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"The Devastation of War"

 

 

 

 The fifth chapter is entitled “1939-1952: The Devastation of War . . . and a New Movie Language.” In my estimation, it is by far the best in the series up to that point. Following footage showing the alliance between Hitler and Mussolini setting the stage for the war that provides the main historical context for this episode, Cousins features a wrenching scene from Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945) and then observes that before this, there was Stagecoach. Returning to the United States, he documents some of the major achievements in Hollywood by great directors advancing the art of cinema through such innovative techniques as deep focus. He begins by highlighting John Ford’s 1939 masterpiece, Stagecoach, with striking imagery from the film. Also included are excerpts from Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 documentary on John Ford in which the veteran film master was reluctant to theorize about why he made movies in a particular way. In another interview, Ford, reflecting on the nature of courage while denying any heroism on his part during his war service, expresses his view that the real hero is the quiet little man, not the big, blustering blowhard. This belief appears in Stagecoach with its eloquent portrayal of ordinary people, outsiders persecuted by the forces of social prejudice, demonstrating true heroism in the face of tremendous dangers.  

        

 Cousins' presentation of Stagecoach, detailing why it was such an innovative film, is particularly intelligent and informative. While, as he points out, deep focus had been used in earlier films like Mizoguchi's Osaka Elegy, the great innovation of Ford's classic was its combination of deep focus and deep space. He shows a fine example of Ford's technique in an outdoor nighttime scene with John Wayne and Claire Trevor. Whereas cinema had traditionally employed shallow focus in which during close views of the actors the background was out of focus, deep focus, shot with a wide-angle lens, enabled the spectator to perceive both actors and backgrounds with equal clarity. Cousins observes that in 1929 Eisenstein had proposed such a technique in which the audience could choose where to focus their attention in the scene by letting their eyes do the editing. A decade later, as Cousins states, Stagecoach changed film history by perfecting this technique. In an excerpt from the interior of the coach station in Ford's film, Cousins demonstrates that through the blending of deep focus and deep staging, keeping the camera low, it was possible to display the entire room including the ceiling, creating a bold compositional line.

         

 Cousins then features Orson Welles whom he points out watched Ford's Western classic over thirty times before beginning his own career as a director. Welles' brilliance as an artist is illustrated by scenes from his monumental Citizen Kane (1941) and a later production, Chimes at Midnight (1965).  Cousins notes that Welles was concerned with power in his films and that his very imposing appearance on screen helped shape his thematic emphasis. This is accompanied by some good material on his cinematic innovations including his own development of deep focus which influenced many other films. Among those Cousins excerpts are two major works of the 1940s, John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). From the latter film, Cousins illustrates the unique way in which one actor can be seen in the distance talking on a telephone while the others are much closer to the camera.

          

 Cousins next turns his attention toward Italy and the neo-realist movement that flourished in the 1940s after the war, illustrated by clips from Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). He discusses how amidst the ruin of postwar Italy, the outstanding filmmakers abandoned the then-dysfunctional studios to go out on location and depict the life of the time in all its rawness. Citing Hitchcock’s definition of cinema as life with the “boring bits” cut out, Cousins demonstrates that it was just those “boring bits,” the realities of the daily struggle for existence, that the Italian neo-realist filmmakers were able to endow with a sense of high drama. In so doing, as the title of the episode suggests, they were in the forefront of those bringing a new language of cinematic expression to the screen.

    

 Effective as is Cousins' presentation of neo-realism, illustrated by powerful scenes from the classic works by Rossellini and de Sica, as is so often the case with the standardized approach to film history that his series periodically reflects, there is a major historical ellipsis carried over from his book. For far from being without precedent in the country's cinema, as his treatment implies, the roots of 1940s Italian neo-realism can be traced back not only to the preceding decade but to the silent era itself.

         

 In 1914, Francesca Bertini, one of the most celebrated of the "divas" who dominated Italian cinema in those years, conceived of a new method in bringing to the screen Assunta Spina, a well-known play about a spirited laundress victimized by brutal males. As the star, collaborator on the script and co-director with her leading man, Gustavo Serena, Bertini had the idea of filming on actual locations in Naples and employing non-professional actors she found on the streets. Released in 1915, Assunta Spina was an artistic triumph in which its female "auteur" brought a fresh naturalistic style of acting to the screen while its realistic mise-en-scene enhanced the power of the drama's depiction of the tragedies of working-class life with the authentic locations and the participation of ordinary Neapolitans in the cast. Knowledgeable historians like Kevin Brownlow in The Parade's Gone By have long recognized Bertini's masterwork as an antecedent of neo-realism. Bertini herself stated in later years that Assunta Spina was the first neo-realist film. Yet nowhere in his book did Cousins once mention Assunta Spina or Bertini, an omission he repeats in his series.

