Paul Auster is (along with Dennis Lehane) my favourite living author. I am tempted to say he’s the greatest author still writing, but really who reads enough to be able to make such a sweeping statement. Just as since the start of the film industry literature has inspired film, the opposite is also true. Film has inspired some fantastic works of writing. Auster’s The Book of Illusions (2002) is one of these, and it features some spectacular and detailed descriptions of made up silent films and a storyline with a lot of similarities to the life of Fatty Arbuckle. The book, whilst I don’t think it is Auster’s best, is well worth a read, especially for film buffs. But now to the reason for this piece. As a reward for finishing the uni year, I splurged and bought myself a hardcover copy of Auster’s latest book Sunset Park (2010). According to the dust jacket, one of the focuses of the book is William Wyler’s film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a film I had only vaguely heard of and discovered was on the 1001 list. Later, reading a review of Auster’s book it mentioned that a couple of characters in it go and see Robert Bresson’s film A Man Escaped (1956), a film I had not heard of but that is also on the list. So, before I get cracking on my favourite author’s new one, I thought I would take a look at these two films which clearly inspired him. I’m not sure how widely available they are at the moment. I managed to hire both of them from Electric Shadows here in Canberra, only on VHS though.
The Best Years of Our Lives was released in the year after the end of World War II and deals explicitly with the plight of returning servicemen attempting to reintegrate into a society they’d been outside of for a number of years. The three servicemen are Fred (air force), Al (army) and Homer (navy). They meet up whilst trying to find a flight back to their fictional all-American hometown of Boone City. The characterisation is extraordinary, with so much delightful detail in the individuals and their interplay. Fred was the highest ranking at War, but class-wise back in civilian life is the bottom of the three. Al, a rank and file soldier in the War is a white collar banker back at home. Their personal situations likewise add interest. Fred had only been married 20 odd days before shipping out, so barely knows his wife. Al has been married twenty years and has missed very important years in his teenage children’s lives. Homer had a sweetheart called Wilma before he left, but having lost both his hands in the war, he is frightened at how she will react to his newfound appearance. Just as he is about to leave the other two to see his family and Wilma, Homer basically begs that they all go back to his Uncle’s bar and have a beer. It is a wonderful scene, and the loving forcefulness with which Al and Fred force him out the door firmly establishes their mateship. All three of these romantic relationships evolve over the course of the film wonderfully. The most nuanced of these involves Al and the love of his life, as he attempts to feel at home in his own home again and she struggles to deal with the man who has returned. The man she loves but one who has clearly picked up some demons at the front. This may all sound a bit forced, but believe me it is not. It also may sound like a lot of detail to provide the necessary elaboration for. And you would be right on that one. But the film runs a whopping two hours and fifty minutes, and it is because it tells all three of these men’s stories in great (but not unnecessary) detail. It is nice also that the interactions between the three do not seem forced or just thrown together for the sake of it. They feel natural, and as a viewer I found my interest piqued when they got together after time apart. I don’t really feel more elaboration on the narrative is particularly necessary. Like I have said this is a film about servicemen reintegrating into society, about the worries that face them upon their return – jobs, women and people trying to “rehabilitate” them.
If you consider melodrama to be synonymous with bad, then sit down and watch the three scenes where these soldiers return to their families and eat your words. Yes they are over the top emotionally and in the acting delivery, but they pack a hell of a punch. You can almost feel the joy of Al’s children when he surprises them, or the awkwardness of Homer’s families when faced with the claws that have replaced his hands (should I stare at them? should I not look at them at all?). This is a war film, but there is not one battle scene in the almost three hours of the film. But the phenomenal script is able to evoke war brilliantly without them, see Homer recounting the sinking of his ship for example. Why show something with a tame re-enactment when you can have it related to you by a character who was there? For a film released in 1946 The Best Years of our Lives pulls no punches. There are frank depictions of drunkenness (not in a merry way, more a pissing away all of life’s problems way) and likewise a rather frank, although brief, exposition of the adultery servicemen resorted to ease the pain of overseas service. Add to this the obvious sexual tension between the married Fred and Al’s daughter Peggy and you have morally a pretty forward film. The film is also rich in social commentary. One of the earliest scenes sees Fred trying desperately to find a commercial flight, a returned hero in full uniform trying to get home to see his wife after years away. A rich fat-cat saunters up to the desk, rudely pushes in front of Fred and talks rudely to the lady on the counter. He then pays for the 16 pounds of excess baggage he feels the need to carry with him. Surely we would prefer Fred get the flight than this rich wanker. Fred can’t get a flight home under any circumstances, but this guy can afford the massive excess baggage as well as his ticket. Also an issue is the lack of respect shown by the businessman toward Fred the returned serviceman. This is echoed throughout the film with the disgruntlement shown towards war returnees as they seek to re-enter the labour market. Fred eventually has to take a job as an assistant to the guy who used to be his assistant, one of those who resents the returning soldiers. As someone (possibly Fred) remarks, “last year it was kill Japs, this year it’s make money.” This readjustment is hellishly hard for the three protagonists. Just as they need to reintegrate into society and the job market, these men also have to reintegrate in the same way into their home situations. Their situation is incomprehensible to me, the world has gone on without them, now need to find their way back into it. This is brilliantly evoked by Wyler and the script through Al’s situation. Not only has he missed the formative teenage years of his kids, he has even forgotten that his wife of 20 years does not smoke. These difficulties rear their head on their first night back home in Boone City. A night that began with so much promise concludes with them all ending up pissed in the same bar, Fred and Homer sans their lady friends. At least the bar owner (and Homer’s Uncle) Butch reassures them it will all be ok “unless there’s another war and we’ll all be blown to bits on the first day”.
