My Gleanings

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cahiers du Cinema and Joseph Mankiewicz 1953-1964

Jean-Luc Godard's film career was launch in June 1950 when he published his first review - a critique of Joseph L Mankiewicz's Dragonwyck - in the second issue of Eric Rohmer's Gazette du Cinema. So here is paragraph one of article one in the career of J-L G. (from Godard on Godard edited by Jean Narboni and Tom Milne (their translations, excerpts pages 13).
One day I went along to admire one of Ernst Lubitsch's last productions. It was Dragonwyck, a curious film in which characters from melodrama plagiarize themselves with (h)auteur and gesticulate with a solemnity equalled only on occasion by the severities of William Wyler. In France we have not yet seen The Late George Apley or Escape. But after Somewhere in the Night, the recent release in Paris of The Ghost and Mrs Muir, A Letter to Three Wives and House of Strangers suffices to to establish Joseph Mankiewicz as one of the most brilliant of American directors. I have no hesitation in placing him on the same level of importance as that held by Alberto Moravia in European literature.

Julius Caesar
Reviewed in the December 1953 issue of Cahiers de Cinema by Jean-José Richer in a double review with David Bradley's 16mm version of the Shakespeare's work from 1950. Richer's critique discusses Shakespeare for two long paragraphs before it mentions Mankiewicz (or Bradley). (page 46, excerpt my translation)
Mankiewicz is described as the "celebrated director revealed by A Letter to Three Wives" and confirm by All About Eve. Richer then goes on to say:
A seeming absence of imagination can conceal a most rich inner meaning. And, it is necessary to be on guard against hasty conclusions. Mankiewicz is not Welles; and it pleases him to cast out from the tragedy its spells, to disregard its penumbras, to shun the unformed, everything in short which fascinates the latter - in order to press it in a sharp lighting. Nothing prevents it.

