Somewhere around 1984 it seemed that Kevin Bacon might become a matinee idol, a prettyboy star. But he had a few things going against him. The name Kevin, for instance. Not to mention Bacon. After starring in Footloose, he went through film after film pitching his voice low, his face looking like the site of some vague plastic surgery mishap. He had the odd hit, such as Tremors, but for the most part he became a support player in bigger films, JFK and The River Wild and Apollo 13, in which he played the benighted astronaut not played by Tom Hanks or Bill Paxton. Bacon became, in fact, a perennial “nearly” man, the butt of that meta-joke game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Then he discovered spooky and things started going his way. Stir of Echoes is the film he discovered it in. Coming out in 1999, the same year as The Sixth Sense, this similarly flavoured tale is dark and gripping and sees Bacon playing a sceptic who finds the “Other Side” is invading his life after a larky party-game hypnosis session. Bacon is perfectly cast – first as the arsy know-all who believes that blanket scepticism marks him out as some sort of rival to Einstein, then as the psycho oddball being driven into increasingly desperate corners by his desire to find out what is possessing him. It’s a brilliant performance of a man on the edge, and it marked a change in Bacon’s career. He started being good, almost all the time, in films that needed that unsettling presence – Hollow Man, Mystic River, The Woodsman. He stopped trying to be a bland leading man and accepted that he was, at some things, about as good as it gets. David Koepp’s thriller mixes the mundane with the extreme, gives Bacon his head, and throws in some superb cinematography (by Fred Murphy) as an added bonus. If you want an excuse to get scared and cuddle up to someone, this should bring home the proverbial.
So much is right about the Third Man that could have gone so wrong. Producer David O. Selznick wanted it shot entirely on studio sets. Director Carol Reed disagreed and won, which is why it’s shot on the dank streets of post-war Vienna, a city as overrun with black marketeers as the film suggests. Selznick also wanted Noel Coward to play Harry Lime, the role eventually taken by Orson Welles. Perhaps Coward would have made a good “Third Man”, a shit trading penicillin to the highest bidder and damn the children who die as a consequence. But if Coward had taken the role, there wouldn’t have been the “cuckoo clock” speech, written by Welles, which makes the case that all human achievement is founded on suffering. As to the rest of it, who knows what would have happened once Selznick started getting his way – for the American release he changed Graham Greene’s opening monologue, which does in five minutes of scene-setting what some films can’t manage in an hour. It’s a masterpiece of concision. But then every aspect of the film says “masterpiece” – the writing, the directing, the casting, locations, Anton Karas’s zither score, the cinematography. It’s still regulary voted “Best British film of all time”.
Everyone loves a form/content double whammy, when a film’s story and its method of telling correspond. It’s why Memento succeeds so well, for example, a tale about an amnesiac told in partial and unreliable flashback. How much craftier is Michael Haneke’s psychological thriller Hidden. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) are media professionals, members of the Parisian chattering classes, liberal right down in their DNA. What could people of such good intent have to do with the rising tide of Islamism, anti-westernism, terrorism? Why are they being blackmailed by an increasingly incriminating series of videotapes? Are they guilty of something, or innocent, as the film seems to proclaim? Haneke’s double whammy is to tell this story both from the point of view of the spooked couple and through the replaying of the videotapes they’ve been sent. Indeed we’re often not sure which point of view we’re seeing events from – is it the dispassionate camera telling us the story from Georges and Anne’s point of view, or is it the politicised camera within the film, the one shooting the videotapes? And it’s on this nub that this brilliant film turns. You could see it as a comment on fictionalised reality, though it is only tangentially that. Or as a more political film which, through Haneke’s dislocating device, dissolves the certainties of fiction and invites the question – are we, Western audiences, no matter how liberal, anti-war, pro-diversity, because we benefit from them, complicit in political actions taken in our name?
If you’ve seen 5X2, you’ll already know that François Ozon makes immensely clever and highly entertaining films, and that there’s a point to the cleverness; he’s not just showing off. In the House, aka Dans La Maison, is Ozon to the bone, another very clever piece of work. This time, however, the point he’s making is far less immediately obvious.
5X2 was a love story played out backwards, the point being that, “forearmed” as we were with the knowledge that the relationship would crumble, we saw the couple in question’s first stirrings of love, courtship, marriage, honeymoon and so on through entirely different eyes. Here Ozon plays a similar trick, taking a Cuckoo in the Nest plot and wrapping it up in an examination of fiction and truth.
