The financial mogul as unstoppable supervillain was the great fact of the 2010s even years before one of them became the President of the United States. There was a time when collective bitterness over those who’d gotten away with murder via insider trading, subprime markets and banking felonies and passed the shame (and foreclosures) on to you, the average consumer, infected seemingly everybody — a common enemy we could agree on for once. For a straightforward cinematic reading of the disaster that loomed over the country beginning in 2007, you can turn to the documentary Inside Job, to J.C. Chandor’s respectable suspense mood piece Margin Call or to the righteous indignation of Adam McKay’s oddly gripping The Big Short. But for the micro treatment, for the Hitchcockian survey, we turn to a film that dares to turn the faceless evil into a breathing, disturbingly vivid flesh-and-blood characterization.
Arbitrage is the debut feature of writer-director Nicholas Jarecki, brother of documentarians Andrew and Eugene and son of Henry Jarecki, a patriarch of his own financial and philanthropic empire, which gives this film about a ruthless tycoon and phony family man the ring of almost uncomfortable truth. That said, the director mostly uses his experience in this largely unknown and inaccessible world — his knowledge of “how the other half lives,” so to speak — simply as a way to inject lived-in detail into a grander, timelier story than one built from his own experience. The unmistakable reference point, still just a two year-old story at the time the film was being written, is the Bernie Madoff scandal. The connections range from the timeline of intensifying dread and inevitability to the intricate involvement of immediate family to the sheer combination of suaveness and ineptitude driving the entire crazed affair.
It’s surprising that a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese hasn’t already made some insufferable power-infatuated picture about Madoff or a coded version of same, wherein his dual obligations to his own precarious yet meticulously cultivated scamming of an entire subset of the financial circuit (Madoff was once chairman of NASDAQ!) via glorified pyramid scheme and to his traditional, adoring family would be clearly intended as self-evidently interesting, as though the mere presence of contradiction were a version of insight, betting on the automatic fascination we collectively feel with anyone who got away with something so big for so long. We would come away knowing nothing more about Madoff than that he was an enigma, and a scapegoat (which is nearly inarguable, really; his primarily wealthy victims were among the very few figures in the ’07-’08 crisis who experienced some form of justice).
Jarecki’s tactic is far more interesting. Rather than positing his own very different but inescapably comparable version of Madoff as some Tod Browning horror figure, he presents the unfettered and ugly vision of base humanity with infinite resources. That is, a classic grifter with a touch of unnatural invincibility, but also a horrified smooth-talker, a nervous wreck, and a deeply determined champion of his own self-interest whose singular moral universe leaves no room for contemplation of a world or a logic outside of his bubble. The object of every day and every sleepless night is to further the illusions that keep him afloat, with no consequence worse than the loss of comfort and prestige. What’s intriguing is how well Jarecki establishes the sad baldness of the character’s system of deceit and his obvious status as an unmovable asshole while also identifying the frail humanness of his nature: the awful thing is how Arbitrage turns big lies into an accumulation of small ones, until we can almost imagine the hideous and fearsome decisions we ourselves would make, and even come dangerously close to rooting for an uncaring, belligerent man who is our natural enemy.
Jarecki casts Richard Gere as his Madoff burlesque, an outrageously successful and hotheaded hedge fund manager given the suspiciously generic name “Robert Miller.” Gere is more than ideal casting, for reasons that go beyond just his performance, which is effectively complicated and indeed is as good as he’s ever been in a movie. Never a prolific actor and hardly one to stretch himself, Gere’s made a career of embodying a squinting, gruff yuppie stereotype in the movies (Pretty Woman, Chicago, presumably Runaway Bride and Unfaithful) and in the press — his early career was defined by the iconic Herb Ritts photo in which he’s extended halfway out of a large swimming pool dealing with someone on the telephone while a mostly nude woman leaps into the water nearby. He’s more handsome and smug-looking in his sixties than he was as a heartthrob in Days of Heaven and An Officer and a Gentleman; somehow this and his procession of affairs, marriages and hotly contested divorces makes him the perfect embodiment of this charming snake in a wonderfully Brechtian sense. If you’re going to sell this sort of a character, the only comparable actor would be Tom Cruise, and he would still seem a bit too young to be so powerful, and too much of a sociopath for us to get wrapped up in his plight. Gere’s Miller, in the end, is vastly more dimensional and multifaceted an embodiment of this sort of character than the iconic interpretations of Michael Douglas or Leonardo DiCaprio.
In a fashion that recalls the much nicer heroes of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest, Miller gets sent through the wringer via a whole series of practically insurmountable thriller scenarios; at the outset, his ridiculously perfect perfume-commercial life with a devoted wife (Susan Sarandon), a gifted daughter who serves as his chief accountant (the perpetually under-used Brit Marling, who clearly pushes Gere to a new level in their later scenes together) and a dumb son who gets paid buckets anyway (Austin Lysy, talked about more than seen) is disrupted first by a mistress (Laetitia Casta) who keeps bugging him with her tiresome “needs” and then by the hemming and hawing over the sale of his company to a fellow Wall Street asshole (Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, ingeniously cast as the type of guy who has a regular brunch table at a high-rise restaurant from which he conducts his daily wheeling and dealing), which is further complicated by the fact that a government audit is only passing muster because of a loan Miller’s secured to cover up a shortfall due to his own bad investments. Right in the middle of all this, he decides to take mistress Julie out to the country for a weekend fuck-and-run and gets her killed after falling asleep at the wheel, which then gets sloppy, lopsided tie-wearing detective Tim Roth on his trail through his unwitting getaway driver Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of a deceased employee. Miller spends the rest of the film juggling all this along with what seems to be cracked rib, a nasty limp and a bleeding forehead from the car accident, and then his daughter discovers the holes in the financial records and confronts him.
It feels a bit like an inordinately difficult text adventure game in which the programmers constantly lob new problems and threats in your direction; but somehow, the film never feels busy or overstuffed and successfully presents and resolves its many story threads in under 110 minutes. It helps that all of the complexities and conundrums we encounter travel through Miller and confirm the movie’s basic thesis about him as a long-time monster for whom the chickens have finally come home to roost; but what helps even more is that nothing about Jarecki’s script is simple, despite its impressive elegance and clarity. Miller is a despicable character — Gere’s reading of the insane line “everyone works for me” teeters perfectly on the edge of hilarious and horrifying; and there’s no better defining of the brain worms of wealth than when he tries to pay off his worried accomplice Jimmy, who wonders why he thinks money will solve this problem, and he replies “what else is there?” — but he’s also complex and extremely believable (far more so than, for instance, the modern touchstone of the anti-hero, Walter White; more like his lawyer, Jimmy McGill, albeit far less amusing and lovable), and it’s presumably here that Jarecki’s personal experience with the High Street comes into play — there’s no falling back on stereotypes here. It would be very easy to write a protagonist who was simply a ruthless trash heap of a human, and objectively this one is, but what we have here is an almost Renoir-like treatment of the Madoff villain: he has his reasons, and in all honesty they’re not entirely alien to most of us. It’s perhaps a good thing that we are not being shown this fantasy of amoral capitalism without limitations or scruples in the years when all was going swimmingly for Miller, as with Jarecki’s skill level we could probably convince ourselves to find some comfort in that fantasy — apart from the fact, of course, that he was most likely as miserable then as he seems now.
Conversely, the engagingly skeezy cop played by Roth in his usual loud disarray has his heart completely in the right place, legally and ethically, and he’s a pretty good detective too — picking up instantly on the truth of the wrecked, burned-out car and the reality of Jimmy’s oddball pay-phone connection to the hedge fund world. But he’s also a distasteful boor who tosses around racial slurs and tries to throw an innocent kid under the bus strictly to “get at” the figure he rightfully sees as the enemy of the common good. It’s a provocatively thorny situation that requires dual parts of our moral selves to go to war: do the ends justify the means if the ends could genuinely help make a better world? (This is one sense in which a Third Man-like treatise on the ravages Big Banking inflicts upon the world might well have been handy; instead we get a strong scene of high-stakes betrayal in which daughter Brooke has it out with Miller in Central Park and the void at his center is exposed. He is proven incapable of admitting weakness or humility even to the ostensible reason he committed his crimes.)
Jarecki doesn’t really make an argument in either direction, and he does ensure that Miller gets his, at least on a personal level, when his wife pulls the rug out from under him in the film’s final minutes. But what the filmmaker does with his audience here is quite fascinating, and unusual — the entire film ends up serving as a depiction of our own ideological limits and imperfections. We take a strange kind of pleasure in Miller’s antics, which have actively caused every sort of misery up to and including death, and frequently put ourselves in his seat — and even get a bit of vicarious thrill from the comfort and respect he enjoys — the way that we sometimes root for Norman Bates or, hell, Marie Antoinette; but we also, from the comfort of our seats, get a charge out of his family turning his back on him in a manner that seems emotionally well-earned and deeply righteous, even though it seems that wife Ellen is simply planning on becoming Robert Miller II in his absence. Meanwhile, we are relieved when the deeply conflicted Jimmy is forced neither to turn on his “benefactor” (who is indeed using him, a cold fact he never does want to believe) nor to go to prison, and this redemption for one of the film’s few pure characters is a relief to us, even though it’s objectively the wrong way for things to go. Given the bare truth of the entire story without coming to know the involved parties and their conflicts of interest, it’s unlikely we would ever give these individual people so much of our thought and sympathy, including Jimmy, whose resistance to turning Miller in might then seem indefensible to us. In this sense, and in the strange context of a financial thriller informed very specifically by the 2008 crash, Jarecki has managed to illuminate extremely unlikely corners of human nature with empathy, and to shine that light from every conceivable direction. The result fully justifies the weighty ambiguity of the film’s conclusion.
This is being written on a week when the New York Times has reported extensively on Donald Trump’s tax returns from the period in which he was most famous as a yuppie master of “the Deal” and for all the extravagant weddings and magazine shoots that came as ancillary benefits. Like Miller in the film, his reputation preceded him but didn’t protect him from the brink of ruin; Trump was writing nonsense about wanting you to be rich while he could barely maintain his own flimsy house of cards. The distance from regular life wrought by his obscene wealth and, later, the illusion of extreme wealth was a ridiculous mind-over-matter concoction that would leave any sane person living in constant fear. Unfortunately the real-life villains are far less complex, interesting and human than the ones we get in the movies; and we also are not given the pleasures of watching them receive comeuppance or of enjoying our own collective redemption. This may be why, for Arbitrage, Jarecki chose as his subject not an arbiter of the default swap market or the housing bubble or the bank executives that let it all happen and got away unscathed but a sort of elevated Mr. Moneybags who primarily runs afoul of government investigations, angry lenders, disappointed family members and bad investments. There’s some of us in this guy even if it’s just because we didn’t do our homework a few times in middle school. But the real enemy is much more threatening, much more unstoppable, and far far duller — a gaping maw of black misery with no moral compass and no sense of purpose beyond the primordial urge to cultivate and hold power and invincibility at any cost. Trump isn’t afraid just like Alan Greenspan and Richard Fuld and their ilk weren’t, because he knows he’s got us hooked. Thank god for the fucking movies, right?
In many cases, David Lynch’s particular brand of surrealism leaves me at sea, not because I mind being confused but because the kinds of images that seem to haunt and intrigue him don’t play for me as especially engaging. Blue Velvet is a good movie, but the relationship it draws between pure camp and poetic disorientation averages out, for me, to mildly endearing silliness. The two Lynch films that completely work for me (on top of portions of his TV series Twin Peaks) are The Straight Story, in which he completely shirks his usual fixations and the roots of his career for the sake of a sweet-natured studio project, and Mulholland Dr., which leans in harder than ever on his unique fascinations but forms them into something playful, charming and even quite funny, and above all something whose sole purpose isn’t simply to confound. Even if its open-ended storytelling may still dissatisfy many viewers, the journey itself in this case is savory. Whereas the idyllic setting of Blue Velvet is too phony to be anything but off-kilter and vaguely distressing, the sequestered Hollywood of Mulholland Dr. tosses into a world that has enough allure, mystery, and yes, the usual sleaze to feel like a complete world, rather than an ironic one constructed from tropes; and moreover, the film’s dream logic doesn’t suffer from the arbitrariness of some of Lynch’s more pedestrian work. Everything in the film seems to have a purpose, whether it’s easily or quickly evident to the mere outsiders in the audience or not.
That absence of self-satisfied irony shouldn’t suggest that Lynch is selling us something we could find more unconditionally elsewhere: its oblique and over-the-top evocations of Eyes Wide Shut, Nancy Drew novels and Cinemax porn are presented quite clearly with tongue in cheek, but in this case there is a narrative utility to the stilted performances and the endless, empty sheen of beautiful artificiality; and even before you realize that, Lynch is so clearly in on the joke and in tow with the viewer here that the offbeat humor and pure weirdness of it all can be enjoyed on its own terms before things fall into place (likely after a second viewing). At any rate, the crucial difference between this and Blue Velvet in particular is that it sends up a world Lynch knows and occupies it with broad, off-putting characterizations without actually violating or criticizing either the agency of those characters or our investment in them. On the one hand it’s almost a Lynch parody of a Lynch movie; but on the other it comes from a core of what feels like real love and pain, and not the deliberately simplistic cartoons of innocence and depravity in many of the director’s works.
Shot with no budget with a TV crew (like Psycho!) for ABC before they rejected it as a pilot and Lynch expanded it to feature status, Mulholland Dr. is a very SoCal movie, set quite pointedly in an O.J. Simpson-era L.A. wherein Hollywood dreams of the glamorous past are contrasted with the mundane trivialities of coffee at a hole-in-the-wall diner called Winkie’s, strong-arm talent agencies with apparent mob ties, egotistical hotshot directors with unfaithful wifes, auditions with sexist, grabby screen veterans, and barely competent hitmen who call their victims “bro.” The source of this near-delirious caricature, in the narrative, may or may not be a wide-eyed actress named Betty (or perhaps Diane) portrayed with absolute perfection by Naomi Watts (ironically, this turned out to be a star-making effort for her), who we meet and engage with in a fit of new-to-town naivete that, in the last thirty minutes of the film, is revealed to be either a facade, a glimpse at a now-distant hazy past or — according to most interpretations — a fantasy of what might have been.
That fantasy, if we accept for the moment that it is one, amounts to a uniquely Lynchian approach to a neo-noir in which the eager Betty gets a chance to solve herself a mystery after she walks into what she thinks is an empty house to discover a nude woman in her shower (Laura Harring), extemporaneously adopting the name Gilda from a film poster, who’s suffered a concussion after a bad car accident and doesn’t remember who she is. For Betty, this amnesiac Raymond Chandler nightmare is the perfect introduction to the deceptively glossy streets of the city as the two of them come to function as an almost too-perfect team, the wizened out-of-towner easing into her element quickly with the added motivation of a damsel in distress who must be rescued. As they gather clues and investigate, the two appear to fall in love and engage in a tentative, tender love scene that marks some sort of turning point when the seemingly rational story we’re watching becomes dislocated. Up to this point in the picture, not everything in this gaudy, bright rendition of the city is banal — there’s also a key and a box and a monster behind Winkie’s, and a gorgeous Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” — but a lot of it is. It all just seems so simple, Watts so endlessly enthused and Herring disturbed and helpless beyond belief; to borrow the cliché, everyone just seems so fake.
As it turns out, that’s because they probably are. Fake, but also beautiful. Via quick shots of tearful masturbation and suicide, it’s suggested that the entire first two acts of the film have been a momentary fantasy of sexual control and abandon, a distorted memory of the early moments in a union that’s gone sour, or even just a dream that borrows elements and logic from disparate portions of an awful night leaving Watts’ heroine — once Betty, really Diane — on the verge of insanity. In the fantasy, she molds herself into a desirable go-getter who’s infinitely gifted and seems younger than she is, and her lover has forgotten the events that took her away, or they never happened. This explains why it is, perhaps, that when Betty and Gilda have sex, they seem simultaneously like shy kids and like mutually comfortable lovers who’ve known one another’s quirks for years. But the longing persists and the conclusion to the fantasy seems to get further and further away.
Back in reality, interrupted before her orgasm, Diane watches as the surly filmmaker Adam Kesher whose parallel story of a compromised project and destroyed marriage we’ve been following (maybe because our unreliable, wordless narrator wished to see him humiliated?) makes out with her friend and lover, and indulges in unrelenting PDA with her at an upscale event. There are signs everywhere of a breakup, or of the endings of an illicit affair, that have left Diane, her Hollywood dream not remotely what she expected (is it ever?), a depressed and desperate shambles. In this closing half-hour, the performance styles of all of the actors change completely: Watts is now embittered and naturalistic, Harring the very portrait of uncomprising ambition and all the aloof enigma of an unrequited crush or a still-beloved ex. But there is still little time for us to determine what is real and what isn’t, and logic and reality seem to slip out of our grasp — but we certainly are given enough to understand that the world in which we finally leave Diane is not the happy and hopeful one that we saw Betty enter two hours earlier.
Anyone’s stab at interpreting all this, placing it in perfect order, is going to be different from anyone else’s — and of course the film resists explaining away all of its tangents, some of which may owe their existence to its confused genesis as first a TV pilot and then a motion picture — but the general drift of the story, its swaying moods, its persuasive air of lovelorn melancholy, unforced eroticism and its intoxicating contrast of “the dream place,” the kinds of imagination we routinely employ (again: dreams, fantasies, memories), with cold mundane reality all present an unexpectedly coherent portrait of a life and a city that feels complete and deeply felt.
Mulholland Dr. opened to great acclaim and it has steadily gained recognition from many as one of the greatest films of this young century, setting it far above most of the other, now long-forgotten critical darlings of 2001. (Incredibly, it did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.) Part of the reason for this is that it appeals to a cross section of scholarly critics and cinephiles, to whom the story’s emotionally mature ambiguity and fixation on The Business naturally appeal, and “film bros,” who like it because they can view it as a Christopher Nolan-like “puzzle” and because there’s a lesbian sex scene in it. It says a lot about Lynch as a director and persona that he’s perfectly likely to embrace both varieties of reception — he’s quite encouraging to the puzzle geeks, including a list of “clues” in the form of study questions with early DVD releases — but for many individual viewers, paring things down to the specifics of the symbols and cryptic clues and suchlike is a tiresome exercise, and while Betty and Gilda’s sex scene is certainly one of the more memorably gentle in a Hollywood film, its impact comes explicitly because the common quest, the odd personalities and the excited mutual kindness of their relationship has been so well established. To my mind, both schools overstate the importance of the film’s plot — its perfectly colored progression of moods is far more interesting and singular even among Lynch’s works — and underrate its rich, surprisingly acerbic humor; comedy in Lynch’s films was never before quite so explicit, used here to comment on the very absurdity that resists such deconstruction in his previous pictures: “Jason thought it would be a good idea for me to see the cowboy.” (I could name other examples: Jeanne Bates slapping her husband’s knee and the two later chasing a far-gone Diane around her apartment, or the long buildup in the Winkie’s scene, or the sudden presence of Bride of Frankenstein-style “mini-humans.”)
Perhaps this is because the world of Mulholland Dr. is so robust and well-established it can withstand that sort of self-mockery, which is a good illustration of the fine line Lynch walks here. At bottom, this is a soulful film about grief; but it’s also a wild and wacky story in which someone faints from lip-syncing and a hitman shoots a vacuum cleaner to turn it off. Neither element cancels out the other; in other words, our knowledge of how this cornucopia of images, music and sounds revolves around the bitter blow of unrequited love does not stop it from being one of the most fun, witty movies about Hollywood itself imaginable.
[Note: Just a bit of housecleaning; this is a review I posted at my old blog in 2011 just before I launched this one and I’m simply transferring it over here.]
The Descendants is Alexander Payne’s followup to Sideways — a film I personally disliked quite a bit — and really a relatively safe, quiet movie in story terms. The general notion of a man discovering that his unconscious wife, in this case comatose after a boating accident, was carrying on an affair reaches back not only to Almodovar’s Talk to Her, one of the past decade’s cinematic benchmarks, but also Payne’s own masterful About Schmidt. But it approaches the crucial story points wrought by such a scenario with such wit, and such palpable emotion, that it brings to mind James L. Brooks at his best, and even — during certain sublime sequences that appear periodically — Billy Wilder. Payne is certainly revealing his auteurist impulses here, given how much the general tone and preoccupations evoke his two previous films, but aside from a somewhat haphazardly tossed-in subplot about land ownership, this is immensely rewarding entertainment with subtlety, acid, and the kind of wonderful moments that can make you exclaim aloud in a crowded movie theater.
But Payne also owes much of his success this time around to his actors. George Clooney, never a performer I’ve had much affection for, has been outdoing himself in recent years with ballsy and ambiguous roles as seen in Up in the Air and even Fantastic Mr. Fox, his contribution to which is frankly the finest and most nuanced voice performance I can think of in American animation. Here, Clooney goes even farther with the breakdown of his own star-power assurances, constantly submitting himself to connive viciously — and to be humiliated. He’s a father attempting to carry on with the half-assed parenting that’s gotten him off the hook for over a decade after becoming the only available authority figure to his two daughters, one an alcoholic teenager (Shailene Woodley) and the other a precocious but troubled middle schooler (Amara Miller) who’s into photography. Clooney mastered stabbing pathos in Up in the Air; he’s a much nastier, grouchier creature this time… yet still oddly sympathetic. When he’s accused of being an absentee father by family, friends, his own children even, we feel defensive of him. When he blasts out with hurtful barbs against others, Payne never fails to clue us in on his illogical but emotionally fired-up reasons, a skill he seems to have honed since the disastrous Thomas Haden Church character in Sideways. The result is that we’re always going to bat for Clooney, even when we probably shouldn’t, and that’s what they call movie magic.
My loss of a parent this year might be one reason I found the story and the characters more believable than in most movies of this stripe. My relationship with my dad was extremely rocky and ambiguous, so for me Shailene Woodley’s portrayal of the older daughter Alex, lashing out in every manner against her distance from both her parents, was unexpectedly touching. Even if the film might put too fine a point on matters of family and estrangement and the wars within blood borders, the actual depicted reality of this father-daughter relationship rings painfully true, and the small triumphs that feed it along don’t seem forced. Payne cops occasionally to the go-to tricks that have made most competent character-based American comedies since Little Miss Sunshine seem a little too much like, well, Little Miss Sunshine: for instance the oafish boyfriend Sid (amusingly portrayed by Nick Krause) who of course is Actually a Complicated Guy; the strange and sometimes over-the-top peripheral characters, in particular the extended family of Clooney’s Matt, a group of money-hungry stereotypes. But Payne’s equally able to inject crushing reality into his scenes, as when we meet wife Elizabeth’s dementia-addled mother and her father (Robert Forster) who despises Matt, a sort of reverse-echo of Schmidt.
You could spend all day outlining the ways that this movie recalls About Schmidt, but the crucial difference is that The Descendants allows the audience much catharsis that was painstakingly denied in the earlier project. Matt discovers his wife’s affair via older daughter Alex; the two spend the remainder of the film attempting to track her lover down and embarrass him (a scummy real estate agent played brilliantly by Matthew Lillard). And rather than keep a safe Hollywood distance, well, that’s exactly what happens. Not only that — the man’s wife (Judy Greer) discovers the truth and appears in Elizabeth’s hospital room and, well, it’s all wonderfully uncomfortable and nothing goes quite as you’d expect, one of many individual scenes that spirals off into uncharted territory. When all of this is played against the tragedy of a mother and wife braindead with the plug about to be pulled, there’s more than a little jagged Solondz-ness to the laughter and the cringing, which is a high compliment. In some ways the entire movie is a rebuttal of sorts to Schmidt the character’s constant containment, revenge for the ways he allows himself to be walked upon.
My favorite thing about Payne’s work, even in the films I haven’t really liked, is his eye for odd details that aren’t really artificial quirks: much of the theater audience seemed to get less of a kick out of Clooney clumsily jumping into flip flops and racing around the neighborhood than I did; there’s something tragically amusing as well about his behavior, his visible inability to know how and what to feel, in the scene of he and his daughters spreading Elizabeth’s ashes, a compensation in a way for the slightly overwrought goodbye scene beforehand. There are similar lived-in, unpolished details throughout the picture; Woodley in particular seems to thoroughly occupy her character, so much that the perverse settings of her various back-and-forths with her dad feel palpably real in a sense that all of the more conventional business with “Sid” does not. I also love, as in Sideways, the use of television as a strange comedic backdrop / counterpoint, which reminds me a bit of stuff like Mr. Rogers and Basketball Jones showing up in Being There.
Payne doesn’t typically oversell the idea of any of his characters changing, so the screenwriterly device of the botched land sale seems to flow against his better judgment. That’s no matter — he has the perfect goodbye for these characters, illustrating tenderly but at arm’s length the fragments of a family forming in something of a triangle, one that may not fit together for long but does for this moment. Payne doesn’t put his broken people back together again. He just sets them along the right path, and hopefully us as well.
This addition to the Guide takes us through everything I reviewed from December 5th, 2018 to February 23, 2019. During this time I put the first pass at the 1940s canon to bed, continued with the Best Picture nominees, got a 2010s retrospective underway and initiated a runthrough of the top 100 films at They Shoot Pictures, which as of this weekend has become “fast-tracked” and will be, along with movies from the current decade, my exclusive preoccupation for the next month or two. I will get to the ’50s as soon as I can, though.
I’m writing this on the very early morning of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony; chances are I will end up needing to catch a few films to keep all of my prior projects up to date. I already saw two of the three major nominees that actually excited me and reviewed them below (Roma and The Favourite); I also wanted to see BlackKklansman but haven’t made it happen yet. I harbor no ill will toward A Star Is Born but didn’t feel like making an appointment for it, especially without ever having seen George Cukor’s version, and was looking forward to Vice until reviews and trailers rolled in and now can take or leave it. Meanwhile, as you’d probably imagine, I have no interest whatsoever in Black Panther, Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody so unless they win something — and at least one of them almost certainly will — they’ll be near the bottom of my to-watch pile for the BP project. But anything that wins in any of the eight major categories I will make sure to add to the database forthwith.
Other films seen: New full reviews this time out for The Lady from Shanghai (additional Letterboxd commentary) and Breathless (ibid), both seen over a decade ago, my impressions from that time newly revised. 2010s rewatches pressed onward, chronicled at Letterboxd rather than here: a special Christmas screening of Carol, then: House of Pleasures, Monsters University, While We’re Young, The Post, The Spectacular Now, The Edge of Seventeen and Shaun the Sheep Movie. I was right about all of them the first time. Actually I think I underrated both While We’re Young and Shaun the Sheep on previous goround.
Non-feature or non-cinema screened: Maya Deren’s masterpiece Meshes of the Afternoon plus some shorts by Tex Avery and John Huston for the 1940s project; read about them in my long essay wrapping up that initiative. In other news, the end of support for streaming video on the Wii meant that I have finally upgraded to an HDTV and a Blu-ray player, and as I already knew, my eyes have a lot of trouble telling much difference unless I stand right next to the set, which is not in the cards. Having said that, I am enjoying the larger screen and I do like the visible grain on some older titles as well as the sharpness on newer ones, but the kind of films I really like watching aren’t reading to me as gaining a whole lot from the extra lines of resolution, with most of my DVDs still looking terrific to me when upscaled. (I can project a DVD onto our old classroom screen at monstrous size without seeing much detriment.) The point is I’m never going to be a videophile, just like I’m never going to be an audiophile. I am, however, repurchasing a few things just to save shelf space: all of the Universal Hitchcock DVDs (some of which weren’t even anamorphic), for instance, can be superseded now while taking up a fraction of the room, and while the upgrade may be only slightly apparent to me, the additional room to get more movies is a huge selling point. Note that Samsung has just this week announced that they’re getting out of the Blu market; I have to laugh as I have a clear knack for this. I usually get into the cool band approximately two weeks before everyone else is over them. You’d have to be pretty thick-skinned not to take it personally sometimes…
The other huge advantage of my new setup is that I’m now all-region capable again, besides just on my laptop (which of course is DVD only). In the long run this will be a huge benefit to me; a great number of films will actually be available for me to study without resorting to low-quality streams or dubious gray-market releases. I suspect this will become more and more important as we press through the decades on the canon projects.
*** (click the links for longer Letterboxd versions of the capsules, if you so wish)
Red River (1948, Howard Hawks) [hr]
Messy, busy, and one of the most lyrical westerns of all: the story of a cattle drive, a power struggle, and of people and their many riveting misdirections and screwups, all riveting. John Wayne’s performance is as profound and sublime as his work in The Searchers — a stubborn, corruptible cad, but there are moments when the depth of his pain registers and somehow your heart moves, probably cause you’re soft just like Matthew Garth (this may also be Montgomery Clift’s best performance). You need’t break classic Hollywood down via postmodernism to subvert its iconography; in the hands of someone like Hawks, it’s already there with you.
Force of Evil (1948, Abraham Polonsky) [r]
Initially intriguing characterizations and convincing sleaze in this noir from MGM, which lacks mystery even in its best moments, give way to rote organized-crime programmer nonsense. John Garfield stars as a corrupt lawyer lending phony legitimacy to a numbers racket and participating in a scam that’s bound to put his paranoid, unhealthy brother (Thomas Gomez, quite good) out of business. It’s bleak and violent all right, but its protagonist — in the script as well as in Garfield’s performance — lacks depth or discernible motivation. The romantic subplot feels even more tacked-on than usual for noir.
White Heat (1949, Raoul Walsh) [hr]
The greatest virtue in James Cagney’s comeback to the gangster picture fold is its lack of predictability; Cody Jarrett is approximately the nastiest protagonist one can imagine, to the degree that he isn’t exactly fun to watch so much as addictive in a lurid, train-wreck sense. This outstanding performance is well supported by a revolving-door cast that changes considerably from the first act to the second, at which point the film shifts from a series of heists and chases to a less conventional, more suspenseful prison feature. It’s a horrific tale rife with betrayals, killings and soulless nightmares, but its intensity feels very much real.
I Was a Male War Bride (1949, Howard Hawks) [r]
Coasting amicably on the charm of its two stars, Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan, this Fox comedy is disjointed and doesn’t feel that much like a Hawks picture apart from a couple of bawdy punchlines. Its first half (two bickering comrades stuck with each other) barely seems to relate to its second and slightly more inspired (a man who’s married a female soldier gets stuck in red tape), so the characterizations suffer, though Grant’s has little discernible personality from the first, discarding his absurd existence as a supposed Frenchman. Sheridan, however, is a delight, and a rare 1940s portrait of an independent woman dedicated above all else to her work.
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, Max Ophüls) [hr]
Without giving in to any more than a suggestion of the raw sexuality that drives it, this doomed romance puts the viewer’s heart completely in sync with that of Joan Fontaine’s Lisa, who’s longed since adolescence for the promiscuous musician next door, a star-crossed passion that alters the course of her life. Surging with pain and desire, Ophüls’ camera captures the simultaneous haze and detail of extreme lust as it lives in memory. Fontaine is exquisite as always, Louis Jourdan not quite as credible but physically believable as the source of this kind of longing; and Ophüls makes a laughingstock of the Code by taking its patriarchal rules over the top.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944, Preston Sturges)
(Revisit; no change.) The movie that defied the Code by talking its way around it, about a woman who has an anonymous encounter with a soldier and is left knocked up. Like all of Sturges’ films, it possesses sharp, erudite dialogue with irresistibly eccentric rhythms; and like most of them, it has a persuasive and almost manic joy driving it. But the slapstick (which he never had any gift for) and shrillness that sometimes derail his other Paramount movies momentarily is much harder to overcome here, in part because he has centered two actors (Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken) to whom his only direction was apparently “be as annoying as possible.”
Ossessione (1943, Luchino Visconti) [r]
Cited as the first Italian neorealist film, Visconti’s gritty yet gorgeous debut feature uses James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice — with its brooding tale of a drifter taking a temporary job at a diner and falling for the cook and waitress who’s desperate to get rid of her husband — to organize its depiction of squalor and dread into a compelling narrative, even if said narrative is less important to Visconti than its impact on the characters. The subject matter is a bit too stylized and heightened to justify treating it with this kind of ruthless, lived-in detail, but it’s still a radical, inspired choice.
Leave Her to Heaven (1945, John M. Stahl) [r]
Film noir in color, pushing along the unfathomably soapy tale of Gene Tierney as a manipulative woman whose frustration at her inept new husband’s inability and unwillingness to secure alone time with her sends her into sociopathic murderess mode, explained away by the script as “loving too much.” At its best this is lurid and shocking, but it never escapes a certain camp trashiness that keeps genuine menace from taking hold.
The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophüls) [hr]
James Mason plays a terrifying blackmailer who unexpectedly softens in this unusual noir, with Joan Bennett’s shaky but tough matriarch going to the moon and back to protect her impressionable art-student daughter who fell into a toxic relationship with an older sleazebag, newly deceased. Now the whole family is trapped in a world of racketeering, bloodshed and the usual intimidating Mr. Big behind the scenes. This is a tremendously entertaining thriller, gaining a lot from its positioning of an outsider from the criminal underworld as its protagonist, and playing on the classical upper-middle class fear of nefarious influence infiltrating the nuclear family.
Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch) [r]
Naive, all-American Kyle MacLachlan courts a policeman’s daughter (Laura Dern) while wrapping himself up in a bunch of local intrigue involving nightclub singers and sadistic mobsters in his hometown. Alternately bleak and colorful photography that absorbs plus a real sense of danger and lots of fun, weird ideas and moments fail to mask the fact that this is a series of Lynch’s fantasies and demons projected onscreen with nothing stringing them together except an exceptionally hackneyed parody of film noir and some relatively benign psychosexual-awakening stuff. The serious-minded cast is saintly and game in their submission to their director’s whims.