The Barefoot Contessa
The July 1955 issue of Cahiers du Cinema feature four reviews of this film, from Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, François Truffaut, Philippe Demonsablon and Claude Chabrol, of The Barefoot Contessa appeared. Each of these four critics would list the film on their 10 Best Films of 1955.Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (page 40, excerpt my translation)
Must one be reminded of the staging points towards this work, Dragonwyck, Somewhere in the Night, The Ghost and Mrs Muir, Escape, The Late George Apley, A Letter to Three Wives, House of Strangers, No Way Out, All About Eve, People Will Talk, 5 Fingers, Julius Caesar? Maybe this is to remark that - on first view - the side "unrestrained" of Contessa can be found only in Dragonwyck. But on second view? The fragile and tenacious wall of the reality of common sense is crossed joyously and, to the advantage of a curious neo-romanticism in The Ghost and Mrs Muir and, above all, in the extraordinary People Will Talk. Indeed, an irony more or less latent treads its way underneath all his films. But, an anxious irony,facilely melancholy, and, often grave; and isn't this irony a modesty behind which the solid and imperturbable Joe, as his friends call him, hides a poetic and humane sensibility, which, when it finally finds expression, takes on romantic and flamboyant accents that clash loudly with the realistic and conventional norms of the cinema of today? It is thus that Contessa has the further merit of shedding light on the rest of his work and making for its consideration in a new fashion.
François Truffaut (page 41, excerpt my translation)
Seeing A Letter to Three Wives again recently, I perceived that I can no longer overlook Joseph Mankiewicz; vivid content, an intelligence where the whole is but elegance, tastefulness and refinement, content almost diabolical with precision, savior-faire and knowledge, a theatrical direction of actors to the point of impact, a sense of the timing of shots and of the efficiency of effects, that is to be found elsewhere nowhere but in the works of Cukor. All this is the art of Joseph Mankiewicz, his perfect mastery of a genre which limitations it is not yet befitting to outline since its qualities are too often ignored.
Note 658 in Eugene Walz François Truffaut : a guide to references and resources summarizes thusly the review which Truffaut contributed to the June 29 1955 issue of the weekly Arts:
"Barefoot Contessa", the portrait of a woman in four different situations, is the kind of that is either accepted or rejected in toto. Truffaut accepts it for its novelty, intelligence and beauty.
Philippe Demonsablon (page 44, excerpt my translation)
As Le Carosse d'or, The Barefoot Contessa opens many doors partway; it is attempting to find the one which leads the furthest, gleaming of numerous facets, it is attempting to the find the one which projects the most penetrating light,. To count the facets, to enumerate the doors, and to try the keys, and, even, to lift out the boxes of this game, each of which contains a larger one. I do not believe that one could succeed in rendering an account of the singular beauty of this work. It does not define itself through the sum of its elements.
Claude Chabrol (page 45, excerpt my translation)
Does The Barefoot Contessa mark the ruin of the Cartesian spirit? The French public falls into the trap of interpretation, and, into that other one, which is not excused of literary references. It falls into the trap of its own folly, clamoring for adult films and then sneering like a cabdriver when it sees one.
In the February 1956 issue of Cahiers du Cinema, Jacques Siclier contributed a critique which compared The Barefoot Contessa and Max Ophuls Lola Montès. Excerpted from that article (page 46, my translation)
The parallel with Mankiewicz's work which had enchanted us at the beginning of last summer is astonishing. The refined intellectualism of The Barefoot Contessa and the Baroque frenzy of Lola Montès would seem to have no common measure. Yet, in a different manner and spirit, both directors in the end show the same things, to the point that both portraits seem to have an identical model.
Among the younger critics at Cahiers who submitted 10 Best Films list for 1955, Charles Bitsch, Claude Chabrol, Philippe Demonsablon, Jean-José Richer, Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut cited The Barefoot Contessa. Jacques Rivette was the only representative of that group not to cite the film. 5 of the remaining 10 lists - from Alexander Astruc, Henri Agel, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Claude Mauriac and Alain Resnais - also cited the film. The lone Positif critic to post a list, Ado Kyrou, did not cite the film, nor did he cite Lola Montès. He did, however, cite The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Thumbnail from December 1955 "Situation of American Cinema" special issue (page 56, uncredited, my translation)
The contessa went out at 5 o'clock; she was barefoot. To envisage the contribution of a Giradouxesque filmmaker, Joseph Mankiewicz has to be added to Jean Cocteau. Like Max Ophuls, Mankiewicz is bedevilled by woman and women, by Eve and Ava, their advocate, confidante, coaxer and exponent. Let them be fallen, scoffing, plotting, under-handed, his heroines are entitled all of his consideration, concern, sympathy and, let us say it, love. At last, a filmmaker who loves women and does not hide it! Up until Contessa, he was, for us, the most adroit maker of dramatic comedy, a Cukor who would be his own Kanin, a Lubitsch who has read Moravia. That is considerable! But since the contessa stripped off her shoes, all more to fire us up, Adam sees himself tempted with the golden apple by new and over-tanned Eve. An oeuvre such as that of Mankiewicz quickly finishes off the simple-minded legend according to which intelligence, elegance and urbanity don't know how to bloom and flourish in Hollywood. The truth is that he loathes nothing so much as vulgarity, most of all, Hollywood-style... Virile and distinguished, lucid and refined, accomplice of our mates and chronicler of the couple, Joseph Mankiewicz is our bedside filmmaker.

Guys and Dolls
Reviewed by Louis Marcorelles in the January 1957 issue of Cahiers du Cinema. (page 46, excerpt my translation)
Nevertheless, Guys and Dolls written and directed (produced this time by the veteran Samuel Goldwyn) by that prince of smooth talkers, Joseph Mankiewicz, seems to break with a firmly established tradition and mark the intrusion of an uncustomary irony into the genre. Mankiewicz wishes to make both All About Eve and The Bandwagon at once. That is, to blend the New York sophistication of the former with the contagious liveliness and lack of ulterior motive of the latter. His film is maybe only a half success.
In the conseil des dix, among the 2 "young turk" critics sitting, Eric Rohmer gave the film 1 star while François Truffaut bulleted it. The co-editors of Cahiers also participated in the conseil; Jacques Doniol-Valcroze gave the film 3 stars while André Bazin gave it 2 stars. Among, non-Cahiers members of that panel, Pierre Braunberger, Henri Agel and Jacques de Baroncelli gave the film 2 stars, France Roche and J-P Vivet gave it 1 star while Georges Sadoul bulleted the film.
The film appears on no 10 Best Films list.

