Wednesday, April 17, 2013

History of Film Criticism: Godard on The Wrong Man

"One of the exciting and maddening features of Jean-Luc Godard's work is that everything he touches invariably seems to lead to a disquisition on the nature and possibilities of cinema," writes Daniel Morgan in his new book Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema. This isn't only appropriate to describe Godard's late films, as Morgan argues, but also regarding his entire body of work including his early film criticism at Cahiers du Cinéma.

The best resource for finding Godard's early Cahiers writing in English is Godard on Godard (translated and edited by Tom Milne and Jean Narboni). On the book, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes in his essay Theory and Practice: The Criticism of Jean-Luc Godard from Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, 
“Generally less pugnacious than Truffaut, less logical than Rivette, and less Catholic than either Chabrol or Rohmer, Godard tops all four as a critic on a few occasions when he works at full steam. In Defense and Illustration of Classical Construction (a brilliant riposte to Bazin’s anti-montage theories), Take Your Own Tours (a mosaic of travelogue, festival reporting, and aesthetics), and review of The Wrong Man, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, an Man of the West, he displays rigor, imagination, and feeling for nuance that few other critics of the period have equaled [...] While a few (notably reviews of Bitter Victory and Montparnasse 19) forsake critical decorum altogether, take off into the clouds, and deliver impassioned dithyrambs to the gods who inspired the ascent – moving and daring declarations even when one is less than clear about the precise meanings.”
Godard's review of Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory Au delà des étoiles opens with his famous proclamation of medium-specificity,
"There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray."
In one entry Godard answers Bazin's question What is Cinema?,
“Yet the fact that a landscape may be a state of mind does not necessarily mean that poetry is only captured by chance, as our too clever documentarist would have us believe, but that the natural order corresponds to that of the heart and mind. Flaherty’s genius, after all, is not so far removed from that of Hitchcock – Nanook hunting his prey is like a killer stalking his victims – and lies in identifying time with the desire which consumes it, guilt with suffering, fear and remorse with pleasure, and in making of space the tangible terrain of one’s uneasiness. Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self. This is the sort of depth I mean. Obviously it assumes an idea of man which is hardly revolutionary, and which the great film-makers from Griffith to Renoir were too conservative to dare to deny. So, to the question ‘What is Cinema?’ I would first reply: the expression of lofty sentiments.”
One of the great reviews in Godard on Godard is that of Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (which is below, that I transcribed from the book). The debt Godard pays to Hithcock, whether in his interviews filled with cryptic remarks or in Histoire(s) du cinéma, can be traced back to this review. Annette Michelson, addressing it in her preface to the book, "Among the earliest and finest formulations of his notion of a cinematic continuum of fiction and documentary film, is the 1957 essay on Hitchcock's The Wrong Man."

Rosenbaum has another article Le Vrai Coupable: Two Kinds of Criticism in Godard’s Work that elaborates on Godard's two kinds of criticism, “Since the outset of his career, Godard has been interested in two kinds of criticism — film criticism and social criticism — and these two interests are apparent in practically everything he does and says as an artist.” According to Rosenbaum, "what I regard as Godard’s best single film review — his analysis of The Wrong Man, Le Cinéma et son double, published in Cahiers du cinéma in June 1957." He elaborates, "In Le Cinéma et son double, Godard’s analysis of Hitchcock is concerned mainly with stylistic articulations of states of consciousness, metaphysical states of being, and thematic and dramatic significations."

Antoine de Baecque, on the other hand, describes the writing in Cahiers as “ambitious, clearly literary, voluntary ignoring technical aspects of the cinema and the language of journalism, but instead focusing on a philosophical and universal discourse.” This quasi-allegorical prose emerged from Bazin’s Christian background. De Baecque also writes, “Cahiers has never known a way to talk about cinema that wasn’t a romantic register […] The magazine has to serve this: a box that receives little notes of love addressed to certain auteurs of cinema.”

