FOLLOWING New York Times procedure, the following selection includes only those films released commercially in the United States during 1968. This excludes films shown only at the New York Film Festival; it also excludes films that arrived in Boston in 1968 but opened elsewhere in 1967 (Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers). To make things simpler, I eliminate European films made over two years ago but released during 1968 (Bunuel's Nazarin and, regrettably, Godard's masterpiece Pierrot le Fou).
Your humble reviewer understands that this selection does not exactly conform with current trends in cinema fashion, and the reader is urged to contribute his own choices. A reader's poll will be wrought from all submissions received before midnight, January 20th, and results will be printed in a later issue. Everybody in their heart of hearts has a ten-best-films list. Send yours in and be counted. The one below is listed more-or-less in order of personal preference.
The Champagne Murders and Les Biches are the two best films of 1968 and they are the work of a genius named Claude Chabrol. One of the founders of the Nouvelle Vague (Les Cousins), Chabrol followed a series of personal-but-unsuccessful films with a string of Grade-B melodramas. These, he explains, afforded him great stylistic freedom, a chance to experiment, and money to pay his taxes. The Champagne Murders is the last and most important, and it enabled him to make Les Biches, a great success which has restored Chabrol to critical favor. The difference between the two films is staggering, and testifies to Chabrol's greatness: The Champagne Murders uses the zoom lens, violently colored images and elaborate decor; Les Biches has only one zoom (the final shot), employs only cool colors (mostly blue-greens; Chabrol says that most color films "hurt my eyes") and is more conventionally formal. Both films, however, are unmistakably Chabrolian, and mark the increasing maturity of France's most important young director.
Chabrol's perception is expressed through the heightened reality of genre art. Though the content and characterization often lead to subtle truths relevant to all of us, the surface of the films often seems wildly extreme--Chabrol's characters retreating into their personal defenses and eccentricities. Chris and Paul (Champagne Murders) play practical jokes, succumb to occasional nervous ticks, and consume liquor, yachts, and television with truly warped relish. Frederique in Les Biches is introduced as a lesbian, extremely boldly characterized; but Chabrol finally considers her "as normal as anybody these days," and her seemingly docile companion Why turns out to be the raving maniac.
Chabrol has gleefully acknowledged the presence of at least one death in each of his films, and these deaths act as elaborate metaphors for forces of change and reevaluation. Christine's death in Champagne Murders brings about a violent reappraisal of the three characters' commitments, and the film ends on zoom pull-backs leaving them in Jimbo either to destroy one another or to form a new menage. Frederique's death in Les Biches also ends on a note of moral uncertainty as we wonder whether it will act as an agent of destruction or of change. If Les Biches proves a spellbinding and gloriously beautiful melange of personal relationships, The Champagne Murders is more complex and experimental, less perfect but ultimately greater. The character of Chris (Anthony Perkins) combines the Chabrolian malevolent driven to seek expedients selfishly and the Chabrolian romantic clinging to an intangible yearning for love and friendship; his vain attempt to satisfy both needs makes up the story (although we don't learn this until the film ends); by showing how his warped vision limits the success of his life-style, Chabrol has created one of the few truly original and important single characters in recent narrative films (others are Ferguson in Hitchcock's Vertigo, John T. Chance in Hawks' Rio Bravo, Bannion in Lang's The Big Heat).
Chabrol's camera creates and defines characters, theme, and content, able to articulate everything his characters cannot. His ability to do exactly what he wants is shown in the brutal climax of The Champagne Murders, a one-and-one-half minute montage of all the camera movements and color schemes that have previously dominated the film, which arrives at a shocking (Marnie-like) shot of unearthly colors and images foreign to it. In Les Biches, the soft lighting of the night scenes is as magnificant as any in film history, as are the time-compression montages of Frederique and Why in St. Tropez. The fact that these films may point the way to a new development in narrative film-making is perhaps secondary to the immediate realization that, like all great art, they teach us to see better.
