Penelope Houston’s journals

Some observations by the late Penelope Houston, extracted from issues of Sight & Sound, which she edited from 1956 to 1990. Originally compiled in our Winter 90/91 issue to mark her retirement from the magazine.

Penelope Houston



from Shane and George Stevens, October-December 1953

The simple story, the legendary hero: this is the Western tradition. But in developing his narrative George Stevens employs an unusually sophisticated technique; we see Shane not always as he is – a man who has killed too often, and knows it – but as he appears to the hero-worshipping small boy. As Brandon de Wilde adoringly stares, childishly imitates, drawls out the name ‘Shane’ on a note of proud, possessive wonder, the harsh, uncompromising story takes on its own overtones of romance. For, its hero apart, Shane does not idealise the West. Here are no wide open spaces, no thundering stage coaches en route to romantic destinations, but a tiny, isolated community, cut off by a towering mountain range, sustaining its lonely conflict not with single-minded determination but in fear and uncertainty.


A Star Is Born

Spring 1955

Fundamentally, A Star Is Born is an immaculate showcase for a prodigious, a not wholly expected talent. One expected the vivacity and the assurance with which the musical numbers are put across – but not, quite, the extra emotional edge that makes a song like The Man That Got Away so electrifying. One expected that tremulous, catch-in-the-voice manner to prove adaptable to the demands of ‘straight’ acting – but not, quite, the jagged, vibrating intensity of the performance. If we are to believe that Vicki Lester (nee Esther Blodgett) has that elusive, indefinable attribute of star quality, then the actress playing her must positively dazzle us with it. But the special fascination of Judy Garland’s playing is the way it somehow contrives to bypass technique: the control seems a little less than complete, and an emotion comes through, as it were, neat. In this incandescent performance, the actress seems to be playing on her nerves: she cannot but strike at ours.



from Conscience and Comedy, Summer-Autumn 1959

Tall, lugubrious, with a nervous geniality and mackintoshed air of perpetual caution, Tati has built for himself a screen personality that is consciously in the great tradition. It is, one feels, a deliberate act of creation – almost of manufacture. Chaplin’s optimism, Keaton’s sceptical tolerance, Langdon’s mooning innocence, were all expressions of personalities which could be visualised in no other way. With Tati, there is a sense that the loping, stiff-legged walk, the mackintosh and the pipe, are brought out for the occasion; that the awkward hesitancy is assumed as a disguise by a very practical intelligence; and that over the shoulder of Tati the comedian watch the appraising, speculative eyes of Tati the director. One thing in his characterisation, however, rings entirely true: his avoidance of speech, with all it implies of a human involvement. There is something detached, austere, unyielding, about the ostensibly soft and clumsy Hulot.


Beatrice Lillie

from Exit Smiling, Spring 1960

A silent Beatrice Lillie comedy sounds self-contradictory. How could anyone stop her talking? In fact, apparently, they couldn’t. Briskly, almost audibly, she seems to be keeping up her own running commentary throughout the progress of the film, which casts her as a maid of all work, all dangling apron strings and ineffectual tussles with the ironing-board, who accompanies a touring repertory company on its travels and occasionally gets the chance to wear a rather trimmer apron on its stage…In 1926 she was doing precisely what she does now: discovering that the trailing ostrich feathers, so casually manipulated by other hands, become in her own an entirely unmanageable weapon; tossing a fur elegantly round her shoulders, only to find it mysteriously attaching itself like a train to her skirt; getting a stranglehold on herself with her own pearl necklace; experimenting with a hat which somehow can never quite be persuaded to match her face; and keeping all the time that air of baffled, sceptical or delighted acceptance which has always been her reaction to the unpredictable.



from One-Eyed Jacks, Summer 1961

Brando is a romantic actor with the manner and training of a realist. Beneath the mumbling delivery, the sense of a performer worrying at words to extract some ultimate, unrevealed meaning, beneath the effortless contemporaneity which allowed him to speak for his generation in films like The Wild One and On the Waterfront, one has also the sense of a West Coast Heathcliff struggling to get out. And in One-Eyed Jacks he has got out. This is a performance of monumental abstraction, in which the actor always seems to have his back against the wall, to be sitting in a corner, wrapped in a heavy cape, gazing into space. Although the film is his, he has as it were withdrawn from it into these stormy meditations; and while he deliberates, events must wait for him.


