La Grande Illusion (1937)

Movie Review

Grand Illusion poster

La Grande Illusion, directed by Jean Renoir, is a must-see film for anyone who is a serious film lover. It is considered to be Renoir’s masterpiece and has made many critic’s lists of best films ever made, including mine.

The film is about a group of French prisoners of war in two German camps during World War I. There are officers in the group that includes an aristocrat, a wealthy Jewish banker, a music hall actor and a mechanic. Pretty much a cross section of French society.

La Grande Illusion

These officers make several escape attempts. Their last attempt to tunnel out is interrupted when they are transferred out to another camp before they can complete the tunnel. They are sent to a fortress called Winterborn from which no one has ever escaped. This camp is run by a German aristocrat named Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim).

The French aristocrat de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) forms a bond with Captain Rauffenstein but sacrifices his life in order to help his fellow officers, working-class Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and the wealthy Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) finally escape. These class distinctions are essential to the story and are part of the overall theme of the illusion of class barriers which artificially separate men in society. The themes of race and ethnicity are also explored. The men are rescued by a German widow, Elsa (Dita Parlo), and eventually make it across the border to Switzerland.

Two other famous movies were directly influenced by La Grande Illusion: The Great Escape and Casablanca. The digging of the tunnel in The Great Escape is performed in the same way as in La Grande Illusion including the way the prisoners hide the dirt from the tunnel in their pants and shake it out on the ground during their exercises period. The singing of the “Marseilles” to enrage the Germans in Casablanca can also be found in La Grande Illusion.

La Grande Illusion is an anti-war film in which the main thesis is the futility of war. It relies heavily on ideas from the book The Great Illusion by Norman Angell published in 1909. Angell argued that the cost of war was so great that no one would risk starting a war because the result would be disastrous. Of course, this proved to be illusory.

The title of the movie seems to have multiple layers of meaning. The futility of war, the artificial boundaries between men in class distinctions and even the artificial and invisible borders between countries. In the last scene of the movie as Maréchal and Rosenthal make their escape into Switzerland across a snowy mountainside a German patrol spots the men and fires shots at them. The order is given to stop shooting as the prisoners are over the border into Switzerland. The camera pans down the mountain side to the two men. Marechal asks, “Are you sure we are in Switzerland, it’s so alike?” Rosenthal, who has a map, says, “Of course. You can’t see frontiers. They were invented by men. Nature doesn’t care.”

This is a movie that has definitely stood the test of time in every way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Detour (1945)

Movie Review

Detour

Detour, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, is a classic “B” movie in the Film Noir genre straight out of Pulp Fiction Hell. Shot on the cheap in four weeks it packs a wallop! This Criterion edition film is beautifully restored in glorious black and white. It is worth seeing just for the visuals alone. The story is as cheap as the characters it portrays. The writing is a little weak but the performances of the unknown actors more than compensate.

The story is told in flashbacks from an opening scene in a diner somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The main character, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), is an out of work down on his luck pianist from New York City. He hitchhikes out to Hollywood to join up with his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) who is a chanteuse, also from New York City, who went out west earlier to find her fame and fortune. Along the way he is picked up by a guy named Haskell (Edmund McDonald). Haskell tells him about another hitchhiker he had picked up earlier. A young female who turns out to be a real hell cat who put some deep scratches in his hand when he had tried to make advances on her. “There oughta be a law against dames with claws,” he says. Later he dies of a heart attack. Al panics as he thinks the cops will think he killed the guy. He hides the body and takes Haskell’s clothes, money, identification and drives away in his car.

He meets a girl at a gas station and offers her a ride. She falls asleep in the car then suddenly sits bolt upright and demands, “Where’d you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? Your name’s not Haskell!” About this time Al realizes he has picked up the same girl that Haskell had picked up and she turns out to be the femme fatale of all femme fatales. She berates him all the way to Los Angeles.

When they get to Los Angeles, they cook up a scheme for Al to impersonate Haskell, the long-lost son of the elderly rich father who they read about in a newspaper is dying. They plan to inherit his estate when he dies. Waiting to execute their plan, they sit around in an apartment, drinking, playing cards and fighting. Al’s not playing ball to suit the drunken Vera and she threatens to call the cops. She runs to another room with the phone and slams the door. Al grabs the phone cord and pulls on it. He pulls and pulls. Finally, the line goes slack. He goes in the room to find Vera has become entangled in the cord and is accidentally strangled on it. Now Al has another corpse on his hands that just might point to murder.

That’s when he heads back east and we find him in the diner. In the final scene he is walking out on the desert highway and gets picked up by the cops. His last line is delivered in a voice over, “Fate, for some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.”

Most reviewers of Detour take Al’s story at face value. But I have a different view. Al is an unreliable narrator and tell us what he wants us to hear to make himself  look good. He more likely is a psychopath who has committed both murders and is caught by circumstance or fate as he likes to say.

Famed film maker Errol Morris said of Detour, “It has an unparalleled quality of despair, totally unrelieved by hope.” A pretty apt description.

 

WORD OF THE DAY – DECIMATE

Kill One in Ten.

Originally from the Latin: decimatio (decem – ten). Historically decimation was a form of military discipline used by senior commanders in the Roman Army to punish units or large groups guilty of capital offences, such as cowardice, mutiny, desertion, and insubordination, and for pacification of rebellious legions.

It has since come to mean to kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of, as “the project would decimate the fragile wetland wilderness.” Or more recently, “the hurricane decimated everything in its path.”

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Graham Greene wrote about this concept, in the historical sense, in his novel, The Tenth Man.

A group of Frenchmen were being held hostage in a Gestapo camp. A German officer enters the cell one afternoon and announces that there were three murders in the town last night. He is ordered to shoot one in ten of them in the morning. There are thirty men in the camp, therefore three men must be shot. He doesn’t care who. They choose. They chose by lot. Louis Chavel was the tenth man.

Things get tricky from there, but Greene supplies a heavy dose of irony as the plot unfolds.