Abraham Lincoln

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Vintage European Noir and Genre

December 1st, 2020 | Robin

Ken and Robin Consume Media is brought to you by the discriminating and good-looking backers of the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Patreon. Each week we provide capsule reviews of the books, movies, TV seasons and more we cram into our hyper-analytical sensoriums. Join the Patreon to help pick the items we’ll talk about in greater depth on a little podcast segment we like to call Tell Me More.

The Pinnacle

… And the Fifth Horseman is Fear (Film, Czechoslovakia, Zbyněk Brynych, 1965) Forbidden to practice medicine and seeking only to avoid the eye of the government, Dr. Braun (Miroslav Macháček) nevertheless sets out on a perilous quest for morphine to treat a wounded resistance fighter. Every frame and shot of this film and more (especially the discordant sound design and score) channels and accentuates unease, shading into surreal paranoia. The film pitilessly exposes compromise for what it is while spotlighting a system that makes simple humanity immoral and impossible. Ostensibly set during the Nazi occupation, but filmed without historical costumes or trappings to indict the Communist Party as well. –KH


Arcana (Film, Italy, Giulio Questi, 1972) Money-hungry fortune teller (Lucia Bosè) fails to entirely discourage her hot, fey son as he schemes toward an enigmatic inbreak of apocalyptic witchcraft. Surreal Marxist psychosexual urban folk horror benefits from the occasional jaggedness of its execution.—RDL

Ashes and Diamonds (Film, Poland, Andrzej Wajda, 1958) On the night of V-E Day, Polish Home Army fighter Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) gets the order to assassinate the new Communist commissar of a small town. Subverts the Communist propaganda of the source novel by casting the charismatic Cybulski and focusing on his moral struggle between duty and love, and includes powerful imagery that resonates through every major successive Polish film (and then some). A beautiful near-Pinnacle; only the lengthy subplot about a double-dealing apparatchik slackens its power. –KH

Black Gravel (Film, West Germany, Helmut Käutner, 1961) Truck-driver Neidhart (Helmut Wildt) finds his carefully compartmented life and his black-market gravel scheme unraveling after his ex-girlfriend Inge (Ingmar Zeisberg) comes back to town as the wife of a USAF Major. Neidhart is a fascinating noir protagonist, as he’s not the classic “man who makes one mistake” but a man who only ever acts slightly better than you expect. Käutner’s bleak portrayal of contemporary German society implies he thinks Germany suffers even by that comparison. Unfairly neglected and denigrated by the New Wave. –KH

The Devil Strikes at Night (Film, West Germany, Robert Siodmak, 1957) In 1944, Berlin police commander Kersten (Claus Holm) tracks a serial killer that the SS and Party don’t want to admit exists. Based on the historical Bruno Lüdke case, Siodmak uses noir conventions to transform a policier into the uncovering of societal evil and incompetence. Slightly arbitrary plotting (and an off-kilter love story for Kersten) yields to the pleasures of the redirected signifier. –KH

Le Doulos (Film, France, Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962) Ex-con Maurice (Serge Reggiani) doesn’t know who he can trust, and given that his best friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) talks to the cops, who can blame him? “Le Doulos” means “the informer,” and much of the movie plays out as a series of ultra-cool scenes that don’t get Maurice (or the audience) any closer to understanding who’s informing or what’s going on. Just enjoy the ride and let Melville tell you when he wants to. –KH

The Facts of Murder (Film, Italy, Pietro Germi, 1959) Inspector Ingravallo (Germi) of the Rome police doggedly investigates a burglary and a murder that happened a week apart in next-door houses, and suspects a connection. Claudia Cardinale takes over the screen as a housemaid; the script hints at even darker secrets left not-quite-hidden. Germi resolves the contradictions between neo-realism and noir by playing up their common features: stern morality, black-and-white starkness (mirrored in the “high and low” sets), and pitiful motives. –KH

Four Ways Out (Film, Italy, Pietro Germi, 1951) Four thieves rob a soccer stadium and split up; the film follows their various attempts to escape the law and their own inner demons. Slightly repetitive structure still works thanks to well-drawn characters and a modicum of interwoven stories. Gina Lollobrigida gets top billing for a brief guest role; Cosetta Greco actually deserves it as one thief’s proud wife. –KH

Story of a Love Affair (Film, Italy, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1950) Private eye Carloni (Gino Rossi) uncovers a deadly secret while investigating a millionaire’s wife Paola (Lucia Bosè), driving her old lover Guido (Massimo Girotti) to reconnect with her. Antonioni’s first feature, a loose riff on The Postman Always Rings Twice, is a sheer joy to look at. He refuses to show anything straight-on, except for Bosè (a former Miss Italy who he was sleeping with), creating a vertiginous quality enhanced by the jazzy score. –KH


L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home (Nonfiction, David Lebovitz, 2017) Baker and pastry chef Lebovitz returns with another hilarious, recipe-strewn account of the multitudinous exasperations Paris throws at Americans who dare to live there, this time when he makes a host of rookie mistakes buying and renovating an apartment.—RDL


May God Forgive You… But I Won’t (Film, Italy, Vincenzo Musolino, 1968) Fast-drawing rancher (George Ardisson) systematically avenges the murders of his family. Racks up a John Woo-level body count as it pushes Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western framework to almost Gothic extremes. The protagonist is called Cjamango McDonald, a totally real name that actual people would in fact have.—RDL

Not Recommended

Bitter Rice (Film, US, Giuseppe De Santis, 1949) On the lam after a jewel robbery, a woman (Doris Dowling) escapes pursuit by throwing in with seasonal rice pickers, arousing the jealousy of a hot-blooded rival (Silvana Mangano.) The schlock instincts of producer Dino De Laurentiis bubble up into this lurid rural noir as it struggles against its socially responsible Neorealist outer layer.—RDL

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Film Cannister
Cartoon Rocket
Flying Clock
Film Cannister