The Duellists

Feraud and d'Hubert duel

The Duellists is Ridley Scott’s feature debut and premiered in 1977, four years after his famous advert for Hovis bread (voted the UK’s favourite TV advert in a 2006 poll). Both are picturesque evocations of a world long gone – pre-War England, in the 45-second advert’s case, the world of post-Revolutionary France in the case of the solid 100 minutes of The Duellists.

The story is a true one – about two men in Napoleon’s army who fought a series of around 30 grudge duels over 19 years. Joseph Conrad had used the facts as the basis for a novella, and Scott’s screenwriter, Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, adapts them further with his screenplay, reducing the time frame to 16 years and the number of duels to five.

Scott had little money to make the film. No one would back an ad man. And so he made it on the cheap, shooting the film as a series of chapters, using real locations, exterior and interior, since he couldn’t afford costly set builds. He turned to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, made two years before, for visual inspiration, with the extra bonus that shooting things this way – with as little artificial light as possible – meant fewer lights to hire in and fewer lighting techies to employ. Those two decisions – no sets, Barry Lyndon lighting – yoked to Scott’s eye for a visual are the making of the film, which is gloriously beautiful to look at.

The stars are Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel, both well cast since Carradine is playing the tall and patrician Armand d’Hubert, Keitel the stockier Gabriel Feraud. D’Hubert and Feraud are both soldiers in Napoleon’s army, the difference being that the former is a “natural” officer, the latter a man who has risen through the ranks and who carries a grudge against d’Hubert and “his kind”. Feraud is also a fanatical dueller who, once slighted by d’Hubert, simply will not let it lie.

A man stares out over a river
The film’s closing shot



The arc is similar to that of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – man of reason locked in a struggle with a man of emotion, the superego versus the id – which is ironic since Keitel was only available for this film because he’d been fired from Apocalypse Now (based on Heart of Darkness), where he was meant to have been playing the entirely reasonable Captain Willard.

In the same way that Marlon Brando’s Captain Kurtz acts as an offstage instigator, so does Harvey Keitel’s Gabriel Feraud in The Duellists, reappearing every now and again to demand another duel but largely existing as a troubling off-screen presence. The focus is squarely on d’Hubert.

The duels themselves are excellently fought, staged and shot. The men are limber. The sabres are real and look lethal. And the fight choreography is believeable. It’s by William Hobbs, who’d much later do similar great work on Game of Thrones.

Along with Howard Blake’s stirring score – halfway between Nyman and Morricone – and a supporting cast of the likes of Albert Finney, Edward Fox, Diana Quick and Robert Stephens, the total effect is of a massive over-reach, a go-for-broke gamble… that’s paid off.

“Advertising taught me everything I know,” Scott said when the Hovis ad was being remastered in 2019. It’s also been his go-to over the years, sometimes to his detriment. The picturesqueness of poverty is fine if you’re trying to generate a nostalgic glow to sell a loaf of bread, but gentle side lighting, warm-up filtration and a hint of soft on the lens doesn’t always work if you’re trying to convey brutal times as they actually were. Scott’s “ad man’s” eye does sometimes get the better of him in The Duellists, to put it another way. But at least he has an eye. The Duellists has got to be up there with his best looking films.



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









The Painted Bird

Joska asleep on a cart while a woman hoes

A screen adaptation of Polish-born Jerzy Kosiński’s novel The Painted Bird probably should have been made before 2019. “Of all the remarkable fiction that emerged from World War II, nothing stands higher than Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird,” wrote Jonathan Yardley in The Miami Herald in a typical rave when the book first appeared in 1965. When it turned out that the book wasn’t based on Kosiński’s own personal experiences, as he had claimed, and that he’d pulled off a remarkable literary hoax, sentiment reversed sharply.

Decades later there were claims that other books by Kosiński – like Being There (which was turned into a 1979 film starring Peter Sellers) – were largely works of plagiarism lifted from Polish novels unknown in the English-speaking world. And there were suggestions that Kosiński’s assistants did all the writing while Kosiński himself dined out on his literary reputation.