Imitation of Life (1934, John M. Stahl)
Universal offers up a confused mess of tiresome social-problem narrative and fantasy wish fulfillment for Depression-era audiences in this chronicle of a female entrepreneur named Bea (Claudette Colbert) who teams up with her live-in maid Delilah (Louise Beavers) to sell millions of boxes of pancake mix; their lives change, Bea meets a man but her daughter falls for him, and Delilah’s daughter doesn’t want to be black. As dated as this obviously is, it’s an interesting enough snapshot of the period, though because it’s never sure which of its many threads it wants to concentrate on, all of them end up feeling dreadfully underdeveloped.
Faces Places (2017, Agnès Varda & JR) [hr]
In under ninety minutes, this lovely, inexhaustibly charming documentary about beloved Nouvelle Vague director Agnès Varda and photographic artist JR riding across France to meet people, learn about their lives and paste large photos of them on buildings and other artifacts manages to encompass so much: a portrait of unlikely friendship, a treatise on aging and loss, a persuasive valentine to the miracles of everyday humanity, a hit piece on Jean-Luc Godard, a direct rebuke to any notion that working classes are blind to or ignorant of the pleasures of art, and more than anything, a sense of nearly boundless fun and curiosity.
Taxi (2015, Jafar Panahi) [hr]
Still technically forbidden from making films in Iran, Panahi stars as himself, posing as a cab driver using mounted dashcams spun around to capture conversations with various nonprofessional actors he seems to have planted around Tehran, setting up an escalating series of absurd situations — which feel spontaneous, ridiculous and funny even when they’d be downright terrifying in almost any other context — until he picks up his cantankerous niece and she engagingly lectures us all on Iranian film censorship. Like This Is Not a Film but considerably funnier and more cunning, this is another minimalist but spirited tribute to the creative impulse.
Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog) [r]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) For Herzog, the tale of insane-to-the-core explorer Lope de Aguirre (the off-putting Klaus Kinski), who split off in South America on a crazed search for mythical El Dorado, must have seemed a godsend; its built-in symbolism is staggeringly rich. There are shades of expressionism, much of which would color Francis Coppola’s and arguably Terrence Malick’s work later, and a lightly surreal, exposed visual style that is undeniably hypnotic (courtesy of cameraman Thomas Mauch), but it all feels a bit flat and cheap, like a competent documentary following a group of reenactors, and neither the screenplay nor Herzog’s self-satisfied distance are helpful.
The Gay Divorcee (1934, Mark Sandrich) [hr]
The Astaire-Rogers love story here is weakly conceived despite their chemistry and inspired dancing; and though the frivolous segments involving Edward Everett Horton (possibly his greatest performance) and Erik Rhodes are more fun, the story contrivances throughout this odyssey of crushes, mistaken identities and geologists are all too obvious. But every one of the musical numbers is brilliantly performed and hypnotically stylish, even the Fred and Ginger-less “Let’s Knock Knees.” Splendid entertainment, obviously.
The Favourite (2018, Yorgos Lanthimos) [hr]
Delectably vulgar and perverse historical comedy-drama that revels in its own adolescence, as Emma Stone’s once wealthy, now traumatized Abigail Hill connives her way into the secret lives of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her adviser-paramour Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Three outstanding, dynamic performances, Lanthimos’ sheer glee at the graphic indulgence of it all, and the total shunning of slavish accuracy in favor of decadence, fun and ribald satire of the ruling classes make this a richly amusing night out, but it’s also cinematically audacious and robust with complex, well-drawn characterizations.
You Were Never Really Here (2017, Lynne Ramsay) [NO]
Lurid, pretentious, stupid sub-Cinemax trash heap. Poster has a pull quote comparing it to Taxi Driver, but honestly? It might be even worse.
The Big Chill (1983, Lawrence Kasdan)
A group of mostly well-off college friends, children of the “idealistic ’60s,” reconvene for a funeral after one of their own commits suicide; everyone gets laid except Jeff Goldblum. Baby Boomer indulgence that now seems very quaint (and toothless, compared with The Ice Storm), and another excuse for them to remind us that they are the gatekeepers of Great Music. Kasdan does see irony here — the gang gathered around eating salad and doing coke while the body is still warm, etc. — but is too married to the film’s value as a fusion of nostalgia and malaise, both expressed as vaguely as possible, for it to seem real or particularly well-observed.
Roma (2018, Alfonso Cuarón) [hr]
The beach is now as ubiquitous in Cuarón’s films as rain is in Kurosawa’s. The story in this beautifully respectful exploration of his own childhood, like Gravity, is so elemental it could be described in a sentence fragment, yet so very individual and telling thanks to the performances and Cuarón’s breathtakingly inspired presentation of it, which uses technology as a vehicle to the enlivening of memory. The images are harrowing in their simple forcefulness: the car storming into its narrow garage space, the theater filled with people looking away from the real story, the human body as vehicle of lust and instrument of destruction.
Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland) [r]
Kind of a fusion of Aliens or The Thing with Stalker, with a crew of scientists investigating a destructive force called the Shimmer that has occupied a section of land after several military teams entered the realm and never returned. A splendid ensemble cast led by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh and some brilliantly freaked-out production design help this effectively creepy, dread-laden horror/sci-fi piece distinguish itself above the norm for both genres, though it fails to conquer mediocre special effects and some tedium and mindless chaos in the story, taken from a popular novel by Jeff VanderMeer.
La Strada (1954, Federico Fellini) [r]
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) A washed-up strongman parades the country with a dated bag of tricks, toting along a long-suffering young woman he abuses relentlessly. This has a certain simple, expressive sadness, but it leans too much on maudlin sentiment; all three of the central characters are empty ciphers only serving the barest, most obvious purpose. Even Giulietta Masina’s performance as the drumming clown Gelsomina, singular and charming in its fashion, turns on a dime from innocence to trauma to resentment, and never organically. And no matter how reverently Fellini shoots all this, it’s still built upon a pandering, one-dimensional screenplay, schematic rather than primal.
Julius Caesar (1953, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) [r]
Mankiewicz’s Shakespeare ateempt takes cues from Laurence Olivier’s starkly photographed Hamlet, amping up its feeling of artificiality and rarely tipping its hand as a high-budget production. John Gielgud and James Mason are terrific as Cassius as Brutus, enhancing and enlivening the text; Marlon Brando’s Antony may be his least characteristic early performance, so it’s one of his best. The weak point is Louis Calhern’s dull Caesar. Narratively, the violent assassination itself rivets and so does much of what’s before and around it, but Mankiewicz never conquers the feeling of contrivance that takes over even most of the better Shakespeare films.
Eighth Grade (2018, Bo Burnham) [r]
Exactly what the title promises with all mortifying cringes thus implied, and despite the explosion of Insta and Snapchat it looks to me like not much has really changed over the last couple of decades. The film’s a little schematic in some ways, but its depiction of anxiety is touching, and the performances — particularly Elsie Fisher’s phenomenally believable, almost artless rendering of the central character — are sublime.
Leave No Trace (2018, Debra Granik) [r]
Sensitive, vividly natural drama, awash in the colors and textures of the Pacific Northwest, describes a traditional evolution and increasing distance in a parent-child, but under singular and traumatic circumstances: Tom is a 13 year-old girl who hides out illegally on public parkland where her damaged Iraq vet father keeps them sequestered. When they’re spotted by park officials and forced to assimilate, a wedge is driven between them. The larger point being made about letting go of those who were once supposed to take care of us, whether they did or not, would resonate more without the excessive sentimentality in the final act.
Rio Bravo (1959, Howard Hawks) [hr]
Hawks’ westerns are more immediately engrossing than John Ford’s, but linger less for me in the long run as anything except cracking good times; but that’s more than enough to make this totally delightful. Despite its relaxed pacing, this drama of a town besieged by a gang of violent hooligans and the sheriff who takes them on is gripping from its earliest frames and uses its tremendous cast well, with Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson turning in surprisingly grand performances backing up John Wayne, who is as John Wayne as ever. The overt brassiness fully sells Hawks’ vision of the western as populist entertainment even at its most cinematic.
The Godfather Part III (1990, Francis Ford Coppola)
Goodness, these movies are so silly — just wild, over the top nonsense, often unintentionally humorous (especially the finale). It’s pretty much Days of Our Lives for bros; that said, across three hours, this is never boring for even a second. Clearly made purely for commercial reasons, it still demonstrates Coppola as a fine crafstman even when he doesn’t really care about the material. His daughter Sofia, a last-minute substitute for Winona Ryder and/or the murdered Rebecca Schaeffer, needed more takes; like her mere presence, that’s on her dad. Years after she redeemed herself, I still felt terrible for her watching this.
Incredibles 2 (2018, Brad Bird) [r]
The first film was so fresh and exciting and it’s fun to see its characters again, but a decade into full superhero saturation, this is practically a clone — dreadfully predictable, almost beat for beat — rather than a sequel; the clever idea of setting it immediately after The Incredibles ends up cutting it at the knees in terms of deep character development, and the sense of danger (and infinite graphic possibility) is lacking. Bird remains one of the best living architects of a great setpiece, but he’s better off here when he sticks to comedy and avoids his tendency toward positioning characters as his philosophical mouthpieces.
Paterson (2016, Jim Jarmusch)
A week in the life of a bus-driving poet (Adam “Bus” Driver) who absorbs the compelling lives around him by osmosis. The generosity of spirit here is admirable but much of the acting is stilted, and the situations volley rudely between total mundane believability and screenwriterly convenience. The basic contentment with day-to-day life — and the fusion of working class existence with artistry — Jarmusch celebrates should be more visible in cinema, but despite lovely moments and a lot of visual lyricism, your appreciation will depend on your attachment to the eccentric work being promoted and your tolerance for Driver’s sullen pleasantness.
Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker)
Marker’s hodgepodge of travelogue footage and experimental editing techniques is usually listed as a documentary but is more of an essay film, centered on letters from a fictitious cameraman read by an unseeen female narrator. There are some strong moments — visual and verbal — but the unfocused, intricate theories and thoughts being delivered feel too much like a particularly impassioned college lecture, or like a very protracted conversation with an intellectual barfly.
Viridiana (1961, Luis Buñuel) [r]
Teasing jumble of satire and melodrama opens with a nun-to-be (Silvia Pinal) who’s ordered to visit the isolated farm of her benefactor, an uncle she’s barely met. It so happens that she uncannily resembles the man’s long-dead wife, and after a few days in his presence, the perversions begin to come out, later joined by a whole mob of grotesquerie after circumstances force her to stay. Buñuel’s audacity in this attack on social conventions and the Church may be justified, but in this particular case his scab-picking efforts come across as cruel, though there are some sublime, transcendent sequences, especially the astonishing beggars’ banquet at the climax.
Of the remaining TSPDT titles I’ll be going through in the next few weeks, I can only really guarantee one of them will be getting a full review, but I hope for more. There are three that I previously wrote about at length at my old blog, but all were pans of which I’m now skeptical; we’ll soon see. Certainly this project more than any other has thus far laid out my lack of affinity with a lot of arthouse-canon logic, for better or worse. See you soon.
Let’s pretend this is just your average crime picture for just a moment. Shot rather bluntly in the streets of Paris, Breathless concerns a few days in the life of a young hotshot con artist — the kind of guy who brags to lady friends about having a lot of “enemies” in town — who grabs a car, kills a cop with the gun he’s kept in the glove box and loves to wave around randomly like a badass, and hides in the city with an American girlfriend currently in a different kind of state of inner turmoil. As the cops and newsmedia close in on him, she begins to doubt her commitment to the world she inevitably will enter by protecting him. It’s an old tale; there are many such stories. But as you well know even if just by reputation, this is not an average crime picture. This is Nouvelle Vague, not as a critical category or a ’60s scenester gimmick, but as an explosive (threatening?) organism that changes the rules with every passing minute. It’s a young picture even today, the photography oozing with amateurish pleasure, every cinematic tool becoming applied freshly, every cinematic error becoming a statement. Most notoriously and thrillingly, it uses incessant jump-cuts for laughs, for scares, and even for self-mockery.
To take Breathless at anything but face value feels like a betrayal to its cause as a visceral, completely unrestrained Moment in Time, a movie as urgent and wild as life itself, but a movie that still revels in its status as very much a movie and nothing more, nothing less. It talks directly to you, straightforwardly, while centering you squarely in your well-established seat as an audience member; but it also digs at your emotions: makes you feel permanently young, naive, positioned just on the outside of a world too vast for you to ever know. Of course it functions as a critique of other films and really of itself. But close readings reveal secrets the film itself is reticent to let go of, reveal that its guerrilla cinematography and rapid-fire race along city streets match the impossible pace of a beating heart. Somehow or other, this establishment of a new language, this celebration of style itself, turns out to be moving, even wrenching, in its standoffish, understated fashion.
On one level, of course, this is bullshit that would rightly be ridiculed by legendary auteur and provocateur Jean-Luc Godard himself. On that level, the story of Breathless is immediately clear: it’s about a pair of cinema-addicted French blokes — Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut — who got together in 1959, took a break from writing heady reviews for Cahiers, and decided to make the coolest goddamn movie they could imagine. It just so happens that Truffaut and Godard were so fucking hip that Breathless is still the coolest goddamn movie I can imagine; it is mostly (but not entirely) a thriller, and it’s amply rewarding in every sense, with deliciously complete moments of comedy, pathos, sex, and terror. It’s almost everything a movie’s supposed to be, and to “almost” get there while in the act of such relentless innovation is rare enough to be exceptional. The wonder, on closer examination, is that the film freely questions its own detached status — introducing its lead character as a youthful crank who kills someone for no reason on a short break from talking to himself about traffic, the weather and his own greatness in his car — and therefore the detached status of other violent films. The camera and editing make a skeptical joke of their own objects of worship.
For this movie, “face value” is entertaining enough to be a rich film anyway; picture it as a video game, in which you control the anti-hero as he constantly acts like he knows what he’s doing and is totally relaxed about it, weaves irresponsibly through traffic, steals and sells cars, repeatedly enters the same three buildings to try and track down a guy who owes him money, wanders into a girl’s apartment to make about sixteen phone calls, and tries with all his might not to get pulled back down to earth by anything. Essentially, he succeeds, but he pulls the rest of us down along the way. It’s a work of hard-boiled fiction, really, that which inspired the film noir that in turn led Godard to create this film as a valentine to American cinematic storytelling: it revels in vicarious living through the eyes of an amoral criminal, but far more organically than most pulp, manages to show the emptiness at the core of this purported freedom.
The character created so indelibly by Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel, relies in part on the same angry-young-man stereotypes you could’ve seen in the far less revolutionary films of the British New Wave around this same time, and certainly romanticizes them to a degree, since one’s natural response to Michel’s cavalier attitude is envy, at least for anyone who suffers from anxiety about so much as walking down the block. If Breathless has a failing, it’s certainly in its easy seduction by the gangster-as-hero idealism, but while Godard’s attachment to that uncomplicated iconography is clear, the story he’s really telling is infinitely more exciting and lively than any full-on hero worship or even most of the films from which he drew inspiration, mostly because Godard gives the crowd its full payoff, a window into the much stranger and more beautiful real world that surrounds Michel even though he can’t access it — he’s too “over it,” bored by the inner thoughts of the woman he cares for, bored even by death.
Today, it’s a lot harder to get a full view of the general tide of the French New Wave, which was more a freeform attitude than a specific style. The other signature inaugural effort of the movement, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, has almost nothing in common with Breathless. They’re both black & white and utilize liberating handheld cinematography and unorthodox editing, but Blows is a heartfelt, life-affirming, restrained, and almost classical story, drawing lines to Italian neorealism. Truffaut’s follow-up, Shoot the Piano Player, furthers the discrepancy: it’s a similar story to Breathless — high-stakes crime interfering with numb day-to-day routine — but it’s approached in the opposite fashion, with its morbid hero debunking the same myths that Belmondo in Breathless takes pains to corroborate. Truffaut’s film does nothing to hide its heart; both films are cynical and clever, but Godard’s dazzles and stupefies, and forces us to search longer and harder for its soulful essence.
Another way of thinking of it: Godard has no intention of remaking Rebel Without a Cause, a film that debunks the fog of cool like no other, one that seems to be from another century even though it was only five years old at this point. Rather, he wants to remake the poster for Rebel Without a Cause, while also having us confront both the badassery and the silliness of such a charade. The whole point of the movie, of course, lies in the lead character’s simplifying of his own world, which translates to his belief that he already has mastered it, already knows all the tricks and, of course, all of the endings. The motivations for his original crime are never terribly clear but one suspects they involve, as in the more sympathetically rendered Badlands, a desire for the very iconography the movie suggests, or maybe it’s the result of amorality and reverse-logic escaping from a cloud of amphetamines. Either way, it’s all expressed ingeniously in a beautiful scene of the boy standing outside a movie theater studying a photograph of Bogart. The clone of his dreams, one suspects. It may also be the dream of Godard himself. We know him to be an egomaniac, and this only helps the picture; it’s the work of a young man raised on and infatuated with icons. Truffaut may have sought to uncover the humanity in everything, but his colleague wants to block and assign the world into a girl-and-gun wonderland of sights and sounds. The clash of these sensibilities is why the movie works: its complete fakery is backed by astonishing conviction. In other words, the insincerity is fully and startlingly sincere.
Throughout the film, our attitude toward Michel changes on a dime, even though his characterization is consistent and believable; he’s introduced to us as fast-talking and unhinged, and of course clearly self-obsessed. His inner and outer voice is comprised of a litany of empty self-justifications. It’s up to us to learn when he’s putting us on, when he’s really scared, when he’s really in love; if he is so long past any human feeling, perhaps he is on his way to becoming a shell of a man like the sexist writer whose press conference Jean Seberg attends late in the film. However, Breathless and Belmondo’s performance seem quietly to posit Michel as a confused child, whose carefully learned behavior and cruel impulsiveness are repugnant but fascinating. It’s easy to blind oneself to the film’s skepticism about him and view him as a renegade who lives and dies on his own terms, but this seems to be an error in judgment.
The key to this is Seberg’s Patricia, a character whose ambiguities are more explicitly stated in the script and performance, though if anything said performance is even stronger than Belmondo’s. Patricia is an American girl who peddles copies of a New York newspaper in Paris and is working on having some work published there. As Michel pouts and preens, Patricia explores worlds unknown and unnoticed by him in her expressions, her mild and subtle and occasionally volatile rebukes to his apathy and childishness, and an obvious-to-us independence that he has no idea how to interpret or handle. The dynamic is most memorably explored in a lengthy, lingering bedroom dialogue scene comprised of her attempting to open herself and to open him, and of him hearing nothing she says — not intentionally ignoring her, perhaps, but simply deaf to her irreducible complexity, only fixated on the removal of her clothing. She is just as inscrutable and impulsive in some ways, but her motives are much more nuanced. Michel talks a lot of guff about loving her, but she performs the clearest act of love in the film when she sets the police after him then warns him, setting herself free; and the most defiant act of true freedom, rather than movie-poster freedom, when she turns away from his corpse in the final shot. Of course, along the way we do get those unforgettable driving scenes and a magical chase sequence they share across movie theaters, their public restrooms and their back alleyways — Breathless is nothing if not the all-time champion movie of having your cake and eating it — but the lone moment of undiluted triumph anyone gets here is in her individualism at the end of the picture. He resents her for it, or maybe he resents the whole world. Either way, he has no control over what she does next — will never even have any idea.
More than anything else, this movie is just thrilling to watch; sometimes the hipsters have a point about attitude being almost everything. Eschewing purity of any kind (it’s not strictly an honest or populist film, it’s very much a calculated one), responding to traditions of image as much as any Hollywood movie, it’s the most rock & roll, perpetually alive piece of cinema imaginable despite its simultaneous total awareness and deconstruction of its own hand-me-down clichés. After all, rock & roll — and all of its disparate factions — is scavenged from other forms and is nearly always stuck on image too. Bleeding into the edges of all this all the time, we have Seberg’s eyes, the pensiveness of the jazz score, the taunting of the jump cuts, and the occasional touches of totally credible romance, all lending doubt to the stoic distance of Michel’s deliberately iconic poses. Breathless is the work and the criticism of that work in one piece, and it’s in this manner that it becomes not just a moment of cultural purity but a work of art.
[Expanded from a review first posted in 2006.]
1940s CANON 1.0
Christmas in July (1940, Preston Sturges) [cap]
Fantasia (1940, various directors)
The Great Dictator (1940, Charles Chaplin)
His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks) [cap]
The Philadelphia Story (1940, George Cukor)
Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Shop Around the Corner (1940, Ernst Lubitsch) [cap]
Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941, William Dieterle) [cap]
How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford)
The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)
The Little Foxes (1941, William Wyler) [cap]
The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)
Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)
Suspicion (1941, Alfred Hitchcock)
Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur) [cap]
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles) [cap]
To Be or Not to Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch) [cap]
Day of Wrath (1943, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [cap]
I Walked with a Zombie (1943, Jacques Tourneur) [cap]
Le Corbeau (1943, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [cap]
Meshes of the Afternoon (SHORT 1943, Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid) [see below]
Ossessione (1943, Luchino Visconti) [cap]
Red Hot Riding Hood (SHORT 1943, Tex Avery) [see below]
Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock)
Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)
Laura (1944, Otto Preminger)
Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944, Vincente Minnelli) [cap]
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944, Preston Sturges) [cap]
Screwball Squirrel (SHORT 1944, Tex Avery) [see below]
To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks) [cap]
The Battle of San Pietro (SHORT 1945, John Huston)
Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean) [cap]
Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carne) [cap]
I Know Where I’m Going! (1945, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [cap]
Leave Her to Heaven (1945, John M. Stahl) [cap]
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945, Robert Bresson) [cap]
Rome, Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini) [cap]
Scarlet Street (1945, Fritz Lang) [cap]
Spellbound (1945, Alfred Hitchcock)
Beauty and the Beast (1946, Jean Cocteau) [cap]
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)
The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks) [cap]
Cluny Brown (1946, Ernst Lubitsch) [cap]
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
Ivan the Terrible Part I (1945, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
Ivan the Terrible Part II (1946, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
A Matter of Life and Death (1946, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [cap]
My Darling Clementine (1946, John Ford) [cap]
Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock)
Paisan (1946, Roberto Rossellini)
Utamaro and His Five Women (1946, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
King-Size Canary (SHORT 1947, Tex Avery) [see below]
The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Orson Welles)
Monsieur Verdoux (1947, Charles Chaplin) [cap]
Odd Man Out (1947, Carol Reed) [cap]
Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur) [cap]
Quai des Ofevres (1947, Henri-Georges Clouzot) [cap]
Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)
Force of Evil (1948, Abraham Polonsky) [cap]
Germany Year Zero (1948, Roberto Rossellini) [cap]
Key Largo (1948, John Huston) [cap]
La Terra Trema (1948, Luchino Visconti) [cap]
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, Max Ophuls) [cap]
Louisiana Story (1948, Robert J. Flaherty) [cap]
The Pirate (1948, Vincente Minnelli) [cap]
Red River (1948, Howard Hawks) [cap]
The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, John Huston)
Unfaithfully Yours (1948, Preston Sturges) [cap]
Women of the Night (1948, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
Gun Crazy (1949, Joseph H. Lewis) [cap]
The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)
I Was a Male War Bride (1949, Howard Hawks) [cap]
Jour de Fete (1949, Jacques Tati) [cap]
Late Spring (1949, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
Orpheus (1949, Jean Cocteau) [cap]
Prison (1949, Ingmar Bergman) [cap]
The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophuls) [cap]
The Southerner (1949, Jean Renoir) [cap]
Stray Dog (1949, Akira Kurosawa)
The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)
White Heat (1949, Raoul Walsh) [cap]
“The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood — for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world — millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say: do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.”
– Charlie Chaplin as The Barber in The Great Dictator
For the third happy year running, this modest blog was concerned with a chronological exploration of the “film canon” as defined by faithful users at a certain web forum that’s a magnet for eloquent, informed cinephilia; exploring the lists project at the Criterion Forum prompted me to stop messing around with facile polls and get serious about widening the perspective of this film blog. We’ve come to the 1940s, which — due apparently to a dip in participation at the time the original list was made — is a slightly abbreviated list in its original incarnation, with 88 titles including both features and (relatively few) shorts. Despite the list’s limitations, it gave me plenty of new stuff to watch and revisit which is the whole point. I expected to wrap this one up a little sooner than I did, but it’s been a busy year. As it all panned out, I kicked off on January 17 of this past year by revisiting The Red Shoes and finished on Christmas Day with The Reckless Moment. As mentioned, this is a more flawed list than the first two; there are obvious omissions — but it’s just a starting point, and notice that it still took me a full calendar year to see everything it included!
The sketchy history that follows isn’t intended as a full-on act of scholarship, just an interpretation of all that I’ve seen this year, with holes and flaws dutifully noted when I’m aware of them. Compared to the silent era and the 1930s, we find that in the course of the ’40s, despite two transformative events (the war, and the American major studios’ divestment of their theater ownings in 1948), the obvious narrative thread of all this disappears; things fragment, the business gets more complicated, the bulk of the art and history of cinema becomes harder to fit into a linear story. But I’ve done my best, even if what I’ve ended up putting down is my own story much more than the story of these films.
PART ONE: ART IN THE STUDIO SYSTEM & THE HAYS ERA
In this section I want to talk about a few of the major Hollywood auteurs and how they opened the decade.
Preston Sturges had been writing dialogue and contributing screenplays in Hollywood since the beginning of the sound era. His reputation was made by his knack for erudite, wordplay-ridden dialogue that nevertheless sounded perfectly natural with the right performers, which is presumably one reason why — as a director — he so frequently used the same stable of character actors, one of many contributors to his tensions with his home studio, Paramount Pictures. Yet Paramount couldn’t argue with success; starting with The Great McGinty in 1940, Sturges directed his own scripts and quickly became one of the few “celebrity directors,” recognized as a true American wordsmith while still running up against the same instict for safety and conservatism that seems to derail all artists who try to make it within a commercial system. Within eighteen months between 1940 and ’41, Sturges directed three classics in a row that retain their place in the pinnacle of film comedy: Christmas in July, The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels.
Each of these is magnificent in its own way. The Lady Eve belongs in the pantheon as a sterling example of the screwball comedy, of which more later. Sullivan’s Travels is both a winning, funny, perceptive satire of “the business” — perhaps not as cynical as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. but equally savvy — and a surprisingly dark tragedy in which a successful filmmaker learns of the dregs of life at the bottom, and experiences an artistic (if self-serving) awakening, not to mention the joys of Walt Disney cartoons. Perhaps the most ageless of these films, however, is the remarkable Christmas in July, a personal and heartfelt chronicle of the fleeting nature of success. Its story is predicated on the very convoluted and very Sturges Americana of a slogan contest for a coffee company, but the “moment in the sun” that results for its hero, Dick Powell’s Jimmy MacDonald, has an irresistible poignance, a recognition that the often ephemeral nature of happiness is baked into it, and that deeper and more permanent things aren’t necessarily tied to ecstatic moments of great triumph. In this film more than any other, Sturges’ love for his characters radiates out from the screen and infects everyone watching; and up to the idiosyncratic conclusion, there is never any doubt that this is that elusive Hollywood moment of a film reflecting, truly and completely, the work and sensibility of one specific artist. But whereas Sturges’ world typically seems so heightened compared to ours, in July and Travels he allows us to merge with it. The transition is violent and sudden in the latter film; in the former, it’s something much more ethereal and touching.
Talking of cartoons, this list’s sample size precludes a really proper look at the greatest decade for the “other studios” (non-Disney); as we’ve said here before, the shorts of the classic animation years will be the subject of future delving. Fantasia is here and more power to it — still a tremendous, transformative film — but Pinocchio, Dumbo (Disney’s best feature, and for me the finest animated feature of all) and Bambi are not. But someone really liked Tex Avery; three of his cartoons from his slick MGM period make it here. Red Hot Riding Hood is of course infallible, deservedly one of the most famous of all American cartoons and still a riot, and still clearly not designed for children at all with its open, joyous, lecherous lust toward a lovingly rendered burlesque performer on the part of a wolf who then fully gets his, and by his own hand. Equally madcap and imaginative, despite some relatively lackluster character designs, is King-Size Canary, the defining cartoon of the “escalate everything beyond absurdity” dictum. Screwball Squirrel, however, has always struck me as tennis without a net, because the title character is so anarchic by definition that he ends up completely lacking a personality. It is interesting that the most staid and rigid studio of all, MGM, would bankroll the least inhibited character from the era, but apart from the satirical jabs at Disney that open the film, it’s an affair that makes such a valiant attempt at Bob Clampett-like intensity that it becomes contrived. There’s no way for an “anything goes” premise like this not to end up being sadly predictable. I feel that much of Avery’s best work, and he is one of the examples of a director whose cartoons completely reflect his own personality, came when he worked with regular characters, like Droopy or Bugs Bunny, so of course I tend to prefer his Warner Bros. output. The Warner cartoons’ absence from this list is glaring, and probably a result either of happenstance or of such a glut of classics to choose from that there was no specific work to rally around like Steamboat Willie for Disney in the ’20s. Again, the day to more coherently approach all this will come.
If anyone could — as of 1940 — match Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney’s status as a luminaries to the film business, as well as Preston Sturges’ and Ernst Lubitsch’s as household-name directors, it was Alfred Hitchcock, who moved to Hollywood in 1939 and immediately began work on Rebecca for titan producer David O. Selznick. The film, a stunning Gothic anti-romance from Daphne du Maurier’s delectable novel, won a Best Picture Academy Award and captured the national imagination in much the same way Selznick’s Gone with the Wind had from production to release. The film was sold to the public with Selznick’s name, not Hitchcock’s, despite the director’s international success with several of his later British thrillers. The tide turned quickly, thanks in part to Hitchcock’s dogged, constant working — the ’40s would prove his busiest and most chaotic decade in cinema, culminating in his break with Selznick and the creation of his own short-lived production company in 1947. While still under contract to Selznick, he repeatedly made scrappy thrillers like Foreign Correspondent that displeased his boss (that film proved hugely popular and was acclaimed enough to compete against Rebecca at the Oscars, which surely didn’t make the relationship any happier), not to mention the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which despite (or maybe because of) being a major outlier in Hitchcock’s career is the first film whose publicity campaign centered on his own name, even with stars Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery on the bill. But this list skips over those to move straight to Suspicion, the slickest of these early non-Selznick Hollywood Hitchcocks, which stars Cary Grant as a conniving husband to an understandably pensive woman (Rebecca‘s Joan Fontaine) who begins to suspect he is a murderer. With a lot of flaws that show themselves in many of Hitchcock’s works from the first half of the decade, Suspicion nevertheless finds space for a number of perversities and preoccupations that Selznick would’ve never allowed, which makes it fascinating right up to its extremely compromised ending. The greatest disappointment is that Hitchcock never got to work with Fontaine again despite their obvious spiritual synchronicity; for the director and Cary Grant, though, further and larger glories lay ahead.
Still working at MGM, where he’d made Ninotchka after years with Paramount, Ernst Lubitsch came in swinging with the loving, humane comedy The Shop Around the Corner, which exhibited all of his best tendencies as an architect of humor and characterization in the context of a winning, romantic holiday narrative about a bickering man and woman among the staff at a leather shop unaware that they’ve fallen in love by mail. In the same way as Christmas in July, this is Hollywood at its very best as an avenue of communication with the base goodness in people. Lubitsch switched to self-producing after this and would end his career at 20th Century Fox, dying all too young.
For John Ford, the ’40s were a time of increasing prestige and accomplishment interrupted for several years by his War Dept. service; he made many information films for the government, including an infamous one about “sex hygiene.” Just before the war, he received an armload of Oscars for his two most literary works and not coincidentally two of his most superficial, the flawed but faithful and at times painfully realistic The Grapes of Wrath and the sentimental How Green Was My Valley, a tough but turgid adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s novel. Both films reflect Ford’s concerns about class, poverty and human dignity, but less cogently than his messier, more insightful genre films.
The greatest now-unheralded Hollywood director of the age (sometimes I think any age, until I remember Frank Borzage), William Wyler carried the humanism of Dodsworth forward to The Little Foxes, a nasty Lillian Hellman story and play that hides a real awareness of the deep love that can unite families amid all its righteous grousing about the hate that can divide them. Bette Davis’ sometimes excessive bombast, following on from Wyler’s Jezebel, is kindly kept in check within the framework provided by the other actors; as usual, he coaxes out remarkable performances, particularly here the equally underrated Patricia Collinge as a woman who has learned to shut up for the sake of her own survival. Wyler could also, at times, be a polished and overly professional curator of Hollywood dreams, but an eclectic one; he will reappear to us here in his better guise, but I do want to mention the pure fun of The Westerner and the shocking force of his family-oriented war propaganda film Mrs. Miniver, neither on this list but both wearing the years better than his Wuthering Heights from 1939.
I am not sure how much William Dieterle qualifies as an auteur in any modern sense; he’s most commonly known for his straightforward, Oscar-attracting biopics of the 1930s, the two most famous of which (The Life of Emile Zola and The Story of Louis Pasteur) both starred Paul Muni, but a suggestion of the more adventurous realm he would explore in this decade can be traced, perhaps, to his visually sumptuous 1935 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at MGM. His most famous film of the ’40s — and his entry here — is the messy but dreamlike and very un-studio The Devil and Daniel Webster, made for RKO in 1941, a didactic and loosely structured but engagingly weird interpretation of the Stephen Benet story that, among other things, gives us one of the most unsympathetic Hollywood heroes outside of noir (James Craig) and lets us watch Walter Huston having a hell of a time as the surly, wiseass old-man Devil, here “Scratch.” One sequence that revolves around a dance with a seductress played with mischievous joy by Simone Simon is a marvel of photography (by Joseph August) and editing (by Robert Wise). Dieterle’s toying with the strange universe of nightmare-logic and visual unpredictability would culminate in his unsuccessful but influential and fascinating project for Selznick, 1948’s Portrait of Jennie.
