Dogville (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #25

A quiet little town not far from here.

Full Title: The film “Dogville” as told in nine chapters and a prologue

Country: Denmark, Sweden, UK, France, Germany & the Netherlands
Language: English
Runtime: 178 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 21st May 2003 (Belgium, Switzerland & France)
UK Release: 13th February 2004
First Seen: DVD, c.2005

Stars
Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!, Stoker)
Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind, Priest)
Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep, The Shootist)
Stellan Skarsgård (Insomnia, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
John Hurt (The Tigger Movie, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer)

Director
Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Antichrist)

Screenwriter
Lars Von Trier (The Idiots, Melancholia)

The Story
On the run from the mob, Grace arrives in the remote town of Dogville. Its residents agree to shelter her in order to prove their community values, though in return she must do chores for them. As the search for the missing woman repeatedly visits the town, the people’s demands for recompense for the risk they are taking intensifies…

Our Hero
Grace is a sweet, desperate young woman, happy to work for the good Christian people of Dogville in payment for their kindness. As her good nature is gradually worn down, she becomes enslaved by them — though it may turn out there’s more to her than meets the eye…

Our Villains
Of course there aren’t any villains in the town of Dogville — everyone’s a morally upstanding citizen.

Best Supporting Character
Not technically a character, but the Narrator is a palpable presence in the film. The material Von Trier has written for him is just the right side of verbose, and John Hurt delivers it with inestimable class.

Memorable Quote
“Whether Grace left Dogville, or on the contrary Dogville had left her — and the world in general — is a question of a more artful nature that few would benefit from by asking, and even fewer by providing an answer. And nor indeed will it be answered here.” — Narrator

Memorable Scene
The scenes that stick in the mind from Dogville — aside from the opening shot I shall discuss next — are either harrowing, spoilersome, or both, and so don’t merit discussion in a format potentially perused by neophytes.

Technical Wizardry
The famous bare set — a black soundstage with chalk markings on the floor to represent the houses, and minimal other features or props — was inspired by the theatre of Bertolt Brecht; as was the film’s plot, so it’s rather apt. The set (or lack thereof) seems like a very “art house” idea, and a distancing one for the viewer, but it’s surprising how quickly you forget and accept it.

Making of
The opening bird’s-eye shot of the town: physically impossible, because the studio’s roof wasn’t high enough, so the final result is actually 156 separate shots stitched together.

Next time…
Supposedly the first part of a trilogy called “USA: Land of Opportunities”. The second part, Manderlay, was released in 2005, starring Bryce Dallas Howard in Kidman’s role. The concluding part, Wasington, seems to have fallen out of Von Trier’s interest.

Awards
Nominated for the Palme d’Or.
Won the Palm Dog.

What the Critics Said
“Von Trier’s detractors – and there are many – will argue that this is nothing more than filmed theatre. […] But Anthony Dod Mantle’s digital video camera isn’t simply documenting a performance. It restlessly and fearlessly intrudes into this place and into these lives. Its close-ups – capturing key emotions as they flicker across the characters’ faces – are vital to describing the moral arc of the story. This is something that can only be achieved cinematically, an intensity that’s impossible to render elsewhere, not even from the front row of a playhouse’s stalls.” — Alan Morrison, Empire

Score: 70%

What the American Critics Said
“what most reviews are discussing is the success or failure of the film as a critique on America. There’s a sense of discussion, not of the themes dissected, but more of whether the film deserved consideration as an anti-American film, and whether it was a bad film because of it. Released in an altogether post-9/11 world, attacking America in any way shape or form, cinematic, politically, or philosophically, constituted an echo of the violence of two or three years before. […] now that we’ve learned to accept critique not as an attack, but for exactly what it is, critique, we can get to the real heart of Dogville, and we can stop nitpicking whether or not it was a deserved attack on American culture, or whether it should be written off as an “anti-American” movie” — Karl Pfeiffer
(That piece goes on to be a very interesting analysis of the film, by-the-way, particularly with regards to it being an allegory for Christianity.)

