In his finest work, including this masterful 1938 noir, the remarkable French filmmaker Jean Gremillon (1901-1959), trained as a composer and musician, used mise en scene, script construction, editing, and dialogue delivery to explore the complex relationship between film and music. Raimu, one of the greatest French actors, plays the “strange” title hero, a respectable Toulon merchant who secretly operates as a fence for local thieves; after he murders a potential blackmailer, an innocent local shoemaker (Pierre Blanchar) is sent to prison for his crime. Seven years later the fall guy escapes, returns to Toulon to see his son, and, unaware of Victor’s guilt, persuades the merchant to shelter him, then becomes involved with his wife. None of the moral ambiguities of these and other complications are lost on Gremillon, who eschews the usual distinctions between heroes and villains to make this a troubling and offbeat melodrama. Shot both in Toulon and in Berlin’s UFA studio, this potent dissection of appearance and reality may be less impressive than Gremillon’s subsequent Lumiere d’ete (1943), which benefits from Jacques Prevert’s dialogue, but it’s brilliant filmmaking all the same. With Madeleine Renaud and Vivianne Romance; coscripted by Albert Valentin, Charles Spaak, and Marcel Achard. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Wednesday, May 27 and June 1, 8:45, 281-4114.
Some of the precise meanings of this Bill Forsyth comedy eluded me, but the vibes couldn’t have been nicer. What’s off-putting at first is that both the title and the man-through-the-ages format–Robin Williams playing no fewer than five fellows named Hector: a caveman, a Roman Empire slave, a medieval traveler, a Portuguese shipwreck survivor, and a divorced landlord in contemporary Manhattan–promise the worst kind of universalist banality; fortunately, it never materializes. The overall conceit may be arch, but as narrator Theresa Russell periodically points out, this is a story about stories; and this being a Forsyth movie, everything–even customary overactors like Williams, John Turturro, and Lorraine Bracco–is scaled down to human proportions. At the same time, the movie leaves you feeling there’s more here than meets the eye. Unfortunately, many publicists and reviewers are apparently so insulted by the fact that it confounds their ordinary reflexes that they’re treating it as a turkey; in fact it’s one of the few truly original and personal commercial movies to have appeared this year, and if you’re looking for something a little different you should rush to see it before it disappears. With Anna Galiena, Vincent D’Onofrio, Hector Elizondo, and Lindsay Crouse. Norridge, Webster Place, Edens, 900 N. Michigan.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Hai Ninh’s 1974 Vietnamese propaganda feature, partly filmed during the U.S. bombing of Hanoi in 1972, is how strong and accomplished and beautiful it is, particularly given the almost impossible circumstances under which it was made. The simple but powerful story centers on a little girl wandering through the rubble of the city, looking for her parents until a soldier takes her under his wing. Told partially through flashbacks and incorporating everything from animation to documentary footage to studio rear projection, the film is remarkable not only for its sincerity and emotional directness, but for its accomplished visual style. And though it was clearly designed to boost morale, its anti-American feeling is remarkably mild given what we were doing to Vietnam at the time, especially compared to the anti-Vietnamese sentiments expressed in The Green Berets and The Deer Hunter; there’s even a sympathetic American character, a nurse shown caring for wounded Vietnamese. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Sunday, May 8, 5:30, 281-4114.