While that may be Simone Simon’s most striking performance seen here, it’s not the most iconic or long-lasting — that would be her work in Cat People, one of two downright insane — yet perversely laconic and artful — horror films on this list directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton for RKO. These two innovative films are significant for the specific method by which they carry the genre forward from its pre-Code golden age in America (Britain had Ealing Studios, woefully absent from this list, to experiment with the often horrifying Dead of Night in 1945): via absolute stonefaced seriousness that never flinches at the ludicrousness of either premise. Cat People is literally about a woman who thinks she’s a cat; I Walked with a Zombie is so nebulous in its actual story content it’s hard to even summarize it, but essentially there’s a weird island, and Voodoo, and ancient rituals, and racial tension. Cat People is improbably creepy because it demands that we look past its suggestion of psychosis and take its ideas at face value, with our hearts being oddly tugged in multiple directions; when you realize the extent to which you’ve been played, it’s kind of alarming. For me, Zombie is the miracle: a film that uses shapeless traces of horror-based ideas to thoroughly seduce the audience with mood. Neither film makes much sense, but that’s a compliment; they feel less like studio features, much less the cash-in product of B-movie legend, than avant garde pieces that were budgeted by RKO through some sort of rounding error.
All this talk of RKO brings us to the decade’s undeniable behemoth to stand above them all, at least in Hollywood. Orson Welles, a wunderkind stage director in his early twenties, had come to national prominence with his brilliant, wildly ahead-of-its-time radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, presented as a fake news broadcast. A similar savvy in regard to media informed his breathtaking directorial debut at RKO, the newspaper film to end them all, Citizen Kane, the vivid, vital, astoundingly detailed narrative of the life of a flawed, monstrous but multifaceted news mogul portrayed by Welles himself, and a pointed but humane takedown of one of the biggest egos in the country, that of William Randolph Hearst. The film’s potency and clarity as satire kept it away from the mass popularity (and Academy Awards) it deserved, but it stands as one of the most uncompromised visions by any director ever produced and released by a major studio. By contrast, Welles’ equally ambitious follow-up, the Booth Tarkington adaptation The Magnificent Ambersons, was doomed by reshoots and recuts done without the director’s consent or enthusiasm; it forever stands as one of the great lost films even though its truncated version is full of haunting suggestions of what might have been. Welles sadly would continue to be the most dramatic example of a phenomenal artist constrained by the boundaries of Hollywood’s commercialism, reminding us that however much incredible art was crafted within the studio system, very little of it came about easily or without compromise, and all too often any generosity toward and freedom afforded the great filmmakers of the day was purely incidental.
INTERLUDE: AVANT GARDE
The first of a few blind spots I want to address briefly.
After following the thread of avant garde cinema to a much greater extent in the silent era (where it’s inescapable) and ’30s, we kind of lose the plot on this installment of the canon project; even the magnificent Unseen Cinema boxed set stops in the early part of the 1940s, and while I was able to borrow Kino’s Avant Garde sets that go a bit further some time ago, I haven’t gotten to spend a lot of closely attentive time with them. There are some decent tastes of American abstract work going into the middle of the century on the Treasures from American Film Archives sets; alas, I’ve only netted two of those to date. At any rate, this project did bring me to a new discovery, one of the most beautiful experimental films I can ever recall seeing, and one of the most famous so I’m honestly just decades late here: Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon, featuring both of them as performers but wholly conceived by Deren. You can watch the film at this link; a stirring combination of the floating interpretive dances of Rene Clair’s Entr’acte and Jean Cocteau’s later Orpheus with the then-radical feminist messaging and ahead-of-time wisdom of Germaine Dulac’s awesomely witty La Souriante Madame Beudet, it follows a woman’s dream cycle through a series of mysterious, fluid flights around doubles, mirrors, textures, and stabbing moments of literal and metaphorical violence. Dark and unencumbered by reality without exactly rejecting reality, it’s nevertheless beautifully linear, its camera movements sweeping and transportive, allowing the look and feel of a dream like few other films, even the best of the earlier avant garde works by the likes of Jean Epstein. Inception fucking wishes. I even caught a bit of a Hitchcock connection, even if surely an unintentional one, when the palpable feeling of feet landing on differing grounds called to mind the expressionistic sinking rug in Murder!.
Hitchcock’s more legitimate avant garde connection in the ’40s may as well be addressed here; the reputation of his second film for Selznick, Spellbound, has suffered over the decades for good reason. Despite being immaculately directed and admittedly gripping, it suffers from a terribly stupid, senseless script about an escaped asylum patient taking over a mental hospital then going on the run, and a tepid lead performance by Gregory Peck, but its place in the imagination comes from its iconic dream sequence that was designed by Salvador Dali. While the scene is a striking thing to find in so typically staid an environment as a Hollywood picture produced by David O. Selznick, a quick comparison to Dali’s production drawings reveals the compromises and dilutions to which his work was subjected by the system. Dali was obviously a major influence on Hitchcock and evidence suggests it should have been an immortal, once-in-a-lifetime collaboration; but even though Hitchcock skillfully brought the artist’s terrifyingly disorienting visions to the screen with the same aplomb Luis Buñuel had two decades earlier, every image he presents suffers the trite over-explaining of Ingrid Bergman’s psychiatrist character onscreen, in order to ensure that no one in the audience has their daily life disrupted by any horrendous ambiguities. That a studio film would recruit Dali to begin with, then would corrupt his vision to this extent, provides us with much the same maddening lesson as what happened to excitable kid-in-a-candy-store Welles on Ambersons: the machine wants it all, yet will have none of it.
INTERLUDE: EUROPEAN CINEMA DURING THE DOWNFALL
Obviously the war is the decisive event that overwhelms everything in the 1940s — you could argue, in fact, that it continues to overshadow our day-to-day lives, even as the last firsthand cultural memories of it fade. What fascinates me is that we’ve entered an era when, for the first time, filmed and recorded products of the world of eighty years ago, beyond the photograph and the written word, will now accompany us into the future… which makes me wonder how we seem so determined to relive the errors of those years. But I digress.
European (and Asian) film industries were cut at the knees by the war, a situation evidenced by the presence here of only three films from the continent released in the middle of the conflict itself, all from 1943. There are surely more we must see to form a fuller picture, but the three we have here certainly do tell us a lot; and handily, they come from three different nations, two occupied by Germany, one under Fascist rule at the time of production. In Denmark, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath exhibits a shocking boldness given this context, hinging as it does on the burning of “witches,” though Dreyer was emphatic in his denial of the historical drama’s connection to Nazism. Like all of the director’s best work, it feels like a story that cannot possibly have been captured by a film camera — too ancient, too elemental, too shocking and full of dread. While Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau, from France, is slightly more pleasant and audience-friendly in its storytelling, it’s also more directly analogous to the times and conditions of its creation; its chronicle of cruelty and mistrust within a town under the spell of a series of bombshell anonymous letters has a paranoia and tension that feel, at least to an outsider, inextricably tied to the great fact of Occupation. Interestingly, Dreyer fled Denmark despite his denial of a political allegiance within the film, while Clouzot’s arguably much more explicitly anti-Nazi parable got him flack for the remainder of his life in France, where he was seen as a collaborator for contributing to the occupied nation’s film industry.
The most oblivious of these three films is the one, ironically, credited in certain spaces with the start of the neorealist movement in Italy, Ossessione; during the year of its production, the Armistice of Cassibile established peace between Italy and the Allies, prompting Germany to attack and occupy much of the state. Somehow, out of this chaos comes a story — based on an American novel, no less — about a bored drifter wandering into the fraught lives of an unhappily married couple running a diner. It’s downright strange to see Europe depicted with few signs of any outside trouble — economic strife notwithstanding — but even the relative peace of Luchino Visconti’s disturbingly casual world of joyless adultery, pointless murder and fleeting friendships was too probing for Fascist authorities, who moved to suppress the film and, thanks to the resulting controversy and chaos, kept it from a worldwide audience for decades. More on Ossessione in Part Five.
PART TWO: WARTIME CINEMA
The war changed Hollywood completely for a time, as it changed so many aspects of American and international life; in the same way the Depression informs so much of what was made in the U.S. film industry in the ’30s, the war’s impact and rippling effects are felt, in one way or another, in nearly every film produced by the major studios throughout the length of this nation’s role in the conflict and for some time thereafter. The total submission of the industry under the throes of events of worldwide import kicks off with the American entrance after Pearl Harbor in late 1941; thus, films that show the effect tend to be dated no earlier than 1942. At the end of that year, Casablanca was released and in 1944 it became the second consecutive Best Picture winner dealing explicitly with World War II. The fact that Casablanca is among the longest-lived movies in the general social consciousness among even non-film buffs is evidence of how this one last righteous battle of good and evil is never far from our minds in the United States, in large part surely because it marks the last time that our obsession with intervention and war put us on the right side of history.
Of course, it took us a while. Three British directors, two working in Hollywood, directly sounded the warning bell about the cavalier American attitude toward Hitler’s advances prior to 1941 — Alfred Hitchcock in Foreign Correspondent, Michael Powell in 49th Parallel and Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. Only the last of these makes our list, understandably — it’s the wittiest, the most prescient of the three. Chaplin takes great advantage of his own resemblance to Hitler in his thinly veiled satire about a wicked, anti-Semitic fascist surrounded by Yes-men, his head high on intentions to invade and overtake the whole continent, followed — poetically — by the world. At the end of the film, much like Powell and Hitchcock, Chaplin has a character turn to the camera and plea for vigilance directly, but his own passion for the subject is better illustrated by the fact that he is giving the speech in question himself.
Dictator has endured long past the war — in fact, it’s now among Chaplin’s most popular films, despite some typical consternation at the time about its left-wing ideology, a bogeyman that would haunt Chaplin and Welles both and a depressing prediction of the Blacklist in the 1950s — because it’s truly funny and boasts undeniable gravity within its pathos. For similar reasons, Ernst Lubitsch’s outstanding To Be or Not to Be, a screwball vehicle for Carole Lombard and Jack Benny as married stage actors who end up rubbing elbows with the rising Nazi regime in Warsaw, now plays as beautifully as ever; the film neither glosses over its sharp anti-fascism message nor sacrifices freewheeling, airtight comedy for misery tourism — watching it today, it seems it could just as easily be a new period piece as a feature actually dating from the moment depicted therein. Later Hollywood films expressly concerned with the war would often resemble propaganda more than art, or would messily collate the two, two well-known examples being additional Hitchcock pictures, the frenetic caper-travelogue Saboteur and, on this list, the excellent but dated Lifeboat, which is exactly what the title suggests and gains much of its appeal today from the awe it generates of watching Hitchcock craft drama on such a tiny, single set.
For this viewer, it’s sometimes hard to find the lasting emotional power of certain didactic wartime films, and it’s equally hard to identify what separates those that work from those that do not. Moving over to Britain for just a moment, Powell & Pressburger’s morale-building interlude The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, while an all-time favorite of many viewers, failed to move this dedicated fan of the directors’ other films. It’s a life story of a fictitious senior commander in the British Home Guard, whose involvement in his country’s military affairs dates to the Boer War, all told about through flashbacks along with sidelines about his love life and his belief that defeating the Nazis would require fighting back against them with ruthlessness rather than patience, a lesson that still resonates now. Nevertheless, the film feels rambling and facile, handsome but clearly targeted to a time and place that now feels distant; it lacks the kind of universal power in the best of these films. By comparison, the team’s A Matter of Life and Death — about an RAF pilot who suffers a near-death experience and struggles to understand what happened with the help of the American radio op he fell in love with at his darkest moment — is mostly a metaphysical tale about love and the afterlife, but was intended covertly as an encouragement of good relations between American and British officials in the aftermath of the War. Ironically, the parts that deal directly with this — like a long, wrongheaded courtroom scene laying out the differences in culture between the two nations — are the weakest moments of an otherwise fanciful, magically romantic and touching film.
Casablanca obviously succeeds as pure entertainment and has a wizened wartime message about longing, love and sacrifice — something about being the bigger man, something else about grabbing onto moments of happiness as they arrive — that applies as easily to exiting college grads as it does to soldiers and veterans, but where Michael Curtiz’s masterpiece really succeeds is in its intoxicating atmosphere, making it one of the scattered movies it’s perfectly understandable to want to live in. Curtiz, Warner Bros. and the film’s three screenwriters expertly craft a world of curiously lethargic intrigue: danger and death are such a constant that the inhabitants of Rick’s have become immune to it, and somehow Humphrey Bogart’s coolheaded, cynical barkeep and romantic — a stand-in for America itself with the gradual turn away from rugged neutrality — finds a way, with the world swirling around him, to become the epitome of masculine heroism without any broad, violent theatrics, and famously without “getting the girl” (Ingrid Bergman). Bogart does come away from the narrative with his leading lady (Lauren Bacall in this case, afterward Bogart’s partner in real life) in the very similar To Have and Have Not, the tougher-minded nature of which (it was directed by the comparatively macho Howard Hawks, and based on a Hemingway novel) precludes the air of mysticism and foggy sweetness that surrounds Casablanca, though it’s hard to imagine anyone liking one of the films and disliking the other.
Not addressed in this particular canon narrative, for the most part, is the horde of famous filmmakers who went outside the studio, sometimes to the front lines, to make propaganda films for governments or otherwise for the public good. Powell & Pressburger made an entire feature for general consumption about the service (The Volunteer), as did Walt Disney (Victory Through Air Power), to say nothing of the animated cartoons made to assist in the war effort by Disney and other studios, some for the public and some for soldiers; others took even more hands-on action. Alfred Hitchcock returned home to the UK to make two films in French for the British Ministry of Information, intended as propaganda aids to the Free French; he also assisted in editing Sidney Bernstein’s harrowing collection of concentration camp footage, Memory of the Camps. John Ford famously made short documentary films for the U.S. Navy. Frank Capra conceived an entire, remarkable series for American morale, Why We Fight.
And on this list we find John Huston’s half-hour The Battle of San Pietro, narrated by the director himself, which is perhaps the most complicated of all the wartime propaganda films I have seen, and for this reason undoubtedly the fairest and most honest in its treatment of the war itself, as well as American involvement in it. For those like me who are fascinated by this period of history while deeply loathing war itself, Huston’s attitude compared to that of other directors of the time is a kind of balm — in minute detail he explains the necessity of the battle and the strategy behind it while never glossing over the degree of loss that the struggle inevitably entailed. Refusing to romanticize any of this, he shows us dead soldiers up close, in body bags and wrapped in blankets, while also showing how San Pietro is able to thrive again after the occupying Germans are forced out. He also, we can sense from the staggering footage he gets with his small crew, put himself right into the field with the soldiers and in an equal amount of danger. He’s aware of the war’s importance but has the same conflicts about it has any sane person would — the U.S. Army was initially displeased with the film and accused it of being anti-war, to which Huston unforgettably responded (in Mark Harris’ account) that anyone who made a pro-war film deserved to be shot.
The end of the war did not wash the world, the culture or the movies clean; the bombed-out ruins in its wake are a backdrop of famous cinema all the way through the ’80s at least, and perhaps forever after in simulated form. The feeling of stasis in some films about Europe after the war can be hard to bear in its emotional crush, in the palpable sense of the lives lost and the sensation of abandonment that would never leave many souls; while it’s easy and fashionable to revel in memories of those times as a gung-ho battle in which forces of good and righteousness defeated evil, in reality the human toll of World War II and its distressing violence, genocide and destruction are a tragedy that indicts humanity itself. We will never get over it. That degree of head-spinning trauma is impossible for any art to truly get its head around; sometimes, films that make no attempt to do so — unlike, say, Roberto Rossellini’s, Frank Capra’s or William Wyler’s responses, covered shortly — manage to say a great deal about the way that people keep their heads up and move straight beyond adversity, sometimes foolishly. Marcel Carné dedicated several years of his life to making his three-hour Children of Paradise under nigh-impossible conditions in German-occupied France — and all this for a story about bed-hopping circus performers in the 1830s. The sheer difficulty of the film’s existence becomes its story; the irrelevance of its true-ish narratives becomes an act of amusing defiance. David Lean’s Brief Encounter, a dignified tale (written by Noel Coward) of the urgency that cuts through a bored housewife’s world when she meets a dashing doctor at a railway station, is almost aggressively set in the months before the war begin, as if to cast out all thoughts of what had happened, and more specifically why.
In America, these questions weren’t exactly ignored, but they were hardly addressed with bluntness either. This nebulous attitude toward the most foreboding corners of the heart and mind led us down a darker corridor than might be thought possible in commercial Hollywood cinema.
PART THREE: FILM NOIR
There’s probably nothing that critics love more than gathering semi-unrelated things together, tying them in a neat bow and giving them a name; and admittedly, it’s partially by this process that the term “film noir” came into existence, but even with this in mind it’s still remarkable that so many Hollywood directors, working within the studio system, simultaneously happened upon a mood and stylistic vernacular among hundreds of films that, seen today, seem to be of a piece. Noir refers to the typically dreary, often morally ambivalent (in their lead characters if not their actual story thrusts, though you might argue that frontlining a protagonist who shows amoral tendencies automatically renders your film somewhat more sympathetic to nefarious causes that would be typical of Hollywood movies) crime dramas of this decade and the next. They sprang up in multiple places before any one film had a chance to specifically influence any others, and it took French critics, after the war, to notice a trend toward dread and darkness — hence the name.
If it seems hard to believe this, keep in mind three major factors that undoubtedly played a role in forming noir, from within and without the system. The first factor is purely visual, the influence of German Expressionism; recall that with the rise of the Nazi regime, European directors, cinematographers and other crew members had already been emigrating to Hollywood in droves for the better part of a decade, and not only would the influence of the major Ufa films of the silent era be palpable in the work of newer filmmakers, in some cases noir was created by those influences themselves: think of Fritz Lang, one of the key practitioners and original developers of the noir aesthetic, for instance. Secondly there is the popularity of hard-boiled crime fiction hot during Prohibition and the Depression, candy to a struggling public vicariously living on the edge through openly sleazy detective stories (if sometimes with implicit scolding). Thirdly, there is the Code: foggy, bleak depictions of moral depravity would be easier to slip through than more nuanced narratives of adult life; after all, as weird and skeeved out as the Hays office was about sex, they — like the MPAA now — were much more lenient when it came to pointless bloodshed.
Noir was not without precedent here or abroad. In addition to Expressionism, the films of the French Poetic Realism movement directly forecast the mood and narrative ambivalence of noir, although often with greater frankness and a more obvious willingness to draw direct lines to the lurid world we actually occupy rather than an elevated one of smoked-out windows and endless shadows, not that those were absent. Jean Renoir’s La Bete Humaine and Julien Duvivier’s Pepe le Moko — both cigarette-consuming chronicles of love, lust and hopeless life on the run and/or hiding out — obviously anticipate the flavor of the times ten years hence in America, only free of censorship. (It is interesting that, although Italian neorealism tends to be less often associated with noir, one of the first examples of neorealism, the aforementioned Ossessione, is obviously just a noir in another language, and indeed shares its story with The Postman Always Rings Twice.) In Britain, Alfred Hitchcock’s bleak, frightening Sabotage (1936) essentially ticks every box of noir: shadowy cinematography, a conflicted and basically villainous protagonist, a taste for bizarre characters and settings, a strong association with the details of a specific city, and a sense of despair and hopelessness. That same year in America, Lang released Fury and followed this with You Only Live Once; both films are considered classic noir in most quarters despite their early dates and their idiosyncratic structures. Lastly, the strongest candidate for a real predecessor for noir is the run of Hollywood gangster pictures from the 1930s, mostly released before the Code by Warner Bros., which took silent films like Regeneration (Raoul Walsh) and Underworld (Josef von Sternberg) as jumping-off points for a run of narratives that glorified the ruthlessness and perverse camaraderie of the organized criminal underworld while pretending to wag their finger at them; it made for glorious entertainment that was not a little concerning in terms of what it said about our relationship with violence. Walsh’s splendid White Heat, James Cagney’s return to playing bloodthirsty assholes after a hiatus, is usually labeled noir but really belongs to the gangster genre rather than to this one in every respect save its age.
Whole books exist about what these films actually share that makes them, distinctly, noir, in narrative terms; the visual elements are less ambiguous, easier to define. Generally, however, the structure requires either a central or next-to-central character to be an “anti-hero”: either an outright inexcusable cad or just a flawed human being with major moral conflicts. If the hero happens to be a good person, then noir is a prison for them, surrounding them with dark, unscrupulous forces that may or may not destroy them but either way trap them in a miserable state for virtually all of the film’s duration and maybe longer. Sex tends to be shadowed in euphemism but, assuming the viewer is savvy enough to read through the metaphors or is familiar with the kind of books that prompted these productions, these are just about the horniest movies in American history, screwball comedies with their fake-chaste remarriage narratives standing as the obvious runner-up. If the film centers around a man — and most of them do; the major examples that diverge from this often have their status as noir questioned for supposedly other reasons — then usually there is a woman with mysterious motives, either an obstacle to overcome, a villain to annihilate or a cause to die for… or a blend of the three: the femme fatale. Sometimes noir is surreal, sometimes gritty and realistic; sometimes it is practically a city symphony, sometimes it is laid out in the broad expanse of open country. You know it when you see it, as the saying goes; and at any rate, the key distinction that overrides all others is that these films tend to have a sophisticated, intelligent, no-holds-barred narrative style that sets them apart from the status quo in mainstream Hollywood pictures and marks them as clearly being intended for adult viewers with some hunger to be shocked, shock being in terribly short supply in films of the time — and perhaps because of American censorship, noir flaunts its ability to take audiences beyond the pale, dipping their toes into forbidden realms of indecency in a way that, all told, sometimes feels just a little bit adolescent, as does the nihilism often on display.
But these films, despite sharing this label, all seem so different once you actually sit and watch them; at least the ones good enough to end up on a list like this do. Discarding the two controversial Hitchcock titles for just a moment, I have never been relieved of my feeling that Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is the ideal noir, one that exemplifies the best elements of the genre while rising above its obvious limitations. Recall that under Hays, anyone who killed somebody — and being in noir, you probably did — would have to be punished; it was the “law.” So in some ways the test for a great script, and a great director, would be to find the most interesting way for a killer we grew to like and even “understand” to go down; in all my years now watching films like this, I have yet to feel that anyone found a better gut-punch of an ending for a doomed noir hero than Wilder and Raymond Chandler did for Fred MacMurray in this film. In analyzing why this title comes off stronger for me than many others do, I can point to many elements. The performances are heightened yet believable: MacMurray is joined by Barbara Stanwyck, who is expert (and so different from her second-best role in The Lady Eve) at radiating infinite eroticism in the limited capacity she’s given while also projecting an instability that feels human, familiar and terribly dangerous; and by an inexhaustible Edward G. Robinson as an intuitive insurance fraud investigator who gets closer and closer to the truth about the murder that’s happened under his nose. Closer than that, in fact. The presence of Robinson as a delightful, if oblivious, character makes the explosion of MacMurray’s complicated maneuvering feel delicious even as we continue to feel every step of the story with the latter. This gift for putting us in the shoes of a murderer while rejecting the moral relativism that put us there is a narrative balancing act that not only gives the film a lot of emotional resonance and genuine ambiguity, but makes its machinations and gradual clicking together even more of a pleasure to witness. And along the way, Double Indemnity, thanks to the liberating doom of its finale, is able to contain a scene that’s arguably the (erotic, shameful, deeply troubling) essence of the genre: when MacMurray embraces Stanwyck and, simultaneously, shoots and kills her.
The other noirs that mean the most to me tend to be the most ambitious, the most literary, and the least straightforward in terms of their structures or backdrops, their protagonists typically far beyond an ordinary seen-it-all detective or the rote brutal criminal, plucked from something that feels observed rather than thin air. (One simple, if infuriatingly duplicitous, way of putting it: I prefer the noirs that are either the most or the least like real life.) Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street shares its source material with Jean Renoir’s already terribly dark La Chienne but somehow makes it more distressing yet by leaving its central figure, a mild-mannered banker and artist played by Robinson (again!) who gets hoodwinked by a cruel young couple, in inexpressible torment for the rest of his life. It’s a direct violation of Hays, and he gets away with it. Lang is the sort of director who never lets the viewer off the hook for the kind of film they have come here to see. All talk of “fun” Hollywood noir mets away in a moment like this when the art comes to feel like anguish projected back toward a world anguished enough to produce it.
Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (a British film so not strictly eligible for the noir label) is remarkable for its strange Homeric poetry and Christlike imagery, as it uses a typical bank-heist plot — filmed in relentless, assaultive fashion — to transform its central figure, James Mason, into an injured duck waiting for redemption as his fate is decided by a group of opportunists surrounding him. The torture to which he’s subjected, and the world to which he brings us, has a remarkably linear progression from a kind of classic underworld gloom to an outright bizarre sleaziness. Sleaze of a more American variety informs Joseph H. Lewis’ outstanding Gun Crazy (a 1950 film according to the IMDB but it got placed on this list anyway); like Saboteur and You Only Live Once before it and Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands after, this is a twisted travelogue about life on the run that captures both the dread and the powerful, romantic escape of such a scenario for a couple who start robbing and killing, first as a one-time scheme then as a matter of spite and survival. Lewis visits places that any other commercial director would likely avoid, the torn-up gas stations and garishly lit-up quick-stop marriages of backwoods squalor and truck-stop misery, the “other, weirder America” MGM wouldn’t dare show us (Freaks aside). Lewis’ directorial choices are so wild and so unencumbered by convention that you expect any moment for one of the many firearms in the film to point out toward you and blow your own gawking head off — and this eagerness for our complicity as this departure from societal norms goes off the rails is what makes this film a work of kicking, screaming art.
The last film I especially want to single out here is one of the few with a woman as its central character, The Reckless Moment by Max Ophüls, and a smart, resourceful, utterly believable female character at that, exceptionally played by Joan Bennett. In this case, a traditional noir and gangster-film narrative of a lunkheaded goon with a heart of gold he doesn’t even know he has is mostly played offscreen. Bennett plays a happily married (as far as we’re told) woman whose husband is away on business, and whose art-student daughter has been running with a local, older crook for whom Bennett displays understandable contempt; when her daughter accidentally kills the man, she stops at nothing to protect her — without even pausing to question or contemplate it — and this determination lands her in hot water with a local blackmailer, Mason once again, who seems to be sweating and stumbling his way through his profession, though this doesn’t make him any less intimidating. As the story progresses, Mason falls for his target and he must keep his even more evil boss (Roy Roberts) at bay while attempting to pursue this hopeless whim, which ends up permitting one of the most elegant and surprisingly emotional third-act wrap-ups in any noir, calling up memories of that similar feeling of coexisting sorrow and justice in Double Indemnity. All the while, with his fluid camera and snapshots of calm suburbia, Ophüls gives us a deeply throttling glimpse of a universe in which threat collides with the placid conventions of day-to-day life. To find another noir (in my own definition that satisfies me) that allows for this feeling of uncomfortable realism, we have to move over to Hitchcock — which we will in a moment.
When most casual viewers think of noir, the above films are understandably not what likely comes to mind. More commonly we would hear of the Chandler and Hammett detective story adaptations, the Bogart vehicles like The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo (both directed by John Huston) and The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) that drown us in pure style, a gaggle of oddball characters and the sheer pleasure of stars schmoozing around and talking in prose poetry. These films are a rich pleasure, no doubt about it, but they rarely feel dangerous — except in the sense that in a movie like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, the cavalier attitude when the latest body shows up is somewhat dispiriting to me, and calls to mind the rather flippant modern trend of murder mysteries that revolve around bodies found in knitting clubs and cute bookshops, with recipes at the end of every chapter: violence as window dressing, though at least in those books the object tends to be a kind of comic understatement. Perversely, these adaptations might seem less celebratory or casual about loss of human life if they were more violent, if there seemed to be a consequence to each plot development aside from the latest clue for Marlowe to piece together. Among the convoluted, multi-character mystery-solving noirs — and I hasten to add, again, that I very much enjoy all of these films I’ve named — the one that escapes this feeling of crass inconsequentiality is perhaps the most universally beloved film noir of all.
What’s odd is that in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, the moments that resonate most strongly are those with the same attachment to day-to-day weirdness that marks Gun Crazy, the unexpected snapshots of storefronts, diners, disrepaired back roads and life in unincorporated Cow’s Ass or wherever. Robert Mitchum gets buzzed awake from his slumber as a nice-guy gas station attendant and is swept up in the residue of miseries from his past, up a creek before he even realizes what’s happening. If one can breathe enough to follow the story, the character arc Mitchum inhabits is touching, but it’s also terribly cruel — which is just what some viewers like and come looking for. For me, while the circular you-can’t-go-home-again horror at the core of the film is palpable, and deeply moral in its fashion (a brush with criminal life tarnishes a person forever), I find myself conflicted about the pleasure I get from the film, the fun recognition of watching the many noir tropes play out, because the actual story I’m being told is so sad, and comes around to its sadness in so convoluted a manner. It’s a film that feels like a delight when it shouldn’t, probably because so many of its specific trappings quickly passed into cliché; I honestly feel it might have been a better movie in a world where it influenced nothing, when there were no textbook noir elements to identify in it.
Sadly, my own suspicion of genre trappings in general seemingly keeps me from seeing the virtue in a number of other classic noirs, on top of my muted responses to several of the aforementioned. Otto Preminger’s Laura leaves me almost totally cold, an uninspired overload of irrelevant plot turns and details that throws away its most interesting elements in service of a story that’s quite benign and, when all is said and done, feels like a weak Gothic fantasy more than a crime picture. (It hinges on a dead woman and a mistaken identity, and Nothing Is as It Seems, but it spends more time explaining events than showing them to us.) John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven, the only color “noir” examined this decade, is undeniably a blast but is also quite stupid and facile in multiple respects: it’s a ridiculous portrait of a “woman who loves too much” (Gene Tierney, also the title ghost of Laura). The character’s response to a dead-bedroom marriage to appallingly dull pretty-boy Cornel Wilde, who instead of screwing her on the honeymoon invites the entire extended family out to sing bad folk songs around the fireplace, is to start drowning children and poisoning family members, all served with a placid, self-satisfied smile. It only gets sillier from there, and doesn’t strike me as being of a piece with noir except in its sheer extremity — which in this case just makes it feel campy — and attractive interior decorating. And if you think those icky Hollywood morals are too much, try Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil, an initially promising screed about a numbers game, which gets points for its full-on plunge into the depths of petty racketeering among career criminals, that eventually gets bored of scolding the audience for being intrigued by its story and just starts going apeshit and scolding itself, a tiresome prediction of the popular organized-crime films of today.
Laura aside, these lesser films tend unsurprisingly to be the work of lesser directors, either names I don’t know at all or names I associate with B-pictures and assembly-line studio product. It should be mentioned that in the course of this project, I’ve learned that “conventional” noir tends to be a bit dull to me, perhaps because “conventional” anything is; others have good reasons for loving specific genres and the traditions that accompany them, and I’m not declaring myself superior to that sort of procedure, it’s just not really where I’m at, for better or worse. At the same time, I have to mention how different it all looks when a real undeniable master takes on the form.
The most obvious example to consider here is Orson Welles, who made two of the most beloved noirs of all, one in this decade and one in the next (though I also want to mention the brilliance of his 1946 noir The Stranger, which features the director himself as a Nazi hiding out in an ordinary town and teams him — or rather opposes him — with Edward G. Robinson, in a role originally meant for Agnes Moorehead). Here we see The Lady from Shanghai, which so effortlessly overwhelms every criticism of “traditional” noir it almost seems unfair. Here is a movie that looks and feels the way all noir is supposed, according to the textbooks, to feel, which makes me less forgiving of the more pedestrian examples on this list. Welles stars as a drifting jack-of-all-trades who, like so many other leading men on this list, gets more than he bargains for when he falls for a lady (Rita Hayworth) whose life is a perpetual mess thanks to two extremely sinister men revolving around her, one of whom is her husband. Taken out of Welles’ hands and brutally cut just like Ambersons, this nevertheless retains the director’s singular sense of beauty, menace and style, and of course awe-inspiring visual poetics, breathlessly moving from one remarkable image or unnerving dramatic moment to the next, up to its indescribable climax at an empty circus and its hall of mirrors. As usual, the story with Welles is that he’s perhaps the most ambitious filmmaker in history, and yet he had the inspiration and did the legwork to match up with that ambition. You feel like you want to insert the movie into your veins, even if you don’t entirely understand it — nor would you want to, initially. It is a dream, and one that results in a deeply disappointed awakening.
And as for Hitchcock, well, in many quarters his three films that have traditionally been considered touchstones of noir — Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and from the 1950s, Strangers on a Train — have come to be regarded less and less as part of the “canon,” largely because they seem to belong to a style of suspense storytelling that Hitchcock himself uniquely founded, outside labels seeming superfluous. No one will argue more strongly than me that Hitchcock’s work is its own distinct and separate matter. But there is no logical way to label The Reckless Moment as being noir and Shadow of a Doubt as not being noir; the same for Double Indemnity and Strangers on a Train. Yes, the two Hitchcock films have more fluidity and elegance, arguably, than most major noir titles — but all the same, you could just as easily argue that Ophüls or Wilder or Huston or Hawks or certainly Welles are directors too singular and specific in their stylistic persuasions for any of their work to fall under any designation besides “Ophüls films,” “Wilder films,” etc. So to me, these two listed Hitchcocks are pure noir, and being Hitchcock, they virtually overwhelm everything above for me with the exception of Wilder’s film.
Shadow of a Doubt is the most disturbing of all of these movies, and the reasons are simple: Hitchcock doesn’t simply put a human menace, the serial killer Charlie played by Joseph Cotten, in pleasant surroundings (Santa Rosa, California, where even the war is mostly a benign distant fact aside from the presence of soldiers on leave, war bonds signs and the “current events” talk at the local women’s club); it allows us to know these two warring elements inside and out, enough to know that neither can survive their collusion unscathed. The hero of the film is the only noir heroine on this list except for Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment: Teresa Wright, one of Hollywood’s greatest young actresses of the day, as Charlie’s adoring niece in whom we painfully trace a progression from an unconditionally loving, almost frighteningly devoted acolyte of her uncle to a girl with a suspicion and finally an uncompromising enemy to his future. Both characters’ inner lives are projected nakedly on the screen by the director and actors; and the pall Charlie’s secret casts on day-to-day life, and in the entire demeanor and impact of Wright’s performance, is a hard truth to shake, not least because all the way to the conclusion, most of the characters remain unaware of it. It’s as if we are being left with a burden ourselves, to be shared solely with Wright’s character on into the rest of our lives after the film, and we can only speculate on how it will damage her.
