Friday, February 20, 2009

Saboteur - Early Hitchcock and good enough!

The famous tagline for this Hitchcock masterpiece was '3000 miles of terror' hinting at the cross country run by the fugitive from Los Angeles to New York with the climax being shot at the Radio City Music Hall and the Statue of Liberty at Liberty Island. Aircraft factory worker, Barry Kane goes on the run across the United States when he is wrongly accused of starting a fire that killed his best friend. The film is in black and white and runs 108 minutes. Alfred Hitchcock chose to use the word 'finis' (European - French for The End) at the end. Robert Cummings stars as Barry Kane, a patriotic munitions worker who is falsely accused of sabotage in this wartime thriller. This film was made by Hitchcock between 'Suspicion' and 'Shadow of a Doubt'. Hitchcock is feeling his way around America literally. Cummings is lively and engaging. His naivete suits the character he is portraying. Where this film differs from his better known films is that the audience is let in on the game early. The villains become apparent fairly soon. The master's handling is very much there for people to see in pristine black and white. This is one of the first steps we have to take to understand Hitchcock as a master film maker.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Citylights: Enlightening

Released on 6th February 1931, this is yet another masterpiece by Charles Spencer Chaplin. The tramp struggles to help a blind flower girl he has fallen in love with. She and her grandmother are in financial trouble. The tramp develops an on and off relationship with a millionaire whom he saves when he is about to take his life. That wealthy man allows him to be the girl's benefactor and suitor. It is a charmingly simple story. The tramp meets this lovely blind flower girl who is selling flowers on a sidewalk. She mistakes him for a wealthy duke. When he learns that an operation may restore her sight in Vienna, he sets off to earn the money she needs to have for her surgery. In a series of comedy adventures that only Chaplin could pull off, he eventually succeeds even though his efforts land him in jail. While he is in jail (the millionaire charges him for robbing the money that he has always given him in his drunken stupor), the girl gets her eyes restored by the operation and longs to meet her benefactor. The closing scene in which she discovers that he is not a wealthy duke but an inconsequential tramp is one of the highest moments in the movie that made my eyes wet. Virginia Cherrill is the blind girl. She is pretty. Harry Myers puts in a great performance as the eccentric millionaire. The music is by Chaplin himself and the theme he has given for the blind girl is haunting and gracious. In this film, Chaplin is the actor, the director, the musician, the sentimentalist, the knockabout clown( the ring scene and the music are brilliant), the ballet dancer, the athlete, the lover, the tragedian and the fool. What more could I say? There is an inventive use of pantomime through which the tramp relates to the audience. Despite this film being a silent one in 1931, the audiences flocked to City Lights anyway.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Great Dictator

