When the actor is a director, too: ‘Dans la nuit’ and the others

Dans la nuit

Tonight in Piazza Maggiore (with a cover set at Cinema Arlecchino in case of rain) we will watch Dans la nuit (France/1929), one of the last masterpieces of silent french cinema, accompanied by the music of the finnish band Cleaning Women. It was the first and only directing credits of Charles Vanel, who was mainly an actor – a quiet prolific one, actually. The passage from acting to directing is not such a strange phenomenon nowadays, but it’s still pretty unusual. At Il Cinema Ritrovato this year, we can find also other cases.

Let’s continue speaking about Dans la nuit for a moment, borrowing the words from the festival catalogue: «Charles Vanel acted in about 100 films (including Edmond T Gréville’s extraordinary Woman of Evil and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s acclaimed The Wages of Fear, to name just two) and stepped behind the camera when he was at the peak of his fame as an actor in silent cinema. It was 1929. He directed just one feature-length film. However, Dans la nuit is a disturbing, surprising film in which he demonstrates an incredible sense of framing and editing and a wild demented modernity, while reprising his double act with Sandra Milowanoff, with whom he had already starred in La Flambée des rêvesPêcheur d’Islande (both by Jacques de Baroncelli, 1924) and La Proie du vent (René Clair, 1927). “A drama in a working-class setting”: this is how he liked to define the story, which paid homage to his father. On the film’s release, it was praised by the critics: “Vanel immediately achieves the intensity of great drama. The images are imbued with crazy sincerity. A painful and convincing cruelty. Finally, something powerful. The director Vanel criticises life” (Michel Gorel, “La Revue du cinéma”, 1930). However, the silent era was over. When Dans la nuit arrived on cinema screens in May 1930, sound film had already prevailed and the film was withdrawn. Thus, it is perhaps France’s last silent film.»

Another directorial debut (and another only directorial experience) we will show this year at the festival is the one made by Peter Lorre directing Der Verlorene (West Germany/1951), that we programmed on sunday and we will show again on July, 3rd. In the words of Michael Omasta: «In order to make what would remain his only film as director, Peter Lorre returned to Germany 20 years after M. Set amid the postwar ruins of Hamburg, Der Verlorene has been aptly described as a rare and fascinating blend of German expressionism, American noir and Italian neorealism. The opening title, “This film is not freely invented. It is informed by factual reports from recent years,” establishes its slightly unsettling, no-nonsense atmosphere. […] Unfortunately, almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong with the film. The shoot was overshadowed by the sudden death of its producer, Arnold Pressburger, and during post-production a fire destroyed the original cut. Der Verlorene premiered at the Venice Film Festival and while German audiences avoided it, German critics voted it the most artistic film of 1951 and awarded it a Bambi prize. More than 30 years later, critic-turned-filmmaker Harun Farocki arrived at the conclusion that “there is hardly another film that has foreshadowed fascism as exactly as M, and hardly another that has traced the remnants of fascism as exactly as Der Verlorene”».

A way more prolific (and way more picturesque) actor/director, Erich Von Stroheim is at the festival with two different films: Foolish Wives (USA/1922, that we admired yesterday in Piazza Maggiore accompanied by the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna) and Blind Husbands (USA/1919, in programme on July, 1st). «Erich von Stroheim’s directorial debut for Universal, Blind Husbands remains the only film ‘Mr Von’ was able to complete without interruptions by his producers and studio. Set in the Tyrolean Alps, it pits old-world eroticism against the detached rationalism of contemporary American marriage. The film firmly establishes Erich von Stroheim’s mastery of visual storytelling: the drama between the married couple and ‘the other man’ (Erich von Stroheim in his signature role as an aristocrat and military officer) plays out almost entirely through suggestive closeups and a montage of gazes.» (Janneke van Dalen, Michel Loebenstein)

Another actor who was also a prolific director (and that sadly passed away a few months ago), Sidney Poitier directs Buck and the Preacher (also programmed on July, 2nd). «Poitier’s directorial debut in Buck and the Preacher remains one of his strongest efforts. At first, Poitier’s title role as Buck was the extent of his responsibility, but when “differences” surfaced with the initial white director, Poitier listened to the suggestion of his friend and co-star, Harry Belafonte, and assumed the directing duties. […] Despite the film’s adherence to the western genre and its noble cultural objectives, Buck and the Preacher struggled to find an audience. […] Perhaps, Black cowboys and settlers were still too far removed from the traditional images of African Americans, and the sense of triumph suggested by the film’s final freeze-frame – of Buck, the Preacher, and Ruth riding into the sunset – was too foreign a concept for audiences.» (Melvin Donaldson)

In the section dedicated to the german musical comedies during the Weimar Republic, we will be able to watch one of the two film as a director by the actor Curt Bois, the short film Scherben bringen Glück (Germany/1932, programmed on Saturday, July 2nd along with So ein Mädel vergisst man nicht by Fritz Kortner). «Unlike many of his colleagues, Curt Bois, a former child star and a versatile actor and comedian throughout the 1920s who left Germanyone week after the Nazi takeover, was rarely seen in early sound cinema. He appeared in only three films between 1931 and 1932. The best (surviving) one he directed himself. Scherben bringen Glück is a delightful, perfectly calibrated miniature of slapstick comedy: a genre German cinema often struggles with, but which Bois handles beautifully both behind and in front of the camera.» (Lukas Foerster)

And then, of course, there is Vittorio De Sica. This year, we will admire is work both as an actor (opposing Sophia Loren in Peccato che sia una canaglia and Pane, amore e) and as the director of Sciuscià (of which we will watch the new restoration premièred this year at Cannes Classic), La ciociara, La riffa and Ieri, Oggi e Domani (again with Sophia Loren).