The seriousness with which Hitchcock’s film, made for Universal while he was still under contract to Selznick, tackles the corruption of a small town is fascinating because it takes absolutely no pleasure in it, or in Uncle Charlie’s signs of decadence and mental illness. (His niece cannot tell her mother the truth because it would destroy her, Charlie claims, and we know this is true because she is played — outstandingly — by Patricia Collinge.) Like Sabotage before it, this turns the conventions of noir on its head because it expects no feeling of comfort or trust among the signs of classed-up sleaze and modest terror that surround the basic goodness of an ordinary working-class family doing the best they can; we are not morbidly fascinated, nor are we delighted by the outrageousness of the situation as would be the case for the private-eye comings and goings in the Bogart films or in the petty bitchery among the upper crust inhabitants of Laura. We are pulled in and thrown around much as we are by the hardworking housewife of The Reckless Moment later on because this is all of us, and we are not safe. Perhaps the war creeping in at the edges does mean something.
The war and its immediate aftermath are everywhere in Hitchcock’s other great noir, Notorious, and what can one really say? There is no use denying that watching this film is a matter of pleasure, even though its dangers are equally palpable. The anti-hero in this case is a gorgeously photographed Cary Grant as an American spy who recruits a Nazi’s daughter (Ingrid Bergman, equally sumptuous), who has renounced her father’s politics and considers herself an American patriot, to perform espionage in Rio de Janiero. Between their departure for the mission and their learning of the nature of the assignment — she is to start a romantic relationship with a Nazi (Claude Rains in the one time he’s permitted to be a nuanced character rather than a delicious monster) who’s made his home in Brazil and is suspected of continued acts of sabotage — they fall violently into a frenzied (and “very strange”) love affair, which is abruptly cut short by the mission. This conflict sets the stage for a beautifully, eerily simple yet morally and emotionally complex narrative that resists categorization as noir because it so resembles a classicist fairy tale, complete with a love for the ages, a villain that must be destroyed and a princess held prisoner in a castle. Yet it’s more human and artful than all that, with Grant’s boorish, possessive hero outwardly colder than Rains’ kindly, sad-eyed villain, and Bergman only made helpless when Grant’s clumsiness gets her found out. Up to its intoxicating final scenes, the film seems gripped in the fit of romance, hazy and dizzy from new love. The negativity and bottom-feeding dread of something like Force of Evil or even the excellent, sweltering Key Largo seem small-minded and trite in comparison.
Emphatically, these unfathomably beautiful people are not us, and Hitchcock knows it; they’re not him either. But what he does know is something about the way movies and fairy tales capture the popular imagination; and these gripping, impossible scenarios that feel so immediate they could be happening to us are, like The Lady from Shanghai, seemingly etched in the clouds. Notorious is so intensely gorgeous, and so fluidly thought-out and performed, that it has the feel of a fantasy we are willing into existence. We are made children by the film, with fascist holdovers and a freakishly ornery mother-in-law standing in for evil stepmothers and wicked witches. It boasts all the elements of film noir, but it carries them to a plane that’s nearly unthinkable outside of this one film. And even among Hitchcock’s works, only Vertigo is more enchanting in its lovesickness.
In essence, noir makes a hell of a teaching tool, and its omnipresence in the period — and certainly in studies and cultural memories of the period — is remarkable. But the best individual films under the category that make the strongest mark do so for reasons entirely separate from its generally celebrated characteristics.
INTERLUDE: THE NOIR INFLUENCE IN EUROPE & ASIA
Again we see how arbitrary the “American” distiction for noir is, because these three examples of foreign film noir strike me as being better-developed in many ways than the “real thing.”
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfèvres resembles American noir more than the rest of his major films because of its quite Hollywood touch of optimism and redemption, approached in a different way than in Leave Her to Heaven or Force of Evil with their last-minute deliverances. In Clouzot’s Diabolique and The Wages of Fear the director seems always to be sneering down from above, an elevated version of some of the less savory elements of American noir; but he’s able to justify this dread and misanthropy because the action and mood of his films is permitted by the French industry to be so much more extreme and detailed in its danger and hostility than we’d ever see in an American film of the time. In Quai des Orfèvres, there is still the possibility of a way out of all the madness: it’s true that the jealous husband at the center of the story is an obviously cracked figure of toxic maleness, but conversely, for the detective on the case of his rival’s murder, blissful relief seems to be only as far away as the next Christmas with his family. Clouzot’s films tend to be believably dire, but in this particular example there’s some light from a window leading out of this claustrophobic world.
That goes less for Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, despite its extreme affability as a “buddy” picture about a couple of police detectives tracking a lost weapon that one of them foolishly let go of on a bus. In this case, while Kurosawa’s usual rain-soaked Japanese skies are falling on city streets rather than ancient villages, the influence mostly flows in the other direction — this doesn’t seem like an Americanized movie so much as one whose impact on future American films about killers, city crime and cops is incalculable. In its urban confusion, moral consternation and complex characterization, it vividly resembles now-classic Hollywood movies like The French Connection and (almost beat-for-beat) David Fincher’s Se7en. Kurosawa’s treatment of this material is graceful and quick-witted, but also frontlines the inner life of its lead character (Toshiro Mifune) in a manner that renders it a surprisingly emotional powerhouse. Most noir is tied to its era, often to its benefit; but this truly great example of noir’s far-reaching impact succeeds because it feels so lost in its urban bustle and in the labyrinthine puzzles of the human heart and mind that it could easily be brand new.
The Third Man couldn’t be brand new. Not only is this crown jewel of British cinema (directed by Carol Reed, two years after Odd Man Out) a chilling portrait of anarchy and deft morality-dodging in a city (Vienna) just after the war, it’s so immediate and streetwise in its treatment of that setting that we couldn’t fashion it as a modern period piece. Plus there are few who could cover its nuances and haunting alleyways with the imagination of Reed, whose film is so visually thrilling that for a time various later scholars tried to attribute parts of it to one of its actors, Orson Welles. (Welles emphatically denied this, and there’s no truth in it.) Once again as in Notorious, the emotions of noir become larger-than-life projections onto the screen thanks to Joseph Cotten as a beaten-down writer trying to accept that his now-dead former best friend (Welles) was essentially a war criminal while falling for said friend’s former paramour (Alida Valli), who’s less than receptive but still opens up to him. The film fires on every cylinder with deceptive ease — nearly every scene contains some breathtaking composition, the acting is vivid, and the script diabolically clever and eloquent, never sacrificing emotion for content even in the immortal moment when a cold-blooded murderer lays out his entire world philosophy on a Ferris wheel. There’s intrigue and strangeness as in all American noirs, but the plot-heaviness never overcomes what amounts to a devastating story about learning to believe the worst about people, and about the sort of mutual betrayal that haunts someone to their grave. The “heroes,” on the side of law and order, seem slimy and pedantic, the villains slick, amiable, beautiful; it’s “their people” versus “our people,” which doesn’t subvert right and wrong so much as question the very fabric of where one actually sits on the spectrum. And in a film so magnificently thorny, how can it be justified that it all ends with nothing more than a long chase scene and a thwarted moment of reunion between a man and a woman, like millions of other such stories? It’s in the way that Reed approaches and maximizes these moments, renders them among the most harrowing sequences in the entire dreamworld of cinema. This film alone does more work than the lion’s share of American noirs put together; and if it qualifies as part of the genre, then like Notorious, it frankly overshadows and overwhelms the great majority of canonical examples of it — and invalidates any excuse for their deficiencies, forever casting the “trope”-filled version of noir as a fun niche rather than the kind of revelation Reed’s film can singularly provide us.
PART FOUR: THE SCREWBALL COMEDY
The other great subgenre in this era of Hollywood cinema was already introduced and described in our page for the 1930s canon last year. However, screwball comedy continued its brief peak in the first few years of the 1940s. (So popular and ubiquitous was the format that even Alfred Hitchcock threw his hat in with the inconsistent Carole Lombard vehicle Mr. & Mrs. Smith.) I’m uncertain about the application of George Cukor’s stagy, talky The Philadelphia Story to the genre, but it is frequently lumped in with movies like Holiday, and it’s easy to see why, with its slight air of mania and literary bent; it qualifies in its status as a remarriage narrative, and it does bear some resemblance to the dialogue-driven comedy of Preston Sturges’ films. Its intellectualism and the feeling that its verbosity makes more sense on printed paper or on a three-dimensional stage does have a distancing effect, at least for this viewer, but the opportunity to see Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart in the same film is difficult to resist.
The finest true-blue screwball comedy of the decade in my view is Sturges’ The Lady Eve; by 1941, screwball was a commercial idea feeding on itself, viewed (even if the word itself wasn’t used) as a mainstay of Hollywood filmmaking that had arguably begun with the Academy Award-winning It Happened One Night and would persist in dominance over other varieties of adult-targeted comedy for a full decade after that film’s release. The Lady Eve stands apart largely because of Sturges’ elevated genius as a writer of characters and dialogue, and because of the clear Lubitsch influence in its delightfully mixed-up narrative (note that Lubitsch himself made a semi-screwball with To Be or Not to Be a year after this), borrowing Lubitsch’s shattered moral code and the nonchalant front-and-center presentation of scam artists as comic heroes, specifically from Lubitsch’s masterpiece Trouble in Paradise. That film’s characters were, like those in Notorious, too beautiful to imagine touching even as their social class was implied to be dubious; Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins’ unmistakable elegance made the film sensual and strikingly mature. Despite casting Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in his two lead roles, Sturges goes for something considerably earthier, and comes away with a good quintessence of his untidy worldview — of people as basically good, funny, warm-hearted, and klutzy. Of course there is a cruel scheme at the center of The Lady Eve, with Fonda positioned as the clueless wide-eyed rich boy to be shamelessly ripped off by his new girlfriend Stanwyck, but after many convolutions love inevitably and joyously conquers all.
I have not yet seen The Palm Beach Story and do not consider Christmas in July, Sullivan’s Travels or Unfaithfully Yours to remotely belong in the screwball category, but Sturges crafted one additional mainstay of the genre before the war was out; unfortunately, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek seems to inherit only the obnoxious loudness and overdriven “wacky” scenarios of the classic screwball form to end up with a film too manic and kooky to make any sense, despite its expertly running afoul of the censorship codes of the day. Betty Hutton stars as a music store clerk who spends a wild night out with several army men, hits her head while drunk and wakes up married to an unknown party and pregnant to boot. She enlists nice-guy hanger-on Eddie Bracket to try and fake her way out of the situation with a quick marriage, but further complications arise. The film doesn’t totally lack charm, but the jokes date badly and the main performers are too annoying to offer the kind of charm that makes the best screwball so memorable and ripe for revisitation. Perhaps the genre is simply an older person’s game; it seems to lose a lot when centering around the lives of what are basically children, or rather, extremely young adults.
Howard Hawks was probably the king of screwball in the 1930s, directing the greatest film in the genre (Bringing Up Baby) and one of its several founding texts (Twentieth Century); in 1940, he offered another touchstone with the irresistible His Girl Friday, though yet again this is a film that in many ways cancels out any genre trapping. Yes, it’s a remarriage comedy filled with irreverence and bite, but it’s so fast and furious, so smartly performed, so socially progressive, and so strangely believable a chronicle of machinations and insanity in a newsroom (serving as a remake of The Front Page with a flipped gender) that reducing it to its adherence to screwball traditionalism does it a severe disservice. That said, it’s again an example of a film whose actors — Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell with Ralph Bellamy as third wheel — entirely set its tone and deliver the goods; it’s impossible to imagine the same movie with anyone else in the two lead roles.
Some years after the omnipresence of screwball dissipated a bit, Hawks delivered a semi-return to the field with the backward-looking comedy I Was a Male War Bride, a based-on-a-true-story trifle that feels a little older than it is. That’s not because it tracks backward to World War II for the source of its story; WWII films were everywhere in Hollywood in the late 1940s and would continue to be for decades. Rather, it has Cary Grant as a military husband (supposedly a Frenchman) contending with the red tape that comes about when he marries a female American soldier (Ann Sheridan); there is again a teasing, delightful sense of social progression, or at least a thumbing of Hawks’ nose at typical “mores” that comes from centering his film around an unapologetic career woman and even getting Grant to briefly cross-dress. However, Grant’s Odyssean journey of doing whatever he can to spend the night with his new bride, never quite succeeding, feels like a regression both for the director and for Grant, who could perform this part in his sleep and seems to be moving backward from the sophistication of his work nearly a decade earlier in Friday. The movie is fun in a laconic, unstructured way, but it thoroughly lacks the fire and fury that are central to screwball comedy; you get the sense that the characters in His Girl Friday would sneer if asked to report on the War Bride story for their paper.
Noir would continue properly for another decade, and then would retain its place in the culture seemingly permanently in the form of neo-noir and various derivations across multiple art forms. Screwball comedy, however, had its day and — apart from a select few quaint imitations in the years since — it seems to me that it mostly died off with the end of the war. Unfortunately, movies like Holiday and His Girl Friday probably remain even now about as sophisticated as mainstream Hollywood comedy will ever get.
INTERLUDE: MUSICALS & WESTERNS
Once again, Hollywood musicals are under-represented on this list during the middle of the period that easily stands as the peak of the form. This will ultimately be corrected, obviously, but for now we did view the two Vincente Minnelli-Arthur Freed musicals listed here and they have good reasons for floating to the top for this period. The Pirate was not a box office success and is only a particularly famous film among more dedicated film buffs and fans of the director and his then-wife Judy Garland, but it’s a witty, winning example of the high-budget musical comedy in its top form — matching Garland up with the irresistible Gene Kelly, whose physicality even in ridiculous “pirate” getup is always a joy to behold, and with songs by Cole Porter. (Not his best by any means, but Cole Porter songs nonetheless.)
Meet Me in St. Louis probably needs less of an introduction, though this year marked my first time seeing it, and I was taken by its wistful sweetness; also starring Garland along with child actor Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Leon Ames and others, it follows a year in the life of a charming, ordinary yet idiosyncratic family in the outskirts of the title city as they parade through day to day life in the run-up to the 1904 World’s Fair. Over time, the film attains an increasing but somehow indefinable melancholy that the performers are more than capable of rendering as something palpable, visible. And as for the songs, in addition to period-appropriate source music, Garland performs future standards “The Trolley Song” and “The Boy Next Door” but most importantly, the achingly sad “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Minnelli’s film walks right up to a well-earned world-weariness at the conclusion that he (or the studio) chooses not to fulfill; viewing the film now, it’s almost as if we’re meant to fill in the blanks beyond what’s obviously a too-pat finale.
The Hollywood western is also only sporadically found in this list of films, again with two major, genre-defining titles present but none of the rest of the massive numbers of integral features from the period included. (It could be for this reason that the forum later performed separate listing projects for westerns, musicals and noir.) While both Ford and Hawks have films elsewhere on the list in different genres, the western offering by each of them gets at the core of what made them such titanic artists of their time. My Darling Clementine is a languid and delicate take on the Earp narrative that openly resists the elemental quality of the American mythos it draws on; Henry Fonda figures as such a believably calm hero you can’t imagine that much changed when Ford shouted “action” or “cut.” As ever for Ford, the unspoken lays heavily on the actors, with emotional breadth hard to entirely detect until one later contemplates the film. Hawks’ western Red River couldn’t be more different from that experience: it’s an action-packed, exciting chronicle of a cattle run that spans decades and organically devises an epic battle of wills between its two leads — Montgomery Clift and John Wayne — whose stakes only seem to get higher until Hawks perversely and unceremoniously drops the whole matter in the final seconds for the sake of a gag. Growing up and being around my dad who loved westerns, I complained that they — like war movies, which are also mostly absent here and of which I still have a generally rather low opinion — were all the same thing with different dressing; it would never have occurred to me that two non-random but unrelated samplings like these could produce such incomparable responses. It’s almost tempting to wonder at whether “western” is a proper genre in the first place; whereas noir films are virtually all thrillers or crime stories, westerns can be romances or action films or historical dramas or tense suspense pieces. I suppose what’s important is what they share: the visual urgency and sense of cinematic space that make their world seem both impossibly distant, utterly infinite and strangely familiar.
PART FIVE: ITALIAN NEOREALISM
My relative ambivalence about film noir — to be clear: that the genre itself is limiting in a way it takes a great artist and a great deal of work to transcend — is basically new information to me. What’s more frustrating is that I’ve long been aware of similarly dispassionate feelings about Italian neorealism. You may be thinking at this point: does any fucking thing please Nathan? It’s like I don’t want movies to be cruelly heightened and overly “clever” in their treatment of human beings and yet I also don’t want a straight-ahead unadorned approach to real life. The truth is actually that I want both things: I like storytelling and I like humane realism, but I find cinematic movements that concentrate almost exclusively on one extreme typically to be unsatisfying (and not in the way that art should be unsatisfying), and the same goes for “theoretical” notions by those who abide ruthlessly to some across-the-board philosophy of criticism, which is why Ray Carney and John Simon’s ideas, for example, never really seemed to apply to what I got out of the movies I loved. All that said, neorealism is several tiers above what I’d consider the most extreme examples of “anti-cinematic” cinema, like John Cassavetes’s work and the Dogme 95 movement; the films do at least tend to be beautiful and poetic and brilliantly acted. In fact, one of the major contradictions that hurt a number of these films for me personally is that they actually strike me as more sentimental and condescending than a number of Hollywood pictures about day-to-day life.
The basic principle of neorealism is implied by its name; in the absence of a big, centralized, studio-based Italian national cinema, particularly upon the fall of Mussolini’s government (which overlaps with the production and release of Visconti’s Ossessione), directors seized control and began dedicating themselves to socially progressive films shot on real locations that tended to use amateur actors to tell stories of strife and poverty, usually pertaining to the daily problems of common life in postwar Italy. Ossessione is typically listed as the first film in the movement and, having been completed in 1943, it’s the only one to escape this last distinction; its grim story of adultery and murder is practically escapist fantasy compared to later neorealist works, though many key elements are already in place, like the direct and realistic performance style, the gritty but gorgeous documentary-like photography and the unmistakable sense of place, not to mention the specific attention paid to the problems and inner lives of the poor, who are presented in Visconti’s film in a manner free of belittling or superiority and without any apology or condemnation or audience-geared comfort to dilute the sense of desperation. But this was done without making such desperation the entirety of the film; acknowledging ups and downs of daily existence familiar to many working class cinema audiences, at least in Visconti’s case, the work gained a sense of gravity without turning into rubber-necking misery porn. (The question of whether working class cinema audiences particularly wanted to see their own lives projected is an entirely different subject.)
The best of the neorealist films screened in this particular project are, by considerable distance, those by Roberto Rossellini; in fact there is frankly little question of his War Trilogy’s superiority over the Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica films seen here. (The other major director of the movement was Giuseppe De Santis, whose 1949 Bitter Rice I have not yet seen; Federico Fellini’s early films like I Vitelloni and La Strada owe a great deal to neorealism and will be a part of the 1950s chapter of this history.) Rome, Open City is really the founding treatise of neorealism, a shockingly brutal portrait of the country under occupation covering ruthless German pursuit of a Resistance leader; it feels as if it owes something to Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, equally harrowing and uncompromised. The next film in the trilogy, Paisan, is an anthology of wartime tragedies about cultural distance within and among the war’s fighters, civilians and enemies that vary greatly in style and artistic value but are, at their best, nuanced, troubling and deeply insightful. The most striking of the three films, however, is alone among major neorealist films in that it does not take place in Italy but rather in ravaged, hungry Berlin just after the end of the war. It concerns a twelve year-old’s grifting, scrounging, endurance of abuse and dodging of threats to try and thanklessly provide for his family whose adults are next to helpless. Watching the film one can almost be lulled by the deceptively slow-paced, undistinguished days in the life even as the threat of starvation and disaster forever looms; because of this, when the film nonchalantly turns everything on its head and demonstrates the absolute impossible scale of loss and horror it’s depicting, the impact is severe enough to manifest physically in the viewer — and to induce nightmares.
There is nothing so affecting and powerful in the De Sica and Visconti titles; the latter’s work shuns the entire idea of anything it shows us being “powerful,” which is an understandable line to draw. La Terra Trema, about impoverished Sicilian fishermen and their families trying to fight City Hall and suffering incalculably as a result, is such an uncompromising slice of bottom-feeding miserablism that, however justified it is in its political messaging, watching it is an endurance test; and the film’s prettied-up cinematography calls up questions about its ethical value — yet simultaneously, there’s just no mistaking Visconti’s seriousness about the subject and his resourceful brilliance at presenting it. Perhaps there is no way to chronicle this world without creating a work of virtually artless despair, but in comparison with Germany, Year Zero, Visconti seems content to depict people in conditions of hardship without actually saying anything recognizably substantive or even just compassionate about them or their situation. It’s somehow the opposite of Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, so freewheeling and loud in its didactic speechifying, but has the same effect of odd, unmoved insincerity. The length is no help; Rossellini’s economy and shirking of repetition made his War Trilogy films a triumph that would be impossible with Visconti’s cruelly protracted pace.
Vittorio De Sica’s internationally celebrated Bicycle Thieves (formerly mistranslated as The Bicycle Thief, nonetheless a better title) aligns with Ford more than it does with either Rossellini or Visconti. Along with his later (and superior) Umberto D., it represents the entirety of neorealism in the minds of many film students and casual cinephiles, perhaps because it feels so much more like a Hollywood picture than the works of De Sica’s peers. It also imposes a kind of neat if smarmy irony that those films lack, by kicking off the bulk of its narrative with the stealing of a bicycle belonging to a desperate working-class family man who badly needs it in order to work (as a sign poster) and make ends meet, and ends with his only recourse finally being to resort to theft himself — but of course he is caught and must now contend with the shame in front of his son, who has been at his side throughout this catastrophic day. That boomerang-like narrative trick calls back to Mervyn LeRoy’s Hollywood classic I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (“I steal!” its once-innocent and falsely accused hero answers when asked how he survives after escaping prison) but this analogy points up the shortcomings of De Sica’s film all too clearly: Paul Muni’s James Allen was a flesh-and-blood creation, not a pawn in someone’s tearjerking polemic. The finale hinges upon a kind accuser relenting after looking into the innocent face of the small boy, a sentimental enough construct to have made it into an MGM weepie like King Vidor’s The Champ, though the masterpiece that the film seems to want to evoke is Vidor’s untouchable The Crowd. Once again, in the supposedly artificial Hollywood imagining of a scenario like this, the catharsis that comes about works because the characters have become so well-known and deeply familiar to us. Bicycle Thieves never grants that luxury because it seems its goal is less to tell a story than to gain credibility from its pure presentation of awfulness, of humans at the brink of destruction.
It doesn’t even need to be pointed out that mine is a minority viewpoint. Not many films in the annals of history are more universally beloved than Bicycle Thieves; at least one friend, for all intents and purposes, stopped talking to me after he found out I was less than wholly enamored of it, and I can’t particularly fault his response because I kind of admire anyone who cares that much about any movie. What’s strange is that Bicycle Thieves seems to run at exact cross-purposes with the stated intention of neorealism, as does the equally sugary and sob-inducing Umberto D.; not only is it built on emotional flourishes and dramatic irony in a way that seems deeply manipulative and almost O. Henry-like, the narrative shortcuts in terms of story and character taken by its screenplay are considerable, excused by many perhaps because of the many tangents in the film like one about a fortune-teller — perhaps not coincidentally, the point at which I lose all sympathy for the protagonist. Please believe me when I say that I don’t particularly want to be this way, and I hope my waxing poetic about the emotional resonance of films like The Crowd and even Germany, Year Zero demonstrates that I’m not, as my friend accused, heartless. In my essay about the film I wrote: “In the running time of the movie, [the hero] tries to benefit his situation by drinking away his problems, eating away his problems, visiting a psychic, hitting his child, picking fights with street hooligans, and stealing. If the film’s point is that people in rough situations are more vulnerable than others, it’s right, but the drama that results might be more believable if we could find any way to understand a character who’s incredibly inconsistent despite holding our sympathies, perhaps because he is mostly there to illustrate a point and not to live and breathe as a person.” Maybe that gets at the core of the problem with not only this movie, but with neorealism: these are illustrations, not stories.
Like so many sweeping and revolutionary film movements, Italian neorealism as a coherent philosophy and consistent style disappeared less than a decade after it began, living on for a time in the works of more eclectic Italian directors like Fellini, but more intriguingly in the works of film artists overseas. A number of the films deeply influenced by the neorealists are stronger than any of the actual examples of the style sampled in this project. Kenji Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night, of which more in a moment, was inspired by neorealism; and in the following decade, Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy was inspired by the perspective and directness of movies like Bicycle Thieves but wiped away every trace of sentimentality and left us with something incisive, emotive and transcendent. America was another story. Cinema in Hollywood had changed drastically since the likes of Vidor and Josef von Sternberg had made their great realistic masterpieces of silent film — the vast changes in communication by movies are visible in just those directors’ own work. It’s therefore not surprising that the neorealism aesthetic, which for all its faults produced routinely interesting films, would face dilution when tackled in the United States.
Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story and Jean Renoir’s The Southerner are not “studio films” in any classic sense. They may also not really be neorealist-influenced films, both being revised versions of ideas Flaherty and Renoir had essentially been exploring for much of their respective careers; but it’s an intriguing coincidence that they came about the notion of investigating working class daily lives in such detail simultaneously with Visconti and the others. Both were small films, works of independent producers but with large-scale associations: Flaherty’s film was produced as a promotional tool for Standard Oil, and Renoir’s was distributed by United Artists. Both works are even more flawed than their neorealist counterparts. Renoir’s simply feels insubstantial, overflowing with his usual endearing humanism and beautiful cinematography but clearly beholden to American censorship and pressure despite moment-to-moment riches. By contrast, the high reputation of Flaherty’s film is outright bewildering; despite being positioned as a “docufiction” like his earlier works (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran) and despite its many sequences of natural if barely audible dialogue among the Cajun family at its center, the film makes no attempt to present any look at the hardship of poor people living in the Louisiana bayou. In fact, the decision by the elderly patriarch to allow oil drilling on his property is presented not as a tragedy but just as a big white smile of a great adventure for the boy in the film, who has a great time cutting up with the impossibly friendly Standard employees, hanging out with his pet raccoon and fighting gators and such. Nicely shot or no, it’s an appalling film, and say this for the neorealists: they never had a fucking corporate sponsor.
PART SIX: POSTWAR AMERICA & THE IDEAL OF WARMTH
If neorealism’s inadequacy as an expression of universal human experience is not improved by American films’ attempts to access truth by many of the same methods, why is it that occasionally, even as late as this and with studios and egos and commercial motives and Hays office censorship in full swing, the machinations of Hollywood produce something capable of the radical shock of uncovering ourselves, meaning those of us in the audience, and accessing our deepest yearnings and feelings? It is not a question of capturing American life; Meet Me in St. Louis, while a beautiful and expressive film, is distinctly American, its great truths only really applicable to everyone in the sense that we all may occasionally be nostalgic for a childhood safety that was mostly imagined. I’m speaking of a certain breed of film that, without pandering or fakery or false sentimentality, seems to transfer human emotion directly to the screen, specifically the emotions attendant to love and family ties and long-term relationships. Any number of seemingly innocuous pre-Code films like Henry King’s 1933 Fox production State Fair and Frank Borzage’s astonishing Bad Girl seemed almost incidentally to brush up against this level of unexpected grace, perhaps because the Code had not yet ordained repression and innuendo as the essence of the adult relationship, fucking up generations’ worth of ideas about sexuality. Perhaps the film that most readily comes to mind when I think of this phenomenon, though, dates from a few years later: William Wyler’s Dodsworth, a film so deeply empathetic toward its lead character (and really, at least two of its side characters as well) that it completely forgets to transfer the acerbic satire of Sinclair Lewis’ novel to the screen, instead turning into a heartbreaking portrait of a crumbling marriage and a man trying as hard as he can to be the mature party despite the fact that his wife has already clearly left him behind emotionally.
This is a film of infinitely complex adult problems that are not meaningfully tied to its time or home base at all; Dodsworth’s wealth, while it allows for a few story contrivances to feel more convenient and therefore organic, is completely irrelevant to the inner reality of his story, and I would argue that this is also true of his race, age, gender, etc. I can tell you that when I first saw the film I started wanting to cry after twenty minutes and couldn’t explain why. I was not prepared for the fact that my own thoughts and emotions of that phase in my life were going to be launched back to me with devastating accuracy by a movie that was already nearly half a century old when I was born. I was shaken, gratefully, and I suppose I don’t have to explain that moments like that are the reason you are reading this blog.
In the 1950s, the repression would increase even as certain directors became more daring; this was largely a result of McCarthyism and the sensation that not only the Hays office but the government — already testy with the film business over the monopoly issue broken a few years prior — had its sharp eye on any suggestion of subversion or lust beaming into the national cinemas. The best films would become larger than life, more melodramatic, more untouchable in a sense; and while Singin’ in the Rain is as likely as Dodsworth to make you reevaluate your life and question everything, it’s for wholly different reasons, its heightened reality daring to take camaraderie and joy as a given. In the same way, the gut-punch of Vertigo is horrific and debilitating explicitly because it’s an elaboration on human impulses and fears writ large, impossibly large. Even All About Eve, perhaps the best film of the decade about normal people, isn’t really about normal people but rather how normal people adapt to the fickle treachery of show business.
Therefore, in Hollywood, the ’40s are the final resting place of many of these heartfelt low-concept moments of characters behaving as you or I would in situations you or I might even face, and with the resulting firestorm of complications and thoughts readable on various actors’ faces not a Xeroxed version of easily imitated outpourings and pseudo-soulful dark nights (think the end of Home Alone, when an hour and a half of violence and insults culminates abruptly in arbitrary, meaningless cuddliness) but a genuine, painfully extracted expression of emotion itself. Do not misunderstand: it can occur anywhere in cinema — I find it in Disney’s Dumbo, shamefully not listed here — but what I find interesting is that the three most unpretentiously, reliably heartfelt Hollywood movies of the decade all date from the same year.
In poor health by the early 1940s, Ernst Lubitsch did not go overseas to the war. Frank Capra and William Wyler did. Set pointedly (like Brief Encounter) in the late 1930s before the breakout, Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown was his last completed film; like most of his signature works, it’s a comedy, but it bears little resemblance to the likes of The Smiling Lieutenant and To Be or Not to Be. Its central operator is a working class cleaning lady (Jennifer Jones as the title character) working for a stuffy family that values her only insofar as she functions as “the help.” The story centers on various attempts to restrain Cluny from her irrepressible spirit and to convince her to become “proper,” the pressure for which comes from all directions including the fellow staff of the house. The situations are effortlessly funny in the usual Lubitsch manner, but there is a surprising undercurrent of true upheaval — on top of its serving as a sort of anti-Pygmalion, the film’s resentment of class division borders on radical in comparison to most Hollywood films of the time, like a very soft variant on Ruggles of Red Gap or Boudu Saved from Drowning, but with the more affecting overall decency of Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange. As much as you may laugh throughout the film, what sticks is the warmth of it all, the way the film seems to pine for Cluny to be herself and to find happiness without casting her as any sort of clichéd oddball or proto-MPDG. She seems like a friend you might have, whose life you wish you could change; or maybe she seems like you at a moment when you hated your job and had no place to go. To have the camera thus turned on us by a giant like Lubitsch is a powerful bit of disarming nakedness; and there is a certain kind of viewer that, when Cluny is told she can do all the plumbing she wants, will be unable to avoid tearing up.
The stand-in for Lubitsch’s magic in Frank Capra’s first postwar film is actual magic: angels, Heaven, an entire alternate reality. Yet It’s a Wonderful Life, about a banker contemplating suicide after facing financial ruin, arguably sentimentalizes day-to-day life less than almost any Hollywood movie that’s achieved its degree of lasting fame; even Casablanca has a certain nostalgic vagueness and romance to its conception of hanging out at Rick’s. Life is harsher and more despairing than almost any film noir of the same period, chiefly because it is very evidently not an escapist dime-novel story about gangsters, hoodlums and dames but a chronicle of just how truly empty life can seem when confronted with loss, tragedy and disappointment; it is uncompromising in its treatment of adulthood as a potential wasteland.
Moreover, it feels like a direct cry from someone’s soul in response to the mounting despair and fury of a generation that had faced financial collapse followed by total war in the space of fifteen years. When James Stewart breaks down crying at a bar, he cries for the entirety of a planet, for the dead and living, and for now-impossible longings for inner peace, for a world of no corpses and hauntings. Capra and Stewart agreed the film was a catharsis after their experiences in the war, which makes the film’s ubiquity as Christmas comfort food over the seventy-five years since its release seem particularly ironic until you consider that our comfort with this film is tied directly to its understanding of our plight: our continued plight, not just that of our grand- or great grandparents. What makes the film exceptionally powerful is its humane comprehension of the ecstasies and trappings of memory: how an entire life can be summed up only to have its essence missed; or how the grandest memories, so often, are the smallest. It’s less goopy and indistinct than that, though, piling its observations on with detail and various traces of warmth and love that feel quick and fleeting enough to be traces of remembered reality, yet cold comfort in a time of distress. As an act of empathy with — rather than therapy for — those suffering from depression or trauma, the film is remarkably ahead of its time.
