Sunday, March 13, 2011


Awards presented by myself, a humble cinephile, based on the first half of TIME magazine's 2007 list of “All TIME 100 Films”.

So here it is. I have now made it virtually halfway through the mildly monumental task of watching 100 “shows” (actually 105 since several of them are separate films that constitute a “whole” one). In honor of this middle point, I offer a little intermission in the form of my own awards. There is, of course, no Art Deco statuette, cash prize, or any other reward of any practical use. Merely my respect, admiration, and even derision in one case.

Several of these awards will seem very familiar, as they are right in line with any standard film award show. A few others are of my own design based on other criteria that I and many others often apply to movies. The one thing they all have in common is that they are all thoroughly subjective and completely open to debate.

Without further ado, let's have a look at the “winners” and runners-up, starting with a best of the worst:

“Insufferable” Award - given for excellence in the field of making me wish I could have gotten back the hours of life I lost in watching this film. And the winner is...

I would have to be paid some SERIOUS cash to watch this schlock again. The shallow characters, the threadbare plot, the excruciatingly cheesy pop songs. It all added up to two hours that were only made bearable by my girlfriend and I cracking wise through the whole thing. Musicals are my least favorite genre, and Meet Me In Saint Louis only further strengthened its position as such.

Runner-Up: The Awful Truth (1937) – A bunch of fast-talking, condescending aristocrats goofing off. It was about as funny as rickets.

“That Dog Don't Hunt No More” Award- Given to the film that has lost the most luster over the succeeding years. Even the classics sometimes die. And the winner is...

The Crowd (1928)

It seems like the down-to-earth dialogue and several very creative camera shots stamped this movie in the minds of audiences and film aficionados for decades. Eighty-plus years later, this film is about as bland as raw tofu, and nearly all of the humor is unintentional. It still has a smidgen of charm, but overall is tiresome by nearly every modern standard.

Runner-Up: King Kong (1933) – Some people still love this original version, and I have to give it props for originality, ingenuity, and a spirit of adventure. Alas, 78 years of special effects and action movie evolution have seriously dimmed the great ape's former brilliance. Even the Eighth Wonder of the World gradually wears down, I guess.

And now, on to the more positive side of things...

“Fine Wine” Award- Given to the film that I believe will, in the year 2101, still hold a place among great films and be watched and discussed by some schmo like myself. And the winner is...

Ugetsu (1953)

This movie, along with only a few others from the first half, transcends merely powerful cinematic storytelling and brings us into the realm of more universal myth. It taps into centuries-old folktales, and is so well-crafted and faithful to the spirit of such myths that I can't help but think that it will possibly outlast every other movie on this list. And that's saying something.

Runners-Up (tie): The Olympiad (1936) and Man With a Movie Camera (1929). The former will appeal to sports historians for many decades to come, and the latter is perhaps the purest film, in terms of art, on the entire list. Neither one will be disappearing from the cinematic landscape any time soon.

“'I'm Not Talkin' Here!'” Award - Given to my favorite silent film from the list. Those movies in the days of yore when it all relied on either pure visual film technique, great sight gags, or some of both. And the winner is...

This one packed a serious punch. An epic story that is told in a tight 90 minutes, the brightest among this film's many bright elements is a fantastic leading performance by Emil Jannings, the very first Academy Award “Best Actor” winner for his role as a traumatized Czarist Russian general.

Runner-Up: Metropolis (1927). The original science-fiction masterpiece is still just that – a massive film that was so far ahead of its time that modern viewers can still find things to appreciate. The acting is necessarily way over the top, but the visuals are still well worth taking in.

“Subtitle Me!” Award - Given to my favorite film made by one of those non-English-speaking types. And the winner is...

This early, lighthearted number by oft-depressing Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman, was really fun. If one has to do a 19th-century aristocratic period piece, this is how to do it: sharp visuals, plenty of witty and dry humor, and consistently strong acting. I'll go back to this one sooner rather than later.

