October Newsletter: On True Originators and Tarnished Angels


 
 

Photos: Classiq Journal

 
 
Pépé le Moko is a wanted man. He is far away from home, hiding with his gang of thieves in Algiers, where he is under the investigation of the local police inspector. But on the streets of Casbah, he is safe. When a beautiful playgirl arrives in town, he starts to recall his happier past in Paris and risks being lured out of his hideout.

Pépé le Moko cleared the way for that iconic example of the classical Hollywood style, Casablanca”, writes Charles Drazin in the book French Cinema. Casablanca is the classical film that works only in Hollywood terms, it is a stylised version of a better, more authentic, more original film. Should I also mention Algiers, the Hollywood remake of Pépé le Moko, directed by John Cromwell who “would run a scene from the original and insist we do it exactly that way”, as Charles Boyer who played Jean Gabin’s role, recalled? Then Algiers “served as the benchmark for what everyone hoped Casablanca would be.”

Shot in Algiers, Pépé le Moko shows “a naturalistic fidelity to character and situation” (unlike Casablanca, which operates “on the level of myth and fable, taking us on a moral journey of self-sacrifice and redemption” – the good old, successful Hollywood formula). It haunts you with those shots of the labyrinthian streets of Casbah and white rooftops reminding of the German expressionistic (built-in in those cases) settings. It doesn’t transform its leading man into a hero or anti-hero, but shows him as a flawed yet sympathetic character. He is plausible as an individual. It’s so much more realistic and easier to relate to an imperfect man than to a system-made hero or a universally-recognisable villain. All that being said, it is about the pleasure of watching a good film, someone’s story, without being served a moral, patriotic or any other kind of lesson.

Jean Gabin’s Pépé le Moko is one of those tragic victims of society, a character he was identified with in the films of the 1930s, the French cinema of poetic realism. Unluck plays a big role in his character’s life. It is usually unluck who puts him on the wrong side of society. It is unluck that makes him fall unhappily in love with the wrong woman. It is emotion that drives him and his faith is dictated by his emotions. But his exterior, his manner, his profession is tough and unsentimental, and it is this contradiction of terms that make Gabin the actor so magnificent.

 
 

“If I were an architect and had to build a monument to cinema,
I would place a statue of Duvivier above the entrance.
This great technician, this rigorist was a poet.”

Jean Renoir

 
 

Image to the right: Pépé le Moko, 1937. Paris Films

 

Other viewing

The Tarnished Angels, 1957
Douglas Sirk

“One day the stars will be as familiar to each man as the landmarks, the curves, and the hills on the road that leads to his door, and one day this will be an airborne life. But by then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to a familiarity with labeled buttons, and in whose minds knowledge of the sky and the wind and the way of weather will be extraneous as passing fiction,“ pioneering aviator Beryl Markham wrote in her book West with the Night, recounting the early frontier of flying at just the same time the story in the film takes place. I mentioned this quote when I wrote about another film, by Howard Hawks, Only Angels Have Wings, from 1939.

Douglas Sirk’s film, The Tarnished Angels, is from almost two decades later, 1957, but the story takes place right after WWI, just as Howard Hawks’. This is again from the days of pioneering aviators. It’s also about a daredevil pilot who has forgotten about everything (love, family, friends – although he has a wife who would do anything for him, a son who venerates him and a best friend who is his faithful mechanic) but how to fly.

Roger Schumann (Robert Stack) is the pilot, a former WWI fighter pilot, who never wanted to do anything but fly. He now flies around pylons at air shows. LaVerne (Dorothy Malone), his wife, does parachute demonstrations. And Jiggs (Jack Carson), his best friend, repairs his planes for him, because Roger may know how to fly but knows nothing else about planes. Rock Hudson is a journalist, Burke Devlin, looking for a sensational story and fascinated by the sordid lives of the trio risking their lives in a daredevil show and barely living on what they make. They are lost, lonely souls who need to hang on to one another in order to go on. And they all hang on to one man’s obsession with flying that can easily transform into a life and death race.

