Author Archives: michaeljglass

225 – Stranger on the Third Floor

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A 62-minute-long, 1940 B-movie whose director you haven’t heard of and whose top-billed star has barely ten minutes of screen time, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Stranger on the Third Floor is nothing remarkable, but its reputation precedes it: Here we behold, if the legends are true, the first film noir.

José, a lover of noir, both likes and dislikes this line. On the one hand, it enjoyably disrupts what is already a fairly shaky narrative of noir beginning practically overnight in 1941; on the other, noir is a term that encompasses many visual styles, stories, character types, associated genres and influences, and artistic movements like this develop gradually, not immediately. But this taxonomic discussion says nothing of Stranger on the Third Floor‘s quality.

And for a good fifteen minutes or so, that quality is not promising, but the film explodes into life upon the protagonist’s descent into a hallucinatory nightmare brought on by guilt and fear. It’s José’s first time seeing the film, and immediately he proclaims its dream sequence as one of cinema’s greatest. And throughout the film, before, during and after this central visual treat, there is conveyed a vivid sense of the difficulties of life in Depression-era America, alongside a severe critique of the absurdity of a justice system that can be relied upon to offer nothing of the sort. All of which is to say nothing of Peter Lorre, who imbues his titular stranger with both understandable threat and surprising empathy.

So, Stranger on the Third Floor, The First Film Noir, is rather more than an historical curio. It embodies stylistic and thematic developments that were taking place in American cinema of its era, though the question of what counts as first is best left to those who think it’s even deserving of an answer, let alone possible to establish one. It’s a film that is on its own terms deserving of your attention, and in between its B-movie cheapness and clunkiness, offers something truly great.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

224 – Le Cercle rouge

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We conclude our dalliance with Jean-Pierre Melville with 1970’s Le Cercle rouge, a heist film with an impressive cast of Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, and Yves Montand. We discuss how genre conventions operate in the film – the shortcuts an understanding of genre provides allow details to make the difference, Mike suggesting that it all comes out through character relationships and quirks.

In discussing Le Cercle rouge, we think back on what we’ve learned about Melville’s style, themes and interests. For Melville, emotional attachment is dangerous and makes one vulnerable; it’s a rather bleak outlook, but José argues that his films aren’t without their romantic aspects. Mike remarks upon the way in which Melville’s style has been interpreted and appropriated by the filmmakers he influenced, noting that the vivacity with which, for instance, Quentin Tarantino effuses about Melville is not reflective of Melville’s films themselves, which are slower and more pensive than you might be led to expect. To José, it’s existentialist cinema through and through, and, naturally, he loves it.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

223 – Army of Shadows

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Jean-Pierre Melville draws upon his experiences in the French Resistance for 1969’s Army of Shadows, which depicts an ensemble including Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret and Paul Meurisse working to disrupt the Nazi occupation of France, rescuing Resistance members from captivity, operating safehouses… and killing informants.

Army of Shadows‘ view of the Resistance is far from romantic, showing the ordinary people who comprise it being driven to extreme measures in the cause of remaining hidden and evading capture, and the threat of capture and death hanging over them at all times. We compare it to The Great Escape, a caper in which prisoners of war work towards a big victory – there’s nothing of the sort in Army of Shadows, the Resistance only ever staying one step ahead of the Nazis pursuing them. Resistance itself is the victory, and it comes with costs.

We think about continuities between this film and Melville’s other work. The isolation felt in Un flic and Le Doulos comes through here, the Resistance members needing to work together but constantly suspicious of one another, as anyone could turn informant; emotional connection is a danger, as it can be used as a thumbscrew. But the film depicts the courage of the Resistance, the inhumanity of the situations into which they’re forced, and elicits a range of feelings simultaneously. It’s a complex, intelligent, essential film.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

222 – Le Doulos

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We visit another Melville, 1963’s Le Doulos, about a network of criminals searching for an informer in their midst. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays his thief with such assuredly French swagger that it’s no wonder why Quentin Tarantino names this film as a significant influence, though we also pick up on the story’s similarity to Reservoir Dogs, in particular the botched robbery and snitch mystery.