Runner-Up: Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise) [1945]. Grand in scope and in production, this French mammoth is worth the full 3 hours. It may drag in just a few places, but overall was well worth the time invested.

“Hidden Gem Award” - Given to the film that I previously knew absolutely nothing about, yet enjoyed immensely. And the winner is...

I had never so much as heard of this film, and I feel ashamed for it. It was so damned funny that I'm itching to watch it again already. It was hands-down the darkest comedy from the list so far, and may very well retain that title by the end. The British mastery of finding humor in normally dreadful and morbid doings is on full display in this one, wonderfully accented through Alec Guinness and his eight separate and hilarious roles.

Runners-Up (tie): Dodsworth (1936) and In A Lonely Place (1950). The former was wonderfully-executed tale of the American dream personified in the title character, who then grapples with unexpected personal obstacles. The latter was an incredibly tense character study of a deeply disturbed genius, played by Humphrey Bogart.

“'Just Because You Are a Character, Doesn't Mean That You Have Character' Award” - Given to the individual character that I liked the most. And the winner is...

Rick Blaine, Casablanca (1942)

It may not be an original choice, but Rick is the friggin' man, man. He's tough, sensitive, witty, and above all, smooth. Anyone who watches Casablanca wishes Rick were real and, like all the other characters in the film, rightfully wants to be on Rick's good side. He'll buy you a stiff drink, give you a fair shake, and if he likes you, he'll absolutely go to the mat for you.

Runner-Up: Jeff Markham, Out of the Past (1947). I seem to have a type. Jeff Markham is the archetype noir protagonist: quietly tormented, capable of great nobility, though subject to a few serious demons. He out-thinks, out-smokes, and out-sarcasms every other dark soul in the picture. His Achilles heel, just as with all noir tough guys, is a pretty face masking an absolute Gorgon.

“'I'm A Movie Star, Not an Actor!!'” Award – Given to the man whose performance I dug the most. And the winner is...

James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949)

The little New Yorker went all in when he played this violent, ruthless, fully psychotic criminal with major mommy issues. Cagney injects every scene he's in with energy that magnetized me to the point that I was watching his every gesture and facial expression. And that's not even getting into the great one-liners he delivers throughout.

Runner-Up: Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). In the most recent movie I watched, I saw a mesmerizing performance by Perkins. He was so naturalistic with all of the divergent facets of Norman Bates that it is still astounding. He alone makes it worth watching the movie.

“I'm Ready for My Close-Up!” Award – Given to the woman whose performance I dug the most. And the winner is...

Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers in Baby Face (1933)

In this tale of a downtrodden woman empowering herself by sleeping her way up the corporate ladder, Stanwyck showed herself so far ahead of her time that it's scary. When Hollywood films were still firmly entrenched in more theatrical and dramatic (i.e. “exaggerated”) styles of acting, Stanwyck was one of the few who could seem so relaxed that she made everyone else on the screen look like amateurs.

Runner-Up: Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman in Notorious (1946). I seem to have a type. My favorite female performances would appear to involve either sex or booze, or in Alicia Huberman's case, both. Not unlike Stanwyck's most memorable roles, the adorable Bergman shifted gears in Notorious and was surprisingly adept at playing a reluctant spy with very questionable habits in relation to alcohol and men. A brilliant showing by the classic Swedish beauty.

“Mmmm...This Is An Excellent Movie!” Award – Given to my absolute favorite film of the first half. And the winner is...

Casablanca (1942)

I sure won't get originality points for this, but I can't ignore how much I still enjoy this standard of American film. Casablanca may not be a life-changing film of immense learning or depth, but it contains all of the elements of the magic of movies. It created a fictional place that was equal parts alluring and frightening, characters who were intriguing, charming and strong in turns, and situated all of these elements within a compelling tale that, while very temporal and geographical, seems to transcend these clear boundaries. Add in one of the greatest scripts in film history, and this movie still has enough gas in the tank to be a standard for decades to come.

