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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

SAINT JOAN (1957)

Jean Seberg’s debut nearly ended her career. ‘Discovered’ by producer/director Otto Preminger, her decent, if unnuanced acting got pelted. But there’s plenty of blame to go around on this critical & commercial failure.* Graham Greene seamlessly trimmed George Bernard Shaw’s well-regarded play. But the nips & tucks weakened the verbal argument while leaving allusions to (rather than visualizations of) battles & pageantry, which proved frustrating as cinema. Action = Character in film; but it's Verbiage = Character in Shaw; trying to split the difference, Preminger & Greene created a lose-lose situation. Just as problematic, Preminger’s staging, recently transformed by the wide CinemaScope frame, goes flat in the less roomy 1.85:1 format. (Even Saul Bass’s graphics - titles & poster - aren’t up to his usual standard.) It’s as if Preminger, and what looks on paper like a mighty cast have all bent their efforts to match Seberg’s unvaried pace and general lack of variety. Well, all except John Gielgud, a natural Shavian who's commanding as the irony-bound Earl of Warwick. And qualified kudos to Richard Widmark whose daringly whiny Dauphin grows on you. Still, the play remains a splendid thing, with traces of CANDIDA and MAN AND SUPERMAN in theme and intellectual argument. You get a feel for what might have been in the Pre-Trial sequence just before Joan enters. Or try listening to it by following the link to hear Siobhan McKenna’s acclaimed perf, an international success which probably sparked the film. http://archive.org/details/BernardShawsSaintJoan

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *It’s hard to understand all the negative fuss over Seberg at the time. Now, the main trouble may be her unnerving facial similarity to (wait for it) Justin Bieber! Happily for all concerned, Preminger, Seberg & lenser Georges Périnal all regrouped next year for one of their greatest achievements, BONJOUR TRISTESSE/’58.

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