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May 17, 2006

Alberto Cavalcanti

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The movie I've enjoyed most in recent months is one that I wasn't even aware of until I ordered it up from Netflix: the 1947 British gangster-noir, "They Made Me a Fugitive." (Buyable, Netflixable.) A downbeat, atmospheric chase thriller, the film stars one of my favorite leading men, Trevor Howard, in a beautifully hard-bitten performance. But what's most striking about the film is its brio. The film has scads of silent-movie-like visual excitement as well as an evocative and experimental audio track. It's startling to watch postwar British subject matter presented with this kind of surreal and poetic yet fast-paced extravagance.

What a great combo: All those British actors, as proficient as ever but more physical and lowdown than they usually are; a screenplay that's eloquent and witty yet not in love with its own fluency; a juicy and striking mise-en-scene (film-geek talk for, roughly, the "production" part of a movie -- settings, lighting, costumes, etc.) that doesn't bog the action down; a driving and tense narrative ... Escapes, quick character sketches, wet alleyways, foggy waterfronts ... Memorably snarling offhand dialogue ... A whip-cracking pace ... Violence that leaves a real sting ... The film is tough and dark, but it's a turn-on too. It's that filmbuff ideal, in other words: a wide-awake dream. I liked "They Made Me a Fugitive" as much as I liked the similar but much-better-known Britnoir, "Night and the City."

The film was written by Noel Langley from a crime novel by Jackson Budd -- I was amused to learn that eight years before, Langley had adapted "The Wizard of Oz." And it was directed by one of my favorite "minor" film artists, the Brazilian-born Alberto Cavalcanti. I'm a fan partly because of his talent. Cavalcanti's rhythms were distinctive: flamboyant yet dark, angular yet sexy -- I think of his touch as "bongo Expressionism." He was playful, yet not in a skating-over-the-surface way; he dug into his material looking for its sensitive spots.

And Cavalcanti had an unmatched talent for hyper-stylized caricature: for pushing actors and performances to the point where they're as extreme and as funny-sinister as figures in Hogarth. The villain in "They Made Me a Fugitive" is one example among many. A smalltime criminal boss played with cocky assurance by Griffith Jones, he's both absurd and terrifying.

But Cavalcanti is a fave of mine as well for the way he keeps turning up, Zelig-like, throughout film history. He was born in Rio in 1897, and studied to be an architect in Geneva. He made it to Paris while still a young man, and hung out with avant-gardists, working as a writer and art director on silent movies. One of his early films was a "symphony of the city"-style documentary that is said to have inspired Dziga Vertov's legendary "The Man With a Movie Camera."

Cavalcanti moved to England at the invitation of the documentary guru John Grierson; he worked on numerous films in a variety of capacities; and he switched to Ealing Studios, where he made "Went the Day Well?" and other films. He moved back to Brazil soon after "They Made Me a Fugitive" -- then left Brazil under political suspicion, returning to Europe where he continued making films until the late 1970s. He died in 1982. Despite this record, I don't know any film buffs who have seen more than a few of Cavalcanti's many films. As for myself ... Although I'm a Cavalcanti fan, I hadn't even been aware of "They Made Me a Fugitive" until I stumbled across it on Netflix.

Cavalcanti is best-known as the director of the Michael Redgrave segment in the anthology film "Dead of Night," the section about an unstable ventriloquist who is taken over by his puppet. (The idea was reworked at feature-film length in 1978 in "Magic," with Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margaret.) The segment deserves its reputation, IMHO: it's a jolt of high-strung inspiration. In 1947, Cavalcanti made a version of Dickens' "Nicholas Nickleby" that I like far better than I do David Lean's well-known Dickens films. It's less respectful than the Lean films, and considerably harsher. It feels less like an adapation of a classic, as well as truer to what the experience of reading Dickens can be like.

The rap on Cavalcanti is that he could indeed be brilliant, but that he couldn't sustain the inspiration for longer than 20 minutes. This is why some critics maintain that his "Dead of Night" episode represents him at his best -- it's brilliant, and then it's over. "They Made Me a Fugitive" is indeed guilty of a certain amount of patchiness. But it's just as guilty of picking itself up and blasting off all over again. Consistency and unity are often overrated, IMHO. I found "They Made Me a Criminal" a wonderfully exciting film: genre dynamite.

You can rent the movie here, or buy it here. Sadly, "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Dead of Night" don't seem to be available on DVD, but you can buy a copy of "Nicholas Nickleby" on videocassette here. The BFI has a well-done and informative page on Cavalcanti here. A book about Cavalcanti by the historian and critic Ian Aitken can be bought from British Amazon. It seems to be the standard, and maybe only, work. I wrote about the Noir film tradition here.



posted by Michael at May 17, 2006


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