Yet no film of the 1940s captures both the haunted spirit of the postwar period and the general, impossibly unpredictable mixture of pleasure and pain that marks and taunts everyday life like William Wyler’s reaction to the end of the war, the heartbreaking, steadfastly unsentimental but, eventually, soaring The Best Years of Our Lives, a movie powerful enough to remove all boundaries of death and life, then and now, fiction and non, for there’s simply no way not to believe that its characters are still out there somewhere, fumbling around trying to figure themselves out. I spoke earlier of my reaction to the master humanist Wyler’s Dodsworth; Billy Wilder made nearly the same observation about The Best Years of Our Lives, that the crying started in a matter of minutes and continued for three hours. Audiences knew at the time that the film evoked a generation’s feelings with astonishing grace and wisdom; they could not know how the film would resonate forever in its treatment of the way families and friends connect, disconnect, align and fall apart — and the way that war stunts the growth of everyone who encounters it.
At the time, however, the chord the film struck with audiences — it was the greatest U.S. box office success since Gone with the Wind — was explicitly because of its directness and lack of artificial sugarcoating of complicated issues. Ostensibly narrating the reentry into civilian life by three American veterans but functioning as the story of an entire civilization bouncing back from unimaginable trauma, it was precisely the balm that was needed for the collective sigh and ache after World War II, yet the comfort it provides is not of the superficial variety offered by the greeting-card cinema of post-9/11 America, or even the polemics of the Vietnam years, but rather just the calm, therapeutic act of bearing witness to the everyday problems of regular people who are clearly flawed and clearly trying. The drama contained in any of the film’s three interconnected stories would be more than enough fuel for a lesser picture: Dana Andrews’ sad, empty marriage; Fredric March’s budding alcoholism and concerns toward his daughter’s attraction to Andrews; and most famously, Harold Russell as a spirited young petty officer who begins to break down after he comes home to find his family and girlfriend treating him differently as a result of the loss of both his hands in the service. Instead we get everything, though the plight that Russell, an amateur actor, brings to the film is almost beyond words in its depth and achingly moving essence, culminating in one of the most tender love scenes ever captured on film, when he confesses his insecurities to his wife-to-be (Cathy O’Donnell, impeccably cast) and she, for the first time, helps him undress.
It may come across as a kind of protracted schaudenfraude to celebrate an American film about the war’s aftermath at the expense of the more harrowing ones made in the countries whose infrastructures and civilians suffered a great deal more; yet my honest feeling is that The Best Years of Our Lives could have come from anywhere that happened to spring forth brilliant figures like Wyler, his cinematographer Gregg Toland (the greatest black & white cameraman of all, and the deep focus master of Citizen Kane) and his flawless cast. Hollywood itself was not uniquely positioned to produce such a film, or else it presumably would have made many more of them; indeed, it’s not strictly a studio film anyway, being the work of independent producer Samuel Goldwyn and distributed by UA. Wyler later said that the film’s nonchalantly anti-fascist (there’s actually a Neo Nazi-punching scene; amazing how little changes in seventy years), humanist stance would have become impossible just a few years later with the advent of the Second Red Scare and its suspicious toward any mild gestures toward any ideal of common goodwill among people. It’s seldom acknowledged, and the conservative Frank Capra certainly wouldn’t have done so, but It’s a Wonderful Life could not have existed in the ’50s either. The American studio system wasn’t built to sustain such wounded, open-hearted examinations of the everyday.
But what does set these films apart from the neorealist pictures is that they depict their characters not as faces of an infinite collective, but as individual and disparate figures, which actually causes them to become far more moving and haunting than the invective coming out of Europe, however powerful and justified it was. They are shots of life as something that, at its best, simply goes on, hideously and beautifully. Best Years in particular is astounding because of its total absence of laziness in its treatment of its characters or their relationships; there are no blanks left unfilled to explicitly argue that what we are seeing could be anywhere, anytime, because we all know that just by watching and listening. The more specific the film is, the more cognizant it seems of the vast expanse and diversity of those watching. It is the rare sort of film that I’m convinced could rescue a person. As with Dodsworth, my fondest wish is that Hollywood had made far more like it.
PART SEVEN: POSTWAR EUROPE & ASIA
National cinemas on the continents directly involved in World War II from its inception began to rebuild themselves at the middle of the decade. We’ve already discussed Italy, which produced the most significant film movement of the time and probably the most influential works of the era. Other formerly occupied, or formerly Axis, nations exhibited a similar feeling of hung-over trauma and terror, with the exception of France which bounced back to a discernible identity and a high quality of output with surprising speed. Britain isn’t heavily represented on this list, and with the seminal works of the Ealing studio criminally absent, most of the British pictures here from the final half of the decade are works of the same directorial team, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose masterpiece Black Narcissus and wildly imaginative The Red Shoes will be under the microscope shortly.
Prior to those films, however, the team made a film that seems to exist wholly out of time, in direct contrast to their Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death (which, if anything, belongs in some sort of grouping with The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life, combining the two films’ sensibilities and subjects in a fashion). Wendy Hiller stars in I Know Where I’m Going! as a headstrong woman who’s forced to pause on the way to a practically arranged marriage to an aged industrial magnate, where she becomes intoxicated with life on the Isle of Mull. At bottom, it’s just another version of the love story we have seen hundreds of times in any number of contexts: she’s persuaded away from a wealthy life with a powerful figure long past his days of glory in favor of a fun, scrappy, youthful human being who causes her to rediscover parts of herself long suppressed. Yet the Archers, as Powell & Pressburger called themselves, are masters of persuasion, and thus able to present this as a unique moment in emotional time, something that never happened before and could never happen again, and in crafting a film that’s as much about a place as it is about people, whose narrative hinges entirely on the effect one’s surroundings can have on their wants, needs, psyche, they set the table brilliantly for Black Narcissus. Yet I Know Where I’m Going!, full of creative restlessness and clever cinematic trickery that calls Orson Welles to mind, is a singular achievement in itself, a valentine to the lovely and forbidden transformations that comprise pivotal moments in life — and even today, it seems to surround you. This and Letter from an Unknown Woman (below) affected me the way Brief Encounter seems to affect others.
The Soviet Union is equally underreported on here, after being a mainstay of the two previous lists. It’s slightly unfair to try and judge the two parts of Sergei Eisenstein’s propaganda classic Ivan the Terrible separately; it’s never easy with this kind of film to understand either the director’s true intentions — since the covert rebelliousness and dry humor seems to run radically against the narrative thesis of nationalistic fervor — or the response a modern audience should or even can have to such material. It’s so over the top it starts to run toward camp, more so than Eisenstein’s silent works or even Alexander Nevsky, which makes the complete descent into depravity in the second part all the more satisfying.
Sweden was neutral in the war, but it was also a well-known refuge for Jews and crusaders against fascism during the midst of German tyranny. Sweden disappears from this version of film history following Victor Sjöström’s departure for Hollywood in the 1920s, where he made He Who Gets Slapped and The Wind; but the rise of one of Sjöström’s great acolytes, Ingmar Bergman, begins in the late ’40s with his first “major” film, the appropriately dour Prison, which shows off a more directly angsty mood than even the wartorn Italian pictures while also demonstrating an obvious affluence — centering on the love lives of urban bohemians, plus much philosophical chitchat — and thirst for life despite its horrific depictions of murder, suicide and specters of romantic misery. Bergman’s work is divisive even among devoted cinephiles, but to those attuned to his particular impressions of interpersonal relationships and tragic private lives, there’s something curiously irresistible about his endlessly tortured characters and stories. You have to give a nod to anyone who’s not only willing to live inside of his emotions and sprawl it out for the public to see, but also able technically and logistically to do so with such competence and enthusiasm.
Post-occupation France sees the flourishing of several artists who’d prove deeply influential and important in the decades to follow. 1949 brings the whimsical Jacques Tati’s first feature Jour de Fête, a cleverly mounted comedy about a postman carting around a small town on his bicycle, getting into trouble and developing absurd ambitions after learning about how quickly the mail operates in America. It’s silly, sweet and buoyant. Robert Bresson’s second film, Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne, is none of those things and despite its historical renown and the cooperation of Jean Cocteau on the script, it’s one of the weakest films I viewed for this project, a joyless and dated bed-hopping melodrama taken from a Denis Diderot novellette and hinging on various Dangerous Liaisons-style conspiracies while taking no amusement from them whatsoever. Of Cocteau, however, we have much more to say: if you’ve seen any montage of the greatest moments in French cinema you are surely familiar with the closing shot of Beauty and the Beast, and what comes before that is easily the most sumptuous version of the fairy tale put on screen, and one of the finest of all live action fantasies, one that seems as gorgeously unreal and dreamlike as these stories do to us as children, rendered as monumental but tangible imagery by Cocteau using the same playful, surrealistic methods displayed in his other works like Blood of a Poet and, of course, Orpheus.
Technically a 1950 film and probably collected on this list only because of a vintage IMDB quirk, Orpheus is one of the best films I saw for the first time this year; and it’s as lively and enveloping as The Best Years of Our Lives for exactly the opposite reasons. An erudite, passionately artful and endlessly adventurous expression of the agony and ecstasy in the act of creation, it is as pure a work of technique as a Welles picture and as clearly a freshly bleeding part of the director’s own person as a Bergman picture. The excitement of its expressive vision of the titular legend — a poet swept into Hell itself, here via limousine — sees no logic to stopping to let us catch our breath from amazement; all of the beguiling moments force us to confront the idea of an alternate history in which special effects and high-level cinematic trickery were used for art films rather than blockbusters.
Lastly we come to the Axis, and thus to Japan; there are no German films on this list at all, and while many movies were made under the Nazi regime, virtually none have survived with any degree of repute apart from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries from the ’30s. The most famous directors of narrative films who continued working, at least for a time, under Hitler’s rule were probably Douglas Sirk, who fled for Hollywood by the late 1930s, and G.W. Pabst, who continued directing in Germany during the war. In Japan, however, the three masters (Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa) all kept going and in certain cases flourished (though all three ran up against the limitations imposed by government censorship). That specifically applies to Mizoguchi, who made his most famous film — The 47 Ronin, parts one and two — as wartime propaganda. Kurosawa actually began his directorial career in the war with The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail and by the end of the decade had advanced enough to create the masterful Stray Dog and to be on the verge of international breakthrough with Rashomon in 1950. Ozu was the most reluctant propagandist of the three, taking an Oskar Schindler-like approach to the movie he was assigned to make in Singapore; ironically, he’s said to have fallen in love with American cinema during this unproductive sojourn.
When the war ended, Mizoguchi and Ozu each doubled down on former fixations in their work, yet with a gravity and sadness clearly impacted by the earlier events of the decade. (Kurosawa was younger, newer, more of a hotshot, and moved toward more commercial, Western-influenced ideas.) Mizoguchi’s nod to an eighteenth century printmaker in Utamaro and His Five Women has the same yearning for and suspicions of the past as The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939); and his neorealism-inspired Women of the Night, a stunningly acted and directed treatise on the poverty and desperation suffered by two sisters in the time immediately following the war, carries forward cohesively from the cries against injustice toward women in his magnificent Sisters of the Gion (1936). Like the iconic European works of the late ’40s, Mizoguchi here presents the aftermath of WWII as the story’s backdrop; the death and pestilence of war hangs over the film like a fog. Perhaps needless to say, Ozu is somewhat more philosophical, less angry. Record of a Tenement Gentleman is a cautionary tale about casting attention on a nation of orphans in the wake of the intense losses they suffered, and an honest examination of how an adult’s basically understandable lack of selflessness leaves her oddly empty — a film with a clear-cut, even didactic moral compass despite plenty of humor related to the day-to-day behavior of children even in such squalor.
Ozu’s Late Spring, however, owes less to its time period, shooting for agelessness despite its cultural specificity, and is the most heartrending and — for all its stoic denial of catharsis — emotionally crushing of the later Japanese titles on the list. In a way, the film is about communication breakdowns just like Rossellini’s Paisan because it covers the mutual, unspoken pain between a father and daughter, each of whom fears telling the other their true feelings for fear of causing pain or disappointment. A woman named Nuriko, played by Setsuko Hara, tends to and dotes on her widower father, whose only child she is, and balks at his insistence that she find a husband and start her own life. She does not want to leave; and deep down, he does not want her to, but leave she does, at his insistence. It’s really about sacrifice, and the weight of the unstated in familial relations, which calls over to Ford and Wyler in America; and in all its sense of grief that can never be directly acknowledged or expressed, it also nods toward Ozu’s eventual signature film, Tokyo Story. Yet there is breathtaking joy to be found here, however muted it is: when Noriko first appears onscreen in her traditional wedding costume, the effect is overwhelming, the familiarity we feel with the bruising permanence of this specific moment is as striking as the closing wedding of The Best Years of Our Lives. It is a gift, in its fashion, for anyone who ever laid down half their life for their family — a moment to shine for those most reluctant to shine.
PART EIGHT: SOME TALK ABOUT COLOR
In a review of Blackmail for this blog I said “The advent of sound pictures in the late 1920s was the first sudden and complete transformation of the film industry, and thus far the last.” This was not at all an original observation. In fact I think I stole it from somewhere. But it remains a grave truth. And somewhere in the list of false revolutions with 3D, widescreen Cinemascope, “interactivity” and IMAX is three-strip Technicolor. Some have survived. None changed the fabric of cinematic storytelling. Two-strip films had existed since long before silent cinema ended (see The Toll of the Sea for an early example); other primitive forms of color and tinting preceded that. Color as we know it begins with 1935’s Becky Sharp (directed by Rouben Mamoulian for RKO), and remained a touchstone of high-budget, top-prestige films such as MGM-Selznick’s Gone with the Wind until the 1950s, with color remaining outside the norm but not necessarily an automatic marker of class (see Leave Her to Heaven) throughout the ’40s.
In an example of one of those eccentric opinions that makes me sound like an insufferable curmudgeon, I don’t think color photography has been especially good for film. I don’t have a problem with it exactly, but I find it hard to take seriously the idea that films in the last several decades are as aesthetically beautiful, on average, as those shot on black & white film stock were nearly by default. Part of this is simply timing; most of the career cinematographers of the era had essentially invented the form, and despite the hoards of gifted artists in the field since then, there’s little hope of another perfect storm to bring us a Gregg Toland or a Karl Freund for our own day. Additionally, however, it seems to me that black & white demands something extra from the audience that color rarely does: a direct submission to unreality. This is why it’s so fascinating that so many of the films viewed as most realistic (The Battle of Algiers, for example) deliberately eschew color as a means of revisiting a certain gritty mobility that feels more immediate than color, for whatever reason, ever can. We see everything in color all through the day, and there is nothing a color film can teach or manipulate us to view differently; and manipulation, while a loaded term, is another factor. Brian Wilson was one of several pop producers of the ’60s, when mono and stereo sound coexisted, who preferred the less HiFi-friendly mono methodology because it left the producer and artist with full control of what their audience heard, and how they heard it regardless of speaker placement or setting. In a similar sense, the black & white film can craft its own vision of the world from top to bottom and can reconfigure reality for the observer, can make a real setting look like something entirely different, in a way that color cinematography generally cannot. (Keep in mind that I would not apply this necessarily to films that transfer the viewer to otherworldly settings in separate fashions; Snow White, Vertigo and 2001: A Space Odyssey are three excellent examples of movies that could only exist in color. I mean only to speak to the general quality of photography, and the participatory factor of film viewing, as a wedge between the two mediums.)
That being said, color is like any other tool: the master director can make resourceful, exciting use of it that others cannot. Technicolor is not the first element that comes to mind when one describes or thinks of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, his first color film, but even if it’s clearly less beautiful and striking than The Paradine Case or Notorious or Spellbound, it contributes to the feeling that we have no escape available from the claustrophic drama playing out before us, a startling dramatization of the Leopold & Loeb murder case depicted in real time and with almost no cuts. This incredible example of experimental cinema hitting the mainstream is also fascinating for its then-shockingly frank treatment of homosexuality, centering around two murderers (Farley Granger and John Dall, the latter so different here than in his equally iconic part in Gun Crazy) who are clearly implied to be a queer couple, and a professor (James Stewart) with a shady past and what looks implicitly like an understanding of some covert second life shared with his former charges. Rope turned out to be the rare box office failure that eventually became an overwhelmingly popular film, celebrated today as one of Hitchcock’s masterworks; I wouldn’t go that far, but it is an extraordinary example of the Master’s endlessly inspiring restlessness.
A stronger example of how color could be used as a tool to explicitly drive a film’s narrative is Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, the loveliest-looking color film (shot by the great Jack Cardiff) since The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Based on Rumer Godden’s stark but sumptuous novel about nuns setting up a mission in India where they find themselves increasingly thrown into disarray by the pace and openness of the world they encounter (“I look out there, then I can’t see the potato I’m planting”), the film is another that rides almost entirely on the unstated, and in the case of the nuns, that which cannot be stated — so much so that, with each enraptured viewing, new secrets emerge. Flashback sequences in the film, wherein Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh, who abruptly moved toward a life of religion after the unexpected end to a presumptive engagement, finds herself remembering and longing for the presence of her former lover, capture an urgent, indistinct longing of almost sexual force that even Godden’s novel cannot entirely convey, at least not in the haunting manner achieved here by the directors; that’s because they capture something — the attack of memory on the present, in all of its agonizing haziness and proximity — that no words can express, that only a visual medium can even attempt to show. Reading the novel, you can be intrigued and can even idly apply your own life to Clodagh’s plight. But watching the film, you actively become Clodagh, and feel the pull of the past on your lips, in your body.
But how does Black Narcissus posit that color is as necessary to its narrative as celluloid itself? After all, the Archers flawlessly and confidently projected similar nonverbal yearnings in I Know Where I’m Going! two years earlier. And to shift slightly forward in time, India’s own Satyajit Ray would display the unique character of his country on location and in black and white in Pather Panchali with no feeling of inefficiency compared with the British film’s studio-based Technicolor photography. Rather, I think that what matters in Black Narcissus is that Powell & Pressburger have elected to use the color process as a mirror of the progression in the characters themselves, a progression that clearly shakes them but isn’t necessarily a pleasure to them. An early convent scene that establishes the nuns’ individual identities before charting the move to the Himalayas is shown to us in drastically staid grays and whites that aren’t readily apparent as limited or dim except in the sense that, well, this clearly isn’t The Sound of Music. But when the mountainside nunnery is established and the wind and the world begin to blow their way in, the colors seem to burst out in loving, lively fullness and only more so as the film progresses — to the point that eventually, as the story descends into an unexpectedly vivid psychological netherworld of actual horror, they become threatening: popping with the red of blood and lipstick. (A similar descent into madness rendered by color comes in the second half of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, but in that case it is so extreme it becomes an act of surrealism, not of terrifyingly closely read truth.) And as resignation and departure come, and the sense of unstated and unresolved things swells in one’s heart, the colors only continue their inevitable routine: in one of the final shots, when the rains finally come, the directors focus on droplets falling upon large leaves as a party of nuns trudges by in the unfocused background, every element of the picture distinct from the other, every detail oddly stunning. And this goes back to Wyler again: life going on when we want it to, life going on when we do not, life going on when we aren’t at all sure. Godden meant her story as one about colonialism and its necessary end; in Powell & Pressburger’s hands (to her disdain, apparently) it became one about an awakening spirit that, despite attempts to put it back in its bottle, could never possibly be contained.
The Archers would have their own struggle with this kind of impulsive daring in their next film, The Red Shoes; as far as Cardiff is concerned, the picture is a tour de force. Chronicling the performance of a ballet lifted from Hans Christian Andersen’s story that slowly takes over the life of protagonist Moira Shearer, it embodies its own narrative genie that cannot be bottled. The directors maintain tension well up to the midpoint, when they must show us the ballet itself; and at that point, all hell breaks loose. The ballet sequence in The Red Shoes is one of the greatest scenes in cinema; perhaps if Welles’ cut of The Lady from Shanghai existed, the climax of that film could be a match for it, but otherwise it’s also the finest moment of any film on this list. Its display of innovation and spirit of unfettered creativity is all but impossible to describe, but maybe it’s enough to simply say that the movie chooses not to straightforwardly present a performance of a ballet but to embody, again with Technicolor and also with production design (in the manner of German Expressionism) and film editing, the inner feelings of the character performing that ballet as she finds herself wholly subsumed in the moment. That very statement, as direct as anyone has managed, of the ability of anyone to be totally lost in a work of art is transcendent and profound in a way that the simplistic ironies of the remainder of the film cannot hope to match; in fact, they struggle even to maintain interest. It’s as if God and the cosmos and whatever else have been touched for a twenty-minute stretch, and once that has happened it is quite difficult to care about much else, at least for a while (a refractory period, perhaps). It’s akin to watching an episode of Star Trek after going and seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in IMAX.
In this manner, color has worked against the directors, but Powell & Pressburger were among the very few who understood color’s power within the framework of cinematic language, much as few (Buñuel and Hitchcock and almost no one else) understood the potential of sound until it was too late to reform the technique in their favor. Color would wreck many films. It helps many others. But not many use it to render worlds as vivid and complex as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, and the power of both, especially the latter, to forever alter one’s dreams speaks for itself.
PART NINE / FINALE: POSTWAR AMERICA – ROMANCE, BLACK COMEDY & INTENSE DESPAIR
On May 3, 1948, the United States Supreme Court declared in an antitrust case against Paramount that it was unlawful for movie studios to own their own theaters and to thereby control their own distribution from top to bottom. Everything was thrown into upheaval; it was the beginning of the end of the studio system, which would linger on in name only for another decade before becoming a distant memory. The entire functionality of Hollywood was changed. This in combination with the McCarthy era’s Blacklist and the advent of television produced an era of cynicism, pandering, gimmickry, fragmentation, and big dumb moneymakers — which had always existed, but would soon dominate on a grand scale.
U.S. vs. Paramount probably has nothing to do with the prevailing tone of the Hollywood films on this list from the late ’40s, but there is an odd consistency to the way that comedies abruptly seem to become more acerbic (the wide-eyed romancing of Cluny Brown and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek quickly dissipated), and even conventional non-noir dramas more world-weary and sardonic. The latter was exemplified by two consecutive Best Picture winners that pulled the rug out from under any notion of old MGM-style syrup: Columbia’s All the King’s Men (1949 but not on this list, directed by Robert Rossen) and Fox’s All About Eve (1950, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz). We were only three years removed from the Checkhovian directness of The Best Years of Our Lives, five from the golly-gee-whiz stupidity of the religious Bing Crosby vehicle Going My Way, six and seven from the deeply sincere wartime morale boosters Mrs. Miniver and Casablanca. But now, authority — show business authority as well as political authority — was to be questioned. Audiences rather than shareholders were to be pleased, and audiences were savvier now.
Once again, Alfred Hitchcock seemed to be the director most on top of the game, even though the late ’40s were his least successful period commercially: he had long since angled toward films that were designed to make their audiences feel intelligent and exhilarated while simultaneously staying a step ahead of them. His work wasn’t exactly “cynical,” but one quick look at Rebecca compared to the two adjacent Best Picture winners — Gone with the Wind and How Green Was My Valley — reveals how cunning he already was about nudging his audience into a realization and acceptance of harsh, difficult truth that had the ring of hard-won authority. Yes, Rebecca will be vanquished from Manderley, but Manderley itself will then be destroyed. Yes, there is a union of a new couple, but the vague air of gruff incompleteness in Laurence Olivier’s face and voice has meaning, and the vague fears you hold about him are destined to be confirmed and then confronted. This is audience-friendly cynicism, not pandering cynicism — movies like Rebecca, All About Eve and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. cater to the smart viewer because they know their audiences are smart, but they also know their audience knows they’re smart. This pattern reappears even today, in movies that require a reasonable knowledge of how most movies “work” in order to assert their uniqueness.
That’s why Max Ophüls’ beautiful and fluid Letter from an Unknown Woman, a truly enveloping romance of continually unrequited affection held by Joan Fontaine toward a childhood crush, telegraphs the futility of its entire narrative at the outset, by informing us before anything else happens that its heroine is already dead. That’s why we thrill at watching Humphrey Bogart systematically dismantle his nonchalant-good-guy persona in John Huston’s brutal Treasure of the Sierra Madre, about a fated pursuit of gold by three clueless drifters, and why in the same film a letter from a man’s wife is read out loud moments after we watch him killed, Huston twisting the knife of the soul-destroying nature of violence here as effectively as he did when chronicling the actual fight for the Italian peninsula. That’s why the reliably humane, good-hearted Wyler ends his wonderfully wicked The Heiress with an endlessly put-upon spinster (Olivia de Havilland) smugly wandering further into stubborn solitude while her former suitor, Montgomery Clift, bangs desperately on a door that will never open.
And that is why Preston Sturges and Charlie Chaplin both lose their souls, or maybe just forego the temptation to pretend they have optimistic answers for the human race after the preceding decade; for both filmmakers, iconic architects of film comedy, the course of the decade is really the movement from loving generosity to oblique dread, a cycle somehow completed entirely via comedy by both. Sturges began the ’40s with Christmas in July, in which Dick Powell earnestly shoots for the winning prize in a contest that will finally let him marry his girlfriend and start a real life for himself; when the money comes his way, he knows of no response except utter generosity. When it’s taken from him, he knows only to move onward, oddly at peace with his false taste of success. It could be a cycle of arresting melancholy, sofa beds bought on credit being systematically repossessed and all that, some embodiment of Ezra Furman’s lyric “We can sit on my back steps and intertwine our fingertips while you talk about the nice things you once had.” Instead, each setback somehow seems a further expression of the indomitable human spirit in Sturges’ eyes.
But Sturges ends the decade with Unfaithfully Yours, a pitch-black and sadistic comedy in which an orchestra conductor begins to fantasize about the revenge he will take on a suspicion — merely a suspicion — that his wife has cheated on him. The conductor is portrayed by Rex Harrison, the human gaslight, whose smarmy treatment of everyone he encounters makes it difficult to believe he would be able to sustain a romantic relationship in the first place. His ego seeps out of everything. In one of his fantasies, he plays the “bigger man,” the old Casablanca specter, with full audience awareness of what a self-serving put-on it is. One, reliant on covert tape-recorder espionage, descends into slapstick with Sturges’ usual lack of delicacy on that front. But the film’s most famous scene sets his fantasy of joyously murdering his wife to the strains of the Rossini piece he is conducting. Sturges never bothers to show any redemptive qualities in the character, or to spend much time on the aftermath and resolution of all this. It just sort of sits there as an oddly vindictive portrait of baseless violence, and seems perversely gleeful in its status as such.
The more radical and troubling transformation is Chaplin’s, largely because his is much more understandable. (Neither career really recovered.) In 1940 he ended The Great Dictator by turning directly to his camera and begging his worldwide audience to resist division and fascism. It was seven years before his next film, Monsieur Verdoux which was met with a confused public that might very well have been more prepared for it a few years later. The Chaplins of the two pictures are wholly incompatible. Verdoux is an Ealing Studios-like narrative in which he portrays a pseudo-gentleman and actual family man who compensates for his long-term unemployment by seducing and killing aged women. The film’s poster promised “Hysterical LAUGHTER! Haunting ROMANCE! Shocking DRAMA!”; the actual movie offers none of the above, except perhaps “shocking drama,” whereby we get the full scope of the Verdoux character’s cruel methodology and glean suspense from our instinctive need to be in his corner even as he seems to be violently pushing us away. The movie constitutes nothing less than the active, aggressive deconstruction of the Chaplin persona, and his longtime audience’s attachment to said persona. We’re made entirely privy to Chaplin’s frustration with hypocrisy, first via the touching scenes he inserts in which Verdoux cavorts and plays with his loving wife and children in between his crimes, and then with the punchline of the film, which is not a joke but rather, virtually a rebuke to the entire world from the man who once was the most famous and beloved film artist in that world. He gives another speech, like in The Great Dictator, but this time, the statements come ostensibly from a character — a murderer on trial speaking for himself one last time — rather than the “good guy.” And yet, they still come unmistakably from Chaplin himself:
However remiss the prosecutor has been in complimenting me, he at least admits that I have brains. Thank you Monsieur, I have. And for thirty five years I used them honestly; after that, nobody wanted them. So I was forced to go into business for myself. As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces, and done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you all very soon. Very soon.
NOTES ON AVAILABILITY
During the course of this project, Filmstruck shut down, and it’s worth mentioning how much more difficult the whole thing would’ve been without that service, with a few films otherwise entirely elusive. Fortunately, Criterion — the co-operator of Filmstruck with Turner Classic Movies — has plans to unveil a new channel with their library, which will fill many of the gaps hopefully for good. Not to editorialize, but please subscribe to it when it comes.
Below I’ve listed the films that are, at this writing, unavailable to rent online in any of the standard places (Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Video/Youtube). Keep in mind that I primarily use local libraries, Netflix’s still invaluable DVD by mail service, and various streaming subscriptions to complete these projects, so be sure to check those sources as well. Also, my assessment of what films are available on DVD is very centered on Region 1; when I mention “other regions,” I’m talking about beyond the U.S. Sorry for the America-centric viewpoint!
– Day of Wrath was only viewable on Filmstruck; the Criterion DVD (in a boxed set with other Dreyer films) is out of print.
– Notorious was completely absent on the internet. Criterion is about to release a new edition. Spellbound, currently out of print, is likely to follow.
– Ivan the Terrible was only viewable on Filmstruck; the Criterion DVD (in a boxed set with other Eisenstein sound films) is out of print.
– I Know Where I’m Going!, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and Stray Dog were only viewable on Filmstruck; Criterion’s DVDs are in print.
– Meshes of the Afternoon is streamable on Vimeo. It’s also in print on DVD as part of a set of Maya Deren’s experimental films. I can’t speak to that disc’s quality.
– Letter from an Unknown Woman and Force of Evil are out in physical editions from Olive Films.
– To Be or Not to Be, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp Orpheus and The Great Dictator were only viewable on Filmstruck, but Criterion’s physical editions are in print.
– Fantasia was streaming on Netflix last time I checked but isn’t rentable anywhere and the DVD — as far as I can tell; the morass of different versions is very confusing — is out of print.
– The three Tex Avery cartoons are on various free video streaming sites, probably illegally. As far as I know, their most comprehensive physical release is in a collection of Avery’s post-WB work only sold overseas, which I don’t have although it’s been recommended by various review sites.
– The Reckless Moment and Cluny Brown are only available on DVD in other regions.
– The Best Years of Our Lives is purchasable via Vudu but you can’t rent it online.
– The DVD of Christmas in July is out of print. I saw the film through Netflix’s mail service.
– The three films in Rossellini’s war trilogy (Rome, Open City; Germany, Year Zero and Paisan) are in a physical set from Criterion; they were part of Filmstruck’s collection.
– Le Corbeau was only viewable on Filmstruck. Criterion’s DVD is out of print.
– Women of the Night was only viewable on Filmstruck and can be found in the fine Eclipse boxed set Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women.
– I only found Louisiana Story on Prime Video, in terrible quality. It seems to be public domain, so there may be other sources.
– Leave Her to Heaven is out of print except in a Fox Studio Classics boxed set — which is surprisingly cheap.
– The Record of a Tenement Gentleman was only viewable on Filmstruck and there seems to be no legitimate physical edition released to date. Same for Utamaro and His Five Women, though there is apparently a Mizoguchi boxed set in another region that includes it.
– The Heiress is in print on DVD from Universal.
– The Little Foxes is in print on DVD from Warner Bros.
– Criterion’s physical editions of A Matter of Life and Death and Rebecca are in print.
– The Battle of San Pietro is a government-sanctioned film and thus basically public domain; it streams in various places. If you want a disc source, seek out Treasures from American Film Archives.
– Prison is available in Region 2 on a Tartan DVD, which is very high quality and recommended. (I had to purchase it to see the film.) It’s one of the few notable Bergman films not in Criterion’s huge new box.
– The Southerner is in print physically from Kino.
– Image’s DVD of Ossessione is out of print and not exactly affordable.
APPENDIX: BY COUNTRY
U.S.: Christmas in July; Fantasia; The Great Dictator; His Girl Friday; The Philadelphia Story; Rebecca; The Shop Around the Corner; Citizen Kane; The Devil and Daniel Webster; How Green Was My Valley; The Lady Eve; The Little Foxes; The Maltese Falcon; Sullivan’s Travels; Suspicion; Casablanca; Cat People; The Magnificent Ambersons; To Be or Not to Be; I Walked with a Zombie; Meshes of the Afternoon; Red Hot Riding Hood; Shadow of a Doubt; Double Indemnity; Laura; Lifeboat; Meet Me in St. Louis; The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; Screwball Squirrel; To Have and Have Not; The Battle of San Pietro; It’s a Wonderful Life; Leave Her to Heaven; Scarlet Street; Spellbound; The Best Years of Our Lives; The Big Sleep; Cluny Brown; My Darling Clementine; Notorious; King-Size Canary; The Lady from Shanghai; Monsieur Verdoux; Out of the Past; Force of Evil; Key Largo; Letter from an Unknown Woman; Louisiana Story; The Pirate; Red River; Rope; Treasure of the Sierra Madre; Unfaithfully Yours; Gun Crazy; The Heiress; I Was a Male War Bride; The Reckless Moment; The Southerner; White Heat
Denmark: Day of Wrath
France: Le Corbeau; Children of Paradise; Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne; Beauty and the Beast; Quai des Ofevres; Jour de Fete; Orpheus
United Kingdom: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp; Brief Encounter; I Know Where I’m Going!; A Matter of Life and Death; Black Narcissus; Odd Man Out; The Red Shoes; The Third Man
Italy: Ossessione; Rome, Open City; Paisan; Bicycle Thieves; Germany, Year Zero; La Terra Trema
Soviet Union: Ivan the Terrible
Japan: Utamaro and His Five Women; Record of a Tenement Gentleman; Women of the Night; Late Spring; Stray Dog
APPENDIX: U.S. BY STUDIO
Paramount: Christmas in July; The Lady Eve; Sullivan’s Travels; Double Indemnity; The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; The Heiress
RKO Radio Pictures: Fantasia [prod. by Disney]; Citizen Kane; The Devil and Daniel Webster; The Little Foxes; Suspicion; Cat People; The Magnificent Ambersons; I Walked with a Zombie; It’s a Wonderful Life; The Best Years of Our Lives; Notorious; Out of the Past
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: The Philadelphia Story; The Shop Around the Corner; Red Hot Riding Hood; Meet Me in St. Louis; Screwball Squirrel; King-Size Canary; Force of Evil; The Pirate
20th Century Fox: How Green Was My Valley; Laura; Lifeboat; Leave Her to Heaven; Cluny Brown; My Darling Clementine; Unfaithfully Yours; I Was a Male War Bride
Warner Bros.: The Maltese Falcon; Casablanca; To Have and Have Not; The Big Sleep; Key Largo; Rope; Treasure of the Sierra Madre; White Heat
Columbia: His Girl Friday; The Lady from Shanghai; The Reckless Moment
Universal: Shadow of a Doubt; Scarlet Street; Letter from an Unknown Woman
United Artists: The Great Dictator; To Be or Not to Be; Monsieur Verdoux; Red River; Gun Crazy; The Southerner
Selznick International: Rebecca [dist. by UA]; Spellbound [dist. by UA]
APPENDIX: SIGNIFICANT GAPS
That’s major gaps in my knowledge and some major holes in this particular list. For those I’ve seen and reviewed, my writeups are linked; capsuled films are italicized.
