Introducing Jacques Feyder and Visage d’enfants

jacques-feyder-e1437775008775I was asked to introduce a screening of Visages d’enfants (1925). Here, more or less, is what I said.

 

I first encountered Jacques Feyder in 1992 when doing my Masters. He was lurking in the final footnote of François Truffaut’s Cahiers du Cinéma essay ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’ (1954), which savages the staid-and-not-very-cinematic ‘tradition of quality’ represented by such directors as Claude Autant-Lara.[1] (more of him later). The footnote reads:

In fact, ‘psychological realism’ was created parallel to ‘poetic realism’, which had the tandem Spaak–Feyder. It really will be necessary, one day, to start an ultimate quarrel with Feyder, before he has dropped definitively into oblivion.

I remember not being very clear what it means, or who Feyder was or why he was destined to obscurity even if Truffaut didn’t stick the boot in.

The second time I encountered Feyder was when I was rewatching French poetic realist films in order to write that part of Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City. Feyder’s name kept cropping up as the director of two less well known but significant early films in the cycle. But I could find no substantial critical engagement with his work (in English, since I am pathetically monolingual), and of course neither Le Grand Jeu (1934) nor Pension Mimosas (1935) were available on video or DVD.

The third time was when I was writing Science Fiction: The Routledge Film Guidebook, and I discovered the DVD boxset that included L’Atlantide (1919). But still no Anglophone critical work. Indeed, unless my google fu and library database kata have utterly deserted me, the couple of pages I wrote about L’Atlantide constitute one of the most sustained Anglophone treatments of any of his films, and especially of his silent films.

(Surely I am wrong about this? There must be more. Also, this is why there are no screening notes for the tonight’s film – we couldn’t find anything to use.)

So I have pulled together an overview of his career, silent and sound, from a couple of online bios, fleeting mentions in about twenty different books, and the half dozen or so of his films I have seen. And I will end with some comments about tonight’s film, Visage d’enfants (1925).

Jacques Feyder was the pseudonym of Jacques Frédérix, adopted when his father discovered he wanted to be an actor and forbade him to use the family name. He was born in Ixelles, Belgium in 1885 to a grande bourgeois family, well-known patrons of the arts with a strong military heritage. He was destined for a career in the army but he failed the entrance exam to officers’ school – and went to work in a canon foundry instead (which is a military career of sorts, I guess). He began appearing on stage in 1908 and became a drama critic, before moving to Paris in 1911 to become an actor.

Cendrillon_ou_la_pantoufle_merveilleuseAfter several small stage roles, he was cast in Georges Méliès’s Cendrillon ou La pantoufle merveilleuseCinderella or The Glass Slipper (1912), which was followed by more film roles, including episode 5 of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1916). He became an assistant director at Gaumont in 1914, working with Gaston Ravel, who had directed him in Autour d’une bague/Around a Ring (1915); they co-directed Monsieur Pinson Policier (1916), in which Feyder also appeared.

However, it was World War One that gave Feyder his big break into directing – because so many French directors were called up. In 1916-1917, Feyder directed 18 shorts; the only commentary I have found on them is limited to the phrase ‘nondescript little comedies’.[2]

7742240_1060269378In 1917, he married the actress Françoise Rosay, who became a major collaborator on his later films, and was himself then called up by the Belgian army, in which he served until 1919 – as an actor in a military troupe.

After demobbing, he returned to Paris to make his first feature film: L’Atlantide (1919). Feyder paid 10,000 francs for the rights to Pierre Benoît’s recently published novel of the same name, a highly regarded[3] and popular foreign legion knock-off of H. Rider Haggard’s She (1886).[4]

The film, with a pretty much unprecedented budget of 2 million francs, was shot over eight months in Algiers, including 50 days in the Sahara. Apparently, this mad folly gained a lot of coverage – aka free publicity – in the French press,[5] and as the costs spiralled out of control, the original backers pulled out, selling the rights to the three-and-a-quarter hour film to distributor Louis Aubert. The film was a massive hit, the first of postwar French cinema; and it had a successful reissue in 1928. The contemporary film critic Louis Delluc said of it, ‘There is one great actor in this film, and that is the sand’. I have no idea whether he meant this as insult to the human actors, but it is an astute observation about Feyder’s use of vast desert spaces to render humans insignificant, and to present the desert as an object of desire in itself, as well as a metaphor for the Queen of Atlantis.