Other Nominees – These are the four other films that I had to seriously consider for this award, as they are ones that I will certainly return to and enjoy many more times in the future: Double Indemnity (1944), Out of the Past (1947), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), and The Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

Imagine now the orchestra in a crescendo, not-so-gently telling you that the show is over.

That's a wrap. Still 52 shows down, still 53 to go.

Coming Soon: Yojimbo (1961)
Sword-swinging samurai action from perhaps the greatest samurai film director/actor duo in history: Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. This one should be fun!

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Film #52: Psycho (1960)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 8 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Restless secretary steals serious cash, then runs across a socially awkward creep at a motel.

Uncut Summary (A full plot synopsis, serious spoilers included. Fair warning. No seriously, if you have not watched this movie and have intention of doing so, do NOT read this summary!)

In Phoenix, Arizona, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is a secretary who has an itch to change her life. She's wrapped up with a lover, Sam (John Gavin) who must use much of the little money that he makes on alimony payments. She's been in the same static job for ten years. Her professional and romantic lives are in a complete rut.

And then, opportunity presents itself. Her boss has just completed a major deal with an out-of-town high-roller. The new client comes into the office, makes some overtly lecherous passes at Marion and drops $40,000 on her desk. The money is part of her boss's new deal with the man, and she is charged with putting the money in the bank. Instead of seeing the task through, though, she takes the money and hits the road. She clearly sees this as a chance to join Sam and use the money to live a better life.

Marion, driving away from Phoenix, considers her recent theft.

Once she hits the road, Marion gradually becomes a nervous wreck. She begins to imagine her boss, friends and relatives wondering where she is and just how the imminent pursuit will begin. She eventually pulls over and falls asleep on the side of the road, only to be awoken in the morning by a curious police officer. Rather shakily, she tries to brush the cop off, but only succeeds in arousing his suspicions. She does, however, manage to avoid any kind of arrest or more serious trouble for the time being.

The next night, with rain pouring down and her nerves worn thin, Marion decides to pull into a roadside lodge called the Bates Motel, a twelve-room inn that sits beneath the shadow of an imposing Victorian-era house. She sees the silhouette of an old woman in the window from the road, but it is a young man who comes dashing down to help her. The man, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), is friendly in his greeting and checks Marion in for the evening. Despite her fatigue, Norman convinces her to have some dinner and chat with him in the motel office.

In the course of their conversation, it becomes clear that Norman is a rather awkward fellow. He explains that the motel, which once was on the major highway, has seen very little business in recent years and that he is inextricably bound to his mother. This surprises Marion somewhat, as she had overheard the woman's voice berating and browbeating Norman in their home a short time earlier. In hearing about Norman's trapped existence, Marion becomes more ponderous and even rethinks her larcenous plan.

In the office of his motel, Norman describes his own lonely life to a receptive Marion.

After she retires to her room (into which Norman briefly peeks through a hidden hole in the wall) Marion seems determined to return to Phoenix, give back the money, and avoid trapping herself by becoming a bona fide felon. Having made this life-preserving decision, she hops into the shower, with horrendous results. A shadowy figure of a woman stalks into the bathroom with a massive knife, attacks and kills Marion, leaving her body on the floor.

Moments later, Norman comes running from the house and into Marion's room, where he finds the horrifying remains of Mother's attack. Once he recovers himself, he carefully gathers up the body, along with all of her personal affects (including the $40,000, which was hidden in a newspaper), loads everything into her car, and pushes it all into a nearby swamp.

Roughly a week later, Marion's sister Lila shows up in California, where Sam works. By now, people back in Phoenix assume that Marion stole the $40,000 and must be with Sam. Sam admits that he knows nothing about this and hasn't seen Marion since their last rendezvous before she stole the money. Also on the case is private investigator Arbogast, who has been hired by Marion's boss to recover the money. Arbogast decides that Marion must have been somewhere close, and he starts looking into all of the nearby motels.