In each new issues of Cahiers there is almost a competition between all of the films being released that month in Paris to get on the cover and be that issue's Événement. Afterwards there is the Cahiers Critique, which are still highly valued, and then finally Notes sur d’autres films. The films and filmmakers' worth is expressed by how much space, whether it is a couple of sentences or paragraphs or pages, their reviews get in the magazine. The writers define themselves by what films they end up reviewing and how they write about them. As I tried to illustrate in my recent Shyamalan and De Palma posts, the reviews are in continuity with what has been printed about the filmmakers in the past. There is an over sixty year tradition of film criticism at Cahiers, which started out with some critics that would become the French New Wave, and today's writers reflect that heritage. - D.D.

*****

The Wrong Man. Le Cinéma et son double by Jean-Luc Godard
First Act. The Stork Club, as everyone knows, is one of the most sophisticated rendezvous in New Yrok. Air-conditiong, whiff of Havanas, hi-fi lipstick … but the camera, in the room which is emptying behind the credits, is focused not on the neurotic stars, nor on the millionaires out on the town. It gradually draws closer to the mild little orchestra playing a languid blues. The Stork Club closes. Christopher Balestrero (Henry Fonda) plucks a last chord, puts away his double-bass, and, after wishing the doorman good night, leaves. Just then, because of the angle at which the scene is shot, two policemen seem to close in on him. It is just chance. They pass him and continue on their beat. In this shot Hitchcock is symbolizing, even more than Balestrero’s imminent arrest, the primordial role which will be played by chance in The Wrong Man, leaving its unmistakable mark on every foot of it. Psychology, in the usual sense of the word, matters little to the director of The Man Who Knew Too Much: all that counts here are the twists of destiny.
            Hitchcock, moreover, playing the game and playing it fair, has warned the spectator even before the credits. In violently contrasted lighting, one speaks: ‘This films is unlike any of my other films. There is no suspense. Nothing but the truth.’ One must read between the lines. The only suspense in The Wrong Man is that of chance itself. The subject of this film lies less in the unexpectedness of events than in their probability. With each shot, each transition, each composition, Hitchcock does the only thing possible for the rather paradoxical but compelling reason that he could do anything he liked. “Che sera, sera’, because What Will Be Has Been.
            To return to the story. Balestrero – Manny to his friends – takes the subway home to sleep the sleep of the just. During the journey, he annotates the racing results in his paper. He sometimes gambles small sums, more for something to do than from a lust to win. When his wife Rose (Vera Miles) asks him about it, he says that the horses interest him less than seeing how much he might have won or lost on imaginary bets, which he often makes for his own amusement and because he enjoying calculating, which, as he says, its his business as a musician[i]. It is worth noting in passing that none of the shots of the newspaper Balestrero is reading in the subway is expendable. Throughout his entire career, Hitchcock has never used an unnecessary shot. Even the most anodyne of them invariably serve the plot, which they enrich rather as the ‘touch’ beloved of the Impressionists enriched their paintings. They acquire their particular meaning only when seen in the context of the whole. In the newspaper, for instance, we are shown an automobile advertisement. We realize that Balestrero has a wife and two children because a young woman and two children are grouped round the car, making our unassuming hero smile. Another, even better, example: in the paper there is also an advertisement for an insurance company. This shot explains why Balestrero promptly things of borrowing on his insurance policy when Rose, suffering with a wisdom tooth, asks him for three hundred dollars to pay the dentist. Closing the discussion with Rose, is already in bed, comes in the first of five or six marvelous close-ups which illuminate the film with brilliant flashes worthy of Murnau, not to mention Dreyer. After having gently, femininely one might say, complained about her teeth, Rose readily lets herself be persuaded that she is the sweetest wife in the world. She asks Manny to be good and let her go to sleep. Reaction shot and long close-up of Henry Fonda staring abstractedly, pondering, thinking, being. In connection with this, there is a similar close-up in an important scene in the last reel but one, after Rose’s examination by a psychiatrist[ii], when Balestrero decides to send Rose, now mad, to the best clinic he can find. The beauty of each of these close-ups, with their searching attention to the passage of time, comes from the sense that necessity is intruding on triviality, essence on existence. The beauty of Henry Fonda’s face during this extraordinary second which becomes interminable is comparable to that of the young Alcibiades described by Plato in The Banquet. Its only criterion is the exact truth. We are watching the most fantastic of adventures because we are watching the most perfect, the most exemplary, of documentaries. These two close-ups are morally bound to end in the same way. In one, Balestrero tells the psychiatrist, ‘I want the best for her.’ Manny loves Rose even more because her fears for their happiness in this life have driven her mad 0 an irrefutable proof of their love for each other. In the other, the close-up ends with a pan on Fonda as he bends to kiss very Miles in the hollow of her neck.
