Sunday, 27 July 2008
Of all the genres of film, the courtroom drama is surely the most unrealistic and oxymoronic. A few years ago I sat in for research purposes on a criminal trial at Reading Crown Court. That trial dragged on for an unusually long seven weeks and, at least on the obvious and superficial level, it was as dull as ditchwater. For those with eyes to see it was full of drama, but it was psychological drama expressed in the twitch of the judge’s eyebrow as he repukes m’learned friend for overstepping the mark; a stifled yawn from a juror; the body language of co-defendants who clearly can’t stand each other. Not the stuff of a blockbuster film. Instead, courtroom films are a convention and little more.
Judgement at Nuremburg isn’t the kind of thing I’d normally choose to watch. Similarly, Spencer Tracy doesn’t figure much in these diaries for all his reputation as one of the screen greats, but then I’ve never cared much for the sort of film Tracy appeared in. Typically as a homely, small-town-American judge in a cosy, Norman Rockwell sort of way.
And that’s exactly what Tracy plays here. Except that this is no ordinary home-town-American courtroom, it’s the fag-end of the Nuremburg Trials in 1948 when the big names have long been dealt with, Germans are ready to move on, the Cold War is begininning to bite, and few besides the likes of the fanatical chief prosecutor Richard Widmark have much appetite for yet more trials of bit players in the Nazi movement.
And who is on trial here? Ostensibly it’s a quartet of judges who maintained the legal pretences of the Nazi regime. Three of them Party apparatchiks put in place to ensure that the German courts did the Party’s bidding. The fourth a distinguished and respected lawyer who, instead of leaving, hung in there in the hope of preventing the total desecration of the legal system. It must have been a difficult and brave decision to make, and an impossible one to maintain. As soon as he spoke out he would surely have been eliminated, and inevitably his determination to stay in place to maintain some kind of integrity meant that his own integrity was necessarily compromised as the system sucked him in. And therein lies the fate of many might-have-been greats. (I’m reminded of the related case of the physicist Werner Heisenberg, one of the giants of atomic theory, who instead of leaving Germany along with contemporaries like Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn, remained working on the German atomic bomb. Some say that he deliberately held back the development, but of course (cough cough) this is uncertain.)
But it’s not that simple. As the spirited defender Maximillian Schell points out, the United States itself has at times advocated eugenics. US corporations profited from supplying the Wehrmacht. And one thing that remained unspoken struck me rather forcefully. There’s only one black face in the whole film and that belongs to a guard who appears fleetingly and says nothing. In 1961, the year of the Freedom Riders, his must have been a very brave film to make in the US.
Oh, and one can’t leave this film without a mention of the three delightful cameos: by Marlene Dietrich as the widow of an executed war criminal anxious to move on and rebuild; Judy Garland (looking pudgy and shopworn) as the alleged victim of Jewish miscegenation; and best of all, the terminally-ill Montgomery Clift as a none-too-bright victim of the forced sterilisation policy. And it’s nice to see a young Captain Kirk in action!
One quote leapt out at me. “One thing about Americans, we’re not cut out to be occupiers. We’re new at it and not very good at it.”
I’m glad I took the plunge and watched it. It’s not an easy film , nor is it the self-righteous one I feared, and its reputation is deserved.
Sunday, 27 July 2008
Friday, 25 July 2008
Summer’s here at long last! And I’m making the most of it.
I was reluctant to go running this morning but once I got out, in the sun with just enough breeze to take the edge off it, I ran as comfortably and smoothly as I have in a long while. And this afternoon I went up to West Mount for some bowls practice, and was invited to a game by one of the men’s team members. I won it too, by the tightest of margins possible, 21-20, after a see-saw game in which I refused to lose my nerve and made up for Tuesday evening when I played like a lemon.
Thursday, 24 July 2008
It’s enough to give the film distributors apoplexy. A whole half hour? With no dialogue? No background music? No bangs? Boooooooring! But there is music and drama in silence, and for all that three-quarters of Rififi is full of rich and fruity dialogue, noir dialogue and a fine score by Georges Auric, it’s that 32 minutes that the film is known for. But it shouldn’t be supposed that the rest isn’t damned good too.
Rififi isn’t the first heist film – that would surely be Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery of 1903 – but it’s the one that defined the genre for modern audiences. It’s also, I would argue, the best. Not only because of its originality, but because the whole thing, made on a shoestring with unknown actors and beautifully shot in a rainy, cold Paris with the grainy intensity of a Cartier-Bresson photograph. But it’s not only, or even mainly, about the daring robbery of a high-class jewellers; it’s about the way greed and jealousy can poison even the best-laid schemes. In this it resembles The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and if you have read my piece on that, you’ll see that I have compared that to Macbeth. Certainly the goes back a lot further than that, no doubt to Euripides and I dare say somebody who has studied Greek tragedy will confirm that.
In the original novel, the central underworld characters were Algerian, and that was as incendiary a notion in 1955 as it would be today. Perhaps it took the American Dassin to make them true Frenchmen!
Tuesday, 22 July 2008
Did I mention that, owing to absences, I’ve been in the bowls team again a couple of times lately? Not with conspicuous success, mind. I’m in dire need of some practice.
Tonight I went out to Roose, to the Roose Conservative Working Men’s Club, to be precise (but that sounds a bit like the Turkeys’ Christmas Club to me) with a view to give support, mark cards and measure, but discovered on arrival that I was in the team. And I hadn’t got my woods with me.
I lost 21-9. I put this down to playing on a strange green (one with a hump like a dromedary, and which slowed down dramatically as the evening wore on) without a roll-up, and using somebody else’s woods. To blame the presence of evil in the shape of the Conservative Party would be to over-egg the pudding!
Sunday, 20 July 2008
Sunday, 20 July 2008
I posted this, which follows on from a conversation I had with somebody I knew that I met by
chance in the market yesterday, and which set me thinking about things, in the Quaker mailing list I subscribe to. I wondered what a more general readership might make of it.
Let’s invent a hypothetical character. Let’s, strictly for the sake of
clarity, lay the stereotyping on thick and call him Wesley. Wesley has moved
to a new town. Being bright and articulate and enjoying the company of
others, he seeks out gatherings of people of similar mindset and interests in
order to expand his social connections and make new friends.
In one particular group, Wesley notices, because he’s a sensitive sort of chap
who can read these things, that people are being stand-offish with him. This
group is in a situation where people necessarily have to interact with each
other, and his keen sense of awareness tells him that while some of the
people are very welcoming, others who probably constitute a majority interact
with no more than they have to; they mumble, fail to make eye contact,
communicate with him through a third party, and generally try to avoid his
company. Wesley might well say, stuff this lot, I’ll go somewhere else. But
he likes those who are welcoming, and he has a certain stubborn pride that
won’t let him be driven out by the boorish behaviour of others. Time passes,
and Wesley finds himself somewhat more accepted although a few remain
sullenly hostile. He remarks on this to a member of the group that he
casually meets one Saturday morning, and the member comments that “when you
first came, nobody knew what to do with you.”
I think we can all be clear about what’s going on here. But change the
parameters a little; suppose that it’s not Wesley we are dealing with here.
Suppose instead that it’s a white, middle-aged woman with some kind of
non-debilitating disability or disfigurement; a congenital hormonal
dysfunction, perhaps. And she has exactly the same experience as Wesley.
The question is, does the change of parameters change the situation to
something quite different? Is the behaviour of members of the group more, or
less, acceptable? Or the same? Why? Does it matter?