My Gleanings

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Cahiers, the 'young turks' and William Wyler

The second issue of Eric Rohmer's La Gazette du cinema in June 1950 carried Jean-Luc Godard's first published piece as a film critic - a review of Joseph L Mankiewicz's Dragonwyck. In the fourth sentence of that review, Godard described Mankiewicz as "the most brilliant of American directors". On his way there - in the second sentence - he spoke of "characters from melodrama plagiarize themselves with (h)auteur and gesticulate with a solemnity equalled only on occasion by the severities of William Wyler". From the evidence of Godard on Godard, he did not mention Wyler until December of 1963 when in a thumbnail critique of the director Billy Wilder, he described Wilder as having "replaced Wyler and Zinneman in the hearts of exhibitors."

Contemporary critics seeking to find a divergence between Cahiers editor André Bazin and that magazines "young turks" generally point to their disagreement on the subject of the director William Wyler. Forthwith is some research into that disagreement.

From André Bazin's "William Wyler, or the Jansenist of Directing" (1948)

And yet, I do not think that it is more difficult to recognize the signature of Wyler in just a few shots than it is to recognize the signatures of Ford, Fritz Lang, or Hitchcock. I would even go so far as to say that the director of The Best Years of Our Lives is among those who have least often employed the tricks of the trade at the expense of genuine style. Whereas Capra, Ford, or Lang occasionally indulges in self-parody, Wyler never does so. Reprinted in Bazin at Work: Major Essays & Reviews from the Forties & Fifties By André Bazin, Bert Cardullo translated by Alain Piette, Bert Cardullo published 1997 Routledge (page 2)

Detective Story
Jacques Doniol-Valcroze wrote a short review of this film as part of the Cannes Festival coverage in the June 1952 issue of Cahiers du Cinema. This is quoted from that review. (page 17 my translation)

No one could suspect me of having a prejudice against filmed theater and I hold that William Wyler with The Little Foxes offered us its most exemplary expression until Les Parents terribles. However, I cannot state myself wholly satisfied with the fashion he has adapted Detective Story....Certainly, his unsurpassed knowledge of framing remains permitting him to follow with a stunning litheness and precision three or four simultaneous actions. It is too bad that they do not rate the movement...of the camera.

Jacques Doniol-Valcroze short review of this film appeared in the "Notes on Other Films" section of the Cahiers du Cinema issue for June 1953. (page 55 my translation)
[Olivier's performance] and too much melodrama destabilize a film which disappoints deeply. Wyler's art as a metteur-en-scene is quite understood to be unimpaired and a few brilliant scenes make it lamentable that he committed himself to a subject scarcely for him.

Roman Holiday

Jacques Doniol-Valcroze's review appeared on page 60 of the April 1954 issue of Cahiers du Cinema. This is quoted, in part, (my translation).

Wyler whose Jezebel, The Best Years of Our Lives, and The Little Foxes, established him as a master began to disappoint from the second third of The Heiress. This disappointment was confirmed with Detective Story and Carrie, ruined by regrettable screenplays and made little for him. With Roman Holiday, he returns to the arena of our admiration with a discreet and sensible elegance.

Cahiers had not yet in 1954 instituted the conseil des dix.

François Truffaut wrote an unsigned review of Roman Holiday for the weekly Arts on April 7, 1954. Eugene Walz in François Truffaut a guide to references and resources published in 1982 summed up that review, thus; (note 620 page 177)

Roman Holidays [sic] is full of contradiction because William Wyler's talent resides "more in minutia, in precision, than in verve."

Truffaut would review only one other Wyler film, a revival of Wyler's 1938 film Jezebel.

Truffaut reviewed this film in the November 7, 1956 issue of Arts. Walz's summary of that review reads,

This Wyler film has gone out of date terribly. Truffaut dislikes Wyler for his false seriousness and false classicism.

The Desperate Hours
Not reviewed by Cahiers, The comment on the "Films released in Paris" page read

For two days, a peaceful family is terrorized by three escaped jailbirds. The lovers of "suspense" will be served.

That month, François Truffaut was the lone "young turk" on the conseil des dix. He bulleted the film, as did Pierre Kast. The film got 2 stars from both Jean de Baroncelli and Armand Cauliez, and 1 star from André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Georges Sadoul, J-P Vivet, Simon Dubreiulh and Pierre Braunberger.