What the Public Say
“Lars, despite his ever intrusive camera, keeps us at a distance from his characters. This is not a criticism nor do I think this is unintentional. I think he does this to make sure we don’t lose sight of the message he is trying to share with us. He wants us to look at ourselves through these people, not get lost in their drama. The message of Dogville is a pessimistic one: At humanity’s core, we are bad people who will turn on our brother to protect ourselves. Altruism does not exist. Americans are smugly self-righteous. And even those of us who deem ourselves most pure are never above revenge.” — Cineaste

Verdict

It’s no surprise that Lars Von Trier would be responsible for such a provocative, difficult, divisive film — indeed, that’s what all his films are, aren’t they? Whether that works or not is often down to the individual, with each of his films being hailed as masterpieces by some and condemned as drivel by others. Dogville is no different. A three-hour movie that takes place in a black-box theatrical-style environment may sound tough, but engrossing performances and a symbolic storyline with a cathartic ending keep it… not enjoyable, exactly, but fascinating.

#26 will be… 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds from the end.

The Big Sleep (1946)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #11

The Violence-Screen’s
All-Time Rocker-Shocker!

(Yes, that is a real tagline.)

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 114 minutes
BBFC: A (pre-release, 1945) | A (1946) | PG (1988)

Original Release: 31st August 1946 (USA)
UK Release: June 1946 (BBFC)
First Seen: DVD (maybe), c.2004 (possibly)

Stars
Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)
Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not, North West Frontier)
Martha Vickers (The Falcon in Mexico, The Big Bluff)
Dorothy Malone (The Fast and the Furious (not that one), Basic Instinct (yes, that one))

Director
Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)

Screenwriters
Leigh Brackett (Rio Bravo, The Empire Strikes Back)
Jules Furthman (The Outlaw, Nightmare Alley)
William Faulkner (To Have and Have Not, Land of the Pharaohs)

Based on
The Big Sleep, a novel by Raymond Chandler.

The Story
Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to settle the gambling debts his daughter, Carmen, owes to a man named Geiger. Sternwood’s other daughter, Vivian, suspects Marlowe has actually been hired to find Sean Reagan, the General’s friend who has disappeared. Arriving at Geiger’s home, Marlowe hears a shot, and inside finds Geiger dead, Carmen drugged, and a hidden camera with the film gone. So begins a complex web of blackmail and murder. Very complex. Very, very complex.

Our Hero
The archetypal downtrodden PI, Philip Marlowe makes up what he lacks in good fortune with a fast mouth and sharp mind. Has bad manners though, which he grieves over on long winter evenings.

Our Villain
It’s a mystery, let’s not give it away. The film certainly does its best not to.

Best Supporting Character
Lauren Bacall as headstrong Vivian Sternwood, a character who benefitted from the behind-the-scenes situation at the time: Bogie and Bacall’s chemistry in To Have and Have Not led the studio to want more of the same, and her agent was only too keen after the poor reviews of Confidential Agent threatened to sink her career before it had really begun. New sparky dialogue scenes took the place of exposition ones in the final cut, essentially creating the film’s reputation for confusion.

Memorable Quote
“She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.” — Philip Marlowe

Memorable Scene
Bogie and Bacall discuss horse racing.
— “I like to see them work out a little first… You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free.”
Just horse racing.
— “I don’t know how far you can go.” “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”
Just horse racing.

Making of
Another part in the Bacall situation described above was supposedly played by original author Raymond Chandler. He reportedly observed that Martha Vickers was so good as Carmen that she overshadowed Bacall, and consequently much of Vickers’ material was removed.

Previously on…
The Big Sleep is the fourth screen adaptation of a Philip Marlowe story, though only the second to star the detective: 1942’s Time to Kill adapted The High Window into the Michael Shayne series, and the same year Farewell My Lovely was filmed as The Falcon Takes Over. The same novel was adapted again in 1944 as Murder, My Sweet (though, famously, retained the novel’s title for its UK release), starring Dick Powell as Marlowe.

Next time…
Bogart never played Marlowe again, but multiple film, TV and radio adaptations of Chandler’s novels have followed, with the lead role being occupied by the likes of James Garner, Elliott Gould, Robert Mitchum, Powers Boothe, Danny Glover, James Caan, and Toby Stephens. A remake of The Big Sleep, relocated to ’70s London and directed by Michael “calm down dear” Winner, was Marlowe’s final big screen outing to date.

Awards
Not a sausage.