“In this film the camera is constantly in motion, acting like the people the film’s about, as if something were actually going on. In reality, in the end they could all lie down and let themselves be buried. And the travelling shots in the film, the crane shots, the pans! Douglas Sirk shows these dead souls with such tenderness and with such a light that you say to yourself that they’re all in such a shitty situation and yet so lovable that something must be to blame for it. What is to blame is loneliness and fear. I’ve seldom felt loneliness and fear the way I do in this film.” Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The Imitation of Life, an essay Fassbinder wrote in February 1971 on six Sirk films, published in Films und Fernsehen.

 
The screwball comedies of Myrna Loy and William Powell.

It’s a joy to watch Hollywood screwballs from the 1930s. And it’s a joy to watch Myrna Loy and William Powell on screen. They fit right into the spontaneity and liveliness, and the authentic spirit of the cinema of the times. In Double Wedding, from 1937, a hands-on, business-minded Margit Agnew (Myrna Loy), who loves to know everything in advance and plan accordingly, has her younger sister’s life all figured out, including who and when she should marry, until a free-thinking bohemian, William Powell, comes along, disturbs the order and romantic complications ensue – Margit Agnew: “Do you take dope?”. Love Crazy, 1941, is a delirious, crazy comedy about a happily married couple who suddenly break up on their fourth anniversary because a series of misunderstandings and the husband’s reacquaintance with an old flame. In I Love You Again, 1940, a married man, William Powell, is knocked unconscious while trying to save another man from drowning and awakens to find out that he had suffered from amnesia for the entire time he has been married.
 

The short films of Nicolas Bianco-Levrin and Julie Rembauville. I will soon be making an interview with Nicolas and have loved diving into their cinematic universe. Vieille peau/Old Hag is a firm favourite. I love the dark story set in Louisiana, on the music of Adrien Chevalier. Such a great cautionary tale.

 

 
Reading

Inspire: Life Lessons from the Wilderness, by Ben Fogle. This is a book that speaks to me. It teaches about patience, time and integrity. About tolerance. About valuing our resources, being ingenious, becoming better human beings. About how peaceful life becomes when the pressure of work, money, fatigue and consumerism has disappeared. About turning the background noise to the minimum and concentrating on yourself. About the difference between real life and fictional life (fueled by social media). About regaining our sense of origin. About nature, our relationship with nature (and with ourselves) – nature is what allows us to be who we are, who we want to be, not who others want us to be. This is a book that gives you a clear idea about what living life well is all about.

 
Listening

The album: Float, Flogging Molly

 
Making

India Hicks and Penelope Chilvers. I have admired India Hicks for years and years, and even more so since our interview from another number of years back. Designer, humanitarian, mother of 5. And so much more. It’s the way she lives her life. She is a free spirit. She has fun with life. She lives by her own rules. She takes risks. She was not afraid to eschew her royal (and design royalty) heritage and follow her own path. And, yes, she has style in spades, and she makes fashion on her own terms.

“It was important that we didn’t stray too far from what Penny stood for, our mini collaboration needed to feel very much at home in her stable of foot ware, whilst weaving my stories into the style we felt would best suit a tomboy, a cowgirl and an adventurer,” said India about her collaboration with Penelope Chilvers.

Born and raised in England, Penelope went to Spain to continue her studies in Madrid. As a child, she had spent her holidays in Spain, and, after her graduation, she lived a few years in Barcelona, designing and painting and collaborating with artists and artisans. Soon she would pursue the idea of bringing the traditional Spanish riding boot to England and commissioned Spanish craftsmen to make it. The Long Tassel boot was born, considered by many the perfect equestrian boot. From then on, the road was only upwards and the collection continued to grow, along with the reputation of the best quality crafted in Spain with great consideration and a design that is beautiful and enduringly elegant.

 
Exploring

More than 93 years after the publication of the first Tintin, Les Ateliers des Lumières presents an immersive Tintin exhibition dedicated to the curious Belgian journalist and his merry band, and to his adventures around the world. 21 October – 22 November.

 
 
The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s newsletters: Roden and Ridgeline. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. The Racquet magazine newsletter. The Adventure Podcast: Terra Incognita. The print magazines Monocle and Sirene.
 

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