Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”: A Study in Black Yves Saint Laurent

Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”, 1975. Jupiter Generale Cinematografica, Les Films de la Boétie, Terra-Filmkunst

 
Romy Schneider is glorious in Les innocents aux mains sales. And although this article will mainly cover the role her Yves Saint Laurent clothes play in the film, that characterisation refers first and foremost to her performance. The extreme emotions she’s capable of is transfixing. When Romy smiles, the entire screen lights up. She possessed a childish innocence that was liberating and all-encompassing. You dissolve in a radiant smile and lightness, too, when you watch her. And when turmoil takes over, everything shows up in her eyes. Her sadness is devastating, it’s like you are at once aware of the most troubled soul that goes down so deep that it can never be cured.

Innocents with Dirty Hands starts out in familiar Claude Chabrol territory: bourgeois mores (on the backdrop of a superb Saint Tropez villa), a wealthy husband, a young wife, the temptation of a young lover, the exercise of power, Hitchcockian impulses. Romy is Julie, the young wife of a retired business man, Louis Wormser (Rod Steiger). He has a heart condition, which fuels his frustrations and drinking. Julie is quick to take a lover, their neighbour, a young and broke writer, Jeff (Paulo Giusti), and after scheming murder, everything takes a turn towards the unexpected, more than once, and she goes through a whole lot of transformations.

If Chabrol seems to prepare us for a Hitchcockian kind of suspense, he quickly deviates from form, as the film is essentially a portrait of a woman. “Certainly I’m happy right now making these films about murder. My interest isn’t in solving puzzles, but in studying human behavior,” the filmmaker remarked in an interview in the 1970s, during a period of his revived career, when his films took on a new direction. Focusing on the lives and fates of women is another element that’s part of the familiar Chabrol territory, but this time he takes it further. He chooses to show us a woman completely isolated in a world of men, trying to navigate a series of relationships and confrontations with a number of different males roaming around (she has no interaction with any other woman throughout the duration of the entire film), never fitting into the same mold as them; they are practically the watchmen of her life: policemen, lawyer, magistrate, banker, financial advisor, and of course, her husband and her lover. They all have ready-made ideas about Julie. And Julie is certainly no pure-hearted heroine, as none of Chabrol’s female characters is. She is independent but domineering, intrepid but selfish, rapacious but vulnerable. But she is also more than what meets the eye and more than any of these men make of her. She is unpredictable and complicated and this makes for an intriguing study of the psychology of a woman. That’s what the real suspense is about, trying to figure her out.

And who else than Romy could give us a more complicated mystery to solve? I am reminded of artist Andreas Reimann’s portrait of Romy, the ‘Romy Classic’, and his words: “This face, what I call the ‘Romy Classic’ never let go of me. Is it sad? Filled with pride or arrogance? Does she have a slight smile on her lips…? Her mysterious face has often been compared with the look of Mona Lisa.” Romy’s Julie is a character capable of love, murder, hate, passion, redemption, forgiveness, who lives her life according to her own morality and to her own timing. She is right or wrong by different canons of society and according to the different men she crosses paths with, but her right and wrong are of a different kind and come at a different time and it’s transformative, revealing and perturbing. She moves in her own ocean of freedom and in her own kind of independence.
 

Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”, 1975. Jupiter Generale Cinematografica, Les Films de la Boétie, Terra-Filmkunst

 
When I wrote about Romy wearing Yves Saint Laurent in Claude Sautet’s César et Rosalie, I said that it was the character of Rosalie that came very close to Romy’s personality, and, dressed in Yves Saint Laurent, Romy was the personification of the modern woman. I still believe that. Dressed in an Yves Saint Laurent capsule collection, from trench coat to pea coat, welcoming change and not settling for what others expect of her and not afraid to break free from the dependence on men, she navigates the challenges and freedoms of the modern woman.

