The Holy Bray

The title character of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is a donkey who goes through a series of owners in his sad life as a beast of burden.

Films about animals or featuring them as the main protagonists are usually the province of Walt Disney and other family friendly productions such as Benji (1974) and March of the Penguins (2005). Other than the horror genre, though, there have been relatively few departures from the usual formulaic approach to this type of movie with Jerome Bolvin’s dark satire Baxter (1989) and the ethnographic Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) being two of the rare exceptions. Yet nothing can really compare with Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), directed by French filmmaker Robert Bresson, which stands alone as a profound and singular achievement in this category.   Continue reading

Karl Loves His Work

Popular Czech actor Rudolf Hruskinsky is the demonic central character in Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (1969).

One of my favorite movements of the 20th century in cinema was the emergence of the Czech New Wave. Out of this creative period, which lasted from roughly 1962 through 1970, the film world was introduced to such innovative filmmakers as Milos Forman (Loves of a Blonde, 1964), Ivan Passer (Intimate Lighting, 1965), Jiri Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, 1966), Vera Chytilova (Daisies, 1966) and Jan Nemec (A Report on the Party and the Guests, 1966). In recent years, other Czech directors have been reappraised and elevated in stature thanks to the proliferation of DVD and Blu-ray restorations of such movies as The Sun in a Net (1961) by Stefan Uher, Pavel Juracek’s Case for a Rookie Hangman (1970) and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders from Jaromil Jires (1970). We can now add to that list The Cremator (1969), Juraj Herz’s macabre fable, which is finally being recognized as one of the key films from the Czech New Wave.   Continue reading

All of Them Witches

Lisbeth Movin stars as Anne Pedersdotter, a young widow accused of witchcraft in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943).

When social order breaks down, rational thought or common sense do not always follow. The result could be the kind of mass paranoia and hysteria that created the persecution of people as witches in Europe during the 13th to 15th century as well as in America (the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692). That shameful chapter in history has been the subject of numerous books and literary works such as Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible.  As for the cinema, most movie critics seem to agree that the finest film to ever address this kind of aberrant phenomenon is Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vredens dag (1943, English title: Day of Wrath).   Continue reading

Akira Kurosawa’s Record of a Living Being

The Japanese film poster for I Live in Fear (1955), directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune.

One of the first Japanese commercial features to directly address the fear of nuclear holocaust and the implications of the atom bomb, Record of a Living Being, which is better known as I Live in Fear (1955, aka Ikimono no Kiroku) was an unusual and unexpected movie for director Akira Kurosawa. He had recently completed Seven Samurai (1954), a huge box office and critical success in both Japan and around the world, but his new work was much smaller in scale compared to that sprawling period epic.   Continue reading

Joshua Logan’s Fanny in Cinemascope and Stereophonic Sound

Joshua Logan, director of the Broadway stage musical and the 1961 film version of Fanny, based on the famous Marcel Pagnol trilogy.

The Way It Was Meant To Be Seen! This was allegedly Logan’s proposed marketing tag line for his 1961 film adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s famous trilogy which included Marius, Fanny and César. More grounded in urban myth than reality, this silly anecdote does call into question how audiences responded to movie marquees displaying the title Fanny. The expensive Warner Bros. production turned out to be a boxoffice hit but it might have sold even more tickets if Logan had called it Leslie Caron’s Fanny. At least in France there was nothing funny about the name. It was in their cultural DNA and was a name with a beloved literary pedigree that went all the way back to 1929 when Pagnol first premiered his play Marius which introduced his colorful cast of characters from the Marseilles waterfront.  Continue reading

A Time for Demonic Visitations

“According to the ancient Romans, the Hour of the Wolf means the time between night and dawn, just before the light comes, and people believed it to be the time when demons had a heightened power and vitality, the hour when most people died and most children were born, and when nightmares came to one.”

Setting the stage for what will follow with this ominous introduction, Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 feature Hour of the Wolf (Swedish title: Vargtimmen) is probably the closest the director has ever come to making a horror film, one that crosses over into the realm of the supernatural. Continue reading

Dietrich and von Sternberg’s Last Tango

When The Scarlet Empress (1934), Josef von Sternberg’s lavish historical epic starring Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great, proved to be a critical and commercial disaster for Paramount, the director realized his days were numbered at the studio. So why not go for broke in one last picture? The result was The Devil is a Woman (1935). Continue reading