11 posts categorized "Classic Cinema"

August 23, 2016


Battle of AlgiersAgitprop cinema hits a fierce apex in co-writer/director Gillo Pontecorvo’s unique wartime thriller. The audacious filmmaker blends various cinematic approaches, including Italian neo-realism, formal Hollywood, documentary, and theatrical elements. It's equal parts exploitation, propaganda, and activist cinema all wrapped up together.

The film comprises the French Army occupation of Algeria, from November 1954 to July 2, 1962 when the French gave back the Algerian Nation’s independence. Filmed in gritty black-and-whte, the picture was was shot on location in Algeria’s Casbah district, a walled-in landscape of never ending stairways that evinces the Casbah’s English translation, a fortress (citadel).


This film’s boiling wartime narrative gives equal screentime to both sides of the Algerian resistance effort to overthrow their French Colonial Government military occupiers, circa 1957. Still, you could hardly call the film politically neutral. It is based, however loosely, on Saadi Yacif’s “Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger,” Yacef’s memoir of his time spent as a tortured prisoner of the French. Anacdotal experience breathes through every scene.


Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) leads the Arab terrorist efforts of a small group of FLN (National Liberation Front) revolutionaries as they battle against the French military. Jean Martin, a real-life former French Resistance fighter plays Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu, a composite character that leads his brigade of paratroopers to “cut off the head of the snake” (referring to Ali la Pointe specifically). Jean Martin had been unceremoniously fired years earlier from France’s Theatre National Populaire for signing the “Manifesto of the 121,” an open letter signed by 121 intellectuals and published in 1960, calling on the French government to “recognize the Algerian War as a legitimate struggle for independence."


French soldiers ruthlessly torture their Arab prisoners, while Muslim freedom fighters plant bombs in public places that kill and maim many innocent civilians. Both sides are brutal murderers. But they cannot exist without one another. In showing the human traits of soldiers on both sides of the battle, Pontecorvo achieves something bigger than the complex material at hand. Culture shock is here.


Pontecorvo cast non-professional actors. He used the real leader of the Algerian revolutionaries (Yacef Saadi) to play himself in the film. When a French officer tortures a shirtless Muslim man by aiming a blow torch at the flesh on the prisoner’s stomach, the tone of the film spikes with the unspeakable cruelty on display.

Cinematographer Marcello Gatti combines techniques involving everything from Dutch angles to nimble camera movement to give the audience an urgent sense of tension at the time of the wartime human crisis.


The filmmaker’s startling use of soundscape shifts between atmospheric silences to conventional musical cues (enunciated with strong rhythmic motifs) gives the viewer an expanded sense of the film’s social and political reality.

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Gillo Pontecorvo’s newsreel styled imagery led the film to be released with a disclaimer that “not one foot” of newsreel was used, as if newsreel footage were necessarily more reliable than any other source of edited filmic imagery.


“The Battle Of Algiers,” which was banned in France for five years, shows the French winning the battle but losing the war in Algeria. The film is a reminder that the imperialist actions of politicians and military commanders obsessed with greed and power will always result in violent backlashes that claim the lives of civilians.

Not Rated. 121 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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July 27, 2016


Mike and I drink FLYING DOG NUGGET IMPERIAL IPA and discuss Robert Downey Sr.'s best known film. SUBSCRIBE TO LA GRANDE BOUFFE (THE BIG FEAST) on iTunes


Putney SwopeRobert Downey Sr.’s best-known film is a stunning piece of transgressive racial, political, and anti-capitalist satire. Downey’s contrasting use of black-and-white (for the film’s core narrative) and color sequences (for sardonic commercial episodes) accentuates the picture’s unprejudiced point of view. “Putney Swope” is a '60s cinematic Molotov cocktail thrown equally at the establishment and the anti-establishment during an era when the hippies took on the suits with a vengeance.