When it comes to Yves Saint Laurent’s collaboration with cinema, it’s always his long-term relationship with Catherine Deneuve, his muse, model and close friend for decades, that is brought to attention, but I believe that Romy Schneider – Yves Saint Laurent is the true testament to modernity in fashion, and her character in Innocents with Dirty Hands may be different than the one in César et Rosalie, but her clothes once again attest to a type of female modernity and independence. Taking for example Saint Laurent’s clothes for Deneuve in Belle de jour, they are instrumental in disengaging the character of Severine from the discourse of femininity and beauty created around the male subject, while Romy’s clothes in Innocents, on the contrary, don’t deny femininity and signify desire and sensuality in relation to the female body first and foremost, not just to class and exclusivity. And that’s where their (the clothes’) power (and the character’s power) resides. Catherine Deneuve was more of an icon in Belle de jour, Romy Schneider was more of a woman in Innocents with Dirty Hands. Schneider’s Julie does not repress her sensuality, on the contrary, she is trying to make everything work for her while embracing her femininity as a powerful tool. Her husband is trying to hold on to her with his money and she owes her entry into the world of the rich to him, but she remains independent of mind. She has made this world her own, she is an integral part of it. She is neither an object woman nor a submissive wife.

Her clothes here are truly styles created for women. Even when he drew inspiration from the menswear in his fashion collections (the pin-stripe suit, the knickerbocker suit, the safari jacket, the blazer come to mind), Saint Laurent wasn’t after downplaying femininity, just the opposite, he wanted to emphasise it, going so far as to suggest that “a woman who dresses like a man – in tuxedo, blazer or sailor suit – has to be infinitely feminine in order to wear clothes which were not meant for her.” He liked to accentuate the femininity of these masculine looks by adding details that were quintessentially feminine, like the see-through blouse under a tuxedo, or the pussycat bow on a buttoned-up blouse. He celebrated the woman, not from the perspectives of the appropriation of men’s styles for women, but of femininity in all its distinction and beauty.
 

Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”, 1975. Jupiter Generale Cinematografica, Les Films de la Boétie, Terra-Filmkunst

 
The opening of the film is quite inédite. A naked Romy is sunbathing in the garden of her Saint Tropez villa and a kite is landing on her posterior. The owner of the kite, a young and handsome man, comes to reclaim it and so the two are introduced. The evening of their meeting, the man is invited to dinner where he meets the husband. Drunk, Louis retreats to his room, and so Julie and Jeff commence their affair. The first black dress of the film – the black dress, the symbol of feminine and seduction, but also the symbol of imminent tragedy – that she is wearing is truly her first attire we’ve seen her in so far although this is the second sequence she appears in. It establishes her position and feelings, but Chabrol skillfully and quickly reflected her availability with Julie’s nudity from the very first shots, presenting Julie without the costumes that define her socially and as an image. The evening gown is a very revealing, sexy dress, with jewelled straps across the back and following the line of the body. A distant elegance and both an unattainable lust and boiling passion are evoked. We see her in a caftan afterwards, in day-light, an YSL signature nonetheless, when her husband surprises her with a new car, a beautiful Datsun 260, offering us a glimpse into her pleasurable life as a woman showered with gifts from her husband.

This personality changes radically when we see her again, one more time the triangle at dinner time. It’s the fatidic night and the black dress she is wearing is the one I initially considered writing solely about. It is a long dress with long sleeves, a collar and a plunging neckline. It has a straight cut, with a slit down the leg. It looks statuesque, further elongated by the killer heels (pun intended) and Julie’s hair tied in a chignon. It’s edgy, it speaks of hidden thoughts and an unperturbed sexuality, a woman used to exercising power over men. The way she looks in that scene by Louis’ bed, I don’t think I have ever seen anything similar, she is like the weapon of the crime herself.
 

Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”, 1975. Jupiter Generale Cinematografica, Les Films de la Boétie, Terra-Filmkunst

 
The day after, she is again in a caftan, a luxurious piece that suits her, seamlessly integrated in Chabrol’s impeccable mise-en-scène, when she meets the policemen. From now on, with the exception of the puritanical white dress she puts on in a key moment in the film (her position is still one of strength, even if the transformation from unfaithful wife and attempting murderess into a devoted wife gives way to her inner contradictions about the two men in her life, contradictions that will ultimately decide her fate – “I will forgive you as you will forgive me,” Louis tells her), black, or variations there, of becomes her uniform. The navy blue skirt and blouse she wears when she mails the letter to her lover borders black. The tweed skirt and jacket in tones of grey reveal a black turtleneck underneath when she takes off her jacket.

But finally, it’s a black calf-length dress, with a full skirt and long sleeves when she finds out the truth about her husband. She’s in the same dress when, a little later on, she finds out the truth about her lover, culminating in an ordeal of an incident. I’ve always loved a long-sleeved dress with an A-shaped full skirt that falls mid-calf. When worn with high heels, it emphasises such a beautiful movement of the female body. It is not the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, nor the masterfully simplistic Halston dress that I find the most liberating and atemporele, but this dress. It would only feel fair for Yves Saint Laurent to reclaim it. “I can not work without the movement of the human body,” Saint Laurent would comment his need to design on real models. “A dress is not static, it has rhythm.” And Chabrol makes sure we see Romy move around in her dress, all turbulence and conflicted feelings underneath in motion.
 

Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”, 1975. Jupiter Generale Cinematografica, Les Films de la Boétie, Terra-Filmkunst

 
The sequence before the closing shot (and before the final black dress) finds her composed and resigned in a sober black roller neck. She is wearing a chignon again. She is being accused of something she is not guilty of and pleads with her lawyer, Jean Rochefort’s Maître Légal (there’s also humour in Chabrol, but he only makes fun of the justice departments), about the inconsistency of the judicial system.

The lawyer – Oh! The inconsistency of women!
Julie – When I wanted to kill my husband, nothing was done to me, and when I did everything to save him, they will punish me!
Lawyer – These are the twists and turns of justice. (…) The truth is what people want to believe, and remember that it is righteousness done by men, for men.

It’s the second time in the film when Jean Rochefort steals the scene (his in Innocents is one of the finest supporting roles in cinema), but we mustn’t easily forget the act Julie has conducted, having led all the way the dance between her and her husband and her lover. She was ultimately torn and trapped between the two. Physically free but mentally locked in her own duality.
 

Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”, 1975. Jupiter Generale Cinematografica, Les Films de la Boétie, Terra-Filmkunst

 
 

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A Life Outside the Lines


 
You either have it or you don’t. Not talent. Integrity. To hold your own and be able to say: “I’m doing one for myself now, and next I’m going to do one for myself, then after that I’ll do another one for myself, too.” That’s the kind of actor Nick Nolte has always been. The words above are about his choices of the movies he has taken on making in an industry that “emphasized things that simply weren’t that important”: artistically satisfying, small, meaty, gritty films. I’m not forgetting the talent either. That he is a great actor, that’s the main reason I wanted to read his book after all.

His is a career to be respected and admired. His (Rebel: My Life Outside the Lines) is a book to be read. Because it truly feels like an antidote to today’s celebrity culture. It speaks to the rebel in you, especially if this rebellion “comes from a simple fear of being forced into a box that doesn’t fit” you, especially in a time when people are discouraged to be different and encouraged to seek out the easy way to success, whatever that means.

He was a football player before he was an actor and the way he felt about football (American football) clearly came from the same passion and drive that has motivated him in his acting once life led him in that direction. “I never looked back with regret at not finishing a football career, because I had found something that provided adrenaline as well as the exploration of my creative and sensitive being.” And I liked that part about football, because it attests the fact that from very early on he found it vital to put passion in whatever he would choose to do in life. Sports does that, acting does that, anything artistic does that. It makes you think how important it is to find something to do where you can grow out your fears and triumphs. But how hard is it to do that in the age of uniformity? I’m happy when I read this kind of memoir. It grounds me, because it reinforces my conviction in what I truly believe in, while it also teaches you that in order to pursue an artistic endeavor you have to have “the ability to forget what you think you know”.