William Wyler thumbnail critique (Special issue American Cinema Christmas 1955)
The thumbnail critiques in the Christmas special were credited as a whole to Charles Bitsch, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut. However, since this thumbnail pretty much reiterates Jacques Doniol-Valcroze's review of Roman Holiday, it would seem most likely it is his work. (page 63 my translation)
The immediate post-war made him the great hope of American cinema. after 1945, he appeared to impose himself as one of the "greats". The Little Foxes and The Best Years of Our Lives bore witness to the intelligence and sureness of his mise-en-scene. Two-thirds of the way through The Heiress, he began to disappoint us; Greg Toland was dead. we do not know much where Detective Story and Carrie strayed. With Roman Holiday, he resumed his success. This film had for him the little face of Audrey Hepburn and the artful currentness of its plot. It remains for him to prove that he is the great metteur-en-scene whom we hoisted to our shoulders ten years ago.

Friendly Persuasion
Reviewed by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze in the Aug/Sept 1957 issue of Cahiers. In part, he wrote,

A subject which could have been ambitious and treated with with nobility; but Wyler does not tackle it from the front. In order to pass off the lesson, he smothers it in the picturesque, the good-natured, drawn-out clowning and pushy chromolithography. It is boring and one has quite some time to remark that Dorothy McGuire is still a great actress and that Anthony Perkins will be, without a doubt, a very great young star.

In the conseil des dix, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, André Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze all bulleted the film. J-P Vivet also bulleted the film. Eric Rohmer gave it 1 star. Among non-Cahiers critics, only Georges Sadoul gave it as much as 2 stars. Henri Agel and France Roche gave it 1 star.

The Big Country
The film was not reviewed in Cahiers. The May 1959 issue carried this comment on "Films released in Paris" section. (page 61)

A western for those who dislike westerns, as always in Wyler, a bourgeois filmmaker who makes movies for those who dislike movies. So much diligence, care, effort at the service of a consistent baseness of inspiration. Credit sequence by Saul Bass.

5 "young turks" sat on the panel of that month's conseil des dix -- Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, and Luc Moullet all bulleted the film. Eric Rohmer and Charles Bitsch abstained. The film received a total of 6 stars from the other 5 panelists, Pierre Braunberger and Georges Sadoul both gave the film 2 stars while Henri Agel and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze each awarded it 1 star.

The film was not reviewed in Cahiers. From the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, Jean Domarchi wrote, in part:

The only amusing moment (involuntary meanwhile) is the 180 degree reverse shot of Pontius Pilate who is washing his hands of the death of the righteous. And, conceivably, the appearance of Tiberius with an Oxford accent. all the rest is ugliness and silliness. Academically directed by Wyler with about as much conviction as Mankiewicz directing Guys and Dolls.

When the film was released in Paris, the blurb on the "films released in Paris" section read,

Remake of Fred Niblo's famous film drawn from the Lew Wallace novel. Viva Ford, gentlemen.

There were 4 "young turks" on the conseil des dix that month, Jean Douchet bulleted the film while Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and André Labarthe all abstained. Among the non-Cahiers critics on that panel, the film got 6 stars -- half of that total coming from Le Monde's Jean de Baroncelli. The other 3 stars came one each from Georges Sadoul, Claude Mauriac, and Henri Agel. (apparently the film could not get a break on the Left, the Right or the Christian.) Paris-Presse's Michel Aubraint bulleted the film.

The Children's Hour
This film never turns up in the monthly "Films released in Paris" heading although it was considered by the conseil des dix in July 1962. On the odd side also, because, at Cahiers, at this time they seemed to have a Shirley MacLaine fetish. In that conseil, Louis Marcorelles gave the film 3 stars and Jean Domarchi gave it 1 star. Jacques Rivette bulleted the film while Jean Douchet abstained. Among non-Cahiers critics, only Michel Aubriant gave it as much as 1 star. Henri Agel, Jean-Louis Bory, and Pierre Marcabru all bulleted the film.

The Collector
In the July 1965 issue of Cahiers, Luc Moullet in his coverage of the that year's Cannes Film Festival wrote:

The Collector is an skillful film, but skill is a rather obsolete virtue - if it still is one - comparative to the evolution of cinema.