            The following morning, while pacifying his squabbling sons, Balestrero decides to ask the insurance company how much money he can borrow on Rose’s policy. But as he enters the insurance office, a clerk thinks she recognizes him as the man who held up the office a few months ago. Alerted, the police are waiting for Manny outside his house and take him away for questioning without giving him time to tell Rose. At the police-station he learns that he is suspected of not one, but a whole series of hold-ups in local stores. The sums stolen are small – thirty, forty-five, seventy dollars. But the sense of a machine grinding inexorably on is made even stronger by the fact that the police, witnesses and décor are all rather grey, seedy and weird. Here the script effortlessly acquires that naturalness in invention which distinguished all Griffith’s films. As a result, a simple procedure like the reverse angle shot recovers its original effectiveness, thanks to the ‘truth’ of the plot’s premises. The shot changes are conditioned solely and simply by changes in viewpoint. For instance, when the two insurance company ladies have to pick out Balestrero from a line of suspects, a lesser director might have used a lateral tracking shot as they count ‘One, two, three, four’, alternating between the women and the police, and coming to rest each time on Fonda, who is fourth in the identity parade. But this way we would be given only the separate viewpoints of the women, the police and the innocent suspect. Hitchcock gives us them all rolled into one. We hear, but do not see, the women counting to four; the camera turns away from Fonda for a shot of the police chief, whose eyes move four times in succession. A close-up of the inspector would also have been a mistake, for it is not his point of view which matters (his eyes move with professional detachment, without expression) but Balestrero’s, whom one imagines to be terrified precisely this mechanical response.
            Even more than a moral lesson, The Wrong Man is a lesson in mise en scene every foot of the way. In the example I have just cited, Hitchcock was able to assemble the equivalent of several close-ups in a single shot, giving them a force they would not have had individually. Above all – and this is the important thing – he did it deliberately and at precisely the right moment. When necessary, he will also do the reverse, using a series of rapid close-ups as the equivalent of a master shot. Hitchcock makes us experience the taking of fingerprints – that mark of shame, once burned into the accused’s flesh by an executioner with a red-hot iron – with terrible immediacy. Thumb, index, second finger inked, the policeman’s face, Fonda dazed, distortion of the wrist as the fingers are pressed on the card, the shots overlapping each other because they are cut exclusively with the movement, in a rapid, frenzied montage reminiscent of Mr. Arkadin.
            The lull which follows, as his pockets are emptied before he spends his first night in prison, merely emphasizes the physical and moral vacuum in which Balestrero finds himself with strength enough only to see, to register. This explains why, immediately after this, Hitchcock resorts to the most elementary of techniques for Balestrero’s arrival in his cell. What might have seemed supreme affectation coming from the most celebrated of camera virtuosi is in fact a proof of his unpretentiousness. As his adventure is lived, he presents it, like Bresson, without embellishment. Balestrero enters his cell, he looks at the bed – reverse angled of the bed; the washbasin – reserve angle of the washbasin; he looks up –reverse angle of the ceiling and wall; he looks at the bars – reverse angle of the bars. We realize that he is seeing without looking (Lieutenant Fontaine does the exact opposite), just as during the trial he hears without listening. Once again Alfred Hitchcock proves that the cinema today is better fitted than either philosophy of the novel to convey the basic data of consciousness. Balestrero leans wearily against the wall, as though drunk with shame. He shuts his eyes firmly, trying for a second to pull himself together. Framing him in medium shot, the camera begins to describe increasingly rapid circles round him in an axis perpendicular to the wall against which he is leaning. This gyratory movements serves as a transition to the following shot, which shows Balestrero being brought into court the following morning to determine according to the American custom, whether he will b e sent to trial or not.
            As so often, it is in these transitions that Hitchcock analyses feelings and subjective impressions too insignificant to find their way into an important scene. Through this camera movement he manages to express a purely physical trait: the contraction of the eyelids as Fonda closes them, the force with which they press on the eyeballs for a fraction of a second, creating in the sensory imagination a vertiginous kaleidoscope of abstractions which only an equally extravagant camera movement could evoke successfully. A film comprising only such notations would be nothing; but one in which they are thrown into the bargain – that film is everything.
