Even Stevens

Even George Stevens had his moments of beautiful delirium, as represented in the haunting opening sequence of his often overlooked 1952 “Something to Live For” — a series of slow dissolves between a curtain rising on a Broadway show, a woman (Joan Fontaine) peering between her fingers in a close-up step-printed to look like slow motion, and a man (Ray Milland) anxiously peering out at Times Square through the window of a cab. The film is one of the best of the many 50s expressions of discontent with the middle-class model of suburban security, and as near as I can tell, a completely anomalous expression on Stevens’s part of a yearning for escape and romantic self-destruction. Olive Films has released this rare title in a very nice copy; also this week, Kino is offering King Vidor’s often abused public domain title “Bird of Paradise” in an impeccable transfer taken from the producer David O. Selznick’s personal print, as preserved at George Eastman House. This week’s New York Times column rounds out with a few words about Arch Oboler’s “Bewitched,” an intriguing 1945 anticipation of the psycho killer film that very likely had an influence on Hitchcock.

167 comments to Even Stevens

  • Alex — my rundown:

    Josei no shôri / Women’s Victory (1946) — Noble intentions and Kinuyo Tanaka trying her hardest don’t really pull off this highly unrealistic courtroom drama (with Tanaka as legal crusader). Less visually interesting than Mizoguchi’s norm.

    Joyû Sumako no koi / The Love of Sumako the Actress (1947) — the tragic story of Japan’s first modern actress (who portrayed everythng from Ibsen heroines to Carmen) and the theater impressario who introduced modern Western drama to Japan. I think this one is pretty close to a masterpiece (featuring Tanaka at her best).

    Yoru no onnatachi / Women of the Night (1948) — a deliriously over-the-top (dramatically and visually) story of post-war (down-scale) prostitution. I guess it is supposed to serve a virtuous purpose, but it is also (for all practical purposes) an exploitation film (there was a short-lived commercial demand for this sort of fare). Maybe not a masterpiece, but a must-see (and another Tanka showcase).

    Waga koi wa moenu / Flame of My Love / My Love Is Burning (1949) — Another film involving women’s rights — this time in the late 1800s, where liberal parliamentarians give lip service to the cause, but are more interested in their own political self-promotion. This has some major supporters. My feelings are mixed, but it is certainly worth seeing. (Tanaka is wonderful, yet again).

    Yuki fujin ezu / Portrait of Madame Yuki (1950) Michiyo Kogure is a wealthy and beautiful woman with very bad marital judgment. The story is seen (in part) from the viewpoint of a still quite young Yoshiko Kuga. Visually absolutely magnificent — which makes up for some plotting that might be less than perfect.

    Oyu-sama / Miss Oyu (1951) — Meiji-mono at its finest (films set more during the Meiji era, usually, as here, around the turn of the century). Back to Tanaka in the lead — in the story of a menage a trois (Oyus is a widow and can’t marry, a man she is fond of marrries her younger sister — in order to be able to stay close to her). Lovely film. Must see.

    Musashino fujin / Lady from Musashino (1951) — set (largely) around the end of WW2. Tanaka is again the star (as wife to a very unpleaant husband). Some gorgeous moments — but dramaticaly clunky, with some drastically abrupt editing choices along the way. Better than Women’s Victory (because it _looks_ good much of the time).

    Gion bayashi / Gion Festival Music / A Geisha (1953) — a story of an older geisha and her protege (daughter of a close friend), with Michiiyo Kogure and a young Ayako Wakao . In my book, one of Mizoguchi’s best of the decade.

    Uwasa no onna / once called The Woman in the Rumor, but with no really satisfactory English title, it means something like “a woman who people are gossiping about” (1954) — screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda was a fan of George Bernard Shaw, and I think it shows a bit here — there are definite occasional echoes of GBS’s Mrs. Warren’s House. A largely neglected film that I happen to like a lot. I think it features one Tanaka’s most interesting performances (as the mother and “madam”) — and Kuga does a pretty good job as her conflicted daughter.

    Akasen chitai / Street of Shame / Red Light District (1956) — Echoes of Women of the Night, but perhaps more sincere — and politically effective — prostitution was finally banned, partly as the result of this film (especially its final moments). A showcase of great Japanese actresses — Michiyo Kogure, Machiko Kyo Ayako Wakao, Sadako Sawamura, Kumeko Urabe. One niggle is that there is a sub-plot that seems seriously over-wrought. Even so, one of Mizoguchi’s most impressive films.
    (1954)

  • Michael Kerpan, a great list! I find no weak link in the 12 movies Mizoguchi made in the 1950s, and it is interesting and relevant that half of them are contemporary and the other half historical.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Yoru no onnatachi / Women of the Night (1948) — a deliriously over-the-top (dramatically and visually) story of post-war (down-scale) prostitution. I guess it is supposed to serve a virtuous purpose, but it is also (for all practical purposes) an exploitation film (there was a short-lived commercial demand for this sort of fare).’