        

 With sound and the revival of Italian cinema in the 1930s, there was a reappearance in several films of the kind of techniques employed by Bertini in Assunta Spina. Among these were two masterpieces that were direct precursors of the neo-realism of the following decade. Treno Popolare (Working-Class Train; 1933), directed by Raffaello Matarazzo, is an extraordinary work depicting the daily lives of ordinary working-class and lower middle class Italians as they embark on a holiday excursion by train into the countryside. Lyrical with beautiful landscapes and sharp observations of characters, mostly played by non-professional actors, who represent a composite portrait of Italian society, it was filmed entirely on location. There is no real plot but rather a series of simple incidents in the lives of the principal characters with moods ranging from light-hearted exuberance to moments of bittersweet irony. Justly praised by French historian Jacques Lourcelles as "one of the beacon films of the European cinema of the '30s," Treno Popolare is a true landmark in the history of film. Yet, as with Assunta Spina, Cousins took no notice of the film and its director in either his book or his series.

         

 The next impressive early achievement in neo-realism was Alessandro Blasetti's 1860 (1934), which used an astonishingly fresh approach to recreate past history--Garibaldi's invasion of Sicily to liberate the island from Bourbon rule and facilitate the unification of Italy. Rather than present these events from the traditional perspective of great men, Blasetti chose to focus on an ordinary Sicilian shepherd who joins Garibaldi's forces and his wife. Utilizing stunning compositions with light and shadow, the film was shot entirely on location with non-professional actors in the principal roles. Blasetti took the cinema in new directions with 1860, often called the greatest Italian film of the 1930s and a major influence on later neo-realism. Yet not only did Cousins fail to mention the film in his book, his sole reference to its director there was a statement that the neo-realism of the '40s emerged as a sharp break with "glossy entertainments, such as the 'white telephone' films and the work of Mario Camerini and Alessandro Blasetti." Blasetti's method in 1860 and other films was, in fact, the very opposite of glossy entertainment. As for Camerini, his realistic silent film classic, Rotaie (Rails; 1930), with its dramatic depiction of an impoverished working-class couple, marked yet another departure from standardized filmmaking.

             

  Judging from both his book and his series, Cousins does not appear to have devoted much study to Italian cinema prior to the 1940s. While he praised the innovations in Pastrone's great silent epic, Cabiria, he did not acknowledge other kinds of filmmaking at that time including the highly significant work of the "divas" that led to Assunta Spina. His politically correct views seem to have precluded him from examining the Italian films of the '30s and early '40s produced when Mussolini was in power. Even Max Ophuls' splendid La Signora di Tutti (1934), usually ranked with his German-made Liebelei as one of his two finest films of the '30s, was never referred to by Cousins in either his book or his series.

     

  Following the segment on neo-realism, Cousins returns to Hollywood with a clip from Pin-Up Girl (1944), a Technicolor musical starring Betty Grable. This time, however, Cousins’ intention is not to contrast Hollywood with the rest of the world but rather to illustrate that the American film capital itself was now not a monolith but encompassed sharply contrasting trends at the same time. In a largely excellent section on the subject, his emphasis is on film noir and what he sees as the new maturity of outlook the war brought to American cinema, aided by the perspectives of European emigres like Billy Wilder. He describes the nighttime atmosphere of Los Angeles in the 1940s and how it was reflected in films of the noir genre. Highlighting Wilder’s classic Double Indemnity (1944), he comments that the director was highly critical in this film of the American worship of money and material success.

         

  The documentarian includes clips from other outstanding works of film noir in those years—Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), Joseph L. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950), and the one Hollywood film in the genre directed by a woman, Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Cousins notes that the film noir of the 1940s and early 1950s had its antecedents in such films of the ‘30s as Little Caesar (1931), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), Le Quai des Brumes (1938), and Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) which Lang remade as Scarlet Street. He also shows that the classic film noir of the ‘40s and early ‘50s inspired many later films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and L.A. Confidential (1997). But while citing the changes in the Hollywood dream factory resulting from film noir, he also points out that the traditional romanticism has continued to the present, exemplified by a clip from James Cameron’s 1997 box office smash, Titanic. 

  

  He then discusses other shake-ups in Hollywood in the late 1940s, particularly the anti-Communist blacklist targeting leftists in the American cinema. Included is an interview with cinematographer Haskell Wexler who shot Elia Kazan’s America, America (1963) but opposed the director’s naming names in the McCarthy era. Cousins shows the continuing divisiveness in Hollywood over that period that was so evident in the controversy over Kazan receiving a lifetime achievement award at the 1999 Oscars. Judy Balaban, the daughter of Paramount producer Barney Balaban, provides further perspective on the Hollywood environment in the ‘40s in an interview for the series.