81d92da8b9089ea208b078db4c865657Feyder followed this with Crainquebille (1922), an adaptation of Anatole France’s 1901 short novel. A costermonger is wrongfully arrested and imprisoned; after his release, he declines into bitterness and alcoholism, and becomes suicidal – until he is redeemed by the intervention of a young street street urchin, played by Jean Forest, who plays the boy Jean in Visages d’enfants (he was, or so the story goes, a Les Halles street urchin discovered by Feyder to play a Les Halles street urchin).

Crainquebille demonstrates one of the things that perhaps led to the high regard in which Feyder was once held, and perhaps also to the precipitous decline of his reputation since the 1950s. He does not have the distinct or idiosyncratic personal style one might associate with an auteur, but instead has tremendous facility with multiple styles of filmmaking, often combining them in a single film. Crainquebille, shot largely in Les Halles, is dominated by the kind of street level realism one might associate with, say, De Sica’s neo-realist Bicycle Thieves (1948) or even Truffaut’s own neo-realist New Wave debut Quatre cent coups (1959). But it also has an extended expressionistic trial sequence, all nightmarish distortions of scale and perspective; and it dallies with the Chaplinesque, both in the character of the protagonist and in his not-quite-sentimental relationship with the urchin who saves him.

His next film is the one we will watch tonight, Visage d’enfants. Co-written and co-directed with his wife, Françoise Rosay, it was filmed on location in southern Switzerland in 1923, but not released until 1925. Despite favourable reviews, it was not a big hit, and was long thought lost. It was reassembled in the 1990s from various archives and reissued in 1993. I will say more about it in a while.

In 1923, Feyder relocated to Vienna to become artistic director of Vita Film in Vienna, and to direct three films for them; but he made only one L’Image/Das Bildnis (1923), before they went broke.

The opportunity represented by this venture perhaps tells us quite a bit about Feyder. Probably the main critical debate about film in 1920s France was whether film could be an art form. Avant-garde directors, such as Germaine Dulac (who I adore) and Maurice L’Herbier (about whom I am rather ambivalent), would say – and I am paraphrasing here or, more accurately, putting words in their mouths – that films were and industrial product not art (except, of course, for their own films, which proved it was technically possible films to be art). Feyder himself argued that one should not think in terms of art vs. popular culture, but instead set out to mark art as popular film (or popular film as art). Now the greater relative autonomy that a director might enjoy if he were also the company’s artistic director might enable such a project. In a similar vein, Feyder, like like Dulac, L’Herbier, Abel Gance and Julien Duvivier, innovated the director-package system of production. Rather than being employed by a studio, the filmmaker would form a company (of which he would be the director) to produce a specific film, which he himself would direct. The company would obtain funds from various sources, including wealthy patrons, bring together the script, cast and crew, and hire a studio if necessary (or if the budget permitted). This system afforded the director greater control – for example, Feyder liked to rehearse his cast, but would only make decisions about how to shoot a scene once they were all on set or location at the start of the day – but also required a commercial sensibility to ensure the company’s success. Thus, combining the roles of company director and film director produced a distinctive combination of art and the popular.

gribicheAfter his Viennese diversion, Feyder made Gribiche (1926), again starring Jean Forest, this time as a working class boy adopted by a philanthropic American heiress, with reputedly amusing consequences. He then returned to literary adaptations, with a location-shot, neo-realist-ish adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen in 1926, and – in Germany in 1928 – an adaptation of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. The latter was considered a masterpiece, and brought Feyder to the attention of MGM, but it is now lost, so we cannot tell.

48577-1Before relocating to Los Angeles, Feyder took out French nationality, and made his last silent film in France, Les Nouveaux Messieurs (1929). A political satire in which a theatre electrician and trades unionist who plays a central role in a major strike is subsequently appointed to a ministerial post (cos, y’know, that happens). There, he comes into conflict with a wealthy minister who is the third point of a love triangle involving a not-too-talented ballerina. There were calls for it to be banned for ‘insulting the dignity of parliament and its ministers’ (cos, y’know, parliaments and dignity used to be a thing).

From January to March 1929 Mon Ciné ran a feature asking filmmakers ‘Do you believe that the sound film has a future?’ Jean Renoir was ambivalent, seeing it as a mixed blessing; Marcel L’Herbier said ‘It’s of little interest to me. The faithful reproduction of the words of an actor or the arrival of a locomotive in a station have no real artistic value’; Feyder replied, ‘I believe in the talking picture’. And he went to Hollywood to make them.

