Thursday, August 06, 2015

Pickpocket 1959. An American In Paris 1951

“There is Paramount Paris and Metro Paris and of course the real Paris. Paramount’s is the most Parisian of all” Ernest Lubitsch

From the sublime to the almost sublime

The other day I viewed a strange double bill, “Pickpocket” followed by “An American In Paris.” Both films take place in Paris but that’s where the similarities end, or do they? Robert Bresson’s superb 1959 film about a young handsome thief living on and off the edge in Paris played (not acted) by Martin LaSalle.
Bresson who was against using professional actors and preferred to put non actors in front of his camera calling them his interpreters or models. In this taunt and austere take on the crime melodrama, (he was no doubt influenced by Fuller’s “Pickup (Pickpocket) On South Street) but puts his own aesthetic, and atheistic sensibility on it.
This is a sad film, the thief lives in a terrible little dump and wears a cheap wrinkled suit. He is removed from his immediate world, and he can’t connect with humanity except when he is plying his trade. Bresson films his crimes mostly in close-up and in quiet. We see Michel in his baggy wrinkled suit picking up money from pockets and pocketbooks at racetracks, in the Metro and on the street and these are thrilling and beautiful sequences as suspenseful as any Noir crime film.
Michel has one friend who suspects his hidden life and he has a conflicted and troubling somewhat intellectual relationship with a police detective who delicately hounds him. There is also a young beautiful woman by the name of Jeanne who is played by Marika Green who is a neighbor of his ill mother and watches over her because she is neglected by her son.
Jeanne starts to fall in love with Michel, but his life is empty and devoid of emotions and he only shows interest in his crimes and his books. He later falls in with two other pickpockets one played by real life thief and illusionist Kassagi who teaches him complicated tricks of the trade and shows Michel how to be a better pickpocket. These sequences of thievery are thrilling to watch, suspenseful and nerve wracking and especially brilliant and great is a sequence on a train where the three of them do their job with breathtaking skill and verve.
Bresson leaves out as much if not more than he shows, arrests, trips and deaths remain unseen and he films generally in tight small spaces even when the scenes are taking place in large and expansive settings. Redemption and salvation come to our hero thief but not without pain and sorrow. The final scene is memorable and has been important and influential for many filmmakers, see for instance the final scene in Paul Schrader’s “American Gigolo.” This is a great film, rich with ideas and feelings, and at times it’s almost like watching the birth of cinema in 79 minutes. One of the ten best films of 1959.

So after watching this great but bitter pill of a movie I needed something light and fluffy so I picked up my double disc of “An American In Paris” which has never been one of my favorite musicals, and is not it turns out all that light and fluffy. It’s like a stale 500pd French pastry but never mind I figured I’d give it another go.
I will say that I liked it better this time than ever before, but still have some problems and qualms about it. The story is as simple as could be. Jerry Mulligan played by Gene Kelly is an ex G.I. who has decided to stay in Metro Paris and fulfill his life time dream of becoming a painter and dancing and singing with cute Parisian waifs to a great Gershwin score.
Nice work if you can get it, and Kelly gets it big time, because he is on the make. He’s basically a hustler, an American Gigolo in Paris and a distant cousin to Michel the pickpocket. There are some who consider artists to be criminals in spirit and soul who are willing to do whatever needs to be done in order to do their art, whether it involves begging, borrowing or stealing to make the rent, and Kelly-Mulligan gives off this scent.
He lives in a quaint somewhat rundown dwelling with Oscar Levant who is his neighbor and friend and who is, well Oscar Levant, and this is problem No 1 for me. I can’t abide him. I always find him hard to take and very unpleasant to look at, you can almost smell the stench of cigarettes coming off of him, and for me he drags this and every movie he’s in down.
It doesn’t help that he’s been given his own number where he plays all the instruments (via special effects) in Gershwin’s “Third Movement from concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra.” I suppose Arthur Freed and his crew thought this would be cute, but it interrupts the flow of the film, and is one of the weak links in the film.
One day Kelly meets pert and petite Leslie Caron in a nightclub and falls madly in love with her, but she’s engaged to marry someone else. That person is Georges Guetary who is a famous French stage performer and is much older than Caron, Kelly is also too old for her, but we let that pass. It seems that Guetary was a protector of Caron’s during the war hiding her out and she feels she owns him this debt of becoming his bride.
Kelly is a very bad painter, which is problem no. 2 for me. His work looks like the sort of stuff you see advertised on tv for those starving artist shows that bark and yell at us “no painting over $10.00” that are usually held in cheap hotels over in Jersey.
This is a big problem for me, and I can’t understand why Minnelli who was very knowledgeable about art allowed such shoddy and bad work to be used. Its especially glaring when we are pushed to believe that his rich patron played by the always good Nina Foch carries on about how great his work is. Nina who is hot for Gene pushes his work on her important Paris art world friends and wants to own him promising to give him all the riches in the world.
Gene at first says no no no like some sweet innocent thing, that is until he sees the lavish studio Nina has rented for him full of expensive art supplies. Gene takes one look at all those luscious tubes of oil paints, and his eyes glaze over with delight. He knows what side of his canvas the gesso is on.
So Gene sells out, but his heart belongs to Leslie and there is a lovely moment of dance between the two of them as they glide along a fake Seine to “Our Love is Here To Stay.” Kelly was a great and extraordinary dancer, masculine, and athletic yet graceful and smooth and not afraid to show his feminine side. He was also very handsome and sexy with a great body that he would show off whenever given the chance. You can casually google “Gene Kelly’s Butt” which will bring up many sites featuring his very famous body part in words and pictures.
Meanwhile he’s mean and nasty to Nina playing her along. When he realizes the truth about Leslie everything comes to a head at the Art Student’s ball which is an elegant and lavish affair all done up in black and white including the costumes. This is the kind of moment that Minnelli does so well. As the ball goes on Kelly becomes morose on the balcony overlooking the fake city because of his losing Leslie and is soon conjuring up the great set piece of the movie, the 20 minute ballet set to Gershwin’s music and using major 19th Century French artists as backgrounds and costumes.
It is a ravishing 20 minutes, as it literary soars up and off the screen in vivid colors and exciting movement and dance. The beautiful cinematography was done by John Alton a surprising choice since he was known for his shadowy black and white work on many noir films and this was his first color film.
Again Minnelli is flying high and he is helped of course by Kelly and his dancing, the whole thing is like a wonderful pop up book and is easily the best thing in the film. Do I really have to tell you that it all ends well, or at least appears to as Guetary sets Caron free to be with Kelly and they walk off into the Parisian night maybe to live happily ever after. The film won a Best Picture Oscar for 1951 surprising most, and there are many who think its the worst film to win the award. I can come up with many much worse films than this musical that won a best picture Oscar.


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