The film has clearly been preserved beautifully, the crispness of the images on Mubi’s stream simply breathtaking. As with Un flic, we consider the characters’ alienation, emphasised here through composition and framing, and their decisions, including the idea that all these men try to do the right thing by their particular code.

Despite looking for things to like, Mike is ultimately nonplussed and a little bored by Le Doulos, preferring, on reflection, Un flic, while José, as ever the spirit of sunshine, beams with praise for it. We can at least agree that it looks fabulous.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

221 – Un flic

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Jean-Pierre Melville’s final film, Un flic (A Cop), has a bleak feel, its characters isolated amongst harsh architecture and the neverending business of cops and robbers. Alain Delon’s cop follows the trail of Richard Crenna’s thief, whilst handling informants, other cases, and an occasional relationship with Catherine Deneuve.

It’s a film in which feeling shows through small actions, glances, and behaviour. The cop has seen the worst of humanity and carries a weariness with him, but that just makes his capability for generous gestures more meaningful. Mike remarks upon the similarity between cop and thief, both going about their work with a sense of lifeless inertia. We also note the central heist sequence’s clear influence on the climactic set-piece in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, comparing the ways in which the scenes work and what their intended effects may be, and José comments on the film’s blue-tinged look, something that contributes greatly to its sense of melancholy.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

220 – Commando and Predator

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Hollywood action in the Eighties was a world unto itself, and we look back on two specimens of one of the genre’s icons, Arnold Schwarzenegger. One a delightful, over-the-top romp, the other a macho, moody sci-fi, we compare and contrast Commando and Predator.

We’re in agreement that Predator is the better film, but that Commando offers the better time. José describes this era as his awakening to the fact that heterosexual men were checking out each others’ bodies – Arnie and co. are put on display, made to flex their muscles in absurd ways, their bodies painted in glistening sweat, for the pleasure of a straight male audience. We discuss how Arnie’s extraordinary body means entire films have to built around it: elsewhere cast as a pseudo-Greek hero and android killing machine, in Commando and Predator he’s theoretically human, but still a G.I. Joe male fantasy inhabiting similarly oversized films. Similarly, his accent always needs at least a hint of acknowledgement – the films taking a line of dialogue here and there to reassure us, don’t you worry, we also know he sounds odd.

We also think about the fact that these films have simply lasted. Commando in particular is not a very good film, but 35 years after its release it retains a loyal audience, and has to be considered a classic of a kind. Though dated and easy to critique in all sorts of ways, there are still pleasures in this cinema, and Arnie in particular.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

219 – Bacurau

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A political parable, satire, thriller, high-concept actioner, horror, and Western all at once, 2019 Cannes Jury Prize winner Bacurau is a wild experience and well worth your time. Set in a tiny, remote village in a near-future Brazil, we’re given a portrait of life within an open, tolerant community under the thumb of a distant but powerful mayor, and shortly after the funeral of one of the town’s elders, things start going awry.

To say more would be to spoil the surprises, and we encourage you to check the film out knowing as little as possible. As a fable, it’s a potent piece of work – themes of political abuses, the ownership and withholding of water conferring power, and the value of community and the knowledge of history are all made manifest as Bacurau straddles its genres and provides its thrills. It’s a film that’s as open to interpretation as it is clear about what it thinks – its clunkiness in this respect a positive for Mike while occasionally a little overegged for José. But quibbles here and there pale in significance to Bacurau‘s boldness and intelligence, and you should see it.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

218 – Contagion

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We may be living under lockdown conditions, but no virus can stop us, and to prove it we’re taking on Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller Contagion, about a virus that rips through every country on Earth, the scientific work to stop it, and the social decay that it leaves in its wake. Suggested as a podcast by an irony-seeking Mike, it backfires as it actually just frightens him.

At least, for a while. We think about the film in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic currently upon us, of course, praising what we recognise in the film’s imagined crisis, remarking upon the differences. Much of what it depicts feels very true to life, and it strongly evokes panic and a sense of uncertainty; on the other hand, the difference less than a decade makes is thrown into sharp relief with the film’s essentially competent and well-intentioned government response to the disease, a far cry from the lies and bluster being spouted by certain American presidents today – something that would have been not only unimaginable but laughable at the time of the film’s release. José notes that a high proportion of the public worry in our current outbreak comes down to its economic effects, which again, Contagion does not imagine as even a minor point.