Air Force (1943, Howard Hawks)
Ball of Fire (1941, Howard Hawks)
Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941, Yasujiro Ozu)
Brute Force (1947, Jules Dassin)
A Canterbury Tale (1944, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Caught (1949, Max Ophuls)
The Chase (1946, Arthur Ripley)
The Curse of the Cat People (1944, Robert Wise & Gunther von Fritsch)
Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer)
Dumbo (1941, Ben Sharpsteen)
The Fallen Idol (1948, Carol Reed)
Fires Were Started (1943, Humphrey Jennings)
Fort Apache (1948, John Ford)
The 47 Ronin, Part I (1941, Kenji Mizoguchi)
The 47 Ronin, Part II (1942, Kenji Mizoguchi)
The Fountainhead (1949, King Vidor) [for the lolz]
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Good News (1947, Charles Walters)
Great Expectations (1946, David Lean)
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944, Preston Sturges)
Hangover Square (1945, John Brahm)
Heaven Can Wait (1943, Ernst Lubitsch)
A Hen in the Wind (1948, Yasujiro Ozu)
The Killers (1946, Robert Siodmak)
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, Robert Hamer)
Kiss of Death (1947, Henry Hathaway)
The Leopard Man (1943, Jacques Tourneur)
Le Silence de la Mer (1949, Jean-Pierre Melville)
Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942, Marcel Carne)
The Murderers Are Among Us (1946, Wolfgang Staudte)
The Naked City (1948, Jules Dassin)
Nightmare Alley (1947, Edmund Goulding)
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943, William A. Wellman)
The Palm Beach Story (1942, Preston Sturges)
Pattes Blanches (1949, Jean Gremillon)
Pinocchio (1940, Ben Sharpsteen)
Pursued (1947, Raoul Walsh)
Raw Deal (1948, Anthony Mann)
The Set-Up (1949, Robert Wise)
The Seventh Victim (1943, Mark Robson)
The Shanghai Gesture (1941, Josef von Sternberg)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949, John Ford)
Shoeshine (1946, Vittorio De Sica)
The Small Back Room (1949, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Spring in a Small Town (1948, Mu Fei)
There Was a Father (1942, Yasujiro Ozu)
They Live by Night (1948, Nicholas Ray)
Thieves’ Highway (1949, Jules Dassin)
T-Men (1947, Anthony Mann)
Under the Bridges (1946, Helmut Kautner)
Went the Day Well? (1942, Alberto Cavalcanti)
The Woman in the Window (1944, Fritz Lang)
At Land (1944, Maya Deren)
Bad Luck Blackie (1949, Tex Avery)
Begone Dull Care (1949, Norman McLaren & Evelyn Lambart)
Blood of the Beasts (1949, Georges Franju)
Fireworks (1947, Kenneth Anger)
Le Tempestaire (1947, Jean Epstein)
Listen to Britain (1942, Humphrey Jennings & Stuart McAllister)
Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946, Maya Deren)
APPENDIX: THE LUMINARIES
As a refresher: these are quick filmographies covering the 1940s careers of major cast and crew members whose names appear twice or more among the 88 films in this list. This time I’ve expanded the scope a bit, both in terms of the types of artists covered (not just actors and directors) and also by not just underlining films in this canon project but linking full reviews of films that have them, and italicizing those with capsules in the database. This covers feature films only, except those shorts that were specifically a part of this project.
Judith Anderson (actor, 1897-1992): Rebecca [review]; Forty Little Mothers (1940); Free and Easy; Lady Scarface (1941); All Through the Night; Kings Row (1942); Edge of Darkness; Stage Door Canteen (1943); Laura [review] (1944); And Then There Were None (1945); The Diary of a Chambermaid; The Strange Love of Martha Ivers; Specter of the Rose (1946); Pursued; The Red House; Tycoon (1947).
Dana Andrews (actor, 1909-1992): Lucky Cisco Kid; Sailor’s Lady; Kit Carson; The Westerner (1940); Tobacco Road; Belle Star; Swamp Water; Ball of Fire (1941); Berlin Correspondent (1942); Crash Dive; The Ox-Bow Incident; The North Star; December 7th (1943); Up in Arms; The Purple Heart; Wing and a Prayer; Laura [review] (1944); State Fair; Fallen Angel; A Walk in the Sun (1945); Canyon Passage; The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); Boomerang!; Night Song; Daisy Kenyon (1947); The Iron Curtain; Deep Waters; No Minor Vices (1948); The Forbidden Street; Sword in the Desert; My Foolish Heart (1949).
Mary Astor (actor, 1906-1987): Turnabout; Brigham Young (1940); The Great Lie; The Maltese Falcon [review] (1941); The Palm Beach Story; Across the Pacific (1942); Young Ideas; Thousands Cheer (1943); Meet Me in St. Louis; Blonde Fever (1944); Claudia and David (1946); Fiesta; Desert Fury; Cynthia; Cass Timberlane (1947); Act of Violence; Little Women; Any Number Can Play (1949).
Tex Avery (animator/director, 1908-1980): Red Hot Riding Hood (1943); Screwball Squirrel (1944); King-Size Canary (1947).
Lauren Bacall (actor, 1924-2014): To Have and Have Not (1944); Confidential Agent (1945); The Big Sleep (1946); Dark Passage (1947); Key Largo (1948).
George Barnes (cinematographer, 1892-1953): Rebecca [review]; Free, Blond and 21; Maryland; Girl from Avenue A; The Return of Frank James (1940); Hudson’s Bay; Meet John Doe; That Uncertain Feeling; Ladies in Retirement; Unholy Partners; Remember the Day (1941); Rings on Her Fingers; Broadway; Once Upon a Honeymoon; Nightmare (1942); Mr. Lucky; Jane Eyre (1943); Since You Went Away; Frenchman’s Creek; None But the Lonely Heart (1944); The Spanish Main; Spellbound [review]; The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945); From This Day Forward; Sister Kenny (1946); Sinbad, the Sailor; Mourning Becomes Electra (1947); The Emperor Waltz; Good Sam; No Minor Vices; The Boy with Green Hair; Force of Evil (1948); Samson and Delilah (1949).
Lionel Barrymore (actor, 1878-1954): Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case; Dr. Kildare Goes Home; Dr. Kildare’s Crisis (1940); The Penalty; The Bad Man; The People vs. Dr. Kildare; Dr. Kildare’s Wedding Day; Lady Be Good (1941); Dr. Kildare’s Victory; Calling Dr. Gillespie; Dr. Gillespie’s New Assistant; Tennessee Johnson (1942); Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case; A Guy Named Joe (1943); 3 Men in White; Since You Went Away (1944); Between Two Women; The Valley of Decision (1945); Three Wise Fools; It’s a Wonderful Life [review]; The Secret Heart; Duel in the Sun (1946); Dark Delusion (1947); Key Largo (1948); Down to the Sea in Ships; Malaya (1949).
Joan Bennett (actor, 1910-1990): Green Hell; The House Across the Bay; The Man I Married; The Son of Monte Cristo (1940); She Knew All the Answers; Man Hunt; Wild Geese Calling; Confirm or Deny (1941); The Wife Takes a Flyer; Twin Beds; Girl Trouble (1942); Margin for Error (1943); The Woman in the Window (1944); Nob Hill; Scarlet Street (1945); Colonel Effingham’s Raid (1946); The Macomber Affair; The Woman on the Beach; Secret Beyond the Door… (1947); Hollow Triumph (1948); The Reckless Moment (1949).
Ingrid Bergman (actor, 1915-1982): June Night (1940); Adam Had Four Sons; Rage in Heaven; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941); Casablanca [review] (1942); For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943); Gaslight (1944); Spellbound [review]; Saratoga Trunk; The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945); Notorious [review] (1946); Arc de Triumphe; Joan of Arc (1948); Under Capricorn (1949).
Humphrey Bogart (actor, 1899-1957): Virgina City; It All Came True; Brother Orchid; They Drive by Night (1940); High Sierra; The Wagons Roll at Night; The Maltese Falcon [a href=”https://dustyflix.wordpress.com/the-maltese-falcon”>review] (1941); All Through the Night; The Big Shot; Across the Pacific; Casablanca [review] (1942); Action in the North Atlantic; Sahara; Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943); Passage to Marseille; To Have and Have Not (1944); Conflict (1945); The Big Sleep (1946); Dead Reckoning; The Two Mrs. Carrolls; Dark Passage (1947); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [review]; Key Largo (1948); Knock on Any Door; Tokyo Joe (1949).
Walter Brennan (actor, 1894-1974): Northwest Passage; Maryland; The Westerner (1940); Nice Girl?; Meet John Doe; Sergeant York; This Woman Is Mine; Swamp Water; Rise and Shine (1941); The Pride of the Yankees; Stand By for Action (1942); Hangmen Also Die!; Slightly Dangerous; The North Star (1943); Home in Indiana; To Have and Have Not; The Princess and the Pirate (1944); Dakota (1945); A Stolen Life; Centennial Summer; My Darling Clementine; Nobody Lives Forever (1946); Driftwood (1947); Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!; Red River; Blood on the Moon (1948); The Green Promise; Brimstone; Task Force (1949).
Nigel Bruce (actor, 1895-1953): The Blue Bird; Adventure in Diamonds; Rebecca [review]; Lillian Russell; Susan and God; A Dispatch from Reuters (1940); Hudson’s Bay; Play Girl; Free and Easy; This Woman Is Mine; The Chocolate Soldier; Suspicion [review] (1941); Roxie Hart; This Above All; Eagle Squadron; Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror; Journey for Margaret; Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942); Forever and a Day; Sherlock Holmes in Washington; Sherlock Holmes Faces Death; Lassie Come Home; Crazy House; The Spider Woman (1943); The Scarlet Claw; The Pearl of Death; Gypsy Wildcat; Frenchman’s Creek (1944); The House of Fear; The Corn Is Green; Son of Lassie; The Woman in Green; Pursuit to Algiers (1945); Terror by Night; Dressed to Kill (1946); The Two Mrs. Carrolls; The Exile (1947); Julia Misbehaves (1948).
Jack Cardiff (cinematographer, 1914-2009): The Great Mr. Handel (1942); Scottish Mazurka (1943); Western Approaches (1944); Caesar and Cleopatra (1945); A Matter of Life and Death (1946); Black Narcissus [review] (1947); The Red Shoes [review]; Scott of the Antarctic (1948); Under Capricorn (1949).
Maria Casares (actor, 1922-1996): Children of Paradise; Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945); Roger la Honte; The Revenge of Roger (1946); La septième porte; L’amour autour de la maison (1947); La Chartreuse de Parme; Wench (1948).
Charles Chaplin (director/actor/writer, 1889-1977) [excluding anthologies]: The Great Dictator [review] (1940); Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
Montgomery Clift (actor, 1920-1966): The Search [review]; Red River (1948); The Heiress (1949).
Henri-Georges Clouzot (director, 1907-1977): The Murderer Lives at 21 (1942); Le Corbeau [review] (1943); Quai des Orfèvres (1947); Manon (1949).
Jean Cocteau (writer/director, 1889-1963) [as director]: Beauty and the Beast (1946); L’aigle à deux têtes; Les Parents Terribles (1948); [Orpheus (1950)] / [as writer]: Comedy of Happiness (1940); The Phantom Baron; Love Eternal (1943); Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945); Ruy Blas; The Eagle with Two Heads; The Emperor’s Nightingale (1949).
Patricia Collinge (actor, 1892-1974): The Little Foxes (1941); Shadow of a Doubt [review]; Tender Comrade (1943); Casanova Brown (1944).
Tom Conway (actor, 1904-1967): Sky Murder (1940); The Trial of Mary Dugan; Free and Easy; The Bad Man; The People vs. Dr. Kildare; Lady Be Good; Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941); Mr. and Mrs. North; Rio Rita; Grand Central Murder; The Falcon’s Brother; Cat People (1942); The Falcon Strikes Back; I Walked with a Zombie; The Falcon in Danger; The Seventh Victim; The Falcon and the Co-eds (1943); The Falcon Out West; A Night of Adventure; The Falcon in Mexico; The Falcon in Hollywood (1944); Two O’Clock Courage; The Falcon in San Francisco (1945); Whistle Stop; The Falcon’s Alibi; Criminal Court; The Falcon’s Adventure (1946); Lost Honeymoon; ‘Fun on a Week-End’; Repeat Performance (1947); The Challenge; 13 Lead Soldiers; The Checkered Court; One Touch of Venus; Bungalow 13 (1948); I Cheated the Law (1949).
Gladys Cooper (actor, 1888-1971): Rebecca [review]; Kitty Foyle (1940); That Hamilton Woman; The Black Cat; The Gay Falcon (1941); This Above All; Eagle Squadron; Now, Voyager (1942); Forever and a Day; Mr. Lucky; Princess O’Rourke [review]; The Song of Bernadette (1943); The White Cliffs of Dover; Mrs. Parkington (1944); The Valley of Decision; Love Letters (1945); The Green Years; Beware of Pity; The Cockeyed Miracle (1946); Green Dolphin Street; The Bishop’s Wife (1947); Homecoming; The Pirate (1948); The Secret Garden; Madame Bovary (1949).
Joseph Cotten (actor, 1905-1994): Citizen Kane [review; Lydia (1941); The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); Journey into Fear; Shadow of a Doubt [review]; Hers to Hold (1943); Gaslight; Since You Went Away; I’ll Be Seeing You (1944); Love Letters (1945); Duel in the Sun (1946); The Farmer’s Daughter (1947); Portrait of Jennie (1948); The Third Man [review]; Under Capricorn; Beyond the Forest (1949).
Hume Cronyn (actor/writer, 1911-2003) [as actor]: Shadow of a Doubt [review]; Phantom of the Opera; The Cross of Lorraine (1943); Lifeboat [review]; The Seventh Cross (1944); Main Street After Dark; Ziegfeld Follies; The Sailor Takes a Wife (1945); A Letter for Evie; The Green Years; The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); The Beginning or the End; Brute Force (1947); The Bride Goes Wild (1948); Top o’ the Morning (1949). / [as writer]: Rope [review] (1948); Under Capricorn (1949).
John Dall (actor, 1918-1971): The Corn Is Green (1945); Something in the Wind (1947); Another Part of the Forest; Rope [review] (1948); [Gun Crazy (1950)].
Linda Darnell (actor, 1923-1965): Star Dust; Brigham Young; The Mark of Zorro; Chad Hanna (1940); Blood and Sand; Rise and Shine (1941); The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (1942); City Without Men (1943); It Happened Tomorrow; Buffalo Bill; Summer Storm; Sweet and Low-Down (1944); Hangover Square; The Great John L.; Fallen Angel (1945); Anna and the King of Siam; Centennial Summer; My Darling Clementine (1946); Forever Amber (1947); The Walls of Jericho; Unfaithfully Yours (1948); A Letter to Three Wives [review]; Slattery’s Hurricane; Everybody Does It (1949).
William Demarest (actor, 1892-1983): Wolf of New York; The Farmer’s Daughter; The Great McGinty [review]; The Golden Fleecing; Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain; Christmas in July; Little Men (1940); The Lady Eve [review]; The Devil and Miss Jones; Rookies on Parade; Ride on Vaquero; Country Fair; Dressed to Kill; Sullivan’s Travels [review]; Glamour Boy (1941); All Through the Night; True to the Army; My Favorite Spy; Pardon My Sarong; The Palm Beach Story; Behind the Eight Ball; Life Begins at Eight-Thirty; Johnny Doughboy (1942); Stage Door Canteen; Dangerous Blondes; True to Life; The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943); Nine Girls; Once Upon a Time; The Great Moment; Hail the Conquering Hero (1944); Salty O’Rourke; Along Came Jones; Duffy’s Tavern; Pardon My Past (1945); Our Hearts Were Growing Up; The Jolson Story (1946); The Perils of Pauline; Variety Girl (1947); On Our Merry Way; The Sainted Sisters; Night Has a Thousand Eyes; Whispering Smith (1948); Sorrowful Jones; Jolson Sings Again; Red, Hot and Blue (1949).
Dan Duryea (actor, 1907-1968): The Little Foxes; Ball of Fire (1941); The Pride of the Yankees; That Other Woman (1942); Sahara (1943); Ministry of Fear; Man from Frisco; Mrs. Parkington; None But the Lonely Heart; The Woman in the Window (1944); Main Street After Dark; The Great Flamarion; The Valley of Decision; Along Came Jones; Lady on a Train; Scarlet Street (1945); Black Angel; White Tie and Tails (1946); Black Bart; River Lady; Another Part of the Forest; Larceny (1948); Criss Cross; Johnny Stool Pigeon; Manhandled; Too Late for Tears (1949).
William Faulkner (writer, 1897-1962): To Have and Have Not (1944); The Big Sleep (1946).
Federico Fellini (writer, 1920-1993): Before the Postman; 3/4 of a Page; I cavalieri del deserto (1942); The Peddler and the Lady; Apparition; The Last Wagon (1943); Rome, Open City; Chi l’ha visto? (1945); Paisan [review]; Return of the Black Eagle (1946); Flesh Will Surrender; Bullet for Stefano (1947); L’amore; Without Pity (1948); In the Name of the Law; City of Pain; The Mill on the Po (1949).
Henry Fonda (actor, 1905-1982): The Grapes of Wrath [review]; Lillian Russell; The Return of Frank James; Chad Hanna (1940); The Lady Eve [review]; Wild Geese Calling; You Belong to Me (1941); The Male Animal; Rings on Her Fingers; The Magnificent Dope; Tales of Manhattan; The Big Street (1942); Immortal Sergeant; The Ox-Bow Incident (1943); My Darling Clementine (1946); The Long Night; The Fugitive; Daisy Kenyon (1947); On Our Merry Way; Fort Apache (1948).
Joan Fontaine (actor, 1917-2013): Rebecca [review] (1940); Suspicion [review] (1941); This Above All (1942); The Constant Nymph; Jane Eyre (1943); Frenchman’s Creek (1944); The Affairs of Susan (1945); From This Day Forward (1946); Ivy (1947); Letter from an Unknown Woman; The Emperor Waltz; You Gotta Stay Happy; Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948).
John Ford (director, 1894-1973): The Grapes of Wrath [review]; The Long Voyage Home (1940); Tobacco Road; How Green Was My Valley [review] (1941); How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines; German Industrial Manpower; December 7th (1943); They Were Expendable (1945); My Darling Clementine (1946); The Fugitive (1947); Fort Apache; 3 Godfathers (1948); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
Arthur Freed (producer, 1894-1973): Strike Up the Band; Little Nellie Kelly (1940); Lady Be Good; Babes on Broadway (1941); Panama Hattie; For Me and My Gal (1942); Cabin in the Sky; Du Barry Was a Lady; Best Foot Forward; Girl Crazy (1943); Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); The Clock; Ziegfeld Follies; Yolanda and the Thief (1945); The Harvey Girls; Till the Clouds Roll By (1946); Good News (1947); Summer Holiday; The Pirate; Easter Parade; Words and Music (1948); Take Me Out to the Ball Game; The Barkleys of Broadway; Any Number Can Play; On the Town (1949).
Judy Garland (actor, 1922-1969): Andy Hardy Meets Debutante; Strike Up the Band; Little Nellie Kelly (1940); Ziegfeld Girl; Life Begins for Andy Hardy; Babes on Broadway (1941); For Me and My Gal (1942); Presenting Lily Mars; Thousands Cheer; Girl Crazy (1943); Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); The Clock; Ziegfeld Follies (1945); The Harvey Girls; Till the Clouds Roll By (1946); The Pirate; Easter Parade; Words and Music (1948); In the Good Old Summertime (1949).
Samuel Goldwyn (producer, 1879-1974): The Westerner (1940); The Little Foxes; Ball of Fire (1941); The Pride of the Yankees (1942); They Got Me Covered; The North Star (1943); Up in Arms; The Princess and the Pirate (1944); Wonder Man (1945); The Kid from Brooklyn; The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; The Bishop’s Wife (1947); A Song Is Born; Enchantment (1948); Roseanna McCoy; My Foolish Heart (1949).
Cary Grant (actor, 1904-1986): His Girl Friday; My Favorite Wife; The Howards of Virginia; The Philadelphia Story [review] (1940); Penny Serenade; Suspicion [review] (1941); The Talk of the Town; Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942); Mr. Lucky; Destination Tokyo (1943); Once Upon a Time; Arsenic and Old Lace; None But the Lonely Heart (1944); Night and Day; Notorious [review] (1946); The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer; The Bishop’s Wife (1947); Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House; Every Girl Should Be Married (1948); I Was a Male War Bride (1949).
Sydney Greenstreet (actor, 1879-1954): The Maltese Falcon [review]; They Died with Their Boots On (1941); Across the Pacific; Casablanca [review] (1942); Background to Danger (1943); Passage to Marseille; Between Two Worlds; The Mask of Dimitrios; The Conspirators; Hollywood Canteen (1944); Pillow to Post; Conflict; Christmas in Connecticut (1945); Three Strangers; Devotion; The Verdict (1946); That Way with Women; The Hucksters (1947); Ruthless; The Woman in White; The Velvet Touch (1948); Flamingo Road; Malaya (1949).
Porter Hall (actor, 1888-1953): His Girl Friday; Dark Command; Arizona; Trail of the Vigilantes (1940); The Parson of Panamint; Sullivan’s Travels [review] (1941); Mr. and Mrs. North; The Remarkable Andrew; Butch Minds the Baby (1942); A Stranger in Town; The Desperadoes; The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; The Woman of the Town (1943); Standing Room Only; Going My Way [review]; Double Indemnity [review]; The Great Moment; The Mark of the Whistler (1944); Bring on the Girls; Blood on the Sun; Murder, He Says; Week-End at the Waldorf; Kiss and Tell (1945); Miracle on 34th Street [review]; Singapore; Unconquered (1947); You Gotta Stay Happy; That Wonderful Urge (1948); Chicken Every Sunday; The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend; Intruder in the Dust (1949).
Cedric Hardwicke (actor, 1893-1964): The Invisible Man Returns; Tom Brown’s School Days; The Howards of Virginia; Victory (1940); Sundown; Supicion [review] (1941); Valley of the Sun; The Ghost of Frankenstein; Invisible Agent; Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942); Forever and a Day; The Moon Is Down; The Cross of Lorraine (1943); The Lodger; Wing and a Prayer; Wilson; The Keys of the Kingdom (1944); Sentimental Journey; Beware of Pity (1946); The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby; The Imperfect Lady; Ivy; Lured; Tycoon (1947); A Woman’s Vengeance; Song of My Heart; I Remember Mama; Rope [review]; The Winslow Boy (1948); A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; New Barabbas (1949).
Howard Hawks (director, 1896-1977): His Girl Friday (1940); Sergeant York; Ball of Fire (1941); Air Force (1943); To Have and Have Not (1944); The Big Sleep (1946); Red River; A Song Is Born (1948); I Was a Male War Bride (1949).
Ben Hecht (writer, 1894-1964): Angels Over Broadway; Comrade X (1940); Lydia (1941); Tales of Manhattan; The Black Swan; China Girl (1942); Spellbound [review] (1945); Specter of the Rose; Notorious [review] (1946); Kiss of Death; Ride the Pink Horse; Her Husband’s Affairs (1947); The Miracle of the Bells (1948); Whirlpool (1949).
Bernard Herrmann (composer, 1911-1975): Citizen Kane [review]; The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941); The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, refused credit); Jane Eyre (1943); Hangover Square (1945); Anna and the King of Siam (1946); The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947).
Alfred Hitchcock (director, 1899-1980): Rebecca [review]; Foreign Correspondent [review] (1940); Mr. & Mrs. Smith; Suspicion [review] (1941); Saboteur [review] (1942); Shadow of a Doubt [review] (1943); Lifeboat [review] (1944); Spellbound [review] (1945); Notorious [review] (1946); The Paradine Case (1947); Rope [review] (1948); Under Capricorn (1949).
Tim Holt (actor, 1919-1973): Laddie; Swiss Family Robinson; Wagon Train; The Fargo Kid (1940); Back Street; Along the Rio Grande; Robbers of the Range; Cyclone on Horseback; Six-Gun Gold; The Bandit Trail; Dude Cowboy (1941); Riding the Wind; Land of the Open Range; Come on Danger; The Magnificent Ambersons; Thundering Hoofs; Bandit Ranger; Pirates of the Prairie; Red River Robin Hood (1942); Hitler’s Children; Fighting Frontier; Sagebrush Law; The Avenging Rider (1943); My Darling Clementine (1946); Thunder Mountain; Under the Tonto Rim; Wild Horse Mesa (1947); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [review]; Western Heritage; The Arizona Ranger; Guns of Hate; Indian Angent; Gun Smugglers (1948); Brothers in the Saddle; Rustlers; Stagecoach Kid; Masked Raiders; The Mysterious Desperado (1949).
Trevor Howard (actor, 1913-1988): Johnny in the Clouds; Brief Encounter (1945); I See a Dark Stranger; Green for Danger (1946); I Became a Criminal; So Well Remembered (1947); The Passionate Friends; The Third Man [review] (1949).
John Huston (director, 1906-1987): The Maltese Falcon [review] (1941); In This Our Life; Across the Pacific; Report from the Aleutians (1943); The Battle of San Pietro (1945); Let There Be Light (1946); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [review]; Key Largo (1948); We Were Strangers (1949).
Walter Huston (actor, 1883-1950): The Devil and Daniel Webster; Swamp Water; The Shanghai Gesture (1941); Always in My Heart; Yankee Doodle Dandy [review] (1942); The Outlaw; Edge of Darkness; Mission to Moscow; The North Star; December 7th (1943); Dragon Seed (1944); And Then There Were None (1945); Dragonwyck; Duel in the Sun (1946); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [review]; Summer Holiday (1948); The Great Sinner (1949).
Deborah Kerr (actor, 1921-2007): Major Barbara; Love on the Dole (1941); Courageous Mr. Penn; Hatter’s Castle; The Avengers (1942); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); Vacation from Marriage [review] (1945); I See a Dark Stranger (1946); Black Narcissus [review]; The Hucksters; If Winter Comes (1947); Edward, My Son (1949).
Val Lewton (producer, 1904-1951): Cat People (1942); I Walked with a Zombie; The Leopard Man; The Seventh Victim; The Ghost Ship (1943); The Curse of the Cat People; Mademoiselle Fifi; Youth Runs Wild (1944); The Body Snatcher; Isle of the Dead (1945); Bedlam (1946); My Own True Love (1948).
Roger Livesey (actor, 1906-1976): Spies of the Air; Girl in the News (1940); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); I Know Where I’m Going! (1945); A Matter of Life and Death (1946); Vice Versa (1948); If This Be Sin (1949).
Peter Lorre (actor, 1904-1964): Strange Cargo; I Was an Adventuress; Island of Doomed Men; Stranger on the Third Floor; You’ll Find Out (1940); The Face Behind the Mask; Mr. District Attorney; They Met in Bombay; The Maltese Falcon [review] (1941); All Through the Night; Invisible Agent; The Boogie Man Will Get You; Casablanca [review] (1942); The Constant Nymph; Background to Danger; The Cross of Lorraine (1943); Passage to Marseille; The Mask of Dimitrios; Arsenic and Old Lace; The Conspirators; Hollywood Canteen (1944); Hotel Berlin; Confidential Agent (1945); Three Strangers; Black Angel; The Verdict; The Chase; The Beast with Five Fingers (1946); My Favorite Brunette (1947); Casbah (1948); Rope of Sand (1949).
Ernst Lubitsch (director, 1892-1947): The Shop Around the Corner (1940); That Uncertain Feeling (1941); To Be or Not to Be (1942); Heaven Can Wait (1943); Cluny Brown (1946); That Lady in Ermine (1948).
Jean Marais (actor, 1913-1998): Le pavillon brûle (1941); Le lit à colonnes (1942); Love Eternal; Voyage Without Hope (1943); Carmen (1944); Beauty and the Beast (1946); The Royalists (1947); Ruy Blas; The Eagle with Two Heads; Aux yeux du souvenir; Les Parents Terribles (1948); The Secret of Mayerling (1949); [Orpheus (1950)].
James Mason (actor, 1909-1984): The Patient Vanishes (1941); Hatter’s Circle; The Night Has Eyes; Alibi; Secret Mission; Thunder Rock (1942); The Bells Go Down; The Man in Grey; They Met in the Dark (1943); Candlelight in Algeria; Man of Evil; Hotel Reserve (1944); A Place of One’s Own; They Were Sisters; The Seventh Veil [review]; The Wicked Lady (1945); Odd Man Out; The Upturned Glass (1947); Wild Calendar; Madame Bovary; The Reckless Moment; East Side, West Side (1949).
Virginia Mayo (actor, 1920-2005): Jack London (1943); Seven Days Ashore; The Princess and the Pirate (1944); Wonder Man (1945); The Kid from Brooklyn; The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); Out of the Blue; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947); Smart Girls Don’t Talk; A Song Is Born (1948); Flaxy Martin; Colorado Territory; The Girl from Jones Beach; White Heat; Red Light; Always Leave Them Laughing (1949).
Vincente Minnelli (director, 1903-1986): Cabin in the Sky; I Dood It (1943); Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); The Clock; Yolanda and the Thief (1945); Undercurrent (1946); The Pirate (1948); Madame Bovary (1949).
Kenji Mizoguchi (director, 1898-1956): Naniwa onna (1940); Geidô ichidai otoko; The 47 Ronin (1941); Danjuro sandal; Miyamoto Musashi (1944); Meitô bijomaru; Hisshôka (1945); Josei no shôri; Utamaro and His Five Women (1946); Joyû Sumako no koi (1947); Women of the Night (1948); Flame of My Love (1949).
Agnes Moorehead (actor, 1900-1974): Citizen Kane [review] (1941); The Magnificent Ambersons; The Big Street (1942); Journey into Fear; The Youngest Profession; Government Girl; Jane Eyre (1943); Since You Went Away; Dragon Seed; The Seventh Cross; Mrs. Parkington; Tomorrow, the World! (1944); Keep Your Powder Dry; Our Vines Have Tender Grapes; Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945); Dark Passage; The Lost Moment (1947); Summer Holiday; The Woman in White; Station West; Johnny Belinda (1948); The Stratton Story; The Great Sinner; Without Honor (1949).
Alfred Newman (composer, 1901-1970): The Blue Bird; Little Old New York; Vigil in the Night; Earthbound; Foreign Correspondent [review]; Brigham Young; They Knew What They Wanted; The Mark of Zorro (1940); Hudson’s Bay; Blood and Sand; Man Hunt; Charley’s Aunt; Wild Geese Calling; Belle Starr; How Green Was My Valley [review]; Remember the Day; Ball of Fire (1941); Son of Fury; Roxie Hart; To the Shores of Tripoli; This Above All; Ten Gentlemen from West Point; The Pied Piper; Girl Trouble; The Black Swan; Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (1942); Claudia; The Moon Is Down; My Friend Flicka; Heaven Can Wait; The Song of Bernadette; December 7th (1943); The Purple Heart; Wilson; Sunday Dinner for a Soldier; The Keys of the Kingdom (1944); A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; A Royal Scandal; A Bell for Adano; Leave Her to Heaven (1945); Dragonwyck; Margie; The Razor’s Edge (1946); Gentleman’s Agreement [review]; Captain from Castile (1947); Call Northside 777; Sitting Pretty; The Walls of Jericho; That Lady in Ermine; Cry of the City; the snake pit; Yellow Sky (1948); Chicken Every Sunday; A Letter to Three Wives [review]; Down to the Sea in Ships; Mother Is a Freshman; Mr. Belvedere Goes to College; Thieves’ Highway; Pinky; Princes of Foxes; Twelve O’Clock High (1949).
Max Ophüls (director, 1902-1957): Sarajevo; L’école des femmes (1940); The Exile (1947); Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948); Wild Calendar; The Reckless Moment (1949).
Yasujirô Ozu (director, 1903-1963): The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941); There Was a Father (1942); Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947); A Hen in the Wind (1948); Late Spring (1949).
Marcello Pagliero (actor/writer, 1907-1980) [as actor]: Rome, Open City (1945); Les jeux sont faits; L’altra (1947); Dédée d’Anvers (1948); La voix du rêve (1949) / [as writer]: Confessione; Le due tigri (1941); Anime in tumulto (1942); La danza del fuoco (1943); Si chiude all’alba; 07… Tassi (1945); Desire; Paisan [review]; The Devil’s Gondola; Roma città libera (1946).
Michael Powell (director, 1905-1990): Blackout; The Thief of Bagdad (1940); 49th Parallel [review] (1941); One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); The Volunteer; A Canterbury Tale (1944); I Know Where I’m Going! (1945); A Matter of Life and Death (1946); Black Narcissus [review] (1947); The Red Shoes [review] (1948); Hour of Glory (1949).
