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Thursday, 17 August 2017

On Blu-ray - David Hare reports on a new edition of Jacques Becker's TOUCHEZ-PAS AU GRISBI (France, 1954)

Screens below are from Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au Grisbi released in 1954 and now reissued by Studio Canal on a spanking new super glossy Blu-ray. The movie comes around half way through Becker's too brief career. His first feature, Dernier âtout came out in 1943 during the Occupation and his last film, Le Trou (The Hole) was released in 1960. Becker remains one of the unsung heroes of French cinema, an artist who began his career as Assistant Director with Renoir in the thirties until La Marseillaise in 1938 when Becker appears to have had some kind of rupture with Renoir. He went on to start his own career as a writer and director during wartime after a year spent in a German Occupation Prisoner of war camp. 

Becker's 13 or so feature films, beginning in 1943 run through the post war, pre-Nouvelle Vague era to his death in 1960, shortly after that movement began. Becker was one of a handful of "old school" directors, like Ophuls, Melville, Cocteau, Bresson and Renoir himself who remained in favor with the New Wave, unlike their detested "Tradition de Qualité" colleagues. Indeed Becker's 1949 romantic comedy, Rendezvous à Juillet contains a virtual compendium of Left Bank iconics which would set the tone for future Vague-ists - rebellious middle class youth, sixth Arrondissement jazz dives, existentialism and a subdued but audible critique of the Gaullist establishment.

My personal pick of Becker’s movies is Touchez-pas au Grisbi (Don't Touch the Loot, 1954) a gangster picture in the style and mould of other post Noir French gangster movies from the period like Dassin's Du Rififi Chez les Hommes (1956), and Henri Decoin's hugely entertaining Razzia sur la Chnouf (1955) which also stars Gabin and Lino Ventura in similar parts to Grisbi. The screens above show, alternately Max (Gabin) and his trophy butch "protege" Marco (Michel Jourdan) at the bar of their niteclub home away from home, bathed in the gorgeous super luxe white lighting style of DP Pierre Montazel who photographs all the studio interiors with comparable flooding of whites, creams and erased shadow in classic "Tradition de Qualité" luxury style. In the second screen Gabin, now cast into blackness and in the same frame of moral implication as Marco and the drug syndicate kingpin Pierrot (Paul Frankeur) torturing "Fifi" the gay snitch (Daniel Cauchy) in one of the movies shock jolts into high contrast deep shadow Noir lighting and layering. 

Thus the film itself parlays its thematic movement back and forth from old to new in light and shade as the screenplay shows the old gang unravelling, and with it potentially the deep pact of honor between Max and Riton (Rene Dary) over the totemic “Grisbi”. The movie is as much a meditation on the passing of batons from old to new, and also the passing of honor and morality, like some other genre pictures in a sense farewelling their own generic style, and stars, like Miinnelli's masterpiece, The Band Wagon with Astaire, and the Ranown westerns of Boetticher and Randolph Scott.

Becker's movie to me ranks as the premier mid-fifties part for Gabin, along with his producer role in Renoir's sublime French Can Can, and perhaps even the more complex role. Grisbi's denouement involves a brilliant night time heist sequence with Max's ultimate loyalty to Riton put to the test. It would not be too much of a spoiler to reveal that Max behaves with honor. The movie is breathtakingly paced and structured and displays a remarkable manipulation of dual visual stylization. Indeed if only for the studio production design and photography Grisbi represents one of the high points of 50s Tradition de Qualité "look" with low contrast, highly lit glossy surfaces and textures, blended depth and minimal layering. Ophuls and his DP Christian Matras would employ a similar look in two of his black and white films before the Eastmancolor and Scope Lola Montès. But like Ophuls, Becker takes his material way, way past the superficial glamour of the Tradition of Quality ambience.

The movie has been restored and released (next week) on Blu-ray from Studio Canal, along with new releases of Le Trou which by word of mouth is a superior new encode to the two-year old Japanese JVC Blu-ray, and a second new Blu of Casque d'Or (1952) which may or may not be the same encode as the original Canal Blu disc from circa 2010. All titles are Region B fixed.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Federico Fellini - The Secret Meaning of his Short Masterpiece TOBY DAMMIT revealed by Theodore Price. Final Part .