Fabrice Luchini plays Germain Germain, a jaded teacher of French who is wading through the marking of “what I did at the weekend” essays one night when he comes across something submitted by one of his pupils. It’s a startling story of how Claude, one of his teenage charges, courted fellow pupil Rapha, so he could gain access to the boy’s house, where he seems to have been leering after the kid’s mother Esther, (played by Emmanuelle Seigner). Unsettled, the teacher shows his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) the unusual and seemingly confessional essay. She is as intrigued as he, but also appalled. Next day the teacher upbraids the boy for his stalking, who instead of backing down hands him the next instalment of the story, which ends, like the first one, with “A suivre…” (to be continued).
Aagainst his better judgment, the teacher reads on, and becomes completely, becoming not just an avid follower of the boy’s increasingly lurid exploits (is he going to seduce the mother? the son? surely not the father?), not just his literary mentor, but also, bit by bit, an agent provocateur. Ozon symbolises this brilliantly, by having Luchini suddenly popping up inside the boy’s retelling of his story to offer pointers.
Inside this vicious circle or feedback loop, on the one hand there’s a Damien tale of a monster inside a humdrum middle class family’s life. On the other there’s the teacher’s reactions to that story, and the effect his reactions have on the development of the boy’s story. And all the while the boy’s story is progressively taking over the teacher’s life. Fact and fiction become hopelessly intertwined, with the only seeming certainty being that, as is said several times, “the world needs stories”.
There is a student essay in here for someone with an interest in structuralism or deconstruction (both of which more or less take the view that nothing is certain or natural and that everything is made up – it’s all a big story).
For those of a more pragmatic, empirical nature, this is also a highly entertaining bit of farce, with Luchini perfectly cast – all hangdog one second, raised eyebrow the next – as the teacher in beyond the elbow, an invert of the Lolita figure of Humbert Humbert having rings run around him by an “innocent” kid. Ernst Umhauer plays the teenager, cleverer by far than his teacher, an inspired bit of casting – creepy, smooth skinned, attractive, with a hint of a smile that could be amusement or malice. Bisexual? Maybe. Unsettling is Ozon’s intention, I suspect, and Umhauer is certainly that.
Everyone else, including Scott Thomas and Emmanuelle Seigner, is a footnote. Apart, that is, from the father of the dolt, also called Rapha, played as a man so charged up with manly testosterone by Denis Ménochet, as so “natural” and unmediated in his actions and reactions that he stands in complete contradiction to the fey “everything is fictional” posturing of everyone else. And that, surely, is the point of Ozon’s film – there is fiction, there is fact and if we lose the distinction, we’re lost. French philosophers of the post 1968 tradition take note.
Critics continue to argue over whether this is the best film noir ever made but all seem united on one point – Kiss Me Deadly is the best adaptation of one of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels. Now 50 years old, the film opens with a scene that still packs a punch – cynical private eye Mike Hammer picks up a girl hitchhiker who is wearing only a mac. Within minutes his car has been run off the road and a brutal gang is torturing the girl before killing her.
The stage is set for Hammer, one of cinema’s great anti-heroes, to become avenging angel, visiting bad men in places high and low to find out whodunit and why. Ralph Meeker is a perfect Hammer, a dirty, lowdown man full of animal cunning, snide one-liners and little else, the ideal operator in a world gone to the bad.
Director Robert Aldrich and ace cinematographer Ernest Laszlo back Meeker every frame of the way in a succession of blowsy, jaundiced nihilstic set-ups designed to bring out the worst in every place and every person. And how do you finish off a film set in a world rotten from top to bottom. With a cleansing dose of nuclear apocalypse of course. That’s better.
The prevailing wisdom on Orson Welles has changed in recent years. It used to be: “Poor Orson, his masterpieces (such as The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True, The Lady from Shanghai ) butchered by the studios”. Now it’s: “Lazy Orson, got most of the way through a film and then lost interest”. Certainly Welles subscribed to the former view, and broadcast it widely wherever he went in Europe during his exile (or extended flake-out, take your pick).
Confidential Report fuels the debate. A shadow of both his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (in which Welles played the similarly gnomic Harry Lime), the film jumps around the world excavating the past of a mysterious megalomaniac and is either a masterpiece re-edited to destruction by the studios, or a series of brilliantly melodramatic vignettes which Orson couldn’t quite be bothered melding into a whole.
Whichever it is, and seven different versions have done the rounds over the years, the version I watched recently certainly seemed to have been edited by a man with a grudge. Maybe this was the same version that Cahiers du Cinema saw in 1958 and declared a masterpiece, in spite of the fact that all of Welles’s flashbacks and other chronological trickery had been ironed out.
Whichever version you are offered there’s good stuff in it – all that deep-focus photography and Expressionistic Euro-angst – and the always engaging, lovably preposterous figure of Welles himself, who plays the mysterious Mr Arkadin, by which name this mad, gothic/baroque fruitcake of a film is also known. See, you can’t get a straight answer even on the title.