Does any of that matter? Ultimately, no, and writer/director Václav Marhoul in any case meets the troubling “plagiarism/fabrication” aspect of Kosiński’s work head-on by deliberately doing something similar and styling his adaptation of The Painted Bird on another film, Elem Klimov’s 1985 anti-war magnum opus Come and See. There’s even a role for the boy-star of Come and See, Aleksei Kravchenko.

Both films have the same picaresque structure and follow a young lad as he stumbles around Eastern Europe from one grim situation to another. This is an almost unrelentingly brutal film, introducing us to its hero, Joska (Petr Kotlár) in an opening scene in which his pet (a weasel? stoat?) is burned before his eyes. Within minutes Joska’s grandmother is also dead, and her house is roaring in flames. Homeless, Joska is off on his tour of hell.

The “painted bird”, we learn, is the one that stands out from the other birds and for its affrontery is pecked to death by its fellows. Joska, we’re told a couple of times, though it’s unclear how anyone can know this, is Jewish, and since vicious anti-semitism is a fact of life he keeps this part of his identity tightly under wraps.

Because it was shot chronologically over two years, we actually see Joska grow up as he moves from one “refuge” to another – a travelling wise woman/doctor (Alla Sokolova), a miller (Udo Kier), a peasant couple (Lech Dyblik and Jitka Cvankarová), a German soldier (Stellan Skarsgård), a priest (Harvey Keitel), one of the priest’s parishioners (Julian Sands), a peasant woman (Julia Valentova) and eventually an American soldier (Barry Pepper). Along the way he is buried up to his neck and almost has his eyes pecked out by crows, is raped by a man, then by a woman, beaten, thrown in a cesspit, while around him one character has been eaten alive in a grain store boiling with hungry rats, and another has had a bottle inserted into her vagina, which the local women have kicked at till it shatters.

Come and See's Aleksei Kravchenko
Come and See’s Aleksei Kravchenko



The more famous names, Keitel for example, slot right in with the less well known, all of a piece in this unfolding tableau of awfulness. It’s The Good Soldier Schwejk without the jokes, perhaps, all shot in an arresting black and white by much-garlanded Czech cinematographer Vladimír Smutný, and one of the ancillary cultural points it makes is just how medieval Eastern Europe was in the run-up to the Second World War. Until a German bi-plane buzzed over Joska as if from nowhere, I’d got little idea which century we were in, never mind which decade of the 20th century.

In spite of the “one damn thing after another” plotlessness of the picaresque,The Painted Bird remains gripping until minutes before the end. It gets round the tendency of the picaresque to flop into formlessness by driving forward at a real lick, yet also finds enough space to luxuriate in moments of unexpected beauty.

It’s only the third film that Marhoul has directed, and he was almost 60 when this was released. I don’t know his other films, 2003’s Smart Philip or 2008’s Tobruk, but the first is apparently an adaptation of one of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, while the second shifts Stephen Crane’s Civil War drama The Red Badge of Courage (a version of which became a film starring Audie Murphy) into North Africa. This excellent adaptation of Kosiński’s problematical book is no one-off then. Marhoul clearly likes a challenge.



The Painted Bird – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Fatima

The children see the Virgin

 

In many ways a bog-standard bible flick given a cursory wipeover with a humanist rag in the figure of Harvey Keitel – doing penance for Bad Lieutenant all those years ago – Fatima is just dramatic enough, lavish enough and well directed enough to escape the “it is what it is” label.

But first a bit of background for those not schooled in Catholic lore. During the First World War the Virgin Mary appears to three peasant Portuguese children who live in the village of Fatima, not once but several times. A cult grows up around the children, who report back on the Virgin’s latest utterances to the growing crowds, and eventually Mary entrusts them with three secrets, which eventually end up lodged at the Vatican for safekeeping. Though the secrets have all been divulged – the last one by Pope John Paul II in 2000, incidentally demonstrating that deities don’t list straight-talking among their skills – to this day Fatima remains a place of pilgrimage by the faithful.