Federico Fellini
Yet this too is not, I repeat, the “meaning” I’ve in mind in the title of this paper.  For that meaning is quite traditional, quite holy.  So far as traditional literary or filmic interpretation is concerned, I’m on the side --- if I may put it this way --- of the angels, not the devils.
But is this traditional meaning I’ve in mind indeed “secret”?  And if so, what do I mean by “secret”?  Well, here too I don’t mean anything mysterious. 
I simply mean that in the 12 or so years since earlier writing this paper (1967 – 1979), since Toby Dammit came out, no other critic has, in print, suggested, or even hinted at, this meaning.  Or so I do believe.
I’m in rather a good position to know, or to be pretty sure.  My late dear wife, of Blessed Memory, and I were book-length Fellini researchers.  We’d read and listed just about everything written on Toby Dammit in Western critical literature during those years.
And, no, not a single critic has ever hinted at this meaning!
Not Michael Armstrong, not Gary Arnold, not Roland Blumer, not Vincent Canby, not Emanno Commuzio, not Judith Crist, not Filmfacts, not Guido Fink, not Jean Gill, not Penelope Gilliatt, not Robert Gross, not Peter Harcourt, not Stanley Kaufmann, not S. Kovacs, not Raymond Lefevre, not René Micha, not Leo Mishkin, not Albert Moravia, not the London Observer, not Tony Reyne, not Stuart Rosenthal, not Mike Sarne, not Andrew Sarris, not Richard Schickel, not John Simon, not Michel Sineux, not Angelo Solmi, not Kevin Thomas, not Time, and not Marie Verdone.
In my later years since then I’ve not alas checked much, but not even George Porcari, in his 2007 paper, "Fellini's Forgotten Masterpiece: Toby Dammit."
And this is why I call “my” meaning of the film the “secret” meaning.

Have I perhaps imagined it all?  With all due modesty I must reply: Not a chance.  And for three good, solid reasons.
(1) My interpretation of the film is classic and traditional.  Variations of the metaphor I’m about to note abound in world literature and drama.  So many of Fellini’s film metaphors are, in this sense, classic and traditional, easily spotted by traditional critics, though often missed by others, especially film critics.
(2) My interpretation links up with various metaphors in so many of Fellini’s other films.  This metaphor is at the core of his work.  It’s what so many of his other films are “all about.”
(3) Best of all, The Truth About Toby Dammit (the way Dante has defined “truth” and “meaning” in poetry and fiction) isn’t a “secret” at all.  I’ve been making jokes.
The meaning of Toby Dammit, its basic metaphor, the meaning of which if one hasn’t grasped it, makes the film seems strange and disjointed and which, if one has grasped it, make everything in this (wonderful) film clear and poignant, and often bitterly funny --- this meaning is as plain as Pinocchio’s nose. 
And once stated, you’ll immediately see how clear and plain it is.  For there can, on the conscious level, be no other meaning.  Indeed, one will be compelled to admit: “How can it be otherwise?”

Terence Stamp, Toby Dammit
What, then, is the meaning of Fellini’s film Toby Dammit?  What is its basic metaphor?  It’s that --- Toby Dammit is Jesus Christ.
Toby Dammit is Jesus Christ.  He has returned to earth for his Second Coming.  He’s dressed not as a cowboy but as a British film star.
And the Italian movie that the Church is planning to make, not the first Catholic western but, as in 8½, the film that Fellini has made and that we’ve just seen: Toby Dammit.
But it’s the story of a Christ who’s been dreading to return, since he has suspected what he would find.  And what He sees, we see in the course of the film.
He suspects that His flock (His “public”) isn’t worth redeeming, that He’s coming to Rome to die, as the gypsy woman previsions. 
He has died once, and once should have been enough.  And here He’s got to do it all over again.
He’s a Jesus Christ who has, from previous experience, suspected that there’s really no God, but that there’s indeed a Devil.  And everything He sees and experiences on his Second Coming (and that we, the audience, see along with Him) confirms perfectly his suspicions.

There is certainly a Devil, for Rome is Hell.  The city and its inhabitants (and, of course, Rome is not just Rome but the world) are the Devil’s handiwork.  There is no God, for how could God allow all this, all that Toby/Jesus (and we, the audience) see and hear?
Terence Stamp, Toby Dammit
At the Award ceremony the audience, His public, and we, the audience of the film, await Toby’s speech, that is to say, Toby/Jesus’s message.  And what is the message? 
That life is but a shadow.  That there is no afterlife.  This is it, all here, now or nothing.  That life has no meaning, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.
And so, in a world where there’s the Devil but no God, Jesus screams.  And screams again.  And leaves, this time for good, never to return.
There’s to be no redemption.  There’s to be only Hell.  And Hell is here and now.