This was Chaplin's first talkie and probably his greatest film. It was made in 1940. Released on 7th March 1941. Written and directed by him. Chaplin plays Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania and his double , a Jewish barber. Jack Oakie plays Napaloni, the Dictator of Bacteria. Both being references to Hitler and Mussolini. When released, this movie was banned in all occupied countries by the Nazis. In the occupied Balkans, it was screened once to a German audience. The members of a resistance group switched the reels in a military cinema and replaced a comedic opera with a copy of this film which they had smuggled in from Greece. So, a group of German soldiers enjoyed the screening of this film until they realised what it was. Some left the cinema and others were reported to have fired shots at the screen. Garbitsch is a reference to Josef Goebbels. Goebbels had a copy of The Great Dictator seized from one of the German occupied countries and then brought it to Hitler. Hitler screened the film alone except for his personal projectionist. When it was over, it is said that he demanded to see it again. Beyond that, his reaction is not known. Chaplin wrote," I'd give anything to know what he thought of it."
How did Chaplin accomplish the upside down plane stunt? By turning the prop airplane upside-down with the actors strapped in, then by turning the camera upside-down as well and just pouring the water on the studio floor making it appear to go upwards.
Let me tell you that it was Chaplin who kept this style of mustache first and Hitler had the audacity to borrow it from the most famous celebrity in the world. The two men were born within four days of each other. Paulette Godard, Chaplin's wife at that time, plays the barber's beloved. Chaplin hits one of his highest moments in the amazing sequence where he performs a dance of love with a large inflated globe of the world. The hunger for world domination has never been more rhapsodically expressed. The slapstick is swift and sharp. It was still not enough for Chaplin. He ends the film with the barber's six-minute speech calling for peace and prophesying a hopeful future for troubled mankind. The lyricism and the sheer humanity of it are still stirring. This was the last appearance of Chaplin's little tramp character and not coincidentally, it was his first talkie.
"I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an Emperor, that’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible, Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another, human beings are like that. We all want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful. But we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in; machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity, more than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me I say: do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass and dictators will die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people and so long as men die liberty will never perish. Soldiers: don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel, who drill you, diet you, treat you as cattle, as cannon fodder! Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts. You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!! You have the love of humanity in your hearts. You don’t hate, only the unloved hate. The unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers: don’t fight for slavery, fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of Saint Luke it is written: - “The kingdom of God is within man.” Not one man, nor a group of men, but in all men: in you! You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then, in the name of democracy, let us use that power, let us all unite! Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie. They do not fulfil their promise, they never will. Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfil that promise. Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! In the name of democracy: let us all unite!" This speech by Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin is perhaps the greatest speech ever made particularly in the context of events just after the Second World War. In the 1940s, when the United States was at peace with Nazi Germany and around the time when Adolf Hitler’s end was nigh, a film “The Great Dictator” was made. Directed, produced, scored and written by the legendary Charlie Chaplin, the film went on to condemn Hitler like no other film of the era. Interestingly, the film was Chaplin’s first talking film. Chaplin was the only producer who continued to make mute films around that time. Without doubt, the film turned out to be Chaplin’s most commercially successful film. Charlie Chaplin played two roles in the film: that of a Jewish Barber, and of Adenoid Hynkel (parody of Adolf Hitler) who is the dictator of a fictional nation Tomania (parody of Germany). Towards the end, the Jewish Barber goes on to become the Führer of Tomania. The speech that we portray today in our series of the The Greatest Speeches deserves to be a part of this column. On YouTube, the speech is “the greatest speech ever made”. The speech is delivered by the Barber (Chaplin) after he is made Führer of Tomania. Because of his humble background, at first, he is hesitant to get on the podium. Once he gets up on the podium, for the first forty seconds or so, he utters not a single word. And then he begins. The speech starts with ever so touching words, “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor.” He goes on to talk about inequality that has clouded humanity and how greed “has barricaded the world with hate”. Towards the end is when the speech becomes worthy of being called “the greatest”, where he addresses his soldiers. “Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts. You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!!” The unnatural men, and the machine men being the dictators. Chaplin, hands down the greatest comedian of cinema, in what was his first talking movie, delivers a speech that manages to touch the very core of your heart, putting into words what all of us have thought before, but have been too hesitant to utter; words that inspire us to the verge of tears, making us realise that we have the power- the power to do the impossible, to break free of the chains that tie us down, to break through national barriers, looks past the differences in man, and unite. Unite, to make this world a better place, a place where there is an inexhaustible amount of peace, and love, and happiness.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Definitive Eroica

