Le Boucher (AKA: The Butcher)(1969)

 

Le Boucher (AKA: The Butcher) – 1969

Director – Claude Chabrol

Starring – Stephane Audran, Jean Yanne, and Anthony Pass

The thriller, or mystery as it is sometimes called, is a fantastic genre allowing director, actors, and audiences to give themselves over to the story and let it pilot them where it pleases.  Layers of the story pile up, confusing the regular flow of logic, and often need to be reverse engineered to discover the truth.  The crime or crimes, central to the story can be simple or horrific, but almost always reveal the uncomfortable, jealous, angry, or violent side of humanity that everyone is capable of, even if only a little.  Often times, the genre is so captivating, that the story outshines it’s director or stars…unless of course you make a shitty mystery, like this one.

Le Boucher or The Butcher is the story of an idyllic little town in France where bodies start turning up, staining the picturesque countryside with fear, accusations, and paranoia.  As we watch, we begin to suspect the town’s local butcher of being the killer (more than a little because of this film’s clever title). 

***SPOILERS***

If mysteries have taught me anything, it’s that the killer is never who you most suspect, and always who you least suspect, right?  Apparently, Mr. Chabrol never got that memo.  Just as it seems more and more like the butcher is the killer, he turns out to be…the fucking killer.  It’s not even a dramatic reveal.  It’s just sort of said.

***END SPOILERS***

We never really learn anything about any of the characters, nothing of real value anyhow.  It hasn’t even been that long since I finished the movie, but I can’t recall either of the main character’s names, and I’m not willing to waste the time to look them up.

Cinema of the late 60’s and on throughout the whole of the 70’s, was a revolutionary time in terms of craftsmanship, storytelling, and editing, but it did give birth to some rather annoying elements of film as well.  The heavy reliance on zooming while filming is one of the worst.  Camera’s got lighter, and improvements in single lens reflex systems provided opportunities to create lenses capable of achieving great variances in focal length.  Unfortunately this meant that long zooms were readily accepted into the visual storytelling language, and this movie uses the technique to death.  It is distracting and provides no guidance for what the audience is supposed to be looking at.

The acting is fine by the standards of the French New Wave, that is, non-actors employed to give the story a more realistic quality.  This film lacks the immediacy, and growth, and emotional heft of the New Wave movement, however, and manages only to drag on and disappoint.

My impression of this film probably wasn’t helped by the fact that the first disk I got from Netflix skipped so badly that it was unwatchable, as a result, I had to request a second disk and watched the other half a good week after I saw the first.  None the less, I don’t think this film could have been saved.  Chalk this one up in the “avoid” column, do yourself a favor, and watch something like Seven, The Third Man, Memento, or L.A. Confidential.  You’ll be happy you did.

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The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox-Bow Incident – 1943

Director – William A. Wellman

Starring – Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, and Anthony Quinn

The Western, as of late, has gone through a bit of a transformation.  What was once a nice clean depiction of black and white, good and evil, has changed over the years flitting across many different themes and archetypes into the  metaphorical and allegory laden period pieces that they have become today.  As I’ve said in my review for the fantastic McCabe & Mrs. Miller, I have tended to discount westerns in general, and early westerns in particular as being fluff, and devoid of value.  My appreciation for the genre came to me fairly recently, and I’ve been working to shake my initial impression ever since.  The Ox-Bow Incident goes a very, very long way in repairing my misconceptions of what the western is capable of, as well as make me wonder why I haven’t seen Henry Fonda in more films.

As the title suggests, the plot centers around a single horrific incident, that we the audience don’t even see.  Everything that inspires what we see happens off-screen.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Quentin Tarantino took a little inspiration for how to achieve the bank heist from Reservoir Dogs from watching this film. There is not a word of dialog wasted in this almost too-brief potboiler that deals with fear, anger, and the tenuous connection between the two.  Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (better known as, and from here out, referred to as Col. Potter from the M*A*S*H TV show) play a couple of ranchers who, fairly new in the area, come into town for a bit of relaxation and a bit of drink.  Conversation in the saloon quickly turns grim when word comes that a local cattleman has been shot to death and his herd stolen.  Fear quickly turns to anger, and despite the best efforts of the few level-headed townsfolk, a posse forms and rides on the word of rumor to intercept the criminals.  Soon enough, the lynch mob happens upon a group of three sleeping men, who quickly become a target for the aggression and fear of the scared towns folk.