Fellini on set, La Dolce Vita
We know that this is to be the design of the film, we know this from the very start.  For it begins with a shot, a lingering shot, of --- clouds, just as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita begins with clouds as part of its opening title. 
In this case our explicator messenger isn’t Dante or Freud but St. John, in Revelation, who tells us quite pointedly how and whence Jesus at His Second Coming will arrive.  Behold, he cometh with clouds.  And how does Toby arrive?  In a plane, with clouds!
Fellini’s design for La Dolce Vita is unequivocally that of the sudden, unexpected return of Jesus prophesized by the angel of the Lord to John and written down by him in the Book of Revelation (the Book of the Apocalypse, the Book of the Unveiling). 
Fellini once wanted to call his film (La Dolce Vita) Babylon, 2000 Years After Christ.  This interpretation was adumbrated, or stated on the run, so to speak, in Fellini criticism, the minute the film was released.
But it was never properly or carefully explicated, except very briefly in a little monograph I wrote on Amarcord, published in 1977, and later in a paper of mine, “Look, It’s Jesus!  The Truth About La Dolce Vita.
Opening sequence, La Dolce Vita
In La Dolce Vita the silly-looking statue of Jesus that hangs down from the helicopter at the start of the film and that’s headed for Rome is meant by Fellini to represent in fact Christ Jesus. 
Just as Toby is welcomed to Rome, so is Jesus greeted by all the various characters in the earlier film.  In Dolce Vita the girl in the bikini doesn’t call out, “Look, there’s a statue of Jesus.”  She call us, “Look, it’s Jesus.”
For it is Christ Jesus, who will see all the unhappy people we will meet in the course of that film, Marcello the unhappiest of all, who are unhappy and out of a state of grace because throughout the film they keep seeking everything but God, and so never find Him.
Marcello and the Fish, closing sequence, La Dolce Vita
The fish at the end of Dolce Vita also represents Christ.  The fish is a traditional Christian symbol for Christ.  The Greek word for fish is a well-known acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.
All this may have been secret in the time of the early Christians, a secret symbol to prevent the Romans from arresting and persecuting them but hardly secret today.
Just look at the bumper stickers of the cars in front of you, on the highway.  Before long you’ll be sure to come across one with a fish design on it, showing that the driver and his family are Born Again Christians!
In Dolce Vita the fish looks at the people that we’ve been observing for some three hours and the “Sweet Life” they’ve been leading; and the fish, Christ Jesus, is sad. 
If you think that the fish is some sort of monster, a bad guy, a devil, look again!  The eye of the fish that fills the screen is sad and suffering.  Eye symbolism is ubiquitous in that film, and the Eye of God is another very traditional Christian symbol.

In La Dolce Vita, then, Christ returns, according to the prophesy of the Book of Revelation; but He’s seen in the beginning and at the end, in order to establish its design.  And instead of the avenging, militant Christ of Revelation Fellini prefers to picture, on His return, a sad, suffering, grieving Christ.
In Toby Dammit we get the Second Coming from the subjective point of view of Christ Himself, in the person of Toby Dammit. 
The interesting idea of writing a story about how Jesus might react on His return was used, of course, by Dostoyevsky in his famous Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov; so it’s hardly an unfamiliar idea.
Dolce Vita is a sweetly sad film, and the situation isn’t quite hopeless.  Fellini was younger then and hadn’t almost died.  The Umbrian angel-girl, whose face fills the screen in that famous closing shot of the film, who looks at Marcello, and at us, and smiles sweetly, is an emblem of love; and where love is, hope is.
Not so in Toby Dammit.  The angel-girl is now a devil-girl.  We have a Jesus who no longer believes in God.  It’s a situation of despair.

But not of complete despair.  For Fellini’s metaphor of Jesus suddenly reappearing in our 20th century world, as, according to the Gospels and Revelation, He’s supposed to appear, without warning, like a thief in the night, is bitter but at the same time uproariously funny.
If we don’t wish to rail and scream or gnash our teeth at the Devil and his disciples, we can laugh at them.
Think, now, if Jesus were to return.  Would He not be welcomed, waved, and stared at just the way Toby is at the airport?
Would He not be put on Meet the Press or 60 Minutes or be interviewed by Barbara Walters?  “How would you like to be addressed, Mr. Christ?”  “Was your mother really a virgin?”
Would He be introduced on a late-night talk show with, “Here’s --- Jesus!”?
"Here's Jesus", Toby Dammit
Would a national telephone call-in be arranged, with a toll-free number: 1-800-LORDGOD? (“Yes, I’d uh, like to talk to Jesus, please.”)
If He went and cured some blind or dying patient, would the AMA try to get Him for practicing medicine without a license?  He has a bad track record for this sort of thing:  He used to cure people on the Sabbath.
And who would defend Him in court?  He’s always hated lawyers.
Not everything in the film will fit this interpretation.  Fellini wasn’t constructing a one-to-one allegory like the Faerie Queen or The Pilgrim’s Progress.  But so very much of the film does fit. 
When you consider the strictures Fellini was under --- making a film with this design, based on a given short story by a famous writer and fitting it into a three-part film that required some connection between the parts --- the wondrous thing is that the design and the unity of the film are so pronounced.


Editor's Note: Theodore Price is an American academic and long-time cinephile. He wrote this 6000+ word essay at the age of 92. Part One can be found if you click here,  Part Two if you click here and Part Three if you click here