If the first half of The Night Porter at last manages to set an acceptable pace by way of intercutting between the present and past lives of the characters, the latter half sags beneath the weight of a narrative gone sour and Liliana Cavani’s gropings for some way to end the thing. It is here, as Bogarde and Rampling are besieged inside the former’s apartment by his Nazi ex-comrades (they mean to have Rampling killed because she knows too much of Bogarde’s past and his association with them—a threat whose seriousness is never made quite tenable in the screenplay), that the Bogarde character loses any credibility he might have had as a sexually hung-up, former Nazi torturer with a soft spot in his heart and a streak of childish perversity which makes his villainy seem more ridiculous than menacing. Down to their last Hershey bar and half-empty jar of strawberry preserves, they still live to make love, spending the rest of their time lying about with starved, listless expressions or wide-eyed stares of encroaching madness. Bogarde wipes the kitchen table a lot—a reference to how, earlier, he had nervously wiped the table inside the restaurant while talking to Mario, another face out of the past whom Bogarde himself subsequently murdered because he knows too much; Rampling slithers and scrounges like a hungry cat.
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
The Night Porter is a strange, richly textured affair, and one sign of its dark brilliance is its success in holding some imposing limitations at bay. For one thing, its plot is highly contrived: an Austrian hotel night porter (Dirk Bogarde) is a Nazi war criminal; he is preparing for an annual meeting of old Nazis who have organized in order to continue escaping detection; but his standing with the group is put in jeopardy by the arrival at the hotel of a concentration camp survivor (Charlotte Rampling) with whom he had had a sadomasochistic love affair. Matters are made even trickier by the somewhat devious contrast of the couple’s unconventional eroticism and the Nazi group’s hypocritical puritanism. But Liliana Cavani’s graceful and intelligent direction and the performances of Bogarde, Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti and Amedeo Amodio give the proceedings (script by Cavani and Italo Moscati) a depth that they might not have otherwise had.
[Written in 2006 for Jim Emerson’s Opening Shots project at Scanners]
The opening shot of Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967) begins under the main-title credits and runs for a minute or so after they have concluded. We’re looking at the front of a good-sized but hardly palatial house in the English countryside—the home, as it happens, of an Oxford don whose academic career has been less than stellar. It’s nighttime, tangibly well into the wee hours. No lights are burning, no activity within is apparent. The credits roll without musical accompaniment. On the soundtrack we detect an airplane passing overhead; onscreen, a slight alteration of perspective on the surrounding tree boughs makes us aware that the camera is slowly nudging closer to the house. After a moment, there is the sound of an automobile approaching. The noise grows loud; the engine is racing. Then, a screech of tires and the sound of impact and shattering glass, abruptly cut off. There is a further pause. Then the front door of the house opens, only a hint of light glimmering in the interior. Hesitantly, a man steps out, then begins advancing into the night. Cut to several murky shots impressionistically marking his progress as he moves toward the scene of the titular accident.
The shot, though plain as, uh, day, is remarkable for several reasons. One, of scant concern to most of us, is that with it the director and his first-time cinematographer Gerry Fisher achieved their goal of shooting a color scene that actually looks like what it’s supposed to be: a nighttime exterior as seen by moonlight, rather than a day-for-night fakeroo or some other conventional attempt to imitate nighttime via filters and technical trickery. Losey and Fisher went to extreme pains with the film lab to get the shot to look exactly as they wanted it—even though, as Losey ruefully observed in interview, they knew most theaters would bathe the screen with mauve houselights for the benefit of late-arriving seat-takers, and in any event a few passes in front of the projector’s carbon arc would soon alter the image on the emulsion.
So, technically, a real, if effectively unnoticed and ephemeral, coup.
“Basil Dearden’s London Underground” (Criterion/Eclipse)
British workhorse director Basil Dearden never established a strong cinematic personality like Michael Powell or the storytelling muscle (and powerful canvases to match) of David Lean, his two most distinctive contemporaries in the British film industry. But in a career of nearly 40 feature films (plus TV and contributions to a pair of anthology movies), Dearden proved himself a reliable craftsman in films like Dead of Night (1945, the horror anthology film to which he contributed two sequences), The Captive Heart (1946) and The League of Gentleman (1960, included in this set).
The four features in the handsome box set Basil Dearden’s London Underground from the Eclipse imprint of Criterion display talents rare enough in any industry: intelligence, craft, ambition, professionalism and the ability to rise to the challenge of his material with a compassionate portrait of his characters. There’s a tastefulness and a restraint that keeps a lid on the emotional pressure cooker of the repressed and repressive worlds he peeks in on, which only makes him seem all the more distinctly British.
Sapphire (1959), the earliest film in the set, is also the most awkward, a somewhat arch murder mystery that traces the killing of a beautiful young woman on Hampstead Heath into the culture of segregation and racial prejudice in late fifties London. This well-liked student with a wild side (her secret wardrobe bursts with the exploding colors of party dresses and dancing outfits, a sharp contrast to the muted, overcast shades of everyday dress) turns out to be a “lily skin,” a light-toned colored girl who was “passing” in white society (including her own whites-only boarding house). And yes, the bigotry just pours out when the these facts are revealed, even in the junior police detective (Michael Craig) who proclaims that they should just “ship them all back.” The cooler, more compassionate Superintendent (Nigel Patrick) offers the voice tolerance and understanding next to his hotheaded partner while the racial tensions immediately cast a pall over every room once the subject comes up.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
In the final shot of A Bridge Too Far, a Dutch widow, accompanied by a doctor, her children, and a cart loaded with a few precious possessions, moves slowly across the entire width of the Scope screen, leaving behind her home in Arnhem, ravaged by the worst pocket of the ill-fated Allied sortie into Holland in fall of 1944. One of the woman’s children has fallen behind the group and is playing at soldier, a stick held at shoulder arms. It’s a shot that contrasts sharply with the final shot of Attenborough’s first directorial effort, Oh! What a Lovely War: from a family tending a single grave, the camera cranes back and up, slowly but relentlessly, revealing row upon row upon row of identical white crosses, stretching incredibly away as far as the eye can see. That shot had power without subtlety; the finish of Attenborough’s newest film is subtler but powerless. Both end-shots are representative of the token manner in which Attenborough has come to handle the problem of war.