After searching dozens of motels in the area, Arbogast eventually arrives at the Bates Motel. In questioning Norman Bates, Arbogast finds not only probable evidence of Marion's presence in the form of an alias in the motel registry, but also a suspiciously nervous Norman Bates. He doesn't get any direct admissions from Bates, but squeezes an admission from Bates that he saw Marion. Bates also accidentally implies that Marion had spoken with his mother. When Arbogast asks to speak with Norman's mother, however, Norman rebuffs him, explaining that his mother is an invalid and unable to take visitors. Arbogast reluctantly leaves.

After quickly checking in with Lila and Sam, Arbogast decides to return to the Bates motel and try to speak with Mrs. Bates. Once he returns, he quietly strolls directly to the Bates house and enters. As he ascends the stairs, however, the same be-dressed, knife-wielding figure who murdered Marion sets upon Arbogast. Before he can react, he is knocked down the stairs and stabbed to death.

The figure of Norman in front of his family home, where things become more mysterious and murderous.

Back in town, Sam and Lila grow nervous. Having not heard from Arbogast for hours past his stated meeting time, they call the local police. The sheriff is skeptical of what he hears, especially when Sam and Lila relate their notion that Mrs. Bates knows something about Marion's whereabouts. The sheriff explains his surprise by informing the two that Mrs. Bates died ten years before. This raises the question: exactly who is the “Mrs. Bates” back in the Bates house?

Sam and Lila decide to take matters in their own hands and head to the Bates Motel themselves. They have Norman Bates check them in as a phony married couple and hatch their investigation. Sam distracts and interrogates Norman while Lila slips away to the house. She searches through the house, but finds no evidence of “Mother”. Back at the motel, Norman grows very nervous under Sam's questioning, realizes the ploy, knocks Sam out and runs to the house.

In the Bates house, Lila sees Norman coming and scuttles down into the basement. In a far corner, she sees the back of an old, withered woman sitting in a rocking chair, presumably the enigmatic Mrs. Bates. When she turns the chair around, however, she is mortified to see that it is, instead, the semi-mummified and rotted remains of the deceased woman. Just as Lila shrieks in horror, she turns to see the door behind her burst open and Norman Bates, donning his mother's dress and a wig, hoisting a massive blade and ready to kill her. In the nick of time, Sam barrels in and subdues Norman before he can get to Lila.

Some time later, back at the police station and with Norman in custody, a psychologist explains everything. After intense interviewing of Norman, he explains that Norman has been a split personality. That he had, in fact, been so close to his domineering mother as a young boy and man that he felt them to be inseparable. Eventually, however, Norman's mother had taken a lover and began to shun her son. Norman apparently suffered a severe mental collapse and killed his mother and her lover. Unable to take the guilt, his mind fractured further and he began to live out both his own life as well as that of his dead mother. He took it so far that, if he would ever have any yearnings for any other woman, his “Mother” half would lash out and kill that woman. Hence the death of Marion and the subsequent killing of Arbogast.

In the end, Norman Bates was no more. After the final shock and capture, the only personality left was the “Mother” part of his persona. Left in a solitary room, he mutely awaits their judgment, lost in his own mind and delusional to the point that he believes that his current silence and timidity will save him. “They'll look at me and say,” thinks “Mother” while staring into space,”'She wouldn't hurt a fly.'”

A final look at Bates, lost in his own mind.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research)

This is definitely one that has seriously lost some of its luster.

Don't get me wrong. This is not because of any flaws in the film; it is simply due to the passage of time and the fact that so many of the elements that were dazzlingly fresh and shocking in Psycho became old hat some time ago.