It’s a well-made film, tightly plotted and paced, juggling several plots and sets of characters, understanding keenly how and when to jump between them, and its staging, editing and cinematography bring to life the paranoia of living in a society in which any surface innocently touched by any stranger’s hand could spread a deadly disease, and the fear and confusion engendered by a lack of trust in the government and loud countervailing voices. Contagion uses its characters and scenes as representative of ideas as much as, or more than, things in and of themselves, which Mike argues leaves it emotionally distant and overly simplistic – though there’s plenty of room for debate, particularly over Matt Damon’s performance.

All in all, Contagion is an impressive piece of thriller fiction whose successes and failures are both given oxygen in the light of very recent developments. If you watch it, be prepared to be made even more paranoid than you currently are… because the world we’re living in now is even more insane.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

217 – Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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A delicate, intelligent love story, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire undulates with complex, interlocking themes and emotions. It’s a film about looking: who looks, who is looked at, how one should be seen, for whom the gaze is intended and what the rules are. Héloïse, a young aristocrat, refuses to have her portrait painted for the approval of a Milanese nobleman; an artist named Marianne is commissioned to do just that, but in secret, forcing her to steal glances at her subject and, outwardly, act merely as her companion. The women’s relationship quickly develops, and soon they are collaborating on the portrait to which Héloïse had hitherto objected.

Sciamma demonstrates an eye for beautiful, sensitive composition, and with cinematographer Claire Mathon creates some simply stunning imagery, evoking 18th and 19th century Romantic art; truly, this film understands what it means to paint with light. We consider the differences between the characters: one formerly resident in a convent, brought home to take over her sister’s role to be betrothed; the other a skilled worker, whose life experience Héloïse is keen to probe – and this is to say nothing of Sophie, the maid, who forms friendships with both Héloïse and Marianne, and the drama of whose life experience surely outweighs theirs combined. We discuss how the boundaries between the three – particularly Héloïse and the two workers – are broken down; without the rule-keeping figure of Héloïse’s mother present, the young women are able, to an extent, to reshape the world in which they live. But patriarchy overhangs the entire film, even with men physically absent throughout; the painting into which Marianne and Héloïse are investing their love is the very thing, intended for the Milanese suitor as it is, that will seal their fate to live separate lives.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an ambitious, confident, complex and beautiful film whose imagery soars on the cinema screen. See it.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

216 – Dark Waters

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A legal drama about the biggest corruption scandal you’ve never heard of, Dark Waters tells the story of lawyer Robert Bilott’s twenty year long fight to expose chemical manufacturer DuPont’s decades of knowing and unapologetic poisoning of a town, a country, and the entire world. Visited by a West Virginian farmer named Wilbur Tennant, whose livestock are falling prey to unusual medical conditions and dying, Bilott – a corporate lawyer who works to help chemical companies pollute within the law – files a lawsuit, and slowly begins to uncover the company’s secrets.

For José, it’s a film that fits neatly amongst director Todd Haynes’ previous work, which often focuses on power relations and the struggles of the oppressed, sidelined or disenfranchised. For Mike, it might be a new Spotlight, another film about the exposure of vast, historical, institutional wrongdoing. But don’t believe the trailer that makes it look all blood and thunder – Dark Waters, though compelling and dramatic, is a slow burner, methodical and careful, and with a scope that looks beyond the details of the law. The town of Parkersburg, WV is shown in portrait, with shots evocative of Depression-era photography, and Bilott is an interesting character, a man who appears uncomfortable within his own body, whose determination to uncover the truth grows alongside his paranoia that something bad will happen to him, and whose relationship with his wife is a constant that is reframed intriguingly in the film’s final movement.

Dark Waters is a fascinating, intelligent, complex thriller that gives its themes room to express themselves and is full of details and moments that speak to entire inner lives and ways of thinking. Make sure you see it.

(Mike would also like to apologise to Bucky Bailey, one of DuPont’s most unfortunate victims and perhaps the film’s central emotional tentpole, for referring to him as Bucky Barnes, who is the guy from the Avengers films who sports a prosthetic arm and does nothing interesting.)

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.