I wouldn’t tire of reading the lengths of depth he goes in order to prepare for each role, how he learned to inhabit his characters, how he learned that “an actor had to know more, imagine more, than simply the words the playwright had given him to speak.” But it’s the man behind the actor who tells about the ups and downs of Hollywood, and of life, and about living his life regardless of what is popular or expected, and about finding a way – acting – to cope with life. That’s not about a profession, but about one way to look at life, a life lived outside the lines, but which found its meaning in the lives and lines of every character he’s played. “Imagination is reality.” I get that.
 
 

“My parents were likely scared to death, yet they never showed it,
offering me comfort and privacy throughout my ordeal as they held
their counsel and simply hoped for the best. I took it for granted, not
realizing at the time that I had won the parental lottery. I might have
had a very different kind of experience with different parents.”

 
 

“Acting it was: a vocation, a survival tool,
and a destiny all rolled into one.”

 
 

“That’s how I combated fear. Pull a prank.
Tell a lie. Or retreat to nature.”

 
 

“Almost a lifetime later, I recognize that often the best remedy
for my own problems is to offer someone else a helping hand.”

 
 

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March Newsletter: On Music in Film and Escapism

Photos: Classiq Journal. Image to the left:
“Between seasons”, photographic print available in the shop, as part of the Classiq Journal Editions.

 
 

I find myself paying more and more attention to music in film. Sure, I have long been aware of the importance of music in film. But now I sometimes watch how a film begins and the music starts and say out loud: “Huh, that music will ruin the film.” And it often does. Far from me the thought of being an expert on music in film, but after having watched so many movies, it would be strange not to be able to tell when the music is clearly wrong for the film.

“Music is mysterious; it doesn’t offer many answers. Film music, on the other hand, is even more mysterious at times, both because of its bond with images and because of its way of bonding with the audience.” – Ennio Morricone

Maybe it’s this last year that has kept me away from cinemas. When I am in a movie theater, I am immersed in that story unfolding on screen all eyes, ears and feeling. At home, although my husband and I take great pride in our movie shelves and religiously watch a film from beginning to end without hitting pause or getting distracted by anything, the experience doesn’t even come close. And I have realised that a good soundtrack plays an important part in that departure to the kind of experience that watching a film in a cinema allows. Music becomes that link between the real world and the story you are watching. It is not escapism, it is a greater form of beauty and depth. As Jean Cocteau said, “I am rather surprised whenever I hear people chatter on about ‘escapism’, a fashionable term which implies that the audience is trying to get out of itself, while in fact beauty in all of its forms drives us back into ourselves and obliges us to find in our own souls the deep enrichment that frivolous people are determined to seek elsewhere.”

There is a line I loved tremendously in Your Honor – since my previous newsletter, I have watched the series, which I mentioned there and which I was interested in watching just because of Bryan Cranston (judge Michael Desiato in the film), not having to or wanting to know anything else in advance. Hunter Doohan, who plays Michael’s son, Adam, says something his late mother used to tell him: “Go deep, not wide.” It’s a line that has stuck with me. And Your Honor, which follows the butterfly-effect aftermath of a hit and run in which Adam is involved, turned out to be so good on so many levels, from the story as a whole, from every single cast member, to choosing the backdrop of New Orleans for the setting, to the musical score. There is, for example, that moment when Adam starts dancing on Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart. That moment alone, which had the power to detach me from absolutely every mundane thought, would have been enough to make the series worth watching. Is it a great song? Yes, it is. And it comes like a total surprise and plays out that scene so beautifully. But it stays with you because it makes you live the film, which I don’t see as detachment from reality, but as “going deep, not wide”. And isn’t it ironic how a song in a tv series (the series has an indie feeling, that’s why, I tell myself, and, yes, it reminds me of Breaking Bad) reminded me of what it is that is so special about going to the movies? It is in a cinema that you live a film. That complete abandonment and freedom you experience in the dark, in front of the big screen.