Although Hollywood was importing a lot of continental talent – Paramount and MGM had recently gone toe-to-toe over Maurice Chevalier – they did not really consider French directors that important (and should they need a director who understood French, Robert Florey and Jacques Tourneur were already well established there). Indeed, Feyder was one of just two French directors invited to Hollywood in the period – the other being, of course, Claude Autant-Lara, who among other things directed Feyder’s wife, Françoise Rosay, in the Francophone version of Buster Keaton’s Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931). During the transition to sound, it was not uncommon for film’s to be shot in multiple language versions, usually on the same sets at night, with a different director and entirely different or perhaps overlapping cast. That wasn’t why MGM brought Feyder to Hollywood, though.

His first Hollywood movie was The Kiss (1929) – his, Greta Garbo’s and MGM’s last silent film.[6]

But then he did find himself directing alternate-language versions: the French versions of The Unholy Night (1929) and His Glorious Night (1929), both directed by Lionel Barrymore,[7] and of Chester Morris’s The Big House, from which he was removed partway through; and the German language versions of Chester M. Franklin’s Olympia (1930) and Clarence Brown’s Anna Christie (1930), starring Garbo again – in both language versions.

Arguably adding insult to injury, he then found himself directing a pair of Roman Novarro exotic-ish romances, Daybreak (1931) and Son of India (1931).

He returned to France.

His first three French talkies are the films on which his reputation now stands – all feature Françoise Rosay, all were written by Charles Spaak, and have as Feyder’s assistant director Marcel Carné, who would become the major poetic realist director.[8]

hqdefaultThe doom-laden foreign legion melodrama Le Grand Jeu (1934) and crime melodrama Pension Mimosas (1935) are the early examples of poetic realism I spent ages trying to track down (the former is now readily available). La Kermesse héroïque (1935), which Feyder shot photo-de-tournage-la-kermesse-heroique-jacques-feyder-1935in French and German versions, is an elaborately staged historical comedy-drama. It includes an open-air set representing a Flemish town in the style of the Dutch masters that is so massive that it is hard to believe it is a set. In 1936, La Kermesse héroïque won the first New York Film Critics award for best foreign film, and Feyder best director at the Venice Film festival. A story of a Flemish town briefly occupied by Spanish troops in 1616, it seems, from one angle, to advocate peaceful collaboration rather than violent resistance, which might explain why the Nazis loved it. However, from another angle, it seems to advocate subtle resistance to and manipulation of occupying forces, which might explain why, after the invasion of France, Goebbels banned it.

Feyder came to the UK to make Knight without Armour (1937) for Korda, a lumbering pudding of a film starring Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat, unhampered by a single trace of chemistry.[9] Back on the continent, he made the French and German versions of Fahrendes Volk/Les gens du voyage (1938), and the French melodrama La loi du nord (1939).

Feyder and Rosay fled from the Nazi invasion to Switzerland, where Feyder directed one last film, Une femme disparaît (1942),[10] and with Françoise Rosay published a memoir, Le Cinéma, notre metier (1944). In it, Feyder describes himself as an artisan or craftsman, not an artist; but perhaps it was the high degree of relative autonomy he often enjoyed that allowed him to see his work as collaborative – and surely the popular artist, freed from all that guff about solitary genius, is an artisan, and the artisan is not something to be looked down upon.

Feyder died in 1948; Rosay kept working in film until her death twenty-five years later.[11]

His reputation has steadily declined ever since. André Bazin respected his work, but much preferred the kind of realist filmmaking he associated with Renoir, Jean Vigo and Maurice Pagnol (who, he argued, were able to find some kind of spiritual truth in the real just by looking at it long enough and hard enough) to the ‘synthetic décor’ (faked or heightened reality) of Carné, Duvivier, René Clair and Feyder. In 1970, Clair himself observed that ‘Jacques Feyder does not occupy today the place his work and his example should have earned him’. And David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film says,

There was a time when Feyder was claimed as a great realist director, when Kermesse héroïque was thought of as an important French film. … Feyder may be unfairly neglected today just as once he was injudiciously acclaimed.