Director Marco Pontecorvo wastes no time in getting the story going – Portuguese peasant girl Lucia (Stephanie Gil) is shown pictures from the front by some ethereal creature and reports back to her mama. Mama (Lúcia Moniz) is fretting over the lack of news about her soldier son, so has little time for Lucia’s silliness and encourages her to be more pious and self-denying to placate the gods and hasten her brother’s return.

On a twin track, decades in the future, a non-believing professor (Harvey Keitel) quizzes the elderly Lucia, who has spent the intervening years in a nunnery. Did she make it all up is his essential question, and the nun finds herself as incapable of straightforward answers as the writer of the secrets.

People of a certain age will have seen any number of this sort of film, the sort of thing generally funded by a Christian foundation convinced that they’re in the “revealed truth” business, and so to add any actual drama – or psychological nuance – would be tantamount to blasphemy.

 

Harvey Keitel, behind a metal screen
Can you see Harvey Keitel in this picture?

 

Oldies will also take no comfort from the fact that it’s Sonia Braga playing the elderly Lucia, or that Marco Pontecorvo is the son of Gillo, director of the majestic The Battle of Algiers, though the sight of Harvey Keitel looking spry after looking so rickety in The Painted Bird just a few weeks ago is some compensation.

The scenes set back in ye olden times are shot in sepia, that tired signifier, and the acting varies from the competent – Goran Visnjic gets about the best of it as the progressive pooh-poohing mayor of Fatima – to performances so woeful that you don’t know whether to blame the actors or a screenplay that forces them up verbal blind alleys.

There is a nuanced film in here somewhere – Lucia is on the cusp of puberty and her “visions” could be hormonally inspired, an act of defiance against her mother, or even an attempt to give wing to her mother’s prayers for the safe return of her boy.

And as the teenager comes under increasing pressure to recant – superstitious locals, suspicious priests, an atheist mayor, a mother convinced the daughter’s nonsense is the cause of the now officially missing-in-action son – the edges of a more secular film about human belief systems emerge.

Here, Pontecorvo periodically manages to get Fatima aloft, and also in the impressive rain-lashed crowd scenes that come towards the end of the film, when news of the apparitions and the holy children starts to bring in the faithful in their droves.

The film will also bring in the faithful. There are plenty enough.

 

 

 

Fatima – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Mean Streets

Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

12 May

 

Exile on Main Street released, 1972

On this day in 1972, one of the cornerstone rock albums of all time was released. Exile on Main St was the Rolling Stones follow-up to Sticky Fingers and the first album they had produced since extricating themselves from their contract with manager Allen Klein. The Stones had recently become tax exiles from the UK – and recorded much of the album in the south of France, at a villa Keith Richards was renting. Richards was a heavy user of heroin at the time, and his villa became a hub for visiting fellow devotees – country singer Gram Parsons and author William Burroughs were among those who turned up to shoot up. Much of it written while laying down sessions for Sticky Fingers, the album has the syncopated swagger and blues lope that the Stones had made their own. It is in many respects the classic Stones record, forming, along with the previous two releases – Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed – the high point of the band’s output. The band would never be this good again.

 

 

 

Mean Streets (1973, dir: Martin Scorsese)

