Raymond Chandler was a genius who wrote six novels and a book or two of short stories from 1939 to 1953. His influence is felt even today in the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction, and indeed, in literature in general. Then in 1958 he wrote a pathetic little item called Playback, that I believe would not even have been published if it hadn’t had the Chandler name on it. The book was too minor to tarnish his reputation, but it’s a sad way to go out.
Charlie Chaplin was a genius who made uncounted brilliant two-reel comedies in the early days of cinema, and went on to make five feature films that are today regarded by just about everyone as masterpieces. Then he made a fairly bad film, A King in New York, in 1957, and a truly awful piece of crap called A Countess From Hong Kong (with Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, no less!) in 1967. Bad way to end a career.
I’m sure there are other examples, and it pains me to have to say that the French genius Jacques Tati was one of them. He only directed five films in a 22-year career. I had seen three of them, Jour de fête (Holiday) (1949), Mon oncle (1958), and Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday) (1953). I adored them all. His bumbling but good-hearted character, M. Hulot, is as endearing as Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Keaton’s Great Stone Face, and usually has as little to say. This is observational, visual, physical comedy, but understated and gentle, not Jerry Lewis knockabout. (And how the hell is it that the French revere both Tati and Lewis?) So I went in with high expectations. After half an hour I was starting to wonder. Then I remembered that the other films had built slowly, too. Surely the payoff was coming.
Never came. After it was over Lee commented that it was visually interesting, and I agree with her. There are shots that, if you contemplate them, have a certain beauty. But so much of it is deadly dull, and so, so boring. Where is the wit in scenes of lots of people stuck in traffic, picking their noses? After a big chain-reaction car accident, everyone gets out and walks around in silence for a long, long time, stretching their backs and necks and legs. This is funny? And that is by far the most physical scene in the movie. There are endless scenes of cars stuck in traffic, inching along. By the end of it I realized that I had been just about as amused by this film as I would have been sitting in an actual traffic jam for an hour and a half.
I must point out that Lee and I are in the distinct minority here. Rotten Tomatoes gives it 100%. Roger Ebert, a well-known Tati-phile and the reason I looked at the first three films, gave it 3½ stars. This is inexplicable to me. Did we see the same film? I read some of the reviews, and they spoke of “a droll meditation on the modern age, and our lives in cars.” Yeah, I got that it was supposed to be that … but it was dull. The acting was moronic, the script had nowhere to go, it meandered without amusing. Truly dreadful.