Visage d’enfants
Perhaps the greatest achievements of Visage d’enfants are inventing the youtube cat video and giving an origin story to needing to raise funds to repair the church roof…

vFACES_OF_THE_CHILDREN-5
our town from that hill

It is more commonly praised for its location shooting, which captures stunning alpine landscapes through various seasons, creating a vast natural arena for what is actually a small story its small story of human relationships, of grief and love, of coming to terms and growing up. This is an intriguing contrast to the use of the Sahara in L’Atlantide. There are now-fascinating views of labour – farming, waterwheels, logging tools – and tumble down barn architecture.

18886164.jpg-r_1280_720-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxxThe film is also praised for the performance of Jean Forest, former Les Halles street urchin, who plays he film’s young protagonist, Jean. Pierette Houyez, as his little sister Pierette, is also good – adorable, and absolutely fearless when herding livestock twenty times her size.[12] Arlette Peyran, as their step-sister Arlette, is easily the weakest of the three child actors, but her failings of her perfomance also highlight the flaws in the other two – whenever they are required to signify something specific through gesture, they become mannered: you can almost hear Feyder and/or Rosay instructing them off-camera.

The opening of the film fluently contrasts the young Jeans’s attempts to be older than he is, and the younger Pierette as someone playful and full of wonder, and uses her relationship with her cat to model a mother/child relationship. Later, both Arlette and Jean will pray to the exemplary mother, the Virgin Mary. In English, the film is often called Mother – which I think should probably be cried out in your best Anthony Perkins voice. The location realism modulates such melodrama staples as unpayable rent coming due, insurance not paying out, a mother’s death, a distant father, a step-mother and step-sister, a child in peril, another child in peril, avalanches, deadly waterfalls, desperate searches. Indeed, the whole film can be seen as a Freudian case study of bourgeois family formation, but mostly without the foregrounded Freudianism of, say, Hitchcock. Although there are some potentially Hitchcockian fetish moments around a portrait, a broach, a particular dress arranged, far more creepily than the film seems to think, in a mannequin pose (hell, it’s halfway to Vertigo by that point). There is also an important contrast between the image of mother pouring milk and the stepmother milking cattle and bringing milk home.[13] This contrast is picked up on by shots of the waterfall that, thanks to the step-mother’s intervention, goes from perilous to mere bountiful nature.

photo-Visages-d-enfants-1925-11-912x460

The film also demonstrates Feyder’s technical mastery of missed styles. There is an expressionism to the design of the graveyard, dominated by a cross that looks like it belongs in a James Whale Frankenstein movie,[14] and to the rapid cutting that leads up to Jean’s collapse. There are inverted shots and superimpositions and an intriguing use of subjective shots: Jean looks at the villagers feet, not exactly Caravaggio exactly, but focused on peasant footwear,[15] and we see his mother’s coffin from his point of view as he follows it at the head of the procession to the graveyard. We see his mother’s portrait come to life, and later to fade – and the portrait is given a reverse shot of him, not as dramatic as Paul Leni’s potrait pov a couple of years later in The Cat and the Canary (1927) but a brilliant key to young Jean’s emotions at that moment. (And, a couple of years before Lang gave pov shots to explosions in Metropolis, Feyder gives them to the avalanche.)

And there are relatively few intertitles. Feyder used over 200 in L’Atlantide, he grew rapidly to hate them; like Murnau, he thought that you should be able to convey a story visually. That said, there are several which strike me as unnecessary and, late in the film, a pair that really annoy me. The latter of the two explains that Jean, realising the enormity of what he has done, begins to regret what he has done. It is utterly superfluous – all of this is conveyed by Forest’s acting, shot construction, and so on. The former of the pair exonerates Jean from the worst of intentions, disrupting a far more compelling ambiguity about his potential for murderous intentions.

And on that bombshell, the film.

Oh, I should warn you, Antonio Coppola’s score completely misreads the film – chirpy in all the wrong places, and determined to make it more sentimental than it is.

Oh, and the hats. Watch out for the hats. Not Tom Hardy insane, but crazy nonetheless.

 

Notes
[1] More of Autant-Lara later. I can’t vouch for Truffaut’s assessment of his work since the only film of his I can swear that I have seen (because we watched it for that class) is the Bourvil/Jean Gabin comedy, La traversée de Paris/Pig Across Paris (1956), which, as the title suggests, is about transporting a pig across (Nazi-occupied) Paris.