Ludwig Van Beethoven had mentioned clearly on the instructions to the performers of this symphony that the exposition of the first movement is to be repeated. Leonard Bernstein is one of the first who has done that and remains among a very rare select few. The rest have ignored and neglected that vital instruction. Bernstein's lecture on "How a Great Symphony was Written" is very educational where he sits at the piano and plays out the themes of this revolutionary symphony. The New York Philharmonic are in their element here. The First Movement, Allegro con brio, is treated with real punch right from the earth shattering opening chords to its brilliant coda and climax. The Marcia Funebre- Adagio Assai is treated with high solemnity. Along with Karajan and Klemperer, this is an excellent rendition of the funeral march. The Scherzo is beaming with vigour and the french horns (3) are exceptional in the trio section. The finale with its theme and variations and the brilliant fugue at the end bring the symphony to its blazing conclusion. This is the performance to beat. This is the definitive Eroica.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major. Op. 55 (1803) - Ludwig Van Beethoven. 'Eroica.' It was influenced by Napoleon's achievements. Among history's many examples, Eroica stands high. This distinction took birth when this symphony interrupted the evolution of symphonic development and appeared without a precedent or a prototype. This symphony marked the end of classicism and turned the pages of Romanticism. It was moulded in a fiery new style. Its impact and influence would be heard for a generation to come. The symphony symbolises Napoleon, heroism, death, apotheosis and revolution. At first, Beethoven thought extremely highly of Napoleon and compared him to the greatest Roman consuls. When Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven decided that Napoleon was nothing but an ordinary mortal and tore the dedication page to the symphony and dedicated it to Prince Lobkowitz later. The public that was used to the Haydn and Mozart opening of the symphonies was in a for a brute shock when the first two opening chords shattered the expectations of the bourgeoisie and brought the curtain down on the Classical Age. This was about twice the size of normal Haydn or Mozart symphonies. In his D major Symphony, Beethoven had begun to move beyond the traditional concept of the classical symphony. This symphony brought about change. The change it brought involves more than the issues of harmony, counterpoint or an addition of a french horn to the ensemble. Post Eroica, appreciation of a symphony involves not only attention to compositional technique but includes the added dimension of meaning and interpretation. The symphony was started in 1803 and completed in early 1804 but the first performance was given at Theater An Der Wien with Beethoven conducting on 7th April 1805.The symphony is scored for strings, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets(in B Flat Major), 2 bassoons, 3 french horns(E Flat Major and C Major), two trumpets and timpani.After the earth shattering E Flat major chords, the opening movement, Allegro Con Brio, gives out a number of characteristic themes. As per Leonard Bernstein, "this was a battle cry.. it was a clarion call to a new understanding of music." At the time of its premiere, a third of the audience appreciated the revolutionary opening, a third did not understand it and the remainder were shell shocked and would have preferred the whole affair to have not taken place at all. The main theme is given out at the very beginning by the cellos in a quiet manner. The violins then enter with repeated high notes resolving to the second subject brought about by the clarinets and oboes and after few measures we come across the syncopations that play an important part in this great picture of strife. The linking of the development to the recapitulation is a special moment. The violins are still preparing the way by a tender episode for the winds, repeated by the strings and the entry of the french horn that interrupt the turmoil but after a short breather a rapid crescendo leads again to the clashing syncopations. A similar treatment is adopted in the second part with a glorious theme on the oboe and the coda is one of the most remarkable piece of orchestral writing ever accomplished. In this movement , Beethoven indicates that the exposition is to be repeated. This repeat is generally omitted in performances or rather neglected. Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic has honoured it among a very few.

Beethoven replaced the slow movement by a funeral march. The sombre and tragic mood of this movement reflects a universal emotion with its sad melody in C Minor and its heartfelt tones of melancholy. It was marked as 'Marcia Funebre' - Adagio Assai. The movement is in rondo form. Its principal section is a solemn dirge in C Minor and is contrasted with a brighter episode in C Major and the massive fugato in F Minor. The outer sections are intense and heavily funereal but the central part is more mobile and brings a balance and contrast. Throughout this movement, the instrumental colours emphasise the solemnity. This movement is occasionally performed on memorial occasions. Serge Koussevitzky performed it to commemorate the death of President Roosevelt. Bruno Walter did it for Arturo Toscanini. This remains as the first broad, spacious and towering adagio in the Romantic symphonies that is dwarfed only by the heavenly Adagio Molto of the Choral Symphony.The Scherzo- Allegro Vivace is highly individualistic. It begins with a pianissimo staccato that has something mysterious in its character on the lower notes of the violins. The melody then rises into a higher octave in a short group of connected descending notes. In the trio, Beethoven uses a special sound efect, the unusual seventh in the horns with an additional horn coming into play. It breaks forth with a sudden fortissimo with a reminder of the syncopations of the Allegro climaxing with sinsiter drumbeats of the coda. The finale, Allegro Molto, begins with a dominant seventh chord in the form of a cadenza is a large scale series of variations on an impressive theme in the bass. In the third variation, a melody in the first oboe and clarinet is added to this theme and thereafter always appears with it. Beethoven was particularly fascinated by both these tunes as he had already used them in his 'Creatures of Prometheus' as well as in his piano variations opus 35. The movement now proceeds on to a fugue that ends with a grand climax bringing the symphony to its blazing conclusion. The definitive performance of this symphony is by Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic. Bernstein is in his element and is one of the first in the recording annals to take the repeat in the first movement. I even have his treatise on "The writing of a Grand Symphony" where he plays the themes of the Eroica on the piano as he explains the evolution of this great work. Other noteworthy performances are by Herbert Von Karajan with the Berliner Philharmoniker (the oboists and the french horns are superb) and Otto Klemperer (his Adagio is superb) with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Wilhelm Furtwangler, Georg Solti and Zubin Mehta have disappointed with their listless approach. I was expecting a lot with Furtwangler but the Vienna recording did not have spine. I have still to hear his version with the Berliners in 1952. Even Toscanini has rushed through this symphony and failed to impress. It is Bernstein that has given us the best Eroica to date. I am attaching his performance with the Wiener Philharmoniker which is a step ahead of his New York reading. Next to Maestro Leonard Bernstein is this performance by a Japanese Koho Uno with the Osaka Philharmonic. It is shattering indeed!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Chaplin's Masterpiece - The Circus