I was listening to the radio one morning in the car and a band was invited to perform. The band was Stema and they sang Săgeata. And one of the two hosts of the show remarked that the song would have made a great soundtrack for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. And I thought that was so great, that is exactly what the power of cinema and music in film is, that music can bond audiences with cinema in a way nothing else can. How else than by singing the songs we’ve heard can we get so easily closer to the story and to the filmmaker’s vision that has captured our minds after the credits start rolling and the lights are on?

Where do music documentaries fit into all this? If it’s anything like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz about The Band (that’s a music documentary filmed with a cinematic sensibility), you simply play it loud, watch in awe how the camera glides between the performers in synch with the songs and rhythm (it’s like it shows you how to see a live concert) and live it!
 

Left: “Golden Gate Bridge Sunrise”, by Nadya Zim, part of a cinematic series of photographs in tribute to
Hitchcock’s San Francisco movies, available in the shop. Right: Photo by Classiq Journal

 
 
The Classiq Journal newsletter goes out the first Sunday of each month. It’s a culture trip.

Reading

Tippi*, by Tippi Hedren. She’s my favourite Hitchcock heroine (in The Birds) and I had to read her book, because I wanted to know her side of the story, about her two best films, The Birds and Marnie, the first two films she appeared in, without any formal training or experience whatsoever, and about Hitchcock. She comes off gracefully.

I have recently spotted George Orwell’s graphic version of The Animal Farm in one of my favourite bookshops, which has prompted me to start reading Nineteen Eighty-Four again, which has just been released in new editions both by Birlinn Polygon (on which occasion Hugh Andrew speculates on the connections between author, work and place) and William Collins. The brilliance of this writer. The book was published in 1949. And here we are today.
 
 

“To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are
different from one another and do not live alone – to a time when truth
exists and what is done cannot be undone.

From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of
Big Brother, from the age of doublethink – greetings!”

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

 
 
Raymond Cauchetier’s New Wave, to celebrate the work and life of Raymond Cauchetier, the man who photographed the French New Wave, and who passed away at the age of 101 last month. One of my readers left me a message that best expressed his work: “M Cauchetier’s shots were often the first clue of the world that was on its way. I saw photos from Breathless years before there was a chance to see the film itself – by upping anticipation, his photos helped the movies enormously.”

Huh: A cafe with a view of the waterfall, a new Craig Mod newsletter. It’s a photo a week accompanied by a sentence. It’s about looking closely at the world, and taking a moment to do so, outside of Instagram. Craig Mod also hopes to inspire other photographers to create a home for their photos outside of Instagram. I believe it’s an inspiration for all of us to be more present. “An antipode to a good chunk of social media in general, but Instagram in particular, another way to share images, on a reduced scale.”

Harvester of Cinema: Viktor Schlöndorff pays homage to Jean-Claude Carrière. “Nobody but him could or would have dared to combine extremely conventional plotlines with such wild surrealist ideas.”
 
Viewing

The Last Waltz (1978), directed by Martin Scorsese. Play this movie loud! “The greatest concert movie of all time”, The Rolling Stone magazine named it.

Jacques Deray was a gifted and passionate filmmaker, and he knew how to stage a spectacle and create a certain universe in his films. He did all that in Borsalino, but Un papillon sur l’épaule (A Butterfly on His Shoulder), 1978, is anything but. Minimalist and frantic, with a Lino Ventura perfectly cast and Barcelona as a character in itself.

L’aile ou la cuisse (The Wing or the Thigh?), 1976, featuring Louis de Fùnes. For the laughs, for Louis de Fùnes’ innate and inimitable comedic talent, and for the humorously dark and accurate prevision on the future of food. It’s also about taste and the pleasure of eating and why tradition is more important than innovation.

Nous finirons ensemble (2019), directed by Guillaume Canet, has us follow up on the story of the characters in Les petits mouchoirs (Little White Lies). If’s about friends and friendship. It’s so incredibly relatable, sometimes painful, sometimes exhilarating. Canet will release his latest film, Lui, this autumn. A psychological thriller, in his own words, featuring Mathieu Kassovitz among others.