[2] Though James tells me he has seen one of them, La faute d’orthographe (1918), which has a brilliant premise and execution. A man applies for a job in a bank, but that night worries he has misspelt something in his application – so breaks into the bank to correct it. He then begins to suspect he has made other spelling errors, and while he pores over the papers, someone else breaks into the bank for exactly the same reason! And then … the final reel has been lost.

[3] It won the Grand Prize of the Académie française.

[4] It is better than I just made it sound.

[5] The newspapers, not the cafètiere.

[6] Actually, it does have a synchronised soundtrack, mostly music from Tristan and Isolde, and a few sound effects, including a pair of narratively vital gunshots.

[7] The fate of the latter was the inspiration for the disastrous Laughing Cavalier movie in Singin’ in the Rain (Donen and Kelly 1952).

[8] Le Quai des brumes (1938), Hôtel du Nord (1938), Le jour se lève (1939), Les enfants du paradis (1945).

[9] It is, however, worth seeing for her ill-advised gowns in the middle of the civil war, and for Miles Malleson’s turn as an inebriated proletarian commissar.

[10] He had co-director and supervisor credits one two films just after the war.

[11] And, I discovered by freak earlier this month, she does have an extraordinarily tenuous Bristol connection. She made a couple of films in the UK late in the second world war, The Halfway House (Dearden and Cavalcanti 1944) and Johnny Frenchman (Frend 1945). In the former, there is a wide establishing shot of Bristol Temple Meads station, labelled as such, and an interior shot of the station back when there was footbridge (rather than a tunnel) connecting platforms. Who knows when it was actually shot or for what purpose? And even if it was shot specifically for this film there was certainly no reason for her to be in Bristol. So, yeah, tenuous.

[12] She always reminds me of Willa Vy McAbee in Stingray Sam (McAbee 2009), but I don’t think the reference will mean anything to tonight’s audience, which is why it’s down here in the notes.

[13] Though rather less sexualised than the pornographic montage celebrating automated cream separation in Eisenstein’s Old and New aka The General Line (1929).

[14] Later, the cross on the roof a church buried by an avalanche will protrude from the snow like a gravestone.

[15] We also see a lot of shoe soles, which is unusual.

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The City in Fiction and Film, week 11: the city and modernity – ruins and rebuilding

the-bicycle-thief-movie-poster-1949-1020503611

week 10

This week’s class was centred on Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Vittoria De Sica 1948). We have already encountered postwar ruins and a version of the Trümmerfilm (‘rubble film’) in The Third Man (Reed 1949), and will watch Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949) next week – a bit more festive than most Trümmerfilm and one that segues into the period of postwar (re)construction that will begin next semester.

It is difficult to talk about Bicycle Thieves without also talking about Italian neo-realism, and so the lecture this week also overlaps with some issues being discussed on Film Style and Meaning. James Chapman’s Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present (2003) usefully describes Italian neorealism as possessing

a distinctive formal and aesthetic character of its own (location shooting, naturalistic lighting, long takes, true-to-life stories, unscripted dialogue and the use of non-professional performers). (232)

It would however be problematic to reduce the movement merely to a matter of aesthetics (Chapman doesn’t – I’ll come back to him in a bit), especially when the terms one finds in such lists are this broad and could be applied to so many realist film movements. So before getting into more detail about neorealism, we focused on the specificities of Italy in the closing years of World War II and the immediate postwar period.

Very broadly, then:

Benito Mussolini, leader of the National Fascist Party, became the Prime Minister of Italy in 1922. In 1925, he abandoned democracy and set up a legal dictatorship. He was ousted in 1943 and replaced by Pietro Badoglio, who set about dissolving the Fascist party and surrendering to the advancing allied forces. In response, Germany invaded Italy and German special forces broke Mussolini out of prison. Italy declared war on Germany; Mussolini became head of the northern Italian Social Republic – a Nazi puppet government. He was captured and executed by partisans in April 1945.

In 1944, the returning exiled leader of the Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, promised to pursue parliamentary rather than revolutionary politics, and joined a broadly anti-fascist ‘national unity’ government, which wrote a new constitution, gave women the vote, abolished the monarchy and began to (half-heartedly) purge fascists from office. The Communist Party, had been the mainstay of the anti-fascist partisans and anti-Nazi resistance, and thus it had a certain moral high ground (as well as a million members in 1945). Under the new constitution, the first parliamentary elections since 1922 were held on 18 April 1948 (while Bicycle Thieves was in pre-production).

