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Three Indispensable Expat Films: The Tenant, Chungking Express & Beat the Devil

The Tenant, Chungking Express & Beat the Devil


Monday, September 08, 2008

Directed by Roman Polanski

In The Tenant (1976), Roman Polanski plays Trelkovsky, an exceedingly polite file clerk who takes an apartment in a dingy Parisian building despite the rudeness of both the concierge (Shelley Winters) and the landlord (Melvyn Douglas), and the fact that the previous tenant threw herself out the window. Soon he’s quite sure his new neighbors are trying to drive him nuts. Polanski, who left Poland before his 30th birthday and became a French citizen at 43, took the urban paranoia he’d already explored in Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and made it the explicit symptom of a foreigner’s alienation.

The screenplay (written by Polanski and his frequent collaborator, Gérard Brach, after Roland Topor’s 1964 novel) comically suggests that some of Trelkovsky’s fears of persecution are warranted; when Trelkovsky wants to report a burglary, the landlord jabs a baguette at him and says, “Once anyone gets involved with the police, they’re always looked upon with suspicion — especially if they’re not French.” If Trelkovsky could only assimilate, maybe the hostile vibes — and the creepy neighbors across the courtyard — would go away. But the most sinister figure lurking in cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s shadows, the only one this young exile can never escape, is himself.

Lawrence Levi

Directed by Wong Kar-wai

“I’m working off instinct and the possibilities of the space. I have no idea what Wong is working off. ... The structure and implications of his film are like a fat man’s feet: he doesn’t really know what they look like until the end of the day.” So wrote Sydney-born ex-seaman and late-blooming New Asian Cinema cameraman-laureate Christopher Doyle, in notes taken during the Buenos Aires shoot of Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together. It’s possible to draw a line from the uncertainty described here to Wong and Doyle’s creative divorce midway through the half-decade spent on 2046. But returning to the cosmically twinned love story of Chungking Express (1994), the sentiment suggests the unlimited horizons of their collaboration: Doyle’s sped-up/slowed-down tempos and light-flooded aperture expressed Wong’s unmooring from linear time and plunges into memory, a global-pop Romanticism.

Chungking’s expressions are vrooming model airplanes and chorus upon chorus of “California Dreamin.’” Doyle’s Happy Together diaries conclude: “We didn’t really know what certain details or colors or actions meant at the time we filmed them. They anticipated where the film would take us. They were in a sense images from the future ... from the time we’ve only just reached.” Chungking Express ends with the promise of flight to who-knows-where.

Mark Asch

Directed by John Huston

Not since Errol Flynn waltzed past the corpse of John Barrymore did the élan of alcoholic despair inspire so affectionate a private joke. Although retired Sydney Greenstreet undoubtedly regretted his own absence from a trip to the Amalfi Coast on Humphrey Bogart’s dime, the assembled skeletons of Casablanca (including Peter Lorre, nom de guerre Julius O’Hara) absolve the ghosts of The Maltese Falcon without him. Jennifer Jones neatly pits screenwriter Truman Capote’s morbidity, telling her husband that “desperate characters” never look at women’s legs. It’s uranium rights in Africa the gang is after, between nervous glances to match the stripes on their sweaters and the polka dots on their bowties.

As much a goodbye to Old Hollywood as a kiss-off, Bogart impresses the out-of-towners by telling them he used to own half the views of the Tyrrhenian Sea; no one believes him until a white-haired restaurateur opens off-season to host Billy’s party. John Huston’s most natural directorial effort is the best film never made about Orson Welles, where Rita Hayworth is queen of Morocco. A love letter to great men in exile.

Nathan Kosub




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