Friday 1 May 2020

Plague Times Diary (25) - John Baxter ponders rogues in the movies - Vincente Minnelli's THE PIRATE (USA, 1948) and Georges Franju's JUDEX (France, 1964)

Gene Kelly, The Pirate
         I once took a painting into Sotheby’s in London to have it authenticated. Despite the signature, it seemed too much to hope it really was by Raoul Dufy. The head of Modern Painting, Julian Barran, confirmed my doubts. 
         “It’s quite good, though,” he said. “Might almost be an Elmyr.”
         Well, having a painting by ace forger Elmyr de Hory, featured in Orson Welles’ F for Fake, was almost as good as having the real thing. Almost.
         Barran pointed out that the signature used a colour of paint not present in the picture itself. Someone added it later. And De Hory was known never to sign his work, leaving that to the unscrupulous dealers who bought it.
         “Yes, Elmyr was a rogue,” Barran concluded, “but not a villain.” 
         The distinction came to mind this week when two seasons on French TV, one devoted to Vincente Minnelli, the other to Georges Franju, intersected in one of those dream double bills - Minnelli’s 1948 The Pirate and Franju’s 1964 Judex.
Vincente Minnelli
 Both are favourites of mine, partly because each flopped on its first release, and was, for a long time, difficult to see. Like Yolanda and the Thief, The Pirate was one of the musicals MGM preferred to keep in the cupboard. Cole Porter (betraying his ignorance of film processing techniques) wrote ruefully of “my downbeat score for The Pirate, a $5 million motion picture that failed to get back even the cost of the emulsion to develop the negative. My agent told me ‘No one wants you, Cole. They think your tunes are old-fashioned.’” 
The Pirate came complete with a back-story of disaster; performers like Lena Horne excluded on racial grounds (though Kelly smuggled in the Nicholas Brothers): Garland behaving even worse than usual, requiring the daily presence on the set of a psychiatrist: Louis B. Mayer, who thought the story “too highbrow”, demanding Kelly tone down the violence in the Mack the Blackballet (Remove references to killing babies? How bourgeois.) and excise entirely the number Voodoo as too erotic.    
Happily, there’s lots left, including Niña,one of Kelly’s most inventive appearances ever, with an extraordinary exhibition of acrobatics in and around the balconies and walkways of a set obviously calibrated to the centimetre to fit his choreography. That over, the music
shifts, after a lyric opening, into a rhumba during which Kelly prances around a bandstand supported on vertical poles. His jerky, almost grotesque movements, with bent elbows and knees, grimaces and hand gestures, and including some flamenco stamping, all with a brassy Conrad Salinger orchestration, are as unlike other Kelly numbers as the song itself. How much the studio disliked everything about it can be inferred from Kelly’s sound-track recordingIt speeds up the tempo, and its Cuban beat, not to mention the orchestration, is submerged in a sludge of conflicting tempi.   
         As for Judex, in Australia it came out just after we were bewitched by Jules et Jim and Vivre Sa Vie. The general reaction in informed circles, not only in Australia, was “What’s this shit?” You really needed to know the pre-World War I serials of Louis Feuillade of which it was a pastiche. That excluded almost everyone, myself included, Then, too, it was filmed in a misty monochrone, nothing like the crisp blacks and whites of Raoul Coutard and Henri Decae. Who knew that Franju, au fond a cinema historian – he co-founded the Cinématheque Française with Henri Langlois – was evoking the orthochromatic film on which those early films were shot? 

Georges Franju
         It was only after seeing Judex juxtaposed with The Pirate that I realised the two films had something else in common that might have put people off. Neither has a hero. Or, rather, the hero is, using Barran’s distinction, a rogue. Kelly’s Serafin is an itinerant actor and seducer, not above using hypnosis to have his way. In pursuit of Garland’s sheltered Caribbean virgin, he impersonates the notorious pirate Macoco, aka Mack the Black. Imagine his surprise – and her’s - when the local dignitary she’s about to marry, portly Walter Slezak, is revealed as the real Macoco, having left the sea decades ago and gone very much to seed. 
         Judex is built around an outlaw as well, the avenger Judex, who leads his troupe of masked, caped and gloved helpers around pre-World War I France in a vendetta against Favreau, a crooked banker, in the course of which they must also foil the efforts of a criminal gang to kidnap the banker’s daughter. 
Jack Nicholson advised Michael Keaton, nervous about playing Batman, “Let the costume do the work.” Franju cleaves to the same counsel. Judex, in the person of stage magician Channing Pollock, arrives in tails at a costume ball in Favreau’s chateau where everyone has the mask of a bird. His is that of a falcon (below), Favreau’s, naturally, a vulture. After wowing the crowd by producing dove after white dove from his person, he pauses only to hand Favreau a flute of drugged Dom Perignon and disappears into the night. Joaquin Phoenix isn’t in the race.
 As in Batman, where the true star, judged by flamboyance and prominence in the story, is The Joker, the most effective menace in Judexisn’t embezzler Favreau or even Judex but the leader of the kidnap gang, Diana Monti, the role that, for Feuillade. was played by Jeanne Roques, alias Musidora. 
One can only guess at the effect of Musidora’s black body stocking and domino mask on adolescents of a century ago, but as Monti in Judex, Francine Bergé is no slouch. She is so much more fun than Edith Scob as the frail heiress, forever fainting and having to be rescued - on one occasion from a river on which she serenely floats, Ophelia-like, watched incredulously by some kids fishing. 

Francine Berge, Judex
Franju gives Bergé all the best stuff. He sets off her black leotard with a silver stiletto strapped to her slim thigh (left), or dresses her as a nun, then has her, still in her coif, light up a Caporal or check her maquillage in a mirror before neutralizing Scob – again - with a hypodermic in the neck. She doesn’t kill anyone – well, only one - any more than Serafin goes through with his threats of slaughter. That’s for villains. Rogues are better behaved. But presumably the cinema audience needed someone to love and admire, and so turned its collective back on these ingenious rascals. For myself, I incline towards the reprehensible. As Ogden Nash memorably observed “Home is heaven, and orgies are vile/But you need an orgy once in a while.”

         YouTube has some clips from The Pirate, including a portion of Niña, though with a witless preamble about Kelly “inventing pole dancing.”  Kelly’s soundtrack performance can also be heard, in all its horror, as well as the audio of Voodoo.  Judex is better served by the full version, without, however, English titles. Not to mention the Feuillade originals.

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