            Since Rear Window, Hitchcock has deliberately multiplied this sort ‘epidermic’ effect, and if he relegates the plot thread to the background, he does so the better to reveal its palpable beauty by fits and starts. These neo-realist notations are never gratuitous. They are so many precipitates of a body whose nature – to paraphrase La Bruyere –reveals itself once thrown into the battle of the world.
            To look around oneself is to live free. So the cinema which reproduces life, must film characters who look around them. The tragedy of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero is that he can no longer look around. And Hitchcock is right to claim that The Wrong Man is not a suspense film like his previous ones, because it is the reverse. The suspense no longer even stems from the fact what one knew would happen does happen, as in The Man Who Knew Too Muchm but on the contrary from the fact that what one was afraid of happening does not finally happen. Poor Clouzot, who still believes in Fantomas, whereas in The Wrong Man the terror arises because suspense itself is the phantom.
            Admirable in this respect is the scene, beautifully shot by Robert Burks, where the police-van taking Balestrero to the courthouse crosses a suspension-bridge: a small black silhouette rattling along in the shadow of the huge girders and strangely reminiscent of Nosferatu’s carriage arriving in the land of phantoms. Manny, in fact, no longer really knows whether it is he or other people who have become ghosts. The few shots of streets flashing by one after another before he sees his wife again in the courtroom seem, both to him and to us, like a mirage. Rose herself is a mirage. She can be glimpsed dimly in the background when Balestrero is refused bail because he cannot raise the necessary 7,500 dollars. Along with other prisoners he is taken to the prison on Long Island while waiting to appear before the District Attorney. Insulted and injured: this might be the Dostoievskian subtitle to the Second and Third Acts, which end with Balestrero once again being imprisoned among the common law criminals.
            The bad dream has become reality. In I Confess, Father Logan refused to talk. In The Wrong Man, Balestrero comes to mistrust language itself, first from shame, then from lucidity. In the world of detention which becomes his, he no longer looks at anything but the feet of the man walking in front of him. Here Hitchcock repeats the technique of tracking backwards, followed by a reverse angle track forward, used in the last of I Confess, where Karl Malden watches, over a subordinate’s shoulder, Anne Baxter talking to Montgomery Clift. Another effect, this time from The Man Who Knew Too Much – the lateral tracking shot over notes of music in close-up – is repeated here when Manny, at the police-station, rereads the note which the police dictated to him and notices that he has made the same spelling mistake as the real criminal. It is worth noting, however, that in The Wrong Man these three effects are used at less critical moments than in the earlier films, and strengthen these moments the more because they are unassumingly placed[iii]. There can be no better proof that Hitch never repeats a device without being perfectly aware of cause and effect. Today he uses his great discoveries as aesthetic conclusion rather than postulate.
            Thus, the treatment of a scene in a single shot has never been better justified than during the second imprisonment when Manny, seen from the back, enters his cell: the steel doors closes behind him, cutting off the camera’s view, which then reframes him through the spy-hole. A few minutes pass. Manny, a genuine ‘Dead man on leave’, seems completely amorphous. Then one hears off-screen cries of ‘Balestrero! Balestrero!’, growing louder and louder. Manny faces the camera, which retreats to frame the door again with Manny’s eyes seen in the CinemaScope-shaped spy-hole. This composition repeats the one where Manny, seated between the two policemen after his arrest, sees the driver’s eyes watching him in the driving-mirror of the Chevrlet. Repeats it, but reverses its meaning. The camera retreats before Manny after having pushed him into the cell. A first miracle enters the lists. The film seesaws completely.
            Fourth Act. Manny is released on bail. The money has been paid by his brother-in-law, waiting for him outside with Rose, who now becomes the central character for the rest of the film. Hitchcock indicates this by a single shot. While Balestrero is reunited with his sons, Rose telephones a lawyer and the director lingers over this telephone call. Pointlessly, it would seem. But not so. It is in this shot that we find once again the favourite transference of guilt theme of the director of Strangers on a Train.
            In The Wrong Man, the transference no longer resides in the innocent man’s assumption of the real murderer’s crime, but in the exchange of Manny’s liberty against Rose’s. As the accusation is false, the transference is false; or rather, a transference of innocence. The wrong man becomes the wrong woman: Hitchcock, we must not forget, is more than anyone else the director of the couple. Rose’s innocence is here taken in its original sense of naïveté. Rose is innocent enough to believe herself guilty for having doubted her husband’s innocence one second; less even than that, for having believed it possible to doubt. She is punished for having feared the possibility of something which never happens, a possibility which she had no cause to fear since she lover her husband.
