognoscenti in the design world as a communist and an active promoter of left-wing social and political policies, a fact which may be lost on many Americans who purchase her wares. Given my distaste for communism, I have never owned anything designed by her, nor would I accept anything designed by her as a gift, such is the extent of my admitted and fully-embraced prejudice. This aside from the fact that her menswear consists of utterly putrid, predominantly androgynous garments, which are really just clothes for genetic males who look like unattractive women with a penchant for copying “From Russia with Love” villain Rosa Klebb’s style.

Britain’s The Independent not long ago described Sig.ra Prada’s output as being full of “irony and sheer brains”, as she employs thread and needle to make fun of the bourgeoisie:

At the root of her work, like the theme of a symphony to which it constantly returns, is the conservatism and restraint that are so typical of bourgeois Milan and so at odds with the world’s image of Italy, and which she absorbed with her mother’s minestrone. But this conservatism is constantly punctured and subverted, rudely shoved aside and cruelly mocked, by a whole mad world of motley influences and by an almost childish compulsion to do what everybody says you mustn’t and what nobody expects.

Those familiar with Whit Stillman’s film “Metropolitan” may recall the scene in which the character of Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) talks about his disappointment with Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s 1972 film “Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie” (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”). Charlie, a member of a group which he has christened the “UHB” or “Urban Haute-Bourgeoisie”, describes how excited he was on hearing of the film’s title, and his subsequent disappointment upon actually seeing the movie. “I thought, ‘Finally! someone’s going to tell the truth about the bourgeoisie!’ But it’s hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait.”

Of course Charlie is not aware that, as is typical of many Leftists with the leisure to pursue such ends, Buñuel himself was no proletarian: he came from a decidedly wealthy background, and heartily enjoyed being around wealthy people. And for someone who is supposedly so ironic, so biting in her criticism of the bourgeois, in mocking the bourgeoisie Sig.ra Prada is also, even more ironically mocking herself. She is nothing if not a woman of comfortably middle-class origin supported by a decidedly upper-class income. Like other dowdy, aging baby boomers who criticize traditional ideals, she fails to perceive her own hypocrisy in supporting Marxist ideology on the one hand, while simultaneously flogging her goods with the other – at ridiculously inflated prices, natch – in order to increase her own wealth. Indeed, Sig.ra Prada has now appeared on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people for many years.

The response from the Left, of course, is that Sig.ra Prada, Buñuel and others like them very much recognize their own hypocrisy, but they are more than happy to take the resources of those whom they perceive as perpetrators of the evils of mankind, and use those resources to promote their supposedly more moral or liberating projects, causes and beliefs. In so doing however, they prove themselves to be no different from the people whose views and methods they claim to despise. They may not believe in the God of the Bible, but they worship themselves through self-promotion; they may pay their workers a living wage, but they would never eschew staying in grand hotels, let alone live in a shared, modest apartment with any of them. (Where would they keep the Château Margaux they laid down two summers ago?)

As Leon Trotsky writes in his 1938 screed, “Their Morals and Ours”, not long after founding the Fourth Communist International and his falling out with what for lack of a better term we can call mainstream communism:

Among the liberals and radicals there are not a few individuals who have assimilated the methods of the materialist interpretation of events and who consider themselves Marxists. This does not hinder them, however, from remaining bourgeois journalists, professors or politicians. A Bolshevik is inconceivable, of course, without the materialist method, in the sphere of morality too. But this method serves him not solely for the interpretation of events but rather for the creation of a revolutionary party of the proletariat. It is impossible to accomplish this task without complete independence from the bourgeoisie and their morality. Yet bourgeois public opinion actually now reigns in full sway over the official workers’ movement.

So much, Trotsky seems to be saying, for the champagne socialist.

I do not mean to suggest that we should always avoid, by our purchases, supporting the work of those whose views differ from our own. That would not only be ridiculously impractical, but decidedly narrow-minded. My personal rejection of the work of Sig.ra Prada is merely a personal affectation, based on my deep antipathy toward both her views and how her aesthetic is informed by them. What I do – most emphatically – mean to suggest, however, is that the educated courtier engage in some very practical exercise of their own powers of discernment. Said discerning gentleman or lady ought to consider exactly what it is that they are buying into, with their purchase of clothing, media, and the like, irrespective of its popularity.

Charles Baudelaire – a man who as a result of his own tumultuous personal life knew whereof he spoke – famously remarked that the greatest trick Satan ever pulled was to convince the world that he does not exist. With greater discernment, we can perceive an infernal hand in many places in our world today – in the way we treat one another, yes, but also and perhaps more subtlety in our entertainments and the way in which we live and even dress. The Devil is very much among us – and I definitely believe he wears Prada.

Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) considers a very curious hat.