The Eclipse

Spring 1963

In this film, everything is a matter of context. It is the force of association which makes these [closing] images of a suburban street corner, on a summer evening, come as an echo from the end of the world; as it is the juxtaposition of the mechanics of the stock exchange with an alertness to the tiny details of personality which gives these scenes their density. A man who has suffered a crushing loss on the market sits at a cafe table in the sunshine gravely doodling flowers on a scrap of paper. Vittoria’s mother, who has just made a neat profit, haggles over the price of a kilo of pears. A cheerful drunk, sauntering down a night street, is next seen as a dead hand behind the shattered windscreen of a waterlogged car. “There are days when a chair, a table, a book, a man seem much the same…” Beneath the cool, clean physical landscape of the Roman suburb lies the disordered landscape of the emotions. Antonioni’s style has always been founded on a juxtaposition of people and places. In The Eclipse, however, juxtaposition has become fusion: the two landscapes are made one, the visual imagery and the mental imagery effortlessly interlock.



from The Organisation Man, Spring 1964

It seems appropriate that Olmi should have slid so unobtrusively into the critical consciousness, since he must be one of the quietest film-makers in the world. The long, long pause before the office party gets under way in Il Posto, or the pre-credits dance-hall scene in I Fidanzati, with the sound deadened down as the people straggle in to take their places around the room, are scenes which make out of silence something almost tangible. Communication in his films is a matter of sidelong glances, wary and guarded approaches with all the lines of retreat left open, before silence is broken and dialogue takes over. Olmi’s people are terribly curious about each other (as, one feels, their director is himself), but it is the surreptitious and almost impersonal curiosity of a man reading someone else’s paper over his shoulder in a bus, while at the same time carrying his own identical paper. Curiosity becomes compulsive: other people are fascinating because they are other.



Winter 1964-65

It is Goldfinger, however, which perfects the formula – and does it so conclusively that it is hard to see what Mr Broccoli and Mr Saltzman have left themselves in hand for the future… Goldfinger allows nothing to impede its sense of humour: it converts Bond into a human equivalent of the cat in the Tom and Jerry cartoons, with the same ghastly resilience and the same capacity for absorbing punishment; it can’t bring itself to take Pussy Galore, with her hockey team of pilots (“Dress rehearsal went like a dream, skipper”) as anything but a joke. There is an assumption – which you find, at quite the other end of the spectrum, in the Godard films – that we all know the cliches and can have a little fun with them.



from Preston Sturges, Summer 1965

Paradoxically, it is this time-lag, this feeling that Griffith’s idyllic Americana has somehow got cluttered up with juke-boxes, lunch-counters, Forties hair styles and the U.S. Marines, that makes Sturges’ films seem so dateless now… Even Sturges’ language, with its mixture of slang, repetitions, gibbering hesitations, and entirely formal turns of speech, is quite timeless. Above all the racket of a Sturges film, voices can be heard talking in the relaxed, balanced aphorisms of the classic English stage comedy. “Let us be crooked but never common,” is the motto of the con man in The Lady Eve. “Chivalry is not only dead; it is decomposed,” laments Hackensacker III. “Rich people, and theorists are usually rich people, think of poverty only in the negative,” says the Wildean butler of Sullivan’s Travels. “The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbid rich would find it glamorous.”



Winter 1965-66

There is a characteristic Ray scene – perhaps the characteristic Ray scene. A shadowed interior, shuttered against the sun; rooms rather large and cluttered, with the sounds of birds or animals just penetrating the walls; two people, arriving at some moment of discovery about themselves, caught in an instant of absorbed silence. Nothing is going to be said, because emotionally we are still in a climate of Victorian reticence. Writers as far apart as Henry James and Chekhov have known the power of such moments, when the tension (not necessarily sexual tension; it can take other forms) builds up against the safety-valve of social convention, and the suspense is in the unbreakable silence.


Fahrenheit 451

Winter 1966-67

To hold his very unstressed style to the end, and still to dodge banality, Truffaut needed something extraordinary. He found it in a fall of snow – and if it’s true that this was fortuitous, one can only say that the rest of the film had earned such a dazzling gift from the gods. In a makeshift shelter, an old man is passing on his memory of Weir of Hermiston to his young grandson, reciting the scene in which Archie talks about the agonies of life with his father, the hanging judge: “How was I to love him? He has never spoken to me, never smiled upon me; I do not think he ever touched me…” Under the eye of his own stern grandfather, the boy stumbles through the words. And then, electrifying in its quietness, the time-slip, the transition to the lake icy under snow, the words now confidently repeated, with the masterly interpolation into Stevenson’s text: “And he died, as he thought he would, as the first snows of winter fell.” Marvellously simple and specific, like all the best things in Fahrenheit 451, this ending is a heroic enlargement of the film’s range. It is as though Truffaut has drawn on everything he knows about cinema to express unshakable loyalty to the written word.



from The Great Blank Page, Spring 1968

Chaplin’s comic personality started from English class-consciousness; Keaton’s was American and free. In disguise – at the beginning of Steamboat Bill Jr, when he turns up in moustache and beret – he could look curiously seedy, like a weasel made up as a hairdresser’s assistant. It is a great moment, made much of, when the moustache comes off and the Keaton face emerges: the great blank page, on which he could write every process of thought.