It is a masterpiece that brings you to tears. Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin made ' The Circus' in 1928 in not so happy circumstances. He was in the midst of a divorce settlement and things were not going right for the production. In fact, the circus ring on the sets even caught fire resulting in time and production losses. Yet, through all these trials and tribulations, Chaplin came out a winner. The film was given an academy award in 1929; an award it richly deserves. The shot techniques, the story, the script and not to forget the music that Chaplin scored himself. The Merna Kennedy theme is beautiful on the violas and cellos with the mandolin in the background. In the 1960s re-release, Chaplin wrote and even sung a song for the film called, 'Swing Little Girl.' I have watched this film after 81 years since its release and still it could move me to tears. The final scene is unforgettable when the caravan moves out and the tramp sits lonely on a discarded circus trunk. Hats off to Chaplin! Raj Kapoor tried to emulate him and this screenplay in his film, 'Mera Naam Joker' (quite a decent effort - in fact Raj Kapoor's best Indian film). When I was through with Chaplin's 'Circus', my eyes were wet.

The Second Symphony of Beethoven

The D Major Symphony was completed in the summer of 1802. The first public performance was given at the Theater An der Wien on 5th April 1803. At its first performance, it was described as being full of new, original ideas and very powerful.
It was written during his stay at Heiligenstadt in 1802. It was near the time that he began to realise that he was becoming deaf. It is one of the last works of Beethoven's 'early period.' The symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in A Major, two bassoons, two french horns in D and E, two trumpets in D Major, timpani and strings. The composer also made a transcription for piano trio which bears the same opus number 36 in 1805.
The symphony consists of four movements: adagio molto - allegro con brio; larghetto; scherzo-allegro (after the symphony's premiere, it was noted that the traditional minuet was absent as Beethoven replaced the minuet with the scherzo); allegro molto. At average performing time, the symphony's duration is 37 minutes.
Adagio Molto begins in D Major and briefly modulates to A major. The exposition takes the A major theme with a transition to B flat major. The development uses this material with a codetta going through several modulations. The A major theme returns in the recapitulation and takes us to the coda and conclusion of the movement. Larghetto is in A Major and is one of Beethoven's beautiful symphonic slow movements. There are clear indications of the influence of folk music and pastoral music. Scherzo- Allegro evolves around a melodious oboe and bassoon quartet with typical sounding Austrian side-slapping dance. Allegro Molto is comprised of very rapid string passages. It is of great depth with musical and harmonic complexity. A critic described this movement as " a dragon ran through by a spear, not wanting to die and drained of blood, wagging its tail."
Noteworthy performances of this symphony are by Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker (1963), Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia Orchestra (1957) and Sir Thomas Beecham with the London Philharmonic (1958).