Monday, September 2, 2013

Random Double Feature: Close Encounters With Catholic Priests

In my last post, I announced a new feature here at the Report; the Random Double Feature. By clicking on this link, through the magic of the Interwebs, you can discover how I arrived at this new feature, but suffice to say, I'm having friends randomly select movies from my library to create impromptu double features, watching them, and then trying to find some sort of connective tissue between the two. It could be trivial in nature, though I hope that sometimes we'll find some sort of surprising thematic connection.

For our first instalment, my friend James selected Close Encounters of the Third Kind and I Confess. Both are films directed by master filmmakers; Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. I watched Close Encounters first, so let's start there.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was Spielberg's first film since his incredible success with Jaws in 1975. Though the film had been in development with Columbia Pictures prior to Jaws' release, the blockbuster success of that film meant Spielberg could pretty much do whatever he wanted with this Close Encounters. In fact, to date it's the only film credited as "Written and Directed by Steven Spielberg", making it the single work that is probably the least diluted from his original vision. I can't believe I even have to summarize this film, but here goes: it's they story of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) an average guy living in Indiana whose life is changed when he witnesses alien spacecrafts flying around the countryside. The film then follows his growing obsession with uncovering the meaning of what he saw and his efforts to see the aliens again, as well being the story of a woman (Melinda Dillon) whose son was abducted by the aliens, and an international team of scientists, led by a Frenchman named Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) who are trying to make contact with the visitors.

I hadn't seen Close Encounters in many years before watching it for this feature. I bought the DVD in 1998, and I doubt I've seen it in maybe ten years. Since then, of course, I've become a father and my experience of the film has changed radically as a result. Before becoming a dad, I doubt I thought too much about the fact that Roy Neary abandons his family to zoom through space with some really nice puppets and children in big prosthetic heads. But since becoming a father, I was struck at the intensity with which Spielberg depicts a family disintegrating before our eyes. I knew that the encounter Roy has eventually led to the family falling apart, but what's interesting is the first scene in which we meet the Nearys, which takes place before the alien encounter. Dreyfuss' Roy is clearly not invested in his family, ignoring his kids to focus on his model trains and half-heartedly trying to help his son with his homework. Teri Garr, playing Roy's wife, is clearly unhappy, complaining about Roy's lack of attention. The house is a shown to be chaotic mess of kids' toys and the ephemera of lower-middle class  life (one of the most realistic depictions of how unimaginable messy a house with three kids can get). The Nearys are already in trouble, they're already dysfunctional. Roy's encounter takes over his life, and adds the even sadder dimension of near mental illness, culminating in the his wife and kids leaving him as he has a nervous breakdown. The fact that he leaves all this behind to go to the stars is hardly surprising, but it is far darker than I recall the film being. I came away thinking that the entire first two acts of the film is about a family splitting up.

As for I Confess, it's a film that is not one of Hitchcock's classic films. It stars Montgomery Clift as Father Michael Logan, a priest in Quebec City. One night, a man is murdered. A priest is seen leaving the scene of the crime. Father Logan knows the identity of the murderer, but cannot got to the authorities as he learned of the crime through the murderer's confession. This crisis of duty and faith is compounded when suspicion falls on Logan though a past love affair he had with a now married woman (Anne Baxter). I Confess appears to have been project close to Hitchcock's heart. He had been schooled by Jesuits as a boy, and his work always had strong Catholic themes of repression, guilt and torment running though them. Accordingly, Hitch worked on the script with a succession of writers over eight years, an abnormally long time for him.  Made during his peak period of the 1950s, I Confess nonetheless is an unusual film for him. It's a dark film, almost devoid of his typical playful morbid humour. The Quebec location, with its cobblestone streets and baroque churches, led him to shoot the film in a noir style, focusing on the interplay between shadow and light in way he rarely explored elsewhere. Stylistically and tonally, its most similar to his other bleak film, 1956's The Wrong Man. It is also unusual in its choice of leading man. It's become legendary that Hitch hated working with so-called "Method" actors. His style, which demanded performance be subservient to the camera movements and editing choices, meant that the director felt more comfortable working with actors who showed up, read their lines and did what he told them. Clift was clearly not that type of guy. But Hitchcock's subjective camera style also demanded a vibrant inner life for his characters. Actors had to communicate the emotional gamut through a look. And when it came to actors who could play subtext, Clift was the among the best. A look from him was like a monologue for other actors, and I Confess was a great showcase.

But, at the end of the day, the film doesn't quite work, and most of the reason is the dialogue, which is so purple and on the nose that it is, at times, almost laughable in its shameless romanticism. And the film isn't really all that interested in the love story. It just distracts from the tension and the priests' dilemma. While an argument could be said that it is one Hitchcock's most visually accomplished films, and that Clift's performance is great,  I Confess never reaches the level of the master's other great films of the period.

So, what connective tissue can we find here? Thematically, there's not much. But when it comes to trivia? I'm going to say our connection is through the great French film director Francois Truffaut. Truffaut was one of the French New Wave film critics/directors who rated I Confess very highly upon its release, and who were responsible for re-evaluating Hitchcock as not just a popular director, but as one of the great auteurs of all time. And, of course, he plays Lacombe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Hope you enjoyed your first Random Double Feature. Out next one was selected by my friend Mary Beth, who chose A Fistful of Dollars and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I'll be posting my thoughts on that on Sept. 22nd!

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