The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954)

The Last Time I Saw Paris

I’ve been having a bad day for a year now, maybe I’m growing up. Novelist Charles Wills (Van Johnson) returns to Paris to claim custody of his young daughter Vicki (Sandy Descher) and recalls his life there… On VE Day in Paris, American journalist Charles Wills is on the crowded streets of Paris when he meets an unknown woman Helen Ellswirth (Elizabeth Taylor) who kisses him and runs away. He discovers who she is when he encounters her lovely sister Marion (Donna Reed) in a cafe and is smitten. He meets their father James (Walter Pidgeon) and finds a man from the Lost Generation who is flat broke but encourages his daughters to live in his lackadaisical fashion, dreaming big dreams but making no firm plans. Charles falls in love with Helen and they marry but when he parties away the unexpected dowry from James’ oil investments it drives a wedge between them then his ambition to write a book sunders them completely … What kind of wife are you, dancing with other men?  Adapted by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and director Richard Brooks from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story Babylon Revisited, updated to after WW2, this is a wonderfully atmospheric portrait of the Lost Generation and the clash with the post-war world of the Forties generation (which altogether alters the story’s theme). Sensitive to both male and female perspectives, disappointments in life and love and tragic to the core, this is an unusual production because it’s chiefly from the perspective of the male protagonist and even if Johnson’s no dream boat he acquits himself well. Taylor is rather wonderful and Reed is equally good as the responsible older sister who settles for dull marriage to a decent man, prosecutor Claude Matine (George Dolenz). Roger Moore has a good role as Paul Lane, a tennis pro who romances Taylor; while Johnson is diverted by Eva Gabor. A good old-fashioned melodrama, beautifully made despite the constraints of the studio set. Happy VE Day. I’m sick to death of death. I want to enjoy things, have fun, live every day like it’s the last day. Wouldn’t that be nice, a lifetime full of last days?

East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden

The way he looks at you. Sorta like an animal. In 1917 Salinas Cal (James Dean) and Aaron (Richard Davalos) Trask are the sons of decent farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) who is chairman of the local wartime draft board. Both compete for his attention but Cal has discovered that the mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) they were told was long dead is in fact the madam of a whorehouse in Monterey, 15 miles away. He borrows money from her to profit from a rise in the bean farming market intending to repay his father for his failed experiment in freezing food for long-haul shipping.  But his father prefers Aaron’s announcement of his engagement to Abra (Julie Harris) whom Cal starts to desire just as Aaron feels pressure to enlist and Cal decides to surprise him … I’ve been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn’t even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don’t want it anymore… I can’t use it anymore. I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off. Was there ever a more important or sinuous entrance in the history of cinema than James Dean’s arrival here? The way he moves, coiled like a caged animal set to pounce, slinking along like a cat, then hunched and feral, infiltrating our consciousness and catalysing our puzzlement and desire? I first saw this aged 12 and that’s the perfect age to watch it for the first time, this story of bad parenting, bullying, abandonment, sibling rivalry, envy and first love, all choreographed to the backdrop of the outbreak of WW1 in a masterful adaptation (by Paul Osborn) of the last section of John Steinbeck’s great 1952 novel. Everything about it is right:  the shooting style laying out the gorgeous landscape of Salinas, alternately warm and sunny, chill and foggy; the wide screen that’s barely able to contain the raw emotionality; the marvellous, occasionally strident score by Leonard Rosenman with its soaring, sonorous swoops. And there’s the cast. Jo Van Fleet gives a great performance (in her screen debut) as the wild whoremongering mother  – just look at her strut when we first see her (this is a film of brilliant entrances), providing the angular example of difference to this half-grown boy of hers; Massey is upstanding, a self-righteous, arrogant man, given to sermonising, incapable of leading by empathy; Harris is generous to a fault, allowing Dean to be everything, all at once, boy, man, lover. He burns up the screen with playfulness, confusion and rage. His scenes with Davalos, the Abel to his Cain, bespeak a softness and eroticism rarely equalled and play into the latterday perceptions of his orientation – or perhaps director Elia Kazan just understood how he needed to be in the part, getting into your head by whatever means necessary. Kazan recalled the audience reaction to Dean at the first screening and said that kids were screaming and yelling and practically falling over the balcony to get closer to him, they went wild. That’s how he makes you feel, James Dean. You want to get closer to him. You want to be him. This is really where that sensation began:  of feelings being teased, opened up, acknowledged. Once seen, never forgotten. You’re a likeable kid

The Cure for the Coronavirus Lockdown, Part 1

The whole world appears to be wearing surgical masks and latex gloves. Finding toilet rolls and cleaning products on supermarket shelves is now as rare as locating a unicorn.  Your favourite foods are at a premium so your Lenten sacrifices just got even tougher. Or easier, actually.  You’ve stocked up on canned goods and all the pasta you can stuff in a string bag. But you don’t want to eat them. And restaurants and bars are closed! And The Who gig is off! And all the cinemas are shut!  And it’s only your bloody birthday! There’s only one solution for this wartime stay home edict … Escape!