The Quiet American
Note: The French title for the film is Un Américain bien tranquille which translates as "a really quiet American".
About one year before the release of The Quiet American in France, in its July 1957 issue, Cahiers du Cinema spotlighted the film in its "Photo of the Month" feature printing a photo from the set of the film and a short article by Raymond Jean commenting on the secrecy surrounding the screenplay.
In the August 1958 issue, the film was reviewed by co-editor Eric Rohmer. It begins (page 46, excerpt my translation):
This film is admirable and rightly deserves a disclaimer. Whoever speaks of the politique des auteurs speaks of fidelity, and, indeed, it is easier and more tempting to put one's faith in a man than in a system. Thus, you should not be to astonished to see me take the opposite view of an opinion, expressed here by me, some while ago, apropos of Les Girls. No film in Cahiers has made as much ink flow as The Barefoot Contessa and nevertheless, the cinema which we ordinarily defend in this magazine - a cinema of spatial construction and corporeal expression as our old friend André Martin would say - has barely any relation with that which that which Mankiewicz proposes to us. Even Bergman whose Secrets of Women calls to mind A Letter to Three Wives is quite distant from him.

And five pages later, it ends (page 51, excerpt my translation)
Let's keep ourselves from hasty definitions. Could we have believed, for example, that our old companion, mise-en-scene, would conceal itself behind the mantle of word-play?
Rohmer would proceed to give the film 4 stars on the conseil des dix and to place the film at the top of his list of the "10 Best Films for 1958". (He place Bergman's Secrets of Women 5th.)
Jean-Luc Godard also gave the film 4 stars on the conseil des dix and placed the film at the top of his 10 Best Films list for 1958.
From review published in Arts and reprinted in Godard on Godard critical writings by Jean-Luc Godard / edited by Jean Narboni and Tom Milne (their translations, excerpts pages 82-84).
But, after all, does Joseph L. Mankiewicz make films for the average spectator? Earlier films like A Letter to Three Wives and People Will Talk, and more recently All About Eve, and The Barefoot Contessa in particular, would seem proof to the contrary. In any case these films finally established their director as the most intelligent man in all contemporary cinema. This reputation is merely confirmed by The Quiet American. In turn scriptwriter, producer, director, and then all of them together, Mankiewicz is an all-around athlete who has more than one trick up his sleeve....But it so happens that in Joseph L. Mankiewicz we have the Giraudoux of the camera, and all is not as well as it should be. Writing Pour Lucrece is one thing, filming it another....This is the complaint one might make about Mankiewicz: that he is too perfect a writer to be a perfect director as well. Basically, what is missing from The Quiet American is cinema. It has everything - brilliant actors, sparkling dialogue - but no cinema....What a fantastic film Aldrich - not to mention Welles - would have made of this fine script which improves a hundred per cent on Graham Greene's novel. But Mankiewicz probably got so much enjoyment from the writing that there was little enough left for filming it. Though a matter for regret, The Quiet American is still the most interesting film about for this moment.
Five other "young turk" critics participated on that conseil des dix panel: besides the 4 stars from Rohmer and Godard, Charles Bitsch, Jean Domarchi, Robert Lachenay (most probably, François Truffaut) and Jacques Rivette gave the film 3 stars. Among the 4 other panelists that month: Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Henri Agel gave the film 2 stars, Georges Sadoul bulleted the film and Pierre Braunberger abstained.
Besides Rohmer and Godard, among "young turk" critics, Claude Beylie, Charles Bitsch, Philippe Demonsablon, Luc Moullet and Jacques Rivette all place the film on their list of the "10 Best Films for 1958". Jacques Demy who was then still an aspiring director who kept company with the "young turk" critics but did not himself write criticism also placed the film on his list for 1958. The lone non-Cahiers French critic among those who posted their lists to Cahiers who cited the film was Henri Agel.

In the April 1960 issue of Cahiers du Cinema, in a review of the newly released film Breathless, Luc Moullet wrote this: (page 30, my translation)
Godard made these two films [Une histoire d'eau and Charlotte et Véronique, ou Tous les garçons s'appellent Patrick] after having admired The Quiet American which inspired in him, in part, this renewal through dialogue and a taste for vertiginous construction.