Acting wise this is a great ensemble piece. No one really stands out, but by the same token you don’t really notice anyone’s shortcomings. People have bagged the acting abilities of the Peter Lorre-esque (in looks rather than acting), real-life amputee Harold Russell in the role of Homer, but I think he does an excellent job. I certainly found him believable, and more importantly natural. He expertly conveys the plight of a man who has withdrawn into his shell, intent on proving to the world that he is still an able man. The performance does not have the staidness that often afflicts those put in films for reasons other then their pure acting ability. Any shortcomings he does have as an actor are drowned out by the incredible dexterity he shows with the hooks that have replaced his hands throughout the film, such as being able to light and smoke a cigarette with ease. And to this day, Russell remains the only person to receive two Oscars for the same performance. He was nominated for best supporting actor in 1947, but was considered such an outsider to win the Academy awarded him a special Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”, before he went on to win the other gong as well. Although the film is centred around the three male protagonists, the women give able support. Teresa Wright plays Al’s daughter Peggy and is excellent, just as she is in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Her character goes on a wonderful emotional and romantic journey that matches those of any of the male characters on the film. She switches from determined home wrecker, to a woman refusing to allow her heartbreak to manifest externally with aplomb and believability. Her mother in the film played by Myrna Loy is similarly fantastic in a more traditional support role (with Wright’s Peggy at times borders on being a lead character). The sound design and music on the film also really stood out for me, which is strange because it is the kind of element that I do not generally notice in a film. It really accentuates the action, and not just in bombastic moments. It is fantastic in the scene where Al wakes up with a brutal hangover after the first night back home for example.
I have mentioned a couple of times throughout this piece just how long this film is. Don’t let that put you off the film is measured, taking its necessary time to get where it is going but does not drag. I always thought that the soldiers attempting to reintegrate into society subgenre was borne out of the Vietnam conflict, but this film and Key Largo (1948) have convinced me that this is far from the case, and it was clearly a major issue far earlier. This film is an all-time classic. The script is beyond belief, and surely has very few peers in film history. It is a tale of friendship that that manages to be both serious and uplifting, combining a whole bunch of characters and storylines into borderline perfection.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped is renowned as a minimalist, realist masterpiece. This actually made me a bit wary in approaching this film as I often find films that aim for stringent realism to feel forced, confusing boredom with realism. Our real lives are a little mundane which is why we attempt to lose ourselves in the fantasy world of cinema, no need to recreate it on screen. Early on A Man Escaped threatens to fall victim to this with a scene in a car with extremely shaky camerawork, and silence the belies the fact that cars generally make some noise. Thankfully though the realism throughout the film became more subtle as it went on.
Based on a true story, the film chronicles the attempts of Lieutenant Fontaine to escape Nazi custody. When he is imprisoned at the start of the film Fontaine is shocked and confused as to why his life was spared after he attempted to escape whilst being transported. Soon after incarceration he begins plotting his next escape by digging at his wooden door using a spoon. Bresson, through the early part of the film establishes a neat dichotomy, the men are kept in solitary cells so are essentially on their own, yet a camaraderie springs up between them. This is achieved through communication by tapping on cell walls and over the sink as they clean themselves. The body of the film comes in the form of Fontaine’s small victories in his quest. Managing to pick the lock on his handcuffs, getting out his door, to the hallway, the skylight – a gradual progression that is really well paced. Knowing that the only way to escape his fate is to escape the prison, Fontaine’s determination never wavers. It is given impetus when he is advised that he will soon face execution as the investigation (definitely not trial) into his circumstance has been completed. When he returns to his cell after hearing the news, Fontaine has a cellmate for the first time in the film. At this stage he is very suspicious of the new arrival, believing he may be a spy. The conundrum of whether to take the newcomer with him on his escape is expertly built up. Take him or kill him is the question Fontaine agonises over. Actually the overall tension builds up very slowly throughout the whole film, culminating in the lengthy final escape sequence.
Sound is employed incredibly well by Bresson throughout the film. Generally there is no music. Just silence overlaid with the sounds of Fontaine working – chiselling at the door or manipulating cloth into rope. With many realist features there is not much to talk about regarding technique. And for the most part A Man Escaped fits this mould. It is generally pretty simply shot. The film does make fantastic use of close-ups though. Much of the film consists of close-ups of Fontaine at work, especially when he is digging away at the door to his cell with a spoon. For a POW film there is remarkably little violence, and what there is is generally shown off-screen, with the bloody aftermath shown. However not even this is seen after the film’s most harrowing violent outbursts. These come when bursts of machine gun fire signal that yet another execution has taken place. The effect of this is quite startling, with the loud cacophony exploding against the preceding silence for maximum effect. Thematically the film has a real existential bent to it. The notions of solitude and community are contrasted with one another. One of the prisoners is a priest who copies out bible versus for Fontaine. Fontaine himself appears to have a quiet faith but is more than willing to take things into his own hands, remarking that “it would be too easy if God did it all.”
The great triumph of the film for me was its handling of realism. It brings authenticity to the film rather than boredom. The film is something of a restrained masterpiece. Contrasts between silence and sound are used for emphasis, and Bresson appears to be in total control of his art form. This is a wonderfully textured film and in many ways has restored my faith in the value of realism on screen.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny