“Le Samourai” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1967)

The term “film noir” was originally coined by French film critics to refer to Hollywood B-grade films of the 1930s and 1940s that concerned stories of shady characters in a dark, gloomy, and corrupt urban environment.  But the true mastery of the film noir form came later, with the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, whose Le Samourai (1970) has become famous as perhaps the extreme, quintessential expression of the genre. Accordingly, the film’s renown led British film magazine Empire to rank the film 39th on its list of "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" (i.e. non-English-language films) [1].

Melville (nee Grumbach) was a self-made auteur who imbibed much of his craft by watching countless Hollywood films in his youth.  After serving in the French Resistance and the French military during World War II, he determinedly launched his film career by seeking independent funding on his own and even starting his own film production company [2].  From the outset his films were atmospheric, and he had early successes like Le Silence de la Mer (1949) and Les Enfants Terribles (1950); but his first full-fledged film noir was not until Le Doulos (1963).  From there on he was a hardcore “noir” filmmaker.

I have remarked that films noir characteristically encompass three basic characterological themes [3]:
  • Fatalism
    The key characters have pasts that they would like to forget and little hope for the future. In addition, the deck seems to be stacked against them, and the world is full of traps and unanticipated disasters at every turn.
  • Truth  
    The world is dark and obscure, and the truth is always elusive. At every turn, there is someone ready to double-cross you, and the police are as untrustworthy as the gangsters.
  • Loyalty  
    Because everyone, including the cops, are liars, there is a heavy demand to find someone who can be trusted – and then to remain loyal to that rare person. This leads to a professional code, the “honor among thieves”, which places life-threatening demands of loyalty on the trusted partners in the story.
In Le Samourai these three notions are particularly dominant and take precedence over basic narrative concerns of realism and motivation.  The story is about an underworld hit man, Jef Costello (played by Melville favorite Alain Delon), and his surreal world of isolation and violence.  This is no ordinary gangster thug; Costello is the ultimate icy smooth professional, and the murder he is contracted to commit in this story is for a fee of 2 million francs [4].  But we become fascinated following this severely isolated and seemingly soulless individual.  He is the ultimate loner trying to make his way in a hostile environment.  Indeed at the beginning of the film, there is a displayed title that is purported to be a quotation from the Bushido code of the samurai (but actually a Melville fabrication):
“There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, . . .
. . . unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle.”
Costello is the samurai and his world is dark and dank – everything seems to happen at night in his world.  This is not gritty realism; it is an abstract expressionistic nightmare more along the lines of such noirish cartoons as Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95). Crucial to this evocation of expressionistic gloom is the cinematography of Henri Decaë, who masterfully contributed to a number of outstanding films, including several directed by Melville, during this general period – notably: Louis Malle’s Les Amants (1958); Claude Chabrol’s Les Cousins (1959); Francois Truffaut’s, The Four Hundred Blows (1959); René Clément’a Purple Noon (1960); Serge Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybele (1962); and Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles (1950), Bob le Flambeur, (1955), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970).  The atmospheric cinematography of Decaë does not slow down the relentless pace, however, thanks to the smooth cutting-on-action editing of Monique Bonnot and Yolande Maurette.

The story of Le Samourai, which is thought to have been inspired by Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (1942), progresses through five phases.

1.   The Contracted Killing
The film opens without dialogue for the fist nine minutes.  In an opening long shot, Jef Costello is lying fully clothed on his bed in his bare and dismal apartment and contemplatively smoking a cigarette.  The only sounds to be heard are the chirpings of his caged bird.  Costello then gets up and puts on what will be his signature attire, a white trench coat and a fedora, and goes out onto the street. Finding a parked Citroen that is unlocked, Costello gets in, takes out his large key ring with dozens of keys on it and quietly begins trying them in the ignition.  One of the keys works, and Costello drives off in the stolen car.  All the while Costello is in full view, but his expressionless countenance doesn’t attract attention.  Then he goes to a garage in a nondescript Parisian banlieue and wordlessly arranges with an underworld associate to purchase a gun and get a new license plate for the stolen car. 

Costello now starts making arrangements for his alibi.  He first visits his girlfriend Janine Lagrange (played by the extraordinarily beautiful Nathalie Delon, who was Alain Delon’s wife at the time). When he learns that she will be hosting her usual “customer” at 2 am, Costello then goes to visit some shady friends involved in an all-night poker game, so that he can secure his alibi for the rest of the night.  (Why Costello needed this second alibi was never clear to me.)

Costello next goes to Martey’s nightclub, where a beautiful jazz pianist, Valerie (played by West Indian Caty Rosier), is playing on stage.  Donning white gloves (to conceal fingerprints), he quietly goes to a backroom and ruthlessly murders the proprietor.  But as he is leaving Martey’s room, he runs into Valerie, and they exchange momentary glances.  So Valerie may become a key witness in connection with the later criminal investigation.  Then Costello goes out and dumps the gun and his gloves off a bridge and into the river.  Finally, he calmly returns to his alibi sites to cover himself.  All the while Costello has shown no emotion and barely said a word.

2.  The Police Investigate
Now the focalization shifts to the police investigation, which is led by police commissioner (“Le Commissaire”, played by Francois Perier).  In contrast to the solitary, existentialist sphere of Costello, the police counterforce is depicted as a vast, messy machine with almost unlimited resources.  The Commissaire orders the police to roundup 20 suspects from each of the city’s 20 precincts for a lineup.  And he is willing to compromise any principles in order to get things done.  As he tells Janine Lagrange when he is interrogating her at one point,
    “The truth is not what you say. It’s what I say. Whatever the methods I use to get it.”
But Janine is utterly loyal to Jef and stands by his alibi, which proves to be airtight. (This shows Janine  to be an ideal partner for a film-noir protagonist.) And, mysteriously, Valerie does not identify Costello during the police lineup, either.  The Commissaire still suspects Jef, though, and he orders the police to tail him wherever he goes.  They also go to Jef’s apartment while he is out and install a hidden radio bug.

3.  Betrayal
Costello goes to an arranged remote location to collect his payment for the murder from a criminal “syndicate” agent.  But he is double-crossed when the agent tries to kill him.  Costello is wounded and barely gets away.  The syndicate boss, Olivier Rey, is later shown telling his colleagues that now that Costello has become a police suspect, he is a liability to their organization.  So it is now clear that he is being hunted by two ruthless forces – both the police and the syndicate.

4.  Closing In

Costello still doesn’t know why the syndicate betrayed him, but he suspects the jazz pianist, Valerie, may hold the clue.  The few meaningful gazes they have exchanged with each other up to now have seemed to connect the two in some sort of mysterious affinity. Is it love? We don’t know, and probably those two don’t, either.  Jef now tracks down Valerie, and they go to her luxurious apartment to have a guarded conversation.  She tells him she will give him more information in a couple of hours.

Shortly thereafter, though, the same syndicate agent who almost killed him barges into Costello’s apartment and offers him another 2 million francs to carry out another murder.  Now things have become even more complicated.  Why the change of heart on the part of the syndicate? We don’t know yet who the targeted victim is, but apparently Costello now does.  So far, though, he has not known who his underworld contractors are. So he strong-arms the syndicate agent to learn the identity and location of the syndicate agent’s boss, Olivier Rey.

But the police are tracking Costello closely, with the Commissaire ordering 50 men and 20 auxiliaries to tail him.  Costello is aware of this surveillance, and there follows an extended cat-and-mouse chase on the Paris metro system as he tries to get clear of them.  He does just manage to elude them all, then steals another Citroen in his usual fashion, and gets ready to carry out his next contract.

5.  The Finish

Costello first goes to Olivier Rey’s apartment, which we (and presumably Costello) are surprised to see is the same place where he had conversed with Valerie.  When Costello sees Rey, he quickly shoots him dead.  Then he goes to Martey’s nightclub, where there is another surprise in store for us.  Costello’s murder target this time is Valerie. Wearing his white assassin’s gloves, he walks up to her piano, and again they exchange emotional gazes.  She urges him not to stay, but he mournfully pulls out his gun and says, “I was paid to. . .” 

Before Costello can do anything, though, there is a hail of bullets from a police ambush behind the curtains, and he is killed.  When they examine Costello’s gun at the end, they find that it was not loaded.  His last gesture was apparently an act of suicide.

There are a number of things that we never know in this story.  What were the syndicate’s motivations?  What was Valerie’s involvement with the syndicate?  Was she ultimately colluding with the police?  And what was the connection between Jef Costello and Valerie?  And, of course, what was behind Jef’s final actions?  These are mysteries that are unknown to us and probably mostly unknown to Costello, too.

What we are left with is the bleak loneliness of the film-noir samurai.  This is powerfully conveyed throughout the film by a number of metaphorical elements which seem to have an emotive significance beyond our schematic explanations:
  • The chirping bird in the cage. The mournful vitality of the bird has a haunting feel to it. It may suggest entrapment, but also hidden secrets yet to be unveiled.
  • Enclosure.  Throughout this story Jef Costello is faced with a threatening world closing in on him, such as when he is closely tracked by police spies all through the metro system, for example. The police machine is seemingly boundless and soulless.  (This metaphorical presentation of a seemingly helpless fugitive in flight from a massively resourced police machine was repeated in Melville's Le Cercle Rouge.)
  • Jef’s attire.  His fedora, trench coat, and white gloves are always carefully donned, as if they are a crucial part of his persona.  Indeed there is something absurd about this, since this “uniform” would make him more identifiable to the authorities.  This attire, though,  perhaps represents to him the mark of his samurai-like code of conduct. 
  • The gazes of Jef and Valerie.  Although we might think of this film’s material as concerned with extreme masculine discipline, both Jef and Valerie are androgynous figures.  Valerie, for instance, has short hair and an innocent boyish look.  Delon, whose androgynous good looks have always felt a little sinister to me, in this film also has an innocent look to him (even though we see he is a killer).  When we as viewers look at each of these two figures, we are drawn to seek empathy with them, even though we are given no information about their backgrounds, goals, or concerns.  This makes them even more fascinating to look at.  The whole effect is magnified when the two of them gaze at each other.  Indeed Valerie is one of the only people in this film whom Jef looks in the eye. Melville’s extended treatment in this film of the gaze, which is recognized by phenomenological philosophers as an essential instrument of self-consciousness [5], is one of the most aesthetically significant and interesting aspects of this film.
Thus because of these various considerations, Le Samourai stands as a great film.  It is not my favorite Melville film noir; his subsequent Le Cercle Rouge is.  But Le Samourai remains as one of the ultimate explorations of the film noir genre.

  1. "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema", Empire, Bauer Media Group, (11 June 2010). 
  2.  World Film Directors, V. II., John Wakeman (ed.),  H.W. Wilson Co., NY 1988, quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Jean-Pierre Melville Le Samourai 1967”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XIII:6), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (10 October 2006).   
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Le Doulos’ - Jean-Pierre Melville (1963)”, The Film Sufi, (27 February 2009).  
  4. I would estimate this to be about US$ 30,000 in today’s currency. 
  5. Shaun Gallagher, “Phenomenological Approaches to Self-Consciousness”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (24 December 2014).

“Solaris” - Andrei Tarkovsky (1972)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s third feature film, Solaris (Solyaris, 1972), is by some accounts his most straightforward and accessible film and thus less encumbered by his usual brooding undercurrents of existentialist anxiety.   Based as it was on a 1961 novel of the same name by well-known Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem, the film took on the trappings of a standard science fiction piece, albeit with Tarkovsky’s signature mise-en-scene.  In fact it was seen by many as something of a Cold War Russian response to Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) [1,2].  But I would say Solaris is very much in line with Tarkovsky’s main themes, similar in some ways to his later Stalker (1979), and in fact it is one of the legendary filmmaker’s finest works [3,4].

As Tarkovsky himself remarked [5]:
“As for Solaris, my decision to adapt it to the screen is not at all a result of some fondness for the [science fiction] genre. The main thing is that in [the novel] Solaris, Lem presents a problem that is close to me: the problem of overcoming, of convictions, of moral transformation on the path of struggle within the limits of one’s own destiny. The depth and meaning of Lem’s novel are not at all dependent on the science fiction genre, and it’s not enough to appreciate his novel simply for the genre.”
This is not to suggest that Solaris and 2001 are not comparable.  Both films use the vastness of outer space and the confinement within a space capsule to evoke feelings of man’s existential loneliness and separation from ultimate fulfillment.  But Solaris focuses much more on the inner space of human consciousness – which is the primordial reality.  No matter how much modern science may help us build better models of and help us to understand the physical world, we must keep in mind that all of this is grounded on human consciousness.  Consciousness is not an epiphenomenon of neural activity  in the brain; it is the ground on which all understanding, including that of the brain and its neurons, is based [6].  Solaris raises this issue as a central theme.

Indeed how should one go about exploring this theme that transcends the logic of the written word?  Well, there is music and art.  But even better, there is film, whose narratives can comprise music, artistic expression, and words over temporal sequences.  Although sound films began as essentially recorded stage plays, which were mostly just words, modern filmmakers have gone well beyond that to incorporate other modes of expression.  This is what makes all of Tarkovsky’s work especially precious – the use of cinema’s unique modes of artistic presentation to conjure up conscious feelings that go well beyond what can be expressed by the written word or modeled by text-based logics.  He touched on this explicitly when he said [7]:
 "The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good."
And so his creative process in making a film did not start with a script, but more with a feeling or mood that he wanted to realize in cinematic form [8]:
“Directing starts not when the script is being discussed with the writer, not during work with the actor, or with the composer, but at the time when before the interior gaze of the person making the film and known as the director, there emerges an image of the film: this might be a series of episodes worked out in detail, or perhaps the consciousness of an aesthetic texture and emotional atmosphere, to be materialized on the screen.”
Tarkovsky’s cinematic expression featured a number of characteristic mechanisms to evoke the moods he wanted to convey. This often entailed the conveyance of the vital otherness of the natural world.  In Solaris this included long shots and sounds in natural settings of
  • a horse running through a wooded landscape
  • images of underwater reeds moving in the water flow
  • the natural sounds of running water
In addition, the action is variously presented in sequences that are colored, black-and-white, or sepia-tinted.  These color-tonal variations serve to shift things (when the move is to black-and-white or sepia) to a more introspective focus.  This was all reinforced by evocative music and even naturalistic expressionist paintings shown, such as Peter Bruegel the Elder’s atmospheric painting “Hunters in the Snow” (1565).

Also, in contrast to the theater, which does not normally have many sequences without words, Tarkovsky often reminds the viewer that our conscious experience of the world frequently encompasses extended passages without dialogue (with just ambient sounds present), during which we may reflect on our circumstances.  In fact we know that the authentic tempo of life is normally different from what we see on stage, films, and TV, and this is what Tarkovsky tries to capture.  This slowed-down Tarkovskian approach and narrative pacing can make some viewers impatient; but I find that once you settle into his moody narrative rhythm, everything proceeds organically.  In fact I am one of those people who find Tarkovsky’s atmospheric films improving on repeated viewings.

In addition, when Tarkovsky shoots conversations, they are often portrayed in long, carefully orchestrated moving-camera shots with the shifting subjects shown mostly in closeup.  This immerses the viewer in the conversation more naturally than the conventional manner of back-and-forth cuts to opposing over-the-shoulder perspectives.  Tarkovsky’s technique in this respect also has a claustrophobic effect that enhances the feeling of isolation and confinement in the Solaris’s satellite setting.

The story of Solaris concerns a trip sometime in the future that a cosmonaut psychologist, Kris Kelvin (played by Donatas Banionis), makes to a satellite laboratory orbiting the planet Solaris.  The planet  has been the subject of a decades-long study of its peculiar properties – it is completely covered by a turbulent, viscous ocean that seems to be a living organism.  The long study has made little progress, however, and the satellite laboratory that was built to accommodate 85 personnel now has only three remaining scientists, who have not communicated useful findings for some time.  Kelvin’s mission is to go there and see if the scientific mission should finally be terminated.

Although the nature of Solaris’s ocean is ultimately beyond human comprehension, we learn that the ocean has the power to read the minds of the scientists within its field of influence and then construct embodied people based on how they are understood in the minds of those scientists.  In particular the mental material that is mined always concerns people who weigh on the subjects’ consciences.  Since these embodied presences suddenly appear as new inhabitants of the satellite, they are referred to by the scientists as “guests”.  These guests are associated with people who persist in a person’s memory due to issues of conscience.  And so this identifies a key perspective concerning the nature of consciousness that is covered in this film – that the concerns and feelings of guilt that we may have in our memories seem to lie at the heart of who we really are.

The logical nature of conscience has been widely discussed in terms of the theoretical structure it may have [9], but the nature of the experiential phenomenon of conscience, as an important aspect of consciousness, is not so well covered.  This film explores that neglected but profoundly important territory.

Thus we can say at the core of Solaris are two key themes:
  • The contrasting perspectives offered by (a) the Objectivist view of reality that is grounded on the modern physical sciences, in which the potentially prejudiced views of a subjective observer are excluded, and (b) the Interactionist view that is grounded on human consciousness (and thus subjective observation) [10].  The Objectivist view cannot find human consciousness within its purview, because it is looking for an objective mechanism that could generate it [6].  On the other hand, the Interactionist view sees human consciousness, not as a byproduct of some objective agency but as the primordial phenomenon. According to this view, human agency is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being” [11].
  • The degree to which conscience and concern for others are important core elements of consciousness and help characterize human existence. 
Solaris’s narrative can be considered to progress through four main phases.

1.  On Earth, before the mission

The opening 43 minutes of this 2-hour-and-46-minute film contain material not present in Stanislaw Lem’s novel and represent something of a prologue.  They show Kris Kelvin’s visit to the country home of his estranged father (Nikolai Grinko) on the day before his trip to Solaris. The opening shots show Kelvin contemplatively walking in the sylvan natural environment outside the home, and this will contrast later with the mechanical and claustrophobic confines of the Solaris space station.  His father has also invited on this occasion a visit from his old friend, the former cosmonaut Henri Berton (Vladislav Dvorjetzki), who many years ago visited Solaris and witnessed some bizarre phenomena on the planet which he wants to discuss with Kelvin. They watch an old videotape of Berton’s testimony to the government authorities, where his account was dismissed as hallucinatory.  Berton insists to Kelvin that there is something important going on at Solaris and that the scientific mission there should be continued.  But Kelvin, who is an Objectivist cynic, thinks it likely that the remaining Solaristic scientists there are only engaged in irresponsible daydreaming.  It is clear during this sequence that Kelvin and his father are barely on speaking terms and that Kelvin wants to cut himself off from his past.

It should be mentioned that there is very little futuristic paraphernalia shown in this film.  People are shown using equipment and driving cars characteristic of 1970.  Perhaps the most futuristic environment visually evoked is when Berton is shown driving through a vast superhighway complex, which consisted of shots of an actual freeway in contemporary Tokyo.

2.  Arrival at the Solaris space station

When Kelvin arrives at the disheveled and cluttered space station, the three reclusive inhabitants do not greet him, and he has to seek them out in their separate quarters.  He learns that one of the three, his old friend Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sarkisyan), has already committed suicide.  So now there are only two people left, Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn).  Sartorius proves to be a hardcore and exploitative Objectivist.  Snaut, on the other hand, is a little more open-minded and curious.

In Gibarian’s old room, Kelvin watches a video that was prepared for him by Gibarian just before his suicide to warn Kelvin about strange phenomena on the satellite and telling him they are all about conscience. Then Kelvin gets occasional glimpses of other people on the satellite – a momentary glimpse of a young woman disappearing down a corridor, for instance.

The next morning Kelvin awakens in his room to see his wife Hari (movingly played by the beautiful Natalya Bondarchuk), who had committed suicide ten years earlier.  Hari is totally loving and affectionate, but Kelvin is in a state of shock.  He knows that this is one of the bizarre phenomena.  Hari seems to know some things about her past, but not everything.  Almost in a disturbed trance, Kelvin bundles his trusting wife into a space shuttle and has her rocketed off into outer space.  Now he is presumably rid of this apparition.

Later, in a single Tarskovskian four-minute take, Sartorius explains to Kelvin that after the scientists had bombarded the Solaris ocean with exploratory x-rays, the ocean seemed to have responded by extracting “islands” from the satellite inhabitants’ memories and creating the human-like phenomena onboard in order to haunt them.  These human forms are not apparitions; they have real physicality.  Sartorius, Snaut, and Gibarian all have, or have had, their own guests, although we only get brief glimpses of them.

3.  Kelvin and Hari
Later Kelvin sees Hari again, lovingly getting into bed with him.  It seems that the Solaris ocean has created another Hari for him.  These “guests” also have unusual properties.  When the distraught Hari, not wanting to be left alone without Kelvin, tears through a metal door to follow him, she appears to get severe injuries.  But before Kelvin can rush to her aid, she miraculously self-repairs and recovers from her wounds.

In another meeting, the dour Sartorius explains to Kelvin that the Solaris guests are not constructed out of ordinary matter.  Instead they are constructed out of neutrinos and can only exist in stable form when they are within the influence of the planet’s force fields.

Gradually Kelvin finds himself irresistibly drawn to the beautiful and loving Hari.  Although his own indifference and negligence had led to her suicide ten years earlier, he is now falling in love with this woman guest. Sartorius dismisses her as an artificial construction, but Kelvin finds her becoming increasingly developed as a full-fledged person the more she interacts with him.

But Sartorius and Snaut have disruptive plans.  They plan to bombard the Solaris ocean with an x-ray image of Kelvin’s own neural encephalogram in the hopes that that will mollify the mysterious being.  Also Sartorius has been working on some unseen equipment he calls “the annihilator”, which is to be used to permanently destroy all the guests.

Then there is an interesting birthday party for Snaut held in the satellite’s ornately decorated lounge and which Sartorius, Kelvin, and Hari attend.  Snaut arrives late and inebriated, whereupon they launch into a discussion ranging over issues concerning the pursuit of physical knowledge and the neglect of the human “inter-being” existence.  Along the way, these scientists cite and quote from the works of Cervantes, Goethe, and Dostoyevsky. Sartorius insults Hari to her face by telling her she is a manufactured thing, not a person. But with Hari progressively learning about herself and the world around her and thereby becoming more human, the viewer is likely to conclude that she is more of a person than Sartorius is.   Moreover, Kelvin is now fully involved with Hari and assures her that he will never go back to Earth and leave her alone.

4.  Return
Kelvin becomes weak and is taken to bed, where he has haunting dreams of his mother and the original Hari, during which he merges their images.  When he recovers, Snaut informs him that Hari voluntarily submitted herself to the annihilator so that her sacrifice would enable her love to return to Earth [12]. Snaut also tells him that he and Sartorius transmitted the encephalogram to the Solaris ocean, and since then no “guests” have appeared in the space station. Instead the ocean seemed to be creating small islands on its surface.  Kelvin becomes resigned to these developments and agrees to return to Earth.

In the final scenes, Kelvin is apparently back on Earth and again visiting his father’s country home.  When he sees his father, he bows down in a humble embrace, seeking reconciliation.  But as the camera pulls back we see that this scene takes place on an island in the Solaris ocean.  

There have been several suggested interpretations of that final scene.  One is that the planet’s ocean, which is now equipped with a full encephalogram of Kelvin’s brain, has been able to construct a physical replica of Kelvin’s entire mental world, including a “guest” realization of Kelvin, himself.  Under this interpretation, the real Kelvin is somewhere else (perhaps now back on the real Earth), and a full guest realization of Kelvin and his world reside on an island in the Solaris ocean.  A second interpretation would have the real Kelvin ensnared in a guest realization of his home life on the island in the ocean.  You may have other suggestions.

Although the principal character and center of focalization is Kris Kelvin, the most compelling character in the story is his wife Hari.  Natalya Bondarchuk’s performance in this role is sensitive and convincing.  She portrays a woman whose initial self-understanding is limited because it has been constructed only out of her husband’s memories of her.  Thus in the early stages she is not even aware of her own earlier suicide, because that was not part of Kris’s direct experience.  In fact in the beginning is she is seen only as a clinging, desperately in love marriage partner.  But as the story progresses, she learns more about herself and develops more as a person.  This development in fact worries Kris, because as she becomes more sophisticated, he wonders if they will have more arguments and grow further apart.  But Hari is not becoming more argumentative; rather, a key aspect of Hari’s progressing humanity is the development of her conscience.  In fact her voluntary “self-annihilation” at the end is directed by her developed conscience: she wants to free Kris from a potentially imprisoned life on the satellite space station.

In any case, we know that conscience is a crucial aspect of our own identities.  When we truly love, it involves a fundamental interaction of our inner being.  So, too, is the case when we feel true compassion for our dear ones.  And many of us are lastingly haunted by memories of occasions when we failed to respond fully to the call of love from dear ones. These were missed opportunities for full self-realization, and we may still wonder how we can reconcile what happened and our actions back then with our true selves – and how those events ultimately changed ourselves.

  1. Phillip Lopate, “Solaris: Inner Space”, The Criterion Collection, (24 May 2011).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “Solaris”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (19 January 2003).   
  3. Richard Eder, “Film::'Solaris,' Russians in Space A Science-Fiction Parable on the Nature of Mankind”, The New York Times, (7 October 1976).   
  4. Acquarello, “Solaris: Exploring the Frontier of the Subconscious”, Cinémathèque Annotations on Film, Issue 4, Senses of Cinema, (March 2000).   
  5. Andrei Tarkovsky, “Dialogue with Andrei Tarkovsky about Science-Fiction on the Screen. Naum Abramov / 1970”, from The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky A Visual Fugue”, Vida T. Johnson & Graham Petric. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1994, quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky Solaris 1972”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XIX:11), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (9 November 2009).   
  6. Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Oxford University Press, (2012).
  7. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema,  University of Texas Press Austin (1986, 2000), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky The Mirror 1974”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (IX:13), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (16 November 2004).      
  8. Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time Reflections on the Cinema, University of Texas Press Austin, (1986), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky Solaris 1972”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XIX:11), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (9 November 2009).    
  9. Alberto Giubilini, “Conscience”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (14 March 2016).   
  10. For more discussion on Interactionism vs. Objectivisim, see my reviews of:
  11. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Living, HarperOne (2017).
  12. We assume here that Snaut is telling the truth and that the good-bye letter from Hari that he reads to Kelvin is authentic.  An alternative hypothesis would be that Sartorius and Snaut selfishly coerced Hari into the annihilator.

“Consider Her Ways”, TAHH, Season 3: Ep.11 - Robert Stevens (1964)

“Consider Her Ways” (1964) was an episode (Season 3,Episode 11) of the popular TV anthology series The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65).  It was directed by Robert Stevens and scripted by Oscar Millard, based on a story by John Wyndham.  Wyndham was a famous British science fiction writer, his most notable work being The Day of the Triffids.  The musical score was provided by Bernard Herrmann. 

In this story a woman wakes up in a hospital maternity ward and discovers she has been transported to a dystopian nightmare.  She, like other patients in the ward, has an enormously bloated body and is treated as a human cow – permanently assigned to continually giving birth to human babies, none of whom she is given a chance to mother.  In this regimented world, there are no men, only women, who are divided up into strict classes, like an ant colony.  The woman (played by Barbara Barrie) is called “Mother Orchid” and is not allowed to read and write – that activity is restricted to another class. But Mother Orchid knows that her real name is Dr. Jane Waterleigh and that she was a successful doctor in our ordinary world.

When Waterleigh proves to be uncooperative, she is threatened by the authorities and eventually introduced to an elderly historian, Laura (Gladys Cooper), to explain things to her.  Laura tells her that several generations ago all the males on Earth were killed by the mutation of a virus developed by a Doctor Perrigan that had been intended to kill rats.  Women were naturally immune to the virus and had learned to survive by the development of “test tube baby” technology.  Laura assures her that their “modern” world is much better than the old days when women were dominated by brutish males.

The medical staff then try to administer a mind-altering drug to Mother Orchis, but she resists and becomes hysterical.  When she comes to, she is back in the real world and is Dr. Waterleigh again.  She is reminded that she had volunteered to take a hallucinatory drug, which had induced her dystopian nightmare.

But Waterleigh soon learns of a Doctor Perrigan (Robert H. Harris) who is currently working to develop a viral strain to kill rats.  She realizes that she has to thwart Perrigan’s world-destroying activities, and she tries to convince him to abandon his work in this area.  When Perrigan refuses to desist, Waterleigh feels she has to take desperate measures.  She pulls out a gun and kills Perrigan and then burns up his laboratory.

When Waterleigh is arrested, she is not remorseful; she did it to save the world.  When a colleague counters that you cannot alter an already-existing future, Waterleigh responds by invoking a multiverse hypothesis.  She claims that at every moment the world is branching into a near-infinite number of parallel future states.  Each of those state will similarly branch into a vast number of states a moment later.  There are innumerable trajectories through this parallel state-space, and “we” just happen to be on one of them.  By committing her act, she claims, she has assured that “our” particular path through the state-space will not land us in a state where all the males have been exterminated.     

An interesting argument, but of course with Hitchcock there is always likely to be a twist at the end of the tale.  And this episode is no exception.  You will have to watch it yourself to see what that twist is.

This is a well-made and thought-provoking tale that was well-suited to be an episode of the contemporary The Twilight Zone (1959-64).

“Le Sourire” - Serge Bourguignon (1960)

Prior to making his sublime feature film debut, Sundays and Cybele (Les Dimanches de Ville d'Avray, 1962), Serge Bourguignon made documentary films in East Asia.  The most celebrated of these was his short "documentary" about a young novice Buddhist monk in Burma, Le Sourire (The Smile, 1960), which won the Short Film Palme d'Or at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.

This 22-minute film follows an afternoon’s journey by two Buddhist monks, an elderly monk and a ten-year-old novitiate, as they travel on foot from their monastery to a great holy pagoda in Rangoon (Yangon). There is no dialogue in the film, just some atmospheric music by Georges Delerue and some brief voiceover by Michel Bouquet. Although the film has the character of a documentary account, it is clear that the scenes are carefully staged by Bourguignon and cinematographer Louis Miaille, with smoothly edited closeups where appropriate.

With respect to the two monks presented in the film, they offer contrasting profiles:
  • U Narada is the elderly “monk who in the evening of his life advances on the path of peace and silent wisdom”.  He is disciplined, calm, and peaceful.  In voiceover he recites:
    “I am nobody’s master, I am nobody’s servant.  He who has riches grieves over his riches.  He who has water buffalo grieves over his water buffalo.  He who has sons grieves over his sons. . . . But he who has wisdom rejoices in peace.”
  • Aung, the young novice on whom the film is primarily focalized, strives to evince monastic solemnity like that of U Narada.  But, of course, he is an innocent young boy full of the wonder of life. 
Initially Aung and U are separately seen at a local market presenting their alms bowls to market stall attendants. In imitation of senior monks like U Narada, Aung adopts a frowning countenance, which he presumably feels is a required demonstration of detachment. Then U and Aung head off together on their journey  to Rangoon. Along the way, Aung stops for distractions he sees, and he keeps falling behind U’s disciplined pace. But these distracting encounters, which can be taken as metaphors about nature and life, make up the core of the film. Most of them wind up eliciting smiles from the curious boy.
  • Distractions in Nature 1
    Running along to catch up to U, Aung stops to avoid stepping on a large beetle, which he picks up and safely deposits in a bush.  Then he is further distracted by the sight of a water buffalo, and he crawls up to it so he can pet its horns.  This encounter makes him smile, and then he rushes off to catch up with U.
  • Distractions in Nature 2 
    Aung is distracted by a colorful butterfly and then by the pattern of a large leaf.  He takes out part of the leaf’s inner sections in order to form an interesting branched pattern, whose resulting branched structure he likens to that of a large tree that he sees in front of him. This also makes him smile.
  • Village Distractions 1
    Up ahead, U impassively strides past a village jujutsu-like wrestling match. But Aung following along is fascinated and briefly stops to watch.  Aung is also fascinated and smiles when he sees some young women at a water well playfully throwing water at each other.
  • Village Distractions 2 
    Later an older women smoking under a tree beside the road ignores U as he strides past, but she offers some food as alms to Aung when he runs by a bit later. Again Aung smiles.  Then Aung is fascinated to see some carnival performers practicing with their marionettes.  They playfully perform for Aung, and the boy smiles.
Finally, Aung catches up with U, and they both arrive at the great pagoda in Rangoon. Here the variegated vitality of the outer world is replaced by the orderly ritual of the monastic order. The monks are all seen marching in a line and ritualistically bowing down to pray in unison. Aung, too, resumes his serious countenance and prays in unison with the other novitiates.  On voiceover the sermonizing words of the Buddha recite:
          “He who desires nothing is at peace.
            He who possesses nothing is at peace. 
            He who lives on alms is at peace. 
            He who radiates love to all creatures that breathe
            . . . no insect will sting him. . .no serpent will bite him. 
            Give the love in your heart to creatures with no legs. 
            Give the love in your heart to creatures with two legs.
            Give the love in your heart to creatures with four legs. 
            . . . to every living creature, to plants and rocks,
            . . . to fire and air give the love in your heart. . . .
            and you will possess the consciousness that has no name.”
In the end Aung, with a serious expression now on his face, bows down to U and offers his cup  to him. This time, though, they both break out into irrepressible smiles, in a harmonious exchange of benignity.

Le Sourire is a contemplative film that avoids dogma and is open to your interpretation.  To me the two perspectives of U Narada and Aung are complementary. U Narada embodies the peaceful serenity of nonjudgmental and compassionate acceptance. But Aung embodies an equally important perspective – the innocent joie de vivre that promises benevolent engagement. It is positive engagement, not withdrawal, that raises us up to enlightened existence. This is signaled throughout the film by Aung’s infectious smile.

Serge Bourguignon’s filmmaking career was just taking off with this film, but unfortunately it soon stalled.  Despite the greatness of his subsequent work, Sundays and Cybele, which led to an invitation to direct films in Hollywood, he was only able to make a few modestly received films after that resounding success.  But Le Sourire is still a compelling and interesting achievement, and we can be thankful that it served as a doorway to the making of Sundays and Cybele.

“Enough Rope for Two”, AHP, Season Three: Episode 7 - Paul Henreid (1957)

“Enough Rope for Two”, an episode on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television anthology series (Season 3, Episode 7), is another tale of unscrupulous people consumed by greed.  Scripted by Joel Murcott and based on Clark Howard’s story, the episode was directed by well-known actor-director Paul Henreid.  In many ways it is similar to the subsequent episode, “Water’s Edge” (1965) that appeared later on the The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (Season Three, Episode 3).  Both tales concern someone getting out of prison and seeking to recover lost stolen loot that the police had never found.  But both episodes suffer from the same deficiency: all of the principal characters are so dishonest and reprehensible that the viewer is unlikely to have a vicarious engagement with any of them.  Nevertheless, a feature of this episode is the number of double-crossings (DXs) that take place among those teaming up to steal the loot.

The story begins with Joe Kedzie (played by Steven Hill) getting out of prison after serving a ten-year sentence for stealing $100,000.  The backstory is revealed that Joe’s criminal partner, Maxie (Steve Brodie) had secretly conspired with Joe’s girlfriend Madge (Jean Hagen) to have Joe arrested for the crime so that they could have all the $!00,000 to themselves.   We can call that double-crossing #1 (DX1).   But Joe had been suspicious about his partners and had secretly stashed the loot out in the Mojave Desert before his arrest (double-crossing #2 – DX2).

Now they all meet again in Madge’s apartment and feign camaraderie, but their mutual hostility is barely concealed.  They go to a hardware supply store to buy the shovels, gear, and 50 feet of rope, that they will need to dig up the loot that Joe had hidden at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft that is 100 miles out in the barren Mojave Desert.  At the store Joe secretly buys a pistol and bullets that he apparently intends to use to kill Maxie (DX3).  But Maxie happens to see this transaction in a mirror, and so he surreptitiously gives Madge a knife that he wants her to use to kill Joe (DX4).

When they get to the abandoned mine shaft out in the searing desert, Joe reveals that he knows that Maxie and Madge had cheated on him.  He quickly shoots Maxie dead (and accidentally in the process puts a bullet hole in their water canteen), and then he slaps Madge to the ground.  Then Joe lowers himself down the narrow mine shaft using the rope tied at one end to the tow hitch of their rented jeep. 

At the bottom of the mine shaft, Joe digs up the parceled cash and has Madge lower a string so she can pull it up out of the shaft.  Once Madge has the cash in her hands and with Joe now  climbing up on the rope, she starts thinking she can keep all the loot for herself.  So she cuts the rope with her knife, and Joe crashes down to the bottom (DX5).  But when she gets into the jeep to make her getaway, she realizes that the key to the jeep is with Joe down in the mine shaft.

So Madge calls down to Joe and tells him that the rope broke and now that the remaining rope is too short, she needs the key to the jeep in order to move the jeep closer to the shaft so that the rope will be long enough to reach Joe.  She tells him to place the key on the string she will lower.  Joe doesn’t trust her, but Madge says she will lower the cash parcel back down on the string to guarantee that she won’t run off with the money this time (DX6).

Joe still doesn’t trust her, but if he doesn’t agree to Madge’s request, they will both die of thirst out in the desert wasteland.  Will there be one more double-crossing?  You will have to watch this episode to find out what happens in the end.

Overall, this episode is well produced, with very effective acting on the part of the three principals.  Although the performances are very emphatic, they go well with the overheated dramatics associated with all the double-crossings.  The only drawback, as mentioned above, is  that there are no characters with whom the viewer can sympathize in this tale.  They are all just too malicious.

Rob Marshall

Films of Rob Marshall:

“Chicago” - Rob Marshall (2002)

Outstanding cultural works are popularly assumed to be always the products of some creative genius, an auteur who somehow masterminded the whole thing.  But there are sometimes striking exceptions to this pattern, such as the 2002 film musical Chicago.  It was the evolved artistic blend that emerged from a number of creative contributors that combined to make one of the greatest films.

Its history starts with the 1926 stage play, Chicago, by Maurine Dallas Watkins.  This was a biting satirical drama that was inspired by Watkins’s coverage as a newspaper journalist of two Chicago murder trials involving young women who were ultimately acquitted of their murder charges.  A film version of this play was then produced by Cecil B. Demille in 1927.  The story was later adapted by Ben Hecht and Nunnally Johnson for the 1942 comedy Roxie Hart, which was directed by William Wellman and starred Ginger Rogers.

In the 1960s famed director, choreographer, and performer Bob Fosse became interested in making a musical out of Watkins’s play but was only able to secure the rights after her death in 1969.  This led to the production of the hit musical stage play Chicago (1975), which was directed and choreographed by Fosse.   The music for this play was written by John Kander, and the lyrics were by Fred Ebb, with the play’s book written by Ebb and Fosse. 

Although Fosse was also a  famous film director (for example, Cabaret, 1972; and All That Jazz, 1979) and the 1975 Chicago musical  was enormously successful, the film version was not produced until 2002, long after Fosse’s death.  On this occasion, although it was still based on the 1975 musical, a new screenplay was written by Bill Condon, and new choreography was provided by Rob Marshall, who also directed the film.

In addition to these multiple and varied authorial contributions, the film featured outstanding technical production contributions in many areas.  All in all, the film won 6 Oscars, including one for Best Picture, and it was nominated for 6 other Oscars.

The film’s story concerns the two young women:
  • Roxie Hart (played by Renée Zellweger) is a housewife, but she aspires to the glamour and glory of being a vaudeville singer.  She is having an affair with a man who she believes has connections and can advance her career, but who in fact is a fraud who is only abusively using her for sex.  When Roxie finds out about her lover’s deceit, she kills the man and is soon arrested for murder.
  • Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a successful vaudeville singer and dancer who is initially Roxie’s idol.  When Velma finds her husband in bed with her sister, she shoots and kills both of them.  She, too, is arrested and thrown into the Cook County jail.
There is no doubt about the guilt of these two women.  Their crimes are covered early and quickly to show us that they are both definitely murderers.  The story’s focus instead is on how these women become celebrities in the public eye and use that status to sway the justice system in order to avoid punishment.  As such we could say that the film’s message, like that of the original stage play, is a cynical comment on the public’s fawning obsession with celebrity. 

But the film’s music evokes somewhat different and more compelling feelings – the initially (as stemming from early childhood) innocent yearning for self-fulfillment. Indeed there are primitive, naive emotions expressed by all the principals in this story – emotions that we may not entirely endorse but which we can all recognize and feel. The fact that the principal protagonist, Roxie, is a pretty and impressionable young woman and that much of the story is seen from her perspective accentuates the overall mood of feminine longing. In fact much of the film’s story is presented through the staged musical numbers, which are expressionistically emotional  imaginings, mostly on the part  of Roxie, of the world around her.  This is what makes the film great: expressionistic vaudeville musical numbers primarily telling the story, with other, straight dialogue merely supplementing and filling in the spaces between those narrative-driving musical numbers [1].

Some songs that I particularly liked are
  • "Funny Honey"
    After killing her paramour, Roxie had convinced her loving, cuckolded husband, Amos (John C. Reilly), to shield her and take the rap.  So in her imagination she sings a cabaret-style song of appreciation for her husband’s sweet loving nature.
  • "When You're Good to Mama"
    After Roxie is jailed, she is introduced to the cynically corrupt prison matron, Mama Morton (Queen Latifah), who warns all her women prisoners that they had better do the “right” things to stay on her good side.
  • "Cell Block Tango".  This is my favorite song in the film, and it features the raw emotions of the vengeful women cellmates who are murderers, expressing their angry remorselessness with the refrain:
         "He had it coming,
           He had it coming.
           He only had himself to blame!
           If you'd have been there, if you'd have heard it
           I betcha you would have done the same!"
  • "All I Care About"
    Mama Morton advises Roxie that she had better hire the cynical and shifty lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere).  In Roxie’s imagination, though, he appears, disingenuously, as a romantic idealist, which is his exact opposite.
  • "We Both Reached for the Gun"
    In Roxie’s imagination, Billy Flynn is depicted guiding Roxie’s courtroom testimony as a puppetmaster and ventriloquist, with Roxie sitting on his knee mouthing his words as a stage dummy.  This is an especially memorable contrivance and setting.
  • "Mister Cellophane"
    The only sincere and genuine principal in this story is Amos, Roxie’s forgotten husband.  Here he performs a melancholy vaudeville sad sack number bemoaning his perpetually overlooked status.  Even he wants celebrity no matter how hopeless that aspiration might be.
  • "Razzle Dazzle"
    In this song and dance number, Billy Flynn and company celebrate the effectiveness of smoke-and-mirrors showmanship to win the day in court.  Any lucid appeals to justice and moral accountability, of course, are assumed to be inconsequential.
  • "Class"
    One of the very best songs in the show, “Class”, was unaccountably omitted from the movie’s 2002 release, although it was included in some later media releases [2].  It is sung by Velma and Mama Morton, who wistfully wonder, “whatever happened to class?”
In the end, the craftiness of Roxie and Billy Flynn win the day, and both Roxie and Velma are freed.  Although they have always been rivals, their effervescent utilitarian instincts lead them to team up and form their own singing and dancing team.  In this dreamworld, at least, there is a happy ending.

Almost all the songs in the film feature spectacular dancing, including impressive dancing by Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere. Usually, Broadway musical choreography is designed to be seen from the distance by a seated audience in a theater.  So when the film version is made, it is natural to show much of the dancing in long shots and relatively long takes.  Here in Chicago, however, the dances are shown with frequent closer-in shots and lots of tight editing.  This is all done very skillfully so that the fluid flow of the dancing is maintained and even enhanced.  I have not seen Bob Fosse’s choreography for the stage production of the musical, but I can say that Rob Marshall’s choreography here in this film is superb.  It is particularly attuned for the cinema and greatly contributes to the emotive narrative flow.

Although the acting in the film is perforce exaggerated, in line with the film’s overall expressionistic intent, the performances of the principal characters on the part of Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly are all very effective.  Crucial in this regard is the performance of Renée Zellweger, whose rubbery and emotive facial expressions, combined with her energetic sincerity, carried the emotional flow of the film (which was what this narrative was all about).  Although Catherine Zeta-Jones’s emphatic performance and dancing drew more critical praises, it was Zellweger who placed her signature stamp on this film.

  1. Roger Ebert, “Chicago”, RogerEbert.com, (27 December 2002).    
  2. You may be able to see a clip of this song here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lAqKm1GY5Q