The Sheltering Sky (1990)

The Sheltering Sky

We’re not tourists. We’re travellers. In the late Forties American expats Port Moresby (John Malkovich) and his wife Kit (Debra Winger) are trying to inject their tired marriage with adventure in North Africa. They are accompanied by their friend George Tunner (Campbell Scott) and fall in with some loathsome English expats, the Lyles, a mother (Jill Bennett) and her son Eric (Timothy Spall). When the city hems them in they journey through the desert. Port sleeps with a prostitute while George starts an affair with Kit and now there is a complicated love triangle unfurling in difficult circumstances because Port becomes ill … No matter what’s wrong between us there can never be anyone else. Bernardo Bertolucci’s romantic interpretation of Paul Bowles’ debut novel about alienation plugs into its erotic and dramatic intensity and wisely avoids any attempt at expressing its overwhelming interiority, with astonishing performances by the leads (particularly Winger), mesmerising cinematography of the sweeping desert landscapes by Vittorio Storaro and an utterly tragic dénouement to this unconventional marriage of fine minds and wild desires that feels utterly confrontational. It’s a staggeringly beautiful work that is as decorative as it is despairing, resonant, mystifying and depressing by turn. It’s a plot that promises melodrama but is more consequential in the symbolic realm yet it also boasts a harsh lesson – that white people will always be strangers in this strange land of seductive images and grasping locals with their own motives. The haunting score accompanying this epic tale of love and death is composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Richard Horowitz. Written by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe. Bowles hated it – and he’s in it. My only plan is I have no plan

Veronika Voss (1982)

Veronika Voss

Aka Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss. Light and shadow; the two secrets of motion pictures. Munich 1955. Ageing Third Reich film star Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) who is rumoured to have slept with Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda Josef Goebbels, becomes a drug addict at the mercy of corrupt Lesbian neurologist Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer), who keeps her supplied with morphine, draining her of her money. Veronika attends at the clinic where Katz cohabits with her lover and a black American GI (Günther Kaufmann) who is also a drug dealer. After meeting impressionable sports writer Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) in a nightclub, Veronika begins to dream of a return to the silver screen. As the couple’s relationship escalates in intensity and Krohn sees the possibility of a story, Veronika begins seriously planning her return to the cinema – only to realise how debilitated she has become through her drug habit as things don’t go according to plan … Artists are different from ordinary people. They are wrapped up in themselves, or simply forgetful. The prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s penultimate film and one of his greatest, its predictive theme would have horrible resonance as he died just a few months after its release. Conceived as the third part of his economic trilogy including The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola, this reworking of or homage to Sunset Blvd., whose ideas it broadly limns, has many of his usual tropes and characters and even features his sometime lover Kaufmann who could also be seen in Maria Braun; while Krohn tells his fellow journalist girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess) of his experience and potential scoop but Veronika’s hoped-for return is not what he anticipates with a Billy Wilder-like figure despairing of her problem. Its message about life in 1950s Germany is told through the style of movies themselves without offering the kind of escapist narratives Veronika seems to have acted in during her heyday.  She’ll be your downfall. There’s nothing you can do about it. She’ll destroy you, because she’s a pitiful creature. Fassbinder was hugely influenced not just by Douglas Sirk but Carl Dreyer and this story is also inspired by the tragic life of gifted actress Sybille Schmitz, who performed in Vampyr.  She died in 1955 in a suicide apparently facilitated by a corrupt Lesbian doctor.  The unusually characterful Zech is tremendous in the role. She would later play the lead in Percy Adlon’s Alaska-set Salmonberries as well as having a long career in TV. She died in 2011. It’s an extraordinary looking film with all the possibilities of cinematography deployed by Xaver Schwarzenberger to achieve a classical Hollywood effect for a story that has no redemption, no gain, no safety, no love.  Fassbinder himself appears briefly at the beginning of the film, seated behind Zech in a cinema. This is where movie dreams become a country’s nightmare. All that lustrous whiteness dazzles the eye and covers so much. Screenplay by Fassbinder with regular collaborators Peter Märtesheimer and Pea Fröhlich.  Let me tell you, it was a joy for me that someone should take care of me without knowing I’m Veronika Voss, and how famous I am. I felt like a human being again. A human being!