Belle de Jour, a very willful fantasy by Luis Bunuel compensates for its personal eccentricities by being so tolerant of the perversions of its characters. Raymond Durgnat (I think) points out that Bunuel's preoccupation with fetishist love differs little from, say, Max Ophuls' preoccupation with sentimental romance--that all forms of love are pure, and identical in the eyes of whatever strange God Bunuel worships. Belle de Jour is a film-maker's film, uncompromisingly unclinical, its often shocking material bathed in the warm yellow-brown glow conveyed by sensuous moving shots.
Bunuel's own vision (apparent in the strange premature glimpse of the wheelchair and the ever-present emphasis on feet) draws us into the world of Severine's life and fantasies. Though Belle de Jour boggles the mind the first time around (audiences tend to dwell on peripheral ambiguities), the structural integrity becomes increasingly clear on repeated viewings (well worthwhile) and ends up simpler than many of Bunuel's other films; Bunuel's insight and humanity far transcends the realm of social allegory for which he is duly famous (Viridiana, Exterminating Angel). But this simplicity is sensed rather than understood, and Severine's final fantasy (romantic rather than masochistic) is a wholly satisfying resolution without lending itself to easy interpretation. Belle de Jour may ultimately say all things to all men, but it surely is a masterpiece of personal cinema.
Weekend, Jean-Luc Godard's version of the apocalypse, will undoubtedly be reviewed at greater length when some enterprising distributor brings it to Boston; it is at once a film so brilliant and so infuriating thta it not only provokes controversy in a given audience but within any single mind. Renata Adler's answer to reconciling its disparate elements was her suggestion to walk out and have a cup of Colombian coffee during the dull parts; I really haven't got the nerve to go that far, and suggest only that you accept the film's steady degeneration after an incredible first half-hour and remain as alert as possible. Weekend tends toward the negativistic; Godard explodes the bourgeois life-style and offers little or nothing in its place (surely the two garbage-truck revolutionaries are not inserted as a constructive solution to anything), and the film ends on an unoriginal note of cannibalism borrowed from all sorts of other apocalyptic visions (notably that of novelist Anthony Burgess). Godard attempts simultaneously to explode the basic esthetic of narrative cinema, but offers nothing in its place; here he is dishonest with himself because the first half-hour shows (as did Contempt and Pierrot le Fou) that the man can cut a narrative like nobody's business when he puts his mind to it. Mireille Darc's much-discussed monologue is, though a single shot, the purest kind of narrative cinema (combined with Coutard's carressing camera movement and Antoine Duhamel's brilliant score)--as is the long track along stalled traffic ending with corpses on the road. These scenes will become classics, and I don't see any reason why we shouldn't all be the happier for it.
2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick's version of human and technological evolution as controlled by a mysterious black monolith that appears when the sun, a planet, and its moons, are in orbital conjunction. Cinerama, as such, has never been used better, and the special effects are revolutionary. I don't honestly think anything more need be said about 2001 at this point. Should anybody want to read the official CRIMSON interpretation, the long review by Peter Jaszi, Steve Kaplan, and myself, has been reprinted in the current issue of Film Heritage.
The legend of Lylah Clare was met by complete critical indifference and/or scorn and generally written off as a disaster. Well, film critics don't know anything about anything, as everyone knows, and Robert Aldrich has (perhaps inadvertently) put together a sensational picture. Lest potential Aldrich cultists get their hopes up unduly, his recent Killing of Sister George turned out truly mediocre, the same restless cutting that compels in Lylah Clare working against him in Sister George. Aldrich is a heavy-handed man, and Lylah Clare deals in heavy-handed mysticism, heavy-handed acting stylization, heavy-handed melodrama, heavy-handed tragedy, and heavy-handed meaning. This ideal blend, strange-but-true, results in something less than heavy-handed, perhaps because Aldrich has been able to adapt his style to fit the many different eras of movie-making the film describes. His black-and-white-and-red-all-over flashbacks do evoke the twenties; the flagrantly overdirected love scene in Lylah's old room effects a stylistic shift in two cuts from '60's modernism to '30's glamour; the final studio scenes provide violent clashes of imagery and decor which complement the growing take-over of the dead Lylah. What Lylah Clare means is ambiguous and personal, and depends anyway on whether you can take the film seriously at all. For my part, I reject all this talk about High Camp and find it a wholly captivating, often moving, romance.
