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On DVD: “Joy House,” “The Witman Boys”

By Michael Atkinson We've been trained nowadays to believe that if a mainstream movie is...

08052008_joyhouse.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

We’ve been trained nowadays to believe that if a mainstream movie is not a monstrous, definitive, top-heavy, eye-blasting, eardrum-bruising mega-event, it’s not worth seeing. Gone are the cultural aesthetics of the double bill (in which no one film was so commanding that it couldn’t stand to be immediately followed by another), the moviegoing habit (when diversion, charm and story were all moviegoers wanted, every weekend) and the notion of a film’s nature, like a person’s, being valued for modesty, lightweight pulpiness, empathic thrills in the moment and the pleasant company of beautiful and confident movie stars. Stuck in the summertime hell of superhero crapola and CGI migraines, it’s not hard from where I stand (which is, frankly, still a state of bedevilment about how the typically abbreviated and overwrought non-storyness of “The Dark Knight” has so many educated viewers bamboozled) to find relief in the forgotten matinee fodder of a less bombastic time. This week, it’s René Clément’s rather delightful 1964 suspenser “Les Félins” (The Felines), titled here (after the American pulp paperback it was based on, by prolific noiriste Day Keene) “Joy House.” There’s not much that’s earth-shaking about “Joy House” (except perhaps Lalo Schifrin’s pre-Jerry Goldsmith score). But it’s a movie in a way movies haven’t been in a long time: graceful, relaxed, fun-loving, unpretentious.

What you get is Alain Delon in his best persona — a ne’er-do-well playboy flitting around the Mediterranean looking for cash and ass, not unlike his Tom Ripley in Clément’s “Purple Noon” four years earlier. He’s targeted by a jealous American gangster — bring me the head of Alain Delon, literally — and escapes into the opulent Riviera clutches of icy widow Lola Albright (a stunning blonde from Akron whose résumé is otherwise comprised of cheap westerns and episodic TV) and her dewy, bubbly cousin-cum-maid, played by a pristine 26-year-old Jane Fonda at the onset of her French phase. Delon’s hired as a chauffeur — the kind whose driving is seriously impeded by his penchant for hiding under the steering wheel whenever gangsters walk by — but both the chateau-owning widow and the adorable but possibly unhinged kewpie doll have other cat-and-mouse plans for the wandering hunk, and it’s got to do with murder, swapped identities, set-ups, and so on.

It’s the kind of American pulp French filmmakers have always loved: the kind in which not one character has an iota of honesty or morality to them. This is my idea of escapism, hanging in an absurd vacation-France inhabited by nuns and sex kittens, digging the redoubtable chemistry between Fonda and Delon (honestly, Fonda’s so game and sexy here she’d muster chemistry with Fernandel), enjoying the stars’ indulgent wallow in the Riviera as I’m also casually and effortlessly following the not-too-fast narrative without the benefit of a single optical effect or a single moment where the film insists on “making” me “feel” the action. (When an on-the-run Delon hazardously flags down a passing truck, Clément hangs back and just watches the actor literally leaps on the grill.) “Joy House” is not a great film (it’s not as rich as the Patricia Highsmith-derived “Purple Noon”), but it is pure movieness, un-self-important and respectful and sweet, and I’d prefer watching it again to sitting through another $120 million comic book holocaust.

08052008_witmanboys.jpgOn another planet, and not one immune to a degree of pretension, the overlooked Hungarian film “The Witman Boys” (1997) grimly lays out the growth, like mold, of family psychopathy, and of its kind (think “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea,” any number of Claude Chabrol films, and the numerous movies based upon the Papin sisters) it’s an expert, reserved, thoughtful piece of work. There’s a predictability to it, of course, as we observe the titular brothers (Alpár Fogarasi and Szabalcs Gergely, both of whom could pass for John Lennon progeny) react to their tyrannical father’s death by not reacting at all, and then begin torturing and killing animals (mostly off screen), and then fall under the spell of a whore who encourages them to thieve from their mother (the always mesmerizing Maia Morgenstern) and eventually edge over into homicide. Still, the stars of the show are director János Szász and cinematographer Tibor Máthé (Ildikó Enyedi’s D.P. and maybe the best unemigrated shooter in Eastern Europe); “The Witman Boys” is set in a small turn-of-the-century Hungarian city, a chilly mess of snow, oil light, stray dogs and smoky air, and it’s breathtakingly shot, in glowing earth colors and magic-hour luminescence, like Wyeth meets Vermeer meets Sargent. The cold story may be familiar, but the place and time is evoked so clearly it becomes a sense memory.

[Photos: "Joy House," MGM, 1964; "The Witman Boys," Bunyik Entertainment, 1997]

>”Joy House” (Koch Lorber) is now available on DVD; “The Witman Boys” (Facets) will be available on DVD on August 26th.

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