Lifeboat (1944), because it’s good Hitchcock and for the way the characterisation of Tallulah Bankhead dominates the entire film.
 
Listening

Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama have a podcast together: Renegades: Born in the USA. Need I say more? I didn’t think so.

The playlist. It complements the newsletter: soundtrack songs from the movies mentioned here and tunes I’ve been listening to.
 
 

 
 
Exploring

The Art of Travel, with Sophy Roberts. It’s about travel that has nothing to do with this age of distraction, it’s about truly seeing, it’s about life experiences, it’s about the sharper eye that comes with walking, it’s about a deeper connection with our world, it’s about storytelling. So many great stories.
 
On an end note

A true story someone shared with me the other day. Years ago, an elementary school teacher was confronted with a problem during his class. One of the pupils reported his watch had been stolen. After the teacher asked for the guilty party to come forward and that didn’t happen, he told all the pupil ps to stand up and close their eyes. He searched everyone and found the watch. He put it on his desk, asked the children to open their eyes and told the boy whose watch had been stolen to get his watch. Years after this incident, the teacher was stopped in the street by a young man, who greeted him and asked him if he recalled what happened with the missing watch that one time long ago. “Yes, I do”, he said, “but why do you ask?” The young man replied: “Don’t you remember? I was the one who stole the watch.” To which the teacher said: “I didn’t know who had stolen the watch. I had my eyes closed, too.” Be kind.
 
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 & Ridgeline & Huh (yes, all three of them).
Wes Del Val’s book-ish interviews.
Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman.
Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin.
Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter.
Monocle magazine, in print.
 
 

 
*Note: For an easily accessible, official synopsis of the books recommended here, I have linked to the respective publishing house or author. However, in these trying times, our intention is to support artists and small businesses of any kind, especially bookstores, therefore I will not link to global online book chains or corporations, leaving you to make the choice of helping your favourite independent bookshop and placing your order with them. If you don’t have a favourite indie bookstore, here is how to find one you can support.

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Film, Newsletter | | 1 Comment

Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat, from Jaded Sophisticate to Humane Survivor

“Lifeboat”, 1944 | Twentieth Century Fox

 
A solitary and impeccably dressed Tallulah Bankhead appearing in a lifeboat afloat a foggy ocean opens Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. She remains impassive as drifting survivors from a ship attacked by a German U-boat start to fill the lifeboat. She is one of the most self-sufficient and independent and complex character developments of Hitchcock’s heroines and one of my personal favourites, alongside Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels in The Birds. She simply dominates the film.

Her character’s trajectory is indeed similar to Tippi’s in The Birds, “starting out as a jaded sophisticate and, in the course of the physical ordeal, gradually becoming more natural and humane,” as François Truffaut himself remarked. Bankhead’s Connie Porter is a journalist, reportedly inspired by real life liberal political columnist Dorothy Thompson who subsequently attacked the film for this very reason, but she is also a woman of means and therefore has an arrogant sense of entitlement – “You know what is wrong with your writing? It’s always about yourself, not about the people you write about,” one of the fellow survivors tells her at one point. While the others have indeed had to make it to the boat, she occupied her place from the very beginning there, as if she were entitled to it, not because she had to fight the elements to get there as the others did. And she is perfectly done up. She is wearing a mink coat, a golden bracelet, a gift from her first husband and one she never parts with, her white blouse and suit and high-heel sandals are still perfectly intact and her hair is swept into an elegant coiffure, a delightful and intriguing sight amidst the other passengers. Her expensive clothes and jewellery are also a symbol of high civilization and social status in the modern democratic society.