    I cannot agree about this description, too much condescending. What is practical purpose? All commercial movie has practical purpose to make money. What is being exploited? Movie is addressing serious problem of poverty.

    I am sorry to scold, but Westerner must have humility to write about this period of Japanese culture history.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Do you think many of these “non-historical” films are comparable in quality to the “historical” ones well known in the West?’

    Yes, comparable in quality. Michael Kerpen has made list, but I do not agree with his evaluation. Mike Grost has added GIONBAYASHI, great movie as he has written.

  • Junko —

    I feel that Yoru no onnatachi is much more sensationalistic and opportunistic than most of the Mizoguchi’s other films. Yes, it is addtressing a serious problem — and, of course, it is not “frivolous” — but Ozu’s Hen in the Wind treated a similar theme with far greater sensitivity. Ozu’s understated film was one of his rare “flops” (in terms of movie attendance), while I believe Mizoguchi’s gorgeous but over-heated Yoru did considerably better at the box office. Naruse also made aa film of this sort, the rarely seen “White Beast” (set in a reformatory for young prostitutes — a fascinating but not entirely successful effort artistically).

    What other evaluations do you disagree with (since I included all the films) — and I did also indicate that Gion bayashi was one of my own favorites. ;~}

  • Anti —

    Well, I would rank Lady from Musashino and Tales of the Taira Clan as _relatively_ weak links in Mizoguchi’s 1950 output. Both are worth seeing, for sure, but they are not films I feel the need to re-visit with any regularity.

  • Michael, I love the Shohei Ooka adaptation THE LADY OF MUSASHINO perhaps partly because I first saw it in a 35 mm print with a beautiful definition of light which really made me feel the presence of nature. I agree about TALES OF THE TAIRA CLAN, but it is fascinating see how Mizoguchi approaches colour in a stylized period story, in his penultimate movie before the richly realistic and contemporary RED LIGHT DISTRICT – in black and white.

  • Anti — seeing a good print of Lady from Musashino could make a big difference, I suspect. I’ve only seen this courtesy of a rather muddy looking DVD. Still, even a better looking print would not remedy the editing issues that bothered me. Prime example — repeated twice — family member is sick, family worries — cut — family member’s funeral. I can’t think of any similar infelicitous abruptness of this sort elsewere in Mizoguchi’s work. I cannot disagree that there is much to appreciate in this film. however (even when seen via a sub-standard DVD).

    In terms of color use, I much prefer Yokihi / Princess Yang Kwei Fei to Taira Clan. My biggest problem with the Taira Clan is that the only characters I find interesting and appealing are the female ones — and they are mostly quite peripheral to what goes on in the film.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Ozu’s Hen in the Wind treated a similar theme with far greater sensitivity. Ozu’s understated film was one of his rare “flops” (in terms of movie attendance)’

    It was not authentic portrayal, that is why failing artistically and at box office, because audience from that time could see real situation.

    About SHIN HEIKE MONOGATARI, existing movie is only part one, originally three part movie, because novel was serialized.

  • Blake Lucas

    I am aware of what Junko has just said about SHIN HEIKE MONOGATARI/TALES OF THE TAIRA CLAN, that it is only part one of what could have been a trilogy. And I’m also aware that somehow this movie has come to be regarded as minor Mizoguchi by most who talk about it now.

    Even so, I’ve always found this to be an enthralling movie in its right, spectacularly beautiful and an eloquent narrative of someone gaining the maturity to rise above concerns about who his parents are and what role they played in his formative years. For me, he is a moving hero and Michael, I just don’t understand how you could be unaffected by Raizo Ichikawa, a wonderful screen actor who played the character so ideally.

    Though I know Michael’s views are always thoughtfully considered, it seems like it almost perpetuates some Mizoguchi stereotype to say that the only characters who are interesting and appealing are the female ones. I personally always rebel when someone is called a “woman’s director” or a “man’s director” because so often this simplifies the truth. Mizoguchi was indeed very sensitive to women and that’s a constant and a given in his work, but it doesn’t mean he cannot realize male characters just as well, give understanding to their specific concerns, drives, emotions, obsessions. Masayuki Mori’s potter in UGETSU MONOGATARI is a sympathetic figure who suffers tragically from going down the wrong path–the “ghost” aspects involving both women who are in his personal story indicate a depth of spiritual struggle in which he is ultimately transcendent. Similarly, the son in SANSHO DAYU matures and becomes what a man really ought to be, balanced with the female–his relationship with his sacrificial sister especially is incredibly affecting for me, more even than the sublime reconciliation with his mother at the end. All of these movies have vivid female characters too but are not bound only to them to be the strong artistic wholes that they are. I just don’t like to “type” directors, especially great directors, and as regards women, I wouldn’t do it with Naruse either. On male/female relationships, he perhaps cuts even deeper than Mizoguchi, and that’s saying a lot.

