Monday, March 8, 2010

1959: Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)

1959: Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)

Restraint, specificity.  Simplicity, cinema distilled.  I understand that Bresson's approach is not for everyone, but I have always gravitated towards things that are spare, spartan, and clean.  Bresson's cinema is like meditation for me.  I enter all clumped and cluttered and exit reminded of what is most essential.

Or imagine being stuck on an island, without food for four or five days. Then, after an excruciating period, someone suddenly shows up with the most appetizing, most gourmet entree you've ever tasted (not a very large portion, mind you).  That's the way the ride feels for me with most of Bresson.  It is slow-going, even tough at times, but when the journey ends, it makes sense.  I understand the reasons I was subjected to such an experience.  

Pickpocket is my favorite Bresson.  I like Bresson in the contemporary, urban setting.  But I also love Mouchette, Au Hasard Balthazar, A Man Escaped, and L'argent

My biggest artistic obsession is a concern over our world (and movies) getting louder and faster every year.  Although even more extreme than where I'd like to land, Bresson is a template for me in terms of how to go in another direction. 

Other contenders for 1959: I have a good many gaps from this year, too.  These are:  Andre De Toth's The Day of the Outlaw, Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face, Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain, Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome, Satyatit Ray's The World of Apu, Jean Cocteau's Le testament d'Orphee, Fritz Lang's The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, Nicholas Ray's The Savage Innocents, and Yasujiro Ozu's Floating Weeds.  I really need to re-watch William Wyler's Ben Hur and Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour as it's been too long since I saw either to know where they would place on this list.  I also need to revisit Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest as it's never impacted me like some of the other Hitchcock.  But I do really like Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura, John Cassavetes' Shadows, and Claude Chabrol's Le Beau Serge.  I love Roberto Rossellini's General della Rovere, Claude Chabrol's Les Cousins, and Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows.  And my two closest runners-up are Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and (another one of my favorite films of all time) Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo.

4/5/11 I watched Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome.  Subtle and spare, Boetticher shows that he is one of the absolute masters of the austere, adult western.  It's also as clear as ever that Boetticher likes to present a certain code and morality, and that his eye for the outdoors was almost on par with that of Anthony Mann.

4/7/11 I watched Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face.  Almost feels like a Tourneur-Lewton film but even more dark and disturbing.  A unique and strong horror film, with some gut-wrenching scenes like the one up-close operation and the dog slaughter at the end.  

4/8/11 I watched Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain.  The horrors of war, and Ichikawa just keeps pounding this idea, image after image, scene after scene.  I found it more claustrophobic than The Burmese Harp and less satisfying as a result.  

5/24/11 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's Floating Weeds.  A revisit of one of his earlier works, this feels like minor Ozu.  Humanistic and full of some moments of great forgiveness but without the great depth of my favorite Ozu films.  

3/18/12 I watched Andre De Toth's Day of the Outlaw.  Raw, dark, and artful, there's something absolutely uncompromising about De Toth's work here.  The tone almost makes you think you're watching a horror film, but the pacing and cinematography feel more like European art film.  One of the most unique westerns I have ever seen and a key work of any genre.  

9/6/14 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's Good Morning.  Ozu continues to dazzle.  There is so much life captured in his work.  And there is a surpising amount of levity to his approach and tone.  Although I might prefer a few of his other films, Good Morning would be an absolute masterpiece by most filmmaker's standards.  As a portrait on the fear of Westernization in the late fifties, this one has few if any rivals.  And it is interesting to see it as an influence on Kitano's style and as a bit of a sibling film to The 400 Blows.

9/7/14 I watched Roberto Rossellini's India: Matri Bhumi.  Yet another brilliant piece by one of my all time favorite filmmakers.  Rossellini teaches us about animals and makes us see them in ways we never have.  In the process he also makes us think about our own lives and how many humans have a choice to hunt, be hunted, or like Ramu the monkey at the end actually have no choices at all.  A brilliant look at India and a beautiful meditation on life.  

12/31/15 I watched Samuel Fuller's The Crimson Kimono.  Fuller's camerawork impressed me the most, it is expressionistic and it is emotional.  Unfortunately some of the writing lets him down and I never fully believed some of the emotional conflict which is really the hinge of the final half hour.  

2/19/17 I rewatched Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour.  I had not seen this since I first saw it in a Parisian arthouse in 1994.  It's a challenging film, strange and a bit of a huis clos but clearly the work of an unusally smart and thoughtful team (I'm thinking Resnais, Duras, Vierny and Delerue).  

6/10/18 I watched Jean-Pierre Melville's Deux Hommes dans Manhattan.  The black-and-white photography of the City is fantastic and it is pretty snappy for a Melville pic.  But I was never terribly invested in the plot.  Nothing really did it for me except for maybe the final minute.

3/30/20 I watched Fritz Lang's The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb.  I have long wanted to track down these two films that were made right at the end of Lang's career.  I knew they had a large reputation among some people I admire and were a little different than anything else he had done.  They actually share a lot in common with some of his pre-American work such as Spies or The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.  But what is new is the Indian setting and Lang's attitude and perspective.  As to be expected, Lang shoots precisely and constructs a number of excellent set pieces throughout the two films.  And the film's influence can be felt in films as different as Pierrot Le Fou  (Godard's shot directly looking at the hot sun) or all throughout the Indiana Jones trilogy.