The droll allegory is set in the late ‘60s advertising world of Manhattan’s Madison Avenue. Arnold Johnson plays the title character, a token black on the board of a big ad firm. Unable to vote for themselves, and disbelieving their fellow directors will vote for Putney, the board vote in our soul brother anti-hero after the reigning chairman dies on top of the boardroom desk.  

Robert Downey Sr. dubbed Johnson’s voice with his own, purportedly because Johnson couldn’t memorize his lines. The disorienting effect of hearing Downey’s appropriately gravely voice coming from the poker-faced Johnson, adds an eerie tonal layer to the movie.

Naturally, our number-one-soul-brother Putney Swope renames the company “Truth and Soul, Inc. the tyrannical boss mandates that the agency will not create ads for “war toys, cigarettes, or alcohol.” Still, his newly discovered power goes straight to Putney’s head even as the company produces some truly inspired interracial commercials, including an especially ribald one for an acne cream called “Face Off.”


Considered a cult film, “Putney Swope” resonates in 21st century America, where racial tensions have exploded, and corporatization has turned modern culture on its head. Downey has a blast flipping racial stereotypes, all the while exposing a plethora of hypocrisies built into the American capitalist system.

Downy Sr. throws so many thematic and ideological darts that you need to watch the movie a few times to catch them all. This is one zingy satire. Come caffeinated. 

Rated R. 84 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.


April 29, 2015



Thomas Hardy’s 19th century novel provides the grist for John Schlesinger’s beautifully composed study of independent womanhood in bucolic England. The melodramatic narrative, about Bathsheba Everdene, an independent woman successfully running her own farm, exposes the self-confining roles of three men who pursue the lady’s hand in marriage. 

The frenzied nature of Hardy’s “madding” (means the same thing as maddening) throng refers to societal demands from which there can be no escape.  

Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) is a prisoner of her own beauty and of her sex. However keen Bathsheba’s sense of business acumen, which allows her farm to prosper, she is a poor judge of character. Each of her three suitors represents a specific type of Englishman whose idealized notions of wooing a woman runs the gambit from humiliating self-debasement to humble servitude to cavalier abuse.   

Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates) is a practical-minded sheep farmer whose forthright marriage proposal Bathsheba rejects out of hand because she “doesn’t love him.” Soon thereafter a rogue herding-dog ruins Gabriel’s livestock plans. He is left with little choice but to work for the woman he once hoped to marry and have children with, as her farm’s supervisor.


Bathsheba is a ball of confusion. She is only capable of loving a man who can “tame” her. Such a cad appears in the guise of Terence Stamp’s Sergeant Troy, a hot-blooded soldier in love with himself. When Troy’s fiancée Fanny Robin shows up late for their wedding, because she mistakenly waited at the wrong church, he punishes her by retracting his offer of marriage. After achieving his conquest of Bathsheba, Troy promptly loses interest. Troy may be a great romp in the hay, but he has the attention span of a flea, and even less loyalty, at least when it comes to a trophy such as Bathsheba. At best he’s a showman. 

If there’s one problem with the film’s casting, it’s that Terence Stamp’s unrestrained performance overpowers the film. Frederic Raphael’s script adaptation exacerbates the issue with a needless circus show subplot that sidetracks the narrative.   

MaddingCrowd2Bathsheba’s suitors are just as trapped in societally-imposed stereotypes as she is. Even after leaving the army, Troy carries himself as a man away on leave. He’s much happier drinking with the boys than he is tending to his wife’s needs. Peter Finch’s William Boldwood is a wealthy estate owner with his heart displayed prominently on his sleeve. Mr. Boldwood falls prey to a girlish prank which Bathsheba plays in which she sends him a valentine with the words “marry me” embossed on the outside. The literal-minded Boldwood takes the bait so hard that even after learning of its deception, he remains stuck in a fog of empty romantic hopes.  

Visually lush and powerfully acted by a quartet of England’s finest actors, John Schlesinger’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” is admirable in spite of its scattered narrative focus and flaws in its direction. 


Rated PG. 168 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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