THE GOOD: Dishonored
Josef von Sternberg, 1931
It's the Mata Hari story retold as only von Sternberg can: with great taste. Marlene Dietrich is spy X27, about to face the firing squad. She sits in her cell awaiting the inevitable, pounding on a piano, unbelievably sexy and beautifully lit. She plays flippantly, like how she'd light a cigarette. There's a long dissolve to a double exposure of the firing squad marching up to get her, then she's summoned to meet her death. All dolled up (Travis Banton designed a couture execution outfit), she adjusts her make-up and veil in the reflective surface of the captain's sword. He throws it down and refuses to carry out the execution. While he's taken away, Marlene calmly fixes her face one last time and another captain moves in and blasts her to oblivion.
The scene is so many things: moving, tragic, hilarious, gorgeous to look at. Von Sternberg worked in ways which are impossible to divine, and that's why I love him. This was the earliest days of talking pictures when movies were evolving through natural selection - like sound techniques quickly killed off by a public who didn't like them - yet he had his own line of film evolution.
THE BAD: The Pianist
Roman Polanski, 2002
I was really enjoying the movie - it had been very unorthodox and spare - until this scene, when Roman Polanski seemed to go stupid. The movie went south after that. Adrien Brody's character, the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, is caught hiding in a house by a Nazi officer, but it is made clear that the officer hasn't made up his mind what to do with him. While in hiding, Szpilman has been practising the piano by soundlessly fingering the notes, to ward off insanity, so he tells the officer that he will play for him. Polanski lets Szpilman give a recital as good as something by Horowitz. It's not as if this Nazi needed a virtuoso performance. (Perhaps Polanski was afraid that music lovers wouldn't be convinced if the performance didn't bowl them over, too.) But we don't get to see his terror, or how the enormity of the situation would affect his performance. This is surprising - after all, Polanski's speciality is mental discomfort. We aren't allowed in to the horrifying process of performing under such pressure. It was a maladroit move.
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