Skidoo. Otto Preminger's films have always been happiest when occupied with slightly soiled people with sordid problems in grubby environments. Needless to say, a confrontation between the Hippies and the Mafia offers Preminger a field day, and in my opinion, Skidoo is very great indeed. But Preminger is almost impossible to discuss. Most people hate his films--I think he's the only major American director working steadily today, and before I advance a tentative explanation or two, a couple of immediate points might be stated: Skidoo is hysterically funny, although many people will disagree and I'd be hard put to tell them specifically what in it was funny. Skidoo is superbly acted, notably by Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, and Mickey Rooney, three good and obviously wise men.
Now. It is perhaps simplistic to speak of Preminger as a determinist, yet running through his work are characters controlled by social and economic pressures, most distinctly by their immediate surroundings. In the early films (Fallen Angel, Angel Face), money, sexual abberation, and class distinction had much to do with the ultimate failure of Preminger's struggling protagonists. But increasingly, external dramatic pressures play a less important part--the determining factor becoming instead Preminger's own camera treatment of space, his cross-cutting techniques, his ultimate vision. No one seeing Skidoo can deny that the Mafia threat (central to the plot) is secondary in moving the action to the power of Preminger's decision to control personally the behavior of his characters and the structure of his film, disregarding saner methods of storytelling. The abrupt insertion of musical numbers, for example, or the prison escape sequence may strike you as unbelievable or wretchedly excessive, but you know notwithstanding that a DIRECTOR is in control and is exercising his prerogatives. The cross-cutting (as in Hurry Sundown) makes no concessions to audience logic and proceeds solely on Preminger's sure and personal instincts. And at the end, when Preminger actually Stops the film and his voice on the soundtrack TELLS us that we WANT to see the credits--WOW!! Incredible potency!
Preminger has always used photographic space as a prison to trap his characters. In Skidoo the brilliant opening confirms beyond a doubt that Preminger's art is visionary (note the shot, when Gleason and Arnold Stang go upstairs, consisting entirely of croped details of frame elements, showing nothing as an independent whole). More simply, Preminger films the wide-angle claustrophobia of a Hippie bus to contradict their professed freedom, just as the immaculately confident space of the California courthouse is violated by the encroaching teen-agers. If we know how to read the content of Preminger's images, Skidoo is often scary, often moving (an LSD sequence is surprisingly effective, given Preminger's initially labored treatment of psychedelic special effects). Fortunately it's a comedy; the director comes out for sex, Hippies, drugs, all that's good. This youthful tolerance, plus the fact that Preminger makes personal appearance these days in a Nehru jacket and beads might cause his devotees to worry a bit, were not the dark and obsessive pulls of his personality so evident in Skidoo, his most cheerful film to date.
Madigan. Donald Siegel's elegant classicism imparts thoughtful ambiguity to this excellent police melodrama. The honesty of the filming (and of Siegel's fine actors) make the fate of the characters a matter of some importance to the audience. As we become involved, the script's resolutions assume moral force, and the inconclusiveness of real-life relationships is ably conveyed through intelligent use of genre. Siegel makes few personal judgements along the way and we are left to our own instincts in dealing with Madigan, his wife, and the Police Commissioner; consequently, Madigan's death doesn't resolve anything neatly, but anticlimactically suspends the narrative development of an extremely complicated person. His wife's grief rings false to us since Siegel has chosen to show her previously as a nag. But we realize at the end that the grief is real, that only a fraction of the marriage was shown us during the film--that people unleash themselves on one another with the unspoken assumption that a future exists in which all problems and feelings can be reconciled.