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My Journey Through French Cinema. Bertrand Tavernier

The Retrospective section of the 54th NY Film Festival will feature a two-part lineup headlined and inspired by Bertrand Tavernier’s magnificent epic documentary My Journey Through French Cinema.  In addition to that film, NYFF will screen a selection of French classics featured in the documentary and a 12-film exploration of one of Tavernier’s favorite American directors, Henry Hathaway.

The 2016 NYFF Retrospective complements screenings of Tavernier’s documentary with five rarely-screened titles featured within it: Jean Renoir’s glorious revolutionary epic La Marseillaise; Robert Bresson’s first film, Angels of Sin; Jacques Becker’s post–World War II comedy Antoine and Antoinette; Julien Duvivier’s final collaboration with Jean Gabin, Deadlier Than the Male; Jean-Pierre Melville’s Cocteau adaptation Les enfants terribles; as well as Tavernier’s own 2002 film about Occupation-era filmmaking, Safe Conduct.

Additionally, in line with Tavernier’s passionate devotion to American cinema throughout his career, the Retrospective section will feature a selection of films by a director he has always greatly admired and championed, Henry Hathaway. Born near the turn of the last century, Hathaway started during the silent era as an assistant to directors like Josef von Sternberg and Victor Fleming, and he directed the first of his 52 films at the dawn of the sound era. He developed into one of Hollywood’s greatest craftsmen and most respected artists, taking on every genre from western to film noir, adventure stories to rural melodramas; pioneering the docudrama and the practice of shooting on location; creating technically complex visual effects that are still surprising; and building one of the most satisfying bodies of work in American movies, from the celebrated Kiss of Death and Niagara, starring Marilyn Monroe, to the relatively unsung From Hell to Texas and Down to the Sea in Ships (all of which are screening in the series).

NYFF previously announced Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th as the Opening Night selection, Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women as Centerpiece, and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z as Closing Night. The complete Main Slate lineup can be found here, along with the complete programs for Convergence, Revivals, and Projections.


A Brief Journey Through French Cinema

My Journey Through French Cinema
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
France, 2016, 190m
Bertrand Tavernier is truly one of the grand old men of the movies. His experience is vast, his knowledge is voluminous, his love is inexhaustible, and his perspective is matched only by that of Martin Scorsese. This magnificent epic history has been a lifetime in the making. Tavernier knows his native cinema inside and out, from the giants like Renoir, Godard, and Melville (for whom he worked as an assistant) to now overlooked and forgotten figures like Edmund T. Gréville and Guy Gilles, and his observations and reminiscences are never less than penetrating and always deeply personal. A Cohen Media Group release.

Angels of Sin / Les anges du péché
Directed by Robert Bresson
France, 1943, 96m, French with English subtitles
Robert Bresson’s first feature, made during the occupation, was this melodrama about a nun (Renée Faure) from a wealthy background who zeroes in on the distressed condition of a poor young female prisoner (Jany Holt) who has been sent to the convent for rehabilitation. Les anges du péché, co-written by Bresson with the French dramatist Jean Giraudoux and the Dominican priest and author Raymond Léopold Bruckberger, is an emotionally overpowering experience. If we don’t quite recognize the Bresson we would come to know, this is also a formidable debut from a filmmaker who, in David Bordwell’s words, had “proven his virtuosity” and, in the process, created what Jacques Becker recognized as “a whole new style.” A Janus Films release.

Antoine and Antoinette / Antoine et Antoinette
Directed by Jacques Becker
France, 1947, 84m, French with English subtitles
This postwar comedy about a young Parisian couple (Roger Pigaut and Claire Mafféi) who buy and lose a winning lottery ticket sings with the energies of working-class life. Antoine et Antoinette is temperamentally close to the great American pre-Code films of the early 30s, but it is made with a verve and grace that could only originate with one individual sensibility. To quote Godard on the occasion of Jacques Becker’s death at the age of 53: “There are several good ways of making French films. Italian style, like Renoir. Viennese, like Ophuls. New Yorker, like Melville. But only Becker was and is as French as France.” A Rialto Pictures release.

Deadlier Than the Male / Voici le temps des assassins
Directed by Julien Duvivier
France, 1956, 113m, French with English subtitles
Julien Duvivier’s final collaboration with Jean Gabin is the gut-wrenching and ultimately tragic story of a Parisian restaurant owner who one day finds a young woman (Danièle Delorme) claiming to be the daughter of his ex-wife on his doorstep. Deadlier Than the Male, whose original French title is a quote from Rimbaud’s “Illuminations,” is, like all the best Duvivier films, beautifully crafted and visualized (Truffaut reckoned that it was his very best), with excellent location shooting in Les Halles. And in the words of Delorme, who passed away last year at the age of 89, the film “immortalized our youth and a certain type of moviemaking.” A Pathé release.

