Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Films of Noir City 2014 - Part V

The fifth night of Noir City was billed as a "Double Dose of Death," which, by the way, looked great on the Castro's marquee. First up that night was a Spanish film from 1955, Muerte de un Ciclista (AKA Death of a Cyclist), followed by a Norwegian film from 1949 called Doden er et Kjaertegn (AKA Death is a Caress). They proved to be two of the most interesting films we saw at the festival.

Cyclist tells a story that is deceptively simple: A couple, Maria (Lucia Bose) and Juan (Alberto Closas), out for a drive accidentally hit a bicyclist. Given that Maria is married, and not to Juan, they flee the scene of the accident, and the cyclist dies. Soon after, a bitter art critic, Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla), who is in their social circle starts to make hints to them about knowing about their "secrets." Juan wants to own up to what they did and go to the police; Maria wants to keep it all covered up. But as Rafa ramps up his taunting and threats of blackmail, Maria feels she has no choice but to settle things in a most final fashion.

I've tried to give you enough of the plot here to interest you, without giving it all away, in case you're able to see this great little film. The story was very much what you could call Hitchcockian, and it wouldn't have been any sort of stretch to see him pondering doing a remake of this if he had seen it. This film absolutely kept me absorbed, waiting to see what happened next. Enough of the motivations of the three main characters are kept hidden to keep you guessing - especially with Rafa. Does he know about the affair? Does he know about the accident? Or is he just being obnoxious and hoping to shake things up? Whatever his motivation, Casaravilla is excellent in the part. He looks like an evil Buster Keaton, and is extremely easy to dislike. No wonder he gets the couple so rattled.

This film struck a similar chord as several others (In the Palm of Your Hand, Too Late for Tears) in the festival - couples who somehow get involved with something illegal or immoral, and then experience conflict when the man wants to come clean. In Cyclist the difference in moral temperaments is symbolically made clear when Juan asks Maria, "Are you cold?" She answers "Yes." And not just cold room cold - she's cold soul cold. As with the femme fatales in the other films, this difference puts Juan at a severe disadvantage in his relationship with Maria.

At the end of the film, when there has been another accident, I was reminded of all things, of the movie The Ring (2002), with its plot of murder and moral, if not literal, contagion. Cyclist begins and ends with accidents, both of which put someone in the position of responding - either by helping or by fleeing. When Juan and Maria hit the cyclist, we know nothing about that person, and the couple come off badly for leaving the victim to die.

But when the final accident comes, we know much more about the person who is the victim of it, and, knowing that, the audience could well root for the person who witnesses it to do as Maria and Juan did, and simply leave. I thought it was a great way to loop the audience right back into the questions of morality and responsibility that run throughout the film one last time.

Cyclist was directed and co-written by Juan Antonio Bardem, and after seeing this, I would be very much interested in seeing some of the other films he made. (This one won the 1956 Cannes International Critics Award.) And yes, if that last name is familiar, he is the uncle of actor Javier Bardem.

The evening's second feature was also of great interest. To begin with, Death is a Caress was directed by a woman, Edith Carlmar, from a script written by her husband, Otto. Women weren't directing many feature films in the 1940s (and they still aren't even now in this country), so that made this film something of a rarity, foreign or not. Caress is widely considered to be the first film noir - from anywhere - directed by a woman.

Also, though many of the foreign films shown in the festival featured frank and open sexuality of a kind you would never have seen in an American film from that period, Caress took this openness further than the others we'd seen, and also included some near-nudity that was notable. (Check out the images on the poster above, which gives a good idea of the erotic tone of much of the film.) All of this was done in the service of a story about a woman with a very healthy sexual appetite indeed.

That woman is Sonja (Bjorg Riiser-Larsen), a wealthy, married and middle-aged woman who takes a fancy to handsome young auto mechanic named Erik (Claus Wiese). Though Erik has a girlfriend with whom he obviously enjoys a full sexual relationship, he quickly takes up with Sonja after she has her husband hire him as a driver. Given that Sonja is the one in the marriage with the money, she has no hesitations about dumping her husband to make room for Erik.

But, once they are married, Sonja seems to tire of Erik quickly - especially since he tries to act in a grown-up, responsible fashion. No longer "fun," Sonja starts casting her eye about for a new playmate, while also behaving in an increasingly angry and erratic way toward Erik. Eventually violence flares, and someone ends up dead on the bedroom floor, while the survivor relates the tale of their relationship in flashback from the police station and courtroom.

Both my wife and I came to the same conclusion about Riiser-Larsen: She's very much like a more hostile Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard (1950). She not only looks quite a bit like Gloria Swanson, but the two characters have some striking (literally!) similarities. In any case, Riiser-Larsen was great fun to watch.

On the other hand, I have to agree that Wiese comes across as a bit of a bore as Erik, Handsome, yes, but a kind of a stiff. Still, that was his job in the story, so I guess he did it well. And with its flashbacks and obsession leading to destruction theme, this was some very interesting Norwegian noir. I didn't find it quite as interesting or involving as Cyclist, but still enjoyed it very, very much.

Anyone who is interested in film noir, female directors, or films made by actors turned directors (Carlmar had been an actress prior to directing this, her first feature) should find much of interest here. As part two of the "Double Dose of Death," this went down well with me.

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