I realize that I may be smacking around a very sacred cow here, as Psycho is universally acclaimed by critics as a cornerstone of cinema. No argument there. It is obvious that with this film, Alfred Hitchcock took mainstream viewers to places they had never been before, and he changed both suspense and horror films forever. Still, a viewer who is coming into Psycho for the first time is bound to be underwhelmed a bit. I think it helps to look at each of the strongest and innovative elements of the movie and see how they have held up over the past fifty years:

One – The psychological darkness. As far as a I know, Psycho was the first popular movie (by an immensely accomplished and respected director) to take watchers into darker places than they had ever been. The disturbing nature of the brutal knife murders and the probing look at Norman Bates' mental schisms were certainly new ground for the 1960 viewer. Anyone with a shred of morbid curiosity would have been enthralled by the entire concept. Now, in 2011, however, we cannot be shocked by such things as split personalities or fairly graphic violence in movies. Our culture has grown highly aware of bizarre psychological maladies and has seen them used in fiction for decades now, from films like Sisters and Seven, to television shows like Dexter. Within a modern context, this element of Psycho is knocked down several weight classes.

Two – The “twist” at the end. When a crazed Norman comes crashing through the basement door, in drag and knife held high, I admit that it still gives me a bit of a jolt. I imagine that if I had seen it as a viewer in 1960, I probably would have soiled my pants. I can only imagine how many minds were blown by that famous scene and how it probably haunted people for years. Once again, though, a modern viewer cannot be so easily caught off guard. The notion of “the twist” has been done so many times that we are almost trained to anticipate it. The wilder the possibility, the more likely we are to expect it. This cat-and-mouse game between viewer and screenwriter has fueled the entire careers of people like M. Night Shyamalan. In the end, Psycho's finale is now severely watered down.

Three – The sex! From the very earliest movie posters to the first seconds of the movie, Hitchcock makes no bones about titillating you. The very first scene has Janet Leigh in a rocket bra, lounging in a post-coital afterglow in bed with her strapping lover, Sam. Add to this a few other scenes with a touch of skin and the shower scene, and you have a film that probably had the more Puritanical elements of our society up in arms. Once again, though, what was probably highly erotic in 1960 film does not pack quite the same punch these days. It's not that Janet Leigh isn't still sexy in the movie (she certainly is), but one need only scan a magazine rack these days to find no less than a dozen “FHM”-type publications which don covers that go well beyond Psycho in terms of skin and sultriness.

Here's that most famous of shower scenes:

Four – The camerawork. Psycho has, without a doubt, some of the most iconic shots and scenes in film history. It's nearly on par with Casablanca in terms of being so thoroughly entrenched in popular culture that even people who have never seen the film are familiar with several of the images. This strength of the film most certainly does hold up. The composition of some of the scenes is still stunning, and shots like the slow, backward-panning, spiraling shot of a dead Marion on the bathroom floor are just as powerful now as ever.

So, from this little list of mine, only one out of the four groundbreaking elements has anywhere near the same force that it had decades ago.

I should point that, in addition to the camerawork, there are several excellent verbal exchanges throughout the film, most notably between Norman and Marion and Norman and Arbogast. This is part in due to the writing and part due to outstanding acting, with Anthony Perkins turning in a phenomenal performance as the twitchy, intense, creepy and yet oddly vulnerable Norman Bates.

Despite the handful of lasting merits, I would suggest that anyone new to Psycho not get their hopes too high. It's still a good movie, and one worth watching at least once, but I think that any newcomer under the age of 40 will likely not feel it to be one of the greatest films that they've ever seen. For many, there may be a “seen that before” feeling to it all.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research):

There are all sorts of great little tidbits about Psycho; some are well-known and some are pure urban myth.

The book Psycho, written by H.P Lovecraft understudy Robert Bloch, was based on a very real incident of a murderer in Wisconsin. The screenwriter, Joseph Stefano, along with Hitchcock, decided to alter many things in order to appeal to the audience. Foremost is that the Norman Bates character, who in the book is an overweight, boorish and wholly unsympathetic butcher, would become a handsome, mildly charming and very vulnerable person. It's quite a trick that would not have been possible had Anthony Perkins not given such convincing life to the role.