Les enfants terribles
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
France, 1950, 106m, French with English subtitles
Jacques Rivette claimed that on the night he happened upon the set of this adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1929 novel about the alternate world created by an orphaned brother and sister, director Jean-Pierre Melville was nowhere in sight and Cocteau himself was directing the crew. The tension between director and writer was ongoing, but it was also productive, because the final film—in Manny Farber’s words, a “macabre melodrama about incestuous adolescence” that “rates top honors in every film department”—is an unlikely, incongruous mesh of their two vastly different sensibilities. To quote Truffaut, “The best novel of Jean Cocteau became the best film of Jean-Pierre Melville.” With Édouard Dermit and Nicole Stéphane. A Janus Films release.

La Marseillaise
Directed by Jean Renoir
France, 1938, 132m, French with English subtitles
Jean Renoir’s 1938 film about the beginnings of the French Revolution, made with the support of France’s most powerful labor union, is, in François Truffaut’s words, a “neorealist fresco” that continually shuttles between characters throughout the social spectrum: peasants living in the mountains, emigrés from Coblenz, Louis XVI (Renoir’s brother Pierre) and his courtiers. A glorious and, today, lesser-known film from one of the cinema’s greatest directors, whose goal, according to André Bazin, “is to go beyond the historical images to uncover the mundane human reality.” With Louis Jouvet and Renoir regulars Gaston Modot, Nadia Sibirskaïa, and Julien Carette. Print courtesy of French Cultural Services. A Rialto Pictures release.

Safe Conduct / Laissez-passer
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
France/Germany/Spain, 2002, 170m, French with English subtitles
Bertrand Tavernier’s vigorous and varied portrait of Occupation-era filmmaking in France achieves a Breugelesque richness of perspective—this is a story told by a director deeply in love with his subject. Tavernier’s hero is ace assistant director Jean-Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin), who helps directors like Maurice Tourneur (Philippe Morier-Genoud) bring their most difficult visual ideas to life, negotiates his way through the German hierarchy at Continental Films, and works for the Resistance. With Denis Podalydès in the role of screenwriter (and future Tavernier collaborator) Jean Aurenche, Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet as producer Roger Richebé, and Laurent Schilling as the screenwriter Charles Spaak.

Henry Hathaway

23 Paces to Baker Street
Directed by Henry Hathaway
USA, 1956, 103m
In this ingenious, light yet genuinely suspenseful mystery, Van Johnson plays a blind American playwright living in London who sits down for a drink in his neighborhood pub one night and overhears a casual plan to commit murder. A beautifully mounted London travelogue in color and Scope, 23 Paces to Baker Street is among the best of the numerous British-set American studio pictures of the era, featuring a succession of expertly mounted set-pieces (the best of which are set in a bustling department store and an abandoned building). With Cecil Parker and Vera Miles as Johnson’s partners in detection. A 20th Century-Fox release.

The Dark Corner
Directed by Henry Hathaway
USA, 1946, 99m
This 1946 melodrama, about a Manhattan P.I. (Mark Stevens) whose adoring secretary (Lucille Ball, who clashed with Hathaway on the set) helps to clear him of a false murder accusation, is the essence of what has come to be known as film noir, from Joseph MacDonald’s stark, shadowy images to the title itself. Made in the wake of Laura’s massive success, the film also stars Clifton Webb as the posh owner of a Manhattan art gallery and features the same clash between the upper crust and the hard-boiled. With William Bendix as the menacing hood on Stevens’ tail. A 20th Century-Fox release.

Down to the Sea in Ships
Directed by Henry Hathaway
USA, 1949, 120m
This lovely film, about a sea captain (Lionel Barrymore) who sets out on a final whaling voyage from New Bedford in 1878 with his grandson (Dean Stockwell) and his young successor (Richard Widmark), is a perfect blend of Hathaway’s special artistry and Fox’s meticulous period craftsmanship. Hathaway and Barrymore had their difficulties on set (assistant director Richard Talmadge doubled for Barrymore in many of his more demanding scenes), but the actor gives a deeply moving performance in his final starring role. Hathaway achieved many technical wonders throughout his career, and the sequence in which the ship runs through a field of icebergs in dense fog is one of his most remarkable. A 20th Century Fox release.

Fourteen Hours
Directed by Henry Hathaway
USA, 1951, 92m
An exciting low-budget film shot on the streets of lower Manhattan, Fourteen Hours is based on the true story of William Warde, who jumped to his death in 1938 after a policeman had spent hours trying to talk him down from a 17th floor ledge at the old Gotham Hotel (now the Peninsula). Richard Basehart (whose wife Stephanie died during production) gives a brilliant performance as the suicidal young man, Paul Douglas is the cop, and the film is packed with formidable character performances (from the likes of Agnes Moorehead, Howard Da Silva, and newcomer Grace Kelly) and vividly cast faces in the crowd below, including those of Ossie Davis, Joyce Van Patten, Brian Keith, and John Cassavetes. A 20th Century-Fox release.

