Sunday 26 March 2017

The Duvivier Dossier (54) - Ken Wallin reports on Henri Alekan (1909-2001) and a note on Duvivier's ANNA KARENINA

Alexander Korda's production of Anna Karenina  (1948) with Vivien Leigh was remastered and issued on DVD in 2007. Although I've had a copy for quite some time, it was filed and unviewed until the spate of Duvivier reviews on Film Alert last year reminded me to check it out.  Well, it didn't feel as stodgy as it seemed on tv decades ago, but it’s not a major work from Duvivier. Of his English language films, Tales of Manhattan (USA, 1942) would be my pick.

Vivien Leigh is a subdued yet ultimately very affecting Anna, but she is paired with a dull Kieron Moore as Vronsky instead of Laurence Olivier as Korda had wanted. The film fails to convey any real passion . Ralph Richardson makes such an outstanding Karenin that he garners more sympathy than the lovers with his subtly shaded performance.
Duvivier's Anna does have its outstanding passages however, and these mainly involve the train stations and journeys, the recurring dream portent of the railway worker (tapper of wheels!) and the culminating suicide under the train. 

The effectiveness of these sequences owes much to the brilliant camerawork of Henri Alekan, who creates a palpably brooding nocturnal atmosphere of snow and ice (also rain at times), steam and isolated pools of light. See the smooth transition from train miniatures using steam to our first glimpse of Anna through a snow encrusted train window for example. Or savour the high angle shot of Anna crossing the station platform beneath a swaying lantern just before boarding her last train.

Alekan is a fascinating case of a brilliant cinematographer who worked exclusively in Europe, I think, though with many English language films to his credit made either in England or with American and English directors on European locations.  Roman Holiday (William Wyler, USA, 1953) is the best known example. Other films he photographed that stand out for me are his earliest, the two Rene Clement WW2 films La Bataille du Rail  (France, 1945) and Les Maudits (France, 1947), and Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete (1946).  I can't see any other work with Duvivier in his filmography. 

Vivien Leigh, Anna Karenina
Just after Anna Karenina, in 1949, Alekan shot Une si Jolie Petite Plage for Yves Allegret which also makes outstanding use of weather for in this case a postwar noir ambience, and which I was very pleased to finally catch up with in restoration at Ritrovato in 2013.

Alekan worked with directors Carne, Losey, Dassin and Wenders among others over the decades and I've seen most of these films at some time and found them visually impressive (whatever else they achieved). I remain curious about Woman of Evil/Le Diable Souffle (1947) by the often interesting Edmund Greville. Has anyone seen this? 

Alekan's last work in the 1990s was on two films Berlin-Jerusalem (Israel, 1989) and Golem, the Spirit of the Exile (Israel, 1992) with Israeli film maker Amos Gitai which appear to be little seen.

A final word on Duvivier's Anna Karenina.  The DVD image is as good as it gets before graduating to Blu-ray. Apart from a restoration comparison the extras are on Tolstoy's life and legacy rather than on the film itself.

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