Monday, January 18, 2010

Truffaut and the Criterion of Gloria Grahame


One of the missing points in current scene of film criticism is explaining the methods in which a critic uses or the courage and knowledge of expanding a piece into a personal observation of cinema and society; using films as a pretext for explicating a critic’s criteria or even turning it into a personal manifesto in which one’s critical concerns are laid out. Though each written text reflects writer’s personal view to the subject, sometimes we need to go beyond that and address directly about why we think in a peculiar way, beside the film we are dealing with. As a critic, cin inema or any other art, Once in a while it’s necessary to reveal the structure of our thoughts and make way for reader to grasp the mechanism of our observation, rather than the object of the observation. One of the best examples of this approach is evident in French film criticism of 1950s , written by future Nouvelle Vague filmmakers . Here is an exemplary piece on Sudden Fear, a film noir directed by Norman Miller and starring Joan Crawford, written by Francois Truffaut in a discursive style and lot of personal statements:

"Sometimes they make films in the streets of Paris. A few extras are there, more gapers, but no stars. You spot an assistant. You explain to him that you are not who he thinks you are. You directed a public debate at the Ciné-Club de Chamalières in Puy-de-Dôme on pure cinema before at least eighty people, and there is nothing you don't know about the theme of failure in John Huston or about the misogyny of American cinema. Supposing this first or second assistant hears you out, you ask him the ritual question, "What are you filming?" To which he replies-what could he reply?"We're filming a linking shot." And that's French cinema: three hundred linking shots end to end, one hundred ten times a year.

Sudden Fear

If Aurenche and Bost were adapting Le Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night), they would cut sentences, even words. what would remain? A few thousand suspension points; that is, rare angles, unusual lighting, cleverly centered. The notion of a shot in France has become concern for clothing, which means following fashion. Everything happens to the right and to the left, off the screen.

This preamble, in order to introduce a film that is completely different. An American film. David Miller is the director of Sudden Fear. He made Love Happy (1950) and Our Very Own (1950). Before that he assisted in Why We Fight. While respectable, nothing in his recent career led us to suspect that David Miller would give us the most brilliant "Hitchcock style" known in France.

Outside of two very short but fairly unpleasing sequences (a dream and a planning sequence in pictures), there is not a shot in this film that isn't necessary to its dramatic progression. Not a shot, either, that isn't fascinating and doesn't make us think it is a masterpiece of filmmaking.

If the audience laughs when it isn't suitable to do so, I take that as a sign of daring, of finish. The public has lost the habit of intensity. Twenty years of adaptations that are guilty of excessive timidity have gotten the public accustomed to golden insignificance. Filming Balzac has become impossible. Put into pictures, Grandet's deathbed agony reaching for the crucifix would cause gales of laughter in the same people who swoon with admiration when a legless cripple hurtles down a street at fifty kilometers an hour.

The "in" public, the public of the Ciné-Clubs, is hardly any different. Although they may allow Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne (no doubt because of Diderot and Cocteau), they are ready to burst out laughing at all of Abel Gance's films. What Ciné-Club has shown Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night or Robert Wise's Born to Kill the most "Bressonian" of the American films? As for the films, films of psychological anguish, laughter is a form of revenge of the spectator on the auteur of the story, which he is ashamed to have believed in. Yes, twenty years of fake great subjects, twenty years of Adorable Creatures and Return to Life.

Gloria Grahame

The Sudden Fear's casting: it is permissible to have forgotten Crossfire (1947; Dir. Edward Dmytryk), but not a young blond woman who was better than an intelligent extra. As a prostitute, she danced in a courtyard. Even professional critics noticed the dancer; it was Gloria Grahame, whom we saw again in Merton of the Movies (1947; Dir. Robert Alton) playing opposite Red Skelton. Then Gloria Grahame became Mrs. Nicholas Ray and made In a lonely place, with Humphrey Bogart as costar, under the direction of Nicholas Ray himself. Gloria is no longer Mrs. Ray, as far as we know, and is filming Man on a tightrope in Germany under the direction of Elia Kazan. We will see her again even sooner in Cecil B. DeMille's Greatest Show on Earth. It seems that of all the American stars Gloria Grahame is the only one who is also a person. She keeps from one film to the next certain physical tics that are so many acting inventions and that can only be vainly expected from French actresses. It took all the genius of Renoir, Bresson, Leenhardt, and Cocteau to make Mila Parely, Maria Casarès, Renée Devillers, and Edwige Feuillère appear to have any genius. That and the bill for American cinema, often perfect right down to "Series Z" films, upset the hierarchy that could not be the same in our country where the only things that count are ambitious screenplays and the producer's quote. In reality there are no directors of actors in France, except those four names whose praises can never be sung enough: Renoir, Bresson, Leenhardt, and Cocteau. Gloria Grahame's acting is all in correspondences between cheeks and looks. You can't analyze it, but you can observe it. Let us make ours the definition by Jean Georges Auriol: "cinema is the art of doing pretty things to pretty women," and let us wager that as he wrote that, he was thinking more of Jean Harlow than of Lisette Lanvin.


Jack Palance has been known to us since Elia Kazan's good film, Panic in the Streets. His character here is that of a young man with unusually fine physical qualities and who, by his exceptional charm, acquires the favors of women whose experience with men has made them less demanding and, at the same time, more so.

Joan Crawford? A question of taste. She takes her place in a category that I label rather crudely the "Raimu/Magnani tradition." But if it's really true that we owe the existence of this film to her as a co-producer.

Each follows his own path. The one that Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame have chosen will lead them to death. Joan Crawford's path is also the San Francisco street that seven years of American cinema from The Lady from Shanghai to They Live by Night have made familiar to us. An ingenious screenplay with a fine strictness, a set more than respectable, the face of Gloria Grahame and that street of Frisco whose slope is so steep, the prestige of a cinema that proves to us every week that it is the greatest in the world."


[Truffaut's article from The Early Film Criticism of François Truffaut, translation by Wheeler W. Dixon]

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