4/11/20 I watched Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow.  With Abe Polonsky penning the script, there is certainly some interesting subtext, particularly related to racism.  But all in all, only a mediocre noir compared to the great films the genre has produced.

10/15/23 I watched Aram Avakian and Bert Stern's Jazz on a Summer's Day.  Most noteworthy for the footage of performances by Mahalia, Louis, Thelonious, Gerry Mulligan and Chico Hamilton.  Not terribly memorable otherwise.


  1. My Own #1 Film of 1959:

    Ben-Hur (Wyler)


    Pickpocket (Bresson; France)
    L'Aventura (Antonioni; Italy)
    Breathless (Godard; France)
    Floating Weeds (Ozu; Japan)
    Human Condition I & II (Kobayashi; Japan)
    The 400 Blows (Truffaut; France)
    Eyes Without A Face (Franju; France)
    Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa; Japan)
    Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais; France)
    North by Northwest (Hitchcock; USA)
    Ballad of a Soldier (Chukrai; Russia)
    Rio Bravo (Hawks; USA)
    Shadows (Cassevettes; USA)
    The Savage Innocents (N. Ray; USA)
    Generale Della Rovere (Rossellini; Italy)
    Pillow Talk (Gordon; USA)
    Blue Denim (Dunne; USA)
    Sleeping Beauty (Geromini; animated; USA)
    Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger; USA)
    Ride Lonesome (Boetticher; USA)

    I defiantly proclaim BEN-HUR as the Best Film of 1959. While I never link up to my own reviews at other sites, I will break this rule one single time, as I penned an exhaustive defense of the film months ago at WitD, calling it the most intimate epic film of all time. The years don't seem to have been all that kind to the film (at least with some) but it stands today as one of the most spectacular of all entertainments. Miklos Rosza's score may well be the greatest ever written in the history of the cinema, there are splendid set pieces, and an emotional center, that few epics have ever been informed with. Heston, Boyd and others are most effective and it remains a film for the ages, and it's no wonder that in 1959 it won Best Picture from the New York Film Critics Circle, who rarely honored the 'popular' films. I will always defend this film vigorously with every last drop of blood in my body, even to the point of placing over three films that rank among the greatest in the history of the cinema.

    As far as PICKPOCKET, well it's a staggering masterpiece and just about equals BEN-HUR in my affections, though Wyler's epic has been with me since childhood. I have other Bresson titles at #1 for their respective years, and PICKPOCKET could very well have been as well. You're choosing it is to be applauded of course, and you inform it here with your typical passion.

    The Kobayashi, Antonioni, Ozu, Godard, Truffaut, Hitchcock, Ichikawa and others are masterworks of course.

    I am no fan of Wilder's SOME LINKE IT HOT, which I know is a supreme minority position.

  2. For me 1959 has always been one of the great years in film and selecting a best film is difficult, however I will go with what I believe to be one of the greatest and funniest scripts ever written, “Some Like it Hot.”
    Great performances from Jack Lemmon and an underrated Tony Curtis. Wonderful take offs on the St Valentine Day’s Massacre, and George Raft’s early career with the coin flipping. Monroe proved herself a funny lady. I would be hard pressed to select a second favorite between Rio Bravo, Anatomy of a Murder and North by Northwest. All films that I love. "Pickpocket" I still need to see.

    I have “Breathless” listed in my 1960 list since that the release date listed in IMDB.

    # Some Like it Hot

    Rio Bravo
    Anatomy of a Murder
    North by Northwest
    Ride Lonesome
    Inherit the Wind
    The 400 Blows
    Room at the Top
    Ballad of a Soldier

  3. Sam, your piece on BEN-HUR is tremendous! I've actually never heard the film defended so it's so refreshing to hear your perspective and certainly will send me to revisit soon. I love the term you use, "intimate epic".

    I too struggle with SOME LIKE IT HOT but will revisit it at some point.

    Thanks for the words on PICKPOCKET, too. I know that you and I completely share an affinity for Bresson and that I'll always have support from you on that one.

    Always great to hear from you, Sam!

  4. John, great to hear from you!

    I struggled with SOME LIKE IT HOT the one time I saw it but certainly owe it subsequent viewings. I will make sure that happens moving forward.


    Thanks, John. Always wonderful to hear from you!

  5. Jeffrey, Pickpocket is a strong choice. I finally saw it last year and it was brilliantly done. My own eccentric choice for this year is Robert Wise's late noir apocalypse, ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, with great grim performances by Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan. Along with Pickpocket, my runners-up include Fires on the Plain, L'Avventura, Edward Dmytryk's Warlock and Robert Rossen's They Came to Cordura. I have Human Condition and Generale della Rovere at home but haven't watched them yet.

  6. Samuel, thanks so much for the great comments! I haven't seen ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, WARLOCK, THEY CAME TO CORDURA, or HUMAN CONDITION. But I will add all of them to my list of things to see.

    Always wonderful to hear from you! Thanks, Samuel.

  7. RIO BRAVO by so much that it's not even close. I rank it as either my #1 or #2 western of all time (along with Unforgiven) depending on when you ask me and think its Hawks best film. I love this movie about as much as is possible... I really can't express it any stronger. It's one of those "benchmark films" for me.

  8. Dave, no argument at all from me on RIO BRAVO. I absolutely love it, too!

    Thanks, Dave. Always great to have you here!