Emeric Pressburger (director, 1902-1988): One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); The Volunteer; A Canterbury Tale (1944); I Know Where I’m Going! (1945); A Matter of Life and Death (1946); Black Narcissus [review] (1947); The Red Shoes [review] (1948); Hour of Glory (1949).
Vincent Price (actor, 1911-1993): The Invisible Man Returns; Green Hell; The House of the Seven Gables; Brigham Young (1940); Hudson’s Bay (1941); The Song of Bernadette (1943); The Eve of St. Mark; Wilson; Laura [review]; The Keys of the Kingdom (1944); A Royal Scandal; Leave Her to Heaven (1945); Shock; Dragonwyck (1946); The Web; The Long Night; Moss Rose (1947); Up in Central Park; Rogues’ Regiment; The Three Musketeers (1948); The Bribe; Bagdad (1949).
Claude Rains (actor, 1889-1967): Saturday’s Children; The Sea Hawk; Lady with Red Hair (1940); Four Mothers; Here Comes Mr. Jordan [review]; The Wolf Man (1941); Kings Row; Moontide; Now, Voyager, Casablanca [review] (1942); Forever and a Day; Phantom of the Opera (1943); Passage to Marseille; Mr. Skeffington (1944); Strange Holiday; This Love of Ours; Caesar and Cleopatra (1945); Notorious [review]; Angel on My Shoulder; Deception (1946); The Unsuspected (1947); The Passionate Friends; Rope of Sand; Song of Surrender (1949).
David Raksin (composer, 1912-2004): Dr. Renault’s Secret; The Undying Monster (1942); City Without Men (1943); Tampico; Laura [review] (1944); Where Do We Go from Here?; Don Juan Quilligan; Fallen Angel (1945); Smoky (1946); The Homestretch; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; Forever Amber; Daisy Kenyon (1947); Fury at Furnace Creek; Apartment for Peggy; Force of Evil (1948); Whirlpool (1949).
Carol Reed (director, 1906-1976): The Stars Look Down; Girl in the News; Night Train to Munich (1940); The Remarkable Mr. Kipps (1941); The Young Mr. Pitt (1942); The Way Ahead (1944); Odd Man Out (1947); The Fallen Idol (1948); The Third Man [review] (1949).
Edward G. Robinson (actor, 1893-1973): Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet; Brother Orchid; A Dispatch from Reuters (1940); The Sea Wolf; Manpower; Unholy Partners (1941); Larceny, Inc.; Tales of Manhattan (1942); Destroyer; Flesh and Fantasy (1943); Tampico; Double Indemnity [review]; Mr. Winkle Goes to War; The Woman in the Window (1944); Our Vines Have Tender Grapes; Journey Together; Scarlet Street (1945); The Stranger (1946); The Red House (1947); All My Sons; Key Largo; Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948); House of Strangers (1949).
Roberto Rossellini (director, 1906-1977): A Pilot Returns (1942); The Man with the Cross (1943); Rome, Open City (1945); Desire (1946); Paisan [review] (1946); Germany, Year Zero; L’amore (1948).
Miklós Rózsa (composer, 1907-1995): Ten Days in Paris; The Thief in Bagdad (1940); That Hamilton Woman; New Wine; Lydia; Sundown (1941); The Jungle Book; Jacaré (1942); Five Graves to Cairo; Sahara; So Proudly We Hail!; The Woman of the Town (1943); The Hour Before the Dawn; Double Indemnity [review]; Dark Waters (1944); The Man in Half Moon Street; Blood on the Sun; Lady on a Train; The Lost Weekend [review]; Spellbound [review] (1945); Because of Him; The Strange Love of Martha Ivers; The Killers (1946); Song of Scheherazade; The Red House; The Other Love; Time Out of Mind; The Macomber Affair; Brute Force; Desert Fury; Secret Beyond the Door…; A Double Life (1947); A Woman’s Vengeance; The Naked City; Kiss the Blood Off My Hands; Command Decision (1948); Criss Cross; The Bribe; Madame Bovary; The Red Danube; Adam’s Rib; East Side, West Side (1949).
Erskine Sanford (actor, 1885-1969): Pop Always Pays (1940); Citizen Kane [review] (1941); The Wife Takes a Flyer; The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); Ministry of Fear (1944); Girls of the Big House (1945); From This Day Forward; Crack-Up; Angel on My Shoulder; The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); Possessed; Mourning Becomes Electra; The Lady from Shanghai [review]; The Voice of the Turtle (1947); You Were Meant for Me; Letter from an Unknown Woman; Macbeth; Kidnapped; Wake of the Red Witch (1948); Impact; Night Unto Night (1949).
David O. Selznick (producer, 1902-1965): Rebecca [review] (1940); Since You Went Away (1944); Spellbound [review] (1945); Duel in the Sun (1946); The Paradine Case (1947); Portrait of Jennie (1948); The Third Man [review] (1949).
Simone Simon (actor, 1910-2005): The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941); Cat People (1942); Tahiti Honey (1943); The Curse of the Cat People; Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; Mademoiselle Fifi (1944); Pétrus (1946); Temptation Harbor (1947).
Walter Slezak (actor, 1902-1983): Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942); This Land Is Mine; The Fallen Sparrow (1943); Lifeboat [review]; Step Lively; Till We Meet Again; The Princess and the Pirate (1944); Salome Where She Danced; The Spanish Main; Cornererd (1945); Sinbad, the Sailor; Born to Kill; Riffraff (1947); The Pirate (1948); The Inspector General (1949).
Barbara Stanwyck (actor, 1907-1990): Remember the Night (1940); The Lady Eve [review]; Meet John Doe; You Belong to Me; Ball of Fire (1941); The Great Man’s Lady; The Gay Sisters (1942); Lady of Burlesque; Flesh and Fantasy (1943); Double Indemnity [review]; Hollywood Canteen (1944); Christmas in Connecticut (1945); My Reputation; The Bride Wore Boots; The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946); California; The Two Mrs. Carrolls; The Other Love; Cry Wolf; Variety Girl (1947); B.F.’s Daughter; Sorry, Wrong Number (1948); The Lady Gambles; East Side, West Side (1949).
Max Steiner (composer, 1888-1971): Dr. Ehrlick’s Magic Bullet; Virginia City; All This, and Heaven Too; City for Conquest; A Dispatch from Reuters; The Letter; Santa Fe Trail (1940); The Great Lie; Shining Victory; Sergeant York; The Bride Came C.O.D.; Dive Bomber; One Foot in Heaven; They Died with Their Boots On (1941); Captains of the Clouds; In This Our Life; The Gay Sisters; Desperate Johnny; Now, Voyager, Casablanca [review] (1942); Mission to Moscow; Watch on the Rhine (1943); Passage to Marseille; The Adventures of Mark Twain; Since You Went Away; Arsenic and Old Lace; The Conspirators (1944); Roughly Speaking; The Corn Is Green; Mildred Pierce; Saratoga Trunk; San Antonio (1945); Tomorrow Is Forever; My Reputation; A Stolen Life; One More Tomorrow; The Big Sleep; Cloak and Dagger; The Beast with Five Fingers (1946); The Unfaithful; Pursued; Love and Learn; Cheyenne; Deep Valley; Life with Father; The Voice of the Turtle (1947); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [review]; My Girl Tisa; Winter Meeting; The Woman in White; Silver River; Key Largo; Johnny Belinda; Fighter Squadron; Adventures of Don Juan; The Decision of Christopher Blake (1948); South of St. Louis; A Kiss in the Dark; Flamingo Road; The Fountainhead; White Heat; Beyond the Forest; Without Honor; The Lady Takes a Sailor (1949).
James Stewart (actor, 1908-1997): The Mortal Storm; No Time for Comedy; The Philadelphia Story [review] (1940); Come Live with Me; Pot o’ Gold; Ziegfeld Girl (1941); It’s a Wonderful Life [review] (1946); Magic Town (1947); On Our Merry Way; Call Northside 777; Rope [review]; You Gotta Stay Happy (1948); The Stratton Story; Malaya (1949).
Preston Sturges (director, 1898-1959): The Great McGinty [review]; Christmas in July (1940); The Lady Eve [review]; Sullivan’s Travels [review] (1941); The Palm Beach Story (1942); The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943); The Great Moment; Hail the Conquering Hero (1944); The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947); Unfaithfully Yours (1948); The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949).
Jo Swerling (writer, 1893-1964): The Westerner (1940); Blood and Sand; New York Town; Confirm or Deny (1941); The Pride of the Yankees (1942); Crash Dive; A Lady Takes a Chance (1943); Lifeboat [review] (1944); Leave Her to Heaven (1945); It’s a Wonderful Life [review] (1946).
Gene Tierney (actor, 1920-1991): The Return of Frank James (1940); Hudson’s Bay; Tobacco Road; Belle Starr; Sundown; The Shanghai Gesture (1941); Son of Fury; Rings on Her Fingers; Thunder Birds; China Girl (1942); Heaven Can Wait (1943); Laura [review] (1944); A Bell for Adano; Leave Her to Heaven (1945); Dragonwyck; The Razor’s Edge (1946); The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); The Iron Curtain; That Wonderful Urge (1948); Whirlpool (1949).
Dimitri Tiomkin (composer, 1894-1979): Lucky Partners; The Westerner (1940); Meet John Doe; Scattergood Meets Broadway; Flying Blind; The Corsican Brothers (1941); A Gentleman After Dark; Twin Beds; The Moon and Sixpence (1942); Shadow of a Doubt [review]; The Unknown Guest (1943); Strange Confession; Ladies Courageous; The Bridge of San Luis Rey; When Strangers Marry (1944); Forever Yours; Dillinger; China’s Little Devils; Pardon My Past (1945); Whistle Stop; Black Beauty; Angel on My Shoulder; The Dark Mirror; It’s a Wonderful Life [review]; Duel in the Sun (1946); The Long Night (1947); Tarzan and the Mermaids; The Dude Goes West; So This Is New York; Red River (1948); Champion; Home of the Brave; Canadian Pacific; Red Light; D.O.A. (1949).
Gregg Toland (cinematographer, 1904-1948): The Westerner; The Long Voyage Home (1940); Citizen Kane [review]; The Little Foxes; Ball of Fire (1941); The Outlaw; December 7th (1943); The Kid from Brooklyn; Song of the South; The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); The Bishop’s Wife (1947); A Song Is Born; Enchantment (1948).
Jacques Tourneur (director, 1904-1977): Phantom Raiders (1940); Doctors Don’t Tell (1941); Cat People (1942); I Walked with a Zombie; The Leopard Man (1943); Days of Glory; Experiment Perilous (1944); Canyon Passage (1946); Out of the Past (1947); Berlin Express (1948); Easy Living (1949).
Henry Travers (actor, 1874-1965): Primrose Path; Edison, the Man; Anne of Windy Poplars; Wyoming (1940); High Sierra; A Girl, a Guy and a Gob; The Bad Man; I’ll Wait for You; Ball of Fire (1941); Mrs. Miniver [review]; Pierre of the Plains; Random Harvest (1942); Shadow of a Doubt [review]; The Moon Is Down; Madame Curie (1943); None Shall Escape; Dragon Seed; The Very Thought of You (1944); Thrill of a Romance; The Naughty Nineties; The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945); Gallant Journey; The Yearling; It’s a Wonderful Life [review] (1946); The Flame (1947); Beyond Glory (1948); The Girl from Jones Beach (1949).
Luchino Visconti (director, 1906-1976): Ossessione (1943); La Terra Trema (1948).
Anton Walbrook (actor, 1896-1967): Gaslight (1940); Suicide Squadron; 49th Parallel [review] (1941); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); The Man from Morocco (1945); The Red Shoes [review] (1948); The Queen of Spades (1949).
Walter Wanger (producer, 1894-1968): The House Across the Bay; Foreign Correspondent [review]; The Long Voyage Home (1940); Sundown (1941); Eagle Squadron; Arabian Nights (1942); We’ve Never Been Licked; ‘Gung Ho!’ (1943); Ladies Courageous (1944); Salome Where She Danced; Scarlet Street (1945); Night in Paradise; Canyon Passage (1946); Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman; The Lost Moment; Secret Beyond the Door… (1947); Tap Roots; Joan of Arc (1948); Tulsa; Reign of Terror; The Reckless Moment (1949).
Franz Waxman (composer, 1906-1967): Strange Cargo; Rebecca [review]; Florian; Sporting Blood; Boom Town; The Philadelphia Story; Flight Command (1940); Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Honky Tonk; The Feminine Touch; Suspicion [review]; Kathleen; Design for Scandal (1941); Woman of the Year [review]; Tortilla Flat; Her Cardboard Lover; Seven Sweethearts; Journey for Margaret; Reunion in France (1942); Air Force; Edge of Darknesss; Old Acquaintance; Destination Tokyo (1943); In Our Time; Mr. Skefftington; The Very Thought of You (1944); Objective, Burma!; Hotel Berlin; God Is My Co-Pilot; The Horn Blows at Midnight; Pride of the Marines; Confidential Agent (1945); Her Kind of Man (1946); Nora Prentiss; The Two Mrs. Carrolls; Possessed; Cry Wolf; Dark Passage; The Unsuspected; That Hagen Girl; The Paradine Case (1947); Sorry, Wrong Number; No Minor Vices; Whiplash (1948); Alias Nick Beal; Night Unto Night; Rope of Sand; Task Force; Johnny Holiday (1949).
Orson Welles (director/actor/writer) [as director]: Citizen Kane [review] (1941); The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); The Stranger (1946); The Lady from Shanghai [review] (1947); Macbeth (1948) / [as actor only]: Journey into Fear [also uncred. director]; Jane Eyre (1943); Follow the Boys (1944); Tomorrow Is Forever (1946); Black Magic [also uncred. director]; The Third Man [review]; Prince of Foxes (1949).
Teresa Wright (actor, 1918-2005): The Little Foxes (1941); Mrs. Miniver [review]; The Pride of the Yankees (1942); Shadow of a Doubt [review] (1943); Casanova Brown (1944); The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); Pursued; The Imperfect Lady; The Trouble with Women (1947); Enchantment (1948).
William Wyler (director, 1902-1981): The Westerner; The Letter (1940); The Little Foxes (1941); Mrs. Miniver [review (1942); The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944); The Best Years of Our Lives [review] (1946); The Heiress (1949).
That’s all I’ve got for now. Before moving on to the 1950s chapter of this project, I’ll be making a brief foray into the annual They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? aggregate, filling in the films in the top hundred that I haven’t seen or reviewed yet. Thanks as always for reading.
The hallmark of film noir, as well as the great flaw of film noir, is its sense of inevitability. There’s a case to be made that the lead characters in all of these gritty yet beautiful movies are finding themselves falling into a nightmare wrought by genre tropes — in other words, every noir tells a version of the same story that cannot be circumvented or stopped once it gets rolling, like the brick Ignatz throws at Krazy Kat and the interpersonal tumult in its wake. When done well, it’s ballet; when done poorly, it’s rote and familiar. When it occasionally is absolutely singular, it’s thanks to the likes of Orson Welles, whose toying with the format (which didn’t yet have a name) in The Lady from Shanghai is in some ways a submission to it, in others a subversion of it.
The film, Welles’ fourth proper feature as director (third as writer-director), is certainly something to show to those who believe MTV is wholly responsible for the reduction of U.S. attention spans: this is sensory overload. A bizarre, creepy thriller made as payback to Columbia after Harry Cohn did Welles a personal favor, it’s too fast and furious to allow us to really soak in any character connection, exposition, development. It never, ever stops to breathe. While Welles was known for his frenetic pacing, this was — in his view, and as with Touch of Evil a decade later — a bridge too far, the studio having liberally cut much of the atmosphere and development within the narrative, removing by some accounts a full hour and leaving only the skeleton of a narrative, and this after Welles had already been contractually forced into studio-based reshoots for a film he wanted to make (and originally had made) entirely on location.
Still, while the film is confusing at first blush, it lingers strongly; the phenomenon of film noir being intensely quotable far out of context, with dialogue that reaches odd profundity when removed from its busy and faintly loony context, is hardly unique to Welles’ work, as witness either John Huston or Howard Hawks’ contributions to noir culture. Familiarity with the raw truth of the situation in which Welles’ drifting sailor Michael O’Hara finds himself — smitten then framed like so many other noir protagonists — lends the film an additional poignance on repeat viewings. O’Hara saves the life of a kept woman, Elsa, portrayed by Welles’ then-wife and internationally celebrated pinup model Rita Hayworth, then is somehow talked into being taken in and working for her and her psychotic husband (Everett Sloane, never before or again so sinister) during a long boat ride (a prediction of Polanski’s Knife in the Water).
The film opens brilliantly. “Some people can smell danger,” Welles notes in resigned voiceover and slightly ridiculous Irish accent. “Not me.” He’s an antihero, a welcome human connection in a movie wherein the breathtaking elements are nearly all technical: the overlapping dialogue, the three-dimensional and wildly unpredictable camera movements, the presentation of menace through closeup. But we move from the first scene too quickly, and that’s a trend that’s unfortunately consistent thanks to Columbia’s tampering. The film presses on in breakneck mode but its connective narrative thread keeps running almost exclusively by implication, which might be pleasing if Welles had been the one in control of the editing; it ends up feeling like disconnected vignettes that tell the story competently but leave too many gaps and cannot allow for the kind of riveting fascination with which one approached Citizen Kane. This fosters an audience disconnection, with in turn prevents it from being fully the effective thriller it might have been. It’s not Welles’ fault; it seldom was.
Nevertheless, almost every scene in the picture is magical in some way (one in which Hayworth sings while flat on her back on the sailboat, voice dubbed, is phenomenally tasteless and enrapturing, the creeping terror of the sweltering night air almost palpable), but the scattered pieces of real character depth (“you don’t know anything about the world,” “feel the lust, smell the death,” “there wasn’t one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived”) are intriguing suggestions, “quirks” you might say, rather than evidence that we are watching real people whose lives are in the downward spin O’Hara quickly diagnoses. It’s a most serious problem in the Hayworth character, who never comes off as anything but an artifact, underlined by an early male-female banter scene that rips off To Have and Have Not and seems as beholden to gimmickry as to any narrative purpose or realism. We can sense enough to know the irony when she is referred to as a “poor child” early on, and she has more than one great line, but that isn’t enough to justify the thinness of her characterization. Welles’ own character isn’t much less of a cipher, but because he’s positioned as an audience vessel it’s more forgivable, although we never feel his lust for Hayworth as we should (we’re told about it more than we’re shown it), surely another consequence of the drastic cuts.
By contrast, Welles’ pair of villains are an improvement, and completely unforgettable. They seem to think everything that happens is absolutely hysterical, but they are honestly menacing and unique, Sloan backed up by the maniacal Glenn Anders as lawyer, conspiracy theorist, snoop and all around weirdo George Grisby. The two men (both attorneys) are decadent drunken sociopaths with their own separate shady agendas, and Welles intends us to be as disoriented by their enigmatically slimy nature as his lead character is, and it works, manifesting almost a physical recoiling at the sight of either of them.
The last act is masterful cinema, generating near-constant awe at Welles’ directorial brilliance — not just visually but as a writer and designer of dialogue, a blocker of scenes, an architect of dramatic irony — but it also brings the problems of The Lady from Shanghai into focus. It consists of outstanding, indeed nearly overwhelming scenes: a stunning aquarium sequence recalling Sabotage and anticipating Manhattan, a beautifully edited and chaotic courtroom sequence, and most memorably, a climax in a carnival and a Hall of Mirrors that’s among the most striking moments in any Hollywood film, full of startling images suggestive of avant garde and ingeniously reflecting O’Hara’s own state of confusion, handily upstaging Salvador Dali’s Spellbound dream sequence in the process. Welles also delivers a terrific ending that sets the table for The Third Man: He won’t get fooled again. Again, though, the caveat is that the relationship between these individual scenes is nearly inscrutable, even if one has seen the film enough to basically follow the plot — which, after one is accustomed to the film’s offbeat pacing, is quite compelling in its portrait of a crumbling marriage and of murder and intrigue among the idle rich — with the evolution of each character missing too many pieces.
Still, you can cope with this either consciously or unconsciously; perhaps the inexplicable is a part of this film’s magnetism and appeal, rendering its mysteries even more profound than in the status quo “classic” film noir, enhancing its nightmare-like nature. If the pieces don’t fit, maybe it’s because they shouldn’t, and this is borne out by the fact that the fragments still warrant a new or seasoned viewer’s full-on bewitchment. As with RKO’s butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons, the diminishing of all this to 87 minutes by outside forces does little to dilute its obvious artistic mastery of the form. And if you want to be harsh and accuse it of being a Tarantino-like “exercise in style,” you miss something important about the difference between Welles and other filmmakers. If every film noir is somehow a study of how disparate situations fall into similar bleak patterns, then a similar argument might hold that Welles’ own films all depict the inevitability of his characters’ slide into the particular insanity wrought by his own talents. Welles can take on the most ordinary or half-formed story in the world and still find ways to make it probing, intelligent and innovative — and if he is just flexing his muscles as a stylist, that doesn’t make it any less a personal expression of his own internal interests and preoccupations, which makes his work all but unique in Hollywood studio filmmaking. You can’t cut enough out of The Lady from Shanghai to keep it from feeling like the uncompromised work of a true maverick, and that’s astonishing.
[Expanded from a review first posted in 2006.]
This set covers the period from September 12th to November 27th, encompassing the death of FilmStruck, the announcement of its replacement (the Criterion Channel), a hurricane, an evacuation and a birthday, and a new movie by Orson goddamned Welles.
Other films seen: Keeping up with the Hitchcock chronology, Amber and I revisited Notorious because I will, after all, find any possible excuse to watch it, but I already reviewed it here back in 2012, and that entry has even been updated to the new format; you saw my new full review of Rope in this space, and can find my accompanying Letterboxd writeup here. A masterpiece new to me and fully reviewed as such was Stray Dog (Letterboxd: click), which is currently next to High and Low as my favorite Kurosawa. Not quite a masterpiece but certainly a treasure, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women left me with too much to say to confine to a Letterboxd capsule. Beetle Juice was a fun bit of Halloween viewing and a finer film than I remembered, which will necessitate me watching it closely enough to write something coherent next time; for something incoherent, here you go. Finally, I started up on revisiting the films I highly rated from the current decade for list-making purposes, and while I stalled out pretty quickly, I got three under my belt and you can track my progress at LB; I will likely be speeding up a lot in about a week and on through the new year. For now, at Letterboxd: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Footnote, The Babadook! (The first two got full reviews here years ago back when I wrote “essays” for every movie I saw.)
Non-feature or non-cinema screened: Beyond Bob’s Burgers, MST3K and Moonlighting, I want to strongly recommend the package of supplements on Criterion’s Complete Jean Vigo collection, which also offered a chance to see Vigo’s two early shorts, the wonderful semi-city symphony doc / semi-abstract political screed / semi-pornographic clip A Propos de Nice; and the more strictly functional Taris. As for what else has gotten my attention lately, may I direct you to two oddly fascinating vintage documentaries I found buried deep on Youtube — this one is about the last day of metal typesetting at the New York Times and is a striking artifact of its era, and this one is a typically snide Charles Kuralt examination of malls that inadvertently features some remarkable footage of a typically bland shopping mall in the early 1980s and, better yet, some extremely amusing interviews with teens. My Youtube favorites are a weird cornucopia of mostly eccentric fixations but you can always check in to see if I’ve located anything especially nifty of late; growing up I flipped through channels and recorded oddball stuff off cable TV, and I guess this is the modern-day equivalent.
Several of the below films are sure to prompt full reviews in the future, the most obvious such case being The Other Side of the Wind, which I could talk about for days — its release, at long last, may remain the most significant cinematic event of my lifetime, the first new work of a true indisputable American master in the cinema since, I would argue, Eyes Wide Shut. Maybe not the last, but who are we to say yet who the new masters will be, and how can we kid ourselves than any of them will be, no matter how gifted or brilliant, working in the same singular class as Orson Welles? It’s not a slur on movies today, it’s a statement of fact: there will never be another like him.
*** (click the links for longer Letterboxd versions of the capsules, if you so wish)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943, Jacques Tourneur) [hr]
One of the most bizarre, soulfully pained mainstream pictures of the studio era, this Val Lewton-RKO horror has a rather vague spirital-sensual plotline that never states itself explicitly, and never presents anything conventional or particulalry melodramatic in its characterizations. It follows a nurse from Canada who is sent to look after a plantation owner’s debilitated wife in the West Indies, on an island shadowed by the slavery and violence in its recent past; the two worlds collide in dreamlike, unsettling ways without ever clearly relying on any supernatural happenstance. Instead the film — beautifully directed, treating horror concepts as dreadful reality in the same way as the team’s Cat People — is sophisticated, mysterious, probing, sumptuous and insatiably erotic… all while thoroughly subsuming itself to an atmosphere of indescribable fear.
Anne of the Thousand Days (1969, Charles Jarrott) [r]
Expansive, intimate chronicle of the doomed rise to the throne of one Anne Boleyn is legendary for having been bought and paid for at the Academy Awards; but unlike most pictures with that distinction from The Alamo to Dr. Dolittle, it’s extremely competent and engaging popcorn, though it really gets a lot of mileage out of impeccable casting. Richard Burton is as hammy a Henry VIII as Charles Laughton or Robert Shaw and considerably less fun, but Geneviève Bujold brings stunning emotional range to her characterization of Boleyn. The supporting cast is equally impressive, with Anthony Quayle carving such a believably slimy and eventually pathetic figure as the wily Cardinal Wolsey you could almost swear he was a Republican politician.
The Pirate (1948, Vincente Minnelli) [hr]
Breezy, funny Arthur Freed-MGM musical is offensive in about a hundred different ways but also incredibly slick and fun after a bumpy start; it features Gene Kelly, tightly controlled as ever, as a philandering actor who tries to contort himself to fit the fantasies of Judy Garland, extremely bored with her provincial future and seemingly dull politician husband-to-be (Walter Slezak). The songs by Cole Porter are far from his best, but the accompanying dance numbers are wonderfully choreographed, performed and captured by Minnelli and Harry Stradling, particularly a breathtaking, erotic ballet in which Garland briefly sees the man she wants in front of her. The film’s shortcomings are forgivable because its modest humor is so winning.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971, Norman Jewison)
Three-hour musical about an impoverished Jewish family in pre-Revolution Russia nearly replicates all of the content of the famous Broadway production, with Chaim Topol in place of the presumably more charismatic Zero Mostel, though Topol is perfectly OK. Some of the songs are good enough to have passed into the cultural lexicon, like “Sunrise, Sunset” and “If I Were a Rich Man,” but the film goes on forever at a glacial pace, really capturing nothing more than how one father gradually breaks away from Orthodox tradition as his daughters begin to marry off. The tone is comic and wistful for the first half, tragic and bleak in the second, and the use of a musical to talk about antisemitic Tsarist edicts generates the same kind of oppressive discomfort in me as turning Oliver Twist and Les Miserables into big song-and-dance productions.
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941, William Dieterle) [r]
The often staid awards-bait dispenser Dieterle went over to RKO and made this batshit dark fable riffing on the Faust legend, which feels at times like an American prediction of Ealing Studios in its almost cruel humor and cinematic ingenuity. Sadly it’s also a mess; its determination to wrap up with a rather contrived “trial” forces us to spend a lot of time throughout the picture with the titular Webster, a lawyer-politician played with thundering obviousness by Edward Arnold in what feels like a parody of a Frank Capra character — you’re much happier to see Walter Huston’s grinning, delightfully ambiguous Scratch. The mixture of idealism and pointed political commentary fits only haphazardly with Stone’s story arc, whose most intriguing elements — the appearance of a temptress played unforgettably by Simone Simon, and the way Stone’s soul is infected by capital — run afoul of the distractingly overbearing “conscience.”
Bound for Glory (1976, Hal Ashby) [r]
David Carradine is phenomenal as Woody Guthrie but this musical biopic rings false, mostly because it’s largely fabricated, unnecessarily inventing extra conflicts and obstacles. As you’d expect of Ashby, the moments when he illustrates Guthrie’s rebellion and sense of injustice are riveting and have a layer of documentary realism that recalls the most strikingly natural moments of the director’s best work. While it’s laudable that the film shies away from presenting the folksinger as an unambiguous hero, he’s instead too much of an underwritten cipher, oscillating between speechifying advocate for the working class and typical self-absorbed proto-rock star asshole whose preference for “the people” over his wife and family is ultimately glamorized. Haskell Wexler’s Oscar-winning cinematography is so heavily diffused that when a dust storm blankets the town in a few scenes it’s hard to tell any difference. The music’s amazing.
The Right Stuff (1983, Philip Kaufman)
Exceedingly off-putting narrative of the early U.S. space program, focusing on the Mercury 7 astronauts and the absent idol Chuck Yeager, a juxtaposition that makes more sense in Tom Wolfe’s rambling, stream-of-consciousness book… as does the confused tone, volleying between reverent wonder and flippant tongue-in-cheek lampoon, which makes it impossible to enjoy the serious moments or the humorous ones, because you’re never quite sure whether the film means to impress you or is mocking everything you’re seeing.
His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks) [hr]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) A divorced newspaper reporter (blazing Rosalind Russell) spends a long breathless night of breaking news dealing with ex-husband Cary Grant and fiance Ralph Bellamy’s juggling of her. Low-budget, stagy comedy crackles with prescience and intelligence, with remarkably fast-paced rat-a-tat dialogue and storytelling. Russell falls into the material like it’s a song she’s singing, and the absolute trust and familiarity that she exhibits with Cary Grant and the other “newsmen” is full-bodied and three-dimensional. The relentless overlapping dialogue is easy enough to catch, as is the strength, wisdom and resilience of Russell’s character, but the surprising thing is how much gravity it has, the pain under the sarcasm that flies back and forth in the press room. Somehow it’s the real world: unvarnished, wonderful, tragic and painfully direct.
Romeo and Juliet (1936, George Cukor)
Badly miscast production headlines ridiculously aged-out Leslie Howard, hardly a spectacular actor at the best of times, and Norma Shearer, wasting away in an inappropriate role. The dialogue is obviously indestructible but this specific play loses every bit of its tenuous emotion when robbed of the haunting youth of its leads. The usual MGM opulence is everywhere if that’s what you’re here for.
Colossal (2016, Nacho Vigalondo) [r]
Inventive, impressively original comedy about an alcoholic who returns to her hometown in sulking disgrace, while with curious synchronicity a series of supernatural tragedies occur on the other side of the world. The kind of story that subverts one’s sense of perception so successfully that a moment as out-of-context ridiculous as a man stomping around a sandbox while a woman glares at him from the ground and cries attains a momentous scope of tragedy; it integrates genre silliness far more organically than Edgar Wright’s films. Anne Hathaway is astoundingly good as the floundering writer whose life is suddenly uprooted, and her winning, crafty performance balances out the moments when Vigalondo loses the story thread or overextends his Babadook-like metaphors.
The Meyerowitz Stories (2017, Noah Baumbach) [hr]
Perhaps there’s a case to be made that we don’t need another movie about a deeply sequestered family of New York artists, but there’s a great deal of heart in this portrait of the shattered lives of three siblings unmistakably rowed up shit creek by an aloof artist father (Dustin Hoffman) who had no business having children; now they all flinch and cringe at the presentation of unconditional love and are all too forgiving of the toxic behavior they’ve known since they were infants. And yet, somewhere, there’s hope, ample feeling and Baumbach’s usual profound sense of the awkward weight of reality: the sensation that we’re watching real relationships, if not real life, unfold.
Three Coins in the Fountain (1954, Jean Negulesco)
Dull, unmemorable triple romance story set among three American secretaries in Rome is badly written and full of mediocre acting; its one saving grace is that Negulesco makes use of the Cinemascope frame for travel porn, which is somewhat better than Fox’s usual application of it to overblown period films. The opening montage set to Frank Sinatra is nice. But this is an extremely dated, superficial idea of classed-up entertainment, not funny or sexy and not nearly as “adult” as it thinks it is.
Cluny Brown (1946, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
A tantalizingly witty, earthy combination of Lubitsch’s socially incisive comedies with his more frothy and romantic material, this truly delightful Fox comedy’s exploration of class is more realistic, nuanced and audacious than that of Ruggles of Red Gap or even most of Renoir’s films. Set in 1938 London on the cusp of the war and capturing almost agelessly the attitudes of the worldly-privileged toward impending disaster as contrasted to those with much more to lose, the film serves equally as sharp satire and warm domestic comedy, decrying the social mores of “high society” in a surprisingly forceful manner. Jennifer Jones is slightly miscast, but this is a film of episodes and nearly all of them are wonderful, from the opening plumbing disaster to the finale. Best of all may be Cluny’s terrifying encounter with “respectability” at a potential mother-in-law’s birthday party.
State Fair (1933, Henry King) [hr]
A warm slice of life that demonstrates completely unforced affection toward its characters without condescension, this is a remarkable portrait of farm folks taking a break from their routine long enough to enjoy the annual fair. It never forces the issue of their bond or affection, which makes it more persuasive than the modern gooey Hollywood process of reinforcing the Unbreakable Magic Power of Family, and sets forth no controversy when the two almost-grown progeny (Janet Gaynor, Norman Foster) step out on their own and enjoy life and flings with people they happen to meet. None of what happens corresponds to any sort of preordained structure, it’s just life flowing with a poignant sense of the weight of the varied speeds at which time seems to pass, all interspersed with amusing bits of business — hogs, shady merchants, roller-coasters. But what strikes you most is how love is palpably in the air.
The Strange Little Cat (2013, Ramon Zurcher)
Idle, slightly tense slice of life about a family’s comings and goings over a single day in a flat in Berlin; nothing much happens, just a few meaningful glances and some amusing exchanges, plus kids being kids, young adults being young adults, etc. Convincingly natural and well-performed but not for all or even most tastes; it’s just rambling with no payoff, quite deliberately.