   

 Cousins next focuses on the dazzling musical films of the era starring Gene Kelly as he includes clips from An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) which Kelly co-directed with Stanley Donen. He has an excellent interview with Donen who began working in films in the ‘40s and who had been inspired in his childhood by the magic of the brilliant Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals of the ‘30s, illustrated by an excerpt from Flying Down to Rio (1933). He was much less impressed in his youth by the Busby Berkeley musicals of the same era which he thought absurd and satirized in Singin’ in the Rain. But with the added perspective of maturity, Donen now recognized that the Berkeley musicals were also wonderful and creative. As he put it so well, it wasn’t these films that had changed, it was he who had changed now that, after years of his own experiences in filmmaking, he had developed an appreciation for them. The segment on Donen also includes scenes from Indiscreet (1958) and Two for the Road (1967), along with his comments on making them as he did.

          

 Lastly, Cousins turns to British cinema in the ‘40s. There is footage from A Matter of Life and Death (1946), co-directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, in which Cousins views the filmmakers as blending fantasy with realism. He then turns to Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) with an enthusiastic appraisal of its powerful depiction of postwar Vienna.

   

 Despite my reservations concerning the gaps in the historical record, in contrast to other of the preceding episodes, this chapter is much more consistent in its focus. While Cousins continues to include clips from earlier and later films, this is solely to illustrate the continuity of cinema over time. At no point does he veer off into a topic or an artist better addressed elsewhere. The episode thus has a sure grasp of chronology from beginning to end.

 Also absent are forced arguments and attempts to impose a reductionist line on history. Instead of making rigid distinctions between Hollywood and the rest, Cousins now reveals a West Coast film capital that, far from being uniform, was multi-layered in its varied presentations, encompassing both the Technicolor escapism of musicals and the gritty black and white of film noir. The latter films, as much as they differ stylistically from the contemporaneous Italian neo-realist works, nevertheless have definite parallels to what was going on overseas, as Cousins indicates. In a certain sense, therefore, Cousins here mostly lets the history speak for itself rather than attempting to divert it into particular channels for the sake of theory.

 Part of the reason this episode surpasses the earlier ones may stem from its dealing with a more recent or accessible period. Cousins had the advantage missing from the preceding chapters in that he was able to interview people who had actually lived and worked in the era. The result was much more of a living history rather than an assemblage of long-ago data cherry-picked to bolster the documentarian’s polemics. This first-hand engagement with participants will remain a constant in all the succeeding episodes. Indeed, given the greater skill Cousins displays in documenting this period, I think it is a pity the episode could not have been longer so that material could have been included on such great directors as Preston Sturges and Max Ophuls as well as Frank Capra's culminating masterpiece, It's a Wonderful Life (1946)--all having been mentioned in his book but absent from the series.

     My main criticism of his treatment of the American cinema in this episode is that, as with his approach to Italian cinema, there is much in the background that is missing. This is evident in Cousins’ suggestion that it was only in the 1940s that Hollywood finally began to develop more of a realistic or socially conscious perspective about life. Such an interpretation arises due to his omission of essential history in the earlier episodes. In the first installment, as I noted previously, he excluded entirely the many Progressive Era films of the 1910s tackling social issues save for the very negative example of The Birth of a Nation and a presentation of Intolerance which all but ignored its intensely realistic portrayal of contemporary injustices. While in his book he praised Lois Weber's social consciousness, in the series itself it was only her purely technical innovations that he highlighted. In the second episode dealing with Hollywood in the '20s, he did emphasize the powerful social criticism in Greed and The Crowd. There were other social protest films in that era, however, that he never acknowledged. Outstanding among them were The Vanishing American (1925), George B. Seitz's strong indictment of the mistreatment of Native Americans on contemporary reservations, and The Godless Girl (1928), Cecil B. DeMille's final silent film, a gripping, no-holds-barred depiction of the brutalities meted out to the inmates of a prison for juveniles.

          

 In the fourth episode, Cousins' sole recognition of the existence of social criticism in American cinema of the 1930s was his inclusion of the moving “Forgotten Man” number from Gold Diggers of 1933.  He made no mention of the phenomenon of pre-Code cinema in the early ‘30s, including the cycle of social protest films that began with such powerful productions as Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and William Wellman’s Heroes for Sale (1933). These films continued to be made after the implementation of the Production Code in 1934 with outstanding works like Lang’s Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937), LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget (1937), Wyler’s Dead End (1937), and Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), none of which were excerpted in his series.

     

 While this represents an unfortunate elision in the historical record, it does not in my view invalidate Cousins' overall interpretation that film noir was uniquely shaped by the darker tone of the war years and its uneasy aftermath with a clear link to the Italian neo-realist films that simultaneously emerged from the rubble of the great conflict. Despite the many films of protest and despair that had been made in Hollywood over the decades, never before had an entire genre been as permeated with such bleakness as was film noir. And in the case of Italy, while there were definite earlier examples of neo-realism, it was only in the aftermath of war and the fall of a regime that the exploration of daily working-class life became a whole movement. In both instances, too, the changing political and economic climate in America and Italy during the course of the 1950s saw a decline of production in these two great cycles although their legacies of inspired filmmaking have had a lasting influence, one that continues to this day. 

       

 

                     Next: "World Cinema Bursting at the Seams"

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