Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Up All Night with “The Card Counter”

 Paul Schrader is not exactly a newcomer to Hollywood. The much-admired screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) as well as more than 20 other films, he began directing his own dark material early on. Remarkably, Schrader did not collect an Oscar nomination until 2019, when his First Reformed was recognized for its screenplay. First Reformed, featuring a strong performance by Ethan Hawke as a minister facing a crisis of faith, reflects Schrader’s own strict religious upbringing. He was raised in a Dutch Calvinist household that banned movies and most other kinds of secular entertainments. I’ve known friends who’ve broken away from homes in which movies were taboo, but Schrader is possibly unique in having – once he reached adulthood – cast off parental values so completely by making motion pictures his life’s work.

 Which doesn’t mean he threw all of his childhood teachings out the window. Schrader is known today as something of a poet of redemption. His central characters are lost and lonely souls who tacitly blame themselves for their fall from grace. It is only after a good deal of suffering and self-sacrifice that they feel ready to rejoin the human race, sometimes in unexpected ways. This may not seem like much fun to watch unfolding on screen, but 2021’s The Card Counter is a great example of how engrossing a Schrader film can be.

 The cast of The Card Counter is led by the protean Oscar Isaac, who’s also appearing in 2021’s sci-fi epic, Dune, as well as opposite Jessica Chastain in a new HBO adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Scenes from a Marriage. In the HBO drama, Isaac plays one half a couple, someone who desperately wants his relationship to survive. In The Card Counter, by contrast, he’s a loner, a man committed to solitude. He’s analytical enough to make a comfortable living as an itinerant gambler, haunting card rooms from Vegas to Atlantic City. Within the hurly-burly of up-all-night high-stakes casinos offering drinks, smokes, and sexual come-ons, the man who calls himself William Tell is fundamentally solitary. It’s only gradually, via disturbing flashbacks of time spent stationed at an overseas military prison, that we learn why he shuts others out. We also learn that he’s quietly capable of both love and revenge.

 The film does not belong to Isaac alone. Featured players, all impressive, include Tiffany Haddish as a woman who capably runs a stable of gamblers while managing to stave off her own demons. There’s also Tye Sheridan as a baby-faced young fellow who awakens Tell’s compassion, as well as Willem Dafoe (a Schrader regular) as a man from Tell’s past who haunts his dreams until he re-emerges in the everyday world.

 I had expected a Schrader script to be well-written, but I wasn’t prepared for the artfulness of his work as a director. Those essential flashbacks are filmed with a wide-angle lens that distorts familiar images and brings home the horror of the moment. And when it comes to character details, Schrader is terrifically inventive. As Tell travels the country, spending nights in anonymous motel rooms, he has the never-explained habit of wrapping every piece of furniture in white bedsheets he carries with him from place to place. When, at last, he confronts Dafoe’s Major John Gordo at his sumptuous DC-area home, I glimpsed something of the same deliberate austerity in Gordo’s surroundings. Why? That’s one of many elements in this film that’s worth pondering. As is, of course, Tell’s fate at the final fadeout, upon which Schrader’s camera dramatically lingers.  



Thursday, September 23, 2021

“Third Man” Out

The Third Man is a tricky little movie, one that’s full of surprises for the unwary. For one thing, the title is deliberately misleading. The identity of that mysterious third man is, in the scheme of things, quite beside the point. And the zither theme that continues throughout the film is so jaunty that you suspect you’re being prepared for a joyous romp. Something Fellini-esque, maybe? (Hardly true, as it turns out.) 

Finally, The Third Man is usually considered an Orson Welles tour-de-force. In fact, he didn’t direct (Carol Reed did), though he’s given some kudos for unbilled contributions to the screenplay written by British novelist Graham Greene. And his role in the film, though pivotal, is fairly small in terms of screentime. Still, he makes an indelible impression, and The Third Man’s intensely dramatic stylistics owe much to such Welles masterworks as Citizen Kane and The Stranger.

 One thing Welles apparently did contribute: the film’s most famous line. During a key conversation with Joseph Cotten on a Viennese Ferris wheel, he quips sardonically, as only Welles can, “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Bingo!

 The Third Man, released in 1949, goes beyond the Americana of Citizen Kaine and The Magnificent Ambersons to cast a cold eye on post-Nazi Europe. Its view of a Vienna awash with occupation forces and petty criminals is totally chilling: almost everyone in the cast seems on the take, or suffers from conflicting allegiances Like, for instance, the leading lady (Alida Valli), who in continually switching sides proves herself to be a true femme fatale. And Americans in this world don’t come off any better than their European counterparts. Joseph Cotten’s character, a two-bit novelist visiting from the U.S., is almost terminally naïve. And then there’s the ominous Harry Lime. Today I suspect we’re particularly sensitive to the enormity of Lime’s shenanigans, watering down penicillin for his personal profit, and shrugging off the fact that children are dying – or worse.