    Moreover, on the aesthetic side, SHIN HEIKE MONOGATARI and YOKIHI/PRINCESS YANG KWEI FEI are equally striking but very different in use of color, and Mizoguchi’s only color movies. I’m always fine with black and white so no regrets for Mizoguchi’s career as a whole but this is one more reason to regret his relatively early death–I believe he would have been like many other great directors who had long worked in black and white and then come to color later in their careers, the ones who appreciated that color is different and worked with it creatively in films in which it is an aspect.

    At least there is plenty of agreement here about GION FESTIVAL MUSIC, definitely one of the masterpieces of late Mizoguchi, and it should always be stressed when people say it’s a remake of SISTERS OF THE GION that it is not. Even if both movies are about two sisters and have some very superficial affinities, the difference of tone could not be greater, and shows us a lot about the evolution of Mizoguchi’s sensibility.

  • Blake —

    I find a good number of Mizoguchi male characters interesting, but alas, not those in Taira Clan. ;~{

    I have never understood the “Gion bayashi is a re-make of Sisters of Gion” claim — which is even sillier than the “Ohayo is a re-make of I Was Born But” claim.

    Junko —

    I think we will have to agree to disagree on the respective bona fides of Hen in the Wind and Women of the Night. (In any event, I think everyone should see both).

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘I just don’t understand how you could be unaffected by Raizo Ichikawa, a wonderful screen actor who played the character so ideally.’

    Yes, Blake, great actor in that role. Dying early, Ichikawa did not have so wide appreciation outside of Japan but having many fans here (Because of many Japanese fan, SHIN HEIKE MONOGATARI can be seen easily.) Mostly acting in series movie and genre movie, he was always serious actor giving good performance. Famous performance was in ENJO, showing range of acting ability.

    ‘I personally always rebel when someone is called a “woman’s director” or a “man’s director” because so often this simplifies the truth.’

    That is true. Even when showing selfish man in example of GIONBAYASHI, Mizoguchi is making true and believable character.

    I will explain about disagreement about KAZE NO NAKA NO MENDORI more. Inauthentic part of movie was not showing destitution and squalor, not realistic mise-en-scene, that was problem for people, even critic who praised movie saw this flaw. Maybe not visible to someone who has not seen photograph of brothel from that time, not so clean place. Realistic movie by Ozu from that time is NAGAYA SHINSHI ROKU.

  • Junko — I think the contemporary critics missed what Ozu did in the prostitution segment of Hen in the Wind. Perhaps he was too subtle — but i don’t see how what he did could be missed. Ozu throws you off guard initially by showing you an “anonymous” room — with nice neat sheets. I think this might have been intended to (deceptively) soften the impact of what the heroine was to soon undergo. What we see next is her client, having a post-coital snack. And what we notice is that he is the grossest, most disgusting pig at _eating_ one has ever encountered. I think this then produces a sense of wholly imagined (but graphic) revulsion at what our heroine experienced. I feel this is actually more audacious than what Mizoguchi did with his much more pictorially grimy Women of the Night.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘I think the contemporary critics missed what Ozu did in the prostitution segment of Hen in the Wind. Perhaps he was too subtle — but i don’t see how what he did could be missed.’

    Japanese critic did not miss this, movie was number 7 in Kinema Jumpo year end poll. From detached perspective of today, maybe more audacious, but from that time more powerful to show VD clinic in YORU NO ONNATACHI, because addressing real social problem. That is difference for me. But I am concerned with social problem of Japan about women, to present time. That is explaining my different reaction to two movies. Also, I like both movie, until now, never thinking to say one is better than other.

  • Junko — Did you get to see Naruse’s White Beast when it was shown on TV?

  • “SHIN HEIKE MONOGATARI, existing movie is only part one, originally three part movie, because novel was serialized.”

    I’m sure that Junko knows about this, but NHK’s current taiga drama (its 51st!)is called “Taira no Kiyomori” (played by Ichikawa Raizo in Mizoguchi’s picture) and viewable on TV in Los Angeles. The series is nearing the half way point. This version isn’t based on Yoshikawa’s novel as was Mizoguchi’s film. For anyone who’s interested there’s an English translation published under the title of “The Heike Story.”

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Did you get to see Naruse’s White Beast when it was shown on TV?’

    Did not see.