Her moral itinerary couldn’t therefore be better punctuated than by the discarding of her purely material objects, going, just like Tippi, “from brittle artifice to melting vulnerability,” as Camille Paglia described Melanie Daniels’ arc in her brilliant essay on The Birds, part of the BFI Film Classics series. Tallulah Bankhead, who was an established theater leading lady in London and New York and about whom Marlon Brando later regretfully said that she had hardly had a chance to show her real talent, was forty-two when she appeared in Lifeboat (1944). And as it always was the case with Hitchcock and his actors, he got the best of her and this probably remains her finest screen moment. As her callous glamour is ousted by fear and neediness, she is stripped bare of every material object that used to define her, right down to her torn suit and disheveled loose hair by the end of the film, the loss of every single item being given a dramatic form: the typewriter that falls into the water, the mink coat that she gives to the mother who drowns herself after she loses her child, the gold bracelet that is used as fish bait when the survivors are starving.
 

Tallulah Bankhead in “Lifeboat”, 1944 | Twentieth Century Fox

 
Lifeboat is a tightly claustrophobic drama happening on an open boat – Hitchcock never let the camera leave the boat and there is no musical score at all. It is a stripped-down film, with no adornment, with everything going on on the psychological front, as the small group of humans struggle for survival against elemental nature and against each other. Just like Connie Porter and her things, one by one, each of the characters loses their sense of purpose and, amidst the backdrop of the Second World War, the film offers a view on humankind as mistrust and conspiracy and division take over every sense of judgment too.
 

Tallulah Bankhead in “Lifeboat”, 1944 | Twentieth Century Fox

 
 

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Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart: Dressed to Fit the Monochromatic Look and Distressed Reality of a 1955 Noir

Mickey Rourke in “Angel Heart”, 1987 | Carolco International N.V., Winkast Film Productions, TriStar Pictures

 
From the very beginning, Mickey Rourke was one of the four actors Alan Parker had on his list to play Harry Angel in the film Angel Heart. “We arranged to meet in New York. I picked Mickey up from his hotel looking, as he always does off-screen, like an unemployed gas station attendant. We had lunch and he told me quite emphatically that he was the only one to play Harry Angel and so I should “stop talking to the other guys.” We walked the streets talking about the film until it got dark.”

Rourke doesn’t care for his outward appearance. Harry Angel doesn’t either. He is a private detective looking for a missing band singer, Johnny Favorite, at the behest of Louis Cyphre, played with terrifying chill by Robert De Niro. This investigation takes the form of a nightmare for Angel as it progresses, as its past and his own demons catch up with him. A richly atmospheric film, filled with strong imagery and mysticism, at the intersection of noir and horror, Angel Heart (1987) was adapted from William Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel Falling Angel, but Parker moved the story from New York to New Orleans, a brilliant move which further imbued the film with a decaying Southern Gothic feel.

The “original attraction, I should imagine, being much the same as my own,” the director would explain his interest in the adaptation of the book (he wrote at large about each of his films on his website alanparker.com, a fascinating incursion into his cinematic universe – why don’t more directors do that?), “the fusion of two genres: the noir, Chandleresque detective novel and the supernatural. I might hazard a guess that any Faustian story would ring bells in Hollywood and not all of them cash registers.” But Parker was a director who, although knew what attracted the audience (he started out in advertising), wasn’t afraid to take risks and challenge conventions. His movies were made for moviegoers and movie lovers, not for critics. Which is what he did in Angel Heart. First, as already mentioned, he moved the bulk of the story from New York to New Orleans, first because many of the threads of the story led to New Orleans (his discussions with Hjortsberg revealing that the author had also thought of doing that), and second, because he felt that “shooting yet another Manhattan-based detective story would be tricky in that overly filmed city”. The dark and mysterious Louisiana, with its murky alleys and shadowy hall ways and muggy heat serve the story much better as the narrative progresses and Harry tiptoes closer to the hellish truth.

Parker also wanted to avoid using voice-over in the narrative, which I found very interesting, because “as with all traditional first-person detective tales, the fundamental problem is in the translation of literary exposition into filmic narrative (Consequently, the over-use of voice-over in this genre.)” Another important change was that the story was moved from 1959 to 1955 “for a small but selfish reason. 1959 was on the way to the 1960’s with its changing attitudes as well as environments. 1955 for me still belonged to the 1940’s – and, because of the historical pause button of World War II, conceivably the 1930’s – so quite simply, setting it in this year allowed me to give an older look to the film.” It makes perfect sense.

