Wednesday, February 10, 2010

1934: L'atalante (Jean Vigo)

1934: L'atalante (Jean Vigo)

I first saw this at one of my favorite theaters in the world, Cafe des Images in Herouville-Saint-Clair, just outside Caen, France.  When it was over, I knew I'd seen something very special.  Vigo died when he was only 29 -years-old but forever left his mark on the medium -- this film ranks up there for me as one of the two or three most poetic films in the history of cinema.  
I think it's fairly easy to create a poetic moment in a film.  Usually, you just have to use slow-motion and some evocative music, and presto, you've probably created a moment of poetry.  But, sustaining this lyricism and poetry for the entire duration of a narrative film is nearly impossible.  For me, the only other films I can think of that accomplish this are Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, some Tarkovsky, The Thin Red Line, The Night of the Hunter, and maybe McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Without Vigo, I'm not sure we'd have two of my other favorite filmmakers: Leos Carax and Jim Jarmusch (I'm not positive about Carax, but I've read where Jarmusch has cited this film as a major influence.)  Vigo was a master of mood, atmosphere, and creating lasting images.  There's nothing else quite like this film, and it's one I'll continue to re-visit with great enthusiasm as the years pass.

Other contenders for 1934: I'm not without my gaps in this year, as well.  I still need to see Yasujiro Ozu's Story of Floating Weeds, Ernst Lubitsch's The Merry Widow, Alfred Hitchcock's first The Man Who Knew Too Much, Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress, Raymond Bernard's Les Miserables, Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat, and Jack Conway, Howard Hawks, and William Wellman's Viva Villa!  I need and plan to re-watch Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century.  For some reason, the first time it didn't have much of an impact.  But there are three other films from this year that did challenge for the top spot. I'm a big fan of the interplay between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night.  I think Gable's cynicism probably helps offset some of Capra's sentimental tendencies that sometimes rub me the wrong way.  I haven't seen that much of WC Fields, but Norman McLeod's It's a Gift had me laughing as hard as anything I've seen from this period.   And Jean Renoir's Toni is my second favorite film from the director.  But, finally it's L'atalante, with its one of a kind beauty and lyricism, that has the most special place for me this year.

5/30/10 I watched Edgar G Ulmer's The Black Cat.  Features my favorite performance so far from Boris Karloff.  He is just deliciously sinister in it, and it's obvious he's having great fun with the role.  And the film also makes a case for Ulmer being incredibly inventive and having a superb eye.  

6/11/10 I watched Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress.  An epic with a ton of personality and a film with a tremendous reputation. Emotionally, I struggled with it and never fully connected.  But Dietrich is wonderful and von Sternberg pulls out all the stops.  

6/16/10 I watched Raymond Bernard's Les Miserables.  They certainly cut no corners with this 280 minute version of the Hugo novel.  I like some of the characterization we gain in this longer version, when compared to the Richard Boleslawski film of the following year.  But all in all, I felt closer to the characters in the Boleslawski film than in this one.  

6/23/10 I watched Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century.  I had seen it before but couldn't remember it very well.  It's amazing seeing it now to realize how much of a sibling film it is to His Girl Friday.  Both revolve around the male protagonist trying to lure the female lead back into his world through cunning, manipulation, and humor.  Although I prefer Friday (it's one of my all-time favorites), John Barrymore is absolutely incredible here and single-handedly makes it a great film in my book.

7/10/10 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's A Story of Floating Weeds.  It didn't affect me emotionally on the same level as another one of his films I saw recently, I Was Born, But....  However, it still demonstrates Ozu's mastery.  His eye, his feeling for nature, the framing, the cinematography are all otherworldly.  And here, in the final shots, Ozu says so much by saying nothing.   Ozu was still doing silent work when most had moved onto sound.  And his silent films have a poetry about them that is very singular and memorable.  

6/26/11 I watched Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. Some nice, early Hitch touches, and of course Lorre is great.  But some of the plotting feels a little suspect, and doesn't pack the same punch as the remake.  

2/19/17 I watched John Ford's The Lost Patrol.  What I was most struck by, aside from Ford's signature ability to bring out the haunting poetry in natural landscapes, is a certain modern quality to the work.  McLaglen's physicality towards the end does not feel too much different than Pacino in the latter stages of Scarface and the fact that Ford almost never cuts to the opposition gives the film artful restraint that really helps create the effective, ominous atmosphere he sustains throughout.

5/28/18 I rewatched Frank Capra's It Happened One Night.  This film is a marvel.  I loved it the first couple of times I saw it and continue to be astounded by every aspect of it.

1/5/19 I watched Mervyn LeRoy's Heat Lightning.  A noir that stands out the most because it never quite allows you to know what it is or where it is going.  Everything about it just seems a little off, from the gas station location to the actors' faces to the way the camera moves.  I am not sure if it would be considered pre-code but it has a sense of being on the edge and pushing Code boundaries like the other great pre-code cinema I have seen to date.