There were massive housing shortages and unemployment was somewhere between 9% and 20% – and if the Communist Party won, US Marshall Plan aid would have been delayed. The Christian Democrats, backed by the Vatican and covertly by the CIA, won. The Communist Party was established as the second largest party.  On 14 July 1948 there was an attempt to assassinate Togliatti. He was shot three times and put in a coma, but recovered. In response, there were massive protests, a general strike, and violent police repression (including by the Nucleo Celere, who we glimpse out of the police station window in Bicycle Thieves, heading out in jeeps to break up a demonstration).

It was against this complex, tense, conflicted and invigorating background that Italian neorealism emerged, and which to an extent accounts for its distinctiveness among varieties of realist cinema – not least because many of the key personnel were communists, or at least antifascists well to the left of the Christian Democrats.

Chapman also outlines some important other factors in the development of the neorealist style. The massive state studio Cinecittà, opened by Mussolini in 1937, had been bombed during the Allied invasion and was closed down, not reopening until 1948 (it was used as a displaced persons camp from 1945-47). At the same time, distribution networks – which had been starved of overseas films – were badly disrupted. Film production and circulation had become extremely localised, and in the absence of studio facilities, location shooting was at the very least a practical decision as much as it might have been an aesthetic one (presumably, professional actors had also been widely dispersed during the war, so there might also have been expedient casting of non-professional actors).

To the aesthetic characteristics listed by Chapman, we might also add a general preference for medium and long shots, which has the effect of embedding characters in social settings and relationships – the American mistranslators of the title, who called the film The Bicycle Thief, rather missed this point, as well as implying the title referred to Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani). Additionally, neorealism also tended towards a digressive narrative form (especially in comparison to the Hollywood three-act structure) which arguably had the effect of bringing films closer to the unstructured shape of actual people’s actual lives – a point, as we will see, that André Bazin emphasised in his enthusiastic championing of De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952).

There is of course no consensus on how extensive the canon of Italian neorealist films is – the shortest lists I have seen list usually about eight films, others go up to about sixty.

Either the first neorealist film or the major precursor of neorealism, depending on who you ask, is Ossessione/Obsession (Luchino Visconti 1943), the first adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) – which the PCA had forbidden Hollywood to film.

So the other first neorealist film is RomaCittà aperta/Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini 1945), the story of a partisan and a priest killed during the liberation of Rome. It is generally interpreted as a call for communists and christians to unite in fighting fascism and building a new Italy. It was shot on the streets of Rome, using scavenged equipment and the ends of film reels, which gave it an urgent, grainy look . According to Dilys Powell, the influential Sunday Times film critic from 1939-79,

its impact was partly accidental, the result, not of the director’s art and imagination alone, but also of the accident of poor physical material which gave the story the air of fact.

For Rossellini, however, aesthetics and politics are inseparable, and neorealism was part of a movement to express a

need that is proper to modern man, to tell things as they are, to understand reality, I would say, in a pitiless concrete way, conforming to that typical contemporary interest, for statistical and scientific results.

In 1946, Rossellini’s Paisà/Paisan, charted – in six episodes – the relationship between Italians and US troops, from the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 to end of 1944. Again, it is a film that could not have been made by Hollywood – the US troops are often drunk, the third episodes features a woman who works as a prostitute, and the second episode of is centred on an African American soldier.

In the same year, De Sica’s Sciuscià/Shoeshine began to shift the focus of neorealist film’s away from the war and onto the problems of postwar reconstruction. This is also the focus of Bicycle Thieves, as well as Visconti’s La Terra Trema/The Earth Trembles (1948) and Giuseppe De Santis’s Riso Amaro/Bitter Rice (1949), which are both concerned with rural settings, with fishermen and rice farmers.

Bazin praised Bicycle Thieves in these terms:

The story is from the lower classes, almost populist: an incident in the daily life of a worker. But the film shows no extraordinary events such as those that befall the fated workers in Gabin films. There are no crimes of passion, none of those grandiose coincidences common in detective stories … Truly an insignificant, even a banal incident … Plainly there is not enough material here for even a news item: the whole story would not deserve two lines in a stray-dog column. … the event contains no proper dramatic valence. It takes on meaning only because of the social (and not psychological or aesthetic) position of the victim. ( “Bicycle Thief” 49-50)

He also described it as a communist film, but one that avoided being mere propaganda

Its social message is not detached, it remains immanent in the event, but it is so clear that nobody can overlook it, still less take exception to it, since it is never made explicitly a message. The thesis implied is wondrously and outrageously simple: in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive. … events and people are never introduced in support of a social thesis – but the thesis emerges fully armed and irrefutable because it is presented to us as something thrown in into the bargain. (“Bicycle Thief” 51, 53-3)

Arguments about the canon often start with Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950) and De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano/Miracle in Milan (1951) – they are clearly building on neorealism and breaking new ground, but is that new ground somewhere outside of neorealism’s ambit?

