November 11, 2010 by jamesessj
A Passage to India — David Lean’s 1984 adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1924 novel is a masterwork (as distinct from a masterpiece) that even at 164 minutes seems too brief. Lean’s trademark panoramic vistas are on full display, particularly early in the film, and his hand is steady and sure throughout. His cast is once again stellar — for all of Lean’s reported difficulties with, and antipathy toward, actors, they certainly seemed to realize just how lucky they were to be working with him. Witness Alec Guinness, who starred in most of Lean’s major films, and returned for this one, against his better judgment, only to wind up in a bitter feud with Lean after most of his performance (as the Indian Professor Godbole) was cut from the final film. Although I haven’t read Forster’s novel, the movie is by all accounts a faithful adaptation; although Forster, according to Lean’s comments in the extras on the DVD, refused to allow the book to be filmed in his lifetime because he feared the filmmakers would make it “all Indian” or “all British”…in other words, choose a side. Lean’s choice of side is indisputably the Indian — in fact he comes very near to making the fatal mistake of depriving the tensions of the Raj of any nuance at all. In Lean’s version of A Passage to India, the Indians are “good” and the British, with two exceptions, are “bad.” This stark choice bleeds over into the mystery at the heart of the story: what did happen to Adela Quested at the Malabar Caves? We are never given a precise answer — as opposed to the novel, in which Adela’s confusion is explained as a reaction to the caves’ enigmatic (and presumably spiritualistic) “echo,” an effect that had earlier much-discombobulated her elderly companion Mrs. Moore — but neither are we given the slightest opportunity, after the fact, to suppose that Dr. Aziz is guilty. He is a victim, it is clear: of British arrogance and racism, of Adela’s naïveté. But the film would have been much stronger had we been allowed to suspect, truly suspect, that Dr. Aziz may have gone into that cave and in some way contributed to Adela’s breakdown. Note that whether he actually did could have remained an open question (or even been definitely answered by Adela on the stand at the trial) — but Lean has constructed a scenario wherein there’s never a doubt, from the incident straight through to Adela’s clearing of Aziz’ name, that Aziz is wholly and completely blameless. Nor are we provided, as Forster did for us in the novel, any rational excuse for Adela’s actions — after all, she’s a bright girl, fully aware of the impact of her accusation not just upon Aziz, but upon the entire British presence in Chandrapore and, for that matter, all of India. Yet at the end she simply shrugs off her behavior, as if she’d merely forgotten to turn off the porch light, or left the oven on. There’s a great deal of grist here, I mean to say, yet for the most part Lean plays it down the middle, abandoning nuance for what is, in the end, another tale decrying the evils of colonialism. Which is noble enough, I guess; but a tale that treated Dr. Aziz as a fully-rounded human being, with flaws, faults, desires, needs, would have been nobler, and truer, still.
Notorious — Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 mix of romance, thriller, and noir…and a film that is, for a thriller, surprisingly leisurely-paced. Of course this is true of many of Hitchcock’s films — think of the slow build in Psycho, or the long traveling shots as Scottie follows Madeleine in Vertigo — but there are really only two set-piece moments of suspense through the whole film: Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in the cellar (where Hitch uses only a repeating shot of the diminishing number of champagne bottles to tighten the screws) and then the justly-famous finale, in which Grant leads Bergman down the staircase, in full view of the Nazi villains, Claude Rains and his mother at their side. I don’t bring this up as a criticism, but rather as a tribute to Hitchcock’s (and screenwriter Ben Hecht’s) brilliance — nowadays we get two set-piece moments of suspense before the title credits have a chance to roll. The setup of the film is bizarre, the sort of thing you either take at face value or disbelieve entirely, for even in 1946, what government agent would recruit a civilian to spy on a suspect by sleeping with him? Especially a civilian that government agent has just fallen in love with! It falls apart if you examine it too closely, and what’s all the more amazing is that Hitch & Hecht invite you to examine it as closely as you like — the relationship between Grant and Bergman is the heart of the film, the throughline that’s only resolved with Grant’s finally allowing himself to speak to Bergman the words “I love you”…which, according to her, if he’d only spoken earlier, would have kept her from following through on the mission to seduce and spy on Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) in the first place. Don’t underestimate the chutzpah it required to make a movie out of a scenario like this — although this was 1946, when noir was in the ascendancy, and many a noir film has many a more convoluted and absurd plot than does Notorious. Grant, Bergman, and in particular Rains are wonderful in their roles, and Hitchcock, who was coming off Spellbound and heading into The Paradine Case, was in the middle of probably the most remarkable career a director has ever had…consider that he’d already made The 39 Steps, Rebecca, Lifeboat, Suspicion…and had yet to make Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho. Genius gets tossed around as an adjective all too loosely sometimes, but Hitchcock surely, if anyone, deserves it.
Yojimbo — Akira Kurosawa’s highly-influential 1961 period piece, its plot lifted from Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest, and for me, in my slow-but-steady viewing of Kurosawa’s oeuvre, something of a surprise — because it is, basically, a pure action film, without any great theme or underlying message. Which is not to belittle it in any way, merely to say that, next to Ikiru, or Rashomon, or even Seven Samurai, Yojimbo is certainly a departure. Toshiro Mifune is Sanjuro, the masterless ronin who comes to a small town in which two rival gangs battle for supremacy, and by the end, he’s destroyed both of the gangs and most of the town. The restraint with which Mifune plays Sanjuro is also surprising, a clear template for Clint Eastwood’s later Man With No Name and any number of other laconically brutal movie heroes. But we’re not even sure Sanjuro is a hero — the way he sits atop his laddered post and laughs at the two gangs’ hilariously cowardly advance-and-retreat gives us the idea that maybe he’s only in this to kill some time and find some amusement, not from any sense of nobility or justice. Kurosawa’s ability to frame a scene is marvelous: watch any scene with two characters just speaking to one another and see how he arranges their bodies, their stances, within/without their environment. A case study, every time. Since this was 1961, the fight scenes do suffer a bit from our knowledge that these weapons aren’t doing any actual slicing and dicing — it’s a lot easier to grab your chest and pretend you’ve been shot than it is to pretend you’ve been hacked up by twelve different swords. (Although it does make the moments where blood-and-guts are on display, as when Mifune chops off a gang member’s arm, or impales a gunman’s gun-hand with a trowel, all the more effective.) Yojimbo is far from my favorite Kurosawa film, but it’s fun and frothy and well worth seeing — as I will its sequel, Sanjuro, ere too long.