Scarlet Street (1945, Fritz Lang) [hr]
Lang’s version of La Chienne (previously filmed, brilliantly, by Jean Renoir) is even bleaker despite being made for Walter Wanger in Hollywood. Edward G. Robinson is impeccably cast as Christopher Cross, the lonely middle-aged cashier and painter in a loveless marriage that has him trapped and abused; in a mindset of desperation and sexual obsession he falls for an “actress” named Kitty (Joan Bennett) who takes him for a ride along with her hidden boyfriend Johnny, Dan Duryea in one of the best slimy villain performances in film noir. Lang and Milton Krasner drench everything in darkness; even daytime scenes are oppressive. Apart from the handsome grit of the production, though, the major divergence from Renoir’s film is its sheer glee at its characters’ almost uniform sadism, with even mild-mannered Cross eventually crossing over into depravity. None of it’s pretty, but in its own cynical manner it’s a kind of delight.
Seabiscuit (2003, Gary Ross) [NO]
Insipid studio product using the real story of the famous Depression-era racehorse as a springboard for generic emoting from the likes of Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges, both of whom betray so much phoniness it’s like watching a political convention, though neither is as bad as William H. Macy’s infuriating cutesy-pie cameo as a fast-talking radio announcer. The film has an overall feel of nauseating smugness, absolutely convinced of its own profundity (complete with David McCullough narration) like other dire “hopeful” sport pictures of the post-9/11 period such as Cinderella Man, with the same inauthentic prettiness to its period flavor. Randy Newman’s incredibly vapid score doesn’t help, aiding and abetting Ross in his refusal to let the audience fill in any kind of blank for themselves.
Prison (1949, Ingmar Bergman) [hr]
Just three years into Bergman’s directorial career he shows sophistication and imagination that can be mistaken for no one else; the story he’s telling is grim and even hackneyed, about two couples with bad power dynamics falling apart and a short-lived affair resulting, all framed by the musings of a young film director and his all-knowing teacher. Poking fun at it, especially if you’re less than reverent toward arthouse cinema, would be shooting fish in a barrel, so unapologetic are its surreal but expository dream sequences, queries about the ambivalence of the moral universe, and innumerable tragedies (unexpected pregnancies, murders, evil pimps, suicides). Yet Bergman’s deep and unwavering belief in living inside his own emotions is nothing if not admirable, projecting his psyche onscreen unfiltered. Plus the sets and cinematography and location work in Stockholm are intoxicating, as beautiful as any Hollywood film of the era.
Trader Horn (1931, W.S. Van Dyke) [c]
MGM’s big African safari epic, one of the first Hollywood talkies shot overseas, is so brazenly racist it actually sustains interest for a while in a train-wreck sort of way, helped along by some of the arresting nature photography and accidental documentary (and in all likelihood, tastelessly intrusive) excursions into traditions and culture that would be heretofore entirely unknown to its audience. Van Dyke wasn’t Merian Cooper, though — no respect or even misguided envy for his subjects — and he was in over his head; people died and became ill as a result of this mad stunt, which grows even more irksome when a character voices the true message of the film: “Don’t you understand? White people must help each other!” It’s that kind of film; there are very good reasons it’s more or less buried now.
Stations of the Cross (2014, Dietrich Brüggemann) [r]
Compelling, minimalist allegory about a pious teenage girl whose life begins to parallel the images of the title, as a result of her fantasies of sainthood and closeness with God, her desire for her autistic brother to be healed, and the temptations and frustrations of life in school and around her impossible mother. The performances are exquisite, especially Lea van Ackena’s as young Maria, as is Brüggemann’s choice to film each scene in one take, usually holding to a specific composition; this renders the story’s progression hypnotic. However, the screenplay lays on the metaphor a bit too thick, and while the characterizations are complex, the anti-fundamentalism message, however righteous, feels a bit too easy and smug. Several of the scenes do work as extraordinary drama even just as stand-alones, especially when outsiders look in on the tragic irony of it all, as in the gym class and doctor’s office sequences.
The Other Side of the Wind (2018, Orson Welles) [hr]
Fully shot in his own lifetime with a tortuously long postproduction gestation, Welles’ last narrative film is a playful, rambling but impressively lively portrait of an enigmatic “great man” director’s 70th birthday party filmed and edited in fits and starts out of people’s houses with a cast and crew that was doing it out of love, right up to its bizarrely appropriate premiere on a streaming service four decades later, thirty years after Welles’ death. Despite its considerable wit and busyness it absolutely pulses with loss and disappointment that extends far beyond the matter of the lead character’s (and Welles’) demise. It’s so radical in its construction and editing it feels brand new, and even the “movie within a movie” designed as a parody of pretentious arthouse fare is as visually arresting and masterfully cut as anything in Welles’ career, therefore far more striking than anything in even great films of the modern era.
The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks) [hr]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) The quintessential Hollywood detective movie, successfully transcending plot — so much less convincingly seedy than Chandler’s novel, though equally addictive in its atmospherics — to create a seemingly three-dimensional world that we don’t particularly want to leave by film’s end. Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe is an irresistible characterization because of his unassuming modesty fused with awe-inspiring know-how. The great pleasures here are episodic but almost invariably rich, from his encounters with delightful bookstore flirt Dorothy Malone and cab driver Joy Barlow to the sheer perversity of his dealings with the underworld, and don’t forget racehorsing-anal sex metaphors slipped under the Code. Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers are both engaging and share thrilling chemistry with Bogart, who gets jumped, gets played, gets scared, but somehow we all still want to be him.
The Color Purple (1985, Steven Spielberg) [hr]
Confronted by abuse at every turn in a world that already views her as subhuman by default, Whoopi Goldberg’s Celie longs to reconnect with her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia) after her husband forbids them to see each other. The years pass in telling increments but sometimes with touches of unexpected bliss. Watered-down? Perhaps, but Steven Spielberg’s film of Alice Walker’s novel remains subversive by the standards of the Hollywood literary adaptation and moreover, it makes an incredible case for his elastic brilliance as a director; there’s absolutely no one else who renders characters, moments, and grand-scale stories so fluently. This also doesn’t hedge in order to make white audiences comfortable, which is presumably one reason it has remained so popular over the decades. The time (its distance and passage), the scenery, but mostly the people: it’s all right there, and it sings out.
Gun Crazy (1950, Joseph H. Lewis) [hr]
A frenetic, sexy film noir that never takes a second to collect itself, following a pair of talented sharpshooters (Peggy Cummins and John Dall) who are completely unable to stop law-breaking once they’ve taken the lid off their impulses. Owes a lot to You Only Live Once and in turn was pilfered by Bonnie and Clyde; but thanks to its all-American sleaziness, its incredibly modern blocking (with wild compositions and more than one elaborate sequence played in a single take) and the totally unrestrained performances, this is vital, nasty and luscious — great storytelling that captures the perverse allure of violence and underworld life without surrendering to or romanticizing it. In other words, this is how you capture nihilism and filth without making a movie that’s nihilistic filth.
The Pride of the Yankees (1942, Sam Wood) [hr]
Biopic of the baseball player Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper) is a wide-eyed wonder: charming, sensitive, touching, almost effortless in its maudlin Americana — seven decades hence it still feels like a story about all of us, and even if you’re a huge skeptic of that kind of thing, it’s terminally effective in temporarily fooling us into thinking a moment like Gehrig’s rise and retirement belongs to the world, and that’s without allowing us the comfort of one last vestige of his humanity at the fade, post-sealed fate, post-speech about said fate. Instead, as soon as his story is no longer the public’s, he simply fades into the shadows, never to be heard from again — so not only is it all very persuasive in its simplicity, it’s also smart and even a tiny bit probing about it.
My Darling Clementine (1946, John Ford) [hr]
Enchantingly languid Ford western freely springs from some of that genre’s burned-in iconography — Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the OK Corral, the Clantons — but renders it casually (and fictitiously) enough to present it as slightly heightened life in progress, so that one’s historical interest is almost totally subsumed by fascination with the characterizations and, as usual in Ford’s best films, their complex relationships. A healthy part of this is the robust, stoic central performance of Henry Fonda as Earp, as well as those of Cathy Downs and Linda Darnell as Holliday’s love interests; the meaningful glances shared among these parties would be material enough for a very long book. Of course, it’s also one of the most beautiful Hollywood films thanks to Joseph MacDonald’s florid photography of Monument Valley. This is multifaceted, tangential storytelling in classic folk tradition, freeing myths from the weight of legend.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
Of all Lubitsch’s romantic comedies, this may be the most joyous and tangibly human, at least for most of its duration; concluding at Christmastime, it’s ideal holiday atmosphere on top of the sheer earthy delights of its dialogue and lengthy but never stagy scenes (taken from a play by Miklós László). It’s most famous for its wry coupling of coworkers James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan (both outstanding, the latter especially), who are unaware that they are each other’s flirty pen pals as they simultaneously make life hell for each other on the job; but even more interesting is the film’s status as a workplace ensemble comedy about the comings and goings of the crew at a Hungarian leather shop. Lubitsch isn’t primarily thought of as a visual director, but the emotional power of the shot midway through this film in which Sullavan’s hand reaches in vain through the door to her PO box is overwhelming, saying so much without a word.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944, Vincente Minnelli) [hr]
Bullshit Americana rendered and commandeered for the good of the world by MGM’s Freed unit, depicting a year in a privileged family’s life in 1903 St. Louis without cynicism. The kids are funny, the dad has a self-righteous streak but tries to keep it under control, and Mom gets exasperated but periodically belts one out at the piano. The songs tend toward the exquisite, and the minimalist choreography seems to lead us via dance from one season to the next. By the time winter rolls around, its genuine yearning for what feels like a truly felt memory of an inevitably temporary condition can choke you up even if your own childhood was comparatively dysfunctional; whether you’re lamenting how much you (or your entire class, race, generation) never had this kind of unquestioned security or whether you’re lamenting the bygone, the movie seems to be there with you, peaking with Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur) [hr]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) So many of the iconic moments, sights, and words of film noir legend come from this endlessly plundered, borderline misanthropic movie; Robert Mitchum is priceless as the private dick cum petrol dealer so hard-boiled he chain smokes in his sleep. The surreal Americana of the supporting characters, the subtle but jabbing class commentary, and of course Mitchum’s sleepy-eyed seen-it-all portrait of macho invulnerability that has the rug taken from under it — it’s all intoxicating. Far from “cold around the heart,” this film actually bleeds with emotion, loss and regret, about a decent if flawed human being getting wrapped up in a kind of monumental funeral march in which there’s no possible way out even from the very beginning, which is finally the essence of the genre.
Cleopatra (1934, Cecil B. DeMille) [r]
DeMille’s sense of scale and spectacle is astounding, but wardrobes aside, where’s the fun to break up the incessant talking and self-importance? There’s camp, sure (“the queen is testing poisons”), but always with that same stoic distance you see in so many later Hollywood epics; nothing dark or downright weird and threatening, of the Sternberg or Eisenstein variety, just sheer overwhelming thundering awe. That interior boat scene really is one of the most remarkable how-the-fuck moments in this era of Hollywood film, but like similar moments in Griffith’s Intolerance, it has hugeness and outrageousness but no discernible personality. That’s left to Claudette Colbert.
Fatal Attraction (1987, Adrian Lyne)
Yuppie lunkhead (Michael Douglas) ruins everyone’s life in this anti-feminist Big ’80s touchstone.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018, Morgan Neville)
Pretentious, tangential attempt to “contextualize” Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind by sort-of telling the story of its lengthy genesis in the bombastic, fast-cut style of the film itself as well as F for Fake. When you’re not Orson Welles, attempting to imitate Orson Welles is a rather foolish task to set for yourself, so everything here except the on-set footage and the actual interviews from Welles’ family, friends and associates is extremely tiresome. Watch the forty-minute Netflix making-of A Final Cut for Orson instead, unless you just get a kick out of watching the great man work, which is understandable.
Ex Libris (2017, Frederick Wiseman) [r]
Engrossing but overlong verité examination of the workings and machinations of the New York Public Library is best when it sticks to day-to-day operations rather than budgetary meetings and guest lecturers, but it does capture some of the routine miracles and touching weirdness of the participants’ chosen profession, and quietly makes an ironclad case for how indispensable institutions such as this really are.
Next metapost will likely be the much-delayed 1940s summary. Next archival project, in addition to continuing work on the Oscar nominees, is the top 100 on the They Shoot Pictures aggregator; I’ll also be concentrating heavily on filling some major gaps in my 2010s database so I can start making a credible decade list, which I look forward to sharing.
I once was in a zombielike state, trudging aimlessly through a city and I spotted a woman in a dress. (Pink and white as I recall, but it was many years ago.) I didn’t follow her but we drifted in the same direction. I looked but didn’t stare, and it became apparent we were being drawn to the same focal point, a bar where people were gathered but weren’t boisterous and weren’t conglomerating, weren’t piled on top of one another like they sometimes are in town. I was close enough to hear her voice when she asked what was going on, and it was enthusiastically explained that there were bands upstairs and admission was cheap, and she should come up. They asked if she’d been there before. “No. I’m just wandering.” She spoke for me without ever meeting me. We wandered because we didn’t want to be alone. We didn’t know how to say that. It isn’t socially acceptable to say that. We found our way to cope, underneath some smoke and feedback. I think of that when I hear a character here, in this film, say that she entered a drab-looking classroom in a school where she wasn’t enrolled strictly because she saw people coming in. And when that same person, without ever wanting to harshly or briskly assert herself, occasionally gives a single person a clue to her personality, a sharp and winning wit she otherwise doesn’t expose because there are no obvious opportunities and she has no gift for seizing them, that stings. When she pushes herself to seize one, sensing a last chance, fully knowing it probably won’t have any effect on her day to day life which it doesn’t, that stings even more.
The most ethereal, weighty, even silent moments of Reichardt’s Old Joy are echoed in this much more ambitious portmanteau taken from three short stories by Maile Meloy, all set in an extremely palpable Montana, rife with beautiful and cold stasis; they’re given some concrete background connections but what really matters is their shared concern for the lost cause of communication, in multiple stages and kinds of relationships: the anonymous politeness or contempt taken on when it becomes impossible to say what has to be said. There are these situations, relationships, long-festering things in which it gets so hard to say something. But you have to say it. You have to try. You have to write the letter, no matter what the substance of it is. You have to show you mean it. (Think of The Straight Story, when the only way to build a bridge over such a breakdown is to conclusively demonstrate how important it is to you to make amends. Even if it could be taken as a gesture for your own benefit… it’s still unmistakably an act of love.) Story one is a suspense piece of sorts. Hostage negotiations; it’s riveting, thanks largely to Laura Dern and Jared Harris, but the essence is in the closure withheld from us till the film’s end. Story two is probably weakest but still vivid, about an unhappy marriage, the building of a house, and the ambivalent advantage-taking of a senile old man. It’s about deliberately ignored moral quandaries but it’s also about a failure to deeply acknowledge one’s intimates, about the despair of a retreat into the self.
But that last story. My fucking heart, dude. I almost couldn’t take it. If you’ve ever lived alone or been terribly lonely, you need to see this, and you need to be very careful when watching it. The desperation of Lily Gladstone’s stoic but achingly solitary rancher, and the clarity of her affection for a teacher she happens to meet (it’s implied to be a romantic crush, but it’s just as striking if you interpret it as just a longing for a platonic friend) without ever coming across as a creep mostly because of her refusal to be afraid of being one. And her snap-judged gesture of either disproportionate attachment or just a human need to acknowledge a fleeting connection she badly needed and still needs, and the conversation or confession she initiates that sits there and dangles in the air, no one sure of how to pick it up apart from just walking away from it — it’s beyond haunting, it’s alive, and fearlessly rendered by all involved.
The trucks, the stoplights, the desolate downtowns, the eyes, the cold breath under the sun, the morning. Human experience so vividly and compassionately expressed you feel it in the pit of your stomach; you breathe it.
His association with David O. Selznick terminated after the unhappy collaboration The Paradine Case, Alfred Hitchcock finally set out as his own producer in 1947, forming a company called Transatlantic Pictures with Sidney Bernstein, with whom he’d already made a little-seen documentary about the Nazi concentration camps, one of several contributions the director made to the war effort. Transatlantic would ultimately prove a commercial misstep, producing or initiating three consecutive box office disappointments (and two outright flops), a rarity for Hitchcock right up to the end of his career. (Only once more, with the run from Marnie through Topaz, would he remain in the wilderness for so long.) Hitchcock and Bernstein’s partnership ended very quickly and he became a studio director — while continuing to act as his own producer, luckily — but before all that, Transatlantic did manage to produce what we’d now know as a “cult film,” and a formidable one at that.
It will surprise some modern audience members, who’ve managed to transform it into one of the most popular and crowd-pleasing Hitchcock titles, that Rope, the director’s first film in color, was considered a bomb in its day; the very elements that give it such allure, and have allowed it to age so gracefully, consigned it to audience bewilderment and city council-level bans in some parts of America. Chiefly, the issue at hand was the film’s not-so-covert handling of homosexuality; secondary to that was its oddball execution, giving the illusion of a story told mostly in one shot and in “real time,” with continuous camera movement and only four ordinary cuts (plus six “masked” cuts), astounding for an eighty-minute film. The movie was conceived as a filmed play of sorts — based on a Patrick Hamilton drama that in turn was inspired by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb’s “perfect crime,” their just-for-fun murder of an innocent normal named Bobby Franks — but one in which the camera would be as active and restless as in any of Hitchcock’s more conventionally edited pictures, quite unlike his earlier, much stodgier stage adaptations such as Juno and the Paycock and The Skin Game. It also serves as another chapter in Hitchcock’s procession of “single-set” features; stories entirely or almost exclusively unfolding in one location fascinated him for a period of about ten years, and this — discarding the extremely long, arduous courtroom scenes in Paradine — was the second example he put on film after Lifeboat.
The genius of Rope is in how blatant and uncompromised it is, perhaps because Warner Bros. served simply as distributor; it does not seem like a film that a studio would have originated, probably not now and certainly not in 1948. Its extreme forcefulness and continued potency come from its nonchalant but unwavering depiction of the two clearly gay prep school graduates who commit the crime before our eyes, never campy or disrespectful but never anything but obvious, never even really “coded” (both lead actors were gay or bisexual, as was screenwriter Arthur Laurents). In broader terms, the film’s narrative is a nearly perfect, skeletal thriller scenario: a dead body is in a chest, over which the murderers are brazenly serving food at a seemingly innocuous dinner party to the unwitting friends and family of the victim — as in Notorious, free-flowing champagne portends doom — and without a lapse of time or the relief of normal film editing, we’re forced to endure the entire ugly tale with no possibility of trickery or sleight-of-hand. The camera never blinks; the hard cuts that do exist are cunningly timed to anxious moments so that we hardly notice them, and the tension as a result of the otherwise seamless photography becomes nearly unbearable at several points, such as when the maid, after dinner, comes within inches of discovering the boys’ secret, but moreover with the sickening realization that neither of them is stoic or experienced enough to pull this sick game off. It’s all riveting, simple and quick, and reaches a strikingly forceful conclusion when the pair is confronted by one of the party attendees, a former professor of theirs implied in the script (less in the finished film) to also be a former lover of one of them, who then indicts them as well as us with a hard-hitting speech about the moral horror of what they’ve done. It’s exhilarating up to the eerily calm final moments, as the distant blare of sirens grows louder and the killers indulge in wine and song in the last moments of sheltered life as they’ve known it. Little wonder that this deeply satisfying tale resonates so much with new audiences, to the point that it’s quite fair to think of it along with Rear Window and Rebecca as the best introduction to Hitchcock’s craft.
And on repeat viewings, we can take more careful note of just how much Rope manages to get away with, keeping in mind that — as Laurents remembered — various Warner Bros. executives refused to refer to the characters Phillip and Brandon’s sexuality as anything but “it.” To begin with, the film all but opens with a sex scene; for neither the first nor the last time in Hitchcock, however, it’s coded as a murder. Setting up later jokes about “strangling chickens,” we first see Farley Granger’s Phillip with his hands pulling a rope around the screaming, dying David Kentley’s neck while Brandon (John Dall) holds him up, then releases. They’re breathless. Brandon smokes, and puts on the light. “Don’t,” Phillip says softly — but not sensually, more the sound of a terrified kid who’s just done something “bad” and is experiencing refractory regret. He requests that they “stay like this for just a minute,” to stay in the moment before the outside world can intrude on them and can judge what they’ve done. The dialogue is note-perfect as a stand-in for the terrifying aftermath for lovers whose activities were then so taboo, so forbidden that to even state them outright was frowned upon. And this analogy calls into question the entire nature of Rope‘s actual story: what if the thing Phillip and Brandon can only speak openly about to each other, can only wind around endlessly — one confident and cocky, even pushy, the other mousy and tormented — until they eat one another alive, the secret so easily recognized by the one figure they make the mistake of mildly trusting, isn’t a corpse at all? And what if serving food from a boy’s coffin to his own father and girlfriend isn’t really an expression of intellectual superiority, of the irrelevance of morals? (Hot subject matter in the years just after the war; Hitler even gets a name-check.) What if it’s some Agatha Christie-like expression of a kink?
It’s not for me to say whether Hitchcock centers this story upon a pair of gay men (probably a couple, though perhaps not?) because of some intrinsic suspicion toward homosexuality, but it’s not a question the viewer of today should ignore; his killers, as ever, are human rather than demon, but it can’t really help any progressive argument for the film that within three years he’d be following another effeminate sociopath palling around with Granger in Strangers on a Train or that his most famous murderer of all, Norman Bates, is a nervous cross-dresser. (Strangers‘ Bruno was also the creation of an LGBT writer, Patricia Highsmith; and while Psycho author Robert Bloch was straight, Bates’ real creator by any logical cultural measurement is the bisexual actor Anthony Perkins.) As with Hitchcock’s contradictory, often infuriating real-life views of women, the most charitable interpretation for us as modern admirers is to call his treatment “complicated,” which isn’t helpful and tells no real story at all. Laurents’ own feeling was that it was an extension of Hitchcock’s interest in the macabre and (then-)unusual; no sane person could work in Hollywood, even then, and continue to view homosexuality as the latter, and having worked at Ufa in the 1920s, Hitchcock would have long since encountered “it” among his friends and contemporaries, including his most treasured mentor F.W. Murnau.
Laurents assumed that Hitchcock’s interest in Rope came specifically because it was about gay murderers; neither element on its own would have interested him, in the writer’s opinion, but this is debatable: did Hitchcock not make at least thirty movies and countless TV dramas involving murderers? And while coded or unmistakable queer orientations abound in a number of those killers (Esme Percy in Murder!; Alan Baxter in Saboteur; Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train; Martin Landau in North by Northwest; Anthony Perkins in Psycho), it’s worth recalling that Hitchcock adapted one of the great covert lesbian romances, Rebecca, in 1940; and prominently features a lesbian couple, a mystery author and her girlfriend, in Suspicion. This second choice is particularly telling because it has no direct relevance to the plot. It cannot therefore be stated that Hitchcock was disinterested in gay characters, regardless of their habits or attitudes toward murder. Maybe a viewer could walk away believing that he views these people as grotesque, therefore intriguing, like the “circus freaks” in Saboteur.
My own feeling, however, is that Hitchcock really was looking to the future, if not in quite the progressive way we’d hope for (those of us for whom he’s among the greatest artists of the last century naturally wish his own outlook and morals were up to the standards of his art, which simply wasn’t the case); in contrast to every other major Hollywood director outside of the B-pictures and film noir, Hitchcock tries to give his audiences a view of the world as it really is, in his own strange bourgeois fashion trying to expose his pearl-clutching mainstream fans to the “wild side” Lou Reed would later sing about, full of strange amoral behaviors, fringe beliefs, perverts and weirdos, and the dark indulgences of the wealthy, specifically those who’ve built comfortable empires on the ill-gotten. No matter how much I adore the films of Preston Sturges or Frank Capra or even (gasp) Orson Welles, they will always seem to exist in a heightened world apart, envisioned by brainy screenwriters propagating myths of a kind, however attractive they may be. Among major studio-era filmmakers of the sort that tended to get Academy Award nominations, only Billy Wilder frankly toiled around in the same degree of muck, and even he avoided the perversity of Hitchcock’s great passion, which is matching the real America of desperate leeches, above-the-law psychopaths, trapped couples and, yes, then-atypical sexuality and clashing them with the uptight George Cukor universe of high-rise apartments, graduate school, concert pianists, holidays in the country, Careers in the Arts. This fusion of high and low art not only defines Hitchcock and sustains his art to this day, it defines and sustains Hollywood cinema as an audience-participation module. We watch and enjoy films of the Hays era — the 1930s and ’40s — by filling in the blanks which Hitchcock directly taught us how to fill in, in films like Rope. My best guess is that Hitchcock knew the stuffed-shirt morals of the day were destined to date other films, and chose to act accordingly even if only out of long-term commercial motives.
Phillip and Brandon, acting as long-marrieds having a tiff, don’t have the composure to pull off the stunt Brandon is so convinced will be their masterpiece; in the fashion of so many collaborative crimes, they fall apart immediately: his partner is far too shellshocked by the act itself to refrain from giving himself away by sheer body language and temperament. Even Brandon, the suave architect, it seems, of the killing and the “ironic” party afterward, can’t stop himself from sweating excitedly or stuttering his way through simple sentences when his old professor and idol, one Rupert Cadell, comes to visit. Cadell is an intellectual and master bullshitter, played extremely well by James Stewart in a feat of typical Hitchcock stunt casting (it was their first of four films together) that doesn’t entirely work for the plot, though it’s a thrill to see Stewart delving into the lower-key, darker impulses to which he’d later give vent in Anatomy of a Murder and of course Vertigo. The only issue is that Stewart’s hardened but comparatively innocuous performance fails to sell the logic of him having any real insight into his young former students’ “secret,” ostensibly their act of murder — the film has him undergo a magical metamorphosis from an obnoxious pseudo-intellectual spouting off about Nietzsche at a party to, abruptly, master detective Columbo when it’s time for him to “solve the mystery” and explain why the boys’ interpretation of his own nonsense was so horrible and wrong — but also their queerness. Brandon obviously views Rupert as the one party who would understand what they’ve done, a wide-eyed notion that has equally compelling application in either the literal or metaphorical version of the story the movie’s telling. He gets a kick out of launching Rupert on a tirade about how murder itself should be a privilege exercised by the few, the intellectual superior, over those, like the victim David according to Brandon, who are simply wastes of space.
This is not new territory for Hitchcock, but it plays differently than it did before the war. Innocent, laughingly blasé conversations about murder figure in both Suspicion and most famously in Shadow of a Doubt, in which aloof patriarch Henry Travers makes sport of discussing idealized murder scenarios with an awkward neighbor and dime-novel addict played by Hume Cronyn (who happened to write the first treatment of Rope for Hitchcock). In the former film this is a minor emotional plot point, in the latter it’s mostly comic relief, but in both it’s largely treated as a lightweight understatement, black comedy like The Trouble with Harry in micro. But here (and later in Strangers on a Train, when it’s pretext to a near-strangulation), the act of discussing murder with such jovial disconnect is suddenly viewed as quite horrific, thanks in part to the audience-vessel remarks of the victim’s father (Cedric Hardwicke), whose duty when Rupert starts talking about freeing up traffic by selective murder is to invoke Nietzsche and Hitler. Today Hitler’s a staple of every vapid philosophical conversation about moral relativism, but in 1948 he was still current events, and Hitchcock would not have taken the comparison lightly. As already mentioned, he had seen Sidney Bernstein’s harrowing footage of the concentration camps just after liberation and advised the British Ministry of Information on how to present the footage to decrease the plausibility of the Allies having faked it, an accusation he correctly surmised would occur. The project deeply disturbed Hitchcock and in fact was eventually withdrawn from circulation for decades, and his involvement in it remains one of the lesser known chapters of his career, as does his cooperation with the Free French on a pair of short films in 1944. The point being that Hitchcock knew the potential real-world consequences of the boys’ and Rupert’s rhetoric, and their casual invocation of Superman theory is pointedly not presented as something funny or quirky; it’s clearly dangerous and fascistic, and Rope specifically displays its consequences.
That said, one of Rope‘s most impressive achievements is how completely it sells fear on behalf of a pair of killers as a vehicle for intense, almost involuntary audience identification. The favorite citation of this occurring in Hitchcock’s filmography is the car’s excruciating pause in being submerged in mud by Norman in Psycho, but if anything the slowly boiling sensation of watching the plan unravel in Rope is even more intense because it’s sustained for much longer without a break, and because the absence of cuts forces us through the entirety of the nightmare without the usual rhythm or relief. This is why Stewart’s speechifying at the end of the film, however melodramatic, is so effective. When he’s chastising Phillip and Brandon for taking pleasure in “squeezing the life out of” David, there’s no doubt that the moment earns its power because he’s doing the same to us, because we can’t deny that in the fevered moment, we haven’t wanted the two perpetrators to get caught, even as every cerebral, calm interpretation of the events playing out before us would insist on the opposite, and in fact our moral grounding retakes its effect in the final moments, as we do indeed take pleasure in now seeing Brandon and Phillip trapped and punished, but isn’t there still just that tiny shred of disappointment? Maybe it’s disappointment in ourselves for being duped, after all; the despair runs in multiple directions, as Rupert — the hollow nature of his own playful convictions, ever-distant from reality, now revealed — equally displays disgust at himself, at his own arguments from earlier in the evening and in years prior about murder as a privilege and public service. There’s even a suggestion that a part of him is giving thanks to Brandon — far more Brandon than Phillip; he can't know that it was the latter who squeezed — for reconfiguring his own moral compass through the dramatic evil of his actions.
Rope‘s innovations are numerous, but as is typical of Hitchcock, technique takes an obvious backseat to storytelling. The tasteful, muted use of color makes the film feel more present and alive, and therefore threatening; despite the clearly stagebound, artificial nature of the New York skyline behind the characters, the trick of gradually setting the sun and lighting up the city is genuinely nifty and impressive. The massive Technicolor camera had to weave around moving furniture and walls, leaving mazes of wire in its path that actors then had to navigate sightlessly. It was almost as if the act of making the film itself was as much a stunt and experience as the finished product. But none of this outweighs the script or the performances, or the suspense, it only maximizes the effect of all three. Dahl and Granger never gave better performances, especially the latter as he grows progressively more drunk and unhinged through the evening; they are heightened, but also terribly believable as sequestered rich kids inflicting their nihilism on the world; Phillip doesn’t seem so much a psychopath as an easily seduced and manipulated sort, which makes him a perfect mark for Brandon’s whims, but then again, something more than just persuasion has wrapped Phillip up in this scheme. Laurents establishes the characters with completeness, wisdom and economy, including three women we’ve yet to properly mention: Edith Evanson as a smart, flirtatious maid lightly scolding the boys for mild infractions, little realizing the drama quietly playing out before her; the actress and writer Constance Collier, playwright of the source material for Hitchcock’s early silent film Downhill, as a loud palm-reading tourist and Cary Grant fan, aunt of the victim; and Joan Chandler as Janet, the murdered’s bride-to-be, an awkward society woman and newspaper columnist who’s stewing after realizing that Brandon, mysteriously cited at one point as an ex (wonder why that relationship ended!), is attempting to fuss with her love life and set her up with a third party, a clueless fellow student named Kenneth (Douglas Dick), best friend of the deceased. It’s a bit Parker Brothers, but that’s the beauty of it, that its geometric obviousness matches so well with the clumsiness of the smug narrative Brandon’s trying to construct, which would be amusing if it weren’t so horrific and tragic, something Hitchcock forces us to contend with in real time since we know, from the beginning, where the dead man David is and why.
Meanwhile, the screenplay itself furthers Hitchcock’s theoreticals about thriller design and “pure cinema”; in the absence of cutting and montage, which he would argue is the most vital component of cinematic storytelling, Laurents cuts the film in the script itself. There is no break in chronology, and yet this requires a heightened reality: it is frankly impossible for the events of the film — a murder, the last-minute preparation for the party, the party itself including the serving of a full meal, the wondering and worrying of David’s whereabouts, the fumbling departure of the guests, the deduction of the existence of a mystery and the solving of the mystery itself, the discovery of clues (a hat, a rope), the increasing intoxication of a suspect, the proclamation of success, the return of a single guest on false pretense, the accusation, the fight, the (essentially) confession — to occur in a matter of eighty minutes, yet they do, before our eyes, thanks to extremely skilled, careful dialogue writing. Moreover, the cold, puzzle-like design of the film is overridden beautifully by the emotional context provided by the characters: fear, worry, superiority, dejection, dread, paranoia, horror all find their way into all three principal characters and various others at some point. Through it all, Hitchcock’s camera never seems to stop bounding, recomposing, reinterpreting its surroundings, editing — along with the script — as it goes, moving in and out of closeups and presenting as much story material in what it doesn’t show — an offscreen voice or reaction, say — as what it does. No film, or at least no thriller, toys with time and space in quite the same way Rope does.
And while the film was not a great success at the time of release, there’s reason to believe Hitchcock was pleased with the results — showing off the set proudly to any Hollywood friends who’d pay a visit — and it certainly informed the even more ambitious, if slightly more conventional costume drama Under Capricorn the following year. It would be the final Hitchcock picture with no major thriller elements; this time, while there was no pretense to a lack of cuts, he would follow characters up and down staircases and attempt even more to wander into the psyche through roving, unpredictable movements of the massive Technicolor camera and its unforgiving eye, its one-on-one conversation with the audience still as nuanced and sophisticated as the one in Rope, if perhaps a bit less claustrophobic. Under Capricorn still has yet to find its audience outside of some French auteurists, which is a pity; but one supposes that Hitchcock would feel validated by the way the world has caught up with Rope, which is now routinely acknowledged as one of his classic thrillers, and one that certainly has not lost its capacity to torment and haunt those who see it — has, if anything, gained a great deal of power with the passage of time.