In October 1965, Jacques Bontemps reviewed the film in Cahiers, writing in part (page 69-72)

It would hardly be useful to undertake an analysis of The Collector, assuredly one of the best films from William Wyler, for the simple reason that this analysis has already been made, and magisterially, in 1948. In effect, the economy of means, the construction by sequences and of the sequence, the complete sacrifice to the psychological reduced to a single dramatic conflict, style without style, the primordial role of looks, clarity at the service of an efficacy which is granted some perambulations around the red dress of the red gown of Jezebel. (A dress which is substituted for by an orange sweater) are all characteristics that we find in the latest Wyler and which were observed by André Bazin in William Wyler...(see What is Cinema? Book 1) Those characteristics were in that epoque virtues. The advent of a new cinematic style seduces all those who witness some intelligence in the domain of cinema. But, for a long time, what could seem new has become anachronistic. Wyler's importance is no longer. Now, here, to our great surprise, he succeeds in seducing us stunningly.

In the conseil des dix, 3 Cahiers critics - Jacques Bontemps, Jean-Louis Comolli, and Michel Delahaye gave the film 2 stars and a fourth - Jean-André Fieschi gave it 1 star. Among non-Cahiers critics, Michel Aubraint (Candide), Jean-Louis Bory (Arts), Jean Collet (Telerama), Michel Cournot Nouvelle Observateur) and Georges Sadoul (Les Lettres Françaises) all gave the film 2 stars. Albert Cervoni (France Nouvelle) gave the film 1 star.

How to Steal a Million
In the October 1966 issue of Cahiers on page 72 for the "films released in Paris" section, Jacques Bontemps made this contribution,

In the era of [What's New] Pussycat, it is not the place to be mean with the Wyler of How to Steal a Million. But it must be said that the only visible films that he has signed are dramatic, and if his comedies are just like this, it goes against his grain. This is slow, ponderous and predictable. The worst boredom is assured; the one with neither highs nor lows, of a monotonous mediocrity.

In the conseil des dix, four Cahiers regulars - Jacques Bontemps, Jean-André Fieschi, Michel Delahaye and Michel Mardore - bulleted the film. Among the non-Cahiers critics, Albert Cervoni gave it 2 stars and Michel Aubriant, Jean de Baroncelli (LeMonde), Robert Benayoun (Positif), Jean-Louis Bory, and Georges Sadoul each gave it 1 star.

Funny Girl
In the February 1969 issue of Cahiers, Jean-Louis Comolli in the comment on the "Films released in Paris" section wrote in part (page64)

Starting with a paradox perhaps charming (a frankly ugly girl becomes a star of Zeigfeld's follies) it emerges into a shallow melodrama, the worst litany of conventions (loved by a gambler who loses, the "plain Jane" is torn between a love of the stage and love period and then finds herself repudiated by the unrepentant gambler). Barbra Streisand's performance, alas, amounts here to all the skill. Lousy musical numbers, rather abject music, unrefined weakness of the secondary roles. (and Omar Sharif is bored to death playing this character fabricated on measure to comfort homosexuals), catastrophic and academic illustration for direction... and again, let's speak of this "performance". It is on an order of monstrous. One goes to see Barbra as one goes to the zoo to admire the para-human savoir-faire of the most gifted chimpanzees, one applauds whole-heartedly at "Everything-this-little-one happens-to-do-in-spite-of..." Yes, Barbra knows how to sing, to laugh, to cry. That is close to everything. Not how to dance (hence, the skillfull parodic side of the musical numbers), nor how to act beyond a grimacing mimicry (hence, undoubtedly, the extreme academicism of situations). But she has to restore a well-seen handicap, the least tremble of her face (horsey) or her body (mis-shapen) seems colossal. One must have never seen musicla comedies such as My Fair Lady and West Side Story and be be completely unaware of Ruby Keeler, Cyd Charisse and Judy Holliday (not more ravishing, she also however...) to be marveled here by the shameful use that has been made of this ugliness.

Two months later, in rebuttal to this comment and one regarding a Lelouch film, Cahiers published a full review by Michel Delahaye of Funny Girl and Claude Lelouch's film , La Vie, l'amour, la mort (page 56 April 1969),

The question here is not one of attempting a rehabilitation or launching a polemic (this is not the place) but of introducing some observations starting from which one can (or cannot) put his/her judgment into perspective.

One can defend Barbra Streisand who carries the whole film, who in the first half fulfills totally her role of professional entertainer, and, in the second half, succeeds in making us swallow the leaden American-style Sharif which they have inflicted on us.

No conseil des dix. After 1968, Cahiers du Cinema discontinued the monthly conseil des dix until the 1980s.

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