From Hell to Texas
Directed by Henry Hathaway
USA, 1958, 100m
A peaceful cowboy (Don Murray) who kills a man in self-defense is stalked across Texas by the man’s father, a powerful cattle baron (R.G. Armstrong). He is sheltered along the way by a gentle rancher (Chill Wills) and his daughter (Diane Varsi). This unheralded film, one of Hathaway’s very best, has much in common with Peckinpah’s work, but it has a hard-edged relentlessness of its own. From Hell to Texas features a raw, emotional performance from Dennis Hopper as Armstrong’s younger son. The legend goes that Hopper and Hathaway had an “artistic disagreement” resulting in dozens of takes, but if so, they got over it: they worked together twice more in the next decade. A 20th Century-Fox release.

Garden of Evil
Directed by Henry Hathaway
USA/Mexico, 1951, 103m
Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, and Cameron Mitchell are a trio of gold hunters approached by a desperate woman (Susan Hayward) with a generous offer to find her husband (Hugh Marlowe), who is trapped in their gold mine in an area deep in unforgiving Mexican hill country, known as the “Garden of Evil.” Hathaway’s westerns are all on the tough side, and this film, shot on location in Tepotzotlán, Guanajuato, and in jungles near Acapulco and Parícutin, is one of the toughest. Tavernier considers Garden of Evil one of the finest westerns ever made. With a score by Bernard Herrmann. A 20th Century-Fox release.

Kiss of Death
Directed by Henry Hathaway
USA, 1947, 98m
Hathaway was one of the first Hollywood filmmakers to make a practice of shooting on location—his environments are always integral to the life of the story. This 1947 film, about a jewel thief (Victor Mature) targeted by the mob when he cooperates with the DA, was shot all over New York, from the criminal courts building on Centre Street to the Bronx, and became one of the most influential of the postwar docudramas. Hathaway wanted a local hood named Harry the Hat to play the psychopathic killer Tommy Udo, but he was forced to work with a newcomer named Richard Widmark. They clashed in the beginning, and then cooperated on a truly terrifying character creation. A 20th Century-Fox release.

Directed by Henry Hathaway
USA, 1953, 98m
This 1953 suspense melodrama about matching crimes of passion, produced and co-written by Billy Wilder’s former partner Charles Brackett and shot in vibrant Technicolor, is set in the very particular world of honeymoon cottages on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Joseph Cotten is the brooding, damaged Korean war vet, and his young wife is played by Marilyn Monroe. “Zanuck was convinced Marilyn Monroe was a passing phenomenon,” said Hathaway of his lead actress, in the role that truly made her a star. “She didn’t know she was as good as she was.” A 20th Century-Fox release.

North to Alaska
Directed by Henry Hathaway
USA, 1960, 122m
Production on this big, boisterous entertainment package was hampered by wayward screenwriters, John Wayne going over schedule on The Alamo, a writers’ strike, and the replacement of original director Richard Fleischer with Hathaway. But the finished film, about a gold prospector (Wayne) who goes to Seattle to retrieve his partner’s fiancée and comes back to Nome with a good time saloon girl (Capucine), is so buoyant, funny, and perfectly keyed to its glorious natural settings that it all feels seamless. With Ernie Kovacs, Stewart Granger in one of his best performances as the partner, and, in the role that brought him the Harvard Lampoon’s coveted “Uncrossed Heart” award for Least Promising Actor, Fabian. A 20th Century-Fox release.

Directed by Henry Hathaway
USA, 1951, 89m
This tightly structured nail-biter, about the siege of a desert relay station by a group of escaped convicts, launched a long-running TV show with Clint Eastwood and set a template for the western suspense film for years to come, from High Noon through 3:10 to Yuma all the way up to last year’s The Hateful Eight. Tyrone Power is the boss’s son who is learning the ropes, Susan Hayward is the woman traveling with her niece, Hugh Marlowe is the leader of the gang, and his fellow convicts are played by Jack Elam, George Tobias, and the brilliant Dean Jagger. A 20th Century-Fox release.

The Shepherd of the Hills
Directed by Henry Hathaway
USA, 1941, 98m
This beautifully crafted Technicolor film, about two warring families in the Ozarks and the benign stranger who suddenly appears in their midst, crosses paths with John Ford (Hathaway’s friend) in its casting (John Wayne and Harry Carey are the stars, and Ward Bond and John Qualen play supporting roles), its rural setting, and its careful attention to community and the passage of time. Yet the film, the third adaptation of Harold Bell Wright’s once-renowned novel, has a very different kind of energy and a rich sense of the uncanny. Shepherd, which Hathaway was instructed to cut down for length, was his last film for Paramount. A Paramount Pictures release.

Spawn of the North
Directed by Henry Hathaway
USA, 1938, 110m
George Raft, Henry Fonda, and Dorothy Lamour star in this boisterous action film about rival fishing crews fighting for dominance of the Alaskan seas, with support from John Barrymore, Akim Tamiroff, and a wondrous mix of technical wizardry and stunning second-unit work (and some lovely Frank Loesser tunes as a bonus). If the story has something of the flavor of a Hawks film, that’s because the screenplay is co-written by Jules Furthman, but Hathaway looks at the friendships and rivalries and romantic entanglements of his characters from his own special angle: his maritime community is wild, loose, and free, no matter the consequences. A Paramount Pictures release.

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