Israeli Jests, French Jews and An Amish Ernest Borgnine

Well, better late than never, I always say. (Gets very boring after a while, though.) Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit opened three or four weeks ago, but I finally caught up with it on Monday. It's really quite a lovely little film, well worth a trip to the Angelika or the Lincoln Plaza if you're in NewYork City. My review runs this week in Jewish Week.


As Daryl Chin noted Saturday in his excellent blog, the sudden profusion of Jewish-themed films from France is something of an oddity. The French have always taken a sort of arm's-length attitude toward their minorities, particularly the Jews (or so it seems to me), and that desire for distance extends into their movies. Obviously there are notable exceptions, Jean Renoir being the most distinguished and empathetic. But the presence of three films in this year's "Rendezvous with French Cinema" that deal directly with France's Jews and, more particularly, the Shoah, is unusual, to say the least. At any rate, it gave me plenty to write about in my Jewish Week survey of the event. I'll get to the other films from the series that I saw in a day or two. The 'Rendezvous," which opens on Friday, used to be one of my favorite film events of the year, but the last few have been dispiritingly ordinary. Claude Miller's A Secret, which I discuss in the JWeek piece, is an honorable exception, easily the best film I saw in the series.


Monday was a singular day for me. I saw five films -- A Secret (on a DVD screener), Richard Fleischer's Violent Saturday at a press screening at Film Forum (and I'll tell you more momentarily), two films in Forum's Sidney Lumet series, A Third of a Nation and Bye Bye Braverman, and finally, The Band's Visit. I'd love to report that I came home energized and immediately pulled out a DVD of something memorable to keep the day going, but Margo and I actually watched an L&O rerun (what else?) and went to bed.

As I have noted earlier this month, there was a time when I thought nothing of seeing four or five movies in a day, and would do so several times a week. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I can still sustain that pace once in a while. It helps that of the five films, three were very good (the Fleischer, the Miller and the Kolirin), and another was quite interesting (Dudley Murphy's A Third of a Nation). The Lumet was funny for the first fifteen minutes but the joke quickly wears thin and, despite a cast that features George Segal, Sorrell Booke, Joseph Wiseman and Jack Warden, Braverman runs out of gas pretty severely after that initial quarter-hour.

The Murphy, on the other hand, is classic 1930s agitprop, leavened by some oddball expressionist touches like a tenement that vocally sneers at would-be reformers. There's the usual lachrymose Sylvia Sidney performance, but Sidney and his father, Baruch Lumet, are both quite good and Myron McCormick is his usual splendid self, younger than I can imagine him every having been. Watching a film like this inevitably brings up the question of whether it is possible to make a truly radical film using a traditional narrative form like melodrama. But its concerns are ultimately reformist rather than revolutionary, so the question is moot.


A Third of a Nation was actually my second Sylvia Sidney film of the day. Until I saw the credits at the beginning of Violent Saturday, I had forgotten that she plays the local librarian, an offspring of the founder of Bradenville, the southwestern copper mining town in which the film is set. I have long thought that, with the possible exception of The Narrow Margin, this is Richard Fleischer's best film, and seeing it on a big screen confirmed that opinion. The new 35mm print that Film Forum will be showing beginning Friday is a good one; the color is a bit reddish, but it's De Luxe color, so that is to be expected and, given the setting of the film, actually sort of fits.

As for the film itself, it is an interesting collision of genres. Although the '50s gave us some of the best musicals, westerns and noirs, the central genre of the decade is, I believe, the family melodrama. That is what Violent Saturday really is, a family melodrama with several strands of unhappy bourgeois homes, shattered by the arrival of a trio of bank robbers (the marvelous triad of Stephen McNally, J. Carroll Naish and Lee Marvin). The film is full of strange undercurrents, some drawn in deft brushstrokes by Fleischer and screenwriter Sidney Boehm, others merely suggested. But ultimately, for all its announced violence -- remember, this is the movie in which Ernest Borgnine plays an Amish farmer driven to a particularly nasty act of violence to save Victor Mature's life -- it is the subtle eruptions of sexuality that really steer the plot and are at the center of its themes. Violent Saturday is a film that would sit comfortably alongside Bigger Than Life, Written on the Wind and Anatomy of a Murder as a study of how the rampant libido can tear apart the American home. And like those three, it is also an essay on how class intersects with sex in 1950s America. Great, nasty fun, and you have to love a movie in which Lee Marvin deliberately steps on a ten-year-old's hand and J. Carroll Naish hands another tot a handful of candies and tells him, "Now go over there, stick those in your kisser and suck on 'em."

The film's only real lapse is the casting of Richard Egan as the liquor-soaked son of the local copper baron. I wish someone would explain this man's career to me. He's not a particularly good actor and he's not that good-looking. What the heck is he doing as the lead or co-lead in so many movies? Anyone have a clue?