10/14/19 I watched Ernst Lubitsch's The Merry Widow.  A few great moments like the encounter at Maxim's between Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald but it lacks the overall shape and passion of the greater works by the master filmmaker.
12/27/21 I watched King Vidor's Our Daily Bread.  From a political perspective it was probably an important film, almost propaganda to the American people struggling through The Great Depression.  Visually, it is quite striking as well as is usually the case with Vidor's cinema.
1/9/23 I watched John Ford's Judge Priest.  It's nice to see Ford take on our history, and particularly nice that he's engaged with one of arguably our most shameful moments, our Civil War.  And it's great to see Will Rogers and the strong presence he brought to the screen.  What's less comfortable is what Ford is saying, is he celebrating the Confederacy, challenging our nation's early morals and actions?  


  1. Yes indeed, Jeffrey, Vigo's film is a staggering masterpiece of cinema, and for me it comes within a hair of the #1 film of 1934 for me. But comparing masterpieces at this level is fruitless, on any day of the week we can change our minds. Vigo combines realism with surrealistic poetry to createa violent and powerful lyricism, and Michele Simon's Pere Jules is one of cinema's greatest characters. The film is overflowing with visual imagination and it maintains a piercing poignancy throughout. There are a number of unforgettable set pieces, like the wedding, the odd bridal procession, and the detailed look at the mate's cabin, not to mention the unforgettable conclusion.
    Raymond Bernard's LES MISERABLES (33-34) is the greatest cinematic adaptation of the greatest novel ever written, and it's an overwhelming experiences that exposes humanity and the indominibility of the human spirit. It's an epic film of uncommon power, and in Harry Bauer, the cinema was given one of its greatest performances of all-time and Jean Valjean. The Hollywood version that followed in 1936 with Frederic March and Charles Laughton is a very fine film, craftily condensed, but it's this French masterpiece which will stand forever as the benchmark. It's exquisitely photographed and scored too.
    Apart from LES MISERABLES and L'ATALANTE, the other surefire masterpieces of this rich year include: the Chinese masterpiece THE GODDESS by Yonggang, Saville's British musical par excellence, EVERGREEN by Saville, Medevkin's HAPPINESS, the W.C. Fields vehicle IT'S A GIFT, Ozu's THE STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS, Robert Flaherty's MAN OF ARAN and for sentimental reasons, though it's still a classic, Victor Herbert's Laurel & Hardy operetta BABES AND TOYLAND...a.k.a. THE MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS. And there are other great films that I will note here on my list:

    My #1 Film of 1934:

    Les Miserables (Bernard)


    L'Atalante (Vigo)
    The Goddess (Yonggang)
    Evergreen (Saville)
    Happiness (Medvedkin)
    Man of Aran (Flaherty)
    It's A Gift (McLeod)
    The Story of the Floating Weeds (Ozu)
    Babes in Toyland (Rogers, Meins)
    The Black Cat (Ulmer)
    The Scarlet Empress (Von Sternberg)
    The Merry Widow (Lubitsch)
    The Man Who Knew Too Much (Hitchcock)
    Toni (Renoir)
    Twentieth Century (Hawks)
    Jew Suss (Mendes)
    Our Daily Bread (Vidor)
    Plunder of Peach of Plum (Yunwei)

    I was never a THIN MAN fan, but I know the problem is ME, as so many have derived eternal joy from the series, including Dave, who write a magnificent treatment of it at his place. I must give it another go as soon as I can.

    As always another passionate yearly round-up here Jeffrey!

  2. Thanks so much, Sam! There are many you note, including your favorite of the year, that I still need to see. But this version of LES MISERABLES sounds absolutely fantastic, and I plan to watch it quite soon.

    I like THE THIN MAN, particularly Powell's performance. However, it does not affect me quite as much as my top few picks.

    Thanks again, Sam! I really appreciate you sharing all of your knowledge here.

  3. I'll stick with The Thin Man for '34. It's actually a pretty easy decision, as it's the only movie that I LOVE for this year. I think it's an incredibly witty, well-written comedy and one that finds funny, unique ways to get around some of the Code's taboos. Definitely a favorite of the decade.

    L'atalante is one that I certainly appreciate, but not necessarily one I get the urge to watch again and again.

  4. Dave, I completely understand that decision! As with some of the other years and some of the other films, it'll just be a difference in taste. But looking at your list, it is remarkable how many choices we share.

    P.S. I'd be commenting more on your noir countdown. But unfortunately the last few are ones I've yet to see.

  5. This is a great choice, of course, though it's not a film that I love quite as much as some do. It's well-made and aesthetically rich, but it wouldn't be a personal choice for me. I'd be more apt to go with something like The Black Cat, which Sam mentions and which may just be the pinnacle of the Universal horror cycle. It's just such a great film, encompassing slightly campy melodrama, chilly suspense, and a surprising poignancy and thematic relevance in the central opposition between Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

    I also love Twentieth Century (the template for screwball and among Hawks' best comedies) and The Thin Man (sheer delight).

  6. Thanks so much, Ed! THE BLACK CAT is one I'm very much looking forward to seeing. Thanks for the great comments, as always!