 The world of The Third Man is that of film noir, international-style. There’s no question it looks fabulous. If the origins of film noir tend to connect with Raymond Chandler’s prematurely seedy L.A., this movie proves that the Old World is even more decadent and down-at-the-heels than the New. Vienna, in The Third Man, is a heady combination of dilapidated grandeur and police state. We see, usually by moonlight, the rococo buildings and twisty streets of the old city, as well as the shadowy depths of its sewers. (The film’s one Oscar went to Robert Kasker for his moody black-&-white cinematography, which take full advantage of location shooting.)

 I also commend the filmmakers for their wonderful collection of faces. The bit players in The Third Man are often wonderfully eccentric, even macabre, to look upon. They frequently speak in untranslated German, so that we share with Joseph Cotten a sense of displacement and being the odd man out. The dapper Cotten, one of the original Mercury Players, seemed to specialize in being a foil to Welles: in films like Citizen Kane he was the nice guy who both admired and ultimately couldn’t help resisting Welles’ powerfully physical presence. He plays that role here as well. But let’s not forget Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt, in which the sinister side of Cotten comes fully into the ligh.





Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Making a Ruckus for “Shakespeare Wallah”

What could the word “Wallah” possibly mean? I was once told it’s the kind of nonsense syllable that background extras use to suggest general crowd noise on stage or in a film. It’s also a Hindi suffix implying someone who performs a particular task: thus a chaiwallah might be a young man who serves tea. Both senses of the word seem apt for the 1965 film Shakespeare Wallah, the story of an acting troupe, led by a family of English expats, who tour the sub-continent, bringing Shakespearean productions to Indian audiences.

 Shakespeare Wallah is an early film of the celebrated duo Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, in collaborator with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Given Merchant’s roots in Indian culture, the team had wanted to explore a touring troupe of Indian performers, seen against the recent political and social changes within the country.. But the discovery of an unpublished diary by an English actor, Geoffrey Kendal, took them in a slightly different direction. Kendal and his family, including wife Laura Liddell and two daughters, had devoted their lives to touring India with the plays of Shakespeare. Ultimately, the Kendals played versions of themselves in Shakespeare Wallah, though the film hardly reflects their precise circumstances. The film’s accent is on the family’s struggles to continue promoting their art in a newly independent country where Shakespeare is less revered than team sports and Bollywood.

 Making her film debut is nineteen-year-old Felicity Kendal, playing a version of her older sister. (Kendal has since had a distinguished acting career, including a personal and professional relationship with playwright Tom Stoppard.) In Shakespeare Wallah she is Lizzie, the troupe ingenue, sensitively portraying Ophelia and Juliet. But her love of the stage is shaken by an unexpected romance with an Indian playboy, portrayed by handsome Shashi Kapoor (in real life her sister Jennifer’s longtime husband).

 Unfortunately for Lizzie, Kapoor’s character already has a mistress, the Bollywood prima donna Manjula (Merchant-Ivory favorite Madhur Jaffrey). Hers is the role that made the biggest impact on early audiences, leading her to collect the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival. Manjula is a monster, though a wholly entertaining one. Loving public attention, she makes a stir wherever she goes. She’s introduced in an amusing scene wherein she’s filming a Bollywood-style musical number, full of stylized pouts and gestures that couldn’t be more distinct from the classical technique of the Shakespearean troupe. When she’s persuaded to watch the English thespians perform Othello, she makes the moment all about herself, signing autographs and posing for photos in the middle of the climactic scene of Desdemona’s murder. Then, while Othello is still bemoaning his lost love, she makes her exit, only to be swarmed by fans in the theatre lobby. It’s a key indication of how the arts scene is evolving in mid-century India: veneration for English tradition is quickly going out the window.

 It’s a shame that the film’s budget was only $80,000, not nearly enough to film in color. India is a land of vivid visuals, and the monochrome palette doesn’t do it justice. Ivory has admitted, “If we had made the film in color, the love scenes in the mist would have looked very strange, as some shots were done with smoke bombs given to us by the Army, which make a bright yellow smoke.” One technical detail fascinates me: the film’s eclectic score was created by none other than Satyajit Ray, the Bengali director of such masterpieces as 1955’s Pather Panchali and the rest of his Apu Trilogy. It doesn’t get much better than that.