So we have a typical western-ish set up, and a cast of characters that also seem a little typical for your average western, so what makes this one so different?  Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews.  Henry Fonda’s character, Gil, is neither good nor evil.  He doesn’t moralize, blindly standing up to do “the right thing”, nor is he driven by nefarious motives toward the typical tying of a helpless maiden to the railroad tracks.  He is a cynical observer who is no more exempt from the actions of the mob than the rest of them.  Despite his objections, he believes without question that there will be no redemption, no help for the three accused men.  He is a beaten man from the beginning.  The real hero, “Good Guy” is played by Dana Andrews, as Donald Martin, one of the suspected cattle rustlers.  He tries to reason with the mob for the lives of him and his companions, a senile old man, and a Mexican man (played soulfully by Anthony Quinn) who is instantly demonized by the crowd due to his race.  Together Gil and  Donald juxtapose the humanity of individuals as well as the monstrosity capable of indifferent men, a struggle that wouldn’t creep into mainstream cinema consciousness till the noir films that came out later,  after the war.  It is in these two men, that we see victory battle defeat, and true good versus true evil.

As far as the artistry and construction of the film, it is economical, taking place in two main locations (the Saloon, and at the accused men’s camp site).  The film doesn’t rely on flash, massive set pieces, or spectacle.  Instead, it simply lets the solid, well-told story play out as it should.  The fact that it was shot in black and white (although probably more of a decision based on when it came out rather than as a conscious artistic choice) really helps to underpin the fact that the characters see each other as well as themselves in terms of black and white, good and evil.  Similarly, the “trial” of the three men takes place out in the wild, literally and figuratively outside the bounds of civilization.  Civility is not a quality that the mob has going for it, and the creaky, shadowy setting suits this subtext perfectly.

I chose to watch this movie via my streaming Netflix choices mainly based on it’s length (it’s only 74 minutes), but I was wowed by everything about it.  The message of the film can be seen in both the overt imagery, the subtext of the plot, and the finely honed dialog.  Each element of this film works together so incredibly efficiently, that 74 minutes was all it needed to do the job right.  You owe it to yourself to watch this film, I promise it won’t take long and you’ll be happy you did.

The Elephant Man (1980)

The Elephant Man – 1980

Director – David Lynch

Starring – John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft

Slow, cruel, and beautifully filmed.  These are the main adjectives I would use to describe David Lynch’s, The Elephant Man.  Set during the Victorian era in London, The Elephant Man tells the real life story of John Merrick, a seriously deformed man led from one freak show to another.  Anthony Hopkins stars as Frederick Treves, a doctor who takes it upon himself to rescue Mr. Merrick from the actual freakshow that he is performing in, puts him up in his hospital, and attempts to teach him civilized behavior.  Treves parades Merrick around, using his notoriety to advance his own reputation, all the while claiming to help him.

When word gets around that the “Elephant Man” (called this partially due to his appearance, and partially because his mother was mauled to death by an elephant) has gained a certain popularity with the upper crust, the owner of the freakshow (Bytes) comes back to collect his “treasure”.  Treves and Bytes play a game of tug-of-war with Merrick, neither considering him or his feelings in the least.  In terms of characters, Merrick himself played with a certain amount of humanity and grace by John Hurt, is the only character who really has any redeeming characteristics.  Despite his huge prosthetic make-up appliances, Hurt manages to imbue Merrick with a certain subtlety.

On the brightside, the film looked beautiful.  Shot in silky black and white, each characters shadowy nature plays itself out visually on the backdrop of dreary, foggy London.  Each of the set pieces is crawls with life, some of it unsettling and horrible, and some of it approaching dignity.  As the movie goes on, the mood, as well as the visual tone of the film grows subtly and slowly brighter.

Of the Lynch films that I’ve seen so far, I would have to say that this is smack in the middle.  It doesn’t reach the fantastic weird heights of films like Mulholland Drive, or Blue Velvet, but it doesn’t quite fall to the un-intelligable depths of Lost Highway, or Inland Empire.  If you’ve seen any of David Lynch’s other films, you will see some similarities but he clearly grew and matured since finishing this film.  Despite, or perhaps because of this, The Elephant Man was one of his more critically successful films and has since allowed him to go on and become a unique independant voice, if only for that reason, this film deserves it’s place on the list of 1001 Movies You Should See Before You Die.