No such uncertainty exists about De Sica’s Umberto D., though. It is a deeply digressive story, or non-story, about an old man living a meagre existence. He has a dog, Flike. He contemplates suicide, but first tries to find a new home for Flike. It is a film which Bazin praised for its refusal of ellipsis – for the way it leaves in all the bits classical Hollywood filmmaking would cut out (as in this four-and-a-half-minute scene of the maid making coffee). Nothing at all of significance happens. Apart from the details of her routine, glimpses of her character and a reminder of her dilemma – and so of course it is full of actions and significance.

Bazin saw this as the pinnacle of Italian neorealism – as close as any film got to eliminating the actor (through the casting of non-professionals), miss-en-scène (through abandoning the artifice of the soundstage for the ‘reality’ of location shooting – to be honest, he is not always very good at spotting when things are shot in the studio) and story (eschewing the tightly-plotted classical narrative in favour of the disclosure of the everyday). While conceding that it would never be as widely appreciated or as well liked as Bicycle Thieves, he argued that

It took Umberto D to make us understand what it was in the realism of Ladri di Biciclette that was still a concession to classical dramaturgy. Consequently what is so unsettling about Umberto D is primarily the way it rejects any relationship to traditional film spectacle. (Bazin “Umberto D” 80)

Italian neorealism is normally said to end with Umberto D or perhaps Rome 11.00 (Giuseppe De Santis 1952) – a film I have never managed to see, but which sounds (and from film stills 280px-Romaore11_fotoscenalooks) awesome, although its influence is still at work in films as late as Federico Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria/Nights of Cabiria (1957) – a film which I ended up misdescribing as being about ‘a prostitute who looks for love in a van’. Of course, I meant ‘in vain’.  And ‘a woman who works as a prostitute’.

Neorealist films were not great hits with Italian audiences, whose cinemas were being flooded with Hollywood product. They were attacked by the Catholic Church as unsavoury (rather than because they were anticlerical, or at least did not hold a high opinion of the church), and they were attacked by politicians because of the negative image of Italy they promoted internationally (not because they were, on the whole, left-wing films critical of the failures of Italian politics). But some of them were also major international successes, winning many festival awards as well as Oscars, and played a key role in the development of arthouse cinemas and circuits, especially in the US.

Before screening the film, I asked the students about Bazin’s claim that the message of the film is that ‘in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive’. Is this what the film says? If so, how? If not, what does it say instead? Can a film be reduced like this to a mere ‘meaning’?

I also asked students to return to the ideas we have been considering (since Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’) around the individual and the crowd – are these the only options? What about families? The neighbourhood? The church? The community party? What role do they play in mediating between – and in creating – the individual and the crowd?

Thinking back to Man with a Movie Camera, how does Bicycle Thieves depict leisure and labour?

And think about the film’s depiction of Rome. This is not the tourist Rome of, say, Roman Holiday (William Wyler), full of images of classical ruins and Renaissance art and architecture (though it is often shot with yards of such locations). Why does it eschew such sights? And why do other films focus so strongly upon them?

In the end, a lot of our discussion focused on the significance of Antonio’s bike – a muscle-powered forms of transport, halfway between the rural world of hand- and animal-drawn vehicles, and the coming modernising decade of Vespas and Lambrettas and Fiats. One of the sharpest contrasts is between Antonio, who needs a bike so he can work and provide for his family, and the racing cyclists who are wealthy enough to own bikes for leisure purposes. (This is part of the film’s argument about the flawed nature of capitalist social organisation.)

There is also the moment early on when Antonio is told he must have a bike and:
a) he lies, saying it is broken rather than that it has been pawned, even though when we see the pawn shop it is obvious everyone else is living on meagre credit, too;
b) none of the other unemployed men, who are not eligible for this particular job, who clearly state that they have bikes, offer to lend theirs to him.