            Naïveté, even at its most candid, often displays the most subtle emotions. Rose’s innocence – her stupidity, almost – is the sole cause of her sudden madness. Think of the scene in which, worried about Balestrero’s absence, she receives a telephone call from the police, who tell her about the accusations against him. Rose’s first reaction is curious: ‘I thought it was something like that.’ She says precisely what she would never dream of thinking, what she never will think. But the simple fact of having said it is enough to make her doubt herself. The most childlike mind is also the proudest. Rose must pay for the folly of her tongue with madness.
            Goethe and Balzac have described heroines like this, who discover in the terrifying logic of their passion, first the cause of, and then a natural pasture for their physical degradation[iv]. A modern Odile or Honorine, Rose does all she can to help Manny find the alibis their attorney wants to establish. As they were on holiday at the time of the hold-ups, they hunt for the people they played cards with so as to be able to refute the evidence. During the quest, Rose, alas, cannot prevent herself from gradually realizing that she is helping her husband more out of duty than from the natural inclination of her heart. The Fourth Act ends with the eruption into the open of this discovery, which had been gnawing Rose from within. Manny learns that his last witness is dead. Rose bursts into hysterical laughter. A coup de theatre? No. As Aristotle says: it is probable that many things happen against probability. If Rose goes mad from remorse, it is because it is logical that madness should happen against logic.
            Each crucial scene in The Wrong Man has in effect its respondent, its ‘double’, which justifies it on the narrative level while at the same time ‘redoubling’ its intensity on the dramatic level[v]. Rose’s burst of laughter echoes that of the little girls who now live in the apartment belonging to one of the missing witnesses. The domestic scene where she hits Balestrero is the double – the negative – of the one at the beginning of the film in which she jokingly expresses mild doubts about the probability of their happy in this world.
            The arbitrary nature of the situation is obviously echoed by the direction. The blow in which Fonda is hit by a brush is handled in four extremely rapid shots, in which one only sees the start and finish of the gesture: Rose with the brush, Fonda, the broken mirror, Fonda’s injured forehead … the montage is almost that of Ballet mecanique, though conspicuously restoring its fortunes. More: Hitchcock shows us that a technical discovery is pointless unless it is accompanied by a formal conquest in whose crucible it can shape the mould which is called ‘style’. To the question ‘What is art?’, Malraux has already given a precise reply: ‘ that by which forms become style’.
            Fifth and last Act. Close-up of the rosary which Balestrero is telling under the table while his attorney O’Conner, playing at being the Parry Mason of Stanley Gardner’s novels, attempts to make the witnesses for the prosecution contradict themselves[vi]. By quibbling over details, he achieves his aim. A member of the jury, exasperated by the discussion, stands up and asks the judge to stop these silly goings-on. O’Connor seizes his chance, and invokes a breach of procedure to claim a mistrial. His point is upheld. A premonitory sign of the second miracle.
            Still released on bail, Manny returns home. His mother has been looking after things during Rose’s absence at the clinic. He regrets that the trial has been adjourned. The false accusation weighs on him even more heavily than if it were true. However, he tells his mother, he has preyed God to help him. One should not ask God for help she replies, but for strength. In his room, getting ready to go to the Stork Club, Manny thinks about what she has said: ask God for strength. Close-up of Fonda knotting his tie. Close-up of a picture of Christ. Another close-up of Fonda looking at the picture which becomes a superimposition: behind Fonda’s face appears a shot of a street with a man in a raincoat and felt hat walking towards the camera until he comes into matching close-up. His features seem about to coincide with those of Fonda, his chin to overlap Fonda’s, his nose to melt into Fonda’s… but no, the superimposition vanishes. And we are left with the real criminal before our eyes as the camera pans with him while he attempts another hold-up. The transition here is no longer a hinge articulating the story, but the mainspring of the drama whose theme it paraphrases.
            The real criminal, apprehended thanks to the cool nerve of a shopkeeper’s wife, is taken away in his turn to the police-station. The officer who had interrogated Manny passes the main in the corridor, leaves the station, takes a few steps, pauses, and we realize that he understands that Balestrero is innocent. ‘Okay, Manny?’ he asks, after sending for him. ‘Okay,’ replies Fonda with a wonderful smile.
            The last scene of the film shows Balestrero at the clinic. In spite of the good news, Rose is far from cured. ‘I was hoping for a miracle’, says the disappointed Manny, ‘Miracles do happen,’ replies a trim nurse, ‘you just have to know how to wait.’ Two years later, we learn in an epilogue, Rose is cured and living happily at home with her family. Draw your own conclusion.


