In “Ways of Love” three vignettes directed by three top film makers add up to the year’s best foreign release. Marcel Pagnol’s “Jofroi” is about a senile farmer (Vincent Scotto) who shams suicide thirty times to protect some lovingly nurtured trees. This director feels that there is nothing more delightful than pondering the virtuosity of character actors—earthy types who immobilize the screen with chattered wisdom and time-wasting mannerisms. In Jean Renoir’s “A Day in the Country,” a pretty Parisian (Sylvia Bataille) is seduced while the camera fastens on the countryside in tender mimicry of Papa Renoir’s paintings. As usual Renoir maneuvers his motorless plot into splendid landscape to press home the idea that man is a handsome spot in nature. Rossellini’s controversial “The Miracle” is a powerful, messy slab of life, starring Anna Magnani as a talkative idiot made pregnant by a silent stranger she believes to be St. Joseph. Rossellini, thirsting for brutality, filth, misery, attacks his actors with an innocent technique. His people are always sent out to face uncontrollable crowds, unpredictable weather, or unconquerable terrain— victims of a half-written script and a carefree photographer. The effect of this masterpiece is like walking into a hail storm; Magnani’s intense, sullen jabbering and gesturing paralyze the brain; the chaotic editing of unbalanced images captures existence in its most unrelated, disheveled state.
“Oliver Twist” is a mood-saturated version of Dickens’s novel about slighted childhood, slowed down by a contrived million-dollar reproduction of London’s nineteenth-century slums. Replacing adventure with threatening atmosphere, the movie carries its sparrowish waif (John Howard Davies), starved, beaten, corrupted, from workhouse to the underworld of Fagin (Alec Guinness). The actors can barely grimace under mask-like make-up, but Guinness amuses occasionally with some oily virtuosity. Davies runs and fights with a furious talent, and Francis Sullivan works a lot of subtle discomfort into the role of Bumble. The skill of director David Lean (“Great Expectations”) comes through in spots that have the traumatic feeling and movement of vivid reality—scenes darting between knees, zooming up with someone’s fist as it explodes in Oliver’s face, moving with a murderer’s gaze the morning after his dark, wild deed. However, Lean’s attack on a situation congests and blurs the action by detouring all over the landscape for tricky views. This approach —different from the Hollywood method of gluing the camera to action and getting through it fast—makes an unimportant walk upstairs seem like a detailed report on slum staircasing by an over-zealous building inspector. With unnecessary sadism Lean has built a badly lit film, cluttered and confused with precious effect—filthy dens tattered by expensive arc lighting, Sykes’s brutish mugging, sloshing rain—that makes the plot seem ten hours long and anything but absorbing.
“Manon” is a hard-boiled version of Prévost’s bedridden novelette, with a creaking, improbable script job waylaying director Georges Clouzot. Manon Lescaut (Cecile Aubrey) is now a baby-faced siren, her incredibly faithful lover is a maquis fighter, and their unswerving passion—shared with any willing and wealthy fat man—lights the way from Paris black markets to the sands of Palestine. The cold, frank Clouzot (“The Raven,” “Jenny Lamour”) is a perverse craftsman who casts incongruous creatures (half-pint Aubrey) and contrives unnecessary obstacles. On a jammed train where there is no room for moving-picture apparatus and crowds are unwieldy, he threads his heroine through every aisle for a masterful analysis of life on the level of canned sardines. In an abandoned farmhouse with no constricting conditions for the director, the impassioned teen-agers neck in the dark, search the rooms with a flashlight that digs the past out of the worn-out décor. Clouzot’s best talent is for clawing behind camouflages with a candid camera. He achieves the lonely, unglamorous feeling of a junky movie theater by working only in the basement and manager’s office. His detailed pictures of a high-class bordello, a frenzied jive cave, a dress salon, unearth the provocative nuances of its people—usually from the waist down. “Manon” is halted and conventionalized by its hack plotting, enlivened by its ludicrous pornography, and is, otherwise, a painful study of Parisians at their peculiar worst.
As an anti-climax to the Critics’ Awards, the following are my choice of the best films that didn’t appear on other “Ten Best” lists.
“Union Station.” A famous depot kidnapping reenacted by Rudy Mate for all the remembered thrills of a game of hide-and-seek; Mate revives an all but lost film style in which excitement springs from the crisp, moving patterns made by players on a carefully controlled surface.
“Mystery Street.” Its scientific crime detection makes better use of documentary technique than any other fiction film; an intelligent, unsentimental rendering of American citizenry by Betsy Blair and Bruce Bennett.
“Crisis.” Director Richard Brooks’s clever, explosive blend of documentary and melodrama casts a revealing light on the inside of a dictator’s brain: elegantly acted by Cary Grant.
“Broken Arrow.” A preachy western; it shows Director Delmar Daves’s unique talent for moving lone figures through dangerous terrain and gaining the suspense of an early Hitchcock without using gimmicks.
“Winchester 73.” Anthony Mann’s arty western; a striking example of how to humanize an overworked genre with natural dialogue, acting, and a director’s original “film eye.”
“The Winslow Boy.” The best adaptation from the stage. Roughly equal to sitting in a library of thick carpets and padded chairs, reading a familiar, beloved English classic.
“Captain China.” The second-best thing for landlubbers who have a desire to experience the sights, skills, and smells of life on a tanker.
“Macbeth.” Orson Welles’s orgiastic rendering of Shakespeare, co-starring my nephew, Jerry Farber.
January 13, 1951
From Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, edited by Robert Polito (The Library of America). Used with permission of the publisher.