What the Critics Said
“one of those pictures in which so many cryptic things occur amid so much involved and devious plotting that the mind becomes utterly confused. And, to make it more aggravating, the brilliant detective in the case is continuously making shrewd deductions which he stubbornly keeps to himself. What with two interlocking mysteries and a great many characters involved, the complex of blackmail and murder soon becomes a web of utter bafflement. Unfortunately, the cunning script-writers have done little to clear it at the end.” — Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“you don’t watch The Big Sleep just to find out who did what to whom, when and for what reason. This is truly one of those movies where the journey is far more important than the destination. As we follow Marlowe around a moody and threatening Los Angeles, we go on a tour of the seedy underbelly of the city. Even though the time is spent in the company of high rollers and the glamorous set, it’s all merely a glittering veneer for a world of pornography, drugs, deviance, betrayal and violence.” — Colin, Riding the High Country

Verdict

Famed for having a plot so complicated even author Raymond Chandler doesn’t know who committed at least one of its murders, I’ve always found The Big Sleep very followable if you pay attention… just don’t expect me to be able to explain it after it’s finished. The film’s popularity in spite of its impenetrability confirmed director Howard Hawks’ theory that audiences didn’t care if a plot made sense as long as they had a good time, and he’s kinda right — the joys here are Bogie and Bacall’s verbal sparring, the exposure of LA’s seedy underbelly (albeit in a Production Code-friendly way), and the film’s whole noir-ish atmosphere.

The Big Sleep is finally released on US Blu-ray on Tuesday 23rd February.

#12 will be… a Marvellous vampire.

North West Frontier (1959)

aka Flame Over India / Empress of India

2015 #126
J. Lee Thompson | 125 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | U

British Army Captain Scott (Kenneth More) is charged with getting an Indian child prince and his American governess (Lauren Bacall) to safety as rebels attempt to murder him. With the palace under siege, their only hope is a barely-ready rust-bucket train engine, a single passenger carriage, and a long journey through enemy territory joined by a motley group of diplomats and hangers-on who’ve bargained their way on to this last train.

North West Frontier has been on BBC Two a couple of times in the last year or two (seven times in the last four years, to be precise), and on one of those showings I caught a few seconds and thought it looked fabulously shot — I confess, that’s the only reason I’d got hold of a copy. I’m so glad I did though, because it’s excellent stuff — a rollicking, action-packed, old-fashioned (in the good sense) adventure, full of peril, derring-do, chases and shoot-outs. In between all that there’s some great character stuff too. Judging from online reaction, some viewers seem to find these bits boring longueurs, but I thought they helped manage the pace and added to the whole feel.

In particular, it’s during those segments where you get to see that every cast member is excellent. More is surprisingly dashing as the heroic leader of this ragtag bunch on their ramshackle locomotive. Bacall is as feisty as you’d expect as the strong-willed, outspoken governess, creating an easy and perhaps-surprisingly plausible chemistry with More. For the rest of the cast, Herbert Lom seems to be channelling a little Peter Lorre as a critical Dutch journalist, Wilfrid Hyde-White is the perfect older English gent, I.S. Johar is fun as the train’s Indian driver, Ursula Jeans is redoubtable as the English lady forced to escape on the train by her governor husband, and Eugene Deckers is an arms dealer, who consequently no one likes but who remains unashamed of his trade. Through this prism there’s some discussion of the merits or otherwise of the British Empire and Indian independence, which some will judge to be extolling old-fashioned values, and others will take as little more than a (probably unnecessary) hat-tip in the direction of real politics.

And as for the reason I watched, success: it’s beautifully shot, in widescreen Eastmancolor by Geoffrey Unsworth, showing off stunning scenery lensed in India and Spain (with studio sequences shot at Pinewood, naturally). It may not be famed as a big-budget epic, but there’s nonetheless an impressively grand scale, with wide-open scenery, some extravagant locales, and hundreds of extras to fill out a few sweeping battle charges. They also come into play in one of the film’s most striking sequences, set at the scene of a horrid massacre, where a spread of blood-soaked bodies surely stretch the film’s U certificate. I’ve seen this part of the film described as unnecessarily dallied upon, but I think director J. Lee Thompson is more conveying the atrocity of such a tragic event.

In the US, the film was retitled Flame Over India (and Bacall was given top billing, as opposed to More in the UK), while in Australia it was named Empress of India, after the central train. That’s the best title, in my opinion. Flame Over India is pretty meaningless (Bacall didn’t like it either) and North West Frontier is a bit generic and bland, but Empress of India indicates the country and has meaning… though as it’s not about an Empress you could argue it’s misleading and sounds too romantic.

North West Frontier, on the other hand, sounds like a Western — which was perhaps the intention: the film’s structure and story style is fundamentally a fit for that genre, albeit British-made and geographically relocated. The storyline immediately brings to mind John Ford’s Stagecoach: a gaggle of mismatched strangers are thrown together as they cross hostile territory, interspersing conversations and arguments with adventurous survival challenges. In a review I otherwise pretty thoroughly disagree with, Glenn Erickson at DVD Talk makes the same comparison and offers this insightful point: “It may be a blatant reworking of Stagecoach as the original story was co-written by John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s husband Will Price. The final screenplay [by Robin Estridge] was adapted from a script by screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, the writer of eleven Ford films.” Sounds pretty likely, doesn’t it?

North West Frontier is a film I would certainly have overlooked were it not for some whim of fate. Thank goodness for coincidence and chance, then, because it’s a cracking adventure; one made, I think, with pure entertainment in mind. I rather loved it.

5 out of 5

North West Frontier placed 15th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of The Lauren Bacall Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

2009 #94
Sidney Lumet | 122 mins | TV | PG / PG

Murder on the Orient ExpressMurder on the Orient Express is arguably Agatha Christie’s most famous novel, perhaps because of its widely-known twist ending, or perhaps because it’s inspired in part by a high-profile true story, or perhaps because of this multi-Oscar-nominated all-star adaptation.

The plot is the stereotypical Christie set up: a group of fairly well-off people find themselves in a confined setting, one is killed, a sleuth works out who. This time it’s a train rather than a luxurious mansion, but the basics are there. This isn’t a criticism — I enjoy a good Christie adaptation as much as everyone else who’s kept the current TV incarnation on air for 21 years (and counting) — and here at least Christie has a number of twists to her usual style. As mentioned its launching point is a true story, the Armstrong kidnapping and murder being based on the Lindbergh kidnap of 1932 (just a couple of years before the book was written); the snow-bound train’s location (very apt after our recent weather) is certainly different to a stereotypical country estate setting; and then there’s the infamous ending.

I won’t spoil it here, just in case anyone doesn’t know it. Some are very critical of this particular denouement, labeling it an unsatisfactory cop-out that doesn’t make sense. Neither of these things are true. It is not reliant on an extraordinary coincidence — it might look that way at first, but the full explanation reveals it to be anything but — and there are numerous clues along the way as to what it might be, even if some are more thematic than the actual red herrings that almost lead Poirot astray. It’s a shame that knowledge of the ending is quite widespread these days, though that’s perhaps inevitable for a 76-year-old story. Still, I’ve done my bit.

In the lead role, Albert Finney’s Poirot may have received an Oscar nomination and, more importantly, been approved by Christie herself (according to some; according to others, she wasn’t impressed), but he now pales in the inevitable comparison with David Suchet’s definitive portrayal of the Belgian detective. Suchet has defined Poirot in a way few other major franchisable characters have been (Connery may be widely accepted as the best Bond, but there are plenty who’d choose Moore, Craig, Dalton and Brosnan, and you may even find someone who likes Lazenby; equally, Sherlockians may divide themselves between Rathbone and Brett, not to mention Cushing and hundreds of others). He has the advantage of being able to perfect the role across hundreds of hours of television, but nonetheless stands proud as the high-watermark that others can only try to reach (even those who played the role 15 years earlier).

Finney’s version is more obviously comical than Suchet’s. Where humour in the latter is derived from his serious fastidiousness, Finney plays it more for laughs; where Suchet seems almost solemn in his investigations Finney frequently bursts into laughter. It’s a broader interpretation of the character, one that ultimately lacks subtlety. At least Finney is thoroughly subsumed in the role, which means that after a while one does become accustomed to it.

The rest of the cast are well suited to their roles. Ingrid Bergman won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, though one wonders if it was a weak year for the category as her part is miniscule and not particularly memorable. Elsewhere, famous names such as Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Michael York, and many more, round out a truly star-studded ensemble where each has but a small part to play. It must be relatively easy to attract big names to Christie adaptations — as the TV series still do — when the author is so beloved and the amount of time required to shoot is (for a guest star) so small. Best here, perhaps, is Martin Balsam as Poirot’s friend Bianchi, who’s treated to several good scenes, not least the series of interviews where after each he confidently declares “it was them!”

As a standalone film, Murder on the Orient Express is a skilled effort (I can’t comment on its quality as an adaptation because I’ve never read the book). For a viewer so familiar with Suchet’s interpretation of the character, however, even an all-star cast can’t quite remove the feeling that it’s not quite right. The Suchet-starring adaptation of this particular case has been filming recently, hopefully for broadcast later in 2010 (though knowing ITV we could have to wait as long as 2012), but even though it’ll have the definitive Poirot leading its cast, this film leaves a lot to live up to.

4 out of 5

(Originally posted on 15th January 2010.)