[i] This character played by Henry Fonda is reminiscent of the reporter in Rear Window in his semi-inertia and his taste for playing – like the bourgeois family in Shadow of a Doubt – the detective of thrillerdom.
[ii] Hitchcock handles this scene less satirically than Rossellini does an almost identical one in Europa 51 when Ingrid Bergman refuses to answer a psychiatrist.
[iii] In the same way, the enormously long tracking shot which ends Young and Innocent was repeated in Notorious, but in the middle of the film.
[iv] Vera Miles’s character, though more extreme, here minds one of those played by Ingrid Bergman in Notorious and Under Capricorn.
[v] To cite at random: the two imprisonments; the two handwriting tests at the police-station; two conversations with Rose in the kitchen; the two hearings; apart from the credit sequence, the Stork Club appears twice; Manny goes twice to the clinic, twice to the lawyer, twice with the two policemen into two shops for identification; the spy-hole duplicating the driving-mirror; the insurance company is in the same building as the lawyer’s office; the two miracles happening on Fonda’s face; Bernard Herrman’s score is based on two notes, etc.
[vi] The justification of this clever attorney’s maneuver is that one of the secretaries – the second witness called – makes an accidental slip when she is asked to point out Fonda, who is seated, and says, ‘That’s him standing over there.’ O’Connor tries to provoke the witnesses into more of these mistakes.

1 comment:

Paul said...

I'm glad I don't think so deeply about films, you'd never simply enjoy anything for what it is!