Speaking of Perkins, I learned that he was, in fact, a gay man who had struggled throughout his life under the pressures of homophobic society. Apparently, he was often rather uncomfortable around women, and for decades at odds with his own desires. While he would later be very open about his sexual orientation and find some semblance of comfort, one has to believe that these very strains were tapped into to create such an affecting performance in Psycho.

The shower scene, one of the most famous in all of cinema, is surrounded by all sorts of tales. From the difficulties of setting up and editing a nude scene to using chocolate syrup as blood to Janet Leigh having to lay stock still during the final pull-away shot, all of these were very true. They also amounted to this seemingly simple, 1-minute piece of finished film taking a whole week to shoot. One myth that I myself had shattered is that Hitchcock had ordered that, during the moment Bates pulls back the curtain, the shower water be turned ice cold in order to extract a more blood-curdling scream from Leigh. This, according to Leigh herself, was entirely untrue. Makes for an amusing story, though.

One of the scenes that will seem to drag to modern audiences is the psychiatrist's exposition near the very end. This scene was, in fact, one that Hitchcock initially felt unnecessary. The screenwriter Stefano, however, himself undergoing psychiatric treatment at the time, convinced him otherwise and it stayed. I think this is yet another element that was probably quite interesting to the 1960 viewer but will seem unduly long and all but redundant to us here in the 21st century.

The release of the movie created several trends, as well. The studio, under Hitchcock's adamant demands, ordered all theaters not to allow any late entrants into the shows. In addition, there were rather humorous signs posted outside of many theaters imploring people not to spoil the ending for others. In seeing footage of this, it became clear that Psycho was meant to be at least as exciting as it was disturbing. In fact, Joseph Stefano said he was pleasantly surprise at just how many people, on leaving the theater, would be simultaneously gasping and laughing. He likened it to how people feel when exiting a really good roller coaster. I have to feel that this is exactly as Hitchcock intended. He wasn't trying to create Silence of the Lambs, but rather an engaging thrill-ride of a movie.

The critics, unlike the audiences, were not as amused. Many of them gave it very tepid reviews, such as this original TIME magazine review, and some panned it altogether. Many of these professionals seemed to think it beneath the director of such sharp, colorful, and adventurous movies like North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, and many others in the prior Hitchcock canon. Joseph Stefano offered another theory on the lukewarm critical reception: that the reviewers were annoyed that they were not allowed to watch previews of the movie, but had to wait until nationwide release like everyone else. Perhaps this is the case, but we'll never know for sure. Curiously enough, several critics who initially torched the film would later list it among the year's best.

I have to repeat that I think any fan of films needs to see this movie at least once. You may not find it to live up to its massive reputation, but it is one that you can have fun developing an opinion on.

This is the original, full-length trailer hosted by the incomparable Alfred Hitchcock himself. It is absolutely hilarious and reveals so much of the man's genius:

That's a wrap. 52 shows down, 53 to go.

Coming Soon: Half-Time Awards!!

In honor of my finishing essentially half of this list that I started a little over a year ago, I will look back over the first 52 shows that I've watched, develop some awards of my own, and dish out completely non-existant prizes. I may drop an F-bomb or two, and maybe I'll post myself in eight different outfits, a la Anne Hathaway. After that little intermission, it's back to the movies!

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Film #51: Les Quatre cents coups (1959)

Title for Us English-Speaking Types: The 400 Blows

Director: Francois Truffaut

Initial Release Country: France

Times Previously Seen: once (about 10 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

French adolescent eases down a slippery slope from bad student to petty thief.

Uncut Summary (Full plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning)

In 1950s Paris, fourteen-year-old Antoine Doinel is the proverbial bee in his teachers' bonnet. He shirks his studies and mocks the instructors whenever he gets the chance. One day, after mouthing off and defacing a classroom wall, Antoine is given an extra writing assignment for French class. None too pleased, he heads home.

Just one of several times Antoine gets into hot water at school.