It also makes perfect sense that Mickey Rourke would play Harry Angel. Not only does Rourke’s presence lend absolute conviction to the film’s generic roots, its black vision of despair and dread finding resonance in the universally recognisable suppressed impulses and fears as shared human responses, but his disheveled appearance combined with his intimately vulnerable screen performance alluded to a different kind of masculinity, that of Marlon Brando and James Dean. It’s also the kind of sensibility that allows him to slip through time, being not of the past nor of the present, but always in search of some kind of truth, appealing to so many generations. Fragile and rebellious, tough and vulnerable, cool and irrational, who sees danger but continues to approach it. “Mickey is an intuitive actor: doing each scene differently as he searched for some truth. With the imprecision also comes danger and while the danger is there, so is the magic.“ But the danger he can not escape. He travels his entire spectrum of game, embodying a character who loses his footing, taking a hard-bitten look at the underside of one of the quintessential American characters.
 

Mickey Rourke in “Angel Heart”, 1987 | Carolco International N.V., Winkast Film Productions, TriStar Pictures

 
“In L.A. I also had the chance to meet up with Mickey at his local café”, continued Alan Parker to recount his pre-production meetings with Mickey Rourke. “In the space of an hour and a half, I managed to talk him out of having black hair, a Cyrano de Bergerac nose, a limp and six suits which he personally had made up by his pal to a design and with fabrics which missed the period of our film by about twenty years. He graciously accepted my suggestion that he stick to the acting.” His character Parker wanted to make “sympathetic. In the tradition of the down-at-heel gumshoe, his phlegmatic surface disguised an intelligence capable of unraveling a complicated, larger-than-life story with a degree of belief and conciseness.“

That belief and conciseness permeate every aspect of the film. Everything, from costumes to the paint peeled off of the walls has its own place in the story. “I went through the dozens of permutations on a dozen characters with the costume designer, Aude Bronson-Howard and art director Kristi Zea,” Parker recalled. “Mickey, congenitally scruffy, has the rare ability to make the most elegant suit look like a discarded potato sack, so it was easy to ‘dress him down’. Each costume, shirt and sock had to be washed a hundred times, to distress the fabrics so that they hung correctly, thereby being truthful to our period and to fit the de-saturated, monochromatic look that Michael Seresin, Brian Morris and I were after.” That monochromatic atmosphere, drained of colour, gave the film the gritty feel and grey soul, at the border between reality and the supernatural. “We had also taken out all the primary colours from the street, something we continued to do throughout the film with the sets and the costumes following the same colour palette as we attempted to shoot a black and white film in colour.”

The colour was taken out from both the streets of New York – Parker wanted the beginning of the movie to be filmed in the Lower East Side and Harlem: “I was particularly interested in the bizarre religious movements of the 1930’s and 1940’s, born of economic isolation, and perhaps spiritual desperation.” – and from the streets of New Orleans. What else to wear in bleak, cold, wintry New York than a dark-coloured oversized coat, reminding me once again of those photographs of James Dean by Dennis Stock taken in 1955 on the streets of New York in his big coat, shrugging his shoulders and withdrawing his neck into the coat, too rushed to stay in focus? Only after you have reached the end of the film, you realise how reassuring this coat is for Harry Angel in this first part of the story, like a protection from the truth and from himself. And then, what else to wear in New Orleans than soiled and well worn-out clothes peeled off one after another, almost shredded to pieces, as he is constantly scuttling through the heat-soaked streets, every step in the decaying city and its seedy bars and hotel rooms taking him further down into dissolution?
 

Mickey Rourke in “Angel Heart”, 1987 | Carolco International N.V., Winkast Film Productions, TriStar Pictures

 
 
 

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