Saturday, 18 April 2009

Boats, Berets and Bullies

Our Hidden Cinema presentation this Sunday at 3 o'clock in The Hourglass is a terrific double-bill of classic cinema. Appropriately for a pub just round the corner from Exeter's quayside, these both have dockside settings - and a lot of bar-side action. Here are the notes from the programme, with added pics:

To Have and Have Not (1944) and Quai Des Brumes (1938)

Two films, two ports, separated by ocean and language. One just precedes the war, the other comes towards its end. One takes place in the cold mists of Le Havre, the other in the tropical Caribbean heat of Martinique. And yet these stories share many qualities and mirror each other in many aspects. Both have impeccable literary pedigrees. To Have and Have Not takes a bit of Hemingway, mixes it with script input by William Faulkner, and is refined by director Howard Hawks with on-set revisions tailored to fit the dynamic of a dynamite cast. Quai des Brumes marks the zenith of the collaboration between director Marcel Carne and poet of the streets Jacques Prevert, who you might know from the lyrics of the song Les Feuilles Mortes, more prosaically translated as Autumn Leaves. The film is perhaps the definitive example of what came to be known as poetic realism, although Carne preferred the term le fantastique social (same difference).

Both films nurtured romances between the leads which blossomed offset and manifested themselves in the intensity of their interaction onscreen. Bogart and Bacall were an item by the time the film wrapped, whereas Gabin and Morgan let things simmer a little longer before finally getting together.

The male stars Jean Gabin and Humphrey Bogart are quite stocky actors of a similar frame and bearing, and both came to epitomise the figure of the tough romantic. They had played gangsters in their time, but their screen personae tended to take the form of the loner whose espousal of an ‘I stick my neck out for nobody’ code is eroded by love and reveals a sentimentality and idealism lying just beneath the rough carapace formed by hard experience. Both came to be embodiments of a certain nationalistic ideal in their countries, icons of individualism who stand up to the forces of oppression and intimidation. They were stylish, too. Here, Bogie, as Harry Morgan, wears honest workman’s garb, with denim trousers, white shirt with neck bandana, a blazer for lounging around in the bar in the evening, and a jauntily cocked sailor’s flat cap to top it all off. Gabin, as Jean, begins in his deserter’s naval uniform, brass buttons gleaming, pill-box peaked cap set to a jauntily cocked angle, before switching to the casual attire of the bohemian casual.

The heroines of the films are Marie Browning, played by Lauren Bacall, and Nelly, played by Michele Morgan. They are both young women running away from poisonous domestic prisons. Bacall’s Marie has been more successful thus far, having made her way from America to Martinique, whereas Nelly has as yet only managed to cross town to the other side of the docks of Le Havre. Both their escapes are still fragile and notional at this stage. Both women sport berets, Nelly like a native (naturellement). Bacall wears a chequered two piece in a classic 40s style, whilst Morgan’s Nelly anticipates 60s fabness with her plastic seethrough raincoat, which looks almost as if the fog she has walked in from has wrapped itself around her.

The port settings of the films offer the hope of escape, of running from troubles which dog your heels, or of simply casting aside the old self and setting sail to a new life. Martinique holds the promise of an easeful Caribbean paradise, but the old patterns remain in place. Bogie is beholden to the whims of the rich fools with money and the attitude which accompanies it who hire out his boat, and is obliged to negotiate with the bullying fascist powers of the collaborative Vichy regime. Le Havre is a dead end for both Jean and Nelly, but it’s ships offer new possibilities, new worlds, leaving France behind. Many have retrospectively viewed this as a tacit admission of France’s hopeless position in the years immediately preceding the war, but this is judging with the benefit of hindsight, and Carne was not really interested in matters of politics. The fogbound streets of his studio-created world which hold the characters in an inertia-bound stasis glow with a pearlescent light (you might detect a similarity to the light in the exterior scenes of Vampyr, Hidden Cinemagoers). This luminescence also shines from Nelly’s eyes as they look into Jean’s and offer the hope of salvation through love, a spiritual rebirth which once more gives reason and motivation for action.

Our heroes and heroines meet in bars, the dockside hubs where criminals and artists, tourists and hustlers mingle. In Quai des Brumes the locale is a wooden shack which resembles a pitifully jerrybuilt junk, its asymmetric prow pointing hopefully towards the docks from the vulnerable spit of shingle upon which it lies. It is presided over by a kind but decrepit character called Panama, seemingly after his headwear of choice, whose crumpled and stained white suit betokens the weary fate of such an attempt at goodhearted community in this venal world. His attempts at providing a musical backdrop with his battered guitar are half-hearted at best.

In To Have and Have Not the bar is on the ground floor of a hotel run by a friendly proprietor named Renard but called Frenchy by Bogart, on account of his being French. The bar’s music is provided with somewhat greater aplomb than Panama by Hoagy Carmichael’s Cricket, whose loose-limbed frame has been shaped by hours spent with arms suspended over the piano keyboard, playing or writing. These places are refuges from the world into which incursions from the forces of law are not welcome and are held at bay to a large degree. They have their established denizens, characters whose quirks are as settled in as the whisky stains which pattern the aged wooden tables. Here, new beginnings are planned with exhalations of liquor fumes, new lives to be projected beyond the smoke-choked interiors into the wider world beyond. Harry and Marie rechristen each other immediately upon meeting, Bogart’s character becoming Steve and Bacall’s Slim, Hawks’ nickname for his own wife. It is as if they are creating new characters for each other, allowing them to shed old, worn selves. Jean sheds his own identity with his uniform, taking on a fresh one with a new set of clothes and a soul renewed by love.

Other characters find their doppelgangers in each film. Bogie has his old rummy pal Eddie, characterfully portrayed by Walter Brennan, with his obsession with the possibility of apian post-mortem harm. Gabin has the winsome stray mutt which attaches it to himself with dogged eagerness, recognising a fellow lost soul. Bacall is pestered by a slimy Vichy inspector, whilst Morgan has to contend with the attentions of a seedily lascivious guardian (legendary French actor Michel Simon taking on an unenviable role) as well as a petty local hood who asserts his claim on her affections with a conspicuous lack of subtlety. He and his matchstick-chewing goons ape tough-guy American Cagneyisms, but Gabin later reveals his true nature as a provincial bumper-car bully.

Ultimately, the differences in the films are manifested in their outlooks on life as much as in their climates. In Quai des Brumes, the characters emerge from the fog, contemplate the futility of life, love and art with an existential shrug before returning into it alone and disconsolate, newly reassured of the essentially tragic nature of all human endeavour. To Have and Have Not has its characters emerge from their solipsistic shells to work together and cause at least a dent in the armour of insensate fate or authoritarian power. In Quai des Brumes, love is enshrouded in the fog of doomed romantic fatalism, unable to escape the gravity of the all-pervasive baseness and corruption into which it is cast. In To Have and Have Not it is a sparring partnership of wisecracking banter, a conversational give and take which ensures the maintenance of a dynamic balance. This love gives the individual the strength to take a moral stand and, who knows, maybe to strike a blow against tyranny and the bullies who enforce it.

Maybe these are the attitudes of innocence and experience, the contrary states of the human soul, of worlds Old and New. But in a spirit of détente, let’s emphasise the commonality of these dockside dramas. To transatlantically recast Lauren Bacall’s famous words, ‘tous ce que tu dois faire es siffler. Tu sais comme on siffle, non?’ If you’ll pardon my French.

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