Geoffrey Samuel – Cinema and Law – ten films for the Comparatist?

The editor has kindly invited me to make contributions to this excellent BACL site and I must start by thanking not just John Bell, who has of course reported here on what I call ‘My Saturday’ (see Professor John Bell’s blog), but all the contributors to the event in Paris organised by my colleague Dr Simone Glanert. It really was for me a wonderful occasion, and so a special thanks to Simone for all her hard work in making the day such a success. Thanks also to other colleagues who kindly attended and who added to the occasion with their thoughtful interventions and observations. My wife Jennifer, who conspired with Simone to make the event a something of a lovely surprise, equally deserves my heartfelt thanks. It was a great retirement present and one that I will always treasure.

The challenge now is to respond to this recognition by writing something of interest for my fellow comparatists. Having just been given a new laptop by my university, with all the latest bells and whistles, I am faced every day, thanks to Microsoft Edge, with the home page that informs me about the 10 (sometimes more) foods I should not be eating or the 10 film star friendships that I did not know about. For better or for worse this has stimulated me – given that I actually started my career as a film critic before being seduced back to law – into reflecting upon the 10 double bill films that comparatists should see before they finally abandon their hermeneutical or functional comparative pursuits. Moreover having written recently on methodology in cinema and legal studies, this blog also allows me the chance for a bit of ‘product placement’ so to speak (for the full contribution, please click here).

As my product placement indicates, I have written at length on films such as Vertigo (1958) and its relevance (at least in my view) for jurists and so I will only reiterate here that this extraordinary piece of cinema deserves pride of place in any top ten list. In saying this, however, I would want to link – or more aptly compare – the Hitchcock work with another film, this time by a German director (Christian Petzold), which equally plays with the notion of persona in a highly sophisticated way. Phoenix (2014) is an attempt by a male – this time not a very pleasant one – to impose the persona of what he believes to be his late wife on another woman who, as we know from the outset, is not actually another woman. She consents to such an imposition – but is it an imposition? – because she ultimately wants something in return.

I think that the film is a worthy tribute to Hitchcock – and indeed to Douglas Sirk – so that it deserves its place, if not alongside the 1958 masterpiece, then at least in a top ten list of film doubles. Another reason for this distinction is the extraordinary ending that leaves one – or at least me – quite breathless in its surprise and elegance. One particular joy for the relaxing comparatist is a cabaret act featuring Cole Porter’s Night and Day rendered first in German followed by a climaxed switch to perfect English. This surely is a scene that would have brought pleasure to the late and great Douglas Sirk, one of several references in Phoenix to Sirk’s Hollywood work.

The notion of persona is an easy and obvious link between cinema and law. What other cinema doubles might be worthy of consideration? Over the coming months I hope to suggest some and to examine why they might be worth investigation by my colleagues. One double worth mentioning now, because they raise questions of culture, is an early, pre-censorship, film by Frank Capra, later to direct some of Hollywood’s best known films. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) stars a young Barbara Stanwyck as a missionary in China out to convert but who herself becomes gradually converted by the Chinese culture through her deep love for a ruthless but highly cultured Chinese war lord. One can see the gradual enculturation through Stanwyck’s changing clothes. There is a dream sequence that certainly would not be permitted after the Hays code had come to exert its power in Hollywood; yet there is a relationship between the general and the missionary that carries with it an extremely strong emotional and moral force. This is not a film that can escape the label of Orientalism (Frank Capra was Italian-American), but it is one that does perhaps escape the often negative and pejorative associations with the label. The general is a complex individual – and one speaking many languages including French – even if the missionary is in some ways perhaps not a feminist hero. Yet both characters are not immersed in some stereotyped culture and the missionary’s gradual assimilation into the general’s cultural world is handled with some real sensitivity, her own American cultural naivety finally dooming the general and, to some extent, herself.

Bitter Tea could of course be doubled with some film that does exhibit the negative side of Orientalism. One is tempted to think of Zugsmith’s Confession of an Opium Eater (1962) – starring the wonderful Vincent Price – or Don Sharp’s The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), both of which present a somewhat (to say the least) stereotyped view of oriental culture. If only they were bad films as well, which, for better or for worse, they are certainly not. However I’m not sure if these two movies are essential viewing for jurists, although Sharp was one of Hammer’s most talented directors. One might add that Confessions is an extraordinary cinematic experience that uses the techniques of cinema in weird and wonderful ways.

However a more suitable double in my view for Bitter Tea might be Franklin J Schaffner’s The Warlord (1965) in that it not only shares the theme of a powerful warlord and his relationship with a woman from a different (local) culture so to speak but also, and more importantly for the legal historian, tries to portray in a realistic way feudal life in 11th century Normandy. It does this rather successfully, one scene involving the Lord’s court which might well be not too far from what one might imagine such a court to have been. It is a film about the conflict between two cultures; the local Druid customary society up against the hierarchical Norman administration whose protagonist rulers are insensitive and brutal (as the Druid leader says you don’t take these utterly battle-hardened people on if you can avoid it) yet intelligent and loyal. The film has the added advantage of Richard Boone, in my view one of the great Hollywood ‘heavies’, charged by the Warlord’s father to guard over his son. The jurist thinking back to the early days of the common law might well profit from the portrayals of life in this surprisingly complex and subtle Hollywood sixties film (after giving some allowance to the fact that it is a Hollywood fantasy story).

From a comparative viewpoint the two films share some themes, as I have mentioned. The hierarchical structure in which both warlords operate might seem overly oppressive of course, but the individual passions which both men, and their female protagonists, display actually ends up producing fatal instability. This is not an issue of culpability; in many ways quite the opposite. What both films suggest is that the tension between the individual and the political whole is part of a human structural relationship in which the ‘fallibility’ of the individual relationship is always going to be the weak point in the best devised political and holistic Leviathan monoliths. Such monoliths are not designed for such individualist ‘deviations’ just as economic models of society are not designed to cater for the homo economicus who is not a self-interested and rationally greedy individual. Yet each individual never abandons his or her moral compass; the Normandy warlord, at the end of the film, sets off to make peace with his feudal superior just as the missionary never deserts her warlord when everyone else has. The power of such individualist relationships, whatever their fatal consequences, are never dismissed and will haunt the viewer long after leaving the cinema. Structuralism and functionalism (holism) are up against actionalism and agency (individualism). Hollywood just does this with some emotional and entertaining force, something that the comparative law textbook might not be so good as achieving.

More to come on these double bills, most hopefully available on DVD (or at least they once were).

Note: Future posts are likely to discuss following movies: Out of the Past (1947), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Man of the West (1958), A History of Violence (2005), Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), The Killers (1964), Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and Voyage Surprise (1947).

Professor Geoffrey Samuel

Kent Law School

May 2017

(Suggested citation: G. Samuel, “Cinema and law: Ten films for the comparatist”, available at https://british-association-comparative-law.org/2017/05/22/geoffrey-samuel-cinema-and-law-ten-films-for-the-comparatist)

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