This lack of communal solidarity stands in stark contrast to the way in which the family and neighbours of the guy who stole Antonio’s bike leap to his defence. This incident ties to the film’s argument through architecture. The Val Melaina, where Antonio and his family live is a borgate built for working class people who were forcibly displaced from the centre of Rome when Mussolini destroyed working class neighbourhoods in order to construct the avenues around the Coliseum, St Peter’s, etc. (This also had the advantage of removing antifascist and  potentially antifascist workers to a distant periphery – a move echoing the Haussmanisation of Paris.) These apartment blocks – which we see have no inside water supply – were ‘completed’ in 1933. They were five miles from the centre of Rome, separated from the city by non-urban space, and surrounded by open land. They had few services and poor connections with the city. Under such circumstances, the communal ties of the densely packed urban neighbourhood, with its multigenerational extended and intertwined kinship networks, and compounded by the dislocations and losses of war, came under increasing strain. Community gives way to the individual and the nuclear family; and that is not necessarily a good thing – as we will see in the first half of next semester as we encounter narratives of suburban conformism (from Douglas Sirk, Don Siegel, Ray Bradbury) and urban alienation (from Jean-Luc Godard, JG Ballard, William Klein, Martin Scorsese).

Core critical reading: Gordon, Robert S.C. Bicycle Thieves. London: BFI, 2008. 82–98.

Recommended critical reading
Bazin, André. “Bicycle Thief”, What is Cinema? Volume II, ed. and trans Hugh Gray, Hugh. Berkeley: University of California Press 1972. 47-60.
–. “Umberto D: A Great Work”, What is Cinema? Volume II. Ed. and trans Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of CaliforniaPress 1972. 79-82.
Cardullo, Bert. “Actor-Become-Auteur: The Neorealist Films of Vittoria De Sica.” The Massachusetts Review 41.2 (2000): 173–92.
Celli, Carlo. “Ladri di biciclette/The Bicycle Thieves.” The Cinema of Italy. Ed. Giorgio Bertellina. London: Wallflower, 2004. 43–52.
Cook, Christopher. Ed. The Dilys Powell Film Reader. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.
Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neo-Realism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Gold, John R. and Stephen V. Ward. “Of Plans and Planners: Documentary Film and the Challenge of the Urban Future, 1935–52.” The Cinematic City. Ed. David B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 1997. 59–82.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapters 5 and 8, “The City in Ruins and the Divided City: Berlin, Belfast, and Beirut” and “The City as Queer Playground.”
Shiel, Mark. Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. London: Wallflower, 2006.
Tomasulo, Frank P. “Bicycle Thieves: A Re-Reading.” Cinema Journal 21.2 (1982): 1–13.

Recommended reading
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) offers an estranged vision of post-war London combining slums, bombsites and towering new architecture.
Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (1963) depicts the young working class women living in the post-war slums of Battersea and Clapham Junction; Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (1960) is also of interest.
Two useful accounts of social housing and postwar reconstruction are Lynsley Hansley’s Estates: An Intimate History (2012) and John Grindrod’s Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (2014).

Recommended viewing
Short documentaries about slum living, new housing and other urban developments include Housing Problems (Anstey and Elton 1935), The City (Elton 1939), The City (Steiner and Van Dyke 1939) and Land of Promise (Rotha 1946).
Utopia London (Cordell 2010) outlines the vision of a group of modernist architects to rebuild London as a more pleasant and equal city, while Riff-Raff (Loach 1991) and Estate, A Reverie (Zimmerman 2015) chart the destruction of such developments.
Post-war London bombsites play a key role in films such as Hue and Cry (Crichton 1947), Obsession aka The Hidden Room (Dmytryk 1949) and The Yellow Balloon (Thompson 1953). These are Trümmerfilm (‘rubble films’), that is, movies made and set in the ruins of postwar cities. Others include The Murderers Are Among Us (Staudte 1946), the Italian neo-realist Germany Year Zero (Rosselini 1948), Odd Man Out (Reed 1947), The Third Man (Reed 1949) and Ten Seconds to Hell (Aldrich 1959).
Up the Junction was filmed for television by Ken Loach in 1965 (and rather less interestingly for cinema by Peter Collinson in 1968). Also of interest are Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), adapted from Dunn’s 1967 novel of the same name, and his influential television drama Cathy Come Home (1969). Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (BBC 1996) begins – in part – as a drama about the post-war replacement of slum housing with tower blocks and concludes with the problematic privatisation of public housing.