Je t’aime, Je t’aime

London Festival, Winter 1969-70

One has never been more aware of Resnais exploring time through timing: matchless editing, an unfailing instinct for the duration of a shot. The start of the experiment – Ridder swimming underwater, in an element at once alien and free, and surfacing to a lazy question from the girl – is a moment of perfection; in his brain-pumpkin, Ridder recaptures it like a lost, half-focused dream. Later he shies from inescapable recollections, shades them with night mare, perhaps lies about them to himself. At the end, there’s only despair and the bullet; and a last shot, inexpressibly sad and strange, of the laboratory mouse who has gone into its own (or: Ridder’s) past, standing under a little glass dome, nose pressed to a breathing-hole, paws hopelessly outstretched.


The Spider’s Stratagem

Winter 1976-77

In this mystification there is exuberance; and a striking aspect of The Spider’s Stratagem is the sense of pleasure it gives in the act of film-making – pleasure in surprise, in the tricks of landscape (like the moment when the screen of an outdoor cinema is rolled up, to reveal the country setting), in the grand cinematic coup, such as the return to the town at dusk, with Rigoletto thundering from the loudspeakers and the empty streets now occupied by an al fresco audience. Bertolucci has a gift for surrounding a claustrophobic theme with a sense of light and space; The Spider’s Stratagem is a marvellously handsome film, both in settings and camerawork, and the balance between the clarity of the style and the (necessary) obfuscation of the subject is held as hardly before or since in his work.


The Sacrifice

Cannes, Summer 1986

In both Nostalgia and Stalker there was a sense of strain, of imagery being reached for, of Tarkovsky’s ever-flowing water steaming away in vapid clouds. The Sacrifice says the same things – life as dream, or apocalyptic nightmare; spiritual obligation as sacrifice – but in a more accessible way… There are echoes of Bergman (of course) and of Chekhov, and once or twice I found myself thinking, most unexpectedly, of Heartbreak House. But essentially Tarkovsky is a mystic, inescapably drawn to the secrecy and obscurity of divine demand. Beside this awkward boulder of a film, most of the rest looked like pebbles.


Michael Powell

from Double Takes, Autumn 1986

How many books of real distinction have been written by film-makers (in English, that is)?… The revelation, the nonpareil, is Michael Powell’s A Life in Movies… It’s a spellbinder’s volume every inch of the way, as wily as it is honest. And almost the best of it is Powell’s account of a childhood in which the boy can be most clearly seen as father to the film-maker. During the First World War, soldiers were billeted on his mother’s Kentish farm, and there’s a sublime page describing how the young Michael lined up his pony with the troop out exercising, the only British film-maker to have ridden in a cavalry charge. No wonder that after that there was no holding him.


Babette’s Feast

Cannes, Summer 1987

For a kindlier view of the obligations and opportunities of an artist, turn to Babette’s Feast, an adaptation from Isak Dinesen… It’s a diamond-bright story, faceted with irony, humour and regret, but one realises, on rereading it, that Axel has managed the impossible and improved on Dinesen. He holds fast to the story’s values, but fills out some wispy outlines of character, elaborates agreeably on the preparation of the dinner (a sigh of purest satisfaction ran through the French audience as Babette slices a truffle), creates a setting around it. The film is perhaps ten minutes too long – but what film is not? And it’s beautifully played, notably by Stéphane Audran as Babette and Jarl Kulle as the one guest at the dinner who knows his cailles en sarcophage.


See also

☞ Read Jonathan Rosenbaum on Penelope Houston, and Penelope Houston on Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad, on our story celebrating female film critics: A pantheon of one’s own: 25 female film critics worth celebrating.

☞ Our eight-decade archive is now accessible via digital subscription. .

  • In memoriam Penelope Houston

    In memoriam Penelope Houston

    Tributes to, and reviews and reminiscences from, our late editor from 1956 to 1990, who passed away on 26 October 2015.

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