One of the immediate realisations, on watching Mean Streets again decades after it hit the unsuspecting streets of criticdom, is how cheap it looks. Written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin in a car in the locations it would be shot in, and focusing on two punks in New York’s Little Italy, its low budget means it doesn’t have the gloss Scorsese has since become associated with. He’d been bubbling under for a few years by 1973, but this is the film that shot Scorsese to dominance, the one that confirmed the promise of Who’s That Knocking at My Door. It didn’t do Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro any harm either. The other thing about re-watching it all these years later – how young these two main actors looked, how in need of a few good dinners.
The seat-of-the-pants looks and lean features of its stars work to the film’s advantage, though, because it’s a movie about being cheap – being a two-bit hustler, a cut-price Romeo, a bottom-feeding extortioner for the Mafia. Keitel plays the fairly useless collector hoping to move up the ranks, De Niro is his childhood friend, a dangerous and unpredictable little toughie who seems to have learnt most of his mannerisms from half-remembered Jimmy Cagney movies. They are chalk and cheese these two – Keitel’s Charlie is useless and sensitive and overburdened by a sense of responsibility; De Niro’s Johnny Boy is violent, charming and unpredictable. Mean Streets essentially follows these two through the bars, pool halls and restaurants of Little Italy, waiting for something to snap, which of course it will. And let’s not forget the church (or the Church, if you prefer) because Charlie’s guilt is a key driver – over the black woman he dances with and wants to date but can’t because she’s black; over the epileptic sister of Johnny Boy who he secretly loves but can’t date because she’s marked as damaged goods; over the family business, extortion; over the fact that he can’t stick to the Commandments; over the fact that he can’t be himself. In 1973 this film was the shizzle – lots of it handheld, some of it slo-mo, lit in exaggerated colours to indicate psychology, with a soundtrack that used actual real hit music (the Stones, Eric Clapton and the Miracles larding a track full of operatic favourites) because Scorsese couldn’t afford a soundtrack, but also because it fits. This soundtrack business is normal these days but then it was revolutionary, as was the whole film, especially the way it depicts characters who seem to have taken the conscious decision to behave as if they are the star of their own B movie. In many ways it is the ground zero of modern film-making – without the elliptical dialogue, bravura editing, expressionistic camera and grungy milieu of Mean Streets what, for instance, would Tarantino look like?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • De Niro and Keitel
  • Scorsese’s real debut (forget Boxcar Bertha)
  • The great soundtrack
  • Look out for a cameo by Scorsese himself

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Mean Streets – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

U-571

Erik Palladino, Matthew McConaughey, U-571

 

The standard submarine drama – depth charges, beep-beep sonar, bursting bulkheads, “secure that hatch” dialogue – gets an efficient workthrough by director Jonathan Mostow, who did a lot with very little in 1997’s “who stole my wife” thriller Breakdown. He’s got a good cast here too – Matthew McConaughey putting in one of his brattish turns as the “I’m ready for command” lieutenant, Bill Paxton as his “No, you’re not” commander, an underused Harvey Keitel and Jon Bon Jovi, continuing his hopeful advance into movies – but it’s the presence of the Enigma coding machine that is the film’s USP. By which I mean it’s the presence of the Enigma machine that is the film’s USP if you’ve watched the trailer or read any pre-release guff. In fact you could easily lose the German code stuff and the film would still be decent enough. Drama’s a given on a sub, and Mostow knows how to muster action, deliver technically impressive set pieces. But it’s not Das Boot – there’s little time for the psychological sweatboxing that Wolfgang Petersen’s superior U-Boat drama delivers – and the sub-John Williams soundtrack also signals the direction this film is heading, towards flashy spectacle not nail-biting involvement. Prepare to dive.

© Steve Morrissey 2000

 

 U-571 – at Amazon

 

 

Holy Smoke

Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel in Holy Smoke

 

 

A maker of thoughtful films, some hugely successful (The Piano), some not (In the Cut), Jane Campion here takes a small film – about a cultbuster (Harvey Keitel) and his intensely focused efforts to deprogram a naive Oz girl (Winslet) who’s been got at in India – and produces a sly, dry comedy of trans-Pacific manners. Being set in Australia really helps it, those highly personal, dialogue-heavy interchanges between the two main players being balanced against huge backdrops (does it come any bigger than the Outback?). Keitel is a presence it’s hard to miss too, of course, but he’s offset by deliberately ripe caricatures by some of Oz’s finest, the meat in the sandwich being the brooding, voluptuous presence of Kate Winslet, who around this time seemed to take her clothes off in every film she was in. Can Harvey resist her? Could anybody?

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Holy Smoke – at Amazon