At home, we see that Antoine lives in an apartment tiny enough that its narrow rear entry hall doubles as Antoine's “bedroom”. His parents, though not abusive, seem to treat Antoine as much a nuisance as their only child. His young, beautiful mother harps on his poor grades and behavior at school, and his father, while a pleasant office clerk, is as interested in his auto racing club as anything else in his life. Antoine's life seems to consist of little more than the criticisms of his teachers and the mundane bickering of his parents.

Having not done his punishment homework the night before, Antoine is afraid to return to school the next morning. His equally irascible buddy, Rene, convinces him to ditch class, swipe some cash from his parents, and roam the city. The two partake of the usual hooky activities of the 1950s – a movie, pinball, and junk food. While traipsing about, Antoine runs across his own mother, who happens to be with a man not her husband. After the brief glimpse of each other, Antoine and his mother swiftly head in opposite directions. That night, Antoine's mother tells her husband that she's working late, leaving Antoine and his father to have a semi-pleasant evening together.

The next morning, it's time to pay the fiddler. Antoine knows that he has to show up at school, despite not having a note from his parents. When firmly questioned by his teacher, Antoine claims that he was absent because his mother has died. While this shocks the teacher into penitence and sympathy for Antoine, the ruse only lasts for a few hours. Antoine's parents show up before long and go ballistic, along with his teachers.

Unable to deal with the constant hassling, Antoine decides to run away from home. He sleeps in a factory that Rene knows of for a night and ditches school the next day. After a day of panic, he is found and his mother finally shows some form of repentance. In a quiet moment, she offers Antoine a bit of a bribe if he will return to school and bring up his grades. Antoine makes the attempt, but is foiled when he attempts of plagiarize a short story from famed French author, Honore Balzac. The teacher easily detects the cheat and calls out Antoine once again.

On the lam with his cohort, Rene, Antoine indulges a bit.

This is, indeed the last straw for Antoine. Punished yet again, he takes the first opportunity to run away once more. This time, he and Rene raid Rene's wealthy and separated parents' petty cash and live it up for a time. When the money and food run out, Antoine steals a typewriter from his father's office. When they can't fence it, Antoine tries to return it to the office. He gets caught, though, and is dragged by his parents to a government office.

At the government office, Antoine's mother concedes that she is unwilling to deal with her son anymore. She turns him over to the state to be placed in a sort of correctional facility for troubled boys. At the camp, Antoine gives an interview to a psychologist in which we learn that he had already spent several of his younger years with his grandmother since his mother did not want the trouble of raising him. We also learn that, even when he tells the truth, no one believes him; therefore, he sees no reason to bother with it.

After a short time in the camp, during which Antoine undergoes the same cycle of scrutiny/slip-up/punishment that he has always known, he dashes out of the camp during a recreational soccer match. Antoine eludes his pursuers for a time and eventually makes it to the shore, where he stops and turns back. Thus ends the story of the boyhood of Antoine Doinel.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research on the film):

I enjoyed this movie more than the first time I watched it, but that may not be saying much.

When I first saw The 400 Blows, I was about 25 years old and didn't have much knowledge of either more artistic or international films. I suspect that this was why, back then, I found this movie to be slow and lacking any clear punch. After a succeeding decade, during which I've learned to be more patient and enjoy slower stories with something deeper to impart, I can now appreciate such movies much more.

Still, I have to say that I was not blinded by the supposed brilliance of this movie.

Like many other films of its standing, I cannot deny the artistic merits of the movie. Director Francois Truffaut attained exactly what he sought with outstanding skill. On top of that, it's a different sort of crime story. Rather than follow the hackneyed path of sensationalism, Truffaut is far more subtle. Most tales that attempt to tell the “creation of a criminal” story will make the external forces clearly manipulative and overtly despicable. Whether it's Scorsese's Goodfellas or the great Brazilian film City of God, the environments that create the criminals are so obviously poisoned by poverty, gangsters or a host of other deleterious influences, that the viewer has no trouble following how a character becomes a hardened felon.