Suddenly, Last Summer
This film was reviewed in the May 1960 issue of Cahiers du Cinema by Philippe Demonsablon. The discussion of the film in this review is more as a work of Tennessee Williams whose one-act play the film is based on and who is credited as co-writer of the screenplay with Gore Vidal who is never mentioned in the review. However, in considering Mankiewicz's contribution to the film, Demonsablon writes this: (page 56, excerpt my translation)
Everything about this ending of Suddenly, Last Summer demonstrates the diversity of Mankiewicz's talent which one would be wrong to limit to brilliance and intelligence. It reveals in him a poetic vein elsewhere severely constrained. The image of evoked memories frees itself at one time from photographic precision and literary symbolism reaching pure hallucination, much as the lived past rises again in Faulkner's novels. Let us not fear to venture this comparison: it expresses the magnitude of an auteur who, for a long while, has been our bedside filmmaker.
The verdict of the conseil des dix as regards the film was: among Cahiers regulars, Jean Douchet gave the film 3 stars, Luc Moullet gave it 2 stars, Fereydoun Hoveyda and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze gave it 1 star, while Louis Marcorelles and Jacques Rivette bulleted the film. Among the others on that panel: Pierre Marcabru gave the film 2 stars, Jacques de Baroncelli gave it 1 star and Jean-Pierre Melville and Claude Mauriac bulleted the film.
The film was nominated to the 10 Best Films of the year lists of Henri Agel, Philippe Demonsablon, Jean Domarchi, and Jean Douchet.

For the Dec1963/Jan1964 special issue of Cahiers du Cinema on American Cinema, this thumbnail critique of Joseph Mankiewicz was provided by Jean Douchet. (my translation.)
And the word was made Mankiewicz, who bases his direction entirely on the energy of the word. It is the vehicle of the extreme intelligence which his characters live, ands he motivates them to mark with an indelible imprint, through the construction of a durable body of work, their passage through this world. But it also remains the instrument which allows these mediocrities to warp the wall of plots, counter-plots, and machinations stand in the way of their plans. It is, above all, a tangible sign of the times which promotes the dissolution of a sumptuous construction built on the sands of time. At the same time, the word, which is gesture, acts and it loses itself in the brouhaha of that which is opposed to it before it steals away. It is magical (from whence the fact that all Mankiewicz's films are in flash-backs or reminiscences) and, in that way, illusion. This vehicle without which man can not be, reveals itself to be his worst enemy. Off-shoot of silence, the word is the pathetic and trifling proof of his existence: a murmuring rising up into the universe to signal the presence of a being whose grandeur comes from the avowal of his frailty. Such is Mankiewiecz, the cinematic virtue of the word.

Reviewed in the March 1964 issue of Cahiers du Cinema by Jean-Louis Comolli (page 35, excerpt my translation
The function of the word - And, firstly, (pushing aside an immediate platitude) the word in the work of Mankiewicz, as, in the work of all great filmmakers is not an end, but, among others , a means. Where, then, is the heart of the matter? What counts more than it, first off, for Mankiewicz (as - oddly enough ? - for Godard) (both of whom, nevertheless, make profuse use of it) is the measure more or less asserted of the presence or absence of a being in face of others and also in face of its creations and its dreams. Let's observe that these variations of presence and absence, of assurance and effacement, of an advent and a vanishing constitiute from the very fact of image in motion, the lone topic specifically cinematic.
On the conseil des dix, among the Cahiers contingent, Jean Douchet gave the film 4 stars, Jean-Luc Godard gave it 2 stars while Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Jacques Rivette bulleted the film. Among the non-Cahiers contingent, Jean Collet gave the film 3 stars, Jean-Louis Bory gave it 2 stars, Jean de Baroncelli and Albert Cervoni gave it 1 star while Positif's Robert Benayoun bulleted the film as did Georges Sadoul.
The film shows up on the 10 Best Films of the year lists of Pierre-Richard Bré, Jean-Louis Comolli, Jacques Demy, Jean Douchet, Michel Mardore and Bertrand Tavernier.

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