With The 400 Blows, however, Antoine is not pulled, but rather ever-so-gently nudged into his larcenous life as a reluctant rebel. The negative components are disturbingly commonplace: a teacher who is not tyrannical, but just short-tempered enough to prevent Antoine's academic growth; a mother who is not abusive, but just negligent enough to deprive Antoine of the unconditional love he seeks; a father who is not uncaring, but who is just self-involved enough to deprive Antoine of the fatherly guidance that he needs; and a society that is not toxic, but just apathetic enough to allow Antoine to slide, ever-so-gradually, through the cracks. It's the blending of these very authentic aspects and their affects on a troubled child that set this film apart from others, and is clearly it's greatest strength.

Here's a clip of highly dubious quality, but it shows one of the most engaging scenes in the movie - Antoine is in the government's compound for socially maladjusted youth. He's being interviewed by the center's psychiatrist:

On top of the plot's elemental alchemy, the filming itself cannot be overlooked. I'm far from well-versed in film technique, but I imagine that a person would have a difficult time in criticizing any of the technical points of The 400 Blows. The story flows very well, the dialogue and acting are pitch-perfect in conveying the necessary realism, and the directing and camerawork are outstanding. Many of the settings are stunning and quite memorable.

Still, I shall most likely never watch this film again. While all of the above points are wonderful merits that will assure this film's place in cinema history for many decades to come, in the end, I feel that this film is a piece of art more to be studied by film academics and students than to be enjoyed by the common viewer (clearly, I count myself in the latter group). It's tragedy of the slow-burn variety, and while it's not without some humor, it ends up being a rather depressing affair. In short, while it wasn't exactly a chore to watch, I feel that there's nothing else that subsequent viewings can offer me.

There it is. For my part, I don't know if I can recommend this movie to too many people. Perhaps if you are looking for a very well-crafted tale of a young, semi-likable French rascal's slow descent into delinquency, this will clearly be for you. Or, for those who are looking to delve deeper into film history and technique, The 400 Blows will surely offer a treasure trove of lessons. For the rest of you who like your movies a bit quicker, flashier, and perhaps more imaginative, you may want to steer clear.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research):

There's one curious thing in digging through some essays on this movie. Every one of them makes key the fact that the movie is highly autobiographical. Apparently, Truffaut himself went through many of the things that Antoine Doinel did in his movie. I suppose that this goes no small way in producing the authenticity of the tale and the emotions portrayed.

And yet, this brings up a much larger issue in terms of art. Why should it matter to me, or any viewer, just how fictional or factual a story is? I could very well go on an extended rant on this, but I shall rein myself in. Suffice it to say that I was highly surprised to find that so many professional film analysts and critics seemed to focus on the mere fact that Truffaut was telling a story that was his own in many ways. To me, the focus should be the film itself, independent of any connection it may or may not have to any sources.

The end result is that, in my relatively limited searching, I found less critical analysis of the film and more lauding of Truffaut and his life as a young man. This did me little good. The analysis I did find did confirm my own feeling about the movie, though: that it was very well-acted and offered a tale very different from what had been shown to larger audiences before its arrival. It is, in fact, considered one of if not the first great “French New Wave” movies, a genre that would define much of 60's cinema.

The 400 Blows was an immediate success, wowing critics the world over and garnering several major awards. This is no mean feat, as it was Francois Truffaut's first feature film. He would go on to make a few more movies on Antoine Doinel, chronicling his later life. I have to say that, while I certainly have no overt problems with Doinel's story, I am unlikely to seek out the subsequent films in the series.

While it loses its emotional impact when watched on its own, here's the oft-discussed, iconic final few minutes of the film. If you want to see the most famous image, just watch the last 20 seconds:

That's a wrap. 51 shows down, 54 to go.

Coming Soon: Psycho (1960)

Oh, yes! The suspense movie that changed the genre forever! I've only seen it once, though I don't remember being exactly blown away. Maybe I'll be